It is safe to say that psychoanalysts and philosophers don’t always get along, that statement has never been truer than when it comes to existentialism and Lacanian psychoanalysis.
We are often distracted by things around us, often concepts of human making such as politics, work, religion, the economy and so on, they give our reality meaning. Yet this meaning is not real. When I say it is not real, I don’t mean that it does not exist, but more so that it is part of a fictional narrative that we formulate to help our subjective self navigate the world. In fact it’s made for us before we are born. This is what Lacan calls the symbolic and imaginary orders. The symbolic is our concept of knowledge, communication, relations, potions and societal and cultural limits such as the law. For example the ability to know what it means if someone says “stop hitting on my wife!” When you hear this sentence you make the connections of marriage, monogamy, the fact she is not single, that she is legally connected to the angry man shouting at you (whether she loves him or not is a different matter). It is what gives meaning to the gold band ring on a specific finger. Otherwise it would just be a boring ring on a random finger. With this significance the ring has meaning but the meaning is intertwined with the imaginary order. When we see a wedding ring and it signifies marriage (this is the imaginary) and the symbolic gives this word legal meaning and authority. A social law that he is demanding we respect (this is the symbolic). If he were not to shout at us and the ring was not on a specific finger then the ring would lose all significance to us and we would be none the wiser that this woman was married, unless of course you met the angry husband. They help us form the narrative that is our life.
The symbolic and imaginary are what form our reality on top of nothingness, or as Lacan would formulate his similar idea the Real. The Real is an important concept to help understand Lacan’s concepts. It is the third par of the triad of subjectivity. It is kinda difficult to talk about as it does not exist. For Lacan there are three orders of human subjectivity that create your reality for you. The first is the symbolic, as I have explained before this is linguistic, or it is the things that are signifiable in language. Things that we can conceptualise in words such as relationships, ethics and law. Then there is the imaginary which is formed when you are a baby. The Mirror Stage, Lacan’s most famous of theories, is the stage in your childhood, around 6-18 months, when you first see your reflection, or something that shows you that you are a formed person. Prior to this the baby is basically an incoherent bag of needs and limbs that does not fully appreciate it is a human subject. By seeing itself as an object in the mirror it forms the imaginary, it sees itself as an object among other objects. It forms the ego. This is also where the gaze of the other (used by Sartre comes in).
Later, as you grow up, you are brought into the symbolic. You learn the word I which we put in sentences next to other objects such as food. This reinforces the idea that you are an object but at the same time you remain a subject. You become both a subject and an object. You become and remain a split subject. I will pick this back up later but for now it is enough to understand that the imaginary and the symbolic sit above the Real in order to protect you from it and help you formulate a coherent understanding of reality (Fink 1997).
Why do we need to be protected from the Real? Because it is ungraspable. Often the best example of the real is a person coming into contact with it via a traumatic event. An event that is so earth shattering that you lose all concept of the world. An airstrike that kills your whole family and flattens your town. Everything loses its symbolic meaning and nothing looks the same. Often survivors need to piece together their reality and this can be done with the help of others and therapy, but life will never be the same again. The trauma of the event shatters your understanding of the world and even your own subjectivity, the fiction you have come to know as reality is ripped apart (Fink 1997).
Philosopher Slavoj Zizek, who has done a lot to popularise the theories of Lacan, describes the three orders like chess. The symbolic order is the rules, the score and so on, and the imaginary order is the board and the pieces. The real is the whole concept of chess, which would be impossible to understand without using the former two to explain the game. The same can be said for the symbolic, imaginary and the Real (Žižek 2006).
Lacan’s concepts, often called anti-philosophy, have been influential in psychoanalysis but also in critical theory and philosophy. He built on Freud’s original theories and took them outwards. Instead of refining psychoanalysis as the ego school did in the USA, he wanted to evolve it further.
For Lacan, when we become split subjects during the mirror stage and later when we learn to use language, we lose a bit of ourselves, we lack something. Language alienates us. For him we are always trying to fill this lack inside us with our desire. Everyone desires. To desire means to be a living subject. But even when we get what we think we desire, we move on to the next thing. Desire is a huge subject and something I explore more elsewhere, but I have brought it in here as it shows that for Lacan we can never be ourselves as we are always wanting to be our complete selves, the one that does not desire, the one that does not lack. We want to be an object, the one we saw in the mirror, but that cannot be as we are desiring subjects. Our desire to be whole cannot be achieved, and even when we reach what we desire, we reallocate it to something else (Fink 1997).
Lacan, for me at least, makes more sense here. Giving a framework that appreciates the unconscious and that we can’t choose everything, rather than a set of beliefs around authentic living, to analyse today’s world is more likely to give us a better picture of the grey parts as well as the black and white.