symbolic, real, imaginary

"Machines take over functions of the central nervous system, and no longer, as in the past, merely those of muscles. And with this differentiation – and not with steam engines and railroads – a clear division occurs between matter and information, the real and the symbolic" (Kittler, GFT, 16).

"The symbolic," "the real," and "the imaginary" all have individual OED definitions, all relate to something significant in our daily sense of the world, all evoke meanings and references independent of each other. We seek out (or avoid) the Real World; we have Imaginary Friends; we experience Symbolic Moments.

However, if we’re talking about media, perception, and representation, we begin with the symbolic-real-imaginary triad of Jacques Lacan’s three psychoanalytic orders, developed during a series of lectures in the 1950’s. In the Lacanian arena, the symbolic-real-imaginary forms a trio of intrapsychic realms which comprise the various levels of psychic phenomena. They serve to situate subjectivity within a system of perception and a dialogue with the external world. Since perception, subject formation, language and image are common stakeholders in both psychoanalytic and mediatic discourses, theories of media (in their various forms and abstractions) are embedded with invocations of these three Lacanian orders and a further concern with their interplay. In a general sense, attempts to theorize media in terms of the intricate and slippery border between the internal and the external, discussions of language, image, sound…often begin with Lacan’s infantile mirror stage and further align the continued reproduction of subjectivity with the influences of external stimuli such as media. From that point, theorists engaged in Lacanian analyses situate the functioning and internalization of media experience/production in terms of the real-symbolic-imaginary (or their designated equivalent) the three orders that, according to Lacan, originate in this mirror stage.

Lacan’s picture of the symbolic-real-imaginary orders are deeply rooted in Freudian notions of the Oedipal phase, infantile sexuality, and the project of uncovering unconscious processes through language and associations. It would be impossible to comprehensively illustrate the breadth and intricacies of this picture in a three page keyword account; neither could the full implications of Lacanian analysis within media theory, for that matter, be simply summarized as a homogenous approach. However, several key themes and useful threads tend to appear in discussions of media and Lacanian subjectivity. In the space allowed here, I will attempt to briefly outline 1) the key function, formation, and description of each Lacanian order, 2) some of the main issues related to the symbolic-real-imaginary that resurface within theories of media, and 3) a discussion of two major approaches (among others) used by theorists concerned with the interplay between these orders: a) the internal/individual processes of spectatorship, and b) the external/cultural experiences of new media.

The Mirror Stage and the Symbolic Order
According to Lacan, when the infant stumbles upon a mirror (see Mirror), she is suddenly bombarded with an image of herself as whole – whereas she previously experienced existence as a fragmented entity with libidinal needs. The image itself in the mirror is described by Lacan as the "Ideal-I" (Lacan, Mirror, 2). This ego ideal, for Lacan, provides an image of wholeness which constitutes the ego. As in Freud, this is formed through an external force; in this case, the sudden realization of a complete image of self that appears in the mirror to counteract an infant’s primordial sense of her fragmented body.

This jubilant assumption of his specular image by the child at the infans stage, still sunk in his motor incapacity and nursling dependent, would seem to exhibit in an exemplary situation the symbolic matrix in which the I is precipitated in a primordial form, before it is objectified in the dialectic of identification with the other, and before language restores to it, in the universal its function as subject (Lacan, Mirror, 2).

This image in the mirror is the image of coherence – of what makes the world and our place as complete subjects in it make sense. It becomes a process of identification of internal self with that external image. The mirror stage thus represents the infant’s first encounter with subjectivity, with spatial relations, with an external sense of coherence, and with a sense of "I" and "You." It also plays a key function in the interpellation of subjectivity within theories of Althusserian ideology – through the various Ideological State Apparatuses (ISA’s) which provide culturally specific images of coherence.

Using this scene – along with the Oedipal and phallic functions - as a model for his theory on the development of the psyche, Lacan, in his later works, then identifies the three orders. These can be seen as spaces in which certain aspects of subjectivity operate.

The Imaginary: the imaginary becomes the internalized image of this ideal, whole, self and is situated around the notion of coherence rather than fragmentation. The imaginary can roughly be aligned with the formation of the ego which serves as the mediator (as in Freud) between the internal and the external world (Vogler, 2). It becomes, in Lacan, the space in which the relation "between the ego and its images" (Miller, 280) is developed. For Pierce, the imaginary is aligned with the "icon" – an image which is "understood" with no (or little) mediation (Pierce, 102); for Saussure the imaginary becomes the "signified" the concept symbolized arbitrarily by a sign (Saussure, 114).

The Symbolic: in contrast to the imaginary, the symbolic involves the formation of signifiers and language and is considered to be the "determining order of the subject" (Miller, 279). Seeing the entire system of the unconscious/conscious as manifesting in an endless web of signifiers/ieds and associations, Lacan claims that, "Symbols in fact envelop the life of man in a network so total that they join together, before he comes into the world, those who are going to engender him…" (Language, 42). And, "Man speaks therefore, but it is because the symbol has made him man" (39). The Symbolic Order functions as the way in which the subject is organized and, to a certain extent, how the psyche becomes accessible. It is associated with language, with words, with writing and can be aligned with Peirce’s "symbol" and Saussure’s "signifier." (see symbol-icon-index)

The Real: very unlike our conventional conception of objective/collective experience, in Lacanian theory the real becomes that which resists representation, what is pre-mirror, pre-imaginary, pre-symbolic – what cannot be symbolized – what loses it’s "reality" once it is symbolized (made conscious) through language. It is "the aspect where words fail" (Vogler, 2), what Miller describes as, "the ineliminable residue of all articulation, the foreclosed element, which may be approached, but never grasped: the umbilical cord of the symbolic" (280). This is perhaps the source of the most contention within theories of media in that media itself can only point at the real but never embody it, never be it. For Peirce, this can be described as the "index" – the "real" traces left behind; for Saussure this is the "bar." For Kittler (see below), the real is aligned with sound – as opposed to word and image – in his discussion of the gramophone which records all the jumbled fragmentation of the "real" – before it is edited into a coherent picture in other forms like film. In a sense, the real is everything that is not media, but that informs all media. [See Reality/Hyperreality, (2)].

Media and Subjectivity
Media, whether situated within a "Poetic Model" or a "Communication Model," inherently involves the notion of mediation as a function of individual perception and cultural interpretation. Lacanian psychoanalytic themes appear within various arguments, critiques, extrapolations, and illuminations characterizing the discourse. However, the main Lacanian issues that seem to appear frequently in discussions of media, representation, ideology and culture involve:

+ the presumption/illusion of wholeness vs. fragmentation,

+ the role of language and symbol,

+ the kind of mediations performed by the ego through perception,

+ the function of "the gaze,"

+ defenses against trauma,

+ changes in internal perception,

+ and ultimately the complex relation of representation to "the real" (which for Lacan is what cannot be represented).

Mulvey and Kittler
For example, Laura Mulvey, in her pivotal essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975), materializes such Lacanian systems as the symbolic order and the phallic function into a psychoanalytic approach to the cinema. According to Mulvey’s argument, cinema operates as an embodiment of the experience – for the spectator as male subject – of the mirror stage and the perpetuation of phallocentric desire. For Mulvey, ego ideals are provided for a male spectator on the screen (representing the mirror) via the male hero. The protagonist is situated as the ego ideal and is established as that with which to identify in order to make sense of the experience of film watching (590). And, since the male protagonists of Hollywood cinema are coded as active, this action is determined by what erotically falls under the male gaze.

Moreover, the male hero is in possession of the phallus in the Lacanian sense; he holds that which draws the attention and love of the screen woman/mother. For Lacan, the phallus is the signifier of this desire brought forward through language – where "…the logos is joined with the advent of desire" (Phallus, 287). In order to fill the gap created by this desire – signified by the phallus, the subject must find a way to be the phallus in order to draw the attention and recognition from the Other. The male spectator, therefore, re-experiencing the need to possess the phallus in order to fill the gap created by the desire for female-other in the film, must also be the phallus, that which is desired. This necessitates an identification with he who possesses it. The male spectator-as-male-subject thus identifies with the active male protagonist who has everything that is attractive – including narrative and visual power.

In this way, Mulvey’s use of the imaginary situates the screen image as that which is internalized as an ideal within the spectator – a constructed image representing desire. The symbolic, in this case, are the various representations and codes that structure the film apparatus. The real, well, that’s sticky, but may be considered as the very internal, unconscious maneuverings of the subject/spectator as he/she interacts with the imaginary and the symbolic. All of which Mulvey reigns into a discussion of the internal processes of the male spectator as a way to understand the broader cultural processes of film production. All three orders can be found in the interpretation of one medium.

On the other hand (although not clearly opposite), Friedrich Kittler in Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (1986) makes the distinction between the three orders on the level of types of media themselves rather than a system of intrapsychic phenomena in the spectator/subject. For Kittler, the invention of new technological media created profound changes in perception and mediation of the external world within each of Lacan’s three orders. Kittler organizes his discussion of these three types of media around a general alignment of the gramophone with the real, the typewriter with the symbolic, and film with the imaginary (15-16).

Accordingly, the gramophone, he states, is able to record undifferentiated sounds, without the need for editing, and was used in the early days of psychoanalysis to record the "gibberish" of the unconscious, what Rilke calls "Primal Sound" (38) (see Noise). Kittler associates the real with the "physiology of the voice" (82), the actual waves of sound captured by the recording. Film, however, what he sees as a natural progression from the gramophone represents the imaginary –in that it produces an image – a phantasm of flowing images (rather than the reality of their fragmentation). "Instead of recording physical waves, generally speaking [film] only stores their chemical effects on its negatives" (119). Lastly, the typewriter, in its link to – and alienation from – writing, is aligned with the symbolic in Kittler. Typewriting demands translation, decoding, a series of signifiers. All of these, however, as in Mulvey, once fragmented and dissected merge together again in the external formation of our current technological media.

Amanda Loos
Winter 2002