Why do we care what people think?

Lacan, trans-subjectivity, and structural racism

Farid Alsabeh



These days, public opinion seems to have captured our attention. We speak of its ‘court’ and debate the justness of its rulings. We question whether ‘being cancelled’ goes beyond being held accountable.

We might explain this by saying that humans are social creatures. We evolved in the context of the tribe, building our way up to increasingly complex systems of organization. And we count, among the basic necessities of life, interpersonal needs like companionship and relating.

No wonder, then, that we’d be preoccupied with public opinion — that we should care so much what people think.

But the fact that we’re social creatures has more to do than just our outward behaviors. On the contrary, the social domain is embedded in our own self-concept: it inhabits us in a deep way, framing our experience of ourselves and our world.

The concept of ‘trans-subjectivity’ explains how the social domain is constitutive of our subjective makeup. It refers to the social reality that is acknowledged, not by any particular person, but by people in general: not what one person thinks, but what ‘people think’.

In this article, we’ll explore the concept of the trans-subjective as it was introduced by Derek Hook, using his reference to Jacques Lacan’s logic problem, the ‘prisoner puzzle’.

Prelude: Two colloquial examples

Before we formally introduce the concept of the trans-subjective, let’s review how it comes up in two common phrases.

The first is the phrase, ‘what people say’. For example, sipping on a drink containing aspartame, you might hear: ‘You know, people say that gives you cancer’. We might translate this as: there’s an idea that it gives you cancer.

But if you respond by asking, who says that? your interlocutor is likely to simply respond: people! To claim that ‘people’ say it, without naming a single person: that’s a reference to the trans-subjective.

The second is the phrase, ‘being a thing’. This is often used to refer to the recognizability of a term, custom, or norm. As an example, consider the following exchange: