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French: métaphore

Metaphor is usually defined as a trope in which one thing is described by comparing it to another, but without directly asserting a comparison.

Jacques Lacan

However, Lacan's use of the term owes little to this definition and much to the work of Roman Jakobson, who, in a major article published in 1956, established an opposition between metaphor and metonymy.

On the basis of a distinction between two kinds of aphasia, Jakobson distinguished two fundamentally opposed axes of language: the metaphorical axis which deals with the selection of linguistic terms and allows for their substitution, and the metonymic axis which deals with the combination of linguistic items (both sequentially and simultaneously).

Metaphor thus corresponds to Saussure's paradigmatic relations (which hold in absentia) and metonymy to syntagmatic relationships (which hold in praesentia).[1]


Lacan, like many other French intellectuals of the time (such as Claude Lévi-Strauss and Roland Barthes), was quick to take up Jakobson's reintepretation of metaphor and metonymy.

In the very same year that Jakobson's seminal article was published, Lacan refers to it in his seminar and begins to incorporate the opposition into his linguistic rereading of Freud.[2]

A year later he dedicates a whole paper to a more detailed analysis of the opposition.[3]


Following Jakobson's identification of metaphor with the substitutive axis of language, Lacan defines metaphor as the substitution of one signifier for another, and provides the first formula of metaphor.[4]

Algebraic Formula

This formula is to be read as follows.

On the lefthand side of the equation, outside the brackets, Lacan writes f S, the signifying function, which is to say the effect of signification.

Inside the brackets, he writes S'/S, which means "the substitution of one signifier for another."

On the righthand side of the equation there is S, the signifier, and s, the signified.

Between these two symbols there is the symbol (+) which represents the crossing of the bar (-) of the Saussurean algorithm, and which represents "the emergence of signification."

The sign = is to be read: "is congruent with."

Thus the whole formula reads: the signifying function of the substitution of one signifier for another is congruent with the crossing of the bar.


The idea behind this rather obscure formulation is that there is an inherent resistance to signification in language (a resistance which is symbolized by the bar in the Saussurean algorithm).

Meaning does not simply appear spontaneously, but is the product of a specific operation which crosses over the bar.

The formula is meant to illustrate Lacan's thesis that this operation, the production of meaning, which Lacan calls "signification", is only made possible by metaphor.

Metaphor is thus the passage of the signifier into the signified, the creation of a new signified.

Second Formula

Lacan presents another formula for metaphor in a paper written a few months later.[5]

Lacan's own explanation of this second formula is as follows:

The capital Ss are signifiers, x the unknown signification and s the signified induced by the metaphor, which consists in substitution in the signifying chain of S for S'. The elision of S', represented here by the bar through it, is the condition of the success of the metaphor.[6]

Lacan puts his concept of metaphor to use in a variety of contexts.

Oedipus Complex

Lacan analyzes the Oedipus complex in terms of a metaphor because it invovles the crucial concept of substitution; in this case, the substitution of the Name-of-the-Father for the desire of the mother.

This fundamental metaphor, which founds the possibility of all ther metaphor, is designated by Lacan as the paternal metaphor.

Repression and Neurotic Symptoms

Lacan argues that repression (secondary repression) has the structure of a metaphor.

The "metonymic object" (the signifier which is elided, S' in the previous formula) is repressed, but returns in the surplus meaning (+) produced in the metaphor.

The return of the repressed (the symptom) therefore also has the structure of a metaphor; indeed; Lacan asserts that "the symptom is a metaphor."[7]


Lacan also follows Jakobson in linking the metaphor-metonymy distinction to the fundamental mechanisms of the dream work described by Freud.

However, he differs from Jakobson over the precise nature of this parallel.

Whereas for Jakobson, metonymy is linked to both displacement and condensation, metaphor to identification and symbolism, Lacan links metaphor to condensation and metonymy to displacement.

Lacan then argues that just as displacement is logically prior to condensation, so metonymy is the condition for metaphor.

The Anal Drive

In his paper, "On transformations of instinct as exemplified in anal eroticism"', Freud shows how anal eroticism is closely connected with the possibility of substitution.

Lacan takes this as grounds for linking anal eroticism to metaphor.

"The anal level is the locus of metaphor - one object for another, gives the faeces in place of the phallus."[8]

Metaphor is also the structure of identification, since the latter consists in substituting oneself for another.[9]


Love is structured like a metaphor since it involves the operation of substitution.

"It is insofar as the function of the érastès, of the lover, who is the subject of lack, comes in the place of, substitutes himself for, the function of érômènos, the loved object, that the signification of love is produced."[10]

See Also


  1. Jakobson, Roman. (1956) "Two aspects of language and two types of aphasic disturbances. Selected Writings, vol. II, Word and Language, The Hague: Mouton, 1971, pp. 239-59.
  2. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book III. The Psychoses, 1955-56. Trans. Russell Grigg. London: Routledge, 1993. p. 218-20, 222-30
  3. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre V. Les formations de l'inconscient, 1957-58, unpublished.
  4. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p.164
  5. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 200
  6. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p.200
  7. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p.175
  8. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book XI. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 1964. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Hogarth Press and Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1977. p. 104
  9. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book III. The Psychoses, 1955-56. Trans. Russell Grigg. London: Routledge, 1993. p. 218
  10. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre VIII. Le transfert, 1960-61. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p. 53