The Big Other Operating at a Symbolic Level

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(Reading: Slavoj Zizek’s How to Read Lacan; http://www.lacan.com/zizhowto.html)

At the very moment when others see the death of psychoanalysis, Zizek witnesses instead the return of it. Thus the aim of this book (How to Read Lacan) is, according to him, “to demonstrate that it is only today that the time of psychoanalysis has come”(2). Zizek wants to return to Freud through the eyes of Lacan. While Lacan revives psychoanalysis by recovering Freud, Zizek does it by recycling Lacan.

According to Zizek, “For Lacan, the reality of human beings is constituted by three intertangled levels: the Symbolic, the Imaginary, and the Real”(8). Among this Lacanian triad, Zizek focuses on the symbolic order, or ‘the big Other’ in the first two chapters. The Symbolic is what I have to know as a rule in order to get the meanings or to understand the others, but it is what I can know only in partial. Thus we know that something is operating as the big Other, but never fully understand it. Zizek considers the symbolic as “virtual” in the sense that “it exists only in so far as subjects act as if it exists”(10). It is, like the concept of nation, “the substance of the individuals who recognize themselves in it, … yet the only thing that really exists are these individuals and their activity, so this substance is actual only in so far as individuals believe in it and act accordingly”(10). The big Other, what can be read as “the symptom” in Freud, is “not a kind of spiritual substance existing independently of individual, but something that is sustained by their continuous activity”(11).

For Lacan, the symbolic order’s mode of operation can be exemplified at the level of human communication, in which language functions, like Trojan horse, as a free gift which will dominate us in the end by accepting it. As “empty gesture” which is “an offer made or meant to be rejected”(12) suggests, in the act of symbolic communication, there is not only a message but also a sort of formal gesture which is of no use. Even though this empty gesture seems excessive or superfluous, Zizek sees “a distinct gain for both parties in their pact of solidarity”(13) embedded in the process of the communication acts. Though there happened nothing substantial, something has been certainly changed. This is what Zizek discovers in the symbolic order – that is “performative” dimension of language.

Of course, the concept of performative is not new since Austin and Searle have already developed the theory of “speech act” in the realm of pragmatic linguistics. However, in Lacanian perspective, “the ‘twofold moment’ of the symbolic function reaches far beyond the standard theory of the performative dimension of speech”(15). As Georg Lukács’ concept of “consciousness” which is “in itself ‘practical’, an act that changes its very object” is different from knowledge which is external to the known object, the performative of the symbolic changes the very reality of the subject. Like the moment of class consciousness, the “reflexive moment of declaration means that every utterance not only transmits some content, but, simultaneously, conveys the way the subject relates to this content”(16).

There is also a negative version of declaration – “the act of not mentioning or concealing something can create additional meaning” (19). When a high representative of the US administration openly admits torturing the suspected terrorists and argues the necessity of it, this statement contains more than a mere acknowledgement of or regret for their activity. In the same logic, when the US delegation to the UN demanded to cover Picasso’s Guernica on the wall behind the Collin Powell delivering his address of advocating Iraq invasion, what was unconsciously admitted but not uttered is the association between the two wars. Thus the act of repression is at the same time the return of the repressed (19). The important thing is to remember that “in the content of an act of communication” the act itself is included, “since the meaning of each act of communication is also to reflexively asset that it is an act of communication”(21). This is “the way the unconscious operates.”

Another aspect of the big Other can be found in what Zizek calls “interpassivity.” This interpassivity can be exemplified in terms of Chorus, weeper, Tibetan prayer wheels, canned laughter on TV shows, VCR, pornography, and so on. Contrary to interactivity, these interpassive apparatuses generate the situation in which, by inverting the relations between the object and the subject – the object participates or plays the role of the subject. For example, while I am studying at the library, VCR is recording (or watching) the movie instead of me, even though I will not have time to watch that movie later. I am lived by the object, instead of living my life. “I am passive through the Other”(25). Through the interpassive mode, ironically, however, “we are active all the time to make sure that nothing will really change”(27).

In this uncanny way, we realize that the symbolic order, the domain of culture, is operating by virtue of the “gap between my direct psychological identity and my symbolic identity” or the “gap between what I immediately am and the function that I exercise”(34). Thus, due to this gap or the “symbolic castration,” the subject, like hysteric, continuously asks what he really is or what she really wants. And since man’s desire is always desire for what other desires, we cannot but accept this inconsistency of our desire from the very beginning. However, we must not forget that our culture embedded in the big Other’s name is historical dreamwork which reveals the fundamental features of our time and at the same time the battlefield where various powers of interpretation compete.

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