Part 1: What is Repetition-as-Retroaction?


This week starts part 2 of 3 on a series of recordings on “repetition,” which is a foundational term to describe reading strategies for secrets. This unit focuses on the theory and practice of psychoanalysis as attributed to Jacques Lacan and modified by a number of scholars who follow his thinking. Lacan is someone who is a practitioner, and who does not conceive of psychoanalysis as something specific to the humanities. Instead, he talks about “the unconscious” in a number of different ways, including mathematics, (the emerging field of) computation and artificial intelligence, visual art, literature, tragedy, and the biological sciences of animal behavior. Although he is a practicing therapist (or analyst), one of Lacan’s big take-aways is that the unconscious is not something that is contained within the patient’s psyche. Instead, the unconscious is “on the outside,” meaning that it describes a social state of affairs and the relationships that are symbolized between people. I’d like to begin by offering a basic overview of some very common psychoanalytic terminology, including the repetition compulsion and its variations as desire and drive. I’d also like to talk briefly about the three “registers” of the unconscious: the imaginary, the symbolic, and the real.

In this recording, I’ll start by talking about the formal, psychoanalytic process of repetition-as-retroaction, starting with Lacan’s “graph of desire” before showing how it functions as both “repetition compulsion” and “repetition in history.” Then, in the next recording, I’ll offer an overview of the three registers of psychoanalysis and the terms “desire” and “drive.” There I’ll also talk through the concept of “anamorphosis” which situates retroactive signification in a public, visual, and discursive field of meaning-making. The purpose of the recordings in this unit is ultimately to draw attention to the reading strategy of repetition, filtered through a psychoanalytic lens.

From Repetition Compulsion to Repetition in History

Repetition is a key component of psychoanalysis, dating back to Freud. Freud, for instance, coins the phrase “repetition compulsion” (or “compulsion to repeat”) and the concept appears in a variety of places in psychoanalytic theory. In a general way, “the repressed seeks to ‘return’ in the present, whether in the form of dreams, symptoms, or acting-out: … a thing which has not been understood inevitably reappears; like an unlaid ghost, it cannot rest until the mystery has been solved and the spell broken.”  When unpleasant experiences or representations are repeated without the person knowing why they are repeated, Freud saw this as satisfying a function of consciousness, namely, the fulfillment of a repressed idea or wish.

There are two very important parts to the concept of “repetition” as “retroaction.” The first regards signification, which is closely wedded to the idea of truth. The second regards the social aspect of repetition, which is related to the idea of historical meaning-making. Let’s start by talking about Lacan’s “graph of desire,” which offers a visualization of repetition-as-retroaction. Then let’s look at examples of individual repetition compulsion and the shared, social function of repetition in history.  

The graph of desire. This is Lacan’s “graph of desire” which represents retroaction as two lines, one crossing from left to right, and the other starting at the bottom right, looping up, crossing the first line twice, and ending at the bottom left of the screen. Let’s talk through each of the symbols and what the different lines mean.

  • S (on the left hand side) represents the signifier in the first instance. It is the signifier “in the first instance” because it has not yet had a chance to retroactively signify. We can’t know what “S” means because it is the first and only instance in which we have seen, heard, or come across it. It is *just* a signifier, either without signification or with a meaning that the subject takes for granted.
  • S’ (on the right hand side) is the same signifier, just repeated some number of times. It is the second occurrence of the signifier, and the moment or point of reference that allows a retroactive signification to come into existence. S’ exists at a later moment in time, at some distance, putting the same signifier S and S’ into a relationship with itself.
  • Delta (or the small triangle) is the starting point of signification, and loops backwards through the forward-moving, chronological sequence of events. It is a return to the past, the subject before they know the retroactive meaning of their words. They cross at a point that is closer to S’, indicating that the signifier has been repeated, and the subject is coming to grips with how they have been using this signifier. At an arbitrary point, earlier in the repetition sequence, the line dips back down below the chronological sequence of signification.
  • Finally, the dollar-sign symbol, which is Lacan’s symbol for the “barred subject” is where signification ends up. It where it becomes apparent to the subject that they have been keeping secrets from themselves; that they have not been sufficiently attentive to the weight of their own words. They realize, after the fact, that how they or others around them are speaking signified something entirely other than what they thought they were saying.

All together, the graph of desire describes how we routinely come to grips with the meaning of words after the fact, belatedly. If you’ve ever read something the first time and wondered “what did that say? What did that even mean?” but at a later point, in light of new data, suddenly a “flashbulb” goes off that suddenly makes the old, nonsensical thing make sense, that is retroaction. It is a belated meaning, meaning that comes too late or later than we would expect, it is the making sense of the signifier well after we first encountered it.

The individual idea of the “repetition compulsion” is a way of talking about how the patient in a psychoanalytic session comes to therapy ‘just repeating’ the same words or behavior. Therapy is a coming to grips with signification; a recognition of the weight that the patient is attaching to their words. In that respect, the freedom granted by psychoanalysis is a freedom from mere repetition, from being stuck in the same slog, the same habits, the same compulsive actions that cause them stress, anxiety and harm.

This is also why psychoanalysis is traditionally affiliated with the “hermeneutics of suspicion.” When a patient comes to an analysis, the analyst does not assume that either they or the patient know what the things they are saying mean. Meaning in a session isn’t stable, or generalizable, it means for exactly one subject or individual. It is the fact that the individual is giving them a specific force, without realizing it, that is significant. Psychoanalysis consists in figuring out what the force of the word is for the one person who utters it, and how their own emotional investments are tangled up in the saying of that word or phrase. The only way to know what that force is to have the word repeated. When the word recurs, it becomes a sign of something unconscious, something that the patient has invested in. Discovering the true meaning of that signifier for a patient can only happen after the fact, after it has been repeated some number of times. It is only through repetition that the meaning of that word which is true for that one person can stabilize and become knowable. That is retroaction: the fixing of signification -- by and for a singular subject – by repeating a signifier.


Let’s consider some examples of this process. You may notice that a professor you know is behaving strangely. They pick up small sticks off of the ground before going into the office and ask you if you have any paper cups you might be able to give them. It seems like your professor is attracted to trash, they can't get enough of it. One day, you notice a bag of alfalfa or wood chips sitting on the corner of one of the desks of their office, and some stray pellets on the floor. Putting the pieces together, you figure out that the “trash” isn’t just “trash,” it’s actually bedding for the secret hamster that they are keeping in their office. In this case, “S” would be the trash, which signifies “trash.” “S’” would be the fact that the trash is actually bedding for the pet hamster. You would start by standing at “delta,” first recognizing the pellets and the wood chips, and then, reflecting on the earlier moments where you saw the professor collecting trash. In the end, the trash signifies differently, and you end up at the dollar sign or barred subject, where you would realize that you didn’t know the full story in the first instance.

Another example is the following scenario, more germane to psychoanalysis, is one in which a patient is “in therapy” and can’t seem to hear the force and signification of the words that they are using. One way to think about retroaction is as the punchline to ‘a joke’ that the patient heard and which cannot stop telling -- and this even though they can neither remember the punchline nor the reason why the joke is funny.  In fact, that they cannot stop themselves from telling the ‘joke’ is a sign that it is a point of deep personal investment. The joke isn’t funny, perhaps it is even offensive. When the patient says it out loud, they do not seem to ‘hear’ it in this way though, in fact, they can’t seem to stop telling it. That is compulsive repetition (Freud) or repetition automatism (Lacan). The analyst’s job would be to show how the act of retelling over and over again – repeatedly -- fulfills a purpose for the patient (e.g. Look at how funny I am! Pay attention to me!) beyond the joke which, again, is not funny. Analysis consists in remembering why they felt the need to tell this joke in the first place, and why they can’t get out of the pattern of telling it, over and over again. The purpose would be to show the patient how the joke’s signification is structured for them specifically, and to break them free of ‘merely’ repeating it. This is what makes the joke retroactive: it doesn’t truly mean until after its been told to death, repeated several times over and over again. Meaning only occurs to us after the fact, after the second, third, and fourth telling reveals why the punchline ever meant something – namely, why the joke was ever important to the patient in the first place. The joke in the “first” instance is S, and the recognition of its offensiveness is S’. The patient starts at delta, and only after some number of sessions and repetitions of the joke can come to grips with how it has meant in the various social contexts where they have rehearsed it.

A last example is the film The Sixth Sense and fair warning, big time spoiler alert, although the film was made in 1999. In the film, the main character is a child psychologist who notices that things are off in his life during the period of rising action. His spouse will not speak to him and is visibly upset each time he approaches her. Any time he tries to access his home office, it is always locked. He starts therapy with a young child, who claims to see ghosts, and begins counseling. At the end of the film, watching his spouse sleep, he sees her drop his ring – which he suddenly recognizes to no longer be on his hand.  After this crucial piece of information is revealed, the therapist begins to recognize the signs from earlier in the film, as shown in the following clip. This sequence shows the therapist confronted with the signifiers “in the past,” when they also appeared to movie watchers as insignificant, as inconspicuous details rather than parts of a larger puzzle.

[show clip from The Sixth Sense]

This is repetition as retroaction. Many of the shots we are seeing are recollections from earlier in the film -- this is “S,” the signifier means something that is taken for granted, inconspicuous, or is otherwise meaningless to the therapist. He recalls his patient confessing that he sees the dead, which is only significant now because now, at S’, he realizes that he is dead. He recalls, for instance, his office knob always being locked, which now makes sense because his grieving spouse was seeking to keep his memories locked away. He sees the single dinner setting at the table, a recurring feature of the film, and realizes that there is only one person to set the table for. He recalls his partner’s quickness to grab the check during a scene at a restaurant, now, he realizes, because she couldn’t hear his “lets get back together” speech. All of these are “signifiers” like the joke, which at an earlier point in time, the therapist did not and could not “get.” But retroaction changes the meaning of signifiers and brings their symbolic order to light. At that moment, the main character recalls his death from the opening moments of the film, when a burglar is shown entering his home. Until that point in the film, it is presumed that the character is alive, just recovering from – presumably – the fact of having been burgled. Now, we find out, that the true meaning of all of these signifiers is far different from that. Retroactively, the object of the sentence “I see dead people” is illocutionary, and not just a fantasy:  the child is addressing his ghost-therapist specifically in that moment, not his wild imagination.

Retroactive signification or repetition-as-retroaction is when signifier recurs, with a minimal difference that transforms the meaning of the word. This transformation, in turn, generates a secret, one that a person may be keeping from themselves, or alternatively, which others are keeping from them. As the signifier passes from S to S’, the subject can only transform by interpreting words, images, or symbols from an earlier time in light of this belatedly discovered meaning, and thereby dramatically changes the subject’s relationship to these symbols and the system that organizes them. At the very least, we become subjects who know we aren’t in the know; who know that some part of consciousness and meaning remains inaccessible to us.

Second, retroaction is also a collective, social, and historical phenomenon. To this point all of the examples that we have considered have been about individuals: the secret hamster-owning professor, the secret joke telling patient, the therapist in The Sixth Sense who discovers the secret of his own death too late. But the idea that the unconscious is on the outside means that retroactive significations also work on publics. We'll consider just one more example before moving on, which Slavoj Zizek describes as repetition in history, or the way that narratives of historical decline among nations and empires become cemented within the popular imagination.

Repetition in history is less an account of history as it really happens and more an explanation of certain events become especially significant over time. Zizek’s example is the fall of Rome, which starts with the signifier “Julius Caesar” and is repeated with the rise of “Caesarism.” This repetition creates a retroactive signification that solidifies the story of Rome’s “fall.” It helps to think of Caesar in terms of a historical “first” instance and the emergence of the title “Caesar” and the idea of “Caesarism” as the repetition.

In the first instance, there is the rise and fall of Caesar himself. When Caesar consolidated his personal power and strengthened it to imperial proportions, he acted [according to what he thought was] historically necessary. The Republican form was losing its validity, the only form of government which could save the unity of the Roman state was monarchy, a state based upon the will of a single individual. But until Caesar took power, it was still the republic which prevailed formally. As Hegel quite literally puts it, the Republic ‘was still alive only because she forgot that she was already dead.’ In this moment, moreover, Caesar’s acts seemed arbitrary, as if it could have gone another way. It also seemed like if Caesar could be removed, that would end the issue, and the Republic would return to its former state. And so the familiar story occurs: Brutus, Cassius, and others murder Caesar. That would have been the end of the story.

But then repetition in history happens. The first actual “Caesar” of Rome, Augustus, is throned. Killing Caesar actually created the thing that the conspirators didn’t want: more Caesars, more monarchy, more imperial governance. Caesar is quite literally repeated – first as a given name, then as an inherited title. When the name repeats, then the demise of the Republic and the rise of imperial Rome becomes intelligible as “historically necessary.” It is as if the rise of Caesarism confirms that Caesar himself was the beginning of the end. “The crucial point here is the changed symbolic status of an event: when it erupts for the first time it is experienced as a contingent trauma, as an intrusion of a certain non-Symbolized Real; only through repetition is this event recognized in its symbolic necessity – it finds its place in the symbolic network; it is realized in the symbolic order.” (Zizek, Sublime Object of Ideology 64).

Part 2: ISR, Desire, Drive, and Anamorphosis

In the previous recording, I discussed the formal, psychoanalytic process of repetition-as-retroaction, starting with Lacan’s “graph of desire” before showing how it functions as both “repetition compulsion” and “repetition in history.” In this recording  I’ll offer an overview of the three registers of psychoanalysis and the terms “desire” and “drive.” There I’ll also talk through the concept of “anamorphosis” which situates retroactive signification in a public, visual, and discursive field of meaning-making. The purpose of the recordings in this unit is ultimately to draw attention to the reading strategy of repetition, filtered through a psychoanalytic lens.

ISR. At the end of the previous recording, I used the terms “symbolic” and “real.” For that reason, it may help for us to define these terms further. They are also important terms to know for psychoanalytic reading more generally.

Lacan describes the three registers of “the unconscious” using the names “imaginary,” “symbolic” and “real.” These terms correspond to distinct moments in Lacan’s thought across his life. He begins with the imaginary, moves to the symbolic, and at the end of his career, devotes attention to the Real. These “registers” also correspond with a gradual shift in Lacan’s understanding of “the death drive,” the instinct that only succeeds by failing. Let’s focus on the imaginary, symbolic, and real (or ISR) before explaining the concepts of “desire” and “drive.”

Several psychoanalytic scholars have offered a description of how the three registers of the unconscious are related using the metaphor of a mathematical equation on the one hand and of a chess game on the other. The metaphors are intended to show how the three registers of the unconscious can all be in the same space at the same time even as they describe different parts of unconscious action. Rhetorical scholar Calum Matheson writes:

[the] Symbolic might be understood as the structure of an equation, the Imaginary relation lending particular value to individual variables, and the Real emerging when the formula is revealed to be insoluble.

in other words the imaginary is all of the ways that we might fill up the equation with different numbers, the symbolic is the fixed structure of the equation that does not appear to change, and the Real is when we discovered that the equation itself cannot be solved or is perhaps better explained by an entirely different form of mathematical problem solving. Zizek’s metaphor of the chessboard is similar:

For Lacan, the reality of human beings is constituted by three intertangled levels: the Symbolic, the Imaginary, and the Real. This triad can be nicely illustrated by the game of chess. The rules one has to follow in order to play it are its symbolic dimension: from the purely formal standpoint, ‘knight’ is defined only by the moves this figure can make. This level is clearly different from the imaginary one, namely the way in which different pieces are shaped and characterized by their names (king, queen, knight), and it is easy to envision a game with the same rules, but with a different imaginary, in which this figure would be called ‘messenger’ or ‘runner’ or whatever. Finally, Real is the entire complex set of contingent circumstances that affect the course of the game: the intelligence of the players, the unpredictable intrusions that may disconcert one player or directly cut the game short. (8-9)

In this case, the imaginary is all of the possible representations that might be given to the characters -- if the pieces are, for instance, characters in a film or video game. The symbolic is the fixed rules that dictate how each of the individual pieces move, and the real is when something intrudes in on the game: an earthquake, a cheater, a table flip – at which point it is clear that something bigger than the game and its rules are at play, and the rules are tossed out the window or completely reconfigured.  With this baseline in place let's consider each of the registers individually to explain what they are.

The Imaginary

The imaginary register is where we see, register, and understand signification or meaning making. It is where we live out our lives in symbols and representations. It describes the dream-like world we live in, in which symbols appear to mean specific things for a subject. In this register, the subject’s symbolic universe seems mostly complete or intelligible; things make sense, even if we recognize that there is a part of ourselves cut off from ourselves. This is the register of the little-o other, or specific others, the people you would know and recognize; and of the little-r real, in which the representations available in the world around us make it seem believable enough. In the traditional psychoanalytic retelling, the imaginary is where we start as subjects, and at an early stage the child-subject is not entirely separate or distinct from people or things in their surrounding environment. Everything is instead an extension of self. At this point, there isn’t a structure of language, there is just repetition and imitation. Let’s briefly watch a video of a toddler “babbling,” which is meant to illustrate this mode of as-yet unstructured repetition.

[Video: A Toddler Babbling]

In the video, the toddler folds their arms, gestures, and uses repetitive sounds as a sort of “substitute” for words, which they use to carry on the (in scare quotes) “conversation.” As a language-using subject, however, the imaginary is the world that we create with symbols – rather than babble – to create a sense of wholeness and completeness around us. The imaginary register often features representations of desirable good and undesirable evil that remind us of what or who we want to be, giving that universe coordinates. The “want to be” is also what is called “imaginary identification,” the attachment to a symbol we either emulate or reject to define our identity for ourselves.

The Symbolic The symbolic register is the site of language, the big-O Other, and rhetorical trope. Each of these deserves at least a little bit of our attention. The symbolic is the structure of symbolization, the mythic or mathematical organization of signs and symbols to that organizes and structures a fantasy. It is the organizing force that divides and hierarchizes symbols, organizing them as functions of probability or logical arrangement. It is roughly the equivalent of the “rules of language” which stipulate what can and cannot be thought or spoken in relatively absolute terms. However, the function of the symbolic is less to share meaning among subjects than to thereby divide subjects from and place them into relation with one another. Lacan literally associates it with the bar that separates the signifier from the signified. The symbolic is a set of rules that is followed to preserve a given order, to keep the things that we represent to others stable and continuous, and vice-versa. Here is a passage from “Lacan Confronts the CIA Plot” by Slavoj Zizek, in which he explains an example of a “symbolic exchange”:

When, after being engaged in a fierce competition for a job promotion with my closest friend, I happen to win, the proper thing is to offer to withdraw, so that he will get the promotion, and the proper thing for him to do is to reject my offer dash this way, perhaps, our friendship can be saved. What we have here is symbolic exchange at its purest : a gesture made only to be rejected. The magic of symbolic exchanges that, though at the end we are both where we are at the beginning, there is a distinct gain for both parties in their pact of solidarity. Of course, the problem is what if the person to whom the offer to be rejected is made should actually accept it. [In other words what if the friend says “yes you should step down from the promotion!”?] what is having lost the competition, I accept my friend's offer to get the promotion after all, instead of him? A situation like this is properly catastrophic: it causes the disintegration of … social order, which equals the disintegration of the social substance itself, the dissolution of the social link.

As opposed to imaginary identification, symbolic identification concerns the position from which I am likeable (or dislikeable) to myself. It is the position of moral or social judgment from whence I assess whether or not my actions are praiseworthy or blameworthy, worthy of my being proud of what I have done, or alternatively, worthy of shame. It is the position from which I judge my own actions, the position of authority through which I filter what I saw and what I do. It is symbolic identification, on the one hand, because we identify with the position of authority over social and familiar order: the familiar characters who fit the description of the “big-O Other” in psychoanalysis are God, the Father, the Law, and the analyst – all of whom are projected upon as holding on to a “truth” that would authorize me to act appropriately in the world.

The symbolic order as rhetorical trope. This slippage – between God, the father, the law, the analyst, even other positions of authority like a boss – is also where rhetorical tropes enter the picture. The slippage among the different “Names of the Father” is a metonymy, an aggregation of parts that slip from one to the next but have no determined, single identity. The idea is that certain shared signs may slip from one to the next, creating a chain of representations that loosely hang together. Metonymy is typically a “part for whole” relationship, like the “hands” of the phrase “all hands on deck.” The manual labor of sailing a ship is represented in the hand of the sailor, thereby sliding from an arbitrary detail to a complex and coordinated task. Metonymy is also at work if I tell a group of students “all hands on deck” in order to alert them to an upcoming deadline, because then the phrase signifies something beyond its original context: that we better get to work because something is on the horizon. The easiest way to understand metonymy is as the trope of the parapraxis or the Freudian slip: a word that doesn’t normally signify something is suddenly put to work in a tangential or adjacent way, allowing a meaning to move from one domain of signification to another. Metonymy, in the words of rhetorician Christian Lundberg, “describes any point where signs and representations are articulated to one another as a site of investment producing meaning for a subject.” Metonymy is a symbolic “rule” of representation, because it describes the arbitrary and haphazard way that representations get made.

Metaphor is what happens when retroactivity enters the picture, and solidifies the connections in a metonymic chain. When one signifier or sign become particularly significant, and connects a whole chain of other representations together, we have metaphor. Lundberg calls this “a figure with substantial gravity” that rigidifies the connections between a metonymic chain of signs or representations. In The Sixth Sense, metaphor is what happens when all of the different metonymies – the doorknob, the plate, the check, “I see dead people,” comes back with a vengeance and solidifies the connection between the various signs. It yanks a reality into existence, creating a social world in which a secret is shown to have always existed..  It is a central signifier that organizes a wider field of significations.

The Purloined Letter as Symbolic Order. The last example of the symbolic is directly related to the meanings attached to secrets because it draws on one of the earliest examples of American detective fiction, Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, “The Purloined Letter.” lacan's lecture on the purloined letter is considered to be one of the places where he brings together the concepts of imaginary, symbolic, and real however the true star of the show in this case is the symbolic order. I'll briefly tell the story and then I'll explain how it is that the symbolic order -- and retroactive signification -- are involved.

The short story has two major scenes. The first occurs in a “royal boudoir” where a King and Queen are present. The Queen receives the compromising letter in the King’s presence, whereupon the Minister D- enters. The Minister quickly recognizes that the Queen is keeping a secret, and casually drops a decoy letter on the table. This is how the letter is “purloined,” it is stolen and taken away to a second location. The Minister D- steals the dangerous document as the Queen watches, unable to stop him.

The second scene features Poe’s analyst, Auguste Dupin. At this time, the Queen has commanded the Prefect of the Police retrieve the letter. Although his officers employ state-of-the-art scientific techniques to find the letter, no amount of searching can uncover it. Exhausted by their failure, the Prefect consults Dupin for assistance. When Dupin enters the Minister’s home for a casual visit, he immediately sees the letter perched in plain sight, crumpled and “apparently thrust carelessly” between the legs of the Minister’s mantel. Artfully forgetting his snuffbox on the table, Dupin returns the following day. He creates a distraction in the square below the minister's house, and while the minister is distracted, substitutes the letter with a forgery that bears his own signature.

It's important to note that at no point in the story do we know what the letter actually says . The letter itself is secret not only from us but also to seemingly all of the characters except for the Queen, the minister, and Dupin. this detail is important because it does not matter what the letter or the signifier means or signifies what matters is how it repeats across the scenes and how this repetition give it a certain function for the different characters who are positioned around it.

In the first scene there are three major characters. There's the King who is incapable of witnessing anything. The letter is literally sitting in front of him and he cannot see it. Then, there is the Queen who hides the secret in plain sight. The Queen is a figure of duplicity because she knows the secret but does not say anything, she is the one who hides the secret who keeps concealed content buried. finally there is the minister who is the only one who is capable of shifting these positions. the minister swipes the letter changing the power dynamics that are at play.

In the second scene there are also three major characters. First, there is the prefect of the police who is incapable of witnessing seeing or finding anything in the minister's apartment. Then there is the minister, who is now duplicitous because he knows the secret but does not say or reveal anything, he is the one who hides the secret and is attempting to keep the concealed content buried. Finally, there is Dupin, who like the minister in the previous scene, sees the secret hiding in plain sight.  he two shifts the power relations of the story, and swipes the letter again shifting the positions of authority hierarchy and leverage.

The three positions that are only visible retroactively as a function of looking at the two scenes as a repetition of one another are the symbolic order of posed purloined letter, and Lacan argues, of secrecy more generally. In other words, the triangles provide a structure in form to the story, the rules of the game. They show us that there are three ways of being organized around a secret. First there is simply not knowing, the fact that the secret may be laying out in front of us but we cannot see it. Second there is the keeping of the secret and the duplicity that is required to both maintain a public face and that we are hiding something. Finally, there is the position that destabilizes these first two, which takes the letter out of our possession and recalibrates the relationships among the bearers of hidden information.

The Real. Finally, there is the big-R Real, the register of interruption, destabilization, and reconfiguration. The big-R Real is, strictly speaking, unassimilable within the symbolic order. It is a kernel or residue that simply will not and cannot fit and which requires us to reconfigure our notions of meaning making and rule governed systems. To use another example from Edgar Allan Poe the real is like the telltale heart: it is something that the main character of this story simply cannot ignore even as they are carrying on a normal conversation with someone who is visiting them. It is something that interrupts the scene and exposes the protagonist as both a murderer and as the keeper of a secret.

According to rhetoricians Kevin Johnson and Jennifer Asenas, the Real has five separate functions:

(1)    The real is the void or backdrop for ideology. If ideologies are sustained by fantasy, the imaginary representation of the world that makes a given system (like “feudalism” or “capitalism”) whole and complete, the Real lies in the fact that these systems cover up a foundational lie or untruth.

(2)    The real describes the ‘return’ of repressed content that destabilizes the symbolic universe and our relationship to other humans. We watched this return in the earlier recording using examples from the graph of desire.

(3)    The real is also the domain of unrestricted jouissance or enjoyment, which the habits that are compulsively repeated to give the subject a sense of identity and coherence. In session, for instance, our “enjoyment” of a certain story about ourselves (for example, that we are not enough or that no one respects us) serves a function beyond the literal meaning of that story. Discovering that meaning can destabilize our symbolic universe as well.

(4)    The real is “materiality,” or the “matter” that resists being put into symbols. When we think about the representation of Covid-19 pandemic, for instance, that resists symbolization; it is hard to put into a single representation, if not possible. The real as materiality is, in the words of Johnson and Asenas, the reduction of the organism to abject matter).

(5)    Finally, the real is what Kenneth Burke called “recalcitrance” or the resistance to symbolization. Lacan also stresses this point. Although some scholars equate the Real with the representation of a lack, or absence, the Real is, strictly speaking unrepresentable. It is defined as that point where symbols and symbolization are both impossible.

It would be a mistake to understand the (big-R) Real as ‘that which is beside meaning and in which meaning inscribes itself in order to realize itself’; instead the Lacanian Real ‘spells from the intimate fault line in the symbolic system.’ The Real is that which, thanks to the symbolic incision, has existence but not substance, an existence discernable only by virtue of a careful accounting of its (de)structuring effects.

One practical example of the Real is the “unassimilable” element in dreams. When our dreams are interrupted, there is usually a bridge from the material world that enters into the dream that simply cannot be symbolized or represented. For example if, as we are sleeping, the alarm clock goes off, attempt to assimilate this noise bye having a bird chirping to the sound of this alarm. However there comes a point when there is a mismatch between the material world in which we are sleeping and the dreamworld in which outside noises are metonymically represented. At the point that we wake up the chirping alarm is the real piece of material content that cannot be brought into the world of symbols and symbolization. let's briefly watch this clip from the film Inception, which illustrates  the Real in a related way.

[Video: Clip from Inception]

At the beginning of the clip one of the characters who is learning about how to create a structure for dreams discover is after the fact that they in fact are within a dream. This knowledge is unassimilable within the world that they inhabit. As a consequence, the symbolic ordering of this world comes apart at the seams. To be clear, the real is not something that is represented. Instead, it is the unrepresentable thing that forces a total destruction and reconfiguration of a given symbolic universe.

Desire, Drive, and Anamorphosis. The final three concepts that I would like to talk about in relationship to repetition an retroaction are desire, drive, and anamorphosis. Desire and drive are companion concepts and both are related to the idea of repetition. They are often called “the economies of enjoyment” (or jouissance) because they describe “the subject’s ‘useless’ repetition of its habits of subjectivity,” or which aim for something beyond what is actually stated or done.

Desire is the repetition that is always destined to miss its mark. It is the longing after an object that cannot be had because the thing that we want is an excess of the thing that we actually see in front of us. With desire when we grab hold of the object that we want suddenly the object retreats further backward. Desire is like trying to define a concept that eludes definition, like the word “Rhetoric.” as a newcomer to rhetorical studies you made feel like you need to have a definition of rhetoric and so you seek out that object seizing upon the first definition that you see , for instance from Aristotle. But upon hearing that definition it may not make sense or it may not explain all of the things that people seem to say when they use the word rhetoric. And so you seek out another definition which functionally fills in those gaps. But even that may not do and so you seek out another and another and another. This is the branching out and repetition of desire. The subject seeks after an object which it definitionally cannot have, because as soon as it has it, it retreats to yet another hiding place.

One famous formula from Lacan is that the subject’s “desire is the desire of the other,” or “desire is always the desire of the other’s desire.” This means that what we want but cannot have is to appear to the other in the way that we would like them to see us, for them to want us as we want to be wanted. The phrase "I want you to want to do the dishes” is an expression of this desire, because it commands the other person in the relationship to want to do the thing that I want you to do. Ultimately, “I want you to want to do the dishes,” may not even be about the dishes at all, but your partner’s willingness to contribute to the household in a way that makes you feel recognized or validated. That’s how desire moves; it slips from one object to the next.

Drive is the repetition that always hits its mark, that always satisfies its goal or aim. It is a form of compulsive repetition that never fails to perform its function. For example, if you have a big essay or assignment coming up, and you decide that you’re not able to work until you’ve have cleaned up my workspace, that may keep you away from your work, but it satisfies the need of avoiding the troubling or stressful stimulus. raise the level of a compulsive repetition, cleaning up the workspace may function as a routine form of avoidance that always satisfies its purpose: to create a familiar routine or habit that produces temporary comfort for that subject, and keeps the object which is too much to handle at bay.

The drive is also a concept that starts out as Freud’s “death drive,” a compulsion toward self-destruction or self-dissolution. With the death drive, the words, actions, and habits of the subject are circular and repetitive, and function to eliminate or extinguish a stimulus. However, a key characteristic of this death drive is that by trying to repress a stimulus, it often achieves its intended goal or aim. So for instance, the killing of Julius Caesar actually produced the very thing that the conspirators wanted to repress: Caesarism. Similarly, in the example just given, cleaning your whole space may reduce the stress brought on by the assignment you have to do, but it also results in an intensification of that stress insofar as now, there is less time to complete it.

Anamorphosis. Historian Martin Jay tells us that, traditionally, anamorphosis describes a visual technique employed by painters that “allows the spectator to reform a distorted picture by use of a non-planar mirror.” (48) The English language inherits anamorphosis “from the Greek ana- (again) and morphe (form), and conventionally refers to a painting technique for manipulating perspective through purposeful distortion.

The example of anamorphosis both Jay and Lacan cite is Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors, which depicts two ornately dressed scholars standing next to a table overflowing with antiquated instruments.

Looking Holbein’s painting head-on, there is one disproportionate element: the large and distorted shape that covers the lower half of the canvas. But from the proper angle, the distortion reveals itself to be a skull, painted such that a spectator can see it fully and upright only as they move away from the canvas's center. Head-on, the painting overflows with representations of knowledge. It is littered with mandolins, measuring devices, scrolls, and globes. 'Viewed at an angle,' however, the skull becomes a surplus that signifies that something was missing when we first glanced at the image. This unassimilated symbol is an added object that undermines the presumptive ‘fullness’ of the image. Anamorphosis, by this account, would describe the visual restoration of the skull’s formal features, from a corrected perspective.

The skull is also particularly relevant because it metonymically connects anamorphosis to the drive, specifically the death drive. Images like skulls, flies, and rotting fruit were prevalent in paintings like these because they were a formal feature called the memento mori, the reminder of death. In a painting for instance of fruit which symbolizes plentitude and health there would consistently be a reminder of the real in the painting , the fact that this is all artifice, that the objects represented are temporary, and that there is an end to representation.

Anamorphosis remains a popular visual mode of representation. as a strategy of composition it allows the artifact to signify more than what it literally looks like, either presenting something as a unified whole of different parts – like metaphor – or otherwise allowing us to apprehend the object with a difference depending on where we are looking from. Let’s take a look at the following video, which demonstrates anamorphosis at work in more recent art installations.

[Video: Bernard Pras and other Anamorphoses]

Finally anamorphosis need not be a visual phenomenon. sometimes the object that is laying in plain sight , that has been there all along, is right in front of us and it isn't until too late or after the fact that we recognize its true significance. We will end this recording by considering one final clip from the film Searching. The protagonist who is using the computer on the screen, has recently lost his daughter who is presumed to have died. He's done everything in his power to find her using the resources of the police and has to the best of his ability scoured all of his daughter's social media postings. At this point in the film she has not been found. However at the moment that he submits materials for his daughter's funeral he notices something that he had not before, an image that had been part of the social media profile that his daughter had been using, and which he had found after her disappearance. Let's take a look.

[Video: Searching]

This clip is an example of anamorphosis as a retroactive signification. In the first instance the main character saw the image of this person, and thought it was insignificant. In the protagonist's mind there was no reason to question whether or not the person that his daughter had been chatting with was using their own authentic image. However, after coming to find out but the image is a stock photo, the meaning of these previous conversations changes dramatically. It suddenly becomes possible that his daughter was catfished, and it renews the main characters drive to find his missing child. Looking at the image from a different angle produces a different signification. This required him to have seen the image in the first place, not knowing what it meant, and then in the second instance, to attach a new and destabilizing meaning to it which changes the course of events in the film.