- The Real. This concept marks the state of nature from which we have been forever severed by our entrance into language. Only as neo-natal children were we close to this state of nature, a state in which there is nothing but need. A baby needs and seeks to satisfy those needs with no sense for any separation between itself and the external world or the world of others. For this reason, Lacan sometimes represents this state of nature as a time of fullness or completeness that is subsequently lost through the entrance into language. The primordial animal need for copulation (for example, when animals are in heat) similarly corresponds to this state of nature. There is a need followed by a search for satisfaction. As far as humans are concerned, however, "the real is impossible," as Lacan was fond of saying.
- The Imaginary Order. This concept corresponds to the mirror stage and marks the movement of the subject from primal need to what Lacan terms "demand." As the connection to the mirror stage suggests, the "imaginary" is primarily narcissistic even though it sets the stage for the fantasies of desire. (For Lacan's understanding of desire, see the next module.) Whereas needs can be fulfilled, demands are, by definition, unsatisfiable; in other words, we are already making the movement into the sort of lack that, for Lacan, defines the human subject. Once a child begins to recognize that its body is separate from the world and its mother, it begins to feel anxiety, which is caused by a sense of something lost. The demand of the child, then, is to make the other a part of itself, as it seemed to be in the child's now lost state of nature (the neo-natal months). The child's demand is, therefore, impossible to realize and functions, ultimately, as a reminder of loss and lack. The mirror stage corresponds to this demand in so far as the child misrecognizes in its mirror image a stable, coherent, whole self, which, however, does not correspond to the real child (and is, therefore, impossible to realize).
- The Symbolic Order (or the "big Other"). Whereas the imaginary is all about equations and identifications, the symbolic is about language and narrative. Once a child enters into language and accepts the rules and dictates of society, it is able to deal with others. The acceptance of language's rules is aligned with the Oedipus complex, according to Lacan. The symbolic is made possible because of your acceptance of the Name-of-the-Father, those laws and restrictions that control both your desire and the rules of communication: "It is in the name of the father that we must recognize the support of the symbolic function which, from the dawn of history, has identified his person with the figure of the law" (Écrits 67). Through recognition of the Name-of-the-Father, you are able to enter into a community of others.
Whereas the Real concerns need and the Imaginary concerns demand, the symbolic is all about desire, according to Lacan. (For more on desire, see the next module.) Once we enter into language, our desire is forever afterwards bound up with the play of language. We should keep in mind, however, that the Real and the Imaginary continue to play a part in the evolution of human desire within the symbolic order. The fact that our fantasies always fail before the Real, for example, ensures that we continue to desire; desire in the symbolic order could, in fact, be said to be our way to avoid coming into full contact with the Real, so that desire is ultimately most interested not in obtaining the object of desire but, rather, in reproducing itself. The narcissism of the Imaginary is also crucial for the establishment of desire...The Real, the Imaginary, and the Symbolic thus work together to create the tensions of our psychodynamic selves. Felluga, Dino. home page. Purdue U.