Zizek/Lacan’s “big other”: the unwritten rules that govern our churches

October 7, 2009

Let me begin with a brief introduction to the notion of the so-called “big other” as the symbolic substance of being, as it were the symbolic space within which we human beings dwell. People usually think about symbolic rules regulating social interaction, but I think it is much more productive to focus on another aspect of what Lacan calls the “big other”. The intricate cobweb of unwritten implicit rules. Their never explicitly stated, if you state them explicitly you even usually commit some kind of crime or violation. This is what always interest me, how what holds communities together are not explicit rules but the unwritten rules which are even prohibited to announce publicly.

Now you will say that I’m exaggerating here. No I’m not. Imagine even the most totalitarian communities imaginable. The Stalinist regime. The real old one from the 30’s. You would say but there everything was clear, no unwritten rules. Oh, their were.

Imagine a session of the central committee where someone stands up and starts to criticize Stalin. Now, everyone knows this was prohibited. But that’s the catch. Imagine someone else standing up and saying: “But listen, are you crazy? Don’t you know that it’s prohibited to criticize comrade Stalin?” I claim the second one would be arrested earlier than the first one. Because although everybody knew that it’s prohibited to criticize Stalin, this prohibition itself was prohibited. The appearance had to be unconditionally maintained that it is allowed to criticize Stalin, but simply why criticize him since he’s so good.

My point it that the appearance of a free choice had to be sustained.

This is the introduction of a talk by Slavjok Zizek that can be downloaded from the Slought foundation website.

Imagine someone standing up and saying: “Black people will not be allowed in our churches. And definitely not on our church boards“. This person would be immediately shunned. But it would seem that it’s prohibited to actively create inter-racial churches in most places. It may never be said. It is even more wrong to state this prohibition than the prohibition itself. And when the observations which support the theory that there is an unwritten rule against inter-racial churches is pointed to, the appearance must be unconditionally maintained that this congregation is open to begin an inter-racial church, but simply why force this when no one wants this/it’s not really central to the gospel/it’s not about race but about culture or language/whatever reasons are given to why “the most segregated hour of Christian America [or South Africa] is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning” to quote Martin Luther King Jr.

I belief a similar argument can be made for poor people in rich Christian communities. Therefore we will never say that they are not allowed, since stating this rule is against the rules, but everyone would work together to keep the community basically rich, and no one would dare to openly attempt to change this.

Is it possible that what determines how the Christian community work is not the written rules of shared confession, faith, mission or community, but some form of unwritten rules which underlies the ideology? If this is true, then these unwritten rules need to be understood, deconstructed, and challenged for change to happen within these communities. Someone would need to publicly state the rule which is not allowed to be stated.

Anyhow, your thoughts would be appreciated…

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5 Responses to “Zizek/Lacan’s “big other”: the unwritten rules that govern our churches”


  1. Good comparison, Cobus. Healthy churches and communities let the “others” pass front and let them speak publicly about what they understand needs to be changed. But this not end there. Healthy churches and communities change old paradigms and behaviors since people ask and work to change them.

  2. Simon Says:

    The video version of the talk is available on my blog.

  3. Tom Smith Says:

    Brilliant thoughts Cobus. I think it is important to note that we usually don’t even see the unwritten rules. Therefore, they can only be deconstructed when we see through the eyes of the outsiders – in your examples the poor and our black brothers and sisters.

  4. Mark Penrith Says:

    I come from a mixed church. By that I mean we’re a disparit bunch of people racially and economically (although in South Africa that line is usually shared).

    Thing is we’re mixed because we’re a like in other ways. By that I mean Theologically and geographically.

    I’m under the impression that unless there is common areas of overlap churches won’t reflect demographic stats in South Africa.

    What think you?


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