The words most commonly used to define the real are "ineffable" and "impossible": "it is impossible to imagine, impossible to integrate into the symbolic order, and impossible to attain in any way" (Evans 160; see also Bowie 95). Indeed, the chief qualities of the real in Lacan’s scheme are that it is unsymbolisable and unrepresentable, that it precedes, exceeds, and supersedes any attempt to give it a coherent and comprehensible form. "The undecidability of the concept ‘real’ is scrupulously preserved. The real is an uncrossable threshold for the subject, and not one that can be sidestepped in the analytic encounter" (Bowie 106). Approachable only asymptotically, the real is most often defined by way of paradoxes; it
lies beyond the network of signifiers, yet causes an uncontrollable upheaval within it. It is firm and obdurate, yet its intrusions upon the subject cannot be anticipated or forestalled. […] The real is more forcible than anything else in the world, yet it is phantasmal, shallow and fortuitous. […] The real is inward and outward at once, and belongs indifferently to sanity and to madness. In all its modes, it successfully resists the intercessions of language. (Bowie 110)
Furthermore, this undecidability is a feature of the real upon which Lacan insisted as its most essential defining feature: "Lacan takes pains to ensure that the real remains the most elusive and mysterious of the three orders, by speaking of it less than of the other orders, and by making it the site of a radical indeterminacy. Thus it is never completely clear whether the real is external or internal, or whether it is unknowable or amenable to reason" (Evans 160). In a realm characterised by the fundamentally negative mode of definition and differentiation (i.e. the RSI), the real stands out as extraordinarily negative and exceptionally undifferentiated.
This very difficulty is, of course, the entire point of the real as it functions both in the RSI and in Lacan’s thought overall. The difficulties that arise from trying to define the real point directly to its nature and to the nature of the other two orders against which it is set. Insofar as it is "impossible to imagine" and "impossible to integrate into the symbolic order," the real is utterly unavailable to the very categories of thought and articulation by which humans organise their worlds (both mental and physical). Any attempt to think the real, then, is always already defeated in its perverse effort to make the real conform to the standards of the symbolic (the conceptual and linguistic apparatus by which we consciously perceive and configure reality). Nonetheless, the real persists (it ex-sists without existing) as a necessary component of the RSI nexus, and some attempt to conceive it must be made if we are to understand its role in Lacanian psychoanalysis. Indeed, even though the real is inherently unrepresentable, the very integrity of the Lacanian topology insists that it constitutes a part of all of us and must, therefore, be at least obliquely available to intuitive understanding, if not articulation.
One way in which this effort has been undertaken has been to attempt to think the real in terms of early development, whether of the species or of the infant child. This approach involves thinking of the real in terms of temporal regression to a time which we all, both as members of a species and as individuals, must at one time have experienced and which we all, therefore, must be able of conceiving, however abstractly. Perhaps the most effective way of thinking of the real, comes in Evans’s comparison of the real to the Kantian thing-in-itself as "an unknowable x" (205).3 Like the Kantian thing-in-itself, the real can never be directly experienced, though we can infer its existence from the effects it has both on us as individuals and on the world in which we move. Unlike the thing-in-itself, however, the real is not an abstraction toward which one must turn one’s attention if it is to be experienced. Rather, the real insistently makes its presence known through periodic irruptions into the other two orders, unsettling their modes of organising the world and insisting on its equal, if rather more obscure, place in the Borromean topology of subjectivity. Thus, whereas the Kantian thing-in-itself exists always cloaked behind its representations in the epistemological categories to which it is subjected (i.e. whereas its materiality is perpetually cloaked by its abstraction), the real actively solicits the attention of the individual, often through an aggressive insistence on its materiality, making itself felt through the very impermeable border which prevents access to it.
Malcolm Bowie points out this aspect of the real in a series of mundane examples that illustrate the capacity of the real to disrupt the imaginary and symbolic constructs within which we live: "Lacan’s tuché [i.e. the irruption of the real into reality4] is in one sense very simple: it is a tile falling on to the head of a passer-by, a person from Porlock bringing a creative trance prematurely to its end, or, to take one of Lacan’s own examples, a knock on the door that interrupts a dream" (Bowie 103). In these examples we can see how the real is never directly present to our experience, but rather makes itself felt in its contingent effects. Thus, the "tile falling on the head of a passer-by" is not a direct intervention of the real, but an event through which the real makes itself felt in its sheer contingency, its materiality, and its disruption of the order imposed on the raw material of the world by the symbolic acts of humans. The deviation from the ordering of the world (i.e. by putting up tile roofs to ward off the vagaries of the weather) captured in the falling tile thus serves two purposes in manifesting the effects of the real: first, it demonstrates the persistent element of contingency and outright danger that lurks in the failure of these ordering practices to be exhaustive and comprehensive (i.e. to take into account all possible eventualities); second, it manifests to the passer-by in a very immediate way the real of his own mortality – it insists on the contingency of human life, however well ordered it may appear.
The extent to which the real is the locus of a profound truth about human being is revealed in the last example, that of the dream that is interrupted by a knock on the door. This is the only example in Bowie’s account that is drawn directly from Lacan, and it is telling when we situate it in relation to the example of the falling tile. Whereas the falling tile represents an irruption of the real that seems to violate the normal conscious ordering of the world, the knock on the door that disturbs the dream casts the intervention in precisely the opposite terms, aligning the knock with the falling tile and the dream with the unaware passer-by. The suggestion here is that the passer-by inhabits a world akin to a dream world, utterly unaware of the various contingent effects and threats to the integrity of that world posed by an unanticipated and unpreventable interruption of the real. The knock on the head sustained by the passer-by is thus structurally equivalent to the knock on the door sustained by the dreamer; the passer-by’s mortality is equivalent to the finitude of the dreamer’s dream. The salient point here is that the real, though never directly encountered (except perhaps in death), is everywhere felt in the radical contingency of daily life, that it forms the lie-giving truth that underwrites both of the remaining orders, the imaginary and the symbolic. In their basis upon and opposition to the real, then, these two latter orders have it built into their very fabric (if only by the vehemence of its exclusion), and we are compelled to read any disruption in either order as potentially an irruption of the real (even if it is masked in some way).
One final distinction that is vital to understanding the real, and which is raised by the examples given above is that between the real and reality. Effectively, this distinction is one of structural effects versus the content through which these structural effects are manifest and detected. It makes no difference, for example, whether what falls on the passer-by’s head is a tile or a brick; indeed, nothing need fall on him or her at all – an out of control car could perform the same function. What matters is the structural disruption to the order of the phenomenal world brought about by this experience of sheer contingency. Our understanding of this relationship between contingency and order is facilitated by the opposition of the real to reality. Simply put, the real is that which is utterly unsymbolisable, while what we call reality is that particular order of the phenomenal world imposed by the use of symbolic structures (i.e. language)5: "In this opposition, 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" (Evans 161); "Canceling out the real, the symbolic creates ‘reality,’ reality as that which is named by language and can thus be thought and talked about" (Fink 25). reality is the order and organisation imposed on the hic et nunc of the phenomenal world, while the real is the insistently undifferentiated flux out of which that order and organisation is carved. This distinction takes us somewhat ahead of ourselves, as it necessarily refers to the nature and powers of the symbolic order; however, it has the dual purpose of clarifying the real in contrast to something more readily graspable than either of the remaining two orders (the notion of "reality" as something more or less discursively and performatively constructed) and exposing the practical difficulties of defining that which by definition exceeds the capacity of language.