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In the long history of the relations between cinema and psychoanalysis, the phantasm holds a key position. In the 1950s Jacques Lacan took the term phantasy from Sigmund Freud, using it in the sense of a cinematic “scene in which an unconscious desire is shown.” The experience of film and media as a whole seemed to offer up an image of the psychic event that was indeed quite different than that of the founder of psychoanalysis. If phantasy in Freud was still conceived strictly as individual, unconscious wish fulfillment, the phantasm now became a complex psycho-social arrangement in which the material starting conditions of every culture, such as language and images, are always already inscribed. Phantasmatic images and subjective desires here are mutually related; they are symbolically arranged as a sphere of the imaginary within modern societies so that they displace the real of these societies. The “subject of the unconscious” then comes into play, and therefore the meaning of images does not lie in themselves, but in the structure of how they are arranged.

This strictly defensive definition of the phantasm in Lacan allows for no abrogration. The phantasm cannot be sussed out like ideology. It can only be “traversed,” which is nothing more than staggering from one phantasm to another. By contrast, Melanie Klein had already had a rather ambivalent view toward phantasy. Her interest was focused on the process of differentiating between phantasy and reality. Only by continuously comparing them can phantasy and reality be distinguished from one another. This makes it possible to see the productive function of phantasy for any understanding of reality. From this perspective, the phantasm always already seems to imply the critique of itself, which sets boundaries for it in the name of a sphere called reality. Which does not protect either the critique nor the reality from itself becoming a phantasm, and stylizes depressive disappointment into real cultural achievement. In a similar sense, Slavoj Žižek, in his reading of Lacan, emphasizes the disclosing quality of phantasms. They not only disclose the “horror of the real”; at the same time they allow it to appear in a distorted form in the first place. Even in Žižek, phantasms are already waiting for the decrypting, critical gaze. This is the arrival of the “radical intersubjective character of the phantasm,” the form, namely, in which the Other, society, the real speaks in my desire.

These completely different readings of Klein and Žižek not only name the productive sides of the phantasm, but also the reciprocally constitutive function of defense and critique, as well as of phantasy and reality. In this sense there is always already something critical rooted within phantasms, and something phantasmatic in critique. Here there is a certain margin created, and the “traversing” can give a concrete sense to it. How can we intentionally draw on this margin?  How can I traverse phantasms with the means of psychoanalysis, art, film, or politics, if the phantasms are always already traversing me, when my ego always already has a phantasmatic charge? What does my ego tell me then?

This question cannot be answered so long as unconscious fantasies are only related to ideas of wholeness, synthesis, autonomy, identity, and similarity, on which the imaginary ego rests in order to rectify its intrinsic lack and thus to transfer these categories from the mirror experience constitutive for any subjectivity to the symbolic signifiers of nation, history, capital, art, or society. For the exposure of these structures of the symbolic themselves become phantasmatic as soon as they are not understood as constitutive for each particular speaking position. Nation, art, capital, history, and society can be critiqued not only from outside. Every critique is positioned from its symbolic radius, and thus also remains limited by it. Correspondingly, today, after more than a hundred years of film history, of ever more refined editing techniques and dramaturgical effectiveness, phantasms can also encounter the fragmentary, the estranged, heteronomy, and difference. Film and cinema, just like television and video portals, can themselves be seen as forms of the symbolic, and their specific phantasms could be found in the synthesis of opposites, in the identity of difference, or in the totality of the fragmentary, while in the interplay between mainstream and experimental form, the focus of the phantasmatic charge can be shifted time and again from one pole to the other.

Phantasms can therefore neither be intentionally shaped nor fundamentally overcome; to a certain degree we find ourselves always already at their mercy. They also cannot be located in the Other and dealt with there, because this Other is always already present in one’s own self. At any rate the phantasm cannot close itself off like some sort of perfectly manipulated world, precisely because it always already contains a moment of difference and of critique, without which it cannot be phantasmatic. Expectation and disappointment thus characterize the two sides that drive it in their interplay, but between which it is also possible to navigate. This assumes not directly interconnecting the specific motivational resources and drives with the being-driven of the production apparatuses, but ensuring their difference precisely in the connection. It is thus neither a matter of a purely distanced attitude nor of an immersive submergence; exposing oneself to the ambivalence of phantasy and reality, distance and proximity, defense and critique becomes the requirement for being able to rework the structures and dynamics of the phantasmatic.

What is significant here is to research and understand the media of the phantasmatic. The term media here does not simply mean the media image, but the interfaces at which the images are anchored in the structure of the symbolic order. It is thus a matter of constantly linking images with the structural forms of their coming-into-being, indeed at the level of contents, at the formal-filmic level, and at the installational-situative level. In terms of content, the media of the phantasmatic – as can be clearly seen in the selection of this year’s “Forum Expanded”, for instance at the archive or at the museum, at the territory or at the border, at the weapons of war and at those of the idea – can be fixed as those interfaces where the phantasms of history, nation, and art cross. If phantasms cannot fundamentally be overcome, they can still be placed in contrast to one another. In doing so the economic, cultural, and political transfer can also be traced, and the transversal dynamics of the agents can be made visible, the dynamics which move between them and thus call forth the difference between the hegemonic and the subaltern in the first place.

At the level of film, the documentary, dramaturgical, experimental, and narrative image come into use. Their sense, however, does not seem to lie in the strict definition of a category, which would incorporate the phantasmatic truth, but in their structural relation to one another in the differential, in the difference of image forms. Precisely in the overlappings can the arsenal of the experimental be driven in the non-indentity of image and sound, image and text, illustration and reality, content and media, without these things themselves becoming identical in turn. In a similar way, references are made to genres like horror or the war movie without being absorbed in them.

At the installational-situative level as well, no “resolution” of the film image in space takes place. The immersive film space here does not extend into lounge-like relaxed participation and acclamation. Instead, within and also between the individual works, intersections arise that do not simply mediate between the individual authorial ego and a curious audience. All mediation breaks down in the constitutive overlapping of technical, artistic, and psychic projections and introjections. The tactics of traversing: repetition and ritornello, quotation and indirect speech, reference and the situational do not resolve the tension between expectation and disappointment. There is no reconciliation here between the content and its appearance, between the positioned and the reflexive, between desire and its depressive completion. Instead of refining the phantasmatic in favor or one or the other of its sides, it is addressed in its relational form, as a special form of structurally connecting contents and speaking position, form and presentation, authorship and reception. Psychoanalytic, aesthetic, and political experience can thus fundamentally not come from any confirmation of one’s own phantasm in each case; this is disappointed precisely in the expectation to truth and desire, form and contents, authorship and work. In this categorical lapse of the right moment of mediation and of phantasmatic enjoyment as a whole, the discrepancy between the categories opens up anew time and time again. The phantasmatic, however, must be willed in order to be failed. Only in this lie the conditions of possibility for the symbolic in psychoanalysis, art, and politics.

Helmut Draxler is a curator, art critic and professor for art theory at the University of the Applied Arts Vienna. He will be giving a keynote lecture on this year’s theme as part of the Forum Expanded programme.

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