Chapter 7. The poetics of inhale, gap, exhale: the double signifier without a signified

A personal note as a pre-text (even if there are no pre-texts) to this entry:

Recently I got a tattoo over my left elbow on my triceps: It reads \frac{ARBRE}{BARRE}

I thought I did a great job, creating this tattoo and was very happy about it, until I re-read Lacan’s The Agency of the Letter in the unconscious or Reason since Freud where Lacan introduces the algorithm: 


Did I make a mistake? Did I mess up the tattoo? Changes cannot be made. Should the tattoo be written as 


which does not look good at all? Hence, I will try to argue for the aesthetic and poetic value of the tattoo even if it is slightly off of Lacan’s approach, or is it?

Jacques Lacan works with a simple algorithm: \frac{S}{s}1 The numerator equals the signifier, and the denominator equals the signified. Parallel to the linguistic structure one can argue, that the numerator symbolizes the inhale and the denominator the exhale. In between is the gap or the fraction line. Regarding Jean Starobinski Lacan talks about the anagram of the famous signifier used by Ferdinand de Saussure: the tree or in French arbre. The anagram of arbre is barre which equals the line between the two elements and also the gap. 

Now imagine an algorithm which can be read as follows: \frac{S}{S}

This means the signifier does not relate to a signified, but instead to another signifier which is also the anagram of the first: \frac{ARBRE}{BARRE} It seems that such a term is without any meaning. The ARBRE seems to represent the BARRE, which means, that it does represent itself but as an anagram to itself. The signified seems to be lost in translation. But could it be, that the signified is now the outside of the term itself, while every part of the term is represented within the meaning of the two words, even the fraction line, the gap, which has the task to keep signifier and signified at distance? There is no signified which will be signified in the process. This is a short circuit of meaning, a double blocking of representation. But this circuit constitutes the poetical structure of metaphors: but instead of putting random words for others this term is a special form of metaphor which puts the anagram of the signifier for the signifier. This short circuit also constitutes the relation of the anagram as a metonymy of the signifier: the trunk is a part of a tree, sure. The signified becomes the tertium datur of the metaphor and it occupies the gap. Just as inhale and exhale are metonymies of the breath, its tertium datur is the gap. 

No wonder, that it is the French word “esprit” which is “the word” par excellence as Lacan describes2. So, I truly followed the letter, haven’t I? And even if it is true, within the phonophallogocentric discourse, that “the letter killeth while the spirit giveth life”3, the anagrammatic play of ARBRE and BARRE opens up to an esprit, a breathing technique in the sheer materiality. On the one hand it shows a materiality which has its validity in the German words “Stammbaum” and “Baumstamm”. The first word means genealogy or family tree. The second means trunk. One might see how the interplay of trunk and tree becomes a genealogically important turn. 

On the other hand, one can read the term of “Stamm” and “Baum”, metaphor and metonymy, the double signifier without a signified as the game between essence and appearance. The essence which is always already withdrawn is communicated through the appearance. The ARBRE shows itself as a barre only floating on the level of the signifier never reaching to the essence, the signified, but showing and telling something about it through the anagrammatic chain of signifiers arbre, barre producing metaphors and metonymies. Therefore, the OOO approach to linguistics lies within the anagrammatic term of the doubled signifier without the signified. 

Harman states in his theory of metaphor regarding José Ortega y Gasset: “[…] all objects have a noumenal side […].”4 The Kantian differentiation of phenomenal and noumenal side of entities and its ethics of understanding humans “as ends in themselves” and not using them “as means to an end”5, is transferred by Ortega y Gasset to all objects especially if the consist of letters. That means, that no one has access to the thing in itself, e.g., the ARBRE’s ARBRE-in-it-self, but the barre and the BARRE-in-itself relates as appearance of the ARBRE, meaning as a phenomenal side to the noumenal side of the word (which has the ontological status of an object). Therefore, the double signifier without a signified is not a blockage, but an opening, an aperture. Does this apply only to anagrammatic structures or relations of signifiers?

What one might say, is, that in every metaphor, there is an anagrammatic metonymy working and vice versa. But it does not have to be an exact anagram like ARBRE and BARRE. It is worth noticing that it is not about a signified tree. Therefore, ARBRE and BARRE the signifiers without a signified tell nothing about an actual tree or an actual trunk, but the engage in an aesthetic literacy, which can also be called poetics. 

The signified which is left is us/we. Because both signifiers do not have a signified in the term 

\frac{ARBRE}{BARRE} “the real object that each of us is him- or herself.”6 Only because of one’s existence the relation becomes performable. We perform the two signifiers without a signified in its anagrammatic, hence metaphorical and metonymical interplay. 

“It is a matter, therefore, of defining the topography of this unconscious. I say that it is the very topography defined by the algorithm:


Lacan describes how the gap between essence and appearance, which is declared by Harman and others, comes into existence regarding the structure of the metonymy

“indicating that it is the connexion between signifier and signifier that permits the elision in which the signifier installs the lack-of-being in the object relation, using the value of ‘reference back’ possessed by signification in order to invest it with the desire aimed at the very lack it supports.”8

It is all about the –. It is the bar, the BARRE, the anagram which establishes the “resistance of signification”9 between signifier and signified. Now, what does the – establishes between the double/anagrammatic signifier without a signified? It is the metaphoric structure which comes with + as the transgression of the –, but with a withdrawn signified. Because this is the ontological disposition of all objects. The resistance of the signification is always the noumenal side of an object. Therefore, there is no transgression (or crossing as Lacan says) as “the condition of passage of the signifier into the signified”9 This is, because it is the condition of the subject itself. Lacan claims this as an achievement, but as Harman with Ortega y Gasset has shown, this subject function is the ontological condition of poetics and is represented by the code

\frac{S}{S} \text{≅} \sout{s}

The position of the subject is not restricted to human subjectivity, but can also be played by other objects, entities, actants, because it is the non-signified which becomes the subject. Take the ARBRE again and its anagram BARRE? Who or what is the subject to the term\frac{ARBRE}{BARRE}? It is every entity which is not there in the term the s, the ruled out signified, the without-a-signified. In the term the anagram as a function becomes a subject-constituting role. “I think where I am not, therefore I am where I do not think.”10 is the account of the double signifier without a signified. 

One consequence of such an operation is the loss of power over the process between signifier and signified or as it could be understood (in relation to a flat ontology) as a flat signification which is only working within a grammatological concept of writing/scripture. 

How many poets does it take to screw in a light bulb? Instead of an answer you will get the double signifier without a signified, a poem, Eduard Mörikes “Auf eine Lampe”:

Noch unverrückt, o schöne Lampe, schmückest du,
An leichten Ketten zierlich aufgehangen hier,
Die Decke des nun fast vergessnen Lustgemachs.
Auf deiner weissen Marmorschale, deren Rand
Der Efeukranz von goldengrünem Erz umflicht,
Schlingt fröhlich eine Kinderschar den Ringelreihn.
Wie reizend alles! lachend, und ein sanfter Geist
Des Ernstes doch ergossen um die ganze Form –
Ein Kunstgebild der echten Art. Wer achtet sein?
Was aber schön ist, selig scheint es in ihm selbst.

Although Martin Heidegger and Emil Staiger took turns in screwing in the light bulb11, it is the lamp itself which tries to be articulated through language. There is no signified lamp but a signifier lamp which turns itself like a Rubik’s cube. The essence of the lamp is already withdrawn. What the lamp tries to do is to communicate through its appearance and poetry. Mörike is just the crossed out signified which performs the double signifier “LAMP” and its anagram. As the poem shows the lamp is more and less than its parts (undermining) and it is not the lamp (overmining). The poem shows that a lamp is existing which is not a lamp and is not existing. It is a poem about a dialetheia. Why is Mörike talking about a lamp, clearly saying this poem is not about a lamp and therefore telling us about a lamp?

  1. Lacan 1977, 113 []
  2. Ibid., 120 []
  3. Ibid., 121 []
  4. Harman 2018, 69 []
  5. Ibid. 67 []
  6. Ibid. 87 []
  7. Lacan 1977, 124 []
  8. Ibid., 124-125 []
  9. Ibid., 125 [] []
  10. Ibid., 126 []
  11. Finkelde 2019, 73–85 []

By Martin Bartelmus

Martin Bartelmus is a Postdoctoral Scholar of German Literary, Media, and Cultural Theory at Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf. He studied German Literature, Philosophy, Political and Social Studies at Julius Maximilians University Würzburg and received his PhD in Media and Cultural Studies as part of the DFG graduate program “Materiality and Production” from Heinrich Heine University. His PhD-Thesis is entitled Cultural Born Killer: Poetics of Killing around 1900. Before joining the department of German Literature at Heinrich Heine University for his current postdoctoral position, he worked as a curator for the Museum of Natural History of the Benrath Palace and Park Foundation and as a freelancer for the Julia Stoschek Collection. He is interested in Animal and Plant Studies, killing in literature and film, French theory, Object-Oriented Ontology, and literature without humans.

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