I’ve been a bit perplexed about why the Real came after the Imaginary in Lacan’s description of different orders. Reading about each order on Wikipedia I found a few things that clarified it for me a bit. Very briefly, simplified and  in my own words where possible –

Imaginary – “dimension of images conscious or unconscious, perceived or imagined”(Sheridan) (Wikipedia). The fragments of things we have floating about in our minds, not necessarily tied to language, required to imagine the self as a whole when seen in the mirror stage, and necessary to connect that image with notions of self. Related to external, pre symbolic

Symbolic – structural ediface, cultural overlay, law, the network or interface manifested in language that dictates existence in culture; all of the things we pin our realities to.

Real – “The real is impossible because it is impossible to imagine, impossible to integrate into the symbolic order” (Wikipedia) Trauma,

“One of the main methods of psychoanalysis is to drain the traumatic experiences of the real into the symbolic through free association. The analyst searches the analysand’s discourse for sounds, words, or images of fixation and through dialectization attempt to bring these fixations to the regular metonymic flow of the (unconscious) symbolic order, thereby integrating the subject further into their fantasy, usually referred to as “traversing the fantasy.”[1]” (Fink, 1997; 27) (Wikipedia)

I was confused until I saw that another Real exists, pre Oedipal state, Primordial Real for the infant who has not yet engaged in the Imaginary or the Symbolic orders (language). This is the Real I have been aware of and which it seems is, if not annihilated, then at least injured or catastrophically altered by the Imaginary and especially the Symbolic orders. It certainly exists in the bond between a mammalian infant and mother and does not need access to the Imaginary or the Symbolic to operate. It is something that a male parent cannot access as easily as a female parent, if at all. And I wonder if it is mutilated in some way and in many cases as soon as an infant is born, which is what lies in part at any rate behind obstetrician, Michel Odent’s advice that women only should be present during labour and birth, where the atmosphere ideally should be dark, with little or no speaking and calm in order to make room for it to exist. I wonder if this is the place that is then bought to the imaginary, although it can never (?) be re-entered, inducing a sense of nostalgic yearning, which according to Professor Paul  Fry is the ‘lack’ that Lacan talks of. Fry says that Lacan is different to other theorists because he says we ‘can never have what we desire’. But actually, although it is fleeting and short-lived mostly, there are moments where women can re-enter some aspect of this phase during and after childbirth. And it has nothing to do with logic and order and structure. And if there is any  validity to that suggestion it may not be a comfortable idea for a patriarchal paradigm to contain, hence the unconscious structural motivation to annihilate it. Nor, necessarily to a feminist  discourse that has little room for female difference, which I think feminism sometimes struggled with in earlier iterations.

(Added later) I have thought further about this and think sex and orgasm takes us as close to that primordial place as it is possible be to be as well, and the lack of acknowledgement of female sexuality through the ages, including FGM, seems to be linked to what I have explored above.


Sheridan, p. 279

Bruce Fink, The Lacanian Subject: Between Language and Jouissance, Princeton University Press, 1997, p. 27.



*Odent explores what he calls the primal period, which I think is the same thing I am referring to in this post.

Image (c)SJField 2016



5 thoughts on “Notes: Symbolic, Real and Imaginary

  1. Really interested to to contrast Dent’s view with the latest medical thinking which seems to be that of a caesarian birth as often as possible – surrounding by the paraphernalia of medical instruments.


    1. Mmmm… Well, we are very lucky to be living in an age where infant mortality can be addressed by medical advances. However, the medical imperative to dominate the whole process when in fact there may be a need for far less intervention needs lots of discussion. Personally birth was traumatising with intervention and without. You get so close to the ‘real’ where the only thing is ‘life’ or ‘not life’, and absolutely nothing else. You’re on the cusp at that moment, aren’t you? But I recovered a lot more quickly without intervention and actually suffered from mild post-traumatic stress with it in the second birth. I was induced with the first but nothing got in the way of the extraordinary hormonal explosion that made me bond that time, which was lucky. In the second, perhaps without the intervention my baby would not have made it at all as he was very determined to stay in my belly and might have ‘overcooked’. Odent is incredibly interesting but when he was interviewed on the BBC Breakfast news, they spoke to him like a buffoon. Typical English superiority complex though – they were embarrassing.


  2. I certainly agree with you about the real advantages of available medical intervention. It was necessary with my first child and I had the same problem as you with the second. The birth of my third was ‘normal -ish’. Re trends – mothers were expected to breast-feed when my first was born and he was by my bed right from the start. That had changed three years later so my second was with me during the day and breast-fed but put in a nursery at night and given a bottle feed. it was the same with my third but then a young nurse actually came to watch me breast-feed because she’d never seen it before. I was the only mother on the ward who did so!
    Of course, I wouldn’t see it in myself at the time, but It was amazing with my daughters-inlaw and daughter to be able to observe that incredible bond and the intent gaze from mother to child.


    1. Doesn’t surprise me the night nurse had never seen someone breastfeed before. UK has lowest rates in Europe now. Most women have never held a baby when they first have one and that is new to human reality in the last decades.


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