In spite of all its grounding power, the big Other is fragile, insubstantial, properly virtual, in the sense that its status is that of a subjective presupposition. It exists only in so far as subjects act as if it exists. Its status is similar to that of an ideological cause like Communism or Nation: it is the substance of the individuals who recognize themselves in it, the ground of their whole existence, the point of reference that provides the ultimate horizon of meaning, something for which these individuals are ready to give their lives, yet the only thing that really exists are these individuals and their activity, so this substance is actually only in so far as individuals believe in it and act accordingly. It is because of the virtual character of the big Other that, as Lacan put it at the very end of his ‘Seminar on the Purloined Letter’, a letter always arrives at its destination. One can even say that the only letter that fully and effectively arrives at its destination is the unsent letter – its true addressee is not flesh-and-blood others, but the big Other itself:
The preservation of the unsent letter is its arresting feature. Neither the writing nor the sending is remarkable (we often make drafts of letters and discard them), but the gesture of keeping the message when we have no intention of sending it. By saving the letter, we are in some sense ‘sending’ it after all. We are not relinquishing our idea or dismissing it as foolish or unworthy (as we do when we tear up a letter); on the contrary, we are giving it an extra vote of confidence. We are, in effect, saying that our idea is too precious to be entrusted to the gaze of the actual addressee, who may not grasp its worth, so we ‘send’ it to his equivalent in fantasy, on whom we can absolutely count for an understanding and appreciative reading.1
Is it not exactly the same with the symptom in the Freudian sense of the term? According to Freud, when I develop a symptom, I produce a coded message about my innermost secrets, my unconscious desires and traumas. The symptom’s addressee is not another real human being: before an analyst deciphers my symptom, there is no one who can read its message. Who, then, is the symptom’s addressee? The only remaining candidate is the virtual big Other. This virtual character of the big Other means that the symbolic order is not a kind of spiritual substance existing independently of individuals, but something that is sustained by their continuous activity. However, the provenance of the big Other is still unclear. How is it that, when individuals exchange symbols, they do not simply interact with each other, but always also refer to the virtual big Other? When I talk about other people’s opinions, it is never only a matter of what I, you, or other individuals think, but also of what the impersonal ‘one’ thinks. When I violate a certain rule of decency, I never simply do something that the majority of others do not do – I do what ‘one’ doesn’t do.
1. Janet Malcolm, The Silent Woman, London: Picador 1994, p. 172.
Žižek, Slavoj. How to Read Lacan. Granta Publications, 2007. 10-11.