the big Other(s)

I’m reading the book, “Six Moments in Lacan: Communication and identification in psychology and psychoanalysis” and the first chapter immediately struck me as providing a way to analyse seemingly irreconcilable political divides globally and in the US in particular. I’ve chosen to cite some findings from PRRI’s 2021 American Values Survey to give context to my argument.

Findings from the 2021 American Values Survey: One in four Republicans (26%) are QAnon believers. White evangelical Protestants are most likely to be QAnon believers (23%), followe by non-Christian religious Americans (21%) and other Christians (19%)

The chapter concerns itself with Lacan’s “big Other” and the relevant part deals with communication between individuals (from the perspective of human subjectivity):

along the symbolic axis. It links the subject to a trans-subjective order of truth, it provides them with a set of socio-symbolic co-ordinates, and it ties them into a variety of roles and social contracts. Importantly, it entails the radical alterity of what Lacan refers to as ‘the Other’

From the chapter, three points on how the Other functions:

  • The Other operates not only as a locus of intelligibility but as a principle of appeal. It signifies the prospect – indeed, the apparent inescapability – of symbolic mediation.
  • The Other, furthermore, plays a role in affirming subjective experience, making it a ‘confirmed reality’.
  • The consensus-establishing function of the big Other is also of interest here. We might refer back to our example of two people in dialogue: if inter-subjectivity were merely a matter of two conversing subjectivities trying to make sense of one another, then conflicts would be intractable.

Two opposed perspectives, each unable to make recourse to anything other than their own frame of reference, would surely result in irresolvable conflicts. This is the terrain of Lacan’s imaginary register. This domain is as much characterized by the ego’s self-love as by its limitless potential for rivalry and aggression.

There’s not even a consensus on what matters. The issues deemed most critical vary considerably by partisanship. In fact, there is no overlap in the issues majorities of partisans say are critical.

We can see the current state-of-things emerging from conflicting subjectivities; the lack of consensus, conflicting frames of reference that have led to seemingly irresolvable conflict.

Given that in such circumstances there is no principle of external mediation, and that only one side can ultimately win, we are left with what amounts to a Hegelian ‘struggle to the death’ The Other can thus be viewed as an alienating system, an always-already-existing collectivity of signifiers that the subject needs to accommodate themselves to. It is the ever-shifting constellation of norms and social values with which there can be no automatic or harmonious fit.

Using a sports analogy of two opposing teams:

What must be noted here is that this Other – who embodies the rules of the game, who is the point of appeal for the players – cannot be assimilated into the ‘horizontal’ level of the one-to- one interactions of the competing For Lacanian theory it is not the case that we each possess our own self- determined Other. The Other cannot be reduced in this way, it cannot be ‘privatized’, extracted from the symbolic order that it encapsulates

Our example of competing sports teams helps reiterate the point: the players cannot each abide solely by the parameters of their ‘own Other’.

This precisely what has happened at a societal level — the competing political tribes cannot play “the game” because each has different big Others. In other words, they function with different symbolic realms cut adrift from the one another.

We need here to be attentive to the difference between the symbolic order, that is, the functioning of language, the system of laws, the network of roles, on the one hand, and how the subject grapples with this anonymous system, how a workable (but never fully knowable) version of this symbolic is installed for them on the other.

while it is true that the Other can be approached as the symbolic domain as particularized for the subject, no such Other – at least in a non-psychotic universe – is ‘private’, cut adrift from the symbolic network that we share with others.

America (in particular) is in a psychotic universe, because the Other is not shared.

it remains true of course that the various members of a team may have differing interpretations of the rules of the game, and very different impressions of the referee…Ultimately however there must be a functional Other, a discrete locus of judgement and authority if the game is to work at all. By virtue of the fact that we are communicating at all, that a rudimentary symbolic sociality (a ‘rules of engagement’) is in place, we can be sure that an Other – a nexus of conventions irreducible to singular subjectivity – is already functioning.

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