University of California, Santa Cruz
of the Letter in the Unconcious,
Or Reason Since Freud
Agency Part One
|Agency Part One|
The agency of the letter in the unconscious
or reason since Freud (Part Two)
Norton, 1977 146-159] Part Two
Reference to the experience of the community, or to the
substance of this discourse, settles nothing. For this experience assumes
its essential dimension in the tradition that this discourse
itself establishes. This tradition, long before the drama of history
is inscribed in it, lays down the elementary structures of culture. And
these very structures reveal an ordering of possible exchanges which, even
if unconscious, is inconceivable outside the permutations authorized by
With the result that the ethnographic duality of nature
and culture is giving way to a ternary conception of the human condition
– nature, society, and culture – the last term of which could well be reduced
to language, or that which essentially distinguishes human society from
But I shall not make of this distinction either a point
or a point of departure, leaving to its own obscurity the question of the
original relations between the signifier and labour. I shall be content,
for my little jab at the general function of praxis in the genesis
of history, to point out that the very society that wished to restore,
along with the privileges of the producer, the causal hierarchy of the
relations between production and the ideological superstructure to their
full political rights, has none the less failed to give birth to an esperanto
in which the relations of language to socialist realities would have rendered
any literary formalism radically impossible?
For my part, I shall trust only those assumptions that
have already proven their value by virtue of the fact that
language through them has attained the status of an object of scientific
For it is by virtue of this fact that linguistics is seen
to occupy the key position in this domain, and the reclassification of
the sciences and a regrouping of them around it signals, as is usually
the case, a revolution in knowledge; only the necessities of communication
made me inscribe it at the head of this volume under the title ‚the
sciences of man‚ – despite the confusion that is thereby covered over.
To pinpoint the emergence of linguistic science we may
say that, as in the case of all sciences in the modern sense, it is contained
in the constitutive moment of an algorithm that is its foundation. This
algorithm is the following:
which is read as: the signifier over the signified, ‚over‘
corresponding to the bar separating the two stages.
This sign should be attributed to Ferdinand
de Saussure although it is not found in exactly this form in any of
the numerous schemas, which none the less express it, to be found in the
printed version of his lectures of the years I906-7, I908?9, and I9I0-11,
which the piety of a group of his disciples caused to be published under
the title, Cours de linguistique génerale, a work of prime
importance for the transmission of a teaching worthy of the name, that
is, that one can come to terms with only in its own terms.
That is why it is legitimate for us to give him credit
for the formulation S/s by which,
in spite of the differences among schools, the beginning of modern linguistics
can be recognized.
The thematics of this science is henceforth suspended,
in effect, at the primordial position of the signifier and the signified
as being distinct orders separated initially by a barrier resisting signification.
And that is what was to make possible an exact study of the connections
proper to the signifier, and of the extent of their function in the genesis
of the signified.
For this primordial distinction goes well beyond the discussion
concerning the arbitrariness of the sign, as it has been elaborated since
the earliest reflections of the ancients, and even beyond the impasse which,
through the same period, has been encountered in every discussion of the
bi-univocal correspondence between the word and the thing, if only in the
mere act of naming. All this, of course, is quite contrary to the appearances
suggested by the importance often imputed to the role of the index finger
pointing to an object in the learning process of the infans subject
learning his mother tongue, or the use in foreign language teaching of
so-called ‚concrete‘ methods.
One cannot go further along this line of thought than
to demonstrate that no signification can be sustained other than by reference
to another signification: in its extreme form this amounts to the proposition
that there is no language
(langue) in existence for which there is any question of its inability
to cover the whole field of the signified, it being an effect of its existence
as a language (langue) that it necessarily answers all needs. If we try
to grasp in language the constitution of the object, we cannot fail to
notice that this constitution is to be found only at the level of concept,
a very different thing from a simple nominative, and that the thing, when
reduced to the noun,
breaks up into the double, divergent beam of the ‚cause‘ (causa)
in which it has taken shelter in the French word chose, and the
nothing (rien) to which it has abandoned its Latin dress (rem).
These considerations, important as their existence is
for the philosopher, turn us away from the locus in which language questions
us as to its very nature. And we will fail to pursue the question further
as long as we cling to the illusion that the signifier answers to the function
of representing the signified, or better, that the signifier has to answer
for its existence in the name of any signification whatever.
For even reduced to this latter formulation, the heresy
is the same – the heresy that leads logical positivism in search of the
‚meaning of meaning‘, as its objective is called in the
language of its devotees. As a result, we can observe that even a text
highly charged with meaning can be reduced, through this sort of analysis,
to insignificant bagatelles, all that survives being mathematical algorithms
that are, of course, without any meaning.
To return to our formula S/s:
if we could infer nothing from it but the notion of the parallelism of
its upper and lower terms, each one taken in its globality, it would remain
enigmatic sign of a total mystery. Which of course is not the case.
In order to grasp its function I shall begin by reproducing
the classic, yet faulty illustration by which its usage is normally introduced,
and one can see how it opens the way to the kind of error referred to above.
In my lecture, I replaced this illustration with another,
which has no greater claim to correctness than that it has been transplanted
incongruous dimension that the psychoanalyst has not yet
altogether renounced because of his quite justified feeling that his conformism
takes its value entirely from it. Here is the other diagram:
where we see that, without greatly extending the scope
of the signifier concerned in the experiment, that is, by doubling a noun
through the mere juxtaposition of two terms whose complementary meanings
ought apparently to reinforce each other, a surprise is produced by an
unexpected precipitation of an unexpected meaning: the image of twin doors
symbolizing, through the solitary confinement offered Western Man for the
satisfaction of his natural needs away from home, the imperative that he
seems to share with the great majority of primitive communities by which
his public life is subjected to the
laws of urinary segregation.
It is not only with the idea of silencing the nominalist
debate with a low blow that I use this example, but rather to show how
in fact the signifier enters the signified, namely, in a form which, not
being immaterial, raises the question of its place in reality. For the
blinking gaze of a short sighted person might be justified in wondering
as he peered closely at the ]ittle enamel signs that
bore it, a signifier whose signified would in this call receive its final
honours from the double and solemn procession from the upper nave.
But no contrived example can be as telling as the actual
experience of truth. So I am happy to have invented the above, since it
awoke in the person whose word I most trust a memory of childhood, which
having thus happily come to my attention is best placed here.
A train arrives at a station. A little boy and a little
girl, brother and sister, are seated in a compartment face to face next
to the window through which the buildings along the station platform can
be seen passing as the train pulls to a stop. ‚Look‘, says the brother,
‚we’re at Ladies!‘; ‚Idiot!‘ replies his sister, ‚Can’t you see we’re at
Besides the fact that the rails in this story materialize
the bar in the Saussurian algorithm (and in a form designed to suggest
that its resistance may be other than dialectical), we should add that
only someone who didn’t have his eyes in front of the holes (it’s the appropriate
image here) could possibly confuse the place of the signifier and the signified
in this story, or not see from what radiating centre the signifier sends
forth its light into the shadow of incomplete significations.
For this signifier will now carry a purely animal Dissension,
destined for the usual oblivion of natural mists, to the unbridled power
of ideological warfare, relentless for families, a torment to the Gods.
For these children, Ladies and Gentlemen will be henceforth two countries
towards which each of their souls will strive on divergent wings, and between
which a truce will be the more impossible since they are actually the
same country and neither can compromise on its own superiority without
detracting from the glory of the other.
But enough. It is beginning to sound like the history
of France. Which it is more human, as it ought to be, to evoke here than
that of England, destined to tumble from the Large to the Small End of
Dean Swift’s egg.
To Part Three
To Part One
Voice of the Shuttle
is a stranger
Semiotics and Psychoanalysis