The Constitutive Antagonism of Cyberspace

Essays on technology, psycho­analysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek


February 9, 2012

The Constitutive Antagonism of Cyberspace

Jeremy Antley has published a very interesting response to my previous blog post where I asserted the existence of cyberspace against PJ Rey’s claim that it does not exist. Antley provides an excellent summary of my logic, and I certainly appreciate the care and thoroughness of his reading. There is one point that I disagree, and that is where Antley summarizes my argument as “a compelling yet, ultimately, flawed case for why augmentism and augmented reality claims fall flat.”

My point was not that augmentism is wrong. In fact, it’s almost the opposite. My claim is that, insofar as we assert a dialectical relationship between people and technology (which I do, as does Antley and Nathan Jurgenson), we cannot get rid of cyberspace. For me, denying the reality of the virtual as Žižek puts it, is tantamount to denying the dialectical relationship. Why? To put it very simply, a true dialectic requires two.

What my difference with Rey comes down to is a dispute over the definition of augmentation. For me, the paradigmatic form of augmentation is the Lacanian subject, which sits in uneasy, antagonistic relationship with what it augments because of the cut of symbolic castration. Rey seems to adopt a McLuhanesque definition of the term, rooted in the concept of extension.

Media is an extension of man, technology is an extension of the body, says McLuhan. The spatial metaphor being used is quite important - in the abstract, space is conceived of ideally as smooth and continuous, without gaps or breaks. To give an example of a technological extension, let’s say I can walk one mile in twenty minutes. With the aid of a bicycle, I can go that same distance, plus another 3 miles in the same amount of time. Or maybe I can see clearly for 100 feet, but my eyes are extended an additional 300 feet with the aid of binoculars.

McLuhan says our tools also shape us, which means something like: with these extensions, I can construct a nice, new, whole sense of self which now appears to me as natural and whole as my old self. If there is a dialectic here, it is the stereotypically pseudo-Hegelian one: thesis, anti-thesis, synthesis - where synthesis is a new wholeness. (Is this unrelated to the fact that McLuhan was in many respects, a teleological thinker much as Hegel is often believed to be?)

The notion of augmentation at work here is practically mathematical. First I could travel one mile, now I can travel three more, producing four miles. The original two addends are fully subsumed under a new sum, a new wholeness.

The Lacanian subject has no original wholeness prior to technological extension, and no wholeness after. The ego retains an illusion of wholeness based on a fundamental misrecognition which is sustained by fantasy. Looking at traumatic horror scenes of the creation of a cyborg monster such as this one from Deus Ex: Human Revolution: this is not at, its most fundamental, about the deformation of the natural body by unnatural technology. It is what Lacan calls the corpsification of the body, the intervention of the Symbolic order which cuts and dissects the Real - the body overwritten/overridden by signifiers.

Antley makes the following claim:

[MrTeacup] attacks Rey’s ‘augmented reality’ conception at its assumed weakest point; the idea that web/reality dialectal relationships, through their interplay, are devoid of friction that could lead to panic.

This is unfortunately a very problematic statement. First, I’m not attacking augmented reality, I’m attacking the discarding of cyberspace. Second, the idea of a web/reality dialectic is not Rey’s - his whole point is that there is no such split that would necessitate a bar between the two. Thirdly, and most importantly, I’m not saying that Rey’s account is utterly devoid of friction or malfunctions. The notion of extension does make room for friction, but as a secondary, external effect that can and must be eliminated, in the same way that the false integrity of my fragile ego is blamed on hateful others who are disturbing me. Or how the belief in the soundness of capitalism is sustained by a fantasy that a crisis was caused by a few greedy elites who are breaking the rules.

This was the main topic of my previous blog post A Malfunction in the Cyborgologist Utopia, where I argued that an article published on Cyborgology was symptomatic of this tendency to externalize cracks in the contemporary technological edifice as coming from pathological Luddite users who refuse to integrate properly with it. This is a consequence of the assumption of a constitutive continuity between us and a given technology; instead, I insist that our relation to technology is constitutively riven by antagonism, as we are with ourselves. It should also be noted that constitutive antagonism does not imply total separation. Indeed, one of the ways that the two are antagonistic is in their failure to fully separate.

For me, without constitutive antagonism, there cannot be two, and without two, there is no dialectic. Rey’s goal is to reduce the two of reality/cyberspace into a single, smooth, unified, contiguous space, and therefore this is not dialectical.

Having made those minor corrections to Antley’s comments, I would like to fully endorse his insistence on the notion of textual augmented reality. I believe his example of Russian peasants is a perfect example of the antagonism between the real legal world and the virtual notions of justice created by folktales.