The name of the father: key to understanding today's truth and totalitarian rhetoric?
Why is one individual ready to admit that the rise in the earth's temperature is human-made, and another to believe someone else's claim that the whole thing 'is created by and for the Chinese'? Why would a person choose to believe that not just a few thousands, as the untouched photos initially showed, but millions of people had been attending the current US president's inauguration ceremony? And lastly, why would a man who calls refugees 'scum of the earth', giving birth to a little baby girl the result of some weakness while declaring that he is in favour of torture, be elected president of the fourth biggest economy in the world?
In 2016 the Cambridge dictionary voted the word 'post-truth' as the word-of-the-year. If our present epoch can be characterised at all, it ought to include the challenging of our traditional conception of the notion of truth. We seem to be living a time marked by an eagerness to believe – in other words, to take as truth – whatever comes out of those who claim to possess it, no matter how incoherent, contradictory and potentially destructive the allegation may be. How come?
We know that truth forms the structure at the core of philosophy and of the thinking process in general. It is said to exist whenever reality coincides with the one particular discourse that describes it. The comment 'it is raining' is true if indeed it rains outside, or as Aristotle put it 'it rains if it rains'. Truth depends on reality, which conversely implies that reality is a construct of truth.
But what if it is not possible to directly verify the truth of the statement? Say someone hears the statement 'it is raining outside' but cannot step outside because he is either too busy at work or lives a few hours away. If truth is carried along via some discourse or statement, then what makes one ready to believe this claim is genuinely reflecting the truth? A minimum of trust in the person who is making the statement is necessary; truth does not come without an intersubjective dimension to it, namely faith.
Now if trust is part of truth then should we not, in turn, take the author's intention into account? Could it be that my friend is telling me it is raining so that I don't leave her on her own in the house? In his theory on perspectivism, the German philosopher F. Nietzsche showed that there is no such thing as one truth only but several, each depending on the angle one attempts to approach it – what perhaps the ex-White House Press Secretary meant by 'alternative facts'. It is impossible to represent or hold a belief about the world that is value-free, objective and disinterested, says Nietzsche.
There is little that is new and surprising in the notion of truth being manipulated as a tool to serve man's strivings for power, as history plainly shows. So could psychoanalysis help us articulate something new about the mechanisms of truth given that it has no authority by itself, and perhaps beyond it something about the rhetoric of our time?
In his seminar on The Psychoses (1955–1956), the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan offered to explore the role of the father in the symbolic order. In the process Lacan came up with a concept he called Le Nom-du-Père (translated in English as the name of the father), which for those readers who don't know French happens to be, above all, a homonym.
First in its relation to the name [of the father]. We know that a proper name has no single or specific meanings attached to it. It is meaningful only to the extent that for it to be a name, an association with some authority must be implied. For instance, we know that in the business of marketing a product is mostly promoted via the power its name evokes in potential customers. In a similar context, if branding is the making of a business name, then one can say in Lacanian jargon that it is a Name of the Father. Bringing up a well-known brand in a conversation is usually enough to make most of us want to be associated – or not – with the set of values and images this particular name represents. In the case of owning an expensive item, the associated Name of the Father is arguably the most effective way of demonstrating to anyone around that one is not only unlike everybody else, but also that one has more power. We say that the Name of the Father brings phallic power to its owner; it does not leave us indifferent but has this propensity to generate feelings of desire, or fear as the case may be.
Le Nom-du-Père can also be heard as 'Le Non du Père': the 'no' of/from the father. Saying no makes the father de facto the bearer of the law. Ideally, he is the one who in the family forbids any incestuous relationship to form between mother and child. If the father is willing and allowed to assume his rightful place, that is, within reasonable boundaries then the mother-child relationship should in due time open up to embrace vital notions including the society at large, language, customs, the law – all various facets comprising the symbolic order that Lacanians designate as other. Put differently, the 'no' of the father should put a stop to the child's constant demands to his mother and instead transform the frustration those unavoidably create in him into a creative force in life: desire.
Throughout his career, Lacan put an enormous emphasis on the distinction between the notions of need, demand and desire, and for good reason. If needs find their origin in the organism itself – say hunger – demands are somewhat characteristic of the mother/child relationship. They belong to the imaginary order in that, at the bottom, they are essentially insatiable demands for love, making them repeatable ad infinitum. But as we also know only too well, a request that is not fulfilled brings frustration, potentially even feelings of persecution. If the child is not able to form the assumption that his mother is absenting herself because she wants to spend time with dad, then it is likely that he will fall back on the idea that his mother is, in effect, persecuting him.
Lastly, Le Nom-du-Père can be heard in French as 'le non-dupe ère'. In English, this formulation translates as 'whoever isn't fooled wanders'. How could one not be struck at the resonance this formula brings in connection with the current political situations across the world? Unless there exists installed one – or several – Name(s) of the Father in a subject's life, the individual is left roaming through his existence, unhinged and drifting.
The Name of the Father is a psychical process which tricks the child into creating the belief that if the mother leaves him or her alone, it is not necessarily because she nurtures any malicious intentions towards him or her, but because she wants to be with father. Put simply, the Name of the Father allows for the child to name his anxiety, and substitute it for a word. If in this instance the word in question is 'father', what is important to understand here is that, in its final analysis, words – signifiers – are the solution to the problem. If 'migrants', 'democrats' or 'capitalism' are of course different words, the point is that they all fulfil the same function: assuaging anxiety.
The Name of the Father offers a practical solution to a problem which would otherwise be the sit of some tremendous anxiety including feelings of paranoia and persecutions. The Name of the Father is older than truth which itself comes second only to a primal need for safety. Any forms of explanation – itself a naming process – provides the means of assuaging the anxiety attached to a situation characterised by a lack of response from an all omnipotent and potentially persecuting (m)Other. It is only to the extent that we have faith in a father or master figure that his rules and explanations function as a law whereby we can make sense of our world.
Lacan goes even further and posits that 'No authoritative statement has any other guarantee than its very enunciation' (1960). The Name of the Father does not need any form of truth to function; its credibility is purely an effect of speech pragmatics. The way a country leader speaks, the tone of his voice, the choice of his words and body language is, in its final analysis, what makes it work as the guarantee of the truth, not reason.
Could the term 'guarantee' used here be regarded as also defining something else belonging to our age? If psychoanalysis shows us anything at all, it is that, besides everything else, our present-day society seems particularly marked by an anxiety caused by a profound lack of some specific signifiers people could have faith in. The risks of our society today is that those much needed Names of the Father in relation to which we orient ourselves in life have dangerously been appropriated by some individuals in power who now deliver their own version of reality, the version of the father, or in French père-version.
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About Stephane Preteux
Stephane Preteux is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist working in private practice in London. He has a degree in Applied Mathematics from Nanterre University (Paris X) and a Master of Science in Psychotherapy from Roehampton University (London). He is an Accredited Member of the British Association of Psychotherapist and Counsellors (MBACP)