Let me tell you of the three orders of existence: the Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real.
The Real is actual reality, whatever that might be, unfiltered by our perception, unfiltered by our language, our existence, our journey as a process of signification.
While our experience of reality is filtered through perception, filtered through linguistic conceptualization, the Real is pre-linguistic. The psychoanalyst Lacan believed that human neonates and animals experience something like this Real — whether this is true or not is conjecture of course — but if babies and animals do not relate to the word via signs and instead only through desires (desire to be fed or to kill, respectively) then is would be correct to say they exist purely through the space of the Real. The moment we relate to reality through a space of differentiated objects — be they an objectified mother’s breast, a toy, a flowers in the garden, whatever — then we have entered into a linguistic space and are separated from the Real. It is in this sense that it can be said that “the Real is impossible”, a wholeness from which we have been separated through entry into language, entry into differentiation.
The Real is often represented within the academic literature, erroneously, as a kind of total Alterity, and absolute, negative limit: the limiting point of speech, language and perception. Something like the Beloved Other of which we spoke about earlier.
But it is more accurate to understand this as a space of pure, unfragmented energy.
The Real is not a transcendental plane outside of language, it does not simply stand in relation to us as Absolute Impossibility. It is not absolute emptiness. Rather, it is absolute fullness: unbroken, unfragmented, pure continuity of physical energy. It is nature, par excellence, the “fabric” of nature, from which all corporeal movements, transformations, matings, mutations, exchanges emerge. Nature, the corporeal, energy and its movements should be understood here to encompass both the kinds of things we might study (linguistically situate and capture) within the domains of physics, chemistry and biology as well as within the fields of human psychology and theology.
So by energy we might mean the kind of thing that we situate within a mathematics as subatomic forces as well that which we might situate within Freudian psychoanalysis as human desires, drives and libido in the Freudian sense.
The Real is not equated with these energies as such. At the human level, we might compare the Real’s relationship to our human drives and desires as something like Einstein’s notion of the space-time continuum. Just as the space-time continuum ‘desubstantialized’ gravity as, not a force that moves things but, in fact, a name for the curvature of the continuum, the Real ‘desubstantializes’ desire, libido and corporeal transformations as, not forces or energies between entities but, in fact, as names we give for folds, lines, contours of the continuous Real.
In other words, the Real for us is precisely our notion of the Gifted Body, the Body without Organs. It is pure surface, with no internals. It is a continuum, devoid of cuts and differentiation. Instead, differentiation is inscribed upon it.
So the Real is the space of physical reality outside our heads, outside of our linguistic differentiation of the world into objects, roles, relations, rules and journeys: a pure, continuous, unbroken, non-differentiated whole, whose contours and curvatures intrude upon our existence as corporeal forces, drives and desires.
Fundamentally, the Real is the sublimated Logos: it is the Breath of the Divine, now sublimated for us in our station, the precondition for our journey. The nature of the journey itself is inscription upon the Real.
Inscription, as we understand it, is incorporeal transformation. It occurs through speech acts: through engaging with language games. In our terms, we have referred to this as eating the food and drinking the blood of the Real. The food and drink is the sustenance we require to enable the journey to occur: it is what we subsist on in order to achieve differentiation, in order to inscribe. The Breath of the Divine is an undivided Body that we abide in, or rather, upon.
The Real is pre-linguistic and thus necessarily “impossible” for us to perceive, conceive or represent. Nevertheless, it is also the precondition for language to arise as we have said, because the Real, as the Gifted Body, is nothing other than a sublimation of the Breath of Love, the Kiss of Life, the buried, shattered or crucified Divine Enunciation of immediate proximity to God. Our initial creation, as Adam Kadmon, as Logos, is both Truth and Love of God. But language, reality as we experience it, arises from the Logos being sublimated to form the Real: taking the form of the Gifted Body, in order to raise us in station to the privileged dwellers of a linguistic reality, the privileged creation that can seek and yearn for, express the deepest love for, the Creator.
The Real cannot be immediately touched by us. But it does frame our existence, it frames and sustains our journey of differentiation. It does this via what we might call drives, primal energies and desires that form the true nature of existence that we are always unable to express. From time to time, the Real threatens to invade or intrude on our lived, signified, linguistic experience of reality. While we are separated from the Real by our perception, we nevertheless have a Real existence that we cannot speak, perceive or even conceive. This Real existence intrudes upon us in many simple ways, often as natural, basic, corporeal transformations or bodily desires: the aging process, hunger, the need to urinate, and so on. And in Islam, it is clear that the relationship between the intruding corporeal, Real nature of the cosmos, and our actual direct experience of the linguistic, regulated, symbolised, signified, proved experience of reality is something that must be carefully navigated and negotiated. The Real’s intrusion, being of nature and perceived by us as primal and unknowable, is sometimes a threat to our linguistic, logical constitution:
Narrated Salman al-Farsi: It was said to Salman: Your Prophet teaches you everything, even about excrement. He replied: Yes. He has forbidden us to face the qiblah at the time of easing or urinating, and cleansing with right hand, and cleansing with less than three stones, or cleansing with dung or bone.
(Abu-Dawud Book 1:7)
The opposite is of course also true in Islam: there are certain corporeal experiences of the Real that become the very core of revelation. These experiences, given to Prophecy, are encounters with the Real’s intrusion in the form of particular symbols. Symbols whose meaning is given by their universal applicability, their universal predication: symbolic functions.
We have said that Prophecy is exactly characterised by perfect, illuminated proof, judgement, navigation of the Symbolic. But what powers this illumination is the treatment of the signs in such a way that the Real does exactly intrude. This is also the purpose of dhkir in Sufi tradition: for a physical, corporeal moment of the Real to become manifest. And its fundamental, defining moment of intrusion is exactly the Miraj, which
is a physical, corporeal experience of the Real on the part of Prophecy (incidentally, this is why Adam and Jesus are the first levels the Prophet meets at Miraj, because they are the nature of this Real, they are the foundation for the Real as it stands as sublimated Logos.)
(We preempt our cosmology-to-come by observing that, in the recreation, the reconstitution of ourselves in Return, the Real as Body is recreated again to form the New Body: and when we speak of these things, a speech that is itself inscribed upon the Old, Gifted Body of the Real as symbolic judgement, two heavens emerge. The Aeon of Adam and the Aeon of the Jesus-John complex, that were experienced by our sweetest Prophecy directly. He experienced these Aeons as what we will later refer to as Second Life functionals who still possess a form of meta-curvature within the Real itself.)
Our life is lived upon the Real as inscriptions, proofs, judgements, choices and actions. We call all these things symbolic, because, ultimately, they take the form of arrangement of signs. Living occurs upon the Real order, but within the Symbolic order.
The Symbolic is the order of language, of subjectivity, of perception. It emerges from the Real with the emergence of the subject: with our entry into language, representation, perception, judgement, signification. With our entry into life, in other words. It is exactly a space of differentiation and logic as we have defined these things earlier: it consists of signs, differentiated and thus related to each other. Signs standing in possible configurations to one another.
The Symbolic is the space of signs devoid of an external semantics. The Symbolic is the space of the signifier, not the signified. That is, it is a space of signs, objects, signifiers, relating to each other through their differentiation and uniqueness, but not actually in relation to a perceived external, valuative semantics. Every sign indicates or relates to another — in infinite deferral to each other and, ultimately, to the Other, to absolute Alterity and the Inexpressible, the limit of language. Within the Symbolic, there is ultimately there is no absolute semantics, no absolute, denoted meaning. Everything exists in what Lacan calls pure metonymy to everything else. All signifiers, all signs within the Symbolic, are placed in configuration to one another, in reference to one another, but not in reference to an external valuation or interpretation.
In this sense, the Symbolic is equated with the unconscious, and we all a good understanding of the Symbolic through dreams: objects in dreams are always shifting, substituted for each other, in a literal stream-of-consciousness. An interpretation is only something that occurs after the dream is over. But in this sense, the Symbolic is also equated, surprisingly, with our understanding of the logical space of differentiation, the space of multiple logics, of multiple language games, that is precisely the characterisation of life and Time, of judgement-as-proof. Thus, the unconscious is precisely the field of the logic of life.
So even though the Symbolic is most readily apparent to us when we dream, all life is, in fact, Symbolic. Our reality is, first and foremost, one of metonymic configurations of signs and our experience of reality is a proof, a negotiation, a movement through these configurations over Time. The nature of our existence is precisely Symbolic: we engage with signs, arrange them in certain orders according to rules of whatever language game we play within, and, as we do so, we leave a trace, we arrange things piece by piece, arriving at a proof of a conclusion, an inhabiting judgement over Time.
Recalling our discussion of Logical Time in Lacan, we note that the three moments of his Time (apprehending, thinking and concluding) all occur within this logical space of the Symbolic and, as their play constitutes the subject, we see that the Symbolic is also the space of the subject and its intersubjective constitution. It is through navigating the space of the Symbolic that we reach a conclusion about who we are, we comprehend our own subjectivity, through reasoning, competing, racing against other subjects, through understanding that they observe how we are understanding them. Through intersubjectivity, we become authentic, self-aware of our situation within this process of signification, of logical judgement in Time, self-aware of our life and thus, fully formed subjects. The symbolic is the space in which we can become truly human.
All of this happens in a purely non-valuative space of multiple logics.
However, we often act as if there are values, semantics of things. And sometimes we truly believe such things exist: this being the root cause of all religious fundamentalism, political fascism and so on as well as simply bad philosophy. The belief in an absolute, transcendental exterior judgement, law or valuative system that governs the configurations of signs is what underlies what we call the Imaginary order.
The Imaginary is the order of valuation, of the signified, of a presumed semantics. It is the space of interpretation. It is in the Imaginary that we interpret metaphorically the metonymic chains of signifiers that occur within the Symbolic. If I have a dream about being kissed by a lion, this occurs within the Symbolic order. When I wake up and decide to interpret the dream’s sign of “lion” to indicate say, Jesus, God or my father, then I am taking the signifiers of the dream’s metonymy and imposing a valuation of the signifiers as metaphors for a semantics of signified entities: say, the desire to be close to Jesus, God or my father.
We might then call the Imaginary, the order of interpretation. When we look at a particular language game and say: this is what this signifier means, or this is what that role stands for, then we are interpreting within the Imaginary. Because interpretation is, in fact, a temporary deferral of one sign for another: this is then read as a metaphor. When we behave as though the interpreting sign is a signified, then we are employing the interpreting sign as a metaphor, and so occupy the space of the Imaginary.
We of course do this all the time, and it is important — sometimes we do need to explain things! It only becomes a pathology if we become fixated on this deferral of meaning, behave as if it is absolute, that it is the ending, final, external semantics for the logic we are using in life. An explanation, an interpretation is sometimes useful, but only to relate one set of signs, one game, to another. But to play a game, to make judgements with it, we do not need a valuative semantics: judgements are made without reference to values, they are made, within the game itself, with reference to proofs.
Thus the Imaginary order is the bad guy of the three orders and is related to the notion of inauthenticity we developed earlier through our reading of Heidegger. It is from the Imaginary that all mental pathologies develop. A pathology essentially follows from an inauthentic mode of judgement: when we judge inauthentically, we enter a game and play it as if there is a judgement outside, a rule of law that enforces and regulates and judges our choices. We situate ourselves as captured selves, subject to a Demiurge, rather than free, self-determining agents in our proofs. When we do this, we deny the nature of our freedom to judge, the fact that the judgement is precisely the life we weave for ourselves rather than an exterior ruling: we become fixated on an imaginary semantics of the game, rather than the modes of judgement we can create within the game, we keep ourselves separate from the potential light that can be unlocked from manifesting the signs’ deferral to the Other. We keep ourselves from living Symbolically, from living authentically.
We agree that the Imaginary can lead to various forms of fixation. This occurs when a subject gets “locked into” a particular interpretation — become fixated on a particular destructive metaphoric understanding.
An example would be where we insist on a particular interpretation of, say, the Bible, that takes God to be an absolutely wrathful, law-obsessed figure, who watches and judges harshly everything that we do. To be fixated on such an interpretation is to forget that it is an image of reality that we have imagined, that attempts to value the signs of God and ourselves in a particular way. When we get lost in such an interpretation, forgetting where it came from, we can damage ourselves.
We understand the Imaginary order as generating a particular image of the self: the ego, in contrast to the true subject of the Symbolic. The ego of the wrathful God interpretation is one that is always under surveillance, imprisoned by a restrictive cosmic Law and subject to very harsh penalties for infringement.
Now, brining this back to our previous discussion on judgement, the Imaginary order arises out of an illusory misreading of the nature of explanation and language games. A language game is a particular logic whose theorems can be proven, inhabited by our movement through Time. We are thrown into any number of games throughout life, some small and trivial, others lasting a lifetime, all open systems to an extent, subject to changes in signs and rules of configuration. These games are purely Symbolic in nature — because everything is Symbolic ultimately — in the sense that they consist of living through configurations of signs. The Imaginary order is an imposition that can be made on top of this process: it begins with linguistic convenience — saying “P is true” instead of “I have a proof, I have made a journey
that led to my judgement, my inscription of P”. Saying “God judges humans is an absolute truth” instead of “I have a particular journey through the Symbolic that has led me, according to the rules of my cultural language game, to assemble these signs to form the judgement that God judges humans”. The Imaginary, with its assorted pathologies and its ego fixation, arises from behaving as if there is an exterior, metaphorical interpretation rather than proofs-as-judgements made according to the rules of the logic of the game.
That is, in relation to our discussion of logics, there is no valuation outside of the language game — there is only shorthand for “truth” instead of inhabitation, and that causes the confusion.
And then, reducing our experience of the path, as theorem provers, to the role played within the particular game: the thing under surveilance, the player of the black in a chess game, the person buying some milk, and so on. The subject of course assumes a role within the logic of life, but this role’s “real meaning” arises from its participation, through the proof, the trace of its actions and choices: that is the subject as creativity.
Its ultimate value is nothing less than pure creativity, free speech, if you will.
When the subject as a creative actor is instead reduced to the role of a passive entity within the game, with an illusory value determined by the imaginary value system assumed by an interpretation, then that reduction is what we might call the ego, in contrast to the self or true subjectivity.
We might summarize the purpose of any kind of therapy (mystical or psychoanalytic) as a way of freeing us up from Imaginary fixations, and to enable us to live life Symbolically.
And the apex of human life is Prophecy: direct contact with the Real’s contours through encounters, perception of universal, regulating symbolic functions. We defer discussion of the nature of these functions at another time.