One key aspect of the universalization of reflexivity is the resulting desintegration of the big Other, the communal network of social institutions, customs and laws. For Žižek, the big Other was always dead, in the sense that it never existed in the first place as a material thing. All it ever was (and is) is a purely symbolic order. It means that we all engage in a minimum of idealization, disavowing the brute fact of the Real in favor of another Symbolic world behind it. Žižek expresses this disavowal in terms of an “as if”. In order to coexist with our neighbors we act “as if” they do not smell bad or look ridiculous. The big Other is then a kind of collective lie to which we all individually subscribe. We all know that the emperor is naked (in the Real) but nonetheless we agree to the deception that he is wearing new clothes (in the Symbolic). When Žižek avers that “the big Other no longer exists” is that in the new postmodern era of reflexivity we no longer believe that the emperor is wearing clothes. We believe the testimony of our eyes (his nakedness in the Real) rather than the words of the big Other (his Symbolic new clothes). Instead of treating this as a case of punctuting hypocrisy, Žižek argues that “we get more than we bargained for – that the very community of which we were a member has disintegrated” (For They Know Not What They Do). There is a demise in “Symbolic efficiency”. Symbolic efficiency refers to the way in which for a fact to become true it is not enough for us just to know it, we need to know that the fact is also known by the big Other too. For Žižek, it is the big Other which confers an identity upon the many decentered personalities of the contemporary subject. The different aspects of my personality do not claim an equal status in the Symbolic – it is only the Self or Selves registered by the big Other which display Symbolic efficiency, which are fully recognized by everyone else and determine my socio-economic position. The level at which this takes place is not that of “reality” as opposed to the play of my imagination – Lacan’s point is not that, behind the multiplicity of phantasmatic identities, there is a hard core of some “real Self”, we are dealing with a symbolic fiction, but a fiction which, for contingent reasons that have nothing to do with its inherent structure, possesses performative power – is socially operative, structures the socio-symbolic reality in which I participate. The status of the same person, inclusive of his/her very “real” features, can appear in an entirely different light the moment the modality of his/her relationship to the big Other changes. (The Ticklish Subject: the Absent Center of Political Ideology).
Besides the construction of little big Others as a reaction of the demise of the big Other, Žižek identifies another response in the positing of a big Other that actually exists in the Real. The name Lacan gives to an Other in the Real is “the Other of the Other”. A belief in an Other of the Other, in someone or something who is really pulling the strings of society and organizing everything, is one of the signs of paranoia. Needless to say that it is commonplace to argue that the dominant pathology today is paranoia: countless books and films refer to some organization which covertly control governments, news, markets and academia. Žižek proposes that the cause of this paranoia can be located in a reaction to the demise of the big Other: Paradoxically, then, Žižek argues that the typical postmodern subject is one who displays an outright cynicism towards official institutions, yet at the same time believes in the existence of conspiracies and an unseen Other pulling the strings. This apparently contradictory coupling of cynicism and belief is strictly correlative to the demise of the big Other. Its disappearance causes us to construct an Other of the Other in order to escape the unbearable freedom its loss encumbers us with. Conversely, there is no need to take the big Other seriously if we believe in an Other of the Other. We therefore display cynicism and belief in equal and sincere measures.