In Defense of the Real

17May07

/1/ – What is the Real?

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Lacan forever!

The triad of Lacanian registers (real, symbolic, imaginary) which make up the psychic structure are often pulled apart from one another and discussed individually as solitary forms. This often leads to a kind simplification which leads not only to a misunderstanding of Lacan’s work as a whole but also paints Lacan as falsely structuralist or essentialist. Corollary to this point is the style of Lacan’s seminars and ecrits which seem to vary from high philosophy to crude jokes bordering on pornography.

An anecdote that illustrates this well is the fact that Lacan was the last private owner of the Gustave Courbet painting Le Origin du Monde (The Origin of the World). While beautifully painted it was notorious for its unabashed depiction of female genitalia. The painting was eventually sold in order to cover Lacan’s debts to his family after he died. The contrasts here seem appropriate to his work.

Of the three Lacanian registers the symbolic (defined as what is grasped by language, it operates completely through differential relations – ‘a chair is a chair because it is not everything else’ – the symbolic designates our social relations), the imaginary (what is phantasmatic, the fantasies which support our existence, that cover over the gaps in our world), and the most difficult register to understand the Real. The Real can be further broken down into three subtypes: the symbolic real, the imaginary real and the real real. It is important to note the obvious fact that the Real is not reality but what is constitutively absent from it, the impossibility of anything being fully itself.

This impossibility, similar to Hegelian minimal difference, is the symbolic Real, the Real expressed as a meaningless formula, a matheme where the being of an object or thing, through which its stupid vulgar tautological existence that ultimately serves to display its own limitation.

The imaginary Real is closest to the Freudian das Ding, the traumatic Real horrific Thing. The imaginary Real is what Pip experiences in Moby-Dick. When he is thrown overboard and is alone in the ocean he dies symbolically having seen too much of the not there. Pip touches the abyss and falls into a kind of psychosis.

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Slavoj, the holy hysteric!

The Real real is the hardest to explain – it is the very cut which allows the symbolic to form and, at the same time, it is that which the symbolic always trips over. Slavoj Žižek points out how this notion of the Real is a kind of ‘hard kernel’ or ‘bone in the throat’ (borrowing from Lacan). This is not to say then the Real real is an object, that is the same as the ‘horrific’ object or Kant’s unknown X. Žižek points out in The Puppet and the Dwarf that the Real real is a kind of self obfuscating screen, it is that the untouchable thing but the warp or twist in space, in perception, that makes access to such a thing impossible. The relation of the Real real and the symbolic is a complex and tricky one. It is also what is attacked by theorist Judith Butler.

/2/ – Castrating the Real

In Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” Judith Butler fights against the notion of the Lacanian Real arguing that it is a real of exclusion, of abjection. Butler’s treatment of the Real leans a little close to the psychoanalytic unconsciousness as a place of the repressed. Butler, taking up Žižek’s arguments in The Sublime Object of Ideology argues that the ‘rock’ or ‘hard kernel’ of the Real is the same as the threat of castration. On this point Butler misreads the function of the No/Name (a play in the French on non vs nom) of the Father. Developmentally the ‘No!’ of the Father functions as the Law, as the tautological decree of ‘law is law’ which cuts the infant from the nurturing figure (generally the mother assuming heteronormativity).

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Judith Butler, a good Stalinist

What is important, however, is not that the Law denies the paradise of non-differentiation between mother child but that it saves the child the pain of realizing that such an edenic state never existed. The point is that the prohibition of Law covers over the impossibility of fullness allowing the split subject, to enter the economy of desire.

In the essay “Death’s Merciless Love” Žižek writes:

“the basic paradox of symbolic castration as constitutive of desire, in which the object has to be lost in order to be regained on the inverse ladder of desire regulated by the Law? Symbolic castration is usually defined as the loss of something that one never possessed, i.e. the object-cause of desire is an object which emerges through the very gesture of its loss/withdrawal.”

So the importance of the introduction of the Law is that instead of making the subject search in vain for the ‘primordial lost object’ it shifts desire’s aim to to that of a purely formal object, the objet petit a (the object of the little other), the little piece of the Real. This purely formal object functions as a kind of je ne sais quoi in each object that we encounter that allows us to desire it. This is why Žižek argues for a reversal of the common view of subject object relation. In the opening pages of The Parallax View Žižek argues that the object should be seen as active and the subject as passive. The object is that which objects, which disrupts the smooth running of our lives (p. 17). The relation between subject and object are always mediated so that (giving the scientific notion of parallax a philosophical twist) the change of perception in the viewing subject causes an ontological change in the object. In Lacanian terms the blind spot of the object, the stain which we cannot see is the point where our own gaze is located within the object. This minimal or pure difference is the difference of the object from itself, the symbolic Real.

/3/ – What is the Real of sexual difference?

Another one of Butler’s critiques of the Real is that discussing it through language (symbolically) negates its non-discursive meaning. Speaking of this (non)relation Butler writes:

“to make this claim is to assert a relation of radical incommensurability between the “symbolization” and “the real,” and it is unclear that this very assertion is not already implicated in the first term of the relation. As such, it is unclear to what metasymbolizing status that very assertion disingenuously seeks to lay claim. To claim that the real resists symbolization is still to symbolize the real as a kind of resistance” (Bodies that Matter, p. 207).

Žižek responds to this criticism by invoking the concept of the feminine pas-tout (not-all). To explain this concept let us take a look at Lacan’s formula of sexuation. The top right portion of the formula (the subjective constitution of the feminine side) reads as follows:

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There is no one who is not subject to the phallic function
Not all is subject to the phallic function

The phallic function as a kind of law of presence acts to confine subjects.

In his essay “Woman is one of the name’s of the Father” Žižek points out several of the misreadings of Lacanian sexuation and in particular the idea of how exception works in relation to pas-tout. The psychic construction of woman as pas-tout has to do with the fact that her complete ‘fitting’ to the phallic function is that which allows her to escape it. Žižek uses the example of the film The Shawshank Redemption to explain this fact. The masculine side of the formula would explain the view of one being in prison that they maintain a concept of exception while they are there.
They remain ‘outside’ the prison while they’re still within the walls. This is why the old man Brooks commits suicide because his view of the world and what he experiences when he is let out is too different.

Žižek writes:

“Prison effectively destroys me, attains a total hold over me, precisely when I do not fully consent to the fact that I am in prison but maintain a kind of inner distance towards it, stick to the illusion that real life is elsewhere, and all the time indulge in daydreaming about life outside, about nice things that are waiting for me after my release or escape. I thereby get caught in the vicious cycle of fantasy, so that when eventually I am released, the grotesque discord between fantasy and reality breaks me down. The only true solution is therefore fully to accept the rules of prison life and then, within the universe governed by these rules, to work on a way to beat them. In short, inner distance and daydreaming about life elsewhere effectively enchains me to prison, whereas full acceptance of the fact that I am really there, bound by the prison rules, opens up a space for true hope” (“Woman is one of the name’s of the Father”).

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Give up your inner distance!

It is for this same reason that a purportedly post-ideological position is the most ideological or in Althusserian parlance, the thought that we escape interpellation consciously is the point at which ideology fully takes hold of us. It is only when we accept what we ‘are’ what the outside world determines us that a gap of freedom actually comes into existence.

It is important to emphasize the status of sexual difference. The concept of the feminine pas-tout is a psychic construction, a mental configuration. Furthermore, and what Butler fails to notice, is how the emergence of the Law does not sexuate subjects but that sexuation happens at the level of the Real, it is a splice in the fantastic creature Lacan names the lamella (which literally means man-omelet) which is the libido. The lamella is ‘pure surface’ it is the indestructible entity that remains after castration, it is in and of itself the irreducible failure of sex, it is why ‘There is no sexual relationship.’

/4/ – To Conclude…

Against Butler’s push that the Real is the realm of the excluded, the abject, Žižek argues that the Real is the space of the impossibility of inclusion, the impossibility of totalization. This is why when Lacan quips that ‘Woman doesn’t exist’ he isn’t banishing women to some field of abjection but that the very existence of the category does not allow them to be women. Furthermore, the phallus function is present on both sides of the equation and it is not that women are subject to it while men someone fully utilize it. The top half of the masculine side of Lacan’s formula of sexuation suggests that there is one X who is exempt from the function, this is the miss of the primordial father who was murdered in order to solidify kinship. And, as Žižek points out in The Sublime Object of Ideology, if Woman doesn’t exist then Man is simply a Woman who has been suckered into thinking he actually exists, that he actually is exempt from the Law.

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3 Responses to “In Defense of the Real”

  1. 1 Carlos

    I think Butler’s notion of the abject is misinterpret here. Zizek and Butler it seems refer to the exact same thing. When both arguments are taken as the obverse of each other, we get a Zizekian paralax. It is true that the domain of the abject for Butler is a domain excluded from larger regimes of representability, but this does not mean that the Real cannot be made manifest through transferential or sublime dialectical capacities. As with Zizek, Butler maintains that the Real, so long as it “signifies” the repressed, cannot be a domain of inclusion because it is precisely a domain of non-representability, or rather, it is a domain which is in its signification “unreal” and thus excluded from normative frameworks. In this sense, Butler agrees that the category “women” is not itself banished to any field of abjection as such but instead that to assume the identity “woman” under the auspices of “women,” is in itself the denunciation of the feminine voice which simultaneously assumes a register of the philosophical father. This is exactly what Lacan himself seems to be positing. The domain of the abject is the “not-yet,” the spectral, the ghosty existence of the animated undead which is synonimous with the void in within which the sublime object exists.


  1. 1 Meshing the Real and the Transcendental or Katerina Kolozova « Naught Thought
  2. 2 Alas, Gender…pt. 2 « Naught Thought

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