The Lacanian Real

One of Lacan’s most intriguing conceptualisations is that of the “Real“. Distinct from the “symbolic” and “imaginary” registers, the Real has been accompanying Lacan’s teaching from the  very beginning – gaining centre stage in the later years of his seminars.


But what is the Real? First of all, let us acknowledge that it is not at all what we conceive of as “reality”. “Reality is psychic reality”, it is always already mediated by the mental domain. That is not to say that it is completely subjective, on the contrary, reality gains its “objectivity” in relation to our shared symbolic representations of the objects in our world. Accordingly we conceive of reality as always already engulfed by meanings, by concepts which “make sense” in an intersubjective way.

This idea is not new, nor is it so contemporary. We can easily identify its roots in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. According to Kant, any phenomenon in reality is already mediated by human intuition (that is, our sense of time and space), as well as by the human categories of reason. Thus, according to Kant, every object in the world is inherently constituted in relation to our rational categories and sense of time and space. Kant’s ingenuity – and what he called his awakening – was situating these human coordinated as an inseparable part of any objective phenomenon in reality. Claiming that time and space, as well as attributes such as quantity, quality, causality etc, are both subjective and objective at the same time – both conditioned by human existence and convey objective truth preceding human perception. Heidegger, and many phenomenologists after him, have taken this idea a couple of steps further. Claiming, for instance, that any encounter with an object is already embedded with meanings which are not necessarily rational but are “ready-to-hand”. For instance, when we see a hammer and initially conceive of it through the contexts of its use.

In Lacanian terms, we claim that any encounter with an object is already embedded with previously determined symbolic meanings. Or in other words, that things “exist” in reality as long as they are symbolically significant. Without having a symbolic attribution a “thing” cannot be an object, and thus cannot exist.

The Real, therefore, can be characterised as that aspect of an encounter with an object which does not have any symbolic designation. It is exactly that which does not “exist” in our reality. It is that part of our symbolic reality which is not signified. Nevertheless, That is not to say that it does not exist in the strictest of senses, but that if it does, it does so in a different way then the objects in our reality. This conception of the Real can be partially accredited to Heidegger’s use of the term “ek-sistence” – a unique form of existing from within which is utterly exterior. The Real ek-sists, and thus can be somehow discerned within our symbolic order, and even named, but its logic nevertheless remains ineffable, unsignifiable.

How then do we know that the Real ek-sists? By witnessing its determining effects on the symbolic order – on our reality. These usually take form in the limitation of the capacity of our symbolic imagination to traverse certain limits in our reality. In the way some inexplicable – and sometimes malevolent – order takes control of our psychic reality. The grandest example might be the inescapable limitations of death. It doesn’t matter how imaginative we would be in our attempt to avoid it, how many years scientists might work on overcoming it, death is inevitable. It is an unfathomable part of any human’s life, and even the cosmos. The Real of death – thus we name it – has an extensive effect on our life, on our reality, the way we conceive ourselves and the world (not to mention it’s capacity to put an end to all of these), but yet we cannot make sense of it.


Death and the Maiden (1915-16) by Egon Schiele

Let us, for one last moment, venture into the field of mathematics in order to tell a story that might shed more light on this relationship between the Real and reality. Let us briefly explore one of the most famous unsolved problems in number theory and all of mathematics named the Goldbach’s conjecture.

The Goldbach’s conjecture states a very simple mathematical truth – that every even number greater than 2 can be expressed as the sum of two prime numbers. Quickly reviewed, even numbers are numbers that can be divided by two – like 4, 10, 220 etc – and prime numbers are numbers that can be divided only by one and themselves – like 7, 13, 89 etc. Here are some examples:

8 = 3 + 5

10 = 3 + 7 = 5 + 5

100 = 3 + 97 = 11 + 89 = 17 + 83 = 29 + 71 = 41 + 59 = 47 + 53

You can try this at home with larger numbers, but I must warn you that mathematicians have already tested this conjecture with very strong computers up to the number of  4 × 10^18. Doesn’t matter what even number they chose, the conjecture always remained true. The big problem is that up to this day Goldbach’s conjecture remains unproven despite considerable effort. In other words, Goldbach’s conjecture unmistakably shapes the way numbers work, but on the other hand cannot be positively designated, except by name and by the effects it has on the interaction between numbers.

Let us consider the Real yet again. Like Goldbach’s conjecture, it has a permanent effect on the way the signification of our world functions – on the way we construct our world symbolically. Just like Goldbach’s conjecture, its effect can only be discerned in the patterns through which objects (or signifiers) compose our reality, but its underlying logic cannot be explained by symbolic means – it resists symbolisation. It can only be discerned in its effects and by the name we give it. It does not “exist” as a formulated or proven principle, but “ek-sists” as an unbreakable limitation to the way principles and formulas function. This is one way to address the Lacanian Real, through its relation to the uncompromising Truth of our existence. A truth only manifesting negatively in the order of things.


Do you also have an elderly uncle which, at family gatherings, keeps on telling you “I feel I’m withering away, you’ll see, a couple more month and its cancer for me!”. Or maybe its your grandfather, which keeps a blood pressure monitor next to his bed, checking his stats three times a day, never forgetting to check online on every mysterious ache or pain affecting him at least once a week. If so, your analyst or practitioner would probably tell you that you are dealing with a hypochondriac.


Similarly to paranoia, the hypochondriac is a victim of a persecutory power. But for the hypochondriac this power is strictly embodied in the terrifying organismic dimension of the body. The hypochondriac will describe the body as uncontrollable, as a deathtrap hijacking his soul, eventually sentencing him to death. He will suffer from obsessive thoughts revolving illness, and the deterioration of the body, as well as compulsive pains and other physical symptoms. Accordingly, we see the hypochondriac regularly disposed to constant pre-emptive attempts at the discovery of disease.

Nevertheless, before having anything to do with the body, hypochondria is an affliction which revolves the desire for knowledge. It is an obsessive attempt to know what our body hides from us, what goes on inside of it, and how it affects us. Some might even call it an academic endeavour, attempting to articulate something of the inarticulability of our inevitable death.

Accordingly we should view Hypochondriac delusions, such as phantom pains, as pieces of knowledge provided in the hopes that somebody could make sense out of them – like a doctor for instance. Through the interaction between “bodily-knowledge” (pain) and the knowledge of practitioners, the hypochondriac hopes to learn something of this aspect of the body which can only be mastered in actual death.

Wrongfully identified as fearing death, the hypochondriac is actually constantly in a state of contempt in regards to the enigma of dying. At the price of his own body – inflicted with pain, sacrificed as a piece of “bodily-knowledge” – the hypochondriac’s desire stands strong, demanding to know something of the twilight, even if only its exact time and place.

The Hypochondriac - William Sharp

The Hypochondriac – William Sharp

It is common to mistake the hypochondriac as latching to life, refusing death for the sake of living. But the hypochondriac laches to life only as long as knowledge about death has not been achieved. Accordingly, the hypochondriac can be considered as a worshiper of death, sacrificing his own body for the sake of some of its knowledge. He does not want to die before knowing, he lives for the sake of this knowledge, and embraces death as a partner.

Nevertheless, as Freud puts it quite bluntly – the object of the death drive is always already lost, that is to say that there is nothing to know about it. Thus, the only way to know it is as nothing – as a true place holder for the aim of the subject’s desire. The tragedy of the hypochondriac is not being aware that this knowledge can only be achieved retroactively, as well as by mistake.

This point is summarised quite delightfully in an ancient Mesopotamian tale that first appeared in the Babylonian Talmud called “The Appointment in Samarra”.

“The Appointment in Samarra” as retold by W. Somerset Maugham (1933)

There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to the market to buy provisions. In a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, “Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture, now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me.” The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace, and he saw death standing in the crowd, and he came to it and said, “Why did you make a threatening gesture at my servant when you saw him this morning?” Death then replied, “That was not a threatening gesture, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.”


This story teaches us so much, but for now let it teach us that in the end we must accept Truth as our limit point, and that in our errors and mistakes, we inevitably take part in it. Much to the hypochondriac’s dismay, his desire then might as well be reversed, for it is not in knowing, but in the process of forgetting, that we can inevitably raise death to the dignity of life.


“In Voluptas Mors,” photograph by Philippe Halsman (in collaboration with Salvador Dalí)