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Ferdinand de Saussure
Lacan's frequent references to the "letter" must be seen within the context of Saussure's discussion of language. In his Course in General Linguistics, Saussure privileges spoken language above written language, on the grounds that the former appears before the latter both in the history of humanity and in the life of the individual. Writing is conceived of as a mere secondhand representation of spoken language, and the signifier is conceived of as purely an acoustic image and not as a graphic one.
When Lacan takes up Saussure's work in the 1950s, he adapts it freely to his own purposes. He thus conceives of the letter, not as a mere graphic representation of a sound, but as the material basis of language itself.
"By letter I designate that material support that concrete discourse borrows from language."
The letter is thus connected with the real, a material substrate that underpins the symbolic order. The concept of materiality implies, for Lacan, both the indivisibility and the idea of locality; the letter is therefore "the essentially localized structure of the signifier."
As an element of the real, the letter is meaningless in itself. Lacan illustrates this by referring to ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, which were indecipherable to Europeans for so long. Until Champollion was able to decipher them on the basis of the Rosetta Stone, no one knew how to understand these enigmatic inscriptions, but it was nevertheless clear that they were organized into a signifying system. In the same way, the signifier persists as a meaningless letter which makes the destiny of the subject and which he must decipher.
A good example of this is the case of the Wolf Man, in which Freud noted that the meaningless letter V reappeared under many guides in the Wolf Man's life. As the example of the Wolf Man demonstrates, the letter is essentially that which returns and repeats itself; it constantly insists in inscribing itself in the subject's life.
Lacan illustrates this repetition by reference to Edgar Allan Poe's story The Purloined Letter. Playing on the double-meaning of the term "letter", Lacan presents Poe's account of a written document (a letter) which passes through various hands as a metaphor for the signifier which circulates between various subjects, assigning a peculiar position to whoever is possessed by it. It is in this paper that Lacan proposes that "a letter always arrives at its destination."
To the Letter
It is because of the role of the letter in the unconscious that the analyst must focus not on the meaning or the signification of the analysand's discourse, but purely on its formal properties; the analyst must read the analysand's speech as if it were a text, "taking it literally" (prendre à la lettre).
There is thus a close connection between the letter and writing, a connection which Lacan explores in his seminar of 1972-3. Although both the letter and writing are located in the order of the real, and hence partake of a meaningless quality, Lacan argues that the letter is that which one reads, as opposed to writing, which is not to be read. Writing is also connected with the idea of formalization and the mathemes; Lacan thus speaks of his algebraic symbols as "letters." Lacan's concept of the letter is the subject of a critique by Jacques Derrida and by two of Derrida's followers.. Lacan refers to the latter work in his 1972-3 seminar.
- Saussure, Ferdinand de. Course in General Linguistics, 1916. Ed. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, trans. Wade Baskin, Glasgow: Collins Fontana.
- Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 147
- Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 153
- Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book I. Freud's Papers on Technique, 1953-54. Trans. John Forrester. New York: Nortion; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988. p. 244-5; Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 160
- Freud, Sigmund. "From the History of an Infantile Neurosis," 1918b . SE XVII, 3.
- Poe, Edgar Allan. 1844. "The Purloined Letter," in Great Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe, New York: Pocket Library, 1951.
- Lacan, Jacques. 1955a. "Le séminaire sur 'La lettre volée'", in Jacques Lacan, Écrits, Paris: Seuil, 1966, pp. 11-61 ["Seminar on 'The Purloined Letter'", trans. Jeffrey Mehlman, Yale French Studies, 48 (1972): 38-72.
- Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. p.41
- Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre XX. Encore, 1972-73. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1975. pp. 29-38
- Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre XX. Encore, 1972-73. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1975. p. 29
- Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre XX. Encore, 1972-73. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1975. p. 30
- Derrida, Jacques 1975. "Le facteur de la vérité," in The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond, trans. Alan Bass, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1987, pp. 413-96.
- Lacoue-Labarthe, Philippe, and Nancy, Jean-Luc. 1973. Le Titre de la lettre, Paris: Galilée.
- Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre XX. Encore, 1972-73. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1975. p. 62-6.