Threesology Research Journal
Jacques Lacan's 3 Registers Theory

(The Study of Threes)

H.O.B. note: The following is a shortened excerpt of a more detailed article dealing with the life and work of Jacques Lacan that is copyrighted by Adrian Johnston ©2013. The article is made possible through the on-line Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy by way of a world-wide funding project. Please read the following link on how you may:

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Register Theory

The theory of the three registers of the Imaginary, the Symbolic, and the Real forms the skeletal framework for the various concepts and phases of most of Lacan's intellectual itinerary. His characterizations of each of the three registers, as well as of their relations with each other, undergo multiple revisions and shifts over the many years of his labors. As will become increasingly evident in what follows, the majority of Lacanian concepts are defined in connection with all three registers. By the 1970s, with his meditations on the topological figure of the Borromean knot—this knotting of three rings, pictured on the coat of arms of the Borromeo family, is arranged such that if one ring is broken, all three are set free in disconnection—Lacan emphasizes the mutual dependence of the registers on one another. Hence, loosely speaking, the Imaginary, the Symbolic, and the Real can be thought of as the three fundamental dimensions of psychical subjectivity à la Lacan. Furthermore, scholars sometimes segment Lacan's evolution into three main periods, with each period being distinguished by the priority of one of the registers: the early Lacan of the Imaginary (1930s and 1940s), the middle Lacan of the Symbolic (1950s), and the late Lacan of the Real (1960s and 1970s). However, such a neat and clean periodization should be taken with several grains of salt, since intricate continuities and discontinuities not conforming to this early-middle-late schema are to be found across the entire lengthy span of Lacan's teachings.

2.1.1 The Imaginary

Lacan tends to associate (albeit not exclusively) the Imaginary with the restricted spheres of consciousness and self-awareness. It is the register with the closest links to what people experience as non-psychoanalytic quotidian reality. Who and what one “imagines” other persons to be, what one thereby “imagines” they mean when communicatively interacting, who and what one “imagines” oneself to be, including from the imagined perspectives of others—all of the preceding is encompassed under the heading of this register. Such a description indicates the ways in which the Imaginary points to core analytic ideas like transference, fantasy, and the ego. In particular, the Imaginary is central to Lacan's account(s) of ego-formation (as per the mirror stage— [see (2.2) in the full article.]

As Lacan integrates his early work of the 1930s and 1940s with his structuralism-informed theories of the 1950s, he comes to emphasize the dependence of the Imaginary on the Symbolic. This dependency means that more sensory-perceptual phenomena (images and experiences of one's body, affects as consciously lived emotions, envisionings of the thoughts and feelings of others, etc.) are shaped, steered, and (over)determined by socio-linguistic structures and dynamics. With the growing importance of the Real in the 1960s and the Borromean knots of the 1970s, it becomes clear that Lacan conceives of the Imaginary as bound up with both of the other two registers (incidentally, the Imaginary and the Symbolic, when taken together as mutually integrated, constitute the field of “reality,” itself contrasted with the Real). In fact, it could be maintained that the Imaginary invariably involves category mistakes. More specifically, it is the register in which the other two registers are mistaken for each other: What is Real is misrecognized as Symbolic (for example, as in particular sorts of obsessional-neurotic and paranoid-psychotic symptoms, certain meaningless contingent occurrences at the level of the material world of non-human objects are viewed as though they were meaningful signs full of deep significance to be deciphered and interpreted) and what is Symbolic is misrecognized as Real (for example, as in psychosomatic-type “conversion symptoms,” unconscious mental conflicts encoded in language and ideas are suffered as bodily afflictions and ailments).

With his choice of the word “imaginary,” Lacan indeed intends to designate that which is fictional, simulated, virtual, and the like. However, the phenomena of the Imaginary are necessary illusions (to put it in Kantian locution) or real abstractions (to put it in Marxian parlance). This signals two points. First, as one of Lacan's three basic, essential registers, the Imaginary is an intrinsic, unavoidable dimension of the existences of speaking psychical subjects; just as an analysis cannot (and should not try to) rid the analys and of his/her unconscious, so too is it neither possible nor desirable to liquidate the illusions of this register. Second, the fictional abstractions of the Imaginary, far from being merely “unreal” as ineffective, inconsequential epiphenomena, are integral to and have very concrete effects upon actual, factual human realities.

2.1.2 The Symbolic

The Lacanian Symbolic initially is theorized on the basis of resources provided by structuralism. Tied to natural languages as characterized by Saussure and specific post-Saussurians, this register also refers to the customs, institutions, laws, mores, norms, practices, rituals, rules, traditions, and so on of cultures and societies (with these things being entwined in various ways with language). Lacan's phrase “symbolic order,” which encompasses all of the preceding, can be understood as roughly equivalent to what Hegel designates as “objective spirit.” This non-natural universe is an elaborate set of inter-subjective and trans-subjective contexts into which individual human beings are thrown at birth (along the lines of Heideggerian Geworfenheit), a pre-existing order preparing places for them in advance and influencing the vicissitudes of their ensuing lives.

According to Lacan, one of the (if not the) most significant and indispensable conditions of possibility for singular subjectivity is the collective symbolic order (sometimes named “the big Other,” a phrase to be unpacked further shortly— [see (2.3) in the full article.].

Individual subjects are what they are in and through the mediation of the socio-linguistic arrangements and constellations of the register of the Symbolic. Especially during the period of the “return to Freud,” the analytic unconscious (qua “structured like a language”) is depicted as kinetic networks of interlinked signifiers (i.e., “signifying chains”). Rendered thusly, the unconscious, being of a Symbolic (anti-)nature in and of itself, is to be interpretively engaged with via the Symbolic medium of speech, namely, the very substance of the being-in-itself of the speaking subject (parlêtre) of the unconscious. Furthermore, the Lacanian unconscious is structured like “un langage” and not “une langue.” Although both French words translate into English as “language,” the former (langage) refers to logics and structures of syntax and semantics not necessarily specific to particular natural languages, whereas the latter (langue), which also could be translated into English as “tongue,” does refer to the notion of a natural language. Hence, Lacan is not saying that the unconscious is structured like French, German, English, Spanish, or any other particular natural language.

Although the register of the Symbolic comes to the fore only with Lacan's structuralist phase of the 1950s, it arguably is not without its precursors in his earlier texts. Already in 1938, the idea of the “complex” in the encyclopedia article on “The Family Complexes” anticipates how Lacan recasts the Freudian Oedipus complex via Lévi-Straussian structural anthropology. Similarly, the prisoners' dilemma scenario narrated in 1945's “Logical Time and the Assertion of Anticipated Certainty” illustrates how a formal, game-theoretic apparatus governs the lived experiences of subjects inserted into it. Moreover, the 1949 écrit on “The Mirror Stage” hints at the enabling background presence of a socio-symbolic milieu (incarnated first and foremost by parental caregivers) as the trigger prompting the child's identification with mirrored images of him/her-self (as I will discuss subsequently here, this hint is expanded and embellished upon by Lacan in 1960s-era revisions of the mirror stage— [see (2.2) in the full article.].

Despite the rise to prominence of the register of the Real beginning around 1959–1960, the Symbolic continues to play pivotal roles in Lacan's teachings right up until the start of the 1980s. For instance, in Seminar XVII (1969–1970) and the contemporaneous interview “Radiophonie,” Lacan forges his theory of the “four discourses” (those of the “master”, “university,” “hysteric,” and “analyst”) to reflect the interlinked permutations of multiple kinds of “social links” configuring the relations between speaking subjects. More generally, the later Lacan remains reliant on the notion of the Real sides of the Symbolic, these being signifiers in their meaningless, nonsensical materiality as visible marks and audible sounds (i.e., “letters” in Lacan's technical sense)—and this by contrast with the Imaginary sides of the Symbolic, in which signifiers are paired with signifieds to form meaningful, significant signs (à la Saussure's classic explanation of successful communication via natural language). Such senseless signifiers and their enchainings amount to a late Lacanian rendition of Freudian primary processes as the thinking distinctive of unconscious mindedness.

When Lacan mentions “structure,” a word to which he has frequent recourse, he usually is thinking of his register of the Symbolic. Between the periods of his “return to Freud” and later teachings, Lacan reconsiders and alters what is conceptualized under the heading of the “like a language” (comme un langage) part of his fundamental claim that, “the unconscious is structured like a language.” However, from the 1950s until his death, his specific rendition of Freud's discovery consistently holds to the thesis that, “the unconscious is structured.” That is to say, the unconscious, as bound up with that which is Symbolic, is an intricate, labyrinthine web of ideational representations interconnected in multiple sophisticated manners. Contrary to the crudeness of commonplace vulgar picturings of Freudian analysis as an irrationalist, neo-romantic psychology of the unruly natural depths, the unconscious is not the id, namely, an anarchic seething cauldron of unthinking animalistic instincts (i.e., something unstructured).

2.1.3 The Real

The register of the Real is tricky to encapsulate and evades being pinned down through succinct definitions. Lacan's numerous and shifting pronouncements apropos the Real are themselves partly responsible for this absence of straightforwardness. But, rather than being just a barrier to grasping the Real, this absence is itself revelatory of this register. To be more precise, as that which is foreign to Imaginary-Symbolic reality—this reality is the realm containing conscious apprehension, communicable significance, and the like—the Real is intrinsically elusive, resisting by nature capture in the comprehensibly meaningful formulations of concatenations of Imaginary-Symbolic signs. It is, as Lacan stresses again and again, an “impossibility” vis-à-vis reality.

Lacan's earliest employments of the term “Real” use it to refer to material being(s) an sich, namely, to physical existents handled as roughly equivalent to Kant's things-in-themselves. The Real hence would be whatever is beyond, behind, or beneath phenomenal appearances accessible to the direct experiences of first-person awareness. This characterization of the Real persists into the first versions of Lacan's mature register theory as initially elaborated throughout the 1950s. During this decade of the “return to Freud,” the Real also gets connected to Lacan's contemporaneously emerging conceptions of psychosis and Otherness (the latter to be addressed soon— [see (2.3) in the full article.]).

Additionally, in the 1950s, Lacan tends to speak of the Real as an absolute fullness, a pure plenum devoid of the negativities of absences, antagonisms, gaps, lacks, splits, etc. Portrayed thusly, the Symbolic is primarily responsible for injecting such negativities into the Real. For instance, only though the powers of language can material being in itself be said to be “missing” things, since, on its own, this dimension of being always is simply whatever it is in its dumb, idiotic presence as never more and never less than sheer, indifferent plenitude.

As I noted above, the seventh seminar of 1959–1960 marks a shift away from the privileging of the Symbolic over the course of the 1950s and toward prioritizing the Real. The Real prior to Seminar VII tends to be depicted in non-dialectical and/or quasi-Kantian terms. Although Kant is one of the main explicit foci during this academic year, Lacan's sustained reformulation of the Real in this seminar introduces quasi-Hegelian dialectical features into it, thereby nuancing and complicating his ideas about this register. The new Real involves convergences of opposites as a register of volatile oscillations and unstable reversals between excesses and lacks, surpluses and deficits, flooding presences and draining absences. In the seventh seminar, Lacan puts forward the figure of the mother as the key analytic referent justifying this rendition of the Real (a figure he relates to another figure, that of “the Lady” in the courtly love tradition). In the beginning of the psychical-libidinal subject's ontogentic life history, the maternal caretaker is, at one and the same time, both overwhelmingly, stiflingly present or near and, in her strange, impenetrable alterity, also frustratingly, uncontrollably absent or inaccessible; there is either too much or too little of her, never the right balanced amount. With the passage of time and the temporal transformations of the libidinal economy, the mother, as this archaic Real Other, becomes the forever unattainable “Sovereign Good,” the fixed vanishing point, of all desiring (what Lacan calls, in dialogue with the history of philosophy as well as Freud, “das Ding” [la Chose, the Thing]).

Throughout the 1960s and up through the end of Lacan's teachings, the Real takes on an ever increasing number of aspects and connotations. It becomes both a transcendence troubling and thwarting Imaginary-Symbolic reality and its language from without as well as an immanence perturbing and subverting reality/language from within. It comes to be associated with libidinal negativities (objet petit a, jouissance, and sexual difference, all to be discussed later— [see (2.3), (2.4.2), and (2.4.3) in the full article.], material meaninglessness both linguistic [see (2.1.2: "The Symbolic") above) and non-linguistic, contingent traumatic events, unbearable bodily intensities, anxiety, and death.

As regards the unconscious as the principle concern of psychoanalysis, the later Lacan combines his earlier emphasis on socio-linguistic formations (à la “the unconscious is structured like a language”) with a subsequent stress on forces and factors internal but irreducible to these formations. After the 1950s, Real dimensions are added to the unconscious, with its Symbolic dimensions being made to orbit around black holes of unsymbolizability impossible to represent via the signifier-like ideational representations (Freud's Vorstellungen) of the language-like sides of the unconscious. Nonetheless, the rise of the Real in Lacan's teachings does not amount to him converting to any sort of analytic recapitulation of mysticisms or negative theologies. Instead, for Lacan, analysis both theoretical and clinical permits delineating and tracking the Real with conceptual precision, if only as an exercise in pinpointing the exact limits of the Imaginary, the Symbolic, and their overlappings.

H.O.B. note: There is a great deal more information in the primary resource article from which the above topic was garnered:

Jacques Lacan

Friday, March 14, 2014

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Herb O. Buckland