Real, the: Along with the Imaginary and Symbolic orders, one of the three orders of subjectivity according to twentieth-century French psychoanalytic theorist and critic Jacques Lacan. The Real is not what we call “reality”; rather it is the intractable and substantial world that resists and exceeds interpretation. Death, gravity, and the physicality of objects are examples of the Real, but the words signifying these realities ultimately and utterly fail to explain or make sense of their apparent inevitability.
Because the Real cannot be known, imagined, symbolized, or named, it challenges both the Imaginary and Symbolic orders. The Real is fundamentally Other, the mark of the divide between conscious and unconscious, and is signaled in language by gaps, slips, speechlessness, and the sense of the uncanny. It is the stumbling block of the Imaginary, which thinks it can “imagine” anything (including the Real), and of the Symbolic, which tries to bring the Real under its laws. The Real is frightening; we try to tame it with order, language, and differentiation — that is, with the law of the phallus, a culturally prevalent law of referentiality that takes the male sign as its ordering principle and determines an individual’s entrance into the Symbolic — and call it “reality.” The Real, however, exposes the “phallacy” of the law of the phallus, revealing both the Symbolic order’s reliance on the male sign as a referent and demonstrating the inappropriateness of such reliance in a world where meaning and comprehension rest in gaps and on the margins of human perception. The concept of the Real — like Lacan’s schema and terminology more generally — has proven useful to psychoanalytic critics in their analyses of language, literature, and the laws governing expression and interpretation.