A Very Brief Introduction to Lacan
Prepared by Professor Stephen Ross (saross at uvic . ca) at the University of Victoria.
All rights reserved. ©2002.
Please contact me if you wish to use this material for teaching or publishing purposes.



Jump to:
RSI and the Borromean Knot           The Real       The Imaginary Mirror Stage             Méconnaissance   The Symbolic
Symbolic Order and Language     Metaphor and Metonymy       Point de Capiton            Chain of Signification           The Law
The Subject     Desire             Hegel (Master/Slave)      Death Drive   Objet a              The Graph of Desire (phase II)

"the real, the symbolic and the imaginary are the whole of what is, and figuring their connections is a cosmological exercise" (Bowie 195)
"The would-be truth-seeker will find that the imaginary, the symbolic and the real are an unholy trinity whose members could as easily be called Fraud, Absence and Impossibility" (Bowie 112)
The psychoanalytic theory of Jacques Lacan poses some particular problems for explication because it is primarily a synchronic scheme, while it must inevitably be explored diachronically. That is, while Lacan had increasing recourse to topologies depicting everything from the fundamental series of forces that shape and deform subjectivity to the core movement of desire which constitutes the essence of subjective being, even he had to supplement these often enigmatic diagrams with narrative commentary. This pressure is even more inevitable for the commentator at the second or third degree of remove from the original thought. Thus, in the absence of a sudden capacity to produce a full-blown and immediately comprehensible explication on the spot, I will simply begin my diachronic exploration of the fundamental structures of Lacan’s psychoanalysis with the caveat that unless otherwise explicitly stated, the phenomena I define are to be thought of first as structures and only secondarily (if at all) as processes.
 
RSI and the Borromean Knot:
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The fundamental structure in Lacanian psychoanalysis is a tripartite confluence of what Lacan called the real, the imaginary, and the symbolic orders.1 I will define each of these in turn shortly, but first it is important to conceive of their interrelationship as "the fundamental classification system around which all [Lacan’s] theorising turns" (Evans 132). The intersection of the RSI constitutes the whole of the mental life of humans, whether in a cumulative way or in the various effects it produces – "together they cover the whole field of psychoanalysis" (Evans 132). Each of the orders not only constitutes a particular aspect of the mental life of the mature human, but also corresponds roughly to stages in the development of the infant human as it approaches maturity. Nonetheless, while it is tempting to think of the orders as stages through which the individual moves, we must resist this temptation and retain their purity as orders or registers in which, through which, and by which the individual is determined: "The symbolic, the imaginary and the real are not mental forces, personifiable on the model-builder’s inner stage, but orders each of which serves to position the individual within a force-field that traverses him" (Bowie 91). This insistence on the existence of RSI as orders or forces that traverse the individual allows us to comprehend that though together they comprise a structure, that structure is far from static. Rather, the various orders contained in the RSI configuration constantly act on each other, defining each other and themselves in contradistinction to one another. They are simultaneously mutually interdependent for their definition and utterly incommensurable. "The symbolic, the imaginary and the real pressurize each other continuously and have their short-term truces, but they do not allow any embracing programme for synthesis to emerge inside or outside the analytic encounter. The three orders together comprise a complex topological space in which the characteristic disorderly motions of the human mind can be plotted" (Bowie 98-99). Like a perpetually stymied dialectic, the three orders define themselves in purely negative relationships to each other yet never come to a point of Aufhebung at which each is subsumed by the others to produce a clear, pure, and non-pathological synthesis. The interaction of these three orders produces the analysable human subject even as their encroachment upon each other produces a variety of more or less serious disruptions in that subject.

Perhaps the easiest way to conceive of the interaction of the RSI is to employ Lacan’s model of the Borromean knot.
 


          Figure 1 - a 2D representation                                         Figure 2 - a 3D representation.2


The Borromean knot is a topological conceptualisation of the RSI in which each order is depicted as a circle that links each of the other orders. It is "a way of illustrating the interdependence of the three orders of the real, the symbolic and the imaginary, as a way of exploring what it is that these three orders have in common" (Evans 19-20). Its chief value lies in the fact that it "is formed from two separate links joined to each other by a third, and in such a way that if any one of the links is severed the whole thing falls apart" (Bowie 194). That is, each of the orders is fundamental to the whole in such a way that the separation of any one would automatically result in the collapse of the entire nexus, with catastrophic results for the individual constituted and traversed by it: "‘each term is sustained only in its topological relation with the others’" (Lacan S11 89, qtd. in Evans ix).

This feature of the Borromean knot generates one of the keys to understanding Lacan’s quasi-dialectical conception of human being: "that which is excluded from sense-making is that which makes sense hang together; no two agents or qualities or postulates can be coupled or contrasted without a mediating third. Everything that exists ex-sists – has its being in relation to that which lies outside it – and dichotomies and complementarities are no exception to the rule" (Bowie 194). The basic thrust of Bowie’s explication of the RSI is that each order defines itself in a negative relation to the other two orders, generating its positive attributes primarily by excluding some aspect of one or both of the other orders. Thus the symbolic is that which utterly excludes the real and which dissolves the imaginary. It relies for its internal consistency on the constant and unwavering exclusion of the other two orders, producing a definitional logic of (b)orders and their impossible/inevitable transgressions: this is the meaning of Bowie’s claim that "Everything that exists ex-sists – has its being in relation to that which lies outside it." The location of some incommensurable other against which it can set itself is the fundamental condition for each of the orders to maintain not only its consistency but its very existence. This characterisation points to the fundamental role played by antagonism and aggressivity in the Borromean Knot as each of the orders fights for its supremacy by attempting to annihilate the conditions of its own existence (i.e. the other two orders). The tensions, pressures, and cross-order "cuts" produced by this conflict constitute both the central phenomenon with which we are here concerned, the subject, and the various discontents that plague him or her.

The Real:
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The words most commonly used to define the real are "ineffable" and "impossible": "it is impossible to imagine, impossible to integrate into the symbolic order, and impossible to attain in any way" (Evans 160; see also Bowie 95). Indeed, the chief qualities of the real in Lacan’s scheme are that it is unsymbolisable and unrepresentable, that it precedes, exceeds, and supersedes any attempt to give it a coherent and comprehensible form. "The undecidability of the concept ‘real’ is scrupulously preserved. The real is an uncrossable threshold for the subject, and not one that can be sidestepped in the analytic encounter" (Bowie 106). Approachable only asymptotically, the real is most often defined by way of paradoxes; it

lies beyond the network of signifiers, yet causes an uncontrollable upheaval within it. It is firm and obdurate, yet its intrusions upon the subject cannot be anticipated or forestalled. […] The real is more forcible than anything else in the world, yet it is phantasmal, shallow and fortuitous. […] The real is inward and outward at once, and belongs indifferently to sanity and to madness. In all its modes, it successfully resists the intercessions of language. (Bowie 110)

Furthermore, this undecidability is a feature of the real upon which Lacan insisted as its most essential defining feature: "Lacan takes pains to ensure that the real remains the most elusive and mysterious of the three orders, by speaking of it less than of the other orders, and by making it the site of a radical indeterminacy. Thus it is never completely clear whether the real is external or internal, or whether it is unknowable or amenable to reason" (Evans 160). In a realm characterised by the fundamentally negative mode of definition and differentiation (i.e. the RSI), the real stands out as extraordinarily negative and exceptionally undifferentiated.

This very difficulty is, of course, the entire point of the real as it functions both in the RSI and in Lacan’s thought overall. The difficulties that arise from trying to define the real point directly to its nature and to the nature of the other two orders against which it is set. Insofar as it is "impossible to imagine" and "impossible to integrate into the symbolic order," the real is utterly unavailable to the very categories of thought and articulation by which humans organise their worlds (both mental and physical). Any attempt to think the real, then, is always already defeated in its perverse effort to make the real conform to the standards of the symbolic (the conceptual and linguistic apparatus by which we consciously perceive and configure reality). Nonetheless, the real persists (it ex-sists without existing) as a necessary component of the RSI nexus, and some attempt to conceive it must be made if we are to understand its role in Lacanian psychoanalysis. Indeed, even though the real is inherently unrepresentable, the very integrity of the Lacanian topology insists that it constitutes a part of all of us and must, therefore, be at least obliquely available to intuitive understanding, if not articulation.

One way in which this effort has been undertaken has been to attempt to think the real in terms of early development, whether of the species or of the infant child. This approach involves thinking of the real in terms of temporal regression to a time which we all, both as members of a species and as individuals, must at one time have experienced and which we all, therefore, must be able of conceiving, however abstractly. Perhaps the most effective way of thinking of the real, comes in Evans’s comparison of the real to the Kantian thing-in-itself as "an unknowable x" (205).3 Like the Kantian thing-in-itself, the real can never be directly experienced, though we can infer its existence from the effects it has both on us as individuals and on the world in which we move. Unlike the thing-in-itself, however, the real is not an abstraction toward which one must turn one’s attention if it is to be experienced. Rather, the real insistently makes its presence known through periodic irruptions into the other two orders, unsettling their modes of organising the world and insisting on its equal, if rather more obscure, place in the Borromean topology of subjectivity. Thus, whereas the Kantian thing-in-itself exists always cloaked behind its representations in the epistemological categories to which it is subjected (i.e. whereas its materiality is perpetually cloaked by its abstraction), the real actively solicits the attention of the individual, often through an aggressive insistence on its materiality, making itself felt through the very impermeable border which prevents access to it.

Malcolm Bowie points out this aspect of the real in a series of mundane examples that illustrate the capacity of the real to disrupt the imaginary and symbolic constructs within which we live: "Lacan’s tuché [i.e. the irruption of the real into reality4] is in one sense very simple: it is a tile falling on to the head of a passer-by, a person from Porlock bringing a creative trance prematurely to its end, or, to take one of Lacan’s own examples, a knock on the door that interrupts a dream" (Bowie 103). In these examples we can see how the real is never directly present to our experience, but rather makes itself felt in its contingent effects. Thus, the "tile falling on the head of a passer-by" is not a direct intervention of the real, but an event through which the real makes itself felt in its sheer contingency, its materiality, and its disruption of the order imposed on the raw material of the world by the symbolic acts of humans. The deviation from the ordering of the world (i.e. by putting up tile roofs to ward off the vagaries of the weather) captured in the falling tile thus serves two purposes in manifesting the effects of the real: first, it demonstrates the persistent element of contingency and outright danger that lurks in the failure of these ordering practices to be exhaustive and comprehensive (i.e. to take into account all possible eventualities); second, it manifests to the passer-by in a very immediate way the real of his own mortality – it insists on the contingency of human life, however well ordered it may appear.

The extent to which the real is the locus of a profound truth about human being is revealed in the last example, that of the dream that is interrupted by a knock on the door. This is the only example in Bowie’s account that is drawn directly from Lacan, and it is telling when we situate it in relation to the example of the falling tile. Whereas the falling tile represents an irruption of the real that seems to violate the normal conscious ordering of the world, the knock on the door that disturbs the dream casts the intervention in precisely the opposite terms, aligning the knock with the falling tile and the dream with the unaware passer-by. The suggestion here is that the passer-by inhabits a world akin to a dream world, utterly unaware of the various contingent effects and threats to the integrity of that world posed by an unanticipated and unpreventable interruption of the real. The knock on the head sustained by the passer-by is thus structurally equivalent to the knock on the door sustained by the dreamer; the passer-by’s mortality is equivalent to the finitude of the dreamer’s dream. The salient point here is that the real, though never directly encountered (except perhaps in death), is everywhere felt in the radical contingency of daily life, that it forms the lie-giving truth that underwrites both of the remaining orders, the imaginary and the symbolic. In their basis upon and opposition to the real, then, these two latter orders have it built into their very fabric (if only by the vehemence of its exclusion), and we are compelled to read any disruption in either order as potentially an irruption of the real (even if it is masked in some way).

One final distinction that is vital to understanding the real, and which is raised by the examples given above is that between the real and reality. Effectively, this distinction is one of structural effects versus the content through which these structural effects are manifest and detected. It makes no difference, for example, whether what falls on the passer-by’s head is a tile or a brick; indeed, nothing need fall on him or her at all – an out of control car could perform the same function. What matters is the structural disruption to the order of the phenomenal world brought about by this experience of sheer contingency. Our understanding of this relationship between contingency and order is facilitated by the opposition of the real to reality. Simply put, the real is that which is utterly unsymbolisable, while what we call reality is that particular order of the phenomenal world imposed by the use of symbolic structures (i.e. language)5: "In this opposition, the real is placed firmly on the side of the unknowable and unassimilable, while ‘reality’ denotes subjective representations which are a product of symbolic and imaginary articulations" (Evans 161); "Canceling out the real, the symbolic creates ‘reality,’ reality as that which is named by language and can thus be thought and talked about" (Fink 25). reality is the order and organisation imposed on the hic et nunc of the phenomenal world, while the real is the insistently undifferentiated flux out of which that order and organisation is carved. This distinction takes us somewhat ahead of ourselves, as it necessarily refers to the nature and powers of the symbolic order; however, it has the dual purpose of clarifying the real in contrast to something more readily graspable than either of the remaining two orders (the notion of "reality" as something more or less discursively and performatively constructed) and exposing the practical difficulties of defining that which by definition exceeds the capacity of language.

The Imaginary:6
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The imaginary is the realm of unarticulated (but articulable) identifications and idealisations which are the building blocks of fantasy and ego; it is the most basic level of self-conception, the precursor to subjectivity. The chief difference between the real and the imaginary is that the imaginary is available to symbolisation. The difficulty with discussing the imaginary is that once it has been symbolised it ceases to be imaginary7; though the content remains the same, a formal metamorphosis takes place such that the new incarnation is never quite adequate to its fantastic precursor. It is in this sense that "the imaginary is always already structured by the symbolic order" (Evans 82-83) – as soon as it is articulated, elevated into consciousness, it is subject to the structuring imperative of the symbolic order.

This dual nature of the imaginary, its fundamental incompatibility with symbolisation despite its vulnerability to being symbolised, points to its status as the middle ground between the real and the symbolic, both in terms of the individual’s development as an infant and in terms of the topology of subjectivity as depicted in the Borromean knot. Generated by the individual’s developmental experience of the mirror stage (about which I will have more to say shortly), the imaginary order is the domain of the ego, a realm of identifications (i.e. spurious but necessary) with objects in the world by which the individual ceaselessly attempts to shore up his or her identity. This ongoing process of identification is the result of the trauma of the mirror stage, during which the infants’ primary narcissism (or inability to differentiate between himself or herself and any external entity or object) is fractured. The result is the ability to perceive the differences between self and other (which amounts to the advent of the self), inaugurating the lifelong quest to return to the pre-imaginary stage of primary narcissism during which there was no differentiation between self and other.8 In pursuit of this impossible goal the individual develops fantasised identifications that reassure him or her by imaginatively reducing difference to identification, producing in the process an imago or ideal ego, the vision of him or herself which he or she takes to be the essence of identity.

a) The Mirror Stage:
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The first significant stage of infant development which Lacan discusses is the mirror stage. Taking place between the ages of six and eighteen months, the mirror stage is not merely a developmental stage which is left behind once it has been traversed, but "represents a fundamental [and enduring] aspect of the structure of subjectivity" (Evans 115). Starting with the notion that "there is a real specific prematurity of birth in man" (Ecrits 4), Lacan holds that the lack of motor control observed in human infants is countered by an advanced degree of visual ability. The disjunction between this underdeveloped motor control and advanced visual ability attains a formative status when the infant first beholds his or her own image, whether in a mirror or in the imitative actions of another person (Evans 190). Confronted with his or her own mirror image, the infant recognises it as his or her own. That is, at this point, the infant human undergoes a process of radical recognition whereby he or she projects the contents of his or her own consciousness onto the specular image with which he or she is confronted.9 In the infant’s budding consciousness, this projection results in a doubling whereby the specular image is perceived as recognising the infant in return. The infant recognises the image, but also perceives that the specular image recognises him or her – it opens up a new conceptual territory in its role as an entity that is both self and other at the same time. The traumatic aspect of this recognition comes from the infant’s recognition of the organic wholeness of the specular image, which stands in glaring contrast to the perceived fragmentation of his or her own body due to his or her underdeveloped motor ability. He or she recognises the specular image as his or her own, but simultaneously recognises a fundamental incompatibility, one which seems to indicate a wholeness in the specular image which is as yet unavailable to the individual: "this Gestalt […] symbolizes the mental permanence of the I, at the same time as it prefigures its alienating destination" (Ecrits 2).

This dual recognition produces two results, both of which are aspects of the same reaction. The first of these is that the infant admires the wholeness of the specular image and desires identification with that image. This is the formation of the ideal ego, which may loosely be conceived of as the unarticulated thought, "I want to be that (in which I perceive an ideal version of myself)." The more detrimental aspect of this dual recognition is linked to this desire insofar as the urge to unite with the image is also a rivalrous urge to dominate and assimilate it. In this regard, the wholeness of the image is perceived as threatening because it points to the fragmented condition of the infant’s body. Part of the infant’s desire to ascend to the same degree of organic wholeness perceived in the specular image is thus an aggressive tendency to become that image by consuming it, by emptying its content into himself or herself; i.e. by mastering it.10 To resolve the aggression this tension provokes, the infant identifies with the image, suppressing any awareness of its difference and producing the imaginary formation known as the ego (the always illusory and deceptive image one has of one’s self which is). This advent of the ego "situates the agency of the ego, before its social determination, in a fictional direction, which will always remain irreducible for the individual" (Ecrits 2). With the advent of the ego the individual enters the imaginary order and undertakes the lifelong series of identifications between ego and imaginary object (i.e. the imaginary attributes of a given object) which constitute the dynamic sense of "self."

The pre-eminent consequence of this accession to the imaginary order is that of the relationship between the newly formed ego and the specular image. Both in terms of the initiation into the imaginary order and the overall integrity of the RSI nexus, it is nearly impossible to overestimate the force of this identification: "The imaginary exerts a captivating power over the subject, founded in the almost hypnotic effect of the specular image" (Evans 83). The primary impact of this hypnotic effect is that it generates (in the very process of producing the ego) a process of alienation and méconnaissance (misrecognition) that will both facilitate the individual’s accession to the symbolic order and plague him or her with a sense of incompleteness throughout life: "This moment in which the mirror-stage comes to an end inaugurates, by the identification with the imago of the counterpart and the drama of primordial jealousy … the dialectic that will henceforth link the I to socially elaborated situations" (Ecrits 5). In identifying with a specular external image (which is then internalised as the ideal ego), the infant undertakes a paradoxical process that is both irreversible and unsustainable. The conception of the self (ego) as identical with, yet threatened by and aggressive toward, the other (specular image) is at bottom alienation pure and simple; seeing him or herself as the other and other as self makes the very notion of selfhood one typified by a perpetual oscillation between projection and assimilation. The self and other are thus two sides of the same process, at the heart of which is alienation; they are mutually dependent on each other for their definitions, imaginatively existing while in reality merely ex-sisting: "The ego and the counterpart form the prototypical dual relationship, and are interchangeable. This relationship whereby the ego is constituted by identification with the little other means that the ego, and the imaginary order itself, are both sites of a radical alienation" (Evans 82). As Lacan says, although in an inversion of terms which reveals the mutually constitutive relationship of alienation to the imaginary, "alienation is constitutive of the imaginary order" (qtd. in Evans 82). Alienation, the ability to think the self as other and the other as self is thus the defining feature of the I, the basis for the fantasy of selfhood.

b) Méconnaissance:
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The name Lacan gives to this process of identity construction is méconnaissance: "self-knowledge (me-connaissance) is synonymous with misunderstanding (méconnaissance), because the process by which the ego is formed in the mirror stage is at the same time the institution of alienation" (Evans 109). In a typically Lacanian play on words, Evans points to the fundamental constitutive feature of the imaginary order and of all imaginary processes. The logic which lends this pun more weight that simply that of a clever word-play is that of an implicit grammar behind the imaginary identification of ego with specular image. In contrast to the ego-ideal ("I want to be that"), the ego is a version of "I am that."11 The symbolisation of this identification in this way allows us to see clearly into the irrationality governing the imaginary. The predicate "that" in the ego characterisation "I am that" deprives the subject ("I") of its content; the descriptive verb "am" effectively becomes a transitive that reveals the hollowness of the ego in its attempt to attain wholeness through the identification with and assimilation of an endless variety of "thats." The illusions of identification produced in the imaginary, "those of wholeness, synthesis, autonomy, duality and, above all, similarity" (Evans 82) thus turn out to be "surface appearances which are deceptive, observable phenomena which hide underlying structure" (Evans 82).12

This process of méconnaissance, originally conceived of by Lacan as merely a stopping point on the path of psychic development (in his work from 1936-1949), becomes a constitutive feature of the mental life of the individual as the mirror stage loses its temporal focus and takes on a spatial reference (from 1950 on) (Evans 115). The "stade" of the original French formulation "stade du miroir" expands its meaning to include not only the temporal "stage" of routine translation, but also the spatial "stage" or "arena" of its secondary meaning (Evans 115). In this expanded conceptualization of the lasting effects of the mirror stage as the inaugurating moment of the imaginary order, the original méconnaissance that engenders the ego is compulsively repeated in a series of identifications with (and potentially disabling fixations on) objects in their imaginary capacities (i.e. imaginary objects):

the mirror stage is a drama whose internal thrust is precipitated from insufficiency to anticipation – and which manufactures for the subject, caught up in the lure of spatial identification, the succession of phantasies that extends from a fragmented body-image to a form of its totality that I shall call orthopaedic – and, lastly, to the assumption of the armour of an alienating identity, which will mark with its rigid structure the subject’s entire mental development. (Ecrits 4)

The erstwhile transformative stage of ego development thus becomes an enduring psychic structure which constitutes the unsymbolised interiority of "identity." Coeval with the ego, the imaginary thus persists as the ground on which it thrives, holding its own against the violent encroachments of the real and the divisive incursions of the symbolic.

Perhaps the best example of the concrete instance of the imaginary identification between the ego and imaginary objects is provided by the way in which advertising works to create irrational but compelling associations with objects, even in the face of the obvious incommensurability between the objects and that which is associated with them. Thus most commonly clothing or automobile commercials will use only slim, attractive spokespeople in clean, hygienic, and affluent surroundings as a way of creating matrices of imaginary associations around the objects for which they wish to create a desire. When the individual sees these associations made, he or she "recognises" some aspect of himself or herself in the imaginary field created around the object, identifies with it, and seeks to possess it as a concrete way of declaring his or her identity. The force of these imaginary identifications is manifest in the fact that even though they collapse into insipid manipulations with the least attempt at symbolisation (that is, representation in language, rather than merely by associations of images), they nonetheless persist as powerful determinants of individual ego-formations and behaviour patterns.13 In more theoretical terms,

the original identificatory procedures which brought the ego into being [i.e. the mirror stage] are repeated and reinforced by the individual in his relationship with the external world of people and things. The imaginary is the scene of a desperate delusional attempt to be and to remain ‘what one is’ by gathering to oneself ever more instances of sameness, resemblance and self-replication; it is the birthplace of the narcissistic ‘ideal ego.’ (Bowie 92)

The circularity and self-referentiality of this process is abundantly clear in Bowie’s articulation, as the ego both constructs an ideal version of itself on the basis of various imaginary features with which it would like to be identified, and then acts as though it unpremeditatedly "recognises" itself in objects that bear an imaginary correspondence to that ideal. Basically, the imaginary is the scene in which the ego undertakes the perpetual and paradoxical practice of seeking "wholeness, synthesis, autonomy, duality and, above all, similarity" through identification with external objects. Each such identification is necessarily illusory, however, as it is but a pale imitation of the originary wholeness that was sacrificed in the primal identification of the ego with its specular image in the mirror stage.

There is, then, no room in Lacanian psychoanalysis for a conception of the self as some essential feature of one’s identity to which one must be true, which one must "find," and above all which one must know.14 The "self" as traditionally conceived is but a monumentalisation of the illusory ego; indeed, Lacan goes so far as to state that this notion of a coherent "self" or ego is in fact a sign of pathology: "The ego is structured exactly like a symptom. At the heart of the subject, it is only a privileged symptom, the human symptom par excellence, the mental illness of man" (Lacan S1 62, qtd. in Evans 51). Part of Lacan’s reaction against the line of philosophical thought that descends directly from Descartes, the abandonment of the self or ego as the primary category of individual being is one with his insistence on the illusory nature of the imaginary order and his allegiance to the supremacy of the symbolic order: "Lacan sets out to inhabit the linguistic dimension that the Cartesian cogito failed to acknowledge. The subject is irremediably split in and by language, but ‘modern man’ still has not learned this lesson" (Bowie 77). Picking up where Freud left off, Lacan proposes to make this lesson inescapable.

The Symbolic:
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As the realm of images, the imaginary is the site of the half of the linguistic sign designated by Saussure as the signified, the mental image that corresponds to the signifier, the auditory sound or graphic mark that is arbitrarily linked to that image: "Whereas the signifier is the foundation of the symbolic order, the signified and signification are part of the imaginary order" (Evans 83). The other half of the linguistic equation which aligns the imaginary with the signified is the symbolic order, the realm of the signifier, "the realm of movement rather than fixity, and of heterogeneity rather than similarity. It is the realm of language, the unconscious, and an otherness that remains other" (Bowie 92). In contrast to the imaginary, which strives for similarity and identification, the symbolic is the site of constant motion. The illusory halting of the quest for identification that characterises activity in the imaginary is here replaced by the pure and incessant deferral of meaning through the endless slide of signifiers which refer primarily to each other and only provisionally (and illusorily) to particular signifieds. In terms of the individual’s psychic development, the accession to the symbolic is the final step at the end of the mirror stage, the point at which the imaginary identification that defines ego formation gives way to symbolic identification. At this point, the individual who has adapted to the dichotomous configuration of self and other at last identifies himself or herself as the object of the paternal function – the intervention in the infant’s enjoyment of the mother’s body. This primal "No" linguistically disrupts the imaginary identification of the infant with his or her mother and begins to situate him or her in the symbolic order, the order of the law, of interdiction, and of desire (this process is advanced by the infant’s use of language to articulate the concept of absence. See p. 309, below). Whereas imaginary identification posits some ground of shared essence, symbolic identification involves the subject’s identification with a prohibition, with that which is not allowed (because impossible), and thus with absence or lack as the truth of subjectivity. From this point on the individual is a subject (as distinct from an ego or a self), an entity created by a linguistic act. This linguistic act is then internalised, making language the primary structuring device of his or her participation in the social world. This process is akin to that which makes individuals in a society into those legal entities called subjects simply by the arbitrary assertion of the unquestionable authority of a particular discourse, in this case the legal discourse.

In terms of characterisations, then, whereas the real was most often equated with the impossible and ineffable and the imaginary with the illusory and deceptive, the symbolic is equated with supremacy and law. Lacan famously maintained in all situations the supremacy of the symbolic, an unequivocal point which draws its force from two justifications. First, the symbolic is supreme over the imaginary and the real because it is the only way in which we can comprehend either one of the latter two orders. Any attempt at definition, understanding, comprehension, or even simply thinking either the real or the imaginary is necessarily governed by the dominance of the symbolic as the only order in which all such efforts can be undertaken. As the only way in which we can express to ourselves the processes and conclusions of our cogitations, the symbolic reigns over any approach to the other orders.

Second, the symbolic is supreme in a more profound structural way in its governance of the other two orders. This governance extends beyond the basic terms of conscious comprehension to the structuration of the psyche itself. That is, as the most sophisticated and complex of the structuration processes of which the psyche is capable, the symbolic is also the most sophisticated, complex and therefore effective at cutting across the other two orders to divide them up in ways that render them useful. Whereas the imaginary order had only to cut across the real in order to create its structure, the symbolic order requires the force to cut across both the imaginary (the central process of analysis) and the real. This supremacy is demonstrated perhaps most clearly in the force with which the symbolic manages to repress those elements of the real and the imaginary which it needs to repress in order to constitute and sustain itself (although of course this repression is never fully successful):

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 heterogeneous domains. Once the symbolic order has arisen, it creates the sense that it has always been there. (Evans 202)

The transition out of the mirror stage (though never fully beyond it) marked by symbolic identification is thus a radical point of departure at which the imaginary and real are suddenly cancelled, though they are also retained as necessary conditions of possibility for the symbolic. Furthermore, the advent of the symbolic order retroactively structures the preceding orders such that they no longer maintain their originary force and wholeness, but are always already cut across by the powerful divisions of the symbolic order. The diachronic exposition of the RSI here reveals its inadequacy, as it necessitates chronological reversal if we are to retain fidelity to Lacan’s synchronic topology of the nexus.15

The Symbolic Order and Language:
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Since the symbolic order is necessarily so central to any language-oriented discussion, we need also to be aware of its conceptual genealogy, the sources upon which Lacan drew for his basic formulations of the symbolic’s structure and functions. The first of these influences is the structural anthropology of Marcel Mauss and Claude Lévi-Strauss, whose conceptions of society and social functions as symbolic structures and functions form the ground on which Lacan erected his conception of a symbolic order (Evans 201). More than simply borrowing the concept of a symbolic function from Lévi-Strauss and Mauss, however, Lacan adapted wholesale the informing principles of their approach, "prais[ing] Marcel Mauss for having shown that ‘the structures of society are symbolic’" (Evans 201) in the body of his most famous collection of work, Écrits. This open acknowledgment of Mauss and Lévi-Strauss as influences both broadens our understanding of how Lacan conceived of the symbolic order and opens the way for considering other important points of reference in situating it.

Indeed, it is precisely in Lacan’s adaptation of Lévi-Strauss that we find Ferdinand de Saussure, the next major influence on the conception of the symbolic:

Lacan takes from Lévi-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. (Evans 201)

Lacan’s conception of the symbolic as "essentially a linguistic dimension" draws heavily on Saussure’s distinction between signifier and signified such that the symbolic is the realm of the signifier while the imaginary is the realm of the signified. The key aspect of Saussure’s conception of this relationship is that the link between any given signifier and signified is arbitrary. Signifiers only gain value (i.e. content or a claim to a particular signified) in the process of opposition and relation to other signifiers. Since the connection between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary, the only way any kind of stability can be obtained is if the signifier habitually associated with a particular signified retains its claim through a process of differentiation not from other signifieds, but from other signifiers – it asserts its claim to meaning not by declaring a positive connection to the signified, but by declaring a negative relationship to all other signifiers.16 And since direct access to the signified (the imaginary) of any given signifier is either impossible or incommunicable, we are restricted to the endless play of signifiers as we try to use language to manage our world, an approach which is suprisingly effective given the arbitrariness of the signifier/signified connection in any given instance.17 Lacan’s conception of the symbolic, though it is informed by this concept in its totality, focuses on the realm of the signifier, locating the signified in the imaginary and that which is excluded from this binary in the real.

a) Metaphor and Metonymy:
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To the overall conception of linguistics he borrows from Saussure Lacan adds Roman Jakobson’s distinction between metaphor and metonymy:

On the basis of a distinction between two kinds of aphasia, Jakobson distinguished two fundamentally opposed axes of language: the metaphorical axis which deals with the selection of linguistic items and allows for their substitution, and the metonymic axis which deals with the combination of linguistic terms (both sequentially and simultaneously). Metaphor thus corresponds to Saussure’s paradigmatic relations (which hold in absentia) and metonymy to syntagmatic relationships (which hold in praesentia). (Evans 111)

That is, metaphor can be seen as having a vertical relationship, in which the line between the signifier and the signified is crossed, as the signifier passes over into the signified and a new signifier is produced. For example, in the metaphor "Juliet is the sun" the various signifiers that might have stood in place of "the sun" (glorious, bright, fair, beautiful) thus pass through the barrier between the signifier and the signified, joining that object designated as "Juliet," and become signifieds of the new signifier, "the sun" (this example is drawn from Evans 111). A compression of linguistic space and relations, metaphor is the direct substitution of one signifier for another such that the second signifier ("the sun") supersedes the first (glorious, bright, fair, beautiful) in relation to the signified ("Juliet"). This process is the basic structure of identification as it occurs in the imaginary "since [it] consists in substituting oneself for another" (Evans 113). And insofar as this process escapes full symbolization (i.e. insofar as it is a compression of language that brings the imaginary into play as an equal partner in the linguistic production of meaning), Lacan reads it as the basic structure of the symptom, as an indicator of a breakdown of the process of symbolising the imaginary: "if the symptom is a metaphor, it is not a metaphor to say so […] the symptom is a metaphor" (Ecrits 175).

The second term which Lacan borrows from Jakobson to fill out his understanding of the symbolic order is metonymy: "following Jakobson, Lacan links metonymy to the combinatorial axis of language, as opposed to the substitutive axis" (Evans 113). If metaphor is a process of substitution, whereby one signifier comes to stand in for another in relation to a given signified, then metonymy is a purely diachronic movement above the barrier separating signifier from signified. In contrast to the vertical motion of metaphor, it is a horizontal movement along the chain of signification, as "one signifier constantly refers to another in a perpetual deferral of meaning" (Evans 114). As the only realm in which meaning is generated, the symbolic’s dependence on the metonymic function of signifier relations thus becomes the primary focus of Lacan’s concern with language. He emphasises the metonymic deferral of meaning that takes place in the incessant play of signifiers, referring to the ready movement of the chain of signifiers over the signifieds as glissement (slippage). This designation of the movement along the signifying chain as a slippage emphasises Lacan’s re-writing of Saussure’s concept such that the relationship between signifier and signified ceases to be stable (if arbitrary) and becomes profoundly unstable.

b) Point de Capiton:
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For Lacan the link between signifier and signified is so precarious that whereas Saussure saw the whole system as more or less grounded (though the possibility of slippage constituted his great contribution to twentieth-century linguistics), Lacan sees only occasional points of stability. These points of stability are referred to as points de capiton, or "quilting points," points "by which the signifier stops the otherwise endless movement (glissement) of the signification" (Ecrits 303) to produce "the necessary illusion of a fixed meaning" (Evans 149). Perhaps the most important feature of the point de capiton is that the stability it provides is, however necessary, an illusion, as is the semblance of deep meaning produced by metaphor and on a larger scale all imaginary identification. Indeed, one precise and readily-comprehensible way to conceive of both metaphor and the point de capiton is as instances of imaginary identification disrupting the integrity and rationality of the symbolic order itself. Though these disruptions are strictly speaking inimical to the symbolic order, they are also vital to its existence as a field for producing meaning, for such disruptions serve to anchor the signifying chain and keep it from devolving into a psychotic process of pure linguistic self-referentiality without even the illusion of external reference (Evans 149).18

b) Chain of Signification:
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The signifying chain is the privileged site of Lacan’s situation of temporality, subjectivity, and above all, desire. It belongs only to the symbolic order, though it has effects in and is affected by the imaginary as well. It is the locus of the signifier divorced from the signified in its perpetual play of deferral and provisionally generated meaning, sustaining the Saussurean dictum that "meaning is not found in any one signifier, but in the play between signifiers along the signifying chain and is therefore unstable" (Evans 185). Whereas the meaning associated with the interaction between the symbolic and the imaginary (via points de capiton) is only a provisional, illusory, and ephemeral function of the link between the signifier and the signified, Lacan’s conception of the chain of signification reduces meaning to a product of anticipation and deferral: "the signifier, by its very nature, always anticipates meaning by unfolding its dimension before it" (Ecrits 153).

The signifying chain is, therefore, fundamentally diachronic, perpetually unfolding and perpetually in process: "A signifying chain can never be complete, since it is always possible to add another signifier to it, ad infinitum, […] signification is not present at any one point in the chain, but rather meaning ‘insists’ in the movement from one signifier to another" (Evans 187-188).19 None of the individual signifiers which go to make up the signifying chain contains meaning in any positive way, but rather meaning "insists" as a function of their interaction. Lacan clarifies this distinction as one between a conception of the signifying chain in which meaning "consists" in a given signifier and one which recognises the pre-eminence of "insistence" as the production of meaning. Like Hopkins’s poetic concept of inscape, the meaning of a given instance of signification can not be readily discerned from the external appearance of a sign, but must be deduced from the outward indications of a meaning that is always elsewhere and incomplete: "it is in the chain of the signifier that the meaning ‘insists’ but that none of its elements ‘consists’ in the signification of which it is at the moment capable" (Ecrits 153). In its fundamental incompleteness and differential production of meaning, the signifying chain is perhaps most easily characterised by the Derridean concept of différance, to which it bears a close conceptual affinity and intellectual ancestry.

The incorrigible diachrony captured in both Derrida’s term and in Lacan’s "insistence" of meaning not only challenges traditional conceptions of signification as a process of reference and equivalence between the signifier and the signified (let alone the sign and the referent), but also harbours the profoundly temporal nature of the signifying chain: "the ‘signifying chain’ which subsumes the language of the unconscious and the language of ordinary speech, is by definition always on the move towards a desired future […] its temporality seem[s] oddly smooth and characterless – ‘pure’ displacement, ‘pure’ continuity, a slippage or a passage that moves ahead with unstoppable fluency" (Bowie 179). So tightly bound up with temporal movement is the signifying chain that any attempt to characterise the glissement of signifiers over signifieds immediately evokes a correlative movement through time. Indeed, the only amendment that I would make to Bowie’s characterisation of this correlation is that Lacan’s conception of the inherent temporality of signification is not necessarily a movement "ahead." Rather, while Lacan certainly does insist on the inescapably temporal quality of the signifying chain, he does not hold that this temporality must proceed in a given direction:

The linearity that Saussure holds to be constitutive of the chain of discourse, in conformity with its emission by a single voice and with its horizontal position in our writing – if this linearity is necessary, in fact, it is not sufficient. It applies to the chain of discourse only in the direction in which it is orientated in time, being taken as a signifying factor in all languages in which ‘Peter hits Paul’ reverses its time when the terms are inverted. (Ecrits 154)

The temporal flow of the signifying chain must therefore be reversible at least, if not subject to outright short-circuits that, though they maintain the linearity of temporal progression, violate the strict progression of its moments. Lacan’s variation on Saussure’s linearly conceived signifying chain thus retains its "necessary" linearity, but allows him to posit that the mental structures and operations (notably desire and subjectivity) which are organised by it are temporally reversible. For all intents and purposes, then, the present can actually change the past and a past event can be experienced again in the present not simply as a remembered event, but as a repetition without antecedent and without an intervening lapse of time (or in which the intervening lapse of time can be overcome instantaneously).

Indeed, part of the reason this temporality is so fundamental to Lacan’s conception of the signifying chain is that it allows for the centrality of repetition in the process of signification and deferral. That is, each instance of signification, each manifest signifier, only repeats the action of deferral and flight that extends back to the infant’s first use of language to articulate the binary between presence and absence actualised in the coming and going of his or her mother (whether actual or as symbolised in the father’s inaugural interdiction). As a result of the felt need to articulate the alternating absence and presence of his or her mother, the infant breaks down his or her relation to her into two categories, making her absence a present feature of the symbolic world into which he or she has just stumbled. This ascription of a signifier to hold the place of an absent object by marking its real absence with a symbolic presence is profoundly formative, as it boomerangs back on the subject when he or she discovers that he or she has forgone the full effectiveness of his or her identification with his or her mother in the very process of naming her. By distinguishing between the mother’s presence and absence, the infant thus creates a binary of primal symbolisation that instantaneously removes the immediately experienced body and being of the mother (as an object in the world) to an irretrievable distance. Henceforth, even when the mother is present to the infant, she will always also be partly absent by virtue of her representation in the symbolic order. The infant undergoes the trauma of entering the symbolic order in the primal moment at which he or she (driven by the father’s prohibitory "No" – see below) names absence as something that can be given content and presence (however illusory). This revelation also introduces, however, the fact that presence is always haunted by absence, a feature which is perpetually highlighted through the symbolic order’s insistence on supplying a signifier that (however arbitrarily) marks the incompleteness of all presence –marks it, indeed, as merely a mask for absence. The endless deferral and ephemerality of all signification thus characterises the infant’s relation to not only the mother, but to all other objects in the world, naturalising alienation as an existential condition since all such relations are part of that perceptual apparatus that is always already organised by the process of symbolisation.

The Law:
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In Lacan’s theory of childhood development, the traumatic moment of entry into the symbolic is not simply a spontaneous act on the part of the infant. It is also the originary advent of the law as an effect of the father’s interdiction. In the infant’s experience of his mother’s body as a site of enjoyment (producing warmth, food, comfort, etc.), he or she perceives this enjoyment as an integral part of the order of things as they are ambiguously organised through imaginary identifications. At some point, however, the infant becomes aware of the fact that the father has some degree of precedence over the infant’s right to enjoy the mother. Classically termed the Oedipus complex, this moment is part and parcel of the infant’s entry into the symbolic order, as this apprehension of the father’s precedence is conveyed as an originary verbal prohibition of access to the mother’s body which forces the infant to devise a compensatory presence, the symbol of the absent mother (the "da!" of the Freudian fort/da binary). This inaugural paternal interdiction is thus essential to the symbolic order and makes of it the very fibre of the law itself:

This law, then, is revealed clearly enough as identical with an order of language. For without kinship nominations, no power is capable of instituting the order of preferences and taboos that bind and weave the yarn of lineage through succeeding generations. And it is indeed the confusion of generations which, in the Bible as in all traditional laws, is accused as being the abomination of the Word (verbe) and the desolation of the sinner. (Ecrits 66)

"This legal-linguistic structure is in fact no more and no less than the symbolic order itself" (Evans 99). Clearly drawing on structural anthropology and, more obscurely, on speech act theory, Lacan positions the law in its broadest sense as "the set of universal principles which make social existence possible, the structures that govern all forms of social exchange, whether gift-giving, kinship relations or the formation of pacts. Since the most basic form of exchange is communication itself, the law is fundamentally a linguistic entity – it is the law of the signifier" (Evans 98). Growing out of the paternal interdiction that puts an end to the infant’s unproblematic imaginary identification with the mother and inaugurates the rivalry between infant and father that grounds the Oedipus complex, the law is coextensive with the symbolic order to such an extent that neither is conceivable without the other.

Insofar as the law is essentially a process for regulating social relations, the symbolic order must henceforth be conceived of as a profoundly intersubjective structure. Just as there can be no need for, or effectiveness of, the law in the absence of something to regulate, so there can be no signification in the absence of someone to whom to signify. That is, the law actually invents that which it regulates, creating a lack by masking the impossibility of the imaginary relation behind the symbolic prohibition: "the law creates desire in the first place by creating interdiction. Desire is essentially the desire to transgress, and for there to be transgression it is first necessary for there to be prohibition […] desire is born out of the process of regulation" (Evans 99). By the same process, the symbolic order actually invents the subject as an effect of itself, generating the subject position of the speaking individual at the same moment as that individual seeks to signify the absence of someone or something to which it has suddenly been barred access (or the impossibility of access to which he or she has suddenly been made aware). In this regard, the entry into the symbolic makes of all signification an intersubjective situation as the speaking subject necessarily orients itself in relation to that which it symbolises; to do so, it must hold a position within that symbolic network – it must in essence be a signifier.

The infant’s entry into the symbolic is thus a traumatic event in which the original sense of integrity, wholeness, presence, and identification (associated with the primary narcissism of the imaginary order) is lost forever. Even the imaginary compensations of ego formation now recede from consciousness as the irremediable gap between the individual and that which it desires (the ideal-ego, the mother’s body, plenitude) comes to the fore as the organising principle of the totalising force of the symbolic order. The repetitive automatism of the signifying chain is thus a compensatory gesture, an obsessive attempt by the symbolic order (and the subjects who live in and by it) to cover over the lack/absence which organises it. The signifying chain must always remain in motion, doubling back on itself and deferring any presence of meaning as content, in order to forestall the terrifying confrontation with this originary and constitutive absence. In effect, the symbolic order achieves a sustained deferral of this confrontation, proffering alternative signifiers as provisional substitutive compensations for the irremediable lack created in its radical reorganisation of the world.

An analogous and consistent way of conceiving this compensatory response to the trauma of entering the symbolic is to consider the occurrence of repetition compulsion in victims of trauma. By repeating an action that is an effect of a traumatic episode, the obsessive neurotic effectively symbolises the traumatic kernel that organises his or her symptoms without ever approaching the truth of the motivating traumatic episode. The repetitive actions of the trauma victim are comparable to the repetition compulsion built into the incessant play of signifiers in the signifying chain. Just as the trauma victim’s actions constitute a series of symptoms that represent effects of the traumatic episode without symbolising it, so the series of signifiers in the signifying chain represent the traumatic loss or absence around which the symbolic order is organised without ever being able to signify it directly.20

The Subject:
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The primary psychic construct produced by the individual’s traumatic accession to the symbolic is the Lacanian subject. Just as the real is the realm of undifferentiated consciousness and the imaginary is the realm of the ego (pre-symbolic identity formation), so the symbolic is coeval with and constitutive of the subject (Evans 195). The ego, produced by the process of differentiation first experienced in the mirror stage, is superseded by the subject as the primary psychic structure by which the individual relates to the surrounding world. In a radical departure from both traditional humanist conceptions of the self and the Freudian construct of the ego as the privileged mode of human existence, Lacan designates the subject as a function of the signifying chain, a linguistic phenomenon produced by the symbolic order which the infant enters in the originary moment of articulating the mother’s absence. As such, and given the hollowness of signifiers in the Lacanian signifying chain, the subject is reduced to the status of being merely a signifier for another signifier. It exists not independently of the perpetual flux of signification, but only as one in an endless series of events in that flux:

the distinguishing marks of subjectivity are to be found not in the forces, faculties, aptitudes and dispositions that individuals in varying combinations possess, but in the signifying processes of which they are part. [Lacan’s] philosophy of the human subject is self-consciously thin, empty and weightless. He invents a subject without subject-matter. […] ‘The subject’ is no longer a substance endowed with qualities, or a fixed shape possessing dimensions, or a container awaiting the multifarious contents that experience provides: it is a series of events within language, a procession of turns, tropes and inflections. (Bowie 75-76)

Lacan’s subject is without "subject-matter" because it is a bona fide signifier whose "matter" is the irretrievable loss of a sense of wholeness. "Represented by a signifier for another signifier, […] the subject is an effect of language" (Evans 196) which is unsignifiable: "no signifier can signify the subject" (Evans 187); it can be represented as an effect of the signifying chain, but never tied down to any stable content. As such, the subject is a necessary epistemological category made available to humans by virtue of the sophistication of our thought processes. This sophistication allows us to conceive of presence and absence not only as existential conditions, but also as temporally-bound conditions of a given entity. More importantly, this sophistication of consciousness prompts us to articulate this knowledge through a system of signification whose first principle is the absence of that about which we speak.

Though I have laid this relationship out as a diachronic process in which conception precedes articulation, fidelity to the Lacanian model of the symbolic order prompts me to point out that such diachrony is impossible. Rather, the conception of presence and absence as variable attributes of the same object is part and parcel of the accession to the symbolic order; the oscillation between presence and absence is inconceivable outside the symbolic order and the symbolic order is inconceivable without the dialectic of presence and absence. The irony of this situation is that the naming of an object is necessarily also a process of negating it, of insisting on its irremediable inadequacy even in the face of its actuality: "the symbol manifests itself first of all as the murder of the thing" (Ecrits 104). In adherence to a strictly Hegelian conception of the dialectic, Lacan maintains that the very act of predication (i.e. any symbolisation whatever) is necessarily an act of negation. The process of saying what something is is simultaneously the process of saying what it is not: "P is Q" deprives P of its essentiality as it becomes something other than P; it is negated in favor of one of its accidents. Further, no accumulation of the accidents of P (say, an infinite number of Q’s) can ever amount to an exhaustive definition (and hence a full representation) of P. In entering the symbolic, then, the human infant unwittingly abandons the immediate world of objects and re-situates himself or herself in a position of always-already mediated epistemology any retreat from which is impossible.

An inevitable result of the status of the subject in the symbolic order is that it is fundamentally split; it is an effect of signification whose truth is the absence signification seeks to mask: "because the subject is essentially a speaking being (parlêtre), he is inescapably divided, castrated, split" (Evans 196). As a speaking being, the subject is not only a parlêtre but an entity par lettre, one created only by the divisiveness endemic to the process of signification. And as a result of the play of signifiers in the signifying chain, the subject is therefore at base and irreducibly an absence, a lack whose place is determined and whose truth is deferred, delayed, and decoyed by the signifier. That is to say, the subject is no more a present reality, a manipulable object or entity in the world, than is any other signifier. Originating in this discovery that the shadow of absence falls across all presence, the subject is the pre-eminent fiction by which the signifying chain covers up the void which both structures the symbolic and which it strives to preclude. As such, the subject is all the more closely aligned with this organising originary absence, not merely as one signifier among many, but as their truth as well.

This truth is perpetually covered over by the flux of signification, however, enforcing the subject’s mobility in the symbolic order, a mobility that thoroughly temporalises the subject and sets the stage for the introduction of the driving force behind its evasive and fleeting existence: "the subject comes into being at the point of intersection between an irrecoverable past and an unattainable future; its structure is that of a ceaseless cross-stitching, in language, between what-is-no-longer-the-case and what-is-not-yet-the-case" (Bowie 184). A version of being in its past and future tenses, the subject is not only always-already elsewhere, but also always-already elsewhen. This temporality is both inextricable from existence in the signifying chain and necessary to its perpetuation; it is what allows the subject to organise his or her experiences in the world in such a way as to retain a sense of order, logic, and meaning. Further, it reveals both how the subject compulsively participates in the signifying chain and how it understands its own need to be forever on the move.

Desire:
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In the Lacanian cosmology desire is fundamental to every aspect of the psychic life of the individual and to the social system in which the individual finds himself or herself embedded. It is endemic to the symbolic order (since it is at base a quest for presence, the possibility of which is precluded by the mechanism of signification), and thus inhabits all signification, providing the subject with its primary motivation and frustration. The chief elements of the Lacanian conception of desire as I will outline it here are its origins in the master/slave dialectic of G.W.F. Hegel (as explicated by Alexandre Kojève), its fundamentally social dimension, its relationship to the death drive, and finally its focus on the chief bugbear of all Lacan’s thought, the objet a.

a) Hegel:
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As with Lacan’s conception of the symbolic order, his conception of desire is most fruitfully conceived in light of its antecedents and sources. For desire, Lacan draws almost exclusively on the work of Hegel as it was popularised through Kojève’s lectures in Paris in the 1930s. The central Hegelian text for Lacan is the Phenomenology of Spirit, particularly the section which elaborates the master/slave dialectic as a dawning moment of individual self-consciousness: "Hegel […] provided the ultimate theory of the proper function of aggressivity in human ontology, seeming to prophecy the iron law of our time. From the conflict of the Master and Slave, he deduced the entire subjective and objective progress of our history" (Ecrits 26). The connection between aggressivity and desire is so fundamental that Lacan does not even mention it in this passage, though it turns up repeatedly in his work, perhaps most obviously in his formulation of the infant’s aggressive rivalrous response to his or her specular image in the very moment of recognising it as an object of desire (as that with which he or she would like to be identified).

The basic steps in Hegel’s dialectic of the master and the slave are as follows: In a primal moment and place (not unlike that in which Freud situated the primal act of the originary parricide) before the advent of any human community whatever, two individuals encounter one another. Prior to this encounter each thinks of himself as unique and supreme in his uniqueness – this uniqueness and supremacy is the very foundation of each individual’s identity. When the two individuals confront one another, then, each is faced with the apparition of another individual that is seemingly of the same sort. Each experiences the confrontation as a threat to his position of uniqueness and supremacy in the world. Thus faced with the prospect of having the two axes of their identities disrupted, the two individuals are unable to acknowledge each other as creatures of the same order without abandoning their own identities. To do so would be to suspend the desire for recognition which forms the basic motivation of each interlocutor in this situation. Each seeks recognition of his supremacy from the other, but neither will grant it to the other, since to do so would amount to ceding the claims to supremacy.

The next step in this vignette is that each individual sets about asserting his uniqueness and supremacy by attempting to destroy the other. This fight is the Hegelian primal fight to the death which can have only two possible outcomes. In the first and more sterile possibility, neither individual cedes his claim to supremacy and one eventually succeeds in slaying the other. The victor is thus returned to his position of uniqueness and supremacy, at least until he encounters yet another individual and the drama plays itself out all over again. The second possibility is that one of the individuals will succumb to the instinct for self-preservation and surrender to the other. The chief consequence of this surrender is that the loser of the battle agrees to recognise the victor’s supremacy and to come under his control. This is the point at which we are now able to speak of the master (the victor) and the slave (the loser). An irony also occurs at this point in the drama, however, in that the only recognition which the master will recognise or accept is that from an equal. The recognition of the slave, falls short of this requirement since his subjection deprives him of the equality vital to a meaningful recognition.

The master thus finds himself in a tautological position of pure self-referentiality, demanding recognition from the slave (as a creature he knows intuitively to be of the same kind as himself) and yet unable to accept the worth of that recognition since it comes from a creature whose innate inferiority he has already established. As a consequence of his victory, however, the master does not simply execute the slave, but persists in his total domination by putting the slave to work producing objects for his consumption. Thus, for example, whereas the master had previously eaten whatever food may have come to hand, he now demands that the slave prepare the food in such a way as to make it more desirable and more completely consumable. Whereas he may previously have had to eat whatever apples he found, the master now demands an apple pie of the slave, compelling him to produce an object of desire that will be completely obliterated in its enjoyment; the master utterly absorbs that which he enjoys in this fashion, thanks to the work of the slave in transforming the objects in the phenomenal world to render them more assimilable.

The central feature of this domination is the effect it has on the slave. In being forced to prepare objects in the world for the master’s consumption, the slave experiences the ultimate abasement of having to defer the satisfaction of his own desire (an unpleasant experience hitherto unknown to the slave) in order to gratify the desire of the master. That is, he is forced to repeat the act of recognition over and over as he concedes the master’s right of desire for a given object over his own. Even though he may be just as desirous of the apples as the master, the slave nonetheless must repeat the drama of recognition in recognising the superiority of the master’s desire for the apples. The repeated drama of recognition is given its stalemate conclusion each time the master consumes the object of desire prepared by the slave, utterly negating the material evidence of the slave’s recognition of the supremacy of his desire and re-setting the conditions for yet another repetition of the whole process.

The slave’s deferral of his own desire in preparing objects of desire for the master’s consumption is absolutely vital to the development of the slave’s consciousness, as he gradually overcomes his fear of nature (the fear of death that lead him to capitulate in his battle with the master) by altering nature through the suspension of his desire and the application of his labour. Whereas the master exists in pure self-referentiality, then, the slave learns to interact with his world, elevating that which he finds around him by transforming it, and governing desire by suspending it. As the master becomes more and more dependent upon the slave’s production for the gratification of his desire, a dialectical process takes place whereby the slave comes to control the master and each moves beyond his designation in the binary master/slave. As the producer of the master’s objects of desire, the slave gradually comes to govern the satisfaction or suspension of the master’s desire, and thus to control the master’s desire in a roundabout way. Whereas the master remains in an ignorant relation to the natural world in which he moves and desires, the slave has learned to master that world and thus to master desire. That is, in suspending his immediate urge for satisfaction (pleasure), the slave has learned how to increase the value of that desire by deferring it and displacing it. The end result of this drama is that the master expires in a well of self-referentiality, while the slave rises beyond his slavish state to master the very nature of which his fear (i.e. his fear of mortality) lead him to surrender in the primal confrontation – human community is born in the repeated suspension and deferral of desire.

This drama sets the stage for our understanding of Lacan’s conception of desire and its central role in the formation and function of subjectivity. The first important feature of the master/slave drama is that the nature of the relationship between the master and the slave is only nominally that of establishing a right of precedence over a given object of desire. What is more to the point is that the struggle between the two is a struggle for the other’s desire. What makes the master’s control over the slave gratifying, beyond the various objects of desire he produces, is that he controls the slave’s desire. In forcing the slave to transform a natural object into an object of desire, the master merely succeeds in obtaining a desirable object (an apple pie, to keep with our example). What makes this process existentially satisfying to the master is that he knows that the slave desires the apple pie as much as he does. This knowledge of the slave’s desire (whether actual or merely supposed) makes the pie all the more desirable, as it is now an emblem of the slave’s (the other’s) desire. Moreover, the more the slave must suspend his desire in order to produce a given object for the master’s consumption, the more the final product may be said to contain the sublimation of that desire. It becomes more than itself as a result of the process by which it is transformed, effectively absorbing the slave’s suppressed and sublimated desire as added value. The model of desire that emerges from Hegel’s drama, and which Lacan adopts, is thus one in which desire exceeds both demand and need. Whereas demand and need can both be met, desire is an existential condition which no object or series of objects can ever satiate; it is a "lack of being" as opposed to a "lack of having" (Evans 95).

Returning thus to desire as a constitutive feature of human existence, we find a ready expression of how the desire for the other’s desire functions in the mirror stage. As I have shown above, the infant enters the imaginary through a process of identification with a specular image, an "other" with which it longs to be identified. The essential component to such identification, however (and the aspect that renders it impossible), is the necessity for the other similarly to desire identification with the infant. This desire for the other’s desire is not a simple matter of mutual desire such as that experienced in erotic love, but a more all-encompassing demand for total recognition; the infant wants not some part (however large) of the other’s desire, but all of it – he or she wants to be the be-all and end-all of the other’s desire. The impossibility of such a total identification is what keeps subjectivity moving from object to object in its quest for an object that will represent and capture the other’s desire and by possession of which the individual can absorb and utterly subjugate the other’s desire. Most simply put, desire is always a desire for the other’s desire; only the other’s desire for a given object transforms it from an object of demand or need into one of desire.

The second aspect of desire which Lacan exploits from Hegel’s model is that of desire as an aggressive drive not simply to possess an object, but to assimilate it completely, to negate it beyond all redemption. This aspect of desire is most clearly represented in the case of the apple pie, which the master seeks not merely to possess, but to make a part of his identity by consuming it. The act of negating the pie by eating it is also a display of mastery over the other’s desire, since the object is to some degree always also cathected with the desire of the other (whether because he produced the object or simply because he also desires it). And while the process is nowhere near as clear-cut with objects that are not so literally consumed, the basic dynamic remains the same. Just as the infant in the mirror stage perceives his or her specular image as an object of desire, but also as a rival which must be encountered and vanquished in the process of identification, so all desire is fundamentally aggressive and annihilating. Insofar as desire is a drive to possess, it is also always a drive to obtain the absolute right of life and death (or being and non-being) over the object: "This is my (car, house, plant, book, sno-cone, etc.) and I’ll do what I want with it."

Clearly this is an extremely basic version of desire, and one which does not take into consideration such variations on the theme as are generated by the desire for objects that are desirable only because they render a more desirable object attainable or objects which can never be completely possessed by one individual and are thus subject to distribution and distortion. Nonetheless, it provides the basis for our consideration of desire in Lacan’s conception of subjectivity, and points to the fundamentally social character of desire: "The most important point to emerge from Lacan’s phrase [that "the object of man’s desire […] is essentially an object desired by someone else" (qtd. in Evans 38)] is that desire is a social product. Desire is not the private affair it appears to be but is always constituted in a dialectical relationship with the perceived desires of other subjects" (Evans 39). And while this aspect of desire is certainly important to keep in mind, it is not simply "the perceived desires of other subjects" which motivates desire, but the prohibition on fulfillment of desire which provides the most stimulus for its reproduction.

If we recall Lacan’s reliance on the insights of structural anthropology, and the dialectical nature of his thinking on desire, we can see that the establishment of human community and the formalisation of desire is as dependent on its prohibition as it is on the perception of what is desirable. As with the slave’s necessary suspension of his desire in the production of objects for the master’s consumption, each subject is governed by a series of prohibitions that make desire the ultimate motivational force in subjectivity. Analogous to the master’s prohibition of the slave’s enjoyment, the law (inaugurated by the paternal prohibition from enjoying the mother’s body) actually "creates desire in the first place by creating interdiction. Desire is essentially the desire to transgress, and for there to be transgression it is first necessary for there to be prohibition" (Evans 99). Interdiction effectively seals off certain objects of desire or kinds of desire as unlawful, thus endowing them with a mystique that allows for their conception as the final answer to desire. Tantamount to the curiosity-arousing command not to look in the one locked room in a many-roomed mansion, the law thus participates in the generation of desire as that which circulates endlessly around a prohibited core.

Yet simply to conceive of the core around which desire circulates as prohibited is to miss a vital condition of that prohibition, the fact that it is simply the articulation of a pre-existing impossibility, since desire is by its very nature insatiable. The important aspect of the paternal interdiction that inaugurates the infant’s traumatic accession to the symbolic order is that what the word-of-the-father interdicts is in fact an impossibility. The infant’s sought-after direct identification with the mother is impossible; the paternal interdiction only formalises this impossibility as a prohibition, covering it over with the compensation of symbolisation. Likewise, the prohibitive aspect of the law is merely a socially institutionalised form of the fundamental impossibility at the heart of desire. In the name of the social good a society may prohibit certain kinds or objects of desire, but the reality is that no object can ever fulfil desire. The belief that desire is a desire for something is perhaps the greatest misperception of all, and one which makes even less sense if we consider the intimate link between desire, subjectivity, and language.

The fact that desire is born at the moment of the infant’s accession to the symbolic order (i.e. at the same moment as the infant becomes a subject) leads Lacan to maintain that it is part and parcel of the signifying chain in its essential metonymy: "man’s desire is a metonymy. […] desire is a metonymy" (Ecrits 175). The perpetual reference of one signifier to all others in an eternal deferral of meaning as content, as "consisting" in any one sign, as present in any way, is but another formulation of the ceaseless movement of desire. The full-blown outgrowth of the drive to identification governing the mirror stage, desire is more sophisticated than that drive, bound up with an awareness of the absence at the core of subjectivity and vulnerable to complex strategies of deferral, displacement, and sublimation in ways to which imaginary drives are impervious. Inseparable from the symbolic order, desire is fundamentally metonymic and inheres in signification as such. Just as the signifying capacity of any individual signifier is always subverted by its failure to coincide precisely with that which it signifies, so any attempt to satisfy desire is always undercut by a residue that remains unattainable. "Although the truth about desire is present to some degree in all speech, speech can never articulate the whole truth about desire; whenever speech attempts to articulate desire, there is always a leftover, a surplus, which exceeds speech" (Evans 36). This innate incapacity of language fully to articulate desire extends to subjectivity insofar as it, too, is a function of the symbolic order. The surplus which is left over after every attempt to articulate desire, to bring it to a halt and see it coincide once and for all with some particular object or configuration of objects (or signifier or configuration of signifiers), however frustrating, is also the very lifeblood of subjectivity, as it forestalls the necessary corollary to the fulfillment of desire, the dissolution of the subject.

b) Death Drive:
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As with the movement of the signifying chain, which both seeks coincidence with the void which organises it and perpetually misses that rendez-vous, desire is simultaneously a drive towards and an evasion of the void at the heart of subjectivity. In this way, both desire and the signifying chain harbour death at their very core; the death drive is

immanent to the signifying chain. The subject comes into being ‘barred’ by the signifier and thereby injected with a sense of death. […] The taste for death is not something that the subject acquires through experience, as one might say, or reaches towards as a last despairing manner of delectation, for it has been there from the start as a perilous gift from the signifier, and one that cannot be refused. The drive, as it circles round the excavated centre of being, is pulled outwards towards the objects that promise gratification, but inwards too towards the completest form of a loss that it already knows. (Bowie 162-163)

Desire, subjectivity, and signification are thus inextricably intertwined with the death drive; evacuation of subjectivity on the scale which coincidence with the loss that motivates desire would necessitate means death not only for the psychic structure of the individual, but also for the biologically existent being from which it is inseparable. The absence which structures the symbolic and which gives coherence to the subject through the very instability it imparts is thus finally given a name in the appearance of death on the scene: "the death drive is only the mask of the symbolic order" (Lacan S2 326, qtd. in Evans 202).

At this point the incorrigible temporality of the symbolic order rears its ugly head again, establishing the necessity of conceiving of desire as a drive towards death. In actuality, the nature of the death-drive as motivator of desire is nostalgic; it is an urge to return to the plenitude of the pre-oedipal infant-mother relationship before it was disrupted by the specular image and the paternal interdiction: "when we wish to attain in the subject what was before the serial articulations of speech, and what is primordial to the birth of symbols, we find it in death, from which his existence takes on all the meaning it has" (Ecrits 105; see also Evans 32). And while Lacan insists on the reversible temporality of the symbolic order, he is equally vehement in stating that the symbolic is a universal totality from which there can be only one escape once it has been entered. With the utterance of the paternal interdiction and the infant’s entry into it, the symbolic order assumes the status of an always-already totality from which there can be no regression and only one kind of progression. The movement of desire within the symbolic order, then, is necessarily a tendency towards this final transcendence; the desire to return to the pre-oedipal manifests itself in the symbolic the only way it can, as a drive towards death.

c) Objet a:
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The very centerpiece of Lacan’s thinking on desire, the objet a is most readily defined by the fact that it is not coincident with any particular object at all, but only with the desire for desire: "What makes an object desirable is not any intrinsic quality of the thing in itself but simply the fact that it is desired by another. The desire of the Other is thus what makes objects equivalent and exchangeable" (Evans 38). Absolutely unattainable, then, the objet a is little other than the name we give to that absence that structures signification, subjectivity, and desire; it is "the object which can never be attained, which is really the cause of desire rather than that towards which desire tends," objet a is ‘the object-cause’ of desire" (Evans 125). It is the object-cause of desire in that it is not exclusively the one or the other, but a retroactive cause of its own desirability. That is, the objet a is the name we give to the lack generated by the infant’s entry into the symbolic (at the injunction of the law in its incarnation as the paternal function); it identifies that which is lost as the individual becomes a subject. As such, it is both the object of the subject’s desire (and hence, due to the biological constraints of temporality, coincident with the death drive) and its cause. It is the object of desire insofar as the subject compulsively strives toward it. It is the cause of desire in its phylogenetic persistence in the psyche as a trace of that lost plenitude toward which desire tends; without this trace experience, desire would have neither object nor cause – it would not exist.

The result of the objet a’s irremediable elusiveness is that the subject proceeds through a series of misrecognitions and near-misses in the lifelong attempt to pin down an object of desire which will render true gratification. Lacan refers to this movement as the asymptotic logic of desire, borrowing a mathematical term that denotes the perpetual progression of an arc toward an axis of a graph. As the arc nears the axis its angle grows increasingly shallow so that its moment of confluence is perpetually deferred. At the same time, the arc never ceases to be an arc by arriving at parallelism with the axis it approaches. The logic of an asymptote is, therefore, that of a perpetual approach that never arrives and yet constantly promises to coincide with that toward which it tends. Desire follows this asymptotic logic as the subject perpetually approaches the objet a (not least by the simple teleology of biological lifespan, according to which temporal existence and the fact of mortality bring individual subjects nearer to death all the time) and yet never reaches it.

These approaches manifest themselves in the lives of subjects as particular instances of desire for specific objects. These particular desires are but misrecognitions, however, as the asymptotic logic of desire keeps gratification from being total or absolute no matter how successful an individual is at attaining phenomenal objects of desire. Perhaps the most memorable instance of this logic is that driving Charles Foster Kane in Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane. Had Kane succeeded in retrieving Rosebud he would nonetheless have found his desire unresolved and been forced to move on to some other object of desire. Individual objects of desire provide at best partial gratifications, but are never adequate to the fundamental psychic motivator of desire. Along with subjectivity, desire is an effect of the chain of signification; specific objects of desire are at best materialisations of the point de capiton – they seem to have enduring content but are in fact only necessary illusions. At best they arrest the movement of desire for a time before the tyranny of the symbolic order reasserts itself, the deep connection is broken, and the subject is forced to move on in quest of another, more lasting gratification.

The only way for the subject to escape the perpetual cycle of incomplete identification with its residue of difference (that keeps desire alive) is to achieve complete identification, emptying itself out in a full transferal of its content into something other than itself. In other words, the subject would have to undertake the utmost realisation of the logic of predication, not only relating "I" to "that," but emptying "I" into "that" so completely that "I" would cease to signify altogether in an instant of pure subjective negation. If "the objet a is the lining of subjectivity" (Bowie 176-177), then we may think of this radical negation as an instance of the subject turning itself inside out, bringing together "the alpha of human experience" with "the omega of death" (Bowie 165). Insofar as desire is always intersubjective and bound by the law we may conceive of it as a drive towards something universal beyond the accidents of individual differentiation, but which is always haunted by the knowledge (built into the symbolic order itself as the site of the unconscious) that what lies behind those accidents is nothing at all, absence, lack as lack, the end of being in its most Heideggerean conception (Evans 31). To attain the objet a would be to identify with the manque â être that forms the ground of subjectivity, bringing being (as represented in subjectivity) together with the lack of being which prompts the advent of the subject in the first place, eradicating both in a radical negation that leaves behind no residue from which desire can start anew. As part of an elaborate mechanism whereby the psychic system guarantees its own perpetuity, then, the metonymic substitution of object after object for the real object of desire (objet a) functions as a material masking and deferral in full (though unconscious) knowledge that the end of desire is also the end of subjectivity.

The Graph of Desire:
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Figure 3

Pictured above is Graph II in the series of four graphs that make up Lacan’s topology of desire (taken from Zizek The Sublime Object of Ideology 103). Before laying out how the graph depicts the movement of desire, I will first take a moment to define the symbols it uses. On the far left of the graph is the term "Signifier," designating the starting point of the act of signification and proceeding to the "Voice," which is the final outcome of the process of signification. At the bottom left hand corner of the graph is the symbol I(O), indicating the ego-ideal, the imaginary version of itself with which the ego would like to be identified. Further up on the left hand side is "e," designating the ego itself, caught halfway between the signifying chain ("Signifier" to "Voice") and the ego-ideal. On the bottom right hand side of the graph is "S/" (S with a bar through it), designating the barred subject, the subject split by his or her entry into the symbolic and finally never coincident with its own signification. Immediately above the barred S is a delta which feeds directly into the parabolic line which ends at I(O). This delta is the Lacanian algebra for "the prelinguistic mythical subject of pure need" which must "pass through the defiles of the signifier" in the course of producing the barred subject (Evans 76). That is, the delta designates the embryonic subject prior to the intervention of the paternal interdiction ("the defiles of the signifier"), after which time it simply denotes desire, the urge to return to the time and place preceding that rude awakening. Midway up the right hand side of the graph is the symbol "i(o)," designating the specular image which the ego encounters in the mirror stage and throughout life; it is non-coincident with either the ego or the ego-ideal, though it is more accurate than the ego-ideal. Everything in the lower half of the graph, below the signifying chain, is located firmly in the imaginary order. The two circles at the points where the trajectory of S/<-> I(O) are points de capiton, points at which the signifying chain is anchored to the imaginary by the crossing trajectories of desire and signification. Within the left point de capiton is the symbol "s(O)," the signification of the other, the temporally prior point in the act of signification that bears the meaning of the Other (language) but does not yet articulate it. Inside the right point de capiton is the symbol "O," indicating the Other itself, language in its ever-expanding entirety. The appearance of the Other at this point retroactively punctuates the temporally precedent s(O), allowing it to bring forth its meaning as a particular portion of the "‘treasure of the signifier’" (Bowie 190) which it guards. As the points de capiton, these two intersections represent the arbitrary but stable points in the signifying chain at which meaning appears to dangle vertically from the process of signification as well as inhering in its syntactic or horizontal movement.

In terms of its movement, this graph displays the oscillating movement between I(O) and S/ as the fundamental movement of desire from the initial imaginary encounter with the specular image to the formation of the ideal-ego and on to the foundation of the barred subject. Crossing that trajectory from left to right is the signifying chain, from Signifier to Voice as an instance of the speech which makes of the subject a "parlêtre." This movement is only provisionally unidirectional, however; between the points de capiton there is a retrogressive movement by which the punctuation of the Other fixes the meaning of the signification of the other in the particular utterance. This fixation is also a deflection, however, as it interferes with the direct path between the subject and the ideal-ego. Furthermore, the placement of the arc of this deflection above the signifying chain reveals that it is an unconscious process, since though we may be aware of the temporal construction of meaning in the linear development of grammar, its effect on our psyche is one of an always-already established meaning. Finally, the two smaller cells contained in the lower half of the graph play on the analogy between the imaginary identification between the specular image (i(o)) and the ego (e) and the way in which the signification of the Other (s(O)) is never quite coincident with the Other itself (O); both are imaginary relations. The first short-circuits the symbolic order by refusing to articulate its processes of identification, while the second represents the imaginary aspect of the signifying chain, the realm of the signified as the arbitrary sound-images which lend some semblance of coherence to the symbolic order. As a final addition to this graph, we might position the objet a at the center of it all as the absent still point around which the machinery of desire, signification, and identification turns in the psychic life of the subject.
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Notes

1 Hereafter I will abbreviate all references to the totality of these three orders in the common Lacanian shorthand of RSI.
2 For various more complex versions of the Borromean Knot (though also including this one), see also Lacan “Le Seminaire de Jacques Lacan.”
3 For more on the relationship between the real, the objet a, the Kantian thing-in-itself, and the Lacanian la chose or das Ding, see Evans 205 and Zizek, Looking Awry 19.
4 Bowie traces the genealogy of this term back to Aristotle’s Physics (102).  He goes on to state Aristotle’s own misgivings about the terms (“Aristotle himself had found the terms something of a nuisance” [103]) but concludes that Lacan’s appropriation is accurate and useful.
5  One of the chief components of this ordering process is the individual’s separation of himself or herself from the flux of the real through the processes of imaginary identification and symbolic ordering, aspects which I will cover more fully in my ensuing discussion of the imaginary and the symbolic orders.
6  For a discussion of the imaginary’s relationship to language and, hence, to the symbolic, see the discussion of the symbolic order below.
7  Indeed, this process of symbolising the imaginary is the entire thrust of Lacanian analysis, as the analyst attempts to get the analysand to symbolise the disabling fixations that are causing his or her problems.  The end of analysis is thus “subjective destitution,” in which the analysand is no longer capable of sustaining the same relationship to his or her fixations, but recognises them as imaginary (i.e. illusory) and thus irrational.  This process of symbolising the imaginary fixations allows the analysand to re-integrate the problematic fixations into the symbolic and to govern them according to their proper status as deceptive fictions rather than truth-providing identifications.
8  For more on this, see the discussion of desire below.
9  Lacan contrasts this reaction to that of a monkey infant of roughly the same age.  The monkey is similarly fascinated with the mirror image, but soon loses interest once it realises that the image is empty; by contrast, the infant child remains transfixed by his or her own image (Ecrits 1).
10  At this point it is absolutely necessary to remember that Lacan’s conception of this interaction and of the relationship between desire and aggressivity is heavily underwritten by and constantly refers back to the Hegelian master/slave dialectic, particularly as distilled through the lectures of Alexandre Kojève (Evans 132).
11  Importantly, the phrasings in which I am casting this process of identification and alienation are already inaccurate, since they are symbolisations of a constitutively unsymbolised relationship; the translation from the pre-symbolised imaginary identification to the symbolised articulation of that identification is precisely the aim of analysis in its effort to undo harmful fixations.
12  Despite this illusory character of all imaginary identifications, it is important not simply to write them off as ephemeral, inconsequential, and transient: “The imaginary is not the same thing as the illusory in that the phantasmatic constructions comprising the imaginary order are highly durable and can have effects in the real” (Bowie 99).
13  This process has been remarked in such diverse realms as Hollywood movies like Crazy People (1990) and the cultural criticism of Horkheimer and Adorno (167), though not in precisely these terms.
14  This conception of the ego as strictly governed by the imaginary formed the basis of Lacan’s disdain for ego psychology; Lacan held that by seeking only to help the analysand re-adjust his or her ego to coincide with the “non-pathological” ego of the analyst, ego psychologists performed a profound disservice by stranding their patients in the imaginary when the real path to a cure lay in the effective symbolisation of the imaginary identifications.
15  This reversible diachronic logic is basic to Lacan’s thought, reappearing more explicitly and powerfully in his account of desire, the objet a, and the point de capiton (all of which are discussed below).
16  This logic is already familiar to my discussion here in the imperative to define each of the terms under discussion purely in relation to the other terms that comprise the Lacanian system, a problem exacerbated and highlighted in attempts to give semantic content to signifieds (real, imaginary, etc.) that are constitutively unamenable to signification.  Indeed, this logic of differential definition is precisely that in which Lacan himself conceived of his own thought:  “My discourse proceeds in the following way:  each term is sustained only in its topological relation with the others” (S11, 89; qtd. in Evans ix)
17  Again, it is just the structural impossibility of divorcing any given instance from the overall effects and strictures of the symbolic order (roughly correspondent to Saussure’s langue), that lends it an internal coherence arising from its own internal tensions.
18  For a more detailed explication of the point de capiton see the section on desire, below.
19  To say that the signifying chain is fundamentally diachronic is not, however, to deny that it has a synchronic dimension insofar as it is also a structure, an aspect of the symbolic order itself:  “the signifying chain is both [diachronic and synchronic] … In its diachronic dimension it is linear, syntagmatic, metonymic; in its synchronic dimension it is circular, associative, metaphoric” (Evans 188).
20  The only exception to this rule governing the signifying chain for Lacan is the phallus, the signifier whose signified is lack pure and simple (the threat of castration), whose positive content is precisely that of an absent object (see Evans 140-144).



Works cited

Bowie, Malcolm.  Lacan.  Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 1991.
Evans, Dylan.  An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis.  New York:  Routledge, 1996.
Fink, Bruce.  The Lacanian Subject:  Between Language and Jouissance.  Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1995.
Lacan, Jacques.  Écrits:  A Selection.  Alan Sheridan, trans..  London:  Tavistock Publications Limited, 1977.
------------------. Le Séminaire de Jacques Lacan.  R.S.I.  1974-1975.  Texte établi par J.A. Miller.  Paris:  Éditions du Seuil, 1975.
Zizek, Slavoj.  Looking Awry:  An Introduction to Jacques Lacan Through Popular Culture.  Cambridge, MA:  MIT Press, 1991.



This page created by Stephen Ross 4 February, 2002.
Last updated 6 February, 2002.