In some circles, the writings of Jacques Lacan are revered as a source of deep insight into the human psyche and the nature of language and reality. In saner quarters, however, the French psychiatrist is denounced as an intellectual charlatan: a purveyor of obscure and impenetrable nonsense. Lacan was one of the prime targets of Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont’s Intellectual Impostors, the book-length criticism of postmodern nonsense that followed the famous hoax that Sokal perpetrated on the journal Social Text .
Many people who read Lacan, or see him at work in some of the available YouTube clips, find it hard to believe that anyone can take him seriously. In a new paper with philosopher of language Filip Buekens, published in the journal Theoria, we explored Lacanian psychoanalysis as a case study in the psychological and epistemic mechanisms of obscurantism . On the one hand, we develop cognitive explanations for the allure of obscure prose. On the other hand, we explain how the particular structure and content of Lacan’s theory facilitates the overextension of the cognitive heuristics that make us vulnerable to obscurantism.
How is it possible for the reader to be taken in by the impenetrable pronouncements of — as we shall call him — The Master? The first thing to note is that, in everyday life, it sometimes makes perfect sense to accept a statement before fully grasping it. For example, children accept what adults tell them even before they understand precisely what they are supposed to believe. People endorse the equation of special relativity (E=mc²) or the reality of economic recession while having only the foggiest idea of what such claims really amount to. This willingness to accept an obscure utterance for the nonce, without knowing what exactly was on the speaker’s mind, may actually facilitate the learning process. If you insist on understanding every single word of what you are told, before proceeding to the next step, you may not get very far. Better to bracket those obscure parts and trust that you will figure out their exact meaning later on.
In line with the principle of charity in cooperative communication, people will try to reconstruct the meaning of unknown terms on the presumption that what the speaker utters is true and relevant — particularly when they defer to the speaker as an authority. If what the speaker asserts seem bizarre or false on its face, it is prudent to suspect that the problem lies with your interpretation. The cognitive scientist Dan Sperber has called such utterances, swallowed without proper understanding, “semi-propositional ideas” .
As with all mental heuristics, this charitable attitude towards speakers, particularly ones regarded as experts, is liable to exploitation. Not everything that is obscure or apparently bizarre will eventually resolve into something true and relevant.
But then people will find out at some point, won’t they? Not necessarily. Another well-known psychological mechanism may kick in and prevent the listener from stopping the hermeneutic search for meaning after diminishing returns have set in. Psychologists have long known that people are averse to losses. Interpreting obscure prose is a form of cognitive investment, an expenditure of time and energy. If there is no hidden meaning to be found after all, your cognitive efforts will have been wasted. People are reluctant to face their losses, and tend to hold on to assets that have long since failed to deliver any returns.
In a similar vein, someone who has spent years wading through obscure prose will have a hard time facing up to reality and admitting that she has been duped. This is especially true when the quest for meaning is an open-ended one. For all you know, treasure may still be lurking deeper down, if only you are prepared to dig a little further — if only you spend a little more time and effort interpreting The Master’s writings. Some fine day perhaps the truth will dawn on you, or perhaps it never will — there is no way to know except by trying.
To make matters worse, people may persevere in a futile hermeneutic quest because — taking up the investment analogy again — they conjure up imaginary returns. In financial investments, however, at least the losses and gains can be objectively measured, they appear as hard figures on a balance sheet. In the quest for meaning identifying the long-sought treasure is less straightforward. In the hope of rationalizing his investment, the interpreter may be tempted to project all sorts of less-than-exciting “insights” onto the Master’s writings, such as common-sense knowledge or psychological lore. Alternatively, she can read her own musings into the Master’s pronouncements, thus using the latter as a mouthpiece. Naturally, obscure writings are perfect vehicles for such ventriloquism. Psychologists have identified the Forer effect: interpreters tend to read specific claims into obscure statements, mistaking their own creative interpretations for the author’s intended meaning. As Richard Webster wrote, “its very vagueness and obscurity means that it is pregnant with semantic possibilities” . In line with Forer’s observations, this creates an illusion of intimacy: Lacan’s students had the impression that he was speaking for them and for them alone, revealing his insights in a secret code. Everyone ends up understanding The Master — but they all disagree about what is being said.
Black holes in the sky
These psychological mechanisms are fairly well-known, but they only tell part of the story. What is striking about Lacanian psychoanalysis is that it facilitates the slippery slope I just described, by accommodating for those psychological effects within its very theoretical framework . Indeed, it seems almost designed to seduce the reader into an endless hermeneutic quest, and to shut down any critical questions that may arise in the process.
Lacan’s pronouncements are couched in a number of arcane concepts — the Other, the Symbolic, the objet petit a, jouissance, the Phallus, etc. — that are notoriously difﬁcult to define. The central tenets of Lacanian theory, to the extent that one can make sense of them, are that the unconscious is structured like a language and that human beings are trapped in a web of signifiers. Communication is a failure, language is a prison, and our deepest desires remain frustrated. In Lacan’s linguistic re-interpretation of Freud’s Oedipus complex, subjects are symbolically castrated upon introduction in the Symbolic order. By means of obscure pseudo-mathematical formulas, Lacan has tried to show that the Real can never be fully accounted for by the Symbolic order. There always remains an ineluctable loss, something that defies understanding and remains elusive. This thing that cannot be grasped or comprehended, which plays a central role in Lacanian psychoanalysis, has been theorized as the “objet petit a.” It is like a vanishing point, always out of reach. Or as The Master wrote: “The objet petit a is what remains irreducible in the advent of the subject at the locus of the other.” The later Lacan coined the term “sinthome” for that which is beyond meaning in his so-called topology of the human mind. Meaning is always manifold and interpretation ambivalent, determined by a web of unconscious associations that we can barely glimpse. As a consequence, communication is doomed to fail, our identity is fragmented and divisive, and truth has a fictional structure.
If one looks at these Lacanian mantras, it is striking how well they exemplify the experience of trying to make sense of Lacan’s own writings. After all, what better illustration of the primacy of the signiﬁer over the signiﬁed and the elusiveness of meaning than Lacan’s own ever-shifting and esoteric concepts? The doctrine itself tends to acquiesce the interpreter into the frustrating experience of trying to make sense of it. If you don’t understand, you must be on the right track. Lacan’s style of exposition, some followers have suggested, mimics the language of the unconscious. Or, to put in in Lacanese, the unconscious speaks through Lacan. Unfortunately, Lacanians have mistaken the predicament of their own belief system for that of every other discourse. Paraphrasing Karl Kraus, one of Freud’s earliest critics, Lacanian psychoanalysis is itself the disease for which it claims to be the cure.
By anticipating and accounting for the readers’ feeling of disarray and puzzlement, Lacan’s theory not only facilitates a futile quest for meaning, but also provides a protective shield against criticism. To bemoan Lacan’s obscure language, from the Lacanian’s own point of view, is to refuse to understand the deeply subversive nature of Lacan’s teachings about meaning and truth. To insist on clarity of language is to miss the very point of Lacan. Thus, the diligent interpreter is kept under The Master’s spell. The philosopher Stephen Law, in his book Believing Bullshit , has likened such belief systems to black holes, constructed in such a way that “unwary passersby can find themselves similarly drawn in,” never to escape again.
Let There Be More Light
Obscurantism is a symptom of a degenerating belief system. It arises whenever one needs to defend what is (no longer) defensible. Just as Freud’s theory was collapsing under its own implausibility, Lacan’s obfuscations came to the rescue. For instance, Lacan recast the traditional Freudian Oedipus complex — where a boy wants to kill his father and have sex with his mother — as an abstruse psycholinguistic drama, where physical castration becomes a symbolic amputation through the entry into language, and the capitalized Fallus is equated with the imaginary square root of -1. Freud’s theory was difficult to falsify, but at least it could be comprehended. In Lacan’s hands, the Freudian edifice was lifted out of the realm of meaning altogether. In spite of this radical departure from orthodoxy, Lacan presented his theory as a return to the founding texts, to whatever it is that they have always meant.
Of course, nowhere is this need for obfuscation more pressing than in theology. God used to be an invisible agent in the heavens with human-like emotions, listening to prayers and performing miracles on earth. Nowadays, he has retired from that role and lives on as some ineffable Ground of Being, hardly capable of existing in the mundane sense, let alone revealing himself on earth or performing miracles. After every retreat, however, theologians will often insist that this is what they meant all along .
But what if postmodern theology or Lacanian psychoanalysis is just too sophisticated and profound for philistines like us? What if the illusion of depth is not an illusion at all? Perhaps the proof of the pudding is in the eating. A couple of years ago, I made my own pudding, just to see if anyone out there was ready to swallow it. I wrote an abstract full of obscure gobbledygook and submitted it to two theology conferences, under the pseudonym Robert A. Maundy (an anagram). It was partly constructed as a parody of John Haught’s book God After Darwin, which had exasperated me with its nebulous prose. Both conferences accepted the abstract without any problem, presumably after sending it out for peer review . After the hoax had been exposed, one of the conference organizers argued, in his own defense, that he gave my submission the benefit of the doubt, because “postmodern theology can often be somewhat impenetrable.” Quite so.
In the case of Jacques Lacan or postmodern theology, we can never be sure if there is not some hidden meaning that we fail to grasp. In the case of Robert A. Maundy, however, I can assure you that none is to be found (unless God is using me as his vessel). Every single sentence of it is meaningless. In fact, the abstract was largely written in reverse order, to avoid meaningful connections between the sentences. As it turns out, it’s not easy to keep meaningful interpretations at bay, because the human brain (or mine at any rate) wants to construct a coherent narrative. I tried to keep my focus on grammar and syntax, and as for the vocabulary, I was just dipping my spoon in the unctuous soup of Sophisticated Theology (the obligatory snipe at Richard Dawkins probably also worked as a lubricant). As soon as some part started to make sense, it went out of the window. As it happens, my collaborator Filip Buekens, who wrote a devastating study of Lacan and his followers in Dutch, also wrote a parody abstract under Robert Maundy’s name, on the ineffable object petit a with regard to “anal male discourse” . We’ll get back to this.
It is useful to have a look at the book that has been most recently hailed as the pièce de résistance of theology, which will leave all atheists fuming at the sidelines. Ironically, David Bentley Hart’s intention in Experiencing God is merely to clarify the meaning of the word God. Some would call that a particularly egregious example of false advertising. After wading through many pages of pedantic prose, all the reader is left with are a number of obscure and contradictory phrases, invariably capitalized or prefixed with superlatives, supposedly capturing the nature of God’s existence. For example, we learn that God is the “transcendent actuality of all things and all knowing, the logically inevitable Absolute upon which the contingent depends,” that he is the “infinite wellspring of all that is” and also “simplicity itself, the very simplicity of the simple, indwelling all things as the very source of their being.”
This brings us back to the principle of interpretive charity. A classical strategy of the obscurantist is to say something prima facie absurd, or to juxtapose two apparently contradictory claims. For example, Hart claims that God is “not a being but is at once ‘beyond being’ (in the sense that he transcends the totality of existing things) and also absolute “Being itself” (in the sense that he is the source and ground of all things)” . The trick is content-free and can be repeated with any adjective: “He is not just something X, but X-ness itself, the uncaused source and ground by which finite X-ness [is] created and sustained” . (Can you guess which adjective Hart used in this case?)
So God is simultaneously not a being, beyond being, and Being itself. The strategy exploits our interpretive charity: the contradiction is so palpable that we assume the writer must have meant something different and more profound. God is also “beyond my utmost heights” and “more inward to me than my inmost depths.” So, both extremes at the same time? As Bob Maundy put it, he is “an absolute Order which both engenders and withholds meaning.”
Not to be outdone, Jacques Lacan has offered us the most exquisite example of this strategy. In his formulas of sexuation, describing the phallic function in relation to the desiring subject, he presents us with the following diagram of masculine and feminine sexuality.
The right-hand column describes feminine sexuality, the left-hand column its male counterpart. Now, as any student of logic will spot right away, not only do the two formulas in each column contradict each other, but the columns themselves are restating the same contradiction: 1) everyone is submitted to the phallic function; 2) there exists someone who is not submitted to the phallic function.
Because the contradiction is so obvious, at least for someone with a grasp of elementary logic, the reader is tempted to conclude that Lacan must have meant something more profound. The rest is left to the creative imagination of the reader. Ever since, commentators have dreamt up interpretations to make sense of the formulas of sexuation, but no consensus seems to be in the offing (“well yes, that is the ineffable objet petit a of understanding!”). The paradoxes of sexuation also provide the framework for Robert A. Maundy’s second abstract on anal male discourse.
Postmodern philosophers are quite fond of stating such provocative contradictions or outright absurdities: other one-liners by Lacan include “la femme n’existe pas” and “Il n’y pas de rapport sexuel chez l’être parlant” (there is no sexual relationship in the speaking subject). The deconstructivist Jacques Derrida claimed that “Il n’y a pas de hors-texte” (there is nothing beyond the text) and Jean Baudrillard wrote a whole book about why “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place.” Stephen Law advises aspiring gurus to work around cryptic contradictions: “The great beauty of such comments is that they make your audience do the work for you.”
Such tantalizing claims often vacillate between some straightforward yet absurd interpretation, and a sensible but trite one. For example, of course “the woman” as such does not exist, as no two women are exactly similar. And naturally, what happened during the Gulf War is partly open to historical interpretation. Did we need the postmodern savants to tell us that? The strategy appeals to interpretive charity on both fronts: we assume that the speaker must have meant something more profound than the banality, but we also assume that he could not possibly have intended the absurd interpretation. Daniel Dennett called this a Deepity  and uses the example “Love is just a word.” If you put scare quotes around ‘love,’ the claim is trivial. If you read it at face value, it doesn’t make any sense. Whatever love is (an emotion, some neurochemical process), it is not composed of letters.
Postmodern discourse, which is heavily indebted to Jacques Lacan, is full of such Deepities: “Truth is just a social construction,” “Reality is another kind of fiction.” Philosopher Nicholas Shackel has compared this strategy to a medieval defense tactic in which a defensible stone tower (the Motte) is surrounded by an area of open land (the Bailey):
For my purposes the desirable but only lightly defensible territory of […] the Bailey, represents a philosophical doctrine or position with similar properties: desirable to its proponent but only lightly defensible. The Motte is the defensible but undesired position to which one retreats when hard pressed. 
It is important to emphasize the intimidating effect of unintelligible prose. In the midst of people who all profess to understand what is being said, it takes courage to stand up and admit that you don’t. The philosopher Paul Ricoeur was brave enough to admit, after attending one of Lacan’s seminars, that he did not understand a word of what was being said, even though he found himself in the company of people who seemed to be in the knowing. Many interpreters have boasted that they, for one, understand Lacan perfectly well. The philosopher Jean-Claude Milner has maintained that the man’s writings are in fact crystal-clear, despite appearances to the contrary, and are hardly in need of any interpretation. Who will be confident enough, after years of investment in Lacanian exegesis, to see through this rhetorical bluster?
In his latest book, David Bentley Hart spends a lot of time lamenting the intellectual poverty of our age and hectoring his (atheist) readers, calling them out for their abysmal ignorance and their puerile misunderstandings. Lacan was fond of insulting and belittling those in his audience who failed to understand him. In a television appearance in 1974, he announced that most of his audience were “idiots,” and that he was surely mistaken to descend to their level. Intellectually insecure readers felt that the difficulty of Lacan’s prose was erected as a natural barrier for excluding those unworthy of his insights. Only the best divers could access the most precious pearls. As Lacan himelf wrote: “If you don’t understand them [my writings], so much the better, it will give you the opportunity to explain them.”
Obscurantism is a means for creating anxiety and insecurity about not understanding. This phenomenon has an important social dimension, as in Hans Christian Andersen’s story about the emperor who orders a new suit of clothes that, as the tailors assure him, are invisible to those that are either unfit for their positions, stupid, or incompetent. When the Emperor flaunts his new cloths on the streets, everybody can see that he is naked, yet nobody dares to point it out. But as soon as one child cries out that the emperor isn’t wearing anything at all, the spell is broken and everybody starts laughing. Many of the followers of Lacan are undoubtedly sincere, because they have spun their own interpretive fabric around their naked emperor. But the social dynamic is the same. It only takes a couple of sycophants, and a large measure of intellectual insecurity, to make sure that no-one dares to challenge the emperor. The seduction of obscurantism therefore has a self-reinforcing social dynamic.
There are of course many differences between the cult of Lacan and postmodern theology. In the case of theology, we have to take into account its ambivalent relation with popular religion. On the one hand, it takes a distance from the anthropomorphism of folk religion, but on the other hand, it remains attached on its leash. As the philosopher Robert McCauley wrote: “Theology, like Lot’s wife, cannot avoid the persistent temptation to look back — to look back to popular religious forms.”  Most religious believers have no idea about the arcane lucubrations of theologians, but the intimidating jargon of academic theology assures them that religious faith is still intellectually respectable, and that those simple-minded atheists have fundamentally misunderstood what religion is all about. In that sense, theology functions as an intellectual fig leaf for popular religion. In any, case, the self-protective rationale of obscurantism in both belief systems seems to be the same. Darkness provides a safe haven from the light of evidence and reason. According to Augustine, the serpent in the Genesis story was sentenced to grovel in the mud for committing the sin of curiosity. Expelled from the garden of Eden, he was forced to “penetrate the obscure and shadowy.” Make of that what you wish.
Maarten Boudry is a philosopher of science and postdoctoral researcher at Ghent University. In 2011, he defended his dissertation on pseudoscience: Here Be Dragons. Exploring the Hinterland of Science. He is co-author of a Dutch book on critical thinking (2011), together with Johan Braeckman and co-editor, together with Massimo Pigliucci, of Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem.
(Thanks to Stephen Law and Filip Buekens for their comments! Parts of this essay were published before at the Epistemic Innocence blog.)
 Buekens, Filip, and Maarten Boudry. 2014. “The Dark Side of the Loon. Explaining the Temptations of Obscurantism,” Theoria.
 Sperber, D., F. Clément, C. Heintz, O. Mascaro, H. Mercier, G. Origgi, and D. Wilson. 2010. “Epistemic Vigilance,” Mind & Language 25(4):359–393.
 Webster, Richard. 2002. “The Cult of Lacan: Freud, Lacan and the Mirror Stage,” richardwebster.net.
 Boudry, Maarten, and Johan Braeckman. 2012. “How Convenient! The Epistemic Rationale of Self-Validating Belief Systems,” Philosophical Psychology 25(3):341-364.
 Law, Stephen. 2011. Believing Bullshit: How Not to Get Sucked into an Intellectual Black Hole. New York: Prometheus.
 This is not to say that all modern theology is obscurantist. Theologians such as Richard Swinburne and William Lane Craig have tried to defend the traditional tenets of faith in a pretty straightforward manner, without much recourse to obfuscation.
 The abstract is still listed in the proceedings of the Reformational Philosophy conference. To the best of my knowledge, the other ones are authentic, but don’t take my word for it.
 Both abstracts can be found on Bob’s website.
 The claim is repeated a couple of times: “In one sense he is ‘beyond being,’ if by ‘being’ one means the totality of discrete, finite things. In another sense he is ‘being itself.’”
 In case you are wondering how this works, it is just a matter of God “pouring forth its infinite actuality in the finite vessels of individual essences.”
 Dennett, Daniel C. 2013. Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking: WW Norton & Company.
 Shackel, Nicholas. 2005. “The Vacuity of Postmodern Methodology,” Metaphilosophy 36(3):295-320.
 McCauley, Robert N. 2010. “How Science and Religion Are More Like Theology and Commonsense Explanations Than They Are Like Each Other: A Cognitive Account,” in D. Wiene and P. Pachis (eds.), Chasing Down Religion: In the Sights of History and Cognitive Science: A Festschrift in Honor of Luther Martin Thessaloniki: Barbounakis, 242-265.