Intrusion of the Real

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


October 21, 2012

Intrusion of the Real

Recently I was at a meeting where the report from a contextual inquiry was presented, and observing the researchers talk about their interactions with the participants was interesting to me, especially because for most of them, this was their first experience with user research.

One of the researchers talked about a retired man they interviewed, and one detail she mentioned was that this man explained that he has a precise procedure for buying something online: he would find exactly six options for what he wanted to buy, and write down their names, the price and where he found them in a notepad that he keeps near his computer before choosing one.

As the researcher mentioned this, an unsettled look passed briefly across her face, a clear reaction to the arbitrariness of this man’s ritual. Why the need for exactly six options? Why have a special notepad just for writing them down? Strange details like this emerge when you watch someone use a computer, which is perfectly ordinary and unremarkable except when you actually watch the precise hand movements on the mouse or trackpad, the way they reach for a key with the “wrong” finger, or perform some task using an unexpected sequence of clicks.

Two personal examples: I constantly click on, highlight and move my mouse over the paragraph I’m reading when I’m reading on a computer; and when I’m writing, I often start a sentence by rapidly and repeatedly writing and immediately deleting the first few words as I try different ways of wording what I’m trying to say. Both of these compulsive tics have been remarked upon as strange by people watching me typing and reading, and I wasn’t even fully aware that I do these things until they had been pointed out to me.

Everyone has their own distinctive, private ways of interacting with a computer that we may not even notice ourselves, but they strongly stand out as odd or even irritating to an observer. Experiences like this are captured in the rage comic The pain of watching non-geeks use a computer…, where the observer’s agony steadily escalates as he watches a “non-geek” inefficiently use Google, and brings this passage to my mind, which is from Žižek’s Plague of Fantasies and frequently reused in his other books:

when do I effectively encounter the Other “beyond the wall of language,” in the real of his or her being? Not when I am able to describe her, not even when I learn her values, dreams, etc., but, only when I encounter the Other in her moment of jouissance: when I discern in her a tiny detail - a compulsive gesture, an excessive facial expression, a tic - which signals the intensity of the real of jouissance. This encounter of the real is always traumatic, there is something at least minimally obscene about it. I cannot simply integrate it into my universe; there is always a gap separating me from it.

All these odd interactions with the computer are disturbing because they are deeply intimate and personal, and yet totally meaningless. We cannot really account for a man’s ritual of finding six items and writing them down in a special notebook by claiming that this is just a pragmatic means for achieving a goal of comparison shopping and then buying something, a goal that we can understand and relate to. The impractical nature of the ritual forces us into an encounter with the man at his most uncanny, at the level of his enjoyment. In the end, we know that the ultimate purpose of his ritual is the libidinal satisfaction of completing all six items, and in this realization, we are traumatically confronted with the Other’s jouissance.

For Žižek, our primary ethical duty is toward this unbearable Real dimension of the Other, the excessive, awkward, inhuman part of another human that sticks out and makes us uncomfortable, almost as if it intrudes into our personal space. This is in marked contrast to today’s ethical norms, where the primary goal is to avoid exposure to the inhuman Other at all costs and intersubjective violence is considered justified to achieve it.

These rules are often complemented with another ethical rule, of tolerance, non-judgment and open-mindedness towards other, but we should not be deceived. Although seeming to be open to and even celebrate difference, enabling us to mix with many different kinds of people, tolerance towards the Other requires the total negation of their disturbing jouissance. The ideal of tolerance extends ethics towards the Other insofar as they remain within their Imaginary identity: their lifestyle choices, goals for the future, beliefs, personal choices about music, movies and books and so on.

We have a minimal social duty to construct an identity because it makes us comprehensible and relateable to others. Although identity seems to bring people together, this only works because it creates a buffer zone of understandability – we are only able to meet each other on condition that we never encounter each other in the Real. We must maintain an identity so that all of our actions, even at the level of physical movement, can be accounted for, that they all make sense and are oriented towards a set of desires that also make sense.

Identity is a process of accounting for our desire by fictionalizing it for others, it creates the illusion that although you may not know me, at least I know me. You can ask me, and I will tell you the whole story of who I am, and why I do what I do. We can imagine the man with the shopping notepad accounting for his process in some understandable way, about how it serves a practical goal of organizing things. Or I might explain how constantly clicking on every paragraph I read has a functional purpose — it keeps me focused, or something. But there’s always an element of post hoc rationalization to these explanations.

The idea is that you might find it weird, but once you get to know me, you’ll understand and it won’t seem weird anymore, so in this scheme, your weird initial first impression is framed as an error that is corrected by further information about me. It’s a way of bridging the divide between people, and of course this does work, up to a point. We can accept and tolerate different forms of enjoyment so long as they are captured, normalized and codified in identities and lifestyles—effectively, turned into forms of consumerism.

But where it fails is in the confrontation with the Other in the Real of their jouissance, which we experience as uncomfortable, intrusive and even traumatizing. No wonder that one of the primary ethical guidelines today is the idea of self-awareness, a state of heightened sensitivity to how others perceive us and taking measures to ensure that every intersubjective interaction is perfectly smooth and frictionless. Openness and tolerance to difference is sustained by its obverse, hyperregulation and surveillance of all social interaction.

All forms of desire are tolerated so long as they are well-integrated into the subject’s ego and represented as a personal lifestyle choice, making their actions and decisions legible to us. As long as the Other is self-aware and knows their desire, everything is OK, but it’s traumatic to be exposed to someone’s unconscious desire, manifest in various strange, compulsive gestures that they are not even fully aware of and are not part of their internal self-portrait, their self-understanding that they can express to others.

Here, we are exposed to the Other’s desire at its most radical: not merely a desire which is foreign to us but should be respected because it is meaningful to someone else. The Other’s desire is even alien to them! The truth of who they are isn’t some inner intimate secret that they reveal to you in confidence. In our experience of their fundamental weirdness, we know them better than they even know themselves.

Thus, real self-awareness is awareness of my unawareness of my self, awareness that there is a dimension of myself which is alien to me. When I express myself through speech, I always say more than I intend, so that when I express myself, it is not a matter of simply giving you access to what I already know about myself. Who I turn out to be may surprise you, but don’t worry, I will be just as surprised as you!

So it is impossible for me to fully account for this excess through identity construction. Although many people celebrate the freedom that we have today to explore all kinds of new identities beyond the ones that have been externally imposed by social authorities, this perspective fails to take into account how identity construction, irrespective of its specific content, is deeply normalizing, a prohibition on the excessive Real dimension outside of identity.