The other day my literary theory teacher introduced us to the work of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. He wrote a lot about language and identity and would talk about “signifiers,” which are such a complicated thing that if you Google “Lacan signifiers” none of the top results really give you a straight answer. But from my very limited understanding it’s like there’s a thing—say, a butt—in the world, which Lacan calls the “signified” thing. Then there’s the word butt, which is the signifier—it communicates what the thing is (a butt is not an elbow or a pizza or a mouse, because it is a butt) but has no essential attachment to the thing (the butt) itself. We use signifiers to try to pin down what a thing is, but they are so arbitrary that they are always at risk of detaching themselves from what they signify and flying away. For example, where one person might hear the word butt and picture Leonardo DiCaprio’s naked angel butt, another person will picture a painting of a butt, and another a teacher’s butt in a pair of sagging khakis.
In my class notes I wrote, “Our unconscious is a continuously circulating chain of signifiers with no anchor,” and also that “the process of becoming an adult is the process of trying to stabilize the chain of signifiers so that stable meaning becomes possible. You reach adulthood when you say ‘I’ and ‘I’ designates a specific set of signifiers you have adopted.” Meaning (I think?) that I can’t become an adult until I’m able to identify certain personality traits that I have, and use a set of words and symbols to let the world know “who I am.”
All of this signifier stuff has created a little ball of sickness in my stomach (it’s probably helped by the fact that nothing I eat comes from nature). I know it’s my first year of college and I am therefore transitioning in many ways, but I feel like I can’t tie down any signifiers. Like, if you were in one class with me, the one where I’m the kid who sits in the back and scowls, and you walked into my next class that very same day, you would not recognize the person who is so talkative and tangent-y that the girls in the row behind her have asked her if she’s always high in class. Does this mean that I’m failing to mature into adulthood, because I’m not really tying down those signifiers? Or that identity is so complex that different signifiers are needed for each situation you find yourself in? Or maybe I just have no idea what I’m talking about.
Registration is approaching, so I had to create a schedule and meet with my advisor this week. I took one of his literature classes last semester and am signing up for another next semester. I am usually talkative in literature courses, but in his class, for some reason, I hardly ever spoke. If I did, my voice got really high and weepy-sounding, and I could only talk in fragments. I tried to tell my advisor that I was looking forward to his class and also that I was feeling more confident about participating in discussions, but I just got really choked up and had to leave. Maybe I should have just said, “Lacan,” and he would have nodded sagely at my explanation.
I’ve been working on transferring schools, and I’m nervous. I’ve turned in most of my applications, so there’s nothing more I can do. To try to rid myself of that helpless feeling, I’ve created a game called “Do everything perfectly all the time always no matter what.” It goes like this: If I mess up any mundane task, I tell myself that I have guaranteed I will get rejected from one of my schools. If I do something perfectly, my applications will still have a chance. I’ve been trying to make it into parking spots on my first try, match the color of my pencil with the color of the notebook I’m writing in, and flossing every night, making sure to go through each crevice twice with my mint floss, and basically trying not to barf everywhere. ♦