This article will examine the concepts of the subject of the statement and the subject of the enunciation, the relationship between them, and look at three examples of where these ideas might be applied.

A first general point to make is on the choice of translation. The English which is most often employed does not bring out the complementarity between the French terms Lacan uses: Le sujet de l’énonciation and le sujet de l’énoncé, where the ‘subject of the statement’ corresponds to the subject of the enunciated, de l’énoncé. Fink’s translationof the Écrits retains this choice, but in Gallagher’s translations of the Seminar the reader commonly finds a more literal translation into ‘enunciation’ and ‘enunciated’.

What is the subject of the statement?

The subject of the statement (or subject of the utterance, as it is sometimes also referred to) is I – the first person. In psychoanalytic terms it can be equated to the ego. It is the subject that in day-to-day discourse we posit in order to attribute an agent to speech. As Lacanian psychoanalyst Philippe Van Haute writes, “The subject of the statement… refers to the subject as it appears to itself and to the other (for example, as someone who believes herself to be a diligent student).” (Van Haute, Against Adaptation, p.40.)

In the Écrits Lacan maintains that this I of the subject of the statement is a signifier, but that it does not signify the subject (Écrits, 800). What does he mean by this? What is known in linguistics as the shifter (or indexical) – I – gives context to what is said so that the sentence is in some way ‘rooted’ or attributed to that subject. But as linguists recognise, in and of itself this I has no meaning. We have to look at the context, provided by the enunciation (in most cases, what follows after the I), to make sense of what has been said.

So the I of the statement functions simply as a way of making sense of the enunciation. In Van Haute’s example above, “The shifter ‘I’ has no meaning and no determinable content unless I add something like ‘am a diligent student’.” (Van Haute, Against Adaptation, p.39).

What is the subject of the enunciation?

The subject of the enunciation can be understood as the subject of the unconscious. It is a subject that emerges from within our speech, through our signifiers, and which differs from or contradicts the I of the statement.

Lacan calls the subject of the enunciation “the subject not insofar as it produces discourse but insofar as it is produced [fait], cornered even [fait comme un rat], by discourse” (Lacan, My Teaching, p.36). Here Lacan is pointing to the fact that the subject is not quite the agent of what he says: as much as he speaks he is spoken. The words that he uses carry a meaning which exceeds the one he hoped to convey when he opened his mouth.

It is through the act of enunciation that we have access to the unconscious in the psychoanalytic sense. This is why Lacan says in the Écrits that “the presence of the unconscious, being situated in the locus of the Other, can be found in every discourse, in its enunciation.” (Écrits, 834.)

The difference between the subject of the statement and the subject of the enunciation is key in understanding why it is in speech and language that Lacan locates the psychoanalytic unconscious. In Seminar XII Lacan tells his audience that the difference between the subject of the statement and the subject of the enunciation demonstrates why language cannot be thought of as a code, in which a fixed and unambiguous meaning is passed from one user to another. “Language is not a code”, he says, “precisely because in its least enunciation it carries with it the subject present in the enuntiating.” (Seminar XII, 10.03.1965.) Lacan’s idea is that rather than involving a single subject who uses language to convey a meaning or sentiment, there is a subject revealed which is not equivalent to the one speaking as I, a subject which can be detected in the very words or signifiers themselves.

Separating out these two subjects in speech can also help us understand how Lacan’s famous maxim that the signifier represents the subject for another signifier refers to exactly this split between the speaking subject that enunciates words or signifiers and the I of the subject of the statement. Lacan says in the Écrits that “what the unconscious brings back to our attention is the law by which enunciation can never be reduced to what is enunciated in any discourse.” (Écrits, 892.) In other words, an unconscious production is one in which you do not recognise yourself in what you have actually said. This is an experience well-known to anyone who has undertaken a psychoanalysis.

Rather than being found in the hidden depths or recesses of the mind, the unconscious for Lacan is therefore akin to an undercurrent of what the subject says, especially about him or herself. This is why in Seminar VI Lacan refers to the enunciation as being “unconscious in the articulation of the word.” (Seminar VI, 12.11.1958.) Elaborating on this point, Evans writes that, “In designating the enunciation as unconscious, Lacan affirms that the source of speech is not the ego, nor consciousness, but the unconscious; language comes from the Other, and the idea that ‘I’ am master of my discourse is only an illusion.” (Evans, An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis, p.55.)

So let’s now take three examples of ways in which the divide between the subject of the statement and the subject of the enunciation can be made apparent.

Example 1: ‘I am lying’.

The distinction Lacan makes between the subject of the statement and the subject of the enunciation help us to comprehend the seemingly paradoxical sentence ‘I am lying’. Indeed, we only see the paradox in this statement if we perform the mental operation of separating the subject of the statement from the subject of the enunciation. What is confusing about this sentence is that we do not know whether the subject of statement – here, ‘I’ – is telling the truth about the enunciation – here, ‘… am lying’. In other words, we do not know whether the speaker is telling the truth about telling the truth. As Lacan phrases it, “If you say, I am lying, you are telling the truth, and therefore you are not lying, and so on.” (Seminar XI, p.139.) This is an example that Lacan returns to throughout his work. He first mentions it in Seminar IX, highlighting the paradox:

“The two lines that we distinguish as enunciating and enunciation are sufficient to allow us to affirm that it is in the measure that these two lines are mixed up and confused that we find ourselves before a paradox which culimates in this impasse of the ‘I am lying’ on which I made you pause for an instant.” (Seminar IX, 15.11.1961.)

But a couple of years later, in Seminar XI, he explains that despite this paradox there is nothing formally wrong with the sentence, and it is by separating the subject of the statement from the subject of the enunciation that we can demonstrate this:

 “It is quite clear that the I am lying, despite its paradox, is perfectly valid. Indeed, the I of the enunciation is not the same as the I of the statement, that is to say, the shifter which, in the statement, designates him. So, from the point at which I state, it is quite possible for me to formulate in a valid way that the I – the I who, at that moment, formulates the statement – is lying, that he lied a little before, that he is lying afterwards, or even, that in saying I am lying, he declares that he has the intention of deceiving….

This 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.” (Seminar XI, p.139-140.)

So is the subject lying, or is he telling the truth? Lacan’s answer is that he is telling the truth via his lie. At the level of the subject of the statement, he is lying; at the level of the subject of the enunciation, he is telling the truth about that lie. The psychoanalytic response that Lacan suggests to elicit this truth involves sending the subject back his own message in inverted form (Écrits, 41). Lacan continues:

“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 the truth.

In the way of deception in which the subject is venturing, the analyst is in the position to formulate this you are telling the truth, and my interpretation has meaning only in this dimension.” (Seminar XI, p.139-140.)

In his 1925 paper ‘Negation’ Freud had noted that “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, p.236). In a similar way, the subject of the statement, corresponding here to the speaker’s ego, believes itself to be lying; but it is in the enunciation that the truth is signaled. Where a negation signals the subject of the statement, what follows in the enunciation signals the truth. Psychoanalysts, Lacan suggests, should,

 “… displace ourselves in the exactly opposite but strictly correlative dimension which is to say: ‘but no, you do not know that you are telling the truth’, which immediately goes much further. What is more: ‘you only tell it so well in the measure that you think you are lying and when you do not want to lie it is to protect yourself from that truth’.” (Seminar IX, 15.11.1961.)

This same ambivalence between the intentions of the subject of the statement at the level of the ego, and the subject of the enunciation at the level of the unconscious, is discussed by Lacan in an example he gives in the Écrits, but which he also comments on in his Seminar. The phrase Lacan highlights is ‘I fear that he will come’, which in French is put in a curious way – “Je crains qu’il ne vienne”, (Écrits, 664):

“[With] the ne of this [phrase] you immediately put your finger on the fact that it means nothing other than ‘I was hoping that he would come’, it expresses the discordance of your own feelings with respect to this person, that it carries in a way its trace which is all the more suggestive because it is incarnated in its signifier… in psychoanalysis we call it ambivalence.” (Seminar IX, 17.01.62.)

Whilst the ne in this sentence is commonly used in French to signal a negation – rather than having a translation in and of itself – as Van Haute explains, Lacan uses this ne explétif in French as an example of the way in which “the subject of the enunciation can also be present in the subject of the statement in ways other than via the shifter ‘I’.” (Van Haute, Against Adaptation, p.40). In discussing the phrase “Je crains qu’il ne vienne” in the Écrits, Lacan uses this ne to demonstrate – by way of a cheeky attack that is effected in its forcefulness by this same ne  that the ne has a value which offers a clue to the subject of the enunciation beyond the subject of the statement, I.

Example 2: Advice.

A simple answer to why Lacan privileges speech in its connection with the unconscious is to make clear that we can speak about ourselves without realising that we are doing so. The distinction to be made is not simply between what you say and what you mean, but which subject is at work in speech. In positing two subjects, the subject of the statement and the subject of the enunciation Lacan gives us, as he puts it, “the right way to answer the question ‘who is speaking?’ when the subject of the unconscious is at stake. For the answer cannot come from him if he doesn’t know what he is saying, or even that he is speaking, as all of analytic experience teaches us.” (Écrits, 800). Lacan’s distinction between the subject of the statement and the subject of the enunciation allows us to ask a simple but intriguing question about advice: when advice is given from one person to another, to whom does the advice pertain? Does the advice fit better the one offering it than the one receiving it?

Here is an example. A man is in a bar with a colleague discussing work. The conversation turns to the deals they are each expecting to be able to announce in the near future. When the talk turns to how likely certain of these deals are to be sealed, the man offers his colleague advice about the confidence with which he should report these to his superiors with the words ‘Never commit, never commit’. This advice would not have been so notable were the man not in the bar precisely to celebrate his engagement to his fiancé! With the words ‘never commit’ we can wonder what commitment was being avoided, and who therefore the advice was aimed at. In Seminar IX on identification Lacan makes a comment that is useful in thinking about how to view advice, which we can apply to this example: 

“… By this very fact in the enunciating, he [the subject] elides something which is properly speaking what he cannot know, namely the name of what he is qua enunciating subject. In the act of enunciating, there is this latent nomination….” (Seminar IX, 10.01.1962).

The nomination in our example – of the subject himself as recipient of his own advice to ‘never commit’ – is not possible at the level of the statement. The unconscious here cannot express itself with the first person pronoun. The only way for the unconscious thought to be voiced was through an enunciation which was intended ostensibly for someone else.

This impersonalisation is common where the unconscious is concerned. If as Lacan says the unconscious is Other, it is not possible for us to assume it at the level of the ego, and so through mechanisms such as advice it is given or attributed to someone else. Lacanian psychoanalyst Joel Dor points out that “Most often it is with ‘I’ that the subject actualises himself in his own utternaces. But the subject of the utterance may also be adequately represented by ‘one’, ‘you’, ‘we’ and so on.” (Joel Dor, Introduction to the Reading of Lacan, p. 151).

The failure to include oneself at the level of the enunciation that we see in incidences of giving and receiving advice is something that Lacan refers to via an anecdote, which he finds in the work of the psychologist Alfred Binet, about a child who uses the phrase ‘I have three brothers, Paul, Ernest and me’ instead of ‘We are three brothers, Paul, ernest and me.’ (Seminar VI, 03.12.1958.) As with the example of ‘I am lying’ discussed above, Lacan returns to discuss this ‘mistake’ several times in the course of his Seminar. We can take this as a signal that there is something about this anecdote that he treats as axiomatic, and he begins his reflections on it in Seminar VI by commenting that “everything about the implication of the human subject in the act of speech is there.” (ibid).

The speaker in Lacan’s example talks about himself as a brother even though he is speaking about the fact that he has brothers. He is confused between being and having, as Lacan says. In Seminar XII Lacan points out that, “Here, ‘me’ must be in two places, in the place of the series of brothers and also in the place of the one who is enunciating.” (Seminar XII, 20.01.1965.). But the year before, in Seminar XI, Lacan alllows that the child’s mistake is  quite understandable: “But it is quite natural – first the three brothers, Paul, Ernest and I are counted, and then there is the I at the level at which I am to reflect the first I, that is to say, the I who counts.” (Seminar XI, p.20). The little boy counts the subject of the statement twice – mistakenly as one of the brothers, on the grounds that he is a brother, but also has brothers. The child does not deduct himself from the enunciation. As Lacan explains, “the child does not see this enunciation as coming from elsewhere as he should, namely that the subject does not yet know how to deduct himself.” (Seminar VI, 10.12.1958.)

In the same way, where advice is offered it is worth asking: who does this advice fit best – the one giving it or the one receiving it? Perhaps a Lacanian response to advice when it is offered would be to send the subject back his own message in inverted form, as Lacan suggests in the Écrits; that is, to give it its true signification (Écrits, 41). The signifiers the subject enunciates belongs to the discourse of the Other, of the unconscious as Other. At the level of the subject of the enunciation it is clear that repression is taking place. “We see when repression is introduced”, says Lacan in Seminar VI, “it is essentially linked to the absolute necessity of the subject being effaced and disappearing at the level of the process of enunciating.” (Seminar VI, 03.12.1958.)

The subject’s words will effectively overtake him in their enunciation. By addressing advice to someone else certain ideas can be expressed in the third person rather than the first. Something more is being communicated about the speaker than that which the speaker attributes to himself as ego, as advisor. Similarly, the subject can talk about someone else whilst seeming to be talking about themselves. In Seminar III Lacan states that, “The I is the I of him who is pronouncing the discourse. Underneath everything that is said there is an I who pronounces it. It’s within this enunciation that the you appears.” (Seminar III, p.274.)

Example 3: The back-handed compliment.

Even though in many cases there is nothing unconscious about a back-handed compliment, what is interesting about them from the perspective of Lacan’s distinction between the subject of the statement and the subject of the enunciation is that where there is an intent to cause offence it can only be detected at the level of the enunciation. Usually back-handed compliments can be broken into two parts – the first part is ostensibly complimentary; the second is insulting. The speaker makes a back-handed compliment from the position of the subject of the statement, the level at which it could be regarded as a genuine compliment. In the actual content of the remark there is probably little to argue with, but it is in the enunciation itself that the intent is revealed, even if this is unconscious to the speaker.

When used consciously the backhanded compliment is a fairly subtle way for the speaker to distance him or herself from the intention of his or her own words, in much the same way as a negation can be used for this purpose. In this sense, the division between the subject of the statement and the enunciation could be said to be deliberate. But a backhanded compliment can also be uninitentional, revealing the speaker’s unconscious thoughts through words they do not attribute to themselves as subject of the statement. Take the following examples:

‘I always feel more intelligent after reading your articles’.

‘You’re smart to do your laundry on Saturday night, when everyone else is out.’

The speaker’s statement occupies the position of a compliment, but in its enunciation there is an insult.

Another noteworthy aspect of the back-handed compliement is that it doesn’t go without saying. It can be thought of as something that corresponds to what Lacan calls a ‘half-said’. Dor quotes Lacan here from L’Étourdit:

“‘That doesn’t go without saying’ – we see that that is the case with many things, even with most of them, including the Freudian thing as I defined it as being the said [le dit] of the truth…. This is how the said doesn’t go without saying. But if the said always presents itself as the truth, even if it never goes beyond a half-said [un mi-dit], the saying [le dire] is coupled with it only to ex-sist [ex-sister] there, that is, not to be of the spoken-dimension [la dit-mension] of the truth.” (Cited by Dor in Introduction to the Reading of Lacan, p.152).


Image: The image above is Gustave Doré’s Confusion of Tongues, depicting the Tower of Babel, said in the Bible to have been built by the peoples of the earth who shared a single language. Angered by this, God confused their languages so that they each spoke with different tongues and could not understand one another.

By Owen Hewitson,

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