We may be more familiar with the reference to the ‘system’ – certainly in terms of surveillance culture – as Big Brother, or, indeed, even by the reduction of it to the figure of the Nanny, as in the mythologised notion of the Nanny State. However, as Clement Attlee turns in his grave over our current state of affairs, it might well be worth putting our Lacanian thinking hats on and taking seriously conceptualising the system – or even, indeed, the systematicity of the system – in terms of the big Other.
The big Other is, in effect, that which we ‘keep up appearances’ for, and it is, therefore, bigger than all of us. It is the symbolic matrix that relies on us for its maintenance: our courtesy in everyday exchanges, our politeness in our email sign-offs (see the email article below), our following rules and abiding by the law, and our leading by example are all for – in Lacan’s view – this radical other, the ‘big Other’. But what happens when the symbolic big Other gets usurped by the imaginary order of ideology and its bloodthirsty peddlers and mongers?
It gets bigger. Bolstered by ideology-pushers the big Other enters an oral phase; i.e., it becomes able to swallow up huge swathes of ‘popular opinion’ by its annexed imaginary pole creating such opinion. It is this opinion’s ideologues who (re)create the big Other, in fact, in the image of the populace. Let’s take an example from the current dystopia of political events: the Iain Duncan Smith petition on change.org – challenging IDS to live on £53 a week, just as he is forcing benefits claimants in this country to do – has been dismissed by him as ‘a complete stunt’; so much for petitions, democracy, and the old motto of ‘by the people, for the people’. What Duncan Smith has done here, most likely without realising, is made the Other bigger. Of course, his own self-inflation – at dismissing out of hand a petition now nearly 500,000 signatures strong – should be what is logically read here; but, instead, Duncan Smith has palmed the petition off as a stunt, and implies, in doing so, that its sensationalism can be verified by this ideological big Other. The linguistic audacity of the simple disclaimers ‘of course…’, or, ‘naturally… it is a stunt’, seem to be all that’s needed now to pull off the trick.
It is in these very linguistic tricks (utilised in the hijacking of the symbolic order for imaginary ends) that we see such deferrals take place again and again. Another example – that might clarify and reinforce the point being made a bit more – can be found in the common trope of championing the great, yet completely imaginary and amorphous, ‘Public’, so often referred to in the media: a bastion of (their) value(s), impervious to any deviation. This yoking of the big Other to a notion of the Public is a connivance put in place to reign the nation with a prevailing normativity: the most obvious example is in reportage of protests; a protest, by and large without fail in the media’s eyes, puts this Public in some sort of danger. The fact that the previous week those protesting might have been this Public, and that the next week, when others are protesting, they will be again, does nothing to impede this big Othering of the Public (image). Now working under the supervision of this distorted big Other – i.e., the big Public – we have been made, by the image-conjurers, into that apparently stable condition which must be protected at all costs, and – and this is where the dystopic double-bind comes in – which must be protected at all costs by us.
It may be language games that determine the Symbolic Order, but when the peddlers of ideology and the implementers of a diversionary imaginary order learn their syntax the stakes are raised to drastically anti-democratic levels. The Daily Mail know it all too well, and display it in their current front page (04/04/13): the way they utilise this malleable language is in yoking a certifiable tragedy to the ends of their own agenda and selling it cheap: ‘Welfare = Murderers’. It also displays something of the logic that Annie Edison employs in the yam trial courtroom scene in Community: say it first, then withdraw it before it can even be objected to; either way, the message is already ‘out there’.
If ever an apology is proffered by the Mail for their headline (to that not unsubstantial percentage of welfare-users who don’t commit atrocities), what will they care then about the weight of words? The damage, their goal, will already have been achieved by that intentionally heaviest of headlines. A fight – to reclaim (our) language from the Imaginary of IDS, the big Public and the Daily Mail, and to restore it to the Symbolic of the proper big Other, for which good manners and healthy functioning are everything – must be won if we’re to survive into something other than Christopher Isherwood’s prophesied ‘Rubble Age’.