“That there are in the unconscious signifying chains which subsist as such, and which from there structure, act on the organism, influence what appears from the outside as a symptom, this is the whole basis of analytic experience” (Seminar V, 21.05.58., p.7).

In this post I wanted to look at several passages from Lacan’s work that I think are particularly useful in getting to grips with the notion of the signifier. This is a crucial concept for Lacanian psychoanalysis, as the quote from Lacan above attests, but one which he borrows from linguistics and injects into psychoanalytic discourse. Perhaps for this reason, the signifier is an alien concept for people who are interested in psychoanalysis but are more familiar with Freud’s work. Freud does not use the concept of the signifier – indeed, there are no references to ‘signifier’ in the indexes of the Standard Edition – but Lacan all the same attempts to tease it out of Freud’s text to justify its introduction at the heart of his own approach to analysis.

I have chosen several passages from Lacan’s Seminar, both published and unpublished, and provided commentary below. I hope this article both clarifies what the signifier means for Lacan and distinguishes it from related concepts, specifically, the sign, the trace, the signified and the subject.

What can Robinson Crusoe tell us about the signifier?

The first three quotations we will look at come from Seminars III, V and VI respectively. The little story he relates from Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is one that we find repeated in several places in his work from this time, the so-called ‘Return to Freud’ period.

“Let’s begin with the biological sign. In the very structure, in the morphology, of animals there is something that has this captivating value due to which its receiver, who sees the red of the robin redbreast for instance, and who is made for receiving it, undertakes a series of actions or henceforth unitary behaviour that links the bearer of this sign to its perceiver. Here you have what gives us a precise idea of what may be called natural meaning. Without otherwise seeking how this might take place in man, it is clear that by means of a series of transitions we can manage to purify, neurtralise, the natural sign.
Then there is the trace, the footprint in the sand, the sign about which Robinson Crusoe makes no mistake. Here sign and object separate. The trace, in its negative aspect, draws the natural sign to a limit at which it becomes evanescent. The distinction between sign and object is quite clear here, since the trace is precisely what the object leaves behind once it has gone off somewhere else. Objectively there is no need for any subject to recognise a sign for it to be there – a trace exists even if there is nobody to look at it.
When have we passed over into the order of the signifier? The signifier may extend over many of the elements within the domain of the sign. But the signifier is a sign that doesn’t refer to any object, not even to one in the form of a trace, even though the trace nevertheless heralds the signifier’s essential feature. It, too, is the sign of an absence. But insofar as it forms part of language, the signifier is a sign which refers to another sign, which is as such structured to signify the absence of another sign, in other words, to be opposed to it in a couple” (Seminar III, p.167).

In this passage Lacan wants to make clear the difference between a sign, a trace and a signifier. Let’s summarise what he says about each:

  • The sign is the equivalent to the code in the animal kingdom. It is a complete equivalence of thing and meaning that allows for no ambiguity. Waving a red rag in front of a bull, for example, is like a code for it to attack – the red has a fixed meaning and the bull does not interpret it in any other, more ‘poetic’ way.
  • The trace is the mark of an absence, a missing object like the foot in the sand of Man Friday.
  • The signifier is a sign without any referent. It does not refer to anything, although it shares with the trace absence as its fundamental feature.

Signifier and trace are the same in that there is both an absence, but in the case of the signifier that absence is not the absence of the foot. The foot does not need to have once been there for the footprint in the sand to operate as a signifier because a signifier does not refer to something that is lost, but simply to other signifiers. In saying at the end of this passage that, as part of language, the signifier is a sign which refers to another sign’s absence Lacan is referring to how a signifier denotes opposition. Light becomes the opposite of dark, for instance; we only know light as the absence of dark. Perhaps an even simpler example of this would be the oppositions of zeros and ones in binary code. There is a relationship of mutual opposition in the way signifiers work in a language system.

Lacan expands on the difference between the trace and the signifier with reference to Robinson Crusoe again, this time in Seminar VI a few years later:

“I spoke to you about Robinson Crusoe and about the footstep, the trace of Friday’s footprint, and we dwelt a little while on the following: is this already the signifier, and I told you that the signifier begins, not with the trace, but with whatever effaces the trace, and it is not the effaced trace which constitutes the signifer, it is something which poses itself as being able to be effaced, which inaugurates the signifier. In other words, Robinson Crusoe effaces the trace of Friday’s footprint, but what does he put in its place? If he wants to preserve the place of Friday’s footprint, he needs at least a cross, namely a bar and another bar across it. This is the specific signifier. The specific signifier is something which presents itself as being itself able to be effaced and which subsists precisely in this operation of effacing as such. I mean that the effaced signifier already presents itself as such with the properties proper to the unsaid. In so far as I cancel the signifier with the bar, I perpetuate it as such indefinitely, I inaugurate the dimension of the signifier as such. Making a cross is properly speaking something that does not exist in any form of locating that is permitted in any way. You must not think that non-speaking beings, the animals, do not locate things, but they do not do it intentionally with something said, but with traces of traces…. What man leaves behind him is a signifier, it is a cross, it is a bar, qua barred, qua overlaid by another bar which indicates on the one hand that as such it has been effaced” (Seminar VI, 10.12.58., p.3).

Again, we see Lacan describing the footprint in the sand as a trace of the object that is missing – the foot. But it differs from the signifier in that the trace, by contrast, still has an actual referent – Man Friday. If Robinson Crusoe comes along and erases the footprint-trace, but in the place where it once was puts a completely arbitrary marker – a cross, for instance – this constitutes a signifier. What makes this a signifier rather than a trace is that any object can stand in the place of the trace. It does not need to be a footprint because it does not need to have any real-world connection to the thing represented. It can be substituted for any other object because it does not matter as an object but only insofar as it takes its place in the structure with reference to other objects which also function as signifiers. If we think of a game of chess – it is not necessary to have little miniature kings, queens and rooks to play – you can use any objects in place of those pieces as long as they obey the same rules as the ones they were substituted for. What matters is the rules of the game, which corresponds to the structure and rules of language, rather than the pieces you play with, which are totally substitutable. What makes humans who use language different from animals is that we do not need the trace of the missing object to be able to signify something.

A year previously, whilst delivering Seminar V, Lacan again makes the point that the trace is not a signifier, but here he does accept that the signifier can take as its material the trace, or even that the signifier requires something of the trace to be a signifier proper:

“If we notice what is specific in the fact, not of a trace, becasuse a trace is a imprint, it is not a signifier, one senses however that there could be a connection, and that in truth what one calls the material of the signifier always participates a little bit in the fleeting character of the trace. This seems to be one of the conditions for the existence of this signifying material. This however is not a signifier, even the footprint of Friday which Robinson Crusoe discovers during his walk around the island, is not a signifier, but on the contrary, if we suppose that he, Robinson, for whatever reason, effaces this trace, there we clearly introduce the dimension of signifier” (Seminar V, 23.04.58, p.8).

Effacing – the hallmark of the signifier.

But why the focus on the effacing of a trace? Why is it this act of erasing that constitutes something as a signifier? To answer this we have to look at the place of the signifier in a network of other signifiers. Lacan goes on:

“… In fact there again what we rediscover, is that just as after it is effaced, what remains, if there is a text, namely if this signifier is inscribed among other signifiers, what remains, is the place where it has been effaced, and it is indeed this place also which sustains the transmission, which is this essential thing thanks to which that which succeeds it in the passage takes on the consistency of something that can be trusted” (Seminar V, 23.04.58, p.8-10).

What Lacan is saying here is that we recognise a signifier by reference to its place among other signifiers. For example, if we take a signifying system such as the Dewey decimal system in a library, I know that a book should be at a certain place on a shelf even if that place is empty and the book is not there. What Lacan calls here “the place where it has been effaced” remains even if the book itself is missing. If it is simply a trace, like the footprints of Friday in the sand, these can be erased and you will never know Friday has been there. But a signifier in a language system like the Dewey system means that I know the book has a place on the shelf even if when I go there I find no trace of it.

Lacan links this to another form of erasing- the notion of Aufhebung, which he takes from Hegel:

“There has been a lot of talk, ever since there are philosophers who think, about the Aufhebung, and they have learned to make use of it in a more or less cunning way. This word means both cancellation, and essentially this is what it means: for example I cancel my subscription to a newspaper, or my reservation somewhere; it also means, thanks to an ambiguity of meaning which makes it precious in the German language, to raise to a higher power or situation. It does not seem to me that sufficient attention is paid to the following, that to be able properly speaking to talk about being cancelled, there is only properly speaking only one kind of thing, I would say roughly speaking, which can be, that is a signifier, because to tell the truth, when we cancel anything else, whether it is imaginary or real, it is simply because strictly speaking in doing so, and by that very fact, we not only cancel what is in question, we raise it by a grade, to the qualification of signifier (Seminar V, 23.04.58, p.8-10).  

Aufhebung, sometimes translated into English as ‘sublation’, implies cancellation, and Lacan says here that to sublate something is to “raise it by a grade, to the qualification of signifier”. The key property of the signifier is that it is erasable, that is can be cancelled out. Perhaps it is because it is substitutable – that only its place among other signifiers matters – that Lacan claims that “one of the fundamental dimensions of the signifier, is to be able to cancel itself out”.

This cancelling or effacing is operent at the level of the signifying chain because we see it happening in the movement from one signifier to another:

“One sees in effect that if here the signifier is a melting pot in so far as it bears witness to a presence that is past, and that inversely in what is signifying, there is always in the fully developed signifier which the word is, there is always a passage, namely something which is beyond each one of the elements which are articulated, and which are of their nature fleeting, vanishing, that is the passage from one to the other which constitutes the essential of what we call the signfying chain, and that this passage qua vanishing, is this very thing which can be trusted” (Seminar V, 23.04.58, p.8-10).

The “passage” that Lacan refers to here is quite simply the signifying chain. Because it refers to nothing but other signifiers, the signifying chain makes the signifier only ever fleeting. No signifier can exist by itself, it always has to refer to another, and this is what he says “constitutes the essential of what we call the signifying chain”.

We will return to look more closely at the dynamics of this chain of signifiers later on. If for now however we think of all signifiers as connected (one signifier always refers to another, something adequately demonstrated when we look up a word in a dictionary), with the process of effacement of each successive signifier animating that chain and leading from one signifier to another, we get a sense of the similarity which might explain why Lacan aligns human desire to the displacement of the signifier:

“… I am not playing with words to amuse myself. I simply mean by this use of words, to indicate for you a direction along which we get closer to this link between the signifying manipulation of our object which is that of desire, and its opposition between consideration and désideration marked by the bar of the signifier, being here of course only destined to indicate a direction, a beginning…

There is a link between the signifier and desire in that both have this property of constantly referring to something else – desire is not something that can be satisfied, as my earlier post on the nature of desire in Lacan pointed out; and likewise the signifier never refers to anything other than other signifiers.

… It is only from the moment that it can be barred, that any signifier whatsoever has its proper status, namely that it enters into this dimension which ensures that in principle every signifier, to distinguish here what I mean, comes from the cancelling which is so essential” (Seminar V, 23.04.58, p.8-10).

The Signified

So what is the status of the signified, then?

“Let me pause here for a moment so you can appreciate how necessary are the categories of the linguistic theory that last year I was trying to make you feel comfortable with. You recall that in linguistics there is the signifier and the signified and that the signifier is to be taken in the sense of the material of language. The trap, the hole one must not fall into, is the belief that signifieds are objects, things. The signified is something quite different – it’s the meaning, and I explained to you by means of Saint Augustine, who is as much of a linguist as Monsieur Benveniste, that it always refers to meaning, that is, to another meaning. The system of language, at whatever point you take hold of it, never results in an index finger directly indicating a point of reality; it’s the whole of reality that is covered by the entire network of language. You can never say that this is what is being designated, for even were you to succeed you would never know what I am designating in this table – for example, the colour, the thickness, the table as object, or whatever else it might be” (Seminar III, p.32).

Lacan here gives us the definition of the signified. The signified is not the thing or object in reality to which the signifier refers but instead the meaning. But in what sense does he mean ‘meaning’? When Lacan says that the signified slides underneath the signifier he is referring to the fact that it is only through the production of more signifiers that you can designate meaning, and thereby produce the signified. It is only through signifiers that the generation of any meaning, or any signified, is possible. This is why the signifier is primary according to Lacan. For example, when you look up a word in a dictionary you do not find the object itself but other signifiers that you use to ascertain its meaning. These words, or signifiers, in every case refer to more signifiers, which in turn refer to still more, and onwards forever. The meaning is never fixed and localised as if your finger were to point at something. To follow the example that Lacan gives in this passage, if we look up the word ‘table’ in a dictionary we do not find the object itself because the signifier ‘table’ can refer to many different things. It can be a noun that designates an object you put things on; it can be a table that holds information in rows and columns; or it can be a verb, ‘to table’, referring to putting something forward, like an amendment.

The signified is the name for discourse as a whole, rather than the thing you are designating or the object in its raw reality. Signification can never be fixed and final – it is never possible for a signifier to refer to an object in reality, as later in Seminar III he goes on to point out:

“Now, in no way can we consider that the fundamental endpoint is to point to a thing. There is an absolute non-equivalence between discourse and pointing. Whatever you take the ultimate element of discourse to be reduced to, you will never be able to replace it with your index finger – recall the quite correct remark by Saint Augustine. If I designate something by pointing to it, no one will ever know whether my finger is designating the object’s colour or its matter, or whether it’s designating a stain or crack, etc. You need words, discourse, to discern this. Discourse has an original property in comparison with pointing. But that’s not where we shall find the fundamental reference of discourse. Are we looking for where it stops? Well then, it’s always at the level of this problematical term called being” (Seminar III, p.137).

Rather than pointing to a thing, Lacan’s idea is that the signified is determined by the signifier:

“… The signifier (and you can note that I never properly articulated it as such) is not simply what supports what is not there. The fort-da in so far as it refers to maternal presence or absence, is not, here, the exhaustive articulation of the coming into play of the signifier. The signifier does not designate what is not there, it engenders it” (Seminar XIV, 16.11.66., p.8).

Again we can see, from a different angle, how the signifier is different from a trace, in that “The signifier… is not simply what supports what is not there”. If the fort-da game Freud describes in Beyond the Pleasure Principle is invented by the child to represent the appearance and disappearance of the mother this is not the same as the function of the signifier, which goes beyond this marking of an absence. So in saying here that the signifier does not designate what is not there but rather engenders it he is referring to the fact that it is the signifier that determines the signified.

Let’s analyse a passage in the Ecrits where the difference between the signifier and signified for Lacan is made manifest, and from there look closer at the notion of a ‘chain’ of signifiers:

The Chain of Signifiers

“A psychoanalyst should find it easy to grasp the fundamental distinction between signifier and signified, and to begin to familiarise himself with the two networks of nonoverlapping relations they organise.
The first network, that of the signifier, is the synchronic structure of the material of language insofar as each element takes on its precise usage therein by being different from the others; this is the principle of distribution that alone regulates the function of the elements of language [langue] at its different levels, from the phonemic pair of oppositions to compound expressions, the task of the most modern reserach being to isolate the stable forms of the latter.
The second network, that of the signified, is the diachronic set of concretely pronounced discourses, which historically affects the first network, just as the structure of the first governs the pathways of the second. What dominates here is the unity of signification, which turns out to never come down to a pure indication of reality [réel] , but always refers to another signification. In other words, signfication comes about only on the basis of taking things as a whole [d’ensemble].
Its mainspring cannot be grasped at the level at which signification usually secures its characteristic redundancy, for it always proves to exceed the things it leaves indeterminate within it.
The signifier alone guarantees the theoretical coherence of the whole as a whole. Its ability to do so is confirmed by the latest development in science, just as, upon reflection, we find it to be implilcit in early linguistic experience.
These are the foundations that distinguish language from signs. Dialectic derives new strength from them” (Ecrits, 414-145).

If the signified refers to meaning, practically it “always refers to another signification”, that is, to more signifiers and their potential signifieds as the latter slide underneath the former. If Lacan says that the signified is meaning (in the passage from Seminar III quoted above) then the signified is simply the discourse in which all signifiers are collectively bound up. This is why Lacan says that the “network” of the signified does not refer to a thing in reality but instead “always refers to another signification”, another fleeting and transitory pairing of signifier with signified. The process of signification is therefore constantly in flux with what we might call meaning or sense created when the signified aligns with the signifier above it, until we move on to using another signifier. The signified is thereby an effect of the signifier for precisely the reason that meaning cannot be determined without employing more and more signifiers. Thus we get the appearance of a chain of signifiers. This is how Lacan describes it in Seminar III:

“Let me sum this up. The sense is always moving towards something, towards another meaning, towards the closure of meaning. It always refers to something that is out ahead or that turns back upon itself, but there is a direction. Does this mean that we have no endpoint? I’m sure that this point still remains uncertain in your mind given the insistence with which I state that meaning always refers to meaning” (Seminar III, p.137).

Signification is an operation that is in constant fluidity. There is always a ‘moving towards’ a closure of meaning, as Lacan describes it here. This is why, for example, a string of signifiers only makes sense in retrospect once you indicate you have reached the end by punctuating it.

The Sign

So what then is a sign, and how is a sign made?

“I want to end by showing in what respect the sign can be distinguished from the signfier.
The signifier, as I have said, is characterised by the fact that it represents a subject to another signifier. What is involved in the sign? The cosmic theory of knowldge or world view has always made a big deal of the famous example of smoke that cannot exist without fire. So why shouldn’t I put forward what I think about it? Smoke can just as easily be the sign of a smoker. And, in essence, it always is. There is no smoke that is not a sign of a smoker. Everyone knows that, if you see smoke when you approach a deserted island, you immediately say to yourself that there is a good chance there is someone there who knows how to make fire. Until things change considerably, it will be another man. Thus, a sign is not the sign of something, but of an effect that is what is presumed as such by a functioning of the signifier” (Seminar XX, p.49).

What is the difference between a sign and a signifier? If “The signifier, as I have said, is characterised by the fact that it represents a subject to another signifier”, as Lacan says in this passage then the sign, by distinction, “is not the sign of something, but of an effect that is what is presumed as such by a functioning of the signifier”. So is smoke a sign of fire, for Lacan? If we are approaching a desert island and see smoke is it not the sign of fire? For Lacan, to be precise, smoke is the effect of a smoker rather than an effect of the fire itself. Smoke is not a sign (of fire) but a signifier of the fact that there is someone there who knows how to make a fire, and it is for this reason that Lacan says the smoke is a signifier rather than a sign. What Lacan is trying to do here is to split the concept of signifier from that of the sign. What we might at first take to be an obvious ‘sign’ of fire actually reveals the signifier’s place as primary, with the sign an effect of the functioning of the signifier. The danger to be avoided is to take the sign too literally. The great lesson of the toilet doors analogy in The Agency of the Letter (Lacan’s replacement for the Saussurian algorithm of a tree) was that we cannot take the little pictures of men and women on the front of toilet doors too seriously, because behind the doors are simply two identical toilets. The difference between the two toilets, ‘Ladies’ and ‘Gentlemen’ is created by the signifier on the doors themselves – either ‘Ladies’ or ‘Gentlemen’ – rather than what is actually behind them.

A little apologue Lacan gives his audience in Seminar III might serve to make this distinction between the signifier and the sign more clear:

I’m at sea, the captain of a small ship. I see things moving about in the night, in a way that gives me cause to think that there may be a sign there. How shall I react? If I’m not yet a human being, I shall react with all sorts of displays, as they say – modeled, motor, and emotional. I satisfy the description of psychologists, I understand something, in fact I do everything I’m telling you that you must know how not to do. If on the other hand I am a human being, I write in my log book – ‘At such and such a time, at such and such a degree of latitude and longitude, we noticed this and that.

This is what is fundamental. I shelter my responsibility. What distinguishes the signifier is here. I make a note of the sign as such. It’s the acknowledgement of receipt [l’accusé de réception] that is essential to communication insofar as it is not significant, but signifying. If you don’t articulate this distinction clearly, you will keep falling back upon meaning that can only mask from you the original mainspring of the signifier insofar as it carries out its true function” (Seminar III, p.188).

What we can take from this is that it is not the referent of the sign or the signal that matters – what constitutes a signifier is the registering that something is detected, an inscription marking that something has been noted or acknowledged. It is important to note that what Lacan’s apologue implies is that nothing is being communicated by the signifier as such – it is just being registered.

The Primacy of the Signifier

The primacy of the signifier is not an idea found in Saussure’s work, from which Lacan imports contributions from linguistic theory into psychoanalysis. In the following passage Lacan explains why he chooses to deviate from the Saussurian model:

“The unconscious is fundamentally structured, woven, chained, meshed, by language. And not only does the signifier play as big a role there as the signified does, but it plays the fundamental role. In fact, what characterises language is the system of signifiers as such. The complex play between signifier and signified raises qustions that we are skirting since we aren’t doing a course in linguistics here, but you have a good enough idea of it now to know that the relationship between signifier and signified is far from being, as they say in set theory, one-to-one.

The signified is not the things in their raw state, already there, given in an order open to meaning. Meaning is human discourse insofar as it always refers to another meaning. M. de Saussure thinks that what enables the signifier to be cut up is a certain correlation between the signifier and the signified. Obviously, for it to be possible to cut the two of them up together there must be a pause.
His diagram is questionable….
A system of signifiers, a language, has certain characteristics that specify the syllables, the usage of words, the locutions into which they are grouped, and this conditions what happens in the unconscious, down to its most original fabric. If the unconscious is as Freud depicts it, a pun can in itself be the linchpin that supports a symptom, a pun that doesn’t exist in a related language. This is not to say that symptoms are always based on puns, but that they are always based on the existence of signifiers as such, on a complex relationship of totality, or more exactly of entire system to entire system, of universe of signifiers to universe of signifiers.
This is so clearly Freud’s doctrine that there is no other meaning to give to his term overdetermination, or to his necessary requirement that for a symptom to occur there must be at least a duality, at least two conflicts at work, one current and one old. Without this fundamental duality of signifier and signified no psychoanalytic determinism is conceivable. The material linked to the old conflict is preserved in the unconscious as a potential signifier, as a virtual signifier, and then captured in the signfied of the current conflict and used by it as language, that is, as symptom” (Seminar III, p.119-120).

The question Lacan addresses here is that of why he considers the signifier to be so important for psychoanalysis. Is Lacan right however to apply these linguistic terms to Freud’s work? If Freud does not use terms like ‘signifier’ and ‘signified’, where is Lacan inferring them from? Let’s look at the Rat Man case for an example of the repetition of a single signifier. Freud writes in the case history:

“In this way rats came to have the meaning of ‘money’. The patient gave an indication of this connection by reacting to the word Ratten [‘rats’] with the association Raten [‘instalments’]. Little by little he translated into this language the whole complex of money interests which centred round his father’s legacy to him; that is to say, all his ideas connected with that subject were, by way of the verbal bridge Raten – Ratten, carried over into his obsessional life and brought under the dominion of his unconscious. Moreover, the captain’s request to him to pay back the charges due upon the packet served to stengthen the money significance of rats, by way of another verbal bridge Spielratte, which led back to his father’s gambling debt…. Moreover, all of this material, and more besides, was woven into the fabric of the rat discussion behind the screen-association heiraten [‘to marry’]” (SE X, 214-215).

Although Freud sees these ‘verbal bridges’ as the means of the unconscious, Lacan sees it precisely as what constitutes the unconscious itself. Nevertheless, it is from the text of Freud’s work that Lacan claims legitimacy for his introduction of the concept of the signifier into psychoanalytic theory. As is evident in the following passage, Freud lacks the linguistic theory to express his findings in the way Lacan later does. Freud writes:

“In a play upon words, in our view, the word is also only a sound-image, to which one meaning or another is attached. But here, too, linguistic usage makes no sharp distinctions; and if it treats ‘puns’ with contempt and ‘play upon words’ with a certain respect, these judgements of value seem to be determined by considerations other than technical ones” (SE VIII, 46).

Lacan’s most radical inference from the ‘discovery’ of the autonomy of the signifier in what would correspond to Freudian ‘psychical life’ is that the subject itself is a product of the displacement of the signifier:

“The subject is nothing other than what slides in a chain of signfiers, whether he knows which signifier he is the effect of or not. That effect – the subject – is the intermediary effect between what characterises a signifier and another signifier, namely, the fact that each of them, each of them is an element. We know of no other basis by which the One may have been introduced into the world if not by the signifier as such, that is, the signifier insofar as we learn to separate it from its meaning effects” (Seminar XX, p.49-50).

The subject is an effect of the signifier because the subject is what the signifier represents to another signifier. In saying here that “The subject is nothing other than what slides in a chain of signifiers” Lacan is putting the subject in the place of the signified which, as he tells us in the Ecrits, slide underneath the signifier (Ecrits, 502).

By Owen Hewitson, LacanOnline.com

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