Thinking Cyber-Subjectivity: Ideology and the Subject

Erik Chia-yi Lee
Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures
National Taiwan University

Since the popularization of computer networks, cyberspace has become the buzzword today. Rather than merely participating in this computerized space, people begin to discuss its varied social ramifications. Among those that attract people's attention, the issue of subjectivity is quite urgent, especially in the contemporary cultural and political milieu. Discourses in this area generally fall into two groups based on different, even opposing, premises. Accepting the heritage left by poststructuralist and postmodernist thought, certain discourses on cyberspace revolve around the possibilities opened up and promised by it to fashion new subjectivity as fluid, decentered, heterogeneous, playful, and malleable. They are more optimistic and celebratory with an overt utopian propensity. On the other hand, discourses following the strong Marxist tradition of social criticism are eager to direct people's attention to the inherent inequality of cyberspace in distributing social resources among different classes or genders, which is otherwise masked by the utopian acclamation. These are discourses with gloomy and sullen eyes staring at what for them is in effect a cyber-dystopia. For people in this school, subjectivity is closely related to social and political identity, and as for the change of existing patterns, they assert, cyberspace can only contribute little, even none, of what is innocuous and new. Each of these two positions on cyberspace, while providing certain insights on the issue of subjectivity, has drawbacks that need further consideration. At one most explicit level, the social criticism of cyberspace needs more sophisticated reflections to rid itself of the danger of becoming a hollow cry of protestation. For if the coming of the information age as well as the cyberspatialization of society cannot be stopped or negated by a negative view of cyberspace, it may be the time for the criticism itself to probe, beyond the mere contrast of truth with falsehood in terms of ideology, into the connections between the working of ideology and the constitution of the subject, thus revitalizing itself with more effective social and political critique. On the other hand, discourses overflowing with celebratory and utopian tones also need to avoid the danger of easily falling prey to the unexpected totalization [1] they are trying so hard to avoid, where a naive idealization of plural subjectivities will finally render any social function and construction impossible. If cyber-society is not so much an empty icon in cultural and political spheres as a (partially) realized social pattern, [2] what we need most is a reconsideration of these discourses on cyber-subjectivity so as to deepen our knowledge of the relation between cyberspace and the formation of subjectivity in its social and political sense.

Recasting subjectivity

Discourses that celebrate cyberspace are often based upon the premise that the previous pattern of subjectivity (if there is such a thing), the so-called subjectivity of modernism, is to become disrupted, decentered, disintegrated, disseminated, or multiplied, and finally be replaced by the new subjectivity of postmodernism spawned in the Internet, the main representative of cyberspace. Following the poststructuralist rejection of meta-narratives and essentialism, cyber-subjectivity born out of this postmodernist turn is loaded with liberating promises to destruct the old and construct the new. One main point of reference in this argument is that the communications situation fostered by cyberspace will reduce forms of identity in real life to mere signs floating freely in transmission and exchange on the net. On the opening page of the section "Shifting Subjects" in their proposal for media philosophy, Mark Taylor and Esa Saarinen briefly remark on the basic tenet of this cyber-subjectivity: "In cyberspace, I can change my self as easily as I change clothes. Identity becomes infinitely plastic in a play of images that knows no end. Consistency is no longer a virtue but becomes a vice; integration is limitation. With everything always shifting, everyone is no one." [3] If subjectivity enjoys more freedom in cyberspace than in real life, this depends primarily on the disruption and multiplication of the old identity as the coherent and homogeneous one into the fragmented and heterogeneous many. The correspondence between subjectivity and identity is manifest. Mark Poster shares the same attitude, indicating that: "If modernity or the mode of production signifies patterned practices that elicit identities as autonomous and (instrumentally) rational, postmodernity or the mode of information indicates communication practices that constitute subjects as unstable, multiple, and diffuse." [4] The rhetoric is much the same. However, the way it argues for cyberspace on molding new identity and, in turn, subjectivity, is justified only by presupposing "a monolithic coherent identity" in previous times that "must be hacked, morphed, and manipulated" in the postmodernist or "post-human" period. [5] This idea of the old identity as a coherent and consistent one is no more than a positing of the postmodernist presupposition in order to justify the validity of its assumption of fragmented identity. For even though the modernist identity is quite stable, it is still hard to argue that it is perfectly seamless and totally cohesive without any leak and disruption. Identity, in its general sense, is the result of identification processes achieved by individuals on a communal basis. If subjectivity is closely related to and even equated with identity as the writers mentioned would argue, we have reason to believe that community is the leading factor in the formation of identity and subjectivity. Following this, even individuals in the modernist period would never take part in or belong merely to one community but many, some of which may even stand in conflict with one another. Taking into account the different identities one individual may hold simultaneously in terms of family, nation, race, class, and gender, a "monolithic coherent identity" is rather like a postmodernist invention. This obsession with identity in the thinking of cyber-subjectivity is, however, understandable. The free flow of information ignited by and realized in cyberspace gives a full guarantee to new ways of establishing communities, hoped to be different from those in real life. The best bet is that cyber-community would get rid of all the drawbacks of traditional communities (like hierarchization, bureaucratization, exclusion--in short, power in its highly centralized form), yet retain the good part of them and even achieve that which the old could never do (in short, the decentering of power structures). This emphasis on the new communal identity spawned by cyberspace imparts high hopes for the making of new subjectivity.[6] What free information, free speech, and free exchange of opinions in cyberspace can bring about by fashioning new forms of communities as well as identities is, in this sense, better civil subjects. The revolutionary nature of cyberspace frequently celebrated and welcomed by discourses imbued in postmodernist fervor lies exactly here. Multiple identities and fluid subjectivity (as the embodiment of socio-political freedom) are the central forces for them to counteract the fixed and centralized identity of the previous times. Yet this imbrication of subjectivity with communal identity will lead to an aporia the celebratory discourses on cyberspace have to face. If fluid subjectivity in total disintegration is a virtue welcomed in cyberspace, the subject who takes part in any activities of virtual communities would hardly achieve any identity. How can a group of fragmented, fluid, disintegrated subjects perform identification to reach a possible identity? At best, what they can work out is only an identity of non-identity. If a communal identity is possible to achieve out of subjectivity, then this subjectivity will never be totally fluid and disintegrated. Thus the subjectivity-identity relation in this postmodernist context is no more than an oxymoron, an aporia.

The socio-political aspect in the thinking of cyber-subjectivity is centrally concerned with the role community plays. However, when the association of "person" with "personae" is back to the perception of fluid subjectivity in cyberspace (Taylor and Saarinen, p. 8), the character of gaming (also highly praised by postmodernism) in assuming different masks would inevitably impede any effectual socialization in cyberspace and the proper functioning of virtual communities. After a few passages that give full credit to this playful nature of cyber-subjectivity, William Mitchell interestingly describes in a note two cases of this play of roles being harshly censured on the Net after the true identities of the protagonists are uncovered, a note that seems to self-deconstruct Mitchell's main celebratory text. [7] Julian Stallabrass also points out that the notion of multiple identities runs basically against any supposition of a community that is mainly "based upon honest communication" (p. 16, emphasis added). When people are allowed to be dishonest in communal communications, how can a rational ground necessary for an (electronic) agora be reached? Multiple identities in this sense even bear analogy to Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD) in psychotherapy. While the Cartesian cogito gains the sense of being a subject by retaining the power to reflect on itself, to represent itself and the world to itself ("I think, or represent, myself"), and maintaining its substance in spite of the changing of time, an MPD patient under hypnosis reveals a cogito without ego, "a total subject" with "degree zero of consciousness" taken up by the temporality of being always present, who brackets the world as well as the self. From "I think, [therefore] I am" to "I switch, I am," MPD, in playing with diverse personal identities, blocks the way to any permanent ego formation. This "absence of ego" can only express itself in extreme "ego inflation" (Borch-Jacobsen, pp. 60-61). [8] The modern subject as an inheritance from the Cartesian cogito is thus dispersed and disrupted, paving the way for multiple identities and fluid subjectivity. However, it is not hard to see in the hypnosis, into which the subject is plunged, there emerges a "pre-representational state," under which there is no ego, no self, no subject, no consciousness, no time, and no material reality, and under which identities can multiply to infinity. An extremely radical imagination will be needed for us to believe that a communal society is possible based on this hypnotic state. Discourses that celebrate multiple identity and fluid subjectivity in politically empowering virtual communities have to face this aporia between theory and practice. Otherwise there is always the danger of totalizing and valorizing any playing on identity and subjectivity to transgress traditional norms as equally liberating and promising; if so, all this rhetoric is nothing more than a lip service without viable links to socialization.

Cyber-dystopia: The fomenting of social evils

The social critics of cyberspace who follow a Marxist tradition are more hostile to cyberspace than those indulging in postmodernist zest. In 1995, a paper by Julian Stallabrass, entitled "Empowering Technology: The Exploration of Cyberspace," appeared in the New Left Review introducing probably for the first time an analysis of cyberspace in this journal. Interestingly, the other two titles appearing on the cover of the issue are, "Cyberhype and Utopia" and "The Promise of the Internet." Bearing in mind the leftist position of the journal, we soon find out that these titles have strong ironic implications: utopia will appear in the end of Stallabrass's article as mere dystopia, and promise as disappointment. Yet also from these titles we can see people have already taken the Internet as a synonym of cyberspace. Stallabrass's article, in this context, epitomizes the Marxist critique of cyberspace, leading us to an understanding of what this trend of critique could contribute to our consideration of cyber-subjectivity.

Stallabrass's article is exemplary in that it raises a few issues frequently found in similar criticisms. Basically, these issues center on the imbalanced distribution of economic resources in cyberspace which would worsen, rather than eliminate, the existing social inequality among diverse classes. This imbalance, as people often argue, creates the gap between "haves" (those who have privileged tools of production) and "have-nots," a gap that would render impotent the democratizing power that cyberspace is supposed to promote. Aside from this, the main argument of Stallabrass's article is that by indulging in consumerism and succumbing to the total exploitation and control of capitalism, cyberspace not only reduces everything to calculable, quantifiable, exchangeable, and salable bits of information commodities, but also becomes itself "the grand universal commodity" in which the subject's experience of participation "will become a substance and a commodity" (pp. 20, 31). In other words, cyberspace is proved at last to be an omnipresent Net of commodification in which both objects and subjects are captured. For Stallabrass, cyberspace actually embodies Enlightenment's totalization that reduces the multiplicity of objects to scientifically quantifiable matters easily commodified under capitalism, a process the subject also undergoes. Cyberspace is no more than a dystopia within which the demon of Capital resides. Under the capitalist logic of value exchange that valorizes all the differences (of essences) between and among subjects and objects--all being treated in the same way as commodities--cyberspace incarnates not a computer heaven, but a computerized capitalist inferno. Putting aside the weakness of a few details in Stallabrass's argument in regard to practices on today's Internet, [9] we have to look more closely at his basic premises to see how they would lead to a dilemma, a limit shared by like discourses.

Stallabrass's argument is based on two connected premises: a critique of the ideology of cyberspace as false consciousness and a humanist presupposition of original human essence. The main goal of his article is nothing more than a demystification of the ideology of cyberspace as a false promise to bring us a more liberal, democratic, and freer society. This promise becomes a gloomy picture in the ending sentence of his article: "As the real world is left to decline, the air once again becomes full of phantoms, this time digital, promising at the last moment to pluck utopia from apocalypse" (p. 32). Its strong Marxist undertone is obvious. Stallabrass's discursive strategy is to reveal the impossibility of cyberspace to prove its ideological falsity. With regard to the issue of subjectivity, this argument tries to affirm that rather than liberating individual subjects, cyberspace actually puts them under new forms of exploitation, distortion, reduction, and commodification. While Stallabrass's demystification tells people what they should have known but do not know about cyberspace, his argument also presupposes that there is a more essential nature of the subject, a true subjectivity, that is distorted and twisted by the false consciousness of information technology, a nature that waits to be restored and emancipated by criticisms of cyberspace like his. It is not too surprising to find part of Stallabrass's argument based on Lukác's notion of "second nature," located in the mutilating effect of cyberspace on both subject and object (p. 30). The existence of a first nature, a more essential subjectivity, is here implied. Considering ideology as false consciousness, thus, leads to a wishful affirmation of the true consciousness of human nature and subjectivity. Stallabrass, in this context, thinks almost in the same vein of Guy Debord in his The Society of the Spectacle in that both believe in the omnipresence and omnipotence of information networks and media in setting up what Taylor and Saarinen would later call the "mediatrix" to perform the "mediaization" of human subjects (pp. 2, 8) who are thus deprived of essential nature, the true self, and real subjectivity. [10] Régis Debray rereads Debord's main ideas in parallel with Feuerbach's The Essence of Christianity and comes out with the observation that both of them depend strongly on the tradition of humanism, which endorses the belief in "the idea of a generic nature, of man's pre-existence essence." And this belief drives them, and Stallabrass, to the similar discursive strategy of demystifying ideology to regain "a recognition, a reversal of the reversal, that men will be able to come back down to earth from heaven, overturning their love of God, of ideology, of the spectacle [and also of cyberspace]--these are equivalent terms--into a love of active and sentient humanity." This perception of ideology disclaims any serious concern with, for example, "political and technical mediations" in structuring human existence and is "typical of the moralists in all ages and climes" (pp. 136-37).[11] For Debray, this simplistic view casts doubts on any mediations in favor of a transparent immediacy between the subject and its predicate and, in turn, would lose critical power due to its almost a-historical generalization and a total exclusion of "the hard labour of real mediations." Whereas postmodernist thinkers of cyber-subjectivity have to answer the question posed by Marxist critics of cyberspace on how dispersed subjectivity can provide the identity necessary for the building of communities, virtual or real, Marxist critics also have to deal with the postmodernist questioning of the presupposition of an ontological essence of human nature. And this aporia, inherent in the discursive strategy of Marxist critics of cyberspace like Stallabrass, brings up another issue that is not very comfortable either. Because their humanist presupposition is severely doubted today (through the work of post-structuralism and postmodernism), they would finally fail to resist cyberspace effectively. Because it is not possible to go back to society before cyberspace (an embodiment of information society) where true subjectivity can be restored, people facing the negative and gloomy view of cyberspace provided by Marxist critics would come upon the question: what should we do next, or what should we do with cyberspace if it is so horrible? There seems to be a logic of either/or underlying the Marxist critique: either we would have a (cyber-)society good in all respects, or we would have none of it. Yet if the spread of cyberspace as well as the coming of the information society is inevitable and can never be stopped by mere dystopian warnings, if Marxist critics of cyberspace can only found their dystopian arguments on a utopian and unfounded humanistic tradition, [12] such criticisms would sooner or later reach the limit beyond which it is impossible to offer any alternative solutions, where they become hollow cries of protestation without critical effects. In other words, if the generalization of cyberspace as a complete cyber-dystopia that only foments and worsens social evils cannot persuade people to dispense with, even to dispose of, cyberspace, the real mechanisms by which the ideology of cyberspace functions may have been overlooked. If a sound recognition of our finitude would allow us to realize that a (cyber-)utopia will never come to be on earth, we would not be satisfied with a (cyber-)hell taken for granted either. Marxist criticisms, in this sense, need a new perspective to initiate a more effective and critical confrontation with cyber-society.

Society and the subject: The possibility of the impossible

Regarding utopian fantasies of cyberspace as false consciousness, Marxist critics perform an ideological analysis similar to what Slavoj Zizek singles out as one of the two procedures of "the criticism of ideology": a "symptomal reading" of ideology aiming to uncover the "nodal points" around which diverse and conflicting signifiers are woven together in totalization to mask the impossibility of an ideological field.[13] These nodal points remain basically absent in ideological significations and only betray themselves in symptomatic irruptions, an analysis of which enables critics of ideology to look into the impossibility inherent, yet disguised, in the ideology (1989, p. 125). Using antisemitism and democratic elections as two examples, Zizek shows how they irrupt as symptoms of the ideology of an organic, liberal, and democratic society: whereas the Jew is treated as a fetish that "simultaneously denies and embodies the structural impossibility" of the notion of society, a fetish whose function is to frame a fantasy to distract people's attention from the real nature of society (1989, p. 126); elections, through the proliferation of scandals, violence, or bribery, reveal the incapability of the democratic society to conceal its "irrational character" on which the symbolic structure of democracy depends (1989, p. 148). Following the thesis of Laclau and Mouffe, Zizek claims that the ideology of an orderly and organic society is based on the effacement of its "antagonistic nature," the masking of its constitutive impossibility, the foreclosure of the final recognition that "society doesn't exist" (1989, p. 127). Ideological criticisms of cyberspace are of the same vein. By laying bare the impossibility of cyberspace to live up to the claims of equality, democratization, freedom from either political hierarchization or capitalist commercialization, and new forms of communities and subjectivity, critics reveal the ideology of cyberspace as an all-in-one cyberhype (fostered mainly by postmodernist cyber-thinkers). Yet this move is still not radical enough and, because of this lack of radicalness, largely loses its critical power. Following Zizek's logic, we should note that all those capitalist agents who try to squeeze every penny from the Net, those socially and economically privileged who have full and even exclusive access to the Net, and, in a word, those "haves" who have worsened the social gap by creating more "have-nots" than the time when cyberspace did not yet exist--all these are but an array of ideological fetishes, so to speak, whose function is to disguise the reality of (modern liberal) society as constitutively split by its irreconcilable antagonism. In this sense, critics like Stallabrass share the same utopian mind as those with full-blown cyberhype, for they still presuppose an ideally organic state of society in which subjects live in self-fulfillment, a state that has only to be restored after social evils (fetishes) are wiped out. Such discourses inevitably fail to give concrete content to this alternative utopia (the content they believe they can and should impart) and, thus, lose critical power. The failure comes from their (mis)recognition of what the fetishes appear to be and what they really are. While recognizing one side of these fetishes as signifiers of affirmation (of social evils), they overlook the other side of them as also signifiers of denial (of the impossibility of society). Because such discourses fail to take into account the structural impossibility that constitutes the social field, the tension inherent in them would sometimes become so perverse as to produce violent accusations. The central issue here is not how to improve and empower this criticism by enabling it to fill its utopian presupposition with any final, concrete content, but rather to come to the recognition that this impossibility of social ideology to have any content is the very foundation that supports the whole social field and social function, without which society is impossible. Moving away from the fetishes as embodying social evils, we approach, not the ultimate achievement of a better, utopian society, but the structural lack, the structural impossibility underlying the social symbolic work and deeply embedded in it as its organizing principle. This is, I would propose, the no-thing that is at once inside the social symbolic order (as a fetish-thing), masking its non-being, and outside of it (as nothing), to constituting negatively its being, a no-thing that will come back from time to time in symptomatic forms to disrupt the normality and organicity of society. Thus, what the ideology of cyberspace veils is in effect this radical core of social impossibility, rather than a "true" consciousness necessary for restoring any concrete content of a social utopia as critics like Stallabrass would presuppose.[14]

The social impossibility that ideology tries to mask, and the criticism of ideology often fail to consider, is closely related to the issue of the subject in its modern sense. In his historical elaboration on citizenship as the basis of modern subjectivity, Étienne Balibar shows that the assumption that men are equal and free subjects in modern society abolishes the idea of subjection which is, in earlier times, also constitutive of the notion of the subject (p. 12). The subject, according to Balibar's elaboration, is the convergence of two almost contradictory terms: subjectum, which refers to a stable and impersonal substance in the subject (p. 8; see also Borch-Jacobsen, p. 59), and subjectus, meaning one in "subjection or submission." As a result of this basic contradiction between the indeterminate and the determinate constitution of the subject, the modern subject as a free citizen who claims his rights by participation in political practices can emerge only by "abolishing" the subjectus to privilege the subjectum. Yet subjection as an inherent part of the subject can only be "abolished" (that is, "buried" or "covered"), never totally annihilated for it is indispensable in the constitution of the subject. Thus, with regard to the liberty of the modern subject, Balibar remarks that "the value of human agency arises from the fact that no one can be liberated or emancipated by others, although no one can liberate himself without others" (p. 12). This ambivalent relation of self to others echoes the basic contradiction in the subject's constitution which is split between the free subject thought to be indeterminate and its freedom as obtained through the determination of others. Ernesto Laclau and Lilian Zac deal with the same issue in a more detailed way, transposing this subtle relation between self and other to that of the subjective and the objective, and noting that while "the condition of freedom--and, as a result, of subjectivity--is indeterminacy," the self-determined (free) subject can never determine himself, but can only get "the determinate content" necessary for self-determination from the objective, from that which is "heteronomous from the point of view of a pure subjectivity [that is, pure indeterminacy]" (p. 12). This situation, on the one hand, constitutes the subject as inherently split, lacking self-evident being, yet, on the other, also guarantees the subject's ability to enter into the social symbolic field to fulfill his subjectivity as a social and political agent. For "the determinate content" the subject needs to achieve his freedom will be provided by society through its political organizations, ideologies, discourses, in a word, through all its symbolic functions that set up a relation of identification between the subjective and the objective, thus granting the subject his subjectivity as being at once with a substance (subjectum) and in subjection (subjectus). Yet the freedom thus achieved can be maintained only on condition that the identification between subject and object is "an active identification," a relation that not only constitutes and symbolizes the originary lack of the subject as split, but also destabilizes "the identity of the object" (p. 14). For if this is not so, then what is left for the subject is total subjection (subjectus) without any freedom (subjectum). In other words, if the identification is passive rather than active, if what the split subject identifies with is a social symbolic order without any lack, the process will lead to "the reabsorption of the indeterminate within the determinate," in which the subject's freedom (in terms of indeterminacy) will be replaced by total determination from outside and irredeemable alienation. The (socially and politically) objective, in this sense, is split in the identification for there has to be kept "a constitutive incommensurability ... between the filling function [of the objective in the lack of the subject] and the concrete contents that actualizes it" (p. 15). Only when the objective is lacking any concrete content can it perform its filling function in the (active) identification of the subjective with it; if any concrete content is given, we will go back to the process of "reabsorption" that disrupts the subtle balance between determinacy and indeterminacy necessary for the constitution of the subjectivity of a free subject. In the same vein, Zizek, following Hegel, draws the conclusion that freedom as such can only be maintained on condition of its being merely "an empty possibility" without ever actualizing itself.[15] Of this dialectic of possibility and actuality, Zizek says "possibility, as such, exerts actual effects which disappear as soon as it "actualizes" itself (1994, pp. 68-69). Thus the notion of freedom as the nodal point structuring the whole symbolic order of modern liberal society can only be empty of content and impossible to actualize, can only be incorrigible failure so as to perform its filling function in the active identification necessary for the constitution of the free subject. The meaning (or non-meaning) of the ideology of cyberspace, therefore, is not that, being false consciousness, it in effect fails to actualize a freer and more liberal society in which a better form of subjectivity can come to life, but that, as a failure by destiny, it reveals how such a society can only be possible on condition of its being never actualized, a situation that constitutes the filling function of ideology in the making of subjectivity in cyberspace. The content of the ideology of cyberspace, thus, has to be empty to guarantee its subjects a maximum of possible freedom and liberty. In other words, the society that the ideology of cyberspace promises to bring about is possible only because it is impossible; yet this impossibility is not the result of the failure to give it any concrete content, but rather belongs to the "antagonistic nature" of society that will never be reconciled. This impossibility is where the ideology of cyberspace founds itself, yet is reluctant to admit and recognize. By the same token, the criticism of ideology as performed by Stallabrass loses its critical power since it also fails to recognize and consider this structural impossibility of society, but, in much the same way as the ideologues of cyberspace, presupposes a better concrete content that can and has to replace the false one proffered by the ideology. This obsession with the filling content of the ideology of cyberspace (as one form of the socially and politically objective), by ignoring its filling function, will and has to fail; otherwise a society of liberty and freedom will disappear for its subjects will be put under the total determination of its concrete content.

Ideology, in this sense, is not necessarily an evil that exerts coercive force to determine and alienate a subject in a whole sense who identifies himself with it, but probably a necessary evil for the constitution of the subject as a free agent who has to fill in his originary lack of being through this identification.[16] And in this active identification, the split subject encounters the objective social symbolic (the ideology) as also split by the incommensurability between its content and filling function. Only by recognizing this can we rid ourselves of the utopian fantasy for a better filling content, for more and even total freedom from elsewhere, and for the final restoration of a truer and more natural self. And only through the perception of the lack and the split in the social objective--what Laclau and Zac term the split between "social ordering" and "social order" (p. 37)--can we imagine what Zizek elaborates as the "de-alienation of the subject" that is achieved through an (active) identification of the subject's lack with the lack of the objective (the symbolic order) to allow the subject to have "a breathing space" (1989, p. 122). Only out of this breathing space would freedom (at once indeterminacy and determinacy) emerge as constitutive of subjectivity (combining both subjectum and subjectus). The ideology of cyberspace, like other forms of ideology, is thus less the false consciousness that blocks the fulfillment of real utopia and better subjectivity than a necessary objective that the subject needs to identify with to fill his originary lack of being (to de-alienate himself and gain freedom) both socially and politically. What this ideology hides is not any content in need of being demystified for the restoration of a real and better one. It actually reveals, but reveals in a negative way, the empty possibility of a more liberal society that is made of virtual communities of purely free subjects. Yet this empty possibility is the very source of its actual effects. People would enthusiastically identify with the ideology of cyberspace not because they are too blind or too stupid to know the truth (as Stallabrass in effect presupposes), but because they need it to achieve the maximal freedom to constitute their subjectivity, although they are still in a way deeply embedded in the fantasy that the actualization of such a purely free cyber-society would at last come true. With a better grasp of the relation (almost a symbiosis) between the ideological function and the constitution of the subject, we would say that while Marxist criticisms of cyberspace, like Stallabrass's, will need to take into consideration the radicality inherent in this relation to regain its proper critical power, the postmodernist discourses also need the same adjustment to get rid of the fantasy of any final actualization which may bring about the pure indeterminacy of subjectivity. Lastly, we should note that part of the worth of the ideology of cyberspace comes not from pure theoretical reflection (in which there is always the danger of failing to distinguish it from, say, the ideology of fascism), but from the practices of people taking part in cyberspace. Despite the various negative implications of cyberspace listed by Marxist critics like Stallabrass, in practice it still brings to people more possibilities (a broader and more open space, if we may say so) for social, political, and even cultural involvement and de- or re-symbolization than allowed in real life. If, along with this, we also take into account the almost inevitable advent of information society from a technological perspective, a rethinking of cyber-subjectivity in relation to ideology will prove most urgent. If cyberspace today anticipates the form of society in which we will constitute our subjectivity tomorrow, placing our best hope either on the fantasy of the beyond (the postmodernist carnival without ends) or on the phantom of the past (traditional humanism) will drain the energy and vitality of (cyber-)society and its (cyber-)subjects. Therefore, the recognition of society as constituted by the active identification between split subjects and split objects (forms of ideology) may keep our serious consideration of cyberspace and its subjects within the here-and-now rather than an a-temporal nowhere, giving us the critical powers to confront cyberspace so as, not to subvert and destroy it, but to retain its creative energy in perpetual self-de/construction, always opening out to myriad re-symbolizations of its tele-socio-political networks. This is probably the best bet we could have on an ineluctable cyber-future.


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Zizek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology. London: Verso, 1989.

Zizek, Slavoj "Identity and Its Vicissitudes: Hegel's 'Logic of Essence' as a Theory of Ideology." The Making of Political Identities. Ed. Ernesto Laclau. London: Verso, 1994.


  1. "Indeed, suspicion about suspicion, which amounts to the totalization of suspicion, can be taken as one of the hallmarks of the postmodern turn," thus remarks Joel Whitebook in his Perversion and Utopia (p. 220). For Whitebook, this aporia between de- and re-totalization of postmodernism would result, for example, in Foucault's valorization of all forms of transgression as equally bearing liberating power on one side, and on the other his later reluctance in affirming all of them as socially beneficial (p. 263, note 6). From strong doubts about the foundation and totalization of western metaphysics, poststructuralist thinking easily swings to the opposite end, another form of totalization. This dilemma is shared by those discourses on cyberspace that have a strong postmodernist flavor.
  2. At least from a mere technical point of view, cyberspace is already embodied in social reality. While it was probably purely imaginary in Gibson's time, cyberspace today, by way of the widespread use of the Internet, is not purely fictional. We can even argue that the amount of discourses on cyberspace flowering these days, especially those with hostility, is an indirect affirmation of the fact that cyberspace has already come to existence. Only by its realization, however partial it is, can discourses be excited with so much hope and disappointment as well as celebration and apprehension.
  3. Each section in this book, Imagologies, has its own pagination.
  4. Section 3, "The Postmodern Subject," of his article "Postmodern Virtualities." This article appears on the Internet and can be freely downloaded and browsed. Due to the special character of Net documents, no pagination will be given in the citation of them. However, the net address of each document will be listed in the references.
  5. Julie Pierce, Touch: Wetware, Ubicom, and Nanotech. In this short piece, Pierce draws only a general map on the issue of cyber-subjectivity. In spite of her rhetorical similarities to people like Poster or Taylor, one thing gives her article an interesting twist. Talking of the rhetoric of the information age as "both technophobic and technomanic," she points out this phobia as coming from "the loss of identity--that technology will somehow disempower the individual." What is interesting here is that this loss of identity for the proponents of cyberspace will never be a cause of disempowerment, but will trigger individual empowerment in a new age. Following Jean-Luc Nancy's opinion on the traditional form of community in reducing the multiplicity of identity to fixity, thus its essence in "the closure of the political," Mark Poster expressly views the new form of community in cyberspace, made of fluid identity and multiple subjectivity, as the hope to reopen the political, i.e. politically empower individuals ("Postmodern Virtualities"). This "loss of identity," in short, is more a virtue than a vice. However, Pierce's warning is not totally nonsensical. As we shall see, this warning points to the dilemma of the postmodernist attitude toward cyberspace, a dilemma concerning not so much the disempowering of the individual as the construction and maintenance of community.
  6. William Mitchell in his book City of Bits mentions cyberspace as electronically embodying and fulfilling the idea of "agora" that is raised as early as Aristotle in Politics. This association of cyberspace with agora, which is actually a public space for communal communications in order to perform viable political practices, clearly expresses the socio-political orientation in discussing cyberspace. Though Mitchell's book is a 1995 MIT publication, it also appears in hypertextual format on the Internet. This part of his book as well as the two related notes can be reached at, respectively,, City_of_Bits/Electronic_Agoras/footnotes.html#2, and Electronic_Agoras/footnotes.html#3.
  7. A note about the cases of a middle-aged psychiatrist playing as an old, disabled woman and a man assuming different identities to have romances with six women at once, cases that soon become the "morality tales" on the Net. See the section at City_of_ Bits/Electronic_Agoras/FocusedFragmented.html and the note at City_of_Bits/Electronic_ Agoras/footnotes.html#9.
  8. In his article, Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen strongly suggests that MPD, rather than a pychogenic disorder, is more a product, an after-effect, of the psychotherapeutic usage of hypnosis based on the "trance logic" that puts the patient under a hypnotized state in which the (non-)temporal dimension of being always present induces the patient to total confusion among "memories, fantasies, and external suggestions." Rather than looking into a trauma and the consequent defense mechanism of an MPD patient to dissociate himself from the trauma, therapists in this sense are only "looking into their own mirror" (p. 57), thus, unconcealing the pseudo-scientific validity of the psychopathological underpinning of MPD. In the end, Borch-Jacobsen even implies that MPD is rather "the trance subject's response to the therapist's naive and oppressive demand of identity" (p. 61). Be that as it may, Borch-Jacobsen also indicates that, psychoanalytically speaking, the subject also maintains "desiring subjectivity" whose truth lies in its "psychic reality" that may be totally opposed to "material reality" (p. 58). In this sense, though MPD under Borch-Jacobsen's analysis points more to the patient's desire in counteracting the therapist's, there is still reason to believe that in the state of the trance subject's total immersion in the pre-representational and pre-symbolic level of seemingly undifferentiated self and other, subject and object, there is a certain libidinal movement constitutive of the patient's desire other than a merely reactive response to external suggestions. In other words, the subjectivity of MPD under trance logic is made of two possible ways of libidinal flow: one is reactive, responding to therapists' demand, the other is more oriented to the pleasure incurred by the libidinal flow in the disruption of identity and the absence of the ego, in the pre-representational state of the undifferentiated unity of the subject and objects, which is more like what Castoriadis would call the "undifferentiated monadic state" of "the primal subject" (p. 295). Bearing this in mind, we can more or less understand some postmodernist thinkers' ambivalent attitudes toward telecommunications or the information society. Jean Baudrillard, for example, in his article, "The Ecstasy of Communication," seems to warn people against the "proximity" coming along with telecommunications (like computer networks) that would render any maintenance of a locus of the subject impossible, yet, on the other hand, his almost carnivalesque writing rhetoric rather betrays an implicit, even bizarre, fascination with this situation. In this ambivalence, a libidinal movement to psychic pleasure is certainly revealed. Though Baudrillard invokes schizophrenia, not MPD, to construe the issue of subjectivity in an information society, the way he phrases the issue is quite similar to Borch-Jacobsen's: "The schizo is bereft of every scene, open to everything in spite of himself, living in the greatest confusion. ... He can no longer produce the limits of his own being, can no longer play or stage himself, can no longer produce himself as mirror. He is now only a pure screen, a switching center for all the networks of influence" (1983, p. 133) Thinking of cyber-subjectivity in terms of these psychoanalytical concepts may lead us more closely to that in which lies people's libidinal pleasure of immersing themselves in cyberspace, even at the risk of being blind to dystopian warnings raised by thinkers more Marxist in their orientation. The issue of the relation of psychic enjoyment to the constitution of cyber-subjectivity, however, will not be dealt with here. I will develop this issue along with the theme of sublimation in my next paper about cyberspace.
  9. A few details in Stallabrass's article, I believe, would need more elaboration to stand the challenges from the "insiders," the practitioners of the Internet. I will only highlight two points here in relation to the capitalist nature of cyberspace discussed by Stallabrass. Although he is right about the technological reduction of everything in cyberspace to electronic bits of information, he seems to confuse the technological process (of imparting electronic forms of information) with that which this process deals with (the content of information). This confusion will lead Stallabrass to the simplistic logic that everything electronically processed as information becomes a commodity in cyberspace, thus losing all its use value (let us say, the value of its content). This is like saying that, for example, because Marx's thought is processed by printing technology to become a book circulating in a capitalist market, it becomes a commodity unworthy of our effort to read it. This confusion of the physical structure of information with information itself would make Stallabrass's argument more like the totalization of Enlightenment than what he criticizes in cyberspace. Besides this too-rash argumentative move, Stallabrass also refers to computer software that has a price higher than its use value as one example of commercial exploitation abetted by the capitalist logic of exchange value. He even points out the growing rate of "illicit copying of software" as the manifestation of "a more obvious separation of use-value and exchange-value" (pp. 20-21). In addition to this weird logic in indirectly affirming pirate copying, people familiar with the Internet know clearly that, on the one hand, the resistance to commercialization never stops in cyberspace and, on the other, the vigorous circulation and dissemination of the so-called shareware and freeware on the Internet are for many people the most celebrated tradition of cyberspace in countering the software corporations that accumulate unreasonable profits from the market. These situations have to be taken into account by Marxist critics of cyberspace like Stallabrass.
  10. This book of Debord now also has an electronic version in hypertextual format that can be obtained from the Internet at
  11. Taking Debord's theory of the society of the spectacle as his point of reference, Baudrillard raises the notion of the "ob-scene" as another feature of the society of telecommunications. The difference between spectacle and the ob-scene lies in this: "consumer society lived also under the sign of alienation, as a society of the spectacle. But just so: so long as there is alienation, there is spectacle, action, scene. It is not obscenity--the spectacle is never obscene. Obscenity begins precisely where there is no more spectacle, no more scene, when all becomes transparence and immediate visibility, when everything is exposed to the harsh and inexorable light of information and communication" (1983, p. 130). Distance is the nodal point here. Whereas in the society of the spectacle the distance between subject and object (the spectacle) is retained to alienate the subject, making him believe a truer subjectivity lies elsewhere, in the society of information the complete loss of this distance (proximity) would saturate the subject, reducing him almost to the zero degree of subjectivity. For Baudrillard, it is barely possible in this information society to maintain a claim to subjectivity, at least in its traditional sense, as a unified, fixed self. If there is any self left, as Baudrillard states later, it is more like a schizo rather than a hysteric who still struggles through the spectacle and tries to come up with a staged subject. The ob-scene thus has two converging meanings. One is "obscenity," referring to the complete naked transparence either of the world or of the subject shot through, exposed, or even raped by communications of information; the subject thus becomes so transparently light that nothing remains. The other is "obesity" (pp. 210-11, 1988), referring to the overloaded and overinformed society where any spectacle or scene is stuffed with so much that at last nothing can be seen; the subject thus becomes an obese screen, not a scene, in which nothing can be differentiated and enacted. Yet this move from spectacle to the ob-scene reveals Baudrillard's postmodernist carnivalesque rhetoric and his ambivalent political attitude to the information society. And this ambivalence, a mixture of ecstasy (the sexual arousal of obscenity) and reservation (the sexual discouragement of obesity) in confronting communication networks, is closely related to the psychic pleasure of cyberspace. In other words, only by probing into certain psychic mechanisms can we explain this attitude of consciously (or socially and politically) disparaging the information society, yet at the same time unconsciously (or psychically) succumbing to its irresistible temptation. Again, this issue will be fully developed in my next paper.
  12. If the utopia of postmodernist cyber-thinkers lies in the (near) future where new possibilities are opened for liberating the human and forming a new subjectivity, that of Marxist critics lies in the past where the old, ideal, undisrupted, and non-distorted pattern of human nature and subjectivity may be restored. While the postmodernists are too optimistic, even naive, the Marxists, like Stallabrass, are too pessimistic by insisting on the unredeemed present. Both share the same utopian zeal, only with different temporal dimensions.
  13. I will follow Zizek's hint at the second procedure of ideology criticism, a reading of psychic pleasure in ideological quilting, in my next paper. The main focus there would be psychical mechanisms that constitute cyber-subjectivity.
  14. We can deduce from this that all those phenomena culled by critics from cyberspace as instancing the failure of cyberspace in fashioning a cyber-liberal-democratic society (issues of pornography, economic inequality, commercialization, the political suppression of free speech, and telephonic surveillance as instigating a panopticon society)--all these phenomena are only symptoms that embody, not the possibility of the society cyberspace claims but fails to bring about, but the impossibility as such of this society.
  15. "Hegel points out that the idea of freedom realizes itself through a series of failures: every particular attempt to realize freedom may fail; from its point of view, freedom remains an empty possibility but the very continuous striving of freedom to realize itself bears witness to its 'actuality,' that is, to the fact that freedom is not a 'mere notion,' but manifests a tendency that pertains to the very essence of reality" (1994, p. 68) It should be noted that freedom as a "tendency" rather than an actuality echoes the delicate balance between the determinate and the indeterminate in the interaction of subject and society. Only by remaining forever a tendency without any finally actualized content can freedom become the organizing principle of "the essence of [social] reality."
  16. In a similar way, Debray also observes that "ideology is not the antithesis of a body of knowledge or reality--some illusion, misperception or false consciousness--but the form and means of collective organization" (p. 137).