Lacan through Zizek: On ‘the big Other’

Triad of the Real

It seems that Slavoj Zizek’s book “How to Read Lacan” is a wonderful starting point for both students of Zizek and, of course, for new students of Jacques Lacan. At least in my case it has provided a graspable yet engaging starting point for my study of both of these thinkers. I have stumbled through several of Lacan’s “Ecrits” and bumbled my way across the pages of Zizek’s “The Sublime Object of Ideology” and “The Parallax View,” to little avail ((dense)). The struggle will continue, though.

In the first chapter of “How to Read Lacan,” Zizek lays the groundwork for concepts such as “The Triad of the Real,” “The Big Other” and “Empty Gestures.” I will do my best here today to put the idea of ‘the big Other’ into my own words in hopes of being able to better understand it. If you have spent time with the works of Zizek and/or Lacan and would like to clarify, correct or challenge my interpretation of what is discussed here, please do so. I am a humble student and it is my hope this year to better familiarize myself with the works of both Zizek and Lacan.

The Lacanian idea of ‘the big Other’ comes through human interaction/communication. ‘The big Other’ is the virtual regulator of etiquette and social conversation. That is to say, ‘the big Other’ is the ambience of the situation that comes through human ways of following situational “rules.” That is, without human beings, there is no ‘big Other.’ When I shake someone’s hand, I am performing an act with no real significance to me. The shaking of the hand is the expected way of greeting in American culture (similar to the empty question: “how are you?”). The shaking of the hand is done in accord with the virtuality of ‘the big Other.’ For Lacan, the big Other operates on three interconnected levels: The imaginary, the symbolic and the real. The ‘imaginary’ is the virtualization of the other. It is seeing one’s lover as being more than just a skeleton with decaying flesh, it is covering the other with an imaginary image. The symbolic is the way of interacting with the other. That is, it is the following of grammar, “going on” in conversations, shaking hands, bowing, etc. The real is the surrounding forces of the situation, it is the unpredictability of the environment, disaster, unexpected happenings and so on. Of these three, the ‘symbolic’ is most important in understanding ‘the big Other.’

Through Zizek’s elucidation of this Lacanian idea we find: “When we speak (or listen, for that matter), we never merely interact with others; our speech activity is grounded on our accepting and relying on a complex network of rules and other kinds of presuppositions (Zizek 9).” That is to say, our communication with others (and with our self, perhaps) is grounded in and acted out through ‘the big Other.’ The big Other comes through us in how we speak and in how we comprehend the other. Zizek akins it to the philosophical use of ‘one.’

In Japanese culture there are myriads of culturally sensitive ways of interacting, proper expressions to use when interacting and such. When one gives a gift, it is correct to depricate oneself and the gift, while fully knowing that it is not a bad gift and that one is probably in fact very happy to give the gift. This following of verbal etiquette is adhered to and, for Lacan, I think that this would come through as a recognition of ‘the big Other.’ That is, the putting down of oneself (in many situations in Japan) comes through the use of language and the importance of following these linguistic rules. Moreover, it is not a written rule, but it is as if there is a spectral presence watching over the situation, a spectral presence that one recognizes and obeys.

The origin of the big Other comes through language and as Zizek writes, elucidating a dense passage by Lacan: “The symbolic order emerges from a gift, an offering, that marks its content as neutral in order to pose as a gift: when a gift is offered, what matters is not its content but the link between giver and receiver established when the receiver accepts the gift (Zizek 12).” That is, in the above mentioned example of giving a gift in Japan and admitting that it is not a good gift, etc. is done knowing that it is necessary to sustain the link between self and other and this putting down of oneself is the way in which that link is sustained. Even for the receiver, the way that the giver gives the gift is more important than the gift itself.

All quotations are from: “How to Read Lacan” by Slavoj Zizek (Norton Publishing)