Lacan argues that the reality of people is divided into three levels or realms: Symbolic, Imaginary, and Real. From mathematics, Lacan borrows the concept of “Borromean Rings”, in which, by removing one ring, we get two unconnected rings remaining. The same happens with the three levels: In the case that, for example, the Symbolic Level does not function, the connection between the Real and Imaginary cannot be established.
Slavoj Žižek, in his book “How to Read Lacan” (Zizek, 2007, pp. 8 – 9.), uses chess as one of the ways in which the three levels can be described: The rules that we must follow, i.e. the way in which the chess pieces can move across the board, represent the Symbolic Level, which means that they are defined by the moves that the chess players can do with them. This establishes that the chess pieces are already defined by the Symbolic Level (the rules of the chess game). Moreover, with their names and their appearance being completely arbitrary, it is easy, for example, to place an elephant instead of the queen, and, despite the different look, appearance and name, with respect to the rules, we can continue with the game. This arbitrariness with the appearance and names of the chess pieces represents the Imaginary Level. The Real Level, in turn, is the total sum of the moves and decisions of the chess players, on which the outcome of the game is dependent.
Now that we are familiar with the theory of the signifier-signified and Borromean Rings, we can explain the appearance of psychosis or, as Lacanians call it, “individuals with a psychotic structure”. In the early days of a baby’s life, there is a closed binary baby/mother world—a world that has its own psychological dynamics. The baby tries to break out of that world, because the dependence on only one object—the mother—is too traumatic. The role of the father is to step in and to break up that duality, to introduce the baby to the outside sphere of culture, language and institutions, i.e. to introduce the baby (and, as time goes , by the little child) to the symbolic world or the Symbolic Level (the rules of the chess game). This is done by the father by giving the first signifier or, as it called, the primordial signifier, to the child. Thus, the father performs two functions: one is to give the first signifier, and the second is to break up the binary world of mother/baby, thereby allowing normal development. Lacan calls the first signifier The Name of the Father, and, by giving it that name, he separates the father from the signifier, because in the further life and development of the child, the Name of the Father can be anyone: the mother, the elder brother or the sister, the teacher or the friend, anyone who will introduce the child to the Symbolic Level.
The Name of the Father has the most important function, to bind the Symbolic, Imaginary, and Real Levels together, because a person who, through his signifier, can connect with the Symbolic Level (knows the rules of the “chess game”), can easily use the Imaginary Level and confront with the Real Level (all unpredictable and predictable moments in life). In cases where there is no Name of the Father, there is foreclosure, and, according to Lacanians, the individual affected has a psychotic structure. Lacanian analysts use the term psychotic structure, because the individual can live without any problems until the moment when an external or internal (physiological) phenomenon cannot be linked to the Symbolic Level because there is no “signifier” for that “signified”. Having no signifier, the subject is cut off from the Symbolic Level and the Borromean Rings dissolve, or using the words of Lacan: “the material of reality is ripped apart.” Then, such a person begins to show symptoms of psychosis.
This theory of Lacan is in a huge part influenced by the work of Melanie Klein, which will be introduced in the later part of this text.