“I dare to affirm that love is the path toward some truths.”
It occurred to me this afternoon that in my desperation to outrun the prison-house of the trailer park I fled without knowing it into a world of constant movement — of liberation. It was by finding a career within the university that I spent two decades of my life moving endlessly from location to location over 1-4 years. Consequently, I’ve never experienced the feeling of “home,” “career,” “friends,” or “family.” Now, at the age of 37, I strive for stability. I haven’t found it yet. I’m not sure it is possible anymore.
This is the paradox of freedom. In many ways, it does not replace the prison-house. Today I am looking for a suitable prison (obviously this is a metaphor).
Secularism indicates an attitude of conscious indifference toward religious precepts. This attitude secures an overarching and often unconscious universalist conviction. Indeed, it is possible to obtain the upper-hand in religious discussions precisely by relegating particular belief systems to an arena outside of public political discourse. It is in this structural sense only that secularism and paganism are related. However, secularists, unlike the pagans, are among those who find themselves ever motivated to ceaselessly renew their discursive hegemony; and they do so by safe-guarding the following Christian ethical maxim: “[t]hou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Matthew 22: 36-40). My claim is not meant to be modest but provocative and speculative: freemasonry exhibits the discursive structure of the Christian religion inasmuch as the foundation of the latter is ethically secular, and it strives, like any religious discourse, endlessly toward the universal position. It is not that secularism stands somehow outside of the Christian religion, it is rather that secularism reveals what is most Christian about Christianity.
What does this mean for freemasonry? Although it appears to be an outdated fraternity, it nonetheless remains the world’s largest and most historic of secret societies. It has developed for itself rich symbolic rituals aimed at safeguarding secrecy. Yet, it is not the content of secrecy that matters for the purposes of this society: the form of secrecy itself is what is most crucial for the formation of its social bond. This was a point made rather well in a little-known essay titled “The Sociology of Secrecy and of Secret Societies” (1906) by a German sociologist named Georg Simmel. Simmel claimed that secrecy becomes of increasing significance for the formation of enduring bonds within complex and differentiated modern societies. Enlightenment – a word often used to denote the “light” of knowledge, reason, and also, most importantly, researches in the seven liberal arts – casts a shadow which renews that which was lost: ignorance and naivety. What reason is there to blindfold a candidate when no such candidate today begins in with ignorance of our secrets?
Today the difficulty is to wander around in the darkness, within the shadows of secrecy, and this alone becomes the unique promise of tomorrow’s freemasonry. Giorgio Agamben writes:
The ones who can call themselves contemporary are only those who do not allow themselves to be blinded by the lights of the century, and so manage to get a glimpse of the shadows of those lights, of their intimate obscurity. […] [T]he contemporary is the person who perceives the darkness of his time as something that concerns him, as something that never ceases to engage him. Darkness is something that – more than any light – turns directly and singularly toward him. The contemporary is the one whose eyes are struck by the beam of darkness that comes from his own time (Agamben, 2009: 45).
Albert Pike’s claim – “education, instruction, and enlightenment are the most certain means by which fanaticism and intolerance can be rendered powerless” (1871) – has fallen into disrepute even among the highly educated. It is from the light of knowledge that today’s fanaticism blossoms, not from its shadows; a more insidious intolerance emerges in the name of tolerance itself, a reasoned and well-argued fanaticism, fascism, and fundamentalism triumphs.
Freemasonry today remains in fidelity to the political project of secularism while remaining nonetheless scientific, academic, and rational. The United Grand Lodge of England encourages its member lodges to sponsor members who are religious, though the craft itself remains non-religious. The French non-regular Masonic body, the Grand Orient, makes a similar request of its members, yet without admitting members on the basis of an obligation upon their respective volume of sacred law (e.g., Torah, Holy Bible, Quran, etc). In each case we find within masonry the cornerstone of its overarching national secularist ideology. For example, in America each candidate must remain politically secular while nonetheless privately admitting their belief upon a selected volume of sacred law, a practice also witnessed in the president’s public testimony while being sworn into office. But in the French system of the Grand Orient, one remains politically secular in toto, sanitized entirely of any religious sentiments within their public discourse and testimonies.
The problem is that secularism is itself an unconscious religious doctrine which consciously declares itself to be otherwise. This was the controversial conclusion of Tom Holland in New Statesman, who claimed that secularism has its roots in Christianity. He wrote:
[M]any secularists are still determined to regard all religions as being essentially the same and to deny the glaring fact of their own descent from a specific religious tradition. Hence their scrabbling around for Greek, Roman, even Indian and Chinese progenitors – any heritage, it would seem, just so long as it is not Christian. They protest too much. […] [There is a] reluctance of so many secularists to trace their ethical and sociological presumptions back to Christian origins […] (Holland, 2008).
This “scrabbling around,” so characteristic of the apprentices of freemasonry, in their ritual through their symbolic chisel, is nonetheless also at the core of American secular mythology. One need only to gaze upon the walls of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., or listen to the average American citizen to discover their endlessly attempt at constructing a religious myth compatible with their individual worldview. Atomized belief systems taken together are the great multiplicities which secure the fundamental conviction of a nation, and they are profoundly Christian in character. Even Karl Marx claimed, in his On the Jewish Question (1843), that the secular political state in effect presupposes the proliferation of religiosity, or, as he would later put it, ideology.
Holland’s position is the correct one – but only if we add to it the following caveat: not only does secularism trace its roots to Christian ethics, but it is what is most at the root of Christianity itself. For this reason, secularists are responsible for Christianity’s discursive resurrection. Christian ethics exist independent of their rough narrative, independent of their various bodies of knowledge and independent of the centrality of the body of Christ. They exist as a structure of discourse rather than an objective history, scientific fact, or religious testimony. Discourse is the structure and form of the subject’s religious bond, as expressed in the raw materials of language, and it is this which the contemporary sociologist studies. I do not make this statement casually: it is steeped in a tradition of study, both academic and mystical. We get a glimpse of it in the semiology of Ferdinand de Saussure or Roman Jakobson, both of whom, among others, proposed a scientific study of language and of the operations of metaphor and metonymy. We find it also in the Islamic mysticism of ibn Khaldun and ibn Arabi, among others; and in the Christian mystics, such as Saint John of the Cross in his Ascent of Mount Carmel.
We move forward in our study by focusing on the psychoanalytic work of Jacques Lacan. His radical claim was that the study of the subject’s speech demonstrates a unique configuration of his social bond. This view moves us further than that of his predecessor, Sigmund Freud, who had a less nuanced position in his The Future of an Illusion and Civilization and Its Discontents. Freud reasoned that religion as such has the structure of an obsessional neurosis, and that its symptomatic tendencies aimed to return the subject to his supposed primordial mystical harmony in the womb. Thus, the religious are those who refuse to pay the price of admission into culture/civilization by denying their own symbolic castration. A broader outlook might circumscribe the three Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Each are unique discursive responses to the problem of symbolic castration.
I argued in an article for the London Review of Books (titled “Islamic Ethics: ‘We Must Come to Common Terms’”) that each religion of the book corresponds nicely with the three psychoanalytic structures of neurosis, perversion, and psychosis. To be very clear: there is no outside to these three discrete structures, and each subject is situated within only one. Each is associated with an operation defined by the subject’s response to the problem of symbolic castration, and this leads us to suppose the following: (1) Judaism: Neurosis à Repression, (2) Christianity: Perversion à Disavowal, (3) Islam: Psychosis à Foreclosure. Just as a clinician would not make a normative judgment concerning the respective structure of an analysand, the sociologist ought not to make a judgment concerning the various structure of religious social bonds.
If we follow this direction, we might also make a preliminary gesture toward positioning each of the Abraham social bonds within the various symbolic, imaginary, and real dimensions. It is curious that Judaism prefigures a symbolic God (יהוה or YHWH), Christianity an imaginary God (imaginary body of Christ), and Islam a real God (real in the Lacanian sense as that which exists beyond symbol/image, or at the limit of symbol/image; this is a God who is “in you more than your jugular vein”). In each case, the operation at the heart of each discourse consists of an attempt to respond to the problem of castration anxiety, to the problem of a God who is either symbolic, imaginary, or real. Moreover, each religion is an attempt to respond to the problem of the disappearance of God.
If for Freud the price that one pays for admission into culture is symbolic castration – a fitting claim for a Jewish atheist – then, for Christians and Muslims, there are other discursive possibilities. The shadow form of belief, atheism, is renewed within Christianity and Islam. From the structuralist perspective: atheism is constitutive of the world’s religions rather than opposed to them. Indeed, atheism may very well be at the heart of what it means to be religious. Judaism permits atheism if one has emerged already from within God’s particular chosen community; Christianity accepts atheism at the center of its doctrine via the lesson of the “dark night of the soul,” or when Jesus questions himself on the cross – in each case atheism leads to resurrected belief; and Islam permits atheism a priori, before reversion through the Shahada – first there is a testimony of atheism (“there is no God …,” la ilaha) and then that of belief (“… but God, and the prophet Mohammad is his messenger,” illa llah muhammadun resulu llah).
What, then, is secularism, and how does it relate to the Christian or Masonic religious bond? Secularism exists in the form of an operation of disavowal, as the Christian solution to the problem of atheism. It exists precisely in the form of the resurrection of belief. This is what disavowal means: “I know very well that there is nothing there within the public image of government, … but I shall act as if there is nonetheless the possibility of religion within the private realm.” This is why secularism does not exist for the Muslim or for the Jew, except as they approach and border the discourse of Christianity. Fundamentally different and nonetheless interesting and insightful contributions are the cornerstone of those faiths, and they are the subject of other essays that I have written.
These structural configurations define the political landscape. Secular political operations introduce a hole within the public sphere in order to separate the community from the intensity of their social bond. This is the paternal character of secularism; it is the hole of the symbolic which separates the oceanic maternal religious bond. Descent Western politics consists not essentially in filling in the seat of government permanently but rather of securing for itself an engagement with the hole itself. This was a point made forcefully and for a different reason by Alain Badiou: “metaphysics [which is close to religion] busies itself with plugging the hole of politics” (Badiou, 2018). It is for this reason that the mystics do not count themselves fundamentally among the philosophers of metaphysics. Consider also Akeel Bilgrami’s claim that “secularism […] is the name of a political doctrine […] to the extent that it takes a stance vis-à-vis religion, it does so only in the realm of the polity” (Bilgrami, 2011). It is the religious social bond, at the heart of Western society, which opens up political space as a hole within the bond of religious intensity. Most discussions of secularism are political in nature rather than religious, and yet this, precisely, is what makes them religious in character. The political gesture par excellence would therefore be to accept the hole of politics as hole.
In any case, this conception of politics cannot be transported to the Islamic social bond since it operates through the foreclosure of symbolic castration. The consequent intensity of bond is surmounted only through the profound conviction and daily ritual of Muslims. Any conception of so-called “political Islam” therefore misses the point. What is most Islamic about Islam is not secular or political in nature, since secular politics forbids religious intensity, it is rather an intensification of commonalities for the purposes of enlarging conviction or ummah itself. An ayat from the third Surah reads “Oh people of the book, you must come to common terms.” The political hole of secularism does not exist to unite separate religious convictions (as in the American e pluribus unum); rather, it is through the certainty of conviction that stability is achieved within Islamic ummah. The interfaith discussion of Muslims, myself included, does not consist of the primary ethical maxim of tolerance but rather of securing for ourselves commonalities of conviction.
The myth of secularism is paradoxically also its strength. It is outlined very well by Bilgrami: “secularism has its relevance only in [a] context, [it is therefore] natural and right to think that it will appear in different forms and guises in different contexts” (2). The hole of secularism can be obtained in different ways, and we have seen at least two great experiments by the French and American systems. Whereas the one hollows out the political space while nonetheless allowing particular faiths to intrude into the public discourse, the other sets a wall up against any such intrusions. This contextually specific strength makes secularism portable or transferrable to different contexts around the world. However, just as you cannot treat a psychotic with the methods of a pervert or neurotic, you cannot expect to practice politics among Muslims in the same way that one practices politics among Christians. This accounts for the difficulty in transporting freemasonry into parts of the Middle East, and this is why interfaith dialogues are nonetheless blunted by unconscious prejudices and presuppositions: to love thy neighbour is different than to find a point of commonality with him.
For these reasons: my claim is not that American imperialism or American capitalism – or even neoliberalism, or any other such doctrine – are today’s dominant and globalizing forces. This is the dominant claim among critical sociologists today. I claim a much more modest position (though it is also much more ambitious and controversial position): secularism is today the dominant force, and yet it is up against other discursive tendencies on which it refuses to come to common terms. The battle today is between the axiom to ‘love thy neighbour’ and the axiom ‘to come to common terms,’ and it is within these two ethical systems that today’s Masonic scholarship must be focused. Secularism as a specific theological, political, and economic project, is the culture or spirit of today’s hidden violence; it is not, as the German sociologist Max Weber once claimed, that ‘Protestantism which is the spirit of capitalism.’ It is secularism. And it is also in the potential violence of secularism, which lodges itself within the unexamined life of the unconscious, which we are today most unprepared to arm ourselves.
The inner-guard has not been properly instructed to defend against this new threat which remains unannounced in the sacred temple of our hearts. The temple is in ruins not because of the outside intruder of fundamentalism, fanaticism, superstition, and so on, but rather because of the fundamentalism, fanaticism, and superstition, which remains unexamined within our own hearts.
Agamben, Giorgio. (2009) “What is the Contemporary?,” in What is an Apparatus? And Other Essays (David Kishik & Stefan Pedatella, Trans.). Stanford University Press. pp. 39-54.
Badiou, Alain. (2018) Lacan: Anti-Philosophy, 3. Columbia University Press.
Bilgrami, Akeel. (2011) “Secularism: Its Content and Context,” SSRC Working Papers. As Retrieved on May 16th, 2019 from <https://tif.ssrc.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/Secularism_Its_Content_and_Context.pdf>
Holland, Tom. (2008) “Uncomfortable Origins: Christian Secularism,” New Statesman: America. As Retrieved on May 18th, 2019 from <https://www.newstatesman.com/religion/2008/11/essay-christian-secularism>
Marx, Karl. (1843) “On the Jewish Question,” As Retrieved on May 19th 2019 from <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/jewish-question/>
Pike, Albert. (1871) Morals and Dogma of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry. Unpublished Version.
Simmel, Georg. (1906) “The Sociology of Secrecy and of Secret Societies,” The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. XI., No. 4: pp. 441-498.
Slavoj Zizek’s new essay for The Philosophical Salon really helped me move forward in my own work. Check it out.
Last night I had a dream.
I was in India to begin a new job. I was having conversations with members of the administration, and so it seemed to be a makeshift orientation. During this dream scene, I was in a disorganized board room. There were objects scattered across the floor and in every corner. Although there was a long rectangular table in the center of the room the people in the room were not so interested in sitting around it. They were each doing their own thing, in clusters, and not at all coordinated as a group. They appeared to be all very busy. Amidst this chaotic scene, the president of the university was directing his attention to me in conversation.
Another scene: I am commenting to somebody (presumably it is the president of the university) about how I am not surprised or shocked by Indian culture. This was a nice comment because I was under the impression that he expected me to be shocked. I say to him, as if in response to a question: “It is not so dirty here.” The crowded streets, the dust and dirt, doesn’t affect me.
A final dream scene: I was in a car – perhaps it was a taxi – and I was sitting in the front passenger seat. This implies that somebody else was driving. Behind me: my ex-wife and her father. I turn back and she is sucking on his earlobe erotically. In disgust, I quickly roll the window down in just enough time to spit or vomit outside.
I wake up feeling anxiety and sadness.
The Day’s Residues: What the Dream Stole from Reality
In reality, last night I was offered a job in Pune, India. The offer seems to be a good one, but it nonetheless has me feeling a bit apprehensive. A move like this is intended only to reduce my loneliness, and yet, at the same time, it might actually amplify it. Although my job in Michigan is a good one, I have not met any friends. I am eager to move away to some distant location, somewhere far, like India or Beirut. Two job offers came recently, then: one also in Beirut. During my Skype interview at 1:00am last night, I met the director of the Indian university in Pune. He asked me if I was concerned about being shocked by the dust and the crowded streets of India. I responded in the negative.
Another element is almost unspeakable. I continue to not be able to write about the details or even speak about them so easily. But the moment when I looked in disgust at my ex-wife performing lude acts with her father in front of me was raw, and real. The disgust I felt was so overwhelming that it forced the dream to stop. I woke up when the dream was too real: anxiety, depression, disorientation – trauma.
The scene in the car was most likely stolen from the materials I remembered of a youtube video I watched before sleeping. A white man discussed the difficulties of being white in India, and got into a taxi rickshaw after having a difficult conversation with the driver.
Some Analysis of the Dream-Work
Freud once claimed that every dream has an element that can not be deciphered. It is the “navel of the dream.” Lacanians have renewed the emphasis on this “navel” by focusing on and elaborating a theory of the “real.” Increasingly, the real becomes the most important part precisely because it goes beyond interpretation, beyond the symbolic unconscious, to focus on the “navel” of the dream itself. There is within every dream and within every interpretation a piece that eludes interpretation; and it is often the most traumatic part.
It seems to me that the objet petit a — in this case, it is reduced rather to the traumatic “thing” that provokes jouissance — occurs across two objects. Or, to be even more precise, it seems to me that it occurs at their intersection. The “oral” and the “aural” zones are brought together in this dream at that moment when she began to play with her father’s earlobe. I am tempted to use, as I once did in a personal analysis by mistake, the homophone: “aoral” to signify this radical zone of disgust.
What provokes trauma is not always the narrative of the trauma itself but what precisely exists at the navel of that story, at the place of the unspeakable. What provoked the trauma of my previous marriage was precisely that I was willing to overlook and to conceal the unmentionable for the sake of “love.” I was willing, if need be, to not only keep her family’s dirty secret but also willing to participate in it so that the love relationship would not break down. Yet this complicity in the narrative only conceals for me an altogether more profound trauma of which the traumatic narrative is only a signal.
The real disgust I felt occurs always in these two zones. They are evidenced most obviously by my eating disorder. The mouth localizes my eating disorder, and yet it is also the place whereby a paternal lisp — a “S1” signifier, which is, in other words, the “S” liSp — becomes internalized. It was a softened paternal signifier that moved from my father’s lips to my ear and then back out of my lips. On the other hand, the ear is the location of reception: the music — my father is a musician — must be heard, and there is no escape from its sound. His common expression, used daily: “we will play it by ear.” What occurs in the dream is in this case not at all distortion of the dream-work, but rather an eruption of the real within the dream work: “she will play with ear.”
It is by way of a possible radical move to India or to Beirut that I, by way of the unthinkable trauma inflicted upon me by my former family-in-law — and, indeed, it is by way of the dream narrative itself — that the overwhelming jouissance of the real stands a chance of being plugged. In this case, “dreams as an expression of wish-fulfillment” implies that I wished only to plug the hole of the trauma itself, and it became plugged by the disgust of the mouth to the ear.
He is one of my heroes, Malcolm X, the great American […] fighter for black rights. You know why he selected no family name, just ‘X’? Of course, at the immediate level he wanted to emphasis the fact that the blacks were torn out of their African ancestral homes, how they are deprived of their roots. But the statement of Malcolm X was not: ‘so let us return to those roots.’ But [for him] ‘X’ meant: ‘what if we grasp this very void into which our enslavement put us, the fact that we don’t have any genuine tradition to rely on, so that we have to, as it were, collectively reinvent our identity as a unique opportunity of freedom.’
And, it is also clear that he followed this line. At the end, we might debate if he was right, but he found the new universalist frame in Islam. He became Muslim. So he had no dreams of returning to origins.
“I sincerely think that today, more and more, passionate love is emerging as something dangerous and potentially subversive.”
In love, it’s a matter of the Other giving what it doesn’t have. The most simple translation of this “it doesn’t have” is its being. Not its having, but its being. Or rather it gives what it doesn’t know. This could be translated by saying that one loves with one’s unconscious, and so fundamentally one loves in ignorance. Or again that in love the Other gives its own lack, that is, its castration.
-Jacques-Alain Miller (“The Divine Details”)