Tim Richardson’s remarks responding to my post on myth this afternoon strangely have me thinking about a-theism and the end of analysis (and in the name of full disclosure, the two of us are very old friends and co-founded the Dallas Society for Structuralist and Post-Structuralist thought that hosts a reading group at University of Texas Arlington). The hyphen in the term a-theism is very important. Ordinarily atheism is taken to mean “without god” and to refer to any discourse that rejects all forms of the supernatural. Understood in this way you get discourses such as those found in Hitchens, Dawkin, and Dennett debunking the supernatural. I think this way of understanding a-theism simultaneously says too little and too much. On the one hand, I think it says too much because I think there are ways of thinking the divine and supernatural that are, paradoxically, perfectly consistent with a-theism. Episcopal minister Jack Spong’s theology, for example, would fit very well with a-theism in this sense. It is not Bishop Spong’s siding with science that makes his theology consistent with a-theism (though kudos for him!), but rather his thesis that transcendent God (the myth) literally dies with Jesus. The Jesus-event, under this reading, becomes the assertion of a theology of immanence, a rejection of transcendence, and the resurrection and ascension refer not to something literal, but rather to the emergence of a new kind of community no longer based on an essence stemming from kinship relations and without identity: a queer community not unlike the show Heroes. Jesus’s “resurrection” would lie in the work of this purely immanent community with no criteria for membership and no signifier or membership that could define it. It would be a community of fragments without law, kinship, or national guarantee. Paradoxically, the least Christian thing one could do under this reading would be to call oneself a Christian or join a Christian community as that would immediately set up a logic of membership defining an in-group and an out-group. Many variants of Buddhism, I think, fit with what I call a-theism. While I don’t throw in with theological variants of a-theism because they still posit the supernatural and I think the world is enough, it’s nonetheless the case that these theologies are consistent with a-theism as I’ll define it in a moment. On the other hand, this conception of a-theism says too little because it restricts a-theism to considerations of the supernatural, ignoring the fact that a-theism, to be thorough-going, refers to a particular structure of thought, not the content of a particular form of thought. In other words, a thorough-going a-theism would reject forms of thought that come in both secular and religious variants.
As I argued in my previous post– and in chapter six of The Democracy of Objects, this form of thought is that of transcendence:
Likewise, in the case of myth, it is not whether or not something has a supernatural dimension, but rather whether or not something possesses a particular structure. I have argued that all myths, whether pertaining to religion or secular systems, share the same structure of positing one term as transcendent to all others. I use the term “transcendence” in a very specific way: the transcendent, as I use the term, does not mean “to go beyond”, but rather refers to the postulation of any entity that is unconditioned and that conditions other things without itself being conditioned by other things.
When we think in terms of structures rather than content, any number of terms can therefore be theistic, regardless of whether the discourse is secular or religious. Transcendent terms can be Platonic forms, unchanging Aristotlean essences defining a species, the way we venerate a particular leader, party, or intellectual movement, transcendental signifiers, sovereignty, God as most commonly conceived in the monotheistic traditions, Laplace’s demon that is able to survey the entire universe and the position of all particles from perspective outside the universe, the subject conceived as an absolute origin of will, the neoliberal subject as thoroughly self-made, etc. This structure has many different variants at the level of content, just like the sentences “Jack kicks the ball”, “the dog eats the bone”, “Levi cooks split pea soup”, etc., have the same grammatical structure while nonetheless having different contents. Theism is the belief in an absolute and transcendent ground that conditions without itself being conditioned. As Nietzsche said, we have not really killed “God” (the transcendent) if were merely replace him with Man. The content has changed, but the structure remains the same. Likewise, we have not really replaced patriarchy if we simply take a biological man out of the position of power and fill in that position with a biological woman (ergo the reason that many contemporary Goddess religions are thoroughly patriarchal). It’s the structure that is patriarchal, not the organ between the person’s legs (assuming we can even speak in a clear cut way about male and female).
A thoroughgoing a-theism, a genuine ontology of immanence– where immanence is not immanence to anything but itself or the world(s) is all there is –is a form of thought that strives to reject all forms of theism or transcendence, whether in the domain of ontology, epistemology, ethics, or politics. It is for this reason, necessarily an-archic. It is a position that rejects any ultimate or absolute grounds, any unconditioned grounds that condition all else, for social formations (even kings only get their authority from the masses), ethics (all norms are invented, not beings that reside in Platonic heaven and fall from the sky; that’s why they’re so fragile and we must fight for them), and even where people think that the social world in which they find themselves is an absolute which they must obey, it is the beings of the world that create these structures. The ultimate truth of this a-theism and an-archism is the contingency of everything. There is no “natural” social arrangement (where “nature” is here used in the sense of divinely ordained or Platonically dictated) and there is no form of life that cannot be otherwise.
In this regard, the ultimate truth of Lacanian psychoanalysis is a-theism and an-archism. Here I think that philosophy is yet to catch up with Lacan, still pervaded as it is by various versions of ontotheology or theism, though it’s gotten much closer with thinkers such as Deleuze, Badiou and his critique of the various figures of the One, and, I would argue, the object-oriented ontologists. For Lacan the end of analysis consists in traversing the fantasm. The fantasm is what covers over the fissures and incompleteness of being, giving rise to the idea that the big Other exists. The beyond of the fantasm is the discovery that the big Other does not exist, that there is no master-plan, that there is no master that knows, that there are no transcendent formations, but that it was the subject’s belief that created the illusion of these things. The discovery that the big Other does not exist is the discovery that there is no leader that is uncastrated, that there is no ultimate answer, that there are no transcendent terms, and that there is no being that knows. The film Melancholia depicts this in a devastating way. As Kirsten Dunst’s character remarks, “we won’t be missed.” Her sister responds, “what do you mean?” Dunst, “we’re alone, completely alone, there is no other life in the universe.” The secret is that there is no secret and that there is no plan to all of this. It was only ever the belief in the secret that gave the king his power in the first place. Traversing the fantasm is a horrifying, devastating, but also emancipatory experience.
The late Lacan, starting with Seminar 22, RSI, distinguishes between two trajectories analysis can take. The first trajectory, that of a failed analysis, consists in believing in your symptom. Belief in your symptom is a phallic structure of subjectivity, which is to say that it refers not to the penis, but to a particular signifier, a transcendental signifier, that would ultimately ground and guarantee meaning. Belief in the symptom thus consists in belief that finally, some day, the secret of the symptom will be revealed once and for all through some grand narrative that stitches the idiotic repetition of the symptom together (Lacan speaks of the repetition of the symptom as “idiotic”, though I won’t get into the reasons for that here), thereby dissolving the symptom. Put in terms of Peircian semiotics, belief in the symptom is belief that there is a final interpretant, rather than an endless process of semiosis without end. Thus, for example, belief in the symptom might consist in the idea that someday the analysand will find the ultimate origin of the symptom in some childhood trauma that would finally explain it once and for all (the trauma theory of neurosis).
Within the Freudo-Lacanian framework, this belief in the origin of the symptom is always mythological. Rather, trauma is a structural feature of our being (closely bound up with what the object-oriented ontologists call “withdrawal”) and not an accident of history. All of Lacan’s gymnastics with topology, set theory, knots, symbolic logic, etc., are designed to draw attention to this structural being of the symptom: of a symptom without origin or final phallic signifier. This leaves identification with the symptom. Identification with the symptom consists in finally coming to that point where the symptom as the subject’s unique source of jouissance that functions like a sort of perpetual motion machine endlessly creating formations of the unconscious is recognized. The subject does not abandon the symptom, or eradicate the symptom– though, topologically, through analysis, the symptom can undergo significant mutations and our relation to this jouissance can become more direct and less painful –but rather changes his relation to the symptom. The symptom is no longer experienced as an impediment, but as a solution and source of satisfaction. This beyond of the fantasy found in the discovery that the big Other does not exist and in identification with the symptom is also the discovery that there is no solution to life. It is the beyond of all teleology (eschatology) and nostalgia (stories of the pure origin and the fall).
We have not yet really seen a form of philosophy organized around identification with the symptom, yet the history of philosophy is replete with examples of belief in the symptom. These philosophies are what Derrida refers to as “Ontotheology” (or what I call “phallosophy” because of their necessarily patriarchal structure), and always consist in the search for a pure transcendent ground as origin of all else. The challenge, I think, is to think a genuine and thorough-going a-theism that does not believe in the symptom, but that rather identifies with the symptom and that is able to find a way to live even if, as Dunst’s character in Melancholia suggests, the ultimate truth of existence is extinction, and there is no ultimate purpose to it all.