Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book V: 1957-1958

The Formations of the Unconscious

(Cormac Gallagher, Translation)

Seminar 2: Weds 13 November 1957

Lacan begins this seminar by returning to Hirsch-Hyacinth’s statement: “And as true as God shall grant me all good things, I sat down quite as an equal, quite famillionairely.” At this point Lacan (like Freud) has already characterized this as a witticism, and an examination of the statement will shed further light on the relationship of the signifier and the unconscious.

It is surprising, claims Lacan, that neurology has accepted developments in linguistics in advance of psychoanalysis. Neurology at the time of Lacan’s seminar already made use of linguistics for understanding aphasia and other speech deficits. However, psychoanalysis, which is a field most prepared to advance and make use of the discoveries of linguistics, has been less prepared to receive these insights. This is particularly surprising since it is clear – and Lacan goes at length to spell this out for us throughout his work – that Freud’s work (all of it!) presupposed the modern field of semiotics, and presupposed the logic of the signifier. Lacan puts a challenge to us: read Freud’s essay on jokes and try not to find therein support for the argument that the jokes related fundamentally to “language-technique.” We shall see that by “language technique” Lacan has in mind the particular linguistic operations of metaphor and metonymy, which, in their own way, compliment Freud’s discussion of condensation and displacement.

As we move further into this class we can see the extent to which the operations of metaphor and metonymy, “language techniques,” are not themselves taken from linguistics but rather are less developed precisely within that field. It seems, increasingly, that these language techniques are rather techniques of the signifier and that, moreover, the natural dwelling place of the signifier is psychonanalysis. Why, then, did linguistics usurp this position? One possible explanation is that Saussure gave his course on general linguistics, though, if you read his work, it certainly seems to have a foot in the world of linguistics and a foot in the world of psychology. For example, one of Saussure’s most cited diagrams consists of two speaking, hearing, and thinking heads chatting with one another.


It is not my aim to pose two fields of study against one another when they are animated by differing urges: while the one cares exclusively about the written word though moves increasingly to consider all sorts of subject matter worth exploration, the other, namely psychoanalysis, has from the very beginning worked the two poles in tandem. In any case, it so happens, according to Lacan, that the entire technique of a joke finds its bearings in the Freudian operations of condensation and displacement. Lacan repurposes these, bringing them in line with the various nuances of linguistic study, as “metaphor” and “metonymy.”

So, why does Lacan rename “condensation” as “metaphor” and “displacement” as “metonymy?” The question seems obvious and yet it never has received a very good answer. It seems to me that the movement from the former name to the new names brings with it a metaphorical effect: it transposes the debate into one that has more nuances, more hiding places, more pockets of misunderstanding, while also, it is true, bringing new meanings on the scene for psychoanalysis. We shall see that it is not a one-to-one correspondence: “condensation” and “metaphor” are not equivalent terms. Something is lost and gained in the movement from the one name to the other, and, I would say, it was important that Lacan make this move. I will return to this argument in a moment.

I want to return to an open question from my last blog post. I asked how we can be sure that the neologism “famillionaire” is not holophrasis, is not, in other words, part of a psychotic ‘discourse’ (if I may use that word). Lacan’s answer is that there is a “witness” present in the statement: “As true as God shall grant me all good things,” indicating, here, that the subject is in some relation to a witness.  “God,” here, is the big Other, and this Other is observing the subject of the statement, that “I,” which, in this statement, I think, comes out in the form of “shall grant me.” The “me” is close to the shifter, “I,” and does not necessarily refer to the self as an object. Rather, the object of the sentence is “Solomon Rothschild;” derived, we are told, from the following statement: “I was sitting beside Solomon Rothschild, quite as an equal.” This is part of the ego and its ideals. Finally, there is a code in the word “quite” since it demonstrates an uncertainty of actually being an equal to the object. A disjunction appears among object and subject, and another scene is opened up here with the word “quite.” This other scene opens up the word “famillionaire.”

This “other scene” is no doubt the unconscious. The code “quite” and “famillionaire” open us up to the unconscious and to the message which has not been entirely revealed: “what happens when ‘famillionaire’ appears? It can be said that something is indicated there that we experience as a perspective opening out towards meaning …” But there is also something that is less evident, something that has an “after-effect” and which is “propagated from here into the world as a consequence.” Lacan says that what is propagated is the “emergence of an object,” and that, moreover, is an “absurd” and “non-sensical” object. A moment ago I wrote about a disjunction among object and subject. I now refer to this as the infamous objet petit a.

Objet petit a is an object in some relation to the “real.” The signifier, according to Lacan, functions with the real by “evoking it, making it emerge, manipulating it, engendering it.” It Lacan repeats a number of verbs here then it is probably because the real is difficult even for him to express. It is not that Lacan means that the signifier evokes and emerges and manipulates, etc., but rather that each signifier functions as a bit of a parallax on the real, offering imperfect vantage points which produce their own disjunctions. Well, then, this is how it works: the signifier makes use of the logic of metaphor and metonymy precisely to relate to the real. Does this not explain Lacan’s own difficulty, then? Lacan remarks upon the “difficulty” of his style here, openly confessing to the Other that other people find it difficult. He apologizes for this and admits that there may be deficiencies in his style. We see Lacan open up before a witness, which, for him, is no doubt “as true as God shall grant him all good things.” The difficulty of his style is a difficulty of explaining the mechanisms of the signifier while being forced at the same time to use them within the explanation. He wishes to demonstrate that his style also allows his listeners to glimpse the very object that the style aims to help us understand. In other words, we see, once again, that his style makes use of metaphor. Moreover, Lacan makes himself the subject of a style or a fashion, and, moreover, he props himself up as the one who makes-use of a technique of the signifier to present himself within the field of the Other. This means that there are creative functions of the signifier: “if it is in fact a question [that is, if his style is in question] in connection with the creative functions that the signifier exercises on the signified […] perhaps the subsequent teaching this year will show you that there are internal necessities of style, conciseness for example, allusiveness, even some sting are perhaps essential, decisive elements necessary to enter a field of which they control not only the avenues, but the whole texture.”

Conciseness and allusiveness. These are the two words he chose, perhaps even on whim. It is not by chance that the one presents meaning in an isolated and near-pure form while the other attempts to hide the essential core of that meaning. Conciseness of signifier, allusiveness of signified.

Who is the “they”? He admits that his style allows him to break from the whole texture or fabric of the field of his listeners, the field of the Other. His style provides him with an emergence of subjectivity, the difficulty for which he can only apologize. He refers to his style as “mannerism,” which has a “great tradition” and an “irreplaceable function.” Mannerism was a style of European art that exaggerates proportions of figures while presenting instability and tension. Moreover, one of the early and notable traits of the art was to imitate previous respected artists while making those art pieces better by introducing something new. Presumably that which was introduced was the lack of perspective, exaggeration, and instability of figures.

Next, Lacan invites us to imagine that signifiers link together in various ways through the operation of metaphor and metonymy, thereby producing chains or rings. I can not help but think of the Borromean ring which is supposed to represent the symbolic, imaginary, and real as separate and interconnected rings. However, in this description we can see that the signifiers themselves make up the rings which form the imaginary precisely through the technique of metaphor and metonymy. The imaginary therefore emerges from the symbolic. However, we also know that the symbolic – signifiers – do not touch but remain parallel to the real. This leaves open a question, then, since we have not established yet in this seminar the possibility of the real as a construction of the limitation of the symbolic. Rather the real is there strictly parallel. This is an altogether more novel and interesting position, I would say. However, the “parallel” version of the real, of the signified, is Saussure’s invention. Lacan’s is rather one of disjunction.

Lacan takes Freud at his word: “famillionaire” compresses the signifiers “familiar” and “millionaire.” Metaphor is “the operation of the substitution of one signifier for another,” which secures “the possibility of the emergence of ever new meaning.” We can see how “millionaire” was substituted for the natural ending to “familiar,” thereby generating the new meaning: “famillionaire.” But this is the important part: metaphor “[always goes] in the direction of ratifying, of complicating and of deepening, of giving its sense of depth to what in the real, is only pure opacity.” This last part is interesting because metaphor operates so that the new meaning emerges half hidden. In other words, the word “famillionaire” hides a bit of the word “family” from the meaning. We can see the signifier buried a bit into the real, but not totally out of sight. This is what metaphor does: it produces a new meaning by allowing a bit of the real out, a bit of what was out of sight emerges into sight. This leaves us to think about the signifier as itself parapraxis, which, when understood through the logic of the signifier (metaphor/metonymy): the signifier is “the original slip of the tongue.” Why? Because the signifier is always at odds with the signified, and, moreover, the signified always hollows out the signifier.

Lacan asks us to think about the Freudian experience of forgetting a name (a proper name). Lacan adds that all proper names are “foreign names.” This helps to explain why, above, he claimed that the signifier is the original slip of the tongue. If the proper name is the signifier par excellence then we can see that it is foreign from the standpoint of the real, of the signified. It is an imposition, a coup-de-force. Rather, when we speak about a proper name we are locating it within a message. A proper name is what authorizes the speaking subject, precisely to speak, or so it would seem. This is the message, and this is what is most foreign to a discourse. It is what authorizes a discourse but always from another scene, from a distance, and this, finally, is what makes it a foreign proper name. The proper name, the signifier, is the “original slip of the tongue” perhaps because it is closely linked to the real. And forgetting a name is a slip because it falls out of view, it becomes hidden. What happens next? Names, in the plural, emerge. They emerge “in place of the forgotten” proper name.

We shift into the logic of metonymy: that which is metonymical is already broken up, though it appears as combination. Lacan said: “Because it is metonymical it is already broken up.” The combination is therefore “only a fragment of the reality that it represents.” Metonymic deals with objects that already have a break within them.

Lacan cautions us, and I do not know why: “[m]etaphor is produced within the level of substitution, that means that substitution is a way in which the signifier can be articulated, and that metaphor operates there with its function as creator of the signified at that place where substitution may be produced. There are two different things. Likewise metonymy and combination are two different things.” Why is this important?

Lacan invites us to look at the operation of substitution in the work of translation: “the substitutive liaison in question is a substitution which is called heteronymic. The translation of a term into a foreign language on the plane of the substitutive act, […] is called heteronymic substitution.” It is not necessarily a metaphor, but it is nonetheless a substitution.

Well, all of this has something to do with our confrontation with death. Lacan says that we use metaphor to tame death, “to tame the confrontation with death,” through language-technique. This implies that all language techniques, all techniques of the signifier, are efforts at taming confrontation with death. We can see that this complies with Lacan’s early Heideggarian claim that being is always a being-toward-death. We get to the point that I was mentioning in the last blog. With every witz, with every parapraxis, there is a limit-point. Lacan now calls it a “hole.” It is related also to “death.”

“Famillionaire” has something to do with forgetting a name, for Freud. The word is ambiguous and, according to Lacan, it is on the same level as “the production of a symptom.” It is the symptom of a forgetting of a name – it has a double function: “(1) its function of aiming in the direction of meaning,” and (2) “[its] confusing, upsetting, neological function” The latter is more like a “dissolution of the object.” There are also two functions of metaphor in a joke: (1) the sense of meaning, the meaning that a joke “stirs up” for us, or produces, and it is a akin to “poetic creation;” (2) “a reverse side that is not necessarily immediately perceived by him [the joke maker or sayer], [concerning the] combinations that we could extend here indefinitely […].” In other words, “the creation of meaning of ‘famillionaire […] also implies a loss, […] something which is repressed.” This is the relation between “code” and “message,” since, the message that other side, that “other scene,” or, if you borrow Lacan’s words, “[that] reverse side.” We can see the topological significance of these statements.

The witz is a “particular example of the formation of the unconscious.”


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