Throughout his career, Lacan was working on the deliteralisation of Freudian concepts. What are these concepts that Lacan was working on?
In Fink’s translation of ‘The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious’ in the Écrits (1957), Lacan writes the following (p 438, my emphasis):
“Then how do you explain the fact that a scholar like Erasmus […] could hold such an eminent place in the revolution brought about by a Reformation in which man has as much of a stake in each man as in all men? It is by touching, however lightly, on man’s relation to the signifier – in this case, by changing the process of exegesis – that one changes the course of history by changing the moorings of his being.”
Here we can read the opening up of the first kind of gap through the effects of emancipating reading qua the interpretation of a text. What is at stake with the deliteralisation of Freudian concepts is, at the very least, the way in which we take up the second gap in experiencing the effects of emancipation of authorship. In referring to the moorings of man’s being, Lacan continues (pp 438-439, original emphasis):
“If I speak of the letter and being, if I distinguish the other from the Other, it is because Freud suggests them to me as the terms to which resistance and transference effects refer […] if the symptom is a metaphor, it is not a metaphor to say so, any more than it is to say that man’s desire is metonymy. For the symptom is a metaphor, whether one likes it or not, just as desire is a metonymy, even if man scoffs at the idea.”
When an individual authorises an ‘other’ as knowing better than her- or himself what s/he ‘really really wants’, there is an implicit distinction being made between a social other and an unconscious Other qua unthought known, the individual transferring some aspect of their identifications onto the other in the way s/he takes up her or his being. To deliteralise here means not to take signifiers literally, i.e. not to take the signifier as determining the meaning below the bar in the signifier-signified relation. The individual must take back authority over the way s/he uses signifiers to make meaning above the bar, ‘owning’ the vagueness that is the necessary corollary of the second gap. To say that the unthought known of the behaviour-as-symptom is a metaphor is thus to say that there is an unconscious Other.
But Lacan is going still further here in saying that desire is a metonymy, i.e. that this unconscious Other has no necessary relation to an individual’s experience of residual wanting or lacking. Lacan is addressing the third gap between what the individual takes to be ‘true’ and her or his relation to desire. We start from Freud’s distinction in ‘The Unconscious’ between a descriptive unconscious, i.e. an ‘unthought known’, and the wider compass of an unconscious that we may refer to as ‘radically unconscious’:
“Everything that is repressed must remain unconscious; but let us state at the very outset that the repressed does not cover everything that is unconscious. The unconscious has the wider compass: the repressed is a part of the unconscious”
The metonymy is in relation to a radically unconscious structure of the drive, in which there is a metonymic relation between the drive per se and the object-relating and aim implicit in the individual’s behaviours. Having said that the unconscious unthought known is structured like a language is structured, Lacan’s deliteralisation of Freudian concepts thus further extends to how we understand the relation to the structure of the drive itself. It is the pursuit of this second deliteralisation that takes Lacan into his third phase and into the topologising of the relation to the radically unconscious. This is constituted by the Borromean knotting of three torus surfaces identified with the Imaginary, Symbolic and Real. Something more than deliteralisation becomes necessary and the structure of the signifier-signified relation is no longer adequate.