21 May 2006

Nietzsche, Descartes, Lacan and the Death of God

Philosophically it is difficult to know how to situate Nietzsche's proclamation that God is dead. It would be a mistake to suggest that this is an ontological thesis or a philosophical argument, for Nietzsche does not demonstrate to us, as an atheist might, that there is no God. Rather, Nietzsche claims that a fundamental mutation or shift has occured in how we understand the world, the nature of being. In The Gay Science Nietzsche writes,

"The Madman. Have you ever heard of the madman who on a bright morning lighted a lantern and ran to the market-place calling out unceasingly: "I seek God! I seek God!" As there were many people standing about who did not believe in God, he caused a great deal of amusement. Why? is he lost? said one. Has he strayed away like a child? said another. Or does he keep himself hidden? Is he afraid of us? Has he taken a sea voyage? Has he emigrated? - the people cried out laughingly, all in a hubbub. The insane man jumped into their midst and transfixed them with his glances. "Where is God gone?" he called out. "I mean to tell you! We have killed him, you and I! We are all his murderers! But how have we done it? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the whole horizon? What did we do when we loosened this earth from its sun? Whither does it now move? Whither do we move? Away from all suns? Do we not dash on unceasingly? Backwards, sideways, forwards, in all directions? Is there still an above and below? Do we not stray, as through infinite nothingness? Does not empty space breathe upon us? Has it not become colder? Does not night come on continually, darker and darker? Shall we not have to light lanterns in the morning? Do we not hear the noise of the grave-diggers who are burying God? Do we not smell the divine putrefaction? - for even Gods putrefy! God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him! How shall we console ourselves, the most murderous of all murderers? The holiest and the mightiest that the world has hitherto possessed, has bled to death under our knife - who will wipe the blood from us? With what water could we cleanse ourselves? What lustrums, what sacred games shall we have to devise? Is not the magnitude of this deed too great for us? Shall we not ourselves have to become Gods, merely to seem worthy of it? There never was a greater event - and on account of it, all who are born after us belong to a higher history than any history hitherto!" Here the madman was silent and looked again at his hearers; they also were silent and looked at him in surprise. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, so that it broke in pieces and was extinguished. "I come too early," e then said. "I am not yet at the right time. This prodigious event is still on its way, and is traveling - it has not yet reached men's ears. Lightning and thunder need time, the light of the stars needs time, deeds need time, even after they are done, to be seen and heard. This deed is as yet further from them than the furthest star - and yet they have done it themselves!" It is further stated that the madman made his way into different churches on the same day, and there intoned his Requiem aeternam deo. When led out and called to account, he always gave the reply: 'What are these churches now, if they are not the tombs and monuments of God?'" (paragraph 125).

I will not here enter into a long discussion of Nietzsche's narrative as to how we came to kill God. This is not a joyous proclamation-- though it may have joyous consequences --but a lament. As Lacan argues, traversing the phantasy lies not so much in coming to see how we are castrated, fissured, or non-identical, but rather coming to see how the big Other through which we organized our desire does not itself exist. That is, the very co-ordinates of our world, desire, and identity collapse when we come to discern the non-existence of the big Other. This comes out most clearly in Descartes' third meditation, where we are shown how God is not simply the guarantor of the truth of clear and distinct ideas, but of our very being or existence. In this precise Lacanian sense, then, both atheist and theist can still think prior to the death of God.

What strikes me as crucial in this passage is Nietzsche's remark that we have wiped away the horizon, that we now move without direction, that we are suspended in an infinite void and cold, empty space. The death of God therefore seems to signify a world that has lost its coordinates (what else is a horizon if not a way of co-ordinating our movement?) and where the ground has disappeared beneath us. I take it that the term "God" is a generic term for any sort of transcendental term that would fix meaning and identity. It would be a mistake to assume that "God" simply refers to the God of organized religion. Rather God is a generic term referring to anything on the order of a form, essence, transcendence, identity, substance, permanence, ideal, wholeness, totality and so on.

While the death of God is not an ontological claim, it does present an ontological opening or challenge. In De Ordine Augustine writes that, "The soul therefore, holding fast to this order, and now devoted to philosophy, at first introspects itself; and-- as soon as that mode of learning has persuaded it that reason either is the soul itself or belong to it, and that there is in reason nothing more excellent or dominant than numbers, or that reason is nothing else than number-- soliloquizes thus: 'By some kind of inner and hidden activity of mine, I am able to analyze and synthesize the things that ought to be learned; and this faculty of mine is called reason.'... Therefore, both in analzying and in synthesizing, it is oneness that I see, it is oneness that I love. But when I analyze, I seek a homogenous unit; and when I synthesize, I look for an integral unit. In the former case, foreign elements are avoided; in the latter, proper elements are conjoined to form something united and perfect. In order that a stone be a stone, all its parts and its entire nature have been consolidated into one. What about a tree? Is it not true that it would not be a tree if it were not one? What about the members and entrails of any animate being, or any of its component parts? Of a certainty, if they undergo a severance of unity, it will no longer be an animal. And what else do friends strive for, but to be one? And the more they are one, so much the more they are friends. A population forms a city, and dissension is full of danger for it: to dissent-- what is that, but to think diversely? An army is made up of many soldiers. And is not any multitude so much the less easily defeated in proportion as it is the more closely united? In fact, the joining is itself called a coin, a co-union, as it were. What about every kind of love? Does it not wish to become one with what it is loving? And if it reaches its object, does it not become one with it? Carnal pleasure affords such ardent delight for no other reason than because the bodies of lovers are brought into union. Why is sorrow distressful? Because it tries to rend what used to be one" (chapter 18, paragraph 48).

The central "onto-theological" assumption is not so much that of God-- God, as Descartes argues, is only a guarantor of that which cannot be guaranteed by our senses or appearances --but rather the assumption of the One. Whether the One be substance remaining identical throughout change such as Descartes' wax, or the one of a transcendent form immune to the distortions of images, appearances, and sophists, or whether it be the one of personal identity or a subject that is the same despite all its ever changing thoughts, or the one of a holistic universe where everything is interconnected and harmonious, or the one of a state, the one is always the avatar of theological thought. As such, the death of God signifies first and most fundamentally the end of the primacy of the One in whatever form it might take. To announce the death of God is, as both Deleuze and Badiou have declared, to simultaneously declare that the One, the identical, the same, is only a product, a result, a term-become rather than a foundation or first. As such, metaphysics in the wake of God is a metaphysics that seeks to think difference first and to see identity as a result or product. That is, we must be vigilant in tracking down and eradicating all remainders of theology within such a thought.

Philosophically those ontologies premised on identity or the One as their first principle issue in irresolvable problems. Ethically and politically such philosophies are premised on the predominance of the Imaginary, the yearning for totality, completeness, and wholeness, as can be seen in Augustine's example of the army and the city. The problem is that such organizations are inherently conflictual. As Plotinus, another thinker of the One will write when describing beauty and purity, "If a man has been immersed in filth or daubed with mud, his native comeliness disappears and all that is seen is the foul stuff besmearing him: his ugly condition is due to the alien matter that has encrusted him, and if he is to win back his grace it must be his business to scour and purify himself and make himself what he was" (Ennead I, sixth tractate, paragraph 5). This little parable ought to serve as the skeleton key for all philosophies of the One. Every desire for the One-- whether in the form of identity, collective unity, the holism of the universe, etc. --is always accompanied by this "foul stuff that besmearches" it or the alien matter that must be eradicated. As such, we must ask whether it's possible to formulate a politics beyond the One, beyond identification, beyond identity, and an ethics beyond the same. Lacan expresses this entire dialectic well in his discourse of the master.

In Lacanian terms this amounts to formulating a metaphysics, ontology, or philosophy that would no longer be premised on the discourse of the master. As Lacan writes it, the discourse of the master is configured as follows:

S1 ---> S2
-- --
$ // a

Here we have the self-identical subject addressing the world as its other, producing objet a as a remainder or scrap that escapes theorization (Descartes' pineal gland?), which the barred subject in the position of truth or the unconscious as that which is excluded from the discourse. Here objet a is the scrap of alien matter of which Plotinus speaks-- a harbinger of purges, oppositional social relations (us versus them), and that bit of filth to be mastered. The paradox, of course, is that objet a is not an alien matter that comes from without as Plotinus or Augustine would contend, but rather is a result of the repressed truth of the master's self-identity itself: namely that he is split, fissured, different from himself. Thus another way of formulating the question of the death of God is to ask what a philosophy that was not premised on the discourse of the master would look like.


Anonymous Yusef said...

The quotation from Plotinus really works as a striking example of the point you are making...

Placing it in the context you do is remarkable.

I think that the most common reaction to the "Death of God" has been to fear that in that death the possibility of ethics has been permanently erased, but if what "the one" secures is this activity of "cleansing" of contaminants, of the "alien" or the "other", then maybe we can all be happy to see it blasted to hell.

Your " I am legion" post - it is a terrifying demon in the Bible which says, " I am legion."

The one and the unity are affiliated with the good, and these other ways of thinking and seeing things have been affiliated with evil... the culture has mustered everything in its powers to protect this from questioning. It is amazing.

September 21, 2006 10:51 AM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

Thanks Yusef, It appears to me that you're exploring a good deal of this dissemination in your own writing these days. Not only have you created a plurality of voices in your dialogues (in marked distinction from Plato's dialogues where only one voice speaks), but the names of your characters are themselves homonyms, producing a sort of dissemination of identity.

September 21, 2006 2:45 PM  
Blogger Peter Fletcher said...

Thankyou for a clear, concise overview of the idea of the death of god. I'm in the process of writing my honours thesis and am developing a feminist critique of workplace power. Your post has helped further shape my thinking about Foucault's theories of the relationship between sex(uality) and power.

August 27, 2008 8:54 PM  
Blogger sexy said...








December 30, 2008 12:18 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home