Imaginary, The (Lacan)

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In the work of Jacques Lacan, the real, the symbolic, and the imaginary are a central set of references. The imaginary is the field of the ego.

In his 1936 essay "Au-delà du 'principe de réalité"' (Beyond the reality principle), Lacan noted that Freud discovered a meaning in patients' complaints that other physicians considered imaginary and thus illusory. In his first reading of Freud's work, Lacan emphasized the notion of the image by highlighting its function: reflecting the subject's discrete behaviors in unified images. In the mirror stage, the subject identifies with these images and develops an ego concept in relation to another.

In his first seminar, Lacan acknowledged that such identification implies a radical alienation (1988a), but he considered this identification to be essential to the structure of the imaginary order and to the development of the human ego. At that time (1953-1954), he was interested in the ethological work of Nikolaas Tinbergen and Konrad Lorenz, which privileged the function of the image as gestalt in the development of the sexual instinct. Lacan believed that the development of the sexual drive of humans too is related to the imaginary function. This would account for the lure of images. As an example, he referred to the female stickleback, a fish whose copulatory dance is set in motion by the sight of a certain color patch on the male's back. Yet a paper cutout bearing the same markings can have the same effect on the female (Lacan, 1988a, pp. 122-123). What matters is that image is invested with libido. Lacan referred to libidinal investment as "what makes an object become desirable, that is to say, how it becomes confused with this more or less structured image which, in diverse ways, we carry with us" (1988a, p. 141).

But for the subject to come into being, one must find "a guide beyond the imaginary, on the level of the symbolic plane. . . . This guide governing the subject is the ego-ideal" (1988a, p. 141). The ego-ideal, according to Lacan, is the Other (caregiver) speaking. From that point on, the symbolic order (language) dominates over the imaginary order, which is reduced to being a decoy. It took Lacan twenty years to restore the imaginary to its full place alongside the real and the symbolic, which he did within the topic of the Borromean knot (a set of three interlinked rings that come apart if any one is removed).

In spite of Lacan's focus, in 1982, on the importance of knotting the three consistencies (the real, the symbolic, and the imaginary), many Lacanians continue to neglect the imaginary. In his study of James Joyce (2001), however, Lacan showed the difficulties that follow from a failure to give proper place to the imaginary. According to Marie-Christine Laznik-Penot (1995), the treatment of autism also allows us to see the difficulties that can follow from failure to accord the imaginary order its proper place.

Marie-Christine Laznik

See also: Blank/nondelusional psychoses; Demand; Desire of the subject; Ethology and psychoanalysis; Fantasy, formula of; Fort-Da; Frustration; Graph of Desire; I; Identificatory project; Imaginary identification/symbolic identification; Imago; Knot; Law of the father; Matheme; Mirror stage; Object a ; Optical schema; Other, the; Phallus; Privation; Real, the (Lacan); Real, Imaginary, and Symbolic father; Schizophrenia; Self-image; Signifier; Structuralism and psychoanalysis; Subject; Subject's castration; Symbolic, the (Lacan); Symptom/sinthome; Topology.


Lacan, Jacques. (1936). Au-delà du "principe de réalité." In hisÉcrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966, 73-92.

. (1982). The seminar XXII of 21 January 1975: RSI. In Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose (Eds.), Feminine sexuality. New York: W. W. Norton.

. (1988a). The seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book 1: Freud's papers on technique (1953-1954) (John Forrester, Trans.). New York: W. W. Norton.

. (1988b). The seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book 2: The ego in Freud's theory and in the technique of psychoanalysis (1954-1955) (Sylvana Tomaselli, Trans.). New York: W. W. Norton.

. (2001). Joyce: le symptôme. In his Autres écrits. Paris: Seuil.

Laznik-Penot, Marie-Christine. (1995). Vers la parole: trois enfants autistes en psychanalyse. Paris: Denoël.