Lacan defines the psychoanalytic concept of the Real as the impossible limit/end of the functioning of a symbolic system. This symbolic system – an imaginary invention of the subject – is the fictional narration of the world that functions precisely in order to prevent the encounter with the Real, the Void of pure senselessness in which (the sense of) individual and collective agency dissipates into absolute nothingness, spiraling in a vortex toward its own impossibility.

From out of this vortex of the Real, the Symbolic arises – for no other reason than that the subject couldn’t otherwise maintain a coherent sense of self – and retroactively posits/imagines the story of its founding. This story might begin with the imaginary act of an individual, or an imaginary cosmological occurence.

To extrapolate outside of the clinical situation, an example of the former might be that the Symbolic order of capitalism relies on the fictional original act of the entrepreneur’s self-determination of his destiny, ‘lifting himself up by his own bootstraps’ (which happens to rely as well on the imaginary notion of the ‘innate’ acquisitiveness of human beings in the ‘state of nature,’ their ‘innate’ desire to compete and to own property, etc.).

An example of the latter might be that the Symbolic orders of Taoism and Buddhism rely on the fictional cosmological occurance of the great rupturing of the original Perfection of the Universe by the human-introduced disturbance of ‘striving’ or ‘desire.’

Of course, the Symbolic as such would disintegrate if its imaginary (i.e., ‘fantasmatic’) support were revealed as nothing more than the subject’s own mental effort to constitute something sensible in the face of brute, material reality.

The Real is thus

the spectral fantasmatic history [that] tells the story of a traumatic event that ‘continues not to take place’ (Lacan, Seminar XX: Encore, New York: Norton, 1998, p. 59), that cannot be inscribed into the very symbolic space it brought about by its intervention….[and], precisely as such, as nonexistent, it continues to persist, that is, its spectral presence continues to haunt the living (Žižek, The Fragile Absolute, London: Verso, 2000, p. 58).

Thus the Real negates not simply some positive feature(s) of the Symbolic, but rather negates the positivity of the Symbolic itself and thus of the subject’s most basic sense of self (consciousness). We can compare the would-be direct confrontation with the Real to the experience – rare indeed – of an individual confronting herself, in an extreme panic attack, for example, as nothing but a mound of flesh (although this is something technically impossible, since logically nothing that is possible could ever see itself as impossible; nothing that is pure flesh could ever “see itself” as pure flesh…).

This experience is also the same as Hegel’s nightmarish ‘night of the world,’ when Spirit confronts itself as nothing more than a bone – when Spirit (human consciousness/thought/belief) recognizes that it really is (not just that it arises from) the simple inert matter of the brain.

The crucial point about this is not simply that the Spirit is nothing but dead matter, but, further, that nevertheless, it is still Spirit: Spirit is “strong enough to assert its identity with the inertia of dead matter and to ‘sublate’ it […] i.e., dead matter, even at its most extreme, cannot escape the Spirit’s power of mediation” (Ibid., from the Preface: xvi). In other words, no part of material reality is left untouched by the additional, imaginary fantasy supplement that we add to it.

So the Symbolic relies on a narrative to describe and understand its present outline, the totality of its positive aspects and its limits. And what this narrativization does is to shield the subject from the Real.

It is crucial to note that this “retroactive fictionalization engages the subject who generated this fiction much more” than the subject’s experience of an actual, traumatic event (Žižek, The Fragile Absolute, 62). Although this trauma would bring the subject to the limits of her understanding – to the limits of the Symbolic – and would haunt her the rest of her life, the traumatic event as such must always be repressed (buried in the unconscious) and filtered through a renewed fundamental fantasy that operates based upon the exclusion of that trauma.

The return of repressed trauma occurs not only for the obvious reason that the trauma has always already determined the limits of the Symbolic; it also appears via repeated disturbances of the smooth functioning of the conscious ego, as the spectre that continues to haunt the subject in its unconscious as a remainder/reminder of this unacknowledged (and unacknowledgeable) ‘violence’ that was the (subject’s) founding gesture of the Symbolic out of the senselessness of the Real – that is, the gesture of creating/imagining meaning and imposing that meaning on inherently meaningless material reality.

This exclusion of the Real occurs in the founding of every Symbolic understanding, whether benevolent or evil: the ghost that haunts the unconscious, the ghost of the traumatic break from the senseless Real into the sense of the Symbolic is thus what has been called a ‘passionate attachment,’ an attachment the subject can never escape and precisely as such must repeatedly – and passionately and violently – disavow in order to continue to function within the horizon of its understanding, an understanding which, again, originates with the subject’s violent exclusion of alternative modes of understanding.

For instance, think of the bizarre phenomenon of the U.S. military’s ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ policy, in which disclosure of one’s sexual orientation is prohibited in order to prevent others’ uncomfortable exposure to the possibility that, yes, as a matter of fact, homosexuality does exist in the military (see Judith Butler, The Psychic Life of Power, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998).

To be clear, the subject never directly encounters the Real (this would be death, or, perhaps, Ego death). Rather, one gets a ‘little piece’ of it, an event or an object which impinges on the Symbolic. Thus, instead of entering the Real, one continuously circles around it, always narrativizing any traumatic excess (e.g., by instituting a law, such as “don’t ask don’t tell”).

The manner in which one circles around the Real is one’s particular symptom (e.g., the symptoms of the neurotic subject, for whom everything must be kept in perfect order and the “impossible” – e.g., homosexuality – must always remain impossible; or the symptoms of the hysteric, who desperately desires to be given any stable position of belonging within a community).

The narrative functions, however, not simply as a shield, but also as a demand: Enjoy! That is, the narrative, by providing an aesthetically appealing/convincing blockade against direct access to the Real, keeps the subject at peace with itself (or rather, with its symbolic identity).