Sinthome over at Larval Subjects has been engaged in an extended series of reflections on fantasy, desire and the orientation to political practice. Since I have only the most passing exposure to the tradition from which Sinthome writes, the chances of my misunderstanding the aim of these posts is somewhat high – nevertheless, I thought I’d pick up on a few of my associations while reading, without making a strong claim that these associations necessarily reflect accurately on the underlying text… For purposes of this post, I’ll focus on the first entry in this series – I may be able to discuss the others at a later time.
Sinthome begins by distinguishing two understandings of the relationship between “fantasy” and “desire”. One understanding, which Sinthome rejects, posits desire to be somehow anterior to fantasy – an understanding that drives an ontological wedge between desire and its manifestation in fantasy, and that risks the perception that desire is more “real” or more “natural” than the “artificial” or “arbitrary” fantasy in which it happens to become manifest. The other, which Sinthome presents as characteristic of Lacanian thought, sees desire and its mode of expression in fantasy as intrinsically and necessarily connected: desire is a substance that is always already embedded in some specific mode of appearance in fantasy, and therefore cannot meaningfully distilled out and considered as separately existing entity. And yet, at the same time, desire is promiscuous, mobile, restless – it must have an embodiment in some determinate fantasy and cannot exist outside of such an embodiment, but any particular embodiment is contingent and dispensable. Desire itself therefore has no intrinsic endpoint, but fantasy serves, at least temporarily, to channel desire toward particular ends.
Sinthome then moves to what I would describe (probably oversimplistically) as a discussion of the ways in which social context participates in the production of particular fantasies – channeling desire in specific ways, and situating desire for specific objects into an overarching intersubjective framework of social significance. This invocation of the social, however, is followed by a set of what seem to be more trans-social claims – including particularly claims (which, to my ears, have a sort of social contract resonance) relating to the individual’s inevitable sacrifice of happiness for the sake of entering into society: so, the individual must enter into relations with a specific and particular social, which could presumably be analysed for its own idiosyncratic demands on individual behaviour, but in the background remains the notion of an experience or an awareness of something like presocialised happiness. As Sinthome expresses it:
Freud makes exactly this point in Civilization and its Discontents, when he speaks of the unhappiness we experience as a result of being members of society. If the individual continuously bites at the bit of the social, then this is because the individual sees the social as having stolen his happiness despite the fact that he couldn’t exist at all without this collective.
However, despite the fact that I sacrifice some of my happiness in entering into society, bits of this enjoyment continue to persist in fractured forms. In short, there is a remainder that the symbolic cannot quite integrate, that always escapes, that functions as excessive waste. It is, in fact, this remainder that ties me to the social in the first place since my enjoyment of this remainder functions as the motive of my identification
Sinthome then relates the persistence of this “remainder” to the possibility for critique, arguing, if I’m understanding correctly, that the remainder retains the residue of a presymbolic realm from which the symbolic realm is necessarily constructed. The symbolic realm – including fantasy as desire expressed in symbolic form – therefore necessarily drags along in its wake its own “outside”. Sinthome then points toward the possibility of “traversing the fantasy” – a concept developed much more fully in Sinthome’s other posts, and which I will therefore leave aside here, other than to note that, as I understand it, the intention is to point to the possibility for a subject to break the process of identification with particular objects in a transformative way.
To shift from my, undoubtedly somewhat crude, attempt to capture what Sinthome is saying, into some of my reactions to this framework: I’m struck first, of course, by the resonance with other forms of thought. Lacan would have been aware, of course, that this conceptualisation of the relationship between desire and fantasy is essentially identical to Marx’s discussion of value: value being a pattern of social practice that has no existence separate from its physical manifestation in goods in their movement through the process of production and exchange – that can promiscuously attach itself to different specific objects, but that must necessarily, for Marx, retain some sort of physical frame, etc.
The description of the relationship between desire and fantasy is too similar not to have been intended. The question is, what do we make of that similarity? Is the claim that capitalism somehow manifests a deep psychological pattern more completely than other societies, but that the psychological pattern would have existed in any event? Is the claim that this psychological dynamic is structured at a deep level by capitalism, such that it might not have characterised human existence in other societies? Is the claim that capitalism has made certain conceptual metaphors available to us, and so we’re now experimenting with applying some of those concepts metaphorically to psychological processes – and may have some empirical or interpretive hits and misses in the process? Is the claim that Marx stumbled across some metaphors that are fairly accurate as descriptions of human psychology, but foolishly misapplied them to an analysis of a social system? etc. None of these questions, I should note, necessarily leads into a critique – I’m not worried about whether traditions are “original” – I’m just genuinely curious, when any body of thought borrows so much from or so closely parallels another, how the relationship between the two is understood.
I am more nervous, and in a more critical direction, about the notion of a presymbolic residue – particularly as I get the sense that this residue may be being invoked as a possible locus of critique. I am very conscious that I am likely to be misunderstanding the strategic role of this concept (although I have some passing exposure to this tradition, my background is very primitive, so I’m essentially relying on first impressions…), but I’m not really sure why else you would “need” to posit the existence of such a “remainder” within the framework of a theoretical system that does aim at some level of political critique. If you restrict the tradition to therapeutic contexts, then there might be other strategic motives, but I take part of the point of this series of posts to be reflection on the relationship between this framework and the possibility for transformative political practice. Sinthome, I should also note, uses the subsequent posts in this series precisely to drive toward a clearer distinction between the use of this framework in therapeutic contexts, and its appropriation for political practice, so my questions may not be relevant for Sinthome’s own thought. I suppose my question (and my nervousness) relates more to the appropriation of these concepts as a framework for understanding political practice, and I’m working off of Sinthome’s posts as a way of easing myself into my unease with this tradition – with the caveat that my misgivings might fade once I understand more…