There is Only Cyberspace

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


February 3, 2012

There is Only Cyberspace

In a post on Cyborgology entitled There is No “Cyberspace”, PJ Rey rejects the concept of cyberspace due to its connotations of digital dualism. After reading it, I expressed my negative reaction on Twitter, and Nathan Jurgenson, co-creator of Cyborgology, kindly invited me to elaborate on this, which I will do here.

The term “digital dualism” refers to the belief that technology creates an alternate, virtual universe that is separate from everyday reality. On Cyborgology, this view is often attributed to critics of social media (and other new kinds of online media like video games), particularly those who seem to have very exaggerated fears. Jurgenson and Rey propose the idea of “augmented reality” as a different conceptualization of our relationship to technology, one that emphasizes that new technologies are extensions to our existing reality, not some new, artificial reality – I will call this augmentism.

One thing that seems to be often implied is that digital dualism leads to exaggerated fears and anxieties, and augmented reality does not. This has a certain logic to it: when technology and technological effects are understood as foreign, it generates a fear of the unknown; but if we understand them as extensions of the familiar, we will no longer be afraid. So augmentism effects a kind of naturalization or even domestication of technology.

But this does not adequately account for many of the fears of technology. If we take as an example the case of a parent who believes their teenage son spends far too much time in the “fake” virtual space of World of Warcraft, and not enough time in the “real” world. Superficially, this seems like a paradigmatic example of digital dualism, but it is not. The parent is saying is that the teenager has become absorbed in fictional universe that he incorrectly believes is distinct from the real world. He believes that he has disappeared into an alternate reality and left the real world behind, but the parent insists this is a fallacy - he is still part of the real world, has school and social responsibilities, and so on.

So rather than this being an example of digital dualism, it is actually the opposite, a critique of digital dualism from the standpoint of augmentism. This becomes even more apparent when we notice that the parental criticism is typically concerned with the “real world” consequences of “virtual” behavior, which implies a belief in the dialectical relationship between the two that PJ Rey references in his description of augmented reality. When the media exaggerates the dangers of the internet, it does so in just these terms. The message is typically something like “You falsely believe that the internet is just some fantasy universe separate from our own, but in fact, it has very real consequences…”

Many moral panics are centrally concerned with the threat of confusing fantasy for reality. This is obviously true in the case of contemporary concerns with video game violence, video game addiction, internet pornography, and so on; and also in the 19th century when romantic novels captured the minds of young women, and social critics worried that their absorption in these virtual worlds would impair their ability to live up to the social expectations of wife and mother. By this definition, the criticism of moral panics is itself a moral panic. The media is said to produce dangerous, exaggerated fantasies in the minds of impressionable parents, generating chimeras that they overreact to in socially harmful ways.

Despite the shared conceptual framework between technology critics and Cyborgology bloggers, there is a difference. In this blog post, There is No “Cyberspace”, PJ Rey seems to claim that effectively, digital dualism does not exist. The criticism of the media is therefore that the media wrongly imputes digital dualism to a group of people – this is wrong because it is impossible. For Rey, you cannot get lost in cyberspace because there is no cyberspace, no fictional worlds, virtual realities or diegetic universes. The Web is not a fantasy and cannot be confused with reality because fantasy as such does not exist. So there is no need to panic.

Rey is of course entitled to reject the concept of fantasy. As someone who insists on obscure, outmoded psychoanalytic categories, it will obviously be unacceptable to me.

But still, I agree with the general critique of digital dualism, but approach it in a quite different way, I definitely agree that there is no ontological split between reality and cyberspace. Rey resolves this by claiming cyberspace does not exist, there is only reality. Under the influence of Lacan, I take the opposite view, that reality does not exist, there is only cyberspace.

This is a potentially misleading contrast, because Rey means his statement in an ontological way and my statement describes a subjective viewpoint, i.e. how things appear to us, not the way things really are, so the statement “There is only cyberspace” does not imply the Berkeleyan idealism that it appears to, that there are only minds. To briefly describe my position in a somewhat simplified way: For Lacan, there is reality – this is called the Real, how things truly are. What we take as our ordinary, everyday reality (called simply “reality”) is a fantasy construction, a virtual world. It is already cyberspace.

Fantasy is not a deception blinding us to the way things really are, it is the only way we are able to experience the Real. If we got rid of fantasy, our experience of reality itself would disintegrate. This is because the Real is too strong, we cannot confront it directly. The classic example of this is sexual contact with another person, a traumatizing encounter with the Real that can only be experienced via fantasy. People who have had violent traumatic experiences – car accidents, terrorist attacks, natural disasters – often report that they felt like they were in a movie.

These are examples of how reality is a fantasmatic screen over the excessive intensity of the Real. The title of this post “There is Only Cyberspace” refers precisely to this refusal or repression of this traumatic dimension - again, a description of our subjective experience of reality, not an ontological statement.

But at the same time, we have a horrified fascination with the Real, and through the mediation of fantasy, we are able to catch glimpses of it. So Rey’s title “There is No Cyberspace” – the disavowal of fantasy – can also be read as another type of repression of the Real that is disclosed through fantasy. Or as Žižek, turning around the classic saying, sometimes puts it: “Reality is for those who cannot endure (the Real that announces itself in) their dreams.”

(For this reason, moral panics are, in a way, right to be afraid of people who confuse fantasy with reality. A disturbing intrusion of the Real may be disclosed through fantasy, shattering the coordinates of the existing socially-accepted reality and throwing it into disarray. The social critics of the 19th century were quite correct to worry about the disruptive impact of an alternative fantasy provided to women through romantic novels – they realized that their reality was quite fragile.)

The cause of the splitting of the subject between the Real and reality sustained by fantasy is our entrance into the symbolic order through language. This is said to introduce a cut in the Real that splits the subject, which is in opposition to the idea that language is a type of augmentation. Some may regard this as an example of Cartesian mind-body dualism, but as Adrian Johnston argues in Against Embodiment: The Material Ground of the More-than-Material Subject, Lacan views the choice between mind-body dualism and embodied cognition as a false one, and proposes a third option. Johnston argues:

Quite a few of the sticking points in recent debates wherein Descartes features as a whipping boy hinge, perhaps, on another false dilemma: either the mind and body are utterly unrelated (as, supposedly, in Cartesian dualism) or the mind and body are positively related (i.e., harmonized, integrated, fused, etc.). The missing third option here, as explored by Lacanian theory, is the one in which the mind and body are, so to speak, negatively related–oppositional discord is, obviously, a form of relation. Psychoanalysis advances a (Schellingian) model wherein, although subjectivity arises out of corporeality through a process of immanent genesis, it nonetheless subsequently comes to posit itself in antagonistic opposition to this primordial material Grund.

This antagonistic opposition shows itself in the way that we sometimes experience ourselves as aliens in our own bodies. To put it in another way, our subjective self-consciousness feels like it has been grafted on, and sits in an uneasy relationship with the body. The phrase “We have always been cyborgs” is often taken to mean that we have always had different technologies, that human-constructed objects that have extended us in various ways. Lacan proposes a radical and disturbing cyborg hypothesis: the original, zero-level alien technology that has been artificially grafted on the body is the self.

We are the unnatural element that disturbs the natural order of things. From this perspective, embodied cognition, by seeing human bodies harmoniously integrated with technology, effaces hybridity, the very element of a cyborg that makes it simultaneously horrifying and compelling to us. This is ultimately why PJ Rey disavows cyberspace. But it should be noted that simply accepting the transformative power of cyberspace does not mean we simply embrace whatever we are being transformed into. We still must ask the Leninist question: transformation, yes - but for whom, and to do what?