13 November 2006

Some Scattered Observations on Fantasy

One of the unique features of Lacan's account of desire revolves around his theory of fantasy. As Zizek has pointed out, ordinarily, when we think of fantasy, we think of it as a sort of scenario or image in which we envision the satisfaction of our desire or wants. A fantasy, under this model, is a sort of wish. Thus, for example, when I am frantically working to complete some unpleasant task, I might fantasize about sitting in my favorite chair, reading a book that I've been excited to explore. The fantasy consists in my image of satisfaction or of what it would mean to be satisfied. Similarly in the case of my desire for a man or woman. My fantasy might consist of the scenarios I concoct as I imagine finally achieving the sexual bliss or union with the beloved. While, no doubt, this conception of fantasy is related to the Lacanian conception of fantasy, it is not properly Lacan's account of fantasy. If this were all fantasy were, then it would be difficult to see why traversing the fantasy or working through the fantasy could have the therapeutic effects which it has. Anyone who has done serious work engaging with fantasy knows that the traversal of the fantasy effects the very nature of desire itself.

One of the problems with this account of fantasy is that it treats desire as anterior to fantasy. Here I have in mind the idea that there is, on the one hand, basic desires characterizing what it is to be human, while there is, on the other hand, a set of fantasies constructed around these desires which envision their satisfaction. In short, this conceptualization tends to heirarchialize the relationship between fantasy and desire such that desire is treated as being more fundamental or primordial than fantasy. We can very quickly see where this line of reasoning will lead. In conceiving that desire is more primordial than fantasy we will be led to argue that there are natural desires and perverse fantasies... That somehow fantasy departs from universal desire, such that if we only get rid of fantasy we will be on our way to a rectification of desire.

Needless to say, this is not the Lacanian conception of fantasy. We go astray when we conceive desire as anterior to fantasy. As can be seen in the third cell of Lacan's famous graph of desire in "Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire", fantasy is not so much the imagined fulfillment of desire, as it is the frame through which we desire. We must remember that desire, for Lacan and Freud, has no natural object, that strictly speaking there is no object of desire. Rather, as Lacan puts it in Seminar V, The Formations of Desire, desire is characterized by an endless metonymy or movement from one object to another without ever alighting on a final object. Could this not be yet another signification of what Lacan has in mind when he claims that "desire is the desire of the Other"? To say that desire is the desire of the Other would not simply be to say that desire is structured by language, or that desire is the desire to be desired, or that I desire as an-other desires, but also that I perpetually desire what is other. I perpetually desire something else. This reading, of course, is far fetched and departs from what Lacan had in mind with his aphorism. But, nonetheless, it captures the effective metonymy or displacement that endlessly characterizes desire.

Thus, as Zizek has put it, we do not know what we desire. Damned if I know, one might say. I desire without knowing what, exactly, it is that I desire. And so I alight from object to object on the basis of my identifications, seeking that object that would finally stuff my lack full without ever filling it. And it is here that fantasy is involved. For one of the functions of fantasy is to give me a frame through which to desire. Fantasy isn't simply imagined satisfaction of a pre-existent desire, but rather fantasy gives form to my desire, selecting for it an object, in much the same way that a window selects a view for my regard. Simply put, we do not know what it is we desire and it is fantasy that thus functions to structure or in-form our desire.

We can see the relationship between non-knowledge and desire very clearly in the vulgar and commonplace desire of the person eating at the foreign restaurant. If the experience of eating at a foreign restaurant is often intimidating, then this isn't because one has any special attachment to their own national cuisine, but because we no longer know what it is we want within such a space. "Which dish is the dish for me?" we ask ourselves as we break into a sweat wondering whether we'll order the wrong thing or humiliate ourselves by ordering a dish disgusting or less than appetizing even to those familiar with it. What, then, is our first response in such a situation? Well, it is likely that we either ask the person that we are with or the server for advice on what to order.

I like this example because it's so basic and down to earth. While it risks overly simplifying Lacanian theory, it also gives us a nice model for uncovering certain salient relationships at work in the structure of desire. If our first response to the non-knowledge of our desire is to ask the person we are with or the server for advice, then we can very clearly see how desire is bound up with identification. The fact that I refer my desire to these other positions means that I identify with them at some level, that I recognize them as the ones who know. The fact that I trust in their judgment indicates that I take them to have a desire to please or satisfy me in some way. What I ultimately come to choose is bound up with an identification. I very literally come to desire as the other desires, as my companion desires. Thus, as Bourdieau has argued, taste is deeply bound up in social identification. What I desire will, in part, be tied up with those with whom I identify. A judgment of taste is also a judgment regarding the sort of person (group identification) I take myself to be, as well as the sort of person I want others to take me to be. It cannot therefore be said that desire is first anterior to fantasy (though we still need to clarify fantasy). Rather, the two are intimately bound up with one another.

It is this sort of observation that led Deleuze and Guattari to contest the concept of fantasy based on lack. It is my view that Deleuze and Guattari go too far in their critique insofar as there is certainly an experience of lack in the everyday life of any subject. However, Deleuze and Guattari's point is well taken if we bear in mind that there are no originary desires, that desire has to be produced, or that what we come to desire is ultimately the product of a desiring synthesis. Taking a cue from Deleuze and Guattari's influence from English empiricism, we might point out that there's nothing about the brown liquid in my coffee that makes it inherently appealing to a subject such as myself. If I see this brown liquid (coffee) as an appealing object, then this must result from a complex synthesis that connects it to certain experiences of satisfaction and social value, rather than intrinsic features of my desire. In other words, the problem that arises when we begin with characterizing desire as lack, lies in the fact that we tend to thereby naturalize desire, rather than seeing it as the result of a complex synthesis (primarily symbolic in character) that precedes my experience of lack. As Lacan remarks in his "Reply to Hyppolite" in the Ecrits, every act of negation is first based on an affirmation. One revolutionary feature of Lacan's distinction between need, demand and desire is that it allows us to overcome the naturalizing and essentializing tendency of those approaches that tend to equate need and desire, by showing how our desires are themselves produced or fabricated. If desire is the discourse of the Other, then this is in part because the manner in which I become a subject gives form to a desire that did not itself exist before. Although sometimes giving the impression that they are rejecting Lacan, Deleuze and Guattari ought to instead be understood as drawing our attention to the symbolic networks of relations that come to structure and inform our desire. The affirmation which they teach as the mark of a schizo subject is that affirmation that would strive to produce new networks of relations (and therefore new ways of feeling and desire) on the basis of the resources of the network within which we find ourselves. Insofar as the psychoanalyst feels that we are able to transform the very nature of our desire through speech, this must be a deeply psychoanalytic notion despite its occasional romanticism.

Back to fantasy. Fantasy is the frame through which we desire. It is not an image of the object that we desire, but rather is a structure that in-forms or gives form to what we desire. My desire for a particular car, for example, isn't based on the fantasy of me imagining myself related to a particular car, but rather I treat this car as an object of my fantasy on the basis of a fantasy that sanctions this car as an object of desire. In and of itself, fantasies are always intersubjective. They are responses to the question of what I am for the Other and of what the Other wants from me. Thus, although I desire the car it is not the car that figures into the fantasy, rather my desire for this car is an elaboration of this intersubjective fantasy. Perhaps, for instance, by owning this car I will increase my social status and thereby be the kind of man desirable by a particular sort of woman. We must therefore resist the urge to equate the object desired with the fantasy structure. We must not assume that because someone desires this particular object the fantasy is organized around that object. The object might not appear in the fantasy at all. We can refer to this practice of treating the object of desire as equivalent to the fantasy as the fallacy of tracing the transcendental from the empirical. The empirical, of course, is the particular object that I desire. The transcendental is the fantasy insofar as fantasy serves as a condition for my desire. I trace the transcendental from the empirical when I assume that the transcendental must somehow resemble the empirical or the realized states of desire.

This point, obscure as it is, gives insight into how not to understand Lacan's matheme for fantasy ($ <> a), read "the divided subject related to objet a. Generally when one speaks of Lacan's matheme for fantasy it is suggested that it expresses the subject related to the object of its desire. Thus, in the example of the car, we might articulate the fantasy as the statement "Levi related to such and such a car". The problem with this characterization is that it equates objet a, the object-cause of desire, with the object of desire. The object-cause of desire and the object of desire are different, extremely so.

One way of thinking the relationship between objet a and the object of desire is to think it as a relation between cause and effect. Objet a causes my desire, it elicits my desire, it excites my desire, while the object of desire is an effect of that desire. It is that thing that I come to desire. Objet a is thus the occasion of desire while the object of desire is that which comes to be desired as a result of desire. Over the course of his teaching Lacan came to increasingly think of objet a as a remainder, a scrap, a bit of waste, an excess, or shit. These developments are highly significant, because they allow us to better think both why we desire at all and why we cannot draw a strict opposition between fantasy and desire.

If fantasy is the frame of my desire, then this is not because it presents me with a scenario of what it is I desire, but because it relates the subject to that which escapes the subject and prevents it from being complete. In other words, it is a certain moment of incompleteness that evokes my desire at all. Lacan illustrates this point in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, when he relates the cryptic story of seeing a sardine can floating in the water while working as a young man on a fishing boat. As the can floated upon the waves, glistening in the sunlight, one of Lacan's fellow fishermen remarked "Look at that sardine can! You can see it, but it cannot see you!" The fisherman found this highly amusing, while Lacan experienced discomfort and anxiety with respect to the observation. What we have here is an example of gaze, one of the possible manifestations of objet a. However, the crucial feature not to be overlooked is that the gaze in question is not the gaze that we actually experience or that we encounter in the look of the other, but rather it is the gaze that escapes us, that we cannot capture. This is why Lacan works so diligently to distinguish the eye from the gaze. It is not the eye that escapes my desire, but rather the object-cause of my desire is precisely that gaze that exceeds me or which I cannot apprehend.

Is she gazing at me or not? Did she just look my way? Here Sartre's examples of the farm house that stares at the soldiers in Being and Nothingness immediately come to mind. We might also think of the way the heroin of The Secretary experiences herself perpetually under the gaze of her boss. It is this gaze, a gaze of which she is never certain, a gaze which she is forever unable to determine as to whether it is truly taking place, that ultimately wins her love. She does not feel gazed upon because she loves her boss, but rather she loves her boss because she wonders whether she is gazed upon. The gaze is the object-cause of her desire. Her desire for her boss is the effect of this cause. This, then, is the crucial, not to be missed, point: The fantasy does not conjoin the woman with her boss, but rather conjoins the woman with the gaze... She is conjoined with that remainder, that point of excess that always escapes within her signifying economy.

In this regard, there is often precious little said about the losange (<>) relating the subject to the object-cause of desire in the formula for fantasy. According to Lacan, the losange does not simply mean "related to" but rather, in a number of places Lacan remarks that the losange is to be read as being equivalent to the mathematical symbols for "greater than" and "less than" (>, <) as in 4 "less than" 5, but also as the logical symbols for "and" and "or" (v, ^). This is not without consequences, for it allows us to render the concept of fantasy more precise and useful in both a clinical setting and in the critique of metaphysical and ideological fantasies. Objet a does not simply express the object-cause of desire, but is also a way of formalizing Freud's so-called lost object of desire or that object of desire that we desire without ever having had it. Freud first develops this account of the lost object in his unpublished Project essay, but it can be detected in one way or another throughout his writings. The unique feature of this lost object is that it is an object that we only come to desire as a result of having been submitted to some prohibition or law. In other words, the object was never an object that I, in fact, had, but rather I only come to desire this object as a result of having been submitted to the symbolic. Lacan's graph of desire clearly captures this point as can be seen from the fourth cell of the graph where we are given to see the relationship between castration and fantasy. The function of fantasy is to cover over the horrifying truth of castration or the manner in which the big Other doesn't exist or is itself barred. Fantasy gives body and substantiality to the non-existent big Other.

Now it is a mistake to understand Lacan's concept of castration as pertaining to the penis and the threat of having the penis cut off. One major differences that separates Freud and Lacan is that whereas Freud seems to treat castration as a mere threat that empirically took place at some point, Lacan holds that insofar as one is a subject one is always already castrated. Castration has already taken place. Under the Lacanian model castration pertains not to the penis, but rather to the sacrifice of enjoyment I experience in being subjected to the symbolic order. If I am to enter into the symbolic order, then I must sacrifice some of my enjoyment. We see this very clearly, for example, in Mill's essay Utilitarianism, where my employment of the greatest happiness principle invites me to evaluate not my own personal happiness, but to impartially calculate the happiness for the greatest number of people even if it contributes to my own happiness. In other words, entering into the symbolic requires a sacrifice of enjoyment... An enjoyment that I never had to begin with (since the state before this contract was even worse than the one after this contract). Freud makes exactly this point in Civilization and its Discontents, when he speaks of the unhappiness we experience as a result of being members of society. If the individual continuously bites at the bit of the social, then this is because the individual sees the social as having stolen his happiness despite the fact that he couldn't exist at all without this collective.

However, despite the fact that I sacrifice some of my happiness in entering into society, bits of this enjoyment continue to persist in fractured forms. In short, there is a remainder that the symbolic cannot quite integrate, that always escapes, that functions as excessive waste. It is, in fact, this remainder that ties me to the social in the first place since my enjoyment of this remainder functions as the motive of my identification: I(a). Now it is precisely here that we can read the variations on fantasy. Most commonly we read fantasy under the model of conjunction. We read fantasy as consisting of the conjunction of the subject with his object of desire. Yet fantasy can also be read as disjunction (me or them), or as the subject greater than the object of desire (domination) or the subject as less than the object-cause of desire (subjection). In each of these cases different desiring relations are effected between the subject and the world. We see, for example, these various permutations of fantasy in Freud's article "A Child Is Being Beaten" where it is first a scene witnessed by an onlooker ($ > a), then me being beaten ($ "less than" objet a), then perhaps me and the child being beaten ($ and objet a), and so on. Each one of these variations is a response to the question of what the other wants and how the other desires me and is therefore a response to the non-existence of the Other or the way in which the Other is barred. The common feature in all of these examples is that the subject is thought in some relation to the lost object, to the object-cause of desire. Or better yet, the subject thinks itself in some relation to this remainder or bit of excess that resists integration into the symbolic.

Yet it is precisely this relation that is at issue. For what the fantasy covers over is the the non-existence of the symbolic order or castration. Fantasy treats this non-existence or this thing which is rotten in Denmark as if it were a contingent feature of the symbolic universe, failing to see that it is instead constitutive of the symbolic. We thus get a better sense of what is at stake in traversing the fantasy. My fantasy produces a symptom insofar as it attenuates objet a in the functioning of the symbolic as a way of producing my desire as an effect. In traversing the fantasy I am led back from the object of my desire to the object-cause of my desire to the castration or separation out of which this object-cause emerges. But in this movement of tracing, my fundamental relation to the object-cause is itself transformed, such that the object-cause is no longer something that I am superior or inferior to, something that I am conjoined or disjoined to. Rather, in traversing the fantasy I identify with the object-cause itself, recognizing the object-cause as my true subject, and thereby dis-identifying the object-cause with the various identifications under which it has been hid. In traversing the fantasy I shift from being a subject of desire to a subject of drive insofar as my relationship to the object is no longer determined in terms of prohibition and transgression of the law such that my object of desire is formed in an identification, but rather I now relate to this excess as the very being of my subject.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Levi, I know flattering leftist homologies have been made by Zizek and others between Lacan's subject of drive and Badiou's subject of the truth procedure, but to me, there is also a conservative side to the traversing of the fantasy. Once you forget the Big Revolution and changing the world and all that (an elusive object of the metonymy of desire par excellence), what is left for you than to turn...pragmatic and utilitarian, perhaps? I couldn't care less about changing the world politics though I go to elections every now and then, I still pay taxes, enjoy my daily lunch and a drink with friends after the hard day's work not to mention some good screwing with my wife a few times a week. Should I traverse my petty bourgeois fantasy? But what if I'm already on the other side?

November 15, 2006 4:05 AM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

I don't think it can be said that traversing the fantasy produces one kind of subject or one kind of drive. Maybe you could say a bit more as to what you discern Zizek's conception of revolution to be. Zizek emphasizes drive repetition in terms of repeated failure, and gives very little in the way of a utopian vision. It's hard to see drive as conservative, utilitarian, or pragmatic, as all of these stances involve a belief that one knows what the Other desires. For instance, the utilitarian says, "x is not possible at this time, in this situation".

November 15, 2006 6:37 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...








December 29, 2008 11:56 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home