Comment on Lacan’s main contribution to critical theory.
Following his description of the Mirror Stage, Lacan made a profound leap. He postulated that the child’s false perception of self in the mirror is characteristic of one of the three so-called registers, or orders, in which human beings experience the world. He called this first register the “Imaginary” register, related to the word image and not to “imagination” or “imagining.” The “imaginary” register is the world of sensations-visual, olfactory, auditory, and tactile-and is the register we use to compare ourselves to others. When we meet a patient for the first time, or anyone else for that matter, our initial impression takes place in the “imaginary register. We are indeed “judging a book by its cover.” Lacan’s main contribution to critical theory.
Symptoms and speech
In 1895, Freud made a close association between symptoms and speech in his Studies on Hysteria. Lacan took this further, describing symptoms literally as “words trapped in the body.” This is not as strange as it sounds. We all believe that when patients speak to us-and their words leave their mouths and their bodies-this has something to do with them feeling better and making positive changes in their lives over time. Lacan’s main contribution to critical theory.
Lacan even suggests that: “We are our words, rather the other way around.” It is not we who speak our words, but instead the words that we speak define who we are. A novel thought indeed! And yet, as soon as we speak, we are immediately misunderstood by the listener, for we all attach our own individual meanings to the words we use, that are always going to be more or less different from how the listener understands them. To quote Lacan: “Language is meant to be misunderstood.” Much of psychotherapy consists of asking our patients to clarify and elaborate on what they have just told us, so we can have a closer understanding of what they have in mind. Lacan’s main contribution to critical theory.
In the illustrated book, Introducing Lacan, the example is given of a girl who repeatedly banged her head on the wall next to her bed each morning.” This symptom disappeared when she connected her behavior in therapy to her mother having told her that her father often “woke up on the wrong side of the bed.”
Signifier and signified
Lacan became particularly interested in the work of Ferdinand de Saussure, one of the founders of 20th century linguistics. De Saussure described the linguistic sign composed of
(1) a signifier, ie, acoustic image of the word we hear, connected to
(2) a signified, ie, concept. For example, the sound of the word “ox” will make an acoustic impression on the listener. Each of us, however, will have a somewhat different idea of what this “ox” is like. For some of us it will be Paul Bunyan’s sidekick, Babe the Blue Ox, for others, the meat in oxtail soup, and for others the ox in Johann Heinrich Roos’s 15th century painting of an ox, and so on. Therefore, the signified, in this example, is the concept of an ox, and not a particular ox. Lacan’s main contribution to critical theory.
The symbolic register
In the 1950s, Lacan developed the idea of the “symbolic register,” that part of human existence that includes language, culture, laws, traditions, rituals, and religion. This symbolic register is waiting for us when we are born. Our parents have often already selected a name for us, we learn the language of our family, we take part in our family’s traditions and rituals, etc. Even a vision of our future has often been mapped out for us. It is no accident that the children of musicians, physicians, and even morticians, often follow in their parents’ careers.
The symbolic register increasingly takes its place alongside the imaginary register. In another example from the book, Introducing Lacan, a mother is telling her child who is being held up in front of a mirror: “You’ve got grandma’s eyes,” “You look just like your father,” etc. The child will later identify with, rebel against, or do some of each, with what it has absorbed through the symbolic register. Lacan’s main contribution to critical theory.
One of Lacan’s therapeutic goals was to help the patient increasingly move from the imaginary to the symbolic register. Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed this idea well: “I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Lacan’s main contribution to critical theory.
The real register
In 1953, Lacan identified a third register of human existence, the “real.” Whereas, the imaginary is the world of immediate sensory perceptions, and the symbolic is based on language and gives meaning to everything around us, the real is whatever else there is that is devoid of meaning. Quoting Lacan: “The real is all that cannot be symbolized and that is excluded from the symbolic and imaginary registers.” Lacan’s main contribution to critical theory.
Before and soon after a baby is born and has not yet acquired words or language, it is living entirely in the real register. As soon as it learns to say “mama” and other signifiers, the baby has begun to take part in the symbolic register that “makes a cut in the real.” Lacan’s main contribution to critical theory.
Whenever we speak, there is always much more that remains unspoken, and whatever is left unsaid and unsymbolized, exists in the real. At the other end of the life spectrum, for patients with advanced Alzheimer disease for whom words have mostly lost their meaning, they are increasingly living in the register of the real.
Lacan’s diagnostic categories
Lacan, following Freud, had three major diagnostic categories: (1) Neurosis – that he divided into the Obsessive and the Hysteric personality; (2) Perversion; and (3) Psychosis. All DSM V categories collapse into these three major categories of diagnosis for Lacan.
Neurosis 1: the hysteric. The hysteric asks: “What is it to be a woman (or a man)?” who lives her (or his) life through “the other.” A young adult patient of mine with many features of borderline personality disorder-self-mutilation, suicidal ideation, substance abuse, unstable relationships, and splitting as a prominent defense mechanism-was obsessed with an idealized young woman movie star who had died by suicide. My patient wanted me (“the other”) to tell her why she shouldn’t also kill herself. Lacan’s main contribution to critical theory.
A Lacan quote came to mind: “The patient knows everything and the analyst knows nothing,” meaning that a patient’s conflicts exist entirely within his or her own unconscious and not in the mind of the therapist. Therefore, I told the patient that I couldn’t tell her what she should do because only she had the answer to this question. She expressed immediate relief from the self-destructive idea that she had been entertaining.
I believe for three reasons: (1) what I said was true;
(2) my response gave her a greater sense of agency; and
(3) we now had a method to help her free herself from her self-destructive obsession-with both of us listening to the two sides of her conflict, the part of herself that wanted to follow in the footsteps of her beloved movie star and the part of her that wanted to remain alive. Needless to say, I too was relieved by not needing to justify to my young patient why she should continue to live. Lacan’s main contribution to critical theory.