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Metaphor is a figure of speech that involves designating one thing with the name of another, a process that is carried out essentially by substituting one term for another.

Metaphor is a fundamental notion that Jacques Lacan introduced in relation to his thesis that "the unconscious is structured like a language." He justified its legitimacy principally by analogy with the Freudian mechanism of "condensation," and more generally in relation to the structure of the formations of the unconscious and the metaphorical process of the Name-of-the-Father.

Lacan proposed the following symbolic formula for metaphor (2002, p. 190):

The Lacanian use of metaphor is founded on the principle of a signifying substitution that promotes the authority of the signifier over that of the signified. In language, metaphorical substitution most often occurs between two terms on the basis of semantic similarity. At the level of unconscious processes, this similarity is not always immediately apparent, and only a series of associations can bring it to light.

Thus Freudian condensation plays a role in the different unconscious formations, such as dreams and symptoms, for example. Just as the unconscious material in dreams, telescoped by condensations, reappears in a meaningless form in the manifest dream content, so the symptom expresses, in reality, something completely different from what it appears to mean.

The metaphor of the Name-of-the-Father, as it was called by Lacan, is based on the same principle—that of the substitution of signifiers. In this case, the signifier of the Name-of-the-Father substitutes for the signifier of the mother's desire, which thus becomes the object of repression and becomes unconscious.

The "fort/da game" that Freud described (1920g) directly attests to the process of metaphorization and the repression that is linked to it. A relation of signifying substitution is established by the child as soon as they "name" the signifying reference to the father as the cause of the mother's absences. In addition to the paternal metaphor, which makes it possible, the fort/da game is also inscribed in a double metaphorical process. In itself, the reel is already a metaphor for the mother, and the game of its presence and absence is another metaphor since it symbolizes her departure and return.


See also: Condensation; Displacement; Forgetting; Formations of the unconscious; Letter, the; Linguistics and psychoanalysis; Matheme; Metonymy; Mirror stage; Name-of-the-Father; Phobias in children; Psychoses, chronic and delusional; Signifier; Signifier/signified; Signifying chain; Symptom/sinthome; Topology. Bibliography

   * Dor, Joël. (1998). Introduction to the reading of Lacan: The unconscious structured like a language (Judith Feher Gurewich and Susan Fairfield, Eds.). New York: Other Press, 1998.
   * Freud, Sigmund. (1920g). Beyond the pleasure principle. SE, 18: 1-64.
   * Lacan, Jacques. (2002).Écrits: A selection (Bruce Fink, Trans.). New York: W. W. Norton.


To the overall conception of linguistics he borrows from Saussure Lacan adds Roman Jakobson’s distinction 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 items and allows for their substitution, and the metonymic axis which deals with the combination of linguistic terms (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). (Evans 111)

That is, metaphor can be seen as having a vertical relationship, in which the line between the signifier and the signified is crossed, as the signifier passes over into the signified and a new signifier is produced. For example, in the metaphor "Juliet is the sun" the various signifiers that might have stood in place of "the sun" (glorious, bright, fair, beautiful) thus pass through the barrier between the signifier and the signified, joining that object designated as "Juliet," and become signifieds of the new signifier, "the sun" (this example is drawn from Evans 111). A compression of linguistic space and relations, metaphor is the direct substitution of one signifier for another such that the second signifier ("the sun") supersedes the first (glorious, bright, fair, beautiful) in relation to the signified ("Juliet"). This process is the basic structure of identification as it occurs in the imaginary "since [it] consists in substituting oneself for another" (Evans 113). And insofar as this process escapes full symbolization (i.e. insofar as it is a compression of language that brings the imaginary into play as an equal partner in the linguistic production of meaning), Lacan reads it as the basic structure of the symptom, as an indicator of a breakdown of the process of symbolising the imaginary: "if the symptom is a metaphor, it is not a metaphor to say so […] the symptom is a metaphor" (Ecrits 175).

The second term which Lacan borrows from Jakobson to fill out his understanding of the symbolic order is metonymy: "following Jakobson, Lacan links metonymy to the combinatorial axis of language, as opposed to the substitutive axis" (Evans 113). If metaphor is a process of substitution, whereby one signifier comes to stand in for another in relation to a given signified, then metonymy is a purely diachronic movement above the barrier separating signifier from signified. In contrast to the vertical motion of metaphor, it is a horizontal movement along the chain of signification, as "one signifier constantly refers to another in a perpetual deferral of meaning" (Evans 114). As the only realm in which meaning is generated, the symbolic’s dependence on the metonymic function of signifier relations thus becomes the primary focus of Lacan’s concern with language. He emphasises the metonymic deferral of meaning that takes place in the incessant play of signifiers, referring to the ready movement of the chain of signifiers over the signifieds as glissement (slippage). This designation of the movement along the signifying chain as a slippage emphasises Lacan’s re-writing of Saussure’s concept such that the relationship between signifier and signified ceases to be stable (if arbitrary) and becomes profoundly unstable.

'Metaphor' is defined as a trope in which one thing is described by comparing it to another, but without directly asserting a comparison (with the use of the word 'like').

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

Jakobson distinguished two fundamentally opposed axes of alngauge: the metaphorical axis which deals with the selection of linguistic items and allows for their substitution, and the metonymic axis which deals with the combination of linguisitic items.

What is a metaphor?...It's a signifier that takes the place of another signifier.[seminar of January 15, 1958 ]