How to read Lacan: Zizek on Lacan – Part 1. Lacan confronts the CIA plot.

It was Slavoj Žižek’s birthday last week, and I figured – seeing as I am a bit of a fan – that would dedicate a couple of posts to his short but oh so fabulous introduction to the work of Jaques Lacan.  What I’m going to do here is pretty much paraphrase Žižek’s work. I think there is some fantastic food for thought in this little intro. I am a follower of Freudian psychoanalysis, even though I don’t necessarily agree with every thing Freud said, nor everything Lacan said. However, at the rudimentary level, there is some wonderful food for thought in the work of Lacan, and I honestly think no one can explain him as well as  Slavoj Žižek.

Each of the chapters we will look at start with a quote from Lacan. I’ll do the same thing here – but don’t be put off. You will like the explanations, and remarkably, you’ll find (as I did) Lacan has a lot to say about things like television, social media, and love to name just a couple of relevent to today topics.

So, that’s enough of an introduction. Now its time to get into a little fun and games.


1. Empty gestures and Performatives: Lacan confronts the CIA plot

Is it with the giftds of Danaoi (the Greeks who gave the trojan horse) or wit the passwords that give them their salutory non-sense that language, with the law, begins? For these gifts are already symbols, in the sense that symbol means pact and that they are first and foremost signifyers of the pact that they constitute as signified, as is plainly seen in the fact that the objects of symbolic exchange – pots made to remain empty, shields too heavyto be carried, sheaves of what that wither, lances stuck into the ground – all are destined to be useless, if not simply superfluous by their very abundance.

Is this neutralization of the signifyer the whole of the nature of language? ON this assessment, one could see the begining of itamong sea swallows, for instance, during the mating parade, materialized in the fish they pass between each other from beak to beak.And if the Ethnologists are right in seeing in this the instrument of an activation of the group that might be called gthe equivalent of a festival, they would be completely justified in recognizing it as a symbol. 

Lacan, Ecrits. A Selection

In Mexican soap operas, so many are shot at so frantic a pace, that the actors don’t have time to learn and rehearse lines. They wear small microphones in their ears and are given their lines and direction which they follow. This is a good example of what Lacan means by ‘the big Other’. “The Symbolic order, societies unwritten constitution, is the second natures of every speaking being:  It is here, directing and controlling my acts; it is the sea I swim in, yet it remains ultimately impenetrable – I can never put it in front of me and grasp it.”

But does this mean that Lacan thinks we are puppets, completely directed by some sort of nameless faceless entity? Is it an Oz like character, standing behind a curtain pulling all the strings?

Lacan says no.  The big Other only operates at the symbolic level and only controls that aspect of our communication. Well then, what is the symbolic order comprised of?

When we speak to each other, we don’ just say words.  Our speech and interaction relies on a complex network of rules and other kinds of suppositions. For example, there is grammar. We have to master these so that we don’t have to think about them when we communicate. There are a few of these rules. There are those I follow out of habit – like grammar. There are rules I follow, meaning that haunt me, in ignorance  – such as unconscious prohibitions. Then there are the rules and meanings I know of , but must not be seen to know of – dirty or obscene innuendoes that one passes over in silence in order to keep up the proper appearances.

The symbolic space acts as a yardstick against which I can measure myself. It can be seen as a god that rules over me, or a cause (Freedom, Communism, Environmentalism, Nation) and for which I am ready to give my life. While talking, I am never merely a ‘small other’ talking to a ‘small other’. The big Other is always there.

A classic example of the big Other is in this joke:

A man is shipwrecked on an island with  – lets say  Kate Moss – and they have sex. After the sex, Kate Moss asks the man how it was. His answer is great – but he still has one small request to complete his satisfaction. he asks her to put on a fake moustache, and wear trousers so that she will look like his bet friends. When she does, he gives her a dig in the ribs and tells her with the leer of male complicity” “you know what just happened to me?  i had sex with Kate Moss!”  This Third, which is always present as the witness, belies the possibility of an unspoiled innocent private pleasure.  Sex is always minimally exhibitionist and relies on another’s gaze.

Despite all the power of the big Other, it is actually fragile, insubstantial and properly virtual. It exists for only as long as the subject acts as if it exists. Think of an ideological cause like ‘Nationalism’. It doesn’t exist outside of the people who believe in it. Meaning is given To Nationalism, but it doesn’t exist outside of those who give it the meaning. This is the way Freud described a symptom. When I develop a symptom, I have produced a coded message about my innermost secrets, my unconscious desires and traumas. To whom am I addressing this ‘notification’?  It isn’t a flesh and blood other. The only remaining candidate is the big Other. This virtual character of the big Other means that the symbolic order is not a kind of spiritual substance existing independently of individuals, but something that is sustained by their continuous activity.  Still, this doesn’t completely clear up the notion of the big Other.

This brings us to the passage we opened with.

In it, Lacan is proposing an account of the genesis of the big Other. For Lacan, language is a gift that has hidden dangers – just like the horse was to the Trojans. Language offers itself to us free of charge, but once we decide to use it – it colonizes us. The symbolic order emerges from a gift. A neutral offering that marks a link between a giver and a receiver. A good example of this is gifts between lovers. They will often be superfluous, usually useless:  A ring, a bunch of roses, chocolates. The more useless (a giant teddy bear) the more it will symbolise my love. A practical gift (an iron) is seen as something ‘less than’. Human communication is always communicating and the symbol of communicating. Speaking to someone never just means the words you are saying. It is also always a sign that you are communicating with that person. This is what is meant by symbolic exchange.

The simplest version of the symbolic exchange is the  empty gesture.  that is an offer that is made that is meant to be rejected. Belonging to a society involves a paradoxical point at which each of us is ordered to embrace freely, as a result of our choice, what is anyway imposed upon us (we all must love our country, our parents, our religion). This paradox of willing (choosing freely) what is in case compulsory, of pretending (maintaining the appearance) that there is a free choice though for all intents and purposes there isn’t really one.  This is a classic example of the empty gesture.

Another example of this, is if I compete with a colleague for a job position, and I win, and I see my colleague upset, I could offer the position to my colleague, in the full understanding that they are supposed to refuse, but that it breaks the tension between the two friends. IN this way, we may save the friendship. This is a symbolic exchange at its purest. A gesture meant to be rejected. However, if my friend were to accept my offer, and take the job off me, the results would be catastrophic.  This would cause the disintegration of the semblance of freedom – and the disintegration of the social order upon wich everything is relying.


The idea of the social link established through empty gestures helps us to understand sociopaths better. The sociopath uses language, he is not caught up in it. This determines a sociopaths relationship to morality. he can discern the social rules, that regulate interaction, and even go as far as to act morally if it suits his purpose, he lacks the ‘gut feeling’ of right and wrong.  For him morality is a theory one learns and follows, not something one identifies with. Doing evil is a mistake in calculation, not a guilty act.

Because of this dual action in language, every choice we confront is a choice of choice itself. let me say this another way.  What if my partner says to me, “Please, I really love you.  if we get together here, I will be totally dedicated to you! But beware! If you reject me, I may lose control nad make your life a misery!’ The catch here is that the choice is not a simple choice. The second part of he message negate the choice. This person can’t really love me. Therefore, I am faced with only the ill effects of rejection. Even if my lover were to say, “I love you and will accept whatever your choice is about me, no matter what. So please choose, knowing that no matter how I feel, you will not be affected.”  This is still a manipulation because the love – the total love – is used as a bargaining tool to ensure the lover can’t refuse. “If I love you this perfectly, how can you refuse me?”

We can now see quite clearly the way that language is far more than just the words used, and we can see why Lacan is so interested in the symbolic rules of human perception and interaction. Lacan is interested in exactly HOW these symbolic gestures are intertwined in our communication. Lacan tells us that there is a ‘twofold moment’ of the symbolic function. An example of this is a man who works on a production line who thinks of himself as one of the workers s he joins the union – phase one. In phase two, in the name of being with te unions, he joins a general strike. Consciousness is in itself a practical act that changes the very object. (once the worker sees himself as part of the union, this changes his reality. he will act differently.) One declares oneself, and on the basis of this declaration, does someting new. the key moment is the one where the declaration takes place. Not the moment of the act.

This moment of declaration means that every utterance not only transmits some content, but, simultaneously, conveys the way te subject relates to this content.

A classic example of this is the man who owns a Porsche that can do speeds he is not allowed to do on the roads in which he drives. His car ownership send a signal about a certain way of life, that has nothing to do with function.  He may never drive the car at that speed, but he can ‘be’ that man anyway.

The act of publicly reporting on something is never neutral.

Think of a loving couple who have agreed to extramarital affairs according to certain rules. Imagine if one of the rules is ‘don’t ask dont tell.’ If, all of a sudden, the husband tells his wife about an affair, she may cry, ‘why are you telling me? this can’t be just an affair.  it must be something more.’ The act of publicly reporting is never neutral, it affects the reported content itself.

What we are dealing with here is the irreducible gap between the enunciated content and the act of enunciation. In academia, if you don’t like a colleagues talk, you say ‘that was interesting.’ if we openly tell the colleague their talk was boring and stupid, they are entitled to say, ‘but if its boring and stupid, why didn’t you just say it was interesting?’ the offended colleague will assume you mean something more, because of the way the content has been transformed.

A classic example of this is in February 2003 when Colin Powell addressed the UN assembly to advocate the attack on Iraq, the US delegation asked for the large reproduction of Picasso’s Guernica on the wall behind the speakers podium to be covered during Powells speech. Although it was claimed the art work messed with the lighting, everyone knew what this was really about. The US Government didn’t want to talk about bombing Iraq in front of the symbol of the travesty of the German aerial bombing of the Spanish city during the civil war. This would give the wrong associations. This is what Lacan means when he says repression and return of the repressed are the same thing. If the US had refrained from drawing attention to the painting, probably no one would make the connection. But by asking for the painting to be removed, the point is made better than if they’d said nothing.

The classic example of this is James Angleton who was obsessed with finding KGB agents in the CIA. He absolutely believed in the ‘monster plot’ that is the planting of Soviet agents within the CIA. For this reason, Angleton dismissed almost all KGB defectors, out of fear they would connect with the hidden agents. This meant the CIA lost valuable information and many of the defectors were shot by the KGB. His paranoia so effectively froze the powers of the CIA that eventually he was accused of being the mole and a KGB spy. You may ask – well maybe he was the spy after all?  Wether he was the spy or not, the results were the same. This is the terrible truth of paranoia. It is the destructive plot against which it is fighting. It actually doesn’t matter what Angleton actually did. It’s what he believed that cause the CIA to freeze.

Remember the story of the worker that the factory bosses know is stealing. they just don’t know what. Every day when he leaves his wheelbarrow is checked thoroughly. Then one day, they work out – he has been stealing wheelbarrows.

This is the first thing to bear in mind about the way the unconscious operates:  it is not hidden in the wheelbarrow, it is the wheelbarrow itself.