Lacan and Fantasy Notes adapted from the first chapter of Slavov Zizek’s 1997 book,The Plague of Fantasies, published by Verso. (The chapter title is ‘The Seven Veils of Fantasy’, pp. 3-44.)
These notes follow on from the first set of notes on Lacan by supplying the promised theorisation of fantasy for your general use. Recall that my suggestion for your first assignment was that you place yourself in the role of a socio-medical analyst, attempting to identify the symptoms (the metaphors) of a particular social dis-ease! For Mary Midgley, such diseases can be cured rationally - by an appeal to ethics and logic in relation to specific and current metaphorical usages, e.g. the ‘selfish’ gene. For Mitchell, the task is to document the full range of symptoms, rather than assuming that there is just one cause, or one form of mis-take.
The earlier PowerPoint discussing the differences between the figurative and the symbolic suggested that social contexts featuring works of art suspend temporarily normal forms of symbolic exchange - allowing suppressed forms of expression to come to the fore. One way of thinking about this is to say that theatres and cinemas allow us to engage in cultural ‘day-dreaming’ – fantasising about forms of social life and our possible roles within them. But understanding – translating this process entails that we must become discursive about fantasy itself.
A summary of Zizek’s ‘seven veils’ should give you the confidence to begin using this symbolic discourse about fantasy as the psychological underpinnings of figuration. The whole of the second half of the module is designed around the presentation of a series of figurative ‘models’ of educational ideologies by means of which you can become more accustomed to this way of thinking and talking.
The most important idea to begin with is to recognise again the distinction between the symbolic and the figurative itself. The theorising that you are starting now will involve you in a process of symbolic ‘reduction’. The advantage is that it allows you to think about the role of fantasy and desire in the social world: the disadvantage is that it forces us to reduce the figurative to the symbolic. However, nothing we do here can undermine the integrity of a single figure – unless we act like Cromwell’s Puritans and ban all public art. But perhaps our social ‘dreaming’ is not restricted to such formal contexts anyway – it may, like metaphor, have its foundations in the everyday.
Just how disguised are these symptoms going to be? Zizek encourages us to look for what is self-evident: ‘the truth is our there’. His first example is Michael Jackson, and the media ‘shock’ following from the revelation that his Peter Pan image was not the whole story. Zizek stresses that even before details of Jackson’s private behaviour with under-age children were published, the video shots accompanying his musical releases were ‘saturated with ritualised violence and obscene sexualised gestures (blatantly so in the case of Thriller and Bad)’. His second example is taken from Soviet-era architecture of the 1930s which put on top of many multi-storey office buildings gigantic statues of idealized New Men - and sometimes Women. In the space of a couple of years the tendency to flatten office buildings (the actual workplaces) more and more became clearly discernable: the offices were becoming mere pedestals for the statues. He concludes:
‘… does not this external, material feature of architectural design reveal the ‘truth’ of the Stalinist ideology in which actual, living people are reduced to instruments, sacrificed as the pedestal for the spectre of the future New Man, an ideological monster which crushes actual living men under his feet? The paradox is that had anyone in the Soviet Union of the 1930s said openly that the vision of the Socialist New Man was an ideological monster squashing actual people, they would have been arrested immediately. It was, however, allowed – encouraged, even – to make this point via architectural design … What we are thus arguing is not simply that ideology also permeates the alleged extra-ideological strata of everyday life, but that this materialisation of ideology in external materiality reveals inherent antagonisms which the explicit formulation of ideology cannot afford to acknowledge: it is as if the ideological edifice, if it is to function ‘normally’, must obey a kind of ‘imp of perversity’, and articulate its inherent antagonisms in the externality of its material existence.’
It looks as though fantasy is more a part of our everyday lives than we expected. As Zizek explains, the standard account of how fantasy ‘works’ is simply not good enough. It does not just act as a ‘fantasy-scenario’ disguising a horror already recognised (e.g. the story told to the little boy by his father as they get ever closer to the death camp, in Life is Beautiful). Zizek argues that it is more productive to look for fantasy in marginal and in ‘utilitarian’ situations; and he gives the example of the reassuring warnings given to plane passengers before take-off. While describing the procedures that must be followed, the assumed context is a gentle ‘emergency’ touch-down in water, rather than a description of the more likely terror and unpredictability of a crash over land.
In the psychoanalytic version of fantasy, the relationship between fantasy and the reality it tries to conceal is yet more ambiguous. Fantasy may conceal a horror, and yet at the same time it creates in a disguised form that which ‘it purports to conceal, its ‘repressed’ point of reference’. Zizek points to horror movies and asks, ‘are not the images of the ultimate horrible Thing, from the gigantic deep-sea squid to the ravaging twister, fantasmatic creations par excellence?’
First veil: fantasy’s transcendental schematism This sounds much more formidable than in fact it is – Zizek is making reference to a way of thinking that derives from Kant. He stresses that fantasy ‘does not simply realize a desire in a hallucinatory way’. Instead, he argues, it constitutes our desire, it literally ‘ teaches us how to desire’. So, Zizek’s reading of Lacan is that fantasy mediates between the symbolic and the Real, i.e., fantasy correlates with what we have been calling the figurative.
If you have studied Piaget this idea will be familiar: fantasy provides a ‘schema’ within which certain ‘positive objects in reality’ can function as objects – not so much as of knowledge, as of desire. Zizek describes this process as filling in the ‘empty places opened up by the formal symbolic structure’. For example, in the film, Billy Elliot, the boy shows proto-dance phases within his play repertoire; but it takes the rest of the film, a host of resistances, set-backs, but also steady forward movement, before he can recognise and accept that formal ballet allows him to express his heart’s desire.
Second veil: inter-subjectivity Zizek draws attention to the ‘radically inter-subjective character of fantasy’. This is an idea that persists throughout Lacan’s authorship: that both the subject and the object do not exist independently of social relations: ‘the subject’s relation to his/her Other and the latter’s desire is crucial to the subject’s very identity’ – the ‘original question of desire is not directly ‘What do I want?’, but ‘What do others want from me? What do they see in me? What am I to others?’.
Zizek offers a summary of Lacan’s shifting interpretation of this relationship. He suggests it is best understood by focussing on the object’s characteristics. In early Lacan the object is ‘depreciated’ – featuring only in the inter-subjective struggles for recognition and love. Later, the object stands in the place of what Zizek calls ‘the big Other’ - the anonymous register of symbolic exchange – of language itself. And finally, in late Lacan, there is a further shift in focus to the thing that gives value to the subject. This is siad to be what the subject ‘is’ – the agalma as Lacan calls it – the secret treasure which ‘guarantees a minimum of fantasmatic consistency to the subject’s being’ – as that which is worth more than the subject itself – as that which is worthy of the Other’s desire.
In relation to the first lacanian interpretation – the prioritisation of intersubjectivity itself – any ‘buddy’ film will serve as an illustration, i.e., Thelma and Louise. For the second, narratives tend to represent the problem of induction into the symbolic register by featuring some aspect of discourse, e.g. The King’s Speech, but also the pain of ‘transforming’ oneself into a being capable of a specialised discourse form, e.g. Avatar, and Good Will Hunting. Finally, there is the agalma. Films such as Pretty Woman provide a familiar illustration – the hooker with the heart of gold – but Bilbo Baggins, in The Lord of the Rings, or any Harry Potter film, also illustrate subjects where we see these protagonists eventually constituting themselves around self-recognitions of value that they do not initially accept.
Third veil: the narrative occlusion of antagonism Fantasy is the ‘primordial focus of narrative, which serves to occult some original deadlock’. Lacan’s point here is not that we tell stories to one another in order to hide, disguise, or simply forget and gloss over past, present, and future terrors. The answer to the question ‘Why do we tell stories?’ is that ‘narrative as such emerges in order to resolve some fundamental antagonism by rearranging its terms into a temporal succession’. It is therefore the very form of narrative structure which bears witness to repressed antagonisms, contradictions, or dilemmas, the opposing terms of which are present within the symbolic register concurrently.
The film of King Kong illustrates this. Initially serving as an emblem of the power of nature, Kong’s power is subsequently harnessed and eventually liquidated, revealing in his acceptance of slavery and death a nobility of spirit which exceeds that of contemporary collectivised, civilised humanity. In other words, the sentimental pathos of the film’s narrative trajectory occludes the dilemmas created by humanity’s continuing exploitative relationship with the rest of creation.
Fourth veil: after the Fall Zizek indicates that, contrary to a popular understanding of fantasy: a means by which the subject indulges in the hallucinatory transgression of prohibited desires; Lacan sees fantasy as re-enacting the installation of the Law – ‘of the intervention of the cut of symbolic castration’.
By this dramatic phrasing Lacan indicates the radical change in being that language acquisition brings about – the child enters a ‘register’ in which reality itself becomes anonymously symbolic, and its own subjectivity is constituted by mere linguistic place-holders: ‘I’, ‘me’, ‘mine’ – words which can be used by anyone – and so the ‘impossible’ Real of the child’s former existence is lost. This entails that fantasy is close to perversion, in that what the fantasist wants is what the pervert wants, to be fully acknowledged by the Law – to be integrated into its functioning. For example, almost any narrative in which the principal protagonist is seen striving to get his or her own way – ranging from both Dr. Lecter and ‘Buffalo Bill’ in The Silence of the Lambs, to Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz.
Fifth veil: the impossible gaze As we have seen, narrative disguises synchronous social antagonisms, imposing a before and after, but Lacan is yet more radical. He argues that the two sides of the antagonism do not exist as such until narrativisation begins. In other words, narrative does not simply pick up existing antagonisms and place them in temporal order, it reconfigures the social fabric by constituting the terms of a new understanding, and because of its temporal drive, this act of constitution creates not only that which is now said to be, but also that which is now lost!
Zizek therefore argues that the fantasmatic narrative always invokes an impossible gaze: ‘the gaze by which the subject is already present at the act of his/her own conception’. It follows that, for any fantasmatic scene, it is always appropriate to ask for whom is it being staged? Almost any narrative of lost origins serves as an illustration, ranging from The Lord of the Rings, through Harry Potter, to the stories of Moses and Oliver Twist.
Sixth veil: the inherent transgression In order to operate, fantasy must remain implicit – must maintain a distance between itself and the explicit symbolic structures which it sustains, but which it also subverts. The ‘art’ of Art is to manipulate the censorship of an underlying fantasy so as to reveal its radical falsity. Zizek indicates that every work of art is, by definition, fragmentary, in that initially it has no place in the symbolic register: the ‘trick’ of artistic success resides in the artist’s capacity to skilfully manipulate this central void and its resonance within the encircling elements.
Zizek provides this example:- In the supposedly anti-war film, MASH, the principal characters joke amongst themselves and view their military surroundings with irony, and yet as members of an emergency medical team they remain effective – the Vietnam War and its ideologies continues. For Zizek, this suggests that the natural condition of becoming a subject of ideology is one in which a distance is maintained between an instrumental notion of the ideology itself (and oneself as its operative) and a fantasmatic conception of oneself as a warm, richly human person.
Seventh veil: the empty gesture • How do the two levels – the symbolic structures rendered through language and practice, and their fantasmatic supports, interact? Zizek offers the following explanation, based on a ‘learning play’ by Bertolt Brecht, Jasager. • … where the young boy is asked to accord freely with what will in any case be his fate (to be thrown into the valley). As his teacher explains to him, it is customary to ask the victim if he agrees with his fate, but it is also customary for the victim to say yes … • As Zizek adds, ‘every belonging to a society involves a paradoxical point at which the subject is ordered to embrace freely, as a result of his choice, what is anyway imposed upon him’ – this is an empty gesture offering the impossible – made on the understanding that it will be rejected, i.e., the unwritten rules are the material expression of the fantasmatic support for this system of symbolic exchange. Many ‘tragic’ love stories employ this device. • (D.M.B. 2011.)