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The Letter

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The [[letter ]] refers to the [[material ]] substrate, identical to the printed [[character]], that serves as the vehicle for spoken or written [[language]]. It represents the two sides of the [[signifier ]] ([[metaphor ]] and [[metonymy]]) in the creation of [[meaning ]] and in the production of [[dreams]], where the letter designates one of the [[terms ]] of the rebus. As the localized [[structure ]] of the signifier, the letter's [[nature ]] is [[real]], exclusive of [[sense ]] or meaning. Its function is [[symbolic ]] to the extent that its [[absence ]] determines the automatism of [[repetition]]. The letter constitutes the [[unconscious ]] to the extent that it is organized as a literal heterogeneous set.
[[Freud]]'s first allusion to the letter and its function is found in his correspondence with Wilhelm [[Fliess ]] on December 6, 1896 (1950a), where he describes a [[system ]] of inscribing perceptions, in which the [[process ]] of [[repression ]] can be conceptualized as the erasure of an inscription. In the [[analysis ]] of the Wolfman, Freud (1918b) returns to the letter and its workings. In 1927, in his article on [[fetishism ]] (1927e), he shows how a [[patient]]'s [[erotic ]] [[life ]] remains attached to a permutation of letters.
However Freud never really formulated a [[theory ]] of the letter. Jacques [[Lacan ]] in 1954-1957 (1966) provided a [[theoretical ]] elaboration of the functioning of the letter to the extent that it—and it alone—constitutes the [[topography ]] of the unconscious.
Several additional aspects of how the letter functions [[need ]] to be distinguished: its [[situation ]] within the articulation of the two essential tropes that govern language, metaphor, and metonymy (Roman [[Jakobson]]), and the function it plays in the [[dialectic ]] of [[desire ]] and the automatism of repetition. To explain these functions a few [[linguistic ]] [[concepts ]] are necessary.
Returning to the [[Saussurian ]] [[algorithm]], Lacan emphasized the impermeable nature of the bar that separates signifier and [[signified]]. Contrary to what is suggested by the illustration of the algorithm between the sound "tree" and its iconic [[representation]], the unconscious does not acknowledge any univocal correspondence between a signifier and a signified, because the signifier only functions through its [[difference ]] with [[other ]] elements in the [[verbal ]] [[chain]]. Because of these [[three ]] factors access to meaning can only occur through metaphor or metonymy. Thus Freud discovered the [[processes ]] of [[condensation ]] ([[Verdichtung]]) and [[displacement ]] ([[Verschiebung]]) in dreams. These two operations take [[place ]] at the cost of eliding the signifier upon which they were originally based. This first obliterated signifier is automatically [[repressed ]] as part of the [[natural ]] operation of the production of meaning. By extension, we recognize in this the [[model ]] of [[symptom ]] [[formation ]] as a fact associated with language. Within the differential coupling of [[signifiers ]] as they occur in a language this first signifier, the indifferent point of departure for metaphor or metonymy, can be conceptualized as precipitated in the materiality of a letter that represents it in the chain of signifiers. This letter also prefigures the trace of the lost [[object ]] and the [[lack ]] that causes [[desire, ]] for in metonymy the trace of the [[loss ]] is transferred to the [[object of desire]]. This led Lacan to designate the object-[[cause ]] of desire by the letter a. The letter thus has a symbolic function that overdetermines the unalterable [[principle ]] of the automatism of repetition to the extent that a letter will always be [[missing]], the very letter that represents the [[lost object]].
Moreover, the [[impossibility ]] of grasping the letter in its [[signification]], its [[resistance ]] to meaning, because it lies [[outside ]] the signified, shows that in is [[essence ]] the letter is real: It forms a [[hole ]] in unconscious [[knowledge]]. Exploration of this hole in meaning using the real of the letter remains the nub of the unconscious in the [[experience ]] of analysis.
JEAN-PIERRE HILTENBRAND
See also: [[Real, the (Lacan)]]; Signifier; Symptom/sinthome.[[Bibliography]]
* Freud, Sigmund. (1918b). From the history of an infantile neurosis. SE, 17: 1-122.
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