The Borromean knot is used in the psychoanalytic theory proposed by Jacques Lacan to refer to a structure composed of three rings, corresponding to the link of the three existing registers in every speaking subject. These are the register of the real, the register of the imaginary, and the register of the symbolic.
The knotting of these records is essential so that the subject can have a consistent reality. And in it, maintain a discourse and social bond with the others around him.
Through the structure of the Borromean knot, each one of the registers is knotted with the others in such a way that if one looses, the others do as well, this being the essential quality of this structure.
This Lacanian theory can be divided into two moments. In the first of them, the Name of the Father acts as a fundamental law. It is understood as a primordial signifier, being the one that holds together the three registers proposed by Lacan.
In the second moment of his theory, he reduces the Borromean knot to only three rings that are linked in such a way that they are responsible for the consistency of the structure.
Towards the end of his teaching, Lacan adds a fourth knot, which he calls sinthome.
How should the Borromean knot be understood?
In his psychoanalytic theory, Lacan tries to explain the psychic structure of the subject, based on that of the Borromean knot.
Introduces this concept to think about the structure of language and its effects on the subject. In this way he could think of the symbolic register and its relations with the register of the real and the imaginary.
This Borromean structure is then composed of three rings, each of which represents the three registers proposed by Lacan. These are the register of the imaginary, the register of the symbolic and the register of the real.
The first of them refers to the site in which the first identifications of the subject with the others take place.
The second, the register of the symbolic, represents the signifiers, that is, the words with which the individual identifies.
And, the third register, symbolizes the real, understanding it as that which cannot be represented symbolically because it lacks meaning.
These three rings, then represented by the component registers of the subject’s psychic structure, are found tied together. In such a way that if one of the rings is cut, the others do too.
Each of these rings overlaps the others, forming points of intersection with the other rings.
The different forms of knotting will be those that determine the different structures of subjectivity. To the extent that the subject is understood to be a particular type of knot, various forms of knotting can be imagined between the three registers.
In this way, from the Lacanian psychoanalytic perspective, the psychic structure of the subject must be understood as a particular way in which the Borromean knot is tied.
Analysis will then be understood as the practice of untying and re-knotting to produce a new structure.
This is the model that Lacan used in the 70s to account for the notion he had of the human psyche at that time.
In this model, the three rings represent the edges, or holes in a body, around which desire flows. Lacan’s idea is that the psyche is itself a space in which its edges are intertwined in a knot, which is in the center of being.
In 1975 Lacán decided to add a fourth ring to the configuration of three. This new ring was named Sinthome (symptom). According to his explanations, it would be this fourth element that keeps the psyche locked up.
From this perspective, the goal of Lacanian analysis is to unblock the link by breaking the knotting of the shintome. That is, untie this fourth ring.
Lacan describes psychoses as a structure with the Borromean knot untied. And he proposes that in some cases it can be prevented by adding this fourth ring to tie the structure of the other three.
The Lacanian orientation is towards the real, being what matters in psychoanalysis for him.
Two moments in the Borromean knot theory
In its beginnings, Lacanian psychoanalytic theory proposes the Borromean knot as a model of the psychic structure of the subject, understanding said structure as a metaphor in the signifying chain. He conceives of unleashing (psychotic by then) as the breaking of a link in said chain.
Towards the end of his theory, he approaches the knot from the real (no longer from the symbolic). He abandons the notion of chain and understands the different effects of psychic structure as a slip of the Borromean knot.
In the first moment, Lacan explains that it is the signifiers that are chained in a Borromean way, saying that the cutting of one of the links of the same, liberates the rest.
It is in this way that Lacan makes his studies on the Borromean knot in relation to the psychotic structure. Understanding the triggering of psychosis as a break or cut in one of the links in the chain of signifiers. In this way, madness is conceived as the dis-linking of the Borromean knot.
With his theory advanced, Lacan made a change in it, no longer considering the Borromean knot as a significant chain, but as the relationship between the three registers (symbolic, imaginary and real).
In this way, the Borromean knot will no longer represent the psychic structure, but Lacan will say that it is the structure as such.
At one point in his theory Lacan introduces the existence of a fourth element, which he called the Name of the Father. Finally, he concludes that in reality it is the three linked records that hold each other, and it is from this that their own consistency exists.
From this new perspective, it will no longer be considered a triggering but the possibility of a slip in the knot. This being the possibility of a bad knotting of it.
- Bailly, L. (2012). Lacan: A Beginner’s Guide. Oneworld Publications.
- Bristow, D. (2016). Joyce and Lacan: Reading, Writing and Psychoanalysis.
- Dylan Evans, RO (2006). An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis.
- Ellie Ragland-Sullivan, DM (2004). Lacan: Topologically Speaking. Other Press.
- Moncayo, R. (2008). Evolving Lacanian Perspectives for Clinical Psychoanalysis: On Narcissism, Sexuation, and the Phases of Analysis in Contemporary Culture. Karnac Books.
- Notes on the Borromean Clinic. (Dec 4, 2008). Obtained from Larvalsubjects.
- Philippe Julien, DB (1995). Jacques Lacan’s Return to Freud: The Real, the Symbolic, and the Imaginary. NYU Press.
- Roudinesco, E. (1990). Jacques Lacan & Co: A History of Psychoanalysis in France, 1925-1985. University of Chicago Press.
- Wolf, B. (2016). More Lacanian Coordinates: On Love, Psychoanalytic Clinic, and the Ends of Analysis. Karnac Books.