Hysteria and Cyberspace

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Articles by Slavoj Žižek

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...

...the Noosphere...

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 Borg story seems to develop a metaphor for cyberspace, the idea of a collective consciousness via communication tools. On the other hand, there is your idea of the computer as an asexual complement of man, something that constitutes the Big Other. Couldn't these metaphors be applied to all electronic media or even to media in general? A lot of properties which are attributed to Cyberspace today could equally be attributed to television for example. One has millions of people sitting in front of tv screens, being simultaneously fed the same intellectual or emotional 'content' through the Big Apparatus.

Slavoj Zizek: I definetely agree with this, but I'm tempted to say that we maybe can go even further! This is my big thesis a propos sexuality. What was so shocking about virtual space was not that before there was a 'real' reality and now there is only a virtual reality, but through the experience of VR we have somehow retroactively become aware of how there never was 'real reality'. Reality always was virtual, we just weren't aware of it. I think what is so horrible about virtual sex is not: My god before we had a real partner whom we touched, embraced, squeezed, and now you just masturbate in front of the screen or you don't even masturbate, you just enjoy knowing that maybe the other enjoys it through the screen or whatever. The point is we become aware of how there never was real sex.

It's not only that masturbation is having sex whith an imagined partner. What if real sex is only masturbation whith a real partner? That is to say, you think you're doing it with a real partner but you use the real partner as a masturbatory device, the real partner just gives you a minimum of material so you can act out your fantasies. In other words there are always at least three in sex, its never you and the partner, you must have a fantasy to sustain it. When the fantasy disintegrates, the partner gets disgusting. It's horror. In Shakespeare's "Hamlet" for example; in the middle of the play Hamlet looks at Ophelia and has this moment of 'Realitaetsverlust': What a disgusting person she is. Because precisely what gets lost is this phantasmatic support. I think a certain dimension of virtuality is co-substantial with the symbolic order or the order of language as such.

There is another point, which is maybe connected to the phenomenon of collective mind you evoked. I claim one should approach the dimension of being 'undead'. In this precise sense that undead doesn't simply mean 'alive', it means dead but nonetheless alive. Think about Stephen King, zombies and vampires. Here I connect cyberspace with what Lacan calls tissue of libido, 'lamella', a substance of life which cannot ever be destroyed. The problem here is no longer mortality but the opposite: It's this kind of horrible life form, like that of vampires, which you can never get rid of.

The ultimate horror becomes the very 'Unsterblichkeit', this very immortality. In the new text which I'm writing now, I'm trying to establish this impossible connection, a link between Kleist, Wagner and cyberspace. If you read Wagner's operas closely, the fundamental complaint, I think, the "Klage" of all the big Wagnerian arias, is the following: Their heroes - except in Lohengrin and Tannhäuser, Wagners big failures - are not allowed to die. This I think is the true horror of Cyberspace, that one has this spectral dimension of life beyond death, an undead life, which is even true at the most banal, everyday level.

Do you know the function 'undelete' in computers? The problem with computers is not that something can be erased: you worked all afternoon and then have a power failure and it's gone. Okay, these things can happen. But you know that it's sometimes even more horrible that you cannot really erase it. Once it's in, it's in. Here I see also the problem with clonin= g. It's not the problem of: "Will I lose my individuality, will I be in the position of precise doubles etc." The problem of cloning is that you cannot ever die. You kill yourself and they find (ideally speaking, of course it is not yet scientifically possible) just a little bit of you and they can reconstitute you. You are endlessly reproductable. Nobody knows how this will effect individuality.

You interpret the situation one encounters in front of the computer screen - for example when communicating via e-mail - as a situation of Hysteria. There is actually a great deal of uncertainty in these forms of communication: You can never be sure who is reading your input or in what way. Vou are aware of this situation all the time and try to anticipate the other's reactions. Also, important additional features of face-to-face communication like gestures or tone of voice are missing...

Slavoj Zizek: The Freudian unconscious is very much like what one does in front of the computer screen. The Freudian unconscious is not all this body language or tonality, no. The Freudian unconscious is precisely this helplessness, where you are talking to someone, but at the same time you do not even know at whom it is addressed exactly. You are radically not sure, because basically this is a symptom. When you have some hysterical symptom it has precisely such a structure. So my point here would be along the lines you drew, that cyberspace often functions in the hysterical way, which is exactly this radical uncertainty: I don't know whom my letter will reach. = I don't know what the other wants from me and thus I try in advance to reflect this uncertainty. Cyberspace is open in the sense that we cannot decide from its technological properties whether it functions in a perverse or in a hysterical way.

There is not a certain psychic economy inscribed in the functioning of cyberspace as such. But much more often then we think cyberspace is still caught in a hysterical economy. That's why I distrust not only the paranoiac versions of cyberspace, I also deeply distrust the liberating version, "we play with multiple identities" and so forth.

I think, if I may simplify, that there are three or four predominant versions of cyberspace. There is the common sense version, where we are still real people who talk to each other, cyberspace is just another medium. This is too simple, because cyberspace of course does affect what it means to be a subject. Then we have the paranoiac version: cyberspace, the maternal thing, we lose autonomy. Then we have this perverse liberating notion, we get rid of patriarchal authority. And the other one is the New Age version of the Noosphere. People are so fascinated by phenomena which are really very exceptional. I don't know anyone who, when sitting in front of the computer really regresses to some kind of psychotic immersion, who becomes a member of the Noosphere, it's not like that. The hysterical experience is the fundamental experience.

One can read your emphasis on hysteria in this discussion as an answer to a certain kind of current left-wing politics which has been inspired by gender theory, which proposes the transgressive and therefore subversive potential of 'perversion' ...

Slavoj Zizek: Something which makes hysteria interesting is how these modern leftist ideas share the disqualification of hysteria with radical Leninist and Stalinist politics. It would be very interesting to find out when the signifier of the hysterical subject emerges as a swearword in Stalinist politics. Even earlier, already with Lenin, the internal enemies, the revisionists were disqualified as hysterics: They don't know what they want, they doubt.

When I speak of perversion I do not mean perversion as a certain practice, for example anal intercourse. For Lacan, perversion designates a very precise subjective attitude that is an attitude of self-objectivization or self-instrumentalization. Whereas the typical hysterical fear is to become a tool of the other. So the basic constituent of subjectivity is hysterical: I don't know what I am for the other. Hysteria, or neurosis in general is always a position of questioning.

That's the crucial message of Freud: The hysterical subject doesn't materialize his dreams in a perverse scenario, not because he or she is afraid of repression or the law, but because he always has this doubt: I can do this, but what if even that won't satisfy me. What if even this perverse scenario is a fake, a false mask.

Of course there is also a political axis to this: My answer to some popularised version of Foucault or Deleuze which praises this multiple perverse post-modern subject with its no longer fixed paternal authority, which shifts between different self-images and reshapes itself all the time, is: Why is this supposed to be subversive? I claim, and this got me into a lot of trouble with some feminists, I claim that, to put it into old fashioned Marxist terms, the predominant structure of today's subjectivity in "Spaetkapitalismus" (Advanced Capitalism) or whatever we want to call it, is perverse: The typical form of psychic economy of subjectivity which is more and more predominant today, the so called narcissist personality, is a perverse structure. The paternal authority is no longer the enemy today. So this idea of an explosion of multiple perversions just describes what fits perfectly today's late-capitalist order...

... 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.