Surplus-jouissance, Desire, and Fantasy

In Seminar 6: Desire and its Interpretation, Lacan articulates fantasy as the frame of desire. The fundamental fantasy does not imagine a particular satisfaction, but is rather the frame through which our desire is structured. In this respect, fantasy answers the question of what the Other desires.


As I remarked in my previous post, the desire of the Other is enigmatic and opaque. Fantasy is what fills out this enigma, articulating it, giving it form, such that it embodies a determinate demand. Lacan persistently claimed that “desire is the desire of the Other”. This polysemous aphorism can be taken in four ways. First, at the most obvious level, it can be taken to signify that we desire the Other. Second, and more importantly, it can be taken to entail that we desire to be desired by the Other. Third, it can be taken to signify that we desire what the Other desires. For example, a petite bourgeois might desire a particular car not because of the intrinsic features of the car, but because it will generate envy in his neighbor. Likewise, someone might mow their lawn not because they see an intrinsic virtue in doing so, but because they fear that their neighbor will become angry if they don’t. Finally, fourth, insofar as the unconscious is the “discourse of the Other”, the thesis that desire is the desire of the Other indicates the manner in which desire is articulated through the network of signifiers that haunt our unconscious, producing all sorts of symptomatic formations based on the signifier.

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On the masculine side of the graph of sexuation we see the formula for obsessional fantasy ($ * a) in the lower portion pertaining to the logic of jouissance.


Just as the phallus functions as a supplement to the inconsistency of the symbolic order in the case of feminine sexuation, providing it with consistency, stability, and structure, the objet a as surplus-jouissance, is the remainder sought by the masculine sexuated subject to recoup what is lost as a consequence of one’s alienation in the symbolic. Thus, as Lacan presents it in his graph of jouissance, we see a vector from the symbolic to the real with respect to objet a.


Surplus-joussance can therefore be thought as the real the masculine subject attempts to recoup as a result of alienation in the signifier, but also as the entropic loss produced as a result of alienation in the symbolic.

Objet a is not the object of desire, but rather the object-cause of desire. In short, where desire and the object of desire are the effect, objet a is what causes or produces that effect. This point can be clearly illustrated by reference to Freud’s case of the young homosexual woman. In this case, the young homosexual woman pursues a prostitute, parading about town with her in much the same way that a gentleman courting a woman might parade about with that woman. In other words, she emulates the ideal male gentleman and lover. Initially we might think that the prostitute is this woman’s objet a; however, the prostitute is not the objet a but the effect of how objet a operates in the psychic economy of this young woman. In Seminar 10: L’angoisse, Lacan makes much of Shakespeare’s remark that all the world is a stage. This allows us to differentiate between objet a as cause of desire and the object desired.


What causes this desire is not the prostitute desired, but rather the paternal gaze of her father. Throughout her adventures the young women makes sure that she appears with the prostitute in a very public way in places often frequented by her father. As Lacan explains, the young woman is enacting the manner in which a man should properly love and court a woman. In other words, her activities are staged for the gaze of her father. Proof of this is found in the fact that when she finally does encounter the gaze of her father while walking about with the prostitute, receiving a disdainful look of contempt from him, she subsequently throws herself on the train tracks in an attempt to commit suicide. In this moment, the young woman coincided with objet a and more specifically with her status as a subject being occluded or eclipsed by objet a ($ < a), leading to a passage to the act: the attempt to commit suicide.


The case of the young female homosexual thus illustrates a complex topology of desire governed by the functioning of objet a as gaze. The gaze as objet a produces a three dimensional space staged for this gaze for whom action is staged or enacted, opening a field of desired objects and persons in relation to objet a. It is not objet a that is desired, but rather objet a operates as the motor through which the young woman desires. It is through objet a that the young woman retains a minimal degree of being lost in her alienation in the symbolic. Indeed, when objet a falls away in her fathers contemptful gaze, she disappears as a subject.

We can thus see why fundamental fantasy is not an imagined scenerio of satisfaction, but rather an articulation of the enigmatic desire of the Other. The object of desire emerges in and through this relation to the remainder of the Other in the form of objet a that produces the complex topological field of desired objects.


It is of crucial importance to note that the obsessional fantasy has a dual structure. On the one hand, fantasy produces desire as an effect generating that field of desired objects that would complete the subject and surmount the loss undergone as a result of language. On the other hand, and on the darker side, fantasy generates an account of why the symbolic does not provide the satisfaction it promises or what prevents the symbolic from achieving completeness. Thus, in Nazi ideology the figure of the Jew becomes the fantasy object of what undermines Germany’s idyllic harmony. Among Christian fundamentalists, the homosexual, women, and minorities perturb and destroy the social order. These beings, of course, have nothing to do with the real cause between social antagonism and incompleteness, but rather cover over the constitutive fact of antagonism.

It is in this regard that we can see why Lacan refers to objet a in terms of semblance. If objet a is semblance, then this is because it promises being or completeness while simultaneously giving an account of why it doesn’t exist. Likewise, if phallus is reality, then this is insofar as reality is approached through the frame of fantasy, generating the illusion of a consistent and complete social order. As Lacan puts it in Seminar 11: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, we awake from our dreams at that precise point that we approach truth, the real, or the castration of the Other, so that we might continue on in fantasy. That is, we escape from truth or the real to reality structured in and through fantasy. Finally, if Other-jouissance or feminine jouissance is correlated with truth, then this is because it is the only form of jouissance that takes the lack in the Other, S(A) its incompleteness, as the source of its jouissance.

Social Orders, Sexuation, and Jouissance

Masculine Social Structure and the Return of the Repressed

Based on the foregoing, it becomes possible to make some general observations about social structures organized around masculine and feminine sexuation, or impasses of formalization generating incompletness and impasses of formalization generating inconsistency. Masculine social orders will be hierarchically ordered around some central term whether that be the nation, the homeland, God, or a particular charismatic leader that functions as an exception to the rule of universal law. Thus, in the case of virulent nationalisms, for example, it will be seen as impossible for the nation as signifier to do any wrong. As Spinoza puts it in the 13th proposition of part 3 of the Ethics, “when the mind conceives things which diminish or hinder the body’s power of activity, it endeavors, as far as possible, to remember things that exclude the existence of the first named things.” This is above all the case in virulent nationalisms or in strong identification with master-figures such as Lacan, Žižek, Badiou, Heidegger, Deleuze and Guattari, Derrida, etc. Confronted with criticisms of these figures, it is as if the mind is unable to even hear these criticisms, almost as if the subject hearing them undergoes a sort of hysterical blindness emerging from the fantasy of the impossibility of the exception to the law being castrated (fantasy masks or hides the castration or division of the Other (A). As a consequence, there is a swerve that takes place in thought, where immediately– in an often highly irrational manner –the source of incompleteness is instead attacked. It is exceedingly difficult to see and hear for, as Lacan put it, love of truth is love of castration. The master and the nation can do no wrong, and this necessarily by the fact that the system would fall into incoherent inconsistency at the level of the symbolic order were the supplement not operative.

However, as Lacan was fond of pointing out, repression is always a return of the repressed. There is no repression so complete, so successful, that it does not generate effects at the level of the symbolic (this, incidentally, is how objet a functions as the motor or engine of symptom formation). Consequently, while masculine structure indeed attempts to mask or repress the constitutive incompleteness of the symbolic order (A), this constitutive incompleteness must nonetheless be marked… Yet marked as a semblance. Here the trick lies in rendering what is real, necessary, or structural as contingent. That is, the constitutive incompleteness and antagonism of the symbolic and social order is transformed into a contingent antagonism. This issues from the bifurcated structure of fantasy in masculine sexuality, where, on the one hand, there is a fantasy of completeness, harmony, and totality (the hallmarks of the order of the imaginary), while, on the other hand, there is the dark fantasy of what prevents this harmony and completeness from being achieved.

We can thus hypothesize that the more a social order aims at identity and completeness, the more it will see itself as persecuted or perturbed by some outsider that prevents it from achieving this harmony and completeness (the Jew, minorities, women, homosexuals, immigrants, counter-revolutionaries, etc). In other words, the tendency of hierarchical social structures towards racisms, homophobia, anti-Semitism, sexism, religious intolerance, etc., is not an accidental feature of a historical situation, but a structural and necessary by-product of how these social structures navigate the real or the formal impasse preventing totalization.

Feminine Sexuation and the Impasse of Network Society

Initially we might think that social structures premised on feminine sexuation fare better. After all, feminine sexuation emphasizes difference, contingency, and singularity. As Lacan liked to quick, where masculine sexuation is homme-sexual, feminine sexuation is the only true hetero-sexuality. This claim about masculine sexuality can be seen clearly in the case of Freud’s infamous Totem and Taboo, as well as his analysis of military organizations in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. Here the point isn’t that those that are sexuated male are gay, but rather that they are all subject to one and the same law governing their jouissance and desire. Thus, when the band of brothers kill the primal father in Totem and Taboo, they institute the law of exchange and the prohibition against having the mother and sister. By contrast, claims Lacan, feminine sexuated subjects have the true love of difference, of the hetero, insofar as “not-all of speaking being is subordinated to the law of castration”.

However, social structures organized in feminine terms encounter their own impasse as well. Masculine social structures can be thought in terms of transcendence and necessity– The transcendence of the leader, the boss, the father, God, the nation, etc., with respect to its subjects and how these subjects relate to the Law. The Law here is understood as transcendent and universal with only one exception to the Law (perhaps this is why the last 26% of Bush supporters are not troubled by the illegalities of his administration). By contrast, feminine social structures can be understood as immanent and contingent. Here the emphasis is decidedly on the formation of relational networks that are ever shifting and changing. Yet while these networks might appear more appealing insofar as the don’t generate the same terrifying bifurcated forms of collective fantasy that caused so much horror in the last century, they do cause a set of other problems.

On the one hand, network based social formations are decidedly more difficult to politically contest as it is not clear where the enemy is. As Žižek liked to joke, it is far easier to protest the totalitarian Oedipal father than the new, sensitive post-modern father. The totalitarian Oedipal father tells you that “you’re going to your grandmother’s whether you like it or not!” In this way a space of freedom is preserved– if only in the Stoic form –insofar as one is permitted to go to one’s grandmother’s without enjoying it, and second, insofar as one can contest the Oedipal command. This holds likewise for protest against the various Oedipal regimes, where the target of resistance is clear. By contrast, the new age, postmodern, sensitive father says “you do not have to go to your grandmother’s if you don’t want to, but if you do you better like it!” Here it is no longer clear who is calling the shots or exactly what resistance would mean. If you go to your grandmother’s you feel guilt because you have betrayed your desire. Yet if you don’t go you feel guilt as you wonder whether your sensitive father did not secretly harbor a desire for you to go. In all cases you lose.

Perhaps more fundamentally, feminine networked society is accompanied by the emergence of a search for phallic masters or gurus of all types. In The New Spirit of Capitalism, Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello analyze management literature between the 60s and the 90s, demonstrating a fundamental shift from centralized, top-down, master-based models of management during the 60s (Oedipal models of social organization), to de-centralized, network based, non-hierarchical, difference based models of management. In the latter model, the manager is no longer the one running the show, but is rather the guru who has a general Vision of where the corporation is to go and who cedes implementation of this Vision to a series of lower level managers who are largely autonomous. The new structure of management portrays itself as egalitarian and open-ended, without a hierarchy between upper management and lower management. Boltanski and Chiapello are able to show how capitalism was able to integrate the radical critiques of 60s anti-capitalist theory, turning these critiques into new ways of producing capital.

Accompanying this shift from transcendent models of social organization to immanent and egalitarian models of social organization, we everywhere see a search for masters or gurus. Perhaps this is because the new freedom of desire opened up by a networked based society fill subjects with anxiety, as there is no longer a compass that would tell them what to desire. “I know I desire, but what desire is the right desire for me and what desire will make me desirable?” This might also account for the rise of fundamentalisms of all sorts, where subjects cleave to hierarchical social models so as to create a space of desire and avoid the empty depressive stance of late capitalism. In short, while preferable in a number of respects, and while premised on the true or real insofar as it recognizes the “not-all” of the symbolic, it cannot be said that feminine sexuation will save us.

However, the point to be borne in mind is that both masculine and feminine sexuation are premised on an order organized around the name-of-the-father and the Oedipus. In other words, while sexuation pertains to the real, there is only masculine and feminine sexuation insofar as the name-of-the-father is the primary modality through which subjectivity is formed. The late Lacan envisioned another possibility. There, in Seminar 23: The Sinthome, Lacan observes that “it is possible to do without the name-of-the-father so long as one makes use of it.” Likewise, the name-of-the-father is pluralized, allowing for a variety of signifying structures to serve its function. Finally, psychosis becomes generalized to all subjects, such that Oedipal structures organized around the name-of-the-father are one way of tying the borromean knot among others or one way of responding to the inexistence of the big Other (A). Instead, the sinthome comes to tie the three strings of RSI, allowing for a social link that need not be Oedipal in character. Perhaps, then, the borromean clinic provides an alternative way of tying the knot beyond the Oedipus (which Lacan refers to as Freud’s myth) that would generate different formal impasses beyond those of masculine and feminine sexuation.