The nature of the Real

This probably seems an impossibly ambitious topic for a blog posting (or even a PhD thesis) but then again that’s the whole point: the Real is essentially the impossible (to say).  At least, this is how it’s often presented in Lacanian literature.    The point here, though, is that Lacan’s conception of the Real changed through time, and in my view at least it’s not quite as simple as saying, in effect, that there is nothing to say (or write) about the Real.

Dylan Evans, in his dictionary of Lacanian psychoanalysis, gives quite a useful summary of the way Lacan’s thinking about the Real evolved from the 1930s to the 1970s.1  However, Evans seems to stop at the very moment Lacan’s ideas move (potentially) beyond the notion that there is very little we can say about the Real.  This is not to say that Lacan is moving away from the position of the Real as impossible (to say), but, rather, it’s the nature of this impossibility that’s of interest.

I think there is a commonly held view amongst many theoreticians that the Real is just another name for the extra-discursive, or, in Kantian language, the noumena.  In other words, the Real is that which is outside of the senses, outside of representation, outside of discourse.  Of course, if this is actually the case then there is very little point in trying to say or write anything about the Real: all we can do is just accept that it’s ‘there’, in some way, without us being able to represent it.

In which case, why bother to introduce the concept at all?  And this, implicitly at least, seems to be the position of a great deal of psychotherapy – and a great deal of modern philosophy.  Instead, the focus shifts to the phenomena, what can be described and represented.  At the same time, the focus shifts from the signifier to the signified.  In other words, the focus is now on representation and meaning.

Unfortunately, this feeds a common misconception that psychoanalysis itself is primarily interested representation and meaning.  Of course, psychoanalysis is interested in both, but not as an end in itself.  Rather, it is through representation and meaning that we can arrive at another place; a place beyond representation and meaning; a place beyond language.  In other words, we arrive at the Real.

However, in saying this, we are also implying, perhaps, that there is a relationship between language and the Real, which seems a contradiction in terms.  Surely, the Real is beyond language?  But perhaps this is where we need to rethink the nature of the Real.  This is where we need to think of another way to theorise (if not describe) the Real; to find a way that allows us to speak (and write) of something that is beyond representation.

  1. Evans, D. (1996) An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis. London, Routledge, pp.159-161 []