You are here: Home / Concepts / Unary trait

This project is funded by an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) research grant and is supported by the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy (CRMEP) and Kingston University's Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.

AHRC logo

CRMEP logo

Unary trait
Le trait unaire

A concept developed by Jacques Lacan to express the minimal formal structure of identification, the ‘unary trait’ is taken up and developed in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse by Jacques-Alain Miller and Serge Leclaire.

See also:

The phrase trait unaire is Jacques Lacan’s translation of a term from Freud’s chapter on identification in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921). Developing his account of the identification of hysterics with their love objects, Freud suggests that identification in such cases ‘is a partial and extremely limited one and only borrows a single trait [nur einen einzigen Zug] from the person who is its object’ (SE 18: 107).1 Lacan makes a distinction between two types of identification, imaginary and symbolic. Initially, the child identifies with, or ‘assumes’, an image from its surrounding environment. But this type of identification is intrinsically unstable, and requires a further, properly symbolic identification. In Seminar VIII on Transference (1960-61) Lacan suggests that in the passage from Group Psychology Freud is drawing attention to a primordial act of symbolic identification with the father, ‘anterior to the very outline of the Oedipus situation […]. It is starting from this primordial identification that there would arise the desire towards the mother and, from then on, by a reversal, the father would be considered a rival’. The narcissistic, imaginary relationship to the ideal ego ‘depends on the possibility of being referred to this primordial symbolic term which can be monoformal, monosemantic, ein einziger Zug’.2

The unary trait is thus the formal basis for the signifier, conceived in its difference from the sign. Philippe van Haute, reading Lacan’s essay ‘Subversion of the Subject’ (1960), explains that ‘identification with a unary trait’ of an Other allows a subject to ‘relate to the Other without failing to recognise her alterity and immediately reducing her to an equal.’ Such identification doesn’t involve imitation of a total object or entire person but rather incorporation of a characteristic but relatively minor feature or gesture. ‘The child identifies, in other words, not with the other as a whole - as Gestalt - but only with a detail that is insignificant in itself.’ A unary trait serves as a trivial ‘emblem’ that can nevertheless evoke the ‘omnipotence’ of the Other: van Haute gives the example of a student who might unconsciously imitate the way a respected professor ‘walks or talks, or even the way she turns the pages of her lecture notes.’3

The ‘punctual character of this point of reference to the Other [le caractère ponctuel de ce point de référence à l’Autre]’ is elaborated further in the seminars of the 1960s. In Seminar IX on Identification, Lacan says the function of the unary trait is linked to an ‘extreme reduction […] of all opportunities for qualitative difference’.4 He suggests an example of the unary trait is found in the notches on bones made by Neolithic hunters, which are not yet enumerations, but collections of units.5 In Seminar X, Anxiety, Lacan describes the objet petit a as ‘the residue of the division when the subject is marked by the unary trait of the signifier in the field of the Other.’6 In this regard, the phenomenon of the unary trait is intimately related to the emergence of the proper name, which functions as an inscription in the field of the Other that marks the radical alterity, i.e., the difference in itself, that creates a subject for another subject. The link between the proper name and the unary trait was already intimated in Freud’s work, for example in Totem and Taboo. But whereas for Freud the concern was chiefly for the embodied subject’s relation to embodied others, for Lacan the inscription coterminous with the unary trait is a matter of the subject’s emergence in language as such.

In Seminar XII, Crucial Problems for Psychoanalysis, Lacan returns to the ‘primordial identification’ with the unary trait in the session immediately following Jacques-Alain Miller’s ‘Suture’ (CpA 1.3). He says that the subject cannot be established without reference to a ‘pulsation’ that is ‘imaged so well by this oscillation from the zero to the one’. There is ‘a primary relationship between the position of the subject and the birth of the one’, but ‘it requires precisely the reflective meditation of someone who is a practitioner of numbers to perceive that the one of enumeration is something different’ from this primary unary trait. ‘The Other is joined not to the similar, but to the same, and the question of the reality of the Other […] should be pushed to the level of this repetition of the one which establishes it in its essential heterogeneity’.7 Lacan’s attempts to reduce and formalise the basic relation of identification are taken up and elaborated in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse through an analysis of Gottlob Frege’s theory of number.

In the Cahiers pour l’Analyse

In ‘Psychologie et logique’ (CpA 1.2), Yves Duroux returns to Frege’s account in The Foundations of Arithmetic (1884) of the ambiguity of the term Einheit (translated as ‘unity’).8 An Einheit may be understood as a unit or component in a set, but it may also denote the name One, that is, the name of the number 1. Logically speaking, a collection or set of units is not yet a number. In order to arrive at the possibility of enumeration, the ‘one’ must be conceived as a number and placed in a series. Frege achieves this by deriving the series of natural numbers from the mere concept of zero. Thus for Frege, ‘unity’ or Einheit first of all refers to a mere ‘unit’, while the number ‘one’ is in turn generated by a logical operation on the concept of zero. Duroux notes how Frege’s analysis of the concept of unity subtracts it from psychological and idealist accounts of unity as the product of an act of synthesis.

In ‘Suture: Éléments de la logique du signifiant’ (CpA 1.3), Jacques-Alain Miller argues that Frege’s account of the generation of the zero and the one in the Foundations of Arithmetic can be deployed to explain the logic of the signifier in Lacanian psychoanalysis. The exclusion of the primary zero (the ‘absolute’ zero of the non-identical) from the chain of numerical succession is akin to the exclusion of the unconscious subject from the signifying chain. The construction of the zero as a number - in such a way that ‘it subsumes as its sole object the number zero’ - allows for the generation of the number 1. ‘The counting of the 0 as 1 (whereas the concept of the zero subsumes nothing in the real but a blank) is the general support of the series of numbers’ (CpA 1.3:47; trans. 32). Developing the analogy between the construction of the series of numbers and the construction of the signifying chain in the first relations between subject and Other, Miller infers that ‘the exclusion of the subject outside the field of the Other is its representation in that field in the form of the one of the unique, the one of distinctive unity, which is called “unary” by Lacan’ (ibid). As well as formalising Lacan’s account of the unary trait, Miller’s emphasis on the representation of a structurally excluded element by means of a placeholder implicitly recalls Althusser’s conception of structural causality, in which the determinant instance of the economy cannot be presented as such, but is rather represented inside the structure by a particular, displaced representative.9

Miller concludes ‘Suture’ by noting that in the logic of the signifier, what is involved is no longer merely a succession of numbers, but a ‘summation of the subject in the field of the Other’, and that it is necessary to ‘disarticulate’ this summation ‘in order to separate the unary trait of emergence, and the bar of the reject, thereby making manifest the division of the subject which is the other name for its alienation’ (CpA 1.3:49/34). Miller’s account of primordial identification is thus purely formal, removing all reference to the figures of the mother and father.

In his article on the logic of Lacan’s concept of the objet petit a (CpA 3.2) André Green remarks that Miller’s exposition in ‘Suture’ ‘is of interest in that it captures the structure of concatenation’ (CpA 3.2:23; trans. 172). ‘Not only does the subject cut himself off from the signifying stage and from the signifying chain by the very fact of being established as a subject in the structure of concatenation, but, furthermore, the first of these objects functions simultaneously as a concept and an object, not represented but named as a unary object and as a concept of the non-identical to itself’ (ibid). The ‘zero’, as what Miller calls ‘the first non-real thing in thought’ (CpA 1.3:44; trans. 30) is both the ground of the ‘unary’, and ‘a concept that threatens truth, insofar as it is not subject to questioning (hors-jeu) and not subjective (hors-je)’ (CpA 3.2:23; trans. 172).

In the second session of ‘Compter avec la psychanalyse’, Serge Leclaire discusses the objet petit a as ‘non-unarisable’. ‘It is this fallen remainder [ce reste chu] of signifying concatenation, incapable of being integrated by it, although it cannot do without it to support itself. The object is first of all this non-unarisable [non-unarisable] remainder, in the sense of the unary aspect of the signifier; it is defined as pre-unary, or, to take up the formulation that was employed with relation to the body, as the non-dual [le non-deux]’ (CpA 3.6:92).

Select bibliography

  • Badiou, Alain. ‘Le (Re)commencement du matérialisme dialectique’. Critique 23/240 (May 1967): 438-467.
  • Evans, Dylan. ‘Identification’. In An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis. London: Routledge, 1996.
  • Haute, Philippe van. Against Adaptation: Lacan’s ‘Subversion of the Subject’, trans. Paul Crowe and Miranda Vankerk. New York: Other Press, 2002.
  • Lacan, Jacques Écrits (1966), trans. Bruce Fink, in collaboration with Héloïse Fink and Russell Grigg. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.
  • ---. Seminar VIII: Transference (1960-1961), trans. Cormac Gallagher, unpublished manuscript.
  • ---. Seminar IX: Identification (1961-1962), trans. Cormac Gallagher, unpublished manuscript.
  • ---. Le Séminaire Livre X: L’angoisse (1962-1963), ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 2004.
  • ---. Seminar XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Penguin, 1977.
  • ---. Seminar XII: Crucial Problems for Psychoanalysis (1964-1965), trans. Cormac Gallagher, unpublished manuscript.


1. English translations of Lacan render trait unaire as ‘unbroken line’, ‘single stroke’ or ‘unitary trait’ (Dylan Evans, An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis, ‘Identification’, 81), or sometimes as ‘specific trait’ (e.g. Philippe van Haute, Against Adaptation, 94ff.).

2. Jacques Lacan, Seminar VIII, Transference, 24th session, 7 June 1961, 12.

3. Philippe van Haute, Against Adaptation, 95-96.

4. Seminar IX, Identification, 4th session, 6 December 1961, 7.

5. Seminar IX, Identification, 4th session, 6 December 1961, 8. See also Seminar XI, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 11th session, 22 April 1964, 141, where the tattoo is also added to the list of prehistoric unary traits.

6. Seminar X, Angoisse, 28 November 1962. See also 21 November for a recapitulation of Lacan’s account of the unary trait as the primordial form of the signifier.

7. Seminar XII, Crucial Problems for Psychoanalysis, 10th session, 3 March 1965, 9.

8. Gottlob Frege, Foundations of Arithmetic, §29, §54.

9. As Alain Badiou puts it in his ‘Le (Re)commencement du matérialisme dialectique’, ‘insofar as [the structure] is determinant, it nevertheless remains “invisible”, not being presented in the constellation of instances, only represented’ (457).