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Symbol Formation International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, January 1, 1978

Base de dados:
PEP Archive
Symbol Formation
Guy Rosolato; Guy Rosolato, 3 Square Thiers, 75116 Paris
Psychoanalysis essentially consists 'in bringing out the unconscious meaning of words, acts,
imaginary products (dreams, fantasies, delusions) of a subject'; specifically 'by the controlled
interpretation of resistance, transference and wish' (Laplanche & Pontalis, 1967, p. 351). Now, the
interpretation of the unconscious meaning can happen only through words, irreducible to any other
therapeutic method (medication, bodily action, authoritarian or violent pressures, suggestions,
intuitions and shared ideals). But language is not only a way of communicating, and the best as to
analytic subtlety; it also structures psychic processes and conflicts in the meaning they take on for
the subject himself. As E. Beneviste (1974) asserts, 'Every semiology of a non-linguistic system must
borrow language as a go-between, can only exist by and in the semiology of the language'; 'the
language is the interpreter of all other systems, linguistic and non-linguistic' (p. 60).
In the study of different systems of meaning, the symbol has a central place. To study its
characteristics suitably, it is important to describe it in the most organized and the most analytic
system, that is to say, in the logic of the language.
I propose a perspective which will deviate from the presuppositions of perceptual empiricism which
make the word the direct reflexion of the object. Besides, one can no longer maintain the theory of
Jones (1916) who saw in symbolism only the negative and regressive aspect of a defence
mechanism; likewise, the opposition between symbolism and metaphor seems debatable. The
criticisms and the adjustments made on the subject are conclusive (Klein, 1930); (Milner, 1952),
(1957); (mainly Rodrigu, 1956); (Rycroft, 1956); (Segal, 1957); (Lacan, 1960). Finally, one should
not think that Freud confined himself to a univocal symbolism. On the contrary, his method consists
in discovering the multiplicity of meanings in the individual particularities of each (Rosolato, 1959).
I shall distinguish therefore, two kinds of language according to the mode of articulation of their
elements and according to the variation of the meanings of the words in their context. In this paper
linguistic concepts will be used only in an appropriately psychoanalytic reflexion and derivation;
indeed, one cannot ignore the unbridgeable distance which separates the two disciplines in question,
that is to say, essentially by the acknowledgement of the unconscious.
One can reduce language to two kinds of organization; metonymic coherence and metaphorical
symbol. It must be said that this dichotomy is neither reducible to conscious/unconscious opposition,
primary process/secondary process, nor representations of things/representations of words (analogic
system/digital system: Wilden, 1972) or psychosis/neurosis and normality. In effect, each of the two
forms of signification can exist in one or the other of these polar opposites. It is the advantage of this
absence of parallelism that these signifying functions allow homologies, and therefore relationships
between these poles. (Thus we are able to explain the correspondences between representations of
things and representations of words.) Finally, the conception submitted here of metaphor and
metonymy (Rosolato, 1974) differs from the most current theories which derive these strictly from
similarity on the one hand and contiguity on the other (Jakobson & Halle, 1956).
We are speaking first of all, of a univocal, technical, operative, rational language which characterizes
knowledge, 'pragmatic' human relations, and scientific teaching: this is typically metonymic. Its aim,
even if it is only obtained ideally, is to reach a coherence in the progression of the articulated chain of
meaning, the wording governed by a meaning, a precise signified, as narrow as possible for each
element. Freud (1940) speaks of this coherence as an exigence of reasoning in 'the relative certainty
of our science of the psychic' (p. 159). This characterizes metonymic relations. One can describe it
from different angles: (1) through continuity (syntactic or spatial, referential); (2) through causality,
production or implication; (3) through inclusion (synecdoche); or (4) paradigmatic bond: through
identity, similarity, 'representation' or, on the contrary, reversal, or opposition. In practice, we observe
that the index of coherence, of necessary and sufficient logical connexion is arrived at by these
means, which are sometimes syntactic (grammatical) or logical, or objective (with an ideal of
scientific precision which culminates in physics and mathematics where calculation fits the
experience and leads to experimental verification, cf. Bachelard, 1938); (Canguilhem, 1968);
(Fourasti, 1966). The metonymic thought above all relies on this coherence, which Freud (1913, p.
85) also grasps, thanks to the more general concept of contact. It must be specified here that this
coherence, demonstrable and discursive, does not depend so much on its validation as on the
prospect of bending the mental approach to its criteria; so that it can equally characterize a psychotic
thought caught in a system of paranoia inferences. Such a firm connexion reveals a power of
cohesion and propulsion linked to a lack 'to be'(Lacan, 1957) which supports the desire. In effect,
thanks to this power, displacement is possible (Verschiebung), the more so as the description of the
object, always needing to be completed in detail, never satisfied in its lack, can only be a short cut,
an ellipse: of all possibilities of specifying an object, only one is kept, in one preferred word, which
answers exactly to the definitions of the given system (for example, the tongue in anatomy, in
physiology, erotology, gastronomy, linguistics). Thereby the cell is the sign, in the sense of de
Saussure (1915) with its two faces linked, of the signifier (of material sonority or inscription: langue,
tongue, Zunge) and the signified (of concept or sense). It is important that in this context the object
(the referent) distinguishes itself neatly as well from the sign as from the representation of which it is
taken as the common origin. In this way the world of denotation, of the definition simply refers back
from one term to another within the same system. It should be understood that we place in the same
metonymic category, icon (figurative representation in C. S. Peirce's meaning), index (in the
referential contiguity of two phenomena, C. S. Peirce), metonymic displacement (by an accepted
connexion, licence: sail for the boat) or again the metaphor (see below its definition) reduced to the
narrow meaning of metonymy (lion for courage). Thus we say that the symbolical (la symbolique, die
Symbolik, symbolism) which relies on univocal correspondences (umbrella = penis) belongs to a
system of signs. (This corresponds to the general albeit etymological definition of a symbol: 'that
which reunites', and which fits the sign as well as the representation.)
In this system four orders of phenomena are put to one side, rejected, censured: (1) the
manifestations of the unconscious: they must not appear lapsus, dream, fantasy, associationsin
the exposition of the scientific text; (2) the presence of the subject: as much in an awareness of his
existence as in that intimate and intermittently evident articulation with the word used, that is to say,
which includes the symbol game; (3) the affective participation which is equally not usual in this kind
of wording; (4) and to sum it all up, the free circulation of metaphor. One will notice that if this aim
tends to suppress or conceal all metaphors, the latter is nevertheless utilized either as an auxiliary
illustration (thus anatomical descriptions teem with etymological metaphors, reduced to narrow
metonymics: trochlea, epiploon, auricles, cistern, aqueduct, thalamus, etc.) or in a disguised manner,
right at the heart of the axiomatic (as even in the psychoanalytical vocabulary, Pontalis, 1967); (Rey,
1975), but in this case it can only become evident when it starts to break down (thus, in physiology
the theory of 'irrigation' has been replaced by the theory of vascular 'circulation'); on the other hand,
the metaphor enters into the game of hypothesis as a developmental force in crises and discoveries
of thought (Bachelard, 1938); (Kuhn, 1962); (Normand, 1976).
It is important to locate this metonymical language in connexion with the relation with the unknown,
that is to say in comparison with the right way of taking into account in a system and in all
relationships the pressure of a lackhiatus, shortcoming, openingor of an unexpected,
inexhaustible and incomprehensible development. Freud, on several occasions, has pointed out this
unknown-relation in fundamental concepts: in connexion with interpretation, with the umbilicus of the
dream (Freud, 1900, pp. 111, 525), with the id (Freud, 1923), and with reality (Freud, 1940). Now it is
remarkable that metonymic thought stands in a relationship of exclusion in connexion with the
unknown; the latter has no place inside the system; it is rejected to the 'outside' and gives rise to no
speculations; this suspension of thought can take place from the outset. In this manner, the
progression of scientific knowledge appears, in this system, as a spatial annexation by sector, like
the conquest of the Zuyderzee. It is the 'objects' which have to be known and conquered. This
dominance of the 'reality' of the object, of empiricism, makes a profound mark on all thinking:
information and its quantification dominates the human relationship; as does the 'practical' power
over things. The result is a mistrust towards language and representation which are only the
reflexions of the objects.
One observes a remarkable dichotomy, obsessional as much as narcissistic (and psychotic,
paranoiac), in the control which is exerted on thought. On one side the unknown relation is excluded
from a well defined field (this operation is at the heart of 'foreclusion', 'Verwerfung'); knowledge builds
and controls all forms of coherence, without faults; this requires at the same time distinction and
separation of fields, isolation, and barriers which circumscribe the regions of controlled power. On the
other side, 'outside', the unknown-relation is established, with new fields awaiting a deferred
knowledge before they can come into existence; or by a splitting from the ego (Freud also describes
it in obsessional neurosis) of a parallel zone, belonging to another order of projections and fantasies.
The unconscious is only disclosed in this metonymic language in the gaps in discourse, lacunae, in
the meaning taken by repetition and the defence mechanisms of an effectively metonymic type, like
isolation, annulment and reversal.
In short, the metonymic language ensures coherence by virtue of restricting the fields proper to its
action: beyond these, the (non-sense) non-meaning finds itself exiled and excluded. These are two
parallel worlds (as with the obsessional: the meticulousness of the work of verification which masks
sexuality, is on a par with beliefs in a personal or collective religion).
One can describe languages, which are also modes of thought, ways of living, according to a
typology (Green, 1973) of a metonymic order. In the analytic cure, one can discern clearly these
cases where a uniformity establishes itself quickly, a control of thought, with a lack of affectivity and a
coldness which seem insuperable, and give the impression that the analytic process does not
One may distinguish some particular types, characterized by: (a) the recounting of daily occurrences,
in the actuality, without association and in an unrelieved monotony; or (b) perpetual complaining; or
(c) theoretical planning according to some idea the analysand has of psychoanalysis; he confines
himself to a schema to which he orders his whole psychic life (to lift the infantile amnesia, to relate all
conflicts to oedipality, to anality, etc., thus blocking psychic movement). Often, the undertaking
consists in pursuing efforts to restrict thought and research to precise themes, with a monomaniacal
aspect. In other cases, it is a matter of a systematic searching, organized, meticulous and
obsessional, where comprehension aims at the greatest coherence. (d) Repetition can take on an
invasive aspect to the point of caricature, fixed on certain themes, memories, mental schemes
(projections), on mechanisms of avoidance and deliberate mental restriction, or of silence,
corresponding to negative therapeutic reactions.
These various manifestations correspond to structures of obsessional or narcissistic kinds, but they
also can constitute modes of defence against underlying psychosis.
Thus the analysand's word can come to function totally as resistance. Lacan himself has drawn
attention to forms of 'erotization' of talking described by R. Fliess, where the word, although it ought
to be symbolic, can become an imaginary object or even real (Lacan, 1956, p. 301).
Moreover, 'coherence' is invoked with an insistent exigence in paranoiac deductions, in the
construction of systems, as a method of knowledge which, from a similar starting point, from a
delusional metaphor, recalls the evolution of science and philosophy (according to the comparison
assumed by Freud for the latter). Every ideology, besides, claims the term 'science': theological
science, political science.
Finally on the cultural level, outside the language of science, well developed and appropriate to
teaching, one can distinguish equally, in art, styles of organization clearly metonymic, such as
representative painting and also cubism, and above all the novel, as realistic description.
On the opposite side, the metaphoric language reckons with elements which support an indefinite
variety of meanings: these are the elements, the units, for which we shall keep the term symbol. But
to begin with, we must specify the structure of the metaphor which itself supports the symbol. A
description can be made (Lacan, 1957). We shall say that it comprises (Rosolato, 1974): (1) an
unconscious chain of elements (of signifiers) which necessarily match the chain of the statement; (2)
a substitution of signifiers between them; (3) giving an effect of non-meaning: this moment is
fundamental because it ensures the unsettling and breaching of the established system, allowing of
questioning about what previously went without saying: briefly, it shows in an intrinsic manner, within
the system itself, the unknown-relation; (4) conjointly with this non-meaning, the creation of a new
meaning takes place, which cannot be reduced to the metonymic circuits described above; it is more
than a polysemy of the dictionary, but a charge of personal meaning, of connotation which offers
itself as inexhaustible. In short, the break marked by the non-meaning is on a par with the creation of
meaning, properly metaphoric, and throws into relief the difference evocative of meaning in
The symbol, then, depends on the constitution of the metaphor, which leans on the signifier rather
than on the sign. This obliges us to define the signifier: it is the pivotal element, the smallest unit of a
system of language or communication which, by disarticulation or first apprehension, supports the
metaphoric effects described. We shall place it first, in the verbal language at the level of the
elements of the word, of their non-meaning (letters, phonemes, lexemes, which belong to Martinet's,
1965, second articulation, the first being that of meaningful words). They are finite in number and
constitute the linguistic signifiers(of the digital system; shown extensively, for example in Freud,
1901, by all that can be derived from the symbol game of letters and numbers). The symbol always
highlights the signifier: if it is an object (bread, wine, a tree) its usual meaning is obliterated by a non-
meaning which turns into a thing in which the signifier is implied, the nodal point of the metaphoric
expansion. The symbol can equally be a representation and figuration of a thing: but there, again,
this refers to formal constitutive elements, elementary components, for example plastic images that
one can consider also as signifiers (which we shall call, to distinguish them from the linguistic
signifiers: signifiers of demarcation) and which are, unlike those, indefinite in number (analogical
Thus, the signifier is a difference which has the remarkable characteristic of representing the subject;
it creates a meaning by its linking with another signifier, and not separately. Besides it has the
characteristic of engraving itself in the body (Freud's mnemic traces), to respond to the established
system born of the parental relationship, finally to exhibit and orientate the instinct (representative of
the representation, Freud's, 1915, Vorstellungsreprsentanz).
Unlike the metonymic language, the metaphor sets into action the unconscious and thereby
occasions the breaking of the coherence system; this interruption in the non-meaning can be filled in
by the affect; it allows the disjunction in analysis: it is the path followed by free association. We find
metaphor in unconscious formations like the dream, the lapsus, the witticism, but also in the
hysterical symptom.
The metaphoric language has the characteristic of providing symbols for the centre of activation and
evocation of thought, and rests essentially on the fact that those are not only multivocal as to
meaning, polysemic and poles of projections, but can support and reunite opposites: in the symbolic
the umbrella is not only the penis symbol but also, being open and giving shelter, it is capable of
evoking the female inside; equally the penis can symbolize every other 'object' of a structure linked to
desire, even to the missing points (the Medusa's head is the example given by Freud).
It follows from this that the metaphor, the symbol, and the unknown-relation which find themselves
connected, have ways of manifesting themselves clinically which are worth specifying. We
distinguish schematically:
1. For the neuroses, the prototype of the hysterical symptom: the body manifests signifiers which
substitute themselves for those which constituted inadmissible representations for the conflict in
question, thus the bodily metaphor has a symbolic value where the unknown-relation is deceptively
situated either in the field of emotions or passion, or in the frame of medical and neurological
pathology; a diversion takes place with regard to the real conflict.

2. In the psychoses, it is the delusional 'metaphor' illuminative of 'creative moments'. I shall
indicate here its constitution only briefly. Let us take the example of an erotomanic patient who in the
silhouette of a man seen in a crowd sees her therapist: she 'understands' that he manages to be
near her as often as possible out of kindness. The metaphor movement which could establish itself
between the thought, the transference fantasy concerning the therapist and a 'stimulus' silhouette
(possibly even similar) in an encounter symbol determined by the 'silhouette', fixed on the signifier, is
blocked; at the same time, the thought cannot be repressed and the 'fortuitous' meeting, springing
spontaneously from the thoughts, the signifiers, does not manage to take place: through a
metaphoric lack of the relation to the father there is a repudiation (Verwerfung) of the unknown-
relation; what cannot thus be symbolized, appears consequently in reality. In schizophrenia, such
delusional metaphors linked to a lack in the metonymic relation with the mother, go to the limit of
every instigation to metaphor produced by each signifier, without being channelled as in paranoia or
obsessive themes. The delusional metaphors are created on the perception of rupture and of the
non-meaning, at the eruption of the unknown-relation which should have given rise to a symbolic
metaphor: thus, in the example given, the encounter as rupture (rupture in the anonymous flow of the
passers-by and at the same time, in the current of the mundane thoughts of daily life) fixes on an
intolerable gap, therefore on an invading affect of which the libidinal load is strong enough to provoke
a delusional collapse and a convincing projection into reality.

3. But as in the metonymic language, there is ground for describing in the cure, a metaphoric
language with its own mode of thought and behaviour. In general terms two aspects take shape. In
the first, metaphors dominate where an extreme intellectual, 'intelligent' lability juggles with
analogies, disarticulates the representations in signifiers, plays with the phonemes of non-meaning
and the subliminal impressions, the rapprochements which produce contradictions, neutralizing and
thus cancelling what could give an aim to a genuine process. The style of these analyses is of a
narcissistic inaffectivity evoking aestheticism (even though situations of indecision could provoke
anxiety) and becoming specially a pleasurable activity which has as its aim to remain fixed to an
infantile mentality, suspending all reality in the same manner as one who abandons himself to games
of chance: he plays non-stop.
The other aspect is predominantly of feelings overflowing to the point of making all conscious
awareness impossible. The metaphors have then the function of giving the widest connotative margin
to symbols, memorial as regards the past signifiers and, above all, affective. The most outstanding
example is the 'oceanic feeling' with its substitutes, which bring loss of critical faculty and maintain a
mystical transference on the analyst, the institution, or every current ideal.
Apart from the clinical aspects, one rediscovers the cultural metaphoric language principally in poetic
activity, in its verbal expression, written, but also in all the arts where the metaphor predominates,
such as has been described above (symbolism, surrealism).
One of the great difficulties in the understanding of the symbolic function is to give weight to the two
currents, the metonymic coherence and the metaphoric expansion of the symbol. Most often, the first
takes the step towards a rationalist and didactic aim: the symbolization is then considered solely in its
defensive significance; such was Jones's perspective. It is true, too, that the other side, the slide
towards a degeneration into the ineffable and the asexual in Jung's footsteps, does not stand up to
actual demands. And the fear of this danger could result in not observing or understanding
sufficiently the psychic mechanisms of the metaphoric type.
Another complication is added to the previous one: the theory that is used (often without intention) to
establish the status of the object in psychoanalysis, depends closely on one or the other of these
language systems. It is important, then, to know these in order to delimit their field, their modes of
articulation, and the reasons which allow one to supersede the other. A remark is necessary here:
only psychoanalysis allows us to observe this articulation, to have an effect upon its changes,
because only psychoanalysis places and assumes all relationships not hidden from subject to
signifier which makes man a being of language.
One must then examine how the object, the representations (of words and things) and the
corresponding signifiers, organize themselves in each of the two language systems according to their
own truth. Because, and we must not evade the difficulty here, these can seem contradictory and
exclusive when, in fact, they are complementary.
1. In the perspective of metonymic coherence, the object is always put in an initial position of
reality: it informs the 'subject' progressively or by mutative step. But, above all, it is its loss, its
absence, its want which provoke the anxiety and, if certain conditions are fulfilled (Klein, 1930), it
determines, beyond hallucinatory satisfaction, the substitution of signifiers, first of all in a system of
opposition of presence and absence. To the experience of the loss of the breast, of the mouth-breast
fusion relationship (Milner, 1952) succeeds the active operation where the child assumes the
deprivation of the object and seeks to provoke it. This determines the hold of the signifier in terms of
the other; the symbol manifests itself at first as the sacrifice of the thing. Freud (1920) discovered
and described the moment of this experience where, when absence (of the object and of the subject)
is evoked, the phonematic opposition is substituted (fort/da). This primary object is, then, the inductor
of representations, of visual, auditory and linguistic signifiers, of communication. Such a conception,
centred on the object, gives to reality an absolute value, makes it a reference point for testing (of
reality). The psychic contents are only reproductions, reflexions, 'symbolic representations',
corresponding separately to each object in a biunivocal manner. Language in this view is secondary
and deceptive: the word is only a sign.

2. The other current goes in the opposite direction: 'it is the world of words which creates the world
of things' (Lacan, 1956, p. 276). Mental activity is necessary to the construction of the object. And it
is not accidental if Kleinism postulates an original fantasizing functioning and recognizes conjointly
the whole creative value of symbolism. It is the signifiers, as they represent the subject and his
desires in terms of the signified desires of the mother, which give liveliness and relief to the object.
The clinic shows it usually: the absence of signifiers is the equivalent of the non-existence of certain
objects, which thus cannot be perceived; they become a reality only when named in the desire of the
This is to say that the signifier and the symbolic activity it supports with the metaphor, lead to new
visions, changes of perspective disclosed in the treatment, a psychic 'creation' which manifests itself
as much in an aesthetic grasp of the world as in the scientific discoveries. The artist is a 'creator of
symbols' (Milner, 1957). Observations from various disciplines, human sciences and exact sciences,
confirm this function of the symbolic (Leray, 1967); (Sperber, 1974); (Normand, 1976).
A fundamental experience in this creation of the object has been described by Freud (1927), from the
infantile theories which endow the mother with a penis. This experiment concerns both sexes and not
only the fetishist and the pervert who remain bound to it. This object of perspective(Rosolato, 1970)
that is the maternal penis, gives the child the power to block off and then to symbolize a want, the
absence of the penis in the mother: it is then the unreality of this object of perspective supported by
the denial (Verleugnung) and the splitting, in its capacity as a construction which, when it is
discovered and brought back by the subject to its exclusively psychic existence, gives all its
organizing force to the signifier of negation. That this operates necessarily with regard to the
difference of the sexes, shows the importance of sexuality in the constitution of the mental
mechanisms themselves: it is through the castration which always concerns this image of the mother
with the penis, that all psychic creation frees itself by the use of illusion in its relation with reality and
in its construction of the object.
Thus the phallus distinguishes itself as a signifier (Lacan, 1958; not to be confused with the penis
object as an organ) which supports all difference (equally that which limits the signifier and separates
it from what escapes it, instinct, thing, desire, enjoyment). It controls all the stages of castration. It
orientates instinct, enjoyment and even power, through a dialectic of occultation, of cultural
repression and of manifestation.
Briefly, the loss of the primary object (the breast) gives rise to a signifying structuralization, steady
and complete, only through the experience of the denial of the difference of the sexes and its
elaboration through castration. In this apprenticeship, the toy allows the child to experience and to
master the process of denial/construction in the illusion which nevertheless represses the crucial
experience itself relative to the maternal penis (perspective object).
This power of construction and projection is secured by the metaphoric symbol. It is on a par with two
other characteristics. The first is the non-discrimination which establishes itself between the object
and the signifier or the representations. It offers some advantages, such as empathy with beings and
things, words and things confused, and the dedifferentiation which facilitates the changes of creative
perspective. It has also drawbacks, such as imprecision, inability to analyse and criticize, confusion
of thought and especially the delusional assimilation resulting from failure of the metaphor.
Thus in the psychoses, one invokes readily this undifferentiation between (a) the representations of
things and the representations of words (between analogic system and digital system); or between
(b) the object and the representation (and the 'internal objects'); or between (c) the objects ('symbolic
equations', Segal, (1957).
The second specific particularity linked to the metaphoric symbol is the power to produce individual
or collective adherence by the effect of belief in the reality of the agreement given by the symbol.
Without doubt, this is the result of the convergence of two forces: the one of the truth of an
unconscious desire which is fixed upon the symbol, and the other, of the unknown-relation implicit
within the symbol itself and endowing it with the power of its epistemophilic attraction.
However, non-discrimination and belief display themselves to differing degrees and in different
Thus in an exemplary manner in the free play of the child and in art are shown the fascination of
awareness, ecstasy or rapture (Milner, 1952); a novel imposes a reality which we cannot manage to
evade, the theatre, the cinema create 'symbolic equivalents' of objects, people and signs. But in all
these cases, a 'distancing' is always available. And each art, however metonymic or metaphoric its
manifest organization, requires for its full deployment to be able to swing into the opposing
organization: the meticulousness of the romantic descriptions leads to the fascinating metaphor of
life; metaphoric poetry demands metonymic, perceptible and analysable technical processes: the
essence of art is its freedom with this metaphoric-metonymic oscillation (Rosolato, 1969). Moreover,
the fascination in belief remains localized at the unique moment of contact with the work (even
though there are long-term effects by identification with idealized heroes).
But there would still be room to study the development of belief in psychosis compared with that in
neurosis (thus in obsessional neurosis where one may even speak of delusion) and in the
perversions (mainly in fetishism where this same oscillation focused on an erotic object is
rediscovered), in knowing that convictions are subject to fluctuations, that these are perceived and
expressed only through language and that in the psychosis the delusional belief is on a par with a
fundamental lack of 'metaphorization' in relation to the foreclosure of the unknown-relation which
involves the impossibility of structuring the unconscious by repression. Thirdly, psychoanalysis has
the function of allowing an articulation between the language of metonymic coherence and language
in the metaphoric sense, to sustain an evolution, a change, a dialectic movement between these
forms. This corresponds to the objectives of the analysts who consider the exchange with the
analysand as a game, an elaboration of illusion compared with reality, or for others as an art with
common rules (Milner, 1952), or variables (where a metaphoric-metonymic movement can develop).
Still one must make reservations considered before about exploitation as an hysterical or narcissistic
defence of such a ludic relationship.
But it is also in this theoretical approach that the analyst must be able to use these two sides; in the
invention which brings into play the metaphoric effects of his own fantasies and of his own personal
problems; and in the metonymic (as much logical as factual) verification with the analysands and the
other analysts.
Language is, then, fundamentally symbolic, metaphoric. Words can always mean something else
thanks to other unconscious chains. And the metonymic aspect is simply a restrictive but necessary
current of the language. Metaphor and metonymy are two structural functions which organize
communications, representations and thought.
One must here examine the reticence which can appear among analysts themselves with regard to
language and symbol. Having exposed the defensive aspects of language as they have already been
described, one is obliged to avoid these interpretative simplifications which generalize observations
only valid for individual concrete situations.
Thus every object is brought back to the breast of the mother. From this assumption, language is
considered only as a substitute for the primal object in return for which the attention given to it will be
labelled as a narcissistic fixation which denies the maternal loss. Such an affirmation seems to ignore
that this argument can be reversed: distrust about language can be only a refusal of all substitution of
a paternal order, thus in its turn a fixation to the mother, fostering a nostalgic fighting against
melancholic tendencies. We must take into account these two possible contradictory meanings: only
the clinical evidence will justify one rather than the other.
Moreover, there would be a ground for admitting another motivation for the distrust of the
psychoanalyst. We should remind ourselves that if an omnipotence of action and cure through words
can develop in oneself, the resulting disappointments may be compensated in some cases by an
increase of narcissism: one then risks imagining being able to act by quite other means than
language: this is the triumph of magical thinking, far from the method of psychoanalysis. I shall add to
this that a fantasy of therapy by bodily contact, by violence, by 'educative' inflictions or by erotic and
sexual rapports, can be disclosed sometimes at the root of this distrust.
In any case such a suspicion directed at language leads only to a shifting away from the objective of
analysis, in devaluing the language which itself allows us to elucidate unconscious meanings in all
their subtlety.
Just now, in contemplating the polyvalence of the symbol and the metaphor, it appeared that this free
functioning, if it opened in all directions, could take on a schizophrenic indeterminacy. Now, it is
precisely this implication of madness in all psychic activity which gives freedom to human thought,
able to go beyond limits, with its risks and its power of creation beyond the instinctual and innate
But the study of symbolic functioning with regard to the subject must not pass over in silence the
framework and the restraint that society opposes.
The analysis of cultural symbols (Sperber, 1974) shows (1) that they are built from 'defective'
conceptual representations (through the absence of a system of metonymic coherence in use, and
the need to resort to diverse new hypotheses: Kepler imagines 19 of them in metaphoric polyvalency
of the planetary system; he will retain and verify only one in a definitive metonymic reduction; but it is
also the dissatisfaction in comprehension, or the neurotic or psychotic malaise which exercises an
attraction): there the unknown-relation is revealed in a striking manner; (2) the symbol constitutes a
'constraining focalization' (it is the metaphor itself from given signifiers) which has an organizing and
constructive function; (3) but it is accompanied by an inexhaustible evocative effect: cyclic, indefinite
and irreducible to a single (or even several) meaning; then the symbol has the power to restart
remembering, multiple interpretations: the unknown-relation is then included in the cognitive
functioning itself. One can say then that the symbolic interpretation is 'an improvization [my italics]
which relies on an implicit knowledge and obeys unconscious rules' (Sperber, 1974, p. 11).
Now symbols, whether they are individual or cultural, are subject to the organizing effect of the
essential axes of metaphor, without which the blockages of paranoia (where the metaphor cannot
display itself when it becomes necessary and is reduced to the dominating delusional theme) or
schizophrenic proliferations without any limitations, are produced.
Psychoanalysis has revealed two axes of this kind: the phallus and the symbolic function of the
In putting sexuality in the foreground, Freud's discovery has disclosed its structural value with the
development of infantile sexual theories and with access to the difference of the sexes, which is only
possible by the introjection of the phallus as signifier of the difference.
In the same way the function of the father, through a dialectic which places the symbolic father as a
dead father, in the outcome of the second major Freudian axis, the oedipal, allows fixing the relation
of the subject to the law, be it social or linguistic. In this frame, a structural lack would be at the origin
of the psychotic splitting.
One can say, then, that the symbolic is the order that the symbol (the signifier) exercises through
sexuality (and the phallus), and in the social pact according to the law of language, thanks to the
determinant action of the father in the Oedipus.
One will not be surprised to find, as Jones (1916) pointed out, deployment of the symbol on each
occasion concerning birth and death, self, links of blood and love, because their social and logical
structure cannot be conceived without the use of signifiers. In other words, it is when the unknown-
relation comes to the foreground of the main axis of existence, namely the difference of sexes,
generations, life and death, power relations, that the symbol necessarily functions.
In this way, the primal fantasies serve as a centre for the articulations of signifiers and schemes for
transformation supported by the metaphor.
The social symbols which constitute myths keep alive every society in the pact they imply. Most often
they act unconsciously with their respective rites, as much in the political and even scientific as in the
religious and ethical field.
One must not omit to discern, at the heart of these social symbols, distinct ideals, even though these
are often vigorously denied. This denial is even a revealing sign of their activity. They help to find in
terms of the unknown-relation, answers to fundamental interrogations subtended by these myths. In
this way the social ideal, as Freud (1914) has shown clearly, demands a deidealization in relation to
the first object which participates in individual investments to declare itself secondarily in common
objectives, the outcome of homosexual mirror identification.
But these ideals linked to the unknown-relation serve only to canalize all the diversity of individual
fantasies; they focus on some signifiers with a symbolic value the indefinite variety of evocations and
interpretations, however simultaneously contradictory these can be (Laplanche, 19756, has shown
that the circumcision rite is in a fundamentally ambiguous position with regard to castration,
sustaining equally the 'defeminization' and the 'feminization').
This symbolic activity, centred on myths depending on collective ideals, constitutes the sublimation in
which human beings recognize each other.
The symbolic is, then, the play of the metaphor on the supporting signifiers, on the symbols, a play
which is distinguished from the metonymic organization of coherence, while still maintaining it, and
which is then separated from the imaginary activity based on effects of the double, of reproduction in
mirror, of equation and equivalence. The symbolic, by the full deployment (Heidegger, 1959) of the
word in its essence, is the relation to the Other, to that radical Other, which is only developed by the
asymmetric chain of signifiers of language. But equally it allows articulation of the major
psychoanalytic organizing axes of the sex difference, with the phallus, and of Oedipus, with the
Father (symbolic). It cannot develop without a fundamental relation of the metaphoric expansion
between individual symbols and the myths effectively active in a given society. Finally, it delimits the
shapes of illusion in relation to reality by the confrontation of metonymic and metaphoric functions at
the heart of conscious and unconscious mental mechanisms, perceived as psychic reality.
Psychoanalysis, unlike any other discipline, assumes the metonymic, scientific language as well as
the symbolic language of the metaphor, with mainly formative effects, in their transformation and
transition from one to the other.
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International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 1978; v.59, p303 (11pp.)