Melancholy is a failure to desire — Işık Barış Fidaner

Melancholy is a failure to desire. The ambiguity of this phrase is resolved by interpreting it two times.

1) First interpretation: “Melancholy is a failure to desire” in the sense of failing in desiring the objects of the world. This is the usual Žižekian definition of the melancholic as “the subject who possesses the object but has lost his desire for it, because the cause which made him desire it has withdrawn, lost its efficacy.” (Absolute Recoil) According to Žižek, “in this precise sense, melancholy (disappointment with all positive, empirical objects, none of which can satisfy our desire) is in fact the beginning of philosophy.” (Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?) So, for the (would-be) philosopher, all worldly objects are colored by the melancholy which indicates his loss of desire. But this melancholic world of the philosopher is framed in a masculine way because it relies on the exceptional element: “Melancholy colors everything but that!”. “That” is the impossible object of fantasy which is the true object of the melancholy, whereas the undesired worldly objects are merely colored by this melancholy without belonging to its process. This brings us to Agamben’s definition (on which Žižek relies) of melancholy as a simulated/staged loss of an impossible object:

[In melancholy,] if the libido behaves as if a loss had occurred although nothing has in fact been lost; this is because the libido stages a simulation where what cannot be lost because it has never been possessed appears as lost, and what could never be possessed because it had never perhaps existed may be appropriated insofar as it is lost. (Stanzas)

This means that the melancholy as a staged loss is productive of a great desire for the impossible object. The loss of desire in the worldly objects is in fact the form of appearance of an intense production of desire around the impossible object. Thus this first interpretation of “failure to desire” as a “loss of desire” is a masculine interpretation that privileges an exceptional impossible object that in fact fuels his desire.

2) Second (and true) interpretation: “Melancholy is a failure to desire” in the sense of staging a failure in order to fuel one’s desire. This second interpretation is feminine insofar as the impossible object no longer has a privileged exceptional status. Nothing is exempted from the melancholy. As a side effect of this femininity, her world cannot be clearly distinguished from the fantasies that take shape around impossibilities (the distinction of the “real world” from fantasies is the function of the Master-Signifier, which is structurally masculine). It is in this feminine sense that “Every desire is a melancholic desire” [1].

In the horizon of these two interpretations of melancholy, two kinds of mourning take shape: The symbolic mourning of monuments and commemorations defends the “real world” against the collapse of the privileged-exceptional impossible object; whereas the real mourning of the “loss of the loss” processes the fantasies (which constitute the fictional truth of reality) on behalf of the metonymy of desire [1, 2, 3].


Işık Barış Fidaner is a computer scientist with a PhD. Admin of Yersiz Şeyler (Placeless Things) blog, Admin/Editor/Curator of Žižekian Analysis, and one of the admins of “Žižek and the Slovenian School” group on Facebook. Twitter: @BarisFidaner


[1] See “Every desire is a melancholic desire”

[2] See “Authentic Fidelity is the Drive to Mourn”

[3] See “Symbolic Mourning and Real Mourning, Paranoia and Cynicism”



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