Agency of the Letter Part Three



Jackson, Jr.

Another Scene

University of California, Santa Cruz

of the Letter in the Unconcious, 

Or Reason Since Freud 


Part One
Agency Part Two
Part Three

The agency of the letter in the unconscious

or reason since Freud [Part Three]

Jacques Lacan

Jacques Lacan, Ecrits. A Selection. Translated Alan
Sheridan. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Co.: 1977. 146-178]
Part Three]

It remains to be conceived what steps, what corridor,
the S of the signifier, visible here in the plurals in which it focuses
its welcome beyond the window, must take in order to rest its elbows on
the ventilators through which, like warm and cold air, indignation and
scorn come hissing out below.

One thing is certain: if the algorithm S/s with its bar
is appropriate, access from one to the other cannot in any case have a
signification. For in so far as it is itself only pure function of the
signifier, the algorithm can reveal only the structure of a signifier in
this transfer. Now the structure of the signifier is, as it is commonly
said of language itself, that it should be articulated.

This means that no matter where one starts to designate
their reciprocal encroachments and increasing inclusions, these units are
subjected to the double condition of being reducible to ukimate differential
elements and of combining them according to the laws of a closed order.

These elements, one of the decisive discoveries of linguistics,
; but we must not expect to find any phonetic constancy
in the modulatory variability to which this term applies, but rather the
synchronic system of differential couplings necessary for the discernment
of sounds in a given language. Through this, one sees that an essential
element of the spoken word itself was predestined to flow into the mobile
characters which, in a jumble of lower-case Didots or Garamonds, render
validly present what we call the ‚letter‘, namely, the essentially localized
structure of the signifier.

With the second property of the signifier, that of combining
according to the laws of a closed order, is affirmed the necessity of the
topological substratum of which the term I ordinarily use, namely, the
signifying chain, gives an approximate idea: rings of a necklace that is
a ring in another necklace made of rings.

Such are the structural conditions that define grammar
as the order of constitutive encroachments of the signifier up to the level
of the unit immediately superior to the sentence, and lexicology as the
order of constitutive inclusions of the signifier to the level of the verbal

In examining the limits by which these two exercises in
the understanding of linguistic usage are determined, it is easy to see
that only the correlations between signifier and signifier provide the
standard for all research into signification, as is indicated by the notion
of ‚usage‘ of a taxeme or semanteme which in fact refers to the context
just above that of the units concerned.

But it is not because the undertakings of grammar and
lexicology are exhausted within certain limits that we must think that
beyond those limits signification reigns supreme. That would be an error.

For the signifier, by its very nature, always anticipates
meaning by unfolding its dimension before it. As is seen at the level of
the sentence when it is interrupted before the significant term: ‚I shall
never…‘, ‚All the same it is…‘, ‚And yet there may be. ..‘. Such sentences
are not without meaning, a meaning all the more oppressive in that it is
content to make us wait for it.

We are forced, then, to accept the notion of an incessant
sliding of the signified under the signifier – which Ferdinand
de Saussure
illustrates with an image resembling the wavy lines of
the upper and lower Waters in miniatures from manuscripts of Genesis; a
double flux marked by fine streaks of rain, vertical dotted lines supposedly
confining segments of correspondence.

All our experience runs counter to this linearity, which
made me speak once, in one of my seminars on psychosis, of something more
like ‚anchoring points‘ (‚points de capiton‘) as a schema for taking into
account the dominance of the letter in the dramatic transformation that
dialogue can effect in the subject.

The linearity that Saussure holds to be constitutive of
the chain of discourse, in conformity with its emission by a single voice
and with its horizontal posidon in our writing – if this linearity is necessary,
in fact, it is not suflicient. It applies to the chain of discourse only
in the direction in which it is orientated in time, being taken as a signifying
factor in all languages in which ‚Peter hits Paul‘ reverses its dme when
the terms are inverted.

But one has only to listen to poetry, which Saussure was
no doubt in the habit of doing, for a polyphony to be heard, for it to
become clear that all discourse is aligned along the several staves of
a score.

There is in effect no signifying chain that does not have,
as if attached to the punctuation of each of its units, a whole articulation
of relevant contexts suspended ‚vertically‘, as it were, from that point.

Let us take our word ‚tree‘ again, this time not as an
isolated noun, but at the point of one of these punctuations, and see how
it crosses the bar of the Saussurian algorithm. (The anagram of ‚arbre‘
and ‚barre‘ should be noted.)

For even broken down into the double spectre of its vowels
and consonants, it can still call up with the robur and the plane tree
the significations it takes on, in the context of our flora, of strength
and majesty. Drawing on all the symbolic contexts suggested in the Hebrew
of the Bible, it erects on a barren hill the shadow of the cross. Then
reduces to the capital Y, the sign of dichotomy which, except for the illustration
used by heraldry, would owe nothing to the tree however genealogical we
may think it. Circulatory tree, tree of life of the cerebellum, tree of
Saturn, tree of Diana, crystals formed in a tree struck by lightning, is
it your figure that traces our desdny for us in the tortoise-shell cracked
by the fire, or your lightning that causes that slow shift in the axis
of being to surge up from an unnamable night into the ‚`r� ü of


No! seys the Tree, it says No! in the shower of sparks

Of its superb head

lines that require the harmonics of the tree just
as much as their continuation:

Which the storm treats as universally

As it does a blade of grass. (Paul Valéry)

For this modern verse is ordered according to the same
law of the parallelism of the signifier that creates the harmony governing
the primitive Slavic epic or the most refined Chinese poetry.

As is seen in the fact that the tree and the blade of
grass are chosen from the same mode of the existent in order for the signs
of contradiction – saying ‚No!‘ and ‚treat as‘ – to affect them, and also
so as to bring about, through the categorical contrast of the particularity
of ’superb‘ with the ‚universally‘ that reduces it, in the condensation
of the ‚head‘ (tête) and the ’storm‘ (tempête), the indiscernible
shower of sparks of the eternal instant.

But this whole signifier can only operate, it may be said,
if it is present in the subject. It is this objection that I answer by
supposing that it has passed over to the level of the signified.

For what is important is not that the subject know anything
whatsoever. (If LADIES
were written in a language unknown to the little boy and girl, their quarrel
would simply be the more exclusively a quarrel over words, but no less
ready to take on signification.)

What this structure of the signifying chain discloses
is the possibility I have, precisely in so far as I have this language
in common with other subjects, that is to say, in so far as it exists as
a language, to use it in order to signify something quite other
than what it says. This function of speech is more worth pointing out than
that of ‚disguising the thought‘ (more often than not indefinable) of the
subject; it is no less than the function of indicadng the place of this
subject in the search for the true. I have only to plant my tree in a locution;
climb the tree, even project on to it the cunning illumination a descriptive
context gives to a word; raise it (arborer) so as not to let myself be
imprisoned in some sort of communiqué of the facts, however
official, and if I know the truth, make it heard, in spite of all the between-the-lines
censures by the only signifier my acrobatics through the branches of the
tree can constitute, provocative to the point of burlesque, or perceptible
only to the practised eye, according to whether I wish to be heard by the
mob or by the few.

The properly signifying function thus depicted in language
has a name. We learned this name in some grammar of our childhood, on the
last page, where the shade of Quintilian, relegated to some phantom chapter
concerning ‚final considerations on style‘, seemed suddenly to speed up
his voice in an attempt to get in all he had to say before the end. It
is among the figures of style, or tropes – from which the verb ‚to find‘
(trouver) comes to us – that this name is found. This name is metonymy.

I shall refer only to the example given there: ‚thirty
sails‘. For the disquietude I felt over the fact that the word ’ship‘,
concealed in this expression, seemed, by taking on its figurative sense,
through the endless repetition of the same old example, only to increase
its presence, obsured (voilait) not so much those illustrious sails (voiles)
as the definition they were supposed to illustrate.

The part taken for the whole, we said to ourselves, and
if the thing is to be taken seriously, we are left with very little idea
of the importance of this fleet, which ‚thirty sails‘ is precisely supposed
to give us: for each ship to have just one sail is in fact the least likely

By which we see that the connexion between ship and sail
is nowhere but in the signifier, and that it is in the word-to-word connexion
that metonymy is based.

I shall designate as metonymy, then, the one side (versant)
of the effective field constituted by the signifier, so that meaning can
emerge there.

The other side is metaphor. Let us immediately find an
illustration; Quillet’s dictionary seemed an appropriate place to find
a sample that would not seem to be chosen for my own purposcs, and I didn’t
have to go any further than the well known line of Victor Hugo:

His sheaf was neither miserly nor spiteful . . .

under which aspect I presented metaphor in my seminar
on the psychoses. It should be said that modern poetry and especially the
Surrealist school have taken us a long way in this direction by showing
that any conjunction of two signifiers would be equally sufficient to constitute
a metaphor, except for the additional requirement of the greatest possible
disparity of the images signified, needed for the production of the poetic
spark, or in other words for metaphoric creation to take place.

It is true this radical position is based on the experiment
known as automatic writing, which would not have been attempted if its
pioneers had not been reassured by the Freudian discovery. But it remains
a confused position because the doctrine behind it is false.

The creative spark of the metaphor does not spring from
the presentation of two images, that is, of two signifiers equally actualized.
It flashes between two signifiers one of which has taken the place of the
other in the signifying chain, the occulted signifier remaining present
through its (metonymic) connexion with the rest of the chain.

One word for another: that is the formula for the
metaphor and if you are a poet you will produce for your own delight a
continuous stream, a dazzling tissue of metaphors. If the result is the
sort of intoxication of the dialogue that Jean Tardieu wrote under this
title, that is only because he was giving us a demonstration of the radical
superfluousness of all signification in a perfectly convincing representation
of a bourgeois comedy.

It is obvious that in the line of Hugo cited above, not
the slightest spark of light springs from the proposition that the sheaf
was neither miserly nor spiteful, for the reason that there is no question
of the sheaf’s having either the merit or demerit of these attributes,
since the attributes, like the sheaf, belong to Booz, who exercises the
former in disposing of the latter and without informing the latter of his
sentiments in the case.

If, however, his sheaf does refer us to Booz, and this
is indeed the case, it is because it has replaced him in the signifying
chain at the very place where he was to be exalted by the sweeping away
of greed and spite. But now Booz himself has been swept away by the sheaf,
and hurled into the outer darkness where greed and spite harbour him in
the hollow of their negation.

But once his sheaf has thus usurped his place,
Booz can no longer return there; the slender thread of the little word
hzs that binds him to it is only one more obstacle to his return in that
it links him to the notion of possession that retains him at the heart
of greed and spite. So his generosity, affirmed in the passage, is yet
reduced to less than nothing by the munificence of tke sheaf which, coming
from nature, knows neither our reserve nor our rejections, and even in
its accumulation remains prodigal by our standards.

But if in this profusion the giver has disappeared along
with his gift, it is only in order to rise again in what surrounds the
figure of speech in which he was annihilated. For it is the figure of the
burgeoning of fecundity, and it is this that announces the surprise that
the poem celebrates, namely, the promise that the old man will receive
in the sacred context of his accession to paternity.

So, it is between the signifier in the form of the proper
name of a man and the signifier that metaphorically abolishes him that
the poetic spark is produced, and it is in this case all the more effective
in realizing the signification of paternity in that it reproduces the mythical
event in terms of which Freud reconstructed the progress, in the unconscious
of all men, of the patemal mystery.

Modern metaphor has the same structure. So the line Love
is a pebble laughing in the sunlight ,
recreates love in a dimension
that seems to me most tenable in the face of its imminent lapse into the
mirage of narcissistic altruism.

We see, then that, metaphor occurs at the precise point
at which sense emerges from non-sense, that is, at that frontier which,
as Freud discovered, when crossed the other way produces the word that
in French is the word par excellence , the word that is simply
the signifier ‚esprit‘; it is at this frontier that we realize that man
defies his very destiny when he derides the signifier.

But to come back to our subject, what does man find in
metonymy if not the power to circumvent the obstacles of social censure?
Does not this form, which gives its field to truth in its very oppression,
manifest a certain servitude inherent in its presentation?

One may read with profit a book by Leo Strauss, from the
land that traditionally offers asylum to those who choose ^freedom, in
which the author reflects on the relation between the art of writing and
persecution. By pushing to its limits the sort of connaturality that links
this art to that condition, he lets us glimpse a certain something which
in this matter imposes its form, in the eflfect of truth on desire.

But haven’t we felt for some time now that, having followed
the ways of the letter in search of Freudian truth, we are getting very
warm indeed, that it is burning all about us?

Of course, as it is said, the letter killeth while the
spirit giveth life. We can’t help but agree, having had to pay homage elsewhere
to a noble victim of the error of seeking the spirit in the letter; but
we should also like to know how the spirit could live without the letter.
Even so, the pretentions of the spirit would remain unassailable if the
letter had not shown us that it produces all the effects of truth in man
without involving the spirit at all.

It is none other than Freud who had this revelation, and
he called his discovery the unconscious. . . .

Jean-François Champollion (1790-1832). [Ecrits


II. The letter in the unconscious

In the complete works of Freud, one out of every three
pages is devoted to philological
, one out of every two pages to logical inferences, everywhere
a dialectical apprehension of experience, the proportion of analysis of
language increasing to the extent that the unconscious is directly concerned.

Thus in The Interpretation of Dreams every page
deals with what I call the letter of the discourse, in its texture, its
usage, its immanence in the matter in question. For it is with this work
that the work of Freud
begins to open
the royal road to the unconscious. . .

The first sentence of the opening chapter announces what
for the sake of the exposition could not be postponed: that the dream is
a rebus. And Freud goes on to stipulate what I have said from the start,
that it must be understood quite literally. This derives from the agency
in the dream of that same literal (or phonematic) structure in which the
signifier is articulated and analyzed in discourse. So the unnatural images
of the boat on the roof, or the man with a comma for a head, which are
specifically mentioned by Freud, are examples of dream-images that are
to be taken only for their value as signifiers, that is to say, in so far
as they allow us to spell out the ‚proverb‘ presented by the rebus of the
dream. The linguistic structure that enables us to read dreams is the very
principle of the ’significance of the dream‘, the Traumdeutung.

Freud shows us in every possible way that the value of
the image as signifier has nothing whatsoever to do with its signification,
giving as an example Egyptian
in which it would be sheer buffoonery to pretend that
in a given text the frequency of a vulture, which is an
aleph ,
or of a chick, which
is a vau
, indicating a form of the verb ‚to be‘ or a plural,
prove that the text has anything [sic ]
at all to do with these ornithological specimens. Freud finds in this writing
certain uses of the signifier that are lost in ours, such as the use of
determinatives, where a categorical figure is added to the literal figuration
of a verbal
but this is only to show us that even
in this writing
, the so-called ‚ideogram‚
is a letter.

[The misunderstanding of this
principle is evident in the kind of interpretations of dreams current in
French psychoanalytic circles. Lacan derides this practice by claiming
today’s psychoanalyst can be expected to say that he decodes
before he will come around to taking the tour with Freud (turn at the statue
of Champollion,
says the guide) that will make him understand that what
he does is deciphe
r; the distinction is that a cryptogram
takes on its full dimension only when it is in
a lost language

Taking the tour is simply continuing in the Traumdeutung.

Enstellung – . . . ‚distortion‘ or ‚transposition‘ – is
what Freud shows to be the general precondition for the functioning of
the dream, and it is what I have designated above, following Saussure,
as the sliding of the signified under the signifier, which is always active
in discourse (its action, let us note, is unconscious).

[Lacan then extracts two central
operations from Freud’s text: condensation {Verdictung } and displacement
{Verschiebung }, which he finds analogous to two operations in language
and metonymy
, respectively.]

be continued . . .

To Part Two

To Part One

Karatani Kojin on Foucault and Lacan

and Lacan Seminar

and Paranoia

Stranger than

Timothy Leuers’s fantastic Lacanian
Links Site

part of his inspirational


Another Scene





is a stranger


Jackson, Jr.

Semiotics and Psychoanalysis

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