From very early on in his work, Lacan lays great impor-
tance on the role of the father in psychic structure. In his 1938 article on the
family, he attributes the importance of the OEDIPUS COMPLEX to the fact that it
combines in the figure of the father two almost conflicting functions: the
protective function and the prohibitive function. He also points to the con-
temporary social decline in the paternal imago (clearly visible in the images of
absent fathers and humiliated fathers) as the cause of current psychopatho-
logical peculiarities (Lacan, 1938: 73). The father continues to be a constant
theme of Lacan's work thereafter.
Lacan's emphasis on the importance of the father can be seen as a reaction
against the tendency of Kleinian psychoanalysis and object-relations theory to
place the mother- child relation at the heart of psychoanalytic theory. In
opposition to this tendency, Lacan continually stresses the role of the father as a third term who, by mediating the imaginary DUAL RELATION between the MOTHER and the child, saves the child from psychosis and makes possible an entry into social existence. The father is thus more than a mere rival with whom the subject competes for the mother's love; he is the representative of the social order as such, and only by identifying with the father in the Oedipus complex can the subject gain entry into this order. The absence of the father is therefore an important factor in the aetiology of all psychopathological structures. However, the father is not a simple concept but a complex one, one which begs the question of what exactly is meant by the term 'father'. Lacan argues that the question 'What is a fatherT forms the central theme which runs throughout Freud's entire work (S4, 204-5). It is in order to answer this question that, from 1953 on, Lacan stresses the importance of distinguishing between the symbolic father, the imaginary father, and the real father: e The symbolic father The symbolic father is not a real being but a position, a function, and hence is synonymous with the term 'paternal func- tion'. This function is none other than that of imposing the LAW and regulating desire in the Oedipus complex, of intervening in the imaginary dual relation- ship between mother and child to introduce a necessary 'symbolic distance' between them (S4, 161). 'The true function of the Father . . . is fundamentally to unite (and not to set in opposition) a desire and the Law' (E, 321). Although the symbolic father is not an actual subject but a position in the symbolic order, a subject may nevertheless come to occupy this position, by virtue of exercising the paternal function. Nobody can ever occupy this position com- pletely (S4, 205, 210, 219). However, the symbolic father does not usually intervene by virtue of someone incarnating this function, but in a veiled fashion, for example by being mediated by the discourse of the mother (see S4, 276). The symbolic father is the fundamental element in the structure of the symbolic order; what distinguishes the symbolic order of culture from the imaginary order of nature is the inscription of a line of male descendence. By structuring descendence into a series of generations, patrilineality introduces an order 'whose structure is different from the natural order' (S3, 320). The symbolic father is also the dead father, the father of the primal horde who has been murdered by his own sons (see Freud, 1912-13). The symbolic father is also referred to as the NAME-OF-THE-FATHER (Sl, 259). The presence of the imaginary phallus as a third term in the preoedipal imaginary triangle indicates that the symbolic father is already functioning at the preoedipal stage; behind the symbolic mother, there is always the symbolic father. The psychotic, however, does not even get this far; indeed, it is the absence of the symbolic father which characterises the essence of the psychotic structure (see FORECLOSURE).