From very early on in his work, Lacan lays great importance 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 contemporary social decline in the paternal imago (clearly visible in the images of absent fathers and humiliated fathers) as the cause of current psychopathological 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 function'. This function is none other than that of imposing the LAW and regulating desire in the Oedipus complex, of intervening in the imaginary dual relationship 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 completely (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).
e The imaginary father The imaginary father is an imago, the composite
of all the imaginary constructs that the subject builds up in fantasy around the
figure of the father. This imaginary construction often bears little relationship
to the father as he is in reality (S4, 220). The imaginary father can be construed
as an ideal father (Sl, 156; E, 321), or the opposite, as 'the father who has
fucked the kid up' (S7, 308). In the former guise, the imaginary father is the
prototype of God-figures in religions, an all-powerful protector. In the latter
role, the imaginary father is both the terrifying father of the primal horde who
imposes the incest taboo on his sons (see Freud, 1912-13), and the agent of
PRIVATION, the father whom the daughter blames for depriving her of the
symbolic phallus, or its equivalent, a child (S4, 98; see Figure 7 and S7,
307). In both guises, though, whether as the ideal father or as the cruel agent
of privation, the imaginary father is seen as omnipotent (S4, 275-6). Psychosis
and perversion both involve, in different ways, a reduction of the symbolic
father to the imaginary father.
e The real father While Lacan is quite clear in defining what he means by
the imaginary father and the symbolic father, his remarks on the real father are
quite obscure (see, for example, S4, 220). Lacan's only unequivocal formula-
tion is that the real father is the agent of castration, the one who performs the
operation of symbolic castration (Sl7, 149; see Figure 7 and S7, 307). Apart
from this, Lacan gives few other clues about what he means by the phrase. In
1960, he describes the real father as the one who 'effectively occupies' the
mother, the 'Great Fucker' (S7, 307), and even goes on to say, in 1970, that the
real father is the spermatozoon, though he immediately qualifies this statement
with the remark that nobody has ever thought of himself as the son of a
spermatozoon (Sl7, 148). On the basis of these comments, it seems possible
to argue that the real father is the biological father of the subject. However,
since a degree of uncertainty always surrounds the question of who the
biological father really is ('"pater semper incertus est", while the mother is
"certissima"'; Freud, 1909c: SE IX, 239), it would be more precise to say that
the real father is the man who is said to be the subject's biological father. The
real father is thus an effect of language, and it is in this sense that the adjective
real is to be understood here: the real of language, rather than the real of
biology (Sl7, 147-8).
The real father plays a crucial role in the Oedipus complex; it is he who
intervenes in the third 'time' of the Oedipus complex as the one who castrates
the child (see CASTRATION COMPLEx). This intervention saves the child from the
preceding anxiety; without it, the child requires a phobic object as a symbolic
substitute for the absent real father. The intervention of the real father as agent
of castration is not simply equivalent to his physical presence in the family. As
the case of Little Hans indicates (Freud, 1909b), the real father may be
physically present and yet fail to intervene as agent of castration (S4, 212,
221). Conversely, the intervention of the real father may well be felt by the
child even when the father is physically absent.