One of the things that absolutely fascinates me about discourse, and, in particular, Lacan’s theory of discourse is that it has a fractal nature that seems to iterate itself at all levels. Thus, to the same degree that you can have interpersonal or speaker to speaker relations that have the same formal structure outlined by Lacan with many different contents, you can have entire social structures that are organized around these formal relationships. And indeed, there’s a strange way in which the appearance of one discourse structure somehow generates the appearance of all the other discourse structures. For those interested in a brief introduction to Lacan’s theory of discourse you can consult my article on discourse theory here, beginning with page 40. Formally we can see why the other three discourses emerge “a priori” wherever there is the appearance of one discourse. If this is the case, then it is by virtue of the fact that discourses form what mathematicians call a group. That is, through a simple clockwise permutation, you are able to generate the other three discourses simply by rotating the symbols in each position one position forward. Thus, if you begin with the discourse of the master, you are able to generate the discourse of the hysteric, the analyst, and the university through a simple clockwise rotation of the terms in each of your initial positions:
For those unacquainted with Lacan’s discourse theory, look carefully at the succession of these four discourses, you will note that beginning with the discourse of the master and then shifting to the discourse of the hysteric, then moving to the discourse of the analyst, and finishing with the discourse of the university, the relations among the terms remains invariant. The terms change their position in each of the four positions they can occupy, but with respect to one another they always maintain a constant position. In this particular universe of discourse (again, see my article for the concept of a “universe of discourse”, which you won’t find in Lacan, but which is a logical extension of his own thought regarding discourse), for example, a can never appear, to put it metaphorically, before the term S2. Consequently, given one discourse, you already have the other three.
As Deleuze put it speaking in the context of Levi-Strauss, “In whatever manner language is acquired, the elements of language must have been given all together, all at once, since they do not exist independently of their possible differential relations” (Logic of Sense, Handsome Continuum Edition, 58). So too with Lacan’s discourse structures. Even if each discourse were to appear diachronically in the order of history in such a way that the others were absent or not present in the social order, nonetheless these other discourses would be virtually there or would exist virtually, simply “awaiting” their opportunity to manifest themselves. What is remarkable, however, is that the discourses don’t seem to arise sequentially with the establishment of a single discourse. Rather, the moment one discourse is instituted you get the sudden actualization of the other three discourses within that universe of discourse.
Take the discourse of the master. What is it that the discourse of the master does? Does it master, dominate, control? No, not really. If you refer back to the discourse of the master you note that on the upper portion of the discourse there is a relation between S1 and S2. S2 refers to the battery of signifiers. We might think of this as a disorganized, chaotic mass of signifiers that float about willy nilly, almost at random. What the discourse of the master does is provide a master-signifier, loosely something like what Derrida referred to as a “transcendental signifier”, that organizes this chaotic mass of signifiers into a unified structure. Thus, for example, when Kant formulated the position of “transcendental idealism” he was situated in the position of the discourse of the master insofar as he provided a signifier that unified philosophy in a particular way, generating a coherent structure or organization. Similarly, when an activist characterizes a series of conflicts as a revolution, he is occupying the position of the discourse of the master insofar as he is unifying a mass of disconnected acts and events under a single signifier that render them capable of generating a sense or an organization.