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L’imaginaire/la symbolique/le réel

The tripartite distinction between the Imaginary, the Symbolic, and the Real formed the basis of Jacques Lacan’s re-thinking of the categories of psychoanalytic theory and practice. The conceptual relations among these terms evolved over the course of his career. The relation between the Imaginary and the Symbolic is of special concern in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse, where it is linked to the relation between ideology and science, as developed by Louis Althusser.

In the earliest phases of his rethinking of the Freudian project, Jacques Lacan focused on the imaginary nature of the ego. In his 1936 lecture on the ‘mirror stage’ in childhood development, Lacan claimed that the ego was constituted through a process of imaginary identification on the infant’s part with the image it has of itself in a mirror (or in the body of another child or playmate with whom it identifies). Crucial to Lacan’s conception was the element of misrecognition (méconnaissance) in this ‘imaginary’ identification. The image of wholeness in the mirror becomes the ground of the ego-ideal, i.e. one’s ‘self-image’; in the child’s identification with this image there is an element of constitutive alienation, in that the child’s subjectivity is inadequate to this holistic vision. There is nonetheless an element of pleasure in the child’s ‘mastery’ over this image, and the accomplishment of the process itself, however compromised, results in the phenomenon of primary narcissism. Ultimately, the integral, discordant element of this imaginary identification condemns the child to a delusional quest of self-mastery. The imaginary is essentially a site of alienation and frustration.

After the Second World War, Lacan began to supplement his thought with an extensive engagement with linguistics and the structuralist anthropology of Claude Lévi-Strauss. If the imaginary is the domain of the ego, the site of specular identification, the symbolic is the concept ‘for the field of language and of the unconscious’. Indeed, the symbolic ultimately serves as the broadest and most supple of Lacan’s three registers. It plays a constitutive role vis-à-vis the imaginary in that the web of signification and language in which the subject will emerge is already pre-established before the child’s birth. The symbolic register is the domain of the ‘big other’, a structural field that is also the site for the emergence of law in the phallic signifier, the Name-of-the-Father (le nom-du-père). Lacan’s emphasis on the Symbolic was part of his culturalist rethinking of psychoanalysis, an effort to de-naturalize the unconscious as an occult domain or territory. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Lacan’s primary concern was essentially the symbolic order and the relation between the subject and desire within this order, the terrain itself of psychoanalytic practice via the phenomenon of speech.

Later on, however, Lacan came to see the Imaginary and the Symbolic as inadequate in themselves for making sense of this terrain. Instead, he increasingly opted for recourse to the domain of the Real, often negatively defined as that which is neither symbolic nor imaginary, but which is inextricably bound to the other two in a Borromean knot; if one element were cut, the whole structure would collapse. In Lacan’s teaching of the later 1960s and ’70s, the Real functions as a site of impossibility and impasse, the essential exteriority (even if it is internally located as an ‘extimity’) that plays an integral role as a set of material or mental facts that escape all mastery and authority. More ambitious than the Freudian framework, in its way Lacan’s tripartite schema correlates to the Freudian distinction between the Id, the Ego, and the Superego. Where the Imaginary remains the site of the Ego, the Real might be said to correlate to the Id and the Symbolic, as the field of language and the site of law, with that of the Superego. Freud himself suggested the intimate link between the Superego and the Id, and theoretical efforts in Lacan’s wake, above all those of Slavoj Zizek, have focused much attention on the relation between the Real and the Symbolic in similar terms.

The primacy of the Symbolic/Real relation, to the detriment of the Imaginary, is a key feature of Alain Badiou’s work posterior to the Cahiers pour l’Analyse (cf. his Theory of the Subject, 1982). But the focus on the links between the Symbolic, a category that includes mathematical and logical writing, and the ‘impasses’ this writing confronts in the Real is already present in the arguments of the Cahiers, particularly in its final issue on formalisation (CpA 10). Elsewhere in the journal, sustained attention is paid to the Imaginary as a domain proper to subjectivity, with its own geometry, its own optics, and its own dialectic. During the mid-1960s, Louis Althusser turned to Lacan’s theory of the ‘Imaginary’, with its element of specular (mis)identification, in order to renew the Marxist theory of ideology. For Althusser, ideology was irreducible to the ‘false consciousness’ lamented elsewhere in the Marxist tradition, serving instead as the essential fact and field of lived experience. It was the task of science to break with this field, via an epistemological break, in the genesis of genuine scientific knowledge. One of the key problems faced in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse is how to relate the break between science and ideology to the internal limits on formalisation and completeness posed by modern logic and mathematics. Despite differences that will emerge in the course of the journal, both Jacques-Alain Miller and Alain Badiou take the grounding of the imaginary order by the symbolic order to implicitly depend on an encounter with the real as the ‘impasse’ of formalization.

In the Cahiers pour l’Analyse

In his ‘Réponses à des étudiants en philosophie sur l’objet de la psychanalyse’ in Volume 3, Lacan recapitulates his argument concerning the mirror stage (CpA 3.1:7-8). His point is to maintain the distinction between the subject and the ego [moi], despite the momentary identification of these terms sometimes witnessed in the texts comprising the philosophical canon. Lacan’s point is precisely that the identification of the two does indeed occur, however momentarily, but that this identification is imaginary (not to say illusory), making clear the essential conceptual difference between the subject and the ego.

Luce Irigaray’s contribution to this same volume is an extensive development of the process of specular identification and its relationship to language and communication. What is original about Irigaray’s analysis is the introduction of the element of gender and the effort to incorporate Jacques-Alain Miller’s arguments in ‘La Suture’ (CpA 1.3) into this frame. For Irigaray, the relation between the imaginary and the symbolic register of language in the locus of the body is the prime site of concern:

The reciprocal integration of the body and of language, the origin of the imaginary, decentres man in relation to himself, and marks the beginning of his errancy. The ineluctable corollary of this is the impossibility of return to the body as a secure place of self-identity. All that he is is mediated by language, and his trace can only be found through the speech of the other (CpA 3.3:39; trans. 9).

François Regnault’s Lacanian reading of the political thinking of Descartes and Machiavelli in Volume 6 conceives of the Real as a ‘kernel of the impossible’ (CpA 6.2:42) that, as an inaugural usurpation of power, serves at the level of history as the corollary to the primal traumatic scene for the individual. The task of a scientific analysis of history, presaged in Machiavelli’s materialism, is to move beyond the sedimented layers of the Imaginary, to access a ‘true history’ that functions as the unconscious beneath the ‘distorting historicisation of conscious discourse’.

In his reading of Freud’s ‘A Child is Being Beaten’ (1919) in Volume 7, Jacques Nassif remarks that the specificity of this text - as opposed to other accounts of the function of fantasy in Freud’s oeuvre - is that, here ‘it is the fantasy that is the only reality, or rather, it seems that fantasy has its own special kind of reality, different from both the Real and the Imaginary’ (CpA 7.4:75). In the same volume, Jean Reboul develops a reading of Balzac’s Sarrasine that focuses on the role of the Imaginary in the protagonist’s identification with Zambinella, whom he beholds on stage as something unbelievable: ‘a complete woman’ [une femme entière]. ‘Out of a partial and metonymic desire of the object, he bonds with the specular image of a structured being, and projected into this other little imaginary, he constitutes himself at the same instant that the other finally appears to him as constituted’ (CpA 7.5:94).

In his ‘Droit naturel et simulacre’, Patrick Hochart notes that Rousseau seeks to undermine the ‘imaginary barriers which separate [distinct] peoples’ and societies, while recognising that ‘a particular society can only acquire moral reality, and thus reality tout court, to the degree that it conforms to the demands of natural law and general law’ (CpA 8.3:75). In the continuation of his seminar in this same volume, Serge Leclaire investigates the relation between imaginary representation and symbolic signification as they are in play in repression and the jouissance that accompanies it (CpA 8.6:111).

In his article ‘Action de la structure’ (CpA 9.6), Jacques-Alain Miller explores the relation of the Imaginary to the Real via the category of structure.1

The structuring [process], by not being there, governs the real. It is here that we find the driving discordance: for the introduction of this reflexive element, which suffices to institute the dimension of the structured-insofar-as-it-lives-it, as taking its effects only from itself, arranges an imaginary arrangement [ordonnance], contemporaneous with and distinct from the real order, yet nevertheless coordinated with it, and henceforth an intrinsic part of reality. A tertiary, imaginary structure constitutes itself in the real. The result is the accomplishment of that reduplication of the structural system, which was merely ideal at the outset. This duplicity in turn afflicts the reflexive element which provokes it - insofar as at the level of the structuring [process] itself there is no reflexivity -, which then defines it as a subject: reflexive in the imaginary, non-reflexive in the structuring [process itself] (CpA 9.6:95-96).

Where for Miller, the real retains some of its sense as ‘reality’, in ‘La Subversion infinitésimale’, Badiou takes the Lacanian injunction that ‘the impossible characterizes the real’ (CpA 9.8:122) into his analysis of mathematics’ capacity for ‘subverting’ ideological notions of continuity and quality.

In her assessment of Galilean science and its epistemological break with the Aristotelian worldview, Judith Miller focuses on the relation between the Real and identity. Where Aristotle saw in non-contradiction and the necessity of syllogism the basis of all demonstration, Galileo thus ‘proclaims the transcendence of the real [du réel] with respect to the principles of contradiction and identity’ (CpA 9.9:141). Miller’s point is that the logic of identity central to the Aristotelian conception is in fact complicit with the Imaginary in the Lacanian register (the Imaginary has the process of identification as its essential modality). In this same issue, Jacques Nassif considers Freud in terms of the inquiry into science pursued elsewhere in the journal, focusing ultimately on the symbolic nature of symptoms and events in the Freudian conception of psychic life (CpA 9.10:165). Finally, the close proximity of the Real and the Symbolic is addressed (notably in a non-Lacanian register) in François Dagognet’s assessment of Lavoisier in the ‘Chemistry Dossier’ that concludes Volume 9. Lavoisian chemistry showed that the ‘universe really understood’ lends itself to ‘symbolic articulation’ (CpA 9.13:194).

Select bibliography

  • Badiou, Alain. Théorie du Sujet. Paris: Seuil, 1982. Theory of the Subject, trans. Bruno Bosteels. London: Continuum, 2009.
  • Evans, Dylan. An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis. London: Routledge, 1996.
  • Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. Écrits, trans. Bruce Fink, in collaboration with Héloïse Fink and Russell Grigg. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.
  • ---. Le Séminaire, livre II: Le moi dans la théorie de Freud et dans la technique de la psychanalyse, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1978.
  • ---. Seminar II: The Ego in Freud’s Theory and Technique of Psychoanalysis, 1954-55 ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Sylvana Tomaselli. New York: W.W. Norton, 1991.
  • Laplanche, Jean and J-B. Pontalis. Vocabulaire de la psychanalyse. Paris: PUF, 1967.
  • Milner, Jean-Claude. L’Oeuvre claire: Lacan, la science, la philosophie. Paris: Seuil, 1992.


1. NB. Though related, the concept of real in play here does not align perfectly with Lacan’s later conception of the Real as ‘impasse’.