Denial, Freud’s Verneinung, or in French, la dénégation, is one of the more popular terms of our pop-psychology vocabulary. To be in denial is to refuse to accept one’s responsibility for a problem by denying the problem’s very existence.
Dogs and cats do not practice denial. Only when we have a means of representing reality are we able to represent reality falsely. As a pathology inherent in language, denial makes us realize that the latter’s primary function is not to construct rational models, but to defer conflict. The fundamental operations of language are not those of propositional logic but of ostensive sacralization, removal from the represented object from the world of our desire as divinity and/or victim.
In Being and Nothingness, Jean-Paul Sartre describes a phenomenon very like denial. Sartre denounces as bad faith (mauvaise foi) treating oneself as an unfree thing (en-soi). This is the case, for example, of one who excuses his excessive drinking on the grounds that he suffers from the disease of alcoholism. Alcoholism becomes a magic word designed to absolve the drinker of responsibility for his actions, that defines him as a part of nature rather than humanity.
The alcoholic’s physical coercion may well be real; perhaps he really can’t live without a drink. This manipulation of the physical by the moral, the escape from the potentially conflictive world of mimetic desire into a personal sacred, is the chief reason for any kind of addiction. However mimetically I may have begun to drink, now I am no longer free to imitate the desires of others; I have regressed from desire to appetite. My designation as an alcoholic is a consecration of my strategy, a public acknowledgement that alcohol has become my God.
But to admit my regressive act of faith puts my strategy in doubt. What began as a means of liberation from mimetic desire becomes a source of vulnerability to the manipulations of others. The stigma that attaches to alcoholism despite the efforts of our victimary culture suggests that the cult of Bacchus is best concealed. Whence the strategy of denial. What I really deny in refusing to admit my dependency on alcohol is the power of others to define me by the apparent intentionality of my behavior. I assert my unalienable formal freedom as a user of language in the face of the alienation implicit in my actions. I have no “alcohol problem”; I simply “enjoy a drink now and then.”
Denial presupposes the formulation of the proposition–“I am an alcoholic”–that is denied. (The important thing here is not the word alcoholic; any synonym–problem drinker–would do as well.) But denial bears witness to the sacred just as much as affirmation. As in the practice of taboo, by not mentioning a malevolent divinity, I avoid attracting its always dangerous attention. The denier is no more an unbelieving free spirit than the person of bad faith; his worship is merely secretive and fearful rather than overt.
Sartre explicitly defines bad faith as denial of freedom: we are, in his neo-Hegelian terminology, for-itself, not in-itself; we have no essence, but exist in freedom. But Sartre’s analyses fail to catch the essential paradox of the human condition. The source of what Sartre calls our freedom is our possession of language, but it is through language that we deny this freedom. Our originary use of language is to renounce the object of our appetite and submit ourselves to the sacred. Language is not a simple sign of liberation from the animal state, of the passage from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom; it is in the first place a means of deferring mimetic violence. The denier, like everyone else, uses language to carry out this deferral. What we accuse him of is not his denial, but what he denies: his worship of false gods that incarnate a perverse understanding of the relationship between language and violence. The drinker finds peace from mimetic violence by sacrificing the peace of his immediate surroundings. Whether he denies his dependency or affirms it as an ultimate truth, he stands on the side of disorder rather than order; his worship is a form of Satanism.
But in the more crucial case, I turn to Alcoholics Anonymous, where I will be forced to designate myself as Eric Gans, an alcoholic every time I speak. Here the word retains its sacred force, but it is used neither to deny dependency nor to excuse it. By thematizing my dependency on alcohol, I make the paradox of signification work for rather than against me. I recognize that my free acts have made me partially unfree, and put my unfreedom in words in order to exorcize it.
It is easy to denounce the denial of the alcoholic, but it is not always so easy to distinguish between false gods and true. Each step in the process of desacralization that liberates us from bad faith requires more evolved mechanisms of deferral. The absolute freedom that Sartre attributes to the human is indeed inherent in our possession of language, but its realization, even in thought, lies at the horizon of human history, a horizon that cannot be reached but only forever approached.