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  • Freud, Lacan, and Imaginary Secularity
  • Marcia Ian

It isn’t really a question of belief. . . ; it is on the other hand a question of desire, but of desire so confirmed, so thoroughly established and nourished, as to leave belief a comparatively irrelevant affair.

—Henry James, “Is There Life After Death?” (232)

I. How Two Negations (don’t) Make a Positivism

Although Jacques Lacan defines his work as a “return to Freud” in both theory and practice, it is far from clear exactly what it is to which Lacan “returns.” The Freud to which Lacan returns is not everybody’s Freud, and the Freud Lacan returns to us may not be the Freud we thought we knew or think we want. For example, many readers consider Freud as first and foremost a scientist and physician, believing him when he says that psychoanalysis is a “natural science” analogous to physics, and the unconscious a discovery analogous to that of electricity (1940a, 282). To such readers, Lacan’s caricature of Freud’s empiricism as a quaint 19th-century pipe-dream appears both condescending and short-sighted. To those who cherish Freud’s emphasis on subjectivity, interiority, affect, and libido, Lacan’s insistence that Freud saw the subject as an effect of language (or “the signifier”) rather than its source seems pointlessly arcane, if not just pointless.

This essay will consider Lacan’s return to Freud as a return of the repressed, or more precisely, as a return of the “negated.” What Lacan and Freud both negate is religious belief. The issue here, however, is not whether or how Freud’s Jewishness, or Lacan’s Catholicness, affects psychoanalysis, but rather how both are structurally intrinsic to Freudian and Lacanian discourses, but differently, and precisely as a consequence [End Page 123] of their respective negations. Negation does not erase that which is negated, or bury it out of sight, but rather hides it in the light of reason. Through negation, Freud writes, “the content of a repressed image or idea can make its way into consciousness” (1925, 235):

To negate something in a judgement is, at bottom, to say: ‘This is something which I should prefer to repress.’ A negative judgment is the intellectual substitute for repression; its ‘no’ is the hall-mark of repression, a certificate of origin—like, let us say, ‘Made in Germany’. With the help of the symbol of negation, thinking frees itself from the restrictions of repression and enriches itself with material that is indispensable. . .


Thanks to “the help of the symbol of negation,” for example the word “not” in such a sentence as “Psychoanalysis is not a Jewish science,” the mind can use “material that is indispensable” but which would have to be repressed, un-known, were it not negated because of some intolerable feeling(s) associated with it.

Negation separates feeling from thought, and permits thought to go about its business undisturbed by feeling. In Freud’s words, because “the intellectual function is separated [by negation] from the affective process,” we succeed “in bringing about a full intellectual acceptance of the repressed,” an acceptance which the intellect mis-recognizes as a rejection. Therefore, insofar as both Freud and Lacan offer psychoanalysis as the negation of religion, both instantiate at the most fundamental level of enunciation a permanent bond between the two, “a certificate of origin—like, let us say, ‘Made in Germany.’”

Philosophically the two psychoanalyses (the Freudian and the Lacanian) could be said to share a certificate of origin which, if it doesn’t say “Made in Germany,” might say “Guaranteed against German Idealism and Teleological Ontologies.” Both psychoanalyses view humans skeptically, as enmeshed in repetitious tragi-comic romances of their own making. Both stand opposed to melioristic views of human life as redeemed [End Page 124] by meanings or purposes derived from above, outside, or beyond, whether these are figured as divine dispensations, biological evolutions, or quasi-historical self-transcendences. But their anti-teleological de-ontologizing strategies differ, and the difference can be summed up thus: one is (not) East European Jewish and one is (not) French Catholic.

In the language of conventional critical theory, which prefers not to see—i.e. prefers to negate...

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pp. 123-147
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