NOTE: HTML and Lacanian mathemes don’t mix very well. In what follows I’ve used “*” to represent the “losange”, “punch”, or diamond in Lacan’s formulas for fantasy.

Filled with exhaustion from the excitement of last night and the lack of sleep it engendered, I don’t really have much to say today, but I simply wanted to post this passage from Zizek’s Plague of Fantasies as it so nicely encapsulates the Lacanian theory of fantasy, first developed in Seminar 6, Le desir et son interpretation, and culminating in Seminar 14, La logique du fantasme.

There Zizek writes that,

Perhaps the easiest way to discern these shifts [in Lacan’s theory of the clinical setting] is by focusing on the changed status of the object. In early Lacan, the object is depreciated as to its inherent qualities; it counts only as a stake in the intersubjective struggles for recognition and love (the milk demanded by a child from the mother is reduced to a ‘sign of love’, that is, the demand for milk effectively aims at prompting the mother to display her love for the child; a jealous subject demands from his parents a certain toy; this toy becomes the object of his demand, because he is aware that it is also coveted by his brother, etc.). In late Lacan, on the contrary, the focus shifts to the object that the subject itself ‘is’, to the agalma, secret treasure, which guarantees a minimum of phantasmatic consistency to the subject’s being. That is to say: objet petit a, as the object of fantasy, is that ‘something in me more than myself’ on account of which I perceive myself as ‘worthy of the Other’s desire’.

One should always bear in mind that the desire ‘realized’ (staged) in fantasy is not the subject’s own, but the other’s desire: fantasy, phantasmatic formation, is an answer to the enigma of the ‘Che vuoi?— ‘You’re saying this, but what do you really mean by saying it? –which established the subject’s primordial, constitutive position. 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?’ A small child is embedded in a complex network of relations; he serves as a kind of catalyst and battlefield for the desires of those others around him: his father, mother, brothers and sisters, and so on, fight their battles around him, the mother sending a message to the father through her care for the son. While he is well aware of this role, the child cannot fathom what object, precisely, he is to others, what the exact nature of the games they are playing with him is, and fantasy provides an answer to this enigma: at its most fundamental, fantasy tells me what I am to my others. It is again anti-Semitism, the anti-Semitic paranoia, which reveals this radically intersubjective character of fantasy in an exemplary way: fantasy (the social fantasy of the Jewish plot) is an attempt to provide an answer to ‘What does society want from me?’, to unearth the meaning of the murky events in which I am forced to participate. For that reason, the standard theory of ‘projection’, according to which the anti-Semite ‘projects’ on the figure of the Jew the disavowed part of himself, is not sufficient: the figure of the ‘conceptual Jew’ cannot be reduced to the externalization of my (anti-Semite’s) ‘inner conflict’; on the contrary, it bears witness to (and tries to cope with) the fact that I am originally decentred, part of an opaque network whose meaning and logic elude my control.

This radical intersubjectivity of fantasy is discernible even in the most elementary cases, like that (reported by Freud) of his little daughter fantasizing about eating a strawberry cake– what we have here is by no means a simple case of direct hallucinatory satisfaction of a desire (she wanted a cake, she didn’t get it, so she fantasized about it…). That is to say, what one should introduce here is precisely the dimension of intersubjectivity: the crucial feature is that while she was voraciously eating a strawberry cake, the little girl noticed how her parents were deeply satisfied by this spectacle, by seeing her fully enjoying it– so what the fantasy of eating a straberry cake is really about is her attempt to form an identity (of the one who fully enjoys eating a cake given by the parents) that would satisfy her parents, would make her the object of their desire…” (8-9)

A page earlier, Zizek emphasizes that the function of fantasy is not the direct realization of desire, but rather functions as the frame or schema through which the objects of desire are selected. Lacan develops these themes extensively in Seminar 6, and Seminar 10, L’angoisse. Zizek writes,

The first thing to note is that fantasy does not simply realize desire in a hallucinatory way: rather, its function is similar to that of Kantian ‘transcendental schematism’: a fantasy constitutes our desire. The role of fantasy is thus in a way analogous to that of the ill-fated pineal gland in Descartes’ philosophy, this mediator between re cogitans and res extensa: fantasy mediates between the formal symbolic structure and the positivity of the objects we encounter in reality– that is to say, it provides a ‘schema’ according to which certain positive objects in reality can function as objects of desire, filling in the empty places opened up by the formal symbolic structure. To put it in somewhat simplified terms: fantasy does not mean that when I desire a strawberry cake and cannot get it in reality, I fantasize about eating it; the problem is, rather, how do I know that I desire a strawberry cake in the first place? This is what fantasy tells me. (7)

The intersubjective field presents me with a number of options as to what I might be, just as the world offers me an infinity of objects that I might desire. How, then, do I come to desire to be this or that, and how do I come to desire this or that thing? Fantasy stages the response to this question or presents us with an answer to this question. Thus, when Lacan writes obsessional fantasy as (-A- * phi (a, a’, a”, a”’, …)) and hysterical fantasy as (a * A/-phi) (cf. Seminar 8, Transference, we are to understand different intersubjective stances with regard to the Other. In the case of hysteria we have the subject presenting herself as the object that the Other desires, as the object that fills the Other’s lack and responds to its castration, whereas in the case of obsession we have the subject striving to satisfy the Other’s demand by giving the Other the object of its demand, thereby defending against a traumatic encounter with the enigmatic nature of the Other’s desire. Thus, the hysteric represses castration by castrating the Other or evoking the Other’s desire and incompleteness– here we might think of the dream of the Butcher’s wife in The Interpretation of Dreams, where the patient has a dream of dissatisfaction as a way of revealing the limits of Freud’s wish-fulfillment theory of dreams… Lacan will wittily say that “the hysteric has a desire for an unsatisfied desire”, (cf. Seminar 3, Psychosis –whereas the obsessional represses the castration (of the Other), by doing everything he can to satisfy the Other’s demand so as to forestall an encounter with the Other as lacking. In both cases, the neurotic situates himself as a certain object for the Other.

One might criticize Lacan’s account of fantasy on the grounds that it suggests that the aim of desire is to make oneself pleasing and likable for the Other, whereas a simple observation indicates that there are many wretches out there who take supreme delight in either torturing the Other’s or who find any relation to the Other all but intolerable. For instance, we might think of the depiction of the cartoonist Harvey Pekar in American Splendor. Surely this is a misanthrope constitutively hostile to being the pleasing object of the Other’s affection if ever there was one. Unfortunately Zizek’s all too brief gloss on the intersubjective nature of fantasy suggests such a reading as well, which then leads us to suspect that this conception of fantasy, while applicable in certain circumstances, is deeply at odds with the diverse fauna we find out there among human beings. However, Zizek’s brief reference to anti-semitism above suggests another possibility that we find confirmed in Seminar 10, L’angoisse. There Lacan remarks that,

The end of my discourse, I think, sufficiently allowed yu to recognize how at this mythical level, S, prior to any coming into play of the operation, the subject could be denominated, in so far as this term has a sense and precisely for reasons to which we will return, that one cannot in any way isolate it as subject; and mythically we will call it today the subject of jouissance. For, as you know– I wrote it the last time, I believe –the three stages to which there correspond the three momets of this operation are jouissance, anxiety and desire respectively. It is into these stages that I am going to advance today to show not the mediating, but the median, function of anxiety between jouissance and desire.

How could we comment again on this important moment of our presentation, except by saying the following– the different terms of which I would ask you to take in the fullest sense that can be given them –that jouissance would not know the Other, A, except by this remainder a, which henceforth, in so far as I told you that there is no way of operating with this remainder, and therefore that what comes at the lower stage, is the advent, at the end of the operation, of the barred subject, the subject qua implicated in the phantasy, in so far as it is one of the terms which constitute the support of desire. I say one of the terms; for the phantasy is $ in a certain relationship of opposition to a, a relationship whose polyvalence and multiplicity are sufficiently defined by the composite character of this diamond shape, * , which is just as much disjunction, v, as conjunction, &, which is just as much greater, >, and lesser, qua term of this operation has the form of division, since a is irreducible, is unable in this fashion of imaging it in mathematical forms, can only represent the reminder, that if division were carried out, further on, it would be the relationship of a to S which would be involved in the $:a/S. (Seminar of 13 March 1963, Gallagher translation).

Seminar 10 is truly one of those crucial seminars for understanding the Lacanian theory of the object, and is well worth the read. I will not unpack all of this dense and enigmatic passage, but the lesson that I draw from Lacan’s treatment of the “punch”, losange, or diamond to various mathematical functions, is that we must avoid treating the relationship of the subject to the object in fantasy as one of conjunction where the subject is united with the missing object.

Rather, in conceiving objet a in terms of various permutations of the greater than, the less than, disjunction, and conjunction, we can discern a number of possible attitudes the subject can entertain to the object. The subject, for instance, can take itself as being less than the object it believes it is for the Other. Similarly, the subject can bitterly experience itself as greater than that object (unrecognized, undervalued). In a disjunctive relationship, the subject can experience itself as being nihilated by the object it is for the Other, as in the case of a suffocating romantic relationship where one experiences their lover as trying to devour them. Or similarly, the fantasy of the anti-Semite might revolve around the belief that the Other (the Jew) is trying to steal the precious object. And finally the subject can see itself as conjoined or united with its object.

All of these different relations will generate very different relations of intersubjectivity and of comporting oneself with respect to the world and others. If, for instance, I see myself as greater than the object, my symptom might take the form of perpetually trying to prove myself, or it might take the form of pre-emptively denigrating others, demonstrating that they are nothing for me, so that I might coincide with the object I believe myself to genuinely be. There is thus a structural relation between fantasy and symptom, such that the symptom is itself an expression of the fantasmatic manner in which the subject navigates the opacity of its social world.

The important point here is that the fantasy gives me a minimal ontological consistency and allows me to navigate the world. It is for this reason that traversing the fantasy is so traumatic. Not only does it lead to the collapse of my subjective identity, in and through the discovery that I am not this object, that the Other itself doesn’t know what it desires, but it also leads to the collapse of my field of desire insofar as this field came to be through the identifications engendered by the object. But in this void space of subjective destitution, also lies freedom and separation.