The Three Orders
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
The basis of the Imaginary order is the formation of the Ego in the Mirror Stage: the Ego is constructed by identification with the specular image. The relationship between the Ego and the specular image means that the Ego and the Imaginary order itself are places of radical alienation: "alienation is constitutive of the Imaginary order" (see Seminar III The Psychoses). We may add that this relationship is also narcissistic. Thus the Imaginary is the field of images and imagination, and deception: the main illusions of this order are synthesis, autonomy, duality, similarity.
The Imaginary is structured by the Symbolic order: in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis Lacan argues how the visual field is structured by symbolic laws. Thus the Imaginary involves a linguistic dimension. If the signifier is the foundation of the Symbolic, the signified and signification are part of the Imaginary order. Language has symbolic and imaginary connotations, in its imaginary aspect, language is the "wall of language" which inverts and distorts the discourse of the Other. On the other hand, the Imaginary is rooted in the subject's relationship with its own body (the image of the body). In Fetishism: the Symbolic, the Imaginary and the Real) Lacan argues that in the sexual plane the Imaginary appears as sexual display and courtship love.
Lacan accused major psychoanalytic schools of reducing the practice of psychoanalysis to the Imaginary order by making identification with the analyst the objective of analysis (see Écrits, "The Directions of the Treatment"). He proposes the use of the Symbolic as the way to dislodge the disabling fixations of the Imaginary: the analyst transforms the images into words. "The use of the Symbolic is the only way for the analytic process to cross the plane of identification' (see Seminar XI, "The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis").
In his Seminar IV "La relation d'objet" Lacan asserts that the concepts of Law and Structure are unthinkable without language: thus the Symbolic is a linguistic dimension. Yet, he does not simply equate this order with language since language involves the Imaginary and the Real as well. The dimension proper of language in the Symbolic is that of the signifier, that is a dimension in which elements have no positive existence but which are constituted by virtue of their mutual differences.
The Symbolic is also the field of radical alterity, that is the Other: the unconscious is the discourse of this Other. Besides it is the realm of the Law which regulates desire in the Oedipus complex. We may add that the Symbolic is the domain of culture as opposed to the Imaginary order of nature. As important elements in the Symbolic, the concepts of death and lack (manque) connive to make of the pleasure principle the regulator of the distance from the Thing (das ding an sich and the death drive which goes "beyond the pleasure principle by means of repetition" - "the death drive is only a mask of the Symbolic order." (Seminar II, "The Ego in Freud's Theory")
It is by working in the Symbolic order that the analyst can produce changes in the subjective position of the analysand; these changes will produce imaginary effects since the Imaginary is structured by the Symbolic. (Dylan Evans) Thus, it is the Symbolic which is determinant of subjectivity, and the Imaginary, made of images and appearances, is the effect of the Symbolic.
Not only opposed to the Imaginary, the Real is also located outside the Symbolic. Unlike the latter which is constituted in terms of oppositions, i.e presence/absence, "there is no absence in the Real" (Seminar II, "The Ego in Freud's Theory") Whereas the Symbolic opposition presence/absence implies the possibility that something may be missing from the Symbolic, "the Real is always in its place" (Seminar XI, "The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis") If the Symbolic is a set of differentiated elements, signifiers, the Real in itself is undifferentiated, it bears no 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 - things originally confused in the "here and now" of the all in the process of coming into being. (see Écrits, "The Function and Filed of Speech and language in Psychoanalysis")
Thus the Real is that which is outside language, resisting symbolization absolutely. In Seminar XI Lacan define the Real as "the impossible' because it is impossible to imagine and impossible to integrate into the Symbolic, being impossibly attainable. It is this resistance to symbolization that lends the Real its traumatic quality. In his Seminar "La relation d'objet', Lacan reads Freud's case on "Little Hans"". He distinguishes two real elements which intrude and disrupt the child's imaginary pre-oedipical harmony: the real penis which is felt in infantile masturbation and the newly born sister.
Finally, the Real is the object of anxiety in that it lacks any possible mediation, and is "the essential object which is not an object any longer, but this something faced with which all words cease and all categories fail, the object of anxiety par excellence." (Seminar II, "The Ego in Freud's Theory").