An Exploration of Slavoj Žižek’s Fundamental Fantasy and the Split of Law
In his essay “Fundamental Fantasy and the Split of Law,” Slavoj Žižek offers a critique of Jacques Lacan’s thesis that the function of law is to mask the fundamental impossibility of human relationships. Žižek’s argument is twofold: first, that Lacan’s thesis underestimates the role played by fantasy in constituting our social reality; and second, that Lacan’s concept of the split between the Symbolic and the Real fails to take into account the way in which this split is itself produced by our fantasies.
Before moving on, I will quickly, if possible, recap Lacan’s basic thesis about the split between the Symbolic and the Real. Lacan suggests that there is a fundamental tension between the Symbolic and the Real in the human psyche. The Symbolic is the realm of language and ideas, while the Real is that of the body and material reality.
The relationship between the Symbolic and the Real is, however, not an unidirectional one: there is a split between the Symbolic and the Real that is produced by the relationship itself. In order to describe the relationship between the Symbolic and the Real, Lacan introduces the concept of the ‘mirror stage.’ According to Lacan, the infant is initially fascinated by its own image in the mirror, but gradually realizes that the image in the mirror is not itself.
Rather, the image in the mirror is a copy of the infant. This realization inaugurates the child’s encounter with the Real: from then on, everything the child sees in the world is a copy of something that is already inside the child.
In other words, the Real is not something that exists outside of the child, as Lacan suggests, but something that the child already contains within itself. This is why, according to Lacan, the Real is a mirror image of the Symbolic. The Real is not something that can be discovered by looking at it from without, but something that can only be grasped by looking into it from within.
Why is any of this important? Because Lacan’s theory of the Symbolic and the Real is the foundation for much of the psychotherapy practiced today. In Lacanian theory, it is the desire for the Real that is the source of human suffering. How? Let us imagine, for a moment, that the infant in the mirror stage never discovers the split between the Symbolic and the Real. The infant would continue to believe that it is its mirror image, and that the world is nothing but a reflection of itself. In other words, the infant would never realize that it is not the center of the universe. This is, of course, a fantasy. But this is exactly what happens to most people in modern life. They are so busy trying to be someone else that they fail to realize that they are not in control of their lives. They have no idea what they really want out of life, because they are too busy trying to be something that they are not. For example, if you are a man in your thirties who wants to be a doctor, you will spend hours studying for exams and working as a doctor. But you will never achieve your goal, because you are not really a doctor. The real you is the infant in the mirror. This is the part of you that wants to be a doctor, but which is totally unaware that it is not the real you. You are the real you, but you are not aware of it. You are so busy trying to become someone that you don’t know, that you have no time to be the real you. This is why the Real is so attractive. It is what you are looking for, but you have no idea that you are looking for it. You think that you are looking for it in the outside world. But the Real is something that can only be grasped by looking into the mirror of your own self. This is why we call the Real ‘your own desire’. Similar to this idea of the Real comes from another Frenchman, Rene Girard. Girard is a semiotician, who believes that every human relationship is based on rivalry. This means that every human relationship is a struggle, and every struggle is based on deception. It is a struggle between two people, because each wants to be in charge of the relationship. This is the underlying structure of all human relationships. This is why we all compete with each other, and why we always try to deceive each other. Girard believes that this is the fundamental conflict that exists in human society. This is why all human societies have always had wars, and why we are all still at war today. Thus, desire is not some authentic longing for something; it is a lie. Desire is a lie because we are not really looking for anything, but we are just pretending that we are. The similarity between Girard and Lacan can be encapsulated in this idea: Girard says that every human relationship is based on a struggle, and Lacan says that the Real is based on a desire that is never fulfilled. In other words, both thinkers believe that human beings are fundamentally alone. We are always trying to deceive each other, because we are trying to get something that we can never have. So if you want to reach the Real, you need to face the fact that you are looking for something that you cannot have. You need to face the fact that you are looking for a lie.
According to Lacan, the Symbolic is a world of language and ideas, while the Real is a world of the body and material reality. The split between the Symbolic and the Real is thus the source of all human conflict. The only way to resolve this conflict is to find a way to bridge the gap between the Symbolic and the Real. This is what Lacan calls the fundamental fantasy.
This is why Lacanian theory is very much concerned with the pursuit of happiness. In fact, Lacan claims that the goal of psychoanalysis is to cure the unhappy person of his or her desire for the Symbolic. According to Lacan, the Symbolic is the source of all human suffering because it is the realm of the imaginary. The Imaginary is the realm of dreams, fantasies, and hallucinations. The Imaginary is, in other words, the realm of the false. The real is, by contrast, the realm of the true. In concrete terms, Lacan wants people to stop chasing after things that don’t truly exist, like happiness or love. Instead, he wants people to focus on what does truly exist: the Real.
What is the Real? Let’s take an example: the concept of time. The Symbolic corresponds to the realm of time as we experience it, while the Real corresponds to the realm of time as it really is. The Real is the realm of eternity, while the Symbolic is the realm of temporality. The Symbolic is the realm of change, while the Real is the realm of stasis. The Real is the realm of death, while the Symbolic is the realm of life. The Real is the realm of the father, while the Symbolic is the realm of the mother. The Symbolic is the realm of language, while the Real is the realm of reality. These are just a few examples, but they illustrate the fundamental tension between the Symbolic and the Real in human life.
This is why Lacan claims that the only way to be happy is to accept one’s own death. Human beings are doomed to dissatisfaction because, as Lacan puts it, everything we love we destroy or betray. In other words, human beings are never able to enjoy the present because they are always haunted by the past and the future. Death is the only thing that can break the cycle of desire. Desire is based on the lack of something, and death is the ultimate lack. When we die, we no longer have any desires.
Lacan’s theory of the Symbolic and the Real is a very dark one, and it is for this reason that many people are uncomfortable with it. Lacan’s theory is, in fact, very similar to the idea of existentialism. Existentialists believe that human beings are fundamentally alone in the universe. We are all going to die, and there is no God or afterlife to comfort us. Existentialists also believe that the only way to find meaning in life is to create it ourselves. This is why many existentialists are artists or writers.
Continuing on with Žižek’s critique of Lacan, he points out that the split between the Symbolic and the Real is not static but dynamic.
In his essay “Fundamental Fantasy and the Split of Law,” Slavoj Žižek offers a critique of Jacques Lacan’s thesis that the function of law is to mask the fundamental impossibility of human relationships. Žižek’s argument is twofold: first, that Lacan’s thesis underestimates the role played by fantasy in constituting our social reality; and second, that Lacan’s concept of the split between the Symbolic and the Real fails to take into account the way in which this split is itself produced by our fantasies. I will argue that Žižek’s own account of fantasy suffers from similar problems, and that his attempt to rescue Lacan’s theory ultimately fails.
The first part of Žižek’s criticism concerns Lacan’s claim that law functions to cover up or deny the fundamental impossibility of human relationships. According to Lacan, this impossibility arises from two sources: first, from the fact that human beings are always already split between their desire and their need; and second, from the way in which language constituted us as subjects who are always already estranged from ourselves. This estrangement means that we can never know what another person really wants or needs, since these things are always mediated through language. As a result, any attempt to establish a relationship with another person is fraught with difficulty and potential conflict. The function of law, then, is to provide a symbolic framework within which these difficulties can be negotiated and resolved. In other words, law functions as a way of masking or denying the underlying impossibility of human relationships.
Žižek agrees with Lacan that human relationships are fundamentally impossible, but he takes issue with Lacan’s claim that law functions to cover up this impossibility. For Žižek, it is not enough to say that law merely covers up or masks our social realities; rather, he claims that law actually constitutes those realities. In other words, our social reality is not something given or natural, but something that is constructed through our legal system. Fantasy, for Žižek, is not simply a screen that hides the Real from us, but is involved in the very constitution of the Real.
This is why, according to Žižek, the only way to change the Real is to change our fantasies. That is, we can only resolve the conflict between the Symbolic and the Real by exploring our own fantasies and by striving to create a world that is closer to the idealized versions of our own Symbolic realm. Žižek’s critique of Lacan is, in a way, a critique of ourselves. It is, in fact, an indictment of our own Symbolic realm.
This claim leads Žižek to his second criticism of Lacan: namely, that Lacan fails to take into account the role played by fantasy in constituting our social reality.
Lacan argues that there is a split between the Symbolic order (that is, language) and the Real (that which escapes symbolization). This split enables us to understand reality in terms of oppositions such as cause/effect or subject/object. However, according to Žižek, this opposition does not really exist; rather, it is something that we create through our fantasies. Fantasies allow us to bridge the gap between the Symbolic and Real orders by filling in the gaps left by symbols (that is, by creating meaning where there was previously only absence). In other words, they allow us to make sense of an otherwise unintelligible world. For example, take a look at the Harry Potter series. This series features a world in which magical creatures (such as witches and wizards) live alongside humans. However, the magical creatures are never fully comprehended by humans; instead, they are represented by metaphors (such as flying cars or dragons).
In this way, the magical creatures become a way of representing the unrepresentable (namely, the Real).we can understand the events in history by understanding the underlying conflict between the Symbolic and the Real. Or, we can understand the workings of the economy by understanding the underlying conflict between the Symbolic and the material world. Žižek is, in a way, criticizing the very function of fantasy: it is not simply a way of escaping from reality, but is actually necessary for creating a meaningful and rational social world.
A final example is that of the Minotaur. We can understand the story of the Minotaur by relying on our own fantasies, which fill in the gaps left by the Symbolic order. We create a world in which the Minotaur is not just a terrifying monster, but also a powerful symbol of our own fears and desires. In this way, our fantasies not only provide us with a sense of order and meaning, but also help us to cope with the chaos and uncertainty of the Real world.
In “The Sublime Object of Ideology,” Žižek introduces the concept of fundamental fantasy. Fantasy, for Žižek, is not simply a daydream or wish fulfillment; it is the unconscious ingredient that structures our reality. Our fantasies provide us with a way to cope with the inherent lack in our being. It is through our fantasies that we fill in the gaps and make meaning out of our lives.
The fundamental fantasy is the particular way in which each individual deals with this lack. It is the deepest, most hidden part of our fantasy life — the part that we are not even aware of. According to Žižek, the fundamental fantasy is what allows us to go on living despite our knowledge of death. It is what gives us the courage to confront the nothingness at the heart of existence.
In “For They Know Not What They Do,” Žižek discusses how law can be used to conceal and deny our fantasies. He argues that there are two types of law: the regulatory law that sets out what we are allowed to do, and the constitutive law that defines who we are. Regulatory law is concerned with external behavior; it tell us what we can and cannot do. Constitutive law, on the other hand, prescribes our innermost desires and fantasies. It tells us who we are supposed to be.
According to Žižek, it is constrictive law that leads to repression. When we repress our desires, they always come back to haunt us — usually in the form of a symptom or compulsion. In order to avoid repression, we need to confront our fantasies head-on. We need to recognize them for what they are and learn to live with them. Only then can we achieve true freedom.