How To Read Lacan Summary (8/10) — Unearned Wisdom
Zizek in How to Read Lacan does not merely articulate the philosophy of Lacan but adds his own philosophical slant. The book begins with a description of a major development that occurred at the turn of the millennium in the year 2000. With new advances in the brain sciences, there was a proclamation of the death of psychoanalysis. Freud’s ideas were buried where it always belonged, with all the other pre-scientific obscurantist quests for hidden meanings, alongside dream readers and religious confessors.
Like psychoanalysis, Marxism has been considered by many to be profoundly wrong in its underlying assumptions.
Freud wrote about three successive humiliations of man (three narcissistic illnesses).
First, Copernicus showed that the Earth revolved around the sun which meant that humans were not in the central location of the cosmos. Then Darwin showed how man emerged from blind evolution which made humanity much less special among other animals. Finally, Freud unveiled the role of the unconscious in psychic processes. Not only were we not special or central, but we didn’t even have control of our own minds. Today, a century later, neuroscience has unleashed a new series of blows to human narcissism: our mind is a mere computing machine, processing data; our sense of freedom and autonomy is the user’s illusion of this machine.
Even psychoanalysis itself now belongs to the dustbin of humanist fields subverted by our latest scientific discoveries. Is psychoanalysis really outdated?
It seems that it is on three accounts.
1) the cognitivist-neurobiologist model of the mind has superseded the Freudian model.
2) the psychiatric clinic, where psychoanalytical treatment is quickly losing ground to pills and behavioral therapy.
3) in society, where the Freudian image of a society and social norms that repress the individual’s sexual drives no longer seems a valid account of today’s hedonistic world.
Lacan vs Freud
According to Lacan, it is not that the unconscious preserves wild drives that are tamed by the ego, as Freud believed, but the site where a traumatic truth is expressed.
This is where Lacan’s version of Freud’s motto (where it was, I am to become), is not “the ego should conquer the id” but “I should dare to approach the site of my truth, since what awaits me is not a deep truth I have to identify with, but an unbearable truth I have to learn to live with.”
Other than the concept of the unconscious, how exactly do Lacan’s ideas deviate from traditional psychoanalysis and Freud?
Lacan did not think of psychoanalysis as a theory of technique for treating psychic disturbances, but a theory and practice that confronts the individual with the most radical dimension of human existence. It does not show an individual how to fit in to the demands of social reality but explains how “reality” constitutes itself in the first place.
For Lacan, the point is not just to get a person to accept a repressed truth about themselves, but how the dimension of truth emerges in human reality. The emphasis, then, is on this philosophical dimension, rather than on the practical dimension that traditional schools of psychoanalysis are concerned with.
Lacan thought that pathological formations like neuroses, psychoses and perversions have the dignity of fundamental philosophical attitudes towards reality. When I suffer obsessional neurosis, this ‘illness’ changes my entire relationship to reality and defines the global structure of my personality. That is a much more nuanced understanding than simply labelling them as pathologies that should be corrected.
Here, we get a sense of Lacan’s idea of the purpose of psychoanalysis. It is not as we said, the patient’s well-being, successful social life, or personal fulfilment — the objective is to get the patient to confront the elementary coordinates and deadlocks of their desire.
The Big Other
Mexican soap operas are shot at so frantic a pace (a daily 25-minute episode) that the actors don’t use a script; they wear tiny receivers in their ears that tell them what to do. This process gives us an idea of what Lacan means by ‘the big Other’.
A synonym of ‘the big Other’ is the symbolic order of society; that is, the unwritten constitution that is the second nature of each person. The symbolic order is the director of everything, but impenetrable. It is as if, like the actors in the Mexican soap opera, we talk and interact like puppets, and our speech and behaviors are dictated by some nameless all-pervasive agency.
What is Lacan suggesting? That humans are devoid of free will? That we are mere epiphenomena, or tools of the big Other? To some extent, but there is more nuance to the idea.
Lacan thought that the reality of human beings is constructed by three intertangled levels: the Symbolic, the Imaginary, and the Real. This triad can be illustrated by the game of chess. The rules are the symbolic dimension (the knight is defined by its allowed movements). This level differs from the imaginary one, which defines the shapes and names of its pieces ( king, queen), and it is easy to imagine a game with the same rules but different imaginary. And finally, the real is the whole set of contingent circumstances that affect the course of the game, such as the intelligence of the players, and the unpredictable intrusions that might cause the players to abandon the game.
How to Read Lacan, Zizek
The big Other operates at a symbolic level. Our interactions with one another are informed by rule of grammar, a complex network of rules and presuppositions. We must accept these in order to communicate with one another intelligibly. For example, if we are arguing with someone, we must both assume that our conversation is bound by laws of language that neither of us are allowed to trespass. In fact, if any of us chooses to trespass these laws, then a coherent conversation would not be possible.
The rules that I follow depend on a deep divide: there are rules I follow blindly, out of habit, but if I reflect on them, I can become partially aware of (such as common grammatical rules), and there are rules that I follow, meanings that haunt me, in ignorance (such as unconscious prohibitions). Then there are rules and meanings I must be aware of but must seem to not be aware of (dirty or obscene innuendos that one passes over in silence to maintain appearances).
How to Read Lacan, Zizek
To the individual, the symbolic space acts like a standard that they can measure themselves against. That is why the big Other can be
This symbolic space acts like a standard against which I can measure myself. That’s why the big Other can be reified in a single agent, such as the ‘God’ who watches over me and over all real individuals, or the Cause that involves me such as Freedom or Communism.
Despite of its grounding power, the big Other is fragile, insubstantial, and virtual. Its status is that of a subjective presupposition. It exists only insofar as subjects act as if it exists. The identity of the big Other entirely depends on social context. One person’s big Other can be another person’s heresy, while for another; simply not exist.
Think of how many people died for an ideological cause like Communism, while to many others, the concept is either alien to them, or has had no influence whatsoever on their behavior.
So, what are the implications of this? To Lacan, it suggests that language Is a gift that is as dangerous to humanity as the horse was to the Trojans: it offers itself to our use for free, but once we accept it, it colonizes us.
The person most immune to language is the sociopath. To the sociopath, language is simply an instrument to convey meaning. There is nothing deeper to it. There is no human bond through empty gestures that are worth pursuing for their own sake. The sociopath is not caught up in language; he insensitive to the performative dimension. So, while the sociopath can discern the moral rules that govern social behavior, and even to conform to them, he does not have the gut feeing of right and wrong; the idea that some behaviors are amoral regardless of the social rules.
The sociopath practice of morality is akin to utilitarianism, where morality is determined by an intelligent calculation of interests over the long run. It is in our self-interest if we contribute to the maximum amount of pleasure the greatest number of people. Morality, to the sociopath, is something to be learned and followed. Thus, doing evil is a calculation error, not a guilty act.
To illuminate this idea, Zizek gives us an example from the perfect arena occupied by sociopaths: politics. He recalls when the US administration openly admitted that they torture terrorist prisoners. One could suggest that such an admission was simply meant to assure people that the US was not doing anything different than other states. This means that they are less hypocritical if anything. But Zizek pushes the point further. if Dick Cheney (who made the admission) simply wanted the U.S to carry out torture in private, why make a public statement about it?
Essentially, Zizek’s point is that to these government officials, there is nothing fundamentally amoral about torture, so long as it brings the maximum amount of pleasure to the highest number of people. There is nothing wrong in admitting to torture, because far from being an admission of guilt, it is simply an admission of what others are doing as well.
There is also a sense in which the internal guilt (from engaging in torture) is totally irrelevant, as long as there is an external mechanism that yields a perceived benefit. Zizek uses the analogy of the prayer wheels of Tibet: I attach a piece of paper with a prayer written on it to the wheel, turn it around mechanically (or let the water/wind turn it around), and the wheel is praying for me. So, objectively I am praying, even if my thoughts are occupied with the obscenest sexual fantasies. Or the example of canned laughter, where I am tired after a long day, but experience relief after the show, as if the soundtrack has done the laughing for me.
To really understand this strange process, think of interpassivity, rather than the interactivity just described. With new electronic media, many people emphasize how there is no longer a passive consumption of text or a work of art.
I no longer merely stare at the screen, I increasingly interact with it, entering into a dialogic relationship with it (from choosing the programmes, through participating in debates in a Virtual Community, to directly determining the outcome of the plot in so-called ‘interactive narratives’). This brings us to the notion of false activity: people do not only act in order to change something, they can also act in order to prevent something from happening, so that nothing will change. Therein resides the typical strategy of the obsessional neurotic: he is frantically active in order to prevent the real thing from happening.
How to Read Lacan, Zizek
Originally published at https://unearnedwisdom.com on April 27, 2022.