Lacan, Orwell, and the Illusion of the Big Br-Other

1984-John-HurtIt is perhaps redundant and obvious to say, with the hindsight of the 20th century, that Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, turned out to be quiete exact and uncannily accurate: a judgment so obvious and redundant that it was assimilated in our collective literary imagination as something “given.” The book looks “right” and, perhaps, it really gets everything right. I believe that only a few would disagree with that. Orwell’s depiction of the future was so ineluctable as it is ineluctable the world in which we live in today. The story of 1984 has been increasingly regarded as an allegory of a time to come, as a mirror to understand the path followed by the “real” historical world; an allegory that can today be clearly deciphered, as many scholars have successfully proved. An allegory less “allegorical,” in its style than for example Animal Farm, but nevertheless a story that mantels some specific historic narratives that appeared to Orwell ineluctably proceeding toward a specific end: that of a world where conflicts are only apparent and where the language is slowly and meticulously transformed from a vehicle of articulation of thoughts into its opposite; that is into an insurmountable obstacle for the development of any (free)-thinking subjectivity.

The question I ask myself is not what the book gets right (and what not), but rather why and how the story of 1984 has become so irremediably an allegory for the use and consumption of our culture. How did we get to assimilate the fictional world of the novel within the horizon of our cultural collective imagination? Has 1984 become just another mirror in which our culture observes its flaws to then safely return to be just the same as if nothing ever happened? Isn’t our use of the novel, in this sense, very much like the three minutes of hate that everyday the Big Brother broadcasts on TV? Isn’t it then just a way to allow a moment of self-criticism in order to then regain the awareness that nothing, no matter what, can ever be changed? Isn’t this use of the novel, as Lacan would say, a way to fulfill and maintain the “bourgeois dream”? (That is, to use the words of Alenca Zupancic, “the attempt to link individual comfort with the service of goods.”)

My personal answer is yes. Orwell is of course not responsible for this in the measure that any writer is never responsible for the destiny of his/her work. The problem dwells precisely in turning a fictional text into an allegory and, more importantly, in ignoring how the allegorical agency works: retrospectively, to use a Lacanian framework, the allegory reorders the signifiers of the text in a metonymic chain that obliterates and reduce to “normal” the instances of a desire that finds expression only through a metaphorical exchange of words, that slips through the fabric of language. In other words: an allegorical interpretation of a text always “presupposes” a doctrine, a paradigm, to decode the chain of images without leaving any room for the emergence of “substitution” in the language (indecipherable metaphors) that can jeopardize the linearity of the interpretation. The allegory reflects, backward, the meaning of something after it has already been experienced. We always assume that there is a meaning somewhere and that art, one way or the other, is always a form of representation: these are two of the biggest lies that our educational system wants us to believe, in order to prevent us from thinking, instead, like Orwell does in 1984, that there is no meaning beyond what we see, and that there is no real to be represented that is not already given to us in a well formed and compelling “re-presentation.” (re-present: repeating, making something happen over and over again).

My question can be rephrased like this: what makes it so easy for us to draw a comparison between this world and that of the novel without however being able to realize that the possibility of such an analogy is a tangible sign of the supremacy of a order of meaning that the analogy itself contributes to keeping alive precisely through its obviousness and immediate self-evidence? The fact that the novel appears to be “right” is the symptom of its absorption inside our system. Right and wrong being to a given order, can never be individually reinvented. We can draw analogies because the allegory of the novel, its interpretation, has established itself as an authoritative discourse. The problem is that authority is always established retrospectively, from the point of view of the present. As a retroactive discourse (let’s think for example to the allegorical readings of the Bible) the allegorical interpretation of a text establishes a point of contact, a “suture”, to use a Lacanian term, where the individual work meets, so to speak, the totality of the works already interpreted. In this point of conjuncture between the sphere of the allegory and of the individual image, two important events take place: 1) the subject who reads is read in reverse by the allegory 2) the overall discourse of interpretation silences the differences in the chain of signifiers in favor of homogeneity.

We “see” the analogy between the fictional world and our “real” one because we are taught to think in analogical terms: only by finding identities we construct meaning. Yet, the way these identities are formed are for the most part the result of a higher speech that somehow lays out the net of associations for us: this is the allegorical agency of any ideological apparatus (to use Althusser’s expression). Allegory is a master narrative to which everybody needs to align. It is pivotal story that establishes a chain of analogies to make everything fit. An allegory, to be formed and function, needs to be both simple and at the same time appear as inscrutable. Not everybody can have access to the core-structure of the allegory (how it is formed, according to what principles) but everybody is allowed (enabled) to recognize the signs of the higher speech through the analogies. This is how we read in its majority every “classic” book that we believe have “something to tell to the world.” As a matter of fact, a book has rarely something to say since the very nature of writing is to constantly displace and defer its meaning: it must be always supplemented, as Derrida says, and this supplement is always procured by the dominant ideology. The more we see analogies, the more the knowledge of ideology has taken the place of our thinking. Analogy is a figure of power because it is intrinsically structured as a code that makes possible for things to be recognized and made familiar by assimilation to what is already known. It strengthens the bond of what already exists in the dimension of our ”re-presentation.”

Today we are lead to believe that only analogy is the basis of identity. If two things fit, they are similar, and can be grouped together to form a body of knowledge. This is how we understand things. Differences must be drastically reduced. Any “leftover” of identities is a breach in the system, a fissure that opens to a world of dissimilarities. 1984 is the story of a world where differences are systematically obliterated and associations are pre-established: if you get people to think about analogies you get them to think also about differences. The risk is that through language something else may emerge, something that goes beyond analogies: a desire that, as Lacan points out, is structured between a need and a demand constituted by the mediation of the other to whom one appeals in order to have his/her need fulfilled. Desire breaks the chain of the given meaning: it is the calling out for something else; it is an independent form of articulation.

The Big Brother wants to create identities eliminating the possibility of any differentiation: this is in fact impossible and this is what makes the novel a dystopian text. It describes a true impossible condition: from Hegel to Nietzsche, from Saussure to Derrida and Lacan, we have learned that no identity is possible without a system of differentiations. Everything is determined as a vector of signification because it is “formally different” from other vectors. Identity is established through dissimilarities. The idea itself of a pure being, as Hegel reminds us in his Logic, is something we formulate “a posteriori” since “being” is always given already in its split between itself and its opposite.

To make analogies, in the fictional world, as well as in ours, means to basically bring everything “in line”. In this way, any analogy between “this” and “that” world, is drawn on the basis of similarities that we already know. There is a re-presentation of a discourse already spoken. In this sense, whenever, for example, we think we can explain something by making an analogy with something else, we are in fact bolstering a pre-existing link, with the result of normalizing and controlling the instinct toward the rupture of that very chain. Poetry, as the realm of metaphor, is perhaps the most revolutionary gesture because it precisely breaks the analogical chain in favor of unpredictable substitutions. This substitution has always the form of a demand for love, of a leftover of language, of something that appeals and gives pleasure without producing any pain or objectification of the other. This is why, I believe, the protagonist of the novel is presented to us, from the very beginning, as a writer (he keeps a secret journal) and as a man in search of pleasure (sex is forbidden by the party). Winston writes: he needs to word his desire, to articulate it, and this gesture in itself represents already the higher transgression of the law. One cannot articulate by himself, but one needs to abide by the law and be articulated by it. Winston’s search for language and pleasure is how he wants to cross the “bar” of the self referential language of Big Brother, break the structure of the allegory, and bring to light his desire for truth: a truth that he wrongly conceives as “real”, in opposition to the “falsehood” and deception of the party. At the end, this illusion of the real, of a radical and significative alterity will be tragically demystified.

As every reader of 1984 knows, at the end of the novel, the world of the Big Brother is revealed as a machine that works around a self-fulfilling and self-determined contradiction. The ideology of INGSOC has absorbed its own negation. The figure of the dissident brotherhood captained by Emmanuel Goldstein is the ghost of a necessary fragmentation of the power itself. The “party” needs the people to believe that there is something more, something different, a truth to be discovered. They need to instill the doubt of a “real truth.” Yet, the “truth” is made impossible because the possibility itself of its opposite, “lying” is denied. The partt does not lie: every aspect of its discourse (Newspeak) is meant to fuel the illusion of a true reality behind and beyond the party itself. The party needs to create the illusion of an opponent, of an adversary in order to constantly reaffirm itself as an “absolute” power. As such, this power is absolute only because it is constantly mediated by a self-determined negation: the party wants Goldstein to be believed as truthful, they want the people to imagine that history, if it can be manipulated, it can also be retrieved in its original form. They want to awake in the subject the magnificent idea that a superior order of knowledge can be achieved. A “true” knowledge. Yet, truth is not possible because in fact there is no possible lie. Everything belongs to the same order.

The world of 1984 suspends the possibility of reference to anything “real.” The only thing that is left in the consciousness of the characters are the memories of a world that used to be different (scene of Winston in the tavern with the old men). Memory is the only anchor left to hold on the fleeting idea of a real. Winston has the impression that the party is manipulating history and thus the present; he suspects that someone is controlling information, minds, and so on. Yet, the party itself instills this very suspect in his mind. No honest lie is possible because there is no real to be negated. Everything is in itself a manipulation and in the moment that we understand that it is not possible for anybody to lie anymore, truth itself becomes obsolete. As Lacan says:

Every act of speech formulated as such brings into the world the novelty of the mergence of meaning. It is not that is affirmed as truth, but rather that introduces the dimension of truth into the real. […] You must have a good memory when you have lied. You have to know one hell of a lot of things to keep a lie going. There is nothing more difficult than to sustain a lie There is nothing more difficult than to sustain a lie. Because the lie, in this way, brings about in its nfolding the constitution of truth. […] there is no error which does not present and promulgate itself as truth. In short error is the habitual incarnation of truth.

The world of 1984 feeds on the illusion that “they” are lying, that “they” are manipulating. In fact, everything has already been so manipulated that “they” are no longer manipulating anymore. They are not lying, and conversely, they are not even speaking the truth either; they just constantly re-affirm their power through the means of a homogenizing speech. Knowing the possibility of lying makes the truth possible: not a lie per se, but the power of manipulation. The Big Brother wants to erase the awareness of this power but at the same time it needs to fuel this doubt in order to survive as a superior order. The Big Brother, like a God, is what it’s always been: a present perfect that is also a future anterior. There is no origin to detect, no “real” principle to deconstruct and reprogram as “reality”.

When Winston meets O’Brien for the first time, he tells him clearly: “It’s real”! That’s all Winston has been looking for. Not the truth, but the real. He believes that the negation of the party was “real” and at the end he discovers that the negation is part of the party itself. In a Hegelian sense, the opposition has been sublated and the party lives in and for itself. There can be no “knowledge” because there are no more oppositions, only an absolute idea that survives by enslaving. They want at the end the “slave” to recognize the master and, as masters, they need to make sure they are recognized as such. They recognize the slave not just as the laborer (the prole) but as the indispensable negation they need to constantly win over in order to fulfill themselves. The master, in this sense, has moved beyond mastery. He has become both an enslaver and a savior, a monster and a redeemer. Death comes only when finally language is understood as manipulation: there is nothing beyond the Big Brother, but the illusion that something must be there is what makes possible for the Big Brother to exist. Reality is really nothing.

Since there is no real, and therefore no possibility of lying, there is no truth. This is why the world of 1984 appears as a perfect machine. The machine does not know differential languages, does not feed on the ambiguity of the language of desire, or of the demand for pleasure, love, truth, companionship and “brotherhood”. As Lacan writes:

The meaning of the machine is in the process of complete transformation, for us all, whether or not you have opened a book on cybernetics. You are behind the times, it‘s always like that.”

The perfect machine is the one that grows and puts the subject who starts behind it, forcing the “I” to chase after the machine, a chase that resembles the famous Zeno’s paradox: even if the mechanical device was as slow as a turtle, and the subject as fast as Achilles, this latter would never be able to catch the former completely in any given position. The monster of technology is to the word of 1984 what the turtle is to Achilles: one needs to catch up with it afterward, and no knowledge can grant a safe and secure dominion over the machine. Every single little step forward is infinitely complex and hides inside a multitude of facets one can never fully grasp.

Winston occupies a privileged position. From the point of view of his little job at the Minister of Love, he is able to raise the question about the validity of his own knowledge. He feels that things are not as they seem; he sense there is something more, something behind and beyond the order of things. Yet, he lacks an object to anchor his impressions and to turn his thoughts into objective realities. Winston does not only raise the question of the difference between truth and appearance, reality and illusion. He embodies the tragic journey of a subject that discovers how such a question is, at the end, not tenable at all. He does not fall prisoner to the illusion and/or to reality, but he is rather caught in the texture of the mingling of the two, in the inextricable intertwining and exchanging between illusion and disillusion, where dis-illusion simply means the recognition of the illusory character of the illusion without however being able to oppose to it anything real. In this sense, the recognition of the illusion is already misrecognition because it does not determine the discovery of anything behind and beyond the illusion. Not only that: the lifting of the veil, so to speak, does not cause any change. The terrifying truth is that everything stays the same and the questions are not answered. The subject is not even sure he has lifted any veil at all, starts to doubt whether there was ever a veil in first place and whether he himself is in fact the very illusion he has been chasing all along.

Winston has to pay not for wanting to subvert the reality of big brother but because he wanted to access a “real” beyond the Big Brother without accepting the interdiction of the law. He is punished for wanting to know more without limits. Knowledge as a thing is unattainable, is always transforming. Winston has to pay for questioning his ignorance: he needs to be reeducated to be ignorant: to accept the existence of the allegory, of the higher speech. To understand the path that Winston follows from the beginning to the end of the novel, we may once again use a pattern described by Lacan:

[…] it is only in the dimension of being, and not in that of the real, that the three fundamental passions can be inscribed – at the junction of the symbolic and imaginary, this fault line, if you will, this ridge line called love – at the junction of the imaginary and the real, hate – and, at the junction of the real and the symbolic, ignorance.

Lacan intends being as the moment in which what first appeared “un-representable” (the Real) has reached some sort of articulation. In other words, the three feelings of ignorance, love, and hate must be found in the space of the subject’s functioning in the world and not in any recondite and secluded space. These feelings are “articulated” and are part of a socially determined interaction between men. Now, the relevant thing is that Winston’s reeducation, at the end of 1984, is structured as a progressive (mechanical, according to what I said previously on the machine) development from ignorance to hate, and from hate to love.

Ignorance is the feeling that occupies the axis that goes from the Real to the Symbolic: Winston does not know whether he should believe in the “story” as told by the party (the allegorical symbolic discourse) because he believes there is something more to it, something “real” beyond the party that he does not know but that nevertheless he believes is located somewhere, a place that can not be touched by the manipulation of the INGSOC. The first step of his reeducation consists in accepting that the “symbolic order”, the Big Brother, has the power to determine any “real”: he has to believe that 2+2 does not equal 4, but 5 because this is what the law says. It does not matter whether one believes it is actually 4: the point is that the real exists only insofar as it is over-determined by a symbolic order.

Hate is the feeling that spans between Real and Imaginary: Winston has to believe that the Real is informed by the Symbolic order represented by the Party. Winston cherished fantasies of a “different” real; he imagined something different by projecting on reality his own wishes and desires. That real now has, so to speak, betrayed his imagination, his fantasy, his yearning for “something more.” Winston has to go through the dis-illusion of his own imagination.

“no lies: you know that I am always able to detect a lie–tell me, what are your true feelings towards Big Brother?’

‘I hate him.’

‘You hate him. Good. Then the time has come for you to take the last step. You must love Big Brother. It is not enough to obey him: you must love him.”

Love stretches from the Imaginary to the Symbolic: as a final step, after re-experiencing his ignorance, and the hate caused by the breaking of his fantasy, Winston has to finally get to love the Big Brother, he has to embrace its “law” and accept that the only desire he could ever satisfy must be in conformity of this love. Only by abiding by it and accepting the interdiction of the law on his own desire he can have “at least” some satisfaction. Winston’s fantasy must become the fantasy of the Big Brother: his imagination must be open to desire of the “higher speech” of the allegory, to the Law of the Big Brother, to the Symbolic order of the Party.

At the end, Winston has to die because the awareness of the three stages of his rehabilitation would make life impossible for him: he “knows” now too much. This knowledge could make life bearable only through death. His desire for knowledge has been punished by imparting on him, and on his tortured body, the knowledge of the system in its entirety. He is finally liberated because he knows that there is no way out. He is finally a happy prisoner willing to die: he has happily learned that there is no exit, and that knowledge does not grant life but only death; that love is necessarily the love of the desire of the Big Br-Other: a big br-other who is after all not that Big, it is only the ghost of a perverted desire constantly affirming itself through the stamping over other peoples’ desires and fantasies; a psychotic power that seeks to annul any difference by creating thus a true dystopia. With love for the perverted big br-other that made him see the absurdity of what he once imagined to harbor a hidden reality, Winston walks toward the gallows:

He gazed up at the enormous face. Forty years it had taken him to learn what kind of smile was hidden beneath the dark moustache. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.



3 thoughts on “Lacan, Orwell, and the Illusion of the Big Br-Other

    • Hello Erica. Thank you for your interest in my post. I have not published this research anywhere else. I wish I had more time to write about Lacan and literature. I have been putting together some readings of German ROmantic works in light of Lacan’s theory and I hope I will soon able to share some of them. What is your researches focused on? I would be delighted to learn about it.


  1. Very interesting analysis of 1984. There are many many issues that might need some discussion. I don’t think Orwell creates the concept of Big Brother out of thin air. There is a definite allusion here to a very personal family structure that we can all immediately appreciate, The Big Brother who takes care of us, teaches us, is held with great esteem by the family and schoolmates, the big brother who teaches us about girls and bike riding and whom we emulate. Orwell’s use of that phrase Big Brother alludes ironically to the very conventional family structure. Winston is himself a big brother to his sister from whom he steals some candy and abandons to an unknown fate. He recalls that scene with some regret and guilt. Big Brother does not ultimately win Winston over with the strength of his ideology, but through the weakness of Winston’s character. He absolves Winston of the guilt of betraying his sister, mother and ultimately Julia. He permits Winston to feel good about his own lack of character and conviction. Winston comes to love Big Brother because Big Brother gives him permission to feel good about his own cowardice and perfidy. Big Brother wins him over not through the values and convictions of the Symbolic Order, but through redesigning Winston’s imaginary self-regard, not as a contemptible pusillanimous fool but as someone who is loved by Big Brother. That is exactly how such totalitarian systems operate: they give the forgotten, cowardly, drunken, self-destructive losers a new image of themselves, they get to reimagine themselves as winners and heroes.


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