I’m part of a group at Fuller discussing the intersections of theology with Continental postmodern philosophy and psychoanalytic theory. We are currently working our way through philosopher Clayton Crockett’s Interstices of the Sublime: Theology and Psychoanalytic Theory. This post comes as a reflection on Crockett’s chapter on ethics and psychosis entitled “Desiring the Thing.”
God is in the interstices of the Real, the ruptures that disrupt our existence. God is not the patch over a wound but is instead the wound that we patch over with sublime symbolization.
Central to Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic theory is that the unconscious is structured like language. Continental philosophy of language is indebted to Ferdinand de Saussure who described three parts to language: 1) the signifier, 2) the signified, and 3) the referent. The signifier is a word (i.e. “god”) which describes something the speaker wishes to refer to (i.e. the speaker’s concept of god), which may or may not refer to an onto-metaphysical entity in the world (god as an actual being). Herein lies the crucial addition from the more commonly cited work of Frege, who divided language only into sense and referent, which the sense describes. Saussure’s categories are more nuanced in that his signifier precedes and includes Frege’s sense, and his signified lies somewhere between Frege’s sense and referent. What Frege confidently called the referent, the metaphysical reality in the world, is said by Saussure to be a metaphysical postulation beyond the scope of linguistics and is therefore uninteresting to him as a linguist.
Another way of describing Saussure is to think of a color. “Blue” is a signifier that represents a signified color which I mean to describe. I can describe colors regardless of whether or not colors actually exist in the world. In this case, “blue” does not actually exist as a referent in the world; color is not a physical quality, but merely the result of my occipital cortex processing the electrical signals from my optic nerve generated by incoming photons. But we still talk of color even though, as a referent, it is an illusion. This is also why rigorous theology is possible to conduct regardless of whether God-as-referent exists.
Now we come back to Lacan, who said the unconscious is structured like language. Lacan has a helpful triplet to describe how the individual engages the world: 1) the imaginary, 2) the symbolic, and 3) the Real. The imaginary is the way we imagine ourselves to be (which is a fiction). The Real is the objective self, represented by the unconscious. The symbolic is another fiction in which we prop up the imaginary self and mitigate the Real. A useful example is found in a 1938 Home and Garden magazine article telling of a wonderful aristocrat who loves children, doesn’t touch alcohol, is an animal lover and vegetarian, a connoisseur of art and history and political theory, and who is also Adolf Hitler. The Real Hitler is Auschwitz and WWII. The imaginary Hitler is himself as a cultured humanitarian. And the symbolic is the defense mechanisms of his water color paintings, handing out treats to children, and being a much-beloved host to guests.
To combine Lacan and Saussure, we could picture it as such:
Imaginary = Signified
Symbolic = Signifier
Real = Referent
What struck me in my reading of Crockett was not only the negative note of how disruptive for theology a psycho-linguistic theory could be, but also the positive possibility of identifying neurotic psychosis in a religious group.
The Real/referent is outside the scope of pure experience precisely because experience must be mediated by senses and mind. But our desire is nonetheless for something real. Freud called it the Thing (Das Ding), the primary object of desire, which is completely inaccessible. It is only semi-accessible via symbolization.
“Das Ding is that which I will call the beyond-of-the-signified… and is constituted in a kind of relationship characterized by primary affect, prior to any representation.” – Jacques Lacan
The Thing we desire (in the case of theology, God) is outside the realm of symbols and signifiers. God exists in the Real. Which brings us to an interesting Lacanian definition of psychosis:
“Psychosis is the refusal to enter into the symbolic order, to cling to the Real, and, since this is impossible, it results in hallucinations.” – Clayton Crockett
Desire must include symbolization. Even the one I love exists for me in the realm of incomplete symbol rather than as one to whom I have direct, Real knowledge (this is why even an entire lifetime is not enough time to discover the whole person). If desire resists admitting symbolization and instead insists it directly accesses the Real, this is psychosis. This is similar to Derrida’s widely misunderstood maxim “the truth is there is no Truth,” which could be rewritten in psychoanalytic terminology as, “the Real truth is that symbolic truth is simply not quite the Real truth.” In Totem and Taboo, Freud describes how evolved maxims came to have religious language appropriated and canonized. Early in our domestication of animals, Freud argues, we would have quickly figured out that incest resulted in malformation; it was only later that the gods were said to have originally forbidden it. This after-the-fact appropriation obscures the original intent, and to obsessively claim the taboo originated with the gods is often to descend into this neurotic (obsessively focused) fiction. In the same way, to speak of the color “blue” is normal; but to become angry when the fiction disintegrates (i.e. someone points out to you that color is only an illusion in the mind) is to demonstrate neurotic psychosis.
If you are still following me at this point, it should be clear how theology can descend into this psychosis. It is a general danger to us all, but is particularly acute in religious varieties that rigorously hold to claims of literalism and absolutism. We are most prone to forgetting the nature of symbolism where it should be most obvious: the text (symbols) of scripture. Resistance to questions is always a sign of a descent into psychosis. All religious doctrine is a symbolic representation of the Real, but to claim that a doctrine represents a direct one-to-one correlate to the Real (i.e. a claim that my belief about atonement is not only helpful, but is how it actually works) is dangerously neurotic.
And this dangerously neurotic psychosis is not confined to individuals; in many religious groups, it is a basic requirement for entry into the community. The psychosis may be perpetual, or it may be a weekly rhythm one descends into for an hour on Sunday before reentry into the more stable world of symbolization. I’m not sure which is more unhealthy.
As the Apostle Paul writes, “For now we see in a mirror dimly.” Our dimly mirrored purview may symbolically approximate the Real, but it is not yet the Real. Not yet.
by Tad Delay
Read more from Tad at taddelay.com