Fantastic mediations of the pre-ontological Real from Satan to “Star Trek”

So the gap that forever separates the domain of (symbolically mediated, i.e. ontologically constituted) reality from the elusive and spectral real that precedes it is crucial: what psychoanalysis calls ‘fantasy’ is the endeavour to close this gap by (mis)perceiving the pre-ontological Real as simply another, ‘more fundamental’, level of reality—fantasy projects onto the pre-ontological Real the form of constituted reality (as in the Christian notion of another, suprasensible reality). [1]

Žižek makes this claim about fantasy in The Ticklish Subject: the Absent Centre of Political Ontology. It is given concrete expression in the following excerpt from a farcical and fictional legal decision (pertaining to a dog’s entrapment in a public piece of modern art and the subsequent mutual accusations of the artist and the dog’s owners) printed in its entirety in William Gaddis’s 1994 novel A Frolic of His Own. The underlying presumption of the decision (that is to say, the residency regulations which the judge must observe) is that the physical presence of the defendant is necessary for the societal/ethical injunctions in question to be rightly imposed upon him. We must in other words have a material substance present in order for the injunctions of the social as such to produce the the material effects they are supposed to directly effect:

As was held in an earlier case before a district court in Pennsylvania, in which the plaintiff accused Satan of ruining his prospects by placing obstacles in his path, thereby depriving him of his constitutional rights, the complaint was dismissed for its failure to discover Satan’s residence within the judicial district, or instructions for the U.S. Marshal needed to serve the summons, and the failure to meet legal requirements necessary to maintain a probable class action, since the class would be so numerous that getting them all together for this purpose would be impractical. [2]

But what if the need for a physical defendant were dispensed with and we could simulate his trial and hanging to great simulated fanfare—producing an effective force not only despite but because of his being virtual (as “he” is really nothing other than the social consciousness of his wrongdoing, capture and punishment)? In that case his lack of materiality, lack of what we understand as being in the world, becomes the very source of his power: his paucity of being in the world yields an overflow of being able to induce action in the world—that is, his ability to affect material substance is positively correlated with his lack of materiality. The more elusive he is, that is, the more power he wields. This is precisely the role in which the west has cast Satan, but it is also the role in which the west has cast fantasy. Does fantasy’s ability to affect our makeshift “constituted” reality not increase as its claims become more fantastic—more ludicrous, more radical, more revolutionary—precisely as Satan’s power increases the less definable and less palpable, the more ubiquitous, he becomes? More, does not the west’s treatment of Satan, as an abstract negativity hung repeatedly, perpetually, spectacularly in abstentia and to great fanfare, not the same as the west’s treatment of fantasy, as a derided depository of our frustrated attempts to pin down a pre-ontological Real, a suprasensible reality of the sort that Christianity posits (generally for Žižek; specifically in the form of Satan in Gaddis)? Realizing a material Satan, getting our hands on the defendant, is impossible in the same sense that it is impossible to reach a “more fundamental” reality than the mutable makeshift account any given subject can construct of it.

A contemporary fantasy—that of Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s Armus, a tarlike entity created by the people of the planet Vagra II to absorb their immorality, hatred, violence, etc.—imagines one form of the obliteration that such impossible encounter with pre-ontological Real would occasion. Like the satanic and the fantastic, Armus is a repository of abstract negativity. But the Vargans, unlike the west, succeed in purging themselves of their abstract negativity and embodying it in the corporeal Armus. Material manifestation of the abstract, and thus objective access to a pre-ontological reality, is possible for the Vargans in a way that it is not for us; for us, access to such a reality would mean the dissolution of individual subjectivity and thus the annihilation of the subject. Unfortunately for the Vargans it means the same for them: Armus rebels.


the pre-ontological Real



[1] Žižek, Slavoj. The Ticklish Subject: the Absent Centre of Political Ontology. London: Verso, 2000 (1999). 57.

[2] Gaddis, William. A Frolic of His Own. New York: Scribner Paperback Fiction, 1995. 377.

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