How to read Lacan: Zizek on Lacan – Part 3. From Che vuoi? To Fantasy: Lacan with eyes wide shut.

This is a follow on post from a previous one that you can read here.

It is important to note, that this is not my own work. This is merely a condensing and simplifying of  How to Read Lacan by Slavoj Zizek (Author), Simon Critchley (Series Editor) that can be purchased here.

And why the Other with a capital O? For a no doubt mad reason, in the same way as it is madness every time we are obliged to bring in signs supplementary to those given by language. Here the mad reason is the following.  You are my wife – after all, what do you know about it? You are my master – in reality, are you so sure of that? What creates the founding value of those words is that what is aimed at in the message, as well as what is manifest in the pretence, is that the Other is there qua absolute Other. Absolute, that is to say he is recognized, but is not known.  In the same way, what constitutes pretence is that, in the end, you don’t know whether it’s a pretence or not.  Essentially it is this unknown element in the alterity of the other which characterizes the speech relation on the level on which it is spoken to the other.

The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book 3:  The Psychoses, London: Routeledge 1981

This is a bit of a surprise from Lacan at the initial observation, because it equates the big Other with the impenetrability of another subject beyond the wall of language. This puts us at the opposite end of the image Lacan presence of the big Other. The implication here is that this subject only exists in its speaking, without knowing that all it is ‘speaking’. The next question is naturally, then – what IS the big Other? Is it the anonymous mechanism of the symbolic order or is it a subject from whom I am forever separated by this wall of language? We are left with knowing that there is a central mystery around the big Other. That is, the big Other, the anonymous symbolic order, at some point, is subjectivised.

Lets look at an example to try to clear this up. God is the classic big Other, a subject beyond all subjects. Another good example is the way we speak of History ‘asking something of us’, or our Cause ‘calling us to sacrifice.’ In other words, this is an impenetrable being that has a voice. The next terrifying question is, of course – what does this great being want from us? For Lacan, the answer to this is in every human being.

Lacan states that desire is structured by the decentred big Other, the symbolic order.  That is, what I desires is structured within the symbolic space within which I dwell. Even when my desires are transgressive, even when the violate social norms, this very transgression relies on what it transgresses.  Paul talks about this in the book of Romans in the New Testament. he describes how the law gives rise to the desire to violate it.

And yet there is also another meaning in the meaning of ‘man’s desire is the Other’s desire’.  The subject desires only in so far as it experiences the Other itself as desiring, as the site of an unfathomable desire, as if an opaque desire is emanating from him or her. Not only does the other address me with enigmatic desire, but it also confronts me with the ambiguity of my own desire – that fact that I am not completely sure of what I desire.

Lacan follows Freud in this deep problem of desire. They both cite a full expression of it in Judaism. It is in the injunction to love your neighbour as yourself.  For both Freud and Lacan, this is deeply problematic because it addresses the fact that I see myself in the other  – my mirror image with whom I can empathize – while at the same time incorporating radical Otherness of one about whom I know I finally know nothing.  Can I really rely on him?  Who is he? How can I be sure his words are not mere pretence? Unlike the new age idea (tha comes from Jung) that states the other is a series of projections from me, this other interpretation opens up the fact of the alienation between myself and the other – my neighbour remains an inert, impenetrable, enigmatic, presence that hystericizes me. The core of this presence is the neighbours desire – an enigma not only for us, but for them as well. This is why Lacan’s question is not simply ‘what do you want?’ but rather ‘What’s bugging you?’ ‘What is it in you that makes you so unbearable not only for us, but also for yourself, that you yourself obviously do not control?’

We are left with the monstrosity of the neighbour. An impenetrable creature whose desire we know is a mystery to us and them and out of their control.  Freud calls it, the ultimate object of our desires in its unbearable intensity and impenetrability. This is more like a slice of horror fiction than a new age pleasure principle.  The neighbour is the (evil) Thing that potentially lurks beneath every human face.  Think about Steven Kings The Shining.  We have a father who turns into a killing beast and turns on his family. Judaism is trying to regulate our connection with the other. That is why love thy neighbour as thyself is an instruction to hold them carefully, be aware of what you have there, and treat it very carefully.

This is what Rilke meant when he wrote in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge:

There exists a creature that is perfectly harmless; when it passes before your eyes, you hardly notice it and immediately forget it again.  But as soon as it somehow, invisably gets into your ears, it begins to develop, it hatches, and cases have been known where it has penetrated into the brain and flourished there devastatingly, like the pneumoccocci in dogs which gain entrance through the nose… This creature is Your Neighbour.

It is for this reason that finding oneself in the position of the beloved is so violent a discovery, even traumatic: being loved makes me feel directly the gap between what I am as a determinate being and the unfathomable X in me that causes love. Lacan’s definition of love: ‘Love is giving something one doesn’t have.’  Now we have to add to this ‘…to someone who doesn’t want it.’ The perfect example of this is the very first time a person – no matter how beloved – declares their love for you, there is a distinct feeling that something is being imposed upon us, as if we are being intruded upon. it’s not that we don’t want the person, and it’s not that we don’t crave carnal contact, it’s just that dealing with being the object of desire is so conflicting. One asks, what right do you have to stir up my desire?

This is what Lacan means when he says we are bestowing ‘founding words’ which are statements that confer title onto a person and make him or her what they are proclaimed to be. You are my wife. You are my husband. It is an attempt to claim a certitude in the act of speaking. The same things happens when we close a meeting with the statement ‘this meeting is closed.’

However, Lacan means something even more than this.  Performatives are, at their most fundamental, acts of symbolic trust and engagement.  To say ‘you are my master’ I am therefore obliged to treat that person in a very specific way. However, that statement obliges him to treat me in a very specific way also. Lacan’s point is that we need this recourse to performative, to the symbolic engagement, precisely  and only ion so far as the other whom we confront is not only my mirror double – someone like me – but also the elusive absolute Other who ultimately remains an unfathomable mystery. The main function of the symbolic order with its laws and obligations is to render our co existence with others minimally bearable:  a Third has to step in between me and my neighbours so that our relationships do not explode into murderous violence. Lacan advocates an ethics that fearlessly stands up to the latent monstrosity of being human.

How are we to avoid the traumatic impact of being too directly exposed to this terrifying abyss of the Other?  How are we to cope with that hazardous encounter with the Other’s desire?  For Lacan, part of this answer lies in fantasy.

The first thing to note about fantasy is it literally teaches us how to desire. Fantasy does not mean when i want a chocolate in real life and can’t get one I fantasize about eating one. Rather the problem is, how do I know I desire the chocolate in the first place? This is what fantasy tells me. This role of fantasy hinges on the deadlock in our sexuality.  Lacan says:

‘ There is no sexual relationship – there is no universal guarantee of a harmonious sexual relationship with one’s partner.  Every subject has to invent a fantasy of his or her own, a ‘private’ formula for the sexual relationship – the relationship with a woman is possibly only inasmuch as the partner adheres to this formula.’

Whether you have created it deliberately for yourself, or it is in you by default, every man and woman has this fantasy trigger or ‘factor’. This is of course a horrifying thing, because it reduces the other to a puppet like creature that can easily be controlled.

However, the thing to remember is that it is the others desire. The desires staged in fantasy is the others desire and not your own. Fantasy is the answer to ‘You’re saying this, but what is it that you actually want by saying it?’ The question of desire is not ‘what do I want’ but ‘what do others want from me?’  A small child who wants a cake is relating that cake to the pleasure her parents take when they can smile and ‘watch her enjoying it.’ In other words, she has become the object of their desire.

Since sexuality is the domain in which we get closest to the intimacy of another human being, totally exposing ourselves to him or her, sexual enjoyment is real for Lacan: something traumatic in its breathtaking intensity , yet impossible in the sense that we cannot ever make sense of it. This is why sexual relation, in order to function, has to be screened through some fantasy.

Film does this all the time. Real sex is masked by metaphor.  Even in porn, when the sexual act begins, music starts up in order to provide us with some relief from the intensity of the sexual act – certainly emotions are absent to provide that relief. In film you will often see sex accompanied by waterfalls, some sort or natural beauty – signifiers that stand between us and the desperate real of the sexual act. Interestingly, psychoanalysis gets accused of being obsessed with sex, yet here we see evidence of the contrary – real sex, in order to be palatable must be filtered through the screen of some sort of fantasy. When I was a young bride, I felt that a happily married couple had regular sex. Therefore, I made sure we had regular sex. This fantasy was the way I was able to organise and cope with the intensity of the sexual connection. (whether you are using Mills and Boon or pornography, it is all fantasy designed to provide the same relief)

What, then, is fantasy at its most elementary? The scandal of fantasy resides in the fact that it subvert the standard opposition of ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’; of course fantasy is by definition not objective (as if it were independent of the subject) however it is also not subjective (something that belongs completely to the subjects consciously experienced intuitions).  Fantasy rather belongs to the ‘bizarre category’ of the objectively subjective – the way things actually, objectively seem to you even if they don’t seem that way to you.  For example when someone is so nice to the foreigners in their street that you start to suspect they may secretly be harbouring guilt over their real feelings of hatred.

Lacan’s claim is very unsettling:

I am deprived of even my most intimate subjective experience, the way things ‘really seem to me’ deprived of the fundamental fantasy that constitutes and guarantees the core of my being, since I can never consciously experience it and assume it.

A good example of what Lacan is saying here, is if your feelings of love are defined in a chemical abstract by a biochemist. You are entitled to say, what you say might be rue, but nothing can take away the passion I am experiencing right now.

However, Lacan’s point is that the psychoanalyst is the one who precisely CAN take this away from the subject. The analysts ultimate aim is to deprive the subject of the very fundamental fantasy that regulates the universe of his (self-)expereince.  For Freud, the subconscious only emerges when the subjects ultimate fantasy is revealed to him.  So, in contrast to the idea of dealing with an ‘inner life’ one should claim that what characterizes human subjectivity at its most elemental becomes inaccessible for the subject. It is this inaccessibility that makes the subject ’empty’ as Lacan puts it.

This brings us to a further crucial complication. If what we experience as ‘reality’ is structured by fantasy, and if fantasy serves as the screen that protects us from being directly overwhelmed by the raw Real, then reality itself can function as an escape from encountering the real. In the opposition between dream and reality, fantasy is on the side of reality, and it is in dreams we encounter the traumatic Real – it is not that dreams are for those who cannot endure reality, reality itself is for those who cannot endure their dreams.   An example of this is, say, a father who is keeping watch over his son in bed. He falls asleep and starts to dream.  In his dream he dreams of his child burning and the child says to him, why won’t you help me?  When the man wakes, he wakes to find his sons bed is actually burning and he is able to save his son. What woke him?  It was being unable to confront the reality posed to him in his dream that woke him to the realisation he had to help his son. The dream fantasy was constructed from the real (smoke disturbing his sleep) in order to prolong sleep, but then the dream became so real, that he wakes from it in order to avoid the real.

In Stanley Kubricks Eyes Wide Shut  remember the ending. After Tom Cruise confesses his nights adventure to Nicole Kidman and they are both confronted with the excesses of their fantazising, Kidman – upon ascertaining that they are now fully awake , back into day, and that if not forever at least for a long time they should stay there keeping the fantasy at bay – tells him that they must do something as soon as possible. ‘What?’ e asks, and her answer is ‘Fuck.’ The nature of the passage to the act as the false exist, the way to avoid confronting the horror of the phantasmic netherworld – the passage to the act is presented as a stop-gap, as a desperate preventative measure aimed at keeping at bay the spectral netherworld of fantasies. It’s as if what she is really saying is: “let’s fuck right now, and then we can stifle our teeming fantasies before they overwhelm us again.”

For Lacan the ultimate ethical task is that of the true awakening: not only from sleep, but from the spell of fantasy that controls us even more when we are awake.