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Lacan-The insistence of the letter in the unconscious

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									The insistence oJ the letter in the .

Of Childrell i,l S'¡v(uJdli,lg (;Iot/¡e.\
O citíc.:s or thc.: sc.:a, I bchold it¡ you yollr citízc.:ns, womc.:n as wc.:ll as mcn tíghtly bollnd with
stout bonds around their arms and legs by folk who will havc no lindcrstanding of our spcech; and
you will only be able to givc.: vcnt to yollr gric.:ls and scnsc of loss of libcrty by making tcarflll
complaiJ}(s, and sighs, and lamcntatíons one to another; for those who bind you will not have
understaJ}ding of your specch nor will you understand thcm.

---~~nardo.~ yinci

Lacan 77Ie insistence ofthe letter in the unconscious

If the nature of this contribution has been set by the theme of this volume of La Psychana/yse, I yet
owe to what will be found in it to insert it at a point some- where between the written and spoken
word-it will be halfway between the two.
A written piece is in fact distinguished by a prevalence of the 'text' in the sense which that factor of
speech will be scen to take on in this essay, a factor which makes possible the kind of tightening up
that I likc in order to leave the reader no other way out than thc way in, which I prcfcr to bc difficult. In
that sense, then, this will not be a written work.
The priority I accord to the nourishing of my scminars each time with some- thing new has until now
prcvcl1tcd my drawing 011 such a tcxt, with onc excep- tion, not outstanding in thc contcxt of thc
scrics. 311d I rctcr to it at all only for the gencral levcl of its argument.
For thc urgency which J now takc as a prctcxt fi)r leaving aside such an aim only masks thc Jifhclllty
I\¡al, il1 Iryil1~ I() mail1tail1 this Jiscoursc on thc lcvcl at which J ought il1 t\¡csc \\'ritil1~s t(1 prcscl11
my tcachil1~, I mi~ht push it t()O far from thc spokcn w()rJ which, with its OWI1 mcasllrcs, Jitlcrs from
writil1g anJ is essential to the instructive effect I am seeking.
That is why I have taken the expedient offered me by the invitation to lecture to the philosophy group
of the union of humanities studentsl to produce an adaptation suitable to my talk; its necessary
generality having to accommodate itself to the exceptional character of the audience, but its sole
object encoun- tering the collusion of their common preparation, a literary one, to which my title pays
How ~hould we forget in cffect that until thc end of his life Freud constantly maintained that such a
preparation was the hrst requisite in the formation of analysts, and that he designated the eternal
unive7)'itas litterarnm [universe of letters] as the ideal place for its institution?2
And thus my recourse to the movement of this speech, feverishly restored, by showing whom I meant
it for, marks even more clearly those for whom it is not meant. I mean that it is not meant for those
who for any reason, psychoanalytic or other, allow their discipline to parade under a false identity; a
fault of habit, but its etTect on the mind is such that the true identity may appear as simply one alibi
among others, a sort of rehned reduplication whose implications will not be missed by the most
So one observes the curious phenomenon of a whole new tack concerning languagt and
symbolization in the lnlernali()nal J()urnal ()f P~vch()ana(vsis, buttresscd by many sticky fil1gcrs in
the pages of Sapir and Jespersenil- amateurish cxercise so far, but it is cven more thc tOI1C which is
lacking. A certain seriousness is cause for amusement trom thc standpoint of veracity.
And how could a psychoanalyst of today not realize that his realm of truth is in fact the word, whcn
his wholc cx"pericncc must hnd in the word alone its instrument, its framework, its matcrial, and even
thc static of its uncertainties.

I The Meanlng ~r the !.etter

As QlIr titl~ SllggCStS, beyolld what w~ call .the word,' what th~ psychoallalytic e>.periellce discovers
ill tl1e ullcollsciolls is the whole structurc of language. Thus from thc outset we have altercd intormcd
minds to thc cxtent to which the notion that thc ullcollscious is merely thc seat of the instillcts will have
to be rcthought.
But this .Ictter,' how are we to take it here? How indeed but literally. By 'Ietter' we designate that
material support which concrete speech borrows from language.
This simple definition assumes that language not be confused with the diverse psychic alld somatic
tllllctiol1s which scrv~ it in lhe individual spcaker.
For lhe primary r~a~oJI th.lllallg.uJgl: allJ ilS strllctur~ exist prjor to th~ momcnt al which t.ach
inJivjJuJI al a ct'rtaill poil11 ÍI1 hi~ mclltal Jevcl()pmcnt makes his cntry illlo il.
1.1:1 lIS I¡()tl., Ihl:ll, tllal ¡,phJ~ia, ¡lllh()ll¡.\'11 Cl'IISl.J hy purt.ly a(1¡'lomical Icsiol1s ill lhl: cl:rl:hrJI
JpparJlll~ whit.h slIpplil:s lht. ml:lllal t.1:11ll.:r I(Jr Ihl.:sl.: lil1guistic fllllctions, pr()Juces IJngllagc
dl:fil:j~ncies which Jivide nJturally b~tw~l:n thc two poles of thc signifying effect of what wc call here
'the lettcr' in the crcation of m~aning.3 A point which wjll bc clarified later.
'l'he spcaking subj~cl, if h~ s~ems to b~ thllS a ~1,lV~ of language, is all the m()re so of a djscoursc
il1 the ul1iv~rsJI momel1t of which he finds himself at birth, even if only by dint of his proper name.
Reference to the 'experience of the community' as the substance of this discourse settles nothing.
For this cxpcricncc has as jts esscntial dimension the tradjtioll which Ihc Jiscollrsc its~lr f'ollIlJS. 'l.his
traditiol1, 1()l1g bcf()rc the drama or history gcts writtcn ÍI1to it, crl.:atcs thc ~lcmcl1tary structures of
culture. And thcsc strllctllrcs revcal an orJcring of possible t..xchanges which, even uncon- SCiOll~, is
iI1COl1t.~ivablc Ollt~iJc tht.. p~rmlltatiol1~ allthorizcJ by lallgllag~.
Wilh thc r(;~llll that Ihl. (;thl1ugT¡'phic Jllality ur l1aturl.: anJ Cl¡ltllrl: i~ giving way lo a t~mary
col1c(;ptiol1 or thc hllmal) COl1ditioll: natl¡rC, soci~ty, and cllltur~, t11e la~t t~m1 or which could wcll
b~ cquat~J to lal1gl¡ag~, or that which ~ssentially distjnguishcs human society Irom natural socjctjcs.
13ul we shall not make of thjs distinction eithcr a point or a point of departure, leJvil1g to its own
obscllrity the qucstion or thc ()riginal relation bctween work and the significr. We shall bc content, for
our little jab at the general function of pra.ris in th~ g~nesis of history, to point Olll thal Ihc very socicty
which wished lo.r~~tore, Jlong wilh (h(; privilcgcs of thl: producl:r, the t.ausal hil:rarchy of thc rclations
bctwcel1 proJllction and thc idcological superstructure to their full political rights, has n()nc thc less
failed to give birth to al1 csperanto in which the rclations of lanb'llagc to socialist rcalities would have
rendered any literary lormalism radically impo~siblc..¡
As for l¡S, wc shall havc 1¡1ith only ill those assumptions which have already proven thcir vallle by
virtlle of the lal:t th.lt langtlage through them has attained the status of al1 object of scientific
I;'or it i~ by djllt of thjs t¡ICI that Ijnglljstic~5 is sl'l'n lo occupy thc kcy position ill thjs Jomaill, alld thl'
rl:clas~iht.atjol1 of sci~nccs alld f~g~ing of~(;g¡. around
it points up, as is the rule, a revolution in knowledge; only the necessities of communication made us
call this volume and this grouping thc 'human sciences' given the confusion that this term can be
madc to hide.
To pinpoint the emergcnce of linguistic science we may say that, as in the casc of all sciences in the
modern sense, it is contained in the constitutive moment of a formula which is its foundatjon. This
formula is the followjng:

which is read as: the signifier over the signified, 'over' corresponding to the line separating thc two
This sign shoulJ hc attrihutcJ t<) l;crJinanJ Jc Saussurc although it is not founJ in cxactly this f()ml in
any of thc numcr()us schcmas which nonc thc Icss cxprcss it in thc printcJ vcrsion ()f his Iccturcs ()f
thc ycars I ()()6-07 , I <)OH-O(), anJ 1910-11 , which Ihc picty (,f a 1{f()IIP (,f his tlisciplcs callsctl t<)
hc puhlishcJ unJcr thc lillc, (;(I/'rs d1. /i,IKI,i.~/i(fl'l' ,!,'¡.'I¡.r(//l', a w()rk 1)1 primc imp()rtancc fi)r thc
transmission of a tcaching worthy of thc namc, thal is, that one can comc to terms with only in its own
That is why it is legitimatc for us to givc him creJit for the formulation S/s by which, in spite of thc
diftcrcnccs among schools, the bcginning of modem linguistics can be rccognizcd.
The thematics of this science is henceforth suspended, in effect, at the primordial placement of the
signifier and the signified as being distinct orders separated initially by a harrier resisting signification.
And that is what was to makc possible an exact stuJy of thc relations proper to the signifier, anJ of
thc breadth of their function in thc birth of thc signifieJ.
For this primordial distinction goes way beyonJ the Jebates on the arbitrari- ness of thc sign which
havc bccn clahoratcJ sincc thc earliest rcflcctions of the ancicnts, and cven bcyonJ thc impassc
which, through thc samc period, has been encountercd in cvery discussion of lhe hi-univocal
corrcsponJcncc betwecn the word and the thing, cven in thc merc act of naming. All this, of course, is
quite contrary to the appcaranccs suggcsted by thc importance otten imputed to the role ot- the index
finger pointing to an object in the lcaming process of thc infant subject Icaming his mother tongue, or
the use in foreign language teaching of methods sometimes called 'concrete.'
One cannot and necJ not go furthcr along this linc of thought than to dcmonstratc that no mcaning is
sustaincJ hy anything (,thcr than rcfcrcncc to another meaning;6 in its cxtrcmc form this is tantamounl
to thc proposition that there is no language in cxistence for which there is any qucstion of its inability
to cover thc whole ficld of thc significd, it being an effcct of its existence as a language that it
necessarily answer all needs. ShoulJ we try to grasp in the realm of language the constitution of the
objcct, how can we help but notice that the object is to be found only at the level of concept, a very
different thing from a simple nominative, and that the thing, to takc it at its word reduces to two
Jivcrg('nt factors: thc causc in which it has takcn shcltcr in thc Frcnch word chose, and the nothing
(rien) to which it has abandoncd its l~atin Jrcss (rem).

Lacan The insistence ofthe letter in the unconscious

77Ie insislence oflhe leller in Ihe unconscious

These considerations, however stimulating they may seem to philosophers, turn liS asiJe trom tht'
art'a in which language 4ucstiol1s us 011 its very nature. And unl: will tail evcl1 to kcl:p thc qucstiol1
il1 vicw as lol1g as one has l1ot got rid uf the illusiol1 that thc signitier al1swcrs to the tul1ction of
represcntil1g the signitit:d, or better, that the signitier has to al1swer for its cxistence in the name of
any signification whatever.
For even reduceJ to this latter fonnulation, the heresy is the same, the heresy that leads logical
positivismb il1 search of the 'meaning of meaning' as its object is called in the lal1guage its disciples
like to wallow in. Whence we can observe that evel1 a text charged with meaning reduces itselt~
through this sort of analysis, to meal1il1glcss bag.atelll.s) all that sur'vivcs being mathematical
formulas which are, of course, meanil1gless.7
To r(;tum to our tormllla S/s: if we could inter nothing from it beyond the l1otiOI1 of thc parallclism of
its lippcr aI1d lowcr terms, l.ach OI1C takcn in its glo- bality) it would remaiI1 ol1ly the cnigmatic sign
of a total mystery. Which of course is not the casl'.
In ()rdcr () ~rasp its filnl'(ioll I .'ih:lll bt:1:!;in by rl:prodllcing thc ci:I~sil'al, yet 1;llilly illll~(r¡llioll I)y wllich
il~ u~a1:!;l: i~ Ilorm¡llly prc~cnlcJ. 11 is:

and onc can sce ;llready h()w i( ~cem~ (O favor (hc sor( of crroneous in(crpretation just menrioncd.
I replaced thj~ jn my lecture wi(h another, which ha~ no greater clajm to corrcc(l1css (hal1 tha( i( ha~
bcen tr;ll1~plalltcd jnto Ihat incongruous djmcnsion which (hc psy<:ho;lnalys( has no( yct al(()gc(hcr
rel1()unccd because of his qujte jlls(jficd f"cclil1g (ha( hjs col1f'onnj~m (akcs j(s valuc cntircly trom it.
Hcrc js the o(her diagram:

where wc scc that, without grcatly extending the scope of thc signifier concemed in the t:xperimt:nt,
that is, by doubling a noun through the mere juxtaposition

; L.ob.jt;óll p()!iitivi!im W¡I~ ói ,t;hool ()f philu~uphy IJ¡¡II uriginólll:J in Virunól in tllC 1920~. II had
¡11¡illitic:; wilh Ihl: Ir¡IJiliun uf I¡rili~h cmpirit;i:;1 pJ¡ilu~uphy ólnd fuul1J a ~ympóllhclit; ret;cpliun in
I~~glóln:t, c~pct;!;~lly Ihr.uugh Ihc ;¡,Ivu~¡¡t;y uf i\. J. i\ycr. L;¡t;an :;cc~:~ IU ~c using thc I:r~ 10 rcfcr
:'rlm;lnlv!(lnrlll"hllhll(I"Onhv(,,(.(.hl"I1()I(.7) .,,'r .-'-.-

Lacan 77Ie insistence ofthe letter in the unconscious

of two terrns whose complementary meanings ought apparently to reinforce each other, a surprise is
produced by an une).."pected precipitation of meaning: the image of twin doors symbolizing, through
the solitary confinement offered Westem Man for the satisfaction of his natural needs away from
home, the imperative that he seems to share with the great majority of primitive communities which
submits his public life to the laws of urinary segregation.
It is not only with the idea of silencing the nominalist debate{ with a low blow that I use this example,
but rather to show how in fact the signifier intrudes into the signified, namely in a form which, not
being immaterial, raises the very ques- tion of its place in reality. For the blinking gaze of a near-
sighted person would be quite justified in doubting whether this was indeed the signifier as he peered
closely at the little enamel signs which bore it, a signifier of which the signified received its final
honors from the double and solemn procession from the upper nave.
But no contrived example can equal the sharpness of the encounter with a lived truth. And so I am
happy to have invented the above since it awoke in the person whose word l m()st trllst this mcmory
of childhood which having thus happily c()mc t() my kll()wlcJ",c c(}liIJ wcll hc illscrtcJ hcrc.
A traill arrives at a station. A littlc boy and a Jittlc girl, br()thcr and sistcr, arc seated in a compartment
face to face next to the window through which the build- ings along the station platforrn can be seen
passing as the train puIls to a stop. 'Look,' says the brother, 'we're at Ladies!' 'Idiot,' replies his sister,
'can't you see we're at Gentlemen.'
Besides the fact that the rails in this story offer a material counterpart to the line in the Saussurian
forrnula (and in a forrn designed to suggest that its resist- ance may be other than dialectical), we
should add that only someone who didn't have his eyes in front of the holes (it's the appropriate
image here) could possibly confuse the place of the signifier and the sibTJ1ified in this story, or not
see from what shining center the signifier goes forth to ref1ect its light into the shadow of incomplete
meanings. ror this signifier will now carry a purely animal Dissen- sion, meant for the lislial oblivion of
natllral mists. to thc linbridlcd power of ideol()gical Warfare, relentlcss fi}r familics, a tormcl1t t() thc
(Jods. I,adics and Gentlemen wiIl be hcnceforth for these children two countries towards which each
of their souls wiIl strive on divergent wings, and between which a cessation of hostilities wiIl be the
more impossible since they are in truth the same country and neither can compromise on its own
superiority without detracting from the glory of the other.
But enough. It begins to sound like the history of France. Which it is more human, as it ought to be, to
evoke here than that of England, destined to tumble from the Large to the SmaIl End of Dean Swift's

, Thc philosophical dcbatc about whethcr thc abstract univcrsals which enablc us to group discrctc
phenomcna into catcg()ries arc rcal or arbitrary.
J In tho: I.illiput sccti()n ()f C;u"iv(r.s lrav(15, Switi satiriscd d()ctrinal disagro:cmcn! bctwccn Cath-
olics and Protcstants by rcprcscnling il as a dispulc a"()()1 al which cnd a "()ilcd cltg sh()lild "c

'.. "NO me:
The insistence ofthe /etter in the unconscious

It remains to be conceived what steps, what corridor, the S of the signifier, visibll. hrrr i/l the plurals i)1
which it t()CUSCS jts welcomc bcyond thc window, 111USt lakc íl1 ordl.r lo rcsl its clboWS 011 thr
vel1tilators through which, likc warm a/ld c01d air, SCorl1 al1d il1Jild:l1atiol1 ¡.;0II1C hissil1f:(' oul
OII~ thil1f\' is l.crlail1: il thc 1()r111l1la S/", Wilh its lil1e is appropriatc, acccss trom 011l. 10 thl; 0lhl:r
C.111110t il1 al1y (:as~ 11av~ a 111cal1il1g. );.or th~ 1()r111ula, il1S0tar as il ís ílsclI ()l1ly purl:
tlll1Ctiol1 o[ lhl. :)igl1ili~r, ca)) rcveal ol1ly lhl: :)lruclure of a sigl1itier il1 the lral1sfer.
NoW the structure of the signitier is, as it is Commol1ly said of language itself, that it be articu1ated.
This meal1s that no matter where 011e starts trom in order to describc the zones o[ reciproca1
il1ti.il1gemel1t al1d the area:) of r.\1)andil1g in¡.;¡usivencss 01 ils ul1its, these ul1its are submitled to
the double COl1diliol1 0[ rl:du(:ing to ultimate distinc- tive teatures al1d of combinil1g according to the
laws of a closed order.
These ul1its, ol1e of the decisive discoveries of linguistics, are phonemes; but we must 110t e~'Pect
to t¡nd al1y phoneti( cOl1stal1cy il1 the modulatory variability l() which this ter111 appli~s, but rath~r
th~ syl1chroni(: syst~m of distinguishing COI1I1l:CtioI1S I1cce:):)ary fur lhe discemmt:l1t of soul1ds
il1 a given lal1guage. 1.hrough this, 011e sees that an essel1tial clement of the word itself was
predes- til1ed to slidc doWI1 il1to the mobile charactt:rs whjch-in a scurry of 10wer-case J)idots or
(;ar¡lmol1d.,,-rrndcr validly prest:l1t what wc call the 'Iettcr,' namely lh~ ~s,"~l1tially 1()Clllii',l:(1
slrul.lllre (1[ lh~ sigl1itier,
Willl thr src()lld prop~r(y 01' thl: ,~igl1ij¡l:r. that o[ combil1il1g accordil1g to the laws 01' a closed
urdcr, is alhrmt:d tht: l1t:cessity of the top010gical substratum of which the tt:rm 1 ordinari1y usr,
l1amely, the signifyil1g chain, gives an approximate idea: rings of a l1ecklace lhal is a ring il1 an()ther
l1eckla(:e made of rings.
Such are the conditiol1s of slructure which del¡l1t: grammar as the order of constitutive
il1fril1gements of the signifier up lo the level of the unit immediately superior to the sentel1ce, and
lexicology as the order of constitutive inclusions of the signitier to the level of the verbal locution.
111 t:xamil1il1g the limils by which these tWO exercis~s il1 lhc undcrstal1ding of lil1guístic usage are
delermil1eJ, it is casy to sce lhal 0111y the correlations bctwecl1 sif\'l1illcr al1d si¡1;l1ilicr suprly thc
standard I()r all rcscarch il1to mcaning, as is illdic¡ltcJ il1 1¡lct by lhc vcry 110tio11 o[ 'usagc' 01 a
taxcmc or st:manteme which il1 t¡ll.l rt:ler:) lo thc COl1lc\l just abovr thal of thc ul1its col1cerncd.
But il is not becausc the ul1dertakil1gs of grammar and lexico)ogy are cxhausted within certail1 limits
that we must thil1k that beyond those limits meal1il1g reigns supreme. That would be al1 error.
l;'or the sibr¡lit¡cr, by íts vcry l1aturc, ;llways al1ticipall\" 011 meal1il1g by ul1tolding i(s Jimcl1siol1
bcl()1"c il. I\s is secl1 ,Il thc lcvcl of lhc scnlcl1ce whcl1 il is il1ter- rupted bctorc thc signif¡cal1l lcrm: .I
shall I1cvcr ...,' , AII thc samc it is ...,' .Al1d yct thcrc may be. ..' Slich scl1tcnces arc 110t withoul
mcul1il1g, a mcaning all lhc morc opprcssivl' il1 that it is COl1lCI1( to makc liS wail for it,1!
Uut the phCl10mCl1011 is 110 dil1crcl1t which by thl' mcrc rccoil of a .but' brings to the light, ~omcly
as thc Shulamite, honest as the Q~\~t .~e l1e~-~.?omed for the wed\jmg al1d the p00r woman rl.ady
for the auctIOI1-bloCk. -.


The insistence ofthe letter in the unconscious

From which we can say that it is in the chain of the signifier that the meaning 'insists' hut that none of
its elcmcnts 'consists' in the mcaning of which it is at the moment capahlc.
Wc arc forccd, thcn, to acccpt thc l1oti(m ()f al1 il1ccssal1t sliding of thc significd undcr thc signiticr-
which I'.. dc SallSSllrl: illllstratcs with an imagc rescmhling thc wavy lincs of thl: lippl:r and lI)wl:r
Waters in mil1iaturcs from manuscripts of (il:n<:sis; a douhl<: flow in which th<: guid<:lin<:s of tin<:
strcaks of rain, vertical dotted lincs supposedly confining segmcnts of correspondence, seem too
All our experience runs counter to this linearity, which made me speak once, in one of my seminars
on psychosis, of something more like spaced upholstery buttons as a schema for taking into account
the dominance of the letter in the dramatic transformation which the dialogue can bring about in a
The linearity which F. de Saussure holds to be constitutive of the chain of discourse, in conformity
with its emission by a single voice and with its horizontal position in our writing-if this linearity is
necessary in fact, it is not sufficient. It applies to thc chain of discours<: only in thc dircction il1 which
it is oriented in time, being taken as a signifying factor in all languag<:s in which 'Pcter hits Paul'
reverses its time when the terms are invertcd.
But one has only to listen to poetry, which perhaps Saussure was not in the habit of doing, to hcar a
true polyphony emerge, to know in fact that all discourse aligns itsclf along th<: s<:v<:ral stav<:s ()f a
Th<:r<: js in <:Occt Jl() sjgl1ifyjl1g chail1 which d()<:s Jl()t hav<: attachcd to thc punctuation of cach
of its units a wholc articulation of rclcvant contcxt suspended 'vertically' from that point.
Let us take our word 'tree' again, this time not as an isolated noun, but at the point of one of thesc
punctuations, and see how it crosses the line of the Saussurian formula.
For even broken down into the double spectre of its vowels and consonants, it can still call up with
the robur and the plane tree the meanings it takes on, in the contcxt of our flora, of str<:ngth al1d
majcsty. I)rawing on all thc symholic contexts suggcstcd in thc 11<:hr<:w of th<: Hihl<:, it crccts on a
harrcn hill the shadow of the cross. .rhcn rcduces to thc capital Y, thc sign of dichotomy whjch, cxccpt
for thc illustratjon uscd hy hcraldry, would ow<: nothing to thc trcc however genealogical we may
think it. Cjrculatory tree, trce of life of the cerc- bellum, tree of Saturn, tree of Diana, crystals formed
in a tree struck by lightning, is it your figure which traces our destiny for us in the tortoise-shell
cracked by the fire, or your lightning which causes that slow shift in the axis of being to surge up from
an unnamahlc night into the 'Ev Jt{'(VTCt [onc in alll of language':
No! says th<: .l'r<:c, it says No! in th<: sh()w<:r of sparks Of its sup<:rh hcad
lincs which rcqujrc thc harmonics of thc trcc just as mllch as thcir continuation:
Which thc storm treats as univcrsally As it does a bladc of grass.ll

     Lacan 77Ie insistence ofthe /etter in the unconscious

For this 1l10dC!11 vcrsc is ordcrcd accordil1g to the sall1c law of thc parallelism of thl' Sig¡lilier which
lll.ate~ lh<: harll1()ny gov<:rnil1g th<: primitiv<: Slavic cpic or lhc most rclil1ed ChiJICSC poctry.
As is secn in the fact tllat the tree and the blade of grass are chosen from the same ll1ode of the
existent in order for the signs of contradiction-saying 'No!' and 'trcat as'-to affect them, and also so as
to bring about, through the categ- orical contrast of the particularity of 'superb' with thc 'universally'
which reduces it, in the condensarion of the 'head' and thc 'storm,' the indiscernible shower of sparks
of the eternal instant.
But this whole signifier can only operate, someone may object, if it is present in the subject. It is this
objection that I answer by supposing that it has passed over to the level of the signified.
For ~.hat is important is 110t that the subject kl1ow anythil1g whatsoever. (If I.ADIES al1d
GENTI~EM]~N wcre writtCI1 il1 a lal1guage unkl1own to the litt1c boy and girl, their quarrel would
simply be the more cxclusively a quarrel over words, but none the less ready to take on meaning.)
Onc thil1g this structllre of the ~ignifyil1g chail1 ll1akes evidel1t is the possibility l havc, prcciscly
insot¡¡r as J hay<: this lal1gllagc in coll1ll1on with othcr ~libjccts, rhar is illS()f¡lr "s i( l.xi.-;ts "s"
lal1J:{llaJ:{<:. lo li.-;l! it i,¡ ()rdcr lo say soll1<:(hiJjg quitl! ()thcr I!¡all wl¡at it SilyS. .I.his Il,llcIjOJj ()r
Ih<: worJ is 1l10rl! worth rojJjtil1g Ollt than thill or 'disgllisillg thc thollght' (ll1ore ofteJj !hal1 Jjot
il1dctil1ablc) of the subjcct; it is 110 less thal1 the ful1ctiol1 of indicating the place of the subject in
the search for the truth.
I haye ol11y to plant my tree in a locurion: climb the tree, indeed illuminate it by playing 011 it the
light of a descriptive col1text; plant it firm so as not to let ll1yself be trappcd il1 SOIl1C sort ot'
(vmmuniqué, however official, and if I know thl! trllth, ll.t i( bl! hcarJ, in .-;rill! or il11 thl;: bctW<:l!I1-lhl!-
liJjcs CCI1Slirl!S, by the o/1ly siJ:{/1itil!r 1 k/1oW how to l.r<:at<: with ll1y acrobatic!i amol1g thl;:
bral1ches of tlll! trl!C. ta/1taliziJjg to thc roiJjt or bllrl(,'squ<:, or !icl1sibl(,' 0111y to tlle cxpcriel1ced
(,'y(,', accorJiJjg to whcth('r J wish to I>c hcard by the rl1ob or thc few.
'jnl! prorcrly sig11ityiJj¡(' IliJjl.tioJj !llliS d(,'scribed il1 lal1guagc has a l1all1e. Wc I<:arn<:d this l1all1<:
i/1 ~oll1e l.(rammar of ollr chilJhood, on rh<: last pag<:, where the shadc to QliintiliaJj", relegatcd to a
phal1tom chaptcr of 'ultimate consider- ations on style,' seemcd in a hurry to get his word il1 as
though threatened with the hook.
Jt is amol1g the ligurcs of style, or tropes, that w<: lil1d thc word: the name is me~on:y7I~Y.
We shall recall only the exall1ple given th(,'re: thirty sails. For thc al1xiety we tclr OYCr th<: I;¡ct that
thc word 'boat' llirkil1g il1 thc background was ol1ly part or thc crali cll1ploy<:d i/1 this (,'xample diJ
lc~s to Ycil these illustrious sails than did the delinition they were suppo~cd to iJlustrate.

( Rom¡ln rhclorician, author of lIIstitIltilJllt's Or¡¡tIJriat', in which al! thc figurcs uf specch are defined
an¡J classijicd.

-. =,
Lacan 1ñe insistence ofthe letter in the unconscious

The part taken for the wholef we said to ourselves, and if we take it seriously, we arc left with vcry
littlc idca of thc importancc of this flcct, which 'thirty sails' is precisely supposed to give us: f()r cach
boat to have just one sail is in fact the least likely possibility .
By which we see that the connection between boat and sail is nowhere but in the signifier, and that it
is in the word-to-word connection that metonymy is based.t2
We shall designate as metonymy, then, the one slope of the effective field of the signifier in the
constitution of meaning.
Let us name the other: it is metaphor. Let us find again an il1ustration; Quil1et's dictionary seemed an
appropriate place to find a sample which would not seem to be chosen for my own purposes, and for
an appropriate dressing I didn 't have to go any further than the wel1 known line of Victor Hugo:
His sheaves were not miserly nor spitefulJ.1
under which aspect I presented metaphor to my seminar on psychosis. Let us admit that modern
poetry and especial1y the surrealist school have taken us quite far in this domain by showing that any
conjunction of two signifiers wollld hc c4l1ally sllf1icicnt to constitlltc a mctaphor, cxccpt f()r thc
additional rc4uircmcnt ()f thc j!;rcatcst p()ssihlc Jisparily ()f thc imaj!;cs sij!;niticJ, nccdcd for the
production of thc poetic spark, or in othcr worJs fi)r thcrc to hc mctaphoric creation.
It is true this radical position is based on the experiment known as automatic writing which would not
have been tried if its pioneers had not been reassured by the Freudian discovery. But it remains a
position branded \llith confusion because the doctrine behind it is false.
The creative spark of the metaphor does not spring from the conjunction of two images, that is of two
signiticrs cqllally actualizcd. It springs from two signifiers one of which has taken the place of thc
other in the signifying chain, the hidden signifier then remaining present through its (metonymic)
relation to the rest of the chain.
One word for anothcr: that is thc formllla for thc mctaphor and if yoll are a poet you \llil1 produce for
your own delight a continllous strcam, a dazzling tissue of metaphors. If the result is the sort of
intoxication of the dialogue that Jean TardieuX wrote under this title, that is only because he was
giving us a demon- stration of the radical superfluousness of al1 meaning to a perfectly convincing
representation of a bourgeois comedy.
It is manifest that in the line of Hugo cited above, not the slightest spark of light springs from thc
proposition that his shcavcs wcrc ncithcr miscrly nor spiteful, for the rcason that thcrc is no qucstion
of the sheavcs having cither

fStricdy speak.ing, .the part taken for the whole' is the figure of synecdoche, but Roman Jakobson, on
whom Lacan is drawing in this passage, treats synecdoche as a sub-category of metonymy. (See p.
57, n. a, above.)
..Jcan Tardicu (b. 1903) is an expcrimcntal I;'rcnch poct and dramatist.

The insistence o! the teuer in the unconscious

the merit or demerit of these attributes, since the attributes, as the sheaves, bclong to Booz who
excrciscs the former in disposing of the latter and without informing the latter of his sentiments in the
If, however, his sheaves do refer us to Booz, and this is indeed the case, it is because they have
rcplaced him in the Sigtlifying chain at the very spot where hc was to be exalted by the sweeping
away of greed and spite. But now Booz himsclt' has b~en swcpt away by thc ~heavcs) and hllrled into
thc outcr darkness whcre !!,Teed and ~ritc harb()r him il1 the h()llow ot' their l1egatj()n.
nllt ()l1ce hi.\ shcavcs h~¡vc thlls lIslIrped his pla(,'c, Hooz can no longcr return therc; [hc slcfiJcr
thread ()t' thc little w()rd his whi(,'h binds him t() it j~ ol1ly one m()re ()o~ta(,'ll. I() I¡is rctllrl1 il1 that it
lil1ks him to the l¡otiol1 ()f p()sses~i()l1 which rl.tains him il) Ihl. vcry i'.01¡C ()t' grl:l:d al1J ~pitl:. S()
h;.\ gl:nl:r()sjty, aUirmed in Ihl. pa.'iSagc, is ycl rcdll<.:ed t() le~~ than I)()thing by Ihe mul)ificen<.:e ot'
thc ~heaves which, coming fl.()m I)alur<.:, kn()w l1()t ()ur <.:aution or ()ur <.:asting out, and even il1
Ihcir a<.:cllmlllation rcmain prodigal by our standard~.
HlII it' in this pr(jfllsiol), thc giver has disappeared along with his gift, it is only il1 order t() ri~e again il1
what .'illrr()lIl)ds this figur<.: oy which he was annihilated. V()r il is (ht tig.lIrc ot' Ihc bllr!!,col¡il¡g
ol.I'to:Clll¡di()'. ,¡I)d this ít i~ which al)nounces thc surprisc whi<.:h thc roem sings, I)amely thl:
pr()mise whi<.:h thc old man will re<.:civc in a sacred context of his accession to patcrnity.
So, it is between the signifier in the form of the proper name of a man, and the signifier which
metaphorically abolishes him that the poetic spark is produced, ~lnd it is in this casc all thc morc
cftcctive in rcalizing the meaning of paternity il1 that i( rerrodllces (hc mythi<.: l:vent in terms of
whi<.:h l;'rcud rcconstructcd the progrl:S~, in thc individual un<.:on~ciolls, of thc mystcry of thc fathl:r
¡~Iodcrn mctaphor has thc samc structure. So this cjaculation:
l,ovc is a pcoblc lallghil)g in thc sunJight,
rccrcatc~ lovc il1 a dimcnsion that scems t() ml: most tcnablc in thc facc of its imminent lapsc into thc
miragc of nar<.:issistic altruism.
We sce, then, that mctaphor o<.:curs at the precise point at which sense comes Ollt of non-scnsc,
that i~, at that fl.ol1ticr which) as Freud discovercd, when <.:rossed thc othcr way produ<.:c~ what wc
gcncrally call 'wit' (Witz); it is at this fi.onticr that wc can glimp~c thc f¡lCt that man tcmpts hi~ vcry
dcstiny whcn he dcridc~ thc signif¡cr.
13ut to draw ba¡;k from that rl¡I¡;C, wha( do wc f¡l)d in mctol1ymy othcr than the powcr to bypas~ the
()b~ta<.:lcs ()t' s()<.:ial <..cnsurc? ' l.hi~ form which Icnd~ itself to thc truth lIndcr opprc~~ion, doesn 't
it show the vcry servitude inherent in its presentation?
Onc may rcad with profit a bo()k by l.c() Strallss, of thc land which traditionally ottcrs .¡~ylum t() thosc
wh() ¡;hosc fi.ccdom, in whi<..h thc author givl:~ hi~ rcflec- tions on thc rclati()n bct\vccn the art of
writing and perse¡;ution.14 By pushing to it~ limits thc ~()rt of l.()nnatllrality whi¡;h lil)k~ tJ¡at art to that
condition, he Il:ts llS glil11psl: a <.:I:rtail) soml:lJ¡il1g wJ¡i<.:J¡ il¡ ll¡is nlat(cr imposl:s its form, in thc
cltect of thl: trllth on dcsirc. 'f~ , ,.~ .~..-,.:
Ullt haVCJ1't \Vl' fclt t()r s()mc timc no\V that, havíng follo\Vcd lhc path of the , ,.-

Lacan The insistence ofthe letter in the unconscious

letter in search of the truth we call Freudian, we are getting very warm indeed, that it is buming all
about us?
Of course, as it is said, the letter killeth while the spirit giveth life. We can't help but agree, having had
to pay homage elsewhere to a noble victim of the error of seeking the spirit in the letter; but we
should like to know, also, how the spirit could live without the letter. Even so, the claims of the spirit
would remain unassailable if the letter had not in fact shown us that it can produce all the effects of
truth in mal1 without inv()lving thc spirit at a11.
It is none othcr than i,'rcuJ who haJ this rcvclatiol1, and hc called his discovcry thc Unconsciolls.

II l'he I,eller i,1 llre lJ1/(()11.\,(i()II.\,

One out of every three pagcs in thc complctc works (Jf Frcud is dcvotcd to philo- logical rcfcrenccs,
one out of cvcry tw(J pagcs to lo¡!:ical infcrcnccs, and cvcry- where the apprehcnsion of c\"pcricnce is
dialcctical, with the proporti(Jn of linguistic analysis incrcasing just ins()f¡lr as thc unc(JJlsci(Jus is
dircctly conccrncd.
Thus in The Inle11'rctali()/1 (!{ f)rcal//.' cvcry pagc dcals with what wc arc calling the letter of the
discourse, in its texture, its usage, its immanence in the matter in question. For it is with this work that
the work of ¡.'reud begins to open the royal road to the unconscious. And Freud gave us notice of
this; his confidence at the time oflaunching this book in the carly days ofthis centuryl5 only confirrns
what he continued to proclaim t(J thc cnd: that his wholc mcssagc was at stake in this, the whole of
his discovery .
The first sentence of the opening chaptcr announces what for thc sake of the exposition could not bc
p(Jstponed: that thc drcam is a rcbus./r And I;reud goes on to stipulate what I havc said from thc
start, that it must bc undcrsto(Jd litcrally. This derives from the persistence in thc drcam ofthat samc
litcral «Jr phonematic) structure through which the signifier in ordinary discourse is articulated and
analyzed. So the unnatural images of the boat on the roof, or the man with a comma for a head which
are specifically mcntioned by Freud, are examples of dream-images which have importance only as
signiticrs, that is, insofar as they allow us to spcll out the 'provcrb' presented hy the rcbus of the
dream. The structure of languagc which cnahlcs us t(J rcad drcams is the vcry principlc of thc
'mcaning of drcams,' thc 'fral(l//d('lIt/InK.
Freud shows us in cvcry possiblc way that thc imagc's valuc as signiticr has nothing whatever to do
with what it signifies, giving as an cxamplc Egyptian hieroglyphics in which it would be sheer
buffoonery to pretend that in a given text the frequency of a vulture which is an aleph, (Jr of a chick
which is a vau, and which indicate a f()rm of thc vcrb 'to be' or a plural, provc that thc text has
anything at all to do with these ornithological specimens. Freud finds in this script certain uses of thc
Sig¡lificr which are l(Jst in ours, such as thc use of Jctcnnillativcs, whcrc a catcg()rical figllrc is addl:J
t() thc litcral tigurati(m (Jf a

h A rebus is a puzzlc in which ricturcs rcrrcscnt words or syllahlcs.

Ine insistence ofthe letter in the unconscious

itseJf in the process of transterence, and which is thc chain of dead desire. Jt is th(;' truth of what this
desire was in jts history which the patient cries out through his symptom, as Christ said that thc
stoncs themsclvcs would havc cried out if thc childrcn of Isracl had not lcnt thcm their voice.
I\nd that is why only psyChO¡In¡llysis allows liS to diflercntiatc wjthin memory thl: function of rccall.
l{ootl:J in thl: significr, it r<.:solv<.:s th<.: Platonic puzzles of rcmjni~cl:llcc through thl: asccllJallcy of
thl: historic in man.
Onl: has only to rc¡¡d thc '.l'hrcc l.:~~¡¡y~ on .Sl:xuality' to ob~l:rv<.:, ill ~pit<.: of th\: psl:liJo-
bi()i<)gil:al !-\"Ioss(...'i wilh whil:h il is d\:l;k<.:d Ol1t f()r rorlllar 1;0nsllmp- t¡on, th¡¡1 l,'r<.:liJ th<.:rl:
J<.:riv\...'i ¡¡Jly al;l;cs~ion lo Ihc objcl:t troln thl: Jial\:l;til; of thc r<.:tllrll.
Starting trom 1-lüldcrlin'~ V(JOtO~ Ircturnl I.'rclld will arrivc less than twenty years later at
Kierkcg¡¡ard's repelition; that is, through sllbmitting his thought sol\:ly to thc hlJmblc but int)exibl<.:
l;ollscqucnccs 0[ l!le talking cure, hc was unablc evcr to cscape the )iving scrvittldes which led him
from the regal principIe of the Logos to re-thinking the mortal Empedoclean antinomies.1
I\nd how else are wc to conccive thc recourse of a man of science to a Deus e., machina'll than on
that other stag.e of which hc speaks as the dream place, a Deus ex machina only )css dcrisof)' for thc
fact that it is revealed to the spectator that thc machine directs the dircctor? How else can we imaginc
that a scientist o[ thc ninctccnth ccntllry, linlcss wc rca)izc that hc had to bow bctorc the force of
cvidcncc that ovcr-whcllnc\.t Ilis rrcjlldi\..e~, rllt more stock in his l'ole1n and 7ah()() than in all hi~
othcr work~, with il~ ob~l;cl1e and fcrociolls figllrc of the primordial tathcr, not to be exh¡¡ustt:J in thc
cxpiation of O\:dipus' blindncss, and bctorc which thc cthl1ologi~ts of today bow a~ bejorc the growth
of an allth- cntil: myth?
So that impcrious prolitcration of particlllar symbolic l:rcation~, such as what arc l:alled the sexual
thcorics of thc child, which supply the motivation down to the smallest detail of ncurotic compulsions,
these rep)y to the same necessities as do myths.
Likewise, to speak of the precise point we are treating in my seminars on r'rcud, little Hans,1l lett in
the lurch at thc age of five by his symbo)ic environ- ml:l1t, anJ sllddl:nly torcl:d to t¡lCl: thl: \..lli)!;ma of
his ~\:x anJ his cxistcncc, unJcr thc J¡rl:ction of [O'rl:liJ al1J of his f¡lthcr, "'r\:uJ's di~cipl<.:,
Jl:vclop<.:J in a mythic
.lorm, ¡¡rounJ tl)e ~ignijying crystal of his phobi¡¡, all the pcrmutations possible on a limiteJ number of
l'he operation shows tl)at even on the indiviJua) lcvel the solution of the impossible is brought within
man's reach by the exhaustion of all possiblt: forms

'1;'riedrich Holderlin (1770-1843) was a Gcrman poct and enthu!iia!itic Hcllenist. The theme of 'r(,llirll'
rlln!i Ihrou((h all hi.'i work. .I'hc J)"l\i!ih philo.'iophcr Sorcn Kicrkcg;I;lru (1813-55) publi!ihcd hiii l>(jok
(Jli I\cpctili(jn il\ 1843, P!iycho¡lllaly!iiii waii Jul>\>cJ .lhc tillk¡llg ¡;urc' uy OIIC of ¡t!i cilrlic~t pat¡l'I\I:;.
Empl'ducl¡;:; W¡I:; a prc-Socr;llic lircl'k philuii()phcr.
m Originally the rcprc:;cntiltiol\ of a god in cla:;:;ical drama, who waii lowcrcJ un to t!IC iitagc by
machincry to rciiulvc thc plOI, Mcl3phorically applicll t() 3ny aruitrary or artificial rciiolution of a
n Subjcct of unc uf rrcud'~ muiit cclcbratl'd C;I~" hi:;turic!i, 'f~ 1~~ ~-"'.., .;..:.

Lacan The insistence ofthe /etter in the unconscious

of the impossibilities encountered in solution by recourse to the signifying equa- tion. It is a striking
demonstration for the clarifying of this labyrinth of obser- vation which so far has only been used as a
source of demolished fragments. We should be struck also with the fact that the coextensivity of the
unfolding of the symptom and of its curativc rcsolution shows the truc naturc of ncurosis: whcthcr
phobic, hysterical or obscssivc, a ncurosis is a qucstion which bcing poscs f()r the subjcct 'from the
placc whcre it was bcf()re thc subjcct camc into thc world' (Freud's phrase which hc uscd in cxplaining
thc Ocdipal complcx to littlc Hans).
.l'hc 'bcil1g' rcfcrrcd to is that which appcars ill a liJ:('htl1illJ:(' momcl1t il1 thc void of the verb 'to bc'
and 1 said that it poscs its qucstioll f()r thc subjcct. What docs that mcan? It does not posc it beji)re
thc subjcct, sincc the subjcct cannot come to the place where it is posed, but it poses it in place of the
subject, that is, in that place it poses the question with the subject, as one poses a problem with a
pen, or as mal1 in antiquity thought lvith his soul.
It is only in this way that Freud fits the ego into his doctrine. freud defined the ego by the resistances
which are proper to it. They are of an imaginary nature much in the same sense as those
adaptational activities which the ethology of animal behavior shows us in courting-pomp or combat.
Freud showed their reduction in man to a narcissistic relation, which I elaborated in my essay on the
mirror-stage.o And he grouped within it the synthesis of the perceptive functions in which the sensori-
motor selections are integrated which determine for man what he calls reality .
But this resistance, essential for thc solidifying of the incrtias of the imaginary order which obstruct
the message of the unconscious, is only secondary in relation to the specific resistances of the
joumey in thc signifying order of the tru th .
That is the reason why an exhaustion of the mechanisms of defence, which Fenichel the practitioner
shows us so well in his studies of technique (while his whole reduction on the theoretical level of
neuroses and psychoses to genetic anomalies in libidinal development is pure platitude), manifests
itself, without Fenichel's accounting for it or realizing it himself, as simply the underside or reverse
aspect of the mechanisms of the unconscious. Periphrasis, hyperbaton, ellipis, suspension,
anticipation, retraction, dcnial, digrcssion, irony, these are the figurcs of stylc (Quintiliall 's .IÍKurae
.~ententiarum); as catachrcsis, litotcs, antonomasia, hypotyposis are the tropes, whosc tcrms imposc
thcmsclves as the most proper for the labelling of these mechanisms. Can one really see these as
mere figures of speech when it is the figures themselves which are the active principIe of the rhetoric
of the discourse which the patient in fact utters?
By the obstinacy with which today's psychoanalysts reduce to a sort of emotional police station the
reality of the resistance of which the patient's discourse is only a cover, thcy have sunk bencath onc
of the fundamental truths which I.'rcud rcdiscovcrcd through psychoal1alysis. OIlC is Ilcvcr happy
making way for a new truth, for it always mcans making our way into it: the truth dcmands

.Thc stagc in childhood. usually hctwccn six and cightccn months, whcn thc individual, rccog- nizing
his owr reflection in a mirror, is first ahlc to conccivc of him/hcrsclf as an autonomous bcing.

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