Thinking Cyber-Subjectivity:
Ideology and the Subject

Since the popularization of computer networks, cyberspace has become the buzz word 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 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 post-structuralist 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 totalization1 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 post-structuralist rejection of metanarratives 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" (1).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 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 each other. 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, beuracratization, 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 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" (16, italics 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 MPD (Multiple Personality Disorder) 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 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.


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 (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 (263, note 6). From strong doubts about the foundation and totalization of western metaphysics, post-structuralist 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 Works Cited.

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 towards 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, the following links:
cyberspace and agora

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 becomes the "morality tales" on the net. See the section at these two links:
link A and link B.

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" which 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" (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" (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" which may be totally opposed to "material reality" (58). In this sense, though MPD under Borch-Jacobsen's analysis points more to the patients' 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" (295). Bearing this in mind, we can more or less understand some postmodernist thinkers' ambivalent attitudes towards 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) which 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, 133 emphasis added). 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.

Works Cited

Balibar, Etiénne.
"Subjection and Subjectivation." Supposing the Subject. Ed. Joan Copjec. London: Verso, 1994.

Baudrillard, Jean.
"The Ecstasy of Communication." Trans. John Johnston. Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture. Ed. Hal Foster. Port Townsend, Wash.: Bay Press, 1983.

"The Masses: The Implosion of the Social in the Media." Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings. Ed. Mark Poster. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1988.

Borch-Jacobsen, Mikkel.
"Who's Who? Introducing Multiple Personality." Supposing the Subject. Ed. Joan Copjec. London: Verso, 1994.

Castoriadis, Cornelius.
The Imaginary Institution of Society. Trans. Kathleen Blamey. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1987.

Débray, Regis.
"Remarks on the Spectacle." New Left Review 214 (Nov/Dec, 1995): 134-142.

Laclau, Ernesto and Lilian Zac.
"Minding the Gap: The Subject of Politics." The Making of Political Identities. Ed. Ernesto Laclau. London: Verso, 1994.

Mitchell, William J.
City of Bits: Space, Place, and the Infobahn.

Pierce, Julie.
"Touch: wetware, ubicom and nanotech."

Poster, Mark.
"Postmodern Virtualities."

Stallabrass, Julian.
"Empowering Technology: The Exploration of Cyberspace." New Left Review 211 (May/June, 1995): 3-33.

Taylor, Mark and Esa Saarinen.
Imagologies: Media Philosophy. London: Routledge, 1994.

Whitebook, Joel.
Perversion and Utopia: A Study in Psychoanalysis and Critical Theory. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1995.

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

"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.

Copyright © 1995 Erik Lee