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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I received the following email from a fellow analyst in Argentina and thought it might be productive in generating some discussion here on the blog. X writes:

Dear Levi: I have been reading the lacan yahoo groups since long. Also I have been practicing Lacan theory as much as clinical practice since the seventies. You remark very accurately that since Millerian politics has taken over the majority of the lacanian groups all over the world we have seen the expansion of millerian psychoanalytical point of view..are you sure they follow Lacan’s theories on its foundation? Any way My concern (the reason I write to you) is that I have seen Lacan APPLIED to anything on the market from Sufism to cinema, to fashion to Japanese to….cuisine??. I would like to know your view since in my country (Argentina), the country of the thousand analysts, so to speak has not developed such an over explanatory religion as I can imagine in the Us. Is it my perception wrong? it has to do with Zizek simplifying ideas, fashionable impronta?Is the Universitary discourse predominance?. As a practitioner, I see this direction as been very dangerous to psychoanalysis worries me.As Freud warned us. Psy. is not a religion. We must be aware of that. Sorry for my english syntax and grammar. I hope you find my question interesting enough to answer me.

I’m not sure I have a whole lot to add to your observations and hope that you don’t find my writings on psychoanalysis to exemplify these characteristics. First, I do not at all disagree with your observation that there is a sort of Lacanian religion emerging in the United States. I think the way in which you pose the question already suggests an answer. You point out that Argentina is the country of a thousand analysts. In the United States we have nothing comparable to this omnipresence of practicing analysts. What passes for therapy in the States is usually some “guru” or master that purports to have knowledge of the brain and how to live one’s life successfully if only the proper behavioral activities are followed and the proper drugs are taken. I exaggerate, but not much. In short, we have no living practice of analysis.

I think the absence of a living practice of analysis has profound consequences as to how Freud and Lacan are received in the United States. I cannot speak for you, but in my experience practicing as an analyst one of the most striking things is the manner in which you never completely know what is going on with your analysands. As analysts we listen, we ask questions, we make enigmatic remarks that can be taken in a number of different ways, and we’re continuously surprised by what our analysands have to teach us. As I see it, the role of the analyst, the position of the analyst, is an extremely humble position. Or, rather, it is a position that quickly leads one to humility. The analysand might place us in the position of the subject supposed to know, but we are certainly not subjects that do know. Over the course of analysis we do gain a bit of knowledge from our analysands, we do learn, but that knowledge is never complete for as Lacan says “the truth can only be half-said”… It reveals to the same degree that it conceals.

We take our bearings from Freud and Lacan. Their experience orients us. But, in his ecrits “The Position of the Unconscious”, Lacan is careful to point out that the unconscious changes with discourse about the unconscious, such that we are forever encountering new symptoms in the clinic and such that we find that interpretations or interventions that might have been successful ten years ago no longer seem to produce effects today. As such, I cannot help but feel that the analyst is very much a Socratic figure who relates to others with an awareness of his or her own ignorance. This, I take it, is one of the central distinctions between an analyst and a therapist. A therapist is not ignorant, but knows… Yet the knowledge of the therapist is a knowledge in the imaginary. It is an imaginary mastery of the patient.

Returning then to the theme of Lacanian theology in the United States, I think one of the central issues is that the vast majority of Lacanian theorists work with “analysands” that do not talk back. Those of us in the States who have not undergone analysis or who do not practice analysis work primarily with non-responsive texts such as novels, social phenomena, films, and television shows. Freud, of course, thought that such cultural analysis was of vital importance for building psychoanalytic knowledge. Both Freud and Lacan gave masterful analyses of various cultural artifacts such as Oedipus Rex and Plato’s Symposium, and helped to advance our understanding of the symptom by these means (my view is that psychoanalysis is a transcendental theory of the conditions under which the symptom is possible). However, they were also practicing analysts, and one of the central things we quickly learn in the analytic setting is that just when we think we have an understanding of what is going on the analysand throws us a curve ball that violates all our expectations. That is, there’s a dialogical dimension to analysis such that the analysand responds back and this is lacking in the interpretation of cultural artifacts. Absent this dit-mension of response, psychoanalysis easily becomes a discourse of imaginary mastery, generating the attitude of a university discourse that is confident it is able to interpret all formations of the unconscious and culture.

While I have a great deal of admiration for Zizek’s work and the manner in which he’s rendered the Millerian interpretation of Lacan accessible to a wider audience– someone on the list recently suggested that perhaps this was written by Zizek, revealing their ignorance of the secondary literature on Lacan and Miller’s appropriation in particular, indicating just how much Zizek has come to hegemonize the name Lacan and obscure a vast field of very talented clinical work done by analysts that have their feet on the ground (or bottoms on the couch) working daily with analysands –I do believe that Zizek’s work lends itself to this imaginary illusion of mastery and that Zizek himself often succumbs to this lure of mastery. From a clinical point of view this is very counter-productive as it closes off the unconscious by leading us to believe too readily that we know what it is speaking, rather than opening the unconscious by provoking desire through enigma as in the case of Lacan’s poetic use of speech in his late seminars which functions to evoke desire by rendering meaning (always a feature of the imaginary) enigmatic and elusive.

I thus find myself torn. As you know, Lacan left us with 27 years of teachings and experience. This material is extremely difficult and much of it is uneven as to its quality. Further, a good deal of it remains unpublished and the translations of these unpublished works are often inaccurate. Few save the most devoted will take the time to trudge through Lacan’s difficult work and engage in the intellectual labor of developing his thought. At present, Lacanian psychoanalysis in the United States only exists as a theory, and has a very low degree of intensity as a practice. For the academic laboring under conditions that demand publication, there are diminishing returns when it comes to working directly with Lacan. Moreover, what is the American Lacanian to do? It’s nearly impossible to work solely as a clinician in the United States due to how therapy has here been structured via the mediation of insurance companies, government, and a particular ideology of medical science. Moreover, with the exception of a handful of institutions such as Duquesne (and increasingly Emory), psychology departments tend to see psychoanalysis and Lacan as a form of arcane quackery that has been thoroughly disproven or discredited. The only other option is for the defender of Lacan to shack up in social sciences (rarely) or humanities departments and to transform psychoanalysis into a form of cultural and political analysis. Thus, while I have a number of reservations about the predominance of the discourse of the master and university in many of our best and brightest Lacanian theorists in the United States, I feel that at present there is little alternative. However, I do feel that this work– while scarcely resembling a genuine analytic stance –is nonetheless laying the groundwork for a day in which genuine psychoanalytic practice might here be possible by introducing elements into the symbolic that create the potential for psychoanalysis to be received. It is for this reason that I am grateful for the work of figures such as Zizek and Miller. Zizek popularizes, while Miller codifies Lacan’s teachings so that they might become transmissible as a teaching. This, of course, also entails simplifications that lead to omissions and an erasure of other possible interpretations and readings. But it does seem as if progress is being made. Already an entire generation of analysts are emerging who would not have been able to practice at all a decade ago. There is Bruce Fink and students of his practice such as myself, Dan Collins, Yael Baldwin, Kate Briggs, Ed Pluth, and yet others such as Christina Laurita, and Tom Svolos, all of whom are practicing, making contributions to psychoanalytic theory, forming academic departments and conferences, and training other analysts. Right now the work of creating an infrastructure and space of the symbolic is underway, and this is a slow moving task that takes time.