The Real

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In psychoanalysis and philosophy, the Real is that which is the authentic, unchangeable truth. It may be considered a primordial, external dimension of experience, referred to as the infinite, absolute or noumenal, as opposed to a reality contingent on sense perception and the material order. The Real is often associated with psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, so it is considered irreducible to symbolic order of lived experience, though it may be gestured to in certain cases, such as the experience of the sublime.


Lacan and psychoanalysis

For Jacques Lacan, the order of the real is not only opposed to the imaginary but is also located beyond the symbolic. Unlike the symbolic, which is constituted in terms of oppositions such as "presence" and "absence", there is no absence in the real. The symbolic opposition between "presence" and "absence" implies the possibility that something may be missing from the symbolic, the real is "always in its place: it carries it glued to its heel, ignorant of what might exile it from there." If the symbolic is a set of differentiated signifiers, the real is in itself undifferentiated: "it is without fissure." The symbolic introduces "a cut in the real," in the process of signification: "it is the world of words that creates the world of things." Thus the real emerges as that which is outside language: "it is that which resists symbolization absolutely." The real is impossible because it is impossible to imagine, impossible to integrate into the symbolic order. This character of impossibility and resistance to symbolization lends the real its traumatic quality.

The primordial Real in which a (pre-Oedipal) human subject is born is differentiated from the real which a subject integrated into the symbolic order experiences. In the former, the real is the continuous, "whole" reality without categories and the differential function of language. Following the mirror stage, however, and the eventual entrance of the imaginary and the symbolic (the split of the subject between the conscious imaginary and the unconscious symbolic), the real may only be experienced as traumatic gaps in the symbolic order. An example of this are traumatic events such as natural disasters, which effectively break down the signification of everyday life and cause a rupture of something alien and unrecognizable, without the usual grammar of the symbolic that conditions how to make meaning of something and how to proceed.

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]

Slavoj Žižek

Contemporary Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek has expanded on Lacan's theories and described (at least) three modalities of the Real: [2]

  1. The "real Real": a horrific thing, that which conveys the sense of horror in horror films;
  2. The "symbolic Real": the signifier reduced to a meaningless formula like quantum physics, which cannot be understood in any meaningful way, only grasped through abstract mathematics; and
  3. The "imaginary Real": an unfathomable something that permeates things as a trace of the sublime.

Pop culture examples

Žižek finds that the third form of the Real, i.e. the "real Real," becomes perceptible in the film The Full Monty , in the fact of disrobing the unemployed protagonists completely. Through the extra gesture of "voluntary" degradation, something else, of the order of the sublime, becomes visible.

Žižek also used the film The Sound of Music as an example of the "real Real," where the "invaded" Austrians are depicted more like provincial fascists (blond, boorish, historic dresses), while the Nazis are managers, bureaucrats, etc., "like cosmopolitan decadent corrupted Jews." He posits that the movie has a hidden pro-fascist message that is not directly seen but embedded in the texture.

Glyn Daly (2004) [2] provides further examples of Žižek's three modalities through pop culture:

The real Real is the hard limit that functions as the horrifying Thing (the Alien, Medusa's head, maelstrom and so on) - a shattering force of negation. The symbolic Real refers to the anonymous symbols and codes (scientific formulae, digitalisation, empty signifiers…) that function in an indifferent manner as the abstract "texture" onto which, or out of which, reality is constituted. In The Matrix , for example, the symbolic Real is given expression at the point where Neo perceives "reality" in terms of the abstract streams of digital output. In the contemporary world, Zizek argues that it is capital itself that provides this essential backdrop to our reality and as such represents the symbolic Real of our age (Zizek, 1999: 222; 276). With the ''imaginary real'' we have precisely the (unsustainable) dimension of fantasmatic excess-negation that is explored in Flatliners . This is why cyberspace is such an ambiguous imaginary realm.

Other uses

In philosophy

"Reality, says Rudolf Christoph Eucken, is an independent spiritual world, unconditioned by the apparent world of sense. To know it and to live in it is man's true destiny. His point of contact with it is personality: the inward fount of his being: his heart, not his head. Man is real, and in the deepest sense alive, in virtue of this free personal life-principle within him; but he is bound and blinded by the ties set up between his surface-intelligence and the sense-world. The struggle for reality must be a struggle on man's part to transcend the sense-world, escape its bondage. He must renounce it, and be 're-born' to a higher level of consciousness; shifting his centre of interest from the natural to the spiritual plane. According to the thoroughness with which he does this, will be the amount of real life he enjoys. The initial break with the 'world,' the refusal to spend one's life communing with one's own cinematograph picture, is essential if the freedom of the infinite is to be attained. We are amphibious creatures: our life moves upon two levels at once—the natural and the spiritual. The key to the puzzle of man lies in the fact that he is "the meeting point of various stages of Reality." All his difficulties and triumphs are grounded in this. The whole question for him is, which world shall be central for him—the Real, vital, all-embracing life we call spirit, or the lower life of sense? Shall 'Existence,' the superficial obvious thing, or 'Substance,' the underlying verity, be his home? Shall he remain the slave of the senses with their habits and customs, or rise to a plane of consciousness, of heroic endeavour, in which—participating in the life of spirit—he knows reality because he is real?" [3]

"There are," says Plotinus, "different roads by which this end [apprehension of the Infinite] may be reached. The love of beauty, which exalts the poet; that devotion to the One and that ascent of science which makes the ambition of the philosopher; and that love and those prayers by which some devout and ardent soul tends in its moral purity towards perfection. These are the great highways conducting to that height above the actual and the particular, where we stand in the immediate presence of the Infinite, who shines out as from the deeps of the soul." [4]

In aesthetics

Édouard Récéjac states:

"If the mind penetrates deeply into the facts of aesthetics, it will find more and more, that these facts are based upon an ideal identity between the mind itself and things. At a certain point the harmony becomes so complete, and the finality so close that it gives us actual emotion. The Beautiful then becomes the sublime; brief apparition, by which the soul is caught up into the true mystic state, and touches the Absolute, the Real. It is scarcely possible to persist in this Esthetic perception without feeling lifted up by it above things and above ourselves, in an ontological vision which closely resembles the Absolute of the Mystics." [5]

See also


  1. Bruce Fink, The Lacanian Subject: Between Language and Jouissance, Princeton University Press, 1997, p. 27.
  2. 1 2 Daly, Glyn (2004). "Slavoj Zizek: A Primer". lacan dot com. Retrieved 17 August 2012.
  3. Underhill, Evelyn. 1911. Mysticism, A Study in the Nature and Development of Man's Spiritual Consciousness. Available at the Internet Archive . p. 40.
  4. Plotinus. Letter to Flaccus.
  5. Récéjac, Édouard. 1897. Fondements de la Connaissance Mystique. p. 74.

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