What can psychoanalysis tell us about cyberspace?


Today, the media constantly bombard us with requests to choose, addressing us as subjects supposed to know what we really want (which book, clothes, TV program, place of holiday . . .)—“press A, if you want this, press B, if you want that,” or, to quote the motto of the recent “reflective” TV publicity campaign for advertisement itself, “Advertisement—the right to choose.” However, at a more fundamental level, the new media deprive the subject radically of the knowledge of what he wants: They address a thoroughly malleable subject who has constantly to be told what he wants, i.e., the very evocation of a choice to be made performatively creates the need for the object of choice. One should bear in mind here that the main function of the Master is to tell the subject what he wants—the need for the Master arises in answer to the subject’s confusion, insofar as he does not know what he wants. What, then, happens in the situation of the decline of the Master, when the subject himself is constantly bombarded with the request to give a sign as to what he wants? The exact opposite of what one would expect: It is when there is no one here to tell you what you really want, when all the burden of the choice is on you, that the big Other dominates you completely, and the choice effectively disappears, i.e., is replaced by its mere semblance. One is tempted to paraphrase here Lacan’s wellknown reversal of Dostoyevski (“If there is no God, nothing is permitted at all”): If no forced choice confines the field of free choice, the very freedom of choice disappears.

This suspension of the function of the (symbolic) Master is the crucial feature of the Real whose contours loom at the horizon of the cyberspace universe: the moment of implosion when humanity will attend the limit impossible to transgress, the moment at which the coordinates of our societal life-world will be dissolved. At this moment, distances will be suspended (I will be able to communicate instantly through teleconferences with anywhere on the globe); all information, from texts to music to video, will be instantly available on my interface. However, the obverse of this suspension of the distance which separates me from a far-away foreigner is that, due to the gradual disappearance of contact with “real” bodily others, a neighbor will no longer be a neighbor, since he or she will be progressively replaced by a screen specter; the general availability will induce unbearable claustrophobia; the excess of choice will be experienced as the impossibility to choose; the universal direct participatory community will exclude all the more forcefully those who are prevented from participating in it. The vision of cyberspace opening up a future of unending possibilities of limitless change, of new multiple sex organs, etc., etc., conceals its exact opposite: an unheard-of imposition of radical closure. This, then, is the Real awaiting us, and all endeavors to symbolize this real, from utopian (the New Age or “deconstructionist” celebrations of the liberating potentials of cyberspace), to the blackest dystopian ones (the prospect of the total control by a God-like computerized network . . .), are just this, i.e., so many attempts to avoid the true “end of history,” the paradox of an infinity far more suffocating than any actual confinement. Is therefore one of the possible reactions to the excessive filling-in of the voids in cyberspace not the informational anorexia, the desperate refusal to accept informations?

Or, to put it in a different way, virtualization cancels the distance between a neighbor and a distant foreigner, insofar as it suspends the presence of the Other in the massive weight of the Real: neighbors and foreigners, all are equal in their spectral screen-presence. That is to say, why was the Christian injunction “love thy neighbor like thyself” so problematic for Freud? The proximity of the Other which makes a neighbor a neighbor is that of jouissance: When the presence of the Other becomes unbearable, suffocating, it means that we experience his or her mode of jouissance as too intrusive. And, what is the contemporary “postmodern” racism, if not a violent reaction to this virtualization of the Other, a return of the experience of the neighbor in his or her (or their) intolerable, traumatic presence? The feature which disturbs the racist in his Other (the way they laugh, the smell of their food . . .) is thus precisely the little piece of the real which bears witness to their presence beyond the symbolic order.

We are thus far from bemoaning the loss of the contact with a “real,” flesh-and-blood other in cyberspace, in which all we encounter are digital phantoms: Our point is rather that cyberspace is not spectral enough. One of the tendencies in theorizing cyberspace is to conceive cybersex as the ultimate phenomenon in the chain whose key link is Kierkegaard, his relationship with Regina: In the same way Kierkegaard rejected the actual proximity of the Other (the beloved woman), and advocated loneliness as the only authentic mode of relating to a love object, cybersex also involves the nullification of the “real life” object, and draws erotic energy from this very nullification—the moment I encounter my cybersex partner(s) in real life is the moment of desublimation, the moment of the return to vulgar “reality.” . . . Convincing as it may sound, this parallel is deeply misleading: The status of my cyberspace sexual partner is NOT that of Kierkegaard’s Regina. Regina was the void at which Kierkegaard addressed his words, a kind of “vacuole” weaved by the texture of his speech, while my cyberspace sexual partner is, on the contrary, overpresent, bombarding me with the torrential flow of images and explicit statements of her (or his) most secret fantasies. Or, to put it in another way: Kierkegard’s Regina is the cut of the Real, the traumatic obstacle which again and again unsettles the smooth run of my self-satisfying erotic imagination, while cyberspace presents its exact opposite, a frictionless flow of images and messages— when I am immersed in it, I, as it were, return to a symbiotic relationship with an Other in which the deluge of semblances seems to abolish the dimension of the Real.

In a recent interview, Bill Gates celebrated cyberspace as opening up the prospect of what he called “friction-free capitalism”—this expression renders perfectly the social fantasy which underlies the ideology of cyberspace capitalism: the fantasy of a wholly transparent, ethereal medium of exchanges in which the last trace of material inertia vanishes. The crucial point not to be missed here is that the “friction” we get rid of in the fantasy of “friction-free capitalism,” does not refer only to the reality of material obstacles which sustain any exchange process, but, above all, to the Real of the traumatic social antagonisms, power relations, etc., which brand the space of social exchange with a pathological twist. In his Grundrisse manuscript, Marx pointed out how the very material dispositif of a nineteenth-century industrial production site directly materializes the capitalist relationship of domination (the worker as a mere appendix subordinated to the machinery which is owned by the capitalist); mutatis mutandis, the same goes for cyberspace: In the social conditions of late capitalism, the very materiality of cyberspace automatically generates the illusory abstract space of “friction-free” exchange in which the particularity of the participants’ social position is obliterated.

The easiest way to discern the set of social relations which overdetermine the mode of operation of cyberspace, is to focus on the predominant “spontaneous ideology of cyberspace,” the so-called cyberevolutionism which relies on the notion of cyberspace (or the World Wide Web) as a self-evolving “natural” organism. Crucial is here the blurring of the distinction between “culture” and “nature”: The obverse of the “naturalization of culture” (market, society, etc., as living organisms) is the “culturalization of nature” (life itself is conceived as a set of self-reproducing informations—“genes are memes”). This new notion of Life is thus neutral with respect to the distinction of natural and cultural or “artificial” processes—the Earth (as Gaia) as well as global market, they both appear as gigantic self-regulated living systems whose basic structure is defined in the terms of the process of coding and decoding, of passing informations, etc. The reference to the World Wide Web as a living organism is often evoked in contexts which may seem liberating: say, against the State censorship of Internet. However, this very demonization of State is thoroughly ambiguous, since it is predominantly appropriated by right-wing populist discourse and/or market liberalism: Its main targets are the state interventions which try to maintain a kind of minimal social balance and security—the title of Michael Rothschild’s book (Bioeconomics: The Inevitability of Capitalism) is here indicative. So, while cyberspace ideologists can dream about the next step of evolution in which we will no longer be mechanically interacting “Cartesian” individuals, in which each “person” will cut his substantial link to his individual body and conceive itself as part of the new holistic Mind which lives and acts through him or her, what is obfuscated in such direct “naturalization” of the World Wide Web or market is the set of power relations—of political decisions, of institutional conditions—within which “organisms” like the Internet (or market or capitalism . . .) can only thrive.
















Dennett, Daniel C. (1991): Consciousness Explained, New York: Little, Brown.

Flieger, Jerry Aline (1997): “Oedipus On-line?” Pretexts, No. 1 / Vol. 6 (July 1997), pp. 81–94.

Kant, Immanuel (1956): Critique of Practical Reason, New York: Macmillan.

Schelling, F.W.J. (1946): Die Weltalter. Fragmente. In den Urfassungen von 1811 und 1813, ed. Manfred Schroeter, Munich: Biederstein (reprint 1979).

[Slavoj Zizek (2004). What can Psychoanalysis Tell us About Cyberspace? The Psychoanalytic Review: Vol. 91, No. 6, pp. 801-830.]