How might fictional prose be framed in terms of Lacan’s Three Orders? Lacan described the human psyche as operating on three different ‘orders’ or registers: the Real, the Imaginary and the Symbolic. As speaking beings, we live in all three orders simultaneously, but not always consciously. They are experiential modes – ways of experiencing reality and ways in which reality affects us – rather than the experiences themselves. For more on this, go here for a nice, concise summary go here.
The Symbolic order is entered as a child acquires language. Not just language in the sense of verbal ability, but all the analytical, law-bound, structured and hierarchical rules that interacting with others in a social order requires. Within the Symbolic order, language doesn’t just constitute the world around us, it constitutes us, too, by imposing definitions and limitations. So, the communication of ideas via the written word and how the meaning of that text is constructed through the Symbolic order is obvious, as is formalised narrative structure and the constraints of genre. The text itself is situated within literary and cultural entertainment economies. Similarly, both the writer and reader have their respective roles to play as both producers and consumers of the text.
The Imaginary order is not about imagination, but about image. We enter it as babies the moment we progress from simple need to demand. Needs (warmth, comfort, food) are met in the womb before they are even perceived as a lack. Barring disaster or an absent caregiver, a baby’s needs for the same are met when the caregiver is alerted to them (Through a cry, a wet nappy, or on a schedule). Demand arises when we want something ‘more’ than what we need. This is the beginning of desire and fantasy – and also the trigger for the acquisition of language: of learning to want what we’re taught to want, of settling for something less than the nameless thing we yearn for, and of the creation of fantasies about how desires might be satisfied. It is important to note that Lacan makes a very great distinction between need and demand. We often say we ‘need’ something – especially sex – but in reality, we desire it. No one ever died from from being denied sex. The Imaginary order also involves the formation of ego – the paradox of seeing oneself in the mirror and recognising it as you and yet not you. It is the external, beloved you, seen from an admiring distance, as if you were someone else recognising you. This process of the co-evolution of the ego ( the ‘me’ of the Imaginary order) and the subject (the ‘I’ of the Symbolic order) is a complex and alienating one. As it relates to narrative fiction, the Imaginary determines much of how both the writer and the reader internalise and visualise the characters and events of a story, relating narcissistically, emotionally to both. Kris Pint notes that “fantasy forms a shield against the pure, unmediated enjoyment of the libidinal being, and at the same time it is a construction intended to recuperate something of that enjoyment” (Pint 37).
The Real is our primal state of being. Before birth, in the womb, there is no structure to reality: no sense of self and other, no meaning. There is only raw, unmediated sensation and need, unimagined and unprocessed by fantasy, unordered by language. Nonetheless the Real is with us all our lives, irrupting into our world during traumatic or sublime experiences that take us beyond language.
If sublime or limit experiences resist language in real life, the same holds true for fictional accounts. I would argue that the Real plays a subliminal but vital part in the process of engagement with a fictional text in terms of mutually acknowledged and understood failures or silences. The clichéd memes so common to erotic fiction might serve, not only as shield, but also as mutually understood placeholders. The formulaic fantasies and overused metaphors may function not as examples of poor prose, but as flags for the presence of an absence, as ‘points the capiton,‘ pointing the cringe-worthy signifier to an experience of bliss that both the writer and reader mutually acknowledge language cannot capture. Even something as physically concrete as an orgasm is only poorly represented in language and has been – as critics have so often pointed out – the site of the worst examples of purple prose. But for writers and readers, sharing that lived experience and understanding of the physical and affective aspects of it, the clichéd language or the threadbare metaphor acts as an invisible ellipsis present but unprinted in an account of a climax.
Pint, Kris. The Perverse Art of Reading. Rodopi, 2010. Print.