On Superstitio and the Horror of Compulsion


Image: Victorian Horror Vacui’ by John Haverty

(This post is a response to the 25/4 ‘Audio Research Article v2‘, however it does stray markedly from that terrain, and therefore appears as a separate post. I see that both Patrick and Josephine have subsequently written pieces that address some of the concerns below, so apart from the urge to challenge a few of their initial ideas, this post allows me a little exploration.)

In Patrick 25/4, (sounds rather biblical, sorry), he writes that “Jo has written a line I hadn’t noticed before which has suddenly smacked me in the face, ‘I think most writing arises from superstitious behaviour…’” Patrick continues, “this might be the best line ever written about the artistic process.” In Josephine 11/5 (surely old testament, no?) she identifies Slavoj Zizek’s complaint that “…writer’s block is not the true horror, rather, it is the opposite: the compulsion to keep on writing.” Furthermore, Zizek’s “whole economy of writing is in fact based upon an obsessional ritual to avoid the actual act of writing.”

I think Patrick is right to be hit by Jo’s line, for it is powerful and not easily parsed, even to my atheist mind. It identifies that writing (more generally, the artistic process), is often full of spurious drives and desires, prey to a semi-conscious ruse or two, that enable us to complete the task. (That’s right, I must replace that lightbulb..) But is this ‘superstition’? Zizek appears to be saying that ‘obsessional ritual’ is a way of dealing with the ‘horror of compulsion’, (once we accept this as the true horror), and that it is a scary yet necessary response. Ritual, though sometimes superstitious, need not be so. Obsession, though often worthy of fear, does not require a recourse to the supernatural. I suggest that these drives and desires become the province of the psychoanalytic and not the supernatural; that (for better or worse) these fears, rituals and compulsions arrive from the territory of the unconscious. I would therefore claim that the ‘horror of compulsion’ is a very real and rational fear, and one that we can, and should, decouple from ‘superstition’. If nothing else, it may well be simply a question of degree; of how much this fear actually results in the starting and/or finishing of a work, and how much we might rely on ‘techniques to get the job done’.

What then for superstition? The Oxford dictionary defines ‘superstition’ as: “irrational awe or fear of the unknown…religious belief or practice founded on fear or ignorance…credulity regarding religion or the supernatural…” (OxDic: 3113).

So if superstition is more narrowly a type of fear of the unknown, it easily accords with our ignorance of, or refusal to admit, the psychoanalytic. Is not the project of psychoanalysis one of trying to bring the subliminal drives into the light, to attempt an understanding of our behaviours and motivations? Is it not a process that moves us away from superstition? So I reiterate, that while Jo’s line is not easily parsed, there need not be any residue of the supernatural in the artistic process. However, if superstition is this belief in a practice centred on fear, what this belief might disguise is the surprise in finding out that, ‘I am stuck’, and the serious disappointment that, ‘I don’t seem to have what it takes to finish the job’. So as a remedy, we can employ tricks, devices, subterfuge and mis-directions, that become the necessary and clever techniques in response to the very real Zizekian horror of compulsion. But, can we generalise from Jo’s line, and Patrick’s initial response, that the artistic process is one of working with fear? Is this what is left for our praxis?

To a large extent, yes. Leonard Cohen is said to have remarked that (song)writing is ‘more a sentence than a vocation’. It then becomes unreasonable for us to expect a linear path to the completion of a work, and we must admit that this compulsion can be tyrannical and overwhelming. We must allow the detours, (necessary and unnecessary), to realise the work. So yes, I am in sympathy with the idea that the artistic process can be full of deceptions, but these are not superstition; yes they are prone to compulsion, but need not be prone to the irrational – for there is a logic to the psychoanalytic. Zizek identifies what he calls Lacan’s single best known formula: “the unconscious is structured as a language;” the unconscious itself obeys its own grammar and logic, “the unconscious talks and thinks” (Zizek 2006: 3). Not surprisingly then, language for Lacan becomes “a gift as dangerous to humanity as the horse was to the Trojans; it offers itself to our use free of charge, but once we accept it, it colonizes us” (Zizek 2006: 11).

We might approach ‘superstition’ another way, by its opposition to a very closely related term, ‘religio’. It can be placed in a binary of superstitio / religio. ‘Superstitio’, following the latin, is read as an ‘irrational or excessive fear of the gods’, while ‘religio’ is the ‘proper or reasonable fear of the gods’ (Lewis)(EtymologyDic). Is the writing we are discussing here superstitio or religio? Can the term ‘the gods’, construed as I do, be synonymous with ‘writing’? If so, it would subversively appear that writing is in fact ‘religio’, requiring a ‘proper and reasonable fear’ of its horrible excesses. We might engage with this problem by claiming that writing/the gods, do not deserve our fear, especially on the political grounds of a disobedience to the tyrannical authority of its power to compel. Art/writing then becomes a paradox: it enslaves us to its compulsion, but it is also the act that undermines this power, and allows us to disobey its (and many other) authorities. Eric Fromm reminds us that civilization was created by acts of disobedience; Prometheus, even Adam and Eve,  with their actions allowed us to come into being (Fromm 2010: 3). Maybe we are only ever ‘one word ahead’ (one word behind) of this ever-present horror. Perhaps this predicament allows us to remember that art is the only activity that grants the abandonment of all rules.

I will put aside any further fear that mention of god creates in me to reiterate my point, which is – fear (and its subterfuge), need not rely on superstition. I think we can redefine fear of the uncreated, the incomplete and the abandoned, as a fear of compulsion; but also its result. For to acknowledge that compulsion, and not superstition, is central to the creative process, we find yet another way to say that god is dead. Mikhail Bakunin wrote that “if god really existed, it would be necessary to abolish him.” Yet, we might have recourse to return to Zizek on Lacan with, ‘god is not dead, but unconscious’ (Zizek 2007). This of course plays havoc with the standard atheist position. I would then say that while god is being unconscious, I might just have to get ‘on with my song’, and change that light bulb later.


Charlton T. Lewis, Charles Short, A Latin Dictionary, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.04.0059:entry=religio

Fromm, Eric 2010, Disobedience as a Psychological and Moral Problem, in ‘On Disobedience’. Essay originally appeared in Clara Urquhary, A Matter of Life (London: Jonathan Cape, 1963).

Online Etymology Dictionary, “Superstitio” and “Religion”, http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?allowed_in_frame=0&search=superstitio&searchmode=none

Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 2007 6th edition, Vol. 2, N-Z, Oxford University Press

Zizkek, Slavoj 2007, “God is Dead, but He Doesn’t Know It”: Lacan Plays with Bobok, http://www.lacan.com/zizbobok.html

Zizek, Slavoj  2006, How to Read Lacan, W.W Norton & Company Inc., New York

Invent then Abolish


Voltaire’s gave us his now famous aphorism: “if god did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” Bakunin wrote instead that, “if god really existed, it would be necessary to abolish him.”

The former shows us how we create tyrannical structures for ourselves, while the latter shows us what we must do to those tyrannical structures.

“the original form of dictatorship is theocratic.”


 (originally published Saturday, 19 May 2012)
 Quoted from a talk with Christopher Hitchens at the Sydney Writers Festival 2010 for ABC Big Ideas. See full interview here.                                                                            
“One of the threads of my book (Hitch 22) is the struggle to find a position that is consistently anti-totalitarian. I think that is a responsibility that everybody has, whatever there other politics are; and the original form of dictatorship, as George Orwell points out is theocratic. The declaration of independence you have to make before you can can re-assail the totalitarian position is to say that: there can be no celestially imposed unalterable dictatorship, that’s the most sinister kind of all.”

Nothing happens after Death

 beach poster

(originally published Sunday, 10 June 2012)

From of a talk by Sam Harris at the ‘Celebration of Reason – 2012 Global Atheist Convention,’ Melbourne 14.4.12

“The reality of death is absolutely central to religion, its denial is central to religion. Without death, faith based religion would be unthinkable. And from the point of view of the faithful, atheism appears to be the mere assertion of death. We actually appear to be a death cult, because we are the only people to admit that death is real… […]…The good news of atheism, the gospel of atheism, is essentially ‘nothing’; that nothing happens after death. There’s nothing to worry about, nothing to fear, after you die you are returned to that nothingness that you were before you were born…[…]…If we are right and nothing happens after death, then every religion ever devised is false.”