# Symbolic

symbolic (symbolique) The term 'symbolic' appears in adjectival form

in Lacan's earliest psychoanalytic writings (e.g. Lacan, 1936). In these early

works the term implies references to symbolic logic and to the equations used

in mathematical physics (Ec, 79). In 1948 symptoms are said to have a

'symbolic meaning' (E, 10). By 1950, the term has acquired anthropological

overtones, as when Lacan praises Marcel Mauss for having shown that 'the

structures of society are symbolic' (Ec, 132).

These different nuances are combined into a single category in 1953 when

Lacan begins to use the term 'symbolic' as a noun. It now becomes one of the

three ORDERs that remain central throughout the rest of Lacan's work. Of these

three orders, the symbolic is the most crucial one for psychoanalysis; psycho-

analysts are essentially 'practitioners of the symbolic function' (E, 72). In

speaking of 'the symbolic function', Lacan makes it clear that his concept of

the symbolic order owes much to the anthropological work of Claude LÈvi-

Strauss (from whom the phrase 'symbolic function' is taken; see LÈvi-Strauss,

1949a: 203). In particular, Lacan takes from LÈvi-Strauss the idea that the

social world is structured by certain laws which regulate kinship relations and

the exchange of gifts (see also Mauss, 1923). The concept of the gift, and that

of a circuit of exchange, are thus fundamental to Lacan's concept of the

symbolic (S4, 153-4, 182).

Since the most basic form of exchange is communication itself (the

exchange of words, the gift of speech; S4, 189), and since the concepts of

LAw and of STRUCTURE are unthinkable without LANGUAGE, the symbolic is

essentially a linguistic dimension. Any aspect of the psychoanalytic experi-

ence which has a linguistic structure thus pertains to the symbolic order.

However, Lacan does not simply equate the symbolic order with language.

On the contrary, language involves imaginary and real dimensions in addition

to its symbolic dimension. The symbolic dimension of language is that of the

SIGNIFIER; a dimension in which elements have no positive existence but which

are constituted purely by virtue of their mutual differences.

The symbolic is also the realm of radical alterity which Lacan refers to as

the OTHER. The UNCONSClOUs is the discourse of this Other, and thus belongs

wholly to the symbolic order. The symbolic is the realm of the Law which

regulates desire in the Oedipus complex. It is the realm of culture as opposed

to the imaginary order of nature. Whereas the imaginary is characterised by

dual relations, the symbolic is characterised by triadic structures, because the

intersubjective relationship is always 'mediated' by a third term, the big Other.

The symbolic order is also the realm of DEATH, Of ABSENCE and of LACK. The

symbolic is both the PLEASURE PRINCIPLE which regulates the distance from the

Thing, and the DEATH DRIVE which goes 'beyond the pleasure principle' by

means of repetition (S2, 210); in fact, 'the death drive is only the mask of the

symbolic order' (S2, 326).

The symbolic order is completely autonomous: it is not a superstructure

determined by biology or genetics. It is completely contingent with respect to

the real: 'There is no biological reason, and in particular no genetic one, to

account for exogamy. In the human order we are dealing with the complete

emergence of a new function, encompassing the whole order in its entirety'

(S2, 29). Thus while the symbolic may seem to 'spring from the real' as pre-

given, this is an illusion, and 'one shouldn't think that symbols actually have

come from the real' (S2, 238).

The totalising, all-encompassing effect of the symbolic order leads Lacan to

speak of the symbolic as a universe: 'In the symbolic order the totality is called

a universe. The symbolic order from the first takes on its universal character. It

isn't constituted bit by bit. As soon as the symbol arrives, there is a universe of

symbols' (S2, 29). There is therefore no question of a gradual continuous

transition from the imaginary to the symbolic; they are completely hetero-

geneous domains. Once the symbolic order has arisen, it creates the sense that

it has always been there, since 'we find it absolutely impossible to speculate on

what preceded it other than by symbols' (S2, 5). For this reason it is strictly

speaking impossible to conceive the origin of language, let alone what came

before, which is why questions of development lie outside the field of psycho-

analysis.

Lacan criticises the psychoanalysis of his day for forgetting the symbolic

order and reducing everything to the imaginary. This is, for Lacan, nothing less

than a betrayal of Freud's most basic insights; 'Freud's discovery is that of the

field of the effects, in the nature of man, produced by his relation to the

symbolic order. To ignore this symbolic order is condemn the discovery to

oblivion' (E, 64).

Lacan argues that it is only by working in the symbolic order that the analyst

can produce changes in the subjective position of the analysand; these changes

will also produce imaginary effects, since the imaginary is structured by the

SIGNIFIER; a dimension in which elements have no positive existence but which

are constituted purely by virtue of their mutual differences.

The symbolic is also the realm of radical alterity which Lacan refers to as

the OTHER. The UNCONSClOUs is the discourse of this Other, and thus belongs

wholly to the symbolic order. The symbolic is the realm of the Law which

regulates desire in the Oedipus complex. It is the realm of culture as opposed

to the imaginary order of nature. Whereas the imaginary is characterised by

dual relations, the symbolic is characterised by triadic structures, because the

intersubjective relationship is always 'mediated' by a third term, the big Other.

The symbolic order is also the realm of DEATH, Of ABSENCE and of LACK. The

symbolic is both the PLEASURE PRINCIPLE which regulates the distance from the

Thing, and the DEATH DRIVE which goes 'beyond the pleasure principle' by

means of repetition (S2, 210); in fact, 'the death drive is only the mask of the

symbolic order' (S2, 326).

The symbolic order is completely autonomous: it is not a superstructure

determined by biology or genetics. It is completely contingent with respect to

the real: 'There is no biological reason, and in particular no genetic one, to

account for exogamy. In the human order we are dealing with the complete

emergence of a new function, encompassing the whole order in its entirety'

(S2, 29). Thus while the symbolic may seem to 'spring from the real' as pre-

given, this is an illusion, and 'one shouldn't think that symbols actually have

come from the real' (S2, 238).

The totalising, all-encompassing effect of the symbolic order leads Lacan to

speak of the symbolic as a universe: 'In the symbolic order the totality is called

a universe. The symbolic order from the first takes on its universal character. It

isn't constituted bit by bit. As soon as the symbol arrives, there is a universe of

symbols' (S2, 29). There is therefore no question of a gradual continuous

transition from the imaginary to the symbolic; they are completely hetero-

geneous domains. Once the symbolic order has arisen, it creates the sense that

it has always been there, since 'we find it absolutely impossible to speculate on

what preceded it other than by symbols' (S2, 5). For this reason it is strictly

speaking impossible to conceive the origin of language, let alone what came

before, which is why questions of development lie outside the field of psycho-

analysis.

Lacan criticises the psychoanalysis of his day for forgetting the symbolic

order and reducing everything to the imaginary. This is, for Lacan, nothing less

than a betrayal of Freud's most basic insights; 'Freud's discovery is that of the

field of the effects, in the nature of man, produced by his relation to the

symbolic order. To ignore this symbolic order is condemn the discovery to

oblivion' (E, 64).

Lacan argues that it is only by working in the symbolic order that the analyst

can produce changes in the subjective position of the analysand; these changes

will also produce imaginary effects, since the imaginary is structured by the

## def

The social world of linguistic communication, intersubjective relations, knowledge of ideological conventions, and the acceptance of the law (also called the "big Other"). Once a child enters into language and accepts the rules and dictates of society, it is able to deal with others. The acceptance of language's rules is aligned with the Oedipus complex, according to Lacan. The symbolic is made possible because of your acceptance of the Name-of-the-Father, those laws and restrictions that control both your desire and the rules of communication. Through recognition of the Name-of-the-Father, you are able to enter into a community of others. The symbolic, through language, is "the pact which links... subjects together in one action. The human action par excellence is originally founded on the existence of the world of the symbol, namely on laws and contracts" (Freud's Papers 230). The symbolic order works in tension with the imaginary order and the Real. It is closely bound up with the superego and the phallus. See the Lacan module on the structure of the psyche.

## def

In Jacques Lacan's theory of psychic structures, **the Symbolic** refers to the realm of language into which the child enters under the impetus of the Name of the Father. The child's world, which has already been transformed by the Imaginary spatial identifications of the Mirror Stage, now becomes bound up in signifying chains linked to a master signifier. Some leftover of the Real remains, however, unexpressed in language, and resists integration into the Symbolic.