The term ‘non-symbolic’ is an inversion of the well known and within certain discourses perhaps somewhat overexposed term symbolic. To be able to clarify the implication of ‘non-symbolic’ I have to shed some light on my interpretation of the symbolic. Although I do not agree with the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan in all respects, his descriptions of the earliest stages in the development of human consciousness seem quite accurate. Following in the footsteps of Freud, Lacan argues that from the moment the child recognises itself in the mirror, it understands itself as a subject separate from the mother. It looks at itself as though being looked at by the mother. Through this identification 'it desires the object of her desire, thus focusing the libido on itself'. Unlike Freud, who focused on the sexual metaphor, Lacan attempts to take a broader view. His main target, if not metaphor, is language. Lacan argues that the possibility of reflecting upon itself from outside (Freuds’ mirror stage) allows the child to recognise itself for the first time as a separated and unified subject. It enables the child to relate to the outside world, to the 'Other’, to develop language. However, the paradox Lacan introduces here is that this recognition is a ‘misrecognition’. The idea that the subject will ever be fully unified is an illusion. For this reason Lacan introduces the term ‘imaginary’. The child does develop an interest in others, but this interest is based on an imaginary and rather narcissistic relation the child has to itself (seeing itself as unified). A further development is needed to enter the symbolic order we share with each other.

The symbolic order has nothing to do with the physical reality around us but is a constructed reality, a symbolic representation of reality. With the language (symbol) that is passed onto the child and to which it has to subject itself, it learns to differentiate itself from others. Identification no longer passes through the image, but is exercised through the word. This is how a child learns to understand his/her own desire and to understand that this desire is not necessarily the same as those of others. According to this logic, Lacan situates the symbolic order as the precondition of difference and the recognition of difference.

However, the fact that there is no return once one has firmly set foot within the symbolic order is problematic. Through language we learn to differentiate ourselves as subjects, but only on the condition that we are subjected to the language (of others) and its many prohibitions and commands. The symbolic order thus implies a certain imprisonment on the inside (with no privileged position on the outside that would authorise us to say anything truthful about the relations between words and things). Entering the symbolic order therefore demands a certain kind of offer; there is a price to pay. According to Lacan, this price is the loss of both the imaginary (the narcissistic position) and the order of the Real. Lacan doesn’t speak of this third order often, probably because for him it represents the limit. As soon as we speak, the Real is no longer present. The order of the Real disappears at the very moment we replace its objects with symbols/words. When it becomes represented symbolically the previous ‘not-yet-named object’ looses its immediacy. The moment of representation not only interferes with the immediacy of that object in particular, but with the immediate experience at large. Lacan can do nothing other than refer to the order of the Real (Le Reel) negatively: it falls outside both the imaginary and symbolic order. One question remains: Is it possible that people who do not or only temporally enter this symbolic order have access to other realities? What would be their relation with the order of the Real?

I have introduced the term ‘non-symbolic’ to name a place -a place to be - for those people for whom entering the symbolic order, due to internal and/or external circumstances , is not a matter of course. These people experience the world entirely differently. In the lightning works of poets and artists like Holderlin, Nerval, Nietsche, Van Gogh, and Artaud the irrational manifests itself violently. The same can be said of the growing number of personal accounts of autism and schizophrenia by contemporary writers. We, the non-disabled, may be stuck in the symbolic order with no outside - no Real - and feel quite comfortable about that, these disabled people live in a world where inside and outside make no difference. For them the inside and outside are blurred in such a way that there is no safe place to go. There is no split between the ‘self-same’ and the Other, between me and the world. According to Lacan who spoke about this phenomenon in his lectures on the devouring ‘gaze of the objects’ the experience of not being able to defend yourself from this gaze must be devastating. Our symbolic order works as a shield , protecting us from total destruction and chaos. But what if that shield doesn't work?

No place to retreat to (to rest), no place to speak from, no place where the 'I' resides. Those who may never succeed in entering the symbolic order or whose symbolic firmament proves to be insufficient, whose escape routes are blocked and who confront non-integration, disintegration or only fragments of integration, such a safe place does not exist. The French philosopher Michel de Certeau spent a great deal of his time extrapolating this perhaps somewhat negative-sounding ‘non-place’. In his book The Mystic Fable he reintroduced the term in quite a hopeful manner. With ‘non-place’ De Certeau refers to ‘the saying of the Other’. (1) The importance of his contribution is twofold: First, De Certeau shows how they who occupy this ‘non-place’ - by contrast - legitimise the place of all the others, of the community as a whole. Those (re)presenting the ‘non-symbolic’ make possible the very existence of the symbolic. Second: The ‘non-place’ is perhaps the only place from which to see the delusions of the symbolic order, of language, of place and of humanity as a whole. Michael Foucault, the philosopher-historian who has critically analysed the cultural formation of different patterns of control and exclusion throughout history, came to a similar conclusion. In his article 'Madness: the Absence of Work', he claims: 'With the exclusion of madness there will be something else which will not take long to die, that which is already dying in us (and whose death bears our current language). [...] This is the Homo Dialecticus: the being of departure, of return and of time: the animal that loses its truth only in order to find it again, illuminated'. (2)

(1)Michel de Certeau, The Mystic Fable,

(2) Michael Foucault, Madness, the absence of Work, pp. 290-295 in Critical Inquiry 21 (winter 1995)