Apart from clinical practice, what makes psychoanalysis, at the most foundational theoretical level, a Godless discipline?
Adrian Johnston, Prolegomena to Any Future Materialism
Yet it is not true that everything is packed solid and confined on every side by corporeal substance; for there is void in things.
Lucretius, On the Nature of Things
Atheism is the bread and butter of all materialisms. Anti-Platonic it will have no truck with either gods or Ideas, or any other transcendent entity no matter what. Yet, its greatest enemy is the false materialist, the one who would soften the blow of the atheistic stance by “passing off idealist notions as materialist concepts”.(13)1 This is not your pie-in-the-sky type of philosophy, fully fleshed out it is agonistic, virulent, rude, and seeks to weed out its enemies conceptual foundations wherever it finds them. It’s enemy is religions everywhere, no matter what guise they take. And, yet, it was Lacan himself, Adrian Johnston reminds us, who asserted “that materialism usually hovering around and informing the natural sciences – the naturalism espoused during the eighteenth century arguably continues to serve, more often than not, as … the spontaneous philosophy of the scientists – represents a disguised body of religious belief” (15).
How could such a state of affairs come about? Were not these early pioneers of materialist philosophy avid atheists and haters of religious chains? Yes and no. Yes, they disavowed God, spirituality, Catholicism, Protestantism, etc. yet in its place they enthroned another entity – a substitute God: they made Matter itself into God. With Spinozism we remove one God for another: Matter as Nature would rule from now on. As Johnston in his reading of Lacan surmises in this new materialism of the Enlightenment “[m]aterial being becomes something eternal, indestructible, and omnipotent”(15). Johnston commenting on Lacan’s critique of these early materialisms, continues, saying:
Lacan views the Sadian flux of nature, with its intense processes of becoming, as the basis for a monotheism-in-bad-faith resting on foundations not so different from those of the enshrined religions spurned by the ostensibly atheist literature. (15)
Ultimately in this new cosmos Nature is divinized. As Johnston comments: “God is far from dead so long as nature is reduced to being the receptacle for and receiver of his attributes and powers” (16). There is this sense that even the natural sciences that emerged during this early age and up to our time are steeped in this mythology of Nature. These natural sciences tend to accept without question “the nonempirical supposition of the ultimate cohesion the material universe as a self-consistent One-All” (16). Just here lies the “hidden theosophical nucleus” at the core of the natural sciences we now term ‘scientism’.
Here is the dividing line of so much current philosophy and its rejection of the biological sciences in favor of mathematic formalism. Because of this distrust of scientism and the religiosity of a hidden Spinozistic God at the heart of these purported naturalistic sciences many of our contemporary philosophers have been wary of incorporating them into their philosophical stances. Johnston sees this as a mistake and seeks rectification within his own philosophical stance by reincorporating these life sciences purged of their hidden religiosity.
Against this enlarged Nature with matter enthroned as the new god Johnston proposes an alternative. He seeks a “new, fully secularized materialism” one that will be linked to the notion of “nature as the self-shattering, internally conflicted existence of a detotalized material immanence” (20). Yet, to do this we must first get our atheism right. Johnston in his quest to pin down Lacan on atheism finds three specific junctures in his career that shed light on atheism in its modern form. The first instance toward a definition comes Johnston tells us in 1963 session of the tenth seminar in which Lacan describing the power over the obsessional neurotics life by a belief in the “universal eye” – “of a virtual, godlike observer of their existences” (22). It is at this point in his seminar that Lacan states that “such is the true dimension of atheism. An atheist would be someone who has succeeded at eliminating the fantasy of the All-Powerful.”(22)
Johnston commenting on this states that Lacanian analysis can be seen as a form of “psychoanalytical ascesis” in which atheism becomes the outcome of the analytic treatment. Put briefly “traversing the fantasy of an omnipotent and omniscient big Other, whether this Other be conceived of as God, Nature, the analyst, or whatever, is an unavoidable rite of passage in concluding moments of an analysis seen through to a fitting end”(22).
The second instance comes in the sixteenth seminar purports that an atheist is one who has put into question the category of sujet supposé savoir (“subject supposed to know“). As Johnston comments: “Without letting fall and enduring the dissipation of the position of the subject supposed to know, one remains, according to Lacan, mired in idealism and theology; he equates belief in an Other-subject with belief in God”(22).
The last instance comes in the seventeenth seminar where Lacan without reservation asserts that “the pinnacle of psychoanalysis is well and truly atheism”(22-23). The change from the early to the late seminar Johnston tells us is one of tone and stance, an authoritative voice that is adamant and defiant rather than placating, one in which the “apex of the analytic experience” is seen as just this acceptance of atheism.
We must recognize that war is common and strife is justice, and all things happen according to strife and necessity. (DK22B80)
War is the father of all and king of all, who manifested some as gods and some as men, who made some slaves and some freemen. (DK22B53)
“The big Other does not exist.” One wants to bronze this statement and peg it just above one’s study so that all that enter will know just where you stand. Yet, as Adrian Johnston tells us, one must supplement this statement from Lacan with another thesis: “in the absence of every version of this Other, what remains lacks any guarantee of consistency right down to the bedrock of ontological fundaments. Strife, potential or actual, reigns supreme as a negativity permeating the layers and strata of material being”(23).
I am always a little wary when older forms, metaphors, figures from another age strike up like “strife” hung out as foundational notions. One has to ask the proverbial question: Is there a god hiding behind this apparent concept? What is Strife? Shall we go back to Heraclitus? Are we swinging between the gongs of strife and necessity? Johnston in earnest tells us that it is this “positing of conflict as ubiquitous and primary” that makes psychoanalysis a Godless discipline. At the core of this discipline is the view of nature not as a big Other, but as the site of antagonisms and oppositions, nature as divided by “conflicts rendering it a fragmented, not-whole non-One,” which constitutes the central core of psychoanalysis as a metapsychology enforced by a merciless desacralization.(24)
another post to come dealing with this conflictual ontology in the making….
1. Johnston, Adrian (2013) Prolegomena To Any Future Materialism – Volume One: The Outcome of Contemporary French Philosophy ( Northwestern University Press)