The Real  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The Real refers to that which is authentic, the unchangeable truth in reference both to being/the Self and the external dimension of experience, also referred to as the infinite and absolute—as opposed to a reality based on sense perception and the material order.

In psychoanalysis

Lacan

This order is not only opposed to the imaginary but is also located beyond the symbolic. Unlike the symbolic, which is constituted in terms of oppositions such as "presence" and "absence", there is no absence in the real. The symbolic opposition between "presence" and "absence" implies the possibility that something may be missing from the symbolic, the real is "always in its place: it carries it glued to its heel, ignorant of what might exile it from there." If the symbolic is a set of differentiated signifiers, the real is in itself undifferentiated: "it is without fissure." The symbolic introduces "a cut in the real," in the process of signification: "it is the world of words that creates the world of things." Thus the real emerges as that which is outside language: "it is that which resists symbolization absolutely." The real is impossible because it is impossible to imagine, impossible to integrate into the symbolic order. This character of impossibility and resistance to symbolization lends the real its traumatic quality.

The primordial Real in which a (pre-Oedipal) human subject is born is differentiated from the real which a subject integrated into the symbolic order experiences. In the former, the real is the continuous, “whole” reality without categories and the differential function of language. Following the mirror stage, however, and the eventual entrance of the imaginary and the symbolic (the split of the subject between the conscious imaginary and the unconscious symbolic), the real may only be experienced as traumatic gaps in the symbolic order. An example of this are traumatic events such as natural disasters, which effectively break down the signification of everyday life and cause a rupture of something alien and unrecognizable, without the usual grammar of the symbolic that conditions how to make meaning of something and how to proceed.

One of the main methods of psychoanalysis is to drain the traumatic experiences of the real into the symbolic through free association. The analyst searches the analysand’s discourse for sounds, words, or images of fixation and through dialectization attempt to bring these fixations to the regular metonymic flow of the (unconscious) symbolic order, thereby integrating the subject further into their fantasy, usually referred to as “traversing the fantasy.”

Žižek

Contemporary Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek has expanded on Lacan's theories and described (at least) three modalities of the Real:

  • The "symbolic real": the signifier reduced to a meaningless formula like quantum physics, which normal people can only understand through simplistic metaphors.
  • The "imaginary real": a horrific thing, that which conveys the sense of horror in horror films
  • The "real 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, in the fact of 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. Žižek also used the film The Sound of Music as an example, where the "invaded" Austrians are depicted more like provincial fascists (blond, beautiful, historic dresses), while the Nazis are managers, bureaucrats, etc., "like cosmopolitan decadent corrupted Jews." He posits that the movie has a hidden pro-fascist message that is not directly seen but embedded in the texture.




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "The Real" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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