Lacan and Fantasy Notes adapted from the first chapter of Slavov Zizek’s

Lacan and Fantasy
Notes adapted from the first
chapter of Slavov Zizek’s
1997 book, The Plague of
Fantasies, published by
(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 ‘daydreaming’ – 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
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
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 ‘fantasyscenario’ 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
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 intersubjective 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 placeholders: ‘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.)