Lovers of history and satire alike would be well served watching Armando Iannucci’s latest project Death of Stalin, now playing at the Michigan Theater. Crafted with an eye for historical accuracy, the film chronicles the intense and bizarre struggle for power following Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953. But between its informative transitions and hilariously improvised dialogues (something of a theme in Iannucci’s work), the film delivers even more than it promises: a connection with psychodynamic theory. Stalin’s character comprises an elegant demonstration of what French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan called the big Other.
In order to understand Stalin’s role as the big Other, it will first be helpful to outline Lacan’s elaborations on what he called the Symbolic order. This order is one of three which are theorized to constitute the human psyche — the others being the Imaginary and the Real — and is distinguished from these two by being the realm of linguistic communication, intersubjective relations, and submission to the law. The Symbolic order is occupied by ‘signifiers’, sound-images which correspond to concepts, and it is by chaining these signifiers together that we can engage in meaningful speech.
Where is the big Other’s place in this system? In a sense, everywhere and nowhere: it isn’t located within the Symbolic order, but rather permeates and maintains it. If the signifiers of the Symbolic order are magnetic particles, arranged in a liquid crystalline lattice, the big Other is the field that organizes and structures them, creating a unique configuration which can be detected by the manner in which the subject speaks. Another way of understanding this is to say that the subject’s speech is always addressed to the big Other: even in our most private internal monologues, our language is influenced by this hidden, presumed interlocutor.
There are three scenes in Death of Stalin where the comrade secretary’s role as big Other is apparent. The first comes early in the film, when we see fellow members of the central committee engaging in charming but careful banter with their leader. Returning home each night, it is revealed that every member — from the brutal and cunning NKVD director Luria to the timid deputy-secretary Malenkov — instruct their wives to document Stalin’s reaction to any joke, compliment, or passing comment they made throughout the day. This is done with the intention of pruning their dialogue over time, making it more appealing to Stalin’s critical ear. What is this ritual if not an example of punctuation, Lacan’s technical term for the big Other’s interpretation of speech? According to Lacan, it is punctuation which retroactively determines the meaning of what we say. When the subject speaks, it is always with the big Other’s interpretation in mind: this is quite literally demonstrated by the physical ledger which records Stalin’s responses. Each member updates this ledger of the big Other’s punctuation towards their comments (“good one, he chuckled” or “inappropriate one, he glared”) — thus retroactively determining their significance.
The second scene takes place near Stalin’s deathbed, where the leader briefly but miraculously regains consciousness. Members of the central committee quickly gather around and watch as he extends his arm out towards them. Everyone scrambles to explain this action, and seeing that he points to a painting on the wall, offers competing interpretations of his desire. But on closer inspection, we cannot say that each person’s judgment originates from their own personal perspective: now that Stalin is awake, they are keenly aware that their speech is being heard. Thus, their proposed interpretations, each more grandiose than the next (“the painting means we are the lambs of Stalin, our shepherd!” and so on) come from a desire to be seen as one who desires. After all, isn’t it implicit that the member who produces the most accurate interpretation, who demonstrates the desire most consistent with Stalin’s ideological platform, will be rewarded with the benefits of his favor? This fact reflects Lacan’s cryptic maxim that “Man’s desire is the desire of the big Other”: our desires are never truly our own, rather, we articulate desires which situate us as an object of the big Other’s desire. It’s no surprise, then, that such a superfluous theatrical expression became reanimated to the point of absurdity during Stalin’s short-lived resuscitation.
A Lacanian interpretation of this last scene, I believe, designates it the titular climax of the film. Convening to discuss the future directions of the Union, some members hope to usher in a new era free of the death and brutality that characterized Stalin’s reign. However, they are also restricted by the mottos and maxims — to rehearse our new terminology, the signifying chains — of Stalin’s time, which categorize such proposals as factionalist, betrayals of the party, and so on. Relying on the unanimous agreement of the committee, one member begins to flirt with the idea of progress — eliciting the cautious hands of those around him — but quickly labels that very proposal as factionalist, causing his fellow members to quickly lower their hands. This movement back and forth goes on comically, until finally his monologue concludes on the side of reform, and every member raises their hand in triumph. When we consider Stalin’s role as the big Other, it becomes apparent that this scene is the one which marks his demise. After all, his presence did survive physical death: it was manifested in his influence on the discourse of the committee members. What we witness in this scene is Stalin as big Other, flashing in and out of existence as the party member’s discourse snakes through ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ forms, until finally the distinction between these categories itself is abolished.
In fact, the progression of this final scene — the power of discourse to twist out of its own matrix, to subvert the conditions of its own existence and establish a new organizational scheme — is considered a goal of psychodynamic therapy, the “talking cure”. But I digress. The point here is that Death of Stalin echoes a sentiment best encapsulated by neuroscientist David Eagleman, who wrote that our third and final death occurs in “that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.” What we see in the film are the turbulent influences of Stalin, who survives beyond his corporeal death as big Other and organizes the ideological discourse of his contemporaries, until finally even this presence is terminated: expunged from the Symbolic order, marking the dawn of a post-Stalin era. And of course, all this with plenty of laughs along the way.