Archives for posts with tag: Fantasy

Lacan defines the psychoanalytic concept of the Real as the impossible limit/end of the functioning of a symbolic system. This symbolic system – an imaginary invention of the subject – is the fictional narration of the world that functions precisely in order to prevent the encounter with the Real, the Void of pure senselessness in which (the sense of) individual and collective agency dissipates into absolute nothingness, spiraling in a vortex toward its own impossibility.

From out of this vortex of the Real, the Symbolic arises – for no other reason than that the subject couldn’t otherwise maintain a coherent sense of self – and retroactively posits/imagines the story of its founding. This story might begin with the imaginary act of an individual, or an imaginary cosmological occurence.

To extrapolate outside of the clinical situation, an example of the former might be that the Symbolic order of capitalism relies on the fictional original act of the entrepreneur’s self-determination of his destiny, ‘lifting himself up by his own bootstraps’ (which happens to rely as well on the imaginary notion of the ‘innate’ acquisitiveness of human beings in the ‘state of nature,’ their ‘innate’ desire to compete and to own property, etc.).

An example of the latter might be that the Symbolic orders of Taoism and Buddhism rely on the fictional cosmological occurance of the great rupturing of the original Perfection of the Universe by the human-introduced disturbance of ‘striving’ or ‘desire.’

Of course, the Symbolic as such would disintegrate if its imaginary (i.e., ‘fantasmatic’) support were revealed as nothing more than the subject’s own mental effort to constitute something sensible in the face of brute, material reality.

The Real is thus

the spectral fantasmatic history [that] tells the story of a traumatic event that ‘continues not to take place’ (Lacan, Seminar XX: Encore, New York: Norton, 1998, p. 59), that cannot be inscribed into the very symbolic space it brought about by its intervention….[and], precisely as such, as nonexistent, it continues to persist, that is, its spectral presence continues to haunt the living (Žižek, The Fragile Absolute, London: Verso, 2000, p. 58).

Thus the Real negates not simply some positive feature(s) of the Symbolic, but rather negates the positivity of the Symbolic itself and thus of the subject’s most basic sense of self (consciousness). We can compare the would-be direct confrontation with the Real to the experience – rare indeed – of an individual confronting herself, in an extreme panic attack, for example, as nothing but a mound of flesh (although this is something technically impossible, since logically nothing that is possible could ever see itself as impossible; nothing that is pure flesh could ever “see itself” as pure flesh…).

This experience is also the same as Hegel’s nightmarish ‘night of the world,’ when Spirit confronts itself as nothing more than a bone – when Spirit (human consciousness/thought/belief) recognizes that it really is (not just that it arises from) the simple inert matter of the brain.

The crucial point about this is not simply that the Spirit is nothing but dead matter, but, further, that nevertheless, it is still Spirit: Spirit is “strong enough to assert its identity with the inertia of dead matter and to ‘sublate’ it […] i.e., dead matter, even at its most extreme, cannot escape the Spirit’s power of mediation” (Ibid., from the Preface: xvi). In other words, no part of material reality is left untouched by the additional, imaginary fantasy supplement that we add to it.

So the Symbolic relies on a narrative to describe and understand its present outline, the totality of its positive aspects and its limits. And what this narrativization does is to shield the subject from the Real.

It is crucial to note that this “retroactive fictionalization engages the subject who generated this fiction much more” than the subject’s experience of an actual, traumatic event (Žižek, The Fragile Absolute, 62). Although this trauma would bring the subject to the limits of her understanding – to the limits of the Symbolic – and would haunt her the rest of her life, the traumatic event as such must always be repressed (buried in the unconscious) and filtered through a renewed fundamental fantasy that operates based upon the exclusion of that trauma.

The return of repressed trauma occurs not only for the obvious reason that the trauma has always already determined the limits of the Symbolic; it also appears via repeated disturbances of the smooth functioning of the conscious ego, as the spectre that continues to haunt the subject in its unconscious as a remainder/reminder of this unacknowledged (and unacknowledgeable) ‘violence’ that was the (subject’s) founding gesture of the Symbolic out of the senselessness of the Real – that is, the gesture of creating/imagining meaning and imposing that meaning on inherently meaningless material reality.

This exclusion of the Real occurs in the founding of every Symbolic understanding, whether benevolent or evil: the ghost that haunts the unconscious, the ghost of the traumatic break from the senseless Real into the sense of the Symbolic is thus what has been called a ‘passionate attachment,’ an attachment the subject can never escape and precisely as such must repeatedly – and passionately and violently – disavow in order to continue to function within the horizon of its understanding, an understanding which, again, originates with the subject’s violent exclusion of alternative modes of understanding.

For instance, think of the bizarre phenomenon of the U.S. military’s ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ policy, in which disclosure of one’s sexual orientation is prohibited in order to prevent others’ uncomfortable exposure to the possibility that, yes, as a matter of fact, homosexuality does exist in the military (see Judith Butler, The Psychic Life of Power, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998).

To be clear, the subject never directly encounters the Real (this would be death, or, perhaps, Ego death). Rather, one gets a ‘little piece’ of it, an event or an object which impinges on the Symbolic. Thus, instead of entering the Real, one continuously circles around it, always narrativizing any traumatic excess (e.g., by instituting a law, such as “don’t ask don’t tell”).

The manner in which one circles around the Real is one’s particular symptom (e.g., the symptoms of the neurotic subject, for whom everything must be kept in perfect order and the “impossible” – e.g., homosexuality – must always remain impossible; or the symptoms of the hysteric, who desperately desires to be given any stable position of belonging within a community).

The narrative functions, however, not simply as a shield, but also as a demand: Enjoy! That is, the narrative, by providing an aesthetically appealing/convincing blockade against direct access to the Real, keeps the subject at peace with itself (or rather, with its symbolic identity).


This video provides some interesting commentary, but I think it misses some key points, which I highlight below.

This romantic figure of the untouchable and misunderstood bad-boy is a standard motif. The same ideology plays out in the courtly/chivalric love tradition. The man (here, the vampire boy) posits the woman as his fantasy object that allows him to continue desiring and yet thwarts his every attempt at a “real encounter.” He goes on endless “quests” in her name, fights for her, even dies for her — or, in Bruno Mars’ terms, “catches a grenade” for her… In short, he gives his life meaning by positing her as this mysterious Thing that embodies the impossible combination of enjoyment and frustration, when, of course, she’s actually just a person like everybody else.

In effect, he stops just short of killing her in order to control her as his fantasy-object, to possess a paltry semblance of her actual person; this gives way to the ridiculous (and literal, in this case), movement toward and away from her, the oscillation that in both phases of the movement is really just a way for him to enjoy himself — his love is masturbatory. (Of course, the effect is even more pronounced in the vampire legends because, despite his best intentions, the vampire can’t help but evoke in the woman a strange sense of danger and foreboding, and also of longing and curiosity — this “aura” is a characteristic he possesses as physical feature; even if he tried to conceal his rage behind a veil of a romantic narrative, he couldn’t help but “lie through his teeth,” as it were). At the same time, she gains meaning in her life by being that object which controls his desire; she gets to watch him play out the ridiculous fantasy that he uses to structure his activity, the fantasy frame he’s created as a response to her “inexplicable” beauty. That’s not to say that her subject-position is powerful; on the contrary, the only way that she is allowed to exist in his fantasy world (and in masculinist culture in general), is to assume the position of a displaceable, controllable, empty placeholder for his desire, an objectified “other.”

So it’s not that we all want to have sex with vampires, but rather that they want to have sex with us: vampires are like Bruno Mars-types; they want to keep the woman at a tempting distance so that they can maintain her as a perpetual feed-trough for their desiring selves. The implication, of course, is that the woman has to realize this and not play into the male fantasy. The tragedy is that teen girls (and adults, men and women, whole cultures) buy into this story without questioning its basic premises.

Once she’s gotten into a mutually dependent relationship, then the moment the woman stops acting in accord with the male fantasy, that fantasy falls apart and he will do anything to get her back in that prior objectified state: because his whole life project has been structured around her as that thing which sustains the meaning of his activity (the quest, etc.), he can’t stand to let her go. By leaving him or showing her “real” self, he has gotten too close to the object of his desire and realizes the horrible fact that she is just a human being; she instantly becomes the grotesque Thing that denies him the coherence of his pathetic fantasy: he sees the reality of her freedom from him.

Think about Bruno Mars’ pathetic cry about catching the grenade and doing the other disgusting things to himself: this is simply an inward projection that masks his subdued homicidal rage. He hates her for leaving him, but he can’t kill her, because of course then he wouldn’t have his love-object, so he’ll direct all that rage inward, try to convince the woman (and himself) that his rage is really against himself, try to fit the rage within the framework of the traditional romantic/chivalric love fantasy (“I’ll die for you”), so that he might actually “win” her back.

The makers of the video above have some interesting thoughts on this, but the fact is that the anxieties of puberty or environmental catastrophe are purely circumstantial; these are contingent factors that don’t get at the real crux of the matter as I’ve outlined it above.

These are the basic coordinates of human desire; nothing new here. Maybe, then, we should consider Twilight a work of non-fiction; fictional fantasy (courtly love is just one example) is the reality that we live with every day, and it takes a hell of a lot of work to break out of it, to “traverse the fantasy,” as Lacan says.

In other words, reality is virtual. For more on this, please enjoy the following video lecture by Slavoj Zizek:

Consider this: if you replaced the panda with a business executive in a suit — the capitalist par excellence — it would totally shatter the symbolic functioning of the advertisement; this intrusion would rupture the commercial’s marketing force. The capitalist ideology at work here would collapse under its own weight once we realize the horrible fact that an ambiguous panda is the only thing standing in the way of our seeing the true violence of capitalism; in other words, if we just disambiguate the absurdly comical panda-figure, then we see that we’re actually always suffering violence done by real people, not by imaginary pandas, as the commercial wants us to believe. Indeed, it’s almost ridiculous how easy it is to disintegrate the ideological functioning here: replace the panda and the whole thing turns into a horrible farce. Destroying the “panda” — the core of the fantasy — is the way to dissolve capitalist ideology in this case: the panda is the sublime object, the mask that sustains an ideological fantasy as if to say capitalism really is this innocuous.

To understand this, we have to see that the panda-figure is so enigmatic, so bizarre, that it keeps you searching for a reason why it’s there, a reason for what it’s doing. The point not to be missed is that sustaining your curiosity is precisely the function of the panda: it absorbs your attention so as to obfuscate, to mystify, what would otherwise — if it were a human being — be a strikingly obvious case of brutal violence, akin to the work of an SS or KGB operative. So think of it in the following way: if a human did these same things, the commercial would inspire not laughter, but horror. This horrible violence is what’s really happening every day. It’s no coincidence that we say we’re “bombarded” with advertisements, pushed more and more to buy, to consume, to enjoy.

But it would be too traumatic if a human being played the role of the panda, violently imploring you to buy, eat, and enjoy the cheese. And that is why, in all seriousness, the panda represents the crucial pivot point or “crux” of ideology today, the enigmatic figure which traps the imagination in a closed loop of fantasy; the panda deflects our critical gaze – fully operative, of course, in the case that a business executive played the part – reflecting it back to us, distracting the critic and getting the critical view out of the way so that we can feel comfortable enough to respond in laughter, effectively sustaining the ideology.

The truly grotesque thing about this commercial, however, is the hideous blank stare that the panda directs toward its ‘victims.’ It doesn’t even speak; it just acts. So there are two things at work in this character: (1) its plain absurdity, the ridiculous spectacle of a panda being there at all, and (2) its sublime character: its stare captures the look of its viewers, draws the consumer in (it gazes into us), standing in for the hole in the symbolic understanding, Lacan’s object a, the result being a perpetual non-satisfaction of our curiosity, an irresolution of the question ‘What the hell is this thing, and what is it doing here?’. Once the gaze is captured, the panda suddenly acts, violently breaking the rules. But this should not stop us from seeing the more insidious ideological point of this rule breaking: the panda figure is made all the more absurd – all the more laughable (enjoyable) – by its rule-breaking: it’s just that much easier to deny what’s actually going on here, to say to oneself “that is such an absurd thing that the whole point of this commercial must be some farfetched joke, there’s not really consumerism/capitalism playing itself out here.” Thus the viewer finds it all the more believable that this couldn’t possibly represent anything other than a fantasy, couldn’t reveal something about the functioning of a social system, of capitalism (and capitalist ideology) itself. At least, this is the advertisers’ wager.

The violence in the commercial is thus senseless on two levels: first, of course, the violence is totally unnecessary, and, second, it’s not clear what on earth the panda’s motivation would be, or if this would-be animal, which we’d normally distinguish from human beings for its lack of conscious intentionality, could even have a motive at all. And therein lies the danger. For once we fail to determine a motive, we have given up the critique; only if we can figure out the underlying cause can we reveal the workings of the system itself. This is why comedy, with its absurd figures, can be so subversive: it temporarily suspends our judgment, postpones it from reaching its “target.” With figures like the panda as its mascots, capitalism, and other ideologies, thus thwarts anyone who wants to get at the true language of ideology.

So if we laugh at this commercial, then ideology is functioning flawlessly. If, on the other hand, we come away confused, then, although we haven’t “bought into” the joke, we have still failed to puncture the horrible thing going on here, to resolve the ambiguity. In effect, unless we penetrate this commercial with a critical gaze, the ideological schema remains in tact, we walk away puzzled or apathetic.

Further, I’d assert that when the capitalist puts on the ‘mask’ of the panda, we feel that we are somehow more free in our decision to obey the command and to buy the cheese, because, after all, it’s just a panda… We might even think that because we can laugh at it, we have command over it, we “get” the joke, understand it, and thus maintain a dominant position of anxiety-free knowledge with respect to the otherwise potentially threatening ideological injunction: it is much easier, and much more gratifying, to confront the agent of capitalism in panda form, than to confront it in human form.

Here, a major problem is that while individuals today feel relatively autonomous, thanks to modern democracy, liberated from the violence of an outside force, of a religious, military, or cultural imposition, they nevertheless submit to the demands of the supposedly “benevolent” authority of the absurdly comic figure, whether this figure is a panda, or a self-deprecating idiot, or a silly spokesperson with strange quirks (see examples 1 and 2).

We should see in all of these commercial figures a strict equivalence to the kind of ideological activity that happens in the political realm: political leaders such as Berlusconi maintain their charisma and power not by following and administering the letter of the law, but rather by openly admitting that they break the law, so as to stand at an ironic distance to their actions; they do not deny responsibility, but rather make a much more subversive move: in their overt hypocrisy they deny that the notion of responsibility is itself important. So what we should see in the comic character of the panda here is that capitalist ideology has managed to convince the consumer that capitalism, after all, is just a game, shouldn’t be taken too seriously; the message is that, because capitalism is “the best we can do,” we might as well laugh, might as well stand at an ironic distance from our activities in the market, might as well enjoy the product and ignore the system that created it.

And this is, to be precise, the same mark of a smug self-assurance that says “things are under control.” It is an attitude that pervades yuppie culture, from the “life is good” brand, to other obsessions with reducing anxiety, from Zen Buddhism and yoga all the way down to smoking pot and partying non-stop.

Ideological critique is that which seeks to identify the symbolic operations that sustain an ideology, and these objects are harder and harder to find today, because they are cloaked in the mask of an innocuous, absurd joke. But luckily for the critic, the ideological coordinates of this commercial are rather simple. Most people probably have an automatically averse reaction to something in this commercial anyway; it is vulnerable from the start because of the panda’s senseless violence, which I expect many people do find unsettling. And, again, all we have to do as critics in this case is to replace the panda with the true agent of capitalism, the banal (and for that reason all the more terrifying) human being, in order to get at the point. We should thus see this as an incredibly clear illustration of our theoretical concepts.

Here’s some of the lyrics:

I’m on the pursuit of happiness and I know everything that shine ain’t always gonna be gold, hey
I’ll be fine once I get it, I’ll be good

Tell me what you know about dreamin’, dreamin’
You don’t really know about nothin’, nothin’
Tell me what you know about them night terrors every night
5 am cold sweats wakin’ up to the skies
Tell me what you know about dreams, dreams
Tell me what you know about night terrors, nothin’
You don’t really care about the trials of tomorrow
Rather lay awake in a path full of sorrow

Night terrors?… What a strange thing to include in this otherwise rather predictable set of lyrics!

Now, we could read in this the standard, repugnant, narcissist script: ‘woe is me, there is no happiness after all in this life of wealth and fame…’ Or we could think of it in another basic way: ‘you don’t really know about the trials of tomorrow…’ — most people don’t actually concern themselves with serious problems, with real stressors; rather than assume a more mature, responsible, etc., stance towards their activities, combining enthusiasm with sobriety, desire with commitment, most people are more interested in simply taking no stance at all, and partying instead. These are essentially two kinds of narcissism.

But isn’t there something more here? If we look deeper into the lyrics, maybe we can uncover something more interesting. Why the emphasis on dreams? Surely it’s unnecessary to talk about ‘night terrors,’ waking in a cold sweat, etc., if the message is so straightforward. Or is it?

I think the interesting thing about Kid Cudi’s decision to include these specifics – regardless of the other merits of the song, or of his actual intentions – is that it gets inside the experience of the person who wants to make this critique against society but is not able to, whose desire to say something against the normal run of things is so brutally suppressed – by the superego (societal) injunction to enjoy – that it can only show up in dreams, in night terrors, outside the party. That is to say, in the music video we see Kid Cudi in a kind of withdrawn malaise, unable to ‘fit right in’ in the current circumstance, unable to enjoy. And while that would be clearly discernible without the extra part about night terrors, this is precisely the way it illustrates the violence done by the superego. It is not enough simply to look at Kid Cudi’s face in this video, at his withdrawn state. Rather, we should look ‘behind the scenes,’ to the situation of the subject outside the party, the experience which must be renounced upon entering the party scene as an unwritten rule. This is where we get at what is ‘disavowed’ by the normal run of things, by the party scene, the bit of experience immediately excluded from discussion.

Indeed, if he had excluded the talk about dreams, about his personal experience away from the party, then it might simply have been about what we see in the video, namely his own ambiguity set against the social scene; it would be reduced to a unique psychological problem, a matter of fitting in, perhaps of immaturity, rather than a problem constitutive of society.

Thus the night terrors provide the crucial explanatory supplement we need. With these notes in hand, we see the ‘remains’ of the symbolic order. What remains after the assimilation of psyche into society, the distillation of the full potential of social relations into a relatively scripted, standard set of norms, is the reminder of the excess experience which the superego’s injunction to enjoy has automatically foreclosed. In short, we see manifest as night terrors that which is always already excluded from the normal run of things, that which suffers as the ‘part of no part,’ which never actually reaches visibility. Thus we now know the coordinates of the visible display (the party) as they show up against the backdrop of the invisible Real, of which we catch a vanishing glimpse through the lens of the anti-party, no-fun, inexplicable/non-symbolizable/indescribable night terrors.

The night terrors, then, get at the unconscious, at the trauma which is always constitutive of the socio-symbolic order, but which never sees its expression ‘in broad daylight,’ so to speak. They get at the workings of the symbolic which are inscribed in the subject without its even knowing it.

But, these terrifying experiences also simultaneously represent the fault of the symbolic to maintain itself in perfection. They demonstrate, precisely, the power of the subject in the symbolic space: because the symbolic only functions at the level of the particular, at the level of articulation — because the ‘ideal’ or ‘sublime’ object of a particular socio-ideological constellation depends upon its concrete instances, on the ‘messy’ reality of subjects who couldn’t ever fit this ideal prescription exactly, the symbolic itself is vulnerable to its subjects; the norm fails at precisely that moment of actual experience, when something terrible erupts inexplicably.

To go back to the party: Kid Cudi’s strange, melancholic fascination/preoccupation with something in the distance, his sense that something is ‘out of reach’ — this is the haunting presence of the excess desire that the party can’t quell, and which we see dramatically revealed in the night terrors. Indeed, this fascination with something potentially more satisfying than the party… this is a sign that desire is functioning as it should: the ideal of enjoyment, of the party which purportedly should be the ‘real deal,’ should be it, the consummate experience of happiness… this ideological injunction to enjoy always fails at the point of articulation of some subject whose experience it presumes to describe a priori.

And this is freedom today. We have the freedom, as Zizek says, not to enjoy. We are free to want more, to continue indefinitely this “pursuit of happiness,” but not to finish it. The point of psychoanalysis is to deconstruct the way the subject relates to its desire, the way it relates to this pursuit. Kid Cudi frames his pursuit of happiness as something ultimately for nought, but his mistake is to think that nevertheless he might really get it someday. He continues to wonder if he’ll ever actually reach it, if it’s really out there, that ultimate experience. By contrast, the psychoanalytic point is that desire as such has no actual object; it cannot be consummated.

Thus psychoanalysis tells a story about how to live ironically. Its goal is to get the subject to see that, whatever the “ultimate” experience is, it is a figment of the subject’s imagination, a fantasy. Kid Cudi’s mistake, then, is to worry that something strange is holding back his enjoyment. He thinks that the night terrors are spoiling his fun, that anxiety has prevented him from reaching the object of his desire… What he doesn’t realize is that there never was an actual object, that desire has no destination. The solution is to keep on desiring, keep on fantasizing, but to come to grips with the fact that there is no one but yourself who can determine the limits of your fantasy. No one but you can set out that phantasmic object as an inspiration for your desire; there is no end, only a new beginning.