Jacques Lacan:Real

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The real is one of Lacan's most difficult and at the same time most interesting concepts. The difficulty of understanding the real is partly due to the fact that it is not a 'thing'; it is not a material object in the world or the human body or even 'reality'. For Lacan, our reality consists of symbols and the process of signification. Therefore, what we call reality is associated with the symbolic order or 'social reality'. The real is the unknown that exists at the limit of this socio-symbolic universe and is in constant tension with it. The real is also a very paradoxical concept; it supports our social reality - the social world cannot exist without it - but it also undermines that reality. A further difficulty with understanding the real is that Lacan's conception of it changed radically throughout his career. We will follow the development of the real from the 1950s, when it remained a relatively underdeveloped concept, through the crucial period from 1964 to the early 1970s, when Lacan used the concept to reformulate his understanding of the relationship between the imaginary and the symbolic, to his late work, where the real is elevated to the central category of his thought. Through each phase of his teaching Lacan placed a different emphasis upon the real, although he also carried over the preceding definitions and functions. Hence, like many of Lacan's concepts, a consideration of the real forces us to reappraise and reformulate our previous understanding of his work. The real in late Lacan is inseparable from an understanding of the role of fantasy, the objet petit a and jouissance. We will look at each of these important concepts in turn before illustrating the function of the real through Roland Barthes' exquisite final book Camera Lucida.

The real is always in its place

From the 1950s until the early 1960s Lacan's creative energy was focused on elaborating the role of the signifier and the symbolic order. In this period the real performed an important function within his system, but it was relatively underdeveloped. Lacan used the term, the real, in his first published papers in the 1930s, but in these early texts it was essentially a philosophical concept designating 'absolute being' or 'being-in-itself'. Thus the real was conceptualized in opposition to the imaginary of the mirror phase. As 'being-in-itself', the real was beyond the realm of appearance and images.

In the Poe seminar of 1954-5, however, the concept underwent a significant revision and it was elevated to one of the three orders. As 'that which remains in its place', the real was opposed to both the imaginary and the symbolic. The relatively low status that Lacan accorded to the real at this time can be gauged from his account of it here as something that, like spat-out chewing gum in the street, remains glued to one's heel (Lacan 1988c [1956]: 40). During this early phase of his teaching, the real is described as 'concrete' - it is an indivisible brute materiality that exists prior to symbolization. From a clinical perspective, the real is the brute pre-symbolic reality that always returns to its place in the form of a need, such as hunger. The real is thus closely associated with the body prior to its symbolization, but it is important to keep in mind here that the real is the need that drives hunger not the object that satisfies it. When an infant feels hunger, this hunger can be temporarily satisfied through breast or bottle-feeding, but the breast and the bottle are the objects of hunger and in Lacanian psychoanalysis these objects are imaginary, as they can never fully satisfy the infant's demand. The real is the place from which that need originates and is pre-symbolic in the sense that we do not have any way of symbolizing it. We know that the real exists because we experience it and it enters discourse as a sign - the infant's crying, but the place from which it originates is beyond symbolization. The real, therefore, is not an object, a thing, but something that is repressed and functionsunconsciously, intruding into our symbolic reality in the form of need. The real is a kind of ubiquitous undifferentiated mass from which we must distinguish ourselves, as subjects, through the process of symbolization. It is through the process of cancelling out, of symbolizing the real, that 'social reality' is created. In short, the real does not exist, as existence is a product of thought and language and the real precedes language. The real is 'that which resists symbolization absolutely'.

The real as the limit of symbolization

From 1964 onwards the real is transformed in Lacan's thinking and loses any connection with biology or need. The concept continues to retain its association with brute matter, but its predominant meaning in Lacan at this time is as that which is unsymbolizable. The real is that which is beyond the symbolic and the imaginary and acts as a limit to both. Above all the real is associated with the concept of trauma.

In medicine a trauma is any kind of cut or wound, but we are probably much more familiar today with the idea of psychological trauma. For example, we hear and read a great deal in the media about traumatic events such as train crashes, wars or other human disasters. The effect of these events on the people present or just watching them is said to be traumatic and psychologically disturbing. To overcome these traumas sufferers usually require some form of counselling or therapy. The most common form of psychological trauma today is seen to be physical or sexual abuse, such as incest. For psychoanalysis, however, a trauma is not necessarily something that happens to a person 'in reality'. Instead, it is usually a psychical event. Psychic trauma arises from the confrontation between an external stimulus and the subject's inability to understand and master these excitations. Most commonly such confrontations arise from a subject's premature encounter with sexuality and the inability to comprehend what is taking place. This event then leaves a psychological scar in the subject's unconscious that will resurface in later life. For Freud, the notion of trauma is linked to the primal scene, whereby a child has either a real or imaginary experience that it cannot comprehend. This inassimilable memory is forgotten and repressed until some later, perhaps insignificant, event brings it back to consciousness.

The idea of trauma implies that there is a certain blockage or fixation in the process of signification. Trauma arrests the movement of symbolization and fixes the subject in an earlier phase of development. A memory, for example, is fixed in a person's mind causing them intense mental disturbance and suffering and no matter how they try to rationalize and express this memory, it keeps returning and repeating the suffering. What Lacan adds to the Freudian conception of trauma is the notion that trauma is real insofar as it remains unsymbolizable and is a permanent dislocation at the very heart of the subject. The experience of trauma also reveals how the real can never be completely absorbed into the symbolic, into social reality. No matter how often we try to put our pain and suffering into language, to symbolize it, there is always something left over. In other words, there is always a residue that cannot be transformed through language. This excess, this 'X' as Lacan will call it, is the real. As we will see, the real thus becomes associated with the death drive and jouissance, as Lacan increasingly emphasizes the impossibility of the encounter with the real. But first let us say something about how an object can not exist but at the same time profoundly affect our lives.

Das Ding (The Thing)

During the second phase of Lacan's teaching the real loses the sense of 'thingness' which his earlier conception had retained. In his seminar on the ethics of psychoanalysis (1959-60) Lacan sought to clarify Freud's definition of the unconscious and especially the question of what is repressed. For Freud there can be no unconscious without repression, but what exactly is it that is repressed: words, images, feelings? This question has led to many disputes and is one reason why there are so many different schools of psychoanalysis. For Lacan, what is repressed is not images, words or emotions but something much more fundamental. Freud hit upon this when, in The Interpretation of Dreams, he suggested that there was a hard impenetrable core of the dream - what he called the 'navel' of the dream - that is beyond interpretation. What is repressed, argues Lacan, is this hard impenetrable core. There is always a core of the real that is missing from the symbolic and all other representations, images and signifiers are no more than attempts to fill this gap. In seminar VII Lacan identified this repressed element as the representative of the representation, or das Ding (the Thing).

The Thing is the beyond of the signified - that which is unknowable in itself. It is something beyond symbolization, and therefore associated with the real, or as Lacan puts it, 'the thing in its dumb reality' (1992 [1986]: 55). The Thing is a lost object that must be continually refound. However, it is more importantly an 'object that is nowhere articulated, it is a lost object, but paradoxically an object that was never there in the first place to be lost' (1992 [1986]: 58). The Thing is 'the cause of the most fundamental human passion' (1992 [1986]: 97); it is the object-cause of desire and can only be constituted retrospectively. The Thing is 'objectively' speaking no-thing; it is only something in relation to the desire that constitutes it. After the seminar of 1959-60 the concept of das Ding completely disappeared from Lacan's work and it was replaced in 1964 by the idea of the objet petit a. What is important to keep in mind here with respect to the real is that the Thing is no-thing and only becomes something through the desire of the subject. It is the desire to fill the emptiness or void at the core of subjectivity and the symbolic that creates the Thing, as opposed to the loss of some original Thing creating the desire to find it. In Chapter 4 we saw how Lacan designated this process as separation. In his later work Lacan supplemented the idea of separation with the notion of fantasy and what he described as traversing the fundamental fantasy.

Unconscious Fantasy

Psychoanalysis is primarily concerned with the reality of our unconscious desires and wishes and not with social reality. These unconscious desires are manifested through fantasy. Fantasy is an imagined scene in which the subject is a protagonist, and always represents the fulfilment of a wish (in the last analysis, an unconscious wish) in a manner that is distorted to a greater or lesser extent by defensive processes. Fantasy is intrinsic to sexuality and is one of the central concerns of psychoanalysis. As we will see later, fantasies are never a purely private affair but circulate in the public domain through such media as film, literature and television. Fantasies, therefore, are at once universal and particular. There are a limited number of themes or primary narratives that consistently reappear in fantasy scenarios, but these can be endlessly reworked through the contingent material of a subject's everyday life.

Fantasies are generally a combination of both conscious and unconscious elements, existing between the poles of reality and imagination. There are essentially three kinds of reality for Freud:

  1. material or physical reality
  1. the psychological, or the reality of our intermediate thoughts
  1. psychical reality, or the reality of unconscious wishes, that is, fantasy.

Freud's conception of psychical reality often means little more than the reality of our thoughts and personal world, but nonetheless it is as real as material reality. Fantasy exists in this realm of psychical reality. Laplanche and Pontalis distinguish two types of fantasy: original or primal fantasies and secondary fantasies. Secondary fantasy concerns daydreams and the reworking of ready-made scenarios, and are not my direct concern here. The original or primal fantasy on the other hand is a more complex affair. Original, primal, fantasies are universal and limited in number; the Oedipus complex, for example, functions in this way as a universal fantasy structure. Primal fantasies are not original in the sense that they are the origin of all subsequent fantasies, but rather they are fantasies of origins - the scene of fantastical origins that Freud elaborated in Totem and Taboo for instance. Primal fantasies set the pattern for a subject's later psychic life and in this sense are 'structuring' rather than representing a fixed content. We will see how this structuring takes place in relation to sexual difference in Chapter 6.

Fantasy originates in 'auto-eroticism' and the hallucinatory satisfaction of the drive. 'In the absence of a real object', write Laplanche and Pontalis, 'the infant reproduces the experience of the original satisfaction in a hallucinated form' (1986 [[[1968]]]: 24). Thus, our most fundamental fantasies are linked to our very earliest experiences of the rise and resolution of desire. The important point here is the nature of the relationship between fantasy and desire; 'fantasy is not the object of desire, but its setting' (1986 [1968]: 26, my italics). Fantasy is the way in which subjects structure or organize their desire; it is the support of desire. In the previous chapter we saw how the subject is faced with the enigma of the desire of the Other and is forced to pose certain questions to itself, such as: 'What am I in the Other's desire?' Fantasy is a response to that question. It is through fantasy that we learn how to desire and we are constituted as desiring subjects. The space of fantasy, writes Žižek, 'functions as an empty surface, as a kind of screen for the projection of desires' (1992:8). We can clearly see here one reason why Lacanianism might be attractive to film studies. Fantasy is not the object of desire, neither is it the desire for specific objects; it is the setting or the mise-en-scène of desire. The pleasure we derive from fantasy does not result from the achievement of its aim, its object, but rather from the staging of desire in the first place. The whole point of fantasy is that it should never be fulfilled or confused with reality. The crucial term that mediates between fantasy and the real is the objet petit a.

Fantasy and the objet petit a=

Lacan consistently reformulated the objet petit a from his earliest work to his final seminars in the 1970s. The objet a is implicated in all three of Lacan's orders. The algebraic sign a was first introduced by Lacan in 1955 in relation to the schema L, where it designates the little other, autre, as opposed to the capitalized A of the big Other. The objet a represents the Other's lack not in the sense of a specific object that is lacking but as lack itself. What does Lacan mean by this? Desire, strictly speaking, has no object. Desire is always the desire for something that is missing and thus involves a constant search for the missing object. Through the rupture between subject and Other a gap is opened up between the desire of the child and that of the mother. It is this gap that inaugurates the movement of desire and the advent of the objet petit a. Through fantasy, the subject attempts to sustain the illusion of unity with the Other and ignore his or her own division. Although the desire of the Other always exceeds or escapes the subject, there nevertheless remains something that the subject can recover and thus sustains him or herself. This something is the objet a.

The objet a is not, therefore, an object we have lost, because then we would be able to find it and satisfy our desire. It is rather the constant sense we have, as subjects, that something is lacking or missing from our lives. We are always searching for fulfilment, for knowledge, for possessions, for love, and whenever we achieve these goals there is always something more we desire; we cannot quite pinpoint it but we know that it is there. This is one sense in which we can understand the Lacanian real as the void or abyss at the core of our being that we constantly try to fill out. The objet a is both the void, the gap, and whatever object momentarily comes to fill that gap in our symbolic reality. What is important to keep in mind here is that the objet a is not the object itself but the function of masking the lack. As Parveen Adams writes:

[T]he object is not part of the signifying chain; it is a 'hole' in that chain. It is a hole in the field of representation, but it does not simply ruin representation. It mends it as it ruins it. It both produces a hole and is what comes to the place of lack to cover it over. (1996a: 151)

Like so many of Lacan's concepts, the paradox of desire is that it functions retrospectively. As with das Ding, the objet a is, 'objectively' speaking, nothing. It only exists as something in relation to the desire that brings it about. If you think about falling in love this will help you to understand what Lacan means. When you first fall in love you idealize the other person and feel perfect together. This is the imaginary dimension of being in love. There is also the symbolic dimension of being 'a couple' and of being in a relationship with another subject who is lacking. But there is also something more; your new partner may be beautiful, intelligent, funny, a great dancer but then so is everyone else. So what is it that makes your new partner special? There is something elusive, something intangible, something extra about them and you cannot quite grasp or articulate it but you know it is there. That is why you love them. This is the objet a - the object-cause of your desire. The objet a then is at once the void, the gap, the lack around which the symbolic order is structured and that which comes to mask or cover over that lack. The 'Object (a) is the leftover of that process of constituting an object; the scrap that evades the grasp of symbolization' (Fink 1995:94). The objet a, in other words, is the left-over of the real; it is that which escapes symbolization and is beyond representation. In Lacanian terms, fantasy defines a subject's 'impossible' relation to the objet a.

The Impossibility of the real and jouissance

It is this sense of the real as an impossible encounter that will dominate the final phase of Lacan's teaching in the 1970s. Indeed, he increasingly comes to see the whole experience of psychoanalysis as circling around this impossible traumatic encounter. In this phase the key distinction Lacan makes is not between ego and subject, imaginary and symbolic, or even between alienation and separation, but between the real and reality. Lacan's elaboration of fantasy as the support for reality serves to operate as a defence against the intrusion of the real into our everyday experience. Lacan called this process 'traversing the fantasy'. Traversing the fantasy involves the subject subjectifying the trauma of the real. In other words, the subject takes the traumatic event upon him/herself and assumes responsibility for that jouissance. Jouissance is a very complicated notion in Lacan and not directly translatable into English. The term is usually translated as 'enjoyment' but, as we will see, it involves a combination of pleasure and pain, or, more accurately, pleasure in pain. Jouissance expresses that paradoxical situation where patients appear to enjoy their own illness or symptom. In French the word also has sexual connotations and is associated with sexual pleasure. The example of jouissance that Lacan usually provides, however, is of religious or mystical ecstatic experience.

Although Lacan used the term jouissance as early as 1953, it only became a prominent concept in his work in the 1960s, when it was associated with the drive and the real. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1984b [1920]) Freud was forced to revise his earlier theory of the drives that asserted the primacy of pleasure principle, that is to say, the theory that our primary motivation as human beings is the fulfilment of pleasure or desire. Clinical experience revealed to Freud that subjects compulsively repeated painful or traumatic experiences in direct contradiction to the primacy of the pleasure principle. Freud called this beyond of pleasure 'the death drive' and suggested that the primary purpose of life is to find the correct path to death. Lacan followed Freud in associating the death drive with repetition, but he argued that we are not driven towards death but by death. It is loss that drives life through desire but, as Ellie Ragland-Sullivan puts it, human beings will settle for any experience, however painful, rather than fall out of the familiarity of the symbolic into the trauma and void of the real (1995:94). Ragland-Sullivan describes jouissance as 'the essence or quality that gives one's life its value' (1995:88). Contrary to desire which moves from one signifier to another constantly trying to satisfy itself, jouissance is absolute and certain (remember that the primary and defining characteristic of all drives is the consistency of pressure). Thus, Lacan opposed jouissance to desire and suggested that desire seeks satisfaction in the consistency of jouissance. Whether we like it or not the symbolic is governed by the death drive. Death is the beyond of pleasure, the inaccessible, the forbidden - the ultimate limit that cannot be overcome; and this ultimate limit is also related to jouissance.

The difficulty with talking about jouissance is that we cannot actually say what it is. We experience it rather through its absence or insufficiency. As subjects we are driven by insatiable desires. As we seek to realize our desires we will inevitably be disappointed - the satisfaction we achieve is never quite enough; we always have the sense that there is something more, something we have missed out on, something more we could have had. This something more that would satisfy and fulfil us beyond the meagre pleasure we experience is jouissance. We do not know what it is but assume that it must be there because we are constantly dissatisfied. As Fink puts it, eventually 'we think that there must be something better, we say that there must be something better, we believe that there must be something better' (2002:35) to such an extent that we give it consistency; we retrospectively turn nothing into something. Furthermore, in assuming that it is there and that we are lacking it we generally attribute it to the Other. The Other is believed to experience a level of enjoyment beyond our own experience. The important point here is that this unfailing jouissance does not exist:

[I]t insists as an ideal, an idea, a possibility thought permits us to envision. In [Lacan's] terminology, it 'ex-sists': it persists and makes its claims felt with a certain insistence from the outside, as it were. Outside in the sense that it is not a wish [desire], 'Let's do that again!' but, rather, 'Isn't there something else you could do, something different you could try?' (Fink 2002:35)

This belief in the excessive jouissance of the Other is sustained through fantasy. Fantasy is one of the ways through which we reconcile ourselves to our dissatisfaction with our own jouissance and the impossibility of the real. Through fantasy we construct our social reality as an answer to the intractability of the real. This is also, as you will have realized, the structure of racism and anti-Semitism that I outlined previously; what we assume the Other - be they Jewish, black, gypsies or gay - has stolen from us is our jouissance. In the following chapter

we will look at the question of jouissance in more detail and the distinction Lacan makes between 'masculine' and 'feminine' jouissance, but first let me provide an application of the concepts of the real and objet a from the field of cultural studies.

Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida

Camera Lucida is a beautiful and poignant study of death and loss, made all the more so by the accident of its place within Barthes' oeuvre. Written after the death of his mother and shortly before his own death, it was Barthes' final book and therefore has a sense of finality about it, as Barthes' last word. The sense of Barthes having his final say is reinforced by the style of the text. Camera Lucida presents itself as very much a subjective meditation on the essence of photography. It is a quest, an inner journey, an 'ontological' desire, as Barthes puts it, to discover 'what photography was “in itself, ” by what essential feature it was distinguished from the community of images' (1984 [1980]: 3). Camera Lucida then appears to abandon Barthes' earlier semiotic attempt to elaborate a grammar of the text in 'Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative' (1977a [1966]), as well as his more fragmentary, playful and delirious style associated with The Pleasure of Text (1990 [1973]). With its dedication to Sartre and its phenomenological emphasis on the 'thing-in-itself' it would appear to mark a return to origins; a return to Barthes' own phenomenological roots and a more humanistic approach to texts. We should not be too hasty, however, in reaching for such explanations. Camera Lucida commences: 'One day, quite some time ago, I happened on a photograph of Napoleon's youngest brother, …' (1984 [1980]: 3). It thus announces itself at the outset as not so much a work of theory but a work of fiction. The 'I' in this text is as much a textual construction as the 'I' in any other fictional text and it should not be confused with the 'real' Roland Barthes. If Camera Lucida has the sense of being Barthes' last word, we should recall that Barthes' whole life's work was dedicated to the idea that there can be no final word. Once a text is in the public domain, as Barthes taught us in 'The Death of the Author' (1977b [1968]), the author is no longer the arbiter of its meaning. We should be alert therefore to the fact that there is something else going on in this text and we might consider it not so much a theory of the essence of photography as an 'autobiographical novel' (Burgin 1986:88).

The Studium and the Punctum

What attracts Barthes to photography is the relationship between particular photographs and their referent; the photograph, he writes, 'is literally an emanation of the referent' (1984 [1980]: 80). Whereas language by its very nature is fictional, the photograph has a sense of certainty and authenticity. For Barthes, then, a specific photograph can never be distinguished from its referent. It carries it with itself, or, to put it another way, the referent appears to adhere to the photograph (or stick to its heel, as Lacan would say). This, argues Barthes, is the essence of photography. There are two necessary elements to any photograph, which he calls the studium and the punctum. The studium is the general field of cultural interest aroused by the photograph. It is the shared or common ground of cultural meaning - the average effect that the photograph produces in spectators, whether one likes or dislikes a particular photograph. The punctum on the other hand is a more private and personal experience; it is that which punctuates the studium and arouses our specific interest in the photograph. The punctum is that contingent, accidental element in the photograph that captures our attention. As Barthes says, it is that which pricks me, but also bruises me and is poignant for me. If the studium refers to the general overall sense of the photograph, then the punctum is the detail that disrupts its smooth surface. It is the detail that attracts one to the photograph and which Barthes compares with a 'partial' object. The punctum has a certain expansive, metonymic power, as it leads one from one association to the next. As such the punctum also works retrospectively. It is not something that can be staged or placed in the photograph, but rather is the detail we recall once we are no longer in front of the photograph and we think back upon it.

Mourning the Real

Camera Lucida is quite explicitly a work of mourning, but the specific occasion for these reflections was the discovery of an old photograph:

I was [Barthes writes] looking for the truth of the face I loved. And I found it. The photograph was very old. The corners were blunted from having been pasted into an album, the sepia print had faded, and the picture just managed to show two children standing together at the end of a little wooden bench in a glassed-in conservatory, what was called a Winter Garden in those days. My mother was five at the time (1898), her brother seven. (1984 [1980]: 67)

This photograph brings forth a series of reflections on photography, psychoanalysis, life and death, but we never actually see the photograph itself. Camera Lucida, in other words, is structured around an absent centre (Iversen 1994). The text continually circles around this absence and produces a series of substitute photographs that fill the hole left by the original loss, but we can never get back to that original experience itself. The text never produces, indeed it can never produce, the Truth, the thing-in-itself, the essence that Barthes is searching for. The absent photograph of his mother functions as a lost object in the psychoanalytic sense that it was never there in the first place. Barthes can never recover the truth of the face that he loved because all that remains of it are the representations as left-overs of that impossible encounter.

So where does this leave Barthes' argument that the relationship to the referent is the essence of photography? The photographic referent is not the referent of other sign systems; it is not an 'optionally real thing to which an image or a sign refers but the necessarily real thing which has been placed before the lens, without which there would be no photograph' (1984 [1980]: 76). Unlike painting or language, photography can never deny its past, that the thing existed and was there in front of the camera, but that real is lost the moment the photograph itself comes into being. And it is this that is the very essence of photography - its noeme, that is to say, its 'that-has-been' or its intractability. Another name for this is 'the real' in the full Lacanian sense. Psychoanalysis, Lacan tells us in seminar XI, is essentially an encounter with the real that eludes us (1979 [1973]: 53) and the term he uses to describe this encounter is tuché. Barthes' text is haunted by this encounter - the encounter with the 'that-has-been' essence of photography, the intractability of the real and of grasping one's own mortality. The tuché presents itself in the form of trauma, that is to say, that which is impossible for the subject to bear and to assimilate. It is this notion of trauma as the hard impenetrable kernel at the heart of subjectivity that structures Barthes' text and his conception of photographic essence. As Victor Burgin has pointed out, 'trauma' derives from the Greek word for 'wound'; its Latin equivalent is 'punctum' (1986:86).

In other words, Barthes' detail that pricks us, bruises us and disrupts the studium (the symbolic) of the photograph is that fleeting glimpse, or encounter with the real as objet petit a.


Lacan's concept of 'the real' is among his most fascinating concepts. The category of the real developed from an early marginal status to beign the central category of Lacan's later work. The real si that which resists symbolization; it is the trauamtic kernel at the core of subjectivity and the symbolic order.

The real is thus associated with the death drive and jouisssance as the ultimate, unspeakable, limit of human existence. Jouisssance is opposed to desire - it si the dissatisfaction that we experience with the failure of our desire - and it is through fantays and the objet petit a that the subject sustains themselves in this impossible scenario.

With these concepts Lacan revolutionized the practice of psychoanalysis and its implications for other disciplines.