From No Subject - Encyclopedia of Psychoanalysis
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French: symbolique

In Lacanian psychoanalysis, the "symbolic" is one of three orders 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 structures 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 signifiers.

The emergence of symbolic structures 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 structures on sexuality and allows the subject to emerge.

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 relationship 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 castration.

Although the exchange of signifiers in speech is an obvious example of symbolic exchange, Lacan's symbolic is not simply synonymous with language, and should be understood as comprising the entire domain of culture.