Slavoj Zizek is engaged in the psychoanalytical theory of film and pop culture, covering a broad area from Hitchcock and Lynch to horror stories and science fiction. The philosopher from Ljubljana, Slovenia became popular with his book Enjoy Your Symptom!: Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out. Recently his study on the efficiency of the phantasmatic in the new media was published, currently he is writing a text dealing with cyberspace. After checking the abundance of titles dealing with the strange phenomena connected to the ‘virtual worlds’ Zizek comes to the conclusion, that – in contrast to the popular, exoticising readings of the net – the predominant psychic economy of electronic networks is a hysterical one.
Mr. Zizek, in several essays you developed a critique of the so-called “virtualization of reality” which supposedly accompanies the development of information technologies.
Recently you talked about several notions of cyberspace at the Humboldt University in Berlin. There is a ‘collective’ notion of cyberspace that was popularized for example via the idea of The Borg in Star Trek. The Borg seems to be something like a cybernetic insect state, combining the old image of the parasitic alien with a man-machine relationship which fuses the individual into ‘One Being’ via communication devices. This idea seems to correspond with the general trend towards a more or less predominant use of conspiracy theories to interpret the modern world…
Slavoj Zizek: If I understand this point of a one-mind-entity correctly, then it’s a version of cyberspace I didn’t mention. I first of all mentioned the deconstructionist version of cyberspace which is this post-Cartesian one: Each of us can play with his/her identities and so forth. This is the feminist, deconstructionist, Foucaultian version. But as you probably know there is another, let’s call it the New Age school of cyberspace-ideology. It is this neo-Jungian idea that we live in an age of mechanistic, false individualism and that we are now on the threshold of a new mutation…
Slavoj Zizek: Yes, that’s precisely the idea. We all share one collective mind. What I find so interesting about it, is the ambiguity of this fantasy: It can be presented as the ultimate horror. Already in the fifties the big threat of communism was the notion of brainwashing, the ability to establish “one mind”. The best cold war paranoia movie which employs this already in an ironic way is ”The Manchurian Candidate” with Frank Sinatra. An American officer is captured by North Koreans in the Korean War and brainwashed to become a killer who kills on order, without being aware of it.
Today you still have on the one hand this negative utopian image of the collective mind, while on the other hand you have this positive New Age image. There are two opposite versions, but what I’m tempted to disagree with is their common presupposition, which is that cyberspace means, to put it very simply, the end of individuality, the end of Cartesian subjectivity. All positive properties are externalized in the sense that everything you are in a positive sense, all your features can be manipulated. When one plays in virtual space I can for example be a homosexual man who pretends to be a heterosexual woman, or whatever: either I can build a new identity for myself or in a more paranoiac way, I am somehow already controlled, manipulated by the digital space. What you are deprived of are only your positive properties, your personality in the sense of your personal features, your psychological properties. But only when you are deprived of all your positive content, can one truly see what remains, namely the Cartesian subject.
Only in Cyberspace do we approach what Cartesian subjectivity is all about. You remember when Descartes elaborates the process of universal doubt. One doubts that anything really exists in order to arrive at one’s “ego cogito”. Descartes develops this idea saying: Let’s imagine an evil god, an evil spirit who just tricks us into believing…. But isn’t cyberspace, virtual space, the materialisation of this evil spirit? And it’s crucial to go through this universal doubt: What if everything is just digitally constructed, what if there is no reality to begin with? It’s only when you go through this moment of universal doubt that you arrive at what Descartes means by “cogito ergo sum”. For this reason I absolutely do not think that Cartesian subjectivity is threatened. Instead I think, it’s only today that we are arriving at it.
… the flexible economy.
Slavoj Zizek: Yes, you can put it that way. No firm identity, shifting and multiple identities. This is how subjectivity functions today. To cut a long story short, in this sense perversion is not subversive, and the first step towards subversion is precisely to reintroduce this hysterical doubt. I think the present social relations can fully acknowledge multiple identities. I think that today the ideal subject is bisexual: I play with men, I play with women, anything goes and it’s not subversive. And the strategy of imagining the nastiest perversion will not create a situation which the system will not be able to sustain. I think it’s politically wrong and I think it doesn’t work. When you have a look at the art system for example: Perverse transgressions are directly organized by the establishment to keep the market functioning and alive.
[Extract. Appeared in Telepolis on October 7th 1998.]