Film Theory: Lacan–Imaginary and Symbolic


Aspects of Lacan’s theory have been useful in film theory because he combined Freudian psychoanalysis with semiology, offering a means for linking semiotic and psychoanalytic readings of films.

Lacan’s insight was to rephrase Freudian theory by using a linguistic model for the movement between different stages, as against the non linguistic, essentially biological and developmental Freudian model.

Lacan’s concept of the imaginary corresponds to Freud’s pre-Oedipal phase, although the child is already a signifier, already inserted in a linguistic system. But the world of the imaginary is never the less for the child a prelinguistic moment, a moment of illusory unity with the Mother, whom he does not know as Other. The Lacanian child is forced to move on from the world of the imaginary, not because of the literal threat of castration but because he acquires language, which is based on the concept of “lack.”

He enters the world of the symbolic governed by the Law of the Father and revolving around the phallus as signifier. Here, in language, he discovers that he is an object in a realm of signifiers that circulate around the Father (= phallus). He learns discourse and the different “I” and “You” positions. The illusory unity with the Mother is broken partly by the mirror phase, with the child’s recognition of the Mother as a separate image/entity, and of himself as an image (ego ideal), creating the structure of the divided subject; and partly by introduction of the Father as a linguistic Third Term, breaking the mother child dyad.

Although the child now lives in the symbolic, he participates in the world of the imaginary; it is this world that the experience of the cinema partly recreates, particularly in the sense of providing the more perfect selves (ego ideals) evoked by the mirror phase and facilitating a regression to that phase. (I have deliberately used “he” here since both Freud and Lacan assume a male subject. Part of my task is to make sense of the systems for the female.

For more complete summary, see Bill Nichols)

Source: Kaplan

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