Fantasy, Formula of

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In his early seminars, especially Object Relations (1956-57), Jacques Lacan primarily conceived of fantasy as deriving from psychic projection that screened a more painful image. He compared it to a freeze-frame, where an immobile image is often used to conceal the traumatic image that will come next. Thus he first conceived of fantasy as a defensive structure designed to protect against the perception of "lack" in the maternal other, thus of castration. A study of the different forms of the fantasmatic defense allow for a better understanding of psychical structures.

Following leads found in Freud's writingsespecially "The Wolf Man" (1918b [1914]) and "A Child is Being Beaten" (1919e)Lacan questioned the relation between the fantasy and fixation on perceptual traces. He also addressed the larger question of memory. He determined that fantasy need not be radically opposed to memory. Instead, he suggested that fantasy might rework memory depending on the pressure of unconscious desire and the defensive strategies of the subject. Thus Lacan stressed that fantasy fundamentally worked to transform memories of real events.

In particular, he emphasized that the subject is always represented in fantasy, as in the dream, in a more or less obvious way. In fact, the fantasy stages a certain relation and mode of interaction between the subject and the object of desire. Thus conceived, fantasy is a complex structure, a kind of scenario, as opposed to the simple hallucination of an object. Lacan proposed a general formula for it: S̷ a. Here the diamond, , formalizes the specific relation that the subject of the unconscious, S̷, which is "divided" by its relation to the realm of signifiers, maintains with the object "little a," the "lost" object, the "detached" remainder of the first operation of symbolization by the parental other. The famous list of Freudian "detachable" objects (breast, feces, penis, baby), to which Lacan added the voice, the gaze, and the phoneme, all constitute object-causes of desire (objects a ) that are not representable as such. The subject will spend all his or her life searching for various imaginary and concrete intermediary objects to take their place in the realization of desire.

In April 1961, in his seminar on the Transference, Lacan tried to define the various types of fantasies: The hysteric aspires to a master. The obsessional's fantasy involves an indefinite metonymic substitution. And the pervert's fantasy seeks to radicalize the subject/other split, so that it can be enjoyed; this fantasy tends to take the form aS̷.

In his fundamental text, "The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire in the Freudian Unconscious" (1960), Lacan tried to place fantasy in the genesis of the psychic apparatus by locating it within his "graph of desire." The major difficulty here is that the object of the drive, the object of physiological need, and the object of narcissistic love/hate maintain with each other a relation of fundamental and irreducible heterogeneity.

For Lacan, the psychoanalytic treatment must locate the subject's more or less unconscious "fundamental fantasy." At the same time the subject's particular mode of enjoyment is exposed, and freed as much as possible from the desire of the Other, in relation to which the fantasy is always a compromise formation. The objective of any treatment is always to produce a change in the subject's defensive processes, to remove obstacles in order to allow the subject access to his or her own enjoyment.

Lacan fully recognized the power of the image in fantasy, but he insisted on the fact that its functional value derives from the place that it comes to occupy in the larger symbolic structure. In other words, its value derives from the fact that the image in question (a representation of something unconscious) must be able to play its role as a signifier. On this point, Lacan launched an unceasing attack on (primarily Kleinian) currents in psychoanalysis that tended to consider the fantasy as a production of images that were assumed to be symbols in their own right. He devoted an entire year of his seminar (The Logic of Fantasy, 1966-67) to unraveling the theoretical implications of the inscription of fantasy in the unconscious signifying structure. Most notably, he insisted that fantasy would perform the essential function of "knotting" the psychical registers of the symbolic, the imaginary, and the realand thus of constituting what Freud called "psychic reality."

Bernard Penot

See also: Fantasy.


Lacan, Jacques. (1991). Le Séminaire-Livre VIII, Le Transfert. (1960-61). Paris: Seuil.

. 1994. Le Séminaire-Livre IV, La Relation d'objet. (1956-57). Paris: Seuil.

. (2002).Écrits: A selection. (Bruce Fink, Trans.). New York: W. W. Norton.

. Unpublished. Le Séminaire-Livre XIV, La Logic du fantasme. (1966-1967).