The Unconscious: Metaphor and Metonymy

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In his 1930s text, ‘the structure of the unconscious,’ Freud described the unconscious as “a fact without parallel, which defies all explanation or description.” Construed through this very mystifying, if not metaphysical, perspective, the unconscious then remained to be the single most unknowable and more or less untheorizable element of all observable features of human psychology, and of the psychoanalytic enterprise as such.

Only a few decades later, however, Lacan managed to bring the unconscious to earth by describing it to be “structured like a language,” and attributing its genesis to a ‘split’ within the developing human subject. “The psychoanalyst,” he wrote, “spots the subject’s split in the simple recognition of the unconscious.” The Lacanian formulation of the unconscious was both more theoretically elaborate, and, for a number of reasons, definitely more successful in seeing the individual in its context and tracing the social/political in the private/psychological. Chief among those ‘reasons’ would be the ‘linguistic turn’ that his intellectual maneuvers afforded psychoanalytic theory.

One of the very useful terms in which Lacan approached his linguistic/semiotic re-formulation of the unconscious was a specific type of distinction he proposed between metaphor and metonymy. The reason I speak of a ‘specific type of distinction’ is that even though Lacan relied strongly on Saussure’s and Jakobson’s basic descriptive models and distinctions between the two concepts, he ‘slipped’ significant changes into their ideas, even where he failed to admit such changes.

Since the distinction between metaphor and metonymy is an important element both in Lacan’s formulation of the unconscious and in later readings of his work in political terms, I think we should dedicate a bit of time to that here.

The main difference between metaphor and metonymy, according to Lacan, is that metaphor functions to suppress, while metonymy functions to combine. He writes: “it is in the word-to-word connection that metonymy is based,” and then: “one word for another: that is the formula of metaphor.”

Jakobson, in his Fundamentals of Language had spoken of two aspects (“modes of arrangement”) of signs: Combination (any sign is made up of constituent signs and/or occurs only in combination with other signs); and Selection (which implies ‘substitution’, since selection has to be made between alternatives, i.e. signs that could replace each other). Jakobson presents what he describes to be Saussure’s understanding of these two modes (i.e. combination and selection), as follows:

F. de Saussure states that the former [combination] “is in presentia: it is based on two or several terms jointly present in an actual series”, whereas the latter [selection] “connects terms in absentia as members of a virtual mnemonic series”. That is to say, selection (and, correspondingly, substitution) deals with entities conjoined in the code but not in the given message, whereas, in the case of combination, the entities are conjoined in both, or only in the actual message. The addressee perceives that the given utterance (message) is a COMBINATION of constituent parts (sentences, words, phonemes, etc.) SELECTED from the repository of all possible constituent parts (the code). (p. 75)

So when a speaker wants to ‘produce’ meaning in order to communicate, he or she will have to employ the two modes of ‘combination’ and ‘selection’, while mobilizing relationships across both the diachronic and the synchronic axes.

The mode of ‘selection’ comes with the implication of similarity/continuity, since it indicates presence of options, which in turn indicates the presence of similarities between the range of options and thus the presence of such terms as substitution and equivalence.

For Jakobson, the quality of selection/substitution coincides with the trope/notion of metaphor, where by the merit of certain similarities one signifier can be used to refer to (or to substitute) another. The mode of ‘combination, on the other hand, functions to join distinct meaning units together by locating them within the same ‘context’, and as such it comes with the implication of difference, discrimination, contiguity, and displacement. Jakobson argues that this notion is most closely akin to the trope of metonymy, since it is not the ‘similarity’ of two signifiers that associates them, but rather their contiguity, such as syntactical or physical proximity and con-textuality.

Lacan borrowed this dichotomous metaphor/metonymy distinction from Jakobson and introduced it to the structure not only of the text and its meaning, but of the human subject and its ‘unconscious,’ which he famously claimed to be structured like a language.

To put it in most basic terms, Lacan has managed to juxtapose the metaphor/metonymy binary set with the binary set that Freud claimed to be the basic functions of the unconscious, i.e. repression and displacement. Metaphor, insofar as it functions through similarities and substitutions, coincides with the psychic trope of repression, and metonymy, insofar as it functions through contiguity and difference, coincides with the psychic trope of displacement.

Just as in language the tropes of metaphor and metonymy serve to ‘present’ ideas in forms greatly different from their original content, in the psychic realm they offer the same function, thus rendering certain ‘objects’ of the mind (thoughts, feelings, signifiers, etc.) unrecognizable to ‘consciousness’. In other words, ‘language’ and ‘psyche’ share the curious propensity towards and capacity for using structure to present (known) content in unknowable form, familiar material in unfamiliar shape –we see direct implications of this formulation for explaining such notions as self alienated from itself, doubling and the uncanny, paranoid knowledge, etc.

So, to recap then, the two groups of ideas come together in this fashion:

Metaphor : Substitution : Condensation
Metonymy : Combination : Displacement

One thing that may concern some (not me) is the changes that Lacan introduces into the linguistic conceptions of both Saussure and Jakobson in order to render them useful for his own formulations. I would of course be open to discussing this if anybody finds it of import, but if not, let us just leave it at that, that Lacanian linguistérie, as he puts it himself, is simply his linguisterie, and that’s that. In fact let me close this post quoting him as he addressed this issue. He writes,

When, beginning with the structure of language, I formulate metaphor in such a way as to account for what he [Freud] calls condensation in the unconscious, and I formulate metonymy in such a way as to provide the motive for displacement, they become indignant that I do not quote Jakobson (whose name would never have been suspected in my gang, if I had not pronounced it).

But when they finally read him and notice that the formula in which I articulate metonymy differs somewhat from Jakobson’s formula in that he makes Freudian displacement depend upon metaphor, then they blame me, as if I had attributed my formula to him.

In the next post I will move to describe in what ways Lacan’s use of these two concepts in his formulation of the unconscious lends itself to locating the political within the psychological, or in other words, to the understanding of political subjectivity. Meanwhile your feedback and comments are most welcome as always.

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19 Responses to The Unconscious: Metaphor and Metonymy

  1. Excellent – this has been helpful. I’m interested to see how the political fits in (particularly, the culturally/historically-located political).

  2. Thanks for the encouragement, Sara. I am actually finding it not so easy to do this in a blog format. I have a difficult time making up my mind in terms of the scope of each post, as well as both the length and the amount of details to get into. So I am learning as I go, and hopefully I’ll eventually get a hang of it all, meaning have a better sense of how to break down the ideas and so on. That’s an important aspect, I think, of why I am so interested in getting feedback from readers, so I can have a sense of how this is going.

  3. Very intressting, check this out:

    “Metaphors are a fundamental part of language, It’s hard to find a passage of everyday speech that doesn’t contain them. For all of the brilliant abstraction that the human mind is capable of—philosophy and law and science and government and so on—is it all a cooping of mental structures that are concrete and physical; and is metaphor a fundamental mechanism that allows us to apply Stone Age ways of thinking to abstract subject matters?”

    • Synecdoche (part for whole, and vice versa) and metaphor (one domain for another) both work by substitution. Metonymy however works by contiguity (association). Synecdoche is often confused with metonymy so maybe that’s where the confusion arises.

      • Synechdoche (part for the whole), cause for effect, container for contained, material for the object (ex.plastic for credit card) are all metonymies in the classic rhetorical sense and operate via substitution.
        For Lacan, the very signifying chain is metonymic!

  4. the first time i read the essay of Lacan, i did not get to decipher the meaning of the work, but through further readings of other works and presentations, mainly that of Paul Fry, i come out with sort of understanding of Lacanian’s concepts about the ”unconscious”.thanks a billian.

  5. Hi Sadeq,

    Thank you for the post and some explanation of some basics on Lacans theory about how desire is structured through metaphor and metonymy. I have However still some questions left and hope that you or some other lacan expert could give me some clarification. In your article, I think, you rely mostly on Lacans reading of Jacobson. However the part I want to understand is how the metaphor and metonymy structure the meaning of sign and the desire that circulates around it. It is a critique and rereading of Saussures distinction between signifier and signified. For Lacan the Signified is impossible to grasp – we can never attain some closed concept. The bar between signifier and signified can thus never totally be crossed. Thats why the the signifiers are structured like an endless metonymic chain of displacement. for instance we can endlessly circulate around an association of female ideality. Blond hair – toned body – nice smile – beauty but we can never really attain a complete concept of desire. However, we can attain some metaphorical identification where the “symptom” of our desire becomes visible through the movement of metaphor. It is this part which is really tricky for me, and I would be grateful if some lacan expert explained it in some detail with examples. Lacan says, as I understand it, that the substitution from one signifier with another initiates the crossing of the bar – or at least creates an effect which has similariries to the saussurian signified. This metaphorical initiation creates some stops – a pause in the metonymic movement of displacement. The problem for me is that this is a bit abstract for me.

    First of all, if desire is circulating around some kind of object, there must be some kind of symbolic structuring borders around this metonymic chain or we would be psychotic. If this is metaphor, how does it create some “borders” around the metonymic chain – some kind of order?

    Could someone give me an example on how metonymy – metaphor generates meaning? I am not sure I really understand the metaphor part and how it becomes a signified. Could it be like this: An girl is metonymically circulating around an female ideal like “lady gaga”. The chain is thus initiated by an identificial metaphor. She is doing all kind of crazy stuff which lady gaga prohibits her to. Like having a crazy hairstyle (metonymy) but the she initiates a kind of metaphorical leap. It is not about lady gaga anymore. There is a similarity between being a “lady gaga” monster and some political liberal ideal, she thus substitutes the lady gaga signifier of “monster” and becomes a leftwing politician. The symptom of her desire was thus a political issue and she is now changing the route into a new metonymical chain. Is this correct?

    • Hello Malte, and thank you for your great question. I am actually thankful also because your question has motivated me to continue this discussion on political subjectivity, which I have been meaning to get back to. So instead of trying to answer your question in a comment, I will try to answer you in a new posting, which I will write hopefully within a week or so…

  6. I am studying to sit an exam of Approaches to text and finding the Psychoanalytic Approach the hardest to grasp. But this page really helped me with Lacan. Thank you very much!

    • Thank you for this feedback, Lara. Glad to hear you’ve found this text helpful. I hope you continue to read future posts on the topic (like this one for example), and also to share your thoughts, questions and comments with us!

  7. Hi Sadeq Rahimi –
    I am impressed with your application of Lacanian theory to the political field – I am using it traditionally in psychoanalysis and in psychotherapy but seeing it applied in a wider range gives me insight into its universality – Lacan mentions Jonhn Donne in Sem VI and I am working on the application of metaphor & metonymy in different epochs and their respective approach to desire – so quite a different angle – but glad to know that the Lacanian ways are diverse….

  8. Hi Sadeq Rahimi –
    I am impressed with your application of Lacanian theory to the political field – I am using it traditionally in psychoanalysis and in psychotherapy but seeing it applied in a wider range gives me insight into its universality – Lacan mentions John Donne in Sem VI and I am working on the application of metaphor & metonymy in different epochs and their respective approach to desire – so quite a different angle – but glad to know that the Lacanian ways are diverse….

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  11. Thank you so much for writing this post! Can I ask why there are implications with this and the uncanny, self alienated self and others?

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