Much can be said about Jacques Lacan, but as far as biographical notes, I’ll stick to the essentials here. Lacan was a French psychoanalyst, strongly influenced by the work of the late Sigmund Freud; and like Freud, Lacan managed to stir up a good deal of controversy in the course of his career. In Paris he delivered yearly lectures from 1953 to 1981, many of which have been translated into English—though not necessarily with great clarity.
Lacan influenced a number of French intellectuals, including Jacques Derrida, the de facto father of deconstruction and postmodern thought. Since his death, Lacan has exhibited an influence on several fields, from linguistics to film theory. But it’s difficult, I would say, to grasp Lacan’s views directly. He seemed to have a penchant for obscurantism, as if challenging his listeners (and later his readers) to really dig into what he was saying, to explore it, turn over every word, leaving nothing unchecked.
I’m not exactly an expert on Lacan, and truth be told the controversies that swirl around his scholarship are concerning, but he’s one of the primary influences of a philosopher I enjoy reading from time to time: Slavoj Zizek. Zizek is a Slovenian continental philosopher, and while I don’t see eye to eye with him in all things, it’s hard for me to find a moment when I didn’t enjoy reading his work. Like Lacan, Zizek too can be somewhat obscure, but never in an unrewarding way. And in order to more fully understand Zizek, I have recently attempted to understand Lacan—in so far as I can, of course.
Because Lacan is a bit of a labyrinth in his own right, I feel it only appropriate to begin by reading him through Zizek. I’ve made use of a few resources, especially How to Read Lacan, wherein Zizek uses references from philosophy, politics, and film to illustrate various concepts within Lacan’s oeuvre.
With all this housekeeping done and out of the way, let’s explore what may be at least an approximation of Jacques Lacan’s take on the human being—the subject.
The Marionette Pulls Its Own Strings
If Sigmund Freud were stripped of his oddities (no seduction theory, so long to phobias of castration, goodbye to penis envy!) and left with his most essential revelation, the bit that really deserved to last through the great rescue of psychoanalysis from the pioneering paterfamilias, it would be this: you do not possess the kind of control you think you do. Generally we experience ourselves as willful creatures; even when our lives may be at their worst, there’s still some glimmer of unfettered freedom flickering in us, some indomitable volition that demands to be the master of the house.
The revelatory push of psychoanalysis is not that that freedom is an illusion, but there are forces within us—out of sight, out of reach, out of control; an unconscious depth—which determine our thoughts and actions. Tucked away within the mind, these forces—sub-personalities and sub-systems—constitute the fundamental ground of the human being. They exist beyond one’s reach, just out of sight, and thus they operate independently of our own will.
The bottom line is this: even when we think we are acting most freely, we may indeed merely be moving to the tune of a force beyond our conscious will. The analogy of a marionette suspended on a set of strings seems appropriate, and thus we’ll extend that analogy through the rest of this post.
In modern psychological terms, one might refer to the marionette itself as the ego, the conscious self; the one pulling the strings may be referred to as the unconscious. In Lacanian terms, we might refer to the marionette as the subject and the one pulling the strings as the big Other.
According to Lacan, the big Other relates to the subject in much the way grammar relates to language: when conversing with another person, we think we’re just lobbing self-evident terms at one another, when in fact we are participating in an abstract system, long established, effortlessly gliding along its borders in order to communicate predetermined meanings to another person. In other words, language is not a free-for-all, but an infrastructure, one to which any message we wish to convey to another must adhere. Of course, every culture and sub-culture has its own language and dialects, but they’re shared among the members thereof; the grammar, so to speak, is always there, as if suspended in the air. This is the system to which we unconsciously adapt ourselves whenever we effectively communicate with another. It could be verbally, or even physically, through facial cues or other body language; we could communicate graphically through illustrations or other symbols; we can even speak through silence or absence.
By analogy, one relates to their unconscious, to their big Other, in much the same way: the big Other is that invisible infrastructure underlying all experience, by which our subjective reality is organized and rendered coherent.
Pull the Strings and Make the Marionette Dance
According to Lacan, the subject experiences the big Other as something like a vague demand from within, a list of “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots” executed unknowingly, automatically. When the subject lives harmoniously with these demands they experience something like fulfillment; when they do not, well… they don’t.
We might compare these demands to the Christian theologian Paul Tillich’s idea of faith: Tillich defined one’s particular faith as their “ultimate concern,” that which most definitely demanded their time and effort, and to which all other concerns are preliminary. One’s ultimate concern gives meaning to one’s life, direction and purpose; and of course its very eminence arranges all other concerns of the subject into a hierarchy. The ultimate concern occupies the highest position, while all others are arranged at decreasing magnitudes of significance beneath it. Any experience is filtered through this hierarchy of concerns, and a response is formulated based upon how it may fit within the hierarchy. Like one’s “ultimate concern,” the demands of the big Other determine the subject’s very experience of existence, including themselves.
There’s a good deal of utility here. Such concerns, demands even, are useful; we formulate them because they help us to accomplish some kind of pleasure or fulfillment. Every lesser concern/demand exists to serve the ultimate one—the big Other—which ultimately leads to something like satisfaction. But concerns and demands are not primary to reality but secondary; they’re abstractions of fundamental experiences, objects, and persons in much the same way a map is an abstraction of a given terrain. Because they are abstractions, derived representations of more primary objects, the concerns and demands of the big Other have the potential to be inaccurate, or even delusional.
If a person has even a speck of introspection to them, this won’t be a new phenomenon to them. Most of us likely know what it feels like to consider the world to be one way, only for that map of reality to prove entirely wrong. Such warped contents of the big Other might be compared to a map of Texas, existing within a school in the state of Texas, that is entirely wrong; the borders are misplaced, as are the cities—God help any simpleton attempting to get from Austin to Houston by means of such a contrivance.
But in Lacanian views of the self, this seems to be something we as subjects do quite frequently. In fact, more than occasionally, the warped concerns or demands of our own big Other can metastasize into what Lacan referred to as objet petit autre—an object of desire, never to be obtained, and which the big Other may actively prevent the subject from obtaining.
You Can’t Eat Just One
The first question may be: Why would the mind formulate what it knows (even if unconsciously) to be an unattainable desire? Being a pathological distortion of a useful trait, perhaps an objet petit autre (objet petit a, for short) begins as an “inaccurate map,” so to speak. That then, of course, only begs the further question: Why maintain it, then? Or, more precisely, Why maintain such a desire even against evidence of its unattainability?
Once more, the big Other, the unconscious, is that which organizes our experience of the world and ourselves. We might describe the big Other as something like a Darwinian field guide, an existential counselor whose goals are fairly pragmatic and straightforward: preserve the subject, make sure they look good (to others) doing it, and be sure the subject leaves behind some lasting legacy before death (children, cultural emblems, some other construct of lasting significance or at least duration).
But, all things considered, this isn't an easy task. After all, existence is… well, big. Really big. And dense. The objective world is saturated with potential sensory data, but much of it goes unnoticed—how closely have you been paying attention to the seat beneath you, or the feeling of your hair on your head, or of the temperature in the room, or the color of the wall to your left? It’s all there, but goes ignored. And that’s to say nothing of the immense amount of data we can’t detect without assistance: entire swathes of the color spectrum we never evolved to see, sound waves we were never able to hear, subatomic particles (like tachyons and neutrinos) zipping right through our bodies that we never could pay any mind to, let alone feel. And that’s just the stuff we can detect with assistance—at the risk of being a bit tongue-in-cheek, there are known-knowns, known-unknowns, but there are also unknown-unknowns.
The reason we as finite beings are not overwhelmed by this oversaturation of sensory data—or perhaps because we are finite beings—is because the big Other, the unconscious, the collective neuropsychological amalgam of our brain, nervous system, and its emergent mind serve as a filter. As such, the big Other focuses in on specific portions of existence, using this limited data to render what we might call a low-resolution simulation of existence—a map, as it were; our experience. The big Other takes the too-big-for-you cosmos and renders it into something sensible, intelligible, and thus manageable for the subject—for you.
The big Other does this by way of the aforementioned hierarchy of demands and concerns, especially the Tillich-esque “ultimate concern.” These concerns function as the principles by which the unconscious selects from the immense data of existence, distilling its more manageable representation. There’s an old adage about how if you’re thinking of buying, say, a blue sedan, then suddenly you’ll start seeing blue sedans everywhere you go. The truth behind this phenomenon is that blue sedans have always been around and their count didn’t change—but where you focus your attention did change. The big Other, by way of its demands and concerns, focuses our attention on particular bits of existence, allowing us to function in Nature. These organizing principles bring existence down from an overwhelming mess to something with which the subject can productively interact.
(As an aside, in Eastern thought generally human beings are described as seeing themselves as entirely separate from Nature—a delusion. Perhaps the cause of this psychological phenomenon is that the low-res distillations of existence we often walk around with in our heads are much smaller than the primary object they attempt to represent, namely existence itself. Thus, much Eastern practice may be described as the instantiation of certain organizing principles meant to focus in on the connections between oneself and the rest of Nature in such a way that the subject/object divide is dissolved.)
Because the goal of the big Other is to keep the subject in a productive relationship with the rest of the world around them (including themselves), there is an element of natural selection to its organizing principles—its concerns and demands. Those which most effectively accomplish the big Other’s goals survive from one experience to the next, perhaps being refined by new anomalous information, while those which are contrary to its goals are either unlearned or get the subject killed—in which case, well… no need for further updates.
The objet petit a is no different from these organizing principles, distorted though it may be. Whatever form this object of desire may take, it serves as a levee against existence—a levee which one enforces. In a manner of speaking, much of the big Other’s concerns and demands are rightly described as goals, tasks meant to be accomplished—for instance, reproduction may be a goal that is accomplished and then perhaps no longer emphasized in the big Other's formulation of the subject's experience. But the objet petit a is different; as a desire meant never to be satisfied, a goal to be pursued but which must never be accomplished, it serves as something like a carrot tied to the end of a stick hanging from the subject’s head—drawing the subject forward, yet always out of reach. And deliberately so! The objet petit a is obsession as such.
As an illustration, and with the help of Zizek and Alenka Zupancic (another philosopher and Lacanian), let’s consider three examples of a person possessed by obsession—by their own objet petit autre:
1) We may consider a revolutionary whose greatest fear is not that their revolution will fail but that it will succeed and their life—the way they’ve organized themselves, the tasks they consider fundamental to their being—will thus become redundant, unnecessary.
In The Courage of Hopelessness: A Year of Acting Dangerously (2017), Zizek quotes George Orwell:
“We all rail against class-distinctions, but very few people seriously want to abolish them. Here you come upon the important fact that every revolutionary opinion draws part of its strength from a secret conviction that nothing can be changed.”
Zizek then applies Orwell’s critique, stating:
“...that radicals invoke the need for revolutionary change as a kind of superstitious token that should achieve the opposite, i.e. prevent the change from really occurring – like today’s academic Leftist who criticizes capitalist cultural imperialism but is in reality horrified at the idea that his field of study might really become redundant.”
2) Next, we may consider a skinhead who continues to assault minorities that are definitively proven to have had nothing to do with the faults in the skinhead’s own life, doing so simply “because it feels good,” resisting the possibility that the causes of the skinhead’s life are as chaotic as their life itself. The skinhead refuses to face the chaos of his own existence, preferring instead the blind rage of going to war for an object he cannot define.
In The Fragile Absolute: Or, Why Is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For? (2007), Zizek describes a similar situation as:
“...excessive, non-functional cruelty … whose figures range from ‘fundamentalist’ racist and/or religious slaughter to the ‘senseless’ outbursts of violence by adolescents and the homeless in our megalopolises, a violence one is tempted to call Id-Evil [a kind of evil which percolates up from the big Other, the unconscious], a violence grounded in no utilitarian or ideological cause. All the talk about foreigners stealing work from us, or about the threat they represent to our Western values, should not deceive us: on closer examination, it soon becomes clear that this talk provides a rather superficial secondary rationalization. The answer we ultimately obtain from a skinhead is that it makes him feel good to beat up foreigners; that their presence disturbs him. . . . What we encounter here is indeed Id-Evil, that is, Evil structured and motivated by the most elementary imbalance in the relationship between the Ego [the subject] and jouissance, by the tension between pleasure and the foreign body of jouissance at the very heart of it. Id-Evil thus stages the most elementary ‘short circuit’ in the subject’s relationship to the primordially missing object-cause of his desire [the formulation of an objet petit autre]: what ‘bothers’ us in the ‘other’ (Jew, Japanese, African, Turk) is that he appears to enjoy a privileged relationship to the object – the other either possesses the object-treasure, having snatched it away from us (which is why we don’t have it), or poses a threat to our possession of the object.”
(Taken from page 8.)
3) Finally, let’s consider a chronic smoker whose very knowledge of his ability to stop smoking is what keeps him smoking, the possibility of ending a cycle ensuring its continuation. This is the case for the titular character of Italo Svevo’s novel, Zeno’s Conscience. In an as-yet unpublished manuscript (and openly discussed in the introduction to Zizek’s Courage of Hopelessness), Alenka Zupancic interprets Zeno’s inability to stop smoking in Lacanian terms: quitting smoking is Zeno’s objet petit a. The very possibility of ending the habit is what ensures Zeno will repeat it; it is not smoking, in other words, which Zeno seeks to repress, but that from which it grants him refuge. Only when Zeno’s therapist destabilizes the comfort smoking brings Zeno, downplaying the health risks, does Zeno, lost in the despair of a suddenly useless habit, recognize the futility of his desire and at last free himself from smoking.
Each of these cases is an example of a particular object (a rival ideology, a hate crime, a pack of cigarettes) which acts as a guardian at the threshold; the big Other has created a mildly functional house in which the subject/ego may live, and the objet petit a stands as the bouncer at the door. It may often even appear as an enemy (a crooked politician, a surely conniving minority, a cancer-stick), and the whole purpose of the house is to provide the subject with an arena in which to contend with the enemy at the door, but never to defeat them. The guardian-as-enemy may even be a disguise cleverly devised by the big Other (maybe the politician isn’t so bad, maybe minorities really aren’t out to get you; you still probably shouldn’t smoke), but to defeat them—or even to allow another to defeat them—would lead to the worst possible outcome: the door would then stand unguarded. With the door standing wide open, the overwhelming swell of the outside world may then flood in and the subject may have to awaken their own overwhelming freedom and responsibility.
This is a singular profile, expressed in Lacanian concepts, which underlies various cases which may otherwise seem to have little to do with one another: a Sisyphus who never wanted to accomplish his task in the first place; a victim who only says they want to be saved yet never acts, and who may even believe that they believe they want to be saved; fundamentalists of any stripe, whether religious, political, philosophical, or otherwise, who hide in dogmatism, all else be damned. Possessed by obsession—their vague and twisted “ultimate concern”—such individuals are least capable of bearing the realities they inhabit, preferring the confused phantasms in their own heads.
No Strings to Hold Me Down
In Disney's adaptation of Pinocchio, our namesake puppet-hero finds himself in the clutches of one of the film’s many antagonists, Stromboli. Pinocchio is made to perform for a roaring audience a song which ironically expresses his very goal—an object of desire, distorted by captivity:
I've got no strings
To hold me down,
To make me fret, or make me frown;
I had strings,
But now I'm free—
There are no strings on me!
Singing as if he is already free, yet still bound by his strings, Pinocchio stands in as the self-image of the audience, of the everyday person: they perceive themselves as already free and thus celebrate their liberation, and yet they could not be more bound.
I find it meaningful that Freud developed psychoanalysis within the confines of clinical practice rather than as a strictly research-based field; likewise, Lacan was first and foremost a clinician, even in his writings and lectures. If psychoanalysis aimed to help the analysand recognize their own strings, so to speak, then psychotherapy was meant to help the analysand become their own puppeteer—even if only to an extent.
Having read Lacan via Zizek, it seems appropriate to now quote Zizek at a bit more length. Though not at all limited to this instance, Zizek occasionally uses an atheistic reading of Christianity and the figure of Christ as an analogy for the proverbial marionette with freshly-cut strings.
In his documentary-style film, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, Zizek utilizes scenes from a number of popular movies in order to explain several philosophical concepts. When he arrives at Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, he makes careful consideration of Jesus’ crucifixion. He references Lacan’s view of the big Other, of the unconscious subterranean depths of our minds and souls, as a great big “che vuoi?”—a master hidden in the mist, whom we can only ask, “What do you want from me?” The unconscious, the big Other underlying all our perceptions and actions, orders everything above itself—everything we choose to notice or focus in on, what we choose to engage and how. In essence, it is the personal “God” in the subject’s head, whispering to the impressionable ego “how things should be.”
Apropos, in The Last Temptation (both the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis and Scorsese’s screen adaptation, and true to the New Testament Gospels of Mark and Matthew), while on the cross Jesus cries out in agony, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In the film and novel, this is the ultimate moment of tension for Jesus—and his last temptation. In his pain, Jesus passes out and has a dream of an angel, who takes him down from the cross, tells him God has changed his mind, and that Jesus can now go live the life he always wanted. In the dream, he becomes a husband to two women, father of many children, and a simple carpenter by trade. However, Jesus is not tricked; he recognizes the supposed angel as the Devil himself, there to tempt him one more time. It should also be noted that Kazantzakis was an unabashed atheist; writing The Last Temptation in order to make sense of the suffering of the human condition, and his disillusionment with Marxism and the Bolshevik revolution in particular, terms such as "God" and "Devil" must ultimately signify realities internal to Jesus himself—modules of Jesus' psyche rather than metaphysical players in the universe he inhabits.
Here enters Zizek’s Lacanian reading: though in this segment of his documentary Zizek seems to designate only God as the big Other, we might include the angel who visits the unconscious Jesus and the world it tempts him to (marriage, fatherhood, fulfilling career) as another part the big Other, alongside God—the total “che vuoi?” of Jesus’ life in conflict with itself. Throughout the film and novel, Jesus wrestles with the conflict between his fated life (messiah crucified) and his own desired life (normal husband, father, carpenter). Thus the moment on the cross is the climax of all temptations for Jesus, the final chance to slip into the worst pathologies of the untamed/unnoticed objet petit autre—to slip into fantasy and flee existence altogether. In his delirium, Jesus’ decisive victory comes not only when he recognizes this final temptation (the dream of the good life he “should have” led) as an illusion, but when he allows that genuinely desired illusion to dissolve in the face of reality—even in the traumatic clutches of crucifixion, about to be handed over to a tragic death, Jesus places existence over any fruitless illusion his unconscious may conjure, however alluring.
Jesus emerges from his dream, finding himself fixed surely to a cross once more, but rejoices in his choice—he abandons the demands of his unconscious, the visions of his own big Other for what that moment in particular and the world more generally supposedly “should be,” and instead embraces the wriggly, undecidable, oversaturated existence we normally spend so much effort trying to avoid—in Lacanian terms, the Real.
What Comes the Day After the Revolution?
In the conclusion to Kazantzakis’ novel, the crowd hears Jesus cry out “It is finished!” upon his death, but in fact he says “It has begun!” Analogously, for the Lacanian analysand, even upon one’s death bed, life begins in earnest only when the contents of one’s unconscious—its grammar, its demands, what it wants—are seen as ephemeral and epiphenomenal, as secondary, and therefore as lower than something else. The very hierarchy of “concerns” is itself bumped down an ordinal level, the subset of an even larger hierarchy, subordinated once and for all to a meta-cognitive reality greater than the mind and the mental world in which we unwittingly live most of our lives.
Psychoanalysts picked up the nickname shrinks because of their role in helping the subject to “shrink their ego,” so to speak. Appropriate to that title, in this great shift the big Other is shrunk before reality, giving way to existence which emanated them, to the Real in which their truest self always already lives, and moves, and has its very being.
The analyst helps the analysand to find their proverbial strings, then to cut them; in lived experience, this feels like leaving the defined and restrictive infrastructure of our routines and preferences, our fears and even our hopes, and waking up to not only our own freedom to do just this, but to the capacity of our very soul to take in far more of existence than we do—not only the pleasures we seek out but the sufferings we normally attempt to evade. It’s not at all that the big Other is malevolent, or that its structures as such are always to be done away with; rather, it is unconsciousness as such which must be done away with. The work of the big Other, responsibly managed, is stable living; unconsciousness only leaves the big Other to govern itself, risking proverbial glitches, while the subject struggles in confusion through a half-awake dream. The latter is enslavement and perhaps even disaster; the former, absolute freedom, authentic being.
Every string the marionette cuts must thereafter be wrapped around one of its own fingers. Strings freshly cut, the marionette detonates into an indefinitely unexplored infinity, at last free to be what it has always already been.