The Future Original

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


October 18, 2012

The Future Original

In my last post, I mentioned the metonymic character of remix culture, the way it conceives of culture as an endless sliding of meaning from one remix to another with no original. The concept of the original is like Lacan’s point de capiton, the signifier which is elevated to the master signifier, introducing a castrating cut into the signifying chain and defining all the other signifiers. Because remix culture disavows such a cut, it is a perverse discourse.

But this is not to say that wanting to be original, unique and different is any less perverse, any less a product of the Imaginary order where I am deeply jealous of my mirror double who copies me, or maybe even makes me feel that I am a copy of him. There is nothing so destabilizing as encountering the one who looks just like me, because in the Imaginary order, identity is founded on my image of myself. If this can be duplicated, then my identity washes away. Imaginary identity is tragically self-undermining because it is, in a way, too successful. In order to protect my identity, I project an impossible image that no-one can mimic, but in process, I also become alienated to myself, experiencing my own identity as external to me, as an Other.

And yet the quest for Imaginary identity seems to anticipate and in a way, play out in Imaginary form the castration of the Symbolic order. The Imaginary desire to be unique, to be distinct from my mirror image, to be separated from it, but it can only articulate this separation as an Imaginary difference, a difference of having a unique personal brand, as it were. What it cannot grasp is the essentially arbitrary nature of the Symbolic, an empty gesture that confers identity on something simply by naming it.

My name is meaningless, given to me through the accident of history and lacking any connection to my imagined inner essence, my unique personality or any special qualities I have. The difference between imaginary and symbolic identity can be compared to two neighboring houses on a street - at the level of the imaginary, the two are distinguished by their outward appearance: their differences in size, which lawn is more carefully manicured, how expensive is the car out front and so on.

Symbolic identity is not the conventional wisdom of “It’s what’s inside that really matters.” On the contrary, it is represented by the street number, a purely formal difference which is used as an arbitrary marker of difference without making a comparison between the two neighbors. In the Symbolic order, I am made unique, my identity is stabilized, via a purely formal gesture, the assignment of a arbitrary name or number. The difference between me and my neighbor is an absolute difference, and I am made unique and separate by fully submitting to and identifying with the empty signifier.

This schema turns around the commonsense idea that being original means being first, which turns originality into a competition. Remix culture correctly realizes that every original work has its influences, but what it misses is how the Original can arrive late, retroactively turning everything that came before it into harbingers announcing its impending arrival.

Simon Reynolds makes the following point about about remix culture, what he calls recreativity:

As much as it is propaganda in favor of underachievement, recreativity is also, I suspect, a form of solace: reassuring balm for the anxiety of overinfluence, the creeping fear that one might not have anything of one’s own to offer… Part of the appeal of standing on the shoulders of giants is that it makes the giants seem smaller.

I’m sure that this is true, that there are those who have nothing to say and steal from others to cover this up. But I wonder if recreativity may also serve the opposite kind of solace, that we adopt it to disavow the possibility of really doing anything new. It might seem strange to call that a solace. Isn’t originality held up as the ultimate good, the key to success for anyone engaged in cultural production? Obviously it is, but this is exactly the point. Recreativity does not only deny the originality and genius of the past, it also cancels out the future original, the traumatic arrival of the new that retroactively transforms its own past.

The solace of remix culture, then, is the comforting illusion that we are in no danger of doing anything new. Although originality is sought after everywhere, it is a bit like Lacan’s objet a, the object-cause of desire. Although we chase after it, our worst fear is actually catching up to it, so we unconsciously sabotage ourselves to ensure that this never happens.