Review of ‘states of fantasy’ by Jacqueline Rose

Reviewed by Marilyn Lake

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Living in Jeff Kennett’s Victoria, one can have little doubt about the place of fantasy in political life and the power of psychic investments and repudiations to shape the political destinies of parties, states and nations. Big Events, fast cars and other symbols of masculine potency seem to hold sway over large sections of the electorate. In her cleverly titled book, states of fantasy, Jacqueline Rose, Professor of English at the University of London, wants to place fantasy at the heart of our political vocabulary. She argues persuasively that fantasy plays a constitutive role in the modern world of states and nations, that international relations, like interpersonal ones, are illuminated and better understood in psychoanalytic terms; in terms of loss, yearning, resistance, in terms of ‘identities’ and other ‘protective fictions’.

Originating as the 1994 Clarendon Lectures in English at Oxford University, Rose reads a range of contemporary writings from Israel/Palestine, South Africa and England to elucidate the subjective, emotional, psychic components of political being and the connections between cultures. She discusses the work of, amongst others, Hebrew novelist Amos Oz, African Bessie Head’s A Question of Power, the South African psychoanalyst Wulf Sachs‘ Black Hamlet, Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Remains of the Day and Muriel Spark’sThe Mandelbaum Gate. One of the contexts here is the debate in English over ‘the canon’, whether the English should read and study literatures of ‘the old or new worlds’ – a misconceived distinction because the ‘other’ voices are already present, the literatures, like the histories being inter-connected. She reads the writers ‘politically’, not looking for espoused position or measurable effect, but in order to locate the points of uncertainty, to ‘follow internally to a single writer the clash of voices pitted, clamouring, against each other in the political world outside’. (p.36)

Rose is conscious that to yoke ‘fantasy’ and ‘states’ together in her analysis is to propose a ‘new theoretical turn’ and she goes to some length to justify her insistence on the role of fantasy in the realpolitik of international relations. Usually taken to be a private, perhaps illicit affair, fantasy is in fact ‘always heading for the world’. One cannot understand political identities and destinies without letting fantasy into the frame and Rose begins this account with her own much delayed visit to that ultimate state of fantasy, Israel. As a Jewish woman living in London she was confronted by the force of that nation-state’s desire:

“Going to Israel is to enter a country in yearning, one whose passions flow not only from people to homeland but also and just as powerfully the other way. This is a nation which desires its potential citizens – exiled, diaspora Jewry – to come home, with as much fervour as it banishes the former occupants of its land from their own dream of statehood.”(p.2)

Rose is pessimistic about the prospect of Israel agreeing to the idea of a bipartite state – the fierce and traumatized intensity of longing that went into its creation seems so recalcitrant, so unable or unwilling, to soften itself.

“Not all Israelis feel this, of course; there is a significant minority who for some time now have supported the idea of a bipartite state…But if you listen to one dominant rhetoric, it seems as if Israel cannot grant statehood to the Palestinians, not just because of felt real and present danger, but also because so great is the charge of fantasy against such a possibility that, were it to be granted, the nation would lose all inner rationale and psychically collapse in on itself.”(p.4)

Thus despite the progress since the Oslo accord, the state of Palestine remains that which cannot be named.

In writing of attachments to land and to the weight of desire which informs dreams of nationalist possession, Rose refers to the writings of the Palestinian lawyer Rajeh Shehadeh who speaks of ‘land pornography’: it is national desire which renders the citizens ‘land pornographers’. The case of Israel highlights the difficulties in any claim to land ownership, raising questions about the grounds for claims to possession. Urging us to recognise the histories we all carry, individual and collective, Rose argues that the lines that join ‘Lithuania to Israel/Palestine to South Africa’ remind us that there is no place of pure beginning, not historically, politically or culturally in the world.

Reading this in the present context of competing claims to ownership of Australia by Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples, I wondered about the Eurocentrism of this perspective. Unwittingly, did she highlight the grounds of Aboriginal people’s unique moral authority? Aboriginal Australia is/was precisely a place of pure beginning. This difference in the nature of indigenous claims to country has particular implications for the process of recognition and reconciliation here in this land.

But however different the grounds of claims to ‘land rights’ many Aboriginal people, like Jews before them, have opted to take on ‘the trappings of nationality as the sole path to recognition in the modern world’, a path fraught with fragility and intransigence. Rose asks whether the dispossessed can claim their legitimate rights without taking on the psychic trappings of the oppressor.

This stimulating book also contains essays on Englishness and the English tendency to ‘self-innocenting’; reflections on ‘the fantasy of justice’; the contradictions of national self-assertion and the distinction between identity politics and a politics of identification. It is a book that interweaves considerations of politics, culture, literature, psychoanalysis and ethics. It is psychoanalysis more focused on achieving understanding that effecting a cure, but it is convincing in its faith that acknowledgment, explanation and understanding are a precondition for our mutual accommodation.


Marilyn Lake is Professor of History at La Trobe University.

states of fantasy is published by Oxford University Press.

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