The Collapse of Meaning: Popper, Lacan, and Bakker


There is another dimension at work in “self-consciousness,” the one designated by Lacan as the “big Other” and by Karl Popper as the Third World.

—Slavoj Zizek, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism

Karl Popper in his Tanner Lectures would introduce the notion of the Third World. He would introduce it saying,

My main argument will be devoted to the defence of the reality of what I propose to call ‘world 3’. By world 3 I mean the world of the products of the human mind, such as languages; tales and stories and religious myths; scientific conjectures or theories, and mathematical constructions; songs and symphonies; paintings and sculptures. But also aeroplanes and airports and other feats of engineering.1

World one was that of physical objects. World two of mental objects. World three of the objective spirit: knowledge, values, culture, and its artifacts (i.e., human engineering and projects, language, the symbolic order within which we all share value and meaning, etc.).

Another thinker of the period Jaques Lacan would propose that this Third World (not actually having read Popper by any means) as the Symbolic Order of the big Other. According to Lacan, one of the (if not the) most significant and indispensable conditions of possibility for singular subjectivity is the collective symbolic order. Individual subjects are what they are in and through the mediation of the socio-linguistic arrangements and constellations of the register of the Symbolic. Especially during the period of the “return to Freud,” the analytic unconscious (qua “structured like a language”) is depicted as kinetic networks of interlinked signifiers (i.e., “signifying chains”). Rendered thusly, the unconscious, being of a Symbolic (anti-)nature in and of itself, is to be interpretively engaged with via the Symbolic medium of speech, namely, the very substance of the being-in-itself of the speaking subject (parlêtre) of the unconscious. Furthermore, the Lacanian unconscious is structured like “un langage” and not “une langue.” Although both French words translate into English as “language,” the former (langage) refers to logics and structures of syntax and semantics not necessarily specific to particular natural languages, whereas the latter (langue), which also could be translated into English as “tongue,” does refer to the notion of a natural language. Hence, Lacan is not saying that the unconscious is structured like French, German, English, Spanish, or any other particular natural language.2

Adrian Johnston further relates:

The capital-O Other refers to two additional types of otherness corresponding to the registers of the Symbolic and the Real. The first type of Other is Lacan’s “big Other” qua symbolic order, namely, the overarching “objective spirit” of trans-individual socio-linguistic structures configuring the fields of inter-subjective interactions. Relatedly, the Symbolic big Other also can refer to (often fantasmatic/fictional) ideas of anonymous authoritative power and/or knowledge (whether that of God, Nature, History, Society, State, Party, Science, or the analyst as the “subject supposed to know” [sujet supposé savoir] as per Lacan’s distinctive account of analytic transference). But, as already becomes evident in Lacan’s first few annual seminars of the early 1950s, there also is a Real dimension to Otherness. This particular incarnation of the Real, about which Lacan goes into greatest detail when addressing both love and psychosis, is the provocative, perturbing enigma of the Other as an unknowable “x,” an unfathomable abyss of withdrawn-yet-proximate alterit. (ibid.)

When my friend R. Scott Bakker writes of the Semantic Apocalypse it is the failure and breakdown of this Third World, big Other and the symbolic order that has held Western and Eastern civilizations together within its networks of dominion and control that is unraveling in our time. As Bakker puts it nicely:

Human cognition is not ontologically distinct. Like all biological systems, it possesses its own ecology, its own environmental conditions. And just as scientific progress has brought about the crash of countless ecosystems across this planet, it is poised to precipitate the crash of our shared cognitive ecology as well, the collapse of our ability to trust and believe, let alone to choose or take responsibility. Once every suboptimal behaviour has an etiology, what then? Once everyone us has artificial friends, heaping us with praise, priming our insecurities, doing everything they can to prevent non-commercial—ancestral— engagements, what then?

‘Semantic apocalypse’ is the dramatic term I coined to capture this process in my 2008 novel, Neuropath. Terminology aside, the crashing of ancestral (shallow information) cognitive ecologies is entirely of a piece with the Anthropocene, yet one more way that science and technology are disrupting the biology of our planet. This is a worst-case scenario, make no mistake. I’ll be damned if I see any way out of it.

In other words the objective cultural referents within which our common sense view of the world, reality, and ourselves is constructed is faltering and falling into an abyss or “crash space” (Bakker) from which there will be no return. One might say this is Nietzsche’s end game of the Last Man. Not that humans will literally go extinct (although that is still to be determined!), but that our worlds of meaning we all share: our collective belief systems in the sphere of religion, culture, and politics, etc. is collapsing before our eyes. The whole humanistic enterprise of dis-enchantment begun during and before the Enlightenment which centered on the world of the sciences slowly eroded our world views to the point that even our belief in human consciousness and free will etc. are collapsing into an abyss of non-meaning.

I actually see nothing negative about this, in fact to me this is part and partial of great sea change hinted at in many artists, philosophers, scientists, and literary works. Think here of James Joyce’s great apocalypse Finnegan’s Wake: 

The abnihilisation of the etym by the grisning of the grosning of the grinder of the grunder of the first lord of Hurtreford expolodotonates through Parsuralia with an ivanmorinthorrorumble fragoromboassity amidwhiches general uttermosts confussion are perceivable moletons shaping with mulicules while Coventry plumpkins fairlygosmotherthemselves in the Landaunelegants of Pinkadindy. Similar scenatas are projectilised from Hullulullu, Bawlawayo, empyreal Raum and mordern Atems. They were precisely the twelves of clocks, noon minutes, none seconds. At someseat of Oldanelang’s Konguerrig, by dawnybreak in Aira.3

As one commentator Seamus Deane states relates it this smashing of our linguistic base, Third World, big Other, Symbolic Order, the “abnihilisation of the etym“, etc. that James Joyce more than any other Irish writer “found a means of enacting it in fiction with a thoroughness that brought the issue of tradition, heritage, destiny and all the rest of those big words that make us so unhappy to the point of collapse…”.(ibid.)

Unlike my friend R. Scott Bakker I do not see this as a cause of alarm, but as a welcomed acknowledgement of a dialectical process enacting the break up and break down of a world view that had always already shown itself to be a failure. By this I mean that our fantasy worlds of culture and belief never did work for us, and produced all that we see before us in the world today of war and hate and disunity. All the antagonisms both within and outside us are part and partial of this process of give and take, not of reasons (Brandom), but of the Real and our relation to it: this brokenness at the core of our common sense (Understanding, cunning reason) world is a failure with a positive negation; or, negation of negation (Zizek, Hegel) in which we are all together waking up out of a two thousand year old human dream (Anthropocene). As Mao Zedong once related it

 “Everything under heaven is in utter chaos; the situation is excellent.”


  1. Popper, Karl. Three Worlds. Tanner Lecture on Human Value. (Univ of Michigan, 1978) (Page 4).
  2. Johnston, Adrian, “Jacques Lacan“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition).
  3. James Joyce. Finnegans Wake (Kindle Locations 6118-6122). Penguin Adult. Kindle Edition.