One might at this point ask: as opposed to what? In other words, a psychoanalysis of….the Symbolic, the Imaginary, neurosis…? In fact, it might be better to argue that it’s not a so much a case of a psychoanalysis of the Real in opposition to, say, the Symbolic, but rather a re-writing of a psychoanalysis of the Symbolic. But before explaining this in more detail it’s worth looking at another way that we might talk about a psychoanalysis of the Symbolic (as opposed to that of the Real). In their introduction to The Later Lacan Voruz and Wolf argue that it is possible to look at Lacan’s work in three distinct phases.1 The first phase stretches from 1953 to 1964, and covers seminars one to ten. The second phases goes from 1964 to 1972 and covers seminars eleven to nineteen. The third phases lasts from 1972 until Lacan’s death in 1981 and covers seminar twenty onwards.
Voruz and Wolf go onto argue that during the first phase Lacan’s teachings focused predominately on the Imaginary in terms of exploring and articulating the formation of the ego. At the end of this period, and in the course of seminar ten, Lacan introduces the concept of the object a in the context of anxiety. Object a can be thought of as a “…logical supplement figuring a real caught in the symbolic order…”2 In other words, object a is a piece of the Real, a remainder of the Real, caught in the Symbolic. From seminar eleven up until his seminar on jouissance and feminine sexuality (seminar twenty) Lacan will explore the ways in which this piece of the Real can be circumscribed in the Symbolic order.
For many Lacanians, I would argue, the story ends here, at seminar twenty in the early 1970s. It’s not so much that they fail to acknowledge Lacan’s subsequent teachings, but rather it often seems they are not quite sure what to do with them, especially as Lacan appeared to many to become increasingly esoteric and ‘un-Freudian’ as he developed his theories of the Borromean Knot, the sinthome, the plurality of the names of the father, jouissance as enjoy-meant, and the jouissance of language itself.
And there is no question, in my mind at least, that this ‘later Lacan’, as Voruz and Wolf describe it, presents a very different picture of psychoanalysis than the one of the ‘earlier Lacan’ (though this is not a term Voruz and Wolf use themselves). Furthermore, it is certainly not a picture of psychoanalysis that Freud himself would recognise. Paradoxically, though, I would also argue that this ‘third phase’ of Lacan represents the real (Real) ‘return to Freud’, in the sense that the Real of language, the Real of the unconscious, becomes the main focus. The key point here is that a ‘return to Freud’, just like a ‘return to Marx’ (Althusser), does not mean a simple regurgitation of the original ideas. Rather, it means returning to the primary texts and reworking them in the light of new ideas and developments in the field (structuralism, topology, knot theory, etc).
At the same time, this focus on the Real cuts through all the Imaginary distortions of analytic theory and practice that have been propagated in Freud’s name, for example ego psychology, object relations and even some Lacanian approaches. And with reference to the latter, one of the problems with some Lacanian readings of Lacan appears to be they still do not fully appreciate the significance of his ‘inversion’ of the Saussurian sign; that is, privileging the signifier over the signified, and essentially the ‘uncoupling’ the two. In Saussure’s original formulation of the sign, not only was the signified ‘over’ the signified, but it was also welded to it. Although Saussure was clear that there was no necessary connection between the signified and the signifier at the outset, once they were coupled together the sign (and the meaning) became fixed within a particular ‘language community’. Furthermore, in Saussure’s theory the signified is not a product of the signifier (Lacan’s argument) but rather appears to exist in some Platonic transcendental reality before becoming embodied in the signifier.
With Lacan’s formulation, however, everything changes with not only a privileging of the signifier, but also, as mentioned earlier, the signified as its product. In other words, meaning does not pre-exist in some transcendental reality, but rather is a function of the signifier. But things do not end there: because there is no pre-existing meaning, no transcendental world of Ideas, meaning cannot become embodied in a single signifier (which essentially produces the Saussurian sign). Rather, meaning is produced in the network or chain of signifiers that is the Symbolic order. In this sense, there is not only no ‘original’ relationship between signifier and signified (Saussure’s argument) but there is never any real ‘fixing’ of meaning either.
And this matters when it comes to the question of the Real, because as I’ve argued elsewhere the material signifier-in -isolation can be seen as ‘constituent’ (for want of a better word) of the Real, whereas the signifier-in-relation is the Symbolic.3 Of course, in ‘classical’ Lacanian theory, there is one particular signifier that plays a critical role in ‘anchoring’ the Symbolic chain, and this is the Name-of-the-Father. Without this ‘anchorage’ the Symbolic order effectively collapses, which is what tends to happen in psychosis. In the ‘later Lacan’, things get more complicated because the Name-of-the-Father becomes just one form of ‘anchorage’ or ‘binding’ of the Real, Symbolic and the Imaginary.
And at this point perhaps it is worth returning to my introductory comments regarding a psychoanalysis of the Real, and how this could be seen in terms of a re-writing of a psychoanalysis of the Symbolic. The key point here is that Real of language itself becomes the focus, and this is linked to the idea of the enjoy-meant (jouissance) of language. Another way of formulating this is to say that the Real of language is the Real of the signifier, the signifier (in isolation) as Real, the signifier as a material ‘thing’.
The problem with the Real of language is that there is something inherently traumatic about it. In fact, as early as seminar eleven Lacan was clear that trauma is a manifestation of the Real. And the reason that this is a problem is that most talking therapies rely on language in order to circumscribe trauma, to ‘make sense’ of it. However, if we look at the Real as ‘constituent’ of language, then this suggests there is something inherently traumatic about language itself, in the same way that there is a kernel of the Real in the midst of the dream.
This leads to the rather paradoxical situation that at the heart of the ‘solution’ to trauma, i.e. speech and language, lies trauma itself…