Lacan defined the symptom in several ways: as a metaphor, as "that which comes from the real," as "that which doesn't work," and at the end of his teaching, as a structural fact, whose necessity must be questioned. In 1953 (2002a) Lacan emphasized that the analytic symptom—a neurotic, perverse, or even psychotic symptom; a dream; a slip; and so on—was sustained by a linguistic structure, by signifiers, and by the letters that serve as their material element.
In contrast to medical symptoms, the meaning of which is determined in relation to a referent, the neurotic symptom is blocked speech wanting to be heard and deciphered. Lacan saw the mechanism of metaphor at work in the symptom: when a trauma-inducing signifier is substituted for an element of the current signifying chain, it fixes the symptom and produces its meaning (2002b, p. 158). But interpreting its meaning is not enough. Interpretation works only by focusing on the articulation of the signifiers connected to the symptom; signifiers in themselves are meaningless (1995, p. 270).
Still, these signifiers must be addressed to an analyst. Because the symptom is a self-sufficient source of jouissance (enjoyment), the subject must be made to feel that behind the symptom is unknown knowledge and a related cause, and that the analyst has become the one who maintains it. The analyst has the responsibility for half of the symptom, Lacan said. He added that analytic training shows how the symptom completes itself.
Starting in 1974 with the Borromean knot with three rings, Lacan envisioned the relationship of the symptom with the real (R), the symbolic (S), and the imaginary (I). The symptom became "that which comes from the real" (1975, p. 185). It is marginally imaginary, while it unfolds in the symbolic (Figure 1).
The symptom, what is going wrong, uses speech to search for meaning. If we respond to it in this register, we can cause it to develop in the imaginary. Equivocal symbolic intervention can undo the certainties of the symptom and cause it to recede.
Lacan makes the function of the symptom specific by starting with a knot with four rings. Freud showed that the formation of symptoms is determined by psychic reality, which is organized by the Oedipus complex. Lacan called this reality "religious," because it is founded on the belief that the father castrates, even though the laws of language require a renunciation of reality and an assumption of the phallus. Thus the symptom seems to maintain a link with the father, which sustains identification and sexual jouissance. In this knot, the symptom ring knots the real, the symbolic, and the imaginary together (Figure 2).
An unresolved case is that of a subject unsustained by his symptom. This case is represented by a Borro-mean knot with three rings (Figure 3).
Lacan also asked what would happen if there were an error in the knotting of the three rings. Such an error would be fixed in a non-Borromean fashion by a fourth ring, that of the sinthome. In his study of James Joyce (2001), he used Joyce as his example of such a case (Figure 4).
For Lacan, the symptom is the fixed manner in which subjects enjoy their unconscious. Thus, the path that leads to oedipal normalization, even if it is neurotic, is also clearly marked. Treatment aims not at such a normalization but rather at learning "what to do with the symptom" instead of enjoying it.
See also: Aimée, case of; Formations of the unconscious; Four discourses; Imaginary identification/symbolic identification; Metaphor; Real, the (Lacan); Signifier/signified; Subject's desire; Topology.
Lacan, Jacques. (1974-1975). Le séminaire. Book 22: R.S.I. Ornicar?, 2-5.
——. (1975). La troisième, intervention de J. Lacan le 31 octobre 1974. Lettres de l 'École Freudienne, 16, 178-203.
——. (1975-1976). Le séminaire. Book 23: Le sinthome. Ornicar?, 6-11.
——. (1995). The position of the unconscious (Bruce Fink, Trans.). In Richard Feldstein, Bruce Fink, and Maire Jaanus (Eds.), Reading "Seminar XI": Lacan 's four fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis. New York: W. W. Norton. (Original work published 1960)
——. (2001). Joyce: Le symptôme. In his Autres écrits. Paris: Seuil.
——. (2002a). 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)
——. (2002b). The instance of the letter in the unconscious, or reason since Freud. In hisÉcrits: A selection (Bruce Fink, Trans.). New York: W. W. Norton. (Original work published 1957)