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 and relying on a complex network of rules and other kinds of presuppositions. First there are the grammatical rules that I have to master blindly and spontaneously; if I were to bear these rules in mind all the time, my speech would break down. Then there is the background of participating in the same life-world that enables me and my partner in conversation to understand each other. The rules that I follow are marked by a deep divide: there are rules (and meanings) that I follow blindly, out of habit, but of which, if I reflect, I can become at least partially aware (such as common grammatical rules); and there are rules that I follow, meanings that haunt me, in ignorance (such as unconscious prohibitions). Then there are rules and meanings I know of, but must not be seen to know of – dirty or obscene innuendos that one passes over in silence in order to keep up the proper appearances.
This symbolic space acts like a yardstick against which I can measure myself. This is why the big Other can be personified or reified in a single agent: the ‘God’ who watches over me from beyond, and over all real individuals, or the Cause that involves 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 must always be there. This inherent reference to the Other is the topic of a low-grade joke about a poor peasant who, having suffered a shipwreck, finds himself marooned on an island with, say, Cindy Crawford. After having sex with him, she asks how it was; his answer is, great, but he still has one small request to complete his satisfaction – 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 secret pervert, as she will see once she has granted the request. When she does, he approaches her, gives her a dig in the ribs, and tells her with the leer 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.
Žižek, Slavoj. How to Read Lacan. Granta Publications, 2007. 9-10.