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The Cyberspace Real
Slavoj Zizek.


Cyberspace Between Perversion and Trauma

Are the pessimistic cultural criticists (from Jean Baudrillard to Paul Virilio) justified in their claim that cyberspace ultimately generates a kind of proto-psychotic immersion into an imaginary universe of hallucinations, unconstrained by any symbolic Law or by any impossibility of some Real? If not, how are we to detect in cyberspace the contours of the other two dimensions of the Lacanian triad ISR, the Symbolic and the Real?

As to the symbolic dimension, the solution seems easy — it suffices to focus on the notion of authorship that fits the emerging domain of cyberspace narratives, that of the "procedural authorship": the author (say, of the interactive immersive environment in which we actively participate by role-playing) no longer writes detailed story-line, s/he merely provides the basic set of rules (the coordinates of the fictional universe in which we immerse ourselves, the limited set of actions we are allowed to accomplish within this virtual space, etc.), which serves as the basis for the interactor's active engagement (intervention, improvisation). This notion of "procedural authorship" demonstrates the need for a kind of equivalent to the Lacanian "big Other": in order for the interactor to become engaged in cyberspace, s/he has to operate within a minimal set of externally imposed accepted symbolic rules/coordinates. Without these rules, the subject/interactor would effectively become immersed in a psychotic experience of an universe in which "we do whatever we want" and are, paradoxically, for that very reason deprived of our freedom, caught in a demoniac compulsion. It is thus crucial to establish the rules that engage us, that led us in our immersion into the cyberspace, while allowing us to maintain the distance towards the enacted universe. The point is not simply to maintain "the right measure" between the two extremes (total psychotic immersion versus non-engaged external distance towards the artificial universe of the cyber-fiction): distance is rather a positive condition of immersion. If we are to surrender to the enticements of the virtual environment, we have to "mark the border," to rely on a set of marks which clearly designate that we are dealing with a fiction, in the same way in which, in order to let ourselves go and enjoy a violent war movie, we somehow have to know that what we are seeing is a staged fiction, not real-life killing (imagine our horrible surprise if, while watching a war scene, we would suddenly see that we are watching a snuff, that the actor engaged in face-to-face combat is effectively cutting the throat of his "enemy"…). Against the theorists who fear that cyberspace involves the regression to a kind of psychotic incestuous immersion, one should thus discern in today's often clumsy and ambiguous improvisations about "cyberspace rules" precisely the effort to establish clearly the contours of a new space of symbolic fictions in which we fully participate in the mode disavowal, i.e. being aware that "this is not real life."

However, if this is the Symbolic, where is the Real? Is cyberspace, especially virtual reality, not the realm of perversion at its puresy? Reduced to its elementary skeleton, perversion can be seen as a defense against the Real of death and sexuality, against the threat of mortality as well as the contingent imposition of sexual difference: what the perverse scenario enacts is a "disavowal of castration" — a universe in which, as in cartoons, a human being can survive any catastrophe; in which adult sexuality is reduced to a childish game; in which one is not forced to die or to choose one of the two sexes. As such, the pervert's universe is the universe of pure symbolic order, of the signifier's game running its course, unencumbered by the Real of human finitude. So, again, does not our experience of cyberspace perfectly fit this perverse universe? Isn't cyberspace also a universe without closure, unencumbered by the inertia of the Real, constrained only by its self-imposed rules? In this comic universe, as in a perverse ritual, same gestures and scenes are endlessly repeated, without any final closure, i.e. in this universe, the refusal of a closure, far from signalling the undermining of ideology, rather enacts a proto-ideological denial:

"The refusal of closure is always, at some level, a refusal to face mortality. Our fixation on electronic games and stories is in part an enactment of this denial of death. They offer us the chance to erase memory, to startover, to replay an event and try for a different resolution. In this respect, electronic media have the advantage of enacting a deeply comic vision of life, a vision of retrievable mistakes and open options."

The final alternative with which cyberspace confronts us is thus: are we necessarily immersed in cyberspace in the mode of the imbecilic superego compulsion-to-repeat, in the mode of the immersion into the "undead" perverse universe of cartoons in which there is no death, in which the game goes on indefinitely, or is it possible to practice a different modality of relating to cyberspace in which this imbecilic immersion is perturbed by the "tragic" dimension of the real/impossible?

There are two standard uses of cyberspace narrative: the linear, single-path maze adventure and the "postmodern" hypertext undetermined form of rhizome fiction. The single-path maze adventure moves the interactor towards a single solution within the structure of a win-lose contest (overcoming the enemy, finding the way out…). So, with all possible complications and detours, the overall path is clearly predetermined: all roads lead to one final Goal. In contrast to it, the hypertext rhizome does not privilege any order of reading or interpretation: there is no ultimate overview or "cognitive mapping," no possibility to unify the dispersed fragments in acoherent encompassing narrative framework, one is irreducibly enticed in conflicting directions — we, the interactors, just have to accept that we are lost in the inconsistent complexity of multiple referrals and connections… The paradox is that this ultimate helpless confusion, this lack of final orientation, far from causing an unbearable anxiety, is oddly reassuring: the very lack of the final point of closure serves as a kind of denial which protects us from confronting the trauma of our finitude, of the fact that there our story has to end at some point — there is no ultimate irreversible point, since, in this multiple universe, there are always other paths to explore, alternate realities into which one can take refuge when one seems to reach a deadlock. — So how are we to escape this false alternative? Janet Murray refers to the story structure of the "violence-hub", similar to the famous Rashomon predicament: an account of some violent or otherwise traumatic incident (a Sunday trip fatality, a suicide, a rape…) is placed at the center of a web of narratives-files that explore it from multiple points of view (perpetrator, victim, witness, survivor, investigator…):

"The proliferation of interconnected files is an attempt to answer the perennial and ultimately unanswerable question of why this incident happened. /…/ These violence-hub stories do not have a single solution like the adventure maze or a refusal of solution like the postmodern stories; instead, they combine a clear sense of story structure with a multiplicity of meaningful plots. The navigation of the labyrinth is like pacing the floor; a physical manifestation of the effort to come to terms with the trauma, it represents the mind's repeated efforts to keep returning to a shocking event in an effort to absorb it and, finally, get past it."

It is easy to perceive the crucial difference between this "retracing of the situation from different perspectives" and the rhizomatic hypertext: the endlessly repeated reenactment is referred to the trauma of some impossible Real which forever resists its symbolization — all these different narrativizations are ultimately just so many failures to cope with this trauma, with the contingent abyssal occurrence of some catastrophic Real like suicide apropos of which no "why" can ever serve as its sufficient explanation. — In a later closer elaboration, Murray even proposes two different versions of presentifying a traumatic suicidal occurrence, apart from such a texture of different perspectives. The first is to transpose us into the labyrinth of the subject's mind just prior to his suicide; the structure is here hypertextual and interactive, we are free to choose different options, to pursue the subject's ruminations in a multitude of directions — but whichever direction or link we choose, we sooner or later end up with the blank screen of the suicide. So, in a way, our very freedom to pursue different venues imitates the tragic self-closure of the subject's mind: no matter how desperately we look for a solution, we are compelled to acknowledge that there is no way out, that the final outcome will always be the same. The second version is the opposite one: we, the interactors, are put in the situation of a kind of "lesser god," having at our disposal a limited power of intervention into the life-story of the subject doomed to kill himself — say, we can "rewrite" the subject's past so that his girlfriend would not have left him, or that he would not have failed the crucial exam; yet whatever we do, the outcome is the same, so even God himself cannot change Destiny… (We find a version of this same closure in a series of alternative history sci-fi stories, in which the hero intervenes in the past in order to prevent some catastrophic event to occur, yet the unexpected result of his intervention is an even worse catastrrophy, like Stephen Fry's Making History, in which a scientist intervenes in the past making Hitler's father impotent just prior to Hitler's conception, so that Hitler is not born — as one can expect, the result of this intervention is that another German officer of aristocratic origins takes over the role of Hitler, develops the atomic bomb in time and wins the World War II.)

The futur anterieur in the History of Art

In a closer historical analysis, it is crucial not to conceive this narrative procedure of the multiple-perspective encircling of an impossible Real as a direct result of the cyberspace technology: technology and ideology are inextricably intertwined, ideology is inscribed already in the very technological features of cyberspace. More precisely, what we are dealing with here is yet another example of the well-known phenomenon of the old artistic forms pushing against their own boundaries and using procedures which, at least from our retroactive view, seem to point towards a new technology that will be able to serve as a more "natural" and appropriate "objective correlative" to the life-experience the old forms endeavoured to render by means of their "excessive" experimentations. A whole series of narrative procedures in the l9th century novels announce not only the standard narrative cinema (the intricate use of "flashback" in Emily Bronte or of "cross-cutting" and "close-ups" in Dickens), but sometimes even the modernist cinema (the use of "off-space" in Madame Bovary) — as if a new perception of life was already here, but was still struggling to find its proper means of articulation, until it finally found it in cinema. What we have here is thus the historicity of a kind of futur anterieur: it is only when cinema was here and developed its standard procedures that we can really grasp the narrative logic of Dickens's great novels or of Madame Bovary.

And is it not that today, we are approaching a homologous threshold: a new "life experience" is in the air, a perception of life that explodes the form of the linear centered narrative and renders life as a multiform flow — even and up to the domain of "hard" sciences (quantum physics and its Multiple Reality interpretation, or the utter contingency that provided the spin to the actual evolution of the life on Earth — as Stephen Jay Gould demonstrated in his Wonderful Life, the fossils of Burgess Shale bear witness to how evolution may have taken a wholly different turn) we seem to be haunted by the chanciness of life and the alternate versions of reality. Either life is experienced as a series of multiple parallel destinies that interact and are crucially affected by meaningless contingent encounters, the points at which one series intersects with and intervenes into another (see Altman's Shortcuts), or different versions/outcomes of the same plot are repeatedly enacted (the "parallel universes" or "alternative possible worlds" scenarios — see Kieslowski's Chance, Veronique and Red; even "serious" historians themselves recently produced a volume Virtual History, the reading of the crucial Modeern Age century events, from Cromwell's victory over Stuarts and American independence war to the disintegration of Communism, as hinging on unpredictable and sometimes even improbable chances). This perception of our reality as one of the possible — often even not the most probable — outcomes of an "open" situation, this notion that other possible outcomes are not simply cancelled out but continue to haunt our "true" reality as a spectre of what might have happened, conferring on our reality the status of extreme fragility and contingency, implicitly clashes with the predominant "linear" narrative forms of our literature and cinema — they seem to call for a new artistic medium in which they would not be an eccentric excess, but its "proper" mode of functioning. One can argue that the cyberspace hypertext is this new medium in which this life experience will find its "natural," more appropriate objective correlative, so that, again, it is only with the advent of cyberspace hypertext that we can effectively grasp what Altman and Kieslowski were effectively aiming at.

Are not the ultimate example of this kind of futur anterieur Brecht's (in)famous "learning plays," especially his The Measure Taken, often dismissed as the justification of Stalinist purges. Although "learning plays" are usually conceived as an intermediary phenomenon, the passage between Brecht's early carnavalesque plays critical of bourgeois society and his late "mature" epic theatre, it is crucial to recall that, just before his death, when asked about what part of his works effectively augurs the "drama of the future," Brecht instantly answered "The Measure Taken." As Brecht emphasized again and again, The Measure Taken is ideally to be performed without the observing public, just with the actors repeatedly playing all the roles and thus "learning" the different subject-positions — do we not have here the anticipation of the cyberspace "immersive participation," in which actors engage in the "educational" collective role-playing. What Brecht was aiming at is the immersive participation which, nonetheless, avoids the trap of emotional identification: we immerse ourselves at the level of "meaningless," "mechanical" level of what, in Foucauldian terms, one is tempted to call "revolutionary disciplinary micro-practices," while at the same time critically observing our behavior. Does this not point also to a possible "educational" use of participatory cyberspace role-playing games in which, by way of repeatedly enacting different versions/outcomes of a same basic predicament, one can become aware of the ideological presuppositions and surmises that unknowingly guide our daily behavior? Do Brecht's three versions of his first great "learning play," Der Jasager, effectively not present us with such hypertext / alternate reality experience: in the first version, the boy "freely accept the necessary," subjecting himself to the old custom of being thrown into the valley; in the second version, the boy refuses to die, rationally demonstrating the futility of the old custom; in the third version, the boy accepts his death, but on rational grounds, not out of the respect for mere tradition. So when Brecht emphasizes that, by participating in the situation staged by his "learning plays," actors/agents themselves have to change, progressing towards a different subjective stance, he effectively points towards what Murray adequately calls "enactment as a transformational experience." In other words, apropos of Brecht's "learning plays," one should ask a naive straightforward question: what, effectively, are we, spectators, supposed to learn from them? Not some corps of positive knowledge (in this case, instead of trying to discern the Marxist idea wrapped in the "dramatic" scenery, it would certainly be better to read directly the philosophical work itself…), but a certain subjective attitude, that of "saying YES to the inevitable," i.e. the readiness to self-obliteration — in a way, one learns precisely the virtue of accepting the Decision, the Rule, without knowing why…

In his much underrated The Lost Highway, David Lynch transposes the vertical into the horizontal: social reality (the everyday aseptic/impotent modern couple) and its "repressed" fantasmatic supplement (the noir universe of forbidden masochistic passions and Oedipal triangles) are directly posited one next to the other, as two alternate universes. This co-existence and mutual envelopment of different universes led some New Age tilted reviewers to claim that The Lost Highway moves at a more fundamental psychic level than that of unconscious fantasizing of one subject: at a level, closer to the mind of "primitive" civilizations, of reincarnation, of double identities, of being reborn as a different person, etc. Against this "multiple reality" talk, one should insist on the fact that the fantasmatic support of reality is in itself necessarily multiple and inconsistent. And this is what Lynch does in The Lost Highway: he "traverses" our late-capitalist fantasmatic universe not by way of direct social criticism (depicting the grim social reality which serves as its actual foundation), but by staging these fantasies openly, without the "secondary perlaboration" which usually masks their inconsistencies. That is to say, the undecidability and ambiguity of what goes on in the film's narrative (are the two women played by Patricia Arquette the same women? Is the inserted story of Fred's younger reincarnation just Fred's hallucination, imagined to provide a post-festum rationale for his murder of his wife whose true cause is Fred's hurted male pride due to his impotence, his inability to satisfy the woman?) renders the very ambiguity and inconsistency of the fantasmatic framework which underlies and sustains our experience of (social) reality. It was often claimed that Lynch throws us, the spectators, open in our face the underlying fantasies of the noir universe — yes, but he simultaneously also renders visible the INCONSISTENCY of this fantasmatic support. The two main story-lines in The Lost Highway can thus be interpreted as akin to the dream-logic in which you can both "have your cake and eat it", like in the "Tea or coffee? Yes, please!" joke: you first dream about eating it, then about having/possessing it, since dreams does not know of contradiction. The dreamer resolves a contradiction by staging two exclusive situations one after the other; in the same way, in The Lost Highway, the woman (the dark Arquette) is destroyed/killed/punished, and the same woman (the blond Arquette) eludes the male grasp and triumphantly disappears…

Or, to put it in yet another way, Lynch confronts us with a universe in which different, mutually exclusive fantasies co-exist. Peter Hoeg's novel The Woman and the Ape stages sex with an animal as a fantasy of full sexual relationship, and it is crucial that this animal is as a rule male: in contrast to the cyborg-sex fantasy, in which the cyborg is as a rule a woman, i.e. in which the fantasy is that of Woman-Machine (Blade Runner), the animal is a male ape copulating with a human woman and fully satisfying her. Does this not materialize two standard vulgar notions: that of a woman who wants a strong animal partner, a "beast," not a hysterical impotent weakling, and that of a man who wants his feminine partner to be a perfectly programmed doll meeting all his wishes, not an effective living being. What Lynch does by staging inconsistent fantasies together, at the same level, is, in the terms of Hoag's novel, something akin to confronting us with the unbearable scene of the "ideal couple" underlying this novel, the scene of a male ape copulating with a female cyborg — the most efficient way to undermine the hold this fantasy exerts over us.

And, perhaps, along the same lines, cyberspace, with its capacity to externalize our innermost fantasies in all their inconsistency, opens up to artistic practice a unique possiblity to stage, to "act out," the fantasmatic support of our existence, up to the fundamental "sado-masochistic" fantasy that can never be subjectivized. We are thus invited to risk the most radical experience imaginable: the encounter with the Other Scene that stages the foreclosed hard core of the subject's Being. Far from enslaving us to these fantasies and thus turning us into desubjectivized blind puppets, it enables us to treat them in a playful way and thus to adopt towards them a minimum of distance — in short, to achieve what Lacan calls la traversee du fantasme, "going-through, traversing the fantasy."

Constructing the Fantasy

The strategy of "traversing the fantasy" in cyberspace can even be "operationalized" in a much more precise way. Let us for a moment return to Brecht's three versions of Der Jasager: these three versions seems to exhaust all possible variations of the matrix provided by the basic situation (perhaps with the inclusion of the fourth version, in which a boy rejects his death not for rational reasons, as unnecessary, but out of pure egotistic fear — not to mention the uncanny fifth version in which the boy "irrationally" endorses his death even when the "old custom" does NOT ask him to do it…). However, already at the level of a discerning "intuitive" reading, we can feel that the three versions are not at the same level: it is as if the first version renders the underlying traumatic core (the "death-drive" situation of willingly endorsing one's radical self-erasure), and the other two versions in a way react to this trauma, "domesticating" it, displacing/translating it into more acceptable terms, so that, if we were to see just one of these two latter versions, the proper psychoanalytic reading of them would justify the claim that these two versions present a displaced/transformed variation of some more fundamental fantasmatic scenario. Along the same lines, one can easily imagine how, when we are haunted by some fantasmatic scenario, externalizing it in cyberspace enables us to acquire a minimum of distance towards it, i.e. to subject it to a manipulation which will generate other variations of the same matrix — and, once we exhaust all main narrative possibilities, once we are confronted with the closed matrix of all possible permutations of the basic matrix underlying the explicit scenario we started with, we are bound to generate also the underlying "fundamental fantasy" in its undistorted, "non-sublimated," embarrassingly outright form, i.e. not yet displaced, obfuscated by "secondary perlaborations":

"The experience of the underlying fantasy coming to the surface is not merely an exhaustion of narrative possibilities; it is more like the solution to a constructivist puzzle. /…/ When every variation of the situation has been played out, as in the final season of a long-running series, the underlying fantasy comes to the surface. /…/ Robbed of the elaboration of sublimation, the fantasy is too bald and unrealistic, like the child carrying the mother up to bed. The suppressed fantasy has a tremendous emotional charge, but once its energy has saturated the story pattern, it loses its tension."

Is this "losing the tension" of the fundamental fantasy not another way to say that the subject traversed this fantasy? Of course, as Freud emphasized apropos of the fundamental fantasy "My father is beating me," underlying the explicit scene "A child is being beaten" that haunts the subject, this fundamental fantasy is a pure retroactive construction, since it was never present to the consciousness and then repressed: although it plays a proto-transcendental role, providing the ultimate coordinates of the subject's experience of reality, the subject is never able to fully assume/subjectivize in the first person singular — precisely as such, it can be generated by the procedure of "mechanical" variation on the explicit fantasies that haunt and fascinate the subject. To evoke Freud's other standard example, endeavouring to display how pathological male jealousy involves an unacknowledged homosexual desire for the male partner with whom I think my wife is cheating me: we arrive at the underlying statement "I LOVE him" by manipulating/permutating the explicit statement of my obsession "I HATE him (because I love my wife whom he seduced)." — We can see, now, how the purely virtual, non-actual, universe of cyberspace can "touch the Real": the Real we are talking about is not the "raw" pre-symbolic real of "nature in itself," but the spectral hard core of "psychic reality" itself. When Lacan equates the Real with what Freud calls "psychic reality," this "psychic reality" is not simply the inner psychic life of dreams, wishes, etc., as opposed to the perceived external reality, but the hard core of the primordial "passionate attachments," which are real in the precise sense of resisting the movement of symbolization and/or dialectical mediation:

"/…/ the expression 'psychical reality' itself is not simply synonymous with 'internal world,' 'psychological domain,' etc. If taken in the most basic sense that it has for Freud, this expression denotes a nucleus within that domain which is heterogeneous and resistant and which is alone in being truly 'real' as compared with the majority of psychical phenomena."

The "real" upon which cyberspace encroaches is thus the disavowed fantasmatic "passionate attachment," the traumatic scene which not only never took place in "real life," but was never even consciously fantasized — and is not the digital universe of cyberspace the ideal medium in which to construct such pure semblances which, although they are nothing "in themselves," pure presuppositions, provide the coordinates of our entire experience? It may appear that the impossible Real is to be opposed to the virtual domain of symbolic fictions: is the Real not the traumatic kernel of the Same against whose threat we seek refuge in the multitude of virtual symbolic universes? However, our ultimate lesson is that the Real is simultaneously the exact opposite of such a non-virtual hard core: a purely virtual entity, an entity which has no positive ontological consistency — its contours can only be discerned as the absent cause of the distortions/displacements of the symbolic space.

And it is only in this way, through touching the kernel of the Real, that cyberspace can be used to counteract what one is tempted to call the ideological practice of disidentification. That is to say, one should turn around the standard notion of ideology as providing the firm identification to its subjects, constraining them to their "social roles": what if, at a different — but no less irrevocable and structurally necessary — level, ideology is effective precisely by way of constructing a space of false disidentification, of false distance towards the actual coordinates of the subjects's social existence? Is this logic of disidentification not discernible from the most elementary case of "I am not only an American (husband, worker, democrat, gay…), but, beneath all these roles and masks, a human being, a complex unique personality" (where the very distance towards the symbolic feature that determines my social place guarantees the efficiency of this determination), up to the more complex case of cyberspace playing with one's multiple identities? The mystification operative in the perverse "just gaming" of cyberspace is thus double: not only are the games we are playing in it more serious than we tend to assume (is it not that, in the guise of a fiction, of "it's just a game," a subject can articulate and stage — sadistic, "perverse," etc. — features of his symbolic identity that he would never be able to admit in his "real" intersubjective contacts?), but the opposite also holds, i.e. the much celebrated playing with multiple, shifting personas (freely constructed identities) tends to obfuscate (and thus falsely liberate us from) the constraints of social space in which our existence is caught.

1. See Janet H.Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck, The MIT Press: Cambridge (Ma) 1997, p. 278.

2. As to the concept of perversion, see Gilles Deleuze, Coldness and Cruelty, New York: Zone Books 1991.

3. Murray, op.cit., p.175.

4. Op.cit., p. 135-6.

5. See Stephen Jay Gould, Wonderful Life, New York: Norton 1989.

6. See Virtual History, edited by Niall Ferguson, London: MacMillan 1997.

7. See Bertolt Brecht, "The Measure Taken," in The Jewish Wife and Other Short Plays, New York: Grove Press 1965. For a detailed reading of The Measure Taken, see Chapter 5 of Slavoj Zizek, Enjoy Your Symptom!, New York: Routledge 1993.

8. Murray, op.cit., p. 169-170.

9. See Sigmund Freud, "A child is being beaten," in Sexuality and the Psychology of Love, New York: Touchstone 1997, p. 97-122.

10. See Sigmund Freud, "Psychoanalytical Notes Upon an Autobiographical Account of a Case of Paranoia," in Three Case Histories, New York: Touchstone 1996, p. 139-141.

11. As to this term, see Judith Butler, The Psychic Life of Power, Stanford: Stanford University Press 1997.

12. J.Laplanche / J.B.Pontalis, The Language of Psychoanalysis, London: Karnac Books 1988, p. 315.

13. I rely here on Peter Pfaller, "Der Ernst der Arbeit ist vom Spiel gelernt," in Work & Culture, Klagenfurt: Ritter Verlag 1998, p. 29-36.

Available: http://www.wapol.org/news/e-texts/zizek01.htm.