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Richard Boothby and Lacan's Das Ding
Towards a General Theory of Religion
This article is inspired by Richard Boothby’s presentation in his contribution to the Seminars for the Écrits, a series in promotion of the fourth Philosophy Portal course on Lacan’s Écrits, which started September 3rd.
Richard Boothby turns against his Master, or rather, transgresses his Master, Jacques Lacan, and hopes to survive, in developing a general theory of religion. Jacques Lacan infamously asserted that a general theory of religion should not be pursued, in favour of a more particularist reading of religion, where we accept and live with the irreducible differences between different religious faiths or orientations.
However, as Richard Boothby sees it, Lacan also turned away from precisely the concept that may just open the possibility for such an analysis: the concept of Das Ding. Lacan’s focus on Das Ding reaches its peak in the seventh seminar, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, where there is something of an important breakthrough, and even, for Boothby, a “crowning conceptual move” in the identification of Das Ding, or “The Freudian Thing.”1
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Lacan opens The Ethics of Psychoanalysis by emphasising that he is grasping at straws when looking for a specific name which captures what he ends up symbolising as Das Ding. He wants to express something in-between (the German words for) Thing and Matter. This in-between is importantly NOT a relation, but rather what Lacan calls the “true secret” in the impossibility of relation.2 To be more specific, the “true secret” is somehow related to the “absolute Other of the subject that one is supposed to find again”.3 Lacan is quick to inform us that this Other is both perceived to be “prehistoric” and “unforgettable” (on the level of jouissance),4 and our (impossible) relation to it, prefigures the choice of neurosis (hysteric, obsessional, phobic) by the subject of the unconscious, that is: the way we dramatise our possibilities vis-a-vis non-relation.
After The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, which Boothby claims centres Das Ding, for some reason, Lacan switches focus, and “puts his chips on the square” of the objet a. As we find out in the opening chapter of the Écrits, Lacan’s central object of his entire writings is, indeed, objet a:5
“I decipher the division in which the subject is verified in the fact that an object traverses him without them interpenetrating in any respect, this division being at the crux of what emerges at the end of this collection that goes by the name of object a (to be read: little a).”
While Boothby takes no issue with the concept of objet a as the object-cause of desire (“the division in which the subject is verified”), he seeks to investigate the place of Das Ding, or the “absolute Other of the subject that one is supposed to find again”, in the potential formulation of a general theory of religion. From the above description of Das Ding, it should be clear why: religion is usually based on, founded upon, the principle of an “absolute Other” in relation to the “divided subject”, regulating its activity as the ultimate jouissance, which, importantly, is found.
In this sense, for Boothby, when we are thinking about the different religious orientations, we are thinking about different “choices” that signal a relation (perhaps some sort of compromise formation) to this dimension of the Other. He starts with Lacan’s most basic claim about desire: desire is the desire of the other. As Lacan states again and again, the subject’s desire is alienated in the other because of our starting condition as subjects, as impotent, fragmented infants with uncoordinated nervous systems.6
In this state we are thus left with a basic hysterical positioning: what does the other want from us? What am I to the other? All of our vital needs hang in the balance of this hysterical questioning, and all of our psychical fecundity, Lacan will tell us, spring forth from the well-spring of the unconscious, in relation to our vital insufficiency.7
Boothby reminds us that, while Freud conceived of libidinal desire as a spontaneous upsurge in the individual, Lacan puts this crucial detour somehow circuited through the other. Of course, no other comes to fill this hole as a pure longing of desire for an object, desire is this longing as such, desire is this hole or lack or gap as such, the very origin in which we contact our origin, right now, as a (hysterical) question about the other within me.
In this sense, libido is left radically open, without natural object or correlate, without a “reality principle” to contain it or restrict it to some generalised normativity. Thus, we are left without a “safe distance” from the core of our own being, which is not so much knowable (re: the Socratic position of wisdom: “know thyself”), as it is a constant anxiety producing unknowing. This is the dimension which Boothby links to Das Ding as a “non-object, vacuity, black zone” or as he will say in his calming and distinctive voice: “a zone of the unknown”.
This zone of the unknown should be distinguished from a scientific form of the unknown, as in an indifferent otherness “out there” that is independent of human beings, our civilisation, cares and desires. This zone of the unknown is inextricably linked with other human beings, our civilisation, cares and desires: this is an unknown that cannot be detached or disconnected from, our fellow human beings or intersubjective dialectics.
We get hysterical questions in this zone, like:
“What will they do to me?”
“What do they want from me?”
These questions rattle around in our ever-present primordial gap/lack/hole, perhaps in-form-ing us with images that echo those earliest terrifying moments of our (impotent, fragmented) being.
Boothby claims this is the reason why most common everyday discourse oriented around greeting/meeting another human being is “domesticated” (perhaps necessarily so), with banal messages that are not meant to be really answered, like:
“Hey, how are you?”
Do we really want to know? No.
Boothby notes that, for someone who responds actually responds to the literal letter in such interactions:
“Oh my God, I am overwhelmed, I have no idea how I will pay the bills next month, my Mother is an absolute nightmare, and my kids just won’t behave!”
“I just found out my friend has a terminal disease, my partner and I just don’t see eye to eye anymore, and I have restless sleep because of this dreadful anxiety”
There is a certain social stupidity at play.
In fact, Slavoj Žižek opens his great work Less Than Nothing with reference to such social stupidity:8
“There are two opposed types of stupidity. The first is the (occasionally) hyper-intelligent subject who just doesn’t “get it,” who understands a situation logically, but simply misses its hidden contextual rules. For example, when I first visited New York, a waiter at a café asked me: “How was your day?” Mistaking the phrase for a genuine question, I answered him truthfully (“I am dead tired, jet-lagged, stressed out…”), and he looked at me as if I were a complete idiot… and he was right: this kind of stupidity is precisely that of an idiot.”9
The way to navigate this situation involves the way the subject of the unconscious manages the real of Das Ding. This involves the intersubjective universalisation of a type of anxiety that requires the appearances of the big Other (e.g. a waiter at a cafe asking “How was your day,”), as well as the censorship of the direct truth (e.g. “I am doing well, thanks”), while still finding a space for the slips of the subject of the unconscious, or rather, letting the slips of the subject of the unconscious break through (which is anyway inevitable).
Boothby refers to what is at stake here: that human beings have a painful terrifying apprehension which lurks just beneath the surface of every human interaction, we are highly prone to be “freaked out.” He gives an example of this fact in the difference between being surprised on a walk in the woods by a harmless forest critter, or being surprised on a walk by another human being (i.e. recognising that someone unknown is walking behind you, for example). The only thing that can reduce the painful or terrifying apprehensions that can appear in such situations would be something like turning around and saying “hey, how are you?”. Here common everyday discourse can be seen as domesticating the dimension of Das Ding.
However, there is another aspect of Das Ding, that in many ways could be understood as more liberatory or enjoyable than these common everyday interactions. Boothby points out that we may find horror movies as a place where we can enjoy our haunted consciousness. Horror movies help us rehearse, in a sense, this dimension within us, in a simulated fictional environment where we know that there is no real danger (and yet we can be exposed to the same emotions).
This would be something like building a sensitivity to the real of Das Ding.
And this brings us full circle to where Boothby locates the universal dimension of the religious function in the subject. The universal dimension of the religious function in the subject is what gives us a symbolic distance from the real of the primordial encounter with Otherness. This symbolic distance is put in place by what Boothby will call the “paternal metaphor”, which is a desire for the (metaphorical) M(O)ther to be replaced by the Law of the Father. The child turns towards the “Father” because there is something anxiety provoking in the “M(O)ther”, a dimension of something (irreducibly) unknown.
In this sense, something like a religious structure, for Boothby, is necessary for the child to accept and reconcile with its Oedipal complex. Far from being an imaginary fantasy blocking the real, religion is something like a linguistic structure which is necessary to avoid or evade imaginary capture in either psychosis or perversion, and to work with (or quilt), our neurotic obsessions, hysteria, or even, phobias. Religion domesticates our neurosis and allows us to live with them in a way that is pro-social, as opposed to taking refuge from any social interactions whatsoever.10
Boothby reminds us that it is the Law of the Father which is the turn to structural regulation and reassurance in social life, a language in a system of signifiers that gives us a feeling of home because they reduce the tension provoked by the unknown (which in its full weight, is “too much”, “unbearable”).
Here we get a perspectival shift on religion. Religion is not “the Real in-itself” as suggested by religious fundamentalists, nor is religion the imaginary capture into an illusion as suggested by many traditional atheists or new atheists. Religion is rather the symbolic dimension (whether explicitly religious or not), that allows us to engage intersubjectivity and history.11 This comes with a danger. If we reify our symbolic dimension (with whatever system of signification that may involve), we fall for the trap of the fundamentalist, and we mistake the symbolic for the real. However, if we obfuscate the dimension of the symbolic (and instead opt for the personal dimension of our isolated delusions), we mistake the imaginary for the real. What is thus at stake in the “becoming religious” is precisely the confrontation with a lack in the Other, and it is this confrontation with the lack in the Other which allows us to inhabit the Other.
Take, for example, the aforementioned quote by Žižek about the waiter in the café: of course the waiter in the café doesn’t really care about Žižek’s day (there is a lack in the Other), but Žižek was equally wrong to directly state the truth (which is falling for the appearances of the Other). What religion provides is the minimal capacity to engage in the common sense but often invisible substructure of language, the hidden contextual rules, that allows society to function. This means that ideology at its zero level is not some fanatical adherence to a specific system of religion (which is idiotic). The religious subject par excellence is someone who can simply respond to the waiter: “I’m doing well, how are you good sir?”
Such a subject realises that ideology is not in the way of one’s libidinal upsurge, but rather the way in which one’s libidinal upsurge takes an irreducible detour through the other, which opens one up to a deeper otherness.
Thus, it is precisely a society that has managed to cultivate a religious layer, in this precise sense, that we can make room for the gaps, cracks and lacks, where we find the subject of the unconscious, where we find the dimension of absolute knowing.12 Such subjectivity does not necessarily form a “community”, but rather “communes with otherness as such” (the self-othering process as such). In this sense we can say that, while the ego is imaginary and communities are (part-aspect of the) symbolic, with its larger dimension in the real of intersubjectivity as such, the real is that irreducible division in which the subject of the unconscious is verified.
This is the way religion (explicit or implicit) can play its part in preparing the subject for the real.13
So how do we link Boothby’s general theory of religion to Lacan’s move towards the object-cause of desire? We can link it by suggesting that Boothby’s general theory of religion points to the necessity of establishing a social theory of psychoanalysis that takes into consideration the way the subject must establish an intersubjective alliance vis-a-vis Das Ding as non-relation. Once a society has established such an intersubjective alliance, there is the possibility to go even deeper (so to speak), into the “true secret”, that is, into the division in which the subject is verified. This involves recognising that what is lost (Das Ding) was never possessed and cannot be possessed. One must thus, on the level of the subject of the unconscious, “pick a neurosis” (obsessional, hysteric, phobic), and domesticate it with some form of system of signification. This domestication is not to cover over the entire field of identifications, but rather to open the space where the lack as such can be enjoyed.
Richard Boothby is teaching in the fourth Philosophy Portal course focused on Lacan’s Écrits, which started September 3rd. To find out more, or for late registration, visit: Philosophy Portal.
Philosophy Portal is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
See: Lacan, J. 1992. The Ethics of Psychoanalysis 1959-1960. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book VII. Edited by Jacques Alain-Miller. Tavistock/Routledge. p. 43-70.
One should note my repetitive insistence on the necessity to critique a relationalism without non-relation, and thus my centring, following the Slovenian School, of the non-relation, which could be positivised closely with what Lacan and Boothby calls Das Ding.
Note here the connection with Todd McGowan’s insistence on the distinction between loss and lack, with a movement towards lack as primary, and loss as secondary, even epiphenomenal (see: Todd McGowan, Lacking Subjectivity and Hamlet). This suggests that Das Ding is not a positive object, but rather an object of lack itself, a key to the phrase “There is no big Other” and “There is a non-Other”.
Similar to how Slavoj Žižek will refer to the problem, or more accurately, the basic paradox of jouissance, as both “impossible and unavoidable,” see: Žižek, S. 2011. Chapter 5: Parataxis: Figures of the Dialectical Process. In: Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism. London: Verso.
Lacan, J. 2005. Overture to this Collection. In: Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English. W.W. Norton & Company. p. 3-5.
See: Lacan, J. 2005. On My Antecedents. In: Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English. W.W. Norton & Company. p. 51-57.
See: Lacan, J. 2005. Beyond the Reality Principle. In: Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English. W.W. North & Company. p. 72.
Žižek, S. 2011. Introduction. In: Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism. London: Verso. p. 1.
The second type of idiot is the figure who fully identifies with common sense, who fully stands for the “big Other” of appearances. Thus, we have a dialectical oscillation internal to the big Other, between the approach of “direct truth” (which is idiotic) and the “appearances of truth” (which is stupid). The way to break through this dialectical oscillation is to see that the “appearances are necessary” but not to be directly identified with, but rather played with in the slips, jokes and dreams in which the truth “breakthrough” and speaks for itself. This is “unconscious intelligence” or the “intelligence of the subject of the unconscious.”
Here Lacan sees hysterical neurosis as constantly questioning on the edge of the specular and social self, obsessional neurosis as an armoured defence against the social, and phobia as the constant fear of the social. In contrast, perversion instrumentalises the social, and psychosis forecloses or rules out the social.
Here even a symbolic structure like evolutionary biology, can be understood as “religious”, when enacted by a subject like, for example, Richard Dawkins. This is why Žižek calls the new atheists as still too dependent on a figure of the big Other, they take it too literally, and are in that sense, idiots.