Now, it seems more and more clear to us that this subject who speaks is beyond the ego…It’s also the question…to what extent does the symbolic relation, the relation of language, retain its value beyond the subject, in as much as it may be characterized as centred in an ego –by an ego, for an alter-ego? –Jacques Lacan, “Odd or even? Beyond intersubjectivity,”The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book II p. 175, 177.
In his second seminar, before introducing his thoughts on Poe’s “Purloined Letter,” Jacques Lacan raises the question of the “relation of signification to the living man” (186). In general, Lacan sees this story as revolving around problems of signification, meaning, received opinion and truth. What seems to animate Lacan in this early seminar is the fact that Poe’s story places intersubjectivity at its core, highlighting the dynamics at work in the different subjective positions that are oriented in the symmetrical series of the story. When Lacan tells us that “The subject adopts a mirror position, enabling him to guess the behavior of his adversary,” he is both simultaneously referring to the game of odds and even and to a later interpretation that sees the Minister taking the position of the Queen and becoming-femininized. How does this displacement of series take place? By hiding the letter in plain sight as the Queen does at the beginning of the story, the Minister foils the police (linked to the position of the State and the King) while at the same time repeating the Queen’s very actions: so one of the key questions is to reconstruct how the signifier performs this work in the series and what this means for Lacan’s conceptualization of signifying chains as a whole.
As Lacan reminds us, the letter itself is a character. At the same time, it is the presence-absence that allows the series to be composed as such (around which the King, Queen, Minister and Dupin revolve). The letter is the mighty signifier that constitutes the chain; as Lacan writes in his seminar in the Ecrits: “If what Freud discovered, and rediscovers ever more abruptly, has a meaning, it is that the signifier’s displacement determines subjects’ acts, destiny, refusals, blindnesses, success, and fate…” (21). The letter constitutes the signifying chains that come to dominate the signified symbolic universes that structure and tie the story’s characters together. If the signifier has priority over the signified (20) this is due to the fact that Lacan believes that the signifier is what represents the subject for another signifier. The subject oscillates between two signifying chains, S1 and S2 (which relate to the two series in Poe’s story). These chains come to symbolically structure the intersubjective relations among subjects (by definition) because the same master signifier (the letter) dominates both chains. In other words, the force of Lacan’s quote above resides in what he identifies as the formula behind Poe’s story.
Lacan uses the phrase symbolic formula because of the strict correlation between the displacements in the series. The letter guarantees its consistency as an intersubjective pivot-point only if we guarantee what Lacan formulates as stages of logical decision-making (9). What is important is that the crossing of series is guaranteed by the glance. Thus, the positions of the King/police, Queen/minister, minister/Dupin all have to do with the relations of absence and presence involved with the positions of the respective subjects. In other words, their positions in the series is due to their relative blindness toward the letter, and it is this letter that ensures what Lacan calls, after Freud, the repetition automatism.
To leave off with some questions: if the unconscious is the discourse of the Other, is this why Lacan insists in his interpretation on this difference Poe makes (seemingly irrelevant to the plot) between poets and mathematicians? What does it mean to calculate against the Other, human or machinic, and how does this structure our own calculability? Is the process of signification (indefinite and ubiquitous) the primary forces governing the unconscious and driving the subject? What about a-signifying semiotic relations, non-discursive intensities and affects? What about non-linear encodings/series and non-binary machines? The face is a kind of binary machine…