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Erdélyi 1

Peter Erdélyi

Prof. Fynsk
English 673L

April 23, 1995

The Letter, Being and the Nothing: Reading Lacan through


Nancy and Lacoue-Labarthe in their famous reading of Lacan's

essay "The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious or Reason

since Freud" reveal that a triadic structure governs Lacan's

argument: three different discourses--psychoanalysis,

linguistics, and philosophy--are played out against each other in

order to provide, in their interweaving and revolution, a

discursive field. The philosophical register is responding to

and builds upon the Heideggerian model:

In reality, what is at stake here is a whole practice
of reading governed by the motif of the unthought.
Just as Heidegger attempts to decipher the unthought of

philosophy, Lacan endeavours to locate, in Saussure and

Freud, . . . the common unthought which founds the

possibility of their relation. (136)

In the following pages I would like to read Lacan's essay through

the Heideggerian experience in order to delineate the ontological

dimension of Lacan's text as it unfolds, giving thought to the

unthought. This is not to reduce Lacan's enterprise to a mere

Heideggerianism; on the contrary, Lacan's re-reading of Freud and

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Saussure in light of one another--and on the ground of their

common unthought--is also a test for Heidegger's ontology. I am

especially interested in Lacan's focus on the being of the

letter, i.e., his emphasis on the extant, material character of

language in his interrogation of the relationship between human

being and the being of language as the only possible site for the
thought of being as such.

In his essay, "What is Metaphysics?", Heidegger defines the

unthought of Western philosophy--represented in the modern world

by science--as nothing, more emphatically, the nothing:
The nothing--what else can it be for science but an

outrage and a phantasm? If science is right, then only

one thing is sure: science wishes to know nothing of

the nothing. Ultimately this is the scientifically

rigorous conception of the nothing. We know it, the
nothing, in that we wish to know nothing about it.


What is so curious about this writing, besides Heidegger's

uncovering of the violent rupture--the possibility of there

"being" such a "thing" as the nothing--at the heart of reason, is

that its argument can be viewed from a certain angle as properly

Freudian (however hard Heidegger had tried to ignore

psychoanalysis throughout his career). Not only does he

designate anxiety (which is one of the main concepts of Freudian

psychoanalysis) as the "fundamental mood" of existence in its

signaling of the nothing but he almost calls the nothing

unconscious: "The nothing nihilates incessantly without our

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really knowing of this occurrence in the manner of our everyday

knowledge" (104). "[T]he original anxiety in existence is

usually repressed. Anxiety is there. It is only sleeping"

(106). It remained for Lacan to articulate the meaning of the

gap in and between Freud's and Heidegger's discourses by his

"diversion" of Saussure's theory of signification.1

However, Heidegger's thinking itself already issued
something like a directive--which Lacan appears to have taken

upon himself--to think signification differently, in relation to

its limits. For Heidegger, the question of meaning is

essentially tied to the question of being, especially as it poses
itself to, and is posed by, the human experience of being there,

Dasein. For Dasein, the limit of its inquiry into the meaning of
being is experienced as finitude: "We are so finite that we

cannot even bring ourselves originally before the nothing through

our own decision and will. So profoundly does finitude entrench

itself in existence that our most proper and deepest limitation

refuses to yield to our freedom" (106). But what Heidegger is

describing here is not only a diagnosis of the metaphysics of

subjectivity; in this "repulsion" of the nothing lies also the

very possibility of meaning. "Only in the nothing of Dasein do

beings as a whole, in accord with their most proper possibility--

that is, in a finite way--come to themselves" (108). In other

words, the comprehension and conceptualization of being (also as

1The term "diversion" is Raffoul and Pettigrew's translation (following Lacou-

Labarthe and Nancy's interpretation) of Lacan's usage of the word
detournement, characterizing an essential strategy in Lacan's way of thinking:
"the multiple borrowings, perversions, subversions, repetitions, and
alterations of various theoretical fields with which Lacan's discourse
institutes itself" (The Title of the Letter xx).
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a condition for the possibility of meaning) is possible only

through Dasein's essential experience, by way of its finitude,

with the nothing. At that point (or, rather, in that dimension)

occurs what Heidegger calls transcendence: "Being itself is

essentially finite and reveals itself only in the transcendence

of Dasein which is held out into the nothing" (108). Lacan's

conceptualization of the production of meaning in terms of

signifiance follows and thinks further this particular

understanding of transcendence as a fundamental occurrence of the
ontological difference.2

At the beginning of his essay, Lacan proposes the being of

the "letter," the factual, material existence of language as it

manifests itself in speech, as the sole point of departure

available for the psychoanalytic experiment. The "letter," which

Lacan defines as "that material support that concrete discourse
borrows from language," however, is by no means a materialistic

ground for thought. Its very existence is an effect, a signifier

for the "whole structure of language" which Lacan situates in the

unconscious. The fact of it being "borrowed from language"

suggests that the essence, the structure of language exceeds the

definition of the letter and transcends the mechanism of

signification. What is at stake here in this "excess" is the

being of language, its ontological character of providing the

conditions for signification.

2The term signifiance is Lacan's neologism which he proposes for the

translation of Freud's Traumdeutung. Instead of translating it as
"significance," the translators of The Title of the Letter leave it in the
original to emphasize that signifiance refers "not to signification, but to
the very signifying-ness, as it were, of the signifying operation, that which
. . . gives meaning, renders significant" (xxii).
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By distinguishing between the being of the letter and the

being of language, Lacan in fact imports into his discussion of

the psychoanalytic experience Heidegger's translation of

Parmenides' fragment--"to gar auto noein estin te kai einai"--

thinking and being belong together in the same, through a
difference.(An Introduction to Metaphysics 136; Identity and

Difference 29). But he situates this question of the "belonging

together" within the structure of language, as a question

available only through the asking of the question concerning the

being of language. It is interesting to observe here that around

the time of Lacan's writing "The Agency of the Letter" Heidegger

himself became preoccupied with the question of language. In his
lecture "The Nature of Language," presented in 1957, Heidegger

formulates the question of language in the following

construction: "the being of language: the language of being" [Das

Wesen der Sprache: Die Sprache des Wesens] (76). This
articulation of the ontological dimension of language delineates

a fundamental rift which constitutes, is, language. The site of

alterity opened up in this formula is Lacan's main concern; "The

Agency of the Letter" is a reconsideration of the status of the

unconscious--designated in Heidegger's guide-word by the colon:
"the being of language: the language of being." What is, then,

the unconscious?

This question, concerning the ontological status of the

unconscious, Lacan asserts, cannot be asked without an inquiry

into the "function of the subject" at the same time. However, in

order to prevent the subject from becoming a grounding concept

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for his discussion, Lacan makes only a preliminary and short

remark regarding its "function" at the beginning of his essay:

"Thus the subject, too, if he can appear to be the slave of

language is all the more so of a discourse in the universal

movement in which his place is already inscribed at birth, if

only by virtue of his proper name" (148).3 Then in the next move

he introduces his "diversion" of the Saussurian algorithm:

S Signifier bar resisting signification

s signified

in which the signifier owes its existence to the bar which

institutes it but at the same time prevents its access to the
signified. "No signification can be sustained other than by

reference to another signification," Lacan states, thus

dismissing the possibility of a recourse to an absolute, a

"transcendental signified" (to borrow Derrida's expression)
(150). One should not overlook in this juxtaposition of the

subject as the "slave of language" with the refusal of the

signifier a certain similarity or homology; neither the subject

nor the letter can answer for their existence because their

questioning of their being is barred by a limit erected by a

fundamental lack of being. In this sense Lacan's "science of the

letter" (as Lacou-Labarthe and Nancy name his theory of

signifiance) is nothing else but the implementation of the

Nietzschean announcement of the "death of god" in the domain of

the sign.

3Implicitly also referring back to his motto in which Da Vinci speaks of

"women and as well as men tightly bound with stout bonds around their arms and
legs" (146).
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The "death of the signified" makes the materiality of the

signifier stand out (ek-sist, to steal Heidegger's etymologizing

of the word) in its being:
One thing is certain: if the algorithm S/s with its bar

is appropriate, access from one to the other cannot in

any case have signification. For in so far as it is

itself only pure function of the signifier, the

algorithm can reveal only the structure of a signifier

in this transfer. (152)

The signified thus turns out to be something that cannot even be

conceptualized; as soon as we attempt to name it it turns into a
signifier. This "something" then is more like the nothing in the

Heideggerian sense because, as far as the signifier is concerned,

it is not there.

Does this mean that scientific thinking has dead-ended in

and is doomed to nihilism? Not quite, at least according to

Lacan. He appeals again to modern linguistics in order to point

out a certain positivity in this profound manifestation of the

nothing. "In language," Saussure points out, "there are only

differences." "Whether we take the signified or the signifier,

language has neither ideas nor sounds that existed before the

linguistic system, but only conceptual and phonic differences

that have issued from the system" (Course in General Linguistics

120). What is important for Lacan in all this is the realization

that the units of language are reducible to "ultimate

differential elements" (152). In Lacan's reading, however,

difference gains quite another status:

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These elements, one of the decisive discoveries of

linguistics, are phonemes; but we must not expect to

find any phonetic constancy in the modulatory
variability to which this term applies, but rather the
synchronic system of differential couplings necessary

for the discernment of sounds in a given language.

Through this, one sees that an essential element of the

spoken word itself was predestined to flow into the

mobile characters which, in a jumble of lower-case

Didots or Garamonds, render validly present what we

call the 'letter', namely, the essentially localized

structure of the signifier. (153)
Difference, as that "essential element of the spoken word," goes

through a strange transformation in Lacan's "diversion" of

Saussurian linguistics. There is a peculiar twist in his train

of thought in this passage: the Saussurian notion of difference

as the manifestation of opposition within the system of

signifiers and signifieds is diverted, pushed to its limits,

until it reveals itself as the very condition for signification.

In the movement of this diversion the phrase "essential element"

empties out and takes on the value of the actual lack of the
signified. What is "essential" for the structure of the

signifier, for its "essence," is the lack of being, the

"presence" of the nothing.

The inaccessibility of the signified for the signifier,

paradoxically, elevates the nothing to the status of a positivity

because its "repulsion" is a precondition for the signifying
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effect. In other words, the signifier can come to being only

through the institution of the lack of signified within its

structure, as if by way of an act of "incorporation." This

suggests a more than curious relationship between being and the

nothing in Lacanian ontology: a primordial dynamic between

exclusion and engendering.

Lacan indeed talks about the structure of the signifier in

terms of "reciprocal encroachments and increasing inclusions,"

defined by the interplay of the systems of grammar and lexicology

(152-53). By insisting on thinking the limits of this interplay,

Lacan circumscribes a movement constitutive for signification:

In examining the limits by which these two exercises in

the understanding of linguistic usage are determined,

it is easy to see that only the correlations between

signifier and signifier provide the standard for all

research into signification, as is indicated by the

notion of 'usage' of a taxeme or semanteme which in
fact refers to the context just above that of the units

concerned. (153)

The relationship between signifier and signifier thus evoked in

terms of usage seems to express a double-edged movement of

"emerging from the surface" and "folding back upon itself,"

without the transgression of the ultimate limit that the bar

constitutes--even though somehow it becomes "incorporated" into

the signifying effect.4 This fluctuating movement of the

4It should be noted that the invocation of the term "usage" here in relation
to the structure of the signifier resonates with the homologous function of
the subject as the "slave of language" in Lacan's discussion.
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"signifying chain," as Lacan names the relationship between the

signifiers sliding over the bar, anticipates the play of the two
sides of the "effective field constituted by the signifier,"

namely, of metonymy and metaphor (156).

The figure of metonymy, based in the "word-to-word

connexion," properly expresses the horizontal sliding of
signifiers. Metaphor, functioning as "one word for another," is

the figure for the crossing of the bar of the Saussurian

algorithm, and as such, essentially impossible for Lacan. He

nonetheless retains the notion of the metaphor, despite the

metaphysical features of its structure. In his definition it

comes to denote the moment in which a metonymic connection is
actualized and the miracle, or mirage, of signification occurs.

This instance of momentary "solidification" of a metonymic

connection into a metaphoric relation, which suggests a pulsation

similar to that which is produced by the heart, is of central
importance to Lacan, both because of its psychoanalytic and

philosophical relevance.

He insinuates these dimensions of the signifying effect in

his reading of Valery's poem. While evoking a whole range of

traditional metaphors expressed by the figure "tree" (by linking

Biblical references to botanical types and the "tree of life of

the cerebellum"), Lacan pushes that trope until it manifests

itself as a metonymy in the sentence, used merely in order to be

touched upon as an organizing principle and a pretext for asking

the question:
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. . . is it your figure that traces our destiny for us

in the tortoise-shell cracked by the fire, or your

lightning that causes that slow shift in the axis of

being to surge up from an unnamable night into the

'`Ενπαντα of language[?] (154-55)

The question is an invocation of the Divine, inquiring about the

possibility of there being an Origin, a Final Cause, which could

account for the emergence of being, out of the nothing, and its

revelation in language. "No! says the Tree, it says No!,"

responds Lacan with Valery, categorically refusing the recourse
to a (transcendental) signified (155). However, at the same
time, he affirms the importance to think being, "the

indiscernible shower of sparks of the eternal instant," in the

face of the nothing (155). The poetic spark of creation is there
in every metaphor, whenever the metonymic pulsation produces it

by instituting in it the limit encountered at the axis of being.

Thus Lacan presents the paradox which lies at the heart of

his understanding of the structure of the signifier: the ultimate
irreconcilability and inseparability of being and the nothing.

This paradox represents a radical impossibility of meaning, a

meaning that would satisfy--the subject ("For what is important

is not that the subject know anything whatsoever.") (155). This

impossibility of meaning, on the other hand, thanks to the

fecundity of the paradox, yields a strange possibility:

What this structure of the signifying chain discloses

is the possibility I have, precisely in so far as I

have this language in common with other subjects, that

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is to say, in so far as it exists as a language, to use

it in order to signify something quite other than what

it says. This function of speech is more worth
pointing out than that of 'disguising the thought'

(more often than not indefinable) of the subject; it is

no less than the function of indicating the place of

this subject in the search for the true. (155)

What manifests itself in the Lacanian diversion of Saussure's

algorithm is the being of language, to which human being is

severely subjected. In this sense it is no longer the subject

who has a claim for language; it is language that uses the
subject "to signify something quite other." The site of this
alterity is the unconscious which itself is the "discourse of the

Other" (172). The place of the subject, as a "slave of

language," in the search for truth is thus characterized by a

"radical heteronomy," a subjection primarily to language (the

being of language), secondarily to the Other (the language of


It is in the second section of the essay, entitled "The

Letter in the Unconscious," where Lacan elaborates the status of

the unconscious within his "science of the letter." He argues

that Freud's Traumdeutung, his principle of the "signifying-ness

of dreams," manifests a profound understanding of the ontological

significance of the unconscious:

For, . . . in the situation in which he found himself,

having nothing that corresponded to the object of his

discovery that was at the same level of scientific

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development, . . . at least he never failed to maintain

this object on the level of its ontological dignity.


Lacan goes on to explain in terms of "topography" what he means

by the ontological significance of Freud's object. He expands

Saussure's algorithm, S/s, into the two directions given by the

metonymic and metaphoric "effective fields." The metonymic


ƒ(S...S')S = S(--)s

indicates that
it is the connexion between signifier and signifier

that permits the elision in which the signifier

installs the lack-of-being in the object relation,

using the value of 'reference back' possessed by

signification in order to invest it with the desire
aimed at the very lack it supports. (164)

The signifier, as suggested earlier, is not only repelled by the

bar which prevents its communication with the signified but also
"installs the lack-of-being" thus manifested in the signifying

effect. It is desire, erupting out of the unconscious into the

structure of the signifier (and consequently, the subject's

experience), which enables the metonymic relation to

"incorporate" the lack.5 This gives rise to the metaphoric
structure, expressed by the formula:

5The trajectory of desire is by no means linear, just as its direction is not

unambiguous. Lacan's famous formula, "Man's desire is the desire of the
Other," properly expresses this ambiguity (The Four Fundamental Concepts 235).
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ƒ (S')S = S(+)s

"indicating that it is in the substitution of signifier for

signifier that an effect of signification is produced that is

creative or poetic, in other words, which is the advent of the

signification in question" (164). "The signification in

question," as suggested by the words "creative" and "poetic," is

the primordial one, named by Lacan in his reading of Valery's

poem as "the indiscernible shower of sparks of the eternal

instant;" the signification which is experienced in every

"heartbeat" of the signifying chain as it reenacts the "lightning

that causes that slow shift in the axis of being" and makes
transcendence in the Heideggerian sense possible (154-55).
The unconscious then is the locus where the "want-to-be"

(manque-à-être) institutes itself in the signifier; it is the

axis, the revolution of which maintains the play of metonymy and

metaphor by "dipping"6 the signifier into the nothingness of its

This signifying game between metonymy and metaphor, up

to and including the active edge that splits my desire

between refusal of the signifier and a lack of being,

and links my fate to the question of my destiny, this

game, in all its inexorable subtlety, is played until

the match is called, there where I am not, because I

cannot situate myself there. (166)

6I owe this metaphor to Christopher Fynsk.

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The opening which is thus revealed by the agency of the letter

disrupts the mirage of the self-centered, autonomous subject of

certainty. While the Cartesian ego cogito claims that its being
and its thought coincide and define a center, Lacan's definition
of the unconscious reveals a profound "ex-centricity" within the

subject. "I think where I am not, therefore I am where I do not

think," says the dislocated Lacanian subject, acknowledging the

cleft which opens up at the heart of its being, as the alterity

represented by the being of language. The "elusive ambiguity" of

this sentence emphasized by Lacan delineates the structure of the

rift both within the subject's being and the very concept of
identity as such. An experience of otherness confronts the
subject, the outside irrupting from within, when language assumes

its sovereignty through the difference it disseminates.

The unconscious, as the "nucleus of being" (Freud's own

phrase), mediates the encounter between being and the nothing to

the subject. It is there that the impossible crossing of the bar

takes place. But the unconscious is not a center in any sense;

at most, it is a hole opening onto the relation which offers up

humankind to language. Desire, issuing from the unconscious, in

"its frenzy mocking the abyss of the infinite," installs the

lack, as if by an act of "incorporation" of the nothing, not only

into the signifier but also into the subject. This incorporation
could be taken quite literally, as the carnalization of the

nothing, turning the nothing into flesh, or, rather, the nothing

turning the flesh into being. This is how a symptom can be a

metaphor "in which flesh . . . is taken as a signifying element"
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(166). The subject and its body in this relation reveal

themselves as profoundly instrumental:

We should be struck, too, by the fact that it is in the

coextensivity of the development of the symptom and of

its curative resolution that the nature of neurosis is

revealed: . . . the neurosis is a question being poses

for the subject 'from where it was before the subject

came into the world.' (168)

Being, Lacan explains, does not pose the question before the
subject but "in place of the subject" (168). The subject is thus
redefined in terms of usage; it is used by being to ask its

question in language. By following the logic of the signifier,

the "agency of the letter," Lacan arrives at the same definition

of the "function of the subject" as Heidegger does in his essays

on language, written around the same time. However, while
Heidegger dedicates only a single footnote in "The Way to

Language" to the possibility of the body's structuration

according the laws of language ("sounding and bodying--body and

writing" constitute the essence of being human)7, the parallel

Lacan draws between the structure of the signifier and the
function of the subject as both being installed by a lack through

an incorporation or carnalization of the nothing carries out

further the imperative to think difference as the "event of


7The footnote appears only in the original (cf. the Fourth Series of Gestalt
und Gedanke, 1959; ed. Clemens Graf Podewils).
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Works Cited

Heidegger, Martin. An Introduction to Metaphysics. Trans. Ralph

Manheim. New Haven: Yale UP, 1987.

__. Identity and Difference. Trans. Joan Stambaugh. New York:

Harper & Row, 1969.

__. On the Way to Language. Trans. Peter D. Hertz. San

Francisco: Harper, 1982.

__. "The Nature of Language." On the Way to Language. 57-108.

__. "The Way to Language." On the Way to Language. 111-36.

__. "What is Metaphysics?" Basic Writings. Ed. David Farrell
Krell. San Francisco: Harper, 1993. 93-110.

Lacan, Jacques. "The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious or

Reason Since Freud." Ecrits. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New
York: Norton, 1977. 146-78.

__. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. Ed.

Jacques-Alain Miller. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York:

Norton, 1981.
Nancy, Jean Luc and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe. The Title of the
Letter: A Reading of Lacan. Trans. Francois Raffoul and

David Pettigrew. Albany: SUNY P, 1992.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. Course in General Linguistics. Trans.

Wade Baskin. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966.