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!

Carl Jung – his theories – the Shadow

5 parts of the mind in Jungian psychology, called complex/archetypes:
-the Self : the regulating centre of the psyche
-persona: the mask we present to the outside world to protect the ego from negative images.
-anima-animus: the female part of a male’s psyche and the male part of a female’s psyche. Some modern Jungians think instead that individuals of both genders have both an anima and an animus inside.
-Shadow: repressed content, the opposite of the ego image, often containing qualities that the ego does not identify with but possesses nonetheless.

There are other complex/archetypes. Jungian psychology is extremely esoteric and obscure, so this description is extremely simplified and focusing on the bit that interest me in the context of art.

More on the shadow

“Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.”
Jung, C.G. (1938). “Psychology and Religion.” In CW 11: Psychology and Religion: West and East. P.131

The subject is prone to projecting their “shadow” onto other persons, so as to dissociate their dark part from themselves. The goes back to the idea of the double.

‘the shadow…is roughly equivalent to the whole of the Freudian unconscious’
Anthony Stevens, On Jung (London 1990) p. 43

‘the result of the Freudian method of elucidation is a minute elaboration of man’s shadow-side unexampled in any previous age’
C. G. Jung, The Practice of Psychotherapy (London 1993) p. 63

“in spite of its function as a reservoir for human darkness—or perhaps because of this—the shadow is the seat of creativity.”
Kaufman, C. Three-Dimensional Villains: Finding Your Character’s Shadow

‘the dark side of his being, his sinister shadow…represents the true spirit of life as against the arid scholar’
C. G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections (London 1983) p. 262

The shadow may appear in dreams, often as a dark figure of the same gender as the dreamer.
Jung, C.G. (1958-1967). Psyche and Symbol. (R. F. C. Hull, Trans.). Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. (Published 1991).

“the gold in the shadow”: Though the shadow is popularly referred as the “dark side”, is is merely everything that the Ego does not identify with and represses FOR ANY REASON WHATSOVER.

Individuation: integrating one’s shadow

Confrontation with the shadow is important in the process of individuation, but for this to be fruitful, the result must be that the conscious integrate the shadow into itself, rather than the shadow takes control of the conscious. For Jung, if the conscious (the ego) represses the unconscious (the shadow and other complex/archetypes such as the anima/animus) too hard, then the unconscious may backlash and take over the conscious: this is a psychotic episode. Therefore the core goal of Jungian analysis is to become aware of one’s unconscious, and integrate parts of it into the self while maintaining control over it. This process is called Individuation and can be achieved through Jungian analysis but also other methods: interpretating one’s dreams, studying myths, or making art for example.

John Weir Perry’s book The Far Side of Madness: a psychological description of a psychotic episode.

Freud – The Uncanny – The Unconscious

This post contains reading notes on Freud’s ‘The Uncanny’ and ‘The unconscious’ (parallel theory). I am interested in psychoanalysis both because of its influence on Surrealism, and because of my own interest in affecting my audience on an unconscious/intuitive level.

Freud – The Uncanny (1919)

“unheimlich” is literally “unhomely” though translated as “uncanny”

“The uncanny is that species of the frightening that goes back to what was once well known and had long been familiar.”

Jentsch was the first to define “unheimlich”:
“for him, the essential condition for the emergence of a sense of the uncanny is intellectual uncertainty.”

“Uncanny is what one calls everything that was meant to remain secret and hidden and has come into the open.”

Freud makes a long etymology of the word “heimlich”:
“heimlich is not unambiguous, but belongs to two sets of ideas, which are not mutually contradictory, but very different from each other – the one relating to what is familiar and comfortable, the other to what is concealed and kept hidden. Unheimlich is the antonym of heimlich only in the latter’s first sense.”
“among the various shades of meaning that are recorded for the word heimlich, there is one in which it merges with its formal antonym, unheimlich, so that what is called heimlich becomes unheimlich”
“Starting from the homely and the domestic, there is a further development towards the notion of something removed from the eyes of strangers, hidden, secret.”

Freud talks about “the substitutive relation between the eye and the male member that is manifested in dreams, fantasies and myths”. This reminds me of witnesses describing Diane Arbus using her camera both as a shield and a weapon of aggression.

“the double was originally an insurance against the extinction of the self or, as Rank puts it, ‘an energetic denial of the power of death’, and it seems likely that the ‘immortal’ soul was the first double of the body. […] But these ideas arose on the soil of boundless self-love, the primordial narcissism that dominates the mental life of both the child and primitive man, and when this phase is surmounted, the meaning of the ‘double’ changes: having once been an assurance of immortality, it becomes the uncanny harbinger of death.”
What can be “embodied in the figure of the double”: “the possibilities which, had they been realized, might have shaped our destiny, and to which our imagination still clings, all the strivings of the ego that were frustrated by adverse circumstances, all the suppressed acts of volition that fostered the illusion of free will.”

“”every affect arising from an emotional impulse – of whatever kind – is converted into fear by being repressed, it follows that amongst those things that are felt to be frightening there must be one group in which it can be shown that the frightening element is something that has been repressed and now returns. […] something that was long familiar to the psyche and was estranged from it only through being repressed. […] ‘Something that should have remained hidden and has come into the open’.”
Freud rejects Jentsch’s vision of the uncanny as caused by “intellectual uncertainty” yet he somehow comes back to it:
“an uncanny effect often arises when the boundary between fantasy and reality is blurred, when we are faced with the reality of something that we have until now considered imaginary, when a symbol takes on the full function and significance of what it symbolizes.”
Maybe this is not so much intellectual uncertainty, where the doubt can be lifted by rational investigation (Jentsch’s example was the uncertainty whether someone is a person or an automaton, which can be lifted by close investigation), but rather the shattering of intellectual certainty, of one’s vision of the world, that is uncanny.

“the infantile element about this, which also dominates the mental life of neurotics, is the excessive stress that is laid on psychical reality, as opposed to material reality.”

“where does the uncanny effect of silence, solitude and darkness come from?”

“the uncanny derived from what was once familiar and then repressed.”

How the fiction writer can create an uncanny feeling in the reader:
“he betrays us to a superstition we thought we had ‘surmounted’; he tricks us by promising us everyday reality and then going beyond it”

The creative writer and daydreaming (1907)

“the opposite of play is not seriousness – it is reality”

“now the creative writer acts no differently from the child at play: he creates a fantasy world, which he takes very seriously; that is to say, he invests large amounts of emotion in it, while marking it off sharply from reality.”

“the true ars poetica lies in the technique by which he [the creative writer] overcomes our repulsion, which certainly has to do with the barriers that arise between each single ego and the others.”

Introduction by Hugh Haughton

Oscar Wilde :
it is not the artist but “rather the beholder who lends to the beautiful thing its myriad meanings, and makes it marvellous for us, and sets it in some new relation to the age”
Oscar wilde, Complete Works, ed Vivyan Holland, 1966, p1028

“One of the earliest psychological investigators of the aesthetic, Edmund Burke, opposed the economy of beauty, built up around positive experience of pleasure, to the sublime, built up around the negative experiences of awe, terror and dread. In this essay Freud, like Burke, moves beyond an idea of aesthetics ‘restricted to the theory of beauty’, as he puts it, to explore an aesthetics of anxiety. […] The uncanny, that is, unlike Burke’s Sublime, is a paradoxical mark of modernity. It is associated with moments when an author, fictional character or reader experiences the return of the primitive in an apparently modern and secular context.”
Freud quotation, is it from the Uncanny itself ? Unclear, check if used
“a person may identify himself with another and so become unsure of his true self, or he may substitute the other’s self for his own […] the self may be duplicated, divided and interchanged”
→ psychogenic fugue in David Lynch’s Lost Highway

The Unconscious

This collection of essays is a work in progress written while Freud developed his theory of the unconscious, therefore some concepts vary/evolute/remain undetermined.

Grossly, Freud defined 3 parts of the psyche:
the conscious: psychic material consciously available
the preconscious: psychic material not consciously available, but that has not been actively repressed, it is merely latent.
the unconscious: psychic material not consciously available because it has been actively repressed.
There are censorship mechanisms at the border between the unconscious and the preconscious, and between the preconscious and the conscious.

It is mostly the preconscious concept that is a bit unclear and changing in Freud’s thought: In the earlier essays, it is described as latent material in which the conscious can pick material as it needs it, the preconscious and the conscious are not separated by censorship, the preconscious is merely a reserve of available material for the conscious. In later essays, the concept changes and the idea of censorship between the preconscious and the conscious is introduced. The psychic material in the preconscious starts to be described as things that the subject is not uncomfortable enough to repress as long as it remains merely latent, but not explicitly comfortable with either. As I understand it, it is psychic material that is unobtrusive enough for the subject to be able to ignore it for the time being and not to have to take an actual decision about repressing it or not. But, when this material gets “pushy” and tries to break through into the conscious, it is subject to censorship: either it is judged harmless/acceptable and let in, or it is judged unacceptable and repressed down into the unconscious.

Introduction by Mark Cousins

“he makes a further distinction between the preconscious and the unconscious which corresponds to the distinction between psychic material which is merely latent and psychic material which is made unconscious by the act of repression.”

“Without noticing it, Freud makes here a contribution to the very idea of ‘reality’. We might think that most philosophers would assert that ‘reality’ is whatever is the case; the human science might adjust that by thinking that ‘reality’ is all that people think is the case. Freud’s concern to think out the difference between phantasy and reality leads him to the novel proposal that reality is an obstacle. It follows that the boundary between reality and phantasy is no longer something like the difference between a mental event and a real event. I am always within a phantasy as long as I meet no obstacle to its satisfaction. Reality is not a topographical category, it is not that which is outside my skin, it is whatever is an obstacle to the satisfaction of a wish. One way of charting the progress of Freud’s thought is that he finds the obstacles of reality more and more efficacious in the block they offer to desire just as he becomes increasingly convinced by the archaic character of desire and its relative ineducability by reason and the world. The very existence of the unconscious had alienated the subject from his own consciousness. Now the unconscious alienates the subject from full acceptance of external reality. Ultimately, the subject is the very battleground over which reality and phantasy lay their claims.”

Formulations on the Two Principles of Psychic Functioning (1911)

“every neurosis has the effect, and so probably the purpose, of forcing the patient out of real life, of alienating him from reality. […] The neurotic turns away from reality because he finds either the whole or parts of it unbearable.”

“Art brings about a reconciliation of the two principles [the pleasure principle and the reality principle] in a unique way. The artist is originally someone who, unable to come to term with the renunciation of drive satisfaction initially demanded by reality, turns away from it and gives free rein to erotic and ambitious wishes in his fantasy life. Thanks to special gifts, however, he finds his way back to reality from this fantasy world by shaping his fantasies into new kinds of reality, which are appreciated by people as valid representations of the real world. […] But he can achieve this only because other people feel the same dissatisfaction he does at the renunciations imposed by reality.”

Drives and their Fates (1915)

“The outside world is divided up into a pleasurable part, which it [the ego] incorporates into itself, and the rest which is alien to it.”

Repression (1915)

“failed repressions will be of more interest to us than successful ones, which for the most part will elude our scrutiny”
some repressions are actually successful: the repressed content does not come back as unpleasant symptoms.

I like the subtly subversive implications of Freud’s theory: the outside world/reality is an obstacle for the individual, and the individual may try to circumvent it as any other obstacle. And in a the case of a successful repression of something unpleasant (a successful repression is one that does not come back with incapacitating symptoms), it will never be noticed as an “illness” and will never need to be cured: in the (rare but existing) case of a successful repression, the individual will have improved their happiness by negating reality. Freud’s theory is not moral: “accepting reality” is not better than “repressing it”. It’s only the unpleasant symptoms of an unsuccessful repression that needs to be cured. Freud’s theory appears almost utilitarian to me, that’s why I like it.

In defense of the Unconscious (1915)

Latency = “psychic unconsciousness”

The special properties of the Ucs system (1915)

Ucs = Unconscious

“Ucs processes pay equally little heed to reality. They are subject to the pleasure principle: their fate depends only on how strong they are and whether they meet the requirements of pleasure-unpleasure regulation.”

Fetishism (1927)

“the essential difference between neurosis and psychosis was that in neurosis, the ego, at the behest of reality, suppresses a piece of the id [represses it ???], whereas in psychosis it is impelled by the id to detach itself from a piece of reality.”

id = latin for “it” = unconscious