music and psychoanalysis : fantasy / desire

Below are some preliminary thoughts on the relationship between music and [lacanian] fantasy

In order to unpack the relationship between fantasy and desire, a recourse to Jacques  Lacan’s terminological delineations must first be worked in:

1) Dylan Evans (citing Lacan) defines fantasy as that which “enables the subject to sustain his desire, and ‘that by which the subject sustains himself at the level of his vanishing desire.’”[1] Further on, he makes two important mutually reinforcing qualifications: 2a) “Fantasy is always ‘an image set to work in a signifying structure;’”[2] and 2b) “‘any attempt to reduce fantasy to the imagination [i.e imaginary order] …is a permanent misconception.’”[3] 3) Moreover, by defining desire in the symbolic, he writes that “… whenever speech attempts to articulate desire, there is always a leftover, a surplus, which exceeds speech. […] Desire is not a relation to an object, but a relation to a lack”[4] 4) Finally, Slavoj Žižek’s connotes that “fantasy designates the subject’s ‘impossible’ relation to [the small other] ‘a’, to the object-cause of its desire. […] The role of fantasy [is] to give the coordinates of the subject’s desire: through fantasy, we learn how to desire”[5] Combining the above four points results thus in defining fantasy as the subject’s symbolic mechanism which designates the coordinates of his/her desire in relation to the other by means of sustaining herself at the level of her growing or vanishing desire.

By entering the symbolic order something imaginary is necessarily lost. Thus the subject, in the last instance, is impelled to fantasize as a way of coordinating and giving some stability to the anxiety of questioning what the other desires. In the “Mirror Stage,”Lacan identifies two intermediary steps where the subject “turns out fantasies that proceed from a fragmented image of the body to […] an ‘orthopedic’ form of its totality—and to the finally donned armor of an alienating identity that will mark his entire mental development.”[6] The importance of this tripartite distinction between the stages of fantasy is important in that it expands remarks 2a) and 2b) to include not only the final symbolic expression of fantasy, but also the in-betweenness of the imaginary and the symbolic. (Imaginary–>Symbolic also expressed as Innenwelt–>Umwelt). Acknowledgment of the proto-symbolic fantasies which the subject manufactures in this stage of psychic development, additionally allows one to understand the “surplus which exceeds speech” from definition 3) quite simply as (Δ Imaginary–>Symbolic).

With the above additions in mind, for the sake of completeness, the revised definition of fantasy would finally read as the subject’s proto-symbolic and symbolic mechanism which designates the coordinates of his/her desire in relation to the other by means of sustaining herself at the level of her growing or vanishing desire.

Before progressing any further, I find it imperative to firstly a) establish the common denominator between the Lacanian orders and music so as to dispel any misgivings over the application of a psychoanalytic methodology in order to aid understanding. Secondly, b) I would like to determine the structural similarities between desire and music, thus further showing that the correspondences are not between two incompatible concepts, but instead, they designate notions which exhibit fundamental structural affinities. Starting with the latter, Lacan clearly locates desire in the metonymic plane when he writes that “the symptom is a metaphor, whether one likes to admit it or not, just as desire is metonymy, even if man scoffs at the idea.”[7] In linguistic terms, while metaphor works by substitution, metonymy works by contiguity. Therefore, the metonymic plane on which desire is located should be associated with the metonymic signifying vector that leads to a ceaseless process of unfolding. The elementary graph of desire in Fig.1 should suffice in visualizing the psychoanalytic differences between metonymy and metaphor. Desire is produced in the diachronic friction between the metaphoric and metonymic vectors. In the graph’s expanded form, Lacan connects this intersection with the subject’s self-constitution on the basis of the message via the other [$♢a]. Once friction is generated, desire essentially flows in the same direction as the signifying chain.


Fig.1 : Elementary cell from Lacan’s Graph of Desire, where (S–>S’ = signifying chain), (Δ–>$ = subject’s intentionality).

Similarly, at its fundamental level, I understand music to be nothing but an endless chain of signification which sets in motion a ceaseless process of unfolding within the symbolic order. Once the subject as listener is introduced into the music’s metonymic unfolding, metaphoric associations are produced at the point de capiton in the rightmost intersection of the graph of desire. I am further convinced that the diachronic dimension at the point of intersection along the signifying chain can never be theorized in music since it always produces only metaphorical associations to other sounds. Unlike words, a retroactive punctuation is but a further illusory memory of its synchronic one. This interpretation leads one to assign musical fantasies the role of pulling the listening subject towards and away from the diachronic (leftmost intersection) point de capiton. Thus, the dissolution of fantasy in the symbolic order would coincide with the attainment of a perfect and absolute signification.

Returning to point a), inspecting the passage of time provides the common denominator necessary in order to situate musical associations within the Lacanian orders by virtue of connoting each order with its characteristic temporal umwelt. While J.T.Fraser’s theory of time as conflict distinguishes six temporal umwelts, Lacanian orders are associated only with that of: 1. Eo-temporality, which is the umwelt that “displays the dyadic relationship of before/after but not a preferred direction of time.”[8] This temporality of pure succession is where the order of the real operates. 2. Biotemporality, which is linked to the imaginary order in that “the emergence of the biotemporal present is defined in terms of needs of the organism” and its “demand for immediate satisfaction that characterizes [Freud’s] pleasure-principle [further reminding] one of the creature present [that] displays no long-term expectation or memory.”[9]  3.  Noo-temporality, which is the umwelt that “extends the if-then relationship of conditional probability […] into the long-term memory of man.” Common usage describes this umwelt as ‘human time’, by clearly distinguishing between past, present, and future thus constituting the temporality of the symbolic order.

Finally, returning to the original quest of determining whether fantasy functions in music, I can theoretically conclude that:

  1. Fantasy always operates in the symbolic expression of music as long as a relationship to the other exists which is articulated by a nootemporal umwelt.
  2. Fantasy always operates in the movement Imaginary—>Symbolic expression of music in the form of a fragmented imago despite the ambiguous and in-process relationship formation to the other, which is articulated by temporal umwelt oscillating between the biotemporal and the nootemporal.
  3. There can be no fantasmatic dimension to the imaginary and real order, as respectively articulated by a biotemporal and eotemporal umwelt.

The difficulty in precisely and objectively ascribing the Lacanian orders within a musical discourse should not be viewed as a disadvantage. In my opinion, the interpreter/listener should not attempt to locate psychoanalytic concepts as if they exist forever calcified in music. Instead, these concepts should be used to demonstrate that a different way of listening can be accomplished. Hearing, initially will necessarily have an epigonic character in which music is dictated by language, not the other way around. Only upon a later listening can what initially seems forced via linguistic concepts become a personal, innate and natural way of understanding music.


[1] Dylan Evans, An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis, (New York: Rutledge, 1996), 61

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 62

[4] Ibid., 38

[5] Slavoj Zizek, Looking Awry, (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1991), 6

[6] Jacques Lacan, Ecrits, trans. by B.Fink, (New York, London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006), 78

[7] Ibid., 439

[8] Julius. T. Fraser, Of Time, Passion, and Knowledge, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975), 239

[9] Ibid.  438