This post is the fifth in a series of responses to papers delivered at the Biennial Conference on Philosophy, Religion and Culture at the Catholic Institute of Sydney, 5th-7th October 2012.
by John Stuyfbergen
John introduced his paper with a little quip about Freudian slips. When he first sent of the proposed abstract to the conference committee, he unintentionally wrote the title as ‘Western churches difficulty with feminism and mysticism.’ Interesting indeed! What is the relationship between conservative western churches rejection of feminism (with a pseudo embrace of femininity) and on a broader canvas, western churches difficulty with femininity, particularly as it is expressed in the mystical tradition?
Then John presented us with a proposal that Jacques Lacan’s theory of four fundamental types of discourses can reveal the underlying commitments of western church culture. For Lacan, the word ‘discourse’ is important, because both our individual and corporate (cultural) unconscious take the same form as language. I’m reading Lacan for my thesis, particularly through the more recent work of Luce Irigaray. It’s complex and technical, so I was pleased to feel like I actually understood John’s presentation!
I’ll post more about Lacan in the future, for now, you can read an introduction to him here: http://www.cla.purdue.edu/english/theory/psychoanalysis/lacandevelop.html.
Or you can go to wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacques_Lacan
Lacan suggested that there is a master discourse (a master signifier in the singular) which works it’s way into a set of canonised propositions (university discourse), counter-culture (discource of hysteria) and deliberate subversion. The question in John’s paper is, what is the master discourse driving the western church’s dominant discourse which marginalised both the feminine and the mystical? Why does the mystical act as a prophetic voice from the edges of the church (discourse of hysteria), resulting frequently in renewal movements of contemplative spirituality (discourse of subversion)?
Ten years ago (can’t believe it’s that long) I was regularly involved in preparing couples for marriage at St Johns Toorak, a big ‘wedding church’ in Melbourne. I developed a way of helping couples talk through difficult issues when they were in disagreement or anger, which drew upon the analogy of the anger volcano. The core danger of the volcano is buried deep inside it’s heart, and only gradually rises to the surface as the fires are stoked. The issue which ‘breaks the camel’s back’ and leads to an explosion of anger, is rarely the same issue which started the build up of the anger. Plus, there may be several other issues along the way. Psychologists sometimes talk about anger as a ‘secondary emotion’ in this regard – anger is provoked by other primary emotions such as hurt, frustration, disappointment, betrayal, insecurity and so on. I would give couples a sheet of paper with a line drawing of the volcano and ask them to choose an issue that they had conflict around. On the left hand side they had to name the issue, starting at the top of the volcano with the thing that had provoked the confrontation, then identifying what was underneath that concern, and then the issue that was underlaying that deeper concern and so on and so on until they felt like they got to the bottom of it. It is amazing to watch people ‘get to the bottom’ of an issue, you can see their shoulders relax and hear them exhale in unmistakable relief to be talking about what really matters most. Down the right hand side they had to name the feelings that issue evoked in them. In general, men found it easier to start with the left hand side and women found it easier to start with the right hand side and identify the issues after they had named how they were feeling.
I wonder now whether Lacan’s primary signifier can be represented in this same way. Ironically, the conference itself presented an ideal illustration of the exclusion of feminine and mystical energy or knowledge. There was no space in the program for liturgy, meditation or prayer; no moments of quiet or corporate reflection; no intentional facilitation of relationships or networking; and a lot of talking about beauty, emotions and spirituality without room for enacting or embodying it. What is the commitment driving this preoccupation with masculine modes of being and thinking? Lacan would call that commitment the master signifier. In my analogy above I would call it the fire of the volcano.
Dr. John Stuyfbergen is Acting Director of USBA, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, School of Communication, Arts and Critical Enquiry at LaTrobe University, Melbourne. He specialises in autobiographical writing and is passionate about migrant stories and justice for refugees. You might like to check out his interesting blog: hereweareagainblog