Medusa Rondanini, Glyptothek in München
What Is Letter In Lacan’s Teaching ?
Luke S. Ogasawara
What is letter in Lacan’s teaching ? ‒ if you pose the question in that way, you cannot find the answer because he doesn’t use the term “letter” univocally. In general he doesn’t care for univocality and coherence of his terminology because a psychoanalyst supposes always equivocality of what is uttered. On the contrary what is coherent and constant in Lacan’s teaching is the topology implied in Heidegger’s Denken des
Seins (thinking of Being) on which Lacan is always based
and which I call “apophatic ontology”.
For example the first text of Lacan’s Ecrits “Seminar on The Purloined Letter” as well as that of his Autres écrits “Lituraterre” seem to concern letter. In the former, as I pointed out in my article “The Signifier Phallus in Lacan’s Teaching”, the purloined letter which can be found nowhere and which is “the veritable subject of the conte” is the barred subject $, i.e.
Being ( Sein), situated
in the locality of ex-sistence (Möbius surface, coloured red, in the topology
of projective plane, cf. Fig 1).
However in the latter Lacan says : “letter is more properly... littoral, isn’t it ? that is, it figures that an entire domain becomes a frontier for another domain in that those two domains are foreign to each other to such a degree as they are not reciprocal. Edge of the hole in the knowledge : that is what a letter draws” (La lettre n’est-elle pas... littoral plus proprement, soit figurant qu’un domaine tout entier fait pour un autre frontière, de ce qu’ils sont étrangers, jusqu’à n’être pas réciproques ? Le bord du trou dans le savoir, voilà-t-il pas ce qu’elle dessine : in Autres écrits, p.14).
In the Fig. 1 the edge is drawn as that of the Möbius surface (red), but on the projective plane formed by the identification of the edge of the hole of the discoid surface (blue) and that of the Möbius surface (red), the two surfaces have one and the same edge in common.
The structure depicted by Lacan is that of the university discourse as the structure of alienation (cf. Fig. 3).
When Lacan talks of “The Instance of Letter in Freudian Unconscious”, he talks of the letter as the object a in the university discourse.
The right side part of the structure of the university discourse a / $ is the structure of what Lacan calls “formations of the unconscious” (formations de l’inconscient), for example dream, fantasy, various kinds of lapsus, Witz (wit, joke) and symptom. Certainly that object a is a letter, but not a phonogram like a Latin alphabet letter, but an ideogram like a character of hieroglyph or sinogram, as Freud says at the beginning of the chapter VI of his Dream Interpretation : “dream content [ what is given manifestly as images or representations in our dreams ] is presented to us as a translation of dream thought [ what is supposed to be a latent meaning of dream ] into another way of expression (...). Dream content is given, so to say, in an image-script (Bilderschrift) each sign of which can be translated into the language of dream thought”.
The a is a letter, in other words, a signifier in its materiality or consistency. The a is made of firm materiality of signifiers belonging to Other’s locus which Lacan calls “treasury of signifier” (le trésor du signiant) and which is the locus of consistency. But the signifier (letter) a doesn’t signify a Seiendes (something that is there) like other signifiers belonging to Other’s locus. The a represents the subject $ which ex-sists in the locality of
Being, and the a also gives a firm material support to the ex-sistent subject $ which can not ex-sist without such a
support. That is what is formalised by the mathème : a / $
Instead of signifier and letter Lacan uses some other terms like symbol, sign, cipher. In all of those what matters is the materiality a signifier or a letter can offer to the apophatico-ontological structure. His neologism lalangue introduced in the Seminar XIX ...ou pire (1971-1972) also denotes such materiality of signifier.
It seems that, when we hear what is uttered, we understand immediately it in its meaning, but in fact it is not so, especially for psychoanalysts who abstain from understanding to keep open the possibility of interpretation. In the first place we hear fragments of lalangue in their materiality and in their equivocality or in their meaninglessness. Then we put them into letters (that is, interpret them) to notice that the way of transcription can be plural because they are equivocal or meaningless in themselves. Lacan gives us many examples of such fragments of lalangue : “a letter - a litter” of the Joycean circle, lettre - l’être, l’a-chose (la chose), y a d’l’Un (il y a de l’Un), a-mur (amour), les non-dupes errent (les Noms du Père), le sinthome (le saint homme, le symptôme), l’insu que sait de l’une-bévue s’aile à mourre (l’insuccès de l’Unbewußt c’est l’amour), etc.
Finally why interpret the letter (i.e. fragments of lalangue) which is situated in the structure of the university discourse as the object a representing the subject $ ? In order that the ununderstandable Bedeutung (significance) of the letter a ‒ i.e. the subject $ ‒ comes out from its place of hiddenness (Verborgenheit) into the place of unhiddenness (Unverborgenheit), because the purloined letter (la lettre en souffrance : $) desires to be delivered finally to the destination.
In Poe’s conte Dupin formulates the hidden message destined to the Minister D (who might be his brother because in the Greek myth Atreus and Thyestes are brothers to each other) quoting one and a half verses of Crébillon’s piece of tragedy, but Lacan modifies there a word subtly :
... Un destin si funeste,
S'il n’est digne d’Atrée, est digne de Thyeste.
(Such a funest destiny,
if not Atreus, does become Thyestes.)
It is this sublimated desire that Lacan calls “analyst’s desire” : the condition of possibility of psychoanalysis.
This conclusion (Austrag) at the end of psychoanalysis corresponds also to what Heidegger calls Ereignis : the
Being, fallen to be alienated in
quotidianness, now separates itself from its alienating covering and opens itself
out as Lichtung (clearing).
In other words the Ereignis consists in assuming the most proper possibility of being ‒ i.e. the death ‒ not in the form of suicide but in endurance of death anxiety. Heidegger might have thought that the war would provide das Volk with a decisive opportunity of such trial. Instead, for us, our own experience of psychoanalysis will make us capable of enduring that extreme anxiety of