To what extent can the Lacanian real be understood through contemporary, popular culture?

To what extent can the Lacanian real be understood through contemporary, popular culture?


Anna Sofie Jespersen Chelsea College of Art, London Fine Art BA, Unit 7 25-01-2016


To what extent can the Lacanian real be understood through contemporary, popular culture?

A critical analysis by Anna Sofie Jespersen Chelsea College of Art 2016

“One of the bigger approaches to psychoanalysis is, that it’s only a theory of individual pathological disturbance, and applying it to other cultural or social phenomena is theoretically illegitimate” (Slavoj Zizek in Zizek!, 2005)

Contemporary philosopher, psychoanalyst and political thinker, Slavoj Zizek has been referred to as The Elvis of cultural theory, and an academic rock star. His unorthodox insistence on applying philosophical and psychoanalytic theory to analyse contemporary culture, and vice versa, has made him one of the most influential and popular philosophical thinkers of today.

In his book Looking Awry from 1992, which Zizek himself describes as: “A reading of the most sublime theoretical motifs of Jacques Lacan together with and through exemplary cases of contemporary mass culture” (Zizek, 1992, preface), he endeavours to explain Lacanian concepts through popular literature and cinema, referencing authors and directors such as Stephen King, George A. Romero, and Alfred Hitchcock. In his preface to the book, he writes that it “mercilessly exploits popular culture, using it as convenient material to explain not only the vague outlines of the Lacanian theoretical edifice but sometimes also the finer details missed by the predominantly academic reception of Lacan”, in other words he is, unlike most of his contemporary colleagues looking awry at Lacan. Zizek’s controversial approach to academic theory is not to simplify it, but to visualize and contextualize it. In the 2005 autobiographical documentary Zizek!, he points out that: “the duty of philosophy is not to solve problems, but to redefine them”, this statement very much defines Zizek as a modern thinker.

French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan picked up where Sigmund Freud left off. Freud described the real as “the uneasiness in culture”, for culture to establish itself as a normative structure, there must lie something unheimlich, uncanny, within, to validate reality. Lacan defines the real in as a “natural state”, in which every human inhabited before entering into language. This was a state of fullness and completeness for the individual, a state of purism which would inevitably be lost. Sex, e.g. can be seen as a search for the real, but according to Lacan the real is an impossibility, insofar we cannot express it through language, because the very use of language itself denies it. (Lacan, 1974) To distinguish the real from reality Zizek points out that: “Reality itself is nothing but an embodiment of a certain blockage in the process of symbolization. For reality to exist, something must be left unspoken.”(Zizek, pp. 45) This statement implies that for everyday life to exist, something must be there to abrupt it. So there can be no reality without the interruption of the real.

Another way of explaining the real is through the knowledge in the real. Nature has inherent logic and laws within it. Now, imagine the picture of the cartoon character going off a cliff and hanging in mid air, and not falling down till the character itself realizes the void beneath its feet. It is as though the real has forgotten its own knowledge, it is not till the character looks down that it remembers that it must obey the rules of science. Zizek refers to a case in Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, where a father is unaware of his own death; He must be reminded, confronted with his own death to die. This really adds a whole different meaning to the phrase memento mori. (Zizek, pp 43)

When talking about the Lacanian real, Zizek has expanded the theory into three different types of real: the symbolic real, the imaginary real, and the real real.
The symbolic real defines the rules and actions with which we engage, in order to hold up appearances. Zizek uses the example of Christmas. When the parents are asked the question: do you really believe in Santa Claus, magic and flying reindeers, they answer: no we just do it to please the children, and when the children are asked the same question they answer: no we just do it to please our parents. (Wright, Ben, 2004) It is the symbolic order, which holds together the structure within which we live our lives, and must rely on to percept reality.

Anna Sofie Jespersen Chelsea College of Art, London Fine Art BA, Unit 7 25-01-2016

The imaginary real is the space where we are confronted with our own desire, Lacan calls it The Thing, the Freudian das Ding. It is the alien creature in Ridley Scott’s Alien, from 1979, the audience never sees the alien, (only as a newborn, when emerging from John Hurt’s chest), when anyone is confronted with the beast they die. It is Lord Voldemort in J.K. Rowling’s children’s book series about the young wizard Harry Potter, in which Voldemort is only referred to as “he who must not be named”. The Thing is too powerful to be directly confronted, when the subject is directly confronted with the Thing it is fatal and will result in death – physical or metaphysical death. It also manifests itself in the phenomenological experience of other people. When having a conversation with another human being, we are being presented with an illusion of their reality, a virtual version of themselves. Rationally, we know that they defecate, masturbate, etc., but this knowledge is ignored, a crucial factor for humans to relate and engage in social constructions (Wright, Ben, 2004).

A current example of the imaginary real can be found, rather humorously, in the American sitcom, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, created in 2005 by Rob McElhenney and Glenn Howerton. The show follows a group of characters who co-owns a bar in Philadelphia, and who are all unbearably self-centred, manipulative, dyssocial, violent, alcoholics. Throughout the series they are involved, or has an implied involvement with murder, rape, child pornography, crack cocaine, necrophilia, cannibalism etc. The trick of the show lies within the presentation of these events as though they were completely socially acceptable and non-pathological This being emphasized by the juxtaposed, Sound of Music-like theme song at the beginning of each episode, as a diabolic premonition of the horror that you are about to witness. This approach establishes an extremely unheimlich, uncanny sensation, which creates a fantasy space for the viewer to project his or her own amoral desires onto. As Lacan would put it, “In our unconscious, in the real of our desire, we are all murderers.”(Zizek, pp 16)

In the episode titled: The Gang Goes to the Jersey Shore, two members of the gang, the pseudo incestuous brother and sister, invites the rest of the gang to join them on a trip to the Jersey Shore, to revisit a magical place filled with happy memories from their adolescence. When the gang arrives, you can imagine what happens; on the first stroll down the beach the gang encounters two homeless men having intercourse, later on they of course, more or less unwillingly, engage in various illegal activities such as robbery, participation in murder, drugs, etc. The Jersey Shore functioned as a fantasy space onto which the siblings could project their desires. By returning to the Jersey Shore, the gang reduced the space to everyday common reality (within the terms of the show). In a similar example in Looking Awry, Zizek says: “He annulled the difference between reality and fantasy space, depriving the men of the place in which they were able to articulate their desires.”(Zizek, pp 9) This episode inevitably becomes a metaphorical comment on the show’s own function – a fantasy space onto which the audience can project their desire.

The third and most complex version of the real is the real real, the core of the real, which Zizek describes as “the obscene shadow of the symbolic real”. It is when one realizes the absurdity of reality, the border where this realization takes place. His reference to a scene in the 1942, science fiction novel by Robert Heinlein, The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag, neatly illustrates the real real: “This ‘grey and formless mist, pulsing slowly as if with inchoate life,’ what is it if not the Lacanian real, the pulsing of the presymbolic substance in its abhorrent vitality? But what is crucial for us here is the place from which this real erupts: the very borderline separating the outside from the inside” (Zizek, pp 15)

This applies in the surreal psychological drama The Truman Show, from 1998 by Peter Weir, when Truman, put to life by Jim Carey, leaves his home town for the first time and after a near death experience at sea, presses his hand up against what can only be described to Truman as literally the end of the world, and realizes that his whole life and perception of reality is an illusion created to make the most successful television programme ever. The notion of the fourth wall comes to show; the fourth wall, is here torn down, the one we as an audience obtain when going to the movies, therefore the real real. This concept of a borderline, the external versus the internal, overwhelms the

Anna Sofie Jespersen Chelsea College of Art, London Fine Art BA, Unit 7 25-01-2016

subject by a feeling of discontinuity when presented with the other reality. The outside, in the Heinlein example a car window, in Truman’s world the outside of the TV studio, appears as a phenomenologically “unreal” experience, as a cinematic reality projected onto a screen.
In relation to this, Zizek mentions the Lacanian Other, which is known as the known symbolic order, but in the paranoid reality there exists an Other of the Other, which in the Truman show is personified as the deific, omnipotent television producer, Christof, who controls Truman’s reality. “The paranoiac’s mistake does not consist in his radical disbelief, in his conviction that there is a universal deception – here he is quite right, the symbolic order is ultimately the order of a fundamental deception – but rather, in his belief in a hidden agent who manipulates this deception.”(Zizek, pp 81) In Truman’s case, the paranoid perception of reality has turned out to be a realized hallucination, the final gap between hallucination and reality has disappeared.

“Christof, let me ask you, why do you think that Truman has never come close to discovering the true nature of his world until now?
Christof: We accept the reality of the world with which we’re presented. It’s as simple as that.” (Weir, 1998)

An unsuccessful ending to the abolishment between the real and reality is the American abstract expressionist Mark Rothko. His abstract paintings of a dark, centred matter surrounded by a lighter matter – the real manifesting itself a hole in the midst of the symbolic order, was a constant battle to keep the real from entering reality. At the end of Rothko’s career the black hole in the midst of his paintings had overflown reality. He killed himself at the age of 67. “He preferred death to being swallowed by the Thing, i.e., precisely by that ‘grey and formless mist, pulsing slowly as if with incoherent life’” (Zizek, pp 19)

The Lacanian concept the “second death”, the state of being in between two deaths, can be found frequently in contemporary culture: ghosts, zombies, monsters, vampire’s etc. What the state suggests is a distortion in the regulation between drive and demand. A living human’s drive/demand regulation is connected and coexisting. Demand: why do I want this? What lies beyond my demand? Drive on the other hand, persists as a more mechanical function. In the state between two deaths, there exists only pure drive without desire.

This comes to show in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien: resurrection from 1997, where the main character Sergeant Ellen Ripley, has been cloned after her death in the third movie, and now returns from the dead in her human form but her drive/demand regulation has been distorted. She is in an in between state: dead/alive, human/alien: she is without empathy, has superhuman strength and bleeds a concoction of blood and pure acid, but functions superficially as a human. Zizek asks the elementary question: “Why do the dead return? The answer offered by Lacan is the same as that found in popular culture: because they were not properly buried, i.e., because something went wrong with their obsequies. The return of the dead is a sign of a disturbance in the symbolic rite, in the process of symbolization; the dead return as collectors of some unpaid symbolic debt.” (Zizek pp 23) In the Alien quadrilogy, Ripley’s return is a comment on the moral decay and power obsession of the human civilization. The humans are trying to domesticate and train the alien, the Thing, the symbol of our latent desire, which of course cannot be done, and therefore is the fate of the humans fatal. Ripley Number 8, (she is the eighth cloning attempt, the others failed, Ripley burns them all when faced with her own clones), becomes the personification of our own fear and desire of the monster that lies within us.

The second death can also be portrayed in a comedic sense, such as in the 1980’s comedy Weekend at Bernie’s by Ted Kotcheff, where two capable bachelors use their employer’s sudden death to their advantage, and engages his corps in various festive situations with a grotesque but nevertheless hilarious outcome. Bernie’s corpse serves as the famous Hitchcockian McGuffin for the plot of the film, but there is also a symbolic irony to be noticed in a Freudian, psychoanalytical sense: the

Anna Sofie Jespersen Chelsea College of Art, London Fine Art BA, Unit 7 25-01-2016

“death of the father”, in the oedipal knowingness: the primal father is the agent of prohibition, and the son (the bachelors) are parading his corpse around whilst drinking, fornicating, etc.. Weekend at Bernie’s can in that sense, be construed as a modern take on Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex.

“When we awaken into reality after a dream, we usually say to ourselves ‘it was just a dream’, thereby blinding ourselves to the fact that in our everyday, wakening reality we are nothing but a consciousness of this dream. ” (Zizek, pp. 47)

Anna Sofie Jespersen Fine Art BA, Unit 7

Books and other publications:

Chelsea College of Art, London 25-01-2016


  • Exhibition publication: Chris Marker: A Grin without a Cat, Whitechapel Gallery, 2014, London
  • Harbord, Janet: Chris Marker La Jetée, Afterall Books, 2009, London
  • Lacan, Jacques: Television, October, 1987
  • Mavor, Carol: Black and Blue: The Bruising Passion, Duke University Press, 2012, London
  • Zizek, Slavoj: Interrogating the real, Bloomsbury, 2005, New York
  • Zizek, Slavoj: Looking Awry: An introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture,

    October Books, 1992, London Film, television and documentaries:

  • Fiennes, Sophie: The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, 2006, Mischief Films
  • Fiennes, Sophie: The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, 2012, Zeitgeist Films
  • Gilliam, Terry: 12 Monkeys, 1995, Atlas Entertainment
  • Glimcher, Arne: Braque and Picasso Goes to the Movies, 2008, Cubists
  • Hitchcock, Alfred: Vertigo, 1958, Paramount PicturesScott, Ridley: Alien, 1979, 20th


  • Jeunet, Jean Pierre: Alien Resurrection, 1997, Brandywine Productions
  • Kotcheff, Ted: Weekend at Bernie’s, 1989, Gladden Entertainment
  • Marker, Chris: La Jetée, 1962, Argos Films
  • McElhenney, Rob: It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, 2005, 3 Arts Entertainment
  • Taylor, Astra: Zizek!, 2005, Zeitgeist Films
  • Wright, Ben: Manufacturing Reality: Slavoj Zizek and the Reality of the Virtual, 2004
  • Weir, Peter: The Truman Show, 1998, Scott Rudin Productions

    Websites and links:

  • The College of Liberal Arts: On Fantasy: How Zizek Reads Lacan, 2010,
  • Zizek, Slavoj: The Lacanian Real: Television, 2008, Lacan resource page,

  • Learning Theory Through Pop Culture: The Script of Chris Marker’s La Jetée, 2008,




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