Seminar 1: Weds 6 November 1957

Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book V: 1957-1958

The Formations of the Unconscious

(Cormac Gallagher, Translation)

Seminar 1: Weds 6 November 1957

It has been some time since I last blogged about a seminar. The last time I did so I was reading the new translation of seminar X by Adrian Price (you can find links for each class of that seminar above). As it happens, there is a new translation of The Formations of the Unconscious out with the same publishing company, Polity. The translator for this volume is Russell Grigg.

I was encouraged by numerous colleagues to continue to produce blog posts about Lacan’s seminars. I am thankful for such encouragement but I want to put it out there that the motivation for doing these overviews has nothing to do with the recognition that the posts receive from others. I also do not produce these blogs so that I can advance the cause of Lacanian psychoanalysis to those who are struggling through the material. I do not believe that my blogs make Lacan’s seminars easier to understand. It is rather quite the opposite: my confusions contribute to further misunderstandings, no doubt. What I put on display here in my blog is the way I myself struggle through the material and make sense of it. It is by writing a little bit about each class that I am able to make some headway and orient myself.

It was not long after completing the blogs for seminar X that I began a private practice in Lacanian psychoanalysis (Mississauga, Ontario). I have also taken a few steps toward the establishment of the “Centre for Lacanian Psychoanalysis,” which shall provide a unique orientation in the Greater Toronto Area. My understanding is that there are two prevailing orientations (I will not include those who do not take Lacan serious): the affiliated working groups Lacan, which is largely molded by the work of Bruce Fink and his colleagues – and widely respected (I include myself into this category since I also respect their work and have a lot to learn from it), and there is the smaller “Speaking of Lacan” orientation aligned with the Apres-Coup group out of New York. The latter is closer to my orientation but in my understanding nonetheless takes the “late” Lacan (the Lacan of the real) a bit less serious than my Millerian colleagues. The new centre is aligned much closer to the Miller orientation in that it believes in the new real (both in theory and within the clinic). It has been my experience that only Miller’s group can respond adequately to the so-called “new symptoms” which I encounter daily within my clinic. In any case, my practice has been in existence for roughly two years. I encourage those of you who use Lacan academically to seek out the benefits of a clinical Lacan as well, that is, to seek out a personal analysis. On the one hand, belief in the unconscious is more difficult to attain but also more authentically possible to attain through personal analysis. On the other hand, belief in the unconscious is more easy to attain but also more authentically impossible to attain through scholarship.

I preface today’s discussion by setting the scene: we are dealing with the Lacan of the 1950s, which is, in many ways, radically opposed to the Lacan of the 1970s. However, the keen reader will notice similarities, and will, without effort, find the buttons that might be quilted. This is half of my project: half of my project is to demonstrate that Lacan had foresight but was limited by his theory and by his conceptual apparatus. The other half of my project is to allow the confusion and limitations of Lacan’s work to come out, and to not allow my own confusion to stand in the way of moving through the work. Indeed, that is what we mean when we speak about working through. As I wrote above, I am working through the material.

I will admit that I find less enjoyment in reading these seminars than in reading the later seminars. This is because I feel that the early seminars are staking out a new orientation, they are an attempt to set a firm foundation. This means that the work is more delicate and careful, but also more monotonous and tedious. The later work is more innovative and exciting because it is more experimental and it tests the foundation. One wonders the extent to which I have mixed things up: the later work increasingly seems to me to be foundational for understanding the former, and yet, it would seem, nobody seems yet prepared to accept this thesis. It is the real, the semblant, and the sinthome that serve as the foundation of the Lacan’s work, and yet, it would seem, it took him a number of years of bumping into it to finally realize that there is a way to leave it unsaid and yet to still retain its central importance.

Lacan began this seminar with the claim that he will speak about the “function” of the unconscious and its relation to the “role of the signifier.” My immediate curiosity: why does he describe the unconscious as a “function,” and, moreover, why is the signifier in a “role” ? If he is to place the unconscious in the position of a function then he is granting it a certain level of supremacy over that which is merely is content or concept. It seems to be the foundation of other concepts or components of the mental apparatus. Perhaps the signifier is here reduced to its “role.” But this can not be right because Lacan repeated his claim too often that the signifier is also a function. Thus, we read about “the signifying function,” a synonym, in a way, of “the phallic function” since the phallus is the signifier par excellence!

The signifier has a “role” to play for the function of the unconscious, but what is that “role?” We should note the definite article: the signifier, which distinguishes it from signifiers (in the plural, that is, the body of signifiers or the signifying chain). Lacan is here discussing the signifier, whose role is no doubt also a functional one. Thus, Lacan claims that he wants to continue to teach us “about the function of the signifier in the unconscious.” This seems to imply that we are dealing with a function within a function, with the function of the signifier within the overarching function of the unconscious. This seems important because it seems to provide some insight into a later claim from this class that Lacan does not develop: that there is a “radical limit-point” to the unconscious. This, I believe, is a hint in the direction of the real unconscious, which remains, of course, undeveloped and largely unsaid.

Lacan values Freud’s book on jokes very highly, believing that it provides the best entry-point for thinking about the formations of the unconscious. I have yet to understand what Lacan means, precisely, by the word “formations” in this context. I can only speculate that it is not leading in the direction of “techniques,” which he is at pains to distinguish throughout this class in particular, but rather that it has something to do with clinical types: there are various formations of the unconscious and these are perhaps related to the various clinical structures. I can not be certain, having not read this seminar before. In any case, Lacan highlights the following: witticisms, witz, provided Freud an understanding of the relationship of the unconscious to the signifier.

Lacan thought it was important to provide a very quick overview of his previous seminars. He seems to want to demonstrate some consistency among them, as if they were all heading in this direction and moving along a natural path (rather than one filled with obstacles, tangents, and deviations). He begins by reminding us that the symbolic order is the most important aspect of the Freudian experience, it is, in a word, the dimension of the unconscious. I want to introduce my own version: I believe that the symbolic is closer to what Freud described as the pre-conscious. It is unconscious, but it is nonetheless operation, to some extent. I believe that the pre-conscious is to varying degrees closer or further from the unconscious or the conscious. Freud wrote:

“[I] distinguish two kinds of unconscious — one which is easily, under frequently occurring circumstances, transformed into something conscious, and another with which this transformation is difficult and takes place only subject to a considerable expenditure of effort or possibly never at all.”

It is possible that the pre-conscious and the unconscious are not in a position of being ‘hard distinctions,’ but rather are in gradation with one another, with the consequence that the unconscious becomes increasingly submerged within the real and the pre-conscious is the movement toward greater clarity regarding the message and its relation to the symbolic. We might think of the real as the envelope for the symbolic, which is, finally, the envelope for the consistency of the ego and the imaginary.

However, Lacan stills holds onto the belief that the symbolic is the dimension that needs to be uncovered from the méconnaissance or misfiring/misunderstanding of the ego. Yet, again, we can see the unsaid or unsayable real dimension lurking: Lacan describes words that are at a distance, that are “empty discourse,” and which “drone on beneath human actions.” It is possible that he is referring to the drives, the empty discourse of the drives, which are made all the more impenetrable by the ego and its attempt at understanding. At a fundamental level the ego misunderstands the drives, it must, by necessity, misunderstand the real unconscious. The ego is linked to the “synthetic functions” of the symbolic, to the cleft of the symbolic and imaginary. It is the level of meaning and is related, quite fundamentally, to the “captivating mirage.” The images we have of ourselves, of the world, of the way the world views us, and so on, all stand in the way of understanding the unimaginable drives. This is also what necessitates the imaginary: it steps in because of the “prematurity of birth,” the “gap” introduced by “death” within the life of the human animal.

We have been introduced to the signifier, but not to signifiers, that is, we have not been introduced yet to the signifying chain. Lacan reminds us that he has already covered this ground in previous seminars. He wants to highlight the importance of the repetition or insistence of the signifying chain within the unconscious. The chain repeats itself, its formations repeat themselves.

Lacan also wants to remind us of his work on psychosis in his third seminar. He claims that psychosis is based on a “signifying lack.” This is an interesting way of putting it, and then he continues: psychosis involves a reduction of the big Other to the imaginary other. By this he simply means that the big Other is not operational, its function fails. The imaginary other therefore steps in to perform the function of the signifier. In other words, the symbolic is replaced with a hole, and, more often, with an imaginary hole.

At this point, Lacan jumps to a discussion of the relation of the signifier to the signified. He wants to remind us of the importance of Saussure’s work. Recall, for example, the famous diagram of the signifier and signified: it is a “double parallel stream.” The signifier and signified are distinct and “slide perpetually one over the other.” In other words, they do not touch each other. There is a non-relation at the heart of the signifier-signified duality. Lacan claims that this allowed him to conceive of the analogy of an upholsterer – each signifier is a thread that buttons itself down into a signified, and this, finally, is what stops the perpetual sliding of the signifier over the signified.

I pause here: a button stops the slippage of the signifier, and introduces a signified. We return to this often within Lacan’s work, and especially within the early and middle Lacan. It is in some sense the cornerstone of Lacan’s work during this period. Yet, we can begin to see the way that this cornerstone is itself the possible result of psychotic technique. I’ll demonstrate what I mean in the paragraphs that follow.

Lacan goes on to introduce the key Jakobson arguments and their importance for his psychoanalytic theory: metaphor and metonymy. Metonymy is the logic of objects and metaphor is the logic of meaning. He says: “there is no object that is not metonymical, the object of desire being the object of the other, and desire always being desire of something else, precisely of what is lacking in the object that has been primordially lost, in so far as Freud shows it as something that has always to be rediscovered. Likewise the only meaning that exists is metaphorical, a meaning that only arises from the substitution of a signifier for another signifier in the symbolic chain.” Lacan then reintroduces his formulae of metaphor and metonymy, which I will not examine here. All of this was meant as review, and Lacan explicitly states this.

Lacan wants to focus on the button, and indeed so do I. His claim is that discourse is something like a fabric or texture. However, the fabric, its dimensions or extensions, are to be understood as the material of time. All discourse is situated within the material of time. And the “retroaction of the signifier” is what makes the button on that fabric, what punctuates time, what gives it some consistency. Lacan seems lost in the symbolic – he wants to position his theory of the symbolic here, by claiming that signifiers are what make up the material and what button themselves down into the signified, and so on.

I break for a moment to observe something. All this talk about fabric, about psychosis, about buttons, leads me to an observation. Lacan asks the question: who is it that buttons the fabric? Or, put another way, who is the upholsterer? The answer, he claims, is infantile, which is a witty way of stating that it is the child himself, somehow. But what part of the child’s mental apparatus is responsible? Lacan states very explicitly that he believes that the Other is responsible, the Other within the field of the signifying chain and the chain of discourse; the Other within the field of the symbolic. However, I am led rather toward a more literal path: if, within this seminar, he places himself as the subject of the sentence (“I think it is something that you have grasped […] I re-emphasized it in my article […] in a very precise fashion, [and so on]”) in such a way as to claim, as you can see, that he is the one producing the fashion for us. Lacan is here in fashion. He is demonstrating that he has what it takes to cut the Freudian material into something beautiful, so that, finally, he might make a name for himself.

I remind you of Miller’s extraordinary claim that the ordinary psychotic invented fashion. Miller said that it is clear and decisive. And today, more than ever, we see fashion at the centre – it is a modern invention, and it is on centre stage. Lacan was in fashion within the modern age, but, without knowing it, he was here producing a discourse whose truth gave him some credibility but whose eventual impact will render his early work obsolete: unless, of course, we can cut him from a different cloth the same way that he did to Freud. On the heels of Lacan’s seminar on psychosis, and, of course, of Lacan’s doctoral dissertation on psychosis, I can not help but wager that psychosis always forms the background of Lacan’s work. Moreover, I can not help but claim that Lacan is here fashioning a theory of the signifier, a theory on the formations of the unconscious, from the position of the escabeau. I’ll leave that for you to think about. I do not care to develop my arguments or to provide background or education on what any of these concepts might mean for you, if they are knew for you.

Lacan claims that it is impossible to represent the signifier, signified, and subject on the same plane. Lacan then turns to his graph of desire [reproduced below]. You can see the way he is trying to produce a topology out of his graph. He is using the form of an image to demonstrate the way that the signifier, signified, and subject button themselves together.

Screen Shot 2017-07-12 at 12.22.22 PM

The problem is that the diagram can not actually represent the signified. Lacan admits this. We have the button ties but we do not actually have any representation of the substance behind those buttons, of the signifieds. We only know that these points localize them, put them into a particular place, so that we know where to find them.

So they are actually completely outside the schema.

We have two dimensions: first there is the the dimension of the signifying chain – of the unconscious – which has all the effects of metaphor and metonymy already present, carved in stone, as it were. Second, there is the dimension of the synthetic function, the fixity of the ego, the fixed points or buttons. In other words, one of these dimensions or discourses goes in the “opposite direction.” However, it is clear that the two dimensions coincide at particular points. It is possible to reveal one dimension through the other dimension which conceals it. Lacan refers to this point as a “code.” “This code must be somewhere if discourse is to be heard.”

Key concept: code.

A code is an entry-point into the Other dimension, it is an entry into what Freud referred to as “the other scene.” It occurs when the circuit of the signifying chain is intercepted. However, there is another point of convergence: it is when a message is revealed from that Other dimension or discourse.

Key concept: message.

It is the second interception at the signifying chain, and it reveals the point of the Other and the message that relates the subject to the Other (otherwise referred to in the form of the matheme not introduced in this seminar: S<>O). This is the dimension of Truth, for Lacan. We can see that Truth has nothing to do here with the interception of the real or referent and the signifier, the dimension of truth is intimately related to the matheme of fantasy. It has to do with the interception of the symbolic through the imaginary. The value is clearly placed on the symbolic framework buried beneath the imaginary méconnaissance of the ego, as we’ve seen in the L Schema.

Lacan wants to make a simple point: the subject is always inhabited by language, words do not come naturally to him, they are given to him through the field of Other. Through the field of the symbolic Other, and against the distortions of the ego’s consistency or méconnaissance.

The witticism is discovered in the relationship from code to message and from message to code. Lacan claims that witz, or joke, can also mean l’esprit, or mind. We are dealing also with the spirit. All of this is there between code and message. And Lacan wants to retain the ambiguity of all I just wrote regarding witz and l’esprit. Lacan claims that it is in the Jokes essay that Freud introduces the word spirit with a capital “S.” Lacan believes that this is significant. I’m not sure why.

Freud saw clearly the relationship among witz and the unconscious. But he limited himself to only a small part of the literature, mostly scholastic, and did not consult the poets or the historians, which would have, according to Lacan, borne fruit. It was nonetheless in this direction that Freud could have been led, according to Lacan. And he would have approached a radical limit-point in the witz. Here we have the “radical limit-point” thesis: Lacan claims that Freud did not see the limit-point. But what is it? Lacan has only this to say:

“The decisive point is this. The fact is that whatever you read on the subject of the problem of Witz or of ‘wit’, you will always come up against very real impasses, which I cannot expand on for you today due to lack of time — I will come back to it.”

I jump forward, then.

Freud discusses the technique of joking. Lacan believes that this is linked to the technique of the signifier. This is not to be confused with the technique of the analyst, as if it has something to do with analytic technique. We are rather discussing the technique of the signifier, the technique of the mental apparatus itself. This is why Lacan claims that “Freud starts with the signifying technique.” Recall, of course, that Freud did not have recourse to semiotics, but that it has been Lacan’s belief that Freud was nonetheless a semiotician avant-la-lettre. A significant part of Lacan’s project during these early years of his work consisted of simply demonstrating the value of bringing Freud into an alliance with Saussure and Jakobson. This is what Lacan pursues for a bit here. I consider it only review, again.

Lacan refers to the Reisebilder, by Heinrich Heine. He refers to something Freud discussed in relation to a passage in that book. Hirsch-Hyacinth makes the following statement: “he treated me quite famillionairely.” I do not want to get into the context of the passage now, but the point is that Freud wanted to know whether it was a neologism, a parapraxis, or a witticism? There is something funny about the word, which implies that it strikes a chord at the level of a witz, but it is also most obviously an invented word. Freud uses it to demonstrate the technique of “condensation,” a key feature of the dream-work and of distortion. But, more important, it is a key ingredient for neurotic repression. The line from Heine is: “Solomon Rothschild treated me quite familiarly” (the root to “family”) and then there is the other dimension, the joke dimension, which is a play on the word “millionaire,” because, the “millionaire” is, of course, the “family of Rothschild.” [See diagram I drew below]

Photo on 2017-07-12 at 1.30 PM

We can see that the message being returned is in this case exemplified again in the matheme of fantasy, $<>O (the relation of the subject to the Other.) Thus, we can see that the statement reveals a question for the subject of belonging vis-a-vis the Other. Lacan said: “the outline of the message is going to be reflected onto the metonymical object which is ‘my millionaire,’ because the metonymical object of ‘my belonging’ schematized here is what concerns Hirsch-Hyacinth; it is his millionaire who at the same time is not his millionaire, because it is much more the millionaire who possesses him, so that things do not turn out as planned.” This demonstrates effectively the use-value of the graph Lacan presented.

The question we should ask – although Lacan, it seems to me, did not tackle it here – is how we can be sure that this is truly a witz and not a neologism. Is a pure neologism, if we might put it that way, a holophrasis? The question of belonging is a question of the dominance of the Other. But the question of a pure neologism is rather the question of the existence of the Other: is “famillionaire” a word invented purely to produce an Other whose power over the subject brings him precisely into being as subject? The reason Lacan and Freud were forced to ask whether the word is a neologism or a joke is because it seems like a conscious invention rather than a slip, something that forced its way into the discourse of the subject through the field of the symbolic Other.

“The difference is sanctioned as a witticism by the Other.”


Create a free website or blog at

Up ↑