zizek on cyberspace

What, then, is the Matrix? Simply the Lacanian “big Other,” the virtual symbolic order, the network that structures reality for us. This dimension of fhe “big Other” is that of the constitutive alienation of the subject in the symbolic order: the big Other pulls the strings, the subject does not speak, he “is spoken” by the symbolic structure. In short, this “big Other” is the name fr the social Substance, for the agency thanks to which the subject never fully dominates the effects of his acts, thanks to which the final outcome of his activity is always something other than what he aimed at or anticipated. However, it is crucial to note that, in the key chapters of his Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, Lacan struggles to delineate the operation that follows alienation and is in a sense its counterpoint, that of separation: alienation in the big Other is followed by the separation jom the big Other. Separation takes place when the subject takes note of how the big Other is in itself inconsistent, purely virtual, “barred,” deprived of the Thing – and fantasy is an attempt to fill out this lack of the Other, not of the subject, that is, to (re)constitute the consistency of the big Other.

Following the same paranoid twist, the thesis of The Matrix is that this big Other is externalized in the really existing Mega-Computer. There is – there has to be a Matrix because “things are not right, opportunities have been missed, something goes wrong all the time;’ in other words, the film’s idea is that it is so because the Matrix obfuscates the “true” reality behind it all. The problem with the film is that it is not “crazy” enough, because it supposes another “real” reality behind our everyday reality sustained by the Matrix. One is tempted to claim, in Kantian fashion, that the mistake of conspiracy theory is homologous to the “paralogism of pure reason,” to the confusion between the two levels: suspicion (of received scientifc, social, etc., opinion) as the frmal methodological stance, and the positivization of this suspicion in another global all-explanatory para-theory.

Slavoj Žižek 2012 Less Than Nothing, page 336

(though indirectly related)


So what are we to make of this seemingly convincing argument that cyberspace functions in a Gnostic way, promising to elevate us to a level in which we will be delivered of our bodily inertia, provided with another ethereal body? There are four predominant theoretical attitudes with regard to cyberspace:

(1) The purely technological celebration of the new potentials of supercomputers, nanotechnology and genetic
technology; [See Ray Kurzweil, The Age of Spiritual Machines, London: Phoenix 1999.]

(2) Its New Age counterpoint, i.e. the emphasis on the Gnostic background that sustains even the most “neutral” scientific research; [See Eric Davis, TechGnosis, London: Serpent’s Tail 1999.]

(3) The historicist-sociocritical “deconstructionist” deployment of the liberating potentials of cyberspace which, through its blurring of the limits of the Cartesian ego, its identity, monopoly on thought, and attachment to the biological body, allows us to pass from the male-Cartesian-liberal-identitarian subject to the dispersed-cyborgian “posthuman” forms of subjectivity, from the biological body to shifting embodiments; [See N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman, Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press 1999.]

(4) The Heideggerian philosophical reflections on the implications of digitalization, focusing on the notion of Dasein as Being-in-the-World, as the engaged agent thrown into a determinate life-world situation. [See Hubert Dreyfus, What Computers Can’t Do, New York: Harper and Row 1979.] In this view, the advent of genome and of the technological perspective of the “uploading” of the human mind onto a computer provides the clearest vision of what Heidegger had in mind when he spoke of the “danger” of planetary technology: what is threatened here is the very ex-static essence of Dasein, of man as capable of transcending self by relating to entities within the Clearing of his/her world (significantly, for Heidegger, the very view of the Earth from space signalled the termination of the human essence as dwelling between Heaven and Earth – once we view Earth from space, the Earth is in a way no longer Earth). However, this very “danger” enables us to confront radically the fate of humanity and, perhaps, to outline a different modality of our engagement with technology, the one which, precisely, undermines the Cartesian subject of technological domination.

The first two attitudes share the premise of total disembodiment, of the reduction of the (post)human mind to software pattern freely floating between different embodiments, while the other two assert the finitude of the embodied agent as the ultimate horizon of our existence – to quote Katherine Hayles’s concise formulation:

“If my nightmare is a culture inhabited by posthumans who regard their bodies as fashion accessories rather than the ground of being, my dream is a version of the posthuman that embraces the possibilities of information technologies without being seduced by fantasies of unlimited power and disembodied immortality, that recognizes and celebrates finitude as a condition of human being, and that understands human life as embedded in a material world of great complexity, one on which we depend for our continued survival.”

[Hayles, op.cit., p. 5. Where Hayles gets it wrong is in her crude opposition between the liberal self-identical autonomous human subject of the Enlightenment and the posthuman body in which the frontier that separates my autonomous Self from its machinical protheses is constantly permeated, and in which the Self in itself explodes into the famous “society of minds.” The Enlightenment itself not only had a deeply ambiguous relationship towards the mechanical aspect of a human being (recall the motif of l’homme machine in eighteenth-century mechanical materialism); in an even more radical way, one can claim that the Cartesian subject of the Enlightenment, especially in its radicalized version in German Idealism, already IS “post-human,” i.e. it has to be strictly opposed to the human person – the Kantian subject of transcendental apperception is a pure void of the negative self-relationship which emerges through the violent gesture of abstracting from all “pathological” content which makes up the wealth of a “human personality.”]

One is nonetheless tempted to ask if this solution is not too facile: the moment one takes the fateful step from the immediate (finite, biological) body that we “are” to the biotechnological embodiment with its shifting and unstable character, one can no longer get rid of the spectre of the “undead” eternal body.

Slavoj Žižek 2001 On Belief, page 34


And is it not that, today, we are approaching a homologous threshold: a new “life experience” hangs in the air, the perception of life that explodes the form of the linear centered narrative and renders life as a multiform flow – even and up to the domain of “hard” sciences (quantum physics and its Multiple Reality interpretation, or the utter contingency that provided the spin to the actual evolution of the life on Earth – as Stephen Jay Gould demonstrated in his Wonderful Life, the fossils of Burgess Shale bear witness to how evolution may have taken a wholly different turn) we seem to be haunted by the chanciness of life and the alternate versions of reality (see Gould 1989). Either life is experienced as a series of multiple parallel destinies that interact and are crucially affected by meaningless contingent encounters, the points at which one series intersects with and intervenes into another (see Altman’s Shortcuts), or different versions/outcomes of the same plot are repeatedly enacted (the “parallel universes” or “alternative possible worlds” scenarios – see Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Chance, Peter Howitt’s Sliding Doors; even “serious” historians themselves recently produced a volume Virtual History, the reading of the crucial Modern Age century events, from Cromwell’s victory over Stuarts and American independence war to the disintegration of Communism, as hinging on unpredictable and sometimes even improbable chances). This perception of our reality as one of the possible – often even not the most probable – outcomes of an “open” situation, this notion that other possible outcomes are not simply cancelled out but continue to haunt our “true” reality as a specter of what might have happened, conferring on our reality the status of extreme fragility and contingency, implicitly clashes with the predominant “linear” narrative forms of our literature and cinema – they seem to call for a new artistic medium in which they would not be an eccentric excess, but its “proper” mode of functioning. One can argue that the cyberspace hypertext is this new medium in which this life experience will find its “natural,” more appropriate objective correlative, so that, again, it is only with the advent of cyberspace hypertext that we can effectively grasp what Altman and Kieslowski were effectively aiming at. Do Brecht’s three versions of his first great “learning play,” Der Jasager, also not point forward towards such a hypertext / alternate reality experience: in the first version, the boy “freely accepts the necessary,” subjecting himself to the old custom of being thrown into the valley; in the second version, the boy refuses to die, rationally demonstrating the futility of the old custom; in the third version, the boy accepts his death, but on rational grounds, not out of the respect for mere tradition. (There is an unexpected ideological link between Brecht and Wagner here: for both, the highest, true freedom is the freedom to freely assume/accept what is necessary imposed on us, i.e. the freedom to choose the inevitable.)

A more recent and better known example from popular culture is, of course, Tom Tykwer’s Run, Lola, Run (Lola rennt, Germany 1998), which renders three versions, three outcomes of the tense situation where Lola, a Berlin punk girl, has to collect by any means 100.000 German Marks to save her boyfriend from certain death. (1) Her boyfriends gets killed; (2) she gets killed; (3) she succeeds, AND her boyfriend finds the lost money, so that they end up happy together with 100.000 DM profit. We are here in the world of alternative realities in which, as in a cyberspace game, when one choice leads to the catastrophic ending, we can return to the starting point and make another, better, choice – what was the first time a suicidal mistake, can be the second time done in a correct way, so that the opportunity is not missed. The interest of Lola resides precisely in its tonality: not only the fast rhythm, the rapid-fire montage, the use of stills (frozen images), the pulsating exuberance and vitality of the heroine, etc., but, above all, in the way this visual features are embedded in the soundtrack – the constant, uninterrupted, techno-music soundscape whose rhythm stands for (renders) Lola’s – and, by extension, ours, the spectators’ – heartbeat. One should always bear in mind that, notwithstanding all the dazzling visual brilliance of the film, its images are subordinates to the musical soundscape, to its frenetic compulsive rhythm which goes on forever and cannot be suspended even for a minute – it can only explode in an outburst of exuberant vitality, in the guise of Lola’s uninhibited scream which occurs in each of the three versions of the story. Which is why a film like Lola can only appear against the background of the MTV, music-video, culture. One should accomplish here the same reversal Fred Jameson accomplished apropos of Hemingway’s style: it is not that Lola’s formal properties adequately render-express the narrative; it is rather that the film’s narrative itself was invented in order to be able to practice its specific style. The first words of the film (“the game lasts 90 minutes, everything else is just theory” – the words of Sepp Herberger, Germany’s legendary soccer coach) provide the proper coordinates of a video game: as in the usual survival video game, Lola is given three lives. “Real life” itself is thus rendered as a fictional video-game experience.

This, then, is what the title refers to: Run, Isolde, Run… to Tristan, with different possible results. She runs to Kornwall, arriving there just in time to catch the dying Tristan’s last words, and then dies herself (the standard outcome); King Mark, who also runs after her to Kornwall, forgives the two lovers their passion, so that they can live happily thereafter; upon arriving to Kornwall, Isolde turns into a Lady Macbeth creature, convincing Tristan that they should murder King Mark, what they actually do when, shortly thereafter, he arrives; after Isolde reaches Tristan, they discover with horror that they cannot find fulfillment in the shared death – they are condemned to live forever; and, finally, in what is arguably the most depressing option, Isolde simply doesn’t run, but stays with her husband, so that Tristan dies alone… The point, of course, is not to play empty mental video-games: such variations often reveal hidden presuppositions of the “official” storyline and its repressed alternatives; as such, they can generate a powerful effect of truth.

Slavoj Žižek 2002 Opera’s Second Death, page 85


An even more appropriate parallel would be the one between this coexistence of multiple fantasmatic narratives and the cyberspace notion of hypertext. Lynch is often designated as a perverse author par excellence, and is not cyberspace, especially virtual reality, the realm of perversion at its purest? Reduced to its elementary skeleton, perversion can be seen as a defense against the Real of death and sexuality, against the threat of mortality as well as the contingent imposition of sexual difference. What the perverse scenario enacts is a “disavowal of castration,” a universe in which, as in cartoons, a human being can survive any catastrophe; in which adult sexuality is reduced to a childish game; in which one is not forced to die or to choose one of the two sexes. As such, the pervert’s universe is the universe of the pure symbolic order, of the signifer’s game running its course, unencumbered by the Real of human finitude.[1] So, again, doesn’t our experience of cyberspace perfectly fit this perverse universe? Isn’t cyberspace also a universe without closure, unencumbered by the inertia of the Real, constrained only by its self-imposed rules? In this comic universe, as in a perverse ritual, the same gestures and scenes are endlessly repeated, without any final closure. In this universe, the refusal of a closure, far from signaling the undermining of ideology, rather enacts a protoideological denial: The refusal of closure is always, at some level, a refusal to face mortality. Our fxation on electronic games and stories is in part an enactment of this denial of death. They offer us the chance to erase memory, to start over, to replay an event and try for a different resolution. In this respect, electronic media have the advantage of enacting a deeply comic vision of life, a vision of retrievable mistakes and open options.[2]

The final alternative with which cyberspace confronts us is thus: are we necessarily immersed in cyberspace in the mode of the imbecilic superego compulsion-to-repeat, in the mode of the immersion into the “undead,” perverse universe of cartoons in which there is no death, in which the game goes on indefinitely? Or is it possible to practice a different modality of relating to cyberspace in which this imbecilic immersion is perturbed by the “tragic” dimension of the real/impossible?

There are two standard uses of cyberspace narrative: the linear, single-path maze adventure, and the undetermined, “post-modern” hypertext form of rhizome fiction. The single-path maze adventure moves the interactor towards a single solution within the structure of a win-lose contest (overcoming the enemy, finding the way out, etc.). With all possible complications and detours, the overall path is clearly predetermined; all roads lead to one final Goal. In contrast, the hypertext rhizome does not privilege any order of reading or interpretation; there is no ultimate overview or “cognitive mapping,” no possibility to unify the dispersed fragments in a coherent encompassing narrative framework. One is ineluctably enticed in conficting directions; we, the interactors, just have to accept that we are lost in the inconsistent complexity of multiple referrals and connections. The paradox is that this ultimately helpless confusion, this lack of final orientation, far from causing an unbearable anxiety, is oddly reassuring: the very lack of a final point of closure serves as a kind of denial which protects us from confronting the trauma of our finitude, of the fact that our story has to end at some point. There is no ultimate, irreversible point, since, in this multiple universe, there are always other paths to explore, alternate realities in which one can take refuge when one seems to reach a deadlock. So how are we to escape this false alternative? Janet Murray refers to the story structure of the “violence-hub,” similar to the famous Rashomon predicament: an account of some violent or otherwise traumatic incident (a Sunday trip fatality, a suicide, a rape) is placed at the center of a web of narratives/files that explore it from multiple points of view (perpetrator, victim, witness, survivor, investigator):

“The proliferation of interconnected files is an attempt to answer the perennial and ultimately unanswerable question of why this incident happened. . . These violence-hub stories do not have a single solution like the adventure maze or a refusal of solution like the post-modern stories; instead, they combine a clear sense of story structure with a multiplicity of meaningful plots. The navigation of the labyrinth is like pacing the floor; a physical manifestation of the effort to come to terms with the trauma, it represents the mind’s repeated efforts to keep returning to a shocking event in an effort to absorb it and, finally, get past it.”

It is easy to perceive the crucial difference between this “retracing of the situation from different perspectives” and the rhizomatic hypertext: the endlessly repeated reenactments refer to the trauma of some impossible Real which forever resists its symbolization (all these different narratives are ultimately just so many failures to cope with this trauma, with the contingent abyssal occurrence of some catastrophic Real, like suicide, apropos of which no “why” can ever serve as its suffcient explanation). In a later closer elaboration, Murray even proposes two different versions of presenting a traumatic suicidal occurrence, apart from such a texture of different perspectives. The frst is to transpose us into the labyrinth of the subject’s mind just prior to his suicide. The structure is here hypertextual and interactive, we are free to choose different options, to pursue the subject’s ruminations in a multitude of directions, but whichever direction or link we choose, we sooner or later end up with the blank screen of the suicide. So, in a way, our very freedom to pursue different venues imitates the tragic self-closure of the subject’s mind. No matter how desperately we look for a solution, we are compelled to acknowledge that there is no way out, that the final outcome will always be the same. The second version is the opposite one. We, the interactors, are put in the situation of a kind of “lesser god,” having at our disposal a limited power of intervention into the life-story of the subject doomed to kill himself; for example, we can “rewrite” the subject’s past so that his girlfriend would not have left him, or so that he would not have failed the crucial exam, yet whatever we do, the outcome is the same – even God himself cannot change Destiny. . . (We find a version of this same closure in a series of alternative history sci-f stories, in which the hero intervenes in the past in order to prevent some catastrophic event from occurring, yet the unexpected result of his intervention is an even worse catastrophe, like Stephen Fry’s Making History, in which a scientist intervenes in the past, making Hitler’s father impotent just prior to Hitler’s conception, so that Hitler is not born. As one can expect, the result of this intervention is that another German officer of aristocratic origins takes over the role of Hitler, develops the atomic bomb in time, and wins World War II.)

[1] As to the concept of perversion, see Gilles Deleuze, Coldness and Cruelty (New York: Zone Books, 1991).
[2] Janet H. Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1997), 175.

Slavoj Zizek 2000 The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime: On David Lynch’s Lost Highway
8. Cyberspace Between Perversion and Trauma


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