Ktismatics

3 September 2008

The Unconscious God of Lacan

Filed under: Language, Psychology — ktismatics @ 10:29 pm

[This is the third and probably last in a series on Chiesa's 2007 book Subjectivity and Otherness: A Philosophical Reading of Lacan.]

In his immensely helpful A Clinical Introduction to Lacanian Psychoanalysis (1997), Bruce Fink asserts that, for Lacan,

The real… is what has not yet been put into words or formulated… This real, according to Lacan, has to be signified through analysis: it has to be spoken, put into signifiers. As Jacques-Alain Miller has put it, analysis involves the progressive “draining away” of the real into the symbolic. (Fink, p. 49)

By Fink’s account, then, the analysand’s experience while undergoing Lacanian analysis is quite compatible with relational psychoanalyst Donnel Stern’s fine 2003 book Unformulated Experience (see link in prior post). But Stern, whose representational understanding of language is influenced strongly by Gadamer’s hermeneutics, separates himself from Lacan, who disconnects truth from direct human experience of the real.

Truth for Lacan is found in error, misapprehension, nonsense, word-play, and the weird juxtaposition of dreams. (Stern, p. 9)

For Lacan truth need have no connection whatever to the Real, because the Symbolic order “kills the Real.” It’s in these unplanned and unexpected lacunæ within the Symbolic that the Real is able to irrupt, however briefly, before being absorbed in language or repressed again. This is “the Real of the unconscious,” the main focus of Lacanian analysis. (It’s also, I think, the basis for Zizek’s parallax and Badiou’s event.)

But it’s not clear in what way the unconscious contains or connects to the Real, if the unconscious consists of a loosely structured assemblage of linguistic signifiers disconnected from the signifieds to which they are sutured in consciousness and by which they are assigned meaning in the Symbolic order. Signifiers are Real in the trivial, non-linguistic sense of being material entities comprised of physical marks and phonological elements. The more important question is this: are the signifiers of the unconscious connected, on the back end as it were, to the primordial Real, the things-in-themselves, a connection that is severed by crossing the Symbolic threshold into language? Or, to say it another way: The Symbolic order castrates the unconscious subject from the Real in order to embed it in a social reality defined in terms of the Other of language. Is there an “Other of the Other,” by which the Symbolic retains some trace of a connection with the structured order of the Real?

At first Lacan answered in the affirmative. The name of the Father, around which the Symbolic is organized, pointed beyond all those who occupy the role of father in actual families to a primordial Father who validates the Symbolic order. The Symbolic Other of the Symbolic Other is like Descartes’ non-trickster God who assures us that our understanding of things corresponds to God’s understanding. Later, though, Lacan disavowed this idea of a God-the-Father of the Symbolic. But though the Other of the Other was no more to be found in Lacan’s psychological cosmogony, there remained the primal creative energy from which everything springs, a Real and absolute Other. However, the individual cannot know this Other directly; its existence must be inferred only after it has already been “killed” by the Symbolic. All that remains of this primal Real is the hole in the Symbolic where it used to be: the Real as already-dead, as undead, as “not-One.” The pure primal Real remains forever barred to sentient humanity. This undead Real isn’t the always-missing objet a of the Symbolic that results from castration, from the self being cut off from the Real and incorporated into the Symbolic, but rather a hole in the structure of the Symbolic itself, a no-thing rather than a missing thing.

Though the primal Real remains forever inaccessible to humans, it is the engine that generates everything in the world, including humanity. The unconscious, being something like a language but not actually embedded in the Symbolic, maintains contact with this pre-sentient animal Real. Not only that, but this Real generates and energizes the unconscious itself. So if the unconscious is structured like a language, does its structure correspond to or emerge from the primal Real? Apparently so. Chiesa says that, for Lacan, the primal Other is the Holy Spirit, the immanent elan vitale, the “sprite of the current” that creates everything, including the unconscious, ex nihilo.

This Real as primal force isn’t the object of empirical scientific knowledge, which is a Symbolic investigation of the Imaginary appearances of the world rather than of the Real world itself. The only contact with the primal Real occurs outside of and prior to both the Imaginary and the Symbolic, in the unconscious. As Lacan once said, “God is not dead; God is unconscious.” Though the Symbolic in effect kills the Real by absorbing it into itself, the undead Real continues to make itself known through the hole in the Symbolic, a hole that can only be entered through the unconscious. The primal Real thus constitutes a void, a non-thing in the unconscious, that occasionally makes itself evident within the Symbolic. It is from this unconscious void that all new Symbolic knowledge emerges, a creative disjuncture that can only glimpsed after it has already been closed up again within the Symbolic. (This idea of the creative void of the unconscious Real corresponds, I believe, to Badiou’s idea of the void and the event.) What breaks through the void is something like the Holy Spirit, the not-One, the pure multiple of inchoate creation. Says Chiesa:

for Lacan, the creation ex nihilo of the signifier on which human thought depends is truly materialistic; Lacan’s creationism is a form of antihumanist immanentism… the Symbolic emerges as an immanent consequence of the primordial Real. Yet the point of creation ex nihilo is also the point of infinity: what precedes it can only be thought as impossible (to think) — one cannot think the primordial Real, or the point of creation. (p. 137)

Lacan says in Seminar VII that the Symbolic

has been functioning as far back in time as [man's unconscious] memory extends. Literally, you cannot remember beyond it, I’m talking about the history of mankind as a whole.

Concludes Chiesa on this issue of Lacan’s primal Real:

the points of creation and destruction (of history) are a strict logical “necessity,” but they can be posited only through retroactive or anticipatory mythical speculations. This is how the finitude of man as parlêtre engendered by creation ex nihilo opens a “limited” space of infinity, the “absoluteness of desire” that must be opposed to the eternal immortality of the undead — that is to say, the primordial Real, pre- or postsymbolic “nature” as not-One. (p. 138)

This summative statement clears up some things while muddying others. Briefly, though, with respect to Meillassoux’s agenda, Lacan doesn’t believe it’s possible to touch the Real either before or after human finitude, nor is it possible to assert that what sentient humans understand about the Real has any correspondence with what the Real is like in itself.

[ADDED 4 SEPTEMBER] As I said in my last two posts about Chiesa, Lacan’s inversions and convolutions about the Real seem not just unnecessarily complex but counterintuitive and at odds with empirical research. Lacan and Stern share the underlying psychoanalytic perspective that an individual’s conscious awareness expands by formulating in thought and language what remains unformulated in the unconscious. Stern probably preserves too much of the Real by retaining the representational view of language, whereby the content and structure of the Symbolic order can be directly mapped onto the content and structure of the Real which it formulates. But to contend that conscious formulation kills the Real, which continues to haunt the Symbolic as an undead hole or non-thing, goes too far in the other direction — it’s kind of like saying that flour and eggs and sugar are killed by the cake into which they’ve been baked. Language and thought are essential to human survival in the Real — they are, one could say, integral to the human Real. The perceptual and cognitive tools by which the human mind apprehends and structures information presented to it by the Real need not correspond directly to the thing in itself, but it must, I think, describe characteristics of the thing if it’s to be pragmatically useful — characteristics that exist in the Real independent of human apprehension. But now I’m stepping dangerously into the philosophical territory of speculative realism, about which I know barely enough even to be slightly dangerous to myself.

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17 Comments »

  1. Here Ivan Karamazov endorses the Lacanian Real vis-a-vis the Symbolic: “the stupider one is, the closer one is to reality. The stupider one is, the clearer one is. Stupidity is brief and artless, while intelligence wriggles and hides itself. Intelligence is a knave, but stupidity is honest and straightforward.

    Comment by ktismatics — 7 September 2008 @ 10:40 am

  2. Though I am a novice in terms of my understanding of Lacan, I am intrigued by the striking resemblance of Lacan’s three Orders and Trinitarian theology (formulated some two thousand years ago).

    Real, Imaginary, Symbolic
    Father, Son, Holy Ghost

    I pick out a few of your thoughts from the above post:

    The Father and his transcendence:

    But though the Other of the Other was no more to be found in Lacan’s psychological cosmogony, there remained the primal creative energy from which everything springs, a Real and absolute Other. However, the individual cannot know this Other directly; its existence must be inferred only after it has already been “killed” by the Symbolic.

    The Father as Creator, both transcendent and as sustainer of the creation:

    Though the primal Real remains forever inaccessible to humans, it is the engine that generates everything in the world, including humanity.

    Next, you specifically mention the Holy Spirit as the Symbolic Other. (I assume that below, when you say “Other,” you are referring to the Symbolic Order, but perhaps not.) God the Father remains unknown, and yet through the Holy Ghost, the Real becomes Symbolic while at the same time the Real is “killed.” The Holy Ghost is spoken of by Jesus as a “Counselor”–a term that seems like a good metaphor for the Symbolic Order, no? Also, the Holy Ghost “will guide you into all truth”: not that the Real (God the Father) is actually known, but rather somehow truth is opened up in the Symbolic Order.

    Not only that, but this Real generates and energizes the unconscious itself. So if the unconscious is structured like a language, does its structure correspond to or emerge from the primal Real? Apparently so. Chiesa says that, for Lacan, the primal Other is the Holy Spirit, the immanent elan vitale, the “sprite of the current” that creates everything, including the unconscious, ex nihilo.

    As Lacan once said, “God is not dead; God is unconscious.” Though the Symbolic in effect kills the Real by absorbing it into itself, the undead Real continues to make itself known through the hole in the Symbolic, a hole that can only be entered through the unconscious. The primal Real thus constitutes a void, a non-thing in the unconscious, that occasionally makes itself evident within the Symbolic. It is from this unconscious void that all new Symbolic knowledge emerges, a creative disjuncture that can only glimpsed after it has already been closed up again within the Symbolic….What breaks through the void is something like the Holy Spirit, the not-One, the pure multiple of inchoate creation.

    A few additional thoughts and observations…..

    Each member of the Trinity is one, distinct person, and yet all three form a oneness. Classic formulation of Three in One: God is one in essence but three in his personhood. Similarly, the Orders seem distinct yet there is really no way to speak of one without the others is there? My thinking on Trinitarian theology is somewhat different: rather than think of a distinct oneness and threeness, I prefer to say that God is neither one nor three; not both one and three, but neither one nor three. How might such Trinitarian reflections compare with the three Orders?

    God = Real

    The Son = Imaginary Order

    The Incarnation is the point at which the Transcendent and hidden God is known. The Word becomes Flesh. The Real enters the mirror stage. The Son is an “image” of God. “The Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Jesus is “the exact representation” of the Real, and yet the Real remains transcendent and “unconscious,” as Lacan said.

    Perhaps a bit of a sticking point in the analogy is that the Son is described as “the Word,” implying that the Son might be better represented as the Symbolic Order. The Holy Ghost then becomes the Imaginary Order?

    Is it only coincidence that there is such a close resemblance between Lacan’s Orders and Trinitarian theology?

    I am glad I was finally able to put some sense of your post together in my mind b/c it coincides with my post and study on a/theism; namely, that we are all both believers and unbelievers, and that there is inherent instability in the belief process, and this is representational of the ontological instability of God himself (and the world we inhabit).

    Comment by Erdman — 9 September 2008 @ 12:41 pm

  3. Good quote from Ivan, btw.

    Comment by Erdman — 9 September 2008 @ 12:42 pm

  4. Interesting interpretation, Erdman. In this post I’m saying that Chiesa assigns the Holy Spirit to the Real, as an immanent and formless energy flow that infuses everything. Lacan associates the Symbolic with the name of the Father, because it’s the father who assigns names and places to things, who stands atop the social hierarchy, and who is the Master Signifier around which all order revolves. Son as incarnate god-man I think would have to emerge in the gap between the Symbolic and the Image, in some form of authentic subjectivity. In both Image and Symbol the self is envisioned or spoken from the other’s perspective, so neither is anything really to build a self on.

    I must not have been clear: for Lacan the Other is linked to the Symbolic as the linguistic structure that precedes and defines the self “from the outside in.” In the post I said that for Lacan ultimately there is no Other of the Other. This is referring to the relationship between the Real and the Symbolic, in which the Other defines the structural and linguistic order in which the self is embedded. If the linguistic structure of Symbolic represents the structure inherent in the Real world, then there would be an Other of the Other, a Father-creator who imposes order and makes it known to people.

    There is no oneness in Lacan’s model: it’s all about overlaps and gaps, pieces and paradoxes. The self is always-already incomplete or missing. The Real is out of reach; the Symbolic and the Ideal are false selves. Only in the gaps and the paradoxes can any sort of subject emerge. I’m not even clear what a successful subject looks like in Lacan.

    As I noted in my addendum, I’m getting to the point of rejecting a lot of Lacanian structure as excessively convoluted, pessimistic, counterintuitive, and confusing. I reject trinitarian religion for somewhat different reasons. It is an interesting exercise to map them onto each other though.

    Comment by ktismatics — 9 September 2008 @ 1:29 pm

  5. Why do you reject Trinitarian religion?

    I’ve never been sold on the idea, myself. Some people are quite in love with it, though, and see the Trinity on every page in the Bible; never mind the fact that it isn’t on any page….it’s there (really there) if we want it to be there.

    Comment by Erdman — 9 September 2008 @ 2:10 pm

  6. Erdman, that Lacan is closely related to Christianity is only news to some materialist psychologists like dr. Sinthome of the Larval Subjects, who have a pathological fear of religion because they’ve been traumatized by Bible Thumpers in the States (whom I don’t consider true believers). In Serbia this link is much more easily observed and appreciated. Lacan himself came very close to believing but remained materialist, which is only a matter of words, really. However the crucial thing to note is that psychoanalysis offers no ”path to God” nor ”deliverance” and if Lacan unintentionally acknowledges the existence of God, it is primarily in his insistence that there are forces (mediated by language) beyond us, that shape us. After all the Bible starts with ”in the beginning there was the Word”. Psychoanalysis is valuable precisely because it crushes the myth of the psychologist as the savior and the priest and posits him as a translator.

    I should not be saying this because my dad, having been upset by a certain mutual friend, took my blawg off his roll so now we’re in the ”not talking to each other” phase.

    Dad I don’t give a tuppence for your assessment of Lacan as pessimistic (as if that actually MEANS anything) and told you many times before what I think cognitivist positivism, Communist humanism, behavioral psychology and other such sciences (that DO promise deliverance) did to the world. I’ll take pessimism over that ANYTIME. besides he is NOT pessimistic, because his mission is to allow the subject to pursue his own jouissance – that’s not pessimistic, he merely acknowledges the fact that this is a very hard and demanding road.

    Comment by parodycenter — 9 September 2008 @ 7:59 pm

  7. The self is always-already incomplete or missing.

    It is posited as such in the Bible as well – I don’t remember the quote but something like he who seeks the world shall lose it could also be interpreted he who seeks to find ”the self” will never find it.

    Comment by parodycenter — 9 September 2008 @ 8:02 pm

  8. Well Erdman, I don’t think a trinitarian god is any more implausible than a unitarian one. There’s a kind of elegance to recognizing irreducible diversity in this way. If there was a God-the-Father in Lacan’s system He’d assure that the signifieds of the linguistic structure mapped onto the actual stuff to which they point. Jesus as a man walking the earth seemed quite prepared to be “spoken” by the Law of the Father, which is the Symbolic order. In the resurrection Jesus is dead to the Law and alive to God, which seems to indicate that he’d pass through the Symbolic onto the other side of the Mobius, back in touch with the Real. I think this is what Badiou is driving at with his interpretation of Saint Paul. Badiou is looking for “events” that break through the symbolic and give glimpses of the Real, that after the fact get contained in language. In this regard Badiou is very Lacanian.

    I agree, PC, with the hard and demanding road part. I also have no taste for cognitive-behavioral therapy, which is intent on curing the symptom by suppressing it, rather than letting it speak its way into conscious formulation as is done in the analytic tradition. This part of Lacan I like a lot. What I find unduly pessimistic is this insistence that the self has always-already lost something that’s irretrievable, as well as the idea that language “kills” the Real. I’m more prone to think that man is born incomplete and by growing/learning/thinking/speaking he increasingly gains access to the real. Christianity, as you say, posits the incompleteness of man, and Augustine adds the always-already lost bit through his interpretation of the consequences of Original Sin as a degenerated human nature. These Christian ideas eventually shape Hegel’s and Lacan’s psychologies.

    I do not speak ill of our mutual friend, or of you either.

    Comment by ktismatics — 9 September 2008 @ 8:58 pm

  9. What I find unduly pessimistic is this insistence that the self has always-already lost something that’s irretrievable, as well as the idea that language “kills” the Real.

    What is lost is the blissful synthesis with the Mother in the Uterus, as Lacan would interpret it materialistically, but if you fuck off the materialism it could also be the unity with God or the Garden of Eden, a place where desire gets met instantaneously. In essence Deleuze fantasized the same things, only he thought it’s possible in this life, through the body (about that we are still unsure…we’ll see what the evolution of humanity in contact with technology brings). But you gotta be careful with Deleuze cause he was a fairly anal bottom and those are usually bottomless pits. Christianity also claims that happiness in this life is not possible, as it can only be accomplished in the ”fourth dimension” (after death, with God, et cetera and so forth).

    That this ”pessimism” of Lacan’s holds water you can already deduce from a banality such as that people often, even when rich and having all the pleasures money can buy, experience emptiness.

    Incredible how this scientific language obfuscates things, and if I have a criticism of Lacan then it is the use of arcane language.

    Comment by parodycenter — 9 September 2008 @ 9:20 pm

  10. i just thought that Lacan speaks of the Real as ”unsymbolizable” ie inaccessible to the symbolic function ie unspeakable; this implies not that it is a silent experience, because silence still implies the mediation of language, but something you can only sense ”primordially” and this instantly brings to mind the description of religious hallucinations, which I heard from some people, involving these spectral entitites and a feeling of being in between dimensions, something in between ”normal” perception and the sixth sense.

    Comment by parodycenter — 9 September 2008 @ 9:26 pm

  11. Erdman it’s strange that it took Sharon Stone’s pussy for you to get interested in these things. She has a magnificent pussy, and she is incredible in Basic Instinct. She is incredible in general. You should see Basic Instinct 2 as well, a much more Lacanian film, which even directly refers to Lacan.

    Comment by parodycenter — 9 September 2008 @ 9:27 pm

  12. I recall that you liked BI2, but I continue to resist these genre productions as being too entertaining to merit serious attention (lol). A friend just came back from the Telluride CO Film Festival, featuring the Rock Star of Philosophy, Dr. Zizek, as master of ceremonies. Z was pitching noirs from the 40s. Apparently he was quite entertaining, giving the impression of talking brilliantly off the cuff even, sniffing and gesticulating in his endearing way all the while.

    I for one have no recollection of my time in utero — perhaps I’ve forgotten it through birth trauma. I also discovered that my breast was utterly useless in pacifying a crying infant, so there was no danger of my becoming reabsorbed into my offspring. Wading through Chiesa’s discussions of the Lacanian Real I had a sense that it’s a projective test in which I can see anything I wish. But here’s my best read on it: The Symbolic eats the primeval Real, and analysis brings undigested Real into consciousness and the Symbolic order, but we’ve got to presume that there’s always some remainder that can never be symbolized in language as you say — “groanings too deep for words” is how Paul describes the Holy Spirit’s unconscious presence.

    What always surprises me is how many people really do seem pretty happy — I can’t help but suspect self-delusion and false consciousness etc. I think it’s risky to draw too many general inferences about the human condition from a population of analysands who’ve already presented themselves as unhappy.

    I’m going to sleep now, after some bedtime reading of Proust, which I’m taking another shot at.

    Comment by ktismatics — 9 September 2008 @ 9:44 pm

  13. I recall that you liked BI2, but I continue to resist these genre productions as being too entertaining to merit serious attention (lol).

    So you’re an elitist in Marxy lingerie? Anyway watch the opening, it’s great = a visualization of ”the death drive”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RtNmNMPjilQ

    how many people really do seem pretty happy

    yes, particularly in the US

    Comment by parodycenter — 9 September 2008 @ 10:06 pm

  14. I wonder if that was their first date.

    It’s interesting to think about trinitarian psychology. Anne and I have been talking about this very concept lately relative to the relationship between speaking and listening in conversation. If I could draw on the computer I’d reproduce the diagrams on the white board in my office. The idea is basically like the discussion here though: Holy Spirit is the immanent vectors of desire flowing in and through people; the Son is the subject who finds some kind of self outside of the image and the words of the Other; the Father is Descartes non-trickster God who vouchsafes the Real as being both prior to and the object of the Symbolic. I’ll give it a try later, with technical support from Anne.

    Comment by ktismatics — 10 September 2008 @ 5:34 am

  15. One thing that has particularly disturbed me is that in the States, God and Christianity has simply become the means of making people happy. This takes many forms: prosperity (Joel Osteen), spiritual satisfaction (John Piper), psychological/spiritual completeness (Billy Graham’s adaptation of Augustine’s “God-shaped hole”). I would even throw in Oprah and Eckhart Tolle’s “awareness of the Now” theology of self-awareness.

    Anymore, it’s axiomatic here in the States: God is here to complete your life. Everyone is just arguing over what a “complete life” means. But they are all saying the same thing, as far as I’m concerned.

    I can’t get anyone of a Christian or religious inclination to have a serious conversation about the possibility that maybe our personal fulfillment might not be the main point. People just assume I don’t have God in my life, because….uh….after all….if God is in your life, then you are complete, you poor bastard!

    I just think that our American bliss has more to do with easy credit, flat screen televisions, and suburbian sahara’s than it does with having Jesus as our bff.

    Comment by Erdman — 13 September 2008 @ 4:10 pm

  16. God is a much more mysterious force or character in Lacanian theology. It’s also not clear to me what, in the Lacanian psychology, “filling the hole” would do to the self. Presumably the hole is the cutting off from the primeval Real, which is a necessary consequence of the child being inscribed in the Symbolic order of language. If this pre-linguistic connection were restored, I wonder whether in Lacanian terms this would mean something like schizophrenia, where language recedes into meaninglessness. Or perhaps filling the hole could occur within the Symbolic, where the words actually connect to the structure of the Real. I’m not sure this Symbolic Real would result in bliss or peace — I think more likely it would be pure jouissance, or pleasure-pain.

    Comment by ktismatics — 13 September 2008 @ 7:17 pm

  17. All theologies work to tailor the God’s face/character to their convenience. But I liked this story as much as I could have…

    Comment by Sushil — 10 August 2013 @ 9:16 am


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