Jacques Lacan is a French psychiatrist whose works on psychoanalysis have influenced the fields far beyond its own scope: continental philosophy, cultural theory, post-structuralism, film theory, etc.

Lacan himself always claimed to be Freudian but developed his own models of psychoanalysis. According to Lacan, subjectivity is what makes us ‘us’, desire being central to subjectivity. Subjectivity has its roots in different phenomena according to different schools of thought. For example, in religion, subjectivity comes from the divine investment we call ‘soul’ whereas in philosophy the source of subjectivity lies in the consciousness, mind, or brain according to some discourse.

Desire is something that we as subjects cannot fulfill from inside, thus we can never be satisfied with our own agency alone. It points us outside, to those things we imagine make us ourselves: hoping to get something we don’t have, what we want our life to look like, etc. In doing so, we constantly visualize ourselves in a projection with our desires met. However, Lacan posits that desire is like carrots in a stick. When a desire is met, it shifts onto a new projection, meaning we then desire something different. In Lacan’s psychoanalysis, this is fundamental to being a subject. We project ourselves into a future alongside other things we hope and strive for. According to Lacan desire is something that is inside us, changing forms, fluctuating, and mimicking things outside that we have no control over. To be a subject is to constantly imagining oneself with the things one does not have, thus a part of us is always elsewhere, absent and elusive. In other words, what is actually not ‘us’ is a fundamental part of us. This is what Lacan calls the Imaginary, one of the three registered experience of a subject.

Imaginary is different from pretend or make-believe because the Imaginary is what we hope to see ourselves as. It is an image-based experience, a mental projection. For example, influencers create an imaginary of themselves and post it on social media which we respond to by internalizing the desire that is invoked by seeing influencers as objects. Lacan calls this future-self the ‘ideal-I’ where we project the ideal-I into this world.

Lacan makes a clear distinction between subject and object. The object is something that is the total of its parts, a unity which cannot desire whereas the subject is something that is more because the subject experiences desire. Influencers themselves are subjects but by posting on social media they create an image that we see as unity, as objects. As we cannot experience their desires, so to us they are spectacles, objects that we aspire to become. Lacan introduces his unique concept of ‘Mirror stage’ to make this distinction. According to Lacan, babies cannot be subjects because despite having a sensory experience of their hands or feet, they cannot experience themselves as a unity. They do not want fulfillment as they cannot signify abstraction. However, when they see themselves in the mirror for the first time, they learn to see themselves as objects, a unity. And when they learn what to desire, they use this unit, this object to project the imaginary. After the mirror stage, the baby learns through language what to desire, projecting the object-self seen in the mirror in the world. Lacan borrows the ‘concept of gaze’ and extends it to further explain his own model through externalization of gaze. It means when we project ourselves, we often visualize how others are seeing us where the ‘us’ is actually the imaginary and ‘others’ and their gaze are projections themselves. Paranoia is an extreme case of externalization of the gaze. It is rooted in the desire to present us as objects in front of others which in turn invokes desire in those others by seeing us as objects.

The symbolic, another of the three registered experience, according to Lacan, is more than the imaginary in the sense that it is not just a projection, but a culmination of signs, languages, and meaning. It communicates with the imaginary and helps identities differ from other meanings. The symbolic is mostly a subconscious or an unconscious state and helps us pin meaning to ideas and objects around us. The rules and meanings that we live by, that unconsciously or subconsciously guides our actions, stem from the symbolic. The imaginary and the symbolic form an apparatus called reality which separates us from the Real, the third of the three registered psychic experiences.

According to Lacan, the reality is opposed to the Real in the sense that it is beyond what we imagine existing: the language, and our belief in ordinary reality. This is why so much of what we do cannot be explained. Reality is codified, built up by language, image, and other elements that form a coherent meaning. The self exists in this reality plane. Reality is thus a fiction meant to protect us from the Real which is the root of our phobias, obsession, irrational anxiety, etc. According to Lacan, we only encounter the Real when it ruptures the reality codified by the imaginary and the symbolic. The Real itself cannot be explained. It is incommunicable and can only be described by negation, by the absence of things. In the case of rape, for example, the trauma from the rape is much higher than the event –the violence itself. It ruptures our sense of reality that we are independent and have to control our bodies. What it leaves the victim is with the Real, control, and self-determination is already ruptured. Lacan says that the whole psyche is constructed around not letting us experience the Real because to experience the Real is to experience every fiction we have built up as fiction (instead of as reality). It is distinct from depression or nihilism because even in those states, there are some things worth doing more than other things whereas in the Real nothing is worth doing or not worth doing.

Slavoj Žižek based his ideas on Lacan’s theories of psychoanalysis by fusing it with various strands of political philosophy, making Lacanian presence apparent in a plethora of academic fields. Slavoj Žižek uses this model to expand the Marxist notions of ideology and forms his own understanding of political philosophy. Understanding Lacan is thus a prerequisite to understanding Žižek’s views. If you liked this article we recommend you this article to read From Karl Marx to Slavoj Žižek: How Ideologies Shaped Our Reality

Recommended Reading

Fink, B. (1999). A clinical introduction to Lacanian psychoanalysis: Theory and technique. Harvard Univ. Press.

Žižek, S. (2007). How to read Lacan. W.W. Norton & Co.