It is only through fantasy that the subject is constituted as desiring

Published on Tuesday December 21st, 2010

Slavoj Žižek in Looking Awry at Popular Culture:

It is only through fantasy that the subject is constituted as desiring: through fantasy, we learn how to desire.

To exemplify this crucial theoretical point, let us take a famous science fiction short story, Robert Scheckley’s “Store of the Worlds.”

Mr. Wayne, the story’s hero, visits the old and mysterious Tompkins, who lives alone in a shack, ruined and tilled with decaying waste, in an abandoned part of town. Rumor has it that, by means of a special kind of drug, Tompkins is capable of transposing people into a parallel dimension where all their desires are fulfilled. To pay for this service, one was required to hand over to Tompkins one’s most valuable material goods. After finding Tompkins, Wayne engages him in conversation; the former maintains that most of his clients return from their experience well satisfied; they do not, afterward, feel deceived. Wayne, however, hesitates, and Tompkins advises him to take his time and think things over before making up his mind. All the way home, Wayne thinks about it; but at home, his wife and son are waiting for him, and soon he is caught up in the joys and small troubles of family life. Almost daily, he promises himself that he will visit old Tompkins again and afford himself the experience of the fulfillment of his desires, but there is always something to be done, some family matter that distracts him and causes him to put off his visit. First, he has to accompany his wife to an anniversary party; then his son has problems in school; in summer, there are vacations and he has promised to go sailing with his son; fall brings its own new preoccupations. The whole year goes by in this way, with Wayne having no time to take the decision, although in the back of his mind, he is constantly aware that sooner or later he will definitely visit Tompkins. Time passes thus until … he awakens suddenly in the shack beside Tompkins, who asks him kindly: So, how do you feel now? Are you satisfied?” Embarrassed and perplexed, Wayne mumbles “Yes, yes, of course,” gives him all his worldly possessions (a rusty knife, an old can, and a few other small articles), and leaves quickly, hurrying between the decaying ruins so that he will not be too late for his evening ration of potatoes. He arrives at his underground shelter before darkness, when flocks of rats come out from their holes and reign over the devastation of nuclear war.

This story belongs, of course, to postcatastrophe science fiction, which describes everyday life after nuclear war—or some similar event—has caused the disintegration of our civilization. The aspect that interests us here, however, is the trap into which the reader of the story necessarily falls, the trap upon which the whole effectiveness of the story is based and in which the very paradox of desire consists: we mistake for postponement of the “thing itself” what is already the “thing itself,” we mistake for the searching and indecision proper to desire what is, in fact, the realization of desire. That is to say, the realization of desire does not consist in its being “fulfilled, “fully satisfied,” it coincides rather with the reproduction of desire as such, with its circular movement.


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