Together with modern science and linguistics, psychoanalysis deals with the object that cannot be grasped in a univocal way as the simple unity or One, which would be its empirical determination. First, the object of science became detached from the real, it became movable, like the stars, so that science had to constitute itself in this very gap between the symbolic and the real. The ambition of science was therefore to re-inscribe what had escaped from the real – what was displaced, or misplaced – in the right place, in the symbolic. This is also how Lacan uses science, taking advantage of this movement of the letter: the letter flies away, it gets separated from the unique place where it was expected in order to assure the world of its signification, sustained by the subject. With modern science, the subject now takes its place in this uncertain universe, surrounded by objects of desire: it inevitably moves – like the zombie in the latest Jim Jarmusch film, The Dead Don’t Die – towards this object, even when it is dead or undead: coffee (and cigarettes), guitar (and The Rolling stones), lollipop, candies, tools, fashion and Xanax (which sums up the anxiety that underlines the subject’s alienation), and in the end, for the woman, the love-object itself, the beloved man. The subject thus gravitates to this object which has been given, through the fantasy, a worldly image, a semblant of One: the object of consumption. Together with modern science, Jarmusch’s poetics opens up a space for this modern subject, who is unable to act in any way other than consuming – the subject who has lost himself in the mode of his undead existence.
Linguistics, on the other hand, also derives from this immanent gap opened up by language itself: even though its object seems to be evident – a sign – Saussure had already noticed the problematic determination of this unity or entity, a position that Lacan again takes up in his seminar Encore, speaking of the master signifier. Its status remains undecided between phoneme, word, sentence and even the entire thought. Delimitation and therefore determination of the basic linguistic element remains uncertain and impossible to sum up in the letter in the sense of the phoneme. Even if Saussure defines language as a system of differences (cf. Course in General Linguistics), the concrete unit of this system which enables the process of differentiation remains as uncertain as the motion of the stars, so that one can even doubt its given nature. This strange characteristic of language prevents us from returning the letter to the alphabetic character – let us remember Lacan’s neologism s’alphabêtiser, which stands for the learning of reading and writing, and binds the alphabet to the bêtise, the foolishness that participates in the fantasy of the child’s dematernalisation (cf. “Foreword to Seminar XI”).
Inspired by this difficulty of grasping the sign as an entity or unity, Saussure proposes considering language in its formal aspect. Imagining the two sides of a piece of paper (signifier and signified), the sign is like a papercut: it has no substance other than the pure form of this cut. The materiality of the sign is the materiality of the form, of the trace of the cut. Another difficulty in considering language relates to considering it as something without substance, what Lacan first called the materiality of the signifier, its literal nature, finally ending up with the letter in its function as the littoral: the border of jouissance. Writing is progressively considered from the standpoint of the material trace of the gesture of writing itself, in so far as it ends up constituting the chain of knots and, finally, the Borromean knot itself. Writing, reduced to its material and non-substantial aspect, is separate from the literature that exploits the fantasmatic universe, and binds the letter to the real. If we consider the practice of psychoanalysis as an elaboration, as an extraction of jouissance from the subject’s lalangue, the letter would be the trace of this extraction in the very materiality of its vanishing act, i.e. constituting the body as such with all its enigmatic affects.
In Jarmusch’s film, the letter, in its bordering effect, touches the real in two ways: the feminine and the masculine. The woman (played by Tilda Swinton) turns out to be an alien and escapes into the universe, evading the phallic jouissance of the zombie world via the possibility offered to her by her jouissance, the attachment to the Other jouissance (demonstrated by the ease of the calligraphic gesture she makes in cutting off the zombies’ head, which contrasts with the policeman’s clumsy and repetitive cutting). The masculine way of escape is demonstrated by the hermit (Tom Waits), who steps aside from the zombie world, and, in his own way, treats the jouissance once it is detached from the Other’s repetition-in-consumption. The letter thus leads out into the real that surrounds us.