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.

Read on


Returning to the debate surrounding Zizek’s analysis of 300, it seems that this passage from Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus is highly relevant. Towards the end of Anti-Oedipus, Deleuze and Guattari write that,

The most general principle of schizoanalysis is that desire is always constitutive of a social field. In any case desire belongs to the infrastructure, not to ideology: desire is in production as social production, just as production is in desire as desiring-production. But these forms can be understood in two ways, depending on whether desire is enslaved to a structured molar aggregate that it constitutes under a given form of power and gregariousness, or whether it subjugates the large aggregate to the function multiplicities that it itself forms on the molecular scale (it is no more a case of persons or individuals in this instance than in the other). If the preconscious revolutionary break appears at the first level, and is defined by the characteristics of a new aggregate, the unconscious or libidinal break belongs to the second level and is defined by the driving role of desiring-production and the position of its multiplicity. It is understandable, therefore, that a group can be revolutionary from the standpoint of class interest and its preconscious investments, but not be so –and even remain fascist and police-like –from the standpoint of its libidinal investments. Truly revolutionary preconscious interests do not necessarily imply unconscious investments of the same nature; an apparatus of interest never takes the place of a machine of desire.

A revolutionary group at the preconscious level remains a subjugated group, even in seizing power, as long as this power itself refers to a form of force that continues to enslave and crush desiring-production. The moment it is preconsciously revolutionary, such a group already presents all the unconscious characteristics of a subjugated group: the subordination to a socius as a fixed support that attributes to itself the productive forces, extracting and absorbing the surplus value therefrom; the effusion of antiproduction and death-carrying elements within the system, which feels and pretends to be all the more immortal; the phenomena of group ‘superegoization,’ narcissism, and heirarchy– the mechanisms for the repression of desire. A subject-group, on the contrary, is a group whose libidinal investments are themselves revolutionary; it causes desire to penetrate into the social field, and subordinates the socius or the form of power to desiring-production; productive of desire and a desire that produces, the subject-group invents always mortal formations that exorcise the effusion in it of a death instinct; it opposes real coefficients of transversality to the symbolic determination of subjugation, coefficients without a heirarchy or a group super-ego. (348-349)

A bit earlier Deleuze and Guattari distinguish between unconscious libidinal investments pertaining to social investments and preconscious investment of class or interest (343). The central problem that Anti-Oedipus sets out to tackle is that of why we will our own repression:

why do many of those who have or should have an objective revolutionary interest maintain a preconscious investment of a reactionary type? And more rarely, how do certain people whose interest is objectively reactionary come to effect a preconscious revolutionary investment? Must we invoke in the one case a thirst for justice, a just ideological position, as well as a correct and just view; and in the other case a blindness, the result of an ideological deception or mystification? Revolutionaries often forget, or do not like to recognize, that one wants and makes revolutions out of desire, not duty. Here as elsewhere, the concept of ideology is an execrable concept that hides the real problems, which are always of an organizational nature. (344)

One of the central theses of Deleuze and Guattari’s social thought is that the people are not duped, but at a certain level desire fascism and their own repression. What is at issue here is that we can have social movements that are revolutionary at the level of their preconscious class investments, yet nonetheless reactionary at the level of their unconscious libidinal investments. The situation is analogous to issues surrounding the death of God as described by Nietzsche; which is to say, the issue is structural. As Nietzsche somewhere puts it, it is not enough to kill God, but the place itself of God must be abolished. Nietzsche here distinguishes between a certain theological concept of God as a transcendent being presiding over being, and a God-function as a certain structural placeholder in thought, social organization, and practice that other things can come to fill without apparently having anything to do with the divine or supernatural. In short, there is a sort of structural theology of transcendence, a “theology before theology”, that is a form of thought, not an adherence to any particular popular religion. This structural theology, this structural transcendence, is what Lacan represents with the masculine side of the graphs of sexuation, where masculine desire is premised on the phantasm that there is at least one entity that is not subject to the phallic function or castration.

This idea of a structural transcendence without a folk religious conception of God that nonetheless haunts atheism can be elucidated with reference to Laplace. Laplace was, of course, famous for pushing the Newtonian laws to their limit, arguing that we live in a perfectly deterministic universe, such that if we knew the position of all particles at any particular moment along with their velocities, we could perfectly predict all past states of the universe and all future states. When asked about the place of God in his system by Napoleon, he famously replied “Je n’ai pas besoin de cette hypoth├Ęse: I have no need of that hypothesis. One of the revolutions effected by the early Enlightenment thinkers was the thesis of movement immanent to the universe, requiring no transcendent intervention in order for it to occur. Laplace here echoes that thesis, and thus endorses an atheistic position. However, we should not be so quick to come to this conclusion. In putting forward his deterministic thesis, Laplace makes an appeal to what is referred to as “Laplace’s Demon“, which is the idea of an entity capable of observing and calculating all the states of the universe. There is thus a theology that continues to haunt Laplace’s thought, a structure of thinking, which posits a transcendence capable of surmounting castration. Although Laplace’s being is not a creator, does not intervene in the world, does not judge or condemn, does not define a set of moral laws, it is nonetheless a transcendence that, in principle, surmounts our embeddedness in the world.

Deleuze and Guattari appear to be drawing a similar distinction between concrete actual social formations and movements and whether these are reactionary or revolutionary, the structure of social movements that remain reactionary even when undertaken through revolutionary pre-conscious investments. This concern emerges in response to the history of the Soviet Union, where we had a revolutionary movement at the level of preconscious class investments and interests, but nonetheless ended up with a social system organized around highly reactionary unconscious libidinal investments pertaining to power and the party. No doubt Deleuze and Guattari are thinking of the highly disappointing role that the French communist party played in the events of the student revolutions during Spring of 68. The question then becomes that of how it is possible to form a revolutionary movement that does not fall prey to these sorts of unconscious reactionary investments that simply reproduce oppressive systems. “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” That is, how do we avoid simply re-instituting one and the same structure with differing decorations?

This was a problem Lacan encountered as well in the formation of his school. As Lacan remarks at the end of The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, analysis aims at a beyond of identification with the master-signifier:

It is not enough that the analyst should support the function of Tiresias. He must also, as Apollinaire tells us, have breasts. I mean that the operation and manipulation of transference are to be regulated in a way that maintains a distances between the point at which the subject sees himself as lovable– and that other point where the subject sees himself caused as a lack by a, and where a fills the gap constituted by the inaugural division of the subject. (270)

That point from which the analysand sees himself as lovable is the master-signifier, or the place from which the analysand sees himself as being seen by the various authority figures with whom he identifies. In traversing the fantasy and discovering the Other does not exist, that the other is fissured, desiring, lacking, the analysand discovers a beyond of identification in drive. With regard to an organization like a psychoanalytic school or association, the obvious question is that of how it might be possible to form a collective or society premised on the non-existence of the Other. This is a difficult and paradoxical question to say the least. Clearly Lacan himself was a point of identification for the members of his school. He was treated as “the subject supposed to know”. Yet analysts of the school are supposed to have traversed the fantasy and thus worked through the transference, no longer positing a subject supposed to know or a master. This, incidentally, is why I’ve sometimes playfully suggested that Deleuze and Guattari are the real Lacanians: they do not slavishly repeat every word of the master, but work with the thought of Lacan and contribute to the development of a problem and set of concepts. At any rate, Lacan’s various declarations and letters in Television all revolve around this question of the production of a revolutionary collective. The history of Lacanianism since Lacan’s death suggests that the problem has never been completely resolved.

It would appear that we are still caught in this bottleneck. One of the difficulties with Deleuze and Guattari’s proposals– at least as they were taken up by the academy –is that they do not seem to generate any organized activist collectives, and therefore it’s worried that they provide no real tools for struggling with capitalism (I am not suggesting this is true). This would be the concern with a number of other post-structural theorists as well, where political theory is thick on critique and analysis, but provides very little in the way of workable praxis. Enter Badiou and Zizek. In a number of respects, I think Badiou, despite his fascination with figures such as Saint Paul, manages to skirt worries of re-instituting desires at the level of unconscious libidinal investments. Badiou is quite clear in his discussion of political events and in his thesis that a true politics is outside the “state” (Deleuze and Guattari’s preconscious class investments). However, with Zizek and his flirtations with figures such as Robespierre, Mao, and Stalin, the worry emerges that once again we’re moving down the path of a paradoxical “reactionary revolution”, where the new boss is the same as the old. The concerns that motivate Zizek are, I think, well founded: change requires organization, movement. Yet he seems to move in the opposite direction, turning questions of mobilization and organization in fascist directions. I have no answers to solution to these issues, but it does seem to be that one of the central questions is that of how revolutionary movements can avoid falling into reactionary traps.

What can one do but sigh?

Imagine our surprise Wednesday to read in the Israeli paper Haaretz (online), that Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Abu Mazen, meeting recently with militants to enlist their support for a truce with Israel, said that, when they met in Aqaba, President Bush had told him this: ” God told me to strike at al Qaeda and I struck them, and then he instructed me to strike at Saddam [ Hussein], which I did, and now I am determined to solve the problem in the Middle East. If you help me I will act, and if not, the elections will come and I will have to focus on them.”

Read the rest here and here.

Glen, over at Event Mechanics has written a nice diary entitled Parallax of Nihilism, or Nihilism as a Pure Event, dealing with some of the themes I’ve been discussing with regard to fantasy lately. When Glen writes, “[n]ow the obvious point is that for a nihilist, or most of my generation, or pretty much every teenager, every activity is an idiotic activity”, in response to an earlier post where I describe fantasy as an idiotic activity that looks for no reason beyond itself, I confess that I’m a bit disturbed as I didn’t realize I had become a part of a generation or had become dated. I suppose this had to happen sometime.

Glen goes on to write,

The entire universe and especially human existence is singular idiotic activity (chaosmos). There is no essential cultural or discursive threshold that differentiates non-idiotic activity from idiotic activity. The question of idiocy is instead precisely one of enthusiasm or the affective associations and qualitative consistency of those associations that implicates us in various assemblages in action. I call idiocy stupidity. As I constantly rant on about here I try to have an intimate relationship with my stupidities.

Here I find myself wondering whether, in psychoanalytic terms, this too couldn’t be a certain sort of fantasy. That is, couldn’t conceiving the universe in terms of meaninglessness be a way of mastering the universe and all self-Other relations by knowing in advance what those relations are? Moreover, in a universe where everything is meaningless, haven’t I profoundly undermined any potential for anxiety by forestalling the possibility that there could be anything meaningful, and by having surrendered any reason to act or do? Or, to put it a bit differently, isn’t this the ultimate way of defending against the enigma of the Other’s desire, by negating any sort of belief in the Other altogether?

This, I think, can be situated in terms of religious belief. It is sometimes suggested that the religious are weak or soft of mind as they require the reassurance of God to make it through life. However, what if, following Kierkegaard, it is not belief that pacifies anxiety, but rather a lack of belief that pacifies anxiety. While it’s certainly true that there’s a kind of horror in recognizing that you simply drop out of existence altogether with death, isn’t it far more horrifying to imagine, in folk-theological terms, an all-seeing god that knows your every thought and deed, who’s will is inscrutable, and who desires for you to live a particular life without telling you precisely what that particular life should be? Isn’t this what Kierkegaard is getting at in Fear and Trembling, when he talks about being siezed in one’s singularity, knowing that God has called upon you for something, without knowing what that something is? There’s a way in which the absence of God is far more reassuring than the presence of God (we don’t defend against the Other for nothing), and there’s a way in which it’s far more reassuring to believe that it’s all meaningless, that nothing ultimately matters, that we can make no difference, than it is to believe that there is a bit of meaning, that some things do matter, and that what we do does make a difference. Perhaps the Lacanian prescription would be to be capable of affirming meaning or action, even when all meaning has collapsed. None of this, of course, is to chastise Glen, only to point out that fantasy can be a wily thing.