‘God is Unconscious,’ or Reality of the Signifier

This nightmarish universe – the Lacanian Real – is not ‘pure fantasy’ but, on the contrary, that which remains of reality after reality is deprived of its support of fantasy.

Slavoj Žižek. Disparities (2016).

“Laying the groundwork” is a common phrase one uses to introduce the ideas that make up the foundation of their thinking. Well, here’s some of my groundwork.

What is this highly individual but socially dictated experience that humans collectively call “reality?” Žižek’s notion of the concept in the quote above gets at an important point regarding our subjective relation to external matter and phenomena: at one end of what we term reality is the Lacanian Real – the raw, unfiltered and nonsensical data of pre-subjective externality. It is like encountering an advanced mathematical formula you have no context for (and there is a reason Lacan equates mathematics with the closest idea of the Real we can get at). The formula out of context is nonsensical, it holds absolutely no meaning for you until you begin to filter each piece through a framework of pre-established meaning. This letter stands in for a constant, this one for a force, this one a variable, etc. The key here is that the Real is not precursory, but, like a mathematical formula in relation to scientific phenomena, arises simultaneously with reality or the realm of symbolic interpretation as a means of explaining and distinguishing the very subjective act we perform in filtering this data. As Žižek points out, humans have a tendency to acknowledge the ‘known unknowns’ of reality – what we know we don’t yet know – but not the ‘unknown unknowns’ – what we don’t know and can’t possibly know that we don’t know it – that the Real stands in for. As soon as something does occur that is truly outside of our experience of reality (the common example for Žižek is a traumatic event such as being caught in a natural disaster), its incompatibility with our system of interpretation is just as quickly subsumed by this same system, broken up, and registered in language. The cliché ‘there are no words to describe it’ is in fact the very linguistic affirmation necessary that acknowledges the inclusion of the event in the symbolic register.

This is why Lacan states in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis that “the true formula of atheism is God is unconscious” (59). In order to draw attention to the nonexistence of an ordering being that structures human existence and meaning, one must paradoxically acknowledge the pervasiveness of this withdrawn or absent structure in every aspect of reality as we perceive it. What Lacan will later deem the “master-signifier” (XX, 21) is the support given to reality via the unwitting human belief in an ordering structure, regardless of what form this structure takes. ‘God is unconscious’ points towards the idea that every experience a subject has, whether this is an act of purchasing, an interaction on the street, or the traumatic encounter with the Real, is mediated by or held up to a signifying principle that relates our actions and the meanings they produce to an over-arching ideological frame, or ‘support of fantasy,’ as Žižek describes it. Ideology and fantasy are in this way two sides of the same coin: purely virtual, idealized, and closely related to the Other (in the sense that our actions or desires are often held up to some imaginary standard or point of comparison, even if we become our own imaginary Other in that moment). The difference in terminology here is that ideology acts as fantasy externalized in the social sphere. Its function as a support of reality provides individuals with familiar social or ‘superego’ injunctions to act a certain way to others, or maintain a certain lifestyle and buying habits, and it is this “support” that, while often detrimental, nevertheless provides structure to our interpretation of external space as reality. The master-signifier of reality today is often heralded by Žižek to be capital or capitalism itself, and I find this hard to argue with when more often than not we find ourselves basing not only financial, but emotional, social, and familial decisions on the role of capital in one’s life.

What I am trying to explore here is how this ‘nightmarish universe’ of the Real, the ‘beyond’ of human comprehension and sensory interpretation, relates closely to the structure of fantasy while, as Žižek claims, not being ‘pure fantasy,’ and what this can mean for our precarious position in the Anthropocene. A good example for this is found in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826), an early post-apocalyptic novel in which humanity is almost entirely wiped out by an aggressive epidemic. Near the end of the text, one of the few survivors left states that “we are left to mourn, and pine, and die. Yet even now we have our duties, which we must string ourselves to fulfill: the duty of bestowing pleasure where we can, and by force of love, irradiating with rainbow hues the tempest of grief” (333). Here an acknowledgement is made of the very real circumstances of one’s reality: disasters are occurring, yes, and the possibility of death may also appear imminent. But another acknowledgement is made of the fact that one limits their potential to respond when this reality becomes a static interpretative frame unable to filter in radically unknown unknowns. ‘We have our duties’ becomes an affirmation of how subjects are capable of re-envisioning the support of fantasy we place reality up against, of extending or twisting the limits of the symbolic register ‘by force of love’ or the very generation of meaning we become capable of when we are thrust into language. Love in its most basic sense is providing meaning above the reality of a loved object, or providing the support of fantasy to reality. In Shelley’s world (as in ours) the Real is never encountered first-hand, but is experienced in different ways based on what symbolism a subject possesses as a means of interpreting it as their own reality. A shift occurs when this constellation of signifiers becomes one of ‘bestowing pleasures,’ that, despite the harrowing circumstances, provides the characters with a means of persevering and creating the potential for a new mode of existence on an altered Earth.

In this way, the duty of every subject in the Anthropocene must be to seek out this new set of signifying constellations in which to frame the current state of one’s reality, and in turn uncover new possibilities of action and reaction to the catastrophic events that we all face. There is no escaping the Real, but perhaps a new fantasy can make its appearance a bit easier, especially when the state of our future is itself becoming an increasingly unknown unknown.

Lacan, Jacques. Seminar XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. Translated by Alan Sheridan, edited by Jacques Alain-Miller, Norton, 1998.

—. Seminar XX: On Feminine Sexuality, the Limits of Love and Knowledge: Encore. Translated by Bruce Fink, edited by Jacques Alain-Miller. Norton, 1999.

Shelley, Mary. The Last Man. 1826. Edited by Anne McWhir, Broadview, 1996.

Zizek, Slavoj. Disparities. Bloomsbury, 2016.

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