Real, The (Lacan)

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Real, The (Lacan)

The real, a category established by Jacques Lacan, can only be understood in connection with the categories of the symbolic and the imaginary. Defined as what escapes the symbolic, the real can be neither spoken nor written. Thus it is related to the impossible, defined as "that which never ceases to write itself." And because it cannot be reduced to meaning, the real does not lend itself any more readily to univocal imaginary representation than it does to symbolization. The real situates the symbolic and the imaginary in their respective positions.

In 1953, in a lecture called "Le symbolique, l'imaginaire et le réel" (The symbolic, the imaginary, and the real; 1982), Lacan introduced the real as connected with the imaginary and the symbolic. The real, insofar as it is situated in relation to the death drive and the repetition compulsion, has nothing to do with Freudian reality (Wirklichkeit ) or with the reality principle. Lacan wrote, "One thing that is striking is that in analysis there is an entire element of the real of the subject that escapes us. . . . There is something that brings the limits of analysis into play, and it involves the relation of the subject to the real" (1982). Right away, Lacan raised the question of the real in relation to analytic training, and in 1953 more specifically in relation to the choice of candidates for training analysis. The issue concerned the fact that the real is defined not solely by its relation to the symbolic but also by the particular way in which each subject is caught up in it.

Lacan was able to extract this notion of the real from his meticulous reading of Freud. In La relation d'objet (Object relations; 1994), his seminar of 1956-1957, Lacan, taking up the case of "little Hans" (Freud, 1909b), explained the boy's mythical constructions as a response to the real of sexual jouissance (enjoyment) that had erupted in his field of subjectivity. Thanks to his imaginary constructions and his phobia, little Hans avoided the issue of castration. In his seminar The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis, 1954-1955 (1988), Lacan presented a detailed reading of Freud's dream of Irma's injection (Freud, 1900a). He emphasized that the terrifying image that Freud saw at the back of Irma's throat revealed the irreducible real and designated a limit point at which "all words cease" (1988, p. 164).

Lacan returned regularly to The Interpretation of Dreams (Freud, 1900a) to indicate how the real is located at the root of every dream, what Freud called the dream's navel, a limit point where the unknown emerges (1900a, pp. 111n, 525). It is here, at the dream's navel, that Lacan located the point where the real hooks up with the symbolic (Lacan, 1975). Lacan approached the real through hallucination and psychosis by careful study of Freud's "Wolf man" case (1918b [1914]), Freud's commentary on Daniel Paul Schreber (1911c [1910]), and "Negation" (Freud, 1925h). If the Name of the Father is foreclosed and the symbolic function of castration is refused by the subject, the signifiers of the father and of castration reappear in reality, in the form of hallucinations. Hence the Wolf Man's hallucination of a severed finger and Schreber's delusions of communicating with God. Thus, in developing the concept of foreclosure, Lacan was able to declare, "What does not come to light in the symbolic appears in the real" (1966, p. 388). Lacan reconceived Freud's hypothesis of an original affirmation as a symbolic operation in which the subject emerges from an already present real and recognizes the signifying stroke that engages the subject in a world symbolically ordered by the Name of the Father and castration. In his seminar The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (1978), Lacan took up Freud's Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920g) and approached the real in terms of compulsion and repetition. He proposed distinguishing between two different aspects of repetition: a symbolic aspect that depends on the compulsion of signifiers (automaton) and a real aspect that he called tuché, the interruption of the automaton by trauma or a bad encounter that the subject is unable to avoid. Engendered by the real of trauma, repetition is perpetuated by the failure of symbolization. From this point on, Lacan defined the real as "that which always returns to the same place" (Lacan, 1978, p. 49). Trauma, which Freud situated within the framework of the death drive, Lacan conceptualized as the impossible-to-symbolize real.

The concept of the real also allowed Lacan to approach questions of anxiety and the symptom in a new way. While his early teaching was devoted to the primacy of the symbolic, in later seminars (from 1972 to 1978) he argued that the real (R), the symbolic (S), and the imaginary (I) are strictly equivalent. In effect, the symbolism that Lacan borrowed from logic failed to formalize the real, which "never ceases to write itself." Thus Lacan attempted, by borrowing from the mathematics of knot theory, to invent a formulation independent of symbols. By affirming the equivalence of the three categories R, S, and I, by representing them as three perfectly identical circles that could be distinguished only by the names they were given, and by knotting these three circles together in specific ways (such that if any one of them is cut, the other two are set free), Lacan introduced a new object in psychoanalysis, the Borromean knot. This knot is both a material object that can be manipulated and a metaphor for the structure of the subject. The knot, made up of three rings, is characterized by how the rings (representing the real, the symbolic, and the imaginary) interlock and support each other. From this point on in Lacan's teaching, the real was no longer an opaque and terrifying unconceptualizable entity. Rather, it is positioned right alongside the symbolic and tied to it by mediation of the imaginary. Thus, whatever our capacity for symbolizing and imagining, there remains an irreducible realm of the nonmeaning, and that is where the real is located (see Lacan, 1974-1975).

In the final years of his teaching, Lacan took up the question of the symptom and the end of the treatment (1975; 1976). If the symptom is "the most real thing" that subjects possess (1976, p. 41), then how must analysis proceed to aim at the real of the symptom in order to ensure that the symptom does not proliferate in meaningful effects and even to eliminate the symptom? For analysis not to be an infinite process, for it to find its own internal limit, the analyst's interpretation, which bears upon the signifier, must also reach the real of the symptom, that is, the point where the symbolically nonmeaningful latches on to the real, where the first signifiers heard by the subject have left their imprint (Lacan, 1985, p. 14). According to Lacan, to reach its endpoint, an analysis must modify the relationship of the subject to the real, which is an irreducible whole in the symbolic from which the subject's fantasy and desire derive.

This notion of the real has given rise to numerous misunderstandings. Some have interpreted its resistance to formalization as a slide into irrationality. Others, by identifying the real with trauma, have made it a cause of fear and anxiety. Yet we all have an intuitive experience of the real in such phenomena as the uncanny, anxiety, the nonmeaningful, and poetic humor that plays upon words at the expense of meaning. Thus, when the framework of the imaginary wavers and speech is lacking, when reality is no longer organized and pacified by the fantasy screen, the experience of the real emerges in a way that is unique for each person.

Martine Lerude

See also: Fantasy, formula of; Foreclosure; Fragmentation; Imaginary, the; Internal/external reality; Knot; Object a ; Real, Symbolic, and Imaginary father; Signifier; Subject's castration; Symbolic, the; Symptom/sinthome.


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. (1920g). Beyond the pleasure principle. SE,18:1-64.

. (1925h). Negation. SE, 19: 233-239.

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. (1994). Le séminaire. Book 4: La relation d'objet (1956-1957). Paris: Seuil.