Poe's Purloined Letter

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The Purloined Letter (1844):The letter was laid down on the table in the royal drawing room, by Alberto Salinas


To briefly recap: At the start of the session on the Purloined Letter Lacan reminds the participants that the introduction of the + – notation system, when keeping a record of a game of odds and evens, outlines the difference between memory and remembering: the memory is “internal to the symbol” (grouped in succession); remembering is informed by biography of an individual (a subjectivity). Memory is a group of symbols which are exterior to the subject. Being “internal to the symbol” as memory is, is stochastic in nature and follows the logic of probability. “The human subject doesn't foment this game, he takes his place in it, and plays the role of the little pluses and minuses in it. He is himself an element in this chain which, as soon as it is unwound, organises itself in accordance with laws. Hence the subject is always on several levels, caught up in crisscrossing networks.”[1]

At the end of the previous session, Lacan had asked the members of the seminar to play odds and evens. He sets them a task to play together for the next seminar and assigned the mathematician in the group to define randomness.

In the session on the purloined letter Lacan stresses that in this game, and as a general principle, “the play of the symbol represents and organises, independently of […] a subject”

Lacan gives another account of the story to those assembled (less than half of those attending had read it).

The Purloined Letter (1844): Dupin switches the letters whilst the minister is distracted.

A link to the whole story is in the margin:

I summarise Poe's story below.


In the story of The Purloined Letter, a young lady is in possession of a letter, which contains information that could harm a powerful individual (we do not learn the details of the letter). As the young lady is reading the letter, the person it concerns walks into the room. The young lady puts the letter aside, so as not to rouse the suspicion of the person it concerns. The minister next walks in and notes the letter's contents. The minister substitutes the young lady's letter for one of his own, which resembles the young lady’s letter. The minister now has a great deal of power over the lady, and over the person the letter concerns – as long as the letter is in his possession. The minister hides the letter in plain sight, hanging above the mantlepiece along with other trivial items in his apartment. Even after a great deal of searching the letter was not found. In the end the investigator, Dupin, deduces where the letter is and, after distracting the minister, substitutes the purloined letter for one which looks very like it. Dupin explains how he was able to guess where the minister had hidden the letter by recounting the story of a boy who played odds and evens. Dupin had observed that the boy played the game well because he bases his guesses on the knowledge of his opponent, even imitating their facial expressions, in order to better understand what they think and feel.

The rules of odds and evens are simple: guess if your opponent is holding an odd (one) or even (two) marbles in their hands. As we have established, a very similar game was known to Von Neumann & Morgenstern as matching pennies and is discussed in their book on game theory, Game Theory and Economic Behaviour – it is a good example of a “zero-sum two-person” game. This is ostensibly the same game that the machine SEER was designed to play. We also know that if contestants in odd and even are evenly matched, it makes sense for a player to play randomly because chance gives the advantage when two players are evenly matched.[2] But it only makes sense to employ chance if you know the field, if a record of the game has cycled through the system, if you know the record of the game [and you know your opponent knows it too]. This foreknowledge of the opponent’s knowledge structures the game of ones and twos, as it does the narrative of the Purloined Letter. Lacan and the members of the seminar played the game and made a record. The record, a series of + and –, produce a syntax of order that governs each successive move. This establishes autonomy of self-organization of the symbolic order.[3] “The symbol [–] produces by itself, its necessitates, its structures, its organizations” [4] Within this the subject will always find its place.[5]

In such a circumstance, players become place holders in a game which promises a particular outcome. On a level of basic structure, irrespective of who wins, there will be a winner, and irrespective of who plays there will be players; the structure of the game produces a loser and a winner (subjects), this much is established at the very beginning of the game. In this way the game, the purloined letter, and SEER are machines of subjectivity. This ordering operates on the level of syntax, insofar as it established the conditions in which a more sophisticated system of signification can be established.

Lacan moves on to examine the plot of the Purloined Letter in such terms, concentrating not the psychological element – which demanded the investigator to put himself in the place of the opponent (the emphasis that Shannon also took in his memo about SEER) – but rather the degree to which the game itself structures the symbolic. The content of the actual letter is not relevant. The possible effect of the content, and the fact that the content is the key to power and control, provides the main emphasis. A message that is not sent can still send a message. If I fail to send tax returns to the tax office they will receive the message that the message has not been sent – and there will be consequences. This is at the base of informational, negentropic economies: if it takes little energy to send a message, it takes no energy to not to send a message, and yet not sending a message registers a difference that makes a difference. Similarly, for the protagonists in the tale of the purloined letter, who through their actions and non-actions send messages unconsciously, the letter becomes the machine for action that allows the various individuals in the story to find their place, they are caught in a play of difference. In the manner of the game of odds and evens, those with knowledge of the letter’s contents and whereabouts have a different stake in the game than those who are ignorant of it. In this way the letter, as it passes through the circuit, is the inanimate agent of subjectivity; and in this sense “the letter always reaches its destination”,[6] and affects the subjects in the circuit irrespective of their knowledge of it.[7]

The subjects in the circuit are subjects in a discourse over which they have no control. The story introduces three subject positions that are mirrored as the story progresses. There is a compromising letter to the young lady which the minister purloins and replaces with a substitute; the young lady sees this, the person who would be compromised by the letter falling into the wrong hands does not see this; the young lady takes advantage of the potentially compromised individual's ignorance, as does the minister, Dupin recovers the letter by using the strategy the minister had used against the young lady. The pattern repeats itself, passing through the circuitry of the various protagonists: young lady, the writer-recipient, minister, police, minister, detective, the pattern dictates that the subjects in the pattern MUST repeat.

Now, how does this symbolic order relate to the world of the machine? The symbolic order encodes the real as number, or as Lacan would have it, “it ties the real to the sequence” which allows the integration within the circuit. A signifying mark (position of the letter) reveals the syntax, engenders the subject position that in turn engenders / generates subjectivity (it gives a place to) and allows movement within the circuit (as in the changing places of the 0 and 1 in SEER).[8]

Lacan further examines the point that the space of the letter is the space of difference: the letter cannot be purloined because a letter does not have a stable state of belonging, a proper place to be. Does its place of belonging rest with the person who sent it or with the recipient? The letter is “speech which flies”, a “letter is a fly sheet” whereas “speech remains” even when no one remembers it any more. It is not part of remembering and yet it is part of memory because the succession of a, b, y, and s will still be determined under the same law (the stochastic symbolic order). In the order of probability it is not a specific thing that has its proper place, rather it is the thing which finds its place. Lacan will return to language’s tendency to “fly” and the compulsion for things to find their “proper place” in his lecture on cybernetics and the unconscious (see next chapter).

Speech remains but the letter wanders by itself because it cannot rest with the sender or the receiver; its place is within the contingent space of the circuit. The letter, in its circularity, is a character, it becomes for the other characters within the circuitry of the story synonymous with “the original, radical, subject” In each case “the letter is the unconscious”.[9]

At the end of the seminar, in “questions to the teacher” Lacan returns to the circuitry of the Purloined Letter in relation to the Oedipus myth. It transpires that the tale of the purloined letter sits in isomorphic relation to the story of Oedipus. The letter is the radical character which wanders by itself. Oedipus’ tale is the function of the oracle, his fate was foretold, which gives the ground to the fate of Oedipus. In this sense Oedipus precedes himself, his story goes before him, he is the head and tail of a message that runs in a circuit, and Oedipus is, by necessity, ignorant of the discourse which inscribes him as a subject. Indeed, Oedipus’ destiny depends on the veiling of the discourse, “which is the reality of which he is ignorant.” Here Lacan describes the unconscious function of language as that machine which inscribes the subject which sits in homologic relation not only to the circuitry of the Purloined Letter but also to Grey Walter’s Tortoise, Ross Ashby’s Homeostat, and Shannon & Hagelbarger’s SEquence Extrapolating Robot (SEER). In his profound ignorance Oedipus sends clear messages. This discourse, this circuit, which is invisible to the subject, is the cybernetic unconscious.

  1. Lacan, Jacques, and Miller, Jacques-Alain. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book 2: The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis 19541955. Cambridge: CUP Archive, 1988. p.197
  2. Neumann, John V., and Morgenstern, Oskar. Theory of Games and Economic Behavior (Commemorative Edition). Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007. See chapter: Zero-sum Two-person Game Theory, p 148
  3. Johnston, John. The Allure of Machinic Life: Cybernetics, Artificial Life, and the New AI. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008. P.77
  4. Seminar II 782 redo)
  5. Seminar II 787.
  6. Lacan, Jacques, and Miller, Jacques-Alain. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book 2: The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis 19541955. Cambridge: CUP Archive, 1988
  7. Grimstad, Paul C.: Algorithm: Genre: Linguisterie: "Creative Distortion" in "Count Zero" and "Nova Express" Author(s)::Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 27, No. 4 (Summer, 2004), pp. 82-92 On the matter of “finding a place”, Paul C.Grimstad notes that Lacan’s reworking of Sussure’s S/S into S/s renders S/s an algorithm . As an algorithm S/s cycles through the machine (the symbolic circuit). If the task of the imaginary is to maintain the illusion of self (ego) S/s, as an algorithm, represents the element which finds a place within the symbolic for the real. In this sense, S/s processes = the function of the symbolic is to process (this point is also made by DuPuy)
  8. Lacan patches into the architecture of “thinking machines” by passing through his own triad of Real (transmission), Symbolic (storage), and Imaginary (processing) See Kittler; and Fuller; and Lovink
  9. Cite http://lacan.com/seminars1.htm