Fantasy is usually described as a psychic structure that excludes reality, the faculty against which realism defines itself. Affect theory, however, pushes beyond this opposition, positing that fantasy is an orientation to the world distanced not from reality but the illusions that mask reality, or as Slavoj Žižek puts it, “The illusion is therefore double: it consists in overlooking the illusion which is structuring our real, effective relationship to reality” (31). With this doubling of illusions, then, real, social activity is shot through with “theorizations of reality,” such as the castration complex or ideas of national citizenship.   

For instance, in The Queen of America Goes to Washington City, Lauren Berlant explores the relation between the affective grounds of fantasy and the intimacies of the public sphere.  Berlant argues that the American political climate actually offers no public sphere at all, “no context of communication and debate that makes ordinary citizens feel that they have a common public culture” (3), despite a political rhetoric that aims at the ideal of a harmonious America. What we have instead is a national fantasy of public solidarity (the American Dream) that oddly coexists with an ideology promoting individual wealth and self-monitoring, an affective fantasy about what constitutes citizenship.

Berlant’s description of fantasy’s political implications suggests that affect supplements reality by paying attention to the surfaces along which fantasies move instead of the depths underlying fantastical commitments. Ann Cvetkovich’s Mixed Feelings:  Feminism, Mass Culture, and Victorian Sensationalism takes a similar approach in analyzing how sensationalized characters in fiction, embodiments of national fantasy, generate realities and affects that define the individual and public sphere (68). For instance, the beautiful and rebellious females of Victorian fiction reflect the link between affect and the contradictions of capitalism, both as victimized commodity and liberated consumer (70). As with Berlant’s analysis of citizen, Cvetkovich shows how fantasy and sensationalism can lead to political containment. Alert to sensation’s dangers as well as its political opportunities, Cvetkovich warns against the view of fantasy as projecting unconscious desires in need of liberation. Taking her cue from Foucault, she contends that “theories of mass culture … should not expect liberation to result from the expression of the desires that mass culture represses, since mass culture functions precisely by constructing those affects as repressed in the first place” (30). Cvetkovich echoes  Žižek’s insistence that fantasy is a double illusion. The ideology of free expression under democratic culture imagines the voicing of authentic and personal affects as an escape political repression, when, in fact, this theory of owning one’s feelings is itself a fantasy that excludes fantasy from consciousness. By questioning appeals to the real in literary analysis, affect theory divulges the role of fantasy within both fiction and political processes.

Benjamin Philippi

Works Cited:

Berlant, Lauren. The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship. Durham: Duke UP, 1997. 

Brennan, Teresa. The Transmission of Affect. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2004. 

Cvetkovich, Ann. Mixed Feelings: Feminism, Mass Culture, and Victorian Sensationalism. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1992.

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. “Percept, Affect, and Concept.” What is Philosophy? Columbia: Columbia UP, 1996. 164-199.

Tompkins, Jane. Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860. New York: Oxford UP, 1985. 

 Žižek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology. London: Verso, 1989.