Freud introduces the fort/da game in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, in the context of a story about his 18 month old nephew. The child's favorite game is played with a spool tied to a length of string.
The boy throws the spool away while holding the end of the string, and says "Fort" (German for "gone"). He then pulls the spool back to himself, and says "Da" (German for "here").
Freud's claim: the game is symbolic (bet that comes as a shock), a way of working out his anxiety about his mother's absence, an exercise in control over object permanence.
In other words, when he throws the spool and said "Fort," he is staging the loss of a beloved object; when he reels it in and said "Da," he receives pleasure from the restoration of the object.
The phrase "fort/da game" is used widely in postmodern theories of many stripes to:
- invoke the notion of a symbolic algorithm of absence and presence in which the subject calls forth an absent object which he yo-yos around the text in order to fulfill a need (for absence and presence). Yes, the circularity is deliberate, that's the way to do the postmodern hokey-pokey.
The Original Text
From "Beyond the Pleasure Principle" (Standard Edition, Vol. 18, pp. 14-15)
This good little boy, however, had an occasional disturbing habit of taking any small objects he could get hold of and throwing them away from him into a corner, under the bed, and so on, so that hunting for his toys and picking them up was often quite a business. As he did this he gave vent to a loud, long-drawn-out "o-o-o-o," accompanied by an expression of interest and satisfaction.
His mother and I were agreed in thinking that this was not a mere interjection but represented the German word "fort'" gone. I eventually realized that it was a game and that the only use he made of any of his toys was to play "gone" with them. One day I made an observation which confirmed my view. The child had a wooden reel with a piece of string tied around it. It never occurred to him to pull it along the floor behind him, for instance, and play at its being a carriage. What he did was to hold the reel by the string and very skillfully throw it over the edge of his curtained cot, so that it disappeared into it, at the same time uttering his expressive "o-o-o-o."
He then pulled the reel again by the string and hailed its reappearance with a joyful "da" there. This, then, was the complete game - disappearance and return. As a rule one only witnessed its first act, which was repeated untiringly as a game in itself, though there is no doubt that the greater pleasure was attached to the second act. The interpretation of the game then became obvious. It was related to the child's great cultural achievement - the instinctual renunciation (that is, the renunciation of instinctual satisfaction) which he had made in allowing his mother to go away without protesting.