Imaginary Demand v. Symbolic Law

From Todd McGowan's excellent chapter titled The Psychosis of Freedom: Law in Modernity in Lacan on Psychosis: From Theory to Praxis .

There are also times when the social demand seems appealing, such as when it compels everyone to recycle or enjoins acceptance of racial difference. Though one must fight against oppressive laws and can acquiesce to particular demands, freedom nonetheless, remains on the side of law because law as such dislocates the subject while demand gives the subject an illusory sense of belonging. Laws vary and can easily become oppressive, but law as such always retains an emancipatory kernel that stems from its alienating effect on the subject. All demands—even the most politically appealing—are one in their attempt to obfuscate the subject’s alienation through the veneer of social acceptance. (p. 49-50)

Some thoughts I have about this:

The distinction between imaginary demands and symbolic Law is very useful here. The two can overlap, but there is a difference, which McGowan highlights here.

Symbolic Law is universal and indifferent to the particulars of the subjects that must comply with it or face the consequences.

  • Laws are not always just, and we may sometimes choose to act in a way that disobeys a law. However, this acting out of our capacity for freedom comes from the limit set by the Law.
  • The symbolic Law remains in place. It does not move (unless it is changed through the symbolic system of Law itself).
  • The symbolic Law castrates/alienates and, in doing this, produces the possibility for us to act in compliance with the Law, to try to sneak by it without getting caught, or to openly defy it.
  • The cost of freedom is castration and alienation. This is structural, and there is no way around it.

Imaginary demands can seem like the symbolic Law, but they lack the consistency and universality that the symbolic Law has.

  • There are consequences for acting in ways that don't comply with the imaginary demand, but (unless the demand overlaps with the Law) there are no legal consequences.
  • Imaginary freedom comes from the illusion that one is accepted or not alienated, not castrated.
  • A person who believes in (libidinally invested in) imaginary freedom has bought into a fantasy that they can be a free subject without having to pay the cost of castration.

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