......• Religion between Knowledge and Jouissance

.............Slavoj Zizek

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Is the post-68’ drive to jouissance - to reaching the extreme of forms of sexual pleasures that would dissolve all social links and allow me to find a climax in the solipsism of absolute jouissance - not the very opposite of the consummation of the commodified products promising jouissance? The first (best exemplified by the work of Foucault) stands for a radical, "authentic," subjective position, while the second signals a defeat, a surrender to market forces... Is, however, this opposition effectively so clear? Is it not all too easy to denounce jouissance offered on the market as "false," as providing only the empty package-promise with no substance? Is the hole, the void, in the very heart of our pleasures not the structure of every jouissance? Furthermore, is it, rather, not that the commodified provocations to enjoy which bombard us all the time push us towards, precisely, an autistic-masturbatory, "asocial," jouissance whose supreme case is the addiction to drugs? Are drugs not at the same time the means for the most radical autistic experience of jouissance and a commodity par excellence?

The drive to pure autistic jouissance (through drugs or other trance-inducing means) arose at a precise political moment: when the emancipatory "sequence" of 1968 exhausted its potentials. At this critical point (mid-1970s), the only option left was a kind of direct, brutal, passage à l’acte, push-towards-the-Real, which assumed three main forms: the search for extreme forms of sexual jouissance; Leftist political terrorism (RAF in Germany, Red Brigades in Italy, etc.) whose wager was that, in an epoch in which the masses are totally immersed into the capitalist ideological sleep, the standard critique of ideology is no longer operative, so that only a resort to the raw Real of direct violence - l’action directe - can awaken the masses); and, finally, the turn towards the Real of an inner experience (Oriental mysticism). What all three share is the withdrawal from concrete socio-political engagement into a direct contact with the Real.

The problem with today’s superego injunction to enjoy is that, in contrast to previous modes of ideological interpellation, it opens up no "world" proper - it just refers to an obscure Unnameable. Even the Nazi anti-Semitism opened up a world: by way of describing the present critical situation, naming the enemy ("Jewish conspiracy"), the goal and the means to achieve it, Nazism disclosed reality in a way which allowed its subjects to acquire a global "cognitive mapping," inclusive of the space for their meaningful engagement. This is why Badiou recently started to elaborate this topic of world, the "logic of worlds": what if the impetus came from his deeper insight into capitalism? What if the concept of world was necessitated by the need to think the unique status of the capitalist universe as world-less? Badiou recently claimed that our time is devoid of world - [1] how are we to grasp this strange thesis?

Perhaps, it is here that one should locate the "danger" of capitalism: although it is global, encompassing the whole worlds, it sustains a stricto sensu "worldless" ideological constellation, depriving the large majority of people of any meaningful "cognitive mapping." The universality of capitalism resides in the fact that capitalism is not a name for a "civilization," for a specific cultural-symbolic world, but the name for a truly neutral economico-symbolic machine which operates with Asian values as well as with others, so that Europe's worldwide triumph is its defeat, self-obliteration, the cutting of the umbilical link to Europe. The critics of "Eurocentrism" who endeavor to unearth the secret European bias of capitalism fall short here: the problem with capitalism is not its secret Eurocentric bias, but the fact that it REALLY IS UNIVERSAL, a neutral matrix of social relations.

In what, more precisely, does this "worldlessness" consist? As Lacan points out in his Seminar XX, Encore, jouissance involves a logic strictly homologous to that of the ontological proof of the existence of God. In the classic version of this proof, my awareness of myself as a finite, limited, being immediately gives birth to the notion of an infinite, perfect, being, and since this being is perfect, its very notion contains its existence; in the same way, our experience of jouissance accessible to us as finite, located, partial, "castrated," immediately gives birth to the notion of a full, achieved, unlimited jouissance whose existence is necessarily presupposed by the subject who imputes it to another subject, his/her "subject supposed to enjoy."

Our first reaction here is, of course, that this absolute jouissance is a myth, that it never effectively existed, that its status is purely differential, i.e., that it exists only as a negative point of reference with regard to which every effectively experienced jouissance falls short ("pleasurable as this is, it is not THAT!"). However, the recent advances of brain studies open up another approach: one can (no longer only) imagine the situation in which pain (or pleasure) is not generated through sensory perceptions, but through a directly excitation of the appropriate neuronal centers (by means of drugs or electrical impulses) – what the subject will experience in this case will be "pure" pain, pain "as such," the REAL of pain, or, to put it in precise Kantian terms, the non-schematized pain, pain which is not yet rooted in the experience of reality constituted by transcendental categories.

"Neurotheologians" applied this insight to religion, by way of identifying the brain processes which accompany intense religious experiences: when a subject experiences himself as timeless and infinite, part of the cosmic All, delivered of the constraints of his Self, the region of his brain which processes information about space, time, and the orientation of the body in space "goes dark"; in the blocking of the sensory inputs which occurs during intense meditative concentration, the brain has no choice but to perceive the self as endless and intimately interwoven with everyone and everything. The same goes for visions: they clearly correspond to abnormal bursts of electrical activity in the temporal lobes (the "temporal-lobe epilepsy"). The counterargument here is: while, of course, everything we experience also exists as a neurological activity, this in no way resolves the question of causality. When we eat an apple, we also experience the satisfaction of its good taste as a neuronal activity, but this in no way affects the fact that the apple was really out there and caused our activity. In the same fashion, it is totally undecided whether our brain wiring creates (our experience of) God, or whether God created our brain wiring… Is, however, the question of causality not simple to resolve? If we (the experimenting doctor) directly intervene in the appropriate parts of the brain, causing the brain activity in question, and, if, during this activity of ours, the subject "experiences the divine dimension," does this not provide a conclusive answer? The further question here is: how will the subject who is aware of all this subjectivize his religious experience? Will he continue to experience it as "religious" in the appropriate ecstatic sense of the term? The extreme solution is here that of a US religious sect which claims that God, who observes us all the time and took note of the lack of authentic religious experiences among his believers, organized the discovery of drugs which can generate such experiences… Further experiments show that when individuals are able to directly stimulate their neuronal pleasure-centres, they do not get caught into a blind compulsive drive towards excessive pleasure, but provide themselves pleasure only when they judge that they "deserved" it (on account of their everyday acts) – however, do many of us not do the same with pleasures provided in a "normal" way? What all this indicates is that people who experienced directly generated pleasures do not suffer a breakdown of their symbolic universe, but integrate smoothly these pleasure experiences into it, or even rely on them to enhance their experience of sacred meaning. However, again, the question is what disavowals do such integrations involve: can I really accept that the industrially fabricated pill that I hold in my hand provides a contact with god?

Today's achievements of brain sciences thus seem to fulfill the prospect envisaged by Freud of sciences supplanting psychoanalysis: once the biological mechanisms of pain, pleasure, trauma, repression, etc., will be known, psychoanalysis will no longer be needed, since, instead of intervening at the level of interpretation, one will be able to directly regulate the biological processes that generate pathological psychic phenomena. Hitherto there were two ways psychoanalysts replied to this challenge:

either they took recourse to the standard philosophico-transcendental gesture of pointing out how a positive science cannot ever encompass and account for the very horizon of meaning within which it is operative ("even if brain sciences will succeed in totally objectivizing a symptom, formulating its bioneuronal equivalent, the patient will still have to adopt a subjective stance towards this objectivity..."). However, this self-complacent answer is all too short: the success of the brain sciences, if really subjectively assumed, would undermine our very status as subjects of meaning. [2]
or they desperately cling to the parallels or structural homologies between psychoanalysis and brain sciences ("see, we were right, there is a neuronal process that corresponds to repression").

Both these approaches – which supplement each other in their two respective excesses, the first one with its abstract arrogance, the second one with its subservient modesty – fall short of the challenge of brain sciences: the only proper reply to this challenge is to meet the brain sciences neuronal Real with another Real, not only to ground the Freudian semblant within the neuronal Real. In other words, if psychoanalysis is to survive and retain its key status, one has to find a place for it within the brain sciences themselves, from their inherent blanks and impossibilities. – However, within cognitive sciences themselves, things are no less confused when one tries to account for the emergence of consciousness - whither consciousness? The surprising thing is how "everything goes," all possible answers coexist, from dismissing the question as meaningless through evolutionist accounts of it up to declaring it an unsolvable mystery and proposing that consciousness has no (evolutionary) function at all, that it is a by-product, not a central phenomenon, but an epiphenomenon. What strikes the eye is how evolutionist or cognitivist accounts always seems to stumble upon the same deadlock: after we construct an artificial intelligence machine which can solve even very complex problems, the questions pops up "But it can do it precisely as a machine, as a blind operating entity - why does it need (self)awareness to do it?" So the more consciousness is demonstrated to be marginal, unnecessary, non-functional, the more it becomes enigmatic - it is consciousness itself which is here the Real of an indivisible remainder. – Generally, this multitude can be reduced to four main positions:

1. radical/reductive materialism (Patricia and Paul Churchland): there simply are no qualia, there is no "consciousness," they only exist as a kind of "naturalized" cognitive mistake. The anti-intuitional beauty of this position is that it turns around subjectivist phenomenalism (we are only aware of phenomena, there is no absolute certainty that anything beyond them exists) – here, it is pure phenomenality itself which does not exist!
2. anti-materialism (Chalmers): consciousness-awareness cannot be accounted for in the terms of other natural processes, it has to be conceived as a primordial dimension of nature, like gravity or magnetism.
3. the position of "cognitive closure" which asserts the inherent unknowability of consciousness (McGinn, even Pinker): although consciousness emerged out of material reality, it is necessarily unknowable.
4. non-reductive materialism (Dennett): consciousness exists, but is the result of natural processes and has a clear evolutionary function.

These four positions obviously form a Greimasian semiotic square: the main opposition is the one between 2 and 4, idealism and materialism; 1 and 3 each give to materialism or idealism a cognitive twist. That is to say, both 2 and 4 believe in the possibility of the scientific explanation of consciousness: there is an object ("consciousness") and its explanation, either accounting for it in the terms of non-conscious natural processes (materialism) or conceiving it as an irreducible dimension of its own (idealism). For 1, however, the scientific explanation of consciousness leads to the result that the object-to-be-explained itself does not exist, that it is an epistemological mistake like old notions of flogiston; 3 inverts this position: what disappears here is not the object but explanation itself (although materialism is true, it a priori cannot explain consciousness).

These cognitivist impasses bear witness to the fact that today's sciences shatter the basic presuppositions of our everyday life-world notion of reality. There are three main attitudes one can adopt towards this breakthrough.

- The first one is simply to insist on radical naturalism, i.e., to heroically pursue the logic of the scientific "disenchantment of reality" whatever the cost, even if the very fundamental coordinates of our horizon of meaningful experience are shattered. (In brain sciences, Patricia and Paul Churchland most radically opted for this attitude.)

- The second one is the attempt at some kind of New Age "synthesis" between the scientific Truth and the premodern world of Meaning: the claim is that new scientific results themselves (say, quantum physics) compel us to abandon materialism and point towards some new (Gnostic or Eastern) spirituality – here is a standard version of this motif: "The central event of the twentieth century is the overthrow of matter. In technology, economics, and the politics of nation, wealth in the form of physical resources is steadily declining in value and significance. The powers of mind are everywhere ascendant over the brute force of things." [3] This line of reasoning stands for ideology at its worst: what the reinscription of proper scientific problematic (the role of waves and oscillations in quantum physics, etc.) into the ideological field of "mind versus brute things" obfuscates is the true paradoxical result of the notorious "disappearance of matter" in modern physics: how the very "immaterial" processes lost their spiritual character and become a legitimate topic of natural sciences.

- The third option is that of a neo-Kantian state philosophy whose exemplary case today is Habermas. It is a rather sad spectacle to see Habermas trying to control the explosive results of biogenetics, to curtail the philosophical consequences of biogenetics – his entire effort betrays the fear that something would effectively happen, that a new dimension of the "human" would emerge, that the old image of human dignity and autonomy would survive unscathed. The very excessive reactions are symptomatic here, like the ridiculous over-reaction to Sloterdijk's Elmau speech on biogenetics and Heidegger, [4] discerning the echoes of Nazi eugenics in the (quite reasonable) proposal that biogenetics compels us to formulate new rules of ethics. What this attitude towards scientific progress amount to is a kind of "temptation of (resisting) temptation": the temptation to be resisted is precisely the pseudo-ethical attitude of presenting scientific exploration as a temptation which can lead us into "going too far" - entering the forbidden territory (of biogenetic manipulations, etc.) and thus endangering the very core of our humanity.

The latest ethical "crisis" apropos biogenetics effectively created the need for what one is fully justified in calling a "state philosophy": a philosophy that would, on the one hand, condone scientific research and technical process, and, on the other hand, contain its full socio-symbolic impact, i.e., prevent it from posing a threat to the existing theologico-ethical constellation. No wonder those who come closest to meeting these demands are neo-Kantians: Kant himself was focused on the problem of how, while fully taking into account the Newtonian science, one can guarantee that there is a space of ethical responsibility exempted from the reach of science; as he himself put it, he limited the scope of knowledge to create the space for faith and morality. And are today’s state philosophers not facing the same task? Is their effort not focused on how, through different versions of transcendental reflection, to restrict science to its preordained horizon of meaning and thus to denounce as "illegitimate" its consequences for the ethico-religious sphere?

It is interesting to note how, although Sloterdijk was the target of a violent Habermasian attack, his proposed solution, a "humanist" synthesis of the new scientific Truth and the old horizon of Meaning, although much more refined and ironically-sceptical than the Habermasian "state philosophy," is ultimately separated from it by an almost invisible line of separation (more precisely, it seems to persist in the ambiguity between the Habermasian compromise and the New Age obscurantist synthesis). According to Sloterdijk, "humanism" always involves such a reconciliation, a bridge between the New and the Old: when scientific results undermine the old universe of meaning, one should find a way to reintegrate them into the universe of Meaning, or, rather, to metaphorically expand the old universe of Meaning so that it can "cover" also new scientific propositions. If we fail in this mediating task, we remain stuck in the brutal choice: either a reactionary refusal to accept scientific results, or the shattering loss of the very domain of meaning. Today, we confront the same challenge: "Mathematicians will have to become poets, cyberneticists philosophers of religion, /medical/ doctors composers, information-workers shamans." [5] Is this solution, however, not that of obscurantism in the precise sense of the attempt to keep meaning and truth harnessed together?

/.../ the simplest definition of God and of religion lies in the idea that truth and meaning are one and the same thing. The death of God is the end of the idea that posits truth and meaning as the same thing. And I would add that the death of Communism also implies the separation between meaning and truth as far as history is concerned. "The meaning of history" has two meanings: on the one hand "orientation," history goes somewhere; and then history has a meaning, which is the history of human emancipation by way of the proletariat, etc. In fact, the entire age of Communism was a period where the conviction that it was possible to take rightful political decisions existed; we were, at that moment, driven by the meaning of history. /.../ Then the death of Communism becomes the second death of God but in the territory of history. /.../ Today we may call ‘obscurantism’ the intention of keeping them harnessed together – meaning and truth. [6]

What underlies this split between truth and meaning is capitalist globalization - what is capitalist globalization? Capitalism is the first socio-economic order which de-totalizes meaning: it is not global at the level of meaning (there is no global "capitalist world view," no "capitalist civilization" proper – the fundamental lesson of globalization is precisely that capitalism can accommodate itself to all civilizations, from Christian to Hindu and Buddhist); its global dimension can only be formulated at the level of truth-without-meaning, as the "real" of the global market mechanism. Consequently, insofar as capitalism already enacts the rupture between meaning and truth, it can be opposed at two levels: either at the level of meaning (conservative reactions to re-enframe capitalism into some social field of meaning, to contain its self-propelling movement within the confines of a system of shared "values" which cement a "community" in its "organic unity"), or to question the real of capitalism with regard to its truth-outside-meaning (what, basically, Marx did). Of course, the predominant religious strategy today is that of trying to contain the scientific real within the confines of meaning – it is as an answer to the scientific real (materialized in the biogenetic threats) that religion is finding its new raison d’être:

Far from being effaced by science, religion, and even the syndicate of religions, in the process of formation, is progressing every day. Lacan said that ecumenism was for the poor of spirit. There is a marvellous agreement on these questions between the secular and all the religious authorities, in which they tell themselves they should agree somewhere in order to make echoes equally marvellous, even saying that finally the secular is a religion like the others. We see this because it is revealed in effect that the discourse of science has partly connected with the death drive. Religion is planted in the position of unconditional defense of the living, of life in mankind, as guardian of life, making life an absolute. And that extends to the protection of human nature. /…/ This is /…/ what gives a future to religion through meaning, namely by erecting barriers – to cloning, to the exploitation of human cells – and to inscribe science in a tempered progress. We see a marvellous effort, a new youthful vigour of religion in its effort to flood the real with meaning. [7]

So when the Pope opposes the Christian "culture of Life" against the modern "culture of Death," he is not merely exploiting in a hyperbolic way different attitudes towards abortion. His statements are to be taken much more literally and, at the same time, universally: it is not only that the Church harbors "good news," the trust in our future, the Hope that guarantees the Meaning of Life; the couple culture of Life / culture of Death has to be related to the Freudian opposition of Life and Death drives. "Life" stands for the rule of the "pleasure principle," for the homeostatic stability of pleasures protected from the stressful shocks of excessive jouissance, so that the Pope’s wager is that, paradoxically, not only is religious spirituality not opposed to earthly pleasures, but it is ONLY this spirituality that can provide the frame for a full and satisfied pleasurable life. "Death," on the contrary, stands for the domain "beyond the pleasure principle," for all the excesses through which the Real disturbs the homeostasis of life, from the excessive sexual jouissance up to the scientific Real which generates artificial monsters...

This simple, but salient, diagnosis ends up in a surprising paraphrase of Heidegger, defining the analyst as the "shepherd of the real." However, it leaves some key questions open. Is the death drive for which science stands, which it mobilizes in its activity, not simultaneously an EXCESS OF OBSCENE LIFE, of life as real, exempted from and external to meaning? One should not forget that death drive is a Freudian name for immortality, for a pressure, a compulsion, which insists beyond death (and let us also not forget that immortality is also implicitly promised by science).

From here, we can also elaborate a critique of the philosophy of finitude which predominates today. The idea is that, against the big metaphysical constructs, one should humbly accept our finitude as our ultimate horizon: there is no absolute Truth, all we can do is accept the contingency of our existence, the unsurpassable character of our being-thrown into a situation, the basic lack of any absolute point of reference, the playfulness of our predicament… However, the first thing that strikes the eye is here the utmost seriousness of this philosophy of finitude, its all-pervasive pathos which runs against the expected playfulness: the ultimate tone of the philosophy of finitude is that of ultra-serious heroic confrontation of one’s destiny – no wonder that the philosopher of finitude par excellence, Heidegger, is also the philosopher who utterly lacks any sense of humor. [8]

There is, unfortunately, also a Lacanian version of the philosophy of finitude: when, in a tragic tone, one is informed that one has to renounce the impossible striving for full jouissance and accept "symbolic castration," the ultimate constraint of our existence: as soon as we enter symbolic order, all jouissance has to pass through the mortification of the symbolic medium, every attainable object is already a displacement of the impossible-real object of desire which is constitutively lost...) Arguably, Kierkeggard relied so much on humor precisely because he insisted on the relationship to the Absolute and rejected the limitation to finitude. - So what is it that this emphasis on finitude as the ultimate horizon of our existence misses? How can we assert it in a materialist way, without any resort to spiritual transcendence? The answer is, precisely, objet petit a as the "undead" ("non-castrated") remainder which persists in its obscene immortality. No wonder the Wagnerian heroes want so desperately to die: they want to get rid of this obscene immortal supplement which stands for libido as an organ, for drive at its most radical, i.e., death drive. In other words, the properly Freudian paradox is that what explodes the constraints of our finitude is death drive itself. And it is here, in Freudian meta-psychology, that one should look for what one is tempted to call materialist theology.


[1] Alain Badiou, "The Caesura of Nihilism," lecture delivered at the University of Essex, September 10 2003.

[2] Its mauvaise foi is clear already from the oscillation on the critics of brain sciences between two extremes: they as a rule combine the quick "transcendental" answer ("science a priori cannot objectivize our subjective attitude towards objectivity") with empirical arguments against - and rejoicing at - the specific failures of scientific accounts of the brain: this very form of specific argumentation is only meaningful against the background of the possible success.

[3] George Glider, quoted in John L. Casti, Would-Be Worlds, New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 1997, p. 215.

[4] See Peter Sloterdijk, Regeln für den Menschenpark, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag 1999.

[5] Peter Sloterdijk, Nicht gerettet, p. 365.

[6] "A Conversation with Alain Badiou," lacanian ink 23 (New York 2004), p. 100-101.

[7] Jacques-Alain Miller, "Religion, Psychoanalysis," lacanian ink 23 (New York 2004), p. 18-19.

[8] Significantly, the ONLY joke – or, if not joke then, at least, moment of irony – in Heidegger occurs in his rather bad taste quip about Lacan as "that psychiatrist who is himself in the need of a psychiatrist"(in a letter to Medard Boss).

Slavoj Zizek's Bibliography

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