Thinking Cyber-Subjectivity:
Ideology and the Subject

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 on 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, respectively, "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 cyber-space 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, cyber-space 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" (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" (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 Luk*c's notion of "second nature," located in the mutilating effect of cyberspace on both subject and object (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 (2, 8) who are thus deprived of essential nature, the true self, and real subjectivity.10 Regis 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" (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 which is not very comfortable either. Because their humanist presupposition is severely doubted today (through the work of post-structuralism and post-modernism), 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 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-)utopian 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.


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 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" (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 which can be obtained from the Internet by this link.

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. Ob-scenity 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, 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" ( 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.

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Copyright © 1995 Erik Lee