Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Repost: Adrian Johnston on Secularizing Materialism

I have copied the following very illuminating and fascinating introduction by Dr. Adrian Johnston because I believe it is one of the clearest accounts of the real philosophical distinction between atheism and theism and their implications. The thinkers discussed in Johnston's work have been the intellectual giants of the 19th and 20th centuries, and the atheism propounded here is perhaps the most sophisticated and consistent form around today (perhaps because its lofty academic language isn't easily transmitted via polemical soundbites à la Richard Dawkins and also perhaps because it proposes a reconsideration of the notions of humanism and science that are almost entirely at odds with popular, cultural forms of atheism). One, among many others, insight that Johnston particularly drew out and put the lie to for me was the idea that there is only mechanistic materialism as the possible worldview for atheism, and not only this, but mechanistic materialism simply is impossible to hold today with any rigor if we actually take seriously what science is revealing to us (I was already starting to think, thanks to studies in postmodernism and a growing appreciation for the particular, something along these lines about the relationship between atheism and materialism, but I didn't know how to clarify and backup my intuitions). I find this a startling and somewhat iconoclastic admission on Dr. Johnston's part because atheism popularly conceived is so entrenched in 18th century thinking and religiosity that to think that there could be any other form is perhaps comparable to that classic cinematic moment when Dorothy leaves black and white and enters the colored world in The Wizard of Oz.

It seems to me that this form of thinking should be thoroughly understood especially by priests because it provides a lucid framework to understand the materialist pulses developing in Western culture today; its a-theology should serve via contrast to draw out more sharply the profundity of authentically Catholic thought and how faith affects everything.

It confirms my suspicions about what seems to have been the uncritical assimilation of Continental thought into both Catholic and Protestant theology in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries, namely, a blurring of what is proper to materialist and immaterialist worldviews. The results of this attempted appropriation have had, some would argue, disastrous results; others have seen it as a needed liberation from the past. Still others have distinguished theological reactionism to the rise of Enlightenment modernity from a purer form of Medieval theology to which we ought to return and without going so far as to advocate antiquarianism by means of highly speculative reconstructions of very early Christian thought, i.e. being faithful to St. Thomas Aquinas above and beyond the whole mess of modern thought beginning with Descartes.

Nevertheless, I wouldn't say that I am utterly denouncing that there could and should be a conversation of thought, but what actually happened was an immature appropriation was churned out into applied faith that has damaged Catholic culture in the West. The eagerness to apply these new developments, the "New Theology"—hindsight gives us a better examination.

Despite Johnston's rigor, Dr. Simon Wortham's review of Johnston's book (here: http://www.radicalphilosophy.com/reviews/individual-reviews/the-pigs-head) rightly points out that Johnston uses seemingly self-conflicting language in his call for a purge of materialism from religious traces; i.e. Johnston uses deeply religious language to call for a break from religious influence. On the other hand, off the top of my head, two responses to Wortham's criticism can be proffered: 1) perhaps a more sympathetic reading of Johnston's text would imply a tongue-in-cheek style being employed; 2) perhaps it is to a certain degree impossible to avoid the borrowing of language that historically and conceptually is often religiously affiliated, much like it is impossible avoid facing Kant even if one is ignorant of Kant's philosophy.

But actually Johnston's synthesizing of the insights from these thinkers that materialism has often assumed a religious nature is far from being a new insight, nor unique to any of the thinkers he discusses. Christian apologists have noticed the tendency right from the beginning of the Enlightenment. E.g., "To-day we seem to have a humanism which sets out to be itself a religion, and to answer every aspiration, to fulfil [sic] every requirement for the completeness of man" (Gerald Vann, On Being Human [New York, NY: Sheed & Ward, 1934], 10).


Preface: Clearing the Ground: The First Volume of Prolegomena to Any Future Materialism

[xiii] Lacan also contends, using such examples as eighteenth-century French materialism and Darwinian evolutionary theory, that the sciences of modernity, although ostensibly atheistic, actually are suffused with theological images and sensibilities. These disciplines and their practitioners tend to imagine material Nature in fashions revealing that this fantasized cosmic One-All, this totalizing big Other ruling the entirety of creation with its unbreakable laws, is a thinly veiled replacement for the presumably dead-and-buried God of monotheisms. This unambiguously indicates that, from a Lacanian perspective, the hegemony of the [xiv] religious goes so far as not only to continue competing with the scientific long after early Enlightenment predictions bet on its demise, but even to encompass and shape the seemingly secular and atheistic positions of its self-deceived adversaries delusionally fighting in vain.

Thus, for any materialism indebted to Lacan—this would include the materialisms advocated by Žižek, Badiou, Meillassoux, and me—it is far from enough simply to annex philosophically and speculatively embellish upon the resources and results of one, several, or all of the sciences, be they formal or empirical. In addition, a thoroughgoing theoretical critique of the residual vestiges of religiosity, its lingering ideational and ideological traces, hiding within these fields and their prevailing (self-)interpretations is requisite. Neglecting to carry out this philosophical exorcism dooms any aspiring materialist to remain haunted by ancient specters, to stay in the grip, whether knowingly or not, of stubbornly recalcitrant, resilient ghosts. In Lacan's eyes, an authentically atheistic materialism has yet to be forged (although, especially starting in 1845 with the criticisms of Feuerbachian materialism, Marx and the tradition that comes to bear his name takes giant steps in this direction—admittedly, Lacan tends to overlook most of the Marxist corpus). Žižek, Badiou, and Meillassoux, each in his own way, aspire to accomplish this challenge bequeathed by the French Freud. And yet, as perhaps another symptom of the current conjuncture, the "post-secular" turn in continental philosophy unfortunately has spread from its congenial loci of origin in phenomenology and certain strains of existentialism to infect Lacanian, Žižekian, and Badiouian circles (although Lacan, Žižek, and Badiou are avowed atheists, the fact that they indulge in sophisticated, sensitive treatments of, for instance, Christianity appears to be enough to encourage believers to latch onto them, perhaps attracted by the prospect of being able to dress up their dogmatic faith and rituals in the trendy, sexy attire of the latest avant-garde theoretical vocabularies imported from exotic Europe). [...]

Part 1: Jacques Lacan: Between the Sacred and the Secular

[13] Chapter 1: Conflicted Matter: The Challenge of Secularizing Materialism

§1 Emerging Cracks: The Birth of a Truly Atheistic Materialism

Materialism, the brute insistence that there is nothing alien to matter, appears to offer no place whatsoever to anything even vaguely intangible or spiritual. It denies that there are ineffable entities or forms set apart from the immanence of incarnate beings. Badiou characterizes this basic position of vehement opposition vis-à-vis all varieties of idealism as "a philosophy of assault." More specifically, materialist philosophies throughout history exhibit a common hostility toward religiosity insofar as the latter appeals to the supposed existence of some sort of extraphysical, immaterial dimension of transcendent (ultra-)being. From Lucretius to La Mettrie and beyond, the natural world of the material universe is celebrated, in an anti-Platonic vein, as a self-sufficient sphere independent of ideas or gods. A properly materialistic ontology posits matter alone—nothing more, nothing less.

And yet, despite the clarity and simplicity of this rejection of spirituality in all its guises, a rejection functioning as an essential defining feature of any and every species of materialism, periodic critical reminders seemingly are necessary in order to ward off the recurrent tendency to backslide into idealism through blurring the lines of demarcation between materialism and what it rejects. A century ago, V. I. Lenin, in his 1908 text Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, issues just such a reminder [....] One of [the book's] priceless virtues is Lenin's unflinching insistence on the indissoluble, black-and-white border strictly separating materialism from idealism. Lenin tirelessly uncovers, exposes, and critiques a number of subtle and not-so-subtle efforts to disguise and pass off idealist notions as materialist concepts, efforts to soften the stinging antispiritualist, irreligious [14] virulence of this ruthlessly combative philosophical stance. Just as Søren Kierkegaard maintains that agnosticism ultimately cannot distinguish itself from atheism—for Kierkegaard, as for Blaise Pascal, not choosing to believe (i.e., agnosticism) is still tantamount to choosing not to believe (i.e., atheism)—so too does Lenin contend that there is no genuine middle ground between materialism and idealism, with any compromise or negotiation between the two amounting, in the de facto end, to a disingenuous, obfuscating betrayal of the materialist position in favor of idealist tendencies.

To resuscitate the heart of materialism today, another such Leninist gesture is urgently called for in light of recent philosophical trends seeking to render materialist thinking compatible with such orientations as Platonism and Judeo-Christianity. Materialism is at risk of, as it were, losing its soul in these confused current circumstances, since it is nothing without its denial of the existence of deities or any other ephemeral pseudothings utterly unrelated to the realness of the beings of matter. Succinctly stated, a nonatheistic materialism is a contradiction in terms. When, for instance, the objects/referents of theology, mathematics, and structuralism are spoken of as though they are equally as "material" as the entities and phenomena addressed by the natural sciences, something is terribly wrong. At a minimum, this muddle-headed situation raises a red flag signaling that the word "matter" has become practically meaningless. Dangerous dilutions of materialism, dilutions resembling the then contemporary trends of Machism and empirio-monism denounced by Lenin in 1908 as means for weakening and subverting materialism, are part of the contemporary scene in the theoretical humanities. Another materialist effort at assault is required once more, a stubborn, unsubtle effort that single-mindedly refuses to be distracted and derailed from its task by engaging with the seductive nuances and intricacies of elaborate systems of spiritualism however honestly displayed or deceptively hidden. In light of Lacan's insistence that the truth is sometimes stupid—one easily can miss it and veer off into errors and illusions under the influence of the assumption that it must be profoundly elaborate and obscure—a tactical, healthy dose of pig-headed, close-minded stupidity on behalf of materialism might be warranted nowadays.

Strangely enough, in a session of his famous seventeenth seminar on The Other Side of Psychoanalysis given during the academic year 1969–1970, Lacan utters some rather cryptic remarks that predict a resurfacing of the need for a new purifying purge of the ranks of materialism, enabling the line separating it from idealism to be drawn yet again in a bold, unambiguous fashion. Therein, he advances a surprising thesis—"materialists are the only authentic believers" (this thesis is later [15] echoed in the twentieth seminar of 1972–1973 as well as foreshadowed by discussions in the seventh seminar of 1959–1960 about the concealed presence of God in evolutionism). Of course, what renders this quite counterintuitive claim initially so odd is the deeply ingrained association between materialism and atheism. At its very core, does not materialism constitute a rude, violent attack upon the conceptual foundations of all religions? Do not the diverse manifestations of this philosophical discipline—in 1970, Lacan clarifies that the materialism he has in mind here is that of the eighteenth century in particular (i.e. that elaborated by Julien Offray de La Mettrie, Denis Diderot, and the Marquis de Sade, among others)—share an antipathy toward faith in anything above and beyond the de-spiritualized immanence of the material universe? This very last word ("universe"), insofar as it implies a vision of material being as the integrated organic totality of a cosmic One-All, contains the key to decoding productively Lacan's startling assertion that the 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 (to quote Althusser) the spontaneous philosophy of the scientists—represents a disguised body of religious belief despite itself.

Through the example of Sade (in particular, select passages to be found in his Juliette), Lacan explains that the materialists of the eighteenth century end up making matter into God (and doing so, it might be noted, in certain ways resonating with the ancient atomism of Lucretius). Material being becomes something eternal, indestructible, and omnipotent (the first two of these three features allegedly being embodied, in Sade's writings, by the immortal body of the torturer's victim, a fantasized flesh able to endure indefinitely an infinite amount of pain). 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 libertine. Apart from Sade's views on nature, Lacan also emphasizes again and again how Sade's practical philosophy (specifically his ethics) involves the pseudotransgressions of a perverse subject; this subject's vain, petty pleasures either secretly strive to sustain the existence of a God-like big Other serving as a locus of moral judgment in relation to his or her perverse activities or pretend to be placed at the service of this Other's enjoyment. In the case of Sade avec Lacan, the supposedly vanquishing divinity of monotheistic religion returns with a vengeance in the guise of a system of nature at one with itself, a cosmos harmoniously constituting the sum total of reality (much like the murdered primal father of Freud's Totem and Taboo, who is endowed with [16] even greater potency when reincarnated in the form of a body of prohibitory laws). God is far from dead so long as nature is reduced to being the receptacle for and receiver of his attributes and powers. It is not much of a leap to propose that the scientism accompanying modern natural science as a whole, up and through the present, tends to be inclined to embrace the nonempirical supposition of the ultimate cohesion of the material universe as a self-consistent One-All (hence, in the twenty-fourth seminar, Lacan's assertion that science, even in the current era, relies upon "the idea of God"). In this resides its hidden theosophical nucleus. Lacan's claims regarding Sade and eighteenth-century materialisms, materialisms still alive and well today, imply a challenge to which a novel contemporary constellation involving alliances between factions within philosophy, science, and psychoanalysis can and must rise: the challenge of formulating a fully secularized materialism, a Godless ontology of material being nonetheless able to account for those things whose (apparent) existence repeatedly lures thinkers onto the terrain of idealist metaphysics.

§2 "You've Got to Break Some Eggs to Make an Hommelette": Lacan and the Materialist Legacies of Eighteenth-Century France

Sade isn't the only example of the disavowed or repressed religiosity Lacan imputes to the materialism of eighteenth-century France. The contemporaries La Mettrie and Diderot are, in peculiar manners, more productive to examine here. The Lacan of the 1950s is understandably rather critical of La Mettrie's mechanical materialism, despite sympathetically viewing La Mettrie as a precursor of cybernetics (of course, cybernetics is the parent discipline of what comes to be cognitive science—and, at the time, Lacan sees cybernetics as moving along lines similar to his antihumanist accounts of the symbolic-linguistic structuring of the unconscious and subjectivity). In particular, he is wary of La Mettrie's grounding of the human creature's machine-like being in the physical stuff of the natural, organic body. For Lacan, psychoanalysis, starting with Freud himself and continuing through ego psychology and object-relations theory, recurrently expresses the craving for the reassurance that there's a solid biological foundation (as bodily energy, instinctual forces, etc.) underpinning the conceptual scaffolding of metapsychology. Due to this craving, something akin to the mechanistic materialism of La Mettrie allegedly exerts an attractive pull on the imaginations of analysts. Lacan is opposed here not so much to the mechanistic [17] depiction of humanity—during this early period of le Séminaire, he often portrays his quasi-structuralist antihumanism as likewise, so to speak, in-humanizing human beings such that they come to resemble machines run by the programs of impersonal symbol systems—but to the naturalizing materialism of La Mettrie (and, by extension, the Diderot who unreservedly tethers the soul [l'âme] to the body). He contends that analysts who surrender to the temptation to hypothesize biological grounds for the phenomena addressed by analysis succumb to an illusion, misrecognizing the Symbolic dimension of the non-biological, structural dynamics of signifiers as the Real dimension of the natural flesh of the human animal. From a perspective concerned with the distinction between materialism and idealism, it seems that Badiou is not without a certain amount of justification for accusing this Lacan of "idéalinguisterie," an antimaterialist, macro-level idealism of the symbolic order in which a transindividual, semidematerialized formal network autonomously dictates the functioning of its subjected subjects.

However, La Mettrie's materialism merits closer examination in light of my agenda to forge a thoroughly atheistic materialism using select resources from philosophy, psychoanalysis, and the natural sciences. On the one hand, La Mettrie cannot be exculpated in the face of charges (leveled by Lacan, among others) that he promotes a vulgar naturalism according to which the only real reality is that of physical bodies. He is indeed largely guilty of striking such a stance. And yet, on the other hand, despite his endorsement of a reductive monism of unified, conflict-free corporeal substance—La Mettrie speaks of everything as having been shaped out of "but one dough" and of "the material unity of man"—he subsequently veers, somewhat inconsistently, in the direction of a Spinozistic dual-aspect monism (the inconsistency being the fact that Baruch Spinoza's monistic God-substance is neither thinking nor extended substance, with both the ideas of minds and the parts of bodies being two aspects [i.e., "attributes"] of this one neither-mental-nor-physical substance). [...] He goes on to declare that "man is a machine, and ... in the whole universe there is but a single substance differently modified." It is somewhat unclear whether this "single substance" is still strictly corporeal in nature, especially if, as in Spinoza's rationalist metaphysics, "thought" and "matter" are two different modifications of a single, universal substance. Perhaps [18] La Mettrie's 1747 assertions, whether intentionally or unintentionally, open onto the enigma/problem of constructing a materialism that can affirm, at the same time, both a monism of matter as well as a distinction between matter and mind without invoking a God-substance as a medium inexplicably sustaining an all-encompassing unity-in-difference. In this vein, Lenin insists, "That both thought and matter are 'real,' i.e., exist, is true. But to say that thought is material is to make a false step, a step towards confusing materialism and idealism." The difficulty would be to formulate a materialist distinction between the physical and the mental without simply reducing the latter to the former, a difficulty Badiou too identifies when, in his 1982 Theory of the Subject, he depicts materialism as resting on two axioms in tension with each other: first, the monist thesis "There is the One" (i.e., the "thesis of identity"), meaning that, ontologically speaking, there is only matter as "the primitive unity of being"; and, second, the posited hegemony that seems to contradict the first monist thesis by maintaining that "There is the Two" (i.e., the dualist thesis that there is a distinction between that which is material and that which is not). Or, as the cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter admits, neither monism nor dualism is an unproblematic ontological option. Anyhow, apropos La Mettrie, Lacan would point out that what still remains religious in his thinking is the insistence on the fundamental self-consistency of nature as an undivided cosmic totality.

Diderot's 1769 D'Alembert's Dream contains an explicit affirmation of the unified oneness of a natural All as the sole real being to be hypothesized by a defensible ontology. Through the mouth of d'Alembert, Diderot proclaims:
You talk of individuals, you poor philosophers! Stop thinking about your individuals and answer me this: Is there in nature any one atom exactly similar to another? No ... Don't you agree that in nature everything is bound up with everything else, and that there cannot be a gap in the chain? [...] There is but one great individual, and that is the whole. [...] [A]nd you talk about essences! Drop your idea of essences. Consider the general mass.
From the perspective of a Lacanian consideration of the division between religious and atheistic materialisms, the latter entails insisting that there [19] indeed are "gaps" subsisting within the natural world of the material universe, that it is not the case that "everything is bound up with everything else" in the form of some sort of homogenous continuum. La Mettrie and Diderot (as well as Sade) follow in the footsteps of Spinoza insofar as they subscribe to the philosophical fantasy of substantial being as an exhaustively integrated and entirely self-cohering field devoid of real ruptures or splits. Nature is here imagined to be a clockwork machine whose gears and mechanisms hum away as components smoothly synched up with each other in a seamless system of grand-scale organization, a symphonic part-whole harmony or perfect symbiosis between microcosm and macrocosm. Later in D'Alembert's Dream, the character Bordeu asserts, "Nothing that exists can be against nature or outside nature." On a particular reading, this assertion regarding the uninterrupted internal consistency of the natural world might sound slightly dissonant with some observations made by this same character at a previous moment in the dialogue. Earlier, Bordeu states: "There may be only one center of consciousness in an animal, but there are countless impulses, for each organ has its own." He continues:
The stomach wants some food, but the palate doesn't, and the difference between the palate and the stomach on the one hand and the complete animal on the other is that the animal knows that it wants something whereas the stomach or palate want something without knowing it. Stomach or palate is to the complete being much as the brute beast is to man. Bees lose their individual consciousness but keep their appetites or impulses. An animal fibre [sic] is a simple animal, man is a composite one.
The human being is "composite" to the extent that he or she is a hodgepodge of opposed desires driven by a disparate jumble of incompletely organized organs. Bordeu's remarks suggest that human nature, as built up out of multiple components, is shot through with inconsistencies and tensions right down to the material bedrock of the organic body, a body therefore containing nonorganic dimensions that themselves are not simply inorganic (something that the sciences of the twenty-first century make much more glaringly evident than those available to the thinkers of the eighteenth century). This can be interpreted so as to indicate, apropos Bordeu's later assertion quoted above ("Nothing that exists can be against or outside nature"), that naturalizing human being (i.e., not allowing humans to stand above-and-beyond the natural world in some immaterial, metaphysical zone) correlatively entails envisioning nature as, at least in certain instances, being divided against itself. An unreserved naturalization of humanity must result in a defamiliarization [20] and reworking of those most foundational and rudimentary proto-philosophical images contributing to any picture of material nature. The new, fully secularized materialism (inspired in part by Freudian-Lacanian psychoanalysis) to be developed and defended in Prolegomena to Any Future Materialism is directly linked to this notion of nature as the self-shattering, internally conflicted existence of a detotalized material immanence.

In the context of a discussion of philosophy and religion apropos eighteenth-century French materialism, one cannot pass over in silence the figure of the egg forcefully invoked by Diderot in D'Alembert's Dream. After discussing with d'Alembert an imagined thinking clavichord, a "philosopher-instrument" akin to La Mettrie's machine-man, Diderot cries out, "Look at this egg: with it you can overthrow all the schools of theology and all the churches in the world." Given Lacan's contention regarding the displaced religious beliefs allegedly harbored by the superficially irreligious rhetoric of these eighteenth-century discourses drawing on the sciences of their time, one might take Diderot's exclamation with a grain or two of salt. Furthermore, the fact that this same egg-example features in the entry for "Spinozist" in the Encyclopédie adds to such Lacanian suspicions (despite, admittedly, the many philosophical and historical complications associated with classifying Spinoza as a religious thinker and his omnipresent God as at all related to the deities of the mainstream monotheistic religions). Nonetheless, Diderot is not entirely incorrect to see in his egg a vision of an explosive materialism with devastating implications for theosophical doctrines resting upon any God as an enveloping, self-consistent One-All, be these beliefs avowed (as in religion) or disavowed (as in eighteenth-century mechanistic materialism).

For Diderot, the significance of an egg is that it purportedly embodies a point of transition from what seems to be inanimate and insensate (i.e., the egg itself) to what is readily acknowledged as animate and sentient (i.e., the creature born out of the egg). He concludes that, in order to explain this apparently miraculous genesis of perceiving and feeling life out of what looks to be lifeless, inert matter, one must "entertain a simple hypothesis that explains everything—sensitivity as a property common to all matter or as a result of the organization of matter." The two prongs of this hypothesis are not the same or equivalent claims: the former careens in the direction of a sort of pan-psychism positing sentience as an element ubiquitously distributed across the entire material universe, whereas the latter (as will be seen later) points in the direction of secular(izing) paths subsequently traversed by the life sciences in general and the neurosciences in particular. From a Lacanian [21] standpoint, the religious impulse still operative in Diderot's supposedly anti-religious gloss on the example of the egg is manifested by the insistence upon a smooth continuity between different types and states of matter, an imagined continuity behind which lurks the specter of being as one vast cosmic wholeness (and, obviously, this religious-spiritualist impulse is further revealed by the flirtation with pan-psychism).

The atheistic potentials of Diderot's egg reside in two features of this object: one, eggs create the appearance of a sudden emergence (or, apropos the egg as a metaphor for the rapport between matter and mind, this also involves the emergence of appearance itself); two, emergences from eggs require cracks (i.e., the splitting open and shattering of eggshells). Regardless of the authorial intentions of Diderot circa 1769—Diderot's pseudoemergentism ultimately posits a supposed continuity (rather than discontinuity) underlying the transformative dynamics of life—this image-example of the egg thus shelters within itself a picture of processes in which antagonisms, fissures, and tensions within the Real of material being provide openings through and out of which explode phenomena and structures whose genesis marks an abrupt rupture with what came before (i.e., the prior movements and substances, with their laws and logics, preceding this discontinuous emergence). And, like Diderot, Lacan too has an egg in hand, namely, his "hommelette" starring in the well-known myth of the lamella. In line with the broader psychoanalytic motif of subjectivity as fractured and split, this broken man-egg (or, more accurately, man-omelet) can be construed, among other things and specifically with reference to the egg of Diderot, as a metaphor for the rough edges of natural discontinuities that allow for and enable the materially emergent subject's denaturalizing of its own nature.

On several occasions, Lacan proposes that, whereas the smooth material-temporal continuum of evolutionary theory (like the Spinoza-inspired materialisms of Sade, La Mettrie, and Diderot) is a fundamentally theological notion despite its outwardly atheistic appearance (i.e., nature takes on the features and qualities of God), only the originally Christian notion of creation ex nihilo, of abrupt emergences that cannot be reduced to or predicated by a prior substantial ground, is appropriate to a thinking that really is done with all things religious. He maintains that "the creationist perspective is the only one that allows one to glimpse the possibility of the radical elimination of God," and that "a strictly atheist thought adopts no other perspective than that of 'creationism.'" At this point, the obvious question to be asked and answered is: What does Lacan see as the essence of atheism proper?

On three particular occasions during the course of his teaching, [22] Lacan provides exemplary explanations for what he, as a psychoanalyst, understands to be the true core of an atheistic stance. In a 1963 session of the tenth seminar, he raises the questions of whether practicing analysts should themselves be atheists and whether patience who still believe in God at the end of their analyses can be considered adequately analyzed for the purposes of determining when to terminate treatment. Referring to obsessional neurotics, with their unconscious fantasies of an omniscient Other observing each and every one of their little thoughts and actions, Lacan implies that such analysands would need to move in the direction of atheism in order to be relieved of those symptoms tied to this belief in the "universal eye" ("oeil universel") of a virtual, godlike observer of their existences. He then immediately goes on to assert that "such is the true dimension of atheism. An atheist would be someone who has succeeded at eliminating the fantasy of the All-Powerful." Interestingly, right after this remark, he mentions Diderot and casts into doubt whether this exemplary French materialist really can be considered a true atheist. Insofar as Diderot, along with his fellow materialists of the period, replaces an all-powerful God with an all-powerful Nature—this Nature is also all-knowing to the extent that it is made into the repository of every possible answer to any query capable of satisfactory "scientific" formulation—he cannot be said to be authentically atheist in the eyes of Lacan. Lacan's version of the experience of analysis involves a "psychoanalytic ascesis" entailing "atheism conceived of as the negation of the dimension of a presence of the all-powerful at the base of the world." That is to say, 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 the concluding moments of an analysis seen through to a fitting end.

Lacan rearticulates these indications regarding atheism even more decisively and forcefully in the sixteenth and seventeenth seminars. In the sixteenth seminar, Lacan alleges that being an atheist requires putting into question the category of the sujet supposé savoir [translation: the subject supposed to know] (not only as incarnated in the transference-laden figure of the analyst, but also as any Other presumed to vouch for the maintenance of an overarching horizon of final, consistent meaning). 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 such an Other-subject with belief in God. As Lacan succinctly states, "A true atheism, the only one that would merit the name, is that which would result from the putting in question of the subject supposed to know." The following academic year, in the seventeenth seminar, he bluntly asserts that "the pinnacle of psychoanalysis is well and truly [23] atheism." Whereas the Lacan of the tenth seminar indirectly insinuates that undergoing the end of analysis (including traversing those fantasies linked to the transferential status of the analyst as an instantiation of an Other supposedly "in the know") results in an atheistic loss of faith in any kind of Almighty, here, in 1970, he directly declares this outcome to mark the apex of the analytic experience.

§3 Toward a Conflict Ontology: Freud, Mao, and the Ubiquity of Antagonism

Apart from clinical practice, what makes psychoanalysis, at the most foundational theoretical level, a Godless discipline? More specifically, how might psychoanalytic theory make a crucial contribution to the formulation of a scientifically informed materialism that doesn't rest upon an either implicit or explicit set of theosophical-ontological suppositions regarding some sort of internally integrated On-All? The key Lacanian slogan for an atheistic materialism might appear to be his delcaration that "le grand Autre n'existe pas." The nonexistence of the big Other is indeed a tenet central to Lacan's above-delineated characterizations of genuine atheism. However, this tenet by itself doesn't guarantee a materialism that would be fully secularized according to Lacan's own criteria for what would count as a thoroughly God-forsaking ontology. Although the absence of the big Other precludes imagining an ordering of reality from above, it doesn't foreclose the possibility of hypothesizing the return of a mellifluously orchestrated material universe, a unified natural world, through bottom-up dynamics and processes. A mechanistic materialism akin to that of La Mettrie or Diderot readily could resurface via such hypotheses (as Lacan would remind readers at this juncture, evolutionism is not shy about positing a continuity from below causally enchaining together vast, web-like networks of organisms and environments—God lives on, even if not in a traditional, top-down embodiment). To support an atheistic materialism, the declaration "The big Other does not exist" requires supplementation by 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.

The positing of conflict as ubiquitous and primary is precisely what makes psychoanalysis a Godless discipline. In, for instance, both The Future of an Illusion and his New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, [24] Freud depicts the antireligious thrust of analysis as merely of a piece with a larger demystifying scientific worldview. Apart from Lacan's arguments to the contrary sketched above (i.e., the materialisms of the natural sciences are not automatically atheist, even when presented as such), the subsequent course of sociocultural history also contains ample evidence that the advancement and coming-to-power of the Weltanschauung of the sciences is far from having succeeded at shunting religions to the marginalized fringes of collective life. If anything, rather than the religion-science relationship being a zero-sum balance in which the waxing of one entails the proportional waning of the other, the aggressive incursions of the sciences routinely have met with a correspondingly robust counter-aggression from religious quarters.

Lacan's contentions that religion is anything but finished are based upon this observed persistence of religiosity in a scientific world. He often discusses religion in the context of its relations to both science and psychoanalysis (and he at least agrees with Freud that analysis invariably results in a demystification effect in relation to religion). According to Lacan, the religious provides a shock absorber of meaning (sens) cushioning the blows issuing forth from the inroads made into the meaningless material Real by the scientific—with this being necessary when neither of the fetishes furnished by science, neither its imagined hypothetical God's-eye view as the regulative ideal of exhaustive explanation nor its numerous by-products in the form of technogadget toys, proves to be satisfactory enough. Incidentally, especially given the seemingly unstoppable, death-drive-like march of science coupled with religion's role as the provider of sufficient sense to sustain those caught up in this march, psychoanalysis is unlikely to have much luck gaining a hearing amidst the breathless hustle-and-bustle of this ever-accelerating frenzy. Like science, psychoanalysis divests reality of meaning through revealing the nonsensical Real composing and shaping this reality. But, unlike science, it refuses to offer the compensations of either the promise of total knowledge or objects of pleasurable consumption. In this situation, analysis cannot hope to compete with the mass appeal of religion, particularly under the conditions of late capitalism and the ways in which science and religion interact within it. Nonetheless, what makes psychoanalysis, this theoretical-practical configuration quietly limping alongside the interlinked movements conjoining science and religion, utterly atheistic is not, as per Freud, its allegiance to the Enlightenment worldview of scientific-style ideologies. Rather, its placement of antagonisms and oppositions at the very heart of material being, its depiction of nature itself as divided by conflicts rendering it a fragmented, not-whole non-One, is what constitutes the truly irreligious core of psychoanalytic metapsychology as a force for merciless desacralization.

[25] Conflict is an omnipresent motif/structure in Freud's corpus. However, in some of his later, post-1920 texts, what becomes much clearer and more apparent is that, from a Freudian perspective, irreconcilable discord and clashes arise from antagonistic splits embedded in the material foundations of human being. Although there are numerous problems with the fashions in which Freud biologizes psychical life, there is also something invaluable in his naturalization of conflict in terms of the war between Eros and the Todestrieb raging within the bodily id, namely, a germinal ontological insight that shouldn't suffer the fate of the proverbial baby thrown out with the bathwater of Freud's scientistic biological reductionism. Freudian psychoanalytic metapsychology here contains the nascent potentials for the formulation, in conjunction with select resources extracted from today's natural sciences, of a conflict ontology, a theory of the immanent-monistic emergence of a disharmonious ontological-material multitude or plurality. [...]

The basic ingredients for creating a new, entirely atheistic materialism are to be drawn not only from Freud's tacit indications pointing in the direction of a possible conflict ontology—Mao Tse-Tung's version of the distinction between mechanistic and dialectical materialisms is of great importance in this task too. For Engels, the mechanistic materialism of eighteenth-century France is limited by two interrelated flaws: a reductionist neglect of various logics other than those depicted in the laws of mechanics proposed by the physical sciences of the time, as well as a resulting inability to grasp the dynamics of processes of historical becoming in an ever-changing universe (these flaws, as Engels concedes, are necessary features of a materialism grounded in a historical context in which Newtonian mechanical physics is the cutting edge of the natural sciences). In his 1937 essay "On Contradiction," Mao further illuminates the nature of the distinction between these two materialist orientations:
While we recognize that in the general development of history the material determines the mental and social being determines social consciousness, we also—and indeed must—recognize the reaction of the mental on material things, of social consciousness on social being and of the superstructure on the economic base. This does not go against materialism; on the contrary, it avoids mechanical materialism and firmly upholds dialectical materialism.
Mechanistic materialism is nondialectical to the extent that it admits solely a unidirectional flow of causal influence from matter to mind. For [26] a materialist such as La Mettrie or Diderot, mental life and every socio-cultural thing collectively connected with it can be only impotent, ineffective epiphenomena, residual illusions discharged by biophysical substances seamlessly and inextricably bound up with the world of nature and the englobing universe of matter. That is to say, matter dictates its laws to mind, and never the other way around. As Engels observes, this "old materialism," in its ahistoricism, fails even to ask, let alone answer, questions as to how human brains are shaped and transformed by forces and factors operative within historical dimensions. And, as Mao indicates, dialectical materialism, unlike its mechanistic philosophical predecessor, admits a bidirectional flow of causal influences between matter and mind (i.e., a dialectic, albeit one in which the two poles involved are not perfectly equal or evenly balanced). In particular, Mao's version of dialectical materialism allows for exceptional circumstances when the mental tail can and does start reciprocally wagging the physical dog, when the determined starts affecting the determinant. The young Maoist Badiou, in his 1975 text Theory of Contradiction, stipulates that one must adhere to two principles in order to be a dialectical materialist: materialism requires granting that material things usually occupy the determining position in most situations; and dialectics (as nonmechanistic) requires granting that this default position of material dominance is vulnerable to disruption, negation, or suspension. A key aspect of the Badiouian Mao's ontology is its axiomatic proposition that there is only a conflict-plagued One-that-is-not-One as a plane of material immanence, both natural and historical, fragmented from within by the pervasive negativity of scissions and struggles. Additionally, by contrast with accepted (but erroneous) notions regarding the Hegelian dialectic, Maoist dialectics treats any instance of cohesion, stability, or unity, any resting point, as a temporary, transitory moment, an ephemeral outcome, in a process of interminable, opposition-driven historical becoming, a trajectory of perpetually renewed division and fissuring. The kinesis of struggle is primary; the stasis of peace is secondary, exceptional, and fleeting.

What makes Maoist dialectical materialism particularly useful in the present context is its emphasis on the pervasiveness of dynamic contradiction, even down to the raw flesh and bare bones of nature itself. More specifically, Mao's account of causality in the context of elaborating his form of dialectical materialism can be interpreted as putting in place a foundational requirement to be met by any materialism acknowledging some sort of distinction between matter and mind (i.e., any nonmechanistic, noneliminative materialism). In Theory of the Subject, Badiou demands a materialism that includes, as per the title of this book, "a [27] theory of the subject." Such a materialism would have to be quite distinct from mechanistic or eliminative materialisms, insofar as neither of the latter two leave any space open, the clearing of some breathing room, for subjectivity as something distinguishable from the fleshy stuff of the natural world. However, a materialist theory of the subject, in order to adhere to one of the principal tenets of any truly materialist materialism (i.e., the ontological axiom according to which matter is the sole ground), must be able to explain how subjectivity emerges out of materiality—and, correlative to this, how materiality must be configured in and of itself so that such an emergence is a real possibility.

This explanatory requirement is precisely one of the issues at stake in Mao's discussions of internal and external causes. [...]
As opposed to the metaphysical world outlook, the world outlook of materialist dialectics holds that in order to understand the development of a thing we should study it internally and in its relations with other things; in other words, the development of things should be seen as their internal and necessary self-movement, while each thing in its movement is interrelated to and interacts on the things around it. The fundamental cause of the development of a thing is not external but internal; it lies in the contradictoriness within the thing. There is internal contradiction in every single thing, hence its motion and development. Contradictoriness within a thing is the fundamental cause of its development, while its interrelations and interactions with other things are secondary causes. Thus materialist dialectics effectively combats the theory of external causes, or of an external motive force, advanced by metaphysical mechanical materialism and vulgar evolutionism. It is evident that purely external causes can only give rise to mechanical motion, that is, to changes in scale or quantity, but cannot explain why things differ qualitatively in thousands of ways and why one thing changes into another.
Soon after this statement, he further elaborates:
According to materialist dialectics, changes in nature are due chiefly to the development of the internal contradictions in nature. Changes in society are due chiefly to the development of the internal contradictions in society ... Does materialist dialectics exclude external causes? [28] Not at all. It holds that external causes are the condition of change and internal causes are the basis of change, and that external causes become operative through internal causes.
This last claim is then immediately repeated for the sake of emphasis: "It is through internal causes that external causes become operative." The early Badiou of Theory of Contradiction endorses these assertions made by Mao. And, in resonance with Lacan's above-glossed remarks apropos the religiosity nascent within the linear continuity of evolutionary theory, Badiou highlights, in this same 1975 treatise, the nonevolutionary character of the models of historical-material change offered by Leninist-Maoist dialectical materialism, models centered on discontinuous, sudden "ruptures," leap-like transitions from quantity to quality [....]

Along Maoist lines, constructing a theory of subjectivity entirely compatible with the strictures of a thoroughly materialist ontology (a project called for by Badiou himself) necessitates, in the combined lights of psychoanalytic metapsychology and dialectical materialism, two endeavors: first, delineating the materiality of human being as conflicted from within, as a point of condensing intersection for a plethora of incompletely harmonized fragments; second, exploring how the endogenous causes of these conflicts immanent to the materiality of human being can and do interact with exogenous causal influences. As Mao rightly underscores, the latter by themselves (i.e., purely external variables) are ineffective. What makes the kinetics of dialectical materialism possible is an external activation of potentials intrinsic to the internal configurations of certain beings.

§4 From Dialectical to Transcendental Materialism: Malabou, Neuroscience, and Images of Matter Transformed

The groundbreaking work of Catherine Malabou brilliantly brings to the fore these very issues through a simultaneous engagement with both dialectical materialism and cognitive neuroscience. Echoes of those aspects of Maoist thought mentioned above can be heard in her insistence, in the context of discussing Hegel's dialectic, Heidegger's destruction, and Derrida's deconstruction, that externally overriding something requires this thing's complicity in terms of its "plastic" inner structure, a structure embodying the "schizoid consistency of the ultra-metaphysical [29] real" as the nondialectical ontological origin/ground of dialectics (i.e., being itself as inconsistent and conflict-ridden). Entities must possess the proper "ontological metabolism" in order to be open to and affected by encounters with alterities. Malabou's 1996 doctoral thesis on Hegel, The Future of Hegel, concludes with a reference to the life sciences as offering the resources for the development of an ontology ready to meet the explanatory-theoretical demands pronounced by the dialectical materialist tradition in ways that this tradition itself thus far hasn't been able to accomplish on its own.

These 1996 gestures in the direction of natural science come to full fruition in Malabou's revolutionary 2004 book What Should We Do with Our Brain?—this title echoes the French translation of Lenin's What Is to Be Done? (Que faire?)—a book centered on a reading of today's cognitive neurosciences as spontaneously generating and substantiating a dialectical materialist ontology (and this whether they realize it or not). Without the space presently to do adequate justice to the entire range of complex, convincing arguments advanced in this text, several points made by Malabou deserve to be noted here as stipulations for a thoroughly secularized materialism sensitive to the breakthroughs and insights achieved by the sciences of nature. Focusing on the biological level of human being, she correctly notes that the widespread notion of genetic determinism, according to which the physical body is entirely shaped and controlled by genes, is simply inaccurate, a falsifying distortion of the facts. The truth, rather, is that a "genetic indetermination" (i.e., genes determine human beings not to be entirely determined by genes) and the neural plasticity linked to this indetermination ensure the openness of vectors and logics not anticipated or dictated by the bump-and-grind efficient causality of physical particles alone. In other words, one need not fear that bringing biology into the picture of a materialist theory of the subject leads inexorably to a reductive materialism of a mechanistic and/or eliminative sort; such worries are utterly unwarranted, based exclusively on an unpardonable ignorance of several decades of paradigm-shifting discoveries in the life sciences. No intellectually responsible philosophical materialism can justify ignoring the evidence unearthed in these highly productive fields of adjacent research—unless, of course, what is secretly or unconsciously desired is a spiritualist ideology disguising itself in the faded-fashion garb of a now awfully dated antinaturalism.

A chorus of voices on the empirical side of discussions of the brain (i.e., neuroscientists and cognitive scientists) speak as one in support of the basic, fundamental premises underlying the effort underway here to appropriate the resources of the neurosciences for the delineation [30] of a reinvigorated materialist ontology (an appropriation informed and guided by a combination of Freudian-Lacanian psychoanalytic metapsychology and the resources of European philosophy from the end of the eighteenth century through the present). To begin with, not only do some researchers in the neurosciences see the notorious nature-nurture distinction as dialectical—it has even been suggested that the very distinction itself is invalid due to the utter inextricability of what is referred to by these two inadequate terms and the irresolvable undecidability that thereby results (in the area of psychopathology, Kandel, a vocal neuroscientific advocate on behalf of a new rapprochement between psychodynamics and the life sciences, suggests scrapping the old distinction between biological and nonbiological mental disorders). Most of the resistance to having anything to do with the life sciences, a resistance widespread within the worlds of Lacanianism and continental philosophy, is due to the misperception that embracing these sciences inevitably leads to the crudest forms of reductionism (i.e., genetic determinism, epiphenomenalism, etc.). But, as Benjamin Libet observes, vulgar reductive materialism is scientism (as pseudoscientific ideology), not science.

In fact, these scientists are at pains to stress that their disciplines are not rigid frameworks within which the natural, on the one hand, and the cultural-historical-social, on the other hand, are to be strictly opposed, with the fixed, frozen essences of the former alway trumping the subservient (epi)phenomena of the latter. As Lesley Rogers puts it, "the idea of biology as immutable is largely incorrect." And, as Joseph LeDoux explains, a material-neuronal conception of the subject neither is opposed to nor demands the elimination of theories of nonbiological subjectivity. There are numerous arguments for why the neurosciences and the biology on which they rest are not reductive, only some of which can be outlined briefly in the context of the current discussion. The dialectic between innate nature and acquired nurture, if one still can use these terms, permeates even the level of genetics (and, much reductionism and the opposition it generates lean on a fatally flawed picture of genetics). LeDoux helpfully points out that nature-nurture interaction is operative from the very beginnings of life, given that the developing embryo takes shape in a womb connected to a maternal body that itself is entangled in vast mediating networks of more-than-biological configurations and interactions (not to mention the Lacanian analytic caveat that both conception and what leads up to it are woven into elaborate, knotted webs of influential factors conscious and unconscious). Although the genotype sets in place certain loose, broad parameters establishing a wide bandwidth of possibilities and permutations for what [31] the phenotype can actualize/express (what Changeux calls a "genetic envelope"), in no way could it be said in any straightforward manner that anatomy is destiny (to invoke an oft-misinterpreted Freudian one-liner). Especially within the brain, the genetic is significantly modulated by the epigenetic (i.e., experience, learning, socialization, etc.). Furthermore, such complications are not confined exclusively to the "nature" half of the nature-nurture distinction—the life sciences are also in the process of calling into question the "nurture" half, a process prompted by a realization that the notion of "environment" is incredibly hazy, insufficiently precise to serve as a concept for rigorous reflection. Considering these rudimentary, ground-zero truths in the life sciences, no sort of standard reductionism is in the least bit tenable insofar as the mind-bogglingly complex number of variables converging on a multi-determined brain and body render in advance any one-sided depiction of these matters intellectually bankrupt.

Furthermore, certain aspects of genetics properly conceived are crucial for an adequate appreciation of the neurosciences. The link Malabou mobilizes, in her discussions of the philosophical implications of brain studies, between what she accurately describes as "genetic indetermination" and neural plasticity is indeed empirically well-established. The brain is genetically programmed to be open and receptive to reprogramming (which includes alterations of gene expression at the phenotypic level) through learning experiences in relation to the contextual vicissitudes of exogenous contingencies. This determined lack of determination, this preprogramming for reprogramming, is an important aspect of what is meant by characterizing the brain as "plastic." Neuroplasticity is considered by those working in the life sciences to be an incredibly significant feature of the development and functioning of human brains. LeDoux identifies the plastic synaptic connections of neurons, hardwired for rewiring, to be the precise material points where nature and nurture collide, the crossroads at which genetics and epigenetics are folded into assemblages that are theoretically unsliceable [sic] tangles of hyperdense complexity. He even goes so far as to conjecture that neuroplasticity in humans is an "exaptation," namely, something that starts out as an evolutionarily advantageous adaptation in response to certain environmental pressures and problems but eventually becomes, so to speak, transfunctionalized, derailed from its initial means-ends pathways and expropriated for other projects that are nonnatural vis-à-vis strict evolutionary considerations. (However, LeDoux's use of the term 'exaptation' deviates from its meaning as initially defined by Stephen Jay Gould and Elisabeth S. Vrba.)

At a more general level (and in line with the previously [32] enumerated requirements of a Lacan-inspired atheistic materialism), Malabou describes the "ontological explosion" of the mental out of the neuronal—"out of" is intended in two senses, both as immanently arising from and as autonomously exceeding through escape from—as event-like, a sharp break requiring (as Mao would put it) the "internal causes" of the ontological-material plasticity of the human biological body. More-than-biological "external causes" (again in the Maoist sense) are able to have their mediating effects on individuals thanks not only to bodily plasticity in Malabou's precise sense—for her, the plastic designates, at the same time, both the receptivity of the malleable and the resistance of the congealed, namely, a literal contradiction in the fragmented flesh—but also because of the antagonisms and discordances materialized in the embodied being of humans. She maintains that "the historico-cultural shaping of of the self is not possible except starting from this natural and primary economy of contradiction." She proceeds to claim that "there is a cerebral conflictuality, there is a tension between the neuronal and the mental" (i.e., although the mental emerges out of the neuronal, the former comes to be at odds with the latter—this immanent genesis of the thereafter-transcendent-as-separate is the core concern of transcendental materialism). Malabou pleads for a "new materialism," a "reasonable materialism" that neither indefensibly ignores the sciences of material being (especially the neurosciences as relevant to a materialist theory of subjectivity unafraid of [...] dirtying its hands with actual, factual matter) nor uncritically accepts the ideological distortions of these sciences by those seeking to exaggerate one side of plasticity at the expense of the other (i.e., to promote pseudoscientific visions of humanity either as rigidly fixed in place by an evolutionary-genetic-neural determinism or as infinitely flexible according to the insistence of the social constructionism arising from late-capitalist economic-political machinations). For Malabou, as for me, "a reasonable materialism seems to us to be one which poses that the natural contradicts itself and that the thought is the fruit of this contradiction."

§5 A Weak Nature, and Nothing More: The True Formula of a Fully Atheistic Materialism

At this juncture, closely examining Lacan's 1975 interview entitled (by Jacques-Alain Miller) "The Triumph of Religion" ("Le triomphe de la religion") in light of the preceding discussions concerning the philosophical establishment of an atheistic materialism shaped around the conjunction of metapsychology and the neurosciences will be especially [33] fruitful. Early on in this text, Lacan speaks of a difference between "that which goes" ("ce qui marche") and "that which does not go" ("ce qui ne marche pas"), the former being the "world" (as the normal run of things in familiar Imaginary-Symbolic reality) and the latter being the Real (as excluded from and disruptive of the running of this reality). He notes that psychoanalysts concern themselves with this Real as what does not fit into the smooth movements of quotidian reality. The analyst's presence testifies to this Real-that-does-not-go, quietly witnessing and marking those occurrences in which it surfaces (such as, during an analysis, in unintended double-entendres, slips of the tongue, bungled actions, acting out, and so on). He or she occupies this position and remains there as a "symptom" of that which resists going with the flow of the everyday world. However, a cultural "cure" for psychoanalysis, as itself a symptom of the "discontent of civilization of which Freud has spoken," is readily available: religion as a means of repressing the symptoms (including analysis itself) of the unworldly Real that disrupts worldly reality.

Lacan goes on to warn against equivocating between the symptom and the Real. He argues thus:
The symptom is not yet truly the real. It is the manifestation of the real at the level of living beings. As living beings, we are settled, bitten by the symptom. We are sick, that is all. The speaking being is a sick animal. "In the beginning was the Word" says the same thing.
By virtue of the human being's irreparable transubstantiation into a speaking being (i.e., a parlêtre), this "living being" becomes a "sick animal." What begins with the genesis of "the Word"—throughout "The Triumph of Religion," Lacan plays with this Christian notion/motif—are illnesses constitutive of the human condition. Additionally, Lacan's distinction between symptom and Real involves a few nuances worthy of attention. To begin with, the living being's animality is associated with the Real itself. And this Real not only introduces dysfunctions into the world of Imaginary-Symbolic reality—it comes to be worked and reworked, written and overwritten, by its own manifestations (in the form of symptoms) within this logos-inaugurated reality. A Real beyond, beneath, or behind its own symptomatic manifestations is caught up in a dialectical entanglement with these same manifestations. In view of this, Lacan continues:
But the real real, if I can speak thusly, the true real, is that which we are able to accede to via an absolutely precise way, which is the scientific way. It is the way of little equations. This real there is the exact one which eludes us completely.
[34] The Real underlying and making possible both the emergence of speaking beings out of living beings as well as the symptoms (as sinthomes) of these thus-afflicted animals is not some ineffable je ne sais quoi, some mysterious noumenal "x." For Lacan, "the real real," this "true real," is precisely what the ways of the sciences enable to be accessed lucidly and rigorously in its truth. Of course, Lacan's mention of "little equations" in the quotation above hints at a conception of science according to which the hallmark of scientificity is mathematical-style formalization—the greater the degree of mathematical-style formalization, the greater the degree of scientificity [....] But, in addition to the ample evidence scattered throughout his teachings that Lacan sometimes associates the Real with things fleshly and corporeal (and not just mathematical/formal), the block quotation just prior to the one above associates the Real with the living animality of the human organism, an animality that gets hopelessly entangled with the mediating matrices of symbolic orders (these two quotations are situated one immediately after the other on the same page of "The Triumph of Religion"). Hence, perhaps the science Lacan is thinking of here is not just the mathematized physics of quantum mechanics, but an adequately formalized science of life. If so, then one of the important consequences entailed by this is that there could be a scientifically shaped treatment of a genuine Real-in-the-flesh as a precondition for the immanent surfacing out of this animal materiality of something different, other, or more than this materiality (i.e., the parlêtre as a denaturalized, but never quite completely and successfully denaturalized, living being).

Toward the end of "The Triumph of Religion," Lacan pronounces a couple of additional utterances regarding the Real. After denying that he is a philosopher proposing an ontology—my philosophically guided ontologization of the version of the Real presently under discussion thereby deviates from Lacan's position in this respect—he emphatically rejects the suggestion, made by the interviewer, that his register of the Real is akin to Kant's sphere of noumena. Lacan protests:
But this is not at all Kantian. It is even on this that I insist. If there is a notion of the real, it is extremely complex, and on this account it is not perceivable in a manner that would make a totality. It would be an unbelievably presumptuous notion to think that there would be an all of the real.
Badiou, appealing to a combination of the Galilean modern scientific mathematization of natural matter and the mathematical infinitization of infinity itself in Cantorian trans-finite set theory, insists that there is [35] no cosmic wholeness of Nature since there is no grand unifying One. Lacan likewise rejects the idea that it would be possible to make an "All" of the Real, to encompass it in the enveloping form of an integrated totality. Presumably, one of Lacan's reasonable assumptions underpinning this denial of Kantianism is that Kant's noumenal realm of things-in-themselves is fantasized by Kant as an ontological domain of entirely consistent being subsisting outside the contradiction-plagued epistemological domain of subjective cognition. What is more, insofar as Lacan contends that scientific thought provides a direct path of entry into the inconsistent, detotalized, and not-All Real, he, unlike Kant, maintains that one can transgress the ostensible "limits of possible experience" so as to lay one's hands on material being an sich [i.e. in itself]. Interestingly, Lacan proceeds to speculate that the inconsistency of the Real might involve its "laws"—the sciences are responsible for delineating these structuring principles—evolving, that the ordering framework of this register might be fundamentally unstable, moving about and drifting. Not only is this speculation now a part of astrophysical thinking about the rapid evolutionary congealing of the laws of physics out of the Big Bang—in his 2006 book After Finitude, Meillassoux, partially through both a break with Kantian and post-Kantian idealist "correlationism" as well as an ensuing ontologization of Hume's epistemology (with its recasting of conceptualizations of causality), argues for envisioning brute being in and of itself as absolutely contingent and lawless, its law-like patterns and regularities always potentially capable of change. [...]

In two coauthored articles, Lorenzo Chiesa and Alberto Toscano provide exemplary, superlative readings of some of the crucial subtleties contained in "The Triumph of Religion." In that text, Lacan, despite his openly avowed atheism, perplexingly declares Christianity to be "the one true religion." Chiesa and Toscano helpfully clarify that what this actually means is that, from a Lacanian perspective, the Christian religion is the least false of the various religions. The reason for this has to do with Lacan's earlier assertions to the effect that whereas evolutionary theory unwittingly continues to be theosophical by virtue of its reliance upon an omnipotent, all-embracing material-historical continuum (i.e., a seamless, uninterrupted One-All of Nature), creationism, especially the Christian notion of creation ex nihilo, inadvertently opens the door to the founding of a materialism without God:
Lacan, a self-processed atheist, repeatedly refers to Christianity as "la vraie religion." To cut a long story short, according to Lacan, Christianity [36] is the "true religion" insofar as, more than any other religion, it comes nearest to the materialistic truth of the creation ex nihilo of the signifier: "In the beginning was the Word." The ex nihilo of the logos, or better, the logos itself as the ex nihilo, is the specific feature that, for Lacan, differentiates Christianity from other monotheistic religions that are also creationist.
Just as a kernel of religiosity resides in the heart of supposedly atheistic evolutionary theory, so too does a kernel of atheism reside within the heart of supposedly religious Christianity. But, one might ask: given the counterintuitive ring to this series of propositions, what qualifies the Christian doctrine of creation ex nihilo as both atheist and materialist? And what antireligious advantages does this concept drawn from the inner sanctum of a particular religion have over the desacralizing ontology of transcendence-stifling immanence implicit in evolutionism? Chiesa and Toscano offer the following elucidating explanations:
Why would Christian creationism, based as it is on the logos as the ex nihilo, contain in nuce [i.e. "in a nutshell"] a form of atheistic materialism? Lacan's theory of the emergence of the signifier ex nihilo is both materialistic and atheistic since it is grounded on the assumption that language, and the symbolic order, is unnatural rather than supernatural, the contingent product of man's successful dis-adaptation to nature. Such an unnatural dis-adaptation, which obviously dominates and perverts nature, can nevertheless only originate immanently from what we name "nature" and thus contradicts the alleged continuity of any (transcendentally) "natural" process of evolution.
Elsewhere, they repeat the above almost verbatim, to which is appended the declaration that "nature is per se not-One"—a declaration rooted in the various statements regarding the notion of nature made by Lacan, including ones contemporaneous with "The Triumph of Religion." (Joan Copjec similarly refers to Lacan's "proposal that being is not-all or there is no whole of being," invoking the Lacanian theme of the "deficit of the world," its "incompleteness"). Chiesa and Toscano, while illuminating how Lacan extracts an atheistic materialism from the ex nihilo of Christianity, even describe "the (supposed) primitive 'synthesis' of the primordial real" as having "been broken due to a contingent 'material' change that is immanent to it." The twist the reworked materialism of this project adds to these very insightful comments is the assertion that the "primordial real" of natural matter is not synthesized, that, insofar as subjects exist in the first place, it is always-already "broken"—with this [37] brokenness, this self-shattered status of a disharmonious nature devoid of any One-All, being a material condition of possibility for the immanent genesis of subjectivity out of the conflict-ridden groundless ground of materiality.

In "The Triumph of Religion," Lacan speaks of various cures for anxiety. Specifically, he suggests that a range of conceptions of humanity function in this capacity: "Against anxiety, there are heaps of remedies, in particular a certain number of 'conceptions of man,' of what man is." This applies not only to religion, which Lacan has in mind in this context—it is also relevant to a speciously scientific scientism that genuine science is in the process of demolishing. More specifically, misrepresentations of the "man of science" as either inflexibly determined by the efficient mechanical causes of evolution and genetics or flexibly malleable as an infinitely constructible and reconstructible social, cultural, and linguistic being are often promoted by the biopolitical ideologies of "democratic materialism" described so well by Badiou. A materialism based on science as opposed to scientism and faithful to the furthest-reaching consequences of Lacan's dictum according to which no big Other of any sort exists (including almighty Nature as well as God) has no place in it for the different pseudoscientific images of humanity advertised by today's reigning biopowers.

The time has come to pronounce the true formula of atheistic materialism: there is just a weak nature, and nothing more. All that exists are heterogeneous ensembles of less-than-fully synthesized material beings, internally conflicted, hodgepodge jumbles of elements-in-tension—and that is it. What appears to be more-than-material (especially subjectivity and everything associated with it) is, ultimately, an index or symptom of the weakness of nature, this Other-less, un-unified ground of being. The apparently more-than-material consists of phenomena flourishing in the nooks and crannies of the strife-saturated, underdetermined matrices of materiality, in the cracks, gaps, and splits of these discrepant material strata.

Fear-driven antinaturalism, responsible for much of the resistance of continental philosophy and European psychoanalysis to a sustained engagement with the life sciences, tacitly accepts the notion of a strong nature as Almighty, as an overdetermining, omnipotent cosmic Substance. If Lacan is indeed correct that the ostensibly atheistic materialists of eighteenth-century France remain, in reality, religious believers despite themselves, then continental European antinaturalists and their followers are also, regardless of whatever they might say, adherents of fideism—they have faith in a natural big Other, even if this faith manifests itself through perverse rejections of and rebellions against [38] this Other. Moreover, such antinaturalists, in accepting the image of a strong nature while simultaneously wanting to preserve the affirmation that there is something in excess of this same nature, are forced to rely upon a spiritualist metaphysics of one sort or another in the form of strict, rigid ontological dualisms (however avowed or disavowed). If an atheist, as Lacan claims, is he or she who acknowledges the nonexistence of the big Other, then anyone accepting an image of natural being as an ultra-powerful One, whether reductionist materialists or their reactive and reactionary opponents, is, in the end, no different in kind than the most fervent of the faithful.


Source: Adrian Johnston, Prolegomena to Any Future Materialism: The Outcome of Contemporary French Philosophy (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2013), xiii–38.

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