Welcome to the second masterclass focused on the foundations of Slavoj Žižek’s philosophy. This article focuses on the concept of the “Other”.
The Other appears in Žižek’s work as foundational and absolutely necessary to understand in order to grasp his system as a whole. The first thing to know about the Other as a concept, is that it is most similarly or closely related to the notion of the “super-ego” as a type of imaginary screen or filter through which we understand the world and guarantee our knowledge. In other words, there is always a figure of the “Other”, an otherness that we claim or posit is the reason for coherence and consistency to a particular symbolic order. The function of the Other is a subject that is “supposed to know”.
According to Žižek, within any symbolic order or universe you will find a figure of the Other, a subject that is “supposed to have the knowledge”. To give concrete examples, you may think about different dimensions of epistemological fields:
- In many monotheistic traditions, you may have the figure of the Other as “God”, and the subject “supposed to know” would be the “the priest”.
- In the political field, you may have the figure of the Other as the “State”, and the subject “supposed to know” would be “the president” (or some similar figure).
- In the economic field, you may have the figure of the Other as “Capital”, and the subject “supposed to know” would be a “banker” or “economist”.
- In science or modern knowledge, you would say The Other is “Science”, and the subject “supposed to know” would be the “physicist”, “chemist”, “biologist”, and so forth.
- In spirituality you would have the Other as “Spirit” as such or some form of transcendental consciousness, and the subject “supposed to know” would be the “guru”.
- Finally, in sexuality or intimacy, the Other would be “Love” (do you really love me?), and the subject “supposed to know” would be your intimate partner, and so forth.
In order to approach this field of the “Other”, Žižek deploys negative logic. In other words, the first move in Žižek’s work is to suggest that “there is no Other”, there is no otherness that is eternal and transhistorical that would persist for all time. Consequently, there is no subject that “has” this knowledge, there is no subject that “actually knows”.
The second move Žižek makes is “there is a non-Other”. In other words, you cannot deconstruct this “Other functioning” within the symbolic order. Even if there is no Other in an eternal first order sense; there is a non-Other, there is a way in which this mechanism is at work in the symbolic order, in a way that is beyond deconstruction. Once this is internalized, the Other can be internalized towards emancipatory aims. You can understand that the lack in the Other and that there is no subject supposed to know, is the very condition for radical knowledge, because you can create your own otherness. Instead of submitting to a particular Other, you can live in relation to an Other of your own generation and creation.
This brings us to the concept of overdetermination, which is tightly linked to the concept of the Other on the subjective and intersubjective level. On the subjective level a subject who believes in capitalism will be overdetermined by capitalism in terms of dedicating his or her life to its reproduction; or a subject who believes in God will be overdetermined by God in terms of dedicating his or her life to its worship and dedication.
However, on the intersubjective level, even a subject who strongly dislikes capitalism or God, but finds him or herself in a social field where capitalism structures the entire field, or religion structures the entire field, will find him or herself trapped in an environment of beliefs that overdetermine their individual psychical existence.
This means that psychosocial existence is overdetermined by the Other, it is just a question of the form of the individual psychical Other, as well as the matrix of the social Other in which you are embedded.
This understanding of the Other in relation to overdetermination is Žižek’s main critique against the philosophical universe of multiplicity, which would only see the first level of there is no Other, but would be incapable of making the move with negative logic of there is a non-Other. Žižekian philosophy here situates the paradox of the -1. The paradox of the -1 is a type of “synthesis” between traditional ontology, which posits a oneness, and a more progressive postmodern ontology, which would posit a void or nothingness, and just a multiplicity of phenomena. Here Žižekian philosophy as well as the psychoanalytic tradition, would situate right here the negative one, the negative efficacy of the absence of an overdetermining unity.
This paradoxical logic is at work through all of Žižek’s major works.
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