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In [[Lacan]]ian [[psychoanalysis]], the "[[symbolic]]" is one of three [[order]]s that [[structure]] [[human]] [[existence]], the others being the [[imaginary]] and the [[real]].
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]].
The change in usage reflects his incorporation into [[psychoanalysis]] of the [[linguistics]] of [[Saussure]] and the [[anthropology]] of [[Mauss]] and [[Lévi-Strauss]].
In his work on kinship [[Lévi-Strauss]] argues that any culture can be seen as a set of [[symbolic]] [[structure]]s such as the rules governing kinship and alliance, [[language]] and [[art]].
He also demonstrates that in primitive societies the ritual exchange of gifts has an important role in the creation and perpetuation of social stability.
The application of [[Saussure]]'s theory of the [[sign]] allows these structures and exchanges to be analyzed as exchanges of [[signifier]]s.
The emergence of [[symbolic]] [[structure]]s is an essential feature of the human transition from [[nature]] to [[culture]].
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]] [[structure]]s on [[sexuality]] and allows the [[subject]] to emerge.
[[Pre-oedipal|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 relation]]ship 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...").
[[Culture]] and the [[symbolic]] are thuse imposed upon [[nature]].
The [[subject]] gains access to the [[symbolic]], to a name and a lineage, but does so at the cost of a [[symbolic|symbolic castration]].
Although the exchange of [[signifier]]s in [[speech]] is an obvious example of [[symbolic|symbolic exchange]], [[Lacan]]'s [[symbolic]] is not simply synonymous with [[language]], and should be understood as comprising the entire domain of [[culture]].
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About No Subject - Encyclopedia of Psychoanalysis