Lacan and the Formula of the “Purloined Letter”

comments 4
formula / lacan / Poe / psychoanalysis / Purloined Letter / repetition / signifier / structuralism / subject


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…

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  1. what the hell is Lacan smoking!?
    we’re often desperate to ask this question in a metaphorical sense. (perhaps Lacan would say ‘metonymic?’)
    But seriously, what is he smoking in that picture? It looks like a cigar that’s falling apart. Is Lacan smoking a blunt?!

    on a more academic note, I wrote a term paper that spiralled to the length of a thesis last year on this Seminar, as well as Derrida’s reading of it, and Deleuze’s reference to it in D&R where he identifies the phallic position with the virtual object=x. I’ve posted it in its entirety on my blog – perhaps one day I’ll even turn the basic argument into something that an individual who’s not getting paid to mark it might actually want to read.

  2. I’d love to read your essay ali! And I agree with you, what is he smoking!! It says a cigar, or it’s named Lacan_cigar.jpg or whatever, so I just had to save it and use it as an image. Does Deleuze approach Lacan in chapter two on repetition for itself? At the moment I am focusing heavily on Anti-Oedipus: in fact, I want to write on Bataille in relation to Anti-Oedipus and their use of his theory of expenditure. We’ll see where that goes. Thanks for the comment, I’ll try to look at the essay this week.


  3. Ali’s probably thinking of the discussion that starts on p. 101:

    “Whereas active synthesis points beyond passive synthesis towards global integrations and the supposition of identical totalizable objects, passive synthesis, as it develops, points beyond itself towards the contemplation of partial objects which remain non-totalizable. These partial or virtual objects are encountered under various names, such as Melanie Klein’s good and bad object, the ‘transitional’ object, the fetish-object, and above all, Lacan’s objet a.”

    And which continues a little later on p. 102:

    “This absence, as we shall see, is the opposite of a negative. Eternal half of itself, it is where it is only on condition that it is not where it should be. It is at once not possessed by those who have it and had by those who do not possess it. It is always a ‘was.’ In this sense, Lacan’s pages assimilating the virtual object to Edgar Allen Poe’s purloined letter seem to us exemplary. Lacan shows that real objects are subjected to the law of being or not-being somewhere, by virtue of the reality principle; whereas virtual objects, by contrast, have the property of being and not being where they are, wherever they go:

    …what is hidden is never but what is missing from its place, as the call slip puts it when speaking of a volume lost in the library. And even if the book be on an adjacent shelf or in the next slow, it would be hidden there, however visibly it may appear. For it can literally be said that something is missing from its place only of what can change it: the symbolic. For the real, whatever upheaval we subject it to, is always in its place; it carries it glued to its heel, ignorant of what might exile it from it.

    And finally concludes on 103:

    “Lacan discovers the ‘phallus,’ understood as a symbolic organ, behind all these virtual or partial objects. He is able to give this extension to the concept of the phallus (such that it subsumes all the virtual objects) because the concept effectively comprises the preceding characteristics: testifying to its own absence and to itself as past, being essentially displaced in relation to itself, being found only as lost, being possessed of an always fragmentary identity which loses its identity in the double; since it may be searched for and discovered only on the side of the mother, and since it has the paradoxical property of changing its place, not being possessed by those who have a ‘penis,’ yet being possessed by those who do not have one, as the theme of castration shows. The symbolic phallus signifies no less the erotic mode of the pure past than the immemorial of sexuality. The symbol is the always-displaced fragment, standing for a past which was never present: the object = x. But what is the meaning of this idea that virtual objects refer, in the last instance, to an element which is itself symbolic?”

    The questions raised in this discussion continue until the end of the chapter, and in some ways don’t find resolution until the very last section of the book.

    P.S.: By the way, Ali, now that I’ve had a chance to download and glance through your paper, let me take the chance the celebrate the excellent work you’ve done on this question.

    Once I’ve had a chance to read and think about it more closely I’ll have some real questions and comments for you.


  4. hey, thanks! i just came across this post again.
    I just realized something a few weeks ago – did you make the connection that Lacan’s 1-3 network in the introduction to the Seminar was a representation of a finite state machine? my roommate, an engineer, was asking me about what it was (i used in it a presentation as well…) love that example.

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