Zizekian Reading: Sex, Politics, and Traversing (the) Fantasy in Toni Morrison's Paradise

By Mellard, James M. | Studies in the Novel, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Zizekian Reading: Sex, Politics, and Traversing (the) Fantasy in Toni Morrison's Paradise


Mellard, James M., Studies in the Novel


We may compare [phantasies] with individuals of mixed race who, taken all around, resemble white men, but who betray their coloured descent by some striking feature or other, and on that account are excluded from society and enjoy none of the privileges of white people.

--Sigmund Freud ("The Unconscious" 191)

As explained in Freud's metaphor, now politically incorrect, of "individuals of mixed race," fantasy has always been alien, suspect, denigrated. If one thinks of the ordinary view of fantasy, it seems to carry with it an implied "mere." Mere fantasy is no more consequential in real, historical life than, say, wishing or reverie or daydreaming. But as psychoanalysis tells us, each of those activities is in fact quite critical to human functioning. Moreover, as the concept of fantasy was extrapolated within Freudian thought, it became especially important because it has purchase beyond the individual consciousness into the cultural collective. Indeed, Freud argues from Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921) onwards that fantasy holds a position as central to cultural analysis as to analysis of individual subjects. This view has never been superceded; others--Jacques Lacan and Slavoj Zizek, for instance--only augment it. In Lacan, fantasy is given a structural description but remains centrally important. As does Freud, Lacan locates fantasy in a transactional space, one that he calls "perception and consciousness" (56), wherein desire creates fantasy in response to the demands of "the real." Thus we see how the "subject and [the] real are to be situated on either side of the split, in the resistance of the phantasy" (Lacan, Four Fundamental Concepts 89). Schematized on the order of Lacan's algorithm of desire-$ <> a, "read" as the subject (split) in relation to its desire--this situating might appear like this: subject <> fantasy <> Real. In this structural sense, therefore, fantasy, which divides the subject but also protects it against the real, must be regarded as a phenomenon fundamental to all the psychical work of each individual. (1) Moreover, in an extrapolation of Lacan found in a massive number of works, including "The Seven Veils of Fantasy," The Plague of Fantasies, and Interrogating the Real, Zizek reifies the Freudian premise that fantasy must be regarded as the central object of cultural analysis. Not only need we regard fantasy, as Zizek argues, "as an imaginary scenario the function of which is to provide a kind of positive support filling out the [individual] subject's constitutive void," but we may also regard it, "mutatis mutandis," as functioning in the same way "for social fantasy: it is a necessary counterpart to the concept of antagonism, a scenario filling out the voids of the social structure" (Interrogating 277). Thus, it has become evident that we may put the wide-ranging concept of fantasy to uses that go further than even Freud imagined. As we once used myth and related concepts, we now may use fantasy more deeply to explore elements of culture, such as political ideology, and those features of characterization, such as sexuality--and more--often made fully accessible only through psychoanalysis.

To test such a premise, I will address a series of Zizek's claims regarding fantasy to Toni Morrison's thematically dense and narratively difficult Paradise (1997). No doubt for the good reason that Morrison is black; a woman; and vitally interested in race, class, gender, black history, and such issues associated with postmodernist cultural studies, it is easy for critics to disregard modes of analysis apart from current identity politics and postmodernist cultural critique. But in Zizek's post-Lacanian dilations on the concept of fantasy, one finals another productive way into Morrison's novels--and, one suspects, into literary works of any author in any of the genres--that reveals in them varied subtexts, an interiority or a textual unconscious that is perhaps surprising to the dominant critical cohort. …

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