ZiZek: “How to Read Lacan” – Chapter 1

1.      Empty Gestures and Performatives: Lacan Confronts the CIA Plot


Starting out with the phrase “Timeo Danaos, et dano ferentes” Zizek eases us into Lacan’s principle of the Symbolic Order. Language, as gifts that are given simply as a pact, an agreement of sorts and not for utility purposes, is a symbol signifying what it does each not by its mere existence but through the conditions and unwritten rules surrounding it.  Lacan’s “Big Other” is introduced through this Symbolic Order as a “puppet master” pulling the strings and discretely defining and directing our actions, leaving us under the false impression that we are the masters of ourselves.

Zizek goes on to explain Lacan’s  reality of human beings and presents the three levels, not completely separate from each other and interrelated but still discernible, providing an association to chess (which I found very clear and usefull):

  • The Symbolic (the rules; each piece defined by what it can do)
  • The Imaginary (the names; each piece defined by what it is called)
  • The Real (any conditions that have impact on the course of the game)

The symbolic space is where the big Other resides, the space where the rules exist and where interaction with others is actually “filtered” by a vast set of presuppositions and is actually happening through the big Other. Two types of rules are described: those I am aware of on some level and abide to consciously or unconsciously and those I actually know but must not openly acknowledge.

The big Other however is not powerful on its own, it exists and gains strength through subjects believing in its existence and acting accordingly. Like Freud’s ‘symptom’, that is an externalization of my inner needs/desires but can only have meaning when deciphered by the proper specialist, so the symbolic order exists because of the existence of individuals acting as if it exists.


The symbolic order and the basic form of symbolic exchange is found in the “empty gesture”, the offer made to be refused, the gift valued not because of its practical usability but because of the message/meaning it conveys.  The link created between two parties through such an exchange belongs to the symbolic order; nothing changes but everyone wins and that is the role of symbolic exchanges in society. And continuing on this train of thought, to belong in a society requires the paradox that we embrace on our own volition that which is already imposed upon us. In this context sociopath is defined as one who simply uses language, simply does an action remaining all the while oblivious to the performative side of its nature.

Due to this performative dimension of things and based on Lacan and Lukacs the following simplified reasoning can be brought forth:

I say I am something (declaration / utterance)=> I become said something (subjective transformation) => I act accordingly.

Elaborating a bit on the matter, examples of two triads are provided through Claude Levi – Strauss (food for thought: raw ­– nature, baked – culture, boiled – the in between space) and Hegel (geographic: German, French and English).

Taking a step back to the declarative aspect of the symbolic order we come once again to its performativity from another perspective, that of declaring something as opposed to that of simply doing it. Declaration is in itself performative, changing the meaning and the severity of that which it declares. It is often questioned, especially in circumstances where a silent agreement has been made, is presupposed to exist and is taken for granted and thus declaring its existence seems overabundant  and may lead to further assumptions. The same applies to the negative version of declaration, that of purposely concealing something and as a result giving it excess meaning or making the ‘wrong’ connotations.

Finishing up, the paranoiac stance is mentioned where in effect the idea of an existing plot is the very plot against which one fights. And that for me is the clearest performative aspect of the symbolic order as what one believes to exist actually comes to existence whether it originally existed or not, simply on account of said individual’s belief.




“Slavoj Zizek: The Reality of the Virtual”



“Jacques Lacan in 1 minute”



“The Iliad, Illustrated (part one)”


“The Iliad, Illustrated (part two)”


“The Iliad, Illustrated (part three)”



“A Story from Lacan’s Practice”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VA-SXCGwLvY  –> This particular link is interesting to me because it illustrates the interrelation between the symbolic and the imaginary. The woman has associated a particular word with a memory causing her to have nightmares. The word ‘Gestapo’ (name – imaginary) has a particular meaning, it does a certain thing (picks up Jews from their homes) (symbolic). Lacan takes the sound Ge-sta-po and turns it into ‘Geste a peaux’ at the same time caressing the woman’s cheak. He thus creates an alternative meaning/action (symbolic) to fit the particular sound/name (imaginary).


“Timeo danaos et dano ferentes”

http://www.naqt.com/YouGottaKnow/trojan-war-heroes.html –> History lesson


Freud’s symptom




http://www.lacanticles.com/category/symptom/ –> visualisation





Christopher Roth inspired by Zizek and the fact that the truth is out and not in.

http://www.dazeddigital.com/artsandculture/article/13055/1/christopher-roth –> What we perceive or believe to be true isn’t always what is actually true. What we are shown and what we see are usually not one and the same… So the truth ( I guess!) is in what we are shown and not what we see. (But doesn’t believing we see something bring into existance and therefore make it true?????)


Ana Mendieta

Rape Scene 1973 –> By staging and depicting a version of an actual event that was already in the past to spectators not knowing what they where to witness, the impact her action perhaps has on them is that of  the witnessing of the actual event. By declaring that she has been raped she becomes raped in the eyes of the witnesses.


Artist Deb Sokolow makes conspiracy theories come alive in graphic style

http://www.wbez.org/content/artist-deb-sokolow-makes-conspiracy-theories-come-alive-graphic-style –> I am very much intregued by the phrase “it is itself the destructive plot against which it is fighting”…




1. I have an obsession with Fibonacci and spirals. With plot, within a plot, dream within a dream etc. Of things that start small and then spin and feed on themselves, all the while increasing entropy. How far can I take that before creating chaos? And for that matter what defines chaos?


2. The idea of the big Other as puppet master along with the inside story of mexican soaps fits neatly into my current project “Puppets”. In what ways can performers be given instrucions as to how to procede during a performance? Who makes the final choise and who is actually responsible for the final product?


3. Is it possible to clearly potray all three dimensions of the reality of human beings (in a performance)?


It seems very soon for me to have a clear response to these questions… I think that they  are constantly at the back part of my mind lately and through trial and error experimental processes/ perfromances they may be little by little addressed and cleared up…

1 thought on “ZiZek: “How to Read Lacan” – Chapter 1

  1. Pavlos

    Really interesting links as a a way of finding creative understandings of Zizek’s book.

    The direct connection with theories of performativity is a spot on.

    I really suggest the video you have with Zizek giving a lecture on the “Reality of the Virtual”, and especially this one on “The different figures of the Big one” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_7a3DVx_X1M

    You should also try finding some links with more creative takes such as:

    While you are reading this, can you have some thoughts on what the choreographer of the future should do?

    maybe something like “The choreographer of the future allows themselves to be Schizophrenic” ???


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