06 August 2018

An Application of Lacan’s Imaginary-Symbolic-Real for Martial Arts Practice

In this essay, I’d like to appropriate an idea from the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan to understand martial arts practice. One of Lacan’s pivotal ideas, which crystallized over many years, is that of the Imaginary-Symbolic-Real. I believe that this idea could function as a good framework to think about the martial arts, similar to previous frameworks I’ve used, such as the Musul-Muye-Mudo paradigm and the low variables to high variables (or abstract to concrete, or low-resolution to high-resolution) sparring drill paradigm. An assumption in this essay is that the ultimate goal of a martial art is preparation for surviving real violence; i.e. self-defence. There are of course many other goals that martial art systems may have, which were not taken into account in this essay. Also keep in mind that my discussion of Lacan’s ideas is cursory and is adapted to my discussion of the martial arts; for a more in-depth explanation of Lacan’s Imaginary-Symbolic-Real I recommend further reading. (This YouTube-video gives a good introduction.)

(Please note that this essay is in the process of being expanded into an academic article, and may therefore not be copied.)


Imaginary refers to how we imagine ourselves and others to be.

Lacan’s idea of the Imaginary is equated with the mirror stage in child development, when an infant (between about 6 months and 18 months of age) starts to recognize that it is the object it sees in the mirror. This, the psychoanalysts argued, is when the Ego is formed, and resonates with Freud’s concept of Identification. The child looks up at its parents and siblings and identify in them an ideal Ego, a kind of future Ego it hopes to become. The “mirror” can therefore be understood symbolically, so that there need not be an actual mirror; the child may see themselves “reflected” in other children or elders. In his later thought, Lacan did not restrict the mirror-stage only to the infant but extended it into adulthood.

I propose that in the martial arts, the Imaginary is the image we have about what a martial artist is—what someone who is practicing martial arts is like. Note that I’m emphasizing both the act of martial arts (object) and the person engaging in martial arts (subject).

In modern times, this image is highly influenced by popular media. The “image” of a martial artist may be based on the myths of the Zen-like samurai, the Shaolin monk-warriors, and characters in film: Daniel Larusso and Mr. Miyagi in Karate Kid, Jean-Claude Van Damme’s depictions of Frank Dux and Kurt Sloane, the many characters played by Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Donnie Yen, and more recent action stars the likes of Tom Hardy and Jason Statham. Of course, the imagined martial artist need not stay within the realm of Hollywood and Chinese cinema but can also be based on combat sport athletes from WWE to UFC. Finally, for most martial arts initiates, their most immediate image of what a martial artist is, is often their personal martial art instructors (and seniors). It is not for naught that the Korean term for instructor (sabeomnim) literally translates as a teacher to be imitated (literally: “teacher-model”).

A screen-grab from the action-fantasy kungfun film
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny

In all these cases, we have a type of idealization of the “martial artist.” In other words, a fantasy. Sometimes martial art instructors (“masters” and “grandmasters”) may unfortunately promote the fantasy of themselves, but often it is simply the students who idealize their instructors. This idealization results from perceiving, and correctly so, the big gap between their own skill level compared to the level of their instructors. The “gap,” which at first may seem quite insurmountable, causes the student to put the instructor on a pedestal. The imaginary ideal functions as a goal to strife for, and while it may be a fantasy, it is not wholly bad. Fantasies are inspirational, hence martial arts philosopher Allan Back, at a Taekwon-Do conference, presented a paper in favour of the myths in martial arts. The fantasy of flying martial artists fighting while airborne in Oriental myths and legends, as well as in cinema, may have been the inspiration behind the development of spectacular aerial kicks seen in Taekwon-Do demonstrations and such as competitions as the Red Bull Kick It extravaganzas.

There is, of course, the danger that the fantasy may be mistaken for reality. Many new martial artists are lured into taking up a martial art by Hollywood depictions of a lone hero single-handedly beating up a gang with hardly a bruise, or other impossible feats. Such a false sense of prowess is naively dangerous.


On the other end of the spectrum is Lacan’s Real. It is a bit tricky to give a simple definition of what Lacan meant by the Real, but for our purposes I propose we understand it simply as that which objectively is, before any interpretation. In other words, reality before it is filtered by our senses and worldviews. This means that the Real is never fully knowable, because our subjective interpretation skews objective reality. Furthermore, the Real is too complex to be fully understood.

For our discussion on martial arts, we will refer here to what happens during a real combative encounter: What is a real fight like? How do trained practitioners really act during a violent encounter? How do untrained people act in these situations? How is the human nervous system affected by stress and adrenaline during a violent conflict? How are muscle control and coordination affected during a life-threatening encounter? How is competition fighting different from street fighting strategically and psychologically? How is a dual (street fight, squabble at the pub, brawl on the playground) different from a predatory criminal attack on an unsuspecting civilian?

A victim of a necklacing -- burnt alive
Image Source

Many of these questions can be—to some degree—studied and there are professionals in military, security, and defence occupations who have taken the pains to research such questions. The problem remains, however, that even when we have analyzed the data, the subjective “lived” experience is different from person to person, and from violent encounter to violent encounter. One simply can’t predict all the variables that come into play during a violent encounter. One can’t know when exactly you will be attacked, whether the floor will be hard or slippery, whether it will be dark, whether there will be weapons involved, how many attackers you will face. At best we can hope for an approximation of likely possibilities.


Lacan’s Symbolic refers to all the societal institutions and systems that are in place to fulfil the Imaginary and attempt to bridge the gap towards the Real. For example, in a country that sees itself as a safe democracy, such systems may include the government and judiciary that ensures regular elections. In the Natural Sciences it is the theories and hypotheses used to try and explain natural phenomena.

In the martial arts context, I propose that the Symbolic is the martial arts system. The martial arts system functions as a paradigm for understanding and preparing for the Real. The system ought to help disillusion the martial arts initiate from the Imaginary. As the practitioner is training in the martial arts system, they learn to distinguish between the Imaginary and the possible Real. They learn that the cinematic depictions of martial arts are often simply fantasy. Yet, they also realize that the amazing abilities of their instructors are not supernatural, but the result of hard, persistent, and very long training.


In summary, a good martial art system has several important functions.

First, it dispels the falsehoods of the Imaginary. Whenever a martial art system promotes false ideas of what a real violent encounter is like, or even impractical strategies for fighting, it is failing to dispel falsehoods in the Imaginary.

Second, however, a good martial art system engages the Imaginary in a productive way to inspire the student to grow beyond themselves (their current physical ability) towards an ideal. Mastery in the martial arts may result in a practitioner doing feats that appear fantastical; however, this the result of years of hard work and dedication. When a practitioner sees their instructors do such skills, it can inspire the practitioner to want to achieve the same level as the instructor. Therefore, the Imaginary has an important motivating function.

Third, a good martial art system provides a path for preparing for the Real. There should be a proper pedagogy (syllabus) in place that can guide the practitioner from being completely unprepared for real violence, to be reasonably prepared for the Real. Being absolutely prepared for the Real is impossible, because the Real is impossible to fully predict and comprehend. Even the most experienced combatant does not have a 100% success rate all the time. A real fight is simply too chaotic and unpredictable. Nevertheless, one can prepare to improve your chances as much as humanly possible. A good martial arts system should have a progressive syllabus that aims towards the most likely success. (Consider my essay on a pedagogy that progresses from low variables-high abstraction to high variables-low abstraction.)

Finally, because it is impossible to definitively prepare for the Real, the ultimate training goal is a type of unattainable idealism. This is where the Imaginary plays an important function. The Imaginary provides an idealistic goal—that goal for perfection of technique that is striven for in traditional martial arts. Without this strive towards an ideal, the martial artist could never aim high enough to prepare for the impossibility of the Real. Preparing for the Real is impossible and achieving the perfection projected by the Imaginary is also impossible. Yet it is the strive towards the Imaginary, the strive towards an impossible ideal, that best prepares the martial artist for the Real.