Is God Actually Dead?
by Marco Rossi
“L’enfer c’est les autres”. This is the revelation Joseph Garcin had in that room deep down in hell, while waiting, with two more women, the punishment for their sins. It took him rather long to understand how the actual punishment was merely sharing the room, having the entire eternity to talk about their lives, developing feelings of both attraction and hatred, flirting, insulting, and yelling at each other. “Hell is other people”. Or better, “hell” is the perception of the “other”, and of ourselves from other’s eyes.
Joseph’s conclusion, in Sartre’s Huis Clos, is thus addressed to other human beings. However, if we only capitalise the “a” in “autre”, the meaning changes completely. In this sense we would broaden the concept from “the hell is other people” to the idea that “hell is the Other”, and more precisely the Lacanian Big Other that overarches our existence. In brief, the Big Other is the symbolic order perceived by the human subjectivity, whence come norms, principles, prohibitions, wishes, and guaranties of meaning, theorised by the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Hook (2008) argues how the Big Other is always exterior, outside every conceivable inter-subjectivity. It provides the coordinates for inter-relations, being the place whence the subject absorbs the guides for his life and lives according to what he or she perceives as his or her duty. Thus, “[t]he Other here is an alienating system, an always already existing totality to which the subject needs accommodate themselves” (Hook, 2008). But how does this Other relate to the nihilist, modern Death of God? And is God actually dead, or is he still alive? I argue that God, as the ideological compendium of values and norms never ceased to exist. He has been replaced with Society.
In an article by Slavoj Zizek (2009) there is a joke that was used to explain an important concept among Lacanian scholars. The joke goes:
A man who believes himself to be a grain of seed is taken to the mental institution where the doctors do their best to finally convince him that he is not a grain but a man. When he is cured (convinced that he is not a grain of seed but a man) and allowed to leave the hospital, he immediately comes back trembling. There is a chicken outside the door and he is afraid that it will eat him. “Dear fellow,” says his doctor, “you know very well that you are not a grain of seed but a man”. “Of course I know that,” replies the patient, “but does the chicken know it?”
Why was it really that important for the patient that the chicken had to know his rediscovered identity of human? This is because the patient was not satisfied enough by the mere knowledge of his symptoms. This is the fetishisation of the exterior, the alien Other that must be “informed” of our condition, “it” must know and register, in order for our condition to be fully legitimised (Zizek 1997). In this case, the Other comes to be enabled as the mediator between societal and subjective, coordinating our communicative aspects. Indeed, Hook stresses the importance of this role of coordinator of a supra-game entity, the “accumulated mass of the social” (Hook, 2008), which regulate the subjects’ actions. In simpler terms, if we all had an innate shared knowledge we would not need something bigger to believe in.
When having a symbolic or social system, we will also need some anchoring points of prioritised norms and values, where one attaches himself to. But all the compound of signifiers need a Master Signifier, as Hook calls it, which functions as centring point, as the coordinates for all the other surrounding signifiers. To him, though, this Master Signifier cannot be determined, it is usually a hollow, empty concept with no actual meaning, the “positivisation of a void” (Dolar, 1999). Here we enter the kingdom of the Zizek’s notion of ideology, where the use of pivotal, hollow words as “Democracy”, “Socialism”, and “Nation” and so on, stand for something that are never quite understood, but accepted as such. We ideologically bow our head in the name of these concepts, accepting them as granted, since we live in the acceptance of “what other accept”. The relation with an inconclusive signifier, is a means of avoiding the uncertainty of our social being (Hook, 2008).
In the brilliant documentary The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, Zizek stresses this as the “tragedy of our predicament”, that is the necessity of a fiction of a Big Other. We need an agency where the truth of ourselves can be inscribed and accepted, where to confess. But, as an example used by the same author, this is the tragedy of many women during the Bosnian war, who strived to survive to tell the truth of what happened. When compared with the reality of not being heard, sometimes with even obscene insinuations on what they passed during the wartime, they discovered the truth of the last claim of Lacan: There is no Big Other. The existence of such an agency is not material nor tangible, it is not “there” for us to use it. It is rather the creation of our unconscious need to blame, complain and attach ourselves to something bigger than us. This recalls what said before of our addiction to a Master Signifier to coordinate all our actions and values, and if a God, or a Other, or whatever is not believed to be there, the “subjective destitution”, the abrupt awareness of the utter meaningless of our social links, the dissolution of our attachment to reality itself, can be too harsh to bear. The advent of modernity might have killed God in its religious term, but the set of signifiers we live off are still there, they have just been replaced with another Master Signifier: our toxic addiction to Society.
The addiction to a greater ensemble, the rejection of a monadic existence, is triumphing in the cyberspace societal sphere. The virtual community has the ability of merging global harmony and solipsism in a strange coexistence (Zizek, 2009). Where the narcissistic creation of the imaginary ego, alienating and liberating from one’s natural body, by turning oneself into another contingent embodiment, marketing one’s figure, selling the concept of one’s brilliant life, or even one’s own loneliness and doomed existence. During a conversation with Professor Stephan Feuchtwang on the consumer compulsion of improving one’s own image, this obsession of identifying oneself through the internalisation of an ideal other, is the internal negation of one’s being. That is to say the internal abyss, the lack, how we are not them, but actually are only because of being seen by “them” as in a mirror. In simpler terms, the alienation of one’s unconscious, putting it in an exterior position, the process of self-othering, is what “materialises” the virtual Other.
The gnostic dream to get rid of one’s material rottenness, to ascend to an ideal rank were to be appreciated and accepted, where to confess and let its own steam off, where monads interact via the PC screen with virtual simulacra, and yet synchronising with the entire network: an exact ideological Other, to attach its own existence to, virtual in every meaning. This is the dreadful predicament of our modern society. The individuality of each subject, being in the embarrassing position of feeling unique, rare, far from the same absolute societal context, while actually unconsciously being embedded in it, ideologically attached to it, and with no possibility of exiting without an abrupt realisation of one’s own real loneliness and meaningless existence.
Dolar, M. (1999). Where does power come from? New Formations, 35, 79–92. In Hook, ibid.
Hook, Derek (2008). "Absolute Other: Lacan's ‘Big Other’ as Adjunct to Critical Social Psychological Analysis?" Social and Personality Psychology Compass 2, 1, 51-73.
Zizek, Slavoj (1997). “The Big Other Doesn’t Exist”. Journal of European Psychoanalysis [online]. URL: http://www.lacan.com/zizekother.htm (07/03/2018).
Zizek, Slavoj (2009). “How to read Lacan – “God is dead, but he doesn’t know it”: Lacan plays with Bobok” [online]. URL: http://zizek.uk/how-to-read-lacan-god-is-dead-but-he-doesnt-know-it-lacan-plays-with-bobok/ (07/03/2018).