The dialectic that permeates Freudian psychoanalysis is a crucial point of Zizek’s in “Troubles with the Real: Lacan as a Viewer of Alien.” Zizek sets up a dichotomy between the hermeneutics of the unconscious, including Freud’s discussions on dreams, slips of the tongue, and symptoms; and the id, or the energetics of the unconscious – a more positivist view that sees the body as a machine for coping with libidinous energy that results from living in social structures. How can Freud see the patient as simultaneously sick and coping, neurotic and libidinous? At what point did Freud’s work move from a therapeutic mechanism to a more inherently philosophical one, explaining not only the pathology of the ill but the nature of the human mind? This I call the Freudian Conundrum.

Zizek compares this dialectic to the fundamental paradox of physics: the existence of both a theory of relativity at the macroscopic/cosmic level and quantum physics on the microscopic, or subatomic, scale. The central issue and goal of modern physicists has been to find a unified theory of everything to bridge the two existing theories.

Zizek mentions the Lacanian notion of le sinthome as a possible solution to the conundrum, stringing together the two poles of the dialectic. The sinthom, as opposed to the symptom, is described as “atoms of enjoyment,” the minimal synthesis of language. It can be described as the purest, elemental unit of joy – a kernel of jouissance. Zizek uses le sinthome to suggest that Lacan tackles both the Freudian Conundrum and the paradox of modern physics, thereby bridging psychoanalysis and modern science. But he cuts himself short, failing to dive into this argument. I will attempt to clarify and support that reading here.

Lacan’s major argument was the twofold structure of the Symbolic and the Real; a Lacanian lens on Freudian psychoanalysis would require a dual reading of each symptom. The manifestation of the symptom is the Symbolic, while the root of the Symptom – what is repressed – is a version of the Real. In this sense, pursuing le sinthome would be a fulfillment of the pleasure principle that Freud describes, an attempt to escape the symbolic order. To conduct therapy with the patient, to rid them of the symptom, would be to continue to exist within and perpetuate the symbolic order. To acknowledge the drives at the root of the symptom, however, would be to brush at the Real. Therapy in its traditional sense can be seen as an outgrowth of the Conundrum rather than a solution to it. Only acceptance of the underlying drives through jouissance can produce relief from repression.

The libido, like the alien in Ripley Scott’s Alien (1979), is a function of pure life – “indivisible, indestructible, and immortal.” It is the positive obverse of castration, the non-castrated remainder of the living body that, unbound by the force of law and the symbolic order, takes on a grotesque quality. The alien is unappealing precisely due to its superfluous body, an emblem of the discomfort of too much. This explains why the notion of therapy relies in part on the Symbolic; as long as humans exist within the symbolic order, it is impossible to achieve full jouissance without consequence. Lacan would also argue, based on his writings in The Ethics of Psychoanalysis (specifically “On creation ex nihilo”) that a solution to the paradox of physics exists purely within the symbolic order, as science is predicated on the illusory notion of progress; that is, that through scientific inquiry, based purely on experiments and knowledge of the past, one can grasp at the Real. Lacan would say that the world as we know it is symbolic, and grasping the Real would require total destruction of the world order. While the solution to the Freudian Conundrum may require an attempt at the Real, therapy as we know it, like science and law, is entirely dependent on the Symbolic.