The Three Orders
Although Lacan uses the terms "real," "symbolic" and "imaginary" from early on in his work, it is not until 1953 that he speaks of these as three "orders" or three "registers.") From that moment on they come to be the fundamental classification system around which all his theorizing turns. The imaginary, the symbolic and the real thus comprise a basic classification system (around which all Lacan's theorizing turns) which allows important distinctions to be drawn between concepts which, according to Lacan, had previously been confused in psychoanalytic theory.
For example Lacan argues that much misunderstanding has arisen in psychoanalytic theory due to a failure to distinguish between the imaginary father, the symbolic father and the real father. Thus Lacan claims that his tripartite classification system has shed invaluable light on Freud's work:
"Without these three systems to guide ourselves by, it would be impossible to understand anything of the Freudian technique and experience."
The imaginary, the symbolic and the real are profoundly heterogeneous, each referring to quite distinct aspects of psychoanalytic experience. It is therefore difficult to see what they have in common, and yet, the fact that Lacan refers to all three as "orders" implies that they share some common property. Lacan explores this question of what the three orders have in common by means of the topology of the Borromean knot in his 1974-5 seminar, RSI. They are not mental forces like the three agencies in Freud's structural model. However, they are primarily concerned with mental functioning, and together they cover the whole field of psychoanalysis.
Although the three orders are profoundly heterogeneous, each order must be defined by reference to the other two. The structural interdependence of the three orders is illustrated by the Borromean knot, in which the severing of any one of the three rings causes the other two to become separated also.
- Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book I. Freud's Papers on Technique, 1953-54. Trans. John Forrester. New York: Nortion; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988. p. 73