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1984.0: The Rise of the big Other as Big Brother

Remember some years back, when the lid was blown regarding the US’ use of torture to gather information from “terrorists?” Many were – rightly – shocked and dismayed; people from virtually all over the world chided the US for its disgraceful disregard for ethical standards. The ACLU condemned the behavior, journalists from all walks of political life expressed their criticism, and so on and so forth. For a while, America’s use of torture, or rather, “enhanced interrogation techniques,” was met with heated vitriol, brought into the public arena for passionate debate. But something strange resulted from all of that: talking about it publicly, in a way, normalized it, and lowered our ethical standards. Today, the topic of torture for interrogation purposes is disapprovingly met with: “Well…that’s what America does.” And that’s my concern with the recent surveillance scandal; that, in a sort of nefariously though “unwittingly tactful” way, by blowing this scandal wide open and bringing it into public discourse, sooner than later, spying on innocent civilians is just “what America does.”

Remember some years back, when the lid was blown regarding the US’ use of torture to gather information from “terrorists?” Many were – rightly – shocked and dismayed; people from virtually all over the world chided the US for its disgraceful disregard for ethical standards. The ACLU condemned the behavior, journalists from all walks of political life expressed their criticism, and so on and so forth. For a while, America’s use of torture, or rather, “enhanced interrogation techniques,” was met with heated vitriol, brought into the public arena for passionate debate. But something strange resulted from all of that: talking about it publicly, in a way, normalized it, and lowered our ethical standards. Today, the topic of torture for interrogation purposes is disapprovingly met with: “Well…that’s what America does.” And that’s my concern with the recent surveillance scandal; that, in a sort of nefariously though “unwittingly tactful” way, by blowing this scandal wide open and bringing it into public discourse, sooner than later, spying on innocent civilians is just “what America does.”

That said, I wasn’t surprised in the least when I read Glenn Greenwald’s piece for The Guardian, that Verizon is obediently handing over its customer phone records to the National Security Agency (NSA) in compliance with government orders. Nor was I surprised to hear that a myriad of other private companies – Google, Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo!, AT&T, Sprint, Facebook, etc. – has given in to the same pressure. After all, today’s overzealous trend of domestic communications dragnets is, in part, merely the logical though odious result of things like the USA PATRIOT ACT, the Protect America Act, the NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act), and their ilk, something that many anticipated from the first phase of the War on Terror. But when I heard that Verizon’s stock rose more than 3 percent on Thursday 6 June, my immediate reaction was: “My god, you gotta be kidding me…this is absurd.”

Perhaps, then, the normalization of domestic spying is already underway.

Virtually the entire nation is under surveillance. Phone records, emails, documents, photographs, connection logs, audio and video chats and more are being handed over without reluctance to the NSA, the data scraped and archived. Why? So that this information can be accessed at any time, for reasons not entirely clear. OK, ostensibly it’s a safeguard against terrorism. But these days everybody and their political representative appear to have their own respective fetishes for what qualifies as an act of “terrorism”… and so the gamut of reasons behind this surveillance monstrosity, at least those that have been disclosed to the public, ends up serving to maintain its ambiguous, secretive impression.

In any event, now that the cat’s out of the bag, it seems most people aren’t too outraged over this domestic spying business – to wit: Verizon’s stock is going up despite their complicit role in all this (people are continuing to buy their products and services). And many of those who do appear to be bothered nonetheless launch their invectives in the form of pithy cynical quips posted from their Facebook and/or Twitter accounts – their incessant lamentation is, by these lights, feeding the very source of their lamentation.

The German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel coined a term for such individuals – “Beautiful Soul”: that specific “I-told-you-so!” individual who, by incessantly complaining about this whole debacle, is actually contributing, in a way, to the preservation of this despicable situation – for, first of all, the Big Culprit against which the Beautiful Soul takes issue is none other than the external point of reference by which this dissenting character acquires his or her “dissident” personality; and second of all, if you’re using Facebook to express your contempt for being spied on, at least try to be a little more consistent. If you signed up for Facebook, you are, in some form or another, being watched. That’s the point of the damn thing: to be seen. Don’t pretend like you don’t enjoy it, even if your enjoyment appears in the form of angst.

In other words, people may be angry over being spied on, but not so much with Verizon, not with Facebook, nor with Sprint. Not with any of the private companies involved. Everybody seems upset primarily with The Government. Thus in the wake of being spied on, Americans show resolute loyalty to the very companies that collude with the federal programs doing the spying. It’s as if the idea of boycotting these companies and their products and services, is, for the vast majority of the US, more deranging than the fact that hundreds of millions of lives, perhaps yours and mine even, are being tracked day in day out.

The point I’m alluding to here is this: a classic example of abuse of power is to present its victims with a series of false choices whereby no matter which choice the victim makes, those in power win: do you want security or do you want privacy? Do you really want to trust the government, or do you want to trust the private sector that provides you with a false sense of security through things like smartphones, Internet access, social media, and so on? One has to wonder then, if pooled distrust is being directed toward Big Government, does this sentiment of suspicion merely act as a catalyst for consolidating more power in the sphere of Big Business? If so, we end up with the following logical absurdity: the more surveillance, the more “privacy.”

More correctly, that is to say: the more security we want, the less privacy we’ll have, and the stronger the private sector will become.

And that’s why the more I think about this situation and its seemingly irrational, stupid-as-shit absurdity (that, by dint of purchasing things like smartphones and dicking around on Facebook – in the face of being spied on through these very things – people are thereby giving their (unwitting) consent to being spied on by some sort of “Big Brother” agency), the more I realize that there is something rather philosophical in nature going on here. Perhaps this situation has less to do with some secretive “Big Brother” entity tracking peoples’ everyday behavior. Rather, what if this situation is exactly how it appears to be? What if this situation is essentially an ideological problem – having everything to do with us, the body politic, and, our immensely complex relation to the very “locus of power” that gives substance to the body politic? What if, and I don’t intend to sound cynical but rather skeptical here, this surveillance scandal is the logical, though odious, result of America’s desire for security?

In the old days, before the advent of post-Grecian democracy, when civil society was presided over by a monarch, the monarch was, as director of the Center for the Study of Psychoanalysis and Culture at SUNY Buffalo, Joan Copjec, puts it:

someone everyone – or everyone who counted – was encouraged to ’emulate,’ [the king was] merely the retroactive effect of the general will-of-the-people. The place of this leader [was] thus a point of convergence, a point where the full sense of this unified will [was] located. [1]

Obviously, these days there is no king. But as French philosopher Claude Lefort explained, the locus of power that was once embodied by a legitimate pretender – the monarch – has, upon the advent of modern democracy, become an empty place… Now that the “throne is empty,” so to speak, and modern democracy (an “indetermination that was born from the loss of the substance of the body politic”[2]) has usurped its place, modern power, to paraphrase Foucault, is wielded by no one in particular, though we are all subject to it.

In order to grasp what I’m getting at here, it’s important to familiarize oneself for the time being with two theoretical terms: the “big Other” and “gaze.” The latter often lends itself to a multitude of theoretical interpretations, each one replete with its own definition and conceptualization of functioning. To preempt against too much confusion, however, we’ll focus on the gaze as discussed hereunder.

To start, the twentieth century psychoanalyst Badass, Jacques Lacan, gave an account of the gaze with the following story he borrowed from Sartre:

The gaze that I encounter […] is not a seen gaze [not a set of eyes that I see looking at me] but a gaze imagined by me in the field of the Other […] the sound of rustling leaves heard while out hunting […] a footstep heard in a corridor [The gaze exists] not at the level of [a particular] other whose gaze surprises the subject looking through the keyhole. It is that the other surprises him, the subject, as an entirely hidden gaze. [3]

And then there is what Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic, Slavoj Žižek, calls the “impossible gaze”: that uncanny perspective by means of which we are already present at the scene of our own absence. What this means is that, any good ol’ fantasy functions properly only by “removing” ourselves from the fantasy we are having. Take as an example Disney’s Wall-E, the story of a convivial little robot that looks like an anthropomorphized Mars rover, that “falls in love” with Eva, a robot that basically looks like an egg. Essentially, this is a fantasy of a post-human earth – though of course dreamed up by someone (human) and, definitely watched by a whole bunch of (human) people. Hence the perspective in which “I am present at the very scene of my own absence” – the human viewer reduced to the “impossible” gaze – as if I’m not a part of the very “reality” I’m observing. This is, in a nutshell, the definition of gaze. The big Other, on the other hand, is a bit more involved. Its definition is inherently nuanced. To start off, what we’ll call the Symbolic big Other is something that is shared by everyone. It is none other than that which embodies the very ideological essence of the socio-symbolic order of our lives; rules and etiquette – especially juridical Law itself – customs and beliefs, everything you should or should not do, what you aspire toward, and who or what you aspire to be, all of this and more, individually or in combination, constitutes the Symbolic big Other.

The subject’s big Other (hereafter, the Imaginary big Other), however, is a sort of private investment in the Symbolic big Other, a personal allegiance to the ruling ideology which sustains the narratives, beliefs, and lived fantasies of the very culture in which the subject is immersed. Each Imaginary big Other is distinct in its own unique way: my Imaginary big Other may be, say, a patriotic bricolage (not really, but you get the point) – a composite of things like, e.g., Uncle Sam, the American soldier trope, “God” and Tim Tebow. And your Imaginary big Other may embody, say, just Emily Post, or maybe some vague ideological package of some other normative principles. In any case, the Imaginary big Other, the subject’s big Other as such, designates a private virtualization of the socio-symbolic field in which he or she is inscribed. Whether it exists in one’s private notion of God, or one’s notion of government, or family, or “what’s cool,” or a combination of these things or whatever, the Imaginary big Other refers directly to that distinctly personalized social standard by which each of us respectively measures ourselves – 24/7/365 (yes, the big Other can make itself known even in our dreams).

Virtually everybody shares in the Symbolic big Other, for it’s that very point from which the general “will-of-the-people” is reflected back to the people, so that we can see ourselves as we appear in this reflection – as a consistent social “whole.”

In other words, the big Other is that which gives substance to the body politic. We are its subjects. And despite not really existing – that, at the imaginative level of the individual, it’s really none other than one’s own internalization of society’s dos-and-don’ts – the big Other is nonetheless experienced as a sort of independent phantasm which situates itself smack dab in the middle of any social interaction like some kind of incorporeal incarnation of a necessary third-wheel that both instructs and scrutinizes our every thought, utterance, and move. As such, the big Other ensures that the rules of society are being followed, that we are conducting ourselves properly in society. Without the big Other the social fabric begins to fray, presenting the veritable threat of losing the constitutive substance of society itself, its governing laws, and its subjects.

I suppose I should’ve been a little clearer earlier on: when we combine the Symbolic big Other and gaze, the result is the Imaginary big Other, the subject’s big Other – that remote sense of being watched and evaluated by something that’s not really there. It’s sort of like a cross between a Jiminy Cricket figure of conscience and an iconic role-model of sorts, who, as such, seems to loom over your shoulder, telling you what and what not to do simply by “looking” at you, normatively shaping and informing your every thought and behavior. We all have a big Other. It is, to repeat an emphasis from earlier, that standard by which we measure ourselves: our own private piece of the larger, public social space we inhabit. To paraphrase Žižek, the gaze of the Symbolic big Other is my own view of myself, which I see through eyes that are not authentically my own.

Here, one should not fail to notice the Symbolic big Other’s striking resemblance to Bentham’s “Panopticon,” that omnipresent, omniscient “God’s-eye-view” intended to watch over us wherever we go. The likeness is unmistakable, simply because Bentham’s little wet dream embodies the big Other as such.

The essential point to take away from this is that one’s sense of (political) “self” is inevitably bound up with the localization of the panoptic gaze – that centralized point of omnipresent, omniscient surveillance. Wherever we go, our image of self, as seen by the gaze of the big Other, always functions for another. And further, in these times, do we not receive constant arousal, enjoyment, from the act of watching our own image of self, controlling our own image of self, tracking our own image of self? Though it’s not: as if we were the Panopticon itself, but rather: because we are the Panopticon itself. We bring the Panopticon, the gaze of the Symbolic big Other as such, with us wherever we go. Social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc., instantiate this.

But what, precisely, does this even mean?

Well, this is where things get both revelatory and a bit complicated. The trouble with all this is that, to return to Copjec’s analysis, the Symbolic big Other is “a point of convergence of the general will-of-the-people.” What this means – and bear with me here, because this may turn confusing – is that the Symbolic big Other, as such, signifies the very mode of appearance in which we appear to ourselves, for ourselves, as we desire to appear as such. So it would follow that, if we appear to ourselves, for ourselves, as images to be controlled, manipulated, tracked, watched, and so on, as we certainly do in today’s digital medium of social networking – which, by the way, we collectively, willfully and, pleasurably participate in – then this zeitgeist of the modern majority will inevitably converge at a centralized point: which is to say, the big Other, both its Symbolic and Imaginary incarnations, will appear in the guise of “Big Brother.”

At the individual level, each of us embodies “Big Brother”: we are intrigued with the act of watching, tracking, manipulating, images of ourselves. At the Symbolic level, the truth of this enjoyment expresses itself today in all of its unsettling perversity: PRISM.

But we shouldn’t stop there. There are still a few more complications that need clarification. The essential problem we face today is this: The Symbolic big Other – as an anchoring point, as something that serves to guarantee fixed meaning to our lived social experiences, offering a sense of wholeness and closure to the social order in which we dwell – has dissolved into something ambiguous, formless, a “part of no part.” The religious idea of God no longer works for most people at the social level; there is no longer one “ruler,” no potentate around whom our lives circulate and from whom the body politic receives its substance. Even the idea of the nation state as a sovereign entity has become near obsolete in the wake of the “global village.” In today’s historical epoch, the Symbolic big Other designates not a positivized entity around which society is structured, from which the body politic receives its substance; on the contrary, today’s Symbolic big Other designates a radical indeterminateness, which is to say: With modern democracy, there is no substantial big Other, no real agent with a legitimate claim to the “throne of power.”

The inevitable result of modern democracy is that nothing substantial assumes the seat of power that was once occupied by a substantial big Other. And there’s the rub. Today’s legitimate pretender to the throne of power is a “no-One” – that’s the whole point of democracy, that no single individual can claim this seat of power, which in effect renders this seat of power an empty place as such: a neutral frame that engenders political gridlock and which lacks any guarantee of real security. And so in a democratic state, the one sure thing that the body politic will desire the most is security. Let’s hold that thought, and jump tracks again for a moment.

What ends up ensuring the substance of the body politic in these times is the body politic itself. And this is a problem. In Žižek’s remarkable read, For They Know Not What They Do: Enjoyment as a Political Factor, he explains that

the fact that “the Throne is empty” […] is now the only “normal” state. In pre-democratic societies, there is always a legitimate pretender to the place of Power […] [W]ithin the democratic horizon, everyone who occupies the locus of Power is by definition a usurper. [4]

This means that, what is permitted in the democratic horizon is only a temporary exertion of power by the political subject, strictly by means of electoral activity: as Žižek puts is, “we are constantly aware of the distance separating the locus of Power as such from those exerting Power at a given moment.” [5] To put it quite simply, democracy safeguards this empty place of power, keeping it from ever being occupied by an absolute ruler. Sounds great, right? But if we pervert this perspective, that is, turn this perspective around on itself – is this not also the most Machiavellian way to ensure an unconditional occupation of the throne of power? And that is the totalitarian distortion inherent to democracy itself, the very source from which a surveillance state arises in the midst of a democratic state.

Now, let’s return for a moment to the fact that, without a substantial Symbolic big Other to give substance to the body politic, the body politic is thus left to its own to confer on itself its own substance. For example, when the body politic was presided over by a monarch, the monarch reflected back to the body politic their political substance: individuals were subjects of a monarchy as such. Remove the monarch, however, and this ordered state dissolves into an amorphous multitude of particular subjects lacking any determinate political substance. And so today, without there being any one substantial entity residing in the place of power, there is only the democratic body politic itself, a constellational array of diverse desires, ideas, political motives, and so on. A confusion of governance that can only find its consistent expression of wholeness in an act of its own reification, so to speak: in the capitalist marketplace itself. Politics thus becomes commodified, enjoyment valorized. And capitalism usurps the throne of power.

To put it rather bluntly, democracy protects the seat of power that is now occupied by capitalism. Democracy thus wards off any and all alternative possible usurpers; it is a “crisis of representation” as such. And it buys capitalism the necessary time it needs to finish consecrating its marriage to authoritarianism. For instance, while today’s crusaders of the every-vote-counts creed put their faith in electoral politics (i.e., the “liberal” (petit) bourgeois culture enamored of the myth of democracy) – despite the apparent crookedness of today’s electoral politics – across the globe China is slowly emerging as the crucible of a new capitalism, one that operates much more efficiently under authoritarian rule.

To be frank, I believe that the panoptical nature of today’s surveillance state has more to do with this latest development, this “virus of authoritarian capitalism,” than with anything else. It’s not the case that China is learning from the West how to be a democratic capitalist state, but rather: the West is slowly learning from China and elsewhere (e.g., the Revolutionary Guard is not a populist militia, but the most robust center of wealth in Iran) how to be an authoritarian capitalist state – to wit: the amount the Chinese government has budgeted for domestic security this year: $125,000,000; the amount the US has budgeted: more than $50 billion.

Today, while slowly divorcing itself from capitalism, the limits of democracy are in plain sight: While American democracy does its fruitless thing, America’s governing body is slowly shedding its old democratic skin, emerging as a competitive player in today’s newest development of authoritarian capitalism. One of the most telling signs of this can be detected in the aftermath following the market crash of 2008. This “crisis” was far from being a symptom indicating a moribund capitalism; on the contrary, capitalism emerged from that crisis stronger, more efficient, more authoritarian: the market has rebounded, the Dow has risen to new heights, there is more wealth in the US than ever before, and, in an undemocratic way, this wealth has become consolidated in the hands of a very few.

The key problem is that we all continue to play the game – we behave as if we’re all free – though thanks to individuals like Edward Snowden, we know that our “freedom” is being watched and tracked in an authoritarian way. But is this really all that surprising, considering our freedom requires a grounding authority, a big Other, to which its order and balance can be secured. Capitalism has assumed this role of grounding authority. And since it is the case that capitalist society has become so dynamic, so fragile, and so uncertain – if you are completely absorbed in the world of capital then the world takes on this form of chaotic dynamism – what people end up desiring more than anything else is security; and sadly, appallingly, with the spread of authoritarian capitalism, the more surveillance the more “security” – simply because it’s profitable; and in the context of capitalism, better profit – i.e., the more money one makes – ensures a more secured life.

Therefore, the problem of warrantless domestic surveillance of innocent civilians is a crisis of modern democracy itself, for it is precisely the belief in the democratic struggle against capitalism that prevents us from ever removing capitalism from its position of power.

The real secret here is that there is no secret. In a sense, Obama was right: “We can’t have 100% security and 100% privacy.” You really can’t get a more honest assertion than that. But that doesn’t mean we should remain loyal to Obama and his administration for being such a “messenger of truth,” because truth is a funny thing. Just because something’s true doesn’t mean it tells the whole story. The whole story here is that big government, Obama himself even, is not the Big Culprit – it’s capitalism itself, and its champions who have usurped the seat of governance, who sell the very things we desire, which just happens to be the very things that are keeping tabs on us all. But we can’t pretend that those who run corporations are not people like you and me, with lives as important to them as yours is to you and mine is to me. It’s just that, within capitalism, like everybody else, these individuals desire security too, security for their assets, security for their profits, and so on and so forth.

This “Big Brother” situation is none other than the form of appearance of our big Other. As Co-Director of the Centre for Ideology Critique and Zizek Studies at Cardiff University, UK, Fabio Vighi, explains: “the enemy/other is always-already in us, since we are always-already included in the big picture.” [6] And that is what I believe to be the fundamental mechanism driving today’s surveillance state.

Perhaps Foucault was right when he claimed that our desire to be taken care of is none other than the appearance of the fascism in us all, “the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us.” [7] Though I would like to think otherwise, that the truth of this proposition resides in its inverse: that our desire for the “very thing that dominates and exploits us” is none other than the way in which our desire for security is expressed in capitalist society. If we remove this capitalist framework, if we can usurp the throne of power it currently occupies, we can replace it with a new framework – one that can and should be defined by helping support one another rather than exploiting one another, as a means to secure our security.


1. Joan Copjec, “The Subject Defined by Suffrage,” Lacanian Ink:

2. This quote is borrowed from Claude Lefort’s The Political Forms of Modern Society: Bureaucracy, Democracy, Totalitarianism, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986.

3. Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998, p. 84

4. Slavoj Zizek, For They Know Not What They Do: Enjoyment as a Political Factor, New York: Verso, 2008, p. 267.

5. Ibid.

6. Fabio Vighi, On Zizek’s Dialectics: Surplus, Subtraction, Sublimation, New York: Continuum, 2010, p. 91.

7. This quote is borrowed from the preface Michel Foucault provided for Gilles Deleuze’s and Felix Guattari’s book, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, New York: Penguin Books, 2009, p. xiii.

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