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Subject of the Enunciation/Subject of the Statement
Le sujet de l’énonciation/le sujet de l’énoncé

A central component of Lacan’s theory of the subject, the split nature of the subject in speech – via the difference between the grammatical ‘I’ of the statement and the unconscious ‘I’ of the enunciation – was a point of reference for much of the Cahiers pour l’Analyse.

The difference between the subject of the enunciation and the subject of the statement was a key element in the Lacanian theory of the subject, which evolved over the course of Lacan’s career. There are two texts in the Lacanian corpus where this distinction receives its fullest exposition: Lacan’s article ‘The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire in the Freudian Unconscious’ (1960), reproduced in Écrits, and the text of his lesson titled ‘Analysis and Truth or the Closure of the Unconscious’ (1964) in his eleventh seminar, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis.

Lacan’s claim is that the subject is irrevocably split between the subject who speaks – the ‘I’ of the enunciation – and the grammatical ‘I’ that represents the subject in the statement [énoncé]. In Lacan’s view, apparent logical paradoxes such as ‘I am lying’ are generated out of a failure to recognize this distinction, which, Lacan suggests, is essentially unproblematic in itself (S XI, 138-39). While the distinction may be unproblematic, the relation between the two ‘subjects’ is not, and is in fact a central concern of Lacan’s theory in the early 1960s. In ‘The Subversion of the Subject’, Lacan addresses the relation as follows:

Once the structure of language is recognized in the unconscious, what sort of subject can we conceive for it?

In a concern for method, we can try to begin here with the strictly linguistic definition of I as signifier, where it is nothing but the shifter or indicative that, qua grammatical subject of the statement, designates the subject insofar as he is currently speaking.

That is to say, it designates the enunciating subject, but does not signify him. This is obvious from the fact that there may be no signifier of the enunciating subject in the statement – not to mention that there are signifiers that differ from I, and not only those that are inadequately called cases of the first person singular, even if we add that it can be lodged in the plural invocation or even in the Self [Soi] of auto-suggestion (E, 800/677).

Lacan goes on to suggest that the subject of the enunciation can in fact be detected in various expletives throughout the statement, e.g., the French ne, an element which is sometimes grammatically unnecessary but which adds ‘force’ to a statement. These signifiers signify something apart from the apparent, immediate or strictly grammatical meaning of the sentence. Lacan’s concern here is ‘the right way to answer the question “Who is speaking?” when the subject of the unconscious is at stake’ (E, 800/677).

Indeed, conceptually, the subject of the enunciation is intimately related to the subject of the unconscious, and in this period of Lacan’s writings we might read the two formulations as roughly equivalent. In Seminar XI, Lacan develops the distinction between the subject of the enunciation and the subject of the statement further, specifically around the example of ‘I am lying’:

[The] division between the statement and the enunciation means that, in effect, from the I am lying which is at the level of the chain of the statement – the am lying is a signifier, forming part, in the Other, of the treasury of vocabulary in which the I, determined retroactively, becomes a signification, engendered at the level of the statement, of what it produces at the level of the enunciation – what results is an I am deceiving you. The I am deceiving you arises from the point at which the analyst awaits the subject, and sends back to him, according to the formula, his own message in its true signification, that is to say, in an inverted form. He says to him – in this I am deceiving you, what you are sending as message is what I express to you, and in doing so you are telling me the truth (S XI, 139-40).

The retroactive determination in play here is essential in that the ‘truth’ of the unconscious subject, or the subject of the enunciation, can only be designated via the chain of signification at the level of the statement. In this regard, Lacan’s theory of the subject is consistent with his emphasis on the primacy of the signifier and the chain of signification, as well as with his refusal to consider the unconscious as a vital or substantive depth that it is the task of analysis to access.

In the Cahiers pour l’Analyse

In his ‘Réponses à des étudiants en philosophie sur l’objet de la psychanalyse’ (CpA 3.1), which opens Volume 3 of the Cahiers, Lacan alludes to the split between the subject of the enunciation and the subject of the statement in his clarification of his remarks concerning the relation between the subject and consciousness in the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Lacan notes, via Merleau-Ponty’s reformulation of the Cartesian cogito, that there is a ‘moment’ when subject and consciousness coincide, but this moment is not exhaustive. He develops the point as follows:

It is, on the contrary, at that moment of coincidence itself, in so far as it is grasped by reflection, that I intend to mark the site through which psychoanalytic experience makes its entrance. At simply being sustained within time, the ‘I think’ reveals what it is: the being of a fall. I am that which thinks: ‘Therefore I am’, as I have commented elsewhere, noting that the ‘therefore’, the causal stroke, divides inaugurally the ‘I am’ of existence from the ‘I am’ of meaning (CpA 3.1:5, trans. 107).

In her contribution to volume three, Luce Irigaray develops further the Lacanian theory of the subject and Jacques-Alain Miller’s account suture by introducing the element of gender into the problematic and its bearing on communication. Irigaray argues that the gap between the indeterminate pronouns ‘I’ and ‘you’, on the one side, and the determinate, divided third-person he1, on the other, is the basic condition for the fundamental division between the subject of enunciation and the subject of the statement. ‘The constitution of the he1 permits the disjunction of the “I” itself into (I), as subject of enunciation, and “I” as subject of the statement’ (CpA 3.3:43, trans. 13). What I say is different from how I say it, that is, the position from which I say it. The distinction between enunciation and statement leads to new possibilities for communication.

Indeed, the split into subject of the enunciation and statement gives rise to the possibility of a new self-relationship of the subject, and on that basis, a changed relationship to others. I can take myself, me, as my own object. I can make myself an object for the other, or make the other an object for me. At the one pole, if the subject ‘turns itself into an object’ for the other, it does so at the risk of being possessed or captured by the other. At the other pole, the subject can make use of its powers of enunciation merely to retreat into self-referentiality, evicting the second-person (the ‘you’) from discourse altogether: in that case, ‘discourse turns back on itself, forms a loop. It envelops the subject, imprisons it in its own circularity and repetitions’ (44/14). Irigaray’s analysis seeks a middle position between these two extremes.

In his reading of Freud’s seminal text ‘A Child is Being Beaten’ (1919) in Volume 7, Jacques Nassif addresses the distinction between the enunciation and the statement and the limits of establishing, in this case, the transmutation from the former to the latter in the discourse of fantasy: ‘Above all nothing allows us to say that there is any relation to be established between the subject, or rather the author of the fantasy, and the grammatical subject of its verbalisation (still the child as passive subject), (between the subject of enunciation and subject of the statement), because when these permutations are brought to light, they do not involve any metonymic transformation through “contiguity”, nor a metaphoric transformation through “similarity”’ (CpA 7.4:80).

Volume 9 opens with Michel Foucault’s response to questions put to him by the Cercle d’Épistémologie. In his response, Foucault emphasizes the need for a discursive analysis to focus on the level of the statement [énoncé] in a broad and historical sense. ‘Effective statements’ [énoncés effectifs] in Foucault’s rubric are considered the ‘facts of discourse’ [faits du discours] (CpA 9.2:16). Foucault finds the liability of the Lacanian approach in the notion that ‘the manifest discourse would only be the depressive presence of what it does not say; and the non-said would be a hollow that animates from the interior all that is said […]. These themes, which function to guarantee the infinite continuity of discourse and its secret presence to itself in the action of an absence that is always one state farther back, must be renounced’ (CpA 9.2:16). In the Lacanian formulation the subject of the enunciation subtending the subject of the statement is always reducible to a singular absence or lack. Foucault’s model of discourse analysis is an alternative that is putatively more pluralistic in that it recognizes the differences among various historical discourses and their irreducibility to a constitutive lack or ‘subject’. In their further questions for Foucault, however, the Cercle d’Épistémologie continues to put pressure on the notion of statement [énoncé] operative in Foucault’s analysis (CpA 9.3:43). In particular, the concern is that Foucault’s concept is too ambiguous, operating on several levels at once, and that its unity as a concept is insufficiently specific for the work Foucault wants it to do in his framework. Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969) can be read as an effort to respond to this challenge.

n Jacques-Alain Miller’s ‘Action de la structure’ (CpA 9.6), one of the key programmatic statements of the Cahiers, the Lacanian distinction between the subject of the enunciation and the subject of the statement is mobilized in an assessment of science, and in particular the function of the subject and the unconscious in science. Miller poses the problem as follows:

If we might agree to call the field of the statement [énoncé] the field where logic establishes itself, and the field of speech [parole] that of psychoanalysis – then, anticipating our future knowledge, we will declare the need for a new position in the space of language, and will produce this proposition: that any field in which the question ‘is it scientific or not?’ has cardinal importance is to be constituted as a field of discourse (CpA 9.6:100).

Miller then addresses how any logical discourse always functions as something of a code, i.e., it is reducible to a set of rules devoid of virtual dimension in which these statements might be doubled. But this aspect of logic does not explain or help clarify how logic, the discourse of science, is itself communicated in the linguistic field of speech where this virtual dimension is always in play. ‘The code, necessary to the production of speech but absent from the speech enunciated by the subject, does not belong to the emitting subject, and cannot be situated in its place; reception requires it as well, and it is necessary to situate it in the exponentialised dimension of otherness that we evoked above’ (CpA 9.6:100).

In effect, then, Miller is attempting to apply Lacan’s distinction between the subject of the enunciation and the subject of the statement – a split which is itself the condition of possibility for the suture that establishes the subject tout court – to the discourse of science. In ‘Marque et manque: à propos du zéro’ (CpA 10.8), Alain Badiou will develop a conception of scientific writing as uncontaminated by this fundamental split, relegating the split function of the subject to communication in the field of ideology alone.

Select bibliography

  • Foucault, Michel. L’Archéologie du savoir. Paris: Gallimard, 1969. The Archaeology of Knowledge, trans. Alan Sheridan, New York: Harper and Row, 1972.
  • Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. Écrits, trans. Bruce Fink, in collaboration with Héloïse Fink and Russell Grigg. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.
  • ---. Le Séminaire, livre XI: Les quatre concepts fondamentaux de la psychanalyse, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1973. Seminar IX: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Penguin, 1977.