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diacritics 33.2 (2005) 71-97

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The Subject of Religion

Lacan and the Ten Commandments

Despite Freud's Nietzschean unmasking of religion as ideology, psychoanalysis has frequently been attacked as itself a religion, a cabal of analyst-priests dedicated to the worship of a dead master. Such critics "do not believe in Freud" in much the same way as atheists "do not believe in God," and their rejections of psychoanalysis in the name of the secular partake in the very structure of religious thought they claim to repudiate. In Seminar XXI: Les non-dupes errent, Lacan comments on the blindness of the atheistic insight concerning religion: "I know that you're not believers, right? But that doesn't mean that you aren't all the more conned . . . because even if you are not believers, you still believe in that aspiration [for the love of God]. I won't say that you suppose it; rather, it supposes you" [Dec. 18, 1973; our trans.]. In Lacan's analysis, it is not that secular intellectuals suffer from unexamined religious "suppositions" or assumptions, to be swept away through a little ideology-critique or time on the couch. The case is rather, in Lacan's strong formulation, that religious discourse supposes us—supports and underwrites our very structures of being, subjectivity, and social interaction. That is, the secular subject is produced by the religious discourses that precede and continue to speak through it; the challenge for the contemporary critic is not to silence or debunk those discourses, but rather to bring the modern subject to assume responsibility for their enunciation.

Throughout the decades of his seminar, Lacan addressed the monotheistic foundations of Western subjectivity as a set of discursive ruptures or cuts which continue to scar and brand the modern subject beyond their secular abrogation. Distinguishing between Freud "the individual with his atheistic profession of faith" and "the Freud who was the first to acknowledge the value and relevance of [the] myth . . . we call the death of God" [S VII 192–93], Lacan insists that Freud regarded monotheism as an epochal divide that irrevocably altered all that came before and after it: "On the left of this [monotheistic] message, there are some things that are henceforth outdated, obsolete; they no longer hold beyond the manifestation of the message. On the right, things are quite different" [172]. What, in Lacan's analysis, is the difference that monotheism has made, both during its periods of dominance and after? The laws, narratives, and symbols of monotheism continue to undergird key fantasies of personhood, nationhood, and neighborhood in the modernity that purports to have supplanted them. In Lacan's formulation, monotheism "supposes" the subject of these fantasies, precipitating it from out of the expanse of signifiers and in relation to a sublime object of both unbearable enjoyment and social obligation. Moreover, it is the scandal and the gift of monotheism that it not only creates moments of traumatic singularity, but also thinks the singular as trauma, rending the fabric of an animistic nature which would unite every polarity of being in the fullness of a sexual relation. Unlike the gods of Greek philosophy, the monotheistic God is not part of the nature he creates. In its decisive thinking of singularity, monotheism elicits and eludes all rapprochement with philosophical conceptions of the One, whether in the guise of Hellenized Judaism, Pauline theology, or Arab Aristotelianism. Lacan extends the monotheistic project of thinking singularity [End Page 71] by insisting that "there is something of One" [il y a de l'Un]—not the self-identical One of Greek logic, mathematics, and cosmology, but the One of a violent rupture that creates subjects and their worlds around a void, an un that un-does the primacy it speaks.

If, from the Lacanian vantage, the singular invention of the God shared by the People of the Book forever separates religion from philosophy, we would also insist that religion is not simply a subset of "culture," understood as the symbolic practices that unify a people...