22 de September de 2021

Dangerous Attraction, politics and religion – by Daniela Affonso (EBP)

I’ve always imagined the following scene as one of solemnity. Freud, invited by North-American psychologist Stanley Hall to speak at…

I’ve always imagined the following scene as one of solemnity. Freud, invited by North-American psychologist Stanley Hall to speak at Clark University, in Worcester, Massachusetts, U.S.A, in 1909, proud of how widespread his ideas had become, turns to his disciples Carl Jung and Sandor Ferenczi – who accompanied him on his cross-Atlantic voyage and with whom he discussed the importance of these conferences for the future of psychoanalysis – and tells them: “Little do they know we are bringing them the plague”. In idealizing this moment, I was, of course, taken by the Freudian ideals of psychoanalysis, which would emerge as an answer to the imperatives of culture and toits sacralization, stemming from religion.

We know now that the plague did not break out. Psychoanalysis did not give rise to a “different social order”, nor were religious precepts abandoned for, or massacred by, scientific reason, as Freud had explicitly prophesied in The Future of an Illusion[1]. Where, then, does psychoanalysis fit in today? We are witness to its persistence, but what of its employment? Since Freud, what paths has it taken, what marks has it left on culture? Can we still detect something of its “virulence” in the air?

In the column’s inaugural piece for the AMP Blog, I will debate recent events, which, while not exclusive to Brazil, take on aspects that are peculiar to this country. I am referring to the election, as president of the Federative Republic of Brazil, of a candidate with a fierce religious bias, championed by countless Evangelical churches, a man who describes himself as “the savior of the nation, of the family, of religion, of morals and private property”, and claims that God himself has chosen him for the role. We watch, in a mix of stupefaction and incredulity, as bizarre events unfold, such as the appointment of a female Evangelical pastor as Minister of Women, Family and Human Rights, who once, contemplating suicide, claimed to have seen Jesus perched a top a guava tree, and who preaches salvation by encouraging girls to wear pink and boys to wear blue. The bizarreness of the plot reaches its peak, however, when the president, during a speech at a religious event, contends that the Supreme Federal Courtis overstepping its authority – in fact legislating – by deciding to equate homophobia with the crime of racism, asking “Isn’t it about time we had an Evangelical Supreme Court Justice?”.

All of this takes on a profoundly opaque quality when we try giving it any meaning whatsoever, though the reemergence of such repressed individuals no doubt leaves a bitter taste in our mouths. Religion now occupies an explicitly predominant position within the so-called secular State – despite the inclusion of the word “God” in the preamble to the Brazilian Constitution of 1988.

What does psychoanalysis have to do with any of this? A lot. In such a context, the so-called “bible caucus” tends to grow within the National Congress, as do the possibilities for approval of projects which aim to regulate psychoanalysis – a measure which in itself would be misguided, and which takes on even more unusual proportions when we consider the regulation of psychoanalysis would be enforced through a religious approach. Might the psychoanalysis of tomorrow be a new religion?

Miller[2]believes that, at this point in civilization’s development, everything tends to lead to the homogenization between religion and psychoanalysis, to a conflation of both, rather than a contradiction between them, the very opposite of what Freud predicted. Are we facing the reemergence of religiosity, rather than religion – in other words, religion devoid of vigorous institutional support, but strongly based on myriad new religious denominations (an article published in O Globo, in 23/06/2017, estimates that, in Brazil, between the years of 2010 and 2017, a new religious organization was founded every hour).

By dispensing with the institution, religious experience is valorized. The present-day concept of experience would be that of contemporary humanism. Miller says: “this is the situation we found ourselves in today: with the concept of experience, nothing stops us from comparing or approximating psychoanalytical experience and religious experience. This concept of experience is an extraordinary levelling tool”[3].

Religious experience was addressed by Freud, in 1907, in his article “Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices”[4], in which he proposes an analogy between obsessive and religious ceremonials. The text’s thesis – religion as obsessional neurosis – implies a psychoanalysis of religion. Freud psychoanalyzes religion when he says it is based on the renunciation of impulses. We could, however, take the opposite view, in which we consider the new relationship with jouissance, brought on by religion, to be the cause of neurosis.

Freud imagined that by unveiling the foundations of religion, through psychoanalysis, he would ultimately reduce it to an illusion. The illusion, he declared, isn’t necessarily a mistake, but something that finds no confirmation in reality. As such, religion would be an illusion, for it promises to defend man against the inexorability of nature and the discontent resulting from renunciations imposed by civilization – but it does not keep its promise.

Lacan had a different view: he didn’t believe that psychoanalysis, much less science, could annihilate religion. This is how he puts it in The Triumph of Religion:“If psychoanalysis won’t triumph over religion it is because religion is invincible”. He adds: “[Religion] will triumph not only over psychoanalysis but over lots of other things too. We can’t even begin to imagine how powerful religion is”[5].

Religion concerns itself with giving meaning to the real, and often reinventing it, transforming it, subverting it: “Religion, above all the true religion, is resourceful in ways we cannot even begin to suspect. One need but see for the time being how the place is crawling with it. It’s absolutely fabulous. […] And they know quite a bit about meaning. They can give meaning to absolutely anything whatsoever. They are trained to do that. Since the beginning, religion has been all about giving meaning to things that previously were natural. […] Religion is going to give meaning to the oddest experiments, the very one that scientists themselves are just beginning to become anxious about. Religion will find colorful [truculent] meaning for those”[6].

Back to psychoanalysis: how might it become another religion? Many point to the sectarian tendencies of psychoanalysts. Miller warns us that psychoanalysis is a mere step away from becoming a church. There is something of an act of faith in the principle of the psychoanalytic act, which Lacan attempted to laicize with the concept of subject-supposed-to-know. “But, the way things stand, there is nothing stopping the subject-supposed-to-know from becoming, in turn, religious-like[7].

The dissolution of religion by the advancements of science, one of Freud’s desires, is a long way from becoming a reality. The idea of science in The Future of an Illusionis one of enlightenment, elucidation, and pacification of the disturbances caused by civilization. Nevertheless, in Civilization and its Discontents[8], Freud prophesied that our age would be an age of advancements, and would allow man to become a “prosthetic god”, but it wouldn’t necessarily make him happier. In Civilized Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness[9],Freud states that culture produces waste, which is not assimilated by human action. This concept is in line with Lacan’s, for whom science, with its technical dimension of incessant investigation, produces angst.

It is no small wonder that incumbent Evangelical politicians in Brazil are fiercely attacking science, cutting back on public investment, disregarding or even censoring researches, e.g. the recent study funded by the National Drug Policy Secretariat (SENAD) and conducted by Fiocruz, which showed there is no drug use epidemic in Brazil. Thus religion asserts itself as an “unconditional guardian of life”, while making science look as if it were at the service of the death drive. The real in nature, with which science aims to establish its laws, causes further disturbances in this investigative process. By raising barriers against scientific advancements, religion drowns the real with its incessant production of sense.

Psychoanalysis must refrain from doing the same, or risk becoming another religion. Rather, psychoanalysis must accept and nurture the real – no longer the real in nature, of course, but the real originating from scientific discourse. This means opening itself to the new, while taking care not to fall back into the nostalgic mistake of reintegrating old precepts, reestablishing laws which preceded “liquid modernity” – a task eagerly taken up by religion.

Many still confide their symptoms to psychoanalysis and, in this sense, it survives. Psychoanalysts must keep in mind that the irruptions of the real cannot be reabsorbed by the construction of discourses, the only means by which the “subversive” vein of psychoanalysis is preserved, maintaining its position of extimacy in relation to culture. Its only promise is “you shall not be compared”[10]– a kind of “ethics of the singular”. But beware! This should not be mistaken for the currently-widespread practice of “customization”, which “personalizes” according to the “client’s tastes” – a practice which has been absorbed entirely by the neoliberal universe of self-reference, “self-surmounting” and self-realization. But this is a discussion best left for another occasion.

[1]Freud, S. “O futuro de uma ilusão”. Edição Standard Brasileira das Obras Psicológicas Completas de Sigmund Freud, vol. XXI. Rio de Janeiro: Imago, 1980.

[2]Miller, J.-A. Punto cenit: política, religión y el psicoanálisis. Buenos Aires: Colección Diva, 2012.

[3]Ibid., p.69.

[4]Freud, S. “Atos obsessivos e práticas religiosas”, op. cit., vol. IX.

[5]Lacan, J. O triunfo da religião. Rio de Janeiro: Zahar, 2005, p. 65.


[7]Ibid, p. 83.

[8]Freud, S. “O mal-estar na civilização”, op. cit., vol. XXI.

[9]Freud, S. “Moral sexual ‘civilizada’ e doença nervosa moderna”, op. cit., vol., IX.

[10]Miller, J.-A. “Neuro, le nouveau réel” in La cause du désir, 98 – Folies dans la civilisation.

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