Symbolic, The (Lacan)

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For Jacques Lacan, the symbolic, or the symbolic order, is a universal structure encompassing the entire field of human action and existence. It involves the function of speech and language, and more precisely that of the signifier. It appears as an essentially unconscious, latent apparatus.

The idea of the symbolic is contemporaneous with the birth of psychoanalysis since the traces linked to repressed infantile sexual experiences are symbolically reactualized in adulthood as defensive symptoms. The fact that Freud emphasized memory and reminiscence in his earliest theoretical work is enough to indicate the primacy of symbolic traces in psychopathology. The Oedipus complex, the avatars of the primal relationship with the mother, and the function of the dead father all take on their importance because they function on the same axis where the signifier emerges as the mainspring of the symbolic. As Lacan wrote in the "Function and Field" essay, "Freud's discovery was that of the field of effects, in man's nature, of his relations to the symbolic order" (2002, p. 63). Further, Lacan's entire body of work testifies to the fact that he was trying to restore the symbolic to its full status in psychoanalysis.

The impact of the symbolic is felt on several levels: first in limits placed on social alliances and relationships by a certain number of mechanisms, for which the traditional model is the pact. At another level, the symbolic intervenes in the form of discrete elements, namely signifiers, that are overdetermined as the prevalent forms of the imaginary, affective relations, and the choice of sexual objects.

Lacan repeatedly referred to the canonical example of the "child with the reel" from Beyond the Pleasure Principle (Freud, 1920g) in order to emphasize that the mark of the absence of the beloved object is realized by the fort-da game of phonetic opposition that represented the appearance and disappearance of the mother. This correlation between the missing object and a symbolic signifying mark inscribed in language removes the object's concrete features and grants it a level of conceptual force.

The emergence of the signifier in the symbolic is best shown by the infant's initiation into the dialectical field of demand and desire, for it is in the experience of vital distress and the appeal to a caretaker that a split occurs. Even if this caretaker satisfies a vital need, there is still a gaping lack of being. This equivocal division is brought about by the signifier of the first demand. It brings with it consequences beyond the frontiers of infancy and perpetuates a radical division in subjectivity. It also grants to the unconscious Other its symbolic place because the ultimate meaning of this signifier is assumed by the subject to reside in this other scene.

In the demand, the inexpressible, originally repressed part of the signifier becomes the cause of desire by the process of repetition. Later, the Oedipus complex normalizes the structure by assigning a definitive meaning to a lack previously put in placenamely that the mother, as primordial Other, is assumed to possess the phallus, and the father, by prohibiting incest, reinforces the fact that the phallus is absent by conferring on it a symbolic function. Thus the father's prohibition makes the phallic signifier cause desire in the very place where repression had left a hole. From that point on, this operation links the lack (symbolic castration) to the law of language, in order to make it reappear as symbolic debt. The symbolic order is thus constituted as an autonomous system of signifiers, a system that is governed from the Other and to which the subject is subjugated. The primary character of the symbolic led Lacan to conceive of it as one of the dimensions constituting the Borro-mean knot, a formalized structural schema that also includes the imaginary and the real.

Jean-Paul Hiltenbrand

See also: Blank/nondelusional psychosis; Castration of the subject; Child analysis; Death instinct (Thanatos); Demand; Ethics; Fantasy, formula of; Female sexuality; Feminism and psychoanalysis; Foreclosure; Fort-Da; Ego ideal/ideal ego; Imaginary identification/symbolic identification; Imaginary, the; Imago; Knot; L and R schemas; Matheme; Mirror stage; Name-of-the-Father; Neurosis; Object; Object a ; Optical schema; Phallus; Privation; Psychoses, chronic and delusional; Real, the; Real, Imaginary, and Symbolic father; Sexuation, formulas of; Signifier; Structuralism and psychoanalysis; Subject; Subject's desire; Symbol; Symbolization, process of; Symptom/sinthome; Thalassa: A Theory of Genitality ; Topology; Unary trait; Want of being/lack of being.


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

Lacan, Jacques. (2002). The function and field of speech and language in psychoanalysis. In hisÉcrits: A selection (Bruce Fink, Trans.). New York: W. W. Norton (Original work published 1953)