This essay examines how Slavoj Žižek’s conception of fantasy may open up new approaches for political, literary, and aesthetic criticism. Taking In Defense of Lost Causes (2008) as a case study, I demonstrate how Žižek’s method provides a much-needed consideration of form. Moreover, I argue that Žižek’s analysis illuminates historical and ideological elements that both positivistic historicism and traditional literary formalism necessarily miss. Working against critics who assail “paranoid” symptomatic criticism, I suggest that considering artwork in terms of fantasy shifts the terrain of historical analysis and, as a consequence, recalibrates what formal and political hermeneutics might entail. Such an approach provides a means to “return to the political” via a new perspective on the relation between art and historical context. I conclude by building on Žižek’s Lacanian conception of “autonomous ethics” to offer autonomous aesthetics as a way to conceive of this new orientation toward artistic and formal analysis.
A battle fought yesterday over the promises of emancipation and the illusions and disillusions of history continues today on aesthetic ground.— Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics