Talk:The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious or Reason Since Freud
The agency of the letter: Reason since Freud (1957) Lacan is always telling us that we should listen to what the unconscious says. The subtitle of the essay, 'Reason since Freud', is a reference to a debate about knowledge. Lacan argues that we have to abandon the idea of reason as belonging to the positive sciences; nor does it belong to conscious logical or philo~ophical reason, but to the unconscious. Reason is the insistence of a meaning, the 90 Jacques Lacan primacy or authority of a letter which insists on being expressed or heard. He reminds us that the subject is implicated in language, even before his or her birth; that is to say there is a place assigned to him or her by a discourse which pre-existed his or her birth. During the 1950s Lacan began to make use of Saussure's concepts but, as I said in O1apter 4 on language, he adapted them in important ways. For Saussure the linguistic sign is a unification of a sound-image (the signifier) with a concept (the signified). The signifier and the signified are like two sides of a sheet of paper. While Saussure put the signifier and the signified in an ellipse which indicates the structural unity of the sign, Lacan removed it. Lacan wanted to emphasise that the signifier and signified are two distinct and separate orders. He therefore introduced what he called a 'cut' (coupure) into the Saussurean sign with the introduction of a new emphasis on the bar, as a formula of separateness rather than recipro<;:ity of signifier and signified. This move calls iP-tb question any theory of correspondence between words and ~things. Lacan writes that the algorithm that is the foundation of modern linguistics is SI s. While Saussure formulated the signified on top, Lacan puts the signifier on top - to give it pre-eminence.9 He argued that signifiers are combined in a signifying chain. Meaning does not arise in the individual signifier but in the connection between signifiers. Saussure had admitted that there can occur a shift or sliding (glissement) in the relationship between the signifier and signified. In contrast, Lacan argues not only that the two realms of signifier and signified are never united, but that there is an incessant sliding of the signified under the signifier. This does not mean that there are no moments of stability at all. Lacan suggests that there are 'anchoring points' (points de capiton); these are certain 'nodal points' which stop the sliding signifiers and fix their meaning. (Sometimes, it is said that 'the floating signifiers' are 'quilted'.)10 After every quilting of the signifying chain, which retroactively fixes its meaning, there always remains the persistence of a gap between utterance and its enunciation: you're saying this, but what are you really telling me? One' of the most important functions of speech is that a subject uses it to signify something quite other than what slhe says. The meaning is always veering off, or being displaced. One must not
Lacan's Ecrits: A review 91 think that speech masks one's thoughts. The subject produces through his or her speech a truth which slhe does not know about. Truth resides, as it were, in the spaces between one signifier and another, in the holes of the chain. The linguistic concepts of metaphor and metonymy occupy an important place in Lacanian theory. I will make only one basic point here as I discussed these concepts in Chapter 4, 'The functions of language'. To put it simply, a metaphor is based on a proposed similarity, or analogy; Lacan defines it as 'one word for another'. He defines metonymy as the relation 'word by word'.l1is the relation between two signifiers along the line of any concrete discourse. This is linear because only one word is pronounced or written at-atrm-e.-Inthe-ffieronymic dimension, the signifier can receive>its-c<Li!ipJet~-signification only by deferred action. -The-maIn point is this: Lacan inserts Saussurean linguistics into Freud's notion of condensation and displacement and links it with Jakobson's analysis of the two poles of language: metaphor and metonymy. Lacan connects metaphor with condensation and metonymy with displacement. (I should remind readers that Freud argued that condensation and displacement were the two processes basically responsible for the form assumed by dreams. I I He believed that they were the basic unconscious mechanisms at work in, for instance, symptom formation and the production of jokes and slips of the tongue.) Lacan describes condensation as the 'superimposition of signifiers' and compares it to his notion of metaphor, where one word is substituted by another. He considered that in displacement one could see a 'veering off of sig- J nification' which is similar to his notion of metonymy. It seems to me that Lacan has a preference for metaphor and tends to privilege it. In metaphor a signifier substitutes for another signifier only in order to articulate what cannot be said, that is the signified. It is in metaphor that desire finds a pathway for expression.