Philosophy Hammer
Philosophy, Economics, Politics & Psychology Tested with a Hammer

33: Jacques Lacan part I:
The Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real

Summary by: Jeff McLaren

         Over the past year 5 months we have looked at postmodern philosophies. We have looked at postmodernism in the field of linguistics through Derrida; in field of power and politics through Foucault; in the field of cultural studies through Lyotard; and in the field of sociology through Baudrillard. Our next step is to look at postmodern psychology by looking at the ideas of Jacques Lacan.
         Jacques Lacan claimed to be a devoted follower of Sigmund Freud and although he claimed to accept everything that Freud taught, he reinterpreted, refined and added to Freud's ideas. Today we will look at three of Lacan's new ideas that have influenced many philosophers who came later. In addition to Freud's three part psychic apparatus the Id, the Ego and the Superego There are three orders in the human Psyche: 1) the Imaginary, 2) the Symbolic and 3) the Real.
         The Image and the Imaginary
         Lacan believed that we rely on our vision far more than any other sense for survival and the enjoyment of life. Therefore visual images are at the core of our being (Q1). The job of the ego is to mediate between the desires of the Id and the duties imposed by the Superego. To do this the ego is principally a self-deceiving mechanism. It lies to us constantly in order to smooth over the conflicting demands of the Id and Superego. Some of the more obvious ways the ego does this are through false memories, cognitive dissonance, avoidance, projection and all the other self-defense mechanisms cataloged by psychologists. These self-defense mechanisms work by substituting a false (but close) image for the truth. We add comforting images to events and people; the total of these false images are the Imaginary (Q2). The Imaginary is what we see and believe is true about the world – and it is totally imaginary but comforting.
         The Unconscious, Language and the Symbolic
         Lacan believed that language was always in flux both personally and communally. The dictionary definition of a word is communal but its significance is always personal. When we communicate we use words and these words represent other words and these other words represent something different to the receiver. Language is therefore a form of communication and alienation (Q3).
         The communal meaning of words is found in a dictionary: these meaning are represented by other words (their definitions). Conventional wisdom says that someone(subject1) uses these words (signifiers) to transmit meaning to another person (subject 2). However Lacan turns this around: communication is a signifier (word) to signifier (word) act via the medium of the subjects (people) – in other words: words are communicating not people: language is a play of words (not of authors or speakers).
         Lacan claims that “...the unconscious is structured like a language...” Therefore some meaning can be found in the play of the unconscious. The unconscious plays in four ways: 1) Symptom which take the form of idioms of language (Q4); 2) the errors of everyday life (Freudian slips or slips of the tongue); 3) jokes and 4) dreams (Q5).
         The Symbolic order is the part of our psyche that relates meaning through language; it is the meaning we get from the social and cultural spheres of our existence.
         Trauma and the Real
         The real is what is left over from the symbolic: that which we cannot talk about; that for which we do not have any signifier. Our entire lives revolve around the Real. All our psychological problems and symptoms are related things which we cannot talk about. (Not that we won't talk; but that we can't talk about.)
         When we are born everything is real. As we get older we give names to things and form images that destroy the Real (but never in its entirety) and turn it into the Imaginary and/or the Symbolic. The real is traumatic; destroying the real (by turning a part of it into something imaginary and/or symbolic) is comforting. As children we were all traumatized and as adults it may happen less and less but this is the source of our psychological problems, symptoms and quirks (Q6).
         We are all tragic players in life because we are born in trauma and can only reduce it; never end it (except in death). Furthermore the tool we use to reduce trauma, language, is an alienating and traumatic tool which can never fully obliterate the Real. The Real will always come back to haunt us in the form of the symptoms and phobias we suffer. The ego tries to hides the trauma from us but it never does a good enough job. With psychoanalysis we can learn why we do the things we do, then we can accept them or work to change our behavior (Q7).
         1) Some people learn best by listening others by doing but Lacan claims that even in these cases the image is still dominant. Are we really a visually dominant species?
         2) The image we have of people and things is not necessarily a picture it could be a movie. Expectations are a major part of people's imaginary. When you say that your friend would react in such and such a way to such and such a situation you are creating a comforting image of your friend. The image is comforting regardless of whether the action of the friend is good or bad for you because it is knowable. But Lacan says that we really do not know: expectations are part of our imagination. And furthermore most of our expectations are unfounded. Do you agree or disagree? How often are you correct when predicting your friends reaction?
         3) Language is both communicative and alienating. It allows us to communicate ideas but these ideas are often misunderstood and/or misconstrued. Generally when you talk, do people understand what you mean or do they misunderstand what you mean? Generally whose fault are the misunderstandings? Is it usually a big deal if there is a misunderstanding? Or are the stakes so low you may not notice many of your miss-communications?
         4) Freud and Lacan believed that many of our fears, neuroses and personality quirks are covers for a deeper problem that can take the form of an idiom of language. Consider this example: A woman who almost never left her home because of a phobia of open spaces came to see Lacan. Through psychoanalysis the phobia became more clear: she was afraid of being seen falling down. It also became clear that she was ashamed of an affair she had had. The idiom that dominated her life was: 'fallen woman': 1) a woman who has fallen (and is still lying) down; 2) a woman who has had an affair. She did not want people to know that she desired another affair. She was afraid of being seen as a fallen woman much more than she wanted an affair so her unconscious created a phobia that would protect her from any opportunity to have an affair: she became afraid to go out. If Freud and Lacan are right we should all be able to find an idiom in our native language that can give us insight as to why we do each of our quirky actions or have our quirky fears. Do you find this believable or unbelievable? Why?
         5) Is it believable that many things you say, joke about, slip up on or dream about can be interpreted as having a meaning and/or a revelation about what we think; what our priorities, goal and wishes are; and why we do the things we do? Or are we reading too much into normal meaningless everyday things?
         6) We all have unique personalities. Is the trauma of the Real a plausible explanation for psychological problems? Can we realistically categorize personalities into a short list or is everyone in there own category? Is it believable that the vast differences in our personalities comes from the hugely numerous solutions we have found for dealing with the trauma in our lives?
         7) Lacan reaffirmed Freud over Heinz Hartmann's ego psychology. Ego psychology (which is the dominant form of psychology in the English speaking world) claims that the ego is strong and can dominate the Id and the Superego. People need therapy in order to strengthen their egos, to create an ego “non-conflict zone,” and to look at the world from an objective point of view. Lacan claims that these goals of ego psychology are misguided and dangerous for the individual's well being. Is a strong ego a good thing or bad thing? Is it possible to have an ego “non-conflict zone” or to ever develop a non-conflicted personality? Do you see anything dangerous in having a non-conflicted personality?
         Next time we will cover Lacan's ideas of Jouissance, Need, Demand, Desire, Fantasy and Transference.

© 2008 - 2017, James Jeff McLaren