Fall 2017–Winter 2018

Paranoia, Science, and the Architectures of Delusion

Apocalypse and revelation

Jamieson Webster

I imagine myself in a hot air balloon quickly rising through the atmosphere; the sun brightens while the air grows crisp. I am filled with anxiety. At some point, I surmise, this balloon will burst, or simply fall, collapsing inward. The air feels much too thin now. My chest tightens thinking of Earth merging with outer space, a vast infinite nothing. Anticipation is unbearable.

I come across the name for the transitional boundary between our atmosphere and the exosphere—the thermopause. It is more or less indistinguishable, merely a concept used to point to an ideal limit. I thank science for giving me this name, a visualizable edge. “Can we pause before the thermopause?” I ask. “Certainly,” answers the captain of the airship. But I suddenly think about hot air. I remember that “hot air” has another meaning—namely, to lie. I wonder if this pilot has spoken in bad faith. Is there anything to guarantee that he speaks the truth? Can the truth only be found in an unforeseeable moment of reckoning, of life or death?

• • •

The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan made the shocking comparison between science and paranoia, stating that both operate under the mechanism of foreclosure, neither wanting to know anything about the place of truth. Not simply a disparagement, Lacan’s analysis of science in fact credits it as a successful, rigorous architecture of delusion, able to invent a complete knowledge through excluding the truth about truth. This involves, at least for Lacan, the eradication of the subject of the unconscious. Shutting oneself off to this great outer space of the soul, you rigorously map a terrain at its border.

Lacan here follows Freud, who, at the end of his account of the paranoiac psychosis of German judge Daniel Paul Schreber, notes an uncanny similarity between his newfound science of psychoanalysis and Schreber’s delusion about the rays of God:

Since I neither fear the criticism of others nor shrink from criticizing myself, I have no motive for avoiding the mention of a similarity which may possibly damage our libido theory in the estimation of my readers. Schreber’s “rays of God,” which are made up of a condensation of the sun’s rays, of nerve-fibers, and of spermatozoa, are in reality nothing else than a concrete representation and projection outwards of libidinal cathexes; and they thus lend his delusions a striking conformity with our theory ... It remains for the future to decide whether there is more delusion in my theory than I should like to admit, or whether there is more truth in Schreber’s delusion that other people are as yet prepared to believe.

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