Imaginary, Symbolic, Real

I’ve been feeling a need to say something about the controversial French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Due to his provocative personality and style, he evoked extreme hostility from some quarters, not all of which was unjustified, but I still think he is important. (Wikipedia has a relatively balanced summary article.)

American psychoanalysis has been much more narrowly medicalized than Freud’s original work. While trained as a psychiatrist, Lacan went in the opposite direction and engaged even more extensively with philosophy, literature, the arts, linguistics, logic, and mathematics. Among many other things, he developed a rich notion of three orders — Imaginary, Symbolic, and Real — in which we simultaneously participate.

The Imaginary seems to me to elaborate on Spinoza’s poignant words about human illusions in the Ethics. Lacan notably maintained — against American ego psychologists — that the psychoanalytic ego is a product of alienated identification.

The Symbolic or the “Other” is the order of language and culture and social relationships, within which I would place what I have been calling second nature and the transcendental. Lacan argued that speech originates neither in the subject nor the ego but in the Other. The unconscious for Lacan is not something primitive, and is not a deep interiority. He said the unconscious is the “discourse of the Other”, and is structured like a language. “I” belongs to the Other. We are our words. He even said our desire is the desire of the Other. Lacan was associated with many famous avant-garde writers and artists, and himself spoke and wrote in a linguistically experimental style with much wordplay, while embracing a structuralist view of language.

The Real in Lacan’s earlier work seems to me to recall a sort of Spinozist whole. In his later work, it especially foregrounds what Brandom called the world’s “stubborn recalcitrance to mastery and agency”. Earlier in his career, Lacan tended to emphasize a therapeutic transition from the Imaginary to the Symbolic. Later, he began to stress the importance of the Real as something that is impossible and contradictory from the point of view of the univocal synchronic order of the Symbolic. He developed a series of topological and other mathematical metaphors for characterizing things like subject/object relations in terms much richer than simple duality.

Lacan’s seminars, the main primary source, are now mostly available in English. The vast secondary literature is very uneven in quality. I found the biography by Elizabeth Roudinesco and the works of Bruce Fink helpful for getting some orientation. (See also Therapy; Primary Process; Mutual Recognition and the Other.)