Jacques Lacan – The Symbolic – The Imaginary – The Real

I read a Lacanian analysis of David Lynch’s Lost Highway, so decided to investigate this further. However I must admit that this strand of my research is rather unsuccessful. I had investigated Lacan earlier but could not make any sense of his 3 orders: the Symbolic, the Imaginary and the Real, so I had left the whole thing aside.

Reading this David Lynch critique, I thought I had understood the 3 orders “from example”. The author wrote that the first half of the film where Fred Madison kills his wife but represses just the murder itself out of guilt was set in “The Symbolic”, the second half of the film where Fred escapes into a psychogenic fugue to imagine a better life was set in “the Imaginary”. And the Mystery Man, a character (probably part of Fred’s own mind) who pursues him (both as Fred and as Pete, his idealised imaginary self) to force him to remember the murder was part of “the Real”.

So I had interpreted the 3 orders as:
-the Symbolic: external reality or all the information coming from outside that ourself has to process
-the Imaginary: our Ego or the way we like to imagine ourselves (minus the repressed content we find unacceptable about ourselves)
-the Real: the repressed content coming back to haunt us as symptoms that tear the fabric of the Imaginary.

However I am re-reading about Lacan with this example in mind, and still cannot make much sense of it. Below are some note taking from internet sources about the 3 orders. It seems my difficulty to understand comes from the fact that, contrary to Freud, Lacan does not study/write about phenomenon/events themselves but about the way they are coded/perceived into Signs: mostly language but also images (for the Imaginary). It seems Lacan considers one is unable to study things themselves, only their representation via signs. His thinking is influenced by the Structuralists. I purposefully leave this as notes organised “per source” because I am not clear enough yet on Lacan’s thought to be able to synthesize my own vision, so I’d rather keep different people’s interpretations of it neatly separated.

Media Study Interpretation:

The Imaginary: the imaginary becomes the internalized image of this ideal, whole, self and is situated around the notion of coherence rather than fragmentation. The imaginary can roughly be aligned with the formation of the ego which serves as the mediator (as in Freud) between the internal and the external world (Vogler, 2). It becomes, in Lacan, the space in which the relation “between the ego and its images” (Miller, 280) is developed.

The Symbolic: in contrast to the imaginary, the symbolic involves the formation of signifiers and language and is considered to be the “determining order of the subject” (Miller, 279). Seeing the entire system of the unconscious/conscious as manifesting in an endless web of signifiers/ieds and associations, Lacan claims that, “Symbols in fact envelop the life of man in a network so total that they join together, before he comes into the world, those who are going to engender him…” (Language, 42). And, “Man speaks therefore, but it is because the symbol has made him man” (39). The Symbolic Order functions as the way in which the subject is organized and, to a certain extent, how the psyche becomes accessible. It is associated with language, with words, with writing and can be aligned with Peirce’s “symbol” and Saussure’s “signifier.”

The Real: very unlike our conventional conception of objective/collective experience, in Lacanian theory the real becomes that which resists representation, what is pre-mirror, pre-imaginary, pre-symbolic – what cannot be symbolized – what loses it’s “reality” once it is symbolized (made conscious) through language. It is “the aspect where words fail” (Vogler, 2), what Miller describes as, “the ineliminable residue of all articulation, the foreclosed element, which may be approached, but never grasped: the umbilical cord of the symbolic” (280). This is perhaps the source of the most contention within theories of media in that media itself can only point at the real but never embody it, never be it. For Peirce, this can be described as the “index” – the “real” traces left behind; […] In a sense, the real is everything that is not media, but that informs all media.


The imaginary: pre-language development state where the Ego is developed. Realm of images?

The Symbolic: realm of language and narratives.
“The signs mediate a reference to a reality, but this reality is not present in the Symbolisation, but is re-presented. So the immediacy is lost. The price that is paid for the Symbolisation is thus the loss of the primordial object, the object a, the object of desire. What remains is an emptiness, a trace, something reminding of a fullness. We will say more about this when we discuss ‘the Real’.”
“For Lacan, the unconscious has the same structure as language, and is also constituted of a chain of signifiers.” signifiers such as dreams or symptoms
Therefore Lacan calls both the Symbolic and the Unconscious “the Other”(Capital O is important, “the other” is something else )
The symbolic/language/order is imposed from outside on the child who then becomes a “subject”. But by submitting to language, the subject looses his immediacy with reality.

The Real:
“This is the most difficult Order to talk about, exactly because it is the Order which cannot be expressed in language. As we have seen, language introduces differences and thus creates order. A striking example of this is the difference between man and woman. In social and emotional, sometimes even physical reality, there are no clear-cut characteristics that would differentiate a man from a woman. A certain man can have more female characteristics than a specific woman. The only thing on which the difference is based is a meaningless sign, the phallus. Another metaphor for this is the creatio ex nihilo: God created order by His Word, the order was not inherent but imposed. This is exactly the way language works. What is thus lost is an immediate relation with reality. Culture is forever cut off from nature. There is a loss, a gap at the centre of the Symbolic Order: it is rooted in a difference that has no essential ‘meaning’. The Order which comes before every Symbolisation or Imagination is called the Order of the Real.” “The Real is barred from the Symbolic Order but it also makes the Symbolic Order possible as it calls for an endless flux of signifiers to generate meaning. The signifiers constantly try to signify the Real in the Symbolic Order. Paradoxically, it will never be possible to put it into words completely: a gap will remain. Therefore, exactly because communication is somehow doomed to fail (the gap cannot be expressed) we keep on speaking. With Lacan, we find a core that cannot be Symbolised.”

“the other” = “autre” = “a” = “object petit a” = it is the unattainable object of desire, unattainable because it is situated in the “Real Order” and as soon as we project it onto signifiers (i.e. in the Symbolic order), it is no longer our real desire anymore.
This reminds me of Tarkovsky’s Stalker = we do not know our innermost wish.

“the Real is that which comes before Symbolisation, and which provokes desire. When it is approached too closely, it is a horrifying reality, but it also makes Symbolisation possible.”

A Psychotic cannot reconcile with the fact that the Symbolic order does not fully represent reality.

Slavoj Zizek on Wikipedia

Slavoj ZiZek defines the real as the difference/the gap between reality and an individual’s subjective interpretation of it (in the Symbolic Order)

In the Cartesian maxim “I think therefore I am”, “I think” takes place in the Symbolic order (the Symbolic subject) whereas “I am” takes place in the Real order (the Real subject).

“There are also three modalities of the real:
-The “symbolic real”: the signifier reduced to a meaningless formula
-The “real real”: a horrific thing, that which conveys the sense of horror in horror films
-The “imaginary real”: an unfathomable something that permeates things as a trace of the sublime. This form of the real becomes perceptible in the film The Full Monty, for instance, in the fact that in disrobing the unemployed protagonists completely; in other words, through this extra gesture of “voluntary” degradation, something else, of the order of the sublime, becomes visible.”

The Symbolic is not the realm of language per se, but of the signifiers.

The Imaginary is the realm of the signified (which, when attached to signifiers, form the language). The Child enters the realm of the Imaginary when he sees his image in the mirror (Lacan’s “Mirror Stage”). The Imaginary is closely linked to Narcissism, the Ego and images.

There are no fixed relations between signifiers and signified (i.e. the Symbolic and the Imaginary)

Artificial opposition such a presence/absence only exist in the Symbolic order, not in the Real. Such artificial opposition points out that something is missing in the Symbolic. The Symbolic introduces “a cut in the Real”.
“there is no absence in the Real.”
Lacan, J., The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book II: The Ego in Freud’s Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis 1954–1955 (W. W. Norton & Company, 1991)
“the Real is always in its place”
Lacan, J. Seminar XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis.

found a formal definition of “latent” from a dubious source but it fits what I compiled from Freud’s ‘The Unconscious’ essays, so makes sense:
“Psychology. Present and accessible in the unconscious mind but not consciously expressed.”

An overview of the Seminars of Lacan

Seminar 1:
“To this reshaping of the Imaginary by the Symbolic [the goal of analysis], he opposes the intersection of the Symbolic and the Real without mediation of the Imaginary, which would be the characteristic of psychosis.”

Seminar 13:
apparently Lacan saw a lecture by Foucault about Velasquez’s Las Meninas and commented on it. Could be the inspiration for the Ukrainian film “Las Meninas” about a really weird dysfunctional family?
Zizek brings out Psycho, where Norman Bates’ house is rendered uncanny because Hitchcok’s viewpoint switches from the house coming closer (as seen by the approaching woman) to the same woman coming closer (as seen from the house), giving the anxious impression that the house is gazing at her

Lacan’s Seminar VII is the one from which Zizek seems to draw most of his material (about Sade, the sublime, the Real and the second death) → check!

To reward those of you who read this far: some Lacanian jokes!


3 Responses to “Jacques Lacan – The Symbolic – The Imaginary – The Real”

  1. Nice one, thanks!

    • melaniemenardarts Says:

      Hi! thanks, but please don’t take my word for it, I’m absolutely no expert and those were really notes as I “learned along”. cheers.

  2. Thanks for making this all available. I’ve come upon some of the same sources in my research about Lacan’s notion of the real. The uchicago media glossary is especially helpful I think. You’ve laid it out nicely.

    If you know of any online sources for Lacan quotes on the real, I’d appreciate the tip.

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