Symbolic

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French: symbolique


In Lacanian psychoanalysis, the "symbolic" is one of three orders that structure human existence, the others being the imaginary and the real.

History[edit | edit source]

The term "symbolic" appears in adjectival form in Lacan's earliest psychoanalytic writings. The adjectival "symbolic" is often used by Lacan in a fairly conventional sense, but in the 1950s he begins to use the word as a substantive, and it rapidly becomes the cornerstone of his theory: the subject's relationship with the symbolic is the heart of psychoanalysis. It now becomes one of the three orders that remain central throughout the rest of Lacan's work. Of these three orders, the symbolic is the most crucial one for psychoanalysis; psychoanalysts are essentially 'practitioners of the symbolic function'.<ref>Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 72</ref>

Structuralism[edit | edit source]

Lacan incorporates into psychoanalysis the linguistics of Saussure and the anthropology of Lévi-Strauss. Lacan's concept of the symbolic order owes much to the anthropological work of Claude Lévi-Strauss.<ref>Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1949a: 203</ref> In particular, 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. In his work on kinship Lévi-Strauss argues that any culture can be seen as a set of symbolic structures such as the rules governing kinship and alliance, language and art. He also demonstrates that in primitive societies the ritual exchange of gifts has an important role in the creation and perpetuation of social stability. The application of Saussure's theory of the sign allows these structures and exchanges to be analyzed as exchanges of signifiers. The emergence of symbolic structures is an essential feature of the human transition from nature to culture.

Culture[edit | edit source]

Adapting Lévi-Strauss's study of how kinship rules and exogamy govern exchanges between human groups to the field of psychoanalysis, Lacan now describes the Oedipus complex as a process which imposes symbolic structures on sexuality and allows the subject to emerge. Pre-oedipal sexuality is likened to a state of nature and unbridled sexuality; the role of the Name-of-the-Father is to disrupt the dual relationship in which the child tries to fuse with the mother in an incestuous union, and to establish a legitimate line of descent ("son of...", "daughter of..."). Culture and the symbolic are thuse imposed upon nature. The subject gains access to the symbolic, to a name and a lineage, but does so at the cost of a symbolic castration. Although the exchange of signifiers in speech is an obvious example of symbolic exchange, Lacan's symbolic is not simply synonymous with language, and should be understood as comprising the entire domain of culture.

Language[edit | edit source]

Since the most basic form of exchange is communication itself (the exchange of words, the gift of speech);<ref>Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre IV. La relation d'objet, 19566-57. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p. 189</ref> and since the concepts of law and of structure are unthinkable without language, the symbolic is essentially a linguistic dimension. Any aspect of the psychoanalytic experience which has a linguistic structure thus pertains to the symbolic order. The symbolic dimension of language is that of the signifier; a dimension in which elements have no positive existence but which are constituted purely by virtue of their mutual differences.

Alterity[edit | edit source]

The symbolic is also the realm of radical alterity which Lacan refers to as the Other. The unconscious is the discourse of this Other, and thus belongs wholly to the symbolic order. The symbolic is the realm of the Law which regulates desire in the Oedipus complex. It is the realm of culture as opposed to the imaginary order of nature. Whereas the imaginary is characterised by dual relations, the symbolic is characterised by triadic structures, because the intersubjective relationship is always "mediated" by a third term, the big Other.

Death[edit | edit source]

The symbolic order is also the realm of death, of absence and of lack. The symbolic is both the pleasure principle which regulates the distance from the Thing, and the death drive which goes "beyond the pleasure principle" by means of repetition;<ref>Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book II. The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis, 1954-55. Trans. Sylvana Tomaselli. New York: Nortion; Cambridge: Cambridge Unviersity Press, 1988. p. 210</ref> in fact, "the death drive is only the mask of the symbolic order."<ref>Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book II. The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis, 1954-55. Trans. Sylvana Tomaselli. New York: Nortion; Cambridge: Cambridge Unviersity Press, 1988. p. 326</ref>

Autonomy[edit | edit source]

The symbolic order is completely autonomous: it is not a superstructure determined by biology or genetics. It is completely contingent with respect to the real: "There is no biological reason, and in particular no genetic one, to account for exogamy. In the human order we are dealing with the complete emergence of a new function, encompassing the whole order in its entirety."<ref>Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book II. The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis, 1954-55. Trans. Sylvana Tomaselli. New York: Nortion; Cambridge: Cambridge Unviersity Press, 1988. p. 29</ref> Thus while the symbolic may seem to "spring from the real" as pre-given, this is an illusion, and "one shouldn't think that symbols actually have come from the real."<ref>Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book II. The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis, 1954-55. Trans. Sylvana Tomaselli. New York: Nortion; Cambridge: Cambridge Unviersity Press, 1988. p. 238</ref> 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."<ref>Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book II. The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis, 1954-55. Trans. Sylvana Tomaselli. New York: Nortion; Cambridge: Cambridge Unviersity Press, 1988. p. 29</ref> 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, since "we find it absolutely impossible to speculate on what preceded it other than by symbols."<ref>Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book II. The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis, 1954-55. Trans. Sylvana Tomaselli. New York: Nortion; Cambridge: Cambridge Unviersity Press, 1988. p. 5</ref> For this reason it is strictly speaking impossible to conceive the origin of language, let alone what came before, which is why questions of development lie outside the field of psychoanalysis.

Psychoanalysis[edit | edit source]

Lacan criticises the psychoanalysis of his day for forgetting the symbolic order and reducing everything to the imaginary. This is, for Lacan, nothing less than a betrayal of Freud's most basic insights; "Freud's discovery is that of the field of the effects, in the nature of man, produced by his relation to the symbolic order. To ignore this symbolic order is to condemn the discovery to oblivion."<ref>Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 64</ref> Lacan argues that it is only by working in the symbolic order that the analyst can produce changes in the subjective position of the analysand; these changes will also produce imaginary effects, since the imaginary is structured by the symbolic.


See Also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

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