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Alwyn Lau

For good news, use drama. For bad news, use statistics. For really bad news? Use other people. Tweets at @alwyn_lau.

APRIL 5 ― In the 1994 corporate-legal thriller Disclosure, Michael Douglas played a senior executive who was seduced by his boss, played by Demi Moore.

Unsurprisingly in such movies, he eventually succumbs to her wiles (see [1]). In the heat of their passion, however, there is crucial moment when Douglas catches their passionate act in the mirror ― and stops.

He then refuses any more of Moore’ advances and the movie’s plot continues from there, with her suing him for sexual harassment and so on.

The key question is: How did the reflection “change everything” for Douglas? What happened? What knowledge or experience did it convey that Douglas did not have prior to looking at the mirror?

Perhaps it’s not that Douglas suddenly knew something previously unknown; it’s that someone else suddenly knew something.

Those awkward moments

I recall one time in the past a guy and a girl who had been together (but had recently broken up) were somehow seated at the same table during lunch.

There were about half a dozen people there and, of course, everybody avoided the fact that the two were former lovers.

However, one ignorant dude at the table ― relatively new to the group, hence his blurness regarding those two ― asked the girl in question about her ex-boyfriends.

You could’ve felt the embarrassment and silence hit like a ton of bricks.

Almost immediately one of us (not me, I was having too much fun enjoying the show ― and, no, I wasn’t the girl’s ex) launched into some BS monologue about the value of romance in evolution, how marriage is over-rated, blahblahblah.

This was a classic “awkward situation” where everybody knows something is wrong or amiss, but all are too shy to talk about the “thing” itself, so instead people engage in non-stop yapping about trivial and pointless things… all to prevent a meltdown in discomfort.

This person was doing in micro-form what societies (and especially politicians) do in macro-form i.e. he was seeking to prevent the symbolic registration of a difficult event. In other words, by talking on and on about some obscure topic, he was trying to remove the fact that “the ex-couple are an ex-couple” from the socio-psychical field around the table.

And as long as the other folks at the lunch didn’t mention it, such performances (as we all know) are usually successful.

Making it ‘official'

To use an opposite example, simply recall the time you fell head over heels for someone, and you “knew” she felt the same way, and you knew that “she knew” too. Does that, however, mean that both of you are “together”?

Absolutely not. It’s missing a key ingredient: the official confession ([2])

Until and unless someone takes that risk and ‘jumps in’ with a declaration of affection ― unless your feelings for each other become “official” ― the relationship remains platonic and “nothing happens.”

The declaration of love is a declaration not only to the object of your love but also to what French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan called the Big Other.

The Big Other is that Director or Registrar in society’s psyche. Once any action or behaviour is “captured” in the BO’s camera or files, we can longer pretend that “nothing is happening.”

Just like in Disclosure, Michael Douglas’ sudden “viewing” of himself having sex with Demi Moore (from a third-party angle) mirrored, literally, the gaze of the Big Other.

When he “saw himself” doing something he knew he shouldn’t be doing, in that moment the Big Other saw it, too.

And once the Big Other knows, the situation changes

This also explains why many people can continue in personal vices as long as they remain uncaught. Take, for example, a guy who has an Internet porn habit. For years and years he continues watching tits and asses online with only the faintest of guilt pangs until one day his favourite nephew catches him jerking off to an orgy.

Chances are he’ll feel thoroughly ashamed and, with some luck/grace, things will change for the better. Because what has happened? Not only has he been “caught”, he now also realises that he cannot continue pretending that he isn’t a porn addict.

The Big Other already knows.

Corporate and national politics

A few years ago I left a job that I loved because I felt I was the victim of an abuse of power. When, however, I filed a complaint to higher authorities listing down examples of such abuse, what’s interesting is that ― in public at least ― everybody refused to discuss the possibility that a senior director was playing fast and loose with a junior executive’s career.

Everybody preferred to look at “black and white”, seemingly ignorant of the fact that if a leader abused her power such abuse could be easily veiled from official documentation.

What was happening? My view is that the leaders of my department were doing their best to shield the very idea of abuse of power from the Big Other i.e. they needed to sustain the “belief” that the leadership was fine and there was nothing rotten at all to worry about.

Does this not sound like Malaysian politics as a whole? You have certain parties which are rife with corruption but somehow everybody “carries on” as if all is fine.

How, we wonder, can they sleep at night? One answer is that all the press conferences and project launches and official functions and parades and meetings serve a key function i.e. to veil political corruption from the Big Other.

It’s almost exactly like nonsensical banter about evolutionary romance whilst an ex-couple is around a table. People do and talk and do and talk non-bleedin’-stop in order to prevent the “knowledge” of injustice and sleaze from seeping out into the socio-psychical sphere of the nation ― to sustain the illusion that all is well.

Imagine if all the BS activities and conversations could, for a moment… stop.

[1]: When, in fact, is the last time there was a movie where the two lead characters were attracted to each other and didn’t end up in bed? The only two I can think of are The Preachers’ Wife (Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston) and A Time To Kill (Matthew McConaughey and Sandra Bullock). Both, strangely enough, out in 1996.

[2]: In my time, guys always did the “confessing.” Nowadays, I’m not so sure?

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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