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Jacques Lacan

The Real is a term used by the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan in his theory of psychic structures.

Lacan's use of the term 'Real' (rÈel) as a substantive dates back to an early paper, published in 1936.

However, while this may be Lacan's starting point, the term undergoes many shifts in meaning and usage throughout his work.

Three Orders

In Lacanian psychoanalysis, one of the three orders that structure human existence, the others being the imaginary and the symbolic.

The real, a category established by Jacques Lacan, can only be understood in connection with the categories of the symbolic and the imaginary.

It is not until 1953 that Lacan elevates the Real to the status of a fundamental category of psychoanalytic theory; the Real is henceforth one of the three orders according to which all psychoanalytic phenomena may be described, the other two being the Symbolic order and and the Imaginary order.

The Real is thus no longer simply opposed to the Imaginary, but is also located beyond the Symbolic.

The Real works in tension with the imaginary order and the symbolic order.

In 1953, in a lecture called "Le symbolique, l'imaginaire et le réel" (The symbolic, the imaginary, and the real; 1982), Lacan introduced the real as connected with the imaginary and the symbolic.

Real and Freud

The real is located in dreams as its navel.

The real is limit of the dream, the point at which the unknown emerges.

The dream's navel is the point at which the real is linked with the symbolic.[1]

Real and Reality

The real is not the external reality.

The real is the irreducible surplus of external reality that resists language.

External / internal

The term 'the real' seems to imply a simplistic notion of an objective, external reality, a material substrate which exists in itself, independently of any observer. such a 'naive' view of the Real is subverted by the fact that the Real also includes such things as hallucinations and traumatic dreams.

The Real is thus both inside and outside.[2] (extimitÈ).

This ambiguity reflects the ambiguity inherent in Freud's own use of the two German terms for reality (Wirklichkeit and Realit‰t) and the distinction Freud draws between material reality and psychical reality.[3]

the Real is placed firmly on the side of the unknowable and unassimilable, while 'reality' denotes subjective representations which are a product of Symbolic and Imaginary articulations (Freud's 'psychical reality').

Real and Materiality

The real also has connotations of matter, implying a material substrate underlying the imaginary and the symbolic.

The connotations of matter also link the concept of the Real to the realm of biology and to the body in its brute physicality (as opposed to the Imaginary and Symbolic functions of the body).

For example the real father is the biological father, and the real phallus is the physical penis as opposed to the symbolic and imaginary functions of this organ.

The real for example continues to erupt whenever we are made to acknowledge the materiality of our existence, an acknowledgement that is usually perceived as traumatic (since it threatens our very "reality"), although it also drives Lacan's sense of jouissance.

Real and Imaginary

At first the Real is simply opposed to the realm of the image, which seems to locate it in the realm of being, beyond appearances.[4]

Real and Pre-Oedipal

The state of nature from which we have been forever severed by our entrance into language.

Only as neo-natal children were we close to this state of nature, a state in which there is nothing but need.

A baby needs and seeks to satisfy those needs with no sense for any separation between itself and the external world or the world of others.

For this reason, Lacan sometimes represents this state of nature as a time of fullness or completeness that is subsequently lost through the entrance into language.

Real and Symbolic

The real exists 'outside' or 'beyond' the symbolic.

The real is that which resists symbolization and signification.

Defined as what escapes the symbolic, the real can be neither spoken nor written.

Thus it is related to the impossible, defined as "that which never ceases to write itself."

And because it cannot be reduced to meaning, the real does not lend itself any more readily to univocal imaginary representation than it does to symbolization.

As far as humans are concerned, however, "the real is impossible," as Lacan was fond of saying.

It is impossible in so far as we cannot express it in language because the very entrance into language marks our irrevocable separation from the real.

Still, the real continues to exert its influence throughout our adult lives since it is the rock against which all our fantasies and linguistic structures ultimately fail.

Thus, whatever our capacity for symbolizing and imagining, there remains an irreducible realm of the nonmeaning, and that is where the real is located (see Lacan, 1974-1975).

Real and the Lack in the Symbolic

The real is not outside of the symbolic but is a structure feature of it - its lack.

Real and the Subject

"One thing that is striking is that in analysis there is an entire element of the real of the subject that escapes us. There is something that brings the limits of analysis into play, and it involves the relation of the subject to the real."[5]

The real is defined not solely by its relation to the symbolic but also by the particular way in which each subject is caught up in it.

Unlike the Symbolic, which is constituted in terms of oppositions such as that between presence and absence, 'there is no absence in the Real.' [6]

Whereas the Symbolic opposition between presence and absence implies the permanent possibility that something may be missing from the Symbolic order, the Real 'is always in its place: it carries it glued to its heel, ignorant of what might exile it from there.' [7]

Whereas the Symbolic is a set of differentiated, discrete elements called signifiers, the Real is, in itself, undifferentiated; 'the Real is absolutely without fissure.' [8]

It is the Symbolic which introduces 'a cut in the Real' in the process of signification: 'it is the world of words that creates the world of things - things originally confused in the hic et nunc of the all in the process of coming-into-being.' [9]

In these formulations of the period 1953-5, the Real emerges as that which is outside language and inassimilable to symbolisation.

It is 'that which resists symbolization absolutely';[10] or, again, the Real is 'the domain of whatever subsists outside symbolisation.'[11]

This theme remains a constant throughout the rest of Lacan's work, and leads Lacan to link the Real with the concept of impossibility.

Real and Trauma

The Real is 'the impossible'[12] because it is impossible to imagine, impossible to integrate into the Symbolic order, and impossible to attain in any way.

It is this character of impossibility and of resistance to symbolisation which lends the Real its essentially traumatic quality.

The real is encountered in the context of trauma.

In his seminar The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (1978), Lacan took up Freud's Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920g) and approached the real in terms of compulsion and repetition.

He proposed distinguishing between two different aspects of repetition: a symbolic aspect that depends on the compulsion of signifiers (automaton) and a real aspect that he called tuché, the interruption of the automaton by trauma or a bad encounter that the subject is unable to avoid.

Engendered by the real of trauma, repetition is perpetuated by the failure of symbolization.

From this point on, Lacan defined the real as "that which always returns to the same place" (Lacan, 1978, p. 49).

Trauma, which Freud situated within the framework of the death drive, Lacan conceptualized as the impossible-to-symbolize real.

Thus in his reading of the case of Little Hans [13] in the seminar of 1956-7, Lacan distinguishes two Real elements which intrude and disrupt the child's Imaginary preoedipal harmony: [14]

Anxiety and trauma

Throughout his work, Lacan uses the concept of the Real to elucidate a number of clinical phenomena:

The Real is the object of anxiety; it lacks any possible mediation, and is thus 'the essential object which isn't an object any longer, but this something faced with which all words cease and all categories fail, the object of anxiety par excellence' (S2, 164).

It is the missed encounter with this Real object which presents itself in the form of trauma (Sll, 55).

It is the tyche which lies 'beyond the [[[symbolic]]] automaton.'[15] (see chance).

it is situated in relation to the death drive and the repetition compulsion

Real and Psychosis

The real is encountered in the context of psychosis.

If, for instance, the name-of-the-father cannot be itnegrated into the subject's symbolic world, the mechanism of foreclosure will ensure that it is expelled into the real and not repressed into the unconscious, thus triggering a psychosis. The foreclosed signifier will then return in the real in the form of a persecutory image that cannot be mastered through verbal symbolization.

Lacan approached the real through hallucination and psychosis by careful study of Freud's "Wolf man" case (1918b [1914]), Freud's commentary on Daniel Paul Schreber (1911c [1910]), and "Negation" (Freud, 1925h).

If the Name of the Father is foreclosed and the symbolic function of castration is refused by the subject, the signifiers of the father and of castration reappear in reality, in the form of hallucinations.

Hence the Wolf Man's hallucination of a severed finger and Schreber's delusions of communicating with God.

Thus, in developing the concept of foreclosure, Lacan was able to declare, "What does not come to light in the symbolic appears in the real" (1966, p. 388).


When something cannot be integrated in the Symbolic order, as in psychosis, it may return in the Real in the form of a hallucination.[16] The preceding comments trace out some of the main uses to which Lacan puts the category of the Real, but are far from covering all the complexities of this term.

Real and Psychoanalytic Treatment

The concept of the real also allowed Lacan to approach questions of anxiety and the symptom in a new way.

In the final years of his teaching, Lacan took up the question of the symptom and the end of the treatment (1975; 1976).

If the symptom is "the most real thing" that subjects possess (1976, p. 41), then how must analysis proceed to aim at the real of the symptom in order to ensure that the symptom does not proliferate in meaningful effects and even to eliminate the symptom?

For analysis not to be an infinite process, for it to find its own internal limit, the analyst's interpretation, which bears upon the signifier, must also reach the real of the symptom, that is, the point where the symbolically nonmeaningful latches on to the real, where the first signifiers heard by the subject have left their imprint (Lacan, 1985, p. 14).

According to Lacan, to reach its endpoint, an analysis must modify the relationship of the subject to the real, which is an irreducible whole in the symbolic from which the subject's fantasy and desire derive.

BORROMEAN KNOT By affirming the equivalence of the three categories R, S, and I, by representing them as three perfectly identical circles that could be distinguished only by the names they were given, and by knotting these three circles together in specific ways (such that if any one of them is cut, the other two are set free), Lacan introduced a new object in psychoanalysis, the Borromean knot.

This knot is both a material object that can be manipulated and a metaphor for the structure of the subject.

The knot, made up of three rings, is characterized by how the rings (representing the real, the symbolic, and the imaginary) interlock and support each other.

See Also


  1. Lacan, 1975
  2. S7, 118; see extimacy
  3. Freud, 1900a: SE V, 620
  4. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. p.85
  5. 1982
  6. S2, 313
  7. Ec, 25; see Sll, 49
  8. S2, 97
  9. E, 65
  10. Sl, 66
  11. Ec, 388
  12. Sl l, 167
  13. Freud, 1909b
  14. S4, 308-9
  15. S11, 53
  16. S3, 321
  1. Freud, Sigmund. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams. SE, 4: 1-338; 5: 339-625.
  2. ——. (1909b). Analysis of a phobia in a five-year-old boy. SE, 10: 1-149.
  3. ——. (1911c [1910]). Psycho-analytic notes on an autobiographical account of a case of paranoia (dementia paranoides). SE, 12: 1-82.
  4. ——. (1918b [1914]). From the history of an infantile neurosis. SE, 17: 1-122.
  5. ——. (1920g). Beyond the pleasure principle. SE,18:1-64.
  6. ——. (1925h). Negation. SE, 19: 233-239.
  7. Lacan, Jacques. (1966).Écrits. Paris: Seuil.
  8. ——. (1974-1975). Le séminaire. Book 22: R.S.I. Ornicar?, 2-5.
  9. ——. (1975). La troisième, intervention de J. Lacan le 31 octobre 1974. Lettres de l'École Freudienne, 16, 178-203.
  10. ——. (1976). Conférences et entretiens dans les universités nord-américaines. Scilicet, 6-7, 5-63.
  11. ——. (1978). The seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book 11: The four fundamental concepts of psycho-analysis (Alan Sheridan, Trans.). New York: W. W. Norton. (Original work published 1973)
  12. ——. (1982). Le symbolique, l'imaginaire et le réel. Bulletin de l'Association Freudienne, 1, 4-13.
  13. ——. (1985). Geneva lecture on the symptom (Russell Grigg, Trans.). Analysis, 1, 7-26. (Original work published 1975)
  14. ——. (1988). The seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book 2: The ego in Freud's theory and in the technique of psychoanalysis, 1954-1955 (Sylvana Tomaselli, Trans.). New York: W. W. Norton. (Original work published 1978)
  15. ——. (1994). Le séminaire. Book 4: La relation d'objet (1956-1957). Paris: Seuil.
Kid A In Alphabet Land

Act · Blot · Commodity-fetish · Death Drive · Ego-ideal · Father · Gaze · Hysteric · Imaginary · Jouissance · Kapital · Letter · Mirror Stage · Name · Other · Phallus · Qua · Real · Super Signifier · Thing · Unheimlich · Voice · Woman · Xenophobe · Yew · Z-man