Journal of Modern Literature 27.4 (2004) 82-92
[Access article in PDF]
"Creative Distortion"in Count Zero and Nova Express
Paul C. Grimstad
It will be found, in fact, that the ingenious are always fanciful, and the truly imaginative never otherwise than analytic.
While Jacques Lacan faithfully inherits the Freudian gesture of looking to literature for confirmation of his hunches, it is always with an imaginative twist. To briefly revisit a (perhaps too) well-known example, Lacan re-spins Sophocles' Oedipal triangle as the triangular intrigue of recognition dramatized in Edgar A. Poe's "The Purloined Letter,"1 where the human subject appears not in the fulfillment of an oracle's prophesized destiny, but in the differential negations of Saussurian signification. If the Sophoclean oracle programs the Freudian subject's fate in the triadic grid of the family scene, Lacan (via Poe) recasts that fate as something closer to a fine machinery of signifiers. The move from Freud to Lacan is thus a transformative slide from tragic prophesy to the relational circuitry of language, simultaneously displacing and preserving the psychoanalytic appeal to literature.
For this most Hegelian of psychoanalysts, the rotation of positions around the potentially incriminating letter of Poe's story generates a dynamic of desire and recognition that is constitutive [End Page 82] of the subject as such.2 This logic is made more explicit in Lacan's seminar on "The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious," given shortly after the seminar on the "The Purloined Letter." If in his reading of Poe's story the letter marks a site where the dialectical ricochets of intersubjective recognition become symbolically organized, in "The Instance of the Letter" this notion is formalized as an "algorithm"3 of the bipartite Saussurian sign. Phillipe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean Luc Nancy, in their book-length analysis of the seminar, describe Lacan's transformation of the sign into an "algorithm" as a
subjecting [of the] Saussurian sign to a certain treatment [faire subir un certain traitement au signe saussurian.]. To algorithmize the sign, if we can risk that expression, will practically mean to prevent [empêcher] it from functioning as a sign [but where] none of the concepts of [Saussure's] theory of the sign disappear: signifier, signified and signification are still there
The authors then quote directly from "The Instance of the Letter":
The thematics of this science [of the making algorithm of the Saussurian sign] is henceforth suspended, in effect, at the primordial position of the signifier and the signified as being distinct orders separated initially by a bar resisting signification. [comme d'ordres distincts et séparés initialement par une barrière résitante à la signification.]And [this] is what [is] to make possible an exact study of the connections proper to the signifier, and of the extent of their function in the genesis of the signified.
As with his transformative close readings of Freud, Lacan subjects the dyad of the Saussurian sign to "a certain treatment"; it is partitioned and atomized into its working pieces, and re-configured as a functioning operativity of distinct components in connection. Thus Lacan "creatively distorts"4 that Saussurian primal scene of an amorphous mass of thought (so many jostling signifieds) colliding with the plastic substance of phonetic articulation (so many waiting signifiers). What I am calling the Saussurian "primal scene" is described in the Cours like this: [End Page 83]
Psychologically our thought—apart from its expression in words—is only a shapeless [amorphe] and indistinct mass. Philosophers and linguists have always agreed in recognizing that without the help of signs we would be unable to make a clear-cut, consistent distinction between two ideas. Without language, thought is a vague uncharted nebula [une nébuleuse où rien n'est nécessairement délimité]. There are no pre-existing ideas, and nothing is distinct before the appearance of language [. . .] phonic substance is neither more fixed nor more rigid than...