The term "symbolic" appears in adjectival form in Lacan's earliest psychoanalytic writings.
The adjectival "symbolic" is often used by Lacan in a fairly conventional sense, but in the 1950s he begins to use the word as a substantive, and it rapidly becomes the cornerstone of his theory: the subject's relationship with the symbolic is the heart of psychoanalysis.
It now becomes one of the three orders that remain central throughout the rest of Lacan's work. Of these three orders, the symbolic is the most crucial one for psychoanalysis; psychoanalysts are essentially 'practitioners of the symbolic function'.
The term has acquired anthropological overtones, as when Lacan praises Marcel Mauss for having shown that "the structures of society are symbolic".
He also demonstrates that in primitive societies the ritual exchange of gifts has an important role in the creation and perpetuation of social stability.
Adapting Lévi-Strauss's study of how kinship rules and exogamy govern exchanges between human groups to the field of psychoanalysis, Lacan now describes the Oedipus complex as a process which imposes symbolic structures on sexuality and allows the subject to emerge.
Pre-oedipal sexuality is likened to a state of nature and unbridled sexuality; the role of the Name-of-the-Father is to disrupt the dual relationship in which the child tries to fuse with the mother in an incestuous union, and to establish a legitimate line of descent ("son of...", "daughter of...").
Although the exchange of signifiers in speech is an obvious example of symbolic exchange, Lacan's symbolic is not simply synonymous with language, and should be understood as comprising the entire domain of culture.
Since the most basic form of exchange is communication itself (the exchange of words, the gift of speech); and since the concepts of law and of structure are unthinkable without language, the symbolic is essentially a linguistic dimension.
Whereas the imaginary is characterised by dual relations, the symbolic is characterised by triadic structures, because the intersubjective relationship is always "mediated" by a third term, the big Other.
The symbolic is both the pleasure principle which regulates the distance from the Thing, and the death drive which goes "beyond the pleasure principle" by means of repetition; in fact, "the death drive is only the mask of the symbolic order."
It is completely contingent with respect to the real:
"There is no biological reason, and in particular no genetic one, to account for exogamy. In the human order we are dealing with the complete emergence of a new function, encompassing the whole order in its entirety."
"In the symbolic order the totality is called a universe. The symbolic order from the first takes on its universal character. It isn't constituted bit by bit. As soon as the symbol arrives, there is a universe of symbols."
"Freud's discovery is that of the field of the effects, in the nature of man, produced by his relation to the symbolic order. To ignore this symbolic order is condemn the discovery to oblivion."
Lacan argues that it is only by working in the symbolic order that the analyst can produce changes in the subjective position of the analysand; these changes will also produce imaginary effects, since the imaginary is structured by the symbolic.
As the realm of images, the imaginary is the site of the half of the linguistic sign designated by Saussure as the signified, the mental image that corresponds to the signifier, the auditory sound or graphic mark that is arbitrarily linked to that image: "Whereas the signifier is the foundation of the symbolic order, the signified and signification are part of the imaginary order" (Evans 83). The other half of the linguistic equation which aligns the imaginary with the signified is the symbolic order, the realm of the signifier, "the realm of movement rather than fixity, and of heterogeneity rather than similarity. It is the realm of language, the unconscious, and an otherness that remains other" (Bowie 92). In contrast to the imaginary, which strives for similarity and identification, the symbolic is the site of constant motion. The illusory halting of the quest for identification that characterises activity in the imaginary is here replaced by the pure and incessant deferral of meaning through the endless slide of signifiers which refer primarily to each other and only provisionally (and illusorily) to particular signifieds. In terms of the individual’s psychic development, the accession to the symbolic is the final step at the end of the mirror stage, the point at which the imaginary identification that defines ego formation gives way to symbolic identification. At this point, the individual who has adapted to the dichotomous configuration of self and other at last identifies himself or herself as the object of the paternal function – the intervention in the infant’s enjoyment of the mother’s body. This primal "No" linguistically disrupts the imaginary identification of the infant with his or her mother and begins to situate him or her in the symbolic order, the order of the law, of interdiction, and of desire (this process is advanced by the infant’s use of language to articulate the concept of absence. See p. 309, below). Whereas imaginary identification posits some ground of shared essence, symbolic identification involves the subject’s identification with a prohibition, with that which is not allowed (because impossible), and thus with absence or lack as the truth of subjectivity. From this point on the individual is a subject (as distinct from an ego or a self), an entity created by a linguistic act. This linguistic act is then internalised, making language the primary structuring device of his or her participation in the social world. This process is akin to that which makes individuals in a society into those legal entities called subjects simply by the arbitrary assertion of the unquestionable authority of a particular discourse, in this case the legal discourse.
In terms of characterisations, then, whereas the real was most often equated with the impossible and ineffable and the imaginary with the illusory and deceptive, the symbolic is equated with supremacy and law. Lacan famously maintained in all situations the supremacy of the symbolic, an unequivocal point which draws its force from two justifications. First, the symbolic is supreme over the imaginary and the real because it is the only way in which we can comprehend either one of the latter two orders. Any attempt at definition, understanding, comprehension, or even simply thinking either the real or the imaginary is necessarily governed by the dominance of the symbolic as the only order in which all such efforts can be undertaken. As the only way in which we can express to ourselves the processes and conclusions of our cogitations, the symbolic reigns over any approach to the other orders.
Second, the symbolic is supreme in a more profound structural way in its governance of the other two orders. This governance extends beyond the basic terms of conscious comprehension to the structuration of the psyche itself. That is, as the most sophisticated and complex of the structuration processes of which the psyche is capable, the symbolic is also the most sophisticated, complex and therefore effective at cutting across the other two orders to divide them up in ways that render them useful. Whereas the imaginary order had only to cut across the real in order to create its structure, the symbolic order requires the force to cut across both the imaginary (the central process of analysis) and the real. This supremacy is demonstrated perhaps most clearly in the force with which the symbolic manages to repress those elements of the real and the imaginary which it needs to repress in order to constitute and sustain itself (although of course this repression is never fully successful):
The totalising, all-encompassing effect of the symbolic order leads Lacan to speak of the symbolic as a universe: "In the symbolic order the totality is called a universe. The symbolic order from the first takes on its universal character. It isn’t constituted bit by bit. As soon as the symbol arrives, there is a universe of symbols" (S2, 29). There is therefore no question of a gradual continuous transition from the imaginary to the symbolic; they are completely heterogeneous domains. Once the symbolic order has arisen, it creates the sense that it has always been there. (Evans 202)
The transition out of the mirror stage (though never fully beyond it) marked by symbolic identification is thus a radical point of departure at which the imaginary and real are suddenly cancelled, though they are also retained as necessary conditions of possibility for the symbolic. Furthermore, the advent of the symbolic order retroactively structures the preceding orders such that they no longer maintain their originary force and wholeness, but are always already cut across by the powerful divisions of the symbolic order. The diachronic exposition of the RSI here reveals its inadequacy, as it necessitates chronological reversal if we are to retain fidelity to Lacan’s synchronic topology of the nexus.15
For Jacques Lacan, the symbolic (French:symbolique), or the symbolic order, is a universal structure encompassing the entire field of human action and existence. It involves the function of speech and language, and more precisely that of the signifier. It appears as an essentially unconscious, latent apparatus.
The idea of the symbolic is contemporaneous with the birth of psychoanalysis since the traces linked to repressed infantile sexual experiences are symbolically reactualized in adulthood as defensive symptoms. The fact that Freud emphasized memory and reminiscence in his earliest theoretical work is enough to indicate the primacy of symbolic traces in psychopathology. The Oedipus complex, the avatars of the primal relationship with the mother, and the function of the dead father all take on their importance because they function on the same axis where the signifier emerges as the mainspring of the symbolic. As Lacan wrote in the "Function and Field" essay, "Freud's discovery was that of the field of effects, in man's nature, of his relations to the symbolic order" (2002, p. 63). Further, Lacan's entire body of work testifies to the fact that he was trying to restore the symbolic to its full status in psychoanalysis.
The impact of the symbolic is felt on several levels: first in limits placed on social alliances and relationships by a certain number of mechanisms, for which the traditional model is the pact. At another level, the symbolic intervenes in the form of discrete elements, namely signifiers, that are overdetermined as the prevalent forms of the imaginary, affective relations, and the choice of sexual objects.
Lacan repeatedly referred to the canonical example of the "child with the reel" from Beyond the Pleasure Principle (Freud, 1920g) in order to emphasize that the mark of the absence of the beloved object is realized by the fort-da game of phonetic opposition that represented the appearance and disappearance of the mother. This correlation between the missing object and a symbolic signifying mark inscribed in language removes the object's concrete features and grants it a level of conceptual force.
The emergence of the signifier in the symbolic is best shown by the infant's initiation into the dialectical field of demand and desire, for it is in the experience of vital distress and the appeal to a caretaker that a split occurs. Even if this caretaker satisfies a vital need, there is still a gaping lack of being. This equivocal division is brought about by the signifier of the first demand. It brings with it consequences beyond the frontiers of infancy and perpetuates a radical division in subjectivity. It also grants to the unconscious Other its symbolic place because the ultimate meaning of this signifier is assumed by the subject to reside in this other scene.
In the demand, the inexpressible, originally repressed part of the signifier becomes the cause of desire by the process of repetition. Later, the Oedipus complex normalizes the structure by assigning a definitive meaning to a lack previously put in place—namely that the mother, as primordial Other, is assumed to possess the phallus, and the father, by prohibiting incest, reinforces the fact that the phallus is absent by conferring on it a symbolic function. Thus the father's prohibition makes the phallic signifier cause desire in the very place where repression had left a hole. From that point on, this operation links the lack (symbolic castration) to the law of language, in order to make it reappear as symbolic debt. The symbolic order is thus constituted as an autonomous system of signifiers, a system that is governed from the Other and to which the subject is subjugated. The primary character of the symbolic led Lacan to conceive of it as one of the dimensions constituting the Borro-mean knot, a formalized structural schema that also includes the imaginary and the real.
The term 'symbolic' appears in adjectival form in Lacan's earliest psychoanalytic writings. In these early works the term implies references to symbolic logic and to the equations used in mathematical physics.Cite error: Closing </ref> missing for <ref> tag By 1950, the term has acquired anthropological overtones, as when Lacan praises Marcel Mauss for having shown that 'the structures of society are symbolic'.
These different nuances are combined into a single category in 1953 when Lacan begins to use the term 'symbolic' as a noun. It now becomes one of the three orders that remain central throughout the rest of Lacan's work. Of these three orders, the symbolic is the most crucial one for psychoanalysis; psychoanalysts are essentially 'practitioners of the symbolic function'. In speaking of 'the symbolic function', Lacan makes it clear that his concept of the symbolic order owes much to the anthropological work of Claude LÈvi-Strauss (from whom the phrase 'symbolic function' is taken). In particular, Lacan takes from LÈvi-Strauss the idea that the social world is structured by certain laws which regulate kinship relations and the exchange of gifts. The concept of the gift, and that of a circuit of exchange, are thus fundamental to Lacan's concept of the symbolic. 
Since the most basic form of exchange is communication itself (the exchange of words, the gift of speech); and since the concepts of law and of structure are unthinkable without language, the symbolic is essentially a linguistic dimension. Any aspect of the psychoanalytic experience which has a linguistic structure thus pertains to the symbolic order.
However, Lacan does not simply equate the symbolic order with language. On the contrary, language involves imaginary and real dimensions in addition to its symbolic dimension. The symbolic dimension of language is that of the signifier; a dimension in which elements have no positive existence but which are constituted purely by virtue of their mutual differences.
The symbolic is also the realm of radical alterity which Lacan refers to as the Other. The unconscious is the discourse of this Other, and thus belongs wholly to the symbolic order. The symbolic is the realm of the Law which regulates desire in the Oedipus complex. It is the realm of culture as opposed to the imaginary order of nature. Whereas the imaginary is characterised by dual relations, the symbolic is characterised by triadic structures, because the intersubjective relationship is always 'mediated' by a third term, the big Other.
The symbolic order is also the realm of death, of absence and of lack. The symbolic is both the pleasure principle which regulates the distance from the Thing, and the death drive which goes 'beyond the pleasure principle' by means of repetition; in fact, 'the death drive is only the mask of the symbolic order'.
The symbolic order is completely autonomous: it is not a superstructure determined by biology or genetics. It is completely contingent with respect to the real: 'There is no biological reason, and in particular no genetic one, to account for exogamy. In the human order we are dealing with the complete emergence of a new function, encompassing the whole order in its entirety'. Thus while the symbolic may seem to 'spring from the real' as pre-given, this is an illusion, and 'one shouldn't think that symbols actually have come from the real'.
The totalising, all-encompassing effect of the symbolic order leads Lacan to speak of the symbolic as a universe: 'In the symbolic order the totality is called a universe. The symbolic order from the first takes on its universal character. It isn't constituted bit by bit. As soon as the symbol arrives, there is a universe of symbols.' There is therefore no question of a gradual continuous transition from the imaginary to the symbolic; they are completely heterogeneous domains. Once the symbolic order has arisen, it creates the sense that it has always been there, since 'we find it absolutely impossible to speculate on what preceded it other than by symbols'. For this reason it is strictly speaking impossible to conceive the origin of language, let alone what came before, which is why questions of development lie outside the field of psychoanalysis.
Lacan criticises the psychoanalysis of his day for forgetting the symbolic order and reducing everything to the imaginary. This is, for Lacan, nothing less than a betrayal of Freud's most basic insights; 'Freud's discovery is that of the field of the effects, in the nature of man, produced by his relation to the symbolic order. To ignore this symbolic order is condemn the discovery to oblivion.'
Lacan argues that it is only by working in the symbolic order that the analyst can produce changes in the subjective position of the analysand; these changes will also produce imaginary effects, since the imaginary is structured by the signifier; a dimension in which elements have no positive existence but which are constituted purely by virtue of their mutual differences.
The social world of linguistic communication, intersubjective relations, knowledge of ideological conventions, and the acceptance of the law (also called the "big Other"). Once a child enters into language and accepts the rules and dictates of society, it is able to deal with others. The acceptance of language's rules is aligned with the Oedipus complex, according to Lacan. The symbolic is made possible because of your acceptance of the Name-of-the-Father, those laws and restrictions that control both your desire and the rules of communication. Through recognition of the Name-of-the-Father, you are able to enter into a community of others. The symbolic, through language, is "the pact which links... subjects together in one action. The human action par excellence is originally founded on the existence of the world of the symbol, namely on laws and contracts" (Freud's Papers 230). The symbolic order works in tension with the imaginary order and the Real. It is closely bound up with the superego and the phallus. See the Lacan module on the structure of the psyche.
In Jacques Lacan's theory of psychic structures, the Symbolic refers to the realm of language into which the child enters under the impetus of the Name of the Father. The child's world, which has already been transformed by the Imaginary spatial identifications of the Mirror Stage, now becomes bound up in signifying chains linked to a master signifier. Some leftover of the Real remains, however, unexpressed in language, and resists integration into the Symbolic.
- Castration of the subject
- Child analysis
- Death instinct
- Demand Ethics
- Formula of Fantasy
- Female sexuality
- Feminism and psychoanalysis
- Ego ideal
- Ideal ego
- Imaginary identification
- Symbolic identification
- L and R schemas
- Mirror stage
- Object a
- Optical schema
- Psychoses, chronic and delusional Real
- Real, Imaginary, and Symbolic father
- Formulas of Sexuation
- Structuralism and psychoanalysis
- Subject's desire
- Thalassa: A Theory of Genitality
- Unary trait
- Want of being/lack of being
- Freud, Sigmund. (1920g). Beyond the pleasure principle. SE, 18: 1-64.
- Lacan, Jacques. (2002). The function and field of speech and language in psychoanalysis. In his Écrits: A selection (Bruce Fink, Trans.). New York: W. W. Norton (Original work published 1953)
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