Surplus of Jouissance Framing the Feminine and the Pervert. Drunken Risibility.


The feminine position towards jouissance also moves beyond the phallic signifier. The woman does not come under the auspice of the paternal constraint of the phallic word, going as far as to sacrifice herself to unlimited jouissance suggesting a thorny ostracism of the paternal despot in his barbarous Will-to-Jouissance. Confronting the risk of turning these two parallel positions into a hazardous equation is locating the difference in the woman’s efforts to deviate from the function of the phallic signifier, where the woman still tries to relate her jouissance to the signifier as she tries to talk about it. This means that she does not disavow the phallic signifier as the pervert does, which explains why she is not placed completely outside the phallic function, on the side of unlimited fatal jouissance, something that would turn her into a callous figure.

Sade occupies the perverse frame in terms of jouissance, which is different from feminine jouissance. Although the woman slips away from the phallic function, she still tries to discover channels for relating her jouissance to the symbolic and manage to speak about it. The woman is not fully inscribed in the symbolic, for their structures are marked by a nucleus that persists and goes beyond symbolic boundaries: this is the object a, the remainder of lost jouissance. The pervert situates himself in the position of the object of the drive, whereas the woman tries to pertain not to this object, but its lack, namely the phallus, without fully succeeding in this. There is a surplus enjoyment in both positions pointing towards the new possibilities that the feminine position opens for ethics.

However, even if the woman tries to fasten her jouissance to the phallic function, unlike the pervert, it is precisely this surplus of jouissance that frames both the feminine and the perverse position. Moreover, given that lack and excess are tautological notions for Lacan, in what way did a pervert embody the lack in the drive and how is it different from embodying the excess of the feminine? Despite efforts to separate the two, one thing remains: both the pervert and the woman bear upon a jouissance beyond the limits of the symbolic, where common moral designations become impaired.

Utopia Banished. Thought of the Day 103.0


In its essence, utopia has nothing to do with imagining an impossible ideal society; what characterizes utopia is literally the construction of a u-topic space, a space outside the existing parameters, the parameters of what appears to be “possible” in the existing social universe. The “utopian” gesture is the gesture that changes the coordinates of the possible. — (Slavoj Žižek- Iraq The Borrowed Kettle)

Here, Žižek discusses Leninist utopia, juxtaposing it with the current utopia of the end of utopia, the end of history. How propitious is the current anti-utopian aura for future political action? If society lies in impossibility, as Laclau and Mouffe (Hegemony and Socialist Strategy Towards a Radical Democratic Politics) argued, the field of politics is also marked by the impossible. Failing to fabricate an ideological discourse and incapable of historicizing, psychoanalysis appears as “politically impotent” and unable to encumber the way for other ideological narratives to breed the expectation of making the impossible possible, by promising to cover the fissure of the real in socio-political relations. This means that psychoanalysis can interminably unveil the impossible, only for a recycling of ideologies (outside the psychoanalytic discourse) to attempt to veil it.

Juxtaposing the possibility of a “post-fantasmatic” or “less fantasmatic” politics accepts the irreducible ambiguity of democracy and thus fosters the prospect of a radical democratic project. Yet, such a conception is not uncomplicated, given that one cannot totally go beyond fantasy and still maintain one’s subjectivity (even when one traverses it, another fantasy eventually grows), precisely because fantasy is required for the coherence of the subject and the upholding of her desire. Furthermore, fantasy is either there or not; we cannot have “more” or “less” fantasy. Fantasy, in itself, is absolute and totalizing par excellence. It is the real and the symbolic that always make it “less fantasmatic”, as they impose a limit in its operation.

So, where does “perversion” fit within this frame? The encounter with the extra-ordinary is an encounter with the real that reveals the contradiction that lies at the heart of the political. Extra-ordinariness suggests the embodiment of the real within the socio-political milieu; this is where the extra-ordinary subject incarnates the impossible object. Nonetheless, it suggests a fantasmatic strategy of incorporating the real in the symbolic, as an alternative to the encircling of the real through sublimation. In sublimation we still have an (artistic) object standing for the object a, so the lack in the subject is still there, whereas in extra-ordinariness the subject occupies the locus of the object a, in an ephemeral eradication of his/her lack. Extra-ordinariness may not be a condition that subverts or transforms socio-political relations, yet it can have a certain political significance. Rather than a direct confrontation with the impossible, it suggests a fantasmatic embracing of the impossible in its inexpressible totality, which can be perceived as a utopian aspiration.

Following Žižek or Badiou’s contemporary views, the extra-ordinary gesture is not qualified as an authentic utopian act, because it does not traverse fantasy, it does not rewrite social conditions. It is well known that Žižek prioritizes the negativeness of the real in his rhetoric, something that outstrips any positive imaginary or symbolic reflection in his work. But this entails the risk of neglecting the equal importance of all three registers for subjectivity. The imaginary constitutes an essential motive force for any drastic action to take place, as long as the symbolic limit is not thwarted. It is also what keeps us humane and sustains our relation to the other.

It is possible to touch the real, through imaginary means, without becoming a post-human figure (such as Antigone, who remains the figurative conception of Žižek’s traversing of the fantasy). Fantasy (and, therefore, ideology) can be a source of optimism and motivation and it should not be bound exclusively to the static character of compensatory utopia, according to Bloch’s distinction. In as much as fantasy infuses the subject’s effort to grasp the impossible, recognizing it as such and not breeding the futile expectation of turning the impossible into possible (regaining the object, meeting happiness), the imaginary can form the pedestal for an anticipatory utopia.

The imaginary does not operate only as a force that disavows difference for the sake of an impossible unity and completeness. It also suggests an apparatus that soothes the realization of the symbolic fissure, breeding hope and fascination, that is to say, it stirs up emotional states that encircle the lack of the subject. Moreover, it must be noted that the object a, apart from real properties, also has an imaginary hypostasis, as it is screened in fantasies that cover lack. If our image’s coherence is an illusion, it is this illusion that motivates us as individual and social subjects and help us relate to each other.

The anti-imaginary undercurrent in psychoanalysis is also what accounts for renunciation of idealism in the democratic discourse. The point de capiton is not just a common point of reference; it is a master signifier, which means it constitutes an ideal par excellence. The master signifier relies on fantasy and imaginary certainty about its supreme status. The ideal embodied by the master is what motivates action, not only in politics, but also in sciences, and arts. Is there a democratic prospect for the prevalence of an ideal that does not promise impossible jouissance, but possible jouissance, without confining it to the phallus? Since it is possible to touch jouissance, but not to represent it, the encounter with jouissance could endorse an ideal of incompleteness, an ideal of confronting the limits of human experience vis-à-vis unutterable enjoyment.

We need an extra-ordinary utopianism to the extent that it provokes pre-fixed phallic and normative access to enjoyment. The extra-ordinary himself does not go so far as to demand another master signifier, but his act is sufficiently provocative in divulging the futility of the master’s imaginary superiority. However, the limits of the extra-ordinary utopian logic is that its fantasy of embodying the impossible never stops in its embodiment (precisely because it is still a fantasy), and instead it continues to make attempts to grasp it, without accepting that the impossible remains impossible.

An alternative utopia could probably maintain the fantasy of embodying the impossible, acknowledging it as such. So, any time fantasy collapses, violence does not emerge as a response, but we continue the effort to symbolically speculate and represent the impossible, precisely because in this effort resides hope that sustains our reason to live and desire. As some historians say, myths distort “truth”, yet we cannot live without them; myths can form the only tolerable approximation of “truth”. One should see them as “colourful” disguises of the achromous core of his/her existence, and the truth is we need more “colour”.

Perverse Ideologies. Thought of the Day 100.0


Žižek (Fantasy as a Political Category A Lacanian Approach) says,

What we are thus arguing is not simply that ideology permeates also the alleged extra-ideological strata of everyday life, but that this materialization of ideology in the external materiality renders visible inherent antagonisms that the explicit formulation of ideology cannot afford to acknowledge. It is as if an ideological edifice, in order to function “normally,” must obey a kind of “imp of perversity” and articulate its inherent antagonism in the externality of its material existence.

In this fashion, Žižek recognizes an element of perversity in all ideologies, as a prerequisite for their “normal” functioning. This is because all ideologies disguise lack and thus desire through disavowal. They know that lack is there, but at the same time they believe it is eliminated. There is an object that takes over lack, that is to say the Good each ideology endorses, through imaginary means. If we generalize Žižek’s suggestion, we can either see all ideological relations mediated by a perverse liaison or perversion as a condition that simply helps the subjects relate to each other, when signification fails and they are confronted with the everlasting question of sexual difference, the non-representable dimension. Ideology, then, is just one solution that makes use of the perverse strategy when dealing with Difference. In any case, it is not pathological and cannot be determined mainly by relying on the role of disavowal. Instead of père-vers (this is a Lacanian neologism that denotes the meanings of “perversion” and “vers le père”, referring to the search for jouissance that does not abolish the division of the subject, her desire. In this respect, the père-vers is typical of both neurosis and perversion, where the Name-of-the-Father is not foreclosed and thereby complete jouissance remains unobtainable sexuality, that searches not for absolute jouissance, but jouissance related to desire, the political question is more pertinent to the père-versus, so to say, anything that goes against the recognition of the desire of the Other. Any attempt to disguise lack for instrumental purposes is a père-versus tactic.

To the extent that this external materialization of ideology is subjected to fantasmatic processes, it divulges nothing more than the perversity that organizes all social and political relations far from the sexual pathology associated with the pervert. The Other of power, this fictional Other that any ideology fabricates, is the One who disavows the discontinuities of the normative chain of society. Expressed through the signifiers used by leadership, this Other knows very well the cul-de-sac of the fictional view of society as a unified body, but still believes that unity is possible, substantiating this ideal.

The ideological Other disregards the impossibility of bridging Difference; therefore, it meets the perversion that it wants to associate with the extra-ordinary. Disengaging it from pathology, disavowal can be stated differently, as a prompt that says: “let’s pretend!” Pretend as if a universal harmony, good, and unity are feasible. Symbolic Difference is replaced with imaginary difference, which nourishes antagonism and hostility by fictionalizing an external threat that jeopardizes the unity of the social body. Thus, fantasy of the obscene extra-ordinary, who offends the conformist norm, is in itself a perverse fantasy. The Other knows very well that the pervert constitutes no threat, but still requires his punishment, moral reformation, or treatment.

Negation. Thought of the Day 99.0


Negation reveals more a neurotic attitude towards jouissance, denounced as a perverse desire, that dominates both political and social life. Negation presupposes the acquisition of the meaning of “No” and it suggests a vigorous and compromising attitude between an idea remaining unconscious (repressed) and conscious at the same time. Thus, to negate means to go against the law and succumb to jouissance in a concealed way. Negating castration releases a destructive force against the paternal function, a force fuelled with jouissance. It is not the symbolic reality, but the non-symbolic real as a threatening source that is being negated. This means that the real is actually expressed through symbolic means, but in a negative form. Disavowal, involves a sexualization of the object precluding the threat of castration as punishment. But the threat is still there in the unconscious, whereas negation means that castration is negated even in the unconscious. Negation does not suggest a compromise (in the form of a splitting of the ego) between the denial of something and its acceptance, as disavowal does. Rather, it maintains the repressed status of castration by allowing the latter to be unconsciously expressed in its negated status. So, negation has a more hostile and aggressive attitude (originating in the death drive) towards castration, whereas disavowal originates in Eros. Disavowal does not go against castration, but keeps it at bay by not acknowledging it, which is different from negating it. In this way, the sexualization of the object (the mother’s phallus) remains intact. Therefore, the responsibility for extracting jouissance is also negated.

Žižek’s Dialectical Coincidentia Oppositorium. Thought of the 98.0


Without doubt, the cogent interlacing of Lacanian theorization with Hegelianism manifests Žižek’s prowess in articulating a highly pertinent critique of ideology for our epoch, but whether this comes from a position of Marxist orthodoxy or a position of a Lacanian doctrinaire who monitors Marxist politics is an open question.

Through this Lacanian prism, Žižek sees subjectivity as fragmented and decentred, considering its subordinate status to the unsurpassable realm of the signifiers. The acquisition of a consummate identity dwells in impossibility, in as much as it is bound to desire, provoked by a lacuna which is impossible to fill up. Thus, for Žižek, socio-political relations evolve from states of lack, linguistic fluidity, and contingency. What temporarily arrests this fluid state of the subject’s slithering in the realm of the signifiers, giving rise to her self-identity, is what Lacan calls point de capiton. The term refers to certain fundamental “anchoring” points in the signifying chain where the signifier is tied to the signified, providing an illusionary stability in signification. Laclau and Mouffe (Hegemony and Socialist Strategy Towards a Radical Democratic Politics) were the first to make use of the idea of the point de capiton in relation to hegemony and the formation of identities. In this context, ideology is conceptualized as a terrain of firm meanings, determined and comprised by numerous points de capiton (Zizek The Sublime Object of Ideology).

The real is the central Lacanian concept that Žižek implements in his rhetoric. He associates the real with antagonism (e.g., class conflict) as the unsymbolizable and irreducible gap that lies in the heart of the socio-symbolic order and around which society is formed. As Žižek argues, “class struggle designates the very antagonism that prevents the objective (social) reality from constituting itself as a self-enclosed whole” (Renata Salecl, Slavoj Zizek-Gaze and Voice As Love Objects). This logic is indebted to Laclau and Mouffe, who were the first to postulate that social antagonism is what impedes the closure of society, marking thus its impossibility. Žižek expanded this view and associated antagonism with the notion of the real.

Functioning as a hegemonic fantasmatic veil, ideology covers the lacuna of the symbolic, in the form of a fantasy, so that it protracts desire and hence subjectivity. On the imaginary level, ideology functions as the “mirror” that reflects antagonisms, that is to say, the real unrepresentable kernel that undermines the political. Around this emptiness of representation, the fictional narrative of ideology, its meaning, is to unfurl. The role of socio-ideological fantasy is to provide consistency to the symbolic order by veiling its void, and to foster the illusion of a coherent social unity.

Nevertheless, fantasy has both unifying and disjunctive features, as its role is to fill the void of the symbolic, but also to circumscribe this void. According to Žižek, “the notion of fantasy offers an exemplary case of the dialectical coincidentia oppositorium”. On the one side, it provides a “hallucinatory realisation of desire” and on the other side, it evokes disturbing images about the Other’s jouissance to which the subject has no (symbolic or imaginary) access. In so reasoning, ideology promises unity and, at the same time, creates another fantasy, where the failure of acquiring the anticipated ideological unity is ascribed.

Pertaining to Jacques Derrida’s work Specters of Marx (Specters of Marx The State of the Debt, The Work of Mourning; the New International), where the typical ontological conception of the living is seen to be incomplete and inseparable from the spectre, namely, a ghostly embodiment that haunts the living present (Derrida introduces the notion of hauntology to refer to this pseudo-material incarnation of the spirit that haunts and challenges ontological present), Žižek elaborates the spectral apparitions of the real in the politico–ideological domain. He makes a distinction between this “spectre” and “symbolic fiction”, that is, reality per se. Both have a common fantasmatic hypostasis, yet they perform antithetical functions. Symbolic fiction forecloses the real antagonism at the crux of reality, only to return as a spectre, as another fantasy.

Weyl and Automorphism of Nature. Drunken Risibility.


In classical geometry and physics, physical automorphisms could be based on the material operations used for defining the elementary equivalence concept of congruence (“equality and similitude”). But Weyl started even more generally, with Leibniz’ explanation of the similarity of two objects, two things are similar if they are indiscernible when each is considered by itself. Here, like at other places, Weyl endorsed this Leibnzian argument from the point of view of “modern physics”, while adding that for Leibniz this spoke in favour of the unsubstantiality and phenomenality of space and time. On the other hand, for “real substances” the Leibnizian monads, indiscernability implied identity. In this way Weyl indicated, prior to any more technical consideration, that similarity in the Leibnizian sense was the same as objective equality. He did not enter deeper into the metaphysical discussion but insisted that the issue “is of philosophical significance far beyond its purely geometric aspect”.

Weyl did not claim that this idea solves the epistemological problem of objectivity once and for all, but at least it offers an adequate mathematical instrument for the formulation of it. He illustrated the idea in a first step by explaining the automorphisms of Euclidean geometry as the structure preserving bijective mappings of the point set underlying a structure satisfying the axioms of “Hilbert’s classical book on the Foundations of Geometry”. He concluded that for Euclidean geometry these are the similarities, not the congruences as one might expect at a first glance. In the mathematical sense, we then “come to interpret objectivity as the invariance under the group of automorphisms”. But Weyl warned to identify mathematical objectivity with that of natural science, because once we deal with real space “neither the axioms nor the basic relations are given”. As the latter are extremely difficult to discern, Weyl proposed to turn the tables and to take the group Γ of automorphisms, rather than the ‘basic relations’ and the corresponding relata, as the epistemic starting point.

Hence we come much nearer to the actual state of affairs if we start with the group Γ of automorphisms and refrain from making the artificial logical distinction between basic and derived relations. Once the group is known, we know what it means to say of a relation that it is objective, namely invariant with respect to Γ.

By such a well chosen constitutive stipulation it becomes clear what objective statements are, although this can be achieved only at the price that “…we start, as Dante starts in his Divina Comedia, in mezzo del camin”. A phrase characteristic for Weyl’s later view follows:

It is the common fate of man and his science that we do not begin at the beginning; we find ourselves somewhere on a road the origin and end of which are shrouded in fog.

Weyl’s juxtaposition of the mathematical and the physical concept of objectivity is worthwhile to reflect upon. The mathematical objectivity considered by him is relatively easy to obtain by combining the axiomatic characterization of a mathematical theory with the epistemic postulate of invariance under a group of automorphisms. Both are constituted in a series of acts characterized by Weyl as symbolic construction, which is free in several regards. For example, the group of automorphisms of Euclidean geometry may be expanded by “the mathematician” in rather wide ways (affine, projective, or even “any group of transformations”). In each case a specific realm of mathematical objectivity is constituted. With the example of the automorphism group Γ of (plane) Euclidean geometry in mind Weyl explained how, through the use of Cartesian coordinates, the automorphisms of Euclidean geometry can be represented by linear transformations “in terms of reproducible numerical symbols”.

For natural science the situation is quite different; here the freedom of the constitutive act is severely restricted. Weyl described the constraint for the choice of Γ at the outset in very general terms: The physicist will question Nature to reveal him her true group of automorphisms. Different to what a philosopher might expect, Weyl did not mention, the subtle influences induced by theoretical evaluations of empirical insights on the constitutive choice of the group of automorphisms for a physical theory. He even did not restrict the consideration to the range of a physical theory but aimed at Nature as a whole. Still basing on his his own views and radical changes in the fundamental views of theoretical physics, Weyl hoped for an insight into the true group of automorphisms of Nature without any further specifications.

Paradox of Phallocentrism. Thought of the Day 34.0


The paradox of phallocentrism in aIl its manifestations is that it depends on the image of the castrated woman to give order and meaning to its world. An idea of woman stands as lynch pin to the system: it is her lack that produces the phallus as a symbolic presence, it is her desire to make good the lack that the phallus signifies. The function of woman in forming the patriarchal unconscious is two-fold. She first symbolises the castration threat by her real absence of a penis, and second thereby raises her child into the symbolic. Once this has been achieved, her meaning in the process is at an end, it does not last into the world of law and language except as a memory which oscillates between memory of maternal plenitude and memory of lack. Both are posited on nature (or on anatomy in Freud’s famous phrase). Woman’s desire is subjected to her image as bearer of the bleeding wound, she can exist only in relation to castration and cannot transcend it. She turns her child into the signifier of her own desire to possess a penis (the condition, she imagines, of entry into the symbolic). Either she must gracefully give way to the word, the Name of the Father and the Law, or else struggle to keep her child down with her in the half-light of the imaginary. Woman then stands in patriarchal culture as signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his phantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.



For Žižek, we are not so much living in a post-ideological era as in an era dominated by the ideology of cynicism. Adapting from Marx and Sloterdijk, he sums up the cynical attitude as “they know that, in their activity, they are following an illusion, but still, they are doing it”. Ideology in this sense, is located in what we do and not in what we know. Our belief in an ideology is thus staged in advance of our acknowledging that belief in “belief machines”, such as Althusser’s Ideological State Apparatuses. It is “belief before belief.”

One of the questions Žižek asks about ideology is: what keeps an ideological field of meaning consistent? Given that signifiers are unstable and liable to slippages of meaning, how does an ideology maintain its consistency? The answer to this problem is that any given ideological field is “quilted” by what, following lacan, he terms a point de capiton (literally an “upholstery button” though it has also been translated as “anchoring point”). In the same way that an upholstery button pins down stuffing inside a quilt and stops it from moving about, Žižek argues that a point de capiton is a signifier which stops meaning from sliding about inside the ideological quilt. A point de capiton unifies an ideological field and provides it with an identity. Freedom, i.e, is in itself an open-ended word, the meaning of which can slide about depending on the context of its use. A right-wing interpretation of the word might use it to designate the freedom to speculate on the market, whereas a left-wing interpretation of it might use it designate freedom from the inequalities of the market. The word “freedom” therefore does not mean the same thing in all possible worlds: what pins its meaning down is the point de capiton of “right-wing” or “left-wing”. What is at issue in a conflict of ideologies is precisely the point de capiton – which signifier (“communism”, “fascism”, “capitalism”, “market economy” and so on) will be entitled to quilt the ideological field (“freedom”, “democracy”, Human rights” and so on).

Žižek distinguishes three moments in the narrative of an ideology.

1. Doctrine – ideological doctrine concerns the ideas and theories of an ideology, i.e. liberalism partly developed from the ideas of John Locke.

2. Belief – ideological belief designates the material or external manifestations and apparatuses of its doctrine, i.e. liberalism is materialized in an independent press, democratic elections and the free market.

3. Ritual – ideological ritual refers to the internalization of a doctrine, the way it is experienced as spontaneous, i.e in liberalism subjects naturally think of themselves as free individuals.

These three aspects of ideology form a kind of narrative. In the first stage of ideological doctrine we find ideology in its “pure” state. Here ideology takes the form of a supposedly truthful proposition or set of arguments which, in reality, conceal a vested interest. Locke’s arguments about government served the interest of the revolutionary Americans rather than the colonizing British. In a second step, a successful ideology takes on the material form which generates belief in that ideology, most potently in the guise of Althusser’s State Apparatuses. Third, ideology assumes an almost spontaneous existence, becoming instinctive rather than realized either as an explicit set of arguments or as an institution. the supreme example of such spontaneity is, for Žižek, the notion of commodity fetishism.

In each of these three moments – a doctrine, its materialization in the form of belief and its manifestation as spontaneous ritual – as soon as we think we have assumed a position of truth from which to denounce the lie of an ideology, we find ourselves back in ideology again. This is so because our understanding of ideology is based on a binary structure, which contrasts reality with ideology. To solve this problem, Žižek suggests that we analyze ideology using a ternary structure. So, how can we distinguish reality from ideology? From what position, for example, is Žižek able to denounce the New Age reading of the universe as ideological mystification? It is not from the position in reality because reality is constituted by the Symbolic and the Symbolic is where fiction assumes the guise of truth. The only non-ideological position available is in the Real – the Real of the antagonism. Now, that is not a position we can actually occupy; it is rather “the extraideological point of reference that authorizes us to denounce the content of our immediate experience as ‘ideological.'” (Mapping Ideology) The antagonism of the Real is a constant that has to be assumed given the existence of social reality (the Symbolic Order). As this antagonism is part of the Real, it is not subject to ideological mystification; rather its effect is visible in ideological mystification. Here, ideology takes the form of the spectral supplement to reality, concealing the gap opened up by the failure of reality (the Symbolic) to account fully for the Real. While this model of the structure of reality does not allow us a position from which to assume an objective viewpoint, it does presuppose the existence of ideology and thus authorizes the validity of its critique. The distinction between reality and ideology exists as a theoretical given. Žižek does not claim that he can offer any access to the “objective truth of things” but that ideology must be assumed to exist if we grant that reality is structured upon a constitutive antagonism. And if ideology exists we must be able to subject it to critique. This is the aim of Žižek’s theory of ideology, namely an attempt to keep the project of ideological critique alive at all in an era in which we are said to have left ideology behind.

Žižek and the Disintegration of the Big Other and its Return. Note Quote.


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.


This is a puerile dig from the archives. Just wanted to park it here to rest and rust and then probably forgotten, until a new post on structuralism as a philosophy of mathematics comes up, which, it shall soon. In the meanwhile, this could largely be skipped.


Structuralism is an umbrella term involving a wide range of disciplines that came to fruition with the work of Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. The basic idea revolves round the study of underlying structures of significations that are meaningfully derived from ‘texts’. A ‘text’ is anything that owes its existence to a document or anything that has the potential of getting documented. The analyses for the discovery of structures underlying all these significations and texts and the conditions of possibilities for the existence of these significations and texts is what structuralism purportedly does. Saussure’s ‘Course in General Linguistics’, published posthumously, and seeing the light of the day because of his students’ note taking influenced ‘Structural Linguistics’, thereby explaining the adequacy of language for describing things concrete and abstract and in the process expanding the applicability of what language could do.

The starting point of Saussure’s analysis is Semiology, a science that undertakes the study of signs in society. These signs that express ideas build up the system of language for him. Signs are comprised of langue (language) and parole (speech). Langue is an abstract homogeneous system of language that is internalized by a given speech community, whereas parole is a concrete heterogeneous act of putting language into practice. In Saussurian jargon, Langue describes the social, impersonal phenomenon of language as a system of signs, while parole describes the individual, personal phenomenon of language as a series of speech acts made by a linguist subject. Signs attain their iconic status for Saussure due to meaning production when they enter into relationships with their referents.(1) Every sign is composed of a pair, a couple viz, signifier and signified, where signifier is a sound image (psychologically considered rather than materially), and signified is a concept. Signifier is the sensible part of the sign. A signified on the other hand is a connotation, an attachment that the signifier carries, a meaning, or a mental image of an entity that somehow misses out manifesting in the proximity. In other words, the signified of a signifier is not itself a sensible part of the sign. Signifier without the signified and vice versa strips a sign of its essence and therefore any meaning whatsoever (metaphysics ruled out for the moment!), and meaningfulness of signs in any discourse is derived from internal systemic relations of difference. This is precisely what is meant when Saussure says that language is a system of differences without positive terms (for the record: this is accepted even in Derrida’s post-structuralist critique of Saussure). The positivity of terms needs deliberation here. We recognize language, or more generally the marks inhabiting the language by virtue of how each and every mark is distinct/difference from each and every other mark inhabiting the same language. This distinction or difference is neither a resident with the sensible part of the sign, or signifier, nor with the mental/insensible part of the sign, or signified. Now, if the signifier and the signified are separated somehow, then language as guided by differences connoting negativity is legitimate. But, as has been mentioned; a sign is meaningful only when the signifier and the signified are coupled together, the meaning attaches itself a positive value. This only means that language is governed by differences. In the words of Saussure,

Whether we take signified or the signifier, language has neither ideas nor sounds that existed before the linguistic system, but only conceptual and phonic differences that have issued from the system. The idea or a phonic substance that a sign contains is of less importance than the other signs that surround it. Proof of this is that the value of a term may be modified without either its meaning or sound being affected, solely because a neighboring term has been modified.

Signs were value laden, for only then would linguistics become an actual science, and for this realization to manifest, signs in any language system were determined by other signs in the same language system that helped delimiting meaning and a possible bracketed range of usage rather than a confinement to internal sound-pattern and concept. A couple of ramifications follow for Saussure from here on viz, signs cannot exist in isolation, but emanate from the system in which they are to be analyzed (this also means that the system cannot be built upon isolated signs), and grammatical facts are consolidated by taking recourse to syntagmatic and paradigmatic analyses. The former is based on the syntactic or surface structure in semiotics, whereas the latter is operative on the syntagms by means of identifying its paradigms. The syntagmatic and paradigmatic analyses were what made Saussure assert the primacy of relations of difference that made any language operate. Syntagms particularly belong to speech, and thereby direct the linguist in identifying the frequency of its usage before being incorporated into language, whereas, paradigms relationalize associatively thus building up clusters of signs in the mind before finally imposing themselves on syntagms for the efficient functionality of the language.

So, fundamentally structuralism is concerned with signifiers and relations between signifiers, and requires a diligent effort to make visible what is imperceptible and at the same time responsible for the whole phenomenon to exist, and that being the absent signified. The specialty of absent signified is to carry out the efficacy of structuralism as a phenomenon, without itself sliding into just another singifier, and this is where Derrida with his critique of structuralism comes in, in what is known as post-structuralism. But, before heading into the said territory, what is required is an attempt to polish structuralism by viewing it under some lenses, albeit very briefly.

Structural anthropology as devised by Claude Lévi-Strauss in his Structural Anthropology (1 and 2) studied certain unobservable social structures that nonetheless generated observable social phenomenon. Lévi-Strauss imported most of his ideas from the structuralist school of Saussure, and paralleled Saussure’s view on the unknow-ability of grammar usage while conversing, with the unknow-ability of the workings of the social structures in day-to-day life. Thought as such is motivated by various patterns and structures that show proclivities towards redundancy in these very various situations. This means that the meaning or the signified is derived from a decision that somehow happens to have taken place in the past, and hence already decided. And the very construction of thoughts, experience is what structural anthropology purports to do, but with beginnings that were oblivious to social/cultural systems and wedded to objectivity of scientific perspective. Although criticized for the lack of foundations of a complete scientific account and ignorant towards an integration of cultural anthropology and neuroscience, the structural anthropology remains embraced amongst anthropologists.

Other important political variant of structuralism is attributed to Louis Althusser, who coined the idea of structural Marxism as against humanistic Marxism by emphasizing on Marxism as a science that has ‘studying’ objective structures as its goal, as against the prison house of pre-scientific humanistic ideology embraced by humanistic Marxism. The major tenet of this school of Marxism lay in its scathing critique of the instrumentalist version that argued for the institutions of the state as directly under the control of those capitalist powers, and instead sought out to clarify the functionality of these institutions in order to reproduce the capitalist society as a whole.

After these brief remarks on structural anthropology and structural Marxism, it is time for a turn to examine the critiques of structuralism in order to pave a smooth slide into post-structuralism. The important reaction against structuralism is its apparent reductionist tendency, wherein deterministic structural forces are pitted over the capacities of people to act, thus anthropologically weakening. Within the anthropological camp itself, Kuper had this to say,

Structuralism came to have something of the momentum of the millennial movement and some of its adherents thought that they formed a secret society of a seeing in a world of the blind. Conversion was not just a matter of accepting a new paradigm. It was, almost, a question of salvation.

Another closely allied criticism is confining to biological explanations for cultural constructions, and therefore ignoring the social constructions in the process. This critique is also attached with the Saussurian version, for it was considered as too closed off to social change. This critique could not have been ameliorated for the presence of Voloshinov, who thematized dialectical struggles within words to argue for the language to happen primarily through a ‘clash of social forces’ between people who use words, and thereby concluding that to study changes in signs and to chart those changes mandates the study of class struggles within society.

(1) Back in the 19th Century an important figure for semiotics, the pragmatic philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, isolated three different types of sign: The symbolic sign is like a word in so far as it refers by symbolising its referent. It neither has to look like it nor have any natural relation to it at all. Thus the word cat has no relation to that ginger monster that wails all night outside my apartment. But its owner knows what I’m talking about when I say “your cat kept me awake all night.” A poetic symbol like the sun (which may stand for enlightenment and truth) has an obviously symbolic relation to what it means. But how do such relationships come about? Saussure has an explanation. The indexical sign is like a signpost or a finger pointing in a certain direction. An arrow may accompany the signpost to San Francisco or to “Departures.” The index of a book will have a list of alphabetically ordered words with page numbers after each of them. These signs play an indexical function (in this instance, as soon as you’ve looked one up you’ll be back in the symbolic again). The iconic sign refers to its object by actually resembling it and is thus more likely to be like a picture (as with a road sign like that one with the courteous workman apologising for the disruption).