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The Surface EffectReview - The Surface Effect
The Screen of Fantasy in Psychoanalysis
by André Nusselder
Routledge, 2012
Review by Michael Larson
Aug 6th 2013 (Volume 17, Issue 32)

Taking an approach rooted in Lacanian theory, Dutch philosopher André Nusselder works in The Surface Effect "to think fantasy in its unconscious dimension" stressing that "the most intricate and interesting functioning of fantasy can be found where it already influences our identity, perception, and remembering without us being aware of it."(3)  Nusselder clearly identifies his intentions and working positions throughout, noting "one line of argumentation in this book is that the strict opposition between reality and illusion is too narrow to understand the productive and transcendental function of fantasy."(92)  While "the aspiration for immediacy is... a defining feature of Western visual representation" whereby in "the classical theory of meaning, meaning is a thing that exists objectively, independently of the subject and of the manner in which it is articulated." (10)  Nusselder builds a case to stress that there is no such thing as pure immanence in human relations.  "The human self is virtual because it exists at the level of representation."(100)  Images of fantasy "are always related to others, so that the 'double' is included from the start in the signifying order of intersubjective relations." (1) Fantasy is "the primary medium for the subject of desire." (1)  Nusselder insists upon treating fantasy as in a sense always already involved in our relation to reality and in our relations with others.  Fantasy is always present in our notions of self identity and in the development of our desires, it is the "stuff" of our desires, the medium through which we engage our interests.  The author takes us outside of discussions which would posit a clean distinction or moralization between facing reality and engagement the realm of fantasy.  Using a different vocabulary, we may say that our "authentic" relations are always in some way "improper," never pure and unmediated.  Object and intersubjective relations take place with an element of fantasy as a medium.  Conceptually, we can distinguish between elements of fantasy and the objects of reality, yet experientially, we are only ever engaged in the world as filtered through various screens. 

In relation to the Freud of Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Nusselder notes that fantasy images can be used as a protective defense against the traumatic confrontation with the Real.  At times we may have compulsions which would, if left unmediated, lead us into painful and excessive situations.  In such areas, fantasy is a vehicle through which we may both mitigate our excessive compulsions and yet experience a form of pleasure through enjoyment of the image itself.   "Fantasy both closes and discloses; it protects us from the real and opens up our reality at the same time." (66)

Fantasy is operative throughout our lives as subjects of desire.  As stated in the opening line of the volume, "We inhabit a world of surfaces." (1)  He stresses that the "fundamental intuition" he has intended to follow in the book "is that the core of our psychic life is taking place at the surface, where each of use is a subject (of 'imagination') turned into an object (of fantasy)… fundamentally mediated by fantasy." (3)  As such, this book is about understanding an integral facet of what it means to exist as a human subject.  The ways in which we come to understand ourselves, in which we engage in relations with others and the manner in which we make sense of our involvements in the world are all involved in fantasy, for in the realm of fantasy we are dealing with a "doubling" of objects, a doubling of reality. 

One of Lacan's more famous claims, often taken out of context, is the notion that "there is no sexual relation."  Or rather, our sexual relations always take place through the medium of fantasy.  We act with regards to images of the imagination, screens of fantasy, through which we posit ourselves and give meaning to the objects and actions with which we are involved.  The fact of sublimation too means that our sexual energies and drives may be filtered in our "non-sexual" relations with others, through the transportation of drives into other venues.  "In the reality of desire, I imagine how the other is and subsequently I imagine myself as the object that I am in the eyes of the other." (104) 

I've found this book to be continually engaging, finding many points of interest for further thought.  The volume should be readily appealing to many readers working in cultural and literary studies as Nusselder considers at various points popular engagements with "virtual selves" in computer gaming and social media.  The texts also concludes with an appendix analyzing the role

          This volume may be particularly useful for those coming to consider Lacanian thought from a philosophical background as the author relates key ideas through discussions of material from figures including Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Hegel and Derrida.  While I have some minor qualms about the reading of the "allegory of the cave" proposed here, the author makes use of his interpretation and offers a very compelling illustration of Plato's conception of love as explored in the Symposium.  The key points read from these philosophical references are laid out such that those without a strong background in these figures should find the material accessible and engaging. 

The Surface Effect is an approachable volume (quite manageable in length at just over 100 pages) and may well be considered amongst those select works in the English language that can help to introduce readers into the general terrain Lacanian psychoanalytic thought.  The treatment of fantasy is thought provoking and should be of interest to a broad academic audience.  The treatment contributes also to a variety of conversations prevalent in 20th century and contemporary psychoanalysis and phenomenology.   Overall I have found the volume to be accessible, engaging and perhaps a helpful gateway into Lacanian psychoanalytic theory. 


© 2013 Michael Larson


Michael Larson, M.A. Instructor at Point Park University, Pittsburgh, PA. Primary interests: Continental philosophy, Foucault, Deconstruction, Social and Political thought, Modern and Contemporary art.


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