So, Lacan. I’m going to be talking about a lot of Lacan via Zizek so you’re going to have to accept him as an interpellator (interloper?) of sorts. But at least he’s a fun one. (And keep in mind I’m going to be leaving a lot on the cutting room floor; if you want any further readings for these two thinkers, drop me a line or a comment and I’d be happy to send some your way.) Why I think it’s absolutely essential to begin with these two is to assess the problem at hand: “the disavowed beliefs, suppositions, and obscene practices we pretend not to know about, although they form the background of our public values.”
Particularly at the intersection of ecology, the human body, and orthopraxy. Why do we do this in the first place? I chased God for a long long time. I even thought I had found a way to square the circle with a humanist, rational Christianity based on both ethical injunctions and a patient mysticism. And I still think that’s possible for some. But for me it requires a kind of incarnational logic of the birth, death, and resurrection of a God based on a theory of atonement (even if the theory of atonement is a really cool, non-fundamentalist one). That is to say–how much can you whittle away? What are you left with?
So I’ve moved on from that faith story (with a surprising amount of acceptance and peace). I’m starting another. And yet I fully expect to be haunted by the ashes and embers, where I had sat by the fire for so long. I powder my face with them. I put a handful in a little bag.
The modern atheist thinks he knows that God is dead; what he doesn’t know is that, unconsciously, he continues to believe in God. What characterizes modernity is no longer the standard figure of the believer who secretly harbors intimate doubts about his belief and engages in transgressive fantasies; today, we have, on the contrary, a subject who presents himself as a tolerant hedonist dedicated to the pursuit of happiness, and whose unconscious is the site of prohibitions: what is repressed are not illicit desires or pleasures, but prohibitions themselves…
Think of the situation known to most of us from our youth: the unfortunate child who, on Sunday afternoon, has to visit his grandmother instead of being allowed to play with friends. The old-fashioned authoritarian father’s message to the reluctant boy would have been: “I don’t care how you feel. Just do your duty, go to grandmother and behave there properly!” In this case, the child’s predicament is not bad at all: although forced to do something he clearly doesn’t want to, he will retain his inner freedom and the ability to (later) rebel against the paternal authority. Much more tricky would have been the message of a “postmodern” non-authoritarian father: “You know how much your grandmother loves you! But, nonetheless, I do not want to force you to visit her – go there only if you really want to!” Every child who is not stupid (and as a rule they are definitely not stupid) will immediately recognize the trap of this permissive attitude: beneath the appearance of a free choice there is an even more oppressive demand than the one formulated by the traditional authoritarian father, namely an implicit injunction not only to visit the grandmother, but to do it voluntarily, out of the child’s own free will. Such a false free choice is the obscene superego injunction: it deprives the child even of his inner freedom, ordering him not only what to do, but what to want to do. (source)
(I keep reading this quote and thinking of the Wiccan Rede.) Sometimes permissiveness is paralyzing. And yet, we can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube–attempting to re-assert a dominant logic of a ‘father figure’ is, as has been argued before, a recipe for fundamentalism. We can’t reconstruct the past like that.
And yet this is a major intractable problem. The ideological command “You must enjoy yourself!” is insidious because it doesn’t reveal itself as ideology (as an “unknown known”), and so we are left with a capitalist culture of unending consumption. In the last twenty years, capitalism has been as more and more “normative”, part of the air we breathe.
What does this have to do with neopaganism then? Now there are groups like the Dark Mountain Project that are taking a somewhat pessimistic/catastrophic view, seeing the collapse of civilization as inevitable. But neopaganism takes a different tack, and this approach has to do with what neopagans believe; or rather, not believe.
(It still feels awkward to say ‘we’. I’m aware of that. Bear with me.)
What these ideological structures allow is to have someone–or something–believe on our behalf. This is what Lacan calls the symbolic order–also known as the Big Other. This is “anonymous authoritative power and/or knowledge (whether that of God, Nature, History, Society, State, Party, Science…)” (source) Peter Rollins, who uses Lacan and Zizek to unpack Christianity, has this to say about belief:
take the example of buying cheap clothes from a department store. Regardless of what I say, if I don’t ask some basic questions about where the clothes come from I believe in sweatshops. Or at best I believe in ignorance, in not asking questions and in the virtue of being an uncritical consumer. Again these beliefs are not ones I will admit to myself (bring to my mind) but rather they are beliefs I enact as a result of my basic desires (arising from my heart).
Our actions are what we believe. The Big Other’s power is a fiction, but Lacan once claimed that “truth has the structure of a fiction”. And the Big Other has intractable power.
But this is where orthopraxy comes in. Neopaganism builds a practice from the “ground up”, where the focus is on what is done. There are, of course, beliefs even here; the idea isn’t to completely rid oneself of beliefs but rather, through ritualized, here-and-now practice, it keeps the focus on aligning what one beliefs with what one actually does. In fact, the immanence of fellow-feeling or the sacred within a ritualized setting–is precisely when one is able to achieve that loss of the Big Other. Even if it’s temporary. It’s hard work, and not a panacea; but by practicing, a neopagan can have an encounter, however unsettling, with what’s behind the symbolic order: The Real.
The Real has a very specific function in Lacan; it’s not an arena of pure transcendence, of seeing behind some Platonic or Matrix-like veil. A metaphor that Zizek used in one of his lectures was to consider a chess game. The rules of the game stand in for the symbolic order/Big Other: the realm of laws and superstructures. The actual chess pieces themselves (and the names attached to them) stand in for the Imaginary. This is the realm of surface appearances. Are the chess pieces made of wood or steel? Are they rendered realistically or as different sizes of stones? And, to go deeper, the fact that the chess piece that can only move in straight lines is called a Rook is also part of the Imaginary. (Keep in mind that the Imaginary and the Symbolic are deeply intertwined; though one could play chess without any board at all on a computer, it’s the reason why chess programs on computers continue to replicate actual boards.) The Imaginary acts as “the mediator between internal and external worlds.” (source) And it’s what we are consciously aware of.
(OK, we’re finally getting to The Real. Lacan is complicated, if you couldn’t guess that before.)
To continue this chessboard analogy, the act of two friends getting together and having a game of chess would constitute the Real. This event could not happen without the Symbolic (the rules) and the Imaginary (the pieces), and yet with only those two we are left with a lifeless simulacrum. The Real is beyond the Big Other and, yes, beyond ideology.
There’s only one catch, however, and it’s a big one:
As far as humans are concerned, however, “the real is impossible,” as Lacan was fond of saying. It is impossible in so far as we cannot express it in language because the very entrance into language marks our irrevocable separation from the real. Still, the real continues to exert its influence throughout our adult lives since it is the rock against which all our fantasies and linguistic structures ultimately fail. The real for example continues to erupt whenever we are made to acknowledge the materiality of our existence, an acknowledgement that is usually perceived as traumatic (since it threatens our very “reality”)
The Real is impossible, yes, but that doesn’t mean it has no affect on us, when it is apprehended and approached. “the Real is intrinsically elusive”:
Throughout the 1960s and up through the end of Lacan’s teachings, the Real takes on an ever increasing number of aspects and connotations. It becomes both a transcendence troubling and thwarting Imaginary-Symbolic reality and its language from without as well as an immanence perturbing and subverting reality/language from within. It comes to be associated with libidinal negativities…material meaninglessness both linguistic and non-linguistic, contingent traumatic events, unbearable bodily intensities, anxiety, and death. (source)
This is even beyond a Romantic sublime, which (I would argue; others might disagree) posits the human being as the center of his or her linguistic universe–momentarily stupified but eager to recount one’s transformation by the sublime event. No, the Real is animated. It bites back. (And keep in mind that the Real can even impinge on relying on Nature as a Big Other.)
Though this hypothesis of mine is very tenuous, what I propose is that these encounters of the Real through ritual and poesis, however fractured and fleeting, relate strongly to an blurring of the human-nature divide. Rather than re-sacralizing Nature (which is, after all, an ideological construct), traces of the Real serve to paradoxically desacralize the human. We find ourselves precisely by finding that we have no fixed selves in the face of the Real. And so we find ourselves giving up even “the sacred” as a means of control.
We become fauna in an ecology of shadows.
And we really have to work ourselves up to it.