Lacan and the pre-mortal life

Jacques Lacan is best known for his three registers (the Symbolic, the Imaginary and the Real) in psychoanalytic theory.  It is through the Symbolic that human subjectivity and the unconscious are ordered.  The Symbolic is tied to language (cf. Zizek).  The Imaginary is a conception of the body-as-whole and is also a psychical map of our corporeality.  The Imaginary (the embodied unity) is reinforced and made possible through the Symbolic (the speaking subject, or ‘I’).  Lacan’s descriptions of the Real are often difficult and intentionally ambiguous [1] and yet I sense they have some relevance for how we think about the pre-mortal life.

 Lacan’s ambiguity is not mere obscurantism but is rather linked to the experience of trying to symbolize the ‘unsymbolizable’, which is how the Real is often described.  The Real is unsymbolizable because the Symbolic realm can never adequately contain the trauma of the Real.  For Shepherdson ‘the Real only acquires its unfamiliar and disruptive status in relation to the Symbolic and the Imaginary’ (p. 37).  Shepherdson’s position reflects a concern with how the Real emerges from within the Symbolic but also represents the failure or cracks within this order. 

The Real, then, is a form of trauma.  This trauma is not the result of some absolute outside of the Symbolic order but rather is retroactively organised through the interrelation of the Real, the Imaginary and the Symbolic.  Shepherdson writes that this emergent Real is ‘the trace of a past [the pre-discursive Real] that was never present… but only comes into being when it returns’ (p. 48).  This past is often a primal unity experienced in relation to the world (or the Mother).  Responding to this trauma, according to Freud, is not a single event but is rather repeatedly enacted and situates the Subject in a perpetual state of trauma, of creation and destruction, or of becoming.  This process is traumatic because of the unsymbolizable Real that induces a desire for a state which was never present and which can be never be adequately recaptured.

Here is where the pre-mortal life becomes most relevant to Lacan’s ideas.  The Pre-mortal life is but a trace in Mormon thought.  Although it is a central doctrine we understand very little about this period in our existence.  Further what has been taught by our leaders regarding this time period has often diverged widely.  At a basic level, the pre-mortal life (in LDS teaching) requires that we accept that we lived (in some form) with God prior to our life here.  This primal unity is deeply consonant with the pre-discursive unity experience by the child in Lacan’s work.  To be sure, the fall from our pre-mortal life is a form of trauma that is retroactively organised because the veil makes this event ‘a past that was never present’.  In short, the pre-mortal life is unsymbolizable [2].

That the pre-mortal life is unsymbolizable does not mean that nothing can be said about it; in fact the opposite is true, especially if we follow Shepherdson’s view of the Real (as emerging from the Symbolic and Imaginary).  Rather what we can (and will) say about the pre-mortal life becomes a function of the Symbolic and Imaginary registers that we inhabit.  The pre-mortal life is unsymbolizable because we can never fully resolve (or articulate) – within language or through our embodied experience – the fundamental trauma of our separation from God.  We should expect therefore that LDS teachings upon this important subject (of necessity) will to continue to change over-time as we struggle to resolve our felt alienation from a life we cannot remember.

We cannot escape the pre-mortal life as both a trauma and a hope for which we long.  This yearning for a primal unity helps us to understand how certain ideas or doctrines are retroactively placed into that first estate in relation to the hoped-for return to God.  This is not to suggest that what current leaders have said concerning the pre-mortal life is incorrect but rather that by understanding (perhaps) how the pre-mortal life functions as a doctrine in Mormonism we are better able to interpret these various positions.

Notes:

1. That Lacan’s conceptions of the Real shifting radically throughout his life, and in ways which may not be fully commensurable, makes this more troubling.  A different perspective to the reading offered above can be found in Homer.  He argues that the Real is the ‘unknown that exists at the limit of the socio-symbolic universe and is in constant tension with it’ (Homer, Jacques Lacan, 2005: 81). 

2. The suggestion of the veil might indicate that the pre-mortal life is unsymbolizable because it is outside the Symbolic.  However, that our Spirit is regarded to possess the memory of our pre-mortal life suggests that this pre-life is an excluded interior, or in the words of Miller, we have an ex-timate relation to the Real/Pre-mortal life.

Comments

  1. Steve Evans says:

    Aaron, does this basically mean that what we say about the pre-mortal life is a better indicator of our present existence than of the pre-mortal life itself?

  2. We should expect therefore that LDS teachings upon this important subject (of necessity) will to continue to change over-time as we struggle to resolve our felt alienation from a life we cannot remember.

    Very interesting, given that aspects of emphasis have changed and apparently as environmental response. Great stuff, Aaron.

  3. This is interesting and i will have to think more about it, but i am struck by your depiction of the Real as a place of primal unity. What do you make of accounts (like the classical Lacan’s essay “The Mirror Stage”) that see the Real as chaotic and disparate, and unity only comes with the imposition of the symbolic?
    And isnt the pre mortal realm already a place of language, and thus already a place where the Paternal Law has formed subjects? It seems hard to see the pre mortal realm as a place before subjectivity in LDS thought.

  4. I think the argument here would be that the premortal is a place before subjectivity, but that our renderings of it are mirrored through the imposition of the symbolic, of the subjectivity that has emerged under the Paternal Law.

  5. Aaron, I remember a scene from ‘Man’s Search for Happiness” in which a group of people are standing around in robes chatting. I think that is how we picture the pre-existence. I like what you brought out here, because I’ve been thinking about our physicality, the tie between our neurology and our spirit, and have started to wonder if we can conceive of what sort of thing we were in the pre-existence. I was thinking about it as “pre-neurological” but pre-symbolic or “unsymbolizable” works in some of the same ways. What if part of the purpose of gaining a physical body, was to enter into the realm where symbols are possible?

  6. “What if part of the purpose of gaining a physical body, was to enter into the realm where symbols are possible?”

    Yes. When it comes down to it, all symbolic cognition and semiosis depends on physicality, presence, and context.

  7. Aaron, allow me to throw this in, esp. in ref to your third para. The great Lacan would have jumped for joy.

    “It is important to note that although we detect a
    signal compatible with gene flow from Neandertals
    into ancestors of present-day humans outside
    Africa, this does not show that other forms of gene
    flow did not occur (Fig. 6). For example, we detect
    gene flow from Neandertals into modern humans
    but no reciprocal gene flow from modern humans
    into Neandertals. Although gene flow between
    different populations need not be bidirectional, it
    has been shown that when a colonizing population
    (such as anatomically modern humans) encounters
    a resident population (such as Neandertals), even a
    small number of breeding events along the wave
    front of expansion into new territory can result in
    substantial introduction of genes into the colonizing
    population as introduced alleles can “surf” to
    high frequency as the population expands. As a
    consequence, detectable gene flow is predicted to
    almost always be from the resident population into
    the colonizing population, even if gene flow also
    occurred in the other direction (83).”

    http://www.sciencemag.org/content/328/5979/710.full

  8. Multiregional FTW!

  9. Douglas Hunter says:

    Aaron,

    Nice job my man!

    #3- “And isn’t the pre mortal realm already a place of language, and thus already a place where the Paternal Law has formed subjects? It seems hard to see the pre mortal realm as a place before subjectivity in LDS thought.”

    Agreed, since the most simple Lacanian definition of the subject is the ability to have an “I” in discourse, we certainly do conceptualize the pre-mortal as a time of subjectivity. But Aaron is right that even if we project some notion of subjectivity into the pre-mortal, it is exactly a past that was / is never present; and that we have no access to any form of its subjectivity even thought we take such a subjectivity as a given.

    Aaron wrote: “We cannot escape the pre-mortal life as both a trauma and a hope for which we long. This yearning for a primal unity helps us to understand how certain ideas or doctrines are retroactively placed into that first estate in relation to the hoped-for return to God. ”

    I like this idea because it invokes the uncanny, and at the same time to arrival of the totally other, and links the two. But are we hoping for the arrival of the Totally Other, Or are we hoping that the return of the repressed will free us from the anguish of the trauma under which we live?

    I think there must be an ethical turn to be found in the idea of the move from the pre-mortal to the mortal as a trauma.

  10. Thomas Parkin says:

    I’ve been thinking of consciousness as entirely observational, at no point acting on other phenomenon in the psyche. If this is right, then consciousness could be entirely a matter of the brain. We would not be reduced in any capacity without consciousness seeing that its only function is to observe – though it is impossible to imagine what those processes would be unobserved. When we enter the entirely physical world, our physical abilities are enhanced in a desirable way – an unembodied spirit does not feel the wind or the rain, or sexual pleasure; it could even be that feelings of illness, of not being well, are a desirable enhancement. There is probably some kind of enhancement of psychic ability with the addition of the brain, it is just more difficult to imagine what that might be. It might be consciousness itself.

    In any case, it seems to me the war in heaven grants that we were able to formulate abstract concepts, including an idea of our selves as individual entities for which things might turn good or bad – though perhaps our means of formulating them, communicating them, even being aware of them may have been in some way limited.

    I’m not familiar with Lacan. If I’m understanding you, his use of language seems counter-intuitive in some ways. And so I can’t respond using that language. But, I am very interested in the idea of the pre-existence as an original unity with God. It’s close to the gnostic idea that our souls are part of an original unified God, currently trapped in matter and primarily seeking escape and reunification. This in turn makes me think of Freud’s description of religious experience as ‘an oceanic feeling of unity with the limitless.’ I’ve thought of this as the religious neurosis, and why religion is fundamentally bad. It pulls us backwards where we are meant to be pushing ahead. Perhaps we have a desire to return to an original unity with God, or perhaps we are simply wanting to return to the womb. In either case, Mormonism eludes this by positing this life as being a matter of individuation. The future unity that we desire – we speak about ‘returning to live with Father in Heaven’ – is on quite different terms. We return as budding equals to a totally individuated, i.e “Holy”, being.

  11. I’ve not been at the computer for a few days and I apologise for not responding sooner. Thank you for your comments so far.

    TT, initially I should note that I am of the opinion that trying to reconcile Lacan’s thought is impossible. With that said the (perceived) unity which follows the entry into the Symbolic is a misrecognition. The Subject perceives itself as whole but this is a different unity than the primal unity of the Real, which involves the World and the Mother. Entry into the Symbolic is both an attempt to resolve the perceived separation that is felt through the Mirror stage but it is also a complete rejection of that primal unity. Most significant here is that the Real need never be an actual event rather, in my reading, the Real is a trace of an event that may never have been actualised.

    Also, regarding your question about language, Brad has captured quite well what my position would be.

    Steve Evans, yes. More than that, however, I think what we say about the pre-mortal life is more often a function of how we perceive that primal unity to which we want to return. Therefore for Mormons the pre-mortal life becomes the ground for our vision of apotheosis. In short, the eternal (i.e. pre-mortal) nature of gender must be considered in light of a specific vision of the CK.

    Douglas, thank you for comment. I will have to think about it a bit more and respond later.

    Thomas, I want to respond more fully to your comment later but I need to run.

  12. david waghorn says:

    The spirit place is hard to concept because it is simalar and different to the world we live in. The normal rules apply but in a different state. The mind and our memories stay in a pretty much the same state. Once with the knowledge that we had a pre-exsistance and know that we were seperated from gods prensence give the mind the longing to return to that place. That statse of spiritual mind and place of being of the world is consistant. Symbolism can be hard to understand but it is a way of representing the world around us down to our own understanding. Symbols and can be ojects that reprsent aspects of how we understand the world around us and what it means to us. The real is the visual everyday events that we record into our memories.

  13. Douglas Hunter says:

    ” With that said the (perceived) unity which follows the entry into the Symbolic is a misrecognition. The Subject perceives itself as whole but this is a different unity than the primal unity of the Real, which involves the World and the Mother.”

    I like the direction that this sort of understanding can take us, but I do think it needs to be freed of the Lacanian emphasis on the unity of the Real as being present in an infantile relationship with mother. (as an aside this is one of the reasons that Lacanian film theory had such a limited reception, it posited adult psychology and behavior in terms of the mirror stage, which is not a very good fit.)

    On a far less complex level its an important and healthy move for Mormon theology to comprehend that the subject / agent is not a fully autonomous being, nor is it possible for the individual subject / agent to be fully present to itself. The unity is not a whole, AND the “missing” parts can’t be fully understood (think in terms of a subjects response to a repressed trauma). So the unknowability of the incompleteness of the unity should have some impact on our notion of agency, or does agency require a anti-Freudian anti-Lacanian subjectivity?

    OR let me put it another way. When these discussions of subjectivity arise I can’t help but think about agency. Aaron, what do you think of the idea that Mormon doctrine seems to be in structural opposition to the idea of trauma on any level, because trauma and repression are two sides of the same coin and any influence on behavior of the subject / agent that lies beyond the conscious recognition of the subject / agent would be in direct opposition to the doctrine of agency which seems to insists that the decisions of the subject / agent occur in a way that are fully conscious, fully rational?

  14. I know this is a little late but here are my additional thoughts:

    SteveP, I need to spend more time with questions of evolution, pre-mortality and embodiment. Your thoughts here (and Brad’s response) intuitively appeal to me but I feel that I need to do more with these ideas.

    Thomas, I agree that the transition into physicality increases our capacity to affect and to be affected and it is increased capacity that counstitutes our individuality in new ways. It is difficult to say too much about the primal unity without slipping back into negotiating trauma but that individuation is a feature of every stage of LDS thinking but that the form of relationality for each stage is a key concern for what the plan of salvation means.

    David, thank you for your comment. You seem to suppose that the mind is somehow unembodied, am I reading you correctly? If so, this stands in opposition to my own sense of Spirit as embodied (but with different capacities for affect). Yet, both of these positions are clearly rooted in our broader visions of what salvific progression will look like. This is the key insight from Lacan.

    Douglas, similar to your concerns about the (M)other I have difficult with Lacan’s use of the Phallus and suspect that in order for the force of his theory to become most potent he needs to be released from that strong association. In this sense I am sympathetic to Irigaray’s critique and her attempt to re-situate embodiment.

    I think the concept of agency is one of the underdeveloped and problematic parts of Mormon theology. Elsewhere I tried to think about the potential for Mormons to conceive agency as inter-dependent with other subjects. In other words, even within Mormon thought (cf. the Fall) there is scope to begin thinking about how the choices of others (unconsciously) constrain our agency. The temple then becomes central to thinking about how our subjectivity is never singular; for we are simultaneously enacting ourselves, the deceased other, Adam and Jesus. This multiplicity seems to provide a way for us to think about this rupture in a very concrete way. In short, though our rhetoric seems to suppose an autonomous subject, I find that our rituals suggest that we always fractured and tormented by trauma.

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