How to read Lacan – “God is dead, but he doesn’t know it”: Lacan plays with Bobok

The true formula of atheism is not God is dead – even by basing the origin of the function of the father upon his murder, Freud protects the father – the true formula of atheism is God is unconscious7

In order to properly understand this passage, one has to read it together with another thesis of Lacan. These two dispersed statements should be treated as the pieces of a puzzle to be combined into one coherent proposition. It is only their interconnection (plus the reference to the Freudian dream of the father who doesn’t know that he is dead)8 that enables us to deploy Lacan’s basic thesis in its entirety:

As you know, the father Karamazov’s son Ivan leads the latter into those audacious avenues taken by the thought of the cultivated man, and in particular, he says, if God doesn’t exist… – If God doesn’t exist, the father says, then everything is permitted. Quite evidently, a naïve notion, for we analysts know full well that if God doesn’t exist, then nothing at all is permitted any longer. Neurotics prove that to us every day.9

The modern atheist thinks he knows that God is dead; what he doesn’t know is that, unconsciously, he continues to believe in God. What characterizes modernity is no longer the standard figure of the believer who secretly harbors intimate doubts about his belief and engages in transgressive fantasies; today, we have, on the contrary, a subject who presents himself as a tolerant hedonist dedicated to the pursuit of happiness, and whose unconscious is the site of prohibitions: what is repressed are not illicit desires or pleasures, but prohibitions themselves. “If God doesn’t exist, then everything is prohibited” means that the more you perceive yourself as an atheist, the more your unconscious is dominated by prohibitions which sabotage your enjoyment. (One should not forget to supplement this thesis with its opposite: if God exists, then everything is permitted – is this not the most succinct definition of the religious fundamentalist’s predicament? For him, God fully exists, he perceives himself as His instrument, which is why he can do whatever he wants, his acts are in advance redeemed, since they express the divine will…)

Instead of bringing freedom, the fall of the oppressive authority thus gives rise to new and more severe prohibitions. How are we to account for this paradox? Think of the situation known to most of us from our youth: the unfortunate child who, on Sunday afternoon, has to visit his grandmother instead of being allowed to play with friends. The old-fashioned authoritarian father’s message to the reluctant boy would have been: “I don’t care how you feel. Just do your duty, go to grandmother and behave there properly!” In this case, the child’s predicament is not bad at all: although forced to do something he clearly doesn’t want to, he will retain his inner freedom and the ability to (later) rebel against the paternal authority. Much more tricky would have been the message of a “postmodern” non-authoritarian father: “You know how much your grandmother loves you! But, nonetheless, I do not want to force you to visit her – go there only if you really want to!” Every child who is not stupid (and as a rule they are definitely not stupid) will immediately recognize the trap of this permissive attitude: beneath the appearance of a free choice there is an even more oppressive demand than the one formulated by the traditional authoritarian father, namely an implicit injunction not only to visit the grandmother, but to do it voluntarily, out of the child’s own free will. Such a false free choice is the obscene superego injunction: it deprives the child even of his inner freedom, ordering him not only what to do, but what to want to do.

For decades, a classic joke has circulated among Lacanians to exemplify the key role of the Other’s knowledge: a man who believes himself to be a grain of seed is taken to the mental institution where the doctors do their best to finally convince him that he is not a grain but a man. When he is cured (convinced that he is not a grain of seed but a man) and allowed to leave the hospital, he immediately comes back trembling. There is a chicken outside the door and he is afraid that it will eat him. “Dear fellow,” says his doctor, “you know very well that you are not a grain of seed but a man”. “Of course I know that,” replies the patient, “but does the chicken know it?” Therein resides the true stake of psychoanalytic treatment: it is not enough to convince the patient about the unconscious truth of his symptoms, the unconscious itself must be brought to assume this truth. The same holds true for the Marxian theory of commodity fetishism:

A commodity appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing. But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.10

Marx does not claim, in the usual way of Enlightenment critique, that critical analysis should demonstrate how a commodity – what appears a mysterious theological entity – emerged out of the “ordinary” real-life process; he claims, on the contrary, that the task of critical analysis is to unearth the “metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” in what appears at first sight just an ordinary object. Commodity fetishism (our belief that commodities are magic objects, endowed with an inherent metaphysical power) is not located in our mind, in the way we (mis)perceive reality, but in our social reality itself. In other words, when a Marxist encounters a bourgeois subject immersed in commodity fetishism, the Marxist’s reproach to him is not “The commodity may seem to you to be a magical object endowed with special powers, but it really is just a reified expression of relations between people” but rather, “You may think that the commodity appears to you as a simple embodiment of social relations (that, for example, money is just a kind of voucher entitling you to a part of the social product), but this is not how things really seem to you. In your social reality, by means of your participation in social exchange, you bear witness to the uncanny fact that a commodity really appears to you as a magical object endowed with special powers.” We can imagine a bourgeois subject visiting a course of Marxism where he is taught about commodity fetishism. After the finished course, he comes back to his teacher, complaining that he is still the victim of commodity fetishism. The teacher tells him “But you know now how things stand, that commodities are only expressions of social relations, that there is nothing magic about them!”, to which the pupil replies: “Of course I know all that, but the commodities I am dealing with seem not to know it!” This is what Lacan aimed at in his claim that the true formula of materialism is not “God doesn’t exist,” but “God is unconscious.” Suffice it to recall what, in a letter to Max Brod, Milena Jesenska wrote about Kafka:

Footnotes

  1. Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts, p. 59.
  2. So that, combining this dream with the dream we interpreted in Chapter 3 about the dead son who appears to the father with the terrible approach "Father, can't you see I'm burning?", Lacan's statement can also be paraphrased as the reproach to the God-Father: "Father, can't you see you are dead?".
  3. Jacques Lacan, The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis, New York: Norton 1988, p. 128.
  4. Karl Marx, Capital, Volume One, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books 1990, p. 163.
  5. Quoted from Jana Cerna, Kafka's Milena, Evanston: Northwestern University Press 1993, p. 174.
  6. The very beginning of the story involves a strange denial of Rimbaud's je est un autre (I is an other).
  7. Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts, p. 59.
  8. So that, combining this dream with the dream we interpreted in Chapter 3 about the dead son who appears to the father with the terrible approach “Father, can’t you see I’m burning?”, Lacan’s statement can also be paraphrased as the reproach to the God-Father: “Father, can’t you see you are dead?”.
  9. Jacques Lacan, The Ego in Freud’s Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis, New York: Norton 1988, p. 128.
  10. Karl Marx, Capital, Volume One, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books 1990, p. 163.

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