The End of the Judeo-Christian (Modern) Subject
The notion of subject is central to Lacan’s theory. It differs from the self or the ego, a unity constituted by our projections and identifications, which is constitutive of consciousness. The Lacanian subject is divided. It comprises consciousness, but at its core there is an obscure singularity that cannot be fragmented and thus analyzed, the unconscious, “kernel of our being”: a singularity that, according to the etymology (in-dividuum) cannot be divided nor spoken – “Individuum ineffabile est” (singularity is ineffable), as Medieval philosophy said. If the subject can only partially be represented or enter a discourse, it follows that it escapes history and its changes. Indeed, Freud said that the unconscious had no notion of history or time. This timelessness of the unconscious could lead us to believe that the subject is a universal or eternal notion. But this is most certainly not the case – for example, Lacan says (Sem. VI) that in ancient Greek culture, the notion of the subject did not exist. Indeed, for Aristotle the concept of subject is limited is the grammatical subject of the verb, emptied of any predicate – however, beyond philosophical transparency, both Greek and Latin contradict this reduction and give hints of something more complex: hypo-komeinon and sub-jectum literally what is “thrown below or under”: even in the grammatical subject, something lies underneath, is hidden.
The Freudian/Lacanian subject has over time become a second nature for us, so much so that we assume it is part of the natural order of things. But the psychoanalytic subject has a history (a genesis, a beginning); concomitantly, as a historical phenomenon, it could die or disappear (all history is thus fated). We can locate the subject’s origin at a very precise moment; it is created by Saint Paul’s Letter to the Galatians: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” (3:28)
If we replace this statement in its historical context, it entirely subverts how an individual could define himself in Middle Eastern and Greco-Roman societies. Paul obliterates all categories and distinctions that characterize subjects as belonging to a community, be it linguistic, ethnic, national, social, tribal, familial, or gender based. Galatians disintegrates any and all social links, past, present or future. Individuals have from now on to be “taken one by one”, in their singularity, i.e. as subjects. The now abolished social links or distinctions are replaced by Christian faith, binding subjects in the community of believers. The birth of the modern subject is thus consubstantial to its Christian framework. The singular subject is religious by definition. Psychoanalysis operates on a subject whose geographical spread is Western Europe (the only area that was, for a long time, entirely Christian). Christian faith, in Galatians, supersedes all the symbolic orders that regulated exchanges between individuals. Which leads to the question: what happens to the subject when the religious background fades out and dies, as is the fact now in advanced Western societies?
If we briefly survey history, we see that most societies in the past immemorial as well as in the present never grant as much importance to individual singularity as we do. They subject individuals to the Common or Greater Good; the group’s wellbeing has precedence over singular desires. To “take subjects one by one”, which is Lacan’s major precept for psychoanalytical ethics, is indeed not a common tradition outside Western cultures. Moreover, by building an ethics of singularity (Sem VII) that considers the supreme good from the individual’s viewpoint, Lacan runs counter to the entire philosophical tradition of morality, which consider only the common, greater Good.
Compared to Western societies, Antiquity and a lot of contemporary societies have hence not much interest in individuals. Indeed, the focus and significance the West puts on individual singularity would have seemed bad manners, bordering on obscenity and ridicule, to a Greek, a Roman, or a Jew, and today, to a Chinese, a Muslim, a Japanese, an Indonesian, or an African. This is confirmed by the scarcity of autobiographies in these contexts. As a matter of fact, the first example of modern autobiography, Saint Augustine Confessions, a Christian apologetic, has no equivalent before in any civilization. For the first time in history, we witness in that book a psychological depth and refinement in self-observation that has no equivalent predecessor.
In most societies past and present, if an individual doesn’t submit to the Common Good imperative, he or she is rejected from the social compact or put to death by the people. Thus Oedipus is cast away from Thebes, so that the city literally may regain its healthiness, since it is ravaged by the plague.
Thus, similarly, Christ is sacrificed for the common good of Jewish society, as the Gospels clearly intimate. We should not forget that Jesus was most certainly viewed as a troublemaker and a revolutionary in a nation under the stress of Roman occupation, in urgent need to protect its cohesiveness: “Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin: “What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is a man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.” (John 11: 47-48) As the High Priest Caiaphas illustrates in a quite clear example of the scapegoat mechanism: “And one of them, named Caiaphas, being the high priest that same year, said unto them, Ye know nothing at all, nor consider that is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not.” (John 11:50) The scapegoat mechanism is simply the accepted custom for dealing with social troubles in first century Jerusalem. To condemn it as barbaric would be yielding to presentism, which rolls back our values to apply them to past societies.
So, in Greece in the fifth century A.D. as well as in Palestine later, the “diseased” individual has to be excised from the city, so that it be not contaminated and can regain its wellbeing.
As a consequence, in ancient societies (Greece, Rome, Israel) as well as in a lot of contemporary ones, individuals, having to keep their singular drives in check for the benefit of their group, can be described as having no interiority. Interiority is banned because it threatens the existing social compact. Subjects live with a consciousness that is constantly under others’ gaze (or the Other’s gaze; more on this in Bruce J. Malina’s remarkable work). The Greek syn-eidisis as well as the Latin con-scientia make this requirement explicit: consciousness means knowledge with. In other words, consciousness in these societies is always a shared exigency, where the individuals’ drives are controlled, submitted and, if necessary, excised (but not repressed) for the benefit of the Common Good. Contrast this attitude with the exorbitant emphasis we put today on the Self, the Ego… the Subject: the West lives in the Age of what the philosopher Eric Voegelin called Egophany.
This is not to say, of course, that the West no longer lives under the constraints of the Common Good; indeed, we may assume that explicit egophany leads to more and more restraints, censure and repression. Witness the truly frightening multiplication of offended selves or communities that demand reparations, retribution or censure. Egophany is leading, not to the liberation of the self, but to an ever-expanding superego and thought control, and nothing seems capable of stopping this process: dissenters are silenced or murdered. Egophany, in addition, conduces to resentment or rebellion against the demands of the Common Good, thus the “weakening of the paternal Imago”, as Lacan wrote in 1938.
Note that the same group of texts that remind us of the old ethics in John (the individual must be sacrificed to the Common Good), is at the same time, in Galatians, the space where a new ethics is born, in which the individual is the center of attention. Thus the New Testament can be in toto interpreted as an indictment of the scapegoat mechanism, as René Girard asserts; and this rejection gives birth to a new ethics. This juxtaposition is no coincidence: scapegoating has to be abrogated in order for the individual subject to arise. We can now make sense of Lacan’s statements: “Meaning is always religious” (Lettre de dissolution, January 1980) and “Religion [Catholicism] is true” (RSI, December 17, 1794).
The new subject can be rightly called Judeo-Christian; he or she is a subject that is pulverized or atomized in an unspeakable loneliness, unless he or she believes. If we remove faith, as the West, through secularism and the Enlightment, has achieved, we should not be surprised by the rise of psychic illness in subjects who cannot find a framework of reference for their identities outside of Christianity. Not that I advocate a return to religion, I am just stating an evidence buttressed by the appalling weakness of the West in the defense against the wars on human rights, democracy, the rule of law. It seems that rationality in this case has not been able to command a faith in ethical values comparable to what religion achieved for millennia. Lack of belief, or even conviction, exposes the foibles of general Egophany.
Freud’s pessimism on the progress of civilization, expressed in Totem and Taboo and Civilization and its Discontents is here relevant. He equates the civilizing process to an infinite expansion of the Superego that has to be held in check. For example, the “primitive” man (which I would oppose to the modern or Judeo-Christian subject) is healthier than we are; he can act up his neuroses, psychoses and perversions through collective representations that put together a curative system of retribution and gratification. To the contrary, the modern individual has to interiorize all the taboos and conflicts deriving from his drives, society offers him no release outside the confines of his Self (digital pornography is a telling symptom of this). Our permissive societies in fact forbid the collective release of psychic tension that made primitive men so much happier. As an example, let us compare the Oedipus complex resolution in Sophocles and Freud. In the Greek tragedy, everything is exteriorized. The tragedy itself is the medium for this open staging: the father is killed, the mother is defiled, the child pays publicly for his transgression – Oedipus is blinded and expelled from Thebes.
By contrast, an in agreement with Freud’s dim view of progress, which is always an extension of repression, we have, to our chagrin, interiorized and/or repressed the Oedipus complex. This repression is the mark of psychic progress, and its cost is no longer borne by the community, but by the individual alone. Interiorization is the cross that modern subjects have to bear. We can no longer rely on sacrifices, tragedies, religious rites, or sacred art to exorcise our demons. And so we think and so we dream of going back in human history, back to nature, back to any era that holds in our eyes the promise of a Golden Age.
If the Judeo-Christian (psychoanalytic) subject was born at a precise point in history, it can also evolve to the point of fading, becoming irrelevant, extinct. Several symptoms today in fact point to the exhaustion of Egophany, with individual subjects more and more dissatisfied, resentful, bitter in the powerless contemplation of their own pulverization and submission to all kinds of controls, invasion of privacy, etc.
The fading of the Judeo-Christian subject means that psychoanalysis (as a cure) itself would be facing its own extinction, because it is fundamentally grounded in this very subject. Applied psychoanalysis would face incurable sufferings because there would no ponger be a frame of reference for the talking cure. Lacan himself, as a matter of fact, envisions this possibility: “It is when psychoanalysis will have been vanquished by the impasses of our civilization (a discontent which Freud foresaw) that the indications of my Écrits will be taken up again. But by whom?” (Autres écrits, 348; transcript of a lecture given in Rome in December 1967). Note first the “our civilization” which assigns a precise historical framework to theoretical psychoanalysis, as if Lacan had anticipated my present musings. Second, observe the mitigation: the end of applied psychoanalysis does not mean an end to the reflection about its theoretical principles. And finally, observe the uncertainty about a future readership that would not be comprised of Lacanian subjects. As always, reading Lacan very closely pays off.
Assuming the subject’s extinction, let us now dabble with a bit of utopia or dystopia. Facing the discontents in Western cultures, we could advocate a regression to an earlier and “happier” state of things: we could for example jump back to a “primitive” (pre Judeo-Christian) social compact, where the social links are solidified by religious beliefs – at the expense of the egomaniacs. We could try to build social groups outside the frame of reference of modern, liberal democracy; in fact most people on earth live in such societies.
But regression is not the only way. What if we build a space both “primitive” and “modern”? Primitive in the sense that our drives would find collective representations, our spiritual thirsts would be satisfied; modern in the sense that rationality and science would have their space, but without their present all-encompassing domination. Such a space would make the division of the subject more tolerable. This move to a new culture would imply the overcoming of another legacy of Judeo-Christian culture, the linearity of time and history, with a Genesis and a Judgment day Linear time could coexist with a space and time where we would not be afraid to go back in history, to our religious, mythological roots.
As a matter of fact, Freud drew up this new cartography for the Judeo-Christian subject when he asserted: “Symptoms are like mythological figures, all powerful guests from an alien world, immortal beings intruding in the turmoil of mortal life.” (SE XVI, 278) In a letter to Einstein, he returns to the same theme: “The theory of drives are our mythology.” This means that despite his belief in modern science, Freud knew that we could not get rid of an irrational way of living, even if we were all psychoanalyzed; these great deities, Eros and Thanatos, and, in a less important way, the structure of the Oedipus complex (which is a descendant of Greek mythology) are still alive and more or less well, despite all the repression they have been subjected to by rational modernity.
This new space, primitive and modern at the same time, would mean a greater emphasis on the Imaginary and a restriction of the Symbolic order’s supremacy.