On Peter Rollins, Pt. II – Ontology

[full disclosure: I haven't yet finished Pete's newest book, The Idolatry of God, so I'm cautiously writing this from what I have read of that book, his other writings, and a few of his lectures. Also, I haven't read Lacan at any real depth. Still, this is a reflection on Rollins, not necessarily Lacanian thought.]

This engagement with Peter Rollins concerns ontology, but begins psychoanalytically. It's not so much an argument against Rollins, but an alternative way of seeing – what I think is more compelling and in line with my own experience.

According to Rollins (Lacan), infants undergo two births. The first consists of the pre-subjective period of “equilibrium with the environment” [note: equilibrium is a relational notion, although it isn't explored as such] (Idolatry of God, 13). The second is the emergence of selfhood, wherein the experience of the I comes alongside the experience of the not-I, which he claims creates a sense of primordial lack, of absence, in the recognition that there is what I am not. The claim is that this establishes a primordial longing, a deep and impossible yearning for wholeness – impossible because we can never fill this lack though we ceaselessly continue trying (Idolatry, 14).

A self cannot possibly have knowledge of the experience of this prior equilibrium. The self does not precede the moment of “lack,” of the understanding or experience of the not-I, so there is quite literally nothing here to experience it – and thus no experience of it. It doesn't exist as subjective experience. There can be no self without an other, so there can be no subjective being of equilibrium: “Before the experience of loss there was no self to have enjoyed the union that we sense has been ripped away from us” (Idolatry, 14).

Rollins moves from identifying this primordial psychological experience of lack to diagnosing it ontologically as “the gap at the core of our being” (Idolatry, 49). That is, he reasonably moves from noting this gap as an early sense to claiming it is a part of our ontology. His prescription is to notice this gap, name it, and embrace it – for only in facing it can we stop trying to fill it and move on.

I propose a different way of reading this primordial “separation.” I see this separation as, instead of lack, generative differentiation (which admittedly sounds a lot like Derridian differánce) revealing our relational essence. An unknown-ness/unformed-ness, in the experiential sense (again, sounds like khora), “separates” and self and other result. This might not seem so significant at first, but it is because from here we make inferences and draw conclusions about the nature of our being.

It isn't the experience of lack, but of becoming, of creation. The experience of otherness isn't the experience of lack, it is the experience of selfhood. We are born – that is, selfhood emerges – always already amidst a network of relations (a la Jean-Luc Nancy). But I want to make the point stronger: the self comes to be as a product of relations with others who always already precede the self. We are born always already in the midst of others, and our constitution is our relations with/to them.

The conditions of possibility for relation – which are the conditions of possibility for selfhood – are the emergence of the experience and understanding of an I and a not-I (an other). Therefore the emergence of selfhood is precisely the emergence of otherness. These phenomenon don't coincide, they are dialectically co-emergent. And it seems most accurate to say this differentiation happens from the moment of subjective experience at least until we die. That is, we continue becoming a self at every interaction with others.

If the self is truly co-emergent with the other, the emergence of the self is not from the experience of “not-I” but must always be the experience of “I-and-not-I.” That “I-and-not-I” is very firstly, and necessarily, relational. The formula “not-I” must imply a sense of self, but by not mentioning it risks overlooking the intrinsic relationality. You could say it overlooks the constitution of self which is the relation between internality (the I) and externality (the other).

There is never simply an other, never merely “not-I”; the other is always experienced as other in relation to an experiencing self. It means the primordial experience of self is a self-in-relation, not self-experiencing-lack. The power of this reasoning is that the self-in-relation doesn't simply take place at the initial emergence of selfhood, rather it is the experience of selfhood at every moment. There isn't a “big bang” moment that initiates selfhood but an unfolding of becoming that begins with the very differentiation that continues to constitute it. It isn't the absence of me that generates the self, but the presence of the other and my relation to it.

Therefore you could go on to say the experience of existential “lack” is not the lack of a thing/other, but of a “healthy” relation to things/others. Here the issue becomes not that we can't fill that lack, but that it doesn't need filling – it isn't a thing-sized hole. In fact, you could, from here, criticize the searching for thingness when the lack is relational. In that case it could be diagnosed as a hermeneutical problem, not an unfortunate psychological byproduct: it's an issue with how we read our own situation. I also have to wonder if the notion of a “gap at the core of our being” is a narrowly contextual conclusion – do people outside of the Western, late-capitalist world experience this? Or is the objectification and commodification of our relational nature a product our our context and a problem with our thinking?

In part this is a psychoanalytical point, but it's also an ontological one. I am arguing for a relational ontology – that each self emerges as, and is ceaselessly becoming, a network of relations – over against what seems like a more individualizing one. I'm claiming selfhood is, and is primordially experiened as, relational. Perhaps this difference is just in how we approach the question of selfhood and there isn't a true distinction, but it does seem there is space between these two ways of thinking, even as Pete talks about the crucial role of community.

Perhaps, though, I've misrepresented his argument – which would be unintentional.



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About Nick

I'm a church leader and graduate student. I'm also a teacher. I'm obsessed with (nearly) all things theology and philosophy. And the NBA.

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