“The Big Other Doesn’t Exist”

In the “Oedipus complex,” parricide (and incest with the mother) is the unconscious desire of all ordinary (male) subjects, since the paternal figure prevents access to the maternal object, disturbs our symbiosis with it, while Oedipus himself is the exceptional figure, the One who effectively did it. In T&T [Freud’s Totem and Taboo], on the contrary, parricide is not the goal of our unconscious wish, but, as Freud emphasizes again and again, a prehistoric fact which “really had to occur”, to allow the passage from animal state to Culture. In short, the traumatic event is not something we dream about, but which never really happens and thus, via its postponement, sustains the state of culture (since the consummation of the incestuous link with the mother would abolish the symbolic distance/prohibition which defines the universe of Culture); rather, the traumatic event is that which always already had to happen the moment we are within the order of Culture. If we effectively killed the father, why is the outcome not the longed-for incestuous union? In this paradox lies the central thesis of T&T: the bearer of prohibition preventing our access to the incestuous object is not the living but the DEAD father, who, after his death, returns as his Name, i.e., the embodiment of the symbolic law/prohibition. What the matrix of T&T accounts for is thus the structural necessity of the parricide: the passage from direct brutal force to the rule of symbolic authority, of the prohibitory law, is always grounded in a (disavowed) act of primordial crime. Therein resides the dialectic of “You can only prove that you love me by betraying me”: the father is elevated into the venerated symbol of Law only after his betrayal and murder. This problematique also opens up the vaguaries of ignorance not the subject’s, but the big Other’s: “the father is dead, although unaware of it,” i.e., he doesn’t know that his loving followers have (always-already) betrayed him. On the other hand, this means that the father “really thinks that he is a father,” that his authority directly emanates from his person, not merely from the empty symbolic place that he occupies and/or fills in. What the faithful follower should conceal from the paternal figure of the leader is precisely this gap between the leader in the immediacy of his personality and the symbolic place he occupies, a gap on account of which the father qua effective person is utterly impotent and ridiculous (King Lear, confronted violently with this betrayal and the ensuing unmasking of his impotence, and deprived of his symbolic title, is reduced to an old, raging, impotent fool). The heretical legend according to which Christ himself ordered Judas to betray him (or at least let him know his wish between the lines…) is thus well-founded: in this necessity of the Betrayal of the Great Man, which can only assure his Fame, resides the ultimate mystery of Power.

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This God of groundless Willing and ferocious “irrational” rage is the God who, by means of his Prohibition, destroys the old sexualized Wisdom, thus opening up the space for the de-sexualized, “abstract” knowledge of modern science. The paradox is that there is “objective” scientific knowledge (in the modern, post-Cartesian sense of the term) only if the universe of scientific knowledge itself is supplemented and sustained by this excessive “irrational” figure of the prohibitive father; Descartes’ “voluntarism” (his infamous statement that 2+2 would be 5 if such were God’s Will, there are no eternal truths directly co-substantial with the Divine Nature) is the necessary obverse of modern scientific knowledge. Pre-modern Aristotelian and Medieval knowledge was not yet “objective,” rational, scientific precisely because it lacked this excessive element of God qua the subjectivity of pure “irrational” Willing: the Aristotelian God, directly equal to its own eternal rational Nature, “is” nothing but the logical Order of Things. A further paradox is that this “irrational” God, as the prohibitory paternal figure, also opens up the space for the entire development of modernity, up to the deconstructionist notion that our sexual identity is a contingent socio-symbolic formation: the moment this prohibitory figure recedes, we are back into Jungian neoobscurantist notions of masculine and feminine archetypes which thrive today. This point is crucial if we are not to misunderstand completely the gap which separates the “proper” authority of the symbolic law/prohibition from the mere “regulation by rules”: paradoxically, the domain of symbolic rules, to count as such, must be grounded in some tautological authority BEYOND RULES, which says, “It is so because said it so!”.

[…]

One of the obsessions of the contemporary New Age approach to Plato is to unearth beneath his public teaching at our disposal in his written dialogues his true, esoteric doctrine, Plato’s so called “secret teaching”. This “secret teaching” exemplifies case of the theoretical obscene Other which accompanies, as a kind of shadowy double, the One of pure theory. But, on a closer look, the positive content of this “secret teaching” reveals itself to be pop-wisdom commonplaces a la Joseph Campbell sold at airport bookstores: the New Age platitudes about the duality of cosmic principles, about how the One, the positive principle of Light, must be accompanied by the primordial Otherness, the mysterious dark principle of feminine matter. Therein resides the basic paradox of Plato’s mysterious “secret teaching”: the secret we are supposed to discern through the arduous work of textual archeology is none other than the most notorious New Age pop-wisdom a nice example of Lacanian topology in which the innermost kernel coincides with the radical externality. This is simply another chapter in the eternal fight waged by obscurantist Illumination against Enlightenment: insofar as Plato was the first great Enlightener, the obsession with his secret teaching bears witness to the effort to prove that Plato himself was already an obscurantist preaching a special initiatic doctrine.

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These vicissitudes signal that, today, “the big Other doesn’t exist” is more radical than the usual one, synonymous with symbolic order: this symbolic trust, which persists against all sceptical data, is more and more undermined. The first paradox of this retreat of the big Other is discernible in the so-called “culture of complaint” with its underlying logic of ressentiment: far from cheerfully assuming the inexistence of the big Other, the subject blames the Other for its failure and/or impotence, as if the Other is guilty for the fact that it doesn’t exist, i.e. as if impotence is no excuse. The more the subject’s structure is “narcissistic,” the more he blames the big Other, and thus asserts his dependence on it. The “culture of complaint” thus calls on the big Other to intervene, and to set things straight (to recompense the damaged sexual or ethnic minority, etc., although how exactly this is to be done is a matter of different ethico-legal “committees”). The specific feature of the “culture of complaint” lies in its legalistic twist, in the endeavor to translate the complaint into the legal obligation of the Other (usually the State) to indemnify one for what? For the very unfathomable surplus-enjoyment of which I am deprived, whose lack makes me feel deprivileged. Thus, is not the “culture of complaint” today’s version of the hysterical impossible demand, addressed to the Other, which effectively wants to be rejected, since the subject grounds its existence in its complaint:”I am insofar as I make the Other responsible and/or guilty for my misery”? The gap here is insurmountable between this logic of complaint and the true “radical” (“revolutionary”) act which, instead of complaining to the Other and expecting it to act (i.e. displacing the need to act onto it), suspends the existing legal frame and itself accomplishes the act. What is wrong with the complaint of the truly deprivileged is that, instead of undermining the position of the Other, they still address It: they, translating their demand into legalistic complaint, confirm the Other in its position by their very attack.

Furthermore, a wide scope of phenomena the resurgent ethico/religious “fundamentalisms” which advocate a return to the Christian or Islamic patriarchal division of sexual roles; the New Age massive re-sexualization of the universe, i.e., the return to pre-modern, pagan, sexualized cosmo-ontology; the growth of “conspiracy theories” as a form of popular “cognitive mapping” seem to counter the retreat of the big Other. These phenomena cannot be simply dismissed as “regressive,” as new modes of “escape from freedom,” as unfortunate “remainders of the past” which will disappear if only we continue more resolutely on the deconstructionist path of historicisation of every fixed identity, of unmasking the contingency of every naturalized self-image. Rather, these disturbing phenomena compel us to elaborate the contours of the big Other’s retreat: The paradoxical result of this mutation in the “inexistence of the Other” (of the growing collapse of the symbolic efficiency) is precisely the re-emergence of the different facets of a big Other which exists effectively, in the Real, and not merely as symbolic fiction.

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The gap that separates this Kantian version of the subject reinventing the rules of his ethical conduct from the postmodern Foucauldian version is easily discernible. Both assert that ethical judgments ultimately display the structure of aesthetic judgement (in which, instead of simply applying a universal rule to a particular situation, one must (re)invent the universal rule in each unique concrete situation); however, in Foucault, this simply means that the subject is thrown into a situation in which he has to shape his ethical project with no support in any transcendent(al) Law, while for Kant, this very absence of Law in the specific sense of a determinate set of positive universal norms renders all the more sensible the unbearable pressure of the moral Law qua the pure empty injunction to do one’s Duty. From the Lacanian perspective, it is here that we encounter the crucial distinction between rules to be invented and their underlying Law/Prohibition: it is only when the Law qua set of positive universal symbolic norms fails to appear, that we encounter the Law at its most radical, the Law in its aspect of the Real of an unconditional injunction. The paradox to be emphasized here resides in the precise nature of the Prohibition involved by the moral Law: at its most fundamental, this Prohibition is not the prohibition to accomplish some positive act which would violate the Law, but the self-referential prohibition to confuse the “impossible” Law with any positive symbolic prescription and/or prohibition, i.e., to claim for any positive set of norms the status of the law. Ultimately, the Prohibition means that the place of the Law itself must remain empty.

[Extract from Journal of European Psychoanalysis, Spring/Fall 1997 (full text available here).]