Other Voices, v.1, n.3 (January 1999)
Copyright © 1999 by Jürgen Braungardt, all rights reserved
1. From Freud's Atheism to
Lacan's Discourse Analysis
God's name, "The Allmighty", reflects the response of man to that which "doesn't deceive - anxiety." Anxiety is produced by an encounter in the real. This experience, which has the potential to annihilate the subject, gets interpreted as an encounter with another subject, and thus receives a meaning retroactively. The name (El Shadday), which invokes the possibility of an ultimate protection, transforms the encounter with the real into something which is a consequence, and not a cause. Such is the power of the name: It inserts the subject into the real, and creates meaning from non-meaning.
Religion originates in this maneuver, because now the question becomes: Who is this Other? What does s/he want from me? The next step in the normalization of anxiety consists in the codification of the Other's will: It becomes God's Law.
The relationship between man and God's will, or his law, is at the core of the question of Western religion. Theology as a whole can be seen as an elaborate system to mediate this relationship.
What to do with the unknown intention of an absolutized Other? - This question can find different answers. Religious practice normalizes the relationship and thereby civilizes the human being, but it doesn't liberate it from the overwhelming consequences of God's existence. For the last three hundred years another answer is in preparation: Why not break out of the context of the question and free the subject from the law insofar as it appears as authority, and that means: in a personalized form?
The movement of Enlightenment philosophy attempted to unchain us from the guilt which results from the encounter with an omnipresent God and which leads to blind obedience: No authority except reason will be accepted. Self-referential figures of justification will be eradicated. Laws are acceptable only if they are translatable into functional rules, based on a universal homeostasis principle, which can only function if the uniqueness of individuals has been reduced to something commensurable. As a consequence of the Enlightenment philosophy, the subject abolishes itself by transforming into a machine, a product of its own scientific discourse. Is this the price which Enlightenment philosophy has to pay for the abolition of religion and the negation of the Other as authority figure?
Religion is a response to the primal experience of anxiety (or Hilflosigkeit, helplessness) when faced with the real. But because of its character as a defense it contains from the beginning the seed of its own abolition: God must die so that we can live fuller. Or, as the Buddhist saying goes, if you meet a Buddha, kill the Buddha!
The tribute for having articulated first the intrinsic connection between faith and its self-destruction belongs to Nietzsche. His parable of the madman, who proclaims that "God is dead", became an important theme of (Post-)Modernity. It reflects the split within religion by bringing it to an extreme. The story is highly ambiguous: Against a background of ignorance in the bystanders and spectators, the madman announces the novelty that mankind has succeeded in abolishing any external authority. "God is dead, and we have killed him." (2) And yet, the story only repeats the basic "absurdity" (Kierkegaard) of the Christian message: man crucified God, incarnated in Jesus Christ. Christian belief is an absurdity because it proclaims the end of religion. To believe in an incarnate God, a God who became mortal, forces the Christian to look at the world with the possibility in mind that God might not exist: etsi deus non daretur....
Psychoanalysis is a theory in which Enlightenment philosophy has come to its conclusion. It has brought us the realization that the abolition of authority - as desirable as it may seem - has some unforeseen consequences. Freud's notion of the oedipal conflict attempts to conceptualize the triangulation between the subject, it's desire for the mother (the origin of everything) and the intervening father who also has a libidinal investment in the mother and thus becomes the figure which represents conflict and prohibition for the subject. Prohibition creates a limit to enjoyment in the name of the "reality principle"; it therefore enlists reason and becomes the principle that regulates desire. Due to its origin in the individual history of the subject, this principle is always merged with the figure of the father. All Western religions glorify the submission to the father by creating a Father-God. In this way they mediate the acceptance of prohibition and of the reality principle. Their function is to bridge desire and the law.
Freud's basic question in relation to religion circulates around the nature of prohibition. What leads to drive renunciation? Why does it occur originally? What is the origin of the father's authority? Also: if access to enjoyment is limited, shouldn't it be limited for all? If so, does this not apply to the father himself, who comes to represent the law?
Freud's answer, which takes recourse to an anthropological theory of his time, claims that at the origin there was a murder of the primal father. This murder is according to Freud the missing link that explains the functioning of prohibition in the economy of the drives. The operational force in the psychic causality that leads to drive renunciation and to the move towards spirituality (3) is a primordial and unconscious guilt. A regulation of the Other's desire is therefore possible only when the Other is dead (the Lord's prayer is addressed to a "father in heaven"). For Freud it is the father's death that initiates the law and creates a religion.
Freud believed - more so towards the end of his life - that there is a truth in religion: not the "material truth", or the truth of the believers, but the "historical truth" - the truth which "exists" in the unconscious as a repressed memory and manifests itself in repetition. This implies however that for him the murder of the primal father had really happened - there must have been a corpse at some time. The parricide is forgotten (repressed); religion is the symptom formation that preserves the memory of it in an encoded form. Judaism, Christianity and Islam have the same "truth" (understood as "historical" truth), but differ in their respective symptom formations.
The theory of the murder of the primal father represents a point of origin where history and anthropology are still merged. This is in Lacan's eyes a problematic assumption, a Freudian myth. There is no body to be found. Lacan approaches the problem by stating that there is a discordance between the real and the ideal father. The real father's inability to live up to the ideal will motivate the subject to try to rescue him by accepting responsibility for his failure. This causes the primordial guilt Freud wanted to explain in "Totem and Taboo." Freud's impasse stems from the lack of distinction between the real father and the "paternal function." But how does Lacan explain the emergence of an ideal father, if he refuses to take recourse to the assumption of a truly existing God?
Lacan observes the parallelism between Nietzsche's and Freud's argument:
Freud, in his explicit atheism, is forced to construct a real cause in order to explain primordial guilt. Lacan responds with an interpretation: What motivates both Nietzsche's claim that God is dead and Freud's hypothesis of the murder of the primal father is the wish to find a "shelter against the threat of castration."
Lacan's solution then consists in a demythologization which returns us to the real possibility of castration and therefore to the reality of the father insofar as he is a real person who comes to be identified in the eyes of his children as the author of the law, or in Lacanian terms: as the origin of the symbolic order. Lacan turns the problem (where does spirituality originate?) into the solution: The speaking subject is itself a product of the symbolic order, and God is a pure signifier, without a corpse. What Freud tried to explain, the tendency in the development of religion towards monotheism, and in the individual's development towards more Geistigkeit, or spirituality, results from a difference of dimensions: the symbolic allows to mediate primordial imaginary conflicts, for example between fathers and sons. Lacan responds to Freud's historical-materialistic hypothesis with a structural theory, which makes Freud's speculation about the root of religion superfluous. Because Freud did not yet have a theory of the signifier he continued to look for actual events in order to explain the consequences of the (structural) constitution of the human being.
Although both Freud and Lacan reject an explicit belief in God, psychoanalytic reflection about religion does not necessarily lead to an atheistic position either. Lacan says about psychoanalysts: "We are answerable to no ultimate truth; we are neither for nor against any particular religion." (5) Lacanian psychoanalysis does not fit easily into traditional ontological categories because it wants to be an analysis of discourse and not a philosophical system. It treats religious belief as a symptom; this calls not for the negation of theological statements, but for the attempt to reveal the intellectualizations and delusions behind any kind of theology. When seen through the lens of psychoanalysis, theological discourse shifts into a discourse about theology. Neither Freud nor Lacan give any importance to theological arguments per se, and the question is: Once the psychoanalytic reflection has occurred, do we still have the need for a theology? What remains from theology after Lacan?
What exactly enables Lacan to resolve Freud's impasse in regards to religion? If we take a closer look we find that he reformulates the epistemological basis of Freudian psychoanalysis. His theory of the signifier allows him to replace the Freudian mythology of the primal father and of Oedipus with a structural explanation. The semiotic starting point leads to a reformulation of Freudian concepts without a direct deviation from or contradiction to Freudian theory. Lacan performs a renovation: he replaces the foundation of the theory, but retains the surface. The acceptance of the Freudian work as a whole is possible because the changed epistemological basis permits Lacan to articulate the inner logic of Freud's thought without getting caught in the impasses which would draw him into the fractionalization of the post-Freudian psychoanalytic schools.
Lacan clarifies Freud's concept of narcissism by
introducing a double-mirroring device. This allows him to elaborate a
dimension of the psyche which he calls the "imaginary." In his seminar
"Freuds papers on technique", 1953-54, he discusses these conceptual
improvements and presents the following optical device: (6)
Lacan points out that Freud himself suggested that the psychic apparatus should primarily be conceived of as a camera.
What the observer, symbolized with an eye, would see in the plane mirror, is the illusion of the flowers in the bouquet. In reality they are separated by the stand - the concave mirror produces the optical effect that gets returned to the location of the subject via the plane mirror. Applying this schema to the Freudian theory of narcissism one can say that the concave mirror, which stands for the first narcissism, or the ego-ideal, creates the effect of the unity of the subject. It is the narcissism connected with the form of the body, or the body image. The objects (vase, bouquet) would represent Freud's "partial drives." The plane mirror, which inverts the image once more, is the place of secondary narcissism, the place of the other. (7)
The narcissistic identification with one's own image in the Other, which leads to this confusion between ego and Other, is in Lacan's view the central psychic mechanism that structures the relationship between the subject and its world in general.
Lacan describes how animals are attracted to each other based on a Gestalt that is instinctually given to them. Their mutual attraction gives us the image of the "conjunction of the object libido and the narcissistic libido. In effect, each object's attachment to the other is produced by the narcissistic fixation on this image, because it is this image, and it alone, that it was expecting." (9) This thought implies that object libido and narcissistic libido do not coincide; what appears to be an object relation is a mutual narcissistic attraction: Love is always a demand for love.
In Lacan's mirror model the subject grasps itself first in the mirror image (in the plane mirror): It becomes aware of itself as a subject only insofar as it is a virtual reality. The formation of the Other and that of the ego are strictly correlative, and it is only through the Other as mirror that the subject is able to synthesize its own unity. This also means that the subject and the ego must be strictly separated. The ego, in this model, is nothing but a mirror image, an object in the mirror, a product of narcissism.
Freud had suggested finding a model of the human mind analogous to a camera, and Lacan constructed such a device. A camera creates the representation of an outside reality.
This remark has two intentions: It shows that there is a qualitative difference between the image as it appears and the image as physical configuration. This difference gets equated with the difference between the organic dimension of the psyche and the psychical process itself. Lacan therefore rejects a view of the mind-body process as based on an identity, as well as an epiphenomenal view of the psyche. To interpret the agencies by means of an optical schema means to interpret them in their relatedness. It is only on this metapychological - or, to use another terminology, on the "structural" - level that psychic agencies can be understood. Lacan's distinction of psychoanalysis from any "psychology" is based on such a structural view of the psyche. What other psychological theories would consider: experiences, feelings, subjective states, cognition, ego-processes, etc. are from a Lacanian point of view simply functions of the underlying structure, the de-essentialized mirages of our daily live experiences.
Is it possible for this model of the psyche to represent an external reality? How is a transgression of the structure possible? Lacan suggests replacing the plane mirror with a glass pane. The subject would still see itself, but also the objects behind the glass, overlapping. The real object and the imaginary object (ego) appear to us in the same place. The fact that the imaginary and the real act on the same level causes the confusion that leads among other things to the transference phenomenon.
The argument claims that our experience of the world is always mediated by the interplay between ego and Other. An immediate access to the real is not possible. This is a thought with fundamental consequences, because it negates the commonly held belief in the constancy and independence of the object world. It subordinates the world as it appears to us (12) to the economy within the dyadic unit ego/Other.
In the final consequence this line of thought basically reverses the original metaphor of a camera for the psyche: The camera becomes a projection device. The subject projects itself into the world, and it is within this frame that Freudian drive theory has to be understood. Freud's discovery of narcissism leads in Lacan's interpretation to a general theory of the hominisation of the world.
It explains the anthropocentrism in our worldview with a model of the constitution of the subject which is based on a structural version of Freudian drive theory. Lacan's later claim, to be able to show the central fault in philosophy, is already implicitly present in this reconceptualization of Freud's theory of narcissism.
The human subject emerges from the unity between mother and child. The mother is the first "mirror" for the child, but the symbiotic relationship will soon open up and give rise to the experience of loss. The loss is potentially life-threatening since the child receives its unity as subject through a process of identification with the mother. The child therefore begins to utilize a substitute for her presence - the mirror gets replaced with symbolic representations.
Freud describes how the child invents a game in order to play with the alternation of the mother's presence and absence.
Drive renunciation becomes possible because the child accommodates itself to the absence of the mother by creating symbols which can provide a substitute satisfaction. The symbolic representation of the mother bridges the alternation of her real absence and presence. Freud's question from "Moses and Monotheism": "How is drive renunciation possible?" can now be transformed into the questions: "What is the condition for the possibility of symbolic substitution, and how does this process function?"
Lacan's answer to the above question represents a major epistemological shift from Freud: Because words are the "things itself", they are the primary human reality. The human subject is from the beginning situated within a symbolic dimension; therefore symbolic substitution is possible. With this move, Lacan surrenders Freud's 19th century materialism. This allows a restructuration of the relationship between psychoanalysis and religion. The "thinking being" is from the beginning already situated in a symbolic universe, whose origin is not further questioned by Lacan. The beginning verses of the Gospel of John seem to echo through Lacanian theory. Words have to be taken first in their materiality, and not as carriers of a meaning which is constituted by their reference. The "things itself", or what exists in reality, are from a Lacanian point of view (which is in this regard similar to Kant's philosophy) a mere starting point for the process of mediation: They gain their value only insofar as they are embedded into the relationship subject/Other, from which they derive their symbolic meaning. The "signifier" is the mechanism which transfers this meaning onto the thing itself. The relationship of representation is reversed; things become the screen for the self-articulation of the subject in relation to the Other. The "thingness"-character of the world is embedded into a double dialectic: that of the subject and the Other, and, interwoven with it, the dialectic of presence and absence of the real, which is a negative and therefore irreconcilable dialectic: "Through the word, which is already a presence made of absence, absence itself comes to be named." (15)
To replace the mirror with symbolic representations, which all refer on the one hand back to the subject and on the other to the lost primary object, means to accept the loss of reality in itself (the Lacanian "real") as a condition for human existence. The symbolic is not a closed universe; in its totality it is already marked by its negative relation to the real and to the primary object. The "presence of an absence" translates into a tension and a dynamic which Lacan calls "desire." The ego is formed by what it lacks. Paradoxically enough, the loss leaves a mark which manifests itself in all human action and speech as an "over-determination", as an unfulfilled surplus-meaning. Human speech is in this view always saturated with desire. It is characterized by an absence, constantly trying to recall the lost primary object: "Speech is the mill-wheel whereby human desire is ceaselessly mediated by reentering the system of language." (16) The dialectic of presence and absence unfolds into a dynamic of speaking which is determined by the "drive destiny" (Triebschicksal) of the subject.
Lacan borrows the notion of "desire" from Hegel, for whom human desire was the "desire for another desire", therefore the foundation of self-consciousness, and, simultaneously, of the social realm. Lacan goes a step further and states that desire is first and foremost the "desire of the Other" - because, according to his mirror device, it is in the place of the Other where naming, identification, etc takes place. The subject's desire is not inherent, as Hegel might see it, but acquired, in an act of identification, from the Other. Because this identification is with necessity incomplete - the mirror image, through which the subject receives its own unity, is always outside of the subject - Desire is born as an insatiable longing for "something more", through which the subject articulates itself indirectly, in the surplus-meaning of its speech. From a psychoanalytic point of view, then, the philosophical and theological language, the play with "transcendence", all this is a manifestation of desire: an attempt to say what cannot be said, a chase for the intrinsically lost primary object.
The self-identification in the Other explains the famous fight to death in the Hegelian dialectic. In order to avoid the destruction of the Other (because somebody else is in the place where I want to be) as the only possible outcome of the imaginary relationship it must learn to substitute the Other with the symbol. This operation (Freud's primary repression) creates desire as the residue of the permanent displacement of the primary object. The guide beyond the imaginary - what leads out of the closed mirror-system - is the symbolic mediation within, we could say, the plane mirror, about what gets reflected and what can pass through: "It is through the exchange of symbols that we locate our different selves (mois) in relation to one another." (17) What regulates the imaginary relation between ego and Other is the symbolic dimension.
But where does it come from? What enables the introduction of the realm of the symbolic? Lacan rejects the solution of the early Chomsky - that language unfolds out of some innate structures within the brain who act like a language acquisition device: language, so Lacan, does not emerge from some other principle. It is its own principle.
The symbolic is not simply another dimension; it emerges from the interplay(s) between subject/Other and imaginary/real as an unfolding of the "category of thirdness" (19) according to a "rule of the game." The imaginary dimension cannot be reduced to a relation between entities - the relational category itself is foundational. Meaning emerges as a consequence of the relationship subject/Other, and this relational category - once created - overrides and determines the entities or objects that constitute it.
Lacan referred to Hegel's master-slave dialectic as the
mythical starting point of the symbolic order, and he argues that the
symbolic must already have been present in order to reach a pact between
master and slave: The imaginary is from the beginning framed by the
symbolic. The symbolic unfolds as a "rule of the game" in the dialectic
between the subject and its image in the Other, and it is present
originally not within the timeline, but as a structure of the
relationship. How does Lacan explain "structure", which is for him mostly
synonymous with "language"?
Lacan suggested the mirror device in his first seminar 1953/1954; at this level of theorization he was still using an intuitively clear model for the psyche. The model has limitations and leaves open questions. It already contains Lacan's three categories: the imaginary, the symbolic, and the real, but it does not allow to explicate them very clearly. The main elements around which Lacan constructs his later theories are all present: The subject, the signifier, the Other and the object. Lacan is a very clever and at times evasive theoretician: Philosophical problems get circumvented, resolved, or relegated to nonsense through a strategy of argumentation which is very careful about the burden of proof, and the motivation behind philosophical claims. Another Lacanian maneuver is the introduction of new parameters. The triadic model imaginary -symbolic - real is an example: it replaces the old nature-culture dichotomy, which allows him to resolve certain longstanding problems, i.e. the mind-body problem, (20) the question of immanence versus transcendence, and so on. Language and the theory of the signifier are becoming for Lacan the focus for his attempt to integrate these dimensions and to elaborate the psychoanalytic experience in relation and in contrast to traditional philosophical or theological thinking.
3.1 Structure and Sign: Saussure.
His "linguistic turn", which leads him away from intuitively clear models of the psyche, is mainly based on concepts from Ferdinand Saussure and from Roman Jacobson. Saussure differentiates between "langue", the system of language, and "parole", the individual realization of the system through speech. This distinction enables him to consider the system of language as a structure with its own set of rules, which exists only through the "parole", but governs the individual utterances. The approach was later called "structuralistic": A structure is a set of rules which can be characterized by three general traits: (21)
1) The rules complement each other in such a way that the system as a whole is complete and coherent.
2) This closed system allows the generation of an infinite number of new sentences and governs the transformation from one sentence to another.
3) It is a self-regulating system. It makes no appeal beyond itself in order to validate its functioning.
The elements by which the structure of language operates are signs. A sign for Saussure is the relationship between the concept and the sound-image which represents it, as between the concept of a tree and the word "tree." Like the two sides of a coin, the sign is the relationship between signifier and signified, and this relationship is arbitrary: there is no tree-like quality in the word tree. The arbitrariness separates the language-system (langue) from the realm of the signified and therefore preserves the structural aspect of the language-system. But this means that one has to differentiate now between the meaning of a sign (the signified) and its value: The word, as sign, derives its value from the embeddedness within the sentence; the overarching structure determines the value for each particular word: "Language is a system of inter-dependent terms in which the value of each term results solely from the simultaneous presence of the others." (22)
With this approach, Saussure moves from a word-centered thinking about language to a structural view, in which the basic unit of meaning is a sentence rather than a word, and in which the discrete elements of a sentence - the spoken words - get distinguished through the differences between them. (23) Signs function
By taking this view the first step to overcome the nominalism-realism debate is already done. The structure of language is prior to thoughts or discrete concepts, and also prior to the articulation through sounds, because it is purely a system of "differences without positive terms."
Lacan accepts Saussurean linguistics as a starting point to articulate his notion of a split subject further. (25) Although he borrows the expressions "signifier" and "signified" from Saussure, he completely reverses their common usage as a relation of reference between thing and word. Lacan adopts the Saussurean formula for the sign as , which stands for . By introducing the subject of the enunciation (the subject as speaking, not the ego) as a reference point for the signifier he can eliminate the representational relation within the sign. The bar which separates the signifier and the signified gains now a different meaning: It introduces a resistance to signification as a representational relation in which the signified is the determining factor.
Language allows a play with meaning, because words are the things itself for the human being, and because the subject is as such not signifyable within speech: The difference between the subject of the enunciation and the subject of the statement (the ego, or the image in the mirror) is not only irreducible, but creates a negative dialectic parallel to the split subject elaborated by the mirror device. The subject of the enunciation disappears in its own act of self-manifestation within the sentence.
The sign as literal meaning, ("what represents something for somebody") (26) becomes the material through which the subject represents itself for another subject. This self-representation of the subject can only be achieved through a signifier, and therefore Lacan can define the signifier with the formula that "a signifier ... represents a subject for another signifier." (27) The signifier is a metaphor for the subject.
The child's ability to play with meaning shows that signs are not determined by their signification, but constructed according to a logic of the signifier and of the subject.
What happens in this view to the traditional meaning of the sign? Joël Dor writes in his "Introduction to the Reading of Lacan":
Because the subject plays an integral part in the construction of the sign, signs in the traditonal sense cannot have any "meaning in itself", and Lacan can shift the weight within the structure of the sign to the signifier alone.
Lacan's re-interpretation of the Saussurean formula for the sign as a construction which "represents the intervention of the subject" leads him to call the structure of the signifier also an "algorithm." In mathematics an algorithm is a procedure for solving a complicated problem by carrying out a precisely determined sequence of simpler, unambiguous steps. What the borrowing of this notion then implies is an implicit logic: If "everything emerges from the signifier", then the structure of the signifier must be an algorithmic procedure whose operation "creates" the effect of signification according to an implicit logic, and not to an external reference.
In order to function as an epistemological starting point, the algorithm cannot in itself have any meaning. It articulates the process in which the subject inscribes itself into its own discourse. The algorithm describes the abolition of any "meaning of meaning": Meaning cannot be found on the level of the sign, because the signifier has preempted it. There is an irreducible alienation between the subject and its discourse, which Lacan expresses by saying that the subject is "split" between the subject of the enunciation and the subject of the statement. We have seen how the subject receives its identifications first through the Other; it can speak about itself, but by doing so it has become an object of its own discourse. Although the subject is born into a world of meaning, nothing of this "means" in the beginning (and sometimes in the end) anything to the subject. The signifier reduces the signified to "insignificant bagatelles" and gains its meaning solely through the embeddedness into the synchronic order of the signifying chain.
The bar now symbolizes that the access to the real through language is disabled. It is so fundamentally disabled that the algorithm itself is a "pure function of the signifier." Reading texts in this way strips them of their conventional meaning.
In order to illustrate this fundamental shift in the understanding of a signifier Lacan uses an example which he introduces by these two pictures:
The left picture illustrates the classic understanding of the relationship between signifier and signified. The right picture illustrates Lacan's replacement. Distinctiveness is no longer on the side of the signified but is carried into the signified by the system of signifiers: the terms have complementary meanings and built a closed and differentiated totality, which then gets imposed onto the signified. In this way language does not represent, but rather imposes an order: Language, by its mere functioning, introduces a law.
The "silencing" of the nominalist debate consists in reversing the entire relation of reference: Instead of representing the thing for the knowing power, the signifier accesses the signified and subjects it to the law of sexual differentiation. The law inscribes itself as a difference, and thus constitutes the signified as such. Meaning is in this perspective produced from the signifier alone; "insisting" within the sentence, instead of pointing to a reality beyond.
Lacan says about the chain of signifiers which form actual discourse, that "the meaning 'insists', but that none of its elements 'consists' in the signification of which it is at the moment capable. We are forced, then, to accept the notion of an incessant gliding of the signified under the signifier..." (33)
It indicates that language cannot grasp the real: there is no direct structural mediation between language and the real; the reality in which we live emerges from the structure of our language. We have seen that the symbolic came into existence originally as a substitute for the lost unity with the mother - it was a presence made from absence. This leads to drive renunciation and the development of symbolic systems because the substitute satisfaction granted by the symbolic order is more stabile than the dependence on external gratification.
Lacan does not deny the existence of something real, but the primary function of language is not its reproduction. The signifier's impossibility to represent is the condition for the functioning of human discourse. Language becomes human when it has an autonomy from literal meaning; only then can it signify something other than what is actually being said.
Lacan adopts Levi-Strauss' widening of the Saussurean
structuralism to anthropology and claims that cultural meaning-systems
(including religion) are all based on the same effect. They veil the
unavoidable alienation of the human being in this world (which is, if not
for anything else, at least produced through the human's knowledge of its
own death) - and produce the effect of a meaning which - like a Fata
Morgana - seems to lie beyond words but is in fact only produced
through language itself. Meaning arises out of non-meaning; the symbolic
order produces it.
4. The Signification of the Subject
The question which can be raised at this point is obvious: If meaning is not grounded in an objectively existing world, how is the particularity of any signification then possible? In order to answer this Lacan introduces the "anchoring point." Signifiers interrupt the sliding of the signified and create a punctuation or an anchoring, and the reasons for this lie within the subject, as Lacan further elaborates in the essay "Subversion...." A theory of the subject needs to be introduced in order to give a sufficient answer to the question concerning the origin and the unfolding of meaning. "But this whole signifier can only operate, it may be said, if it is present in the subject." (34)
How does the signifier represent the subject in the signifying chain? What stops the gliding of the signified and creates the experienced meaning? If the signifier unfolds according to an algorithmic logic, then it still has to enter the signified at some point. In linguistic terms: If the value of a sign within the sentence is dependent on all the other signs, then the whole structure receives its meaning only retroactively when the sentence is completed. Lacan also gives a graphical representation of his notion of the anchoring point.
The line from S to S' represents the signifying chain, and the line from D to $ the anchoring point, which he compares with a fish-hook. This first "graph of desire" which Lacan also calls the "elementary cell" (35) shows in a simplified form the connection between the subject and language. D represents the subject in the real, which constitutes itself as split subject $ by intersecting with language twice: The first crossing (on the right side) is the first encounter with the "treasure of the signifier", or, if we go back to the mirror device, the encounter with the Other. This is the endpoint of speech, where the symbolic references get fixated, and from which everything which was said before receives its meaning retroactively. The second crossing then represents the "punctuation in which the signification is constituted as a finished product." (36)
What Lacan wants to demonstrate with this fish-hook is the way in which the subject emerges as a result of the linking of Saussure's diachronic and synchronic dimensions of language. He notes that there is a "dyssymmetry" between the left point, which he symbolizes with the formula s(O), or signifier of the Other, and the right point, symbolized as "O" for the Other. "O" is "a locus (a place, rather than a space)", and s(O) is a "moment, (a rhythm, rather than a duration)." (37)
In order to delineate the structure, a speaking subject is necessary. The completed message can be found at s(O), the left intersection, which symbolizes the signification as a finished product.
The dimension of truth opens up only in the relation between the message and the Other. The Other is understood as the "locus of Speech", or the "witness to the Truth." (38) It is the place where the structural totality of language took the place of the lost primary object, the mother.
Lacan says that "it is from the Other that the subject receives even the message that he emits." This is indicated in the arrow which runs from O to s(O). The consequence of this dyssymmetry is a re-orientation of the dimension of truth: Truth is not situated in the relationship between speech and reality, but in the relationship between subject and Other.
It is from the Other that the subject receives its determining signifiers. Lacan points out that as a consequence of this constitution of the subject humans can "pretend to pretend", while animals cannot. To anticipate the response of another human being in one's own behavior is only possible if the subject is subjected to the signifier in the way outlined above. The negative dialectic between the subject of the enunciation and the subject of the statement, which is a condition for human discourse, leads to an alienation of the subject from itself: It cannot be its own cause, nor can it know its own being. This is an argument with theological implications:
The only other way to conceptualize God, if s/he cannot be a subject, is as pure signifier. We will return to this question later on.
If alienation is structural, then how can the subject be represented by the signifier at all? Or in other words: How can it recognize itself in the Other? Lacan's answer: the nature of these identifications is to be understood in analogy to rhetorical figures. (41) The signifier is already a metaphor for the subject, as the formula "a signifier ... represents a subject for another signifier" expresses.
The graph demonstrating the anchoring point does not take recourse to an external reality. The signifier which represents the subject unfolds according to its implicit algorithmic logic; the context of meaning develops from this initial punctuation in a vertical direction:
Signifiers, if they are barred from any direct representation of "things", can nevertheless refer to other signifiers. This allows the vertical unfolding of meaning which Lacan sees equivalent to a poetic orientation of language. As poetry demonstrates, human speech has meaning on several levels. This vertical branching out is achieved by the two main semantic figures of metaphor and metonymy; it never reaches a final destination. There is always more which can be said.
The vertical unfolding of signification is achieved through metaphor and metonymy, two stylistic figures which Lacan borrows from Roman Jacobson's linguistic analysis of speech:
Freud's method of dream-interpretation is in Lacan's eyes already a structural analysis, because he considers the dream-material to be a form of speech. Freud found the mechanisms of distortion (Entstellung), condensation (Verdichtung), displacement (Verschiebung), and representability (Darstellbarkeit). Lacan reduces these elements with the help of Jacobson's linguistic theory to two: metaphor (condensation) and metonymy (displacement). He also widens the applicability of these mechanisms to all aspects of human behavior, including speech. Every human action has a semiotic dimension; it can be seen as a signifier which represents the subject. The ability to serve as a signifier for the subject is unrelated to the type of behavior or the direct content of speech.
A trope or figure of speech is a non-literal use of a word or a phrase. The literal meaning gets appropriated in order to express "something quite other than what it says," which is always the subject in its precarious state of being excluded from the signifying chain. By borrowing mechanisms of classical rhetoric and conflating them with Jacobson's dimensional analysis of language (paradigmatic - the selection of terms, or the vertical unfolding - and syntagmatic - the combination of terms, or the forward-movement of the signifying chain - ) Lacan finds a way to combine a psychoanalytic theory of the subject with a theory of language.
The borrowing from rhetoric is not coincidental. Our question had been: If the representational relation between signifier and signified is reversed, how is the emergence of meaning possible? How does the signifier (representing the subject) "enter" the signified, or what creates the connection? Lacan is careful about the way he links the subject and the signifier. He must avoid rules which imply a causality of any kind, but he still wants to allow a description of the functioning of the subject. Freud discovered the unconscious, for example in phenomena like dreams or repetition, and interpreted it with the tools available to him. His psycho-physical materialism leads to difficulties in the notion of the drive, and reduces the subject to a type of machine. It is indicative for Freud's genius that he always outgrew his own theoretical explanations. Lacan's utilization of linguistic and rhetoric avoids the mechanistic consequences but still allows a conceptualization of the functioning of the unconscious. It is "...structured like a language", and therefore rhetorical figures are much more useful to analyze it.
Metonymy is the figure which results from the combination of terms, their "lowest common denominator, ...the small amount of meaning" (46) which is produced by this combination. Metonymy thus results from the fact that signification can always only refer to another signification.
In Lacan's formalization of these definitions he expresses metonymy as follows:
f(S.....S') @ S (¾ ) s. In this formula S....S' represents the combination of signifiers along the syntagmatic axis of language. The second part, "S (¾ ) s" expresses the signifier's inability to cross the bar, or, in Lacan's words, the "maintenance of the bar." (47) The signifying function of the interconnection of signifiers is equivalent to the maintaining of the bar which separates signifier and signified. The reference from one signifier to another signifier is not enough to cross the bar; but this referential dimension itself carries with it a quality of promise or expectation which is equivalent to desire. On the level of the signifying chain it remains unfulfilled; a substantial object relation remains excluded, and therefore Lacan can say that this figure makes it clear that the signifier installs a lack-of -being into the object relation.
As usual, Lacan radicalizes the traditional meaning of metonymy insofar as he excludes the referents from the definition: metonymy is produced by the connection of signifiers alone; as their lowest common denominator. It is not longer a part for the whole, or a cause for the effect, etc.
"Metaphor" describes the process of signifying substitutions along the paradigmatic axis of language. The possibility of a signifier to refer to another signifier opens the possibility for substitutions which Lacan formalizes as follows:
f () S @ S (+) s. The expression indicates the replacement of one signifier through another signifier; this is equivalent with the crossing of the bar (+) in the creation of signification. Traditionally, metaphor is defined as a replacement of a word or phrase through another; thus expressing a similarity between the two referents. Again Lacan radicalizes the traditional meaning by excluding the relation to the signified from the definition. Metaphor is a substitution of signifiers, whereby the substituted signifier becomes the signified element and moves below the bar. This is meant by the crossing of the bar. Because of this one could say that metaphor is the trope which "occurs at the precise point where meaning occurs in non-meaning." (48) Metaphor thus is the figure which describes the advent of meaning.
Lacan's formula: "...a signifier is that which
represents the subject for another signifier" (49) can now be understood as follows: If the subject is
the possibility of speech, and speech is nothing but a signifying chain,
then the relation between signifiers is always the subject itself. Insofar
as the subject is caught in the signifier (as "I") it is alienated from
itself. The sliding of meaning, both vertical and horizontal along the
axis of speech, is a direct result of the negative-dialectical
relationship between signifier and subject. Lacan's elision of the
referent in his definitions of metaphor and metonymy is only possible
because he emphasizes the subject as the only acceptable tertium
comparationis in relation to the signifiers. It is possible to see at
this point the relatedness between Lacan's theory and theological
discourse: One simply has to replace the subject with God, and the
signified with the world or the human being! The conjecture is possible,
then, that Lacanian theory (and maybe psychoanalysis in general)
secularizes theological discourse and transforms it into a discourse about
the subject and the signifier: God reveals himself in texts which are
called sacred, and the subject reveals itself in speech. That leaves for
the psychoanalyst the role of a priest, not longer interpreting God's
word, but the unconscious?
The theoretical frame, which we have so far elaborated, is used by Lacan to examine Freud's notion of the Oedipal complex and of the function of the father. Lacan shows that Freud's Oedipal complex is itself an application of the structure of the signifier. It can therefore be reduced to a metaphoric substitution.
The father intervenes in the relationship between mother and child, insofar as he - from the child's perspective - wants the mother himself. This interest - as perceived by the child - functions as an explanation for the mother's absence. Insofar as the father symbolizes the necessity for drive renunciation he stands for the prohibition of desire; insofar as he becomes the principle of substitution he opens an exit from the impasse of prohibition of desire towards the mother.
The paternal metaphor - later the "Name of the Father" - is so important because it initializes the metaphoric process for the individual. If the process fails, metaphoric substitution - the generation of meaning - is disabled or damaged. The result is a psychotic structure. In his article "On the possible treatment of Psychosis," Lacan suggests a formulation of the metaphoric process which is a variation of the formulation above.
and are signifiers; the metaphoric substitution leads to the elimination of $'. The substituted signifier $' becomes the signified and moves under the bar. S is the signifier, or rather the function of the signifier, (S () ), which consists in positing a term (I) on a bar resisting signification. The small s under the bar indicates that which is signified; this "meaning" is strictly produced through the substitution of $' with S. x, the unknown signification, or the primordial meaning, has disappeared. A signifier, taken as sign, is therefore always already a metaphor. Non-metaphoric speech is only possible as a formula describing an empty structure. In this type of speech there is no meaning, because there is no subject. With such formulas, which Lacan later calls "mathems", one remains on the synchronic level of language. Lacan's formulas require interpretation, which becomes itself metaphoric speech, necessary for the appropriation of the formula.
The second formula for metaphor can be applied directly to the Oedipal constellation:
The absence of the mother (The Fort-Da game from above) raises the question of her desire, which is, from the child's perspective, linked to the existence of the father. The signifier of the father (his name) comes to replace the desire of the mother, which Lacan signifies with the notion of the phallus. (51)
The metaphoric replacement of the object of desire with the "Name of the Father" leads to the repression of the phallus - it becomes a signified and appears underneath the bar in the Other. The Name of the Father is supported by a phallic signifier in the place of the Other. Since the Other is a place which is structurally closed to the subject, but also the "treasure of the signifier", speech is driven by the insistence of signifiers for the phallus, which operate unconsciously. In other words: We struggle to be it (man), or to have it (woman), namely the phallus, or what the mother desires. In speech we constantly try to name the lost primary object, but this object of desire remains forever elusive. The fullness of meaning can never be reached, and this is certainly true for theological language as well.
The "paternal metaphor" stands for the initialization of the structure of metaphor itself. It describes the embodiment of metaphor in the subject, because it writes the metaphoric process directly into the very constitution of the subject.
The father's intervention in the mother-child relationship comes to be a prohibition as well as an opening. Lacan says that the "true function of the father ... is fundamentally to unite (and not to set in opposition) a desire and the Law..." (52) In reality, however, this process does oftentimes not succeed, and the discrepancy between the real father and the paternal function leads to neurosis.
In the given formalization for the Oedipal situation the father operates as a signifier which replaces the desire of the mother. The Name of the Father is therefore the first signifier for the subject. Lacan differentiates the role of the father according to his three dimensions real, imaginary and symbolic. Only as symbolic father does he represent the authority of the law, and this function coincides more or less with the real father.
The discordance between the symbolic and the real father is essential for an understanding of the individual neurotic structure. Castration (the lack of the phallus) is the outcome of the introduction of the Name of the Father, and it can now be understood as a (symbolic) debt towards the real father, because the subject will come to defend the real father (even for the price of neurotic suffering) against the symbolic father. This is the source of the guilt which Freud observed as operative in the formation of religion. Castration is not a lack in the real (this would be privation, i.e. the absence of a penis in the woman), but a symbolic lack, which is caused by the phallus as an imaginary object.
With the introduction of the symbolic father, "he who is ultimately capable of saying 'I am who I am'", Lacan enters theological terrain. It becomes clear that Freud's struggle to explain guilt and the principle of drive renunciation with the "historical truth" of a murder of the primal father results from his lack of a theory of the signifier. Freud's dead father is Lacan's symbolic father.
It is easy to see how the emergence of religion and the creation of a monotheistic Father-God both rely on the creative function of signification which is based on the first substitution - that of the mother's desire with the Name of the Father. Religion "speaks the truth" by transposing a structure into the imaginary dimension. For Lacan, the truth of religion would therefore not be "historical", but "structural." Theology for the most part follows religion by taking the imaginary as the real and attempting to rationalize it. Therefore neither Lacan nor Freud see any importance in theology as such, although their theories are full of theological allusions.
Francois Regnault, a Lacanian commentator, expresses the new-found importance of religion in those words:
6. The Signifier of a Lack in the Other
In order to arrive at a full Lacanian theology of the signifier it would be necessary to take another step. It would have to be shown that the symbolic function, the principle of self-authentication in statements like "I am who I am" is based on the existence of a subject in the real. If the Other would exist, a verification of statements of authority would be possible. But Lacan denies such a possibility, and demonstrates that the signification of the subject only implies the necessity that the set of signifiers contains a signifier of a lack in the Other. This concept of a "signifier of the lack in the Other", in short S(Æ ), plays an important role in the relationship between Lacanian theory and theology.
Lacan introduces this concept S(Æ ) in the fourth "graph of desire" in his article "Subversion...." We have already seen the first graph, which represented the anchoring point for the connection between the subject and the signifier.
The completed graph has an upper level, which symbolizes the dimension of the unconscious. It runs parallel to the signifying chain, producing a surplus of meaning for the message constituted at s (O).
Lacan describes this dimension as an unconscious process which moves from "castration" to jouissance as its condition of possibility. Jouissance is a term which describes the fantasy of a primary satisfaction, before any experience of loss. This "surplus-enjoyment" (an enjoyment experienced beyond the fulfillment of need, a pure pleasure or bliss) is permanently unavailable for the speaking being as such, because the primary object is lost. The vector below therefore points towards castration, which symbolizes the loss of jouissance. This is also the reason why the upper level is structured parallel to the signifying chain. The vectors do not converge; desire and demand remain separated for the subject. The small d stands for the demand of the subject. This demand originates from the place of the Other, because the subject needs language in order to formulate what it wants (its need). This process of translation of the need to demand is really an alienation, because the desire of the Other overwrites the subject's demand, as we have seen in the mirror device. What emanates from the place of the Other is therefore the question "What do you want?", through which the subject receives its own message back in an inverted form. One has to answer, but by answering the true intention gets lost. The left-over product in the determination of the subject's demand, the unconscious motivation, is the subject's desire.
Lacan notes that the notion of "drive" was created and mapped into the organic in order to articulate a demand without a subject - because the subject's need is structurally alienated in the Other. What remains, the subject's desire, can articulate itself only as an alienated, hence unconscious, voice. Drive represents desire via the body because desire is separated from the subject of the statement. Lacan says about the relationship between the subject of the unconscious and the drive that it
The expression "$à o", found on the left side of the graph, is Lacan's formula for the basic fantasy which keeps the two sides of the subject together. "$" symbolizes the split subject, and "o" stands for the object of the drive, (57) or the "cause of desire." Fantasy provides a scenario where the subject can imagine itself not to be castrated, a scenario where the unconscious desire is fulfilled, thereby allowing a limited jouissance.
Religion can be seen as such a collective fantasy, a shelter against the real, where a sphere is imagined in which salvation can occur and where the subject is whole again, united with the cause and the object of its desire, the creator itself.
The unconscious determination, Freud's "other scene", or his primary process, manifests itself in the over-determination of speech. The fact that the intention of the speaker is oftentimes disparate, breaks down, gets diverted, or contradicts itself indicates the workings of another process in the speaker, a message which is in conflict with the speaker's intention.
The completed message on the lower level,, or s (O), is the material ("words are the things itself", see above) for an unconscious signification, emerging from S(Æ ). In the vector from S(Æ ) to s (O) we find again the structure of the signifier, where the unconscious meaning is produced in the manifest meaning of the message. But why S(Æ ) and not a signifier of the Other, S (O)?
Lacan gives several answers to the question. We have already found one: If signifiers do not function as representatives of the signified, they can only be self-authenticating: "I am who I am." This led us to the function of the symbolic father. Self-authentication, by its very principle, is pure: The reference must be empty, no external recourse can be permitted. Therefore the algorithmic structure of the signifier, and therefore monotheism. This notion of the signifier excludes the possibility of a meta-language, or the existence of an "Other of the Other." (58)
Lacan produces in the "Subversion..." text a second answer, in which he transgresses the linguistic argumentation towards an algebraic method.
The subject needs to be recognized by an Other in order to be a subject. But what is the status of this Other? If the signifier represents the subject, then the question arises: representation for whom? Lacan's answer: for another signifier, requires a special signifier in the set of signifiers. If the other signifier (for which the subject is represented) would simply be a signifier of the Other, or S(O), then Lacan would face a regressus ad infinitum: The act of signification could not be elaborated further. He therefore argues that a signifier is present in the signifying chain which is as such inexpressible, but which produces signification. This signifier allows all the other signifiers to represent the subject. This signifier is not in itself a subject, but allows the subject to be: It signifies nothing, and therefore it manifests the structure of signification. Only such a signifier of a lack allows the emergence of the subject because it "is" something from nothing.
This empty element in the set of signifiers allows only one conclusion: That there is a lack in the Other which concerns its very existence: the Other does not exist.
In order to symbolize that the subject is faced with a lack in the Other which causes its own lack of being in relation to itself, he produces the following formula: (62)
As he himself admits, this pushes the distortion of Saussure's algorithm to the limit, but it serves extraordinarily well to demonstrate his point. In order to reach the result, one has to multiply the "signified" with the "statement", which is based on the assumption that from the perspective of the subject of the statement it is identical with its being: It signifies what it is. This produces an s2 for the signifier in question (S = s2). Equating S, the signifier of a lack in the Other, with the (-1), the conclusion shows what the subject lacks in order to be complete: . This happens to be also the definition for i, the mathematical unit for imaginary numbers.
Imaginary numbers are impossible in terms of regular number theory: Any number, when squared, is positive or zero. Because of this, the root of a negative number cannot exist in a strict sense. Their introduction into mathematics became necessary because certain equations could not be solved unless one accepted "complex numbers", numbers which are composed of a real part and an imaginary part.(63)
This elaboration of the theory of the subject with the help of number theory underscores that the subject of the enunciation, or the subject of the unconscious, which is the condition for the possibility of the signifying order, is itself impossible to grasp for the "I", or the subject of the statement, located in this signifying order. The speaking subject is at the same time determined by and excluded from its own unconscious.
There is hardly a stronger way to express "the radical eccentricity of the self to itself with which man is confronted." (64) The eccentricity requires a mediation, which can not be achieved by the subject alone: It requires the locus of the Other, a virtual place, like the inside of a mirror, and hence signifyable only by a lack.
At this stage of the text Lacan turns to the Christian solution to this problem: If the Other's (God's) (65) existence cannot be proven with the proofs for the existence of God, then the believer can still love him, hoping that faith, as a longing that fills the absence of a divine presence, will at some point cause God's self-revelation. The love for God, then, would anticipate his "existence." But Lacan calls this "too precarious a solution." (66)
Lacan's answer to the question "what is the subject of the unconscious," if, what is unthinkable for the subject, is its own being, can then only be this:
"'I' am in the place from which a voice is heard
clamouring 'the universe is a defect in the purity of Non-Being'." (67) The theory of the signifier comes
to rest only in a theory of jouissance, a jouissance which
supersedes Being because Being is defective.
One can roughly distinguish three phases in Lacanian theory: the early stage, characterized by his double-mirror device, in which he emphasizes the imaginary dimension and tries to differentiate between the imaginary and the symbolic. This is his Hegelian period; his theory still uses intuitive models. The metaphors to explicate the fundamental psychic conflicts - between the ego as opposed to the subject, the Other, the role of the drives, etc. - are easy to understand and are arranged around the central Freudian insight into the fundamentally aggressive side of the human nature.
The second phase is a linguistic elaboration of the same issues. After it becomes clear to him that the symbolic dimension overrides and determines the imaginary he begins to develop the concepts of the signifier, of metaphor and of metonymy. This is the period where he develops the concept of the paternal metaphor, which evolves out of the concept of the Other and reformulates the line in the evolution of Freud's thinking which leads from narcissism to the superego. During this period he moves to a stricter formalization of his theory and replaces optical, intuitive models with more abstract mathematical formulas. The linguistic phase contains the central part of Lacan's epistemological transition; psychoanalytic theory emerges as a new founding discipline; superseding traditional philosophy, theology, and science. A paradigmatic shift for all sciences has occurred due to the discovery of the field of the unconscious.
In the third and last phase Lacan leaves linguistic theory behind (without ever breaking with it) and begins to utilize topological models which are non-intuitive. A simple example of this is the Moebius strip as a model for the relationship between consciousness and the unconscious. The most famous structure of this period is the Borromean knot; a model of the relationship between the dimensions of the real, the imaginary, and the symbolic.
It seems that one of the driving forces for the move towards these highly abstract models for the psyche is the observation that closed systems are never completely closed. Gödel's theorem, the qualities of numbers, all this indicates that the symbolic itself has a defect, or contains something real which is not symbolizable. This "remainder" in a way causes the return of the repressed and forces Lacan to attempt new theorizations of the field discovered by psychoanalysis, which, not without reason, move from the imaginary to the symbolic and then to the real.
The "Subversion..." article is a landmark essay for Lacan, because from then on he develops the opposition between jouissance on the one side and the pleasure/reality principle on the other side systematically. To articulate the dimension of jouissance requires that he addresses the question of being and of the real. "Reality is approached with the mechanisms of jouissance. This does not mean that jouissance is prior to reality." (68)
The emphasis on the notion of jouissance becomes necessary as a result of the desubstantialization of the subject and the being of the subject. From 1960 on, when he publishes "Subversion...", he reworks drive theory into a unified theory of jouissance. In his seminar 20, 1972-73, which is published only in French under the title "Encore", there is a passage where he summarizes his position in relation to the subject very clearly:
He makes it his task in "Encore" to reposition the Other, the signifier and Being in relation to jouissance. In this text we can also find a Lacanian interpretation for some of the major elements of the Christian religion.
7.1 Original Sin and the Hatred for God
It is the lack in the Other which calls for a substitution which would "fill" it. God is an almost necessary response to the lack in the Other. God represents an (imaginary) closure for the lack. Heaven becomes a place of jouissance which is as such inaccessible for the subject. The belief in the reality of heaven reconciles the subject with the existence in an imperfect world.
The explanation Lacan advances in "Encore" in relation to religion utilizes the following argument: Fantasy is the only form in which the subject can experience a limited jouissance; it is therefore used as a refuge from reality. This basic fantasy will be defended at all cost (including the subject's life) because it is a form of enjoyment. This explains the stability of neurotic structures and the overwhelming force of repetition compulsion, which is observable in people who repeat the traumas of their lives over and over again. Herein lies the reason for Freud's assumption of a death drive.
The attempt to rescue the Other falls into the same category of the defense of a fantasy. For example in the concept of original sin:
Original sin is another word for the state in which access to jouissance is forbidden, in which the human being is excluded from paradise and deprived from the primary object of satisfaction. To frame it as "original sin" is however already a questionable hypothesis: it implies that the subject assumes the responsibility for the lack of jouissance in order to make it possible for the Other to exist.
The attempt to rescue the Other is also operative in the emergence of neurotic guilt: The subject takes on the burden of defending the real father from his failure to be ideal; the idealization can be understood as an imaginarization of the symbolic function. Just like in original sin, the subject takes the failure upon itself in order to maintain the fantasy of an ideal father. This translates into neurotic guilt and the emergence of an athletic superego which demands the renunciation of jouissance. This prohibition of jouissance however comes too late: since it is not the law which limits jouissance but the pleasure principle itself, (71) the super-ego prohibition really serves another task: It hides the fact that jouissance is already excluded and nourishes the neurotic illusion that jouissance would be possible if it were not forbidden. This (neurotic) maneuver masks the nonexistence of the Other. It creates the neurotic's desire to transgress the limit.
The "truth" in Freud's and Nietzsche's motive of the murder of the primal father or of God consists in the fact that they state the non-existence of the Other by saying that the Father/God is dead. Their error is the assumption that he had existed at some point in time. In this error, neurotic guilt re-asserts itself again.
Lacan turns the same argument in one further move against the Christian idea that Jesus rescued mankind by accepting his death in order to deliver us from sin:
In the eyes of the believer, Jesus proves by sacrificing his life that God exists. In this way he himself becomes the Other, the founder of a religion. But there is also another side-effect of this Christian belief: The crime for which he was crucified was his claim to be the Messiah. If the Other doesn't have to be rescued, or, if the subject does not have to feel guilty for someone else's failure, it would put the blame for the lack of jouissance onto the Other. God, if he existed, would be faced with an enormous rage:
The hatred for God has several reasons: It is a defense against jouissance, but it is also directed against a God who - as the symbolic Other of the Law - excludes us from jouissance, and it is a hatred for the Other insofar as he holds the key to who I am.
Too much jouissance is deadly; it leads to an overstimulation of the subject which can easily cause a state similar to a psychotic breakdown. Lacan interprets mystical experiences as such a breakdown of the defenses against jouissance: "It is clear that the essential testimony of the mystics is that they are experiencing it but know nothing about it." (74) Since jouissance is "...forbidden to him who speaks as such" (75) the mystical experience occurs when the real and the imaginary dimension begin to interact directly, without the mediation of the symbolic (without a sense of guilt); and as a result the mystic cannot tell us what s/he experienced.
To construct God in the place of the Other has also the function of providing a relief for the subject's aggressiveness that results from the unavoidable imaginary conflict between subject and Other:
It is convenient to have an Other who is all-forgiving and merciful. The truth, that the Other doesn't exist, is therefore met with resistance. It is as if one threatens to remove the mirror in which the subject recognizes itself as ego and which anchors its world. Plato's cave parable already tells us that the philosopher, who wants to bring the truth to the prisoners in the cave, will be threatened by his fellow men. Socrates had to take poison, and Jesus was crucified. The theme is always the same: Somebody has to die or be sacrificed so that the others can continue to live in the ignorance and forgetfulness of their lives. Lacan calls this a "passion for ignorance": "Therefore I say that the imputation of the unconscious is a deed of incredible mercy. They know, they know, these subjects." (77)
A central event in the development of Western philosophy and theology was the merger between Christian theology and Greek philosophy. This leads to conceptions of God as the highest being and opens the problematic of the relationship between God and being. The philosopher who created a synthesis on the basis of a theism, which lasted for almost nine centuries, is Thomas Aquinas, for whom Lacan has great respect. (78) Lacan elaborates his critique of scholastic philosophy on the basis of his rejection of the adequation theory of truth: To conceptualize being as thinking (das denkende Sein, or Seinsdenken, Heidegger) is a result of the erroneous assumption that there "is" an adequation between being and thought. (79) Lacan gives a simple example (it seems to be borrowed from Wittgenstein) which demonstrates that thinking "exists" in a distance from that which is thought about, but that our lives are really played out in a different dimension: "I think of you. That does not mean that I think you." (80) And similarly, it would make no sense to say: I love of you.
The adequation between being and thinking is based on a participation in being: (Methexis, Seinsteilhabe). Something "is" insofar as it participates in being. Thomas utilized this Platonic concept for Christian philosophy, (81) but in Lacan's eyes it runs counter to the Jewish tradition, which does not conceptualize that which is imperfect in relation to the highest Being (ipsum esse) but rather leaves it isolated, in a state of radical imperfection. The Jewish response to human fragility was theological, and not philosophical: God chose his people, as is testified according to the Judeo-Christian belief in the covenants between God, Abraham and Moses.
If we go back to the mirror device from the beginning, we have seen that the subject constitutes its unity only in relation to an Other. The doctrine of the participation in being can be understood as a variation of this model of the constitution of the subject's identity. (82)
However: the mirror model also implies that aggression is structurally built into the very notion of identity, because our image is always in the Other, at whose place we find another human being, normally those who are very close to us. The struggle to be (or to become) oneself is at the same time always a struggle against somebody else: Here lies the root of Hegel's Master-slave dialectic, and we have seen that for Lacan the escape is not the acceptance of slavery and the gradual liberation from it through work, but the activation of the symbolic dimension.
The alienation of one's image in the Other explains the thinly veiled and enormously powerful aggressiveness in all human relations. To built philosophy on the idea of a participatory being means to exclude a fundamental dimension of human relations:
The reason for the hatred is obvious: It is jealousy (Lacan even goes so far as to call it "jalouissance", in English maybe "jealoussance") and - as a result of it - anxiety.
Aristotelian philosophy can then be interpreted as a defense against the hatred towards being. And why did Thomas reintroduce it to Christian philosophy?
If the Other does not exist, what we find at this place is a hole. The Christian truth is expressed in Lacan's matheme S(Æ ), and it is frightening because it is so unspectacular and yet so terribly close to the official Christian story: "Moses' tomb is as empty for Freud as that of Christ was for Hegel. Abraham revealed his mystery to neither of them." (85)
As Lacan tirelessly repeats, the hole elicits a response from the subject: it causes us to speak, thereby filling the void. Only because it is a hole can it be the place of truth, and therefore we tend to metaphorize it (giving a name to an absence) and call it the empty grave, or God the Allmighty, because the place of the Other also coincides with the symbolic function, the very principle of creation.
In his last phase Lacan replaces the Name of the Father with the Borromean knot, which ties itself around an empty space: Three rings, which symbolize the imaginary, the symbolic, and the real, are tied together in such a way that the cutting of one ring will separate the other two rings as well. The topological (one is inclined to say: trinitarian) structure holds in place the lack, it constitutes a rim which defines an empty center. It is there that the symptom appears, as the "defect in the purity of non-being."
If there is no adequation between the intellect and
being, in what way can it be said that the signifier "exists", or has a
place in reality? Where does speech come from? Lacan tries to answer this
question by affirming a creationist position, which he illustrates with a
schema of distinctions borrowed from Richard of St.Viktor. (86) Lacan asserts that when the idea of
being intersects with the "I am who I am", it gets torn out of the
dimension of time. Here is a reconstruction of the possible relations
between being (in this context always understood as ipsum esse
subsistens in se) and time:
The signifier is the cause of its own existence, but this does not imply that it is eternal. Lacan concludes that therefore the signifier "participates" in nothingness. The signifier creates ex nihilo." This is possible only because there is a signifier of the lack in the Other, and because a signifier never exists by itself: It requires an(O)ther signifier.
The conclusion is probably no longer surprising: Lacan's theory of the signifier is really a theory of "creation ex nihilo": It defends the possibility that something completely new can emerge, the possibility of an ongoing creation. For this purpose, even the idea of God is rejected:
The structure of the signifier leads to the drive to pronounce it; this delineation creates the "historical dimension", the "word becomes flesh."
For the Jewish tradition, the name of God is not pronounceable; the "I am what I am" cannot be incarnated. Man is made in God's image, but there can be no leap over the bar - the relationship remains metonymical. Therefore theology is an endless, linear interpretation; it can never come closer to the truth and has to rely completely on God's self-revelation.
The Christian belief replaces interpretation with incarnation. Man is not only made in God's image, but God became man. Lacan liberates the belief from its theological content and writes this crossing of the bar directly into the structure of the human being. The paternal metaphor states that at least once, at the beginning of a human life, there was a metaphoric substitution of the name of the father for the desire of the mother. This causes the inscription of the desire of the Other into the subject's body and life, and initiates the desire to speak with one's own voice.
Psychoanalysis, and in particular Lacanian theory, is the endpoint of a two-century long project of secularization. God can either be a face of the Other, and then he becomes a Father-God, author of the Law. Or he is the dark God of jouissance, the God of the mystics: this God is unconscious. Lacan plays with these possibilities, but in the final analysis he exercises a Kantian theoretical self-restraint: Theology collapses into a theory of the subject, re-creating the tension between immanence and transcendence within the subject itself.
How will I prove to myself that I am? - God could have asked himself the same question, and then he proceeded to answer it and created the world. In seven days, we are told.
Endnotes: 1 Jacques Lacan, Television, p.
Church Dogmatics; A Selection with Introduction by Helmut
Gollwitzer.. Translated and edited by G. W. Bromiley. Edinburgh: T. &
T. Clark, 1961.
Borch-Jacobson, Borch: Lacan. The Absolute
Master. Translated by Douglas Brick. Stanford: Stanford University
Bracher, Mark: Lacan, Discourse, and Social Change.
A Psychoanalytic Cultural Criticism. New York: Cornell University
Dor, Joël. "The Epistemological Status of Lacan's
Mathematical Paradigms." In Pettigrew, David and Raffoul, Francois.
Disseminating Lacan. New York : State University of New York Press,
_____. Introduction to the Reading of Lacan.
Aronson, Northvale, New Jersey, 1997.
Feldstein, Richard, Fink, Bruce, Jaanus, Maire.
Reading Semiar XI. Lacan's Four Fundamental Concepts of
Psychoanalysis. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1995.
Fink, Bruce: The Lacanian subject: Between Language
and jouissance. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press,
Francois Regnault. "The Name-of the Father," in
Reading Seminar XI.
Handelman, Susan A. The Slayers of Moses: the
Emergence of Rabbinic Interpretation in Modern Literary Theory.
Albany, NY: New York University Press, 1982.
Jean-Luc Nancy and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe. The
Title of the Letter: A Reading of Lacan. Albany, NY:State University
of New York, 1992.
Julien, Philippe: Jacques Lacan's Return to Freud :
the Real, the Symbolic, and the Imaginary. Translated by Devra Beck
Simiu. New York: New York University Press, 1994.
Juranville, Alain. Lacan et la philosophie.
Paris: Press universitaires de France. 1984.
Lacan, Jacques, Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan
and the Ecole Freudienne. New York: W.W. Norton: Pantheon, 1982.
_____. Écrits. A Selection. New York: Norton,
_____. Le Seminaire de Jacques Lacan. Livre XX.
Encore. 1972-1973. Paris: Editions du Seuil 1975.
_____. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book I: Freud's
Papers on Technique. 1953-1954. Translated by John Forrester. New
York: Norton, 1988.
_____. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book II: The
Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis
(1954-1955). Translated by Sylvana Tomaselli. New York: Norton, 1988.
_____. Television. A challenge to the Psychoanalytic
Establishment. New York: Norton, 1990.
_____. The Ethics of Psycho-Analysis, edited by
Jacques-Alain Miller. New York: Norton, 1992.
_____. The Four Fundamental Concepts of
Psycho-Analysis, New York: Norton, 1981.
Lemaire, Anika: Jacques Lacan. Translated by
David Macey. London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977.
Lowe, Walter: Theology and Difference : the Wound of
Reason. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.
Metz, Johannes Baptist, Glaube in Geschichte und
Gesellschaft. English: Faith in History and Society : Toward a
Practical Fundamental Theology. Translated by David Smith. New York:
Seabury Press, 1980.
Mitchell, Juliett. Psychoanalysis and Feminism.
Random House, New York, 1975.
Pettigrew, David and Raffoul, Francois.
Disseminating Lacan. New York: State University of New York Press,
Ragland-Sullivan, Ellie. Jacques Lacan and the
Philosophy of Psychoanalysis. Urbana and Chicago: University of
Illinois Press, 1986.
_____. Essays on the Pleasures of Death: From Freud
to Lacan. London and New York: Routledge, 1995.
Rahner, Karl, Grundkurs des Glaubens.
Einführung in den Begriff des Christentums. Freiburg im Breisgau;
Basel; Wien: Herder, 1976.
Samuels, Robert. Between Philosophy and
Psychoanalysis. New York: Routledge, 1993
Schillebeeckx, Edward, Jesus: An Experiment in
Christology. Translated by Hubert Hoskins. New York: Seabury Press,
Schillebeeckx, Edward: Christ: the Experience of
Jesus as Lord.Translated by John Bowden. New York: Crossroad, 1980.
Shimali, Greenboy. How to Deconstruct Books.
Random House, New York, 1995
_____. The Jouissance of Speech. Johns Hopkins
University Press; Baltimore, 1996.
Sipos, Joel. Lacan et Descartes : la Tentation
Metaphysique. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1994.
Smith, Joseph and Handelman, Susan (eds.).
Psychoanalysis and Religion. Johns Hopkins University Press;
Tillich, Paul, Systematic Theology. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1967.
Tracy, David. The Analogical Imagination: Christian
Theology and the Culture of Pluralism. New York: Crossroad, 1981.
Vergote, Antoine. Dette et desir: Deux axes
chretiens et la derive pathologique, Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1978.
Wilfried ver Ecke. "Paternal Metaphor," in Pettigrew,
David and Raffoul, Francois, Disseminating Lacan. New York: State
University of New York Press, 1996.
Wyschograd, Crownfield, and Raschke (eds.): Lacan
and Theological Discourse. Albany, NY: State University of New York,
Zizek, Slavoj: Tarrying with the Negative : Kant,
Hegel, and the Critique of Ideology. Durham: Duke University Press,
1 Jacques Lacan, Television, p.
Barth, Karl: Church Dogmatics; A Selection with Introduction by Helmut Gollwitzer.. Translated and edited by G. W. Bromiley. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1961.
Borch-Jacobson, Borch: Lacan. The Absolute Master. Translated by Douglas Brick. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991.
Bracher, Mark: Lacan, Discourse, and Social Change. A Psychoanalytic Cultural Criticism. New York: Cornell University Press, 1993.
Dor, Joël. "The Epistemological Status of Lacan's Mathematical Paradigms." In Pettigrew, David and Raffoul, Francois. Disseminating Lacan. New York : State University of New York Press, 1996.
_____. Introduction to the Reading of Lacan. Aronson, Northvale, New Jersey, 1997.
Feldstein, Richard, Fink, Bruce, Jaanus, Maire. Reading Semiar XI. Lacan's Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1995.
Fink, Bruce: The Lacanian subject: Between Language and jouissance. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995.
Francois Regnault. "The Name-of the Father," in Reading Seminar XI.
Handelman, Susan A. The Slayers of Moses: the Emergence of Rabbinic Interpretation in Modern Literary Theory. Albany, NY: New York University Press, 1982.
Jean-Luc Nancy and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe. The Title of the Letter: A Reading of Lacan. Albany, NY:State University of New York, 1992.
Julien, Philippe: Jacques Lacan's Return to Freud : the Real, the Symbolic, and the Imaginary. Translated by Devra Beck Simiu. New York: New York University Press, 1994.
Juranville, Alain. Lacan et la philosophie. Paris: Press universitaires de France. 1984.
Lacan, Jacques, Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and the Ecole Freudienne. New York: W.W. Norton: Pantheon, 1982.
_____. Écrits. A Selection. New York: Norton, 1977.
_____. Le Seminaire de Jacques Lacan. Livre XX. Encore. 1972-1973. Paris: Editions du Seuil 1975.
_____. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book I: Freud's Papers on Technique. 1953-1954. Translated by John Forrester. New York: Norton, 1988.
_____. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book II: The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis (1954-1955). Translated by Sylvana Tomaselli. New York: Norton, 1988.
_____. Television. A challenge to the Psychoanalytic Establishment. New York: Norton, 1990.
_____. The Ethics of Psycho-Analysis, edited by Jacques-Alain Miller. New York: Norton, 1992.
_____. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, New York: Norton, 1981.
Lemaire, Anika: Jacques Lacan. Translated by David Macey. London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977.
Lowe, Walter: Theology and Difference : the Wound of Reason. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.
Metz, Johannes Baptist, Glaube in Geschichte und Gesellschaft. English: Faith in History and Society : Toward a Practical Fundamental Theology. Translated by David Smith. New York: Seabury Press, 1980.
Mitchell, Juliett. Psychoanalysis and Feminism. Random House, New York, 1975.
Pettigrew, David and Raffoul, Francois. Disseminating Lacan. New York: State University of New York Press, 1996.
Ragland-Sullivan, Ellie. Jacques Lacan and the Philosophy of Psychoanalysis. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1986.
_____. Essays on the Pleasures of Death: From Freud to Lacan. London and New York: Routledge, 1995.
Rahner, Karl, Grundkurs des Glaubens. Einführung in den Begriff des Christentums. Freiburg im Breisgau; Basel; Wien: Herder, 1976.
Samuels, Robert. Between Philosophy and Psychoanalysis. New York: Routledge, 1993
Schillebeeckx, Edward, Jesus: An Experiment in Christology. Translated by Hubert Hoskins. New York: Seabury Press, 1979.
Schillebeeckx, Edward: Christ: the Experience of Jesus as Lord.Translated by John Bowden. New York: Crossroad, 1980.
Shimali, Greenboy. How to Deconstruct Books. Random House, New York, 1995
_____. The Jouissance of Speech. Johns Hopkins University Press; Baltimore, 1996.
Sipos, Joel. Lacan et Descartes : la Tentation Metaphysique. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1994.
Smith, Joseph and Handelman, Susan (eds.). Psychoanalysis and Religion. Johns Hopkins University Press; Baltimore, 1990.
Tillich, Paul, Systematic Theology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967.
Tracy, David. The Analogical Imagination: Christian Theology and the Culture of Pluralism. New York: Crossroad, 1981.
Vergote, Antoine. Dette et desir: Deux axes chretiens et la derive pathologique, Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1978.
Wilfried ver Ecke. "Paternal Metaphor," in Pettigrew, David and Raffoul, Francois, Disseminating Lacan. New York: State University of New York Press, 1996.
Wyschograd, Crownfield, and Raschke (eds.): Lacan and Theological Discourse. Albany, NY: State University of New York, 1989.
Zizek, Slavoj: Tarrying with the Negative : Kant, Hegel, and the Critique of Ideology. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993.