The Lacanian Imaginary, Ideology, and the United States Criminal Justice System

13 min readMay 7, 2021


Often regarded as the most important psychoanalytic figure next to Freud, Jacques Lacan and his influence can hardly be understated in modern academic discourse ranging from philosophy to literary and critical theory. Lacan’s theoretical work posits itself to be encompassing; his theory of the unconscious being structured like a language gave birth to new schools of thought exploring the implications to follow. Other academics have engaged in Lacan’s psychoanalytic theories and applied them to the realm of the political, such as Louis Althusser and Slavoj Žižek. The seminal work of Lacan laid the groundwork for an encompassing analysis of ideology, or how we as subjects look out at the world. Even more specifically, we can use Lacan’s Imaginary to formulate what ideology is, how it is reproduced, and what are material consequences of this reproduction. Through the framework already laid out by theorists like Lacan and Althusser, the essential qualities of the United States Criminal Justice System is revealed for its true self, the Imaginary apparatus.

Beginning with this investigation, we must investigate Lacan’s mirror stage, primarily the Imaginary, the Symbolic, and the relationship between the two. Lacan lays out the complexity and importance of the Mirror Stage in Écrits in the essay “The Mirror Stage of Formative of the I Function as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience”. The Mirror Stage is a recognition of identity, the establishment of the relationship between Innenwelt and Umwelt.¹ The Innenwelt is the “inner world” of an individual contrasted by the Umwelt, or the “outer world” or environment. This recognition of identity is more an assumption of an image of oneself, or imago. In attempting to bridge the gap of the Innenwelt and Umwelt, the “Ideal-I” is formed, a recognition of the subject’s nature of being a subject. Lacan notes that the “Ideal-I” is also an alienating function, as the term ideal references the inability to ever fully realize oneself. This Sisyphean task is the foundation for conditions such as neurosis and psychosis.² Alienation also refers to the fact that the subject in the mirror must recognize itself as an Other.

In the formation of the ego, as explained in Lacan’s Mirror Stage, a relationship develops between the subject and the Other. This relationship is castrated by the Imaginary, a product of the antagonistic surplus of the subject and the Other. Lacan illustrates this point in his L-Schema diagram, introduced in the “Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter’”, which maps out the relationship between the subject and the Other.³ The Imaginary is drawn between the surplus of the subject, the ego, and the surplus of the big Other, the little Other or the objet petit a. In Lacan’s later work, we can see the objet petit a transform into the object of desire. It is important to note that the Imaginary does not solely deal with desire, but rather demand. The transition into the Imaginary from the Real, the stage of primordial need, in the Mirror Stage is constituted by the alienation which had occurred due to the recognition of the subject as an Other. The Imaginary is illusive in the sense that is misattributed to only being a function that is “inconsequential” and references to something which is immaterial. In reality, the Imaginary gains its namesake from the imago, or the assumption of an image. Dylan Evans describes the construction of the Imaginary as the “order of surface appearances which are deceptive, observable phenomena which hide underlying structure”.⁴ The Imaginary is also not “inconsequential” as it works in tandem with the Symbolic Order, constantly in tension with the Real and unable to be fully overcome.

The Symbolic Order, or the big Other, also stems from the Mirror Stage; it deals with the irreconcilability of the Innenwelt and the Umwelt and the role language plays. The Symbolic Order deals with desire, which is expressed through language. Language, however, cannot fully capture oneself, the alienation that occurred during the Mirror Stage is immutable. Lacan sees desire as a “desire of the Other’’.⁵ This notion of desire is reminiscent of Hegel’s “master-slave” dialectic, where recognition from the other is paramount in affirming one’s own self-consciousness.

The Symbolic and the Imaginary are opposed to each other insofar as they have key distinctions which provide their positive qualities. The Imaginary is a dual relationship between the other and the ego, contrasted by the triadic relationship of the Symbolic between the intersubjective relationship being mediated by the Other. In language, a conversation between two individuals cannot ever escape the Symbolic Order since the Other is always involved. The Other in this context cannot ever be fully realized as it operates in the realm of the signifiers, “a dimension in which elements have no positive existence but which are constituted purely by virtue of their mutual differences.”⁶ Lacan also notes that the Symbolic structures the Imaginary. Signifiers, and the structure of language, manipulate the imagos and the objet petit a by its virtue of immanence. On the other hand, the signified and signification are a part of the Imaginary, separated by the “wall of language”.⁷

Lacan’s influence can be seen in Louis Althusser’s career of philosophy. Althusser was a French Marxist philosopher who concerned himself mainly with the concept of ideology and epistemology. In 1970, Althusser published his essay “ Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” which sought to answer essential questions pertaining to ideology and reproduction under capitalism. Althusser begins the essay with a brief description of the architectural metaphor of the substructure and the superstructure. Marxist theory recognizes the foundations of society to be dependent on the economic base, meaning everything follows from the relationship of productive forces. The superstructure is the rest of what makes up society: religion, music, morality, government, ideology, etc… However, departing from prior Marxist tradition, Althusser argues that despite the effectiveness of this metaphor to describe the determinative nature of society the metaphor remains largely descriptive.⁸ Althusser notes that the most essential description of the State comes from the Marxist-Leninist current of the theory, specifically the one presented by Vladimir Lenin in State and Revolution. In the book, Lenin writes that “the state is a product and a manifestation of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms,” and that the State is “an organ of class rule… the creation of ‘order’, which legalizes and perpetuates the oppression by moderating the conflict between classes.”⁹ Althusser claims this definition focuses on the State as a State Apparatus on its own and is repressive, ultimately functioning by violence (RSA). In attempting to add another, more essential quality to the Marxist-Leninist definition, Althusser proposes the addition of Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs). The ISAs operate in the realm where repression is not the main function, like it is with the police, military, courts, government administration, and prisons. The ISAs are concerned more with the Ideological, a multitude of private enterprises such as schools, religion, family, culture, and law.¹⁰

What is Ideology? To this question, Althusser offers some thesis on the nature of ideology, which is precisely where we see the Lacanian influence come into play. The first thesis offered by Althusser is that “Ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence”.¹¹ The concept of ideology is frequently denoted to mean some sort of worldview, whether that be in the realm of religion, politics, ethics, or legality. These views do not correspond to reality, but are rather superimposed on the fabric of what we constitute as reality, an illusion. They do, however, allude to reality and are simply interpreted by subjects. In this regard, the Imaginary functions much like Ideology in that images are interpreted by subjects to be conforming to reality. As Althusser states, following traditional Marxist language:

All ideology represents in its necessarily imaginary distortion not the existing relations of production (and the other relations that derive from them), but above all the (imaginary) relationship of individuals to the relations of production and the relations that derive from them. What is represented in ideology is therefore not the system of the real relations which govern the existence of individuals, but the imaginary relation of those individuals to the real relations in which they live [emphasis added].¹²

Much like how the Imaginary castrates the subject from the Other, Ideology divides beliefs from reality. Ideology acts as a representation of reality, which is unable to conform to any world view by virtue of its complexity, and is thus automatically alienating from reality. Althusser references Karl Marx’s “Estranged Labor” from his 1844 Manuscripts, which is the foundation for Marx’s concept of alienation. During the production process, a laborer is alienated from the product of their own work, their labor. This alienation is further compounded by the alienation from the material compensation for their labor, a wage under a capitalist mode of production. The relationship between a laborer and the product of their labor is not one of direct purchase, but obfuscated behind an illusory and immaterial concept of man’s “species-being”.¹³ The internal characteristic of a human becomes externalized through the production process, alienating the worker through a representation of the “species-being” in the form of a wage, which in itself is illusory as it contains only exchange-value, a representation of the real use-value.

Following Althusser’s first thesis on the illusionary nature of Ideology is his second thesis: Ideology has a material existence. In a departure from Lacan, Althusser channels Antonio Gramsci’s concept of Ideology 一 “Ideologies must become dramas if they are not to remain mere ink printed on paper.”¹⁴ One can see this clearly in two different ways. First, the State cannot operate without the existence of apparatuses, and seeing how simple reproduction is required to maintain a system such as property relations or the State itself, it follows that State apparatuses reproduce the conditions needed to maintain the State. The reproductive property of the apparatuses, much like the reproductive property of Capital itself, is based in material existence. Second, the ideologies represented as belief systems (justice, duty, freedom) all are manifested in the material world. If an individual believes in God, then that individual will pray, attend services, and generally act in accordance with the religious doctrine. If an individual believes in justice, then that individual will “submit unconditionally to the rules of the Law, and may even protest when they are violated, sign petitions, take part in a demonstration, etc.”¹⁵

The final pillar of Ideology Althusser lays out is the characteristic that ideology exists only concerning subjects. Subjects are simply individuals, as individuals are subjects to Ideology before they are even born and are subjects to Ideology after their deaths. In this way, Ideology “hails” to subjects, much like how you would turn around on the street if a police officer shouted “You there!”, or when calling a friend only to respond to their initial inquiry with “It’s me!” In both these situations, the individual is hailed as a form of recognition from the other. Ideology is able to do this as well, but before an individual is even born, there is a force exerted on the family unit which is ideological in nature: the family unit in a society is often shaped by the surrounding members and the basic productive forces available.

From the descriptive definition of the State to the formulations of Ideology, a synthesis of Lacanian psychoanalysis and Marxist theory, one can begin to peel back the layers of State apparatuses to uncover its more essential traits. The role that a criminal justice system plays in structuring the State is crucial to the State’s existence. In the United States, the criminal justice system is just one aspect of the greater legal system, which arguably constitutes the State more wholly. The criminal justice system, however, includes not only the courts, but the police force and correctional system, both of which are repressive apparatuses while the court system is ideological. Because of the overlap present between the police and courts, as well as the greater social sphere, it is important to analyze the ways Ideology is reproduced.

First, one must understand how the US Criminal Justice System reproduces Ideology. One can look at the overt and vulgar examples of the relationship of Capital and reproduction as seen in the existence of private prisons and of civil asset forfeiture.¹⁶ ¹⁷ However, using these examples only addresses the descriptive nature of the State; these issues are able to be legislated out of existence but the reproductive nature of Ideology is not. Althusser notes the primary conditions for simple reproduction in State apparatuses: “In order to exist, every social formation must reproduce the conditions of its production at the same time as it produces, and in order to be able to produce. It, therefore, must reproduce the productive forces and the existing relations of production”.¹⁸ The criminal justice system, doing its part in the reproduction of the existing relations of production, is tasked with codifying protections for the economic base upon which the superstructure is laid upon. It is this determination that structures the rest of the judicial system. It is important to note the complete control that the legislative body has on the criminal justice system: laws can be introduced and stricken down at any time, but the strength of Ideology is that the abolition of some law is seen as completely insane. This may be compared to the concept of the Overton window, the range of political ideas the public is willing to accept, however it exists outside the realm of possibility. The removal of laws upholding private property or instruction to prosecute police officers the same way as private citizens would be prosecuted is just as impossible to the State as the legalization of murder.

Furthermore, the criminal justice system reproduces the Ideological beliefs which it is premised on. In the United States, the Department of Justice’s motto located on the seal is the phrase “”Qui Pro Domina Justitia Sequitur”, Latin for “who prosecutes on behalf of justice (or the Lady Justice)”.¹⁹ As stated before, the belief in abstract concepts are first birthed out of the reflection of the real world. The fact is that justice does not correspond to anything tangible, but is created out of the material actions taken by those with an authority to claim what is just. For the US criminal justice system, for their claim to be the prosecutors acting on behalf of Lady Justice, there is an insinuation that their material undertakings represent the truth of what justice is. The State declares that Justice is ultimately upheld by the court system working alongside law enforcement and correctional facilities. Essentially, the criminal justice system is attempting to reproduce an idea that is solely produced by the criminal justice system. The reflection of reality is authored into the claim of justice, but ultimately is a reflection of an image, the material interests of the ruling class, thus being an Imaginary apparatus.

The United States criminal justice system also is a key part in the interpellation of individuals as subjects, seen clearly in Althusser’s previous example of a police officer hailing out to one walking down the street. If the State calls, you understand you are expected and required to answer. Before you are born, the existence of the larger societal force constituting the criminal justice system hails you as a subject of the State. The legal system which one is born into acts as a subjectless prehistory, the bounds and contracts to one’s interaction with the community as a whole is already understood to be limited. Ideology is a permeating force: statistics of mass incarceration in the US show the sheer number of people affected by police, the courts, and correctional facilities. Before a criminal act is done the perpetrator knows such an act is wrong 一 not because there is a little angel sitting on one’s shoulder but because of the immense pressure from the social sphere. Such primal scenes may include other individuals getting convicted of a criminal offense, shootings stemming from criminal activity, security cameras watching doors and public squares, signs notifying you of parking regulations, license plates and inspection tags, locks on doors, the very concept of exchange value through currency. All of these signifiers, and much more which accumulate within the subconscious, are products of Ideology and the reproductive nature of the criminal justice system.

Crime is also an Imaginary function. As we understand crime to be an act against the will or accordance of the State, the will being largely a product of imagos, the assumption of an identity based on an image. The assumption of an image comes from the fact that crime and criminal activity are determined by the legislative body controlling the focus of the judiciary. Despite it being cliche, the fact still remains that slavery was legal and rebellion against this system was put down with force. After all, the great American hero John Brown was executed following his trial in 1859.

The United States criminal justice system, the harbinger of justice itself, operates under its assumption of an image seeped in Ideology. The permeating effect of Ideology and the State, as theorized by Althusser, offers a distinct look at the apparatuses that reproduce the existing conditions of social spheres in modern contexts. The Imaginary characteristic of the criminal justice system, borrowing from the groundwork laid by Lacan involving the Mirror Stage, references the disconnect from reality and the overall construction of the monolithic concepts like “justice” and “equality” that it rests on.

¹ Jacques Lacan, “The Mirror Stage of Formative of the I Function,” in Écrits, trans. Bruce Fink, First Edition (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002), pp. 75–81, Page 78.
² Ibid. Page 80.
³ Jacques Lacan, “Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter,’” in Écrits, trans. Bruce Fink, First Edition (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2002), pp. 11–48, Page 40.
⁴ Dylan Evans, An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis (Hove: Brunner-Routledge, 2003), Page 84.
⁵ Ibid. Page 38.
⁶ Ibid. Page 203–204.
⁷ Ibid. Page 84.
⁸ Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays (Monthly Review Press, 1971),
⁹ Vladimir Lenin, State and Revolution,1918, . Page 7.
¹⁰ Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,”.
¹¹ Ibid.
¹² Ibid.
¹³ Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1959), Pages 31–32.
¹⁴ Michele Filippini, Using Gramsci: A New Approach (London: Pluto Press, 2017), Page 4. Quote by Antonio Gramsci.
¹⁵ Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,”.
¹⁶ Vicky Peláez, “The Prison Industry in the United States: Big Business or a New Form of Slavery?,” Global Research, June 14, 2020,
¹⁷ Justin Wilson, “New Report Finds Civil Forfeiture Rakes in Billions Each Year, Does Not Fight Crime,” Institute for Justice, December 15, 2020,
¹⁸ Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,”.
¹⁹ “DOJ Seal — History and Motto,” The United States Department of Justice, January 13, 2020,




B.S. in Law and Society. I am interested in political theory, philosophy, and society at large.