I have been intending to return and continue the two lines of discussion I had started earlier concerning the broader theme of political subjectivity and the more specific issue of metonymic and metaphoric functions for a while now, but too many things stopped me from doing so. Thankfully a recent comment/question by Malte about my earlier posting on metaphor and metonymy offered me the reason to come back and write. I hope this short text will be the first of a new set of further discussions around the theme of subjectivity, and specifically a discussion of the central roles of meaning and power in the formation of subjectivity, which I intend to address under the rubric of political subjectivity.
Malte’s main question was how we can understand the fact that despite what Lacan describes as the infinite slippage of signifiers (on the metonymic axis) we are able to think and act as if signifiers were either actually attached to a signified or bound by some kind of a border that keeps them from the infinite sliding that would normally be experienced as or called psychotic.
Let me start with the straight forward answer to this problem, which will also be useful for us to eventually segue back to talk more about the metaphor/metonymy topic. The basic answer to Malte’s question comes directly from Lacan, in the form of the metaphor of quilting points or ‘points de capiton’. Points de capiton do what they do, i.e. stabilize or anchor meaning systems, by introducing ad-hoc “centers” into the system in the absence of Logos. They manage to do so by effectively producing a knot or tie in the (horizontal) chain of signifiers through the (vertical) metaphoric function. In other words, not too different from the upholstery pin that holds the horizontal structure (the temporal system of signifiers, the metonymic register) together by the virtue of a vertical tie (an atemporal harkening or invocation, the metaphoric function).
Lacan even has a schema for this idea, which he calls the graph of desire. I won’t get into its details here, you can read more about that in his ‘The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire in the Freudian Unconscious’ (a talk he gave in 1960, see Écrits, pp. 671- 702), or his Seminar V: The formations of the unconscious. In its most basic form, the schema looks as follows (you will notice that I have slightly modified Lacan’s schema to better reflect my points here):
Here S and S’ stand for two signifiers within the chain of signification (which flows from S to S’, unfolding in time), while delta (∆) stands for the pre-symbolized subject and the barred S ($) stands for the subject of meaning, or subject of the symbolic order.
As indicated by the directions of the two vectors, while the metonymic vector flows “forward”, the metaphoric function rises to cross the metonymic plane (bridging, as it were, the imaginary and the symbolic registers), and then flows backwards (in time, which holds within the symbolic only) and downwards. The “backward” direction of the metaphoric vector can be interpreted to stand for two features of metaphor: a) that it “lends” or “inspires” meaning retroactively within the unfolding (metonymic) chain of signifiers, and b) that it “harks” back to the lost object. Notice that Object petit a (which is an important notion for our discussion and I will very likely come back to it in later posts), is for Lacan the pivot around which this turn of the metaphoric function and its dance with the metonymic vector takes shape. Object petit a, in other words, is a “solid” (as concrete as psychological phenomena can be) spot introduced into the psychic apparatus from “the Other” (language, etc.) and around which desire and meaning are spun.
It is in this context that we need to locate and understand the two fundamental and fundamentally distinct functions of the metonymic and the metaphoric processes: while the metonymic force flows, unfolds or “pushes” forward and up, the metaphoric force draws or “pulls” backward and down. With a strong warning that what I am saying here must not be read in a literal sense, let me say a bit more on these two functions (I would invite anybody interested in a more detailed discussion of this to read my upcoming paper on the pantemporality of psychic events).
The so-called forces that I just attributed to metaphoric and metonymic functions are in fact associated with very fundamental processes that appear in a variety of guises in diverse discourses (again, I will hopefully have a more detailed discussion of this idea in a later post). In the most basic sense, you can think of these in terms of their expressions vis a vis “the lost object”: they both “promise” a return to or regaining of the lost object, but they each offer that in a different modality. The metonymic process “promises” the reunification through symbolic representation/discovery, while the metaphoric process offers the promise of reunification through some kind of a direct return or contact with the original thing. These basic features explain much of the differences in function and dynamics associated with either of these two poles and the “force” identified with each. To use a very basic analogy, think of the difference between the typical religious reference to and nostalgia for a lost state of blissful unity with God to which the pious long and hope to return, versus the range of modernist promises for a utopian future for achieving which the believer needs to struggle (whether through scientific effort or revolutionary dedication, etc.).
While the metonymic push leads to a ceaseless process of unfolding, expansion and complexification within the symbolic order, the metaphoric pull leads to a multi-layering of meaning imbued with poetic (nostalgic) depth and paranoid ambiguity. To put it differently, if the metonymic force is associated with “up and forward” oriented manic defense, the metaphoric force is associated with “down and backward” oriented melancholic identification (you might want to see Winnicott’s wonderful paper, “The Manic Defence” on the manic/depressive poles and their clinical and symbolic manifestations). These two forces should indeed be understood as the most centrally defining features of the metonymic and metaphoric functions that work together to make possible the fundamental features of subjectivity, namely meaning (and hence desire and power) and temporality.
The metaphoric function, which as I just mentioned promises a direct (albeit illusory) connection to the lost object, melds with the metonymic function to on the one hand introduce into the chain of signification an (illusory) experience of meaning or reference to a signified, and on the other hand inspire (by helping bring to existence object a) desire, which then “flows” endlessly through the chain of signifiers. This so-called melding and the associated processes take place around the ad-hoc and illusory point of reference that Lacan has termed objet petit a, which is simultaneously an anchor at the center of point de capiton and a source of movement as “object cause of desire” for the system.
There are just too many tempting directions and topics in this discussion to possibly address adequately in a single post, so I will stop here, hoping that my answer has at least addressed the question raised by Malte, and hoping also to continue with this discussion shortly, specifically insofar as it connects us to the central issues of meaning, power and political subjectivity. As always, looking forward to your comments and questions.