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 (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 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.
Therefore the change in Freud's ideas in 1897 does not imply a rejection 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 fantasized scene may be conscious or unconscious. When unconscious, the analyst must reconstruct it on the basis of other clues.
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 fantasy is thus characterized by a fixed and immobile quality.
Defence and Clinical Structure
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. This concept is at the root both of Lacan's idea of fantasy and 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 formalizes in the matheme ($ <> 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?) 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 formalized as a <> $.
Fantasy of the Hysteric and Obsessional Neurotic
Although the matheme (S <> 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. 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.
Fantasy and the Subject
These unique features express the subject's particular mode of jouissance 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, and "that by which the subject sustains himself at the level of his vanishing desire."
Lacan holds that beyond all the myriad images which appear in dreams and elsewhere there is always one "fundamental fantasy" which is unconscious. 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." In other words, the treatment must produce some modification of the subject's fundamental mode of defence, some alteration in his mode of jouissance.
Image and Symbolic Structure
Although Lacan recognizes 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."
In the work of Slavoj Žižek
Like many of Žižek’s foundational theories, fantasy derives from the psychoanalytic work of Freud and Lacan. For Freud, fantasy emerged in his 1897 discovery that memories of seduction may be the result of fantasy as opposed to actual sexual violence. In common parlance, fantasy denotes a separation from reality, a construction that is fictional and therefore opposed to reality. Freud’s discovery, though, challenges this widespread understanding. For psychoanalysis, reality is problematic when it is assumed that it distinguishes authentic or unmediated experience for the subject. Reality is more properly understood as a way of perceiving that is already stained by the human subject’s desire. Therefore, reality is already a subjective process mediated by desire and constructed discursively. Fantasy, then, acts as a scene that stages desire in the imagination of the subject. For this reason, Lacan states in his fourteenth seminar, The Logic of Fantasy: “Desire is the essence of reality” (SXIV: 6). The principal point for Lacan, here, is that fantasy is the setting for desire where fantasy provides the matrix through which subjects begin to desire.
For Žižek, fantasy is not an exercise in fulfilment, contentment or satisfaction. Instead, it provides a scene for a privileged yet arbitrary object that embodies the force of desire. The foundational premise of fantasy in this rendering lies in the claim that desire is not something that is given; rather, it is assembled. Therefore, fantasy acts as a structure that provides the coordinates for a subject’s desire. That is, fantasy provides the idea of a privileged object that desire fixates on in order to provide the subject with its position in relation to it. This privileged object acts as the objet petit a or object-cause of desire. This object structures the subject’s experience of the world in so far as this object is taken as more than its material property. The object that consumes desire and therefore occupies the fantasy of the subject must first fall prey to the illusion that it is more than its pragmatic material. The object is marked by this structure as being more than its materiality, as being endowed with the promise to satisfy the desire that necessitates it. Thus, fantasy acts as the mode whereby the subject learns to desire because through fantasy the subject is situated as desiring.
The role fantasy plays is twofold: universal and particular. Fantasy is a universal structure that indexes, points or directs our desire towards a physical manifestation that occupies desire. Yet, what is particular to each and every subject is the way fantasy structures the relation to the trauma of lack predicated by desire. This constitutive lack that the privileged object promises to fulfil acts as a screen that orients each fantasy, which in turn supports desire in order to shield the subject from the trauma of lack itself. In this way, fantasy bestows reality with a fictional coherence and consistency that appears to fulfil the lack that constitutes social reality. Hence, Žižek’s foremost contribution to this long-theorized notion lies in showing how fantasy serves as a political structure. He reveals how fantasy can fill in ideological gaps and provide access to obscene jouissance, and he contends that a failure to explicate the essence of political beliefs does not imply any failure in the hold these beliefs have over us. Instead, political ideologies serve to give subjects a means of envisioning the world in which such a failure emerges as evidence as to how transcendent is their particular ideology. Fantasy serves politics precisely in that each political group must recognize its point of view as manifested in the extrapolitical fantasy objects customary within that specific nation, culture or religion. If not, these groups must displace the sitting ideologies’ fantasy objects with their chosen manifestations. Consequently, for Žižek, fantasy goes beyond the usual symbolic coordinates, so that traversing the fantasy does not mean getting rid of the fantasy but being even more taken up by it.
Fantasy, therefore, acts as a way for the subject to envisage a way out of the dissatisfaction produced by the demands of social reality through these objects or ideas (e.g. freedom, brotherhood, the Church). In this sense, fantasy is a psychological structure that manifests itself in a phenomenological form. And, while fantasy might not provide us with the object itself, it can provide something of equal consequence: the scene of attaining the privileged object that renders attainment as a possibility. Fantasy organizes and domesticates the jouissance that provides the framework through which we experience reality; therefore, this structure – and the arbitrary object that animates it – acts as a defence against the traumatic loss of jouissance that occurs through entering the symbolic order. In turn, fantasy can surface in a more evident socio-symbolic way in which it assuages unrest by depoliticizing the social body for the purposes of accepting a ruling ideology. Fantasy thus serves as a way to distract, even encourage, the social body from directly engaging with the dissatisfaction of lack. Although lack is constitutive of every human subject, the political advocacy of a social body can help organize a society better to manage dissatisfaction as a by-product of the demands of that social reality. Therefore, fantasy acts as a way to fracture political unity by focusing attention on individual satisfaction imagined to be the promise of a unique privileged object.
Because fantasy offers the promise of satisfaction as part of a privileged object, we understand this object as being apart from our self. Enjoyment derived from this fantasy image is therefore projected onto the Other. As a path to repress the idea of a non-lacking subject, the subject we fantasize and therefore imagine as a possibility, we project onto the Other the enjoyment we lack. Žižek argues that this places the subject in a position of understanding the Other obtaining enjoyment at our expense. Because we are able to fantasize an impossible enjoyment, we also misattribute this impossibility to an Other that seems to enjoy in a way we cannot experience but only imagine. Since fantasy provides us with the coordinates to domesticate our desire, in order to fulfil lack we rarely attribute lack as an experience beyond our self. The distinction between our own lack of impossible enjoyment and the non-lacking status of the Other opens the possibility of a violence predicated on destroying the enjoyment we fantasize this Other to possess at our expense. The logic of fantasy in relation to lack suggests that, if I am lacking, it is because some other nefarious figure has stolen it, and thus the lack of lack, as it were, becomes an object of possession under capitalism. This rendering is consistent with Žižek’s assertion that fantasy leads to all varieties of discrimination: racism, sexism, ageism and homophobia, among others. Th is non-lacking status takes the form of a person or thing we understand through cultural myth or capitalist ideology.
Consequently, fantasy offers us the illusion that the object we pursue will assuage the discomfort of lack. In this formulation, desire is separated from drive because it privileges the object of our fantasy that presents itself as the cure for lack. Desire, in this case, predicates its function on the attainment of the object of our fantasies, while drive reaches satisfaction through the continual pursuit of this object. That is, drive functions through the repetition of this cycle whereas desire places faith in the redeeming quality of the object. The privileged object of our desire and the fantasy that supports it act in two ways: (a) as the site where the human subject invests in the hope for an enjoyment (jouissance) that will return the subject to a non-lacking state, which allows each human subject to tolerate this status; and (b) as a fantasmatic, and thus arbitrary, promise of a non-lacking status that does not exist, which replaces a partial and obtainable enjoyment by holding out the idea of a total enjoyment that it ultimately cannot produce or guarantee. Desire constantly moves forwards from object to object because each new instantiation of our fantasy fails to provide the satisfaction the human subject believes it will provide. In this sense, fantasy remains the same, but our desire forces us to continue the search for the impossible owing to the inherent failure each object represents. Because the subject does not lack an experiential object, lack is misattributed as a negative category that can be overcome by addition.
- "Fantasy" is spelt "phantasy" in the Standard Edition.
- Freud, Sigmund. "A Child Is Being Beaten," 1919e. SE XVII, 177.
- Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre IV. La relation d'objet, 19566-57. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. pp. 119-120
- Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 313
- Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. p. 774
- Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre VIII. Le transfert, 1960-61. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p. 295
- Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book XI. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 1964. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Hogarth Press and Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1977. p. 185; Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. p. 780
- Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 272
- Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre VIII. Le transfert, 1960-61. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p. 127
- Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book XI. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 1964. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Hogarth Press and Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1977. p. 273
- Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 272