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.

More truth or more delusion? For Schreber, God demands constant enjoyment as a last recourse in his relations with man. God had found himself in a peculiar position: only used to dealing with human corpses or people lying asleep and dreaming, He did not understand living human beings. Tired of this dead and fragmented world, He was contemplating a withdrawal into himself, a return to totality achieved through the abandonment of the human race.

To avoid apocalypse, Schreber had to allow God to enjoy his body through rays that penetrated his anus, cultivating “femininity” or “voluptuousness,” an experience of immeasurable sensations of pleasure and pain. These states had to be kept constant. The slightest pause would bring chaos:

As soon as I allow a pause in my thinking without devoting myself to the cultivation of voluptuousness ... the following unpleasant consequences occur: attacks of bellowing and bodily pain; vulgar noises from the madmen around me, and cries of help from God. Mere common sense therefore commands that as far as is humanly possible I fill every pause in my thinking ... with the cultivation of voluptuousness.

God’s original language of eclipse is transformed into a full language of feminine orgasm. Schreber becomes God’s beloved spouse, anchoring Him again to the world.

The intolerance of the pause touches on an aspect of psychoanalysis that describes the inability to cross a certain threshold—a loss of connection with one’s unconscious life. Schreber described this as being stuck in a world of corpses or “fleeting improvised men.” For Lacan, salvation is indeed found in something like feminine orgasm or what he called “Other jouissance”: unconsciously produced, rare, mystical, sublime states able to transform the painful pleasure of proximity to total abandonment. Schreber’s universe meets psychoanalysis at this ideal limit—namely, God’s jouissance—after which there is only unbearable truth or apocalypse.

• • •

Maybe a universe, never the universal! Freud, in admitting that it remains for the future to decide, indeed that somewhere there is always a navel that reaches down into a further unknown, recognizes the gap that effectively separates knowledge and truth. Aristotle deduced four types of causality—efficient, final, formal, and material—defining four relationships to truth. Lacan uses these to distinguish the difference between magic, religion, science, and psychoanalysis. He maps these in proper paranoiac fashion: 

Each discourse creates a specific bond between a subject and knowledge.

Viewed magically, I see my hot-air balloon adventure through the sheer enthusiasm of my pilot, invested in his soothing, shamanic words that flash like lightning. I put my faith in he who seems to hold immediate cause and control. Structuring myself religiously, I would situate this escapade within the vast architecture of a creator, his intention for me to rise or fall. It matters not what I, or this captain, know. I am preserved in my knowledge of God. Scientifically, the language of atmospheric physics and the laws of gravity are my source, my blood, my comfort. They explain everything, including, somehow, even my intention to engage in such aerodynamics.

Psychoanalysis differs from magic, religion, and science insofar as it is the one discourse to put truth to work, to see truth in a process of being built, rather than a domain that is repressed, negated, or disavowed. With psychoanalysis, the subject isn’t merely a phantom of nature, a fallen creature, or some thing that disappears in an arena of knowledge that never speaks its true name. For Lacan, truth speaks—a voice, an audible series of sounds, a material surround, including that vast nothing I am fast approaching, and which makes me ask the other, “Are we there? Will it be ok?” It is a situation that Lacan called “between two deaths,” a space of double lack—in me and out there—with nothing but a hot air balloon, or a thermopause, between us.

• • •

I had the following dream. Shortly after the moment of apocalypse, from which she was miraculously spared, someone tattooed “Begin Again” on her right shoulder blade, and the dream rewound to the moment before the summary end with which it began. When she awoke, she remembered that apocalypse and revelation join meaning in the original Greek—apokalypsis. 

Jamieson Webster is a psychoanalyst in New York. She has written for Artforum, Apology, Cabinet, the Guardian, Playboy, Spike Art Quarterly, and the New York Times. She is the author of The Life and Death of Psychoanalysis (Karnac Books, 2011), Stay, Illusion!, with Simon Critchley (Pantheon, 2013), and Conversion Disorder (Columbia University Press, 2018). 

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