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The Big Other, the Symbolic and Death

Syria, the Death Drive

Somewhere in the middle of the Chanel 4 production Brexit: The Uncivil War a woman in her mid 40’s is participating in a focus group on Brexit. Arguing that the UK should leave the European Union at once, she suddenly exclaims “I am sick of feeling like nothing. I have nothing, I know nothing, I am nothing!”. Michael Safi writes in The Guardian that the protests raging today on the streets and cities around the world have varying triggers: stagnating middle classes, stifled democracy, and ‘the bone-deep conviction that things can be different’.

What does this lady mean when she uses the word ‘nothingness’? Can we trace this nothingness back to its origin? Likewise, what relation is there, if any, between protests and the expression ‘the bone-deep conviction that things can be different’? Artistic depictions and journalistic accounts of historical events such as those currently gripping our society today offer a welcome opportunity to articulate in them the structure of their cause.

A good start to begin with may be to look first at why most of us seem to be so consistently busy in our life. Whether preoccupied, worried or in just doing some thinking, if only in dreams, we realize that our mind is constantly dealing with something. For Martin Heidegger and existential philosophy, this frantic busyness can only be symptomatic of some anxious behaviour. If we always make sure that we keep ourselves engaged with something, he asks in Nietzsche’s footsteps, then what could possibly be the reason other than a desperate attempt at covering something up? Only anxiety caused by some existential abyss can explain our compulsive needs to take refuge in things external to us; Heidegger writes ‘Dasein’s absorption in the “they” and its absorption in the ‘world’ of its concern, makes manifest something like a fleeing of Dasein in the face of itself – of itself as an authentic potentiality-for-Being-its-Self‘ (p. 229). Nothingness has a significant place in our everyday lived experience, situated as it is at the center of what it means to be human. If anxiety traps us in ‘pure freedom’ for existentialists or in pure Jouissance for psychoanalysts, what makes us act is less what is in front of us, as Edmond Husserl argued all along, than a desperate need to move away from, that is to say, from some anxiety created by an emptiness at the core of our being.

Now, what in this citation does Heidegger mean by the ‘they’? For him ‘Being-with-one-another dissolves one’s own Dasein completely into the kind of being of the ‘Others’, in such a way, indeed, that the Others, as distinguishable and explicit, vanish more and more. In this inconspicuousness and unascertanibility, the real dictatorship of the ‘they’ is unfolded’ (p.164). Put simply, there exists an ‘Other’ which dictates our everyday thinking and behaving; our place and even our modes of thinking are directly influenced by it. For ‘We take pleasure and enjoy ourselves as they take pleasure; we read, see, and judge about literature and art as they see and judge […] The “they”, which is nothing definite, and which all are, though not as the sum, prescribes the kind of Being of everydayness’ (p. 164).

Without completely leaving the German philosopher behind, the concept of the Others will help us take our investigation further towards psychoanalysis. We saw that our interpretation of, and place in the world, depends entirely upon this one symbolic entity, ‘the big Other’ as Lacan calls it (Cf. my article on The Name-of-the-Father, Truth &Totalitarian Rhetoric). As a closed differential system, this big Other regroups elements including the law, codes, and more crucially for our discussion here, Language. We will recall that Language is made of basic elements called signifiers; words, morphemes and phonemes, phrases and sentences, even non-linguistic elements such as objects, relationships and symptomatic acts are signifiers (Evans, 186). Crucially for our discussion, it is a differential system in that every element inside it possess one essential characteristic: they are all radically distinct from each other. It is in this precise sense that we should hear what is principally meant by the big Other; a notion that materializes alterity, the radically different. This Other which from the earliest years of infancy in the (m)Other is there to meet our demands is essentially difference. Without it, everything around us would become prone to wild, paranoid interpretation. Ideas of boundaries, separation and distance only make sense in terms of it and the laws found in it. In a hypothetical world where no law is to be found, meaning and significance can have no place. It is there that signification is produced, in the separation or cut between oneself and this big Other.

Having firmly established that it is the big Other – made of language and essentially symbolic in nature – that comes to rescue us from the anxiety created by an unbearable emptiness at the center of our being, it is now time to ask: What impact does this so-called big Other actually have on us? Can we locate in the effects that language has on man the origin of his destructive nature? What can possibly explain his being so hopelessly forgetful of the lessons past, so tirelessly excessive in his behaviour, so predictively destructive in his nature and, in its most blatant illustration with Brexit, so agonizingly nostalgic about a lost harmony?

Again, the big Other and language is nothing if not what shapes us into human subjects. Variously described as a parasite, a drug, the enemy and even in the eyes of some commentators a “malediction”, psychosomatic symptoms have long since shown the extent to which language has an impact on the body and mind. The big Other, that is, taken with a view to those basic units constitutive of language that are signifiers, is the actual material that envelops and confines the existential void at the center of our being. It is in this precise sense that we may able to represent the subject topologically as an articulation between two Others: an Other (a) of Language fading or blending seamlessly into the Other (b) of the flesh.


Subjectivity hinges between two Others: the Symbolic Other and the Other of the un-symbolizable Flesh

Our approach to the exigencies and challenges of life, our place and gender role in society, in its final analysis, is determined by the type of relationship we have with this big Other of the Symbolic.

Two directions now offer themselves to us in our investigation. But it is down the path of the Symbolic Order that I want to take the present analysis, for it is there that we shall find the brightest light on the question raised in this paper. However, given the easily misunderstood nature of those impulsions under examination, I will nonetheless give a brief survey of what psychoanalysis sees is taking place on the Imaginary level in the present context. Brilliantly portrayed somewhere in the Brexit drama mentioned earlier, we see Rory Kinnear in the character of the pro-European government communication director Craig Oliver exclaim: “We need to appeal to their heads, numbers, projections, we focus on the facts” – a clear appeal to the Symbolic Order. At the same time Dominic Cummings, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, argues “We should appeal to their heart, their emotional resonance, their dreams, their aspirations, their fears, […] their suspicions”. How not to quote here Freud’s remark: “The interest of work in common would not bring civilization together; instinctual passions are stronger than reasonable interests” (Civilization and its Discontents, 1930:112). Indeed, it is easy to see why, in opposition to Craig Oliver who bets on reason and rationality – the big (rational) Other – Dominic Cummings chooses to place his battle for winning Brexit on the plane of the Imaginary. An appeal to someone’s dark fantasies reminds us how the ego is formed by appropriating to itself and as its own a fictional story vehicled by Language (Cf. my The Mirror Stage or the Birth of Subjectivity). Briefly, the child builds a coherent image of unity by identifying with some carefully selected signifiers handed down by the (m)Other. A process that is, of course, essential, not least because it allows the child to compensate for what is in him, just as in all of us, a hole at the center of our being showing our self as fragmented.

This inherent instability due to this fragmented self means that fears of disintegration can never be far away. It is in this context that aggressiveness and hatred can be seen as defensive reactions deployed towards anyone who dares challenge the integrity of our ego: Freud writes “Men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved, and who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness”; “It is mutual hostility which causes civilized society to be perpetually threatened with disintegration” (Civilization and its Discontents, 1930:111-112).

Attacks on one’s fragile narcissistic ego by stirring up fears of disintegration is enough to swap reason and rationality for some overwhelming feelings having their source in infantile fantasies. The whole theoretical edifice elaborated by the British psychoanalyst Melanie Klein who worked with children is based on the idea that the human psyche oscillates between two separate positions, one of them being the paranoid-schizoid position. Appealing to our natural fears by stimulating our darkest fantasies in an Imaginary way is the easiest but most efficient way to make someone regress into submission. In this instance therefore, man’s destruction results mainly in confrontation with the Other; given that the origin of this aggressiveness and hatred is situated in fantasy this phenomenon belongs in the realm of the Image-inary.

What interests us here, however, is less what takes place on an Imaginary, lawless level, than in the Symbolic register and the part it plays in man’s destructive nature. If man is able to reach the highest summits in the most profound bouts of scientific ingenuity, morality, art and culture, he is also, as we all know, more than willing to destroy, kill, exterminate and annihilate, if only for the fun of it. So how to account for this excessive nature? And where do we locate his tendency to repeat things? Where does psychoanalysis situate in the effects of language the cause of his Dionysian character?

It all begins with an 18-month-old boy innocently playing in his cot. Freud’s grandson had invented a game consisting in throwing a cotton reel out of his cot while exclaiming an ‘Oooooo, before retrieving it with an appreciative ‘Aaaaah’. For Freud the first thing the baby uttered was no doubt a representation of the word ‘Fort’, meaning ‘gone’, while the following utterance stood for ‘Da’, meaning ‘there’. The child used ‘Fort’ and ‘Da’ as signifiers to transcend his immediate experience of appearance and disappearance. Having successfully elevated this experience into an abstract – Symbolic – plane he could henceforth represent any phenomena of presence and absence symbolically. Can anyone dispute the idea, as shown by his desire to repeat the game that the child thoroughly enjoyed killing and murdering the Thing in him – made manifest in the anxiety caused by his mother’s absence – that is, in its primordial and unsymbolized form?

Language kills. The symbol murders the Thing, it is in this sense that we should understand the notion that the Symbolic Order is the realm of Death (D. Evans, p31). As this short extract drawn from Freud’s observations demonstrates universally, we humans like to use language not just to make our needs known, but to murder that Thing alive in us that causes us to feel anxiety – think here of Ridley Scott’s science-fiction horror film Alien. How else can we explain the soothing, if not altogether therapeutic effects of talking therapies? From there to taking pleasure at destroying things external to us, including nature, is only a short step. In the same way that we enjoy a good joke, humour or playing a game such as the one invented by Freud’s grandson, what ultimately is at stake in each instance is the reduction of some sexual tension. We are of course here in the realm of the Pleasure Principle. Regarded by Freud as one of the ‘two principles of mental functioning’, this principle aims exclusively at avoiding unpleasure and obtaining pleasure by reducing tension. It is in this precise sense that we should understand acts of destruction, just like any other acts, as essentially acts of sublimation whereby the Thing in question – in the case of Freud’s grandson the anxiety created by the absence of his mother – is joyfully transformed, negated, and murdered by the symbolic Order. Or is it?

We have now reached the moment in our exposé where it is finally the time to introduce the concept of the drive. The drive is this mythical object in psychoanalysis commonly experienced as a compelling force that makes us do things not just once, but repeatedly. Entering into a full examination of the drive here would take too much space, and so I will instead refer the reader to Freud’s book Beyond the Pleasure Principle where the concept is fully articulated. But the game that Freud’s grandson invented can still help us identify the components at work in it. As we saw, the goal of the game was to destroy the Thing, source of anxiety caused by the absence of the child’s mother. But it didn’t stop there, it went beyond the simple pleasure of contentment, it compelled the child to repeat it. Who can doubt the enjoyment felt here by the child is dependent on the signifiers – Fort and Da – used to symbolize his experience? The surplus enjoyment – object a – produced by this game of destruction is nothing if not altogether the cause of his desire to repeat it over again and again. No matter how many signifiers we throw at our experience, there will always be left something unsaid to kill. This unsymbolized leftover, along with the enjoyment produced by our trying again and again to murder the Thing, is at the origin of our instinct for destruction. In the same way that it became Nietzsche’s lifelong project, we can now finally account for this ‘bone-deep conviction that things can be different’ referred to in the introduction.

Once the signifiers have done their jobs of murdering the Thing alive in us, the death drive, clothed as it is in the symbolic Order, aims at what has been left between the lines, beyond the signifiers. But as the Matrix sequel has made perfectly clear, the mission of the Symbolic order is never completely successful. For in truth the satisfaction of the drive is not to attain its goal and leave us content and satiated. Quite the contrary, its aim is to produce a form of live enjoyment – Jouissance – which often borders on suffering. Repetition is evidence of the enjoyment we find in it, which by the same token explains why symptoms are so difficult to eradicate.

It is easy to see in the context of our investigation the impact of not being heard, to have no Other recognize our signifiers. To exist and not be just alive depends on an Other who is present at the time and is capable of seeing us. For people’s signifiers not to be somehow received and legitimized can only invite for more of them, for more symptomatic acts. In a letter to The Guardian Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge, Mary Beard writes: “Those of us who have been the beneficiaries of New Europe must face the uncomfortable fact that we are partly to blame for the vote going, in our terms, so badly wrong. Because we didn’t stop, or we didn’t stop long enough, to think of those who are on the other side of the cultural divide.”

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