The Real of everyday life

It’s often tempting to think of the Real as something mysterious and esoteric; something that is transcendental or even, in some way, supernatural or occult.  However, I think this is to completely misrecognise the Real.  Or rather, although it’s actually very easy to misrecognise the Real, this is not because it’s hidden away in some mysterious realm.  On the contrary, the Real is out there in plain sight – which is why we usually fail to recognise it.

In many ways I think the Real is a bit like Freud’s concept of the Uncanny:1 although I think it’s better if we use the German term das Unheimliche.  This emphasises the connection with heimlich – which means both familiar and concealed. 2  The point about Freud’s use of the term is that it conveys the idea of something that is strangely familiar, whilst at the same invoking intense anxiety.  Essentially the Real is like this: when we encounter it, it is often in the most familiar, everyday situations – and yet there is something eerie and strange about it.

And perhaps the key point to remember, as I’ve suggested in a previous post3, is that we encounter the Real at the heart of language itself.  This is the point where meaning fails and what appears in its place is yet more anxiety.  This might also provide us with a clue regarding the proximity of the Real in the most familiar of places; in other words, when we suddenly experience intense anxiety for no apparent reason.

As Freud remarks in his paper with reference to direct experience of das Unheimliche, it’s hard to think of concrete examples of this ‘strangely familiar’ character of the Real.  Perhaps one way to think about this is to use Lacan’s notion of the lack of the lack (of the objet a).  In his seminar on Anxiety4 Lacan argues that contrary to Freud’s idea that anxiety was characterised by a lack of object,5 ‘anxiety is not without an object’.  And this object is the objet a.  So anxiety occurs when the objet a appears – or, more precisely, when the objet a’s appearance is imminent.  In other words, anxiety is a signal that the objet a is about to appear – although it never does, of course, because it doesn’t exist.

The point here is that something appears (or, rather, is about to appear) where it shouldn’t be.  It’s the moment when the familiar, the everyday, suddenly evokes a sense of foreboding, of something unsettling, of not being quite right.  These moments are often literally that – moments that disappear almost before they arrive: a knowing smile from a complete stranger, a glimpse of a figure in the distance whilst out walking in the (apparently deserted) woods, a passing shadow in an empty corridor.  All gone in a moment, but all leaving a sense of unease, a feeling of being unsettled.

Trivial examples perhaps: but this is the whole point.  In many ways the Real is ‘trivial’, ‘mundane’, ‘unexciting’.  At the same time, though, there is something odd, strange, even eerie, about it.

  1. Freud, S. (1919) ‘The Uncanny’.  In: The Standard Edition. London, Vintage/Hogarth Press, pp.218-256. []
  2. In his paper on The Uncanny Freud spends some time discussing the dictionary definitions of heimlich, and especially these two different meanings: ‘familiar/homely’ and ‘concealed’.  He concludes this section of the paper by noting that, according to Grimm’s dictionary of 1877, one meaning of heimlich is the same as unheimlich, i.e. something strange and frightening.  Many modern dictionaries, however, only give the second definition, i.e. concealed, secretive. []
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  4. Lacan, J. (2002) The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book X: Anxiety 1962-1963. []
  5. If there is an object then we are talking about fear rather than anxiety []