Much to my surprise and delight, I have been exceedingly pleased by the discussion my post “The Monstrosity of Christ” has generated. For me, Jesus is an incredibly important political thinker who proposes a new vision of communal relations. What has been so great about this discussion, apart from a few bumps here and there, is the manner in which the religious and the atheist have been able to discuss these issues, without the question being one of debunking the other. Towards the end of the comments, Guavatree asks a couple of questions which, I believe, get right to the heart of the issue. First, Guavatree remarks that,
By explaining the difference between interpretations: traditional (Jesus and God above all things) and “radical and revolutionary” — I think you clarify what I think the blog dispute is about. Is Jesus “Resolving” the Imaginary or “Challenging” it?
More than whether Jesus is really asking you to hate your family or not, I’m interested in how you think the Imaginary can be challenged. Is this even possible? To what extent does challenging the bonds of the tribe/family/Imaginary involve the Real and the Symbolic?
Guavatree is responding to a comment I made earlier clarifying my position on Luke 14:26 where Jesus claims that in order to follow Jesus one must hate their mother, father, brother, sister, etc. I have read this, following the findings of ethnographers, as a devaluation of the role of familial or kinship relations as a foundation of social and political structure.
Thanks for the additional passages (here Guavatree provides numerous Gospel references to Jesus making injunctions similar to that found in Luke 14:26), Guavatree. Based on your remarks, I wonder if I haven’t missed the point of some of Kevin’s criticisms. You write:
So in terms of this argument on the blog, hating your family and loving Jesus and God hardly strikes me as a textual oddity.
The real question is whether Jesus’ “dissolution of “the law” into two vast identifications (God/neighbor)” as kvond puts it is a resolution of the imaginary OR a “challenging of this dimension of the imaginary” as larval subjects puts it.
If I’m following your gloss correctly Guavatree, then the dispute revolves around Jesus’ declaration to love one’s neighbor as ourselves and his charge to hate our parents, where it is being claimed that there is a contradiction between these two positions. With respect to the second command, it had never occurred to me to read the demand to hate our family literally. That would be a bizarre reading of the Gospels no matter how you cut it, so I’m surprised to discover that others might have read me as claiming such a thing. Rather, I am interpreting Jesus’ charge as the injunction to cease privileging familial relations or tribal identifications. As such, this separation from the primacy of kinship structures would be a precondition for love of the stranger or the neighbor. This is also why I’ve drawn attention to the story of the Good Samaritan because here we have an instance of a love extended to the other that falls outside the tribal community.
I reject, of course, the remainder of the traditional interpretation of Jesus’ injunction to “hate” one’s family, where it is argued that we are to place Jesus and God above all other things. First, I reject this reading because I think it covers over the whole socio-political issue that he’s getting at with respect to the role that kinship relations play in his historical setting. Second, however, I don’t think this reading is very well supported given how cagey he always is about identifying himself as the son of God (doesn’t he only directly say this in the book of John?). I think this traditional reading places too much emphasis on the person or figure of Jesus, turning him into a screen as described in the post above, thereby allowing us to ignore the truly radical and revolutionary form of social organization that he seems to be proposing.
Further clarifying his question, Guavatree goes on to ask,
nd isn’t the debate between Challenging and Resolving played out in Lacan’s famous statement to the student revolutionaries:
“Ce à quoi vous aspirez comme révolutionnaires, c’est à un maître. Vous l’aurez.” [“What you aspire to as revolutionaries is another master. And you will get one.”]
This same line of argument I think kvond is using against you up there (before it gets ugly) when he implies that Jesus is teaching projections—and putting himself up as the new Master, the kingdom of heaven/God resolves the crisis of the imaginary.
Hopefully Guavatree can say a bit more as to just what he means by resolving the crisis of the Imaginary (here it sounds like s/he is speaking in shades of Rene Girard, though I might be mistaken). I do, however, think the Lacanian triad of the real, the symbolic, and the imaginary is a useful way of situating this discussion. For the sake of those who are not very familiar with Lacan’s thought, hopefully a crude thumbnail sketch of these categories will help to orient them. Again, I only intend this as a thumbnail sketch of a very complicated and baroque topic.
When Lacan refers to the Imaginary he is not referring to something that is merely imagined or that is illusory, but the domain of the Ego and our self-image. Through a very careful reading of Freud’s essays “On Narcissism”, “Mourning and Melancholia”, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, and The Ego and the Id, Lacan argues that our Egos or sense of self-are formed through a process of narcissistic identification with our specular image. Here Lacan reads the myth of Narcissus in very literal terms. What is crucial in this myth, for Lacan, is that Narcissus is captivated by his image. For Lacan, the Ego is literally an image with which we identify and that we strive to become identical with. Lacan’s thesis is based on a sort of “phenomenology” of first-person infant experience. In the initial stages of development, the infant experiences its body, according to Lacan, as a sort of disjointed chaos lacking in control or autonomy. It tries to bring its thumb to its mouth, only to hit himself in the eye. It finds itself trapped on its back or stomach, unable to turn over, etc. This period is experienced as frustrating and anxiety provoking. Wishing to overcome this state, the infant identifies with the specular image of bodies around him, for these images present the ideal of completeness and self-mastery. Thus, on the one hand, there is the lived experience of the body as a first-person point of view. This is the body lived from the inside as a site of dynamisms and potential movements. On the other hand, however, there is the body seen as a surface from a third person point of view. That body as a surface presents the vision of an integrated, complete, and whole body that has attained mastery. The infant identifies with the image of itself in a mirror and with the image of other bodies about it as a way of trying to surmount the chaotic disorder of its lived body. However, Lacan notes, there is always a split between our ego-image or specular identification, and our lived body. We can never fully embody our ego-image, but always fall short. As a consequence, although the specular-identification introduces a teleology in the infant’s self-experience that helps to integrate its body, this image also introduces a split between our being such that there is always a division between the completeness we aspire to and the completeness that we actually attain. As a result, says Lacan, we are alienated in our Ego. This can be seen with particular clarity in the case of depression or melancholia, where the depressed person feels painfully oppressed by their specular image and their inability to live up to that image. Likewise, we get a trace of this structure in phenomena of depersonalization, where the person no longer identifies with their ego-image at all and can’t recognize themselves in the mirror.
There are a couple of other important points with respect to the imaginary. First, specular identification is not simply our identification with an image through which we build our identity, but is also an identification with the gaze of others about us. In identifying with a bodily surface image I am seeing myself not from a first person perspective, but from a third person perspective. I am thus identifying with the gaze of another person or a vantage from which I would see myself as being most likable. Second, Lacan argues that the dimension of the Imaginary generates aggression and rivalry among individuals. On the one hand, the formation of the Ego through a specular-identification generates aggression because it sets up a painful split between the lived body of first person experience and the ideal of the third person surface perspective that we would like to be, such that the two can never coincide. This generates a sense of frustration that is often dealt with through displacement, where the source of our incompleteness is projected outwards on to other persons and where we strike at those other persons trying to destroy the source of this frustration. Of course, this never works because the split is constitutive and not the result of something external. At any rate, we can discern this aggressivity in the case of psychosis, characterized by the primacy of the Imaginary, where often the psychotic will strike out at the very Ego-image that he himself aspires to in another person (for example, killing the actress who one would herself like to be). Likewise, we see this is the old cliche of the homophobic who displaces his own homosexual desires on to another person and then persecutes that other person attempting to destroy a desire that is contrary to his ego image and the gaze with which he has identified. Second, because the Imaginary is structured as a dual relation between self and other, it generates rivalry between people because it is based on a binary logic: either you recognize me or I recognize you. If I recognize you, then I disappear and lose recognition and therefore lose existence. What we get here is a sort of struggle for recognition that requires the destruction or enslavement of others so as to maintain one’s own identity. The key point to take away from the Imaginary is that it strives for identity, completeness, wholeness, and mastery, but is beset by an internal instability because we can never coincide with the specular image with which we have identified. This is why the more a social group emphasizes a particular identity, the more it tends towards aggressive relations with other groups.
In contrast to the Imaginary which is organized around Identity and dual relations between self and other, the Symbolic is the domain of difference and the Law. The Symbolic is not the domain of symbols in the Freudian or Jungian sense, but of language or signifiers. On the one hand, the symbolic is the domain of difference insofar as each signifier is determined diacritically as a result of its difference with respect to other signifiers. More importantly, on the other hand, the Symbolic is the domain of the Law insofar as it is that which structures or organizes desire through the institution of prohibitions. Here Lacan draws heavily on Levi-Strauss, arguing that the prohibition against incest and the structure of kinship relations arises through the symbolic rather than biology. There are two important features to be borne in mind when thinking the nature of the Symbolic. First, the Symbolic, according to Lacan, introduces lack into the world. One of the key features of signifiers and language is that they can represent something in its absence. Because of this it becomes possible for me to desire insofar as I can now encounter the world in terms of what it is lacking. Indeed, this lack introduced according to Lacan is not an empirical lack that could be surmounted by gaining a particular object, but is on the order of a constitutive lack. In order for me to use language, it is necessary that there be a constitutive lack allowing for absence as such. This would be a primordial lack introduced as a result of my introduction into language that can never be recouped. Thus, no matter what particular object I might finally attain in my striving to surmount lack, this object always falls short as the lack at the heart of my being as a speaking-being is a priori. Second, and more optimistically, the symbolic is the domain of exchange and mediation. Where the Imaginary creates the stark alternative of “me or you”, the symbolic allows exchange to take place between subjects and the world to be carved up in terms of what is given to me and what is given to you. For example, while, in the kinship structure (or many of them anyway), I am forbidden my mother and sister, I can nonetheless pursue other women. In this way, the Symbolic defuses the antagonistic rivalry of the Imaginary.
The Lacanian Real is perhaps the most difficult of the three orders to explain. Over the course of his teaching Lacan described the Real in a number of ways. In his earliest work he described the real as that which is without lack, as a pure plenitude. Here the Real would be the world as it is prior to being carved up by the Symbolic. Later Lacan begins to define the Real as that which always returns to its place. Thus, the movement of the planets would be “real” in that they always return to their place in their orbits. Likewise with mathematical formalisms. However, this signification of the Real is also meant to describe the phenomenon of repetition in neurotic symptoms, where something of the symptom always returns. This perpetual return would be the dimension of the symptom that falls outside the symbolic. Finally, in his final teaching, Lacan describes the Real as the impossible. The Real here would be constitutive antagonisms and deadlocks that cannot be resolved by the symbolic, not unlike formal paradoxes that emerge in mathematics such as Russell’s famous paradox. Lacan makes a lot of these types of paradoxes in his analysis of how desire comes to be structured.
As if this were not already complicated enough, Lacan, in the final phase of his teaching, shows how relations between the Real, the Symbolic, and the Imaginary can be multiplied through the Borromean knots. Lacan was attracted to the Borromean knot because it gave him a way of representing the relations between the three orders. The interesting thing about a Borromean knot is that no two of the three rings are directly tied to one another, but rather they are only able to form a knot through the interlinkage of the three together. Cut one and the other two fall away. This gave Lacan the means of representing how the three orders hang together in the formation of psychic structure, but also of analyzing what happens in psychic structure when one of the particular orders are severed. However, in addition to this interesting feature of how the three orders must be tied together, the Borromean knots can also be read as a sort of pseudo-venn diagram. Thus, for example, in the diagram of the Borromean knot above, we see “meaning” appearing in the point of overlap between the Imaginary and the Symbolic. If meaning is the result of the overlap between the Imaginary and the Symbolic, then this is because meaning strives for the identity of terms and a cohesive sense of unity and totality in a text. By contrast, the portion of the Symbolic that falls outside the domain of the Imaginary is that of the signifier because the signifier, being diacritical, cannot be totalized or pinned down. Signifiers are always disseminated in and through their differential relations to other signifiers. Similarly, in the point of overlap between the Symbolic and the Real we might place mathematics, for mathematics investigates relations that always “return to their place”. In the diagram above, I would place “fantasy” in the overlap between the Imaginary and the Real rather than in the domain of the Real by itself, because fantasy strives to cover over impossibility by presenting us with an image of completeness or totality.
With these resources in place, it now becomes possible to begin addressing Guavatree’s questions. I’ve struggled with these sorts of questions for quite a while now. What would it mean to form a community that isn’t organized diacritically? More importantly, what would it mean to form a community that wasn’t organized at the point of overlap between the Imaginary and the Symbolic in the Borromean knot? This sort of community is what I describe as a “class theoretical” community. In the “Monstrosity of Christ”, I link to a post I wrote on the diacritical production of identity in the post above which also serves as the framework for an article I have forthcoming in Pre/Text. There are two problems here. The first problem is of a purely formal nature. Presumably, in some form or another, communities involve an identity. In order to establish a group or an identity a distinction is between same and other is required. But in forming a distinction between same and other, you get the diactritical production of identity where the remainder is produced. The remainder then functions as that threatening kernel that appears like something threatening the group and leads to all sorts of tribal strife and conflict as we try to eradicate the remainder. This is where the second problem emerges. For insofar as the diacritical production of identity generates the remainder we get an internal instability in the group around which conflict oscillates.
In the “Monstrosity of Christ” I think I touch on this question of whether or not such a politics is possible in my characterization of Jesus as a trauma that gets hidden behind a screen. When faced with the implications of the sorts of community he’s proposing we recoil in horror and run back to the imaginary. Like Lacan himself, Jesus gets turned into a master himself by his followers so as to cover over the traumatic dimension of the real. This trauma can be related to the search for fixed meaning in a class-theoretical organization of social relations. The thesis that the community Jesus envisions is a set-theoretical community rather than a class-theoretical community arises from observing who he congregated with, the passage on familial relations, and the story of the Good Samaritan. For the sake of clarity for anyone who might be reading, sets allow for the membership of anything without the members of the set sharing a common feature or characteristic beyond the minimal relation of membership. That is, they do not require any common intensional content. As such, a set-theoretical community would fall along the real-symbolic axis of the Borromean knots insofar as it would emphasize the irreducible difference among the members belonging to the set. That is, it would emphasize their singularity and that a generalizable law cannot cover these singularities. By contrast, classes require a common intensional content or a common feature such as being the class of all red things. For example, in the Jewish context the law and relation to God only pertained to the Jews and not to everyone. There was a pre-established criteria for membership in the community. This is often the case with contemporary Christianity as well. Construction of social participation around classes is what I refer to as Imaginary social organization as the social is premised on a shared identity.
The fact that Jesus congregated with the excluded (thieves, prostitutes, beggars, tax collectors, lepers, etc), that he evokes the story of the Good Samaritan, and that he makes such a claim about familial relations makes a strong case, I believe, that Jesus had a set-theoretical conception of social relations, where ethnic and family relations, obedience to customs, was not a required feature of participation in this type of community. Moreover, my translation of “neighbor” as “stranger” has to do with precisely this point as the neighbor, in its more familiar connotations, is the person who is like me (i.e., class-theoretical), whereas Jesus has so broadened the extension of this one law that it applies to everyone, overflowing the boundaries of ethnic and familial membership criteria. My thesis that the genuine Christian would not call him or herself a Christian is a self-reflexive application of this principle in that the signifier “Christian” as a condition of membership would re-instantiate a class-theoretical form of the social tie, re-establishing these ties as tribal.
The real would thus be involved in this picture of community and the political in two senses: First, as you know Lacan characterized the real as the impossible (in the sense of formal paradoxes, etc.). If there is necessarily a messianic dimension to Jesus’ politics as always being the kingdom that is strangely here and yet to come, then this is because this politics requires a perpetual oscillation between the drawing of a boundary required for the formation of any community and the perpetual “un-writing” or exceeding of this boundary, it’s undoing. This would be the normative dimension of Jesus’ ethical and political thought, where the normative perpetually outstrips the actual and recedes from actualization, premised on the “still yet to come”. Unlike the Pharisees who, perhaps, believed they had actualized the Jewish law and identity, for Jesus it is a perpetual engagement that is never finished. A set-theoretical community is a process not a noun or thing, where each new encounter requires a re-evaluation of the nature of the community. I believe this is the true signification of “faith”. Faith is not a belief in something that cannot be proven or demonstrated, but rather faith is an activity, a doing, wherein each new encounter calls for a rethinking of the nature of the community and what should be done in that situation as a love directed towards the other. This conception of faith is entirely different than the assholish form of faith we so commonly encounter today where someone “holds to their faith” hell or highwater, showing no regard for the other. Rather, faith is completely other-directed in attending to the other and welcoming the otherness of the other. It is a willingness to undergo subjective destitution in relation to the other.
This, then, would be the final sense in which the Real is involved in this sort of politics. In a class-theoretical form of the social I encounter the other under the order of the Imaginary according to the binary of being like me or not being like me. In a set-theoretical notion of the social I encounter the other under the order of the Real, as the absolutely singular or different or as she who outstrips any symbolic representation, generalization, or Imaginary similitude. In encountering the other under the order of the Real, my relation to the other becomes an aleatory and inventive relation, a kairotic relation and event, situated in terms of the question of what is called for in this singular situation.