In a number of places Lacan distinguishes between the real and reality. Reality, for Lacan, is a synthesis of the Imaginary and the Symbolic. Here it’s important to recall that the Imaginary does not signify the fictional or that which only exists in the imagination. Rather, the Imaginary refers to the regime of images that come to structure the body and the body’s relations to the world. Lacan’s thesis is that when we are born we experience our body as a chaotic and disjointed multiplicity without distinction between inside and outside. Through an identification with an image of our body seen from a second person perspective we form a unity for ourselves that forms as a telos for the integration and coordination of our body. This unified image is not what I am, but rather a vector I aspire to in the unification and coordination of my various drives and movements.
For Lacan this split between chaotic lived body (body experienced in the first-person) and body-image (second-person body as a unified image) is ineradicable such that I never quite coincide with the body-image that I aspire to be. Yet the regime of images pertains not only to my body, but also to the various objects that populate the world. A field of vectors emerges between my body and the various images that populate the world around me. The world, as it were, gradually becomes an oriented world. Thus, for example, I do not merely see the image of the table in front of me as a flat image, but rather see it as containing a reserve of other dimensions that I can act on in a variety of ways. I see it as having what Husserl called an “internal horizon”, as being composed of profiles, such that the image is not one dimension, but has unseen sides. These profiles are coordinated with my body in a lived space-time that I can walk about to actualize other unseen dimensions, that I can grasp, that I can manipulate in a variety of ways. These potential movements embodied in the images of things other than me are vectors of my own potential movement forming a system between body and object. Lacan explores this phenomenology of the Imaginary and the body-object system in The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, providing a genetic account of how this system is gradually built up.
Yet this is not yet what Lacan calls “reality”. Reality is not simply the vector system of body-object, but also has a symbolic dimension. The symbolic, in its turn, structures this system in a system of relations and symbolic positions determining an “order of the world”. A properly symbolic relation refers to a positional system that is not itself founded on any qualitative property of objects themselves. Saussure gives the nice example of the “5 o’clock train”. The 5 o’clock train has nothing to do with the material properties of the train. From day to day different material trains can serve as the 5 o’clock train. The 5 o’clock train can arrive at 5:03 or 4:50 and still be the 5 o’clock train. Just as we would look in vain to find that material property of gold or a dollar bill that gives it value, we look in vain to find the “5 o’clockness” of the 5 o’clock train in its material properties. This is because the 5 o’clockness of the train is a pure symbolic and relational property. The train takes on this property through a symbolic system, not its physical features. The symbolic is this system of relational positions that aren’t founded in any way in the physical properties of an object. It is a sorting and structuring of the world into a system of positions that can be filled by a variety of different material entities while nonetheless retaining that symbolic identity (both George W. Bush and Obama are presidents, even though they are different material beings).
Reality, then, for Lacan, is this synthesis of the Imaginary and the Symbolic in a system where both orders reciprocally structure one another. Together they define a structured system of appearances, of manifestations, related to the human body and the symbolic social order. Within this order manifestations are structured in the Imaginary by the body-object vectoral system of appearances and the symbolic system that ascribes a symbolic position or place for all persons and entities that exist. It is also here, incidentally, that we get the logic of sovereignity explored by Agamben and Schmitt. The symbolic system assigning places is itself without foundations. Think of the way people often talk about dictionaries. Two people get in a dispute about what a word means. One person runs to the dictionary and says “well the dictionary says x!” The dictionary is treated as a sovereign authority that fixes meaning. The truth is that the dictionary only gets its authority from a community of speakers (i.e., the people involved in debate and that use language), yet there seems to be a nearly ineluctable transcendental illusion wherein we place an authority over and above the community of speakers, a source of meaning, that fixes meaning: A transcendent origin of meaning. We see a similar logic at work in the social field. Endlessly we search for a supplemental figure to fix and tame the foundationlessness of social reality: a sovereign king, a master figure, God, the father, etc. We erect a kinship system to secure origins. It was this supplemental fiction of a transcendent guarantee that Lacan tried to formalize in the masculine side (the left hand side above) of his graphs of sexuation. The masculine side of the graph of sexuation is the formal schema of all onto-theology, sovereignity, oligarchy, and theism.
The real, by contrast, is something entirely different in Lacan. The real, as Lacan repeats endlessly, is not reality (the correlational system and synthesis of the imaginary and the Symbolic), but rather is that which is both in excess of all reality and that which evades all reality. The real is that which is without place in reality. It is a strange sort of placelessness, for it simultaneously 1) is invisible from the standpoint of reality, yet nonetheless 2) the “system of reality” strives to gentrify and eradicate the real (in Television Lacan will cryptically pronounce that “reality is the grimace of the real”), and 3) the real, despite being invisible, nonetheless appears but in a way inimical to the vector body-object system of the Imaginary and the sorting-organizing system of the symbolic. The real is a placeless appearance.
It is for this reason that Lacan will say, in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, that the real is a “missed encounter”. The imaginary-symbolic system that constitutes reality is a system of anticipations in our ongoing dealings with the world. A missed encounter is precisely a contingent encounter that is not predelineated in any way by this anticipatory system. It is an appearance of the impossible (Lacan will also say that the real is the impossible) within the field of the “possible”. Of course, the possible here is that system predelineated by the “reality-system” or the synthesis of the symbolic and the imaginary. The Real is the appearance of the inapparent, of the anarchic excess beneath the reality-system, of that which has no place.
It is the real, not reality, that OOO aims at. When Harman argues that objects are radically withdrawn, he is proposing a gap between any and every manifestation of objects (what he calls “sensual objects”) and their existence proper. Every object is in excess of its being-for the reality system of entities. Put differently, all objects are irreducible to their appearing-for. There is always an excess, an inapparance, that evades the correlational system of reality. And it is for this reason that objects always harbor, to use Harman’s language, a volcanic potential to surprise or to constitute a “missed encounter” or encounter that evades all symbolic-imaginary systems of anticipation. OOO is a realism of the real, not reality. OOO realism aims at what Timothy Morton has called the “strange stranger” or that paradoxical inapparent appearing, that which cannot appear at all, at the heart of all entities. It is precisely this inapparent appearing that Harman underlines in his theory of metaphor that marks the paradox at the heart of all objects: their tension between their qualities or manifestations and their being. All objects are in excess of their appearingness.
Returning to my critique of political realism from a few days ago, political realism is always an attempt to instantiate a closure of reality. What it aims for is a “politics” of reality against a politics of the real. This closure consists in a restriction of being to reality, to the system of appearance defining places and positions of the beings involved in a system, that strives to erase the anarchic and contingent ground of this order, thereby hoping to eradicate the eruption of the real. Its fiction is that all those entities involved in the situation have clearly defined and counted identities and positions that can be smoothly calculated and managed in a governmental decision process. Yet to establish this, political realism must perpetually have recourse to the logic Lacan outlines in the masculine side of the graph of sexuation, pointing to a supplementary sovereign, God, natural order, king, charismatic leader, transcendent authority, etc., that covers or veils the absence of foundation, the excess, upon which reality is contingently founded, fixing this order. Political realism’s thesis is always that 1) all entities involved are counted and accounted for, and 2) that no other order is possible. Of course, this order also disguises the fact that the interests it claims to be in everyone’s interests are really the interests of a few. In repressing this anarchic and contingent ground of the reality system, political realism thereby promotes the lie that such and such a course of action is the only possible course of action, the only thing that can be done. As Naomi Klein showed so nicely in The Shock Doctrine, political realism manufactures crisis as a way of forcing the demos to accept their exploitation as the only way to avoid catastrophe.
If “politics” must be placed in square quotes when discussing political realism, then this is because political realism is not really a politics at all, but is rather mere administration (in all the terms literal and connotative senses). Insofar as political realism treats all elements as counted and accounted for, insofar as it treats all possibilities as pre-delineated in the anticipatory system of reality, “politics” becomes mere administration in determining which vectors should be pursued in these pre-delineated systems of anticipation (usually constructed around what Lacan calls a “forced vel” or disjunction, where the people are forced to choose, as in the muggers scenario, between their money or their life). Genuine politics, by contrast, is a politics not of reality, but of the real. Following Ranciere, a politics of the real is that politics that contests the very system of counting and distributing positions, that refuses the closure of reality that would claim that all is counted, accounted for, and with a proper place, and that orients its praxis with respect to the contingent appearance of the inapparent. Yet above all, a politics of the real is a politics that refuses the very system of counting, both at the level of the entities populating the social order and at the level of predelineated possibilities, refusing the system of predelineation governing appearances. A politics of the real gives birth to new possibilities, possibilities with no place or count within the reigning system of possibility.
Where political realism says “this is all that is possible and therefore we must do x”, a politics of the real contests this very system of ordering the world and invents new possibilities inimical to this gamed system of counting. Thus, for example, with Civil Rights the reality was that there was no place for African-Americans as equal citizens. The system of reality said that African-Americans are counted in this way such that they go to these schools, use these fountains, go to these restaurants, sit on these seats on the bus, etc. Any other way of participating and relating, said political realism, was impossible insofar as people were not ready for it, it would ruin re-election chances of various politicians sympathetic to equality, thereby undermining efforts of equality, etc. Thereby, we were told, only incremental steps were possible. Anything else would produce catastrophe.
Yet the civil rights movement founded itself not on political realism, but on a politics of the real. Everywhere in civil rights struggles we saw the appearing of the inapparent. We see the appearing of the impossible, of the strange spectre of that which is simultaneously counted (in a particular way by the oligarchic order) and the uncounted when Rosa Parks refuses to go to the back of the bus. We see it when people refuse to go to their assigned seats in restaurants or to go to assigned restaurants. We see it in the speeches that evoke the oligarchic order’s claim to be equal (“separate but equal”) demanding the truth of the principle of equality while denouncing the inequality its reality function practices. We see it in people being attacked by dogs and fire hoses without fighting back. In this way the inequity beneath the reality claiming to be revealed is simultaneously revealed and the excess of the real, of that which is not counted within this reality, is also revealed challenging the closure of this order. Above all, in refusing to go to the back of the bus or eat at the counter, the contingency of the so-called “natural order” (“blacks “naturally” want their places and to be among their kind just as whites do”) is disclosed, revealing the possibility of a different order. From the standpoint of political realism and incrementalism, these eruptions are understood to be both ontologically impossible (as everything has a proper place) and to be avoided at all costs. The reality-order becomes a massive regulatory mechanism, a defense formation, designed to forestall any eruption of the real within the social order. Yet in defending the position of incrementalism and political realism what one really defends is the reign of oligarchs claiming to act on behalf of the interests of everyone.