Pierre-Simon_LaplaceIn my last post I localized a paradox at the heart of Lacan’s teaching. On the one hand, Lacan puts forward a “true formula of atheism” that states that God is unconscious. There the line of reasoning seems to run that the unconscious is the discourse of the Other and that the Other does not exist. This would be a clever, indirect way of saying “God does not exist”. On the other hand, Lacan says that the gods belong to the order of the Real. How is it possible to reconcile these two claims. With respect to God and religion, I think Lacan can be seen as proposing what I call an “A-Theology”. A-Theology is not atheism, though it is related to some standard claims of atheism. Most generally, atheism is the denial of any sort of supernatural causation in the world and the existence of anything supernatural. In debates with religious belief, it generally points to the lack of evidence for miracles, the supernatural, souls, etc., and therefore the absence of reasons to believe in such things.

Of course, in relation to the findings of contemporary ethnology, it has become possible to charge the atheist with missing the point with respect to myth. Here the argument would run that myth is a particular way of understanding the world that was never intended to be taken literally. As I heard Caputo once put it at a conference when defending religion, “Of course the figures and miraculous events we see depicted in sacred texts and myths did not take place. Rather, the myths and stories of religion are closer to comic book stories, representing struggles between good and evil, the nature of the world, the meaning of life, etc.” Caputo’s thesis, of course, begs the question of why, if this is all myths are, we don’t choose better literature such as Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, etc. But whether we go with a somewhat unsophisticated thesis like Caputo’s or a more well developed thesis like Levi-Strauss’ approach to myth, the point remains the same: When we criticize these stories on the grounds that they violate the natural order and that there is no evidence in support of their truth, we have made a category mistake. We have failed to understand that myth is relating to truth and meaning in a different way. While there is certainly a great deal of truth to this thesis, it’s obvious shortcoming is that many followers of particular religious beliefs do take these stories literally rather than figuratively. Nonetheless, were this way of relating to myth to become the dominant paradigm in actual religious practices, it would be a substantial advance allowing for a much different dialogue between atheists and believers.

A-Theology, by contrast, differs from atheism in that its aim is not to refute or debunk claims about the supernatural. Where atheism focuses obsessively on religion as an explanatory hypothesis about the nature of the world, A-Theology, by contrast, is directed at a particular structure of thought and a particular form of social organization that it refers to, for lack of a better word, as “theological”. In this connection, it is crucial to emphasize that from the standpoint of A-Theology the conditions under which a particular structure of thought or social organization contains elements of the supernatural matters not a whit. In other words, a structure of thought or a form of social organization could be entirely secular in character, it could be an ultra-materialism, and nonetheless remain theological from the standpoint of A-Theology. Likewise, a form of social organization or thought could be pervaded by appeals to all sorts of supernatural phenomena and nonetheless be characterized as “a-theological” from the standpoint of A-Theology. The arch-materialist and determinist Pierre-Simon Laplace is an excellent example of a materialistic account of the universe that is nonetheless thoroughly theological. This is not because Laplace attributed the workings of matter to God– when Napoleon asked him about the place of God in his system, he famously replied “Je n’ai pas eu besoin de cette hypothèse. –but rather because of the curious role that Laplace’s Demon plays in his understanding of nature. Similarly, perhaps Greece, prior to Platonic thought can be understood as A-Theological, despite being pervaded by all sorts of deities and supernatural phenomena. Given these two examples, it is clear that the distinguishing mark between the A-Theological and the Theological has nothing to do with the supernatural or the sorts of causality that function in the world.

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500px-DIAGRAMPerhaps the best way to situate the difference between the Theological and the A-Theological is in terms of Lacan’s graphs of sexuation. Before outlining how the graphs of sexuation might help in distinguishing the theological from the A-Theological, it is first important to respond to a criticism. In some of these discussions I have been criticized for reading the Gospels through the lens of Levi-Strauss and Lacan because Jesus did not read either of these figures. Because Jesus did not read these figures, the “argument” seems to go, he could not have been presenting a Lacanian theory of the social. It is difficult to know how to respond to such a criticism because it seems fundamentally blind to what a theory is such that it fails to understand the relationship between explanandum and explanans. Lacanian theory, ethnography, etc., are an explanans or a particular body of theories designed to explain a set of human practices, phenomena, behaviors, etc. The question of whether or not the human phenomena to be explained is familiar with the theory is entirely irrelevant to the question of whether or not the theory does the explanatory work it is supposed to do. For example, nine out of ten patients have little or no knowledge of the theoretical orientations of their therapists. Yet this ignorance on the part of the patient has no bearing on whether or not the therapist has given a true explanation of some symptom their patient is suffering from. The patient doesn’t have to agree with the theory or know the theory for the explanation to be true because the truth or falsity of the theory is to be evaluated at a different level. Were it true that the phenomenon being explained by the theory required familiarity on the part of a person being explained, this would entail that evolutionary theory was not true– as Graham recently put it to me –prior to Darwin formulating evolutionary theory and people coming to knowledge of Darwin’s theory. Such a line of thought and criticism is simply absurd.

Barber-of-seville-2As I remarked in a previous post, Lacan’s concept of the Real does not refer to what we would ordinarily refer to as “reality” or mind independent objects that are what they are regardless of whether or not anyone knows it, but rather refers to formal deadlocks in the symbolic order. Lacan adopts a correlationist account of reality– which is perfectly appropriate and necessary when talking about the lived human relation to the world –where reality is an amalgam of the Imaginary (the regime of images correlated with the body) and the symbolic. The “Real”, by contrast, refers to the impossible or structural deadlocks within the symbolic order. These deadlocks are, as it were, something we call “real” in the sense that they will not budge. Try as you might, struggle all you want, but at the level of language if it is the case that the Barber of Seville cuts everyone’s hair except for those who cut there own hair, it is impossible to answer the question of who cuts the Barber’s hair. At the level of reality, of course, there is no problem here. The barber either cuts his own hair or he has someone else cut his hair. But at the level of the signifier, the symbolic, language, it is impossible to resolve the issue of who cuts the Barber’s hair because he is logically prohibited from having someone else cut his hair (as then he would be cutting his own hair, thereby violating the rule) and he is logically prohibited from cutting his own hair (because he cuts everyone’s hair except those who cut their own hair).

All of this, of course, seems quite idiotic as we all know that the Barber just goes to another Barber. However, this only seems idiotic until we recall that, according to Freud, the unconscious does not distinguish between reality and fantasy. From the standpoint of the unconscious, there is no difference between representations that are merely fantasized and representations that refer to something real. If it is true that the unconscious is structured like a language, as Lacan argued, then these formal aporia become very important with respect to linguistic structure because they cannot be escaped through a flight into reality where the Barber would simply flaunt the rule and go to another barber. Rather, the representational structure is all the unconscious has to go on. Lacan’s thesis, from his middle teaching beginning around Seminar 9, to his final teaching– but already hinted at in his earlier teaching in seminars like Seminar 3 and 6 –was that psychic structure and its accompanying symptoms should be understood as an attempt to resolve these formal deadlocks. As Lacan cryptically puts it in Seminar 11, “…what the unconscious does is to show us the gap through which neurosis recreates a harmony with a real– a real that may well not be determined” (22). As Lacan articulates it in Seminar 3, Psychosis, in the case of hysteria the real takes the form of the question “am I a man or a woman?” By contrast, in the case of obsessional neurosis, the real takes the form of the question “am I alive or am I dead?” I won’t outline precisely how these questions are to be understood– having done so many times before on this blog already –but in both cases psychic structure is dealing with a formal deadlock or impasse not unlike Russell’s Paradox or the Barber of Seville Paradox. This deadlock functions as a sort of perpetual motion machine at the level of the unconscious where the symbolic attempts to provide a resolution to this Real, that becomes the origin of the various formations of the unconscious and symptoms that haunt the neurotic. This quick gloss, however, shows how indebted Lacan is to Levi-Strauss’s account of myth where myth functions to surmount and overcome certain formal deadlocks, contradictions, and impasses in the symbolic order.

It is in this spirit that we should approach Lacan’s rather mis-named graphs of sexuation. Any reading of the seminars in which Lacan developed his graphs of sexuation show– I think –that they have a rather fraught and tenuous relationship to anything pertaining to sex or gender. Not only does Lacan concede that anyone can occupy either side of the graphs regardless of their biological sex, but it is difficult to see why we would call one side feminine and another side masculine for any other reason beyond common cultural stereotypes pertaining to the organization of gendered desire. However, while the graphs might not give a very plausible account of gendered desire, they do give a good account of two ways in which the symbolic fails and how speaking-beings attempt to navigate this failure. Rather than referring to these two formal impasses as “masculine” and “feminine” (the left-hand and right-hand of the graph above respectively), we can instead refer to the two sides of the graph as “Incompleteness” and “Inconsistency”.

As I mentioned in my last post, the symbolic order is characterized by an intrinsic impossibility of totalization by virtue of the nature of the signifier. Insofar as the signifier cannot signify itself, insofar as each signifier requires another signifier in order to produce effects of signification, it follows that it is impossible to form a totality of language or a set of all signifiers. If this is the case, then it is because the signifier is a set that prohibits self-membership, such that a set of all sets that do not belong to themselves would either involve one signifier too few or one signifier many. We could also formulate this problem in terms of Cantor’s Paradox where even if we allowed self-membership in the case of signifiers it would nonetheless be impossible to form a set of all sets because the powerset of any set is always greater in size than the initial set itself, and because every set includes its subsets. Joyce, in his final work Finnegan’s Wake, could be taken as providing a graphic illustration of this latter thesis because his practice of writing shows the manner in which the signifier is always in excess of itself, harboring a terrifying subset of signifying possibilities– infinite in scope –that cannot be tamed or fixed by virtue of the polysemy of language. The upshot of all of this is that, as Lacan puts it, “there is no universe of discourse.” By a “universe”, of course, Lacan means that language, the symbolic, cannot be circumscribed or totalized. It is for this reason, as well, that there is no metalanguage because there is no point outside of language that one could adopt to tame this polysemy. Finally, it is for this reason that Lacan will say “the Other does not exist” and that “there is no Other of the Other”. In the former case, the in-existence of the Other results from the impossibility of circumscribing language and mastering this polysemy. By contrast, the theological option of postulating an Other of the Other (God) that would be master of sense and meaning is doomed to failure as there is no metalanguage. These are structural deadlocks that haunt language itself. Even God could not escape this Real or structural instability at the heart of the symbolic.

500px-DIAGRAMAccording to Lacan, there are two ways (for neurosis) in which this formal impasse can be navigated or structured: the way of Inconsistency and the way of Incompleteness. Lacan attempts to illustrate these two ways in his so-called graphs of sexuation. For anyone who is interested in a detailed commentary on the graphs of sexuation you can read my prior posts here, here, and here. The left-hand side of the graph of sexuation is the way of Inconsistency, whereas the right-hand side of the graph is the way of Incompleteness. Analogously, we can say that the left-hand portion of the graph is the way of transcendence, whereas the right-hand portion of the graph is the way of immanence. The upper portion of the graph with the logical notation illustrates the formal impasse or how the Real is encountered in a particular structure of desire. The lower portion of the graph, by contrast, illustrates the strategy that emerges in seeking to surmount this impasse. I refer to the left-hand portion of the graph, Inconsistency, as a “theological” relationship to the Real, whereas the right-hand portion of the graph is an “a-theological” relationship to the Real.

2-207-1-PBBoth the lower and upper symbolic notations are to be read together in much the same way Kant’s antinomies are read together. In other words, the deadlock or impasse only occurs as a result of the two propositions being read together. Thus, the upper portion of the side of Inconsistency reads:

There exists an entity that is not subject to the phallic function or the law of castration.

We shouldn’t be frightened off here by the words “phallic function” and “law of castration”. The phallus, in Lacanese, does not refer to the penis, but to the signifier of desire and the signifier of lack in the Other. Castration does not refer to “having it cut off”, but refers to lack, limitation, finitude, or incompleteness. Consequently, the thesis that “there exists an entity that is not subject to the phallic function or law of castration” is simply the assertion that there exists a being that does not lack, that is not limited, and that is not bound by any law in any way. In terms of Plato’s Euthyphro, this would be the thesis that the Good is the Good because the gods willed it so, rather than the Gods willing it because it is Good. In other words, the gods themselves would not be bound, under this hypothesis, by any higher law that would curtail or limit their actions, nor by which their actions could be judged. By contrast, the lower proposition of the side of Inconsistency reads:

All entities are governed by the phallic function or the law of castration


This thesis states the arch-correlationist thesis that there is no exception to the law, nor anything outside of language (language introducing irremediable lack into the psychic economy. If this is the arch-correlationist thesis, then this is because it asserts that all beings are beings only by virtue of language or in a correlationist relationship between language and thing where no term can be thought apart from the other. However, if this thesis must have recourse to an exception– a being that is not subject to the phallic function –then this is because the absence of an exception renders a distinction null or senseless. Were we not able to posit an exception to the universal law of language, something that does not fall under this universal law, the universalization of this law would itself become meaningless. In order for this universalization to function, there must be one exception that allows the distinction to be discerned at all. Consequently, through a strange sort of unconscious doubling, the universalization of our submission to the law generates the phantasy of a being that is an exception to this law, that is not bound by this law, and that is the shadowy condition for this law.

In my view, the left-hand portion of Lacan’s graph provides us with the formal matrix of any and all theological structures. The distinguishing feature of a theological belief system and an a-theological belief system has nothing to do with whether or not it posits the supernatural to explain worldly phenomena, but rather has to do with formal structure revolving around the logic of inconsistency and exception. It is for this reason that we can say that Laplace’s arch-materialism is theological in character. In universalizing causal determinism, Laplace is led to posit his famous Demon that could survey the entire universe from an outside point of view, determining all future and past states of the particles that compose nature. Laplace can only envision this hypothesis by positing an exception or outside to the universe that allows him to totalize the universe into a unitary set subordinated to the law of causation. Formally, structurally, Laplace’s Demon is no different than Leibniz’s God functioning as the “principle of sufficient reason” for the existence of this universe rather than another universe. More significantly, however, we could say that this logic of exception is a phantasy generated by a certain psychic structure where everything is subordinated to a particular law, where we unconsciously are led to imagine a totality not constrained by the lack instituted by the law. Perhaps here we encounter the obscene and shadowy underside of the law, where something about the universalization of the law leads us to imagine ourselves being able to attain a state beyond the law whereby lack is converted into loss and frustration is obliterated, and to imagine ourselves as being illicitly enjoyed by some other that steals our jouissance. I’ll have more to say about this in days to come, but for the moment I need to get cracking and make my mother dinner for mother’s day.