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What is The Real || 2

A few weeks back (when the newsletter was still CP), I started to write about the register of the real, and I described four moments in Lacan’s work, where he thinks/speaks/teaches about the real. I then tried to describe how the real was approached in the first moment, what I call Lacan’s demo-tape.

What I want to do this week is to make something clear: It is tough to write or talk about the real.

This is because the real is outside the imaginary and the symbolic, which are the two things people use to orient themselves and make sense of their experiences. In a sense, the real is always there, but we can’t comprehend it because we can’t experience it the way we experience everything else.

Be that as it may, there are some brilliant people who I believe have managed to write about the real in ways that I find helpful. In this edition of CP, I want to feature one of these writers.

Stealing from smart people:

I’ll start with Lionel Bailly and quote from his handy text Lacan: A Beginners Guide.


It is not by chance that the Real was the last of [the three] ‘realms’ to be formulated: the concept was put forward only because in the formulations of the Imaginary and the Symbolic, it became evident that something was always being ‘left out’. […] Lacan borrowed a term from Heidegger when he said that the Real ex-sists, because the Symbolic and Imaginary exist. More simply (and more usefully in psychoanalysis): for everything that comes into our field of recognition by means of a signifier, something of it must remain imperceptible, unsymbolised: this is the Real. […] The Real is the featureless clay from which reality is fashioned by the Symbolic; it is the chaos from which the world came into being.

There is a lot of important stuff in the quote above.

  • The imaginary & symbolic exist, and because they exist we can grasp them and use them as tools.
  • The real ex-sists. I believe Lacan first used the term ex-sists in his 1973-1974 Seminar XXII R.S.I. It’s a creative and interesting way of signifying something very difficult to signify! The real does not exist in the same way that other things exist—the real ex-sists.
  • Example: I think it might be useful to compare the real to something like dark matter, which we have never seen directly, but we have seen how it affects all the stuff we do see. Perhaps the real and dark matter both ex-sist, and we know they are out there because we see their mark on all the things that exist.

Another thing that is interesting about the use of the term ex-sist is how it shows that while we can’t actually talk or write about the real head-on, we might be able to catch hold of a little bit of what the real leaves in its wake via creative use of the symbolic and the imaginary.

This “catching hold” of the real leaves in its wake has also been called “getting a handle on the real.” I like the use of this term for a few reasons.

  • First, you use a handle to get a hold of something you can’t hold. For instance, I’m drinking coffee out of a mug as I write these words. The mug has a handle on it, and I use that handle to get the coffee (which I can’t hold because it is a hot liquid) to my mouth.
  • Second, a handle is not the thing it catches hold of. In the example of my coffee mug above, the mug’s handle is not the coffee, but it helps me catch hold of the coffee.

Getting a handle on the real:

In the same text, Bailly also gets into an essential aspect of the real —because it is outside of the symbolic, you can’t describe it via the symbolic. This is problematic because we describe everything with the symbolic!

Question: How do you describe something with language that can’t be grasped via language?

Answer: You give it your best shot and hope that you can catch just a glimpse of the thing you want to see.


The psychoanalyst Thomas Svolos writes about this in the second chapter of his most recent book, The Aims of Analysis. The title of the second chapter is “Getting a Handle on the Real.” I’ll probably write about that next time, or if not next time at some point soon.

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