The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018
Symbolic order: Along with the Imaginary order and the Real, one of the three orders of subjectivity according to twentieth-century French psychoanalytic critic and theorist Jacques Lacan. The Symbolic order is the realm of law, language, and society; it is the repository of generally held cultural beliefs. Its symbolic system is language, whose agent is the father or lawgiver, the one who has the power of naming. The human subject is forced into this preestablished order by language (a process that begins long before a child can actually speak) and must submit to its rules of communication (grammar, syntax, etc.). Entrance into the Symbolic order determines subjectivity according to a primary law of referentiality that takes the male sign (phallus) as its ordering principle. Although both sexes submit to the law of the phallus (the law of order, language, and differentiation), their individual relation to the law determines whether they see themselves as — and are seen by others to be — “masculine” or “feminine.”
The Symbolic institutes repression (of the Imaginary), thus creating the unconscious, which itself is structured like the language of the Symbolic. The unconscious, a timeless realm, cannot be known directly, but it can be understood though language — hence, psychoanalysis is said to be a “talking cure,” providing access to repressed material in the unconcious. The Symbolic is not a “stage” of development; we constantly negotiate its threshold (e.g., in sleep, in drunkenness) and can “fall out” of it altogether (e.g., in psychosis). The concept of the Symbolic — like Lacan’s schema and terminology more generally — has proved useful to psychoanalytic critics analyzing the interplay among texts, language, and the unconscious.