The Lacanian maxims that psychoanalysis is a practice based on speech, and that the unconscious is structured like a language, are now so classical that they are almost boring. Elsewhere on this site these maxims are explored and their implications discussed. This post however is specifically about Lacan’s references to rhetoric.

As Fink notes in his excellent Lacan to the Letter (p.72) Lacan’s use of the rhetorical mechanisms of metaphor and metonymy to explain the operation of the processes Freud describes as condensation and displacement in the dream-work, are already well-known. Lacan treats them quite thorougnhly in the Ecrits (Ecrits, 515, for example) and in compiling the index to the Ecrits, Jacques-Alain Miller puts metaphor, metonymy and witticisms under the heading of ‘The rhetoric of the unconscious’ (Ecrits, 899).

What are less well known however are some of the other rhetorical mechanisms that Lacan sees at work in what he labels “the rhetoric of the discourse the analysand actually utters” (Ecrits, 521).

These rhetorical tricks and tropes are ways that the speaker (an analysand, for instance) will use to either disguise or unwittingly reveal the telling productions of the unconscious. It is important to note from the outset that these rhetorical mechanisms are not unconscious in themselves, but rather that when used in speech they can indicate the presence of unconscious content. Sometimes the speaker is trying to disguise this content by employing certain rhetorical devices; sometimes he is unaware of the alternative meaning or implication evident in the words he has said. Even if the speaker does not realise it himself, Lacan believes that we can detect in the use of such rhetorical devices the presence of certain unconscious thoughts, desires and fantasies.

Whilst these will usually pass unnoticed in everyday discourse, if we are to take Lacan seriously in his argument that the unconscious is structured like a language and that it is only through a discipline of the signifier – listening attentively for the double meanings, ambiguities, possible suggestions in the speaker’s own words – that we discover the workings of the unconscious, they are surely deserving of attention. The psychoanalyst is not interested in what the person meant or said they meant as much, but rather in what was actually said. The words of the analysand are the sole currency in a psychoanalysis.

As Fink points out, “These mechanisms can be associated with what Freud called the defence mechanisms: The analysand spontaneously employs well-known rhetorical figures to keep from saying certain things and to keep certain ideas from surfacing” (Lacan to the Letter, p.72). But these rhetorical curiosities are not the same as Freudian slips – they are more discreet and very often the speaker will not realise the strange syntactical formations he makes – but they can be equally ‘telling’.

Rhetoric in the Ecrits

There are two key passages in the Ecrits where Lacan refers to different rhetorical devices. After quoting them we will look at these devices one by one.

Firstly, in The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis (the so-called ‘Rome Discourse’), Lacan is discussing Freud’s maxim in the Interpretation of Dreams that the dream is like a rebus – that is to say, a picture puzzle. Instead of taking the pictures or images in the dream at face value we have to ask the dreamer for his associations, his speech, and ‘translate’ these manifest images back into the latent signifiers that the dreamer produces in his associations. In this context, Lacan notes the fact that it is only what he calls the “text” of the dream, its “rhetoric”, that is of value:

“What is important is the version of the text, and that, Freud tells us, is given in the telling of the dream – that is, in its rhetoric. Ellipsis and pleonasm, hyperbaton or syllepsis, regression, repetition, apposition – these are the syntactical displacements; metaphor, catachresis, antonomasia, allegory, metonymy, and synecdoche – these are the semantic condensations; Freud teaches us to read in them the intentions – whether ostentatious or demonstrative, dissimulating or persuasive, retaliatory or seductive – with which the subject modulates his oneiric discourse” (Ecrits, 267-268).

Our second reference to rhetoric in the Ecrits comes from a passage in ‘The Instance of the Letter’ that Fink quotes in his excellent discussion on rhetoric in Lacan to the Letter:

“This is why an exhaustion of the defence mechanisms… turns out to be the other side of unconscious mechanisms…. Periphrasis, hyperbaton, ellipsis, suspension, anticipation, retraction, negation, digression, and irony, these are the figures of style… just as catachresis, litotes, antonomasia, and hypotyposis are the tropes, whose names strike me as the most appropriate ones with which to label these mechanisms. Can one see here mere manners of speaking, when it is the figures themselves that are at work in the rhetoric of the discourse the analysand actually utters?” (Ecrits, 521)

Fink discusses many of these already in Lacan to the Letter. This is a great book and one that I have been heavily reliant on in writing this article. However in what follows I have tried to give a more comprehensive discussion, including some of the terms Lacan mentions but Fink does not cover, and include examples where possible.

As some are pretty obscure so please feel free to leave further examples or elaborations in the comments.


Literally, catachresis refers to a strained use (or misuse) of words. The example that Fink gives of a catachresis is a mixed metaphor, which he sees as a compromise formation employed when a certain idea or representation that occurs to the person as they are speaking is uncomfortable. Fink gives two examples: ‘stop circling around the bush’ and ‘She unzipped her soul’ (Fink, Lacan to the Letter, p.73).


Litotes are understatements. So that the speaker can avoid affirming something they would rather distance themselves from they may employ litotes in the negative of the contrary of the thing they are referring to. It is common, for example, to refer to something as ‘not bad at all’. The example Fink gives is of someone saying ‘I don’t find her unattractive’ to disguise an underlying lustful attraction (Fink, Lacan to the Letter, p.73).


Ostensibly, this is the omission of a term that would make a sentence clearer, or abridge it. However, Fink notes its potential to suppress an inappropriate or revealing idea. If someone is telling their psychoanalyst the story of the dream they had the night before they might, for obvious reasons, choose to omit the part of the dream that bears most on the person of the analyst. The man sitting in a chair in the dream might go unmentioned so as not to have to acknowledge the immediate association to the person of the analyst, occupying the chair behind the couch.


The addition of a redundant term. Fink believes this can be used either to reveal or conceal. His example is is: ‘Last night I met a female person’. This construction might bring into question whether the person was perceived by the speaker as particularly effeminate, or not. Another example would be term ‘My father’s father’ when talking about the grandfather. Why not just say ‘the grandfather’? Does this not suggest that there is something being communicated about the relationship of the father to the father, as the speaker sees it?


Beating around the bush or skirting the issue often using roundabout references to gloss over something difficult. Fink says that this is most easily recognisable when someone is using sexual terminology and feels uncomfortable doing so, but we can also think of instances where periphrasis might involve a degree of tautology – saying the same thing twice, in a slightly different way.


Again, very common in everyday speech – the trick of changing the subject in order to get away from something revealing or significant. We can imagine that in analyses where the standardised, fifty-minute session applies digression would be a particularly useful tool for someone wanting to get the analytic hour over and done with, running out the clock with a roundabout story so that they did not have to confront revealing or uncomfortable material, for example, in a dream they were narrating.


When the speaker realises the implication of what they have said the obvious thing to do, particularly in speaking to a psychoanalyst who you fear might pounce on a suggestive phrase or construction, is to retract it immediately. Fink’s example is the line, ‘I think my mother sorely neglected me… but I’m sure she was only trying to do her best’. What is retracted or elided is no doubt going to be the most revealing element. We can also think, as an example, of the statement: ‘Last night I went home with John… well not home with John but…’


Fink sees this as a classic way to disavow the significance of one’s own words, as a way the speaker will use to indicate to the listener that what they are saying should not be taken seriously. His example is straight out of the post-Freudian clinic: ‘Of course I hated my father – isn’t that what Freud says we all do?’


Hyperbaton involves a distorted word order. An example might be someone using the phrase ‘I said I was going to Edinburgh to my mother’, as opposed to the more obvious, ‘I said to my mother I was going to Edinburgh’. Might the former lead the psychoanalyst to infer some kind of attachment to the mother?


Where a single word or expression is employed to perform two syntactic functions, at least one of which does not agree in case, number or gender (


Apposition is juxtaposition. Perhaps one of the ways that this might occur in the speech of an analysand is in the connection they might make of two quite unrelated things, or in a strange supposition that is presented unchallenged. To the analysand these two ideas may not seem at all opposed. One story told about Lacan’s practice by Jean Allouch in Les Impromptus de Lacan involves a patient who at one point during the session mentions that his grandmother was very beautiful. Lacan responds immediately: “Yes, you’re absolutely right!”. Of course, Lacan did not know the grandmother and would not have been able to agree or disagree as to whether she was indeed beautiful. His intervention therefore is made precisely to bring this contradiction to the ears of the analysand, perhaps to make them question the automatic juxtaposition his analysand had made between his grandmother and some paragon of beauty.


Antonomasia involves identifying a person by something other than his or her name. This might be an epithet or title such as ‘his lordship’, or a figure that denotes certain characteristics, such as ‘Don Juan’ or ‘Blairite’. As with all of these rhetorical figures, Lacan does not give an example. We might guess though that, as with the above example of apposition, someone employing antonomasia is revealing a certain perception of someone in their life that it is the analyst’s job to question and probe into, looking for an unconscious fantasmatic relation. This might then reveal the place that the subject has designated for him or herself in this fantasy. One instance of this might be the British television and radio personality Jimmy Savile’s description of his mother as ‘the Duchess’. This was his designated term for her, revealed in Louis Theroux’s documentary following the former presenter. It was suggested that, given Savile was a life-long bachelor, his mother was the one true love of his life. He lived with her until her death and in the documentary it is revealed that he keeps her bedroom and wardrobe preserved in the same state it was left when she died. Whilst it is pointless speculating on the reasons for this antonomasia in reference to his mother, it would certainly be of interest to a psychoanalyst. At a very simple level we can ask why he chose this name for her rather than refer to her simply as his mother, and indeed why a name like this was necessary for him in the first place. More details on Savile and the documentary can be found here.

Hypotyposis defines this as a “lifelike description of a thing or scene”. The most obvious examples that come to mind are from dreams. We are no doubt all familiar with the way that certain elements in dreams, despite seeing in and of themselves relatively unimportant or trivial when we are narrating the dream, are excessively vivid and lifelike in the dream. They stand in sharp distinction from the rest of the dream, much like Freud says the different features of a face from many different photographs are brought into relief when the negatives are placed on top of each other (SE IV, 139). Freud sees these cases in dreams as evidence of a condensation: one single manifest dream element appears excessively realistic (despite its obscurity to the dreamer) because it is a condensation or compression of multiple different latent thoughts. Someone using hypotyposis might also remind us of Freud’s description of the operation behind screen memories that he described in one of his earlier works (SE III, 301).


As Freud tells us in his 1925 paper on the subject, negation a sure sign of repression. “To negate something in a judgement is”, he writes, “at bottom, to say: ‘This is something which I should prefer to repress.’ A negative judgement is the intellectual substitute for repression; its ‘no’ is the hall-mark of repression, a certificate of origin – like, let us say, ‘Made in Germany'” (SE XIX, 236). If the psychoanalyst asks someone who the female character in his dream reminds him of, and he replies emphatically that it is not his mother, the psychoanalyst is justified in assuming it actually is. After all, Freud’s argument would be that it is the analysand himself who has raised the issue of the mother.

Lacan’s other remarks about rhetoric

Surprisingly, there are precious few references in the Seminar to rhetoric as such. Whilst Lacan devotes plenty of time to metaphor and metonymy and the way that the materiality of the signifier is manifest in the formations of the unconscious, to the best of my knowledge we do not find more detailed reference to the rhetorical forms that he lists in the Ecrits.

However, for the sake of comprehensiveness, we can do a brief resumé of these references. As a source, I have used Krutzen’s excellent Index référentiel to the seminar. Whilst this book is in French, English speakers will find it easy to use to find out what Lacan says on a particular topic, as they need only find the French translation of the term or concept they are looking for. They can then look up the relevant passage either in the ‘official’ translations of the Seminar or in Cormac Gallagher’s indispensable unofficial translations of them.

To start with, in Seminar III we find a published version of an address which Freud gave concurrent with the Seminar that year entitled ‘Freud in the Century’. It was delivered on 16th May 1956, almost 100 years to the day that Freud was born. In the speech Lacan argues that what we find in Freud’s work is nothing more than techniques of rhetoric apparent in the analyses Freud provides of how dreams, jokes and symptoms are created:

“… At the bottom of the Freudian mechanisms one rediscovers these old figures of rhetoric…. Freud encountered it [rhetorical formations] in his medical practice when he came upon this field in which the mechanisms of language can be seen to dominate and organise the construction of certain so-called neurotic disorders, unbeknown to the subject, outside his conscious ego” (Seminar III, p.238).

In Seminar VI Lacan discusses rhetoric in the context of a discussion of the etymology of the verb trouver, to find. The neurotic subject, he remarks, does not look for a place in what Lacan calls “the dialectic of the word”, he finds one (Seminar VI, 07.01.1959, p.12). Like Picasso, he does not seek, he finds. Lacan draws his audience’s attention to the fact that the origin of trouver is in the Latin, tropus, and is a rhetorical term: in English, we have the word ‘trope’, designating a rhetorical device, which is of the same etymology.

Whilst this is only a brief passage and Lacan does not elaborate, what is suggestive is the reference to the “dialectic of the word”, indicating that rhetoric and the formation of the neurotic subject go together; that the neurotic ‘finds’ his place in language thanks the the ‘tropes’ that rhetoric affords him. He does not choose his place in life, he finds or constructs it from the stuff of the symbolic. We might think here of Lacan’s paper on the case of the Rat Man, ‘The Neurotic’s Individual Myth’, where Lacan argues that the Rat Man’s obsessional neurosis constitutes a myth-like explanation (in the Levi-Straussian sense) built from the irresolvable dilemmas faced by his father before him around the questions of debt and money.

There are a few passing references to Aristotle’s dense treatise on rhetoric in Seminar VII (255 and 287), and another in Seminar X on anxiety. In the latter, Lacan refers to Book Two of Aristotle’s Rhetoric:

“Where best does Aristotle deal with the passions? I think that all the same there are a certain number of you who know already: it is in Book Two of his Rhetoric. The best thing about the passions is caught up in the reference, in the net, in the network of the Rhetoric. It is not by chance. This is the net. This indeed is why I spoke to you about the net in connection with the first linguistic references that I tried to give you” (Seminar X, 14.11.62, p.11).

This is quite a fleeting reference but what Lacan seems to be suggesting is that the symbolic, the network of the symbolic order, the mechanisms and tropes of rhetoric, have the function of localising or mooring the affects, of stopping them from going adrift. This will probably remind anyone familiar with it of the third chapter of Freud’s 1915 metapsychological paper on the unconscious. In a similar way, Freud there argues that to be experienced – as a “passion”, to use Lacan’s term here – an affect must be tied to a given representation. With the exception of anxiety, affects, as qualitative expressions of the quantity of the energy of the drives, become conscious to us only when hinged to a particular idea or representation. The problem is that the affect and the representation go separate ways, and the affect will very often be displaced onto another representation before becoming conscious. You can read more about this here.

In ‘The Knowledge of the Psychoanalyst’, the Seminar that runs concurrently alongside Seminar XIX, Ou Pire…, Lacan makes reference to rhetoric when distinguishing it from a term he invents, lalangue. Lalangue“, he tells his audience, “has nothing to do with the dictionary, whatever it may be. A dictionary has to do with diction, namely, with poetry or with rhetoric for example” (‘The Knowledge of the Psychoanalyst’, 04.11.71.). For Lacan here the unconscious is not like a dictionary; rather,

“The unconscious is a matter first of all of grammar. It also has a little to do, a lot to do, everything to do with repetition, namely, the aspect that is quite contrary to what a dictionary is used for…. Contrary to what is, I don’t know why, still very widespread, the useful aspect in the function of lalangue, the useful aspect for us psychoanalysts, for those who have to deal with the unconscious, is logic” (‘The Knowledge of the Psychoanalyst’, 04.11.71.).

Here then, Lacan is saying that the unconscious uses not rhetoric or diction but logic. It is difficult to tell what Lacan is getting at with only this short passage. Perhaps we should question Lacan here, or at least the translation of what he has to say: after all, who uses a dictionary to find out about rhetoric? What we can tease out however is that if the unconscious is structured like a language, its structure is logical more than it is rhetorical. Perhaps Lacan is referring to the fact that the psychoanalyst does not look up the meaning of an analysand’s words in a dictionary to find out what he means; or considers the analysand’s speech to be a particularly cogent form of communicating a (conscious) meaning, a story that he wants to make the analyst believe about him.

Indeed, we can contrast Lacan’s remarks in ‘The Knowledge of the Psychoanalyst’ to something in his broadcast interview conducted only a couple of years later, published as Television. There Lacan calls psychoanalysis something that should bring the analysand to the point where his symptom or his account of himself can be ‘well-spoken’ (bien-dire):

“I can only take up that question as anyone else would: by posing it to myself. And the reply is simple. It is what I am doing, deriving from my practice the ethic of the Well-Spoken, which I’ve already stressed” (Lacan, Television, p.41).

By the time that he opens Seminar XXV, ‘The Moment of Concluding’, in 1977 Lacan is talking not about the speech of the analysand but the speech of the analyst, and he appears to have come to the view that the psychoanalyst is a rhetorician. Psychoanalysis is not a science; rather, it is closer to rhetoric:

“It [psychoanalysis] is a practice of chat…. The psychoanalyst is a rhetorician…. He does not say what is either true or false. That which is true and that which is false, this is what we call the power of the analyst. And that’s why I say he is a rhetorician” (Seminar XXV, 15.11.77., my translation, original available here).

Whilst it is easy to see how such a statement can be used against Lacan’s practice – and indeed, psychoanalysis in general – Schneiderman believes this indicates his view on the direction of psychoanalytic treatment, “Thus analysis seeks to persuade but not to convince, to persuade the analysand to recognise things that he knows already and to act on his desire” (Schneiderman, Jacques Lacan: Death of an Intellectual Hero, p.169). However, we can also interpret Lacan’s words more simply: the analyst attempts neither to persuade nor to convince. It is well-know that the Lacanian analyst says little compared to some other psychoanalytic or psychotherapeutic practitioners. Indeed, it is almost a caricature of analysts in the Lacanian orientation that they make the odd pun and then end the session early. But could we not interpret Lacan here as simply pointing out the fact that the psychoanalyst does exactly what the rhetorician does: uses words in the most economical way. Without speaking poetically, or even trying to persuade, he communicates a message in a very efficient way, if at all possible by just sending the speaker’s words back to them, allowing them to hear the resonances of their own words.

By Owen Hewitson,

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