Moralization interrupted On Lacan’s thesis of ‘the supreme good as radical evil’

Chapter 12
Moralization interrupted On Lacan’s thesis of ‘the supreme good as radical evil’

Marc de Kesel

At least we can learn from them that absolute goodness is hardly any less dangerous than absolute evil …

Hannah Arendt1

The signifier … is what represents … the subject for another signifier.

Jacques Lacan2

The Good in the extreme twentieth century

‘Actualizing the supreme good in a supreme way.’ Is this not an adequate title for the general socio-ethical programme of the twentieth century? Were the numerous revolutions of that time not all inspired by the highest ethical values – at least by what each revolutionary programme considered as such? And, once in power, were these programmes not able to remove all the obstacles barring the implementation of their social and ethical ideas? At times, however, it did not hold off the most disastrous results. The more such programmes were in the optimal condition of getting actualized, the more they were fated to turn into straight oppression and terror. The ideals of the communist project, for instance, were highly noble and social, but the regimes of that name ended up being responsible for a totalitarian violence that ruined millions of human lives. Today, in a similar way, America’s intention to bring democracy all over the world rather seems to turn into the opposite. The question of whether the so-called ‘war on terror’ is itself not responsible (or at least co-responsible) for raising the quantum of terror in our global village is unfortunately all too legitimate.3

Though, of course, each one of these examples requires a detailed analysis, in a general perspective one can say they all illustrate, in the domain of the political, the experience of radical finitude which is so typical for modernity and its technical condition. Modernity supposes to have limitless capability of solving all problems faced, till all at once, it is forced to face the limits of this very limitlessness. Then, in some symptomatic events, it unexpectedly faces the inherent boundaries of its technical all-powerfulness. It more precisely faces the limits being the very effect of its limitless omnipotence. Able to dominate whatever it met, at times, modernity’s technical power realizes how unable it is to dominate precisely its limitless capacity to dominate. Here, the clearest example to be put forward is the twentieth-century experience of the nuclear threat: as if, creating nuclear weapons, we had remained blind to their capability to destroy the entire world, including ourselves.

This kind of omnipotence’s impotence which is characteristic of late modernity’s technical condition can be observed in the field of the political as well. Capable of creating a totally new society, modern man forgot to notice himself in this very creation and ran the risk of ending up with a totalitarian political order in which none of its citizens was able to have a properly free and creative life.

And why not apply this condition of ‘finite infinity’ to our modern ethical capacities, to our moral and social intention to make this world a better place to live? We are technically able to actualize the global good, but we are capable as well of using the same ability as a weapon of terror and destruction. How often did the twentieth-century programmes of reorganizing society in a more just and ethically better world not turn into oppression and other kinds of social disaster?

Modernity’s technical, ethical and socio-political experiences force us to question the most basic suppositions underlying our relation to the world (including to ourselves). The question we face is: given the fact that we are technically able to manipulate or even create whatever we want, what, then, does it mean that we do not see we are at the same time enabling the destruction of all there is, including ourselves?

In that sense, it is far from being senseless to ask what the ‘we’ underlying the omnipotent self-destructive capacity exactly means. Or, to put it in a more formal way: from which point do we, moderns, relate to reality, including ourselves? What makes this point to be the point from where we, at the same time, could make and destroy ourselves? In other words, what is the subject of that finite/infinite power of ours? What is the subject of that capacity to blindly destroy itself, i.e. the subject it is? Or, which amounts to the same thing, what is the subject/bearer of that power that meets its finitude in its very infinite?

A forgotten question

Nowadays the question of the subject, if mentioned at all, is perceived as outdated or even senseless. This was not the case along the twentieth century. Although, then, the notion of ‘subject’ was severely criticized, the question of the subject was at the top of the agenda, if only because the paradigms of our relation to reality (including to ourselves) were profoundly questioned. Phenomenology, existential philosophy, anthropology, psychoanalysis and many of the other social sciences: each of them, in their own way, tried to reconsider and to reformulate the basic assumptions of our relation to reality. And the most basic question was the one of the ‘support’, the ‘ground’ or ‘subject’ of that relation. Is there a grounding subjectum to it, and what is its precise status?

It is an abysmal question, for it questions at the same time the very condition of questioning. Does the question of the subject proceed from a ‘point’ which is itself unquestionable? Can it suppose itself being based in an unquestionable ground, or is this question’s own subject to be put endlessly into question? In other words: is, at the end, the subject of that question more than a mere supposition? And what if the subject of science and of modern consciousness in general is, in the last resort, a mere supposition as well? What if the supposedly unshakable ‘ground’ of modernity’s relation to the world is indeed a mere assumption, a fiction, an imagination?

That question cannot be treated by scientific methods. Although modern science cannot but assume itself to be based in a solid point of departure, in a point of scientific ‘certainty’ (as already Descartes put it), this very point cannot be scientifically proved. Defining itself to be an ‘objective’ knowledge, it cannot make its own starting point – the point hiding its ‘subject’ – the ‘object’ of its scientific research, not to mention scientific certainty. And yet this is nonetheless the way we commonly deal with the question of the subject nowadays. Since the last decade of the twentieth century, we are driven back on science in our discussions on that issue. We again believe we can find a scientifically sustained answer to the question of the subject of science or, more generally, the subject of our consciousness.4

Since Descartes, the subject of modern science is the supposed ‘point’ outside its object. It is from that very point we organize our ‘objective’ inquiries and experiments. Yet, unlike Descartes, we no longer consider this ‘point’ to be a substantial ‘soul’. Eighteenth-century materialism taught us to give up any belief in the existence of such independent ‘cogito’ or ‘subject’. As a merely abstract point, however, it remained indispensable for modern science. Without a point ‘outside’ the object, an ‘objective’ observation – and, thus, knowledge – of this object is simply impossible. Though since La Mettrie5 the Cartesian dualism has been declared invalid, yet the split between the ‘subject’ and the object of science remained a condition sine qua non for this very science.

Nonetheless, it has always been – and is still – modernity’s dream that, one day, science will succeed in doing the impossible, i.e. in having scientific knowledge of the very ‘outside point’ from where it operates; to have objective knowledge of the point that by definition cannot be objective at all. To explain the subject of science scientifically, i.e. to give a fully scientific explanation of the ground science rests upon and of the ‘point’ it operates from: this is what science is not able to do precisely because of its modernity. It is modernity’s most basic experience that our knowledge lacks such a ground. It is no longer based in being as such, in das Ding an sich, as Kant puts it. Then, we are ourselves the ‘ground’ of our knowledge, as Descartes had already put forward. But not as a substantial ground but as a mere supposition, as eighteenth-century materialism correctly had replied. And this is how things still are now: the ground upon which our relation to reality is based, the ‘point’ from where we relate to that reality – is an imaginary one, a fictitious supposition. Not only do we ignore reality’s ontological ground, we also ignore the ontological ground of the ‘point’ from where we relate to reality.

Transferred to the ethical sphere, the consequences of this modern condition come even more clearly into the light. For what to think if the ‘subject’ or ‘ground’ of moral values is merely supposed, imagined, fantasized? And when we indeed have to be ourselves that subject, what then if this, too, is an invention? What if our so-called ‘self’, being the subject of morality, is the result of imagination? What if both the good and the human subject of that good are mere fantasy?

Put in an ethical perspective, we understand maybe better why the abysmal question of the subject nowadays has lost the popularity it had in the twentieth century. In the revolutionary atmosphere of these times, the abyss of that question was still bearable, if only because it was tempered by the promising new times everyone was passionately expecting. Now, however, the time of ‘dreaming’ is over. In a way, we all have become ‘conservatives’, at least in the formal sense of the word. We would rather behold what we have than take the risks of radical change. Anyway, it is one of the reasons why the all too open question of the subject has lost its appealing effect on us. In fact, we can no longer stand this kind of unbearable openness underlying our very relation to the word as well as to ourselves – which is why science, more than ever, is asked to comfort us, and to give us a solid base. No wonder then that, in such times of science, religion has made its comeback. It fulfils a similar function as antique and medieval science did and as modern science is supposed to do according to an increasing number of people. Better than science is able to, religion can give back a stable and fixed subject. Longing for an unshakable ground underneath their feet, moderns are not abhorrent of sticking to religion.

However, this idea of a fixed, unquestioned subject is not without danger. Even in its shape of mere supposition or imagination. In order to face the problems our late modernity has to deal with, the question of the subject, however abysmal it may be, is as inevitable as indispensable. I will argue that it is necessary to retake once again that old, unzeitgemäss question of the subject, of the ‘ground’ that we suppose we rest on, and which, indeed, is nothing else than a supposed one, a supposition or hypothesis. The ancient Greek word for subjectum, hypothesis, names in fact the very status of the modern subject: it is the fantasized, supposed, imagined point our relation to the world rests upon.

The Lacanian subject

This is at least the radical conclusion Jacques Lacan draws in his conceptualization of the modern human condition. Lacking any ontological ground, the human relation to reality takes its starting point from – and, in this sense, is based upon – simple supposition. And what is this supposition based upon? From a certain perspective, it is based on ‘itself’, i.e. on the human capacity to suppose, to imagine, to dream, to invent things out of nothing. It rests on what Kant called the reine Einbildungskraft.6 Or, referring to the Freudian paradigm Lacan entirely assumes: it is a matter of wishing – a wishing which precedes what is wished and even ‘who’ is wishing. It is an autonomous imagination or wishing which, as such, is not based in any self. In this, Lacan differs from Kant. For according to Lacanian theory, human wishing has to long even for a ‘self’, for a ‘ground’ to be based on. Man’s imagination has to create (i.e. to imagine) even its own ‘self’; it has to suppose itself to be the ground of his imagination and that, contrary to what is the case, the human ‘self’ is therefore not the product of imagination, of wish and supposition.

So is it us who have invented us a ‘self’? Of course not. We found that ‘self’ in the others: in the ones around us with whom we identified and still identify. Consciousness or thought is not primordially an individual but a social affair. Thought is based in identification with others, and even there it has still to invent (to imagine) its base, its subject. The ground – the bearer or subject – of my imagination or my wishing is an image, not of me but of the other. And by denying that procedure I act as if that image is mine. That ‘acting as if’ results in the only real ‘me’ I have. So, indeed, my identity’s origin is social. For Lacan, ‘psychology’ is ‘sociology’:7 my psyche – that which I think I am, my subject, the point from where I relate to reality as ‘me’, as an identity – is the result of identification with the other, with the socius, le semblable. Social identification with others precedes – and, in that sense, grounds – my identity.

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