fantasy ( fantasme) The concept of fantasy (spelt 'phantasy' in the
Standard Edition) is central to Freud's work. Indeed, the origin of psycho-
analysis is bound up with Freud's recognition in 1897 that memories of
seduction are sometimes the product of fantasy rather than traces of real
sexual abuse. This crucial moment in the development of Freud's thought
(which is often simplistically dubbed 'the abandonment of the seduction
theory') seems to imply that fantasy is opposed to reality, a purely illusory
product of the imagination which stands in the way of a correct perception of
reality. However, such a view of fantasy cannot be maintained in psycho-
analytic theory, since reality is not seen as an unproblematic given in which
there is a single objectively correct way of perceiving, but as something which
is itself discursively constructed. Therefore the change in Freud's ideas in
1897 does not imply a rejection of the veracity of all memories of sexual
abuse, but the discovery of the fundamentally discursive and imaginative
nature of memory; memories of past events are continually being reshaped in
accordance with unconscious desires, so much so that symptoms originate not
in any supposed 'objective facts' but in a complex dialectic in which fantasy
plays a vital role. Freud uses the term 'fantasy', then, to denote a scene which
is presented to the imagination and which stages an unconscious desire. The
subject invariably plays a part in this scene, even when this is not immediately
apparent. The fantasised scene may be conscious or unconscious. When
unconscious, the analyst must reconstruct it on the basis of other clues (see
While Lacan accepts Freud's formulations on the importance of fantasy and
on its visual quality as a scenario which stages desire, he emphasises the
protective function of fantasy. Lacan compares the fantasy SCENE (OR fTOZen
image on a cinema screen; just as the film may be stopped at a certain point in
order to avoid showing a traumatic scene which follows, so also the fantasy
scene is a defence which veils castration (S4, l 19-20). The fantasy is thus
characterised by a fixed and immobile quality.
Although 'fantasy' only emerges as a significant term in Lacan's work from
1957 on, the concept of a relatively stable mode of DEFENCE iS evident earlier
on (see, for example, Lacan's remark in 1951 on 'the permanent modes by
which the subject constitutes his objects'; Ec, 225). This concept is at the root
both of Lacan's idea of fantasy and of his notion of clinical structure; both are
conceived of as a relatively stable way of defending oneself against castration,
against the lack in the Other. Each clinical structure may thus be distinguished
by the particular way in which it uses a fantasy scene to veil the lack in the
Other. The neurotic fantasy, which Lacan formalises in the matheme (SO a),
appears in the graph of desire as the subject's response to the enigmatic desire
of the Other, a way of answering the question about what the Other wants from
me (Che vuoi?) (see E, 313). The matheme is to be read: the barred subject in
relation to the object. The perverse fantasy inverts this relation to the object,
and is thus formalised as a OS (Ec, 774).
Although the matheme (SO a) designates the general structure of the
neurotic fantasy, Lacan also provides more specific formulas for the fantasy
of the hysteric and that of the obsessional neurotic (S8, 295). While the various
formulas of fantasy indicate the common features of the fantasies of those who
share the same clinical structure, the analyst must also attend to the unique
features which characterise each patient's particular fantasmatic scenario.
These unique features express the subject's particular mode of ./OUISSANCE,
though in a distorted way. The distortion evident in the fantasy marks it as a
compromise formation; the fantasy is thus both that which enables the subject
to sustain his desire (Sll, 185; Ec, 780), and 'that by which the subject
sustains himself at the level of his vanishing desire' (E, 272, emphasis added).
Lacan holds that beyond all the myriad images which appear in dreams and
elsewhere there is always one 'fundamental fantasy' which is unconscious (see
S8, 127). In the course of psychoanalytic treatment, the analyst reconstructs
the analysand's fantasy in all its details. However, the treatment does not stop
there; the analysand must go on to 'traverse the fundamental fantasy' (see S11,
273). In other words, the treatment must produce some modification of the
subject's fundamental mode of defence, some alteration in his mode of
Although Lacan recognises the power of the image in fantasy, he insists that
this is due not to any intrinsic quality of the image in itself but to the place
which it occupies in a symbolic structure; the fantasy is always 'an image set
to work in a signifying structure' (E, 272). Lacan criticises the Kleinian
account of fantasy for not taking this symbolic structure fully into account,
and thus remaining at the level of the imaginary; 'any attempt to reduce
[fantasy] to the imagination . . . is a permanent misconception' (E, 272). In
the 1960s, Lacan devotes a whole year of his seminar to discussing what he
calls 'the logic of fantasy' (Lacan, 1966-7), again stressing the importance of
the signifying structure in fantasy.
The concept of fantasy is central to Freud’s work.
Indeed, the origin of psychoanalysis is bound up with Freud’s recognition in 1897 that memories of seduction are sometimes the product of fantasy rather than traces of real sexual abuse.
This crucial moment in the development of Freud’s thought seems to imply that fantasy is opposed to reality, a purely illusory product of the imagination which stands in the way of a correct perception of reality.
However, such a view of fantasy cannot be maintained in psychoanalytic theory, since reality is not seen as an unproblematic given in which there is a single objectively correct way of perceiving, but as something which is itself discursively constructed.
While Lacan accepts Freud’s formulations on the importance of fantasy and on its visual quality as a scenario which stages desire, he emphasizes the protective function of fantasy.
Lacan compares the fantasy scene to a frozen image on a cinema screen: just as the film may be stopped at a certain point in order to avoid showing a traumatic scene which follows, so also the fantasy scene is a defence which veils castration. The fantays is thus characterized by a fixed and immobile quality.
Lacan's Conception of Fantasy
If the neurotic subject does not to forego the Oedipal supposition that there is some Thing that would fully satisfy the desire of the mother, it is because s/he constructs fantasies about the nature of this lost Thing, and how s/he stands towards it. The primary means s/he deploys in this process is what I recounted above, when I noted how the difficulty in knowing the referent of the phallic master signifiers obliges subjects to construct their beliefs concerning it in a 'decentred' manner, through the Others. While the subject accepts that the Real phallic Thing is lost to him/her, that is, in his/her fantasmatic life s/he yet supposes that there are Others who do know what it is that phallic signifiers refer to, and have more direct access to the Real of jousissance. In line with this, Lacan's further argument is indeed that the deepest fantasmatic postulation of subjects is always that the Real Phallic Thing that s/he has been debarred from must be held in reserve by the 'big Other' whose law it is that discernibly structures the mother’s desire.
What follows from this is the position that the manifestations of the unconscious represent small unconscious rebellions of the subject against the loss that s/he takes him/herself to have endured when s/he acceded to socialization. They are all under-girded by the more basic fantasmatic structuration of identity as constituted by the loss endured at castration. This is why Lacan talks of a fundamental fantasy, and argues that it is above all this fundamental fantasy that is at stake in psychoanalysis. Lacan strived to formalize the invariant structure of this 'fundamental fantasy' in the matheme: $ <> a. This matheme indicates that: '$', the ‘barred’ subject which is divided by castration between attraction to and repulsion from the Object of its unconscious desire, is correlative to ('<>') the fantasised lost object. This object, designated in the matheme as 'a', is called by Lacan the ‘object petit a’, or else the object cause of desire. Lacan holds that the subject always stabilizes its position vis-à-vis the Real Thing by constructing a fantasy about how the debarred Thing is held in the big Other, manifesting only in a series of metonymic or partial objects (the gaze or voice of his/her love objects, a hair style, or some other 'little piece of the Real') that can be enjoyed as compensation for its primordial loss of the maternal Thing. Lacan's argument is that the fundamental psychological 'gain’ from the fundamental fantasy is the following. The fundamental fantasy represents what occurred at castration in the terms of a narrative of possession and loss. This fantasm thus consoles the subject by positing that s/he at one point did have the phallic Thing, but that then, at castration, it was taken away from him/her by the Other. What this of course means is that, since the Thing was taken away from the subject, perhaps also It can be regained by him/her. It is this promise, Lacan maintains, that usually structures neurotic human desire. What the fantasy serves to hide from the subject, then, is the possibility that a fully satisfying sexual relationship with the mother, or any metonymic substitute for her, is not only prohibited, but was never possible anyway. As I recounted in Part 1, the Lacanian view, which is informed by observation of infantile behavior, is that the mother-child relationship before castration is not Edenic, but characterized by imaginary transitivity and aggressivity. This is why Lacan quips in Seminar XX that 'there is no such thing as a sexual relationship' and elsewhere that the ‘Woman’, with a capital ‘W’, 'does not exist'. Note then that the deepest logic of castration, according to Lacan, is a profoundly paradoxical one. The 'no!' of the father prohibits something that is impossible. Its very prohibition, however, gives rise in the subject to the fantasmatic supposition that the Thing in question is one that is attainable but only being debarred. Lacan thus asserts that the fundamental fantasy is there to veil from the subject the terminal nature of its loss at castration. This is not simply a speculation, however. It is supported by telling evidences that he adduces. The key point that supports Lacan's position is the stipulation the objet petit is an anamorphotic object. What this means can be seen by looking at even the most well-known exemplar of the Lacanian objet petit a: the 'object gaze'. Contrary to how it is sometimes read, the Lacanian 'gaze' is anything but the intrusive and masterful male gaze on the world. For Lacan, gaze is indeed a "blind spot" in the subject's perception of visible reality, “disturbing its transparent visibility". [Zizek, 1999a: 79] What it bears witness to is the subject's inability to fully frame the objects that appear within his/her field of vision. The classic example of the object-gaze from Lacan's Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis is the floating skull at the feet of Holbein's Ambassadors. What is singular about this 'thing’ is that it can literally only be seen from 'awry', and at the cost that the rest of the picture appears at that moment out of focus. From this point on the canvas, Lacan comments, it is as if the painting regards us. What he means is that the skull reminds us that we, and with us our desires and fantasies, are implicated in how the scene appears. Here then is another meaning to $ <> a: the objet petit a, for Lacan, as something that can only operate its fascination upon individuals who bear a partial perspective upon it, is that object that 're-presents' the subject within the world of objects that it takes itself to be a wholly 'external' perspective upon. If a subject thus happens upon it too directly, it disappears, or else- as in psychosis and the well-known filmic motif of what happens when one encounter one's double- the cost is that one's usual sense of how the rest of the world is must dissipate. What this indicates is that the object petit a, or at least the fascinating effect the object which bears it has upon the subject who is under its thrall, has no 'objective' reality independently of this subject. The logical consequence of this, though, as Lacan stipulates, is that this supposedly 'lost' object can never really have been lost by the subject, since s/he can never have possessed it in the first place. This is why Lacan argues the apparently chimerical position that the objet petit a is by definition an object that has come into being in being lost.
- s4 119-120