A Response To: There's No Such Thing As (The Big) Society

Sally Miller

Response To:

There's No Such Thing As (The Big) Society

In her conclusion Heather Nunn proposes that one of the actions necessary for producing oppositional representations to the Big Society is to engage with Margaret Thatcher’s haunting presence within the coalition’s political agenda. In this way, Nunn draws attention to how representations seeking to disrupt the rhetoric of the Big Society must engage not only with the specifics of individual policies but also with the unacknowledged investments we have in the vision of society that has been used to overlay the erosion of the public sector taking place under the banner of the Big Society. That is to say, the challenge is not only to document the harsh realities of the coalition’s policies but also to accept that our fantasy investments in the Big Society are such that solely exposing its failures will not be enough to unseat it.

In current political rhetoric the most vulnerable in our society have ‘too much’ and are deserving of hostility, violence and social exclusion whereas those who have profited through the exploitation of others are who ‘we cannot afford to lose’. Psychoanalysis offers a useful tool for understanding the fantasies that underpin this perverse inversion. In The End of Dissatisfaction? Jacques Lacan and the Emerging Society of Enjoyment [1] Todd McGowan draws a distinction between earlier societies of prohibition and our current society of enjoyment. While in the society of prohibition we were required to sacrifice our individual, private ways of obtaining enjoyment for the sake of the social order as a whole, in the society of enjoyment, private enjoyment acquires the status of a duty. It is important to note that although enjoyment is no longer prohibited in the society of enjoyment, it is still impossible to realise. The transition to a society of enjoyment merely marks a transformation in the way that subjects experience the social order. Nonetheless, a society structured around the fantasy of obtaining an impossible enjoyment rather than one structured around the prohibition of a possible enjoyment produces a very different social bond. Paradoxically, those subjects who are deprived become the target of hatred and aggression, as they appear to have a ‘secret’ source of enjoyment. Conversely, if some openly and even corruptly enjoy, their actions function to confirm that enjoyment is obtainable and they are accorded a privileged place in society.

McGowan argues that the key to discovering an alternate path depends ‘on our ability to properly recognize the present’ [2]. As an example of the kind of visual work that allows us to do this, I would like to consider ‘Photo-Op’ (2005) by kennard phillipps [3]. The image features Tony Blair in shirt and tie, grinning as he takes his photo on a mobile phone. In the background a massive explosion that seems to be simultaneous with the taking of the photograph engulfs a desert landscape. It is an image of enjoyment. While a political reading might see this image as exposing Blair’s secret enjoyment of the war, a psychoanalytic approach allows us to see that this is a radical image not because it exposes something about Tony Blair as an individual but because it expresses our collective social investment in Blair as a figure of enjoyment.

Slavoj Žižek has argued that a ‘nation exists only as long as its specific enjoyment continues to be materialized in a set of social practices and transmitted through national myths or fantasies that secure these practices’ [4]. We are motivated by our relationship to enjoyment – our desire to maintain or further it – rather than by political affiliations; therefore we need visual work that not only advances an alternative rhetoric to that of the Big Society, but an alternative fantasy.



  1. Todd McGowan, The End of Dissatisfaction? Jacques Lacan and the Emerging Society of Enjoyment,New York, 2004. back
  2. McGowan, The End of Dissatisfaction?, 7 back
  3. www.kennardphillipps.com/photo-op back
  4. Žižek, S. (1993) Tarrying with the Negative,Durham,NC: Duke University Press, 202. back

Image references

  1. Kennard-Phillips, Photo-Op, 2005 back