Isabel Millar discuss the Instagram-friendly bible in a Lacanian reading of how science, religion and capitalism appear as allies today.
In The Triumph of Religion, Lacan succinctly lays out why he believes that contrary to Freud’s position on the forward march of enlightenment values, the progress of science would not diminish the power of religion but only strengthen it. In Lacan’s view religion will not only triumph over psychoanalysis, but over a lot of things. He says:
‘If science works at it, the real will expand and religion will thereby have still more reasons to sooth people’s hearts. Science is new and it will introduce all kinds of distressing things into each person’s life. Religion… is resourceful in ways we cannot even begin to suspect… [I]t took some time but they [Christians] suddenly realized the windfall science was bringing them. Somebody is going to have to bring meaning to all the distressing things science is going to introduce’ (Lacan, 1974, p. 64).
Lacan had already at this point articulated his 4 discourses (Masters, University, Hysterics and Analyst’s) in Seminar XVII, and expressed his trepidation at the ever- strengthening alliance between science and capitalism which was creating new objects of desire (lathouses) and new modes of communication for alienated subjects (alethospheres) at a dizzying rate. He subsequently adds to this his fifth discourse the discourse of Capitalism which short circuits the mathemes, putting subject directly in contact with its object.
Fast forward nearly 50 years later and science, capitalism and religion seem to be getting along like a house on fire. Perhaps a perfect example of how Lacan anticipated the way that religion would morph itself perfectly into the discourse of capitalism is Alabaster, the company who are producing high concept Instagram friendly bibles that, as they say combine “Creativity, Beauty and Faith” in a new incarnation of Millennial religiosity. Alabaster is the ultimate in neoliberal Christianity. Where traditional forms of religion may be on the decline, Alabaster have found an ingenious way to harness the endless and futile desire for “meaning” in the alienated global market of ideas.
What is so ironic about the gesture though is that it exposes precisely the “meaninglessness” even more. The messages of the bible are packaged as Instaready, aesthetically pleasing coffee table books offering, not just the promise of #Salvation, but more importantly some cultural capital that presumably a dog-eared copy of Watch Tower magazine would not muster. Alabaster, in effect have done a very savvy and logical thing, use visual culture (the only religion millennials follow) to market #Transcendence itself.
Alabaster is a perfect example of contemporary capitalism’s mobilization of what Michel Foucault would term pastoral power. This is the way in which structures of domination manipulate subject’s most intimate needs for familial care, belonging and repressed sexual desires and weaponize the guilt provoked by the inherent confusion involved with these impulses. In previous centuries this would have been through the church father directly but today, the church operates via more dispersed globalized and technological networks rather than necessarily through a monolithic or patriarchal presence in a community.
For millennials, religion has hitherto mostly been an outdated way of achieving a sense of self-worth and purpose or so it seems, when there are apparently so many other new, efficient and ‘fashionable’ ways of doing this (think of the thousands of health, diet and motivational Instagram accounts which combine pseudo Eastern philosophy with diet tips and interior design). What were previously religious sentiments are now translated into the Instagram-friendly language of ‘self-love’, ‘spirituality’ and (financial) ‘goals’.
But what is the place of the psychoanalytic clinic in this saturated market of #Self-love that all compete for the attention of today’s jouissance drunk consumer, demanding a solution?
At the start of the new millennium back in 2004 Jacques-Alain Miller in his lecture A Fantasy describes what he sees as the new discourse of civilization, where the objectais in the place of agent, or in other words the discourse of the Analyst has permanently replaced the discourse of the Master as the prevalent mode of enjoyment of society. ‘Well done Papa Freud!’ he says. The Fantasy that this text seems to refer to ultimately is the illusion that any form of psychoanalysis “works”. What Miller is promoting is an approach that that by necessity fails.
Miller makes reference to the despair of religion due to the fact that the sexual relation is no longer maintained as a truth suppressed by a master signifier. Except of course those religions that defend “with talent and vigour” the traditional forms of life which defend against the deleterious effect of the over-proximity of the a. That is to say more conservative or fundamentalist forms of religion that fervently maintain traditional gender roles and significantly codify women’s role within the social sphere.
In this context Miller outlines the emergence of the three current trends in the theory and practice of contemporary psychoanalysis which correspond to firstly; the position he calls reactionaryharking back to a mythical lost past, a type of Freudian fundamentalism akin to religious patriarchal dogma and a desire to reinsert the law of the father. The second position he calls nostalgic, an attempt to make the unconscious eternal and unchanging, a formalistic and logical god that admits no hermeneutic interference. The third he enumerates is the progressivistposition that wants to keep psychoanalysis in step with the sciences and indeed the false sciences of the day, in which a neuro-cognitive translation of metapsychology is underway. This, he says, is of course not without precedent as this what Lacan himself attempted with his logical-linguistic translation of Freud’s metapsychology in the middle of the last century.
Miller distributes these three approaches between the Symbolic, Imaginary and Real dimensions respectively. The Reactionary Freudian fundamentalism akin to a kind of Biblical exegesis, trying to “reconstitute daddy unconscious,” whist the Nostalgicposition is closer to an “imaginary refuge”, presumably within set theory and mathematics (perhaps what Miller would attribute to the Anti-philosophical adaptations of Lacanian theory, in the work of Badiou for example?). The third Progressivist position he aligns with the Realand the desire to find sense in it, in much the same way that Freud’s early project set out to do. This can be seen in the neuro-biological and genetic explanations used to account for all possible civilizational discontents (For example recent neurological explanations for religious extremism). What Miller says all these positions have in common is the “it works”. An attempt to put the S1 to work in the pursuit of S2 to produce knowledge. This however he contrasts to the 4th approach, which is the one that he is encouraging the assembled audience of psychoanalysts to get underway and which responds to the later part of Lacan’s work. The approach which knows nothing other than that “it fails”. This of course has its roots in the clinic of the sinthome.
What Miller is asking his audience to consider is a new way forward to deal clinically with the failure of the sexual relation. But nearly twenty years down the line, given that the clinic is no longer able to ignore the chaos that ensues all around, it has become apparent to Miller and his following that the clinical insights that have been gathered over the last decades aboutcivilization must now in fact themselves be put to work in“civilization”. But how? He argues the with the replacement of agricultural civilization with industrial civilization, the so-called “compass of nature” has been destroyed. Or as he puts it:
‘Agricultural civilization finds its bearings through nature, through the invariable cycle of seasons. Of course, there is a history of climate that some well-intentioned people are now reconstituting. But this history changes in no way the invariable cycle of seasons that gave its rhythm to agricultural civilization, so that, in fact, it was possible to find one’s bearings and one’s symbols in the seasons and the skies. The agricultural real is celestial; it is a friend of nature. With industry, with what has been called the industrial revolution, all that was washed away, little by little. The artifices were multiplied. And now we are forced to notice that the real is devouring nature, that it is being substituted for it and is proliferating. Here we have a second metaphor: the metaphor that substitutes the real for nature’ (Miller, 2004, p. 5).
From here Miller goes on to establish that the new compass of civilization since its unmooring from the celestial rhythms shown to us so gracefully by nature, the new compass must be the object a, which is reliable and dependable in that it always maintains its place as a lack or crack in reality.
We must point out though that the rise of the object as Miller says to “the zenith of civilization” was not a watershed moment, but more like a long historical genealogy that may be traced through humanity’s adventures long before Freud discovered the unconscious. Because if Miller is consistent, he will have to concede that in fact there has never been such a thing as nature as far as the unconscious in concerned. Humans never really trusted it anyway and would even doubt if the sun would rise in the morning; hence why they had to invent so many gods in order to account for the caprice that they experienced at the hands of so-called Mother nature. That the “real is lawless” is not a hypermodern invention, more like a re-discovery.
So, for Miller, this unmooring of nature from the real had resulted in an exposure of the impossibility of the sexual relation. This lost object that no longer can be a mystery of nature’s caprice is instead placed directly in the social field, as of course none other than the commodity. The object cause of desire is de-natured and fetishized and no longer operates according to the logic of sexuation. As Miller (2004) puts it:
‘surplus-jouissance is asexuated. It commands but what does it command? It does not command an “it works,” but an “it fails,” which we write, precisely, $. When we bar a letter, in general, it is because we made an error. Here, the surplus-jouissance commands an “it fails” and precisely an “it fails” in the sexual order. And I do not see what prevents our considering that this $ means: there is no sexual relation, and so much the more so as the initial letter, S, is the same as the initial of sex. This would lead us to say that the non-existence of the sexual relation has precisely, today, become obvious to the point that it can be specified, written, from the moment that the object small a rose to the sociel’ (p. 10).
Can psychoanalysis compete with the new ways in which religion is returning as a quick fix solution to this eternal impasse now that Instagram has been mobilized in the service of the almighty? What companies like Alabaster show us is, as Lacan predicted, the invincible nature of religion as the ultimate feel good response to the non-existence of the sexual relation. Even in the midst of Capitalism religion is still the drug of choice of the people, why be stone cold sober why you can be #DrunkinLove?
In the Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Lacan (2004) says:
‘[T]he true formula of atheism is not God is dead – even by basing the origin of the function of the father upon his murder, Freud protects the father – the true formula of atheism is God is unconscious’ (p. 59).
Perhaps in today’s digitally mediated social sphere, where the unconscious is everywhere and nowhere at the same time, it would be more accurate to say God is on Instagram. The question is, will he follow you back?
Isabel Millar is a PhD candidate at Kingston University, School of Art in Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Theory. Her research is on Jacques Lacan, Sex and Technology.
Alabaster: Available (8thof April 2019) at: https://www.alabasterco.com/
Alabaster on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/alabaster_co/
Freud, S (1927) The Future of an Illusion. In S. Freud (2001) The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud: Volume XXI. London: Vintage Books.
Lacan, J. (2004) The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. London: Karnac Books.
Lacan, J. (2013) The Triumph of Religion. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Miller, J. A (2004) A Fantasy. Available (8thof April 2019) at:http://londonsociety-nls.org.uk/The-Laboratory-for-Lacanian-Politics/Some-Research-Resources/Miller_A-Fantasy.pdf