“God Is Dead.” Long Live God? The “Future of an Illusion” Foretold

The Lecture Venue
The Lecture Venue

On good authority, I know that many of the people who came to attend Julia Kristeva’s lecture (“The forces of monotheism confronting the need to believe”) at Haus der Kulturen der Welt on March 8th, did so me more for the speaker than for the subject as such. And how could you not get excited?   As “Mrs. Structuralism” came onto the stage, I myself thought there comes a time when the idols from the textbooks descend into the real world.

But this is not to say that the lecture itself didn’t promise to be at least intriguing, if not controversial. Let’s take a look at the title, for to me it sounded like a bundle of contradictions. On the one hand, of course, you wouldn’t expect an expert in psychoanalysis to preach, but why then the title, “the need to believe”? And how do the “forces of monotheism” (anticipating, in a way, broad references to “the genius” from Freud’s Moses and Monotheism essay) “confront” it? So, the very forces of monotheism oppose the belief?

Not to take the speculation too far, I’ll mention that right from the beginning of the lecture Kristeva struck a somewhat balanced position between all of these possible contradictions. It’s a “new approach” that Freud constructs. Psychoanalysis just sets “question marks,” not “truths” (Kristeva takes a prudent step here, were it not undermined by extensive and confident references to the “genius”!).

What post-Freudian figures such as Lacan and Lévi-Strauss, along with proponents of feminist-inspired movements, do is to simply add new meanings to the “question marks.”  For instance, Lacan’s definition of the “symbolic” is derived from the incest taboo whereas the feminists’ attempt to “deconstruct” the monotheistic through meditating and researching such areas as motherhood.

Ultimately, in Kristeva’s view, the major discovery that psychoanalysis made was “the Other[ness],” or the idea that “belief” is first and foremost that which enables human connection, communication as such.

So the six themes which were developed in the talk (alas, Kristeva never got to the last theme due to lack of time) departed from the idea of “believing and knowing” as seen by psychoanalysis and continued with the hermeneutics of religious texts (focusing on how “the subject in man” is born from “taboo and sacrifice” in the Bible), just to get to the idea of the father-son in Christianity (which seemed to be the backbone of the lecture).

Skipping references to Islam (namely, a discussion on “Islam and the problem of murder”), the lecture ended in a dilemma, broadening into issues of “secularization and cultural diversity.” The last part made not only an enquiry into the possibilities of psychoanalysis to shape our future within the monotheistic foundation, but also a whipping summary of intellectual history.

Perhaps one of the most interesting shifts that Kristeva mades with respect to the paternal figure within the psychoanalytic view of human development was in seeing it initially not as an authority figure (with which one identifies, through what Freud called “primary identification”), but on the contrary, as a source of the “confident recognition offered by the father-who-loves-the-mother and is loved by her.”  This kind of identification with the father triggers utterance.

“I believed and therefore I have spoken” (Corinthians II, 4:13) – this seems to be, in Kristeva’s view, the parallel between the one who has faith and the child making his first “steps” in his linguistic development. This moment of identification not only teaches the child the lesson of otherness (i.e. that the child is “other” than the mother), but also marks the beginning of a long, we may say endless, struggle: knowing.

To what Lacan considered the motto of psychoanalysis “you can know,” Kristeva confidently adds, “if you believe.” Psychoanalysis, in its practical, curative form, should also function according to this principle. Could, then, this mode of experience within psychoanalysis “save” us from the “death drive,” as Kristeva affirms?

But how far can the omni-efficiency of “Other[ing]” be taken? I ask myself. In our speaker’s view, the Bible reconfirms and extends this phenomenon: through its dichotomies (pure/impure is one of the most important) and through the privilege of taboo over sacrifice, the Bible sets up the necessary “gap” between the Other (the Creator) and the human being. What Judaism obtains through its emphasis on taboo is more than fear of God’s abomination; it is “the emergence of the subject in man.” Seen from this perspective, the existence of the state of Israel is neither more nor less than an “anthropological necessity.”

It’s because of the persistence of taboo that we leave behind this loving paternal figure and the “path is thus paved in the unconscious for the Oedipal father.” What about the relation between Jesus and the Father? Kristeva asks us to observe in the figure of the former not only the “beaten Son,” but also the “beaten Father.” This enables “virile identification” with this figure, which becomes an “ego-ideal.” Briefly, the incest taboo is symbolically suspended with this “association” through suffering — suffering which is necessarily experienced as “marriage.”

The sublimation of the prohibited desires thus can only happen by acknowledging them. The way to a new kind of suffering (“divine,” “Christic”) is paved: it is not pure Law and guilt that composes the substance of the religious feeling now, but “jouissance in idealized suffering.” This ultimately only encourages “symbolic activity” (since sublimation of these sadomasochistic tendencies triggers aesthetic representation).

What, then, does secularization change? In Kristeva’s opinion, it is not only the universal phenomena observed by psychoanalysis that still function within the subject (Note that the emphasis is on the subject formed within the Greek-Jewish-Christian tradition.); similar to the redefinition of the Oedipus complex within this tradition, “modern secularization” treats the transgression of Law as “invitations” to create “new legalities.” Surprisingly, Kristeva extends the influence of psychoanalysis to the subjects developed within different religious traditions. Globalization itself imposes psychoanalysis.

What assertion of the universality of psychoanalysis could be stronger than the confidence that it is “beyond the clash of religions,” that, in a secular “context,” it can “reflect on all traditions.” This is justified simply because the “need to believe” is “a pre-religious and pre-political anthropological necessity” (that is also to support for instance, Hanna Arendt’s view, namely that “turning back to religion” for political reasons is not an option). The result could be, we intuit, a middle path between religion and “extravagant freedoms,” between the “course” and the “broken course.” Turning again and again to the Jewish tradition, Kristeva stresses the “dignity in difference” which the meaning of Akeda/the sacrifice (see Genesis 22) conceals.

  To the “normative” and “critical” forms of “Jewish modernity” (the latter seen through the figures of Kafka, Walter Benjamin, and Hannah Arendt), our lecturer adds the psychoanalytic perspective (with respect to religion, it can mean a serious “re-foundation” which modernity definitely encourages). Kristeva identifies the rupture with the “mythic past” at two crucial moments: the birth of Christianity and the Enlightenment (with “seeds” in Baroque); but it’s not only “cutting off” tradition that is here at work, Kristeva claims, but a deep need to “recreate,” reshape the foundations.

As Freud himself seemed to imply in  Civilization and its Discontents, the discovery of the unconscious by psychoanalysis is another such leap into a new kind of modernity. Facing “today’s conservatisms and fundamentalisms,” only this “analytical” modernity could help us in re-linking “normative” modernity and “critical” modernity. This is the path to “refoundation” and it could be applied, the speaker is confident, not only to the Judeo-Christian situation (observing the model as such means understanding how “mutations” within modern religions happen).

I ask myself, together with Julia Kristeva who asks herself, whether she is not “too optimistic” about this possibility “to reinvent/recreate a refoundation?”… But I can’t help being sympathetic towards the idea that monotheism is ultimately capable of reinventing itself and that the religious phenomenon can be more than a story about obeying (i.e. the need to believe and punkt) but also a story about “knowing.”

by Aurelia Cojocaru (1st year BA, Moldova)

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