......• How to Read Lacan •
.........2. Empty Gestures and Performatives: Lacan Confronts the CIA Plot

.........Slavoj Zizek

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Is it with the gifts of Danaoi (the Greeks who laid siege to Troy) or with the passwords that give them their salutary non-sense that language, with the law, begins? For these gifts are already symbols, in the sense that symbol means pact and that they are first and foremost signifiers of the pact that they constitute as signified, as is plainly seen in the fact that the objects of symbolic exchange - pots made to remain empty, shields too heavy to be carried, sheaves of heat that wither, lances stuck into the ground - all are destined to be useless, if not simply superfluous by their very abundance.
Is this neutralization of the signifier the whole of the nature of language? On this assessment, one could see the beginning of it among sea swallows, for instance, during the mating parade, materialized in the fish they pass between each other from beak to beak. And if the ethologists are right in seeing in this the instrument of an activation of the group that might be called the equivalent of a festival, they would be completely justified in recognizing it as a symbol. [1]

Mexican soap operas are shot in such a fast rhythm (every single day a 25 minutes episode) that the actors do not even get the script to learn their lines in advance; they have tiny receivers in their ears which tell them what to do, and they learn to enact directly what they hear ("Now slap him and tell him you hate him! Then embrace him!..."). This strange procedure provides us with an image of what, according to the common perception, Lacan means by the "big Other". The symbolic order is the second nature of every speaking being: it is here, directing and controlling my acts, I as it were swim in it, but it nonetheless remains ultimately impenetrable and I cannot ever put it in front of me and fully grasp it. It is as if we, subjects of language, talk and interact like puppets, our speech and gestures dictated by some anonymous all-pervasive agency. Does this mean that, for Lacan, we, human individuals, are mere epiphenomena, shadows with no real power of our own, that our self-perception as autonomous free agents is a kind of user's illusion blinding us for the fact that we are tools in the hands of the big Other which, hidden behind the screen, pulls the strings?

There are, however, many features of the "big Other" which get lost in this simplified notion. For Lacan, the reality of human beings is constituted by three mutually entangled levels: the Symbolic, the Imaginary, and the Real. This triad can be nicely illustrated by the game of chess. The rules one has to follow in order to play it are its symbolic dimension: from the purely formal symbolic standpoint, "knight" is defined only by the moves this figure can make. This level is clearly different from the imaginary one, namely the way different pieces are shaped and characterized by their names (king, queen, knight), and it is easy to envision a game with the same rules, but with a different imaginary, in which this figure would be called "messenger" or "runner" or whatever. Finally, real is the entire complex set of contingent circumstances which affect the course of the game: the intelligence of the players, the unpredictable intrusions that may disconcert one of the players or directly cut the game short.

The big Other operates at a symbolic level. What, then, is this symbolic order composed of? When we speak (or listen, for that matter), we never merely interact with others; our speech activity is grounded on our accepting of and relying on a complex network of rules and other kinds of presuppositions. First, there are the grammatical rules I have to master blindly and spontaneously: if I were to bear in mind all the time these rules, my speech would come to a halt. Then there is the background of participating in the same life-world which enables me and my partner in conversation to understand each other. The rules that I follow are marked by a deep split: there are rules (and meanings) that I follow blindly, out of custom, but of which, upon reflection, I can become at least partially aware (such as common grammatical rules), and there are rules that I follow, meanings that haunt me, unbeknownst to me (such as unconscious prohibitions). Then there are rules and meanings I am aware of, but have to act on the outside as if I am not aware of them - dirty or obscene innuendos which one passes over in silence in order to maintain the proper appearances.

This symbolic space acts like a standard against which I can measure myself. This is why the big Other can be personified or reified in a single agent: "God" who watches over me from beyond and over all real individuals or the Cause which addresses me (Freedom, Communism, Nation) and for which I am ready to give my life. While talking, I am never merely a "small other" (individual) interacting with other "small others," the big Other always has to be there. This inherent reference to the Other is the topic of a low class joke about a poor peasant who, after enduring a shipwreck, finds himself on a lone island with Cindy Crawford. After having sex with her, she asks him if he is fully satisfied; his answer is yes, but nonetheless he still has a small request to make his satisfaction complete - could she dress herself up as his best friend, put on trousers and paint a moustache on her face? He reassures her that he is not a hidden pervert, as she will immediately see if she carries out the request. When she does, he approaches her, elbows her ribs and tells her with the obscene smile of male complicity: "You know what happened to me? I just had sex with Cindy Crawford!" This Third, which is always present as the witness, belies the possibility of an unspoiled innocent private pleasure. Sex is always minimally exhibitionist and relies on another's gaze.

In spite of all its grounding power, the big Other is fragile, insubstantial, properly virtual, in the sense that its status is that of a subjective presupposition. It exists only insofar as subjects act as if it exists. Its status is similar to that of an ideological cause like Communism or Nation: it is the substance of the individuals who recognize themselves in it, the ground of their entire existence, the point of reference which provides the ultimate horizon of meaning to their lives, something for which these individuals are ready to give their lives, yet the only thing that really exists are these individuals and their activity, so this substance is actual only insofar as individuals believe in it and act accordingly. It is because of the virtual character of the big Other that, as Lacan put it at the very end of his "Seminar on the Purloined Letter," a letter always arrives at its destination. One can even say that the only letter which fully and effectively arrives at its destination is the unsent letter - its true addressee are not flesh-and-blood others, but the big Other itself:

The preservation of the unsent letter is its arresting feature. Neither the writing nor the sending is remarkable (we often make drafts of letters and discard them), but the gesture of keeping the message when we have no intention of sending it. By saving the letter, we are in some sense 'sending' it after all. We are not relinquishing our idea or dismissing it as foolish or unworthy (as we do when we tear up a letter); on the contrary, we are giving it an extra vote of confidence. We are, in effect, saying that our idea is too precious to be entrusted to the gaze of the actual addressee, who may not grasp its worth, so we 'send' it to his equivalent in fantasy, on whom we can absolutely count for an understanding and appreciative reading. [2]

Is it not exactly the same with the symptom in the Freudian sense of the term? According to Freud, when I develop a symptom, I produce a ciphered message about my innermost secrets, my unconscious desires and traumas. The symptom's addressee is not another real human being: before an analyst deciphers my symptom, there is no one who can read its message. Who, then, is the symptom's addressee? The only remaining candidate is the virtual big Other. This virtual character of the big Other means that the symbolic order is not a kind of spiritual substance existing independently of individuals, but something that is sustained by their continuous activity. However, the provenance of the big Other is still unclear. How is it that, when individuals exchange symbols, they do not simply interact with each other, but always also refer to the virtual big Other? When I talk about other people's opinions, it is never only a matter of what me, you, or other individuals think, but also a matter of what the impersonal "one" thinks. When I violate a certain rule of decency, I never simply do something that the majority of others do not do - I do what "one" doesn't do.

This brings us to the dense passage with which we opened this chapter: in it, Lacan proposes no less than an account of the genesis of the big Other. "Danaoi" is the term used by Homer to designate the Greeks who were laying siege to Troy; their gift was the famous wooden horse which, after it was received by the Trojans, allowed the Greeks to penetrate and destroy Troy. For Lacan, language is such a dangerous gift: it offers itself to our use free of charge, but once we accept it, it colonizes us. The symbolic order emerges from a gift, an offering, which neutralizes its content in order to declare itself as a gift: when a gift is offered, what matters is not its content but the link between the giver and the receiver established when the other accepts the gift. Lacan even engages here in a bit of speculation about animal ethology: the sea swallows who pass a caught fish from beak to beak (as if to make it clear that the link established in this way is more important than who will finally keep and eat the fish), effectively engage in a kind of symbolic communication.

Everyone who is in love knows this: a present to the beloved, if it is to symbolize my love, should be useless, superfluous in its very abundance - only as such, with its use-value suspended, can it symbolize my love. Human communication is characterized by an irreducible reflexivity: every act of communication simultaneously symbolizes the fact of communication. Roman Jakobson called this fundamental mystery of the properly human symbolic order "phatic communication": human speech never merely transmits a message, it always also self-reflectively asserts the basic symbolic pact between the communicating subjects.

The most elementary level of symbolic exchange is a so-called "empty gesture," an offer made or meant to be rejected. Brecht gave a poignant expression to this feature in his play Jasager. in which the young boy is asked to accord freely with what will in any case be his fate (to be thrown into the valley); as his teacher explains it to him, it is customary to ask the victim if he agrees with his fate, but it is also customary for the victim to say yes. Belonging to a society involves a paradoxical point at which each of us is ordered to embrace freely, as the result of our choice, what is anyway imposed on us (we all must love our country or our parents). This paradox of willing (choosing freely) what is in any case necessary, of pretending (maintaining the appearance) that there is a free choice although effectively there isn't one, is strictly codependent with the notion of an empty symbolic gesture, a gesture - an offer - which is meant to be rejected.

Something similar is part of our everyday mores. When, after being engaged in a fierce competition for a job promotion with my closest friend, I win, the proper thing to do is to offer to retract, so that he will get the promotion, and the proper thing for him to do is to reject my offer - this way, perhaps, our friendship can be saved. What we have here is symbolic exchange at its purest: a gesture made to be rejected. The magic of symbolic exchange is that, although at the end we are where we were at the beginning, there is a distinct gain for both parties in their pact of solidarity. Of course, the problem is: what if the person to whom the offer to be rejected is made actually accepts it? What if, upon being beaten in the competition, I accept my friend's offer to get the promotion instead of him? A situation like this is properly catastrophic: it causes the disintegration of the semblance (of freedom) that pertains to social order, which equals the disintegration of the social substance itself, the dissolution of the social link.

The notion of the social link established through empty gestures enables us to define in a precise way the figure of sociopath: what is beyond the sociopath's grasp is the fact that "many human acts are performed ... for the sake of the interaction itself." [3] In other words, the sociopath's use of language paradoxically fits perfectly the standard commonsense notion of language as purely instrumental means of communication, as signs that transmit meanings. He uses language, he is not caught into it, and he is insensitive to the performative dimension. This determines a sociopath's attitude towards morality: while he is able to discern moral rules that regulate social interaction, and even to act morally insofar as he establishes that it fits his interests, he lacks the "gut feeling" of right and wrong, the notion that one just cannot do some things, independently of the external social rules. In short, a sociopath truly practices the notion of morality developed by utilitarianism, according to which, morality designates a behavior we adopt by way of intelligently calculating our interests (in the long run, it profits us all if we try to contribute to the pleasure of the greatest possible number of people): for him, morality is a theory one learns and follows, not something one substantially identifies with. Doing evil is a mistake in calculation, not guilt.

Because of this performative dimension, every choice we confront in language is a meta-choice, that is to say, a choice of choice itself, a choice that affects and changes the very coordinates of my choosing. Recall the everyday situation in which my (sexual, political, or financial) partner wants me to make a deal with him; what he tells me is basically: "Please, I really love you, if we come together here, I will be totally dedicated to you! But if you reject me, I may lose my control and make your life a misery!" The catch here, of course, is that I am not simply confronted with a clear choice: the second part of this message undermines the first part - somebody who is ready to ruin me if I say no to him cannot really love me and be dedicated to my happiness, as he claims in the first part. The reality of the choice offered to me thus belies its terms: hatred or, at least, cold manipulative indifference towards me underlies both terms of the choice. There is, of course, a symmetrical hypocrisy, which consists in saying: "I love you and will accept whatever your choice will be; so even if (you know that) your refusal will ruin me, please choose what you really want, and do not take into consideration how it will affect me!" The manipulative falsity of this offer, of course, resides in the way it uses its "honest" insistence that I can say no as an additional pressure on me to say yes: "How can you refuse me, when I love you so totally?"

We can see now how, far from conceiving the Symbolic which rules human perception and interaction as a kind of transcendental a priori (a formal network, given in advance, which limits the scope of human practice), Lacan is interested precisely in how the gestures of symbolization are entwined with and embedded in the process of collective practice. What Lacan elaborates as the "twofold moment" of the symbolic function reaches far beyond the standard theory of the performative dimension of speech as it was developed in the tradition from J.L. Austin to John Searle:

The symbolic function presents itself as a twofold movement in the subject: man makes his own action into an object, but only to return its foundational place to it in due time. In this equivocation, operating at every instant, lies the whole progress of a function in which action and knowledge alternate. [4]

The historical example evoked by Lacan to clarify this "twofold movement" is indicative in its hidden references:

in phase one, a man who works at the level of production in our society considers himself to belong to the ranks of the proletariat; in phase two, in the name of belonging to it, he joins in a general strike. [5]

Lacan's (implicit) reference here is to Georg Lukacs' History and Class Consciousness, a classic Marxist work from 1923 whose widely acclaimed French translation was published in the mid-1950s. For Lukacs, consciousness is opposed to mere knowledge of an object: knowledge is external to the known object, while consciousness is in itself 'practical', an act which changes its very object. (Once a worker "considers himself to belong to the ranks of the proletariat," this changes his very reality: he acts differently.) One does something, one counts oneself as (declares oneself) the one who did it, and, on the base of this declaration, one does something new - the proper moment of subjective transformation occurs at the moment of declaration, not at the moment of act. This reflexive moment of declaration means that every utterance not only transmits some content, but, simultaneously, renders how the subject relates to this content. Even the most down-to-earth objects and activities always contain such a declarative dimension, which constitutes the ideology of everyday life. One should never forget that utility functions as a reflective notion: it always involves the assertion of utility as meaning. A man who lives in a large city and owns a land-rover (for which he obviously has no use), doesn't simply lead a no-nonsense, down-to-earth life; rather, he owns such a car in order to signal that he leads his life under the sign of a no-nonsense, down-to-earth attitude. To wear stone-washed jeans is to signal a certain attitude to life.

The unsurpassed master of such analysis was Claude Levi-Strauss, for whom food also serves as "food for thought". The three main modes of food preparation (raw, baked, boiled) function as a semiotic triangle: we use them to symbolize the basic opposition of ("raw") nature and ("baked") culture, as well as the mediation between the two opposites (in the procedure of boiling). There is a memorable scene in Louis Bunuel's Fantom of Freedom in which relations between eating and excreting are inverted: people sit at their toilets around the table, pleasantly talking, and when they want to eat, they silently ask the housekeeper "Where is that place, you know?" and sneak away to a small room in the back. As a supplement to Lévi-Strauss, one is tempted to propose that shit can also serve as a "stuff for thought": the three basic types of toilet-design in the West form a kind of excremental counterpoint to the Lévi-Straussian triangle of cooking. In a traditional German toilet, the hole in which shit disappears after we flush water, is way in front, so that shit is first laid out for us to sniff at and inspect for traces of some illness; in the typical French toilet the hole is far to the back, so that shit is supposed to disappear as soon as possible; finally, the American toilet presents a kind of synthesis, a mediation between these two opposed poles - the toilet basin is full of water, so that the shit floats in it, visible, but not to be inspected. No wonder that, in the famous discussion of different European toilets at the beginning of her half-forgotten Fear of Flying, Erica Jong mockingly claims that "German toilets are really the key to the horrors of the Third Reich. People who can build toilets like this are capable of anything." It is clear that none of these versions can be accounted for in purely utilitarian terms: a certain ideological perception of how the subject should relate to the unpleasant excrement which comes from within our body, is clearly discernible in it.

Hegel was among the first to interpret the geographic triad of Germany-France-England as expressing three different existential attitudes: German reflective thoroughness, French revolutionary hastiness, English moderate utilitarian pragmatism. In terms of political stance, this triad can be read as German conservatism, French revolutionary radicalism and English moderate liberalism; in terms of the predominance of one of the spheres of social life, it is German metaphysics and poetry versus French politics and English economy. The reference to toilets enables us to discern the same triad in the most intimate domain of performing the excremental function: ambiguous contemplative fascination; the hasty attempt to get rid of the unpleasant excess as fast as possible; the pragmatic approach to treat the excess as an ordinary object to be disposed of in an appropriate way. It is easy for an academic to claim at a round table that we live in a post-ideological universe - the moment he visits the restroom after the heated discussion, he is again deep-knee in ideology.

This declarative dimension of symbolic interaction can be exemplified by means of a delicate situation in human relationships. Imagine a couple with a tacit agreement that they can lead discreet extra-marital affairs. If, all of a sudden, the husband openly tells his wife about an ongoing affair, she will have good reasons to be in panic: "If it is just an affair, why are you telling me this? It must be something more!" The act of publicly reporting on something is never neutral, it affects the reported content itself and although the partners learn nothing knew by means of it, it changes everything. There is also a big difference between the partner simply not talking about the secret adventures and explicitly stating that s/he will not talk about them ("You know, I think I have the right not to tell you about all my contacts, there is a part of my life which is of no concern to you!"). In the second case, when the silent pact is rendered explicit, this statement itself cannot but deliver an additional aggressive message.

What we are dealing with here is the irreducible gap between the enunciated content and the act of enunciation that is proper to human speech. In academia, a polite way to say that we found our colleague's intervention or talk stupid and boring is to say: "It was interesting." So, if, instead, we tell our colleague openly "It was boring and stupid", he would be fully justified to be surprised and to ask: "But if you found it boring and stupid, why did you not simply say that it was interesting?" The unfortunate colleague was right to take the direct statement as involving something more, not only a comment about the quality of his paper but an attack on his very person.

Does exactly the same not hold for the open admission of torture by the high representatives of the US administration? The popular and seemingly convincing reply to those who worry about the recent US practice of torturing suspected terrorist prisoners is: "What's all the fuss about? The US are now only openly admitting what not only they were doing all the time, but what other states are and were doing all the time - if anything, we have less hypocrisy now!" To this, one should retort with a simple counter-question: "If the high representatives of the US mean only this, why, then, are they telling us this? Why don't they just silently go on doing it, as they did it till now?" So when we hear people like Dick Cheney making obscene statements about the necessity of torture, we should ask them: "If you just want to torture secretly some suspected terrorists, then why are you saying it publicly?" That is to say, the question to be raised it: what is there more in this statement that made the speaker tell it?

The same goes for the negative version of declaration: no less than the superfluous act of mentioning, the act of NOT mentioning or concealing something can create additional meaning. When, in February 2003, Colin Powell addressed the UN assembly in order to advocate the attack on Iraq, the US delegation asked the large reproduction of Picasso's Guernica on the wall behind the speaker's podium to be covered with a different visual ornament. Although the official explanation was that Guernica does not provide the adequate optical background for the televised transmission of Powell's speech, it was clear to everyone what the U.S. delegation was afraid of: that Guernica, the painting supposed to be depicting the catastrophic results of the German aerial bombing of the Spanish city in the civil war, would give rise to the "wrong kind of associations" if it were to serve as the background to Powell advocating the bombing of Iraq by the far superior U.S. air force. This is what Lacan means when he claims that repression and the return of the repressed are one and the same process: if the U.S. delegation had abstained from demanding that Guernica be covered up, probably no one would associate Powell's speech with the painting displayed behind him - the very change, the very gesture of concealing the painting, drew attention to it and imposed the wrong association, confirming its truth.

Recall the unique figure of James Jesus Angleton, the ultimate cold warrior. For almost two decades, until 1973, he was the chief of the counter-intelligence section of the CIA, with the task to unearth moles within CIA. Angleton, a charismatic, highly idiosyncratic figure, literary and educated (a personal friend of T.S.Eliot, even physically resembling him), was prone to paranoia. The premise of his work was the absolute conviction in the so-called Monster Plot: a gigantic deception coordinated by a secret KGB "organization within organization," whose aim was to penetrate and totally dominate the Western intelligence network and thus bring about the defeat of the West. For this reason, Angleton dismissed practically all KGB defectors offering invaluable information as fake defectors, and sometimes even sent them back to the USSR (where, of course, they were immediately put to trial and shot, since they were true defectors). The ultimate outcome of Angleton's reign was total immobilization - crucially, in his time, not one true mole was discovered and apprehended. No wonder Clare Petty, one of top officials in Angleton's section, brought the Angleton paranoia to its logical self-negating climax, by concluding, after an exhaustive and long investigation, that Golitsyn (the Russian defector with whom Angleton was engaged in a true folie à deux, shared madness) was a fake and Angleton himself the big mole who successfully paralyzed the anti-Soviet intelligence activity.

Effectively, one is tempted to raise the question: what if Angleton was a mole justifying his activity by the search for a mole (for himself, in the real life version of Kevin Costner's No Way Out plot)? What if the true KGB Monster Plot was the very project to put in circulation the idea of a Monster Plot and thus immobilize the CIA and neutralize in advance the future KGB defectors? In both cases, the ultimate deception assumed the guise of truth itself: there was a Monster Plot (it was the very idea of the Monster Plot); there was a mole in the heart of CIA (Angleton himself). Therein resides the truth of the paranoiac stance: it is itself the destructive plot against which it is fighting. The nicety of this solution - and the ultimate condemnation of Angleton's paranoia - is that it doesn't matter if Angleton was just sincerely duped by the idea of a Monster Plot, or if he was the mole: in both cases, the result is exactly the same. The deception resided in our failure to include in the list of suspects the very idea of (globalized) suspicion - to put under suspicion the very idea of suspicion.

Recall the old story about a worker suspected of stealing: every evening, when he was leaving the factory, the wheel-barrow he was rolling in front of him was carefully inspected, but the guards could not find anything, it was always empty - till, finally, they got the point: what the worker was stealing were the wheel-barrows themselves. This reflexive twist pertains to communication as such: one should not forget to include into the content of an act of communication this act itself, since the meaning of each act of communication is also to reflexively assert that it is an act of communication. This is the first thing to bear in mind about the way the unconscious operates: it is not hidden in the wheel-barrow, it is the wheel-barrow itself.


[1] Jacques Lacan, Écrits. A Selection, translated by Bruce Fink, New York: W.W.Norton, 2002, p. 61-62.

[2] Janet Malcolm, The Silent Woman, London: Picador 1994, p. 172.

[3] Adam Morton, On Evil, London: Routledge 2004, p. 51.

[4] Écrits, p. 72-73.

[5] ibid, p. 72-73.

Jacques Lacan's Bibliography in English

Jacques-Alain Miller's Bibliography in English

Slavoj Zizek's Bibliography

Slavoj Zizek's Chronology

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