Andrew Marcus. Black On White, No. 7, Sumi Ink on Paper, 15" x 22", 2017. All rights reserved
by Tim Richardson
Associate Professor of English - University of Texas at Arlington
My 13-year-old son tolerates (and sometimes enjoys) science fiction movies, but says that he hates fantasy because “fantasy is boring; you already know everything.” So, while they’re often placed pretty closely together in my memories of video rentals and what remains of bookstores, I’ve been thinking lately about possible differences between (some) fantasy and (some) science fiction, especially in terms of a longer project I’m considering that would examine ways we model the near future. Right now, I’m interested in whether there is an intersection between genre fantasy and the psychoanalytic kind and, if there is, what relations this overlap has with masculine sexuality per Lacan.
The question is sparked in large part by Ellie Ragland’s insistence that “masculine logics pretend that neither desire, fantasy, nor jouissance enter language and actions, except in some category of the already known that is codified in institutions (church, school, war) through polite formulae of agreed-upon knowledge and rituals of convention” (Ragland 106). Given my recent preoccupations, it’s difficult not to find in “agreed-upon knowledge and rituals of convention” a definition of genre per se that begs the question of the intersections of genre conventions, fantasy, and masculinity.
Popular fantasy strikes me as perhaps being similar to period costume dramas insofar as they often both rely, at least In part, on staging a fantastic Past to demonstrate either that we now enjoy in ways they couldn’t (our repressed ancestors) or that they enjoyed in ways that are no longer open to us (the pleasures of sexism, racism, and all the primal father stuff often wrapped in charismatic leading men). In both cases, they are about the Law: its instantiation and its contravention. This is what fantasy is.
But, are the pleasures of staging The Future the same as the past? Sometimes, surely. That’s space opera, Star Wars and the like. And in other futures, post-apocalyptic scenarios allow “us” to be thrown back into fantastic Future-Pasts of kings and nomads and clans that conjure the reordering of the social such that the future often becomes an amplified and sometimes vulgar reinstitution of traditional family and gender conventions and their contravention). We enjoy the failure(s) of the present such that we project problems and solutions into infinitely deferred and remote futures. (a remoteness, I think, that mirrors the remoteness of the “past” of gladiator movies, etc.) This is also fantasy.
These futures are a rut that’s been difficult to skip out of. Added to these—as Steven Shaviro and others have commented—if it’s not post-apocalyptic or space operas, if it’s nearer, then The Future has been the same dystopic cyberpunk future that we imagined over 30 years ago. And in 30 years, what may have once been a radical vision or startling warning has become an aesthetic, alongside steam and diesel punks.
Our aestheticized futures—both the fantasy and punk kinds—repeat the common social antagonisms as tropes while at the same time promise their resolution or fulfillment, often in the name of love. This is the present-ing of The Past common to fantasy, from Game of Thrones to Mad Max (though I’d make a special claim for the latter).
As Todd McGowan describes: “The only possibility that the future offers is that of a new form of repetition…. When we desire, we look to the future as the time in which we will obtain the object and fulfill our desire” (11-12).
McGowan isn’t here talking explicitly about science fiction. But in a lot of ways, what I’m calling fantasy is just like every Hollywood movie, especially as they tend to participate in a fantasy of completeness. I’ve argued elsewhere that narrative story-telling often does the job of transmuting formative lack or impasse into loss and then offers up a resolution (Contingency, Immanence, and the Subject of Rhetoric; “The Authenticity of What’s Next”). A lack is something that never was; the promise of what’s lost is that, eventually, it can be recovered.
Or if it can’t be found, perhaps a prosthetic can be built that captures some of the usability of what’s lost, more or less.
Like fantasy’s wholesale restructuring of the social, much of cinema takes up the most obvious lack or impasse for those of us here, the lack of sexual rapport, and tries to reconcile it for us. As McGowan argues:
The romantic union has [its] ideological weight because it offers a fantasmatic solution to a fundamental social antagonism—that of sexual difference. The heterosexual romantic union that concludes so many films implies that antagonism can be surmounted, that a complementary relationship can be achieved. (84)
and a bit later….
Throughout its history, the cinema—especially Hollywood cinema—has dedicated itself to the perpetuation of this idea more than any other task. By creating the romantic union, cinema assures us that antagonism is empirical rather than ontological and that we can always overcome it. (84)
The promise is that sexual rapport is something we’ve lost, not something that’s impossible. And movies can be prostheses for what’s been lost.
That is, the “agreed-upon knowledge and rituals of convention” that genre films allow—their predictability and resolutions—function as both a surrogate for what’s perceived as lost and as a model for fantasy (both general and specific).
Works Cited (Parts l and ll)
Ex Machina. Directed by Alex Garland, Perf. Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac. DNA Films, 2014.
Fink, Bruce. Lacan on Love: An Exploration of Lacan's Seminar VIII, Transference. Cambridge: Polity, 2016. Print.
Her. Directed by Spike Jonze, Perf. Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde. Annapurna Pictures 2013.
McGowan, Todd. Out of Time: Desire in Atemporal Cinema. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 2011. Print.
Mori, Masahiro. “The Uncanny Valley.” Trans. Karl F. MacDorman and Takashi Minato. Energy, 7(4), 1970, pp. 33-35
Ragland, Ellie. The Logic of Sexuation: From Aristotle to Lacan. State U of New York P, 2004.
Žižek, Slavoj. ""The Thing from Inner Space"" Sexuation. Ed. Renata Salecl. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2000. N. pag. Print.
Zupančič, Alenka. ""The Case of the Perforated Sheet"" Sexuation. Ed. Renata Salecl. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2000. N. pag. Print.