Thinking Cyber-Subjectivity:
Ideology and the Subject

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, 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 which "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, 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, 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, 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, I would propose, is 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, Etienne 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 (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 (8; see also Borch-Jacobsen 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" (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]" (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 destablizes "the identity of the object" (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" (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, 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" (37)--can we imagine what Zizek elaborates as the "de-alienation of the subject" which 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, 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 post-modernist 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.


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, economical 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, 68 emphasis added). It should be noted that freedom as a "tendency" rather than 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 "[I]deology 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" (137).

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Copyright © 1995 Erik Lee