Lacan’s concept of the Real: a materialist reading

As Dylan Evans points out, Lacan’s use of the term ‘real’ as substantive dates back to the 1930s, and was used by a number of philosophers at the time.1 In particular, Evans cites the work of the work of Emile Meyerson, although in the Écrits Lacan only makes one passing reference to him in his paper on Beyond the “Reality Principle” where he notes that Meyerson had argued that physical science is subjected to intellectual identification.2 Later on, in his Presentation on Transference paper Lacan makes a brief reference to Hegel’s idea that the real is rational and the rational is the real : “Thus analytic neutrality derives its authentic meaning from the position of the pure dialectician who, knowing that all that is real is rational (and vice versa)….”.3

However, the main focus of Lacan’s work from the 1950s onwards was to develop his own concept of the Real as one of his three ‘registers’ or ‘orders’, the other two being the Symbolic and the Imaginary.

In his response to Jean Hyppolite’s commentary on Freud’s Verneinung (Negation) paper, Lacan gives what is perhaps the most recognised (and possibly most misunderstood) ‘definition’ of the Real: “For that is how we must understand “Einbeziehung ins Ich,” taking into the subject, and “Ausstossung aus dem Ich,” expelling from the subject. The latter constitutes the real insofar as it is the domain of that which subsists out­side of symbolization.”4)In other words, the Real is that which is outside of symbolisation, that which cannot be represented. This is often taken to mean that the Real is ‘outside’ of language itself, whereas in fact, and as I will argue later on in this article, the Real is essentially a function of language.

It is sometimes claimed that the trajectory of the Real in Lacan’s work is such that it is only in the 1970s that it becomes the main focus of his attention. Some writers have even postulated the idea of an ‘early’ and a ‘late’ or ‘later’ Lacan, with the changing position of the Real as one of the crucial factors of demarcation. Thus, for example, Véronique Voruz and Bogdan Wolf argue in their preface to the aptly titled The Later Lacan:

The seminar of Jacques Lacan can be divided into three periods, each lasting for approximately a decade. Roughly speaking, and as developed by Jacques-Alain Miller in his ongoing Paris seminar, each of these periods is characterized by the prevalence of one of the three registers of the analytic experience that Lacan named imaginary, symbolic, and real, and in that order.5

According to Voruz and Wolf, Seminars One to Ten (spanning the period 1953 – 1963) are orientated around the Imaginary register; seminars Eleven to Nineteen (1964- 1972) are orientated around the Symbolic; and from Seminar Twenty onwards (1973- 1980, the orientation shifts to the Real. The first period, according to Voruz and Wolf, focuses on the formation of the ego through the mirror stage, narcissism and identification. The second period focuses on the subjective positioning in the Other, i.e. the Symbolic order. In the third period the focus shifts to the question of jouissance and its relationship to language (which is not be confused with the Symbolic).

However, I think it is important to recognise, as Tom Eyers does, that this notion of an ‘early’ and a ‘late(r)’ Lacan is somewhat of a misnomer:

Against the common reading that assigns the Real to a position of importance only in the final seminars of the 1970s, I argue that every stage of his theoretical development can be understood as an attempt to delineate more precisely the Real as the object particular to psychoanalytic inquiry, an object that, in its multiple instantiations, refuses any linear periodization or temporal delimitation.6

Eyers goes on to argue that Lacan’s development of the concepts of the Symbolic and the Imaginary in the 1950s and ‘60s only makes sense in the context of a theory of the Real, even if this latter concept is not given prominence until the 1970s. In order to fully understand why this is case, according to Eyers, we need to adopt a particularly ‘reading’ of Lacan’s work, one that is materialist as opposed to idealist.

Before exploring these ideas in more detail, it is important to emphasise that the Real does not equate with ‘reality’. ‘Reality’ is essentially the network or matrix of signification structured by the Symbolic order. The Real, as I will argue below, is an effect or function of such a matrix of signification. Another way to look at this is to say that the Symbolic is a network of signifiers-in-relation (to use Eyers’ terminology) which produces meaning. The critical point here is not to confuse the individual signifier (what Eyers calls the ‘signifier-in-isolation’) with the network or matrix of signification (meaning).

And this brings us to the whole question of materialism, and in particular the materiality of the signifier. Why does this matter? Because, as I indicated above, it is only through a materialist reading of Lacan that one gains a proper understanding of the relationship between the Real and language. Of course, this immediately raises the possibility of another kind of reading, which might broadly be described as idealist.  Although, as Eyers points out, a number of writers including Slavoj Žižek and Adrian Johnson have sought to “‘materialise’ the legacy of German idealism through an attention to the psychoanalytic theory of Jacques Lacan and in particular through his theory of the subject”,7 there still seems to be a tendency in Lacanian circles to treat the signifier as some form of transcendental entity. And bearing in mind that the Lacanian subject is, to a large extent, a product of the signifier, it could be argued that the transcendental subject of German idealism sneaks in through the back door, so to speak, on the back of the transcendental signifier.

The problem with such an approach is that the Real becomes not only impossible to say (as Lacan would have it) but inaccessible and, in practical terms, irrelevant. It becomes shunted off to the realms of Kant’s noumena, that unknowable region of things-in-themselves about which nothing can be said or written. This is because the subject effectively becomes another version of the Cartesian cogito, forever separated from the world of things. This is not how Lacan would see it of course, but it is the logical conclusion of this type of (idealist) thinking. In fact, one might even go further, as the German Idealists from Fichte onwards did, and argue that:

…there is no real opposition between what is traditionally taken to be a subject-independent world that is present to us in the mode of ‘givenness’ and ‘being’ and a world that is conceived of as subject-dependent in that it is formed by conceptual tools or other ‘thought-ingredients’ stemming from some subjective activity or other.8

In other words, it makes no sense to speak about ‘things-in-themselves’ as distinct from ‘things-as-they-appear’, because there is no longer any differentiation between being and thinking. At this point the whole concept of a Real ‘outside’ of representation becomes meaningless and the Real becomes not so much impossible to say but just plain impossible.

However, even if nothing can be said or written about the Real, the Real has plenty to say, as any psychoanalyst or psychotherapist will tell you. In fact, it could even be argued that psychoanalysis owes its very existence to the fact that the Real refuses to be quiet, to disappear. But how can we ‘hear’ what the Real is telling us if it has effectively been sidelined, relegated to the status of non-entity?

What, though, if we were to start with the idea that there is no transcendental signifier and therefore no transcendental subject? What, instead, if we start with the proposition that the signifier is a material entity, a thing-in-itself in fact? And this is essentially the basis of a materialist approach to the Lacanian registers of the Real, Symbolic and Imaginary.

This signifier as material entity, or signifier-in-isolation to use Eyers’ terminology (Eyers, 2012), could be a word or even an individual letter written on a piece of paper, or on a computer screen, or spoken out loud. The key point is that it should not form part of a chain or network of signifiers, because at this point it becomes a signifier-in-relation. Once this happens signification or meaning starts to emerge. And at this point a rather peculiar side-effect appears…a side-effect that Lacan came to name as the Real.

This way of looking at the Real, as an effect of signification, highlights the fact that far from being ‘outside’ of language, the Real is very much part of it. This is not the same as saying that the Real is ‘outside’ or ‘beyond’ meaning. It is only when meaning becomes confused with the material signifier that it becomes possible to talk of the Real as being ‘outside’ of language itself. And this goes back to the point I raised earlier regarding the problem of an idealist reading of Lacan, in which the signifier becomes raised to the status of a transcendental entity. The key point here is that such a transcendental realm is that of the Imaginary, which means the signifier has to all intents and purposes become an Imaginary object. Furthermore, the Imaginary is also, according to Lacan, the realm of signification (meaning) which means that the distinction between signifier and signification has effectively collapsed. What we are left with is an Imaginary Symbolic, in the sense that the Symbolic becomes a network of Imaginary signifiers. The Real then becomes relegated to an (Imaginary) ‘outside’.

None of these problems arise if we start from the position that the signifier is a material entity. At this point, however, perhaps I should be clearer by what I mean by ‘materialist’ and ‘material’. The first thing to emphasise is that ‘materialist’ does not equate with matter. Neither does it equate, in the context of subjectivity, with some form of biological reductionism. Lacan may have been a materialist but he certainly did not subscribe to the idea that, ultimately, the mysteries of the psyche were to be found in the soma, in biology. Ironically perhaps, there is a good case for arguing that Freud did.

As Eyers points out, citing Žižek, materialism rejects the dichotomy between the subject and reality, which means the subject has to be included in the very reality it is trying to comprehend.9 However, as Žižek puts it:

Materialism is not the direct assertion of my inclusion in objective reality (such an assertion presupposes that my position of enunciation is that of an external observer who can grasp the whole of reality); rather, it resides in the reflexive twist by means of which I myself am included in the picture constituted by me—it is this reflexive short circuit, this necessary redoubling of myself as standing both outside and inside my picture, that bears witness to my “material existence.” Materialism means that the reality I see is never “whole”—not because a large part of it eludes me, but because it contains a stain, a blind spot, which indicates my inclusion in it.10

What Žižek seems to be grappling with here is the idea of the human subject both constituting, and being constituted by, (objective) reality. In other words, although we are not transcendental subjects existing in some ethereal space gazing ‘out’ at reality, but forever cut off from it, neither are we simply objects within reality. We both construct reality (the idealist position) but are also constructed by it (what one might perhaps best describe as the ‘crude or naïve materialist’ position). It seems to me that the materialism that both Eyers and Žižek articulate is essentially a way to circumvent a longstanding epistemological and ontological problem, which both idealism and (naïve) materialism have consistently failed to resolve: namely, the nature of human subjectivity itself, and its position in reality.

So in the context of psychoanalysis (and psychopathology) this form of materialism (which perhaps we might call ‘critical’) is not about trying to reduce reality, including human reality, to ‘matter’, sub-atomic particles or neurobiology. Rather, it is about developing a language of (for want of a better word) the human psyche; a language which avoids precisely such a crude reductionism of psyche to soma/biology, but which at the same time circumvents the idealism of so much contemporary psychotherapy and related ‘talking therapy’. In the latter I would include not only various forms of ‘humanistic’ or ‘person centred’ therapy, but also cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). All these approaches I would argue, although they may vary quite considerably in their therapeutic techniques, share a common conception of the ‘person’ or the ‘self’, which is what Lacan referred to as homo-psychologicus, the ‘little man’ (or woman) in the human brain/body. This appears to be a psychologized version of the transcendental subject.

Lacan’s three registers of the Real, Symbolic and Imaginary are a central part of this (critical materialist) language of the psyche. In his seminar on the psychoses, Lacan states:

I began by distinguishing the three spheres of speech as such. You may recall that within the phenomenon of speech we can integrate the three planes of the symbolic, represented by the signifier, the imaginary, represented by meaning, and the real, which is discourse that has actually taken place in a diachronic dimension.”11

This was Lacan writing in the mid-1950s, and it is particularly interesting to note his ‘definition’ of the Real as discourse, rather than being ‘outside’ of discourse. The term ‘diachronic’ refers to movement through time, so the reference to the Real as “discourse that has actually taken place in a diachronic dimension” could be read in a very Heideggerian manner as the ‘being’ of discourse, or even the Dasein of the speaking subject. However, the key point here is to re-emphasise that the Real does not reside in some ‘extra-discursive’ realm but is embedded in language, in discourse, itself.

In the 1970s, Lacan will reformulate the whole concept of the three registers by introducing his theory of the Borromean knot and its manifestation in the form of the sinthome that ‘binds’ together the Real, Symbolic and the Imaginary (Lacan, 1975), (Lacan, 1976). Interestingly, this final period of his work is marked not only by a focus on the Real and the jouissance of language, but also by a move towards an attempt to ‘mathematicise’ psychoanalysis. Although many have seen this as the final proof of Lacan’s incomprehensibility and clinical irrelevance, it could also be argued that this is an attempt to develop a language of the Real, to which mathematical logic and symbolism is eminently suited.

The key point to remember about the Real is that it cannot exist (if ‘exist’ is the right word in this context) apart from language, or to be more precise, language as signification, as the network of signifiers-in-relation (to use Eyers’ terminology). The Real both escapes signification and is an effect of signification. At the same time, the Real can be thought of as a remainder, and perhaps even a reminder, of what is ‘lost’ when language comes into play. At different times in his teaching, Lacan will refer to this ‘loss’ as the objet a and then as surplus jouissance. However, I think it is a mistake to view this ‘loss’, as some Lacanians seem to do, in terms of a ‘lost paradise’, a world before the Fall, an idyllic but impossible union with the mother. Rather, this is a ‘loss’ in the form of a failure of meaning, brought about, paradoxically, by language itself.

  1. Evans, D. (1996) An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis. London: Routledge []
  2. Lacan, J. (2006a) Beyond the ‘Reality Principle’, in: Fink, B. (trans.) Écrits The First Complete Edition in Englsih. New York: WW Norton & Co, pp. 58–74 []
  3. Lacan, J. (2006b) Presentation on Transference, in: Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English. New York: W.W.Norton and Company, pp. 176–185. []
  4. Lacan, J. (2006c) Response to Jean Hyppolite ‘s Commentary on Freud’s ‘Verneinung’, in: Fink, B. (trans.) Écrits The First Complete Edition in Englsih. New York: WW Norton & Co, pp. 318–333 (p.324 []
  5. Voruz, V. and Wolf, B. (eds.) (2007) The Later Lacan: An Introduction. New York: Suny Press, p.viii []
  6. Eyers, T. (2012) Lacan and the Concept of the ‘Real’. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, p.2 []
  7. Eyers, T. (2011) Lacanian materialism and the question of the real, Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, 7 (1), pp. 155–166 (p155 []
  8. Guyer, P. and Horstmann, R.-P. (2015) Idealism, in: Zalta, E. N. (ed.) The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Fall 2015 []
  9. Eyers, T. (2011) Lacanian materialism and the question of the real, Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, 7 (1), pp. 155–166. []
  10. Žižek, S. (2006) The parallax view. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, p.17 []
  11. Lacan, J. (1993) The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book III 1955-1956 The Psychoses. London: Routledge, p.63 []