Zizek on Freud’s Prosthetic God

Seal my ears, I’ll go on hearing you. And without feet I can make my way to you, without a mouth I can swear your name.
― Rainer Maria Rilke

Freud looked on technology and saw what was coming: the prosthetic God. Humans enfolded in the myth and illusions of Nietzsche’s self-overcoming man: becoming other, becoming machinic, enhanced; merging with his supplements, his technological appendages, shaping and shaped in their likeness bringing both transhuman and posthuman unhappiness and misery in pursuit of immortal godhood:

Long ago [man] formed an ideal conception of omnipotence and omniscience which he embodied in his gods. To these gods he attributed everything that seemed unattainable to his wishes, or that was forbidden to him. One may say, therefore, that these gods were cultural ideals. Today he has come very close to the attainment of this ideal, he has almost become a god himself. Only, it is true, in the fashion in which ideals are usually attained according to the general judgment of humanity: not completely, in some respects not at all, in others only half way. Man has, as it were, become a kind of prosthetic God. When he puts on all his auxiliary organs he is truly magnificent; but those organs have not grown on to him and they still give him much trouble at times … Future ages will bring with them new and probably unimaginably great achievements in this field of civilization and will increase man’s likeness to God still more. But in the interests of our investigations, we will not forget that present-day man does not feel happy in his Godlike character.1

Slavoj Zizek commenting on this passage would add the Lacanian twist. “In his Ethics seminar, Lacan invokes the “point of the apocalypse,” the impossible saturation of the symbolic by the Real of jouissance, the full immersion into massive jouissance. When, in a Heideggerian way, he asks “Have we crossed the line … in the world in which we live?,”  he refers to the fact that “ the possibility of the death of the Symbolic has become a tangible reality.”  Lacan himself invokes the threat of an atomic holocaust; today, however, we are in a position to offer other versions of this death of the symbolic, principal among them the full scientific naturalization of the human mind. The apocalyptic process will reach its zero point when prostheses no longer merely supplement the human body but in a way supplant it, leaving behind the notion of the human being as a worker whose know-how enables him to use prosthetic instruments.”2

This notion of the zero point of humanity, the vanishing point beyond which one will not know what is human or not, but will cross the Rubicon of animate/inanimate becoming: producing in the process the erasure of the human in the inhuman.  The point that Zizek makes is that in this transition to prosthetic implementation or enhancement through technology, medicine, nanotech, etc. we will become unknowing of the line between the human and machinic, it will become ubiquitous and invisible:

While in principle this may be true, the problem is that when the prosthesis is no longer experienced as such, but becomes invisible, part of our immediate-organic experience, those who technologically control the prosthesis effectively control us at the very heart of our self-experience. (279)

My friend R. Scott Bakker will align this naturalization of humanity into either hybridity or machine-life as the ‘Semantic Apocalypse’. A cultural and socialization process that began with the breakdown in universal values: Kant’s moment of doubt when the notion of finitude and intuition emerged. The notion of eternal truths suddenly dies and spawns history, the dark truth that ‘truth itself is time-bound’, a cultural artifact that we have as Nietzsche once taught “all agreed upon”.

For Zizek this whole breakdown allowed the sciences to fantasize and bring into the world things that were not found in nature, that allowed a process to begin shaping itself without us:

Science and technology today no longer aim only at understanding and reproducing natural processes, but also at generating new forms of life that will surprise us. The goal is not just to dominate nature (the way it is), but to generate something new, greater, stronger than ordinary nature, including ourselves— exemplary is here the obsession with artificial intelligence, which aims at producing a brain stronger than the human brain. The dream that sustains the scientific-technological endeavor is to trigger a process with no return, a process that will exponentially reproduce itself all on its own. The notion of “second nature” is therefore today more pertinent than ever, in both its main meanings.(279)

One must remember that underpinning the notion of “second nature” is the old Christian or even monotheistic/gnostic notion of becoming the ‘being of Light’, etc. One could provide thousands of examples from the World’s religions of this transcension of the natural. From East to West various notions of becoming other than we are, of transcending our nature, etc. has been the goal of moral and religious engines for thousands of years. This movement from religion to the religion of science is one and the same: these new NBIC sciences are sponsored by a new secular religion seeking immortality. Yet, many fear this and realize it is once again the dream not of the common man, but of the elites seeking to gain a new dominion over nature, etc. At the bottom of this fear lies the fear that sex, a natural process that has up to now guided natural evolution is being replaced by what Lacan termed the lamella:

This fear also has a clear libidinal dimension: it is the fear of the asexual reproduction of Life, the fear of a life that is indestructible, constantly expanding, reproducing itself through self-division— in short, the fear of that mythic creature Lacan called lamella (which can be loosely translated as “manlet,” a condensation of “man” and “omelet”), the libido as an organ, an inhuman-human organ without a body, the mythical pre-subjective “undead” life-substance.(280)

Zizek will remind us that Lacan’s term for these objects that have become invisible, ubiquitous in our midst, objects that are merging with us are becoming the surround of our inforworlds are “lathouses”:

The world is increasingly populated by lathouses. Since you seem to find that amusing, I am going to show you how it is written. Notice that I could have called it lathousies. That would have gone better with ousia, it is open to all sorts of ambiguity … And for the tiny little a-objects that you are going to encounter when you leave, on the pavement at every street corner, behind every shop window, in the superabundance of these objects designed to cause your desire in so far as it is now science that governs it, think of them as lathouses. I notice a bit late since I invented it not too long ago that it rhymes with ventouse [windy]. (Zizek quoting Lacan, The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, p. 162.)

Of course Zizek will take on the political interpellation of this, saying that as such, lathouse is to be opposed to symptom (in the precise Freudian sense of the term): lathouse is knowledge embodied (in a new “unnatural” object). We can see why, apropos lathouses, we have to include capitalism— we are dealing here with a whole chain of surpluses: scientific technology with its surplus-knowledge (a knowledge beyond mere connaissance of already existing reality, a knowledge which gets embodied in new objects); capitalist surplus-value (the commodification of this surplus-knowledge in the proliferation of gadgets); and, last but not least, surplus-enjoyment (gadgets as forms of the objet a), which accounts for the libidinal economy of the hold of lathouses over us.(282)

 

1. Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, New York: Norton 1961, p. 39.
2. Zizek, Slavoj (2014-10-07). Absolute Recoil: Towards A New Foundation Of Dialectical Materialism (pp. 277-278). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.

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