“The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious, or Reason Since Freud”
In “The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious, or Reason Since Freud,” Lacan modifies Saussure’s linguistic sign (signifier and signified) and calls it an algorithm upon which he builds his theory about the place of letter (the place of the subject in the relationship between language and speech).
Elaborating on Hegel’s master slave dialectic, “The Subversion of the Subject or the Dialectic of Desire in the Freudian Unconscious” sketches Lacan’s analysis of the ways in which desire shapes the subject’s attainment of self-consciousness.
When reading “The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious,” Bruce Fink commented that the text “opens with a astonishing rhetorical opacity (…) the first sentence is utterly inscrutable” (Fink, 63) Fink has examined the rhetorical opacity of Lacan’s style suggesting that it is the analysand’s discourse which aim is to train the reader to listen to the obscurity of his discourse. Having read “The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious,” my sense is that through his almost inaccessible language, Lacan is striving to create a readership of analyst and literary critics who are able to decipher any ecrits/writtens/texts from a position of a subject supposed to be confused (to paraphrase Lacan sujet suppose etre confus). Lacan opens "The Instance of the Letter" by warning the reader that his writing could not be put in a straight jacket:
“Writing is in fact distinguished by a prevalence of the text in the sense that we will see this factor of discourse take on here - which allows for the kind of tightening up that must, to my taste, leave the reader no other way out than the way in, which I prefer to be difficult. This, then, will not be a writing in my sense of the term” (413).
These two sentences come after the opening paragraph of “The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious” and function as a paragraph which situates the position of the reader vis a vis “the prevalence of Lacan’s text” and vis a vis the fictive discourse of the analysand. As an analysand, Lacan uses the figures of speech that characterize the signifying elements of the unconscious to resist the limitations of the Psychoanalytic rhetoric of his time.The italic word text, which one may replace by "ecrits," points out to the reader and suggests that it is the home in which Lacan and the fictive character of the analysand will train the reader to follow their rhetorical moves. The dash that separates writing "the prevalence of the text" from its characteristic as a “tightening up of discourse” functions as an illusory hole from which Lacan or the analysand traps his reader or listener. This illusory hole or "cut," to speak in Lacan's term, accomodates the joke deployed by Lacan to trap the reader in his letter to letter text. Once the reader leaps into the dash/hole and gets trapped by the letter to letter joke, she experiences the sarcastic restriction of having to misread Lacan word by word. As such, assuming that she should read Lacan literally, the reader becomes entangled in Lacan’s obscure rhetoric.
Though Bruce Fink has observed that “Lacan seems to be suggesting that, in writing, he can close up all the holes in his discourse, leaving only one point of entry, only one hole or orifice, so to speak; the reader can either enter and leave by the same opening or not enter or leave at all” (65), my sense is that once the reader falls into the hole of Lacan’s rhetoric, there is no way out. As a result, she is deprived from the freedom of dwelling in Lacan’ s text, as the latter would want her to. In order to free herself from the trap in which her misreading of Lacan's joke has drawn her, the reader has to accept letting herself walk on Lacan’s steps. That is to say the reader must be able to figure out the "structural conditions that define the order of the signifier's constitutive encroachments"(418). As such, the second sentence "This, then, will not be a writing in my sense of the term” functions as a complementary clause that complete the "encroachment"of Lacan's discourse. The commas after "this" effects the link by which the joke of the first sentence hooks onto the comma after "then" to unveil the true meaning of the joke.
In my reading of Freud’s case histories, I observed that Freud accommodates the reader and enables her to inhabit the place of the analyst and to listen to the discourse of the analysand. However, with Lacan, one has to follow the steps he elucidates in order to understand the analysand. Like the analysand, Lacan confuses the reader in order to make her work through his text. By confusing the reader and allowing her to embrace his ironic letter to letter adventure, Lacan gives room to literary critics’ claims about the death of the author. Lacan performs but at the same time resits this disappearance by repeatedly reappearing and taking authority on what he is saying. Though Lacan lets the reader hear that he is reading Freud to the letter, he also reduces freudian conceptualization to his own. As such, Lacan methodically silences Freud to let his voice resurface in the ears of the reader.