THE core philosophical question is not “how can we break through the veil of illusions and reach true reality?” but exactly the opposite one: “why do illusions arise within reality?” It is a sign of Lacan’s philosophical preoccupation (and of his fateful limitation) that he also remained stuck in the quagmire of this question. After decades of struggle to penetrate through the Imaginary/Symbolic cobweb of fictions to the pure Real, he conceded defeat. Adrian Johnston[1] brought out the intricacies and ambiguities of the “pessimist” turn which occurs at the very end of Lacan’s teaching and which culminates in his new formula of the end of psychoanalytic treatment as identification with a symptom, not its dissolution:

“Passage through a concluding experience of ‘subjective destitution’, in which ego-level identifications as well as points of reference such as big Others and subjects supposed to know vacillate or vanish altogether, indeed is an essential, punctuating moment of the Lacanian analytic process. Nevertheless, Lacan does not consider it possible or desirable to dwell permanently in such an analysis-terminating destitute state. He sees it as both appropriate and inevitable that egos, big Others, subjects supposed to know, and the like will reconstitute themselves for the analysand in the aftermath of his/her analysis. Hopefully, the versions of these reconstituted in the wake of and in response to analysis will be better, more liveable versions for the analysand.”

What we get here is some kind of “postmodern” Lacan: we can confront the Real only in rare moments of lucidity, but this extreme experience cannot last, and we have to return to our ordinary life of dwelling in semblances, in symbolic fictions… And is it not the same with Christian atheism? The obvious reproach to Badiou, me, and other “Christian atheists” is: why do we not assert materialism directly? Why do we need a detour through religion? Christian atheists claim that we cannot leave religion behind, that we need its mirage to transgress it repeatedly. Or, to put it in Kantian terms, religion is not just a historical phenomenon but a kind of transcendental illusion immanent to human mind. So, instead of erasing god out of the picture, the only way is learn how to “`make use of’ Dieu comme le Nom-du-Père.” In what precise sense, then, les non-dupes errent, i.e., those who pretend not to be duped by the religious illusion err? How are they in the wrong? Johnston indicates the way:

“Lacan’s paraphrase of Dostoyevsky, according to which ‘if God is dead, then nothing is permitted’, seems to convey the sense that permanent radical atheism is undesirable as per the strict Lacanian definition of desire. De Kesel claims that, for Lacan, religion enjoys the virtue of sustaining desire. If so, does Lacan’s version of analysis really seek to do away with theism, religiosity, and the like? /…/ The libidinal economy of the unconscious, centered on desire with its fundamental fantasies involving objet petit a, is sustained by the Law of God as the dead father and/or Name of-the-Father. If this God dies, then the entire economy He supports collapses (i.e., ‘nothing is permitted’). In Télévision, Lacan, speaking of matters Oedipal, remarks, ‘Even if the memories of familial suppression weren’t true, they would have to be invented, and that is certainly done.’ Paraphrasing this remark, one might say that, by Lacan’s lights, if God is dead, then, at least for libidinal reasons, he would have to be resurrected — and that has certainly been done.”

Does “if god doesn’t exist, then everything is prohibited” not mean that, in order to sustain our desire, we need something like god — even if only in its more neutral irreligious form, as a subject supposed to know? How to combine this with Lacan’s claim that atheism is the pinnacle of psychoanalytic experience? Is Lacan’s line that the name-of-the-Father should not be abolished but made use of the only way out? Furthermore, does something similar not hold for the eventual passage into Singularity? Does this passage not imply that, in some sense, the Symbolic will fall into the Real and, thus, human desire will be killed? Are we, then, not also confronting here the alternative: either we make this passage and thus risk losing it all, or, in parallel with the very last Lacan, we abstain from it and stick to the domain of symbolic fictions? Should “do not enter Singularity” be elevated into a new version of the prohibition of incest? What this further implies is that, far from a step into the divine dimension (as the New Age readers of Singularity claim), the passage into Singularity would have implied its loss, the abolition of all transcendence, the utter vulgarization or flattening of our existence. Johnston reads Lacan’s solution as an escape into perversion, into a perverse transgressing game: you posit the big Other to violate or kill him, with the implication that prior to his death he was alive/full/non-barred:

“The paradoxical status of Christianity as the religion of atheism, a status Lacan joins everyone from Hegel to Žižek in assigning to this monotheism, is integral to what makes it perverse in the strictest of senses by Lacan’s reckoning. The Lacanian pervert plays a double game. On the one hand, he/she registers, at least unconsciously, the signifier of the barred Other, S(Ⱥ), namely, indications that there is no locus of omniscience, omnipotence, perfection, and the like. On the other hand, the pervert repeatedly sets about, in reaction to this registration of S(Ⱥ), trying in one or more ways to plaster over the cracks in le grand Autre (i.e., ‘plugging the hole in the Other’). As the religion of atheism, Christianity simultaneously both reveals that le grand Autre n’existe pas (‘Father, why hast Thou forsaken me?’, etc.) as well as conceals this revelation through various means (denying God’s death, deifying/fetishizing Jesus as Christ-the-God, and so on).”

The key to this paradox is provided by a passage in Lacan’s seminar Encore where he claims that the trick in the prohibition of incest is to present an immanent impossibility as the result of an ultimately external prohibition – as if, if mother were not prohibited, it would be possible to fully enjoy incest.[2] Prohibition, therefore, gives rise to an illusory hope that, if we violate it, we can get the Thing – to put it simply, the fact that mother is prohibited masks the fact that mother herself is already not THE Mother/Thing. Heterosexual men choose women as mother’s replacements to obfuscate the fact that mother herself is not Mother.

So, it seems that, in his very last period, Lacan himself accepts this game: we need fictions and illusions to survive. Instead of pursuing the path of trying to reach the pure Real (beyond Imaginary-Symbolic) through formalization and/or the babble of lalangue, he reasserts the dimension of Symbolic/Imaginary, its fictions and lies, as unavoidable. That’s why the focus on the Real in late Lacan is not his final word, and we should draw “a sharp distinction between the late Lacan and the final Lacan.” The very last Lacan, in his twenty-fourth and twenty-fifth seminars (L’insu que sait de l’une-bévue, s’aile à mourre [1976-1977] and Le moment de conclure [1977-1978]),

“self-critically abandons much of what he pursued during the later period of his teaching from the 1960s through the mid-1970s. /…/ starting in 1976, Lacan puts an end to the reign of the matheme, namely, the pursuit of an analysis purged of meaning through mathematical-style formalizations bearing upon a senseless Real. /…/ the final Lacan opts instead for an anti-reductive treatment of sens avowedly inspired by Marxian materialism.  The meanings of Imaginary-Symbolic reality arise from, but thereafter become relatively autonomous in relation to, a meaningless Real that itself in turn comes to be affected and perturbed by these same meanings.”[3]

Johnston correctly describes the shift that occurs in the very last Lacan. What one should add is that one should not read too much into this ending: it is not the final triumph of Lacan’s thought but, rather, the admission of a deadlock. This is not a positive result, and the parallel with historical materialism (a “non-reductionist” relationship between the “infrastructure” of the Real and the “superstructure” of the Imaginary-Symbolic) is rather miserable. The task remains to think the cut in the Real that opens up the space for the rise of the Imaginary-Symbolic.

One should be very clear here: Lacan’s final admission of failure is also the failure of his “anti-philosophical” stance. It is the result of his reluctance to think through the philosophical implications of his theory. Which is why we should fearlessly return to philosophy, and, concretely, to Hegel, since this same problem is also the key problem Hegel struggles with: why is the detour through illusions necessary? Should we explain it as a cynical playing of the Absolute with itself? Hegel effectively sometimes formulates things in a deceiving way, as if the absolute Idea played a game with itself, externalized itself and then overcame this externalization. Significantly, Hegel even uses the term “enjoyment” here, as in the very last sentence of his Encyclopaedia: “The eternal Idea, in full fruition of its essence, eternally sets itself to work, engenders and enjoys itself as absolute Mind.”[4] We fall into perversion only if we accept that that there is an Absolute which plays (self)transgressive games to amuse itself. Consequently, this entire configuration has to be rejected in toto. It relies on the cynical reading of les non-dupes errent: you have to play the game, to be duped by it even if you know it’s not true.

However, the formula les non-dupes errent says something different, namely that if you are not duped you are wrong, not just pragmatically (we need illusions to sustain our desire) but effectively, with regard to truth itself. Just playing the game without taking it seriously is not the way out.

But what IS the way out? We have to accept that none of the three solutions works: (1) we should aim at the Real and try to leave illusions behind; (2) while knowing that illusions are just that, we should “make use” of them to sustain our desire and avoid the deadlock of depression; (3) we should accept the fact that all there is is an inconsistent texture of illusions, that the ultimate illusion is the very idea of some Real beyond illusions, and we should joyfully play with this texture of illusions.

There is a fourth solution, though: the Real is not external, outside the Imaginary/Symbolic texture of fictions; it is the immanent impossibility of this texture. Illusions circulate around an impossible Real which has no substantial status outside the texture of illusions. In other words, the Real is not a hard inaccessible core of reality around which symbolic/imaginary fictions float protecting us from the direct touch of the Real; the Real is a purely virtual (and in this sense fictitious) point of reference around which we construct difference versions of reality. Once we fully endorse this notion of the Real, we no longer need the cynical recourse to the cobweb of illusions to sustain our desire: the tension that defines desire is already operative in the “pure” Real which is not pure chaos outside the Symbolic but the immanent impossibility of the Symbolic. This is why Lacan’s notion of the Borromean knot that inextricably links the three dimension of the Real, the Symbolic, and the Imaginary cannot be the ultimate answer to the question of how reality is structured: the Symbolic and the Imaginary are not parts of the ultimate ontological reality. The question to be addressed here is how the pre-human Real “in itself” has to be structured so that the Symbolic and the Imaginary can arise in it.

And, again, Lacan gets caught up in a deadlock not because he remained too much within philosophy but because he didn’t go far enough in philosophical reflection. His notion of the Real remains haunted by the naïve idea of the Real as substantial Otherness which eludes symbolization. Lacan failed to draw all the consequences from the fact that the Real is absolutely inherent to the Symbolic, as its immanent deadlock/impossibility. This is why “Christian atheism” does not imply the cynical stance of “making use” of religious fiction, of playing with God, though we know that it is an illusion. That is not what Lacan means when he claims that theologists are the only true materialists. What he claims is that the Real (in the most materialist sense) can only be discerned in the cracks/inconsistencies of theological edifices, since it is constituted by these cracks, since it only dwells in these cracks. There is no ironic or cynical playing here, no game of “we are really materialists, but we play with religious fictions to prove our point.”

When Lacan says Dieu est inconscient, this is the most anti-Jungian statement imaginable. It does not mean that divinity is our profound unconscious psychic archetypes. Insofar as Lacan abbreviates “inconscient” as “ics,” which also evokes “inconsistant,” inconsistent, and insofar as logical inconsistence is for Lacan the defining feature of materiality, this means that divine inconsistence is the only path to materialism. “Gods are of the real,” and the Real is accessible only through divine inconsistence. Any “direct” materialism falls into the trap of ontology.

What we stumble upon here is the same ambiguity as the one towards the end of Matrix. In the last scene of the film, Neo announces the liberation of humanity from the Matrix, but the status of this liberation is ambiguous. As a result of Neo’s intervention, there is a “SYSTEM FAILURE” in the Matrix, and, at the same time, Neo addresses people still caught in the Matrix as the Savior who will teach them how to liberate themselves from the constraints of the Matrix – they will be able to break physical laws, bend metals, fly in the air… However, the problem is that all these “miracles” are possible only if we remain WITHIN the Virtual Reality sustained by the Matrix and merely bend or change its rules. Our “real” status is still that of the slaves of the Matrix, and we, as it were, are merely gaining additional power to change our mental prison rules.

Why does Neo not propose exiting from the Matrix altogether and entering the ordinary reality in which we are miserable creatures living on the destroyed surface of the earth? Because, as he learned from Morpheus, this miserable reality is not the Real. The matrix is, of course, a metaphor for what Lacan called the “big Other,” the virtual symbolic order, the network that structures reality for us. This dimension of the “big Other” is that of the constitutive alienation of the subject in the symbolic order. The big Other pulls the strings; the subject doesn’t speak, he “is spoken” by the symbolic structure. The paradox, the “infinite judgement” of The Matrix, is the co-dependence of the two aspects: the total artificiality (the constructed nature) of reality and the triumphant return of the body in the sense of the ballet-like quality of fights with slow motions and defiance of the laws of ordinary physical reality.

Surprisingly, The Matrix is much more precise than one would expect with regard to the distinction between the Real and reality: Morpheus’s famous “Welcome to the desert of the real!” refers not to the real world outside the Matrix, but to the purely formal digital universe of the Matrix itself. When Morpheus confronts Neo with the image of the ruins of Chicago, he simply says “This is the real world!”, i.e., what remained of our reality outside the Matrix after the catastrophe, while the “desert of the real” refers to the grayness of the purely formal digital universe which generates the false “wealth of experience” of humans caught in the Matrix.

So, the solution is not destroying the big Other but Lacan’s counterpart to alienation, separation. In Lacan’s terms, does separation mean what Neo seems to preach at the end of the film, a “savoir faire, ” making use of the Matrix instead of being alienated in it? Is this what Lacan himself means by separation? No: separation means primarily the separation of the big Other from itself, and our (the subject’s) location in this gap that separates the Other from itself. It means that the gap that separates us from God is the gap that separates God from itself. Nobody – neither we nor god – can enjoy the position of a cynical manipulator. If anything, separation means that the entire constellation is thoroughly inconsistent and chaotic since there is no controlling agency that secretly pulls the strings.



[1] See Adrian Johnston, “Divine Ignorance:  Jacques Lacan and Christian Atheism” (unpublished manuscript). Non-credited quotes that follow are from this text.

[2] See Jacques Lacan, On Feminine Sexuality, New York: Nortonm 1999, p. 74.

[3] Adrian Johnston, “Lacan’s Endgame:  Philosophy, Science, and Religion in the Final Seminars,” Crisis and Critique, special issue “Lacan,” 2019.

[4] G.W.F. Hegel, Philosophy of Mind, Oxford: Oxford University Press 1971, p. 315.