Virtual Insanity: Social Media with Jacques Lacan, Pt. 1



This article originally appeared on The Partially Examined Life. (NB as with other articles on the site, the fluctuations in the font style are not intended to have any significance- this is a fault which I haven’t been able to correct.)

I’ve been aware of Lacan through semiotics and literary criticism for several years, and over the past weeks I’ve found it impossible to develop my understanding of this aspect of his thought without also studying Lacan the psychoanalyst and philosopher of the self.i But I simply want to relate some of my own views on these digital phenomena of our age to some of Lacan’s ideas, as I (mis)understand them– I do not intend to make moral judgements.

Part 1: Circuits of Disconnection

The most inescapable fact about social media today is its very inescapability. The internet was already ubiquitous before Facebook’s ascendancy,ii but the integration of the two with mobile devices has precipitated a dramatic increase in the accessibility and usage of both. This process may be similarly accelerated by the coming developments in augmented reality technologies which will layer electronic media directly into our field of vision.iii What all this means is that social media content and facilities permeate our everyday lives and work such that our physical existence is shot through with a virtual one.

These developments are typically analyzed in terms of greater ‘connectivity’- instantaneous communication at any time and place. So the speed of connection is every much important as its breadth and diversity. Presently, many people experience social media within a state hyper-connectivity which produces a virtual closeness to others. This is the first way in which I’d like to use Lacan, with his concept of ‘reality’.

‘Reality’, like everything else in Lacan, is unnecessarily complicated, in this case because it comprises our experience of the world insofar as it is illusory, and is therefore opposed to his register of the Real.iv ‘Reality’ is a field constituted from Lacan’s other two registers of the human psyche, “the Imaginary and the Symbolic… taken together as mutually integrated”.v ‘Reality’ is therefore a fictional construction of images and signifiers- as good a description of life on Facebook as any. Our experience of social media is one of a collective fantasy produced by the mutual production and exchange of selective idealisations of our lives.

A test of my analogy is the insights it generates. In the most crude example, social media facilitates non-veridical realities by providing those who are typically shy or unpopular in face-to-face society with a means to a fantasyvi life in contradistinction to this. Unfortunately, the same prerequisites for this, particularly the ease of maintaining anonymity, also enable the phenomenon of ‘trolling’.

The seemingly all-inclusive effectiveness of our online presence and connections also disincentivise us from keeping in touch with others in a fully human way. Just one illustration of this that I experience myself is that because of the quantity of information about our activities, interests and feelings we make publicly available to our social network, often instantaneously, when we do meet our good friends in person, even if for the first time in a week or two, we have nothing to say to each other. There is nothing new to relate. It’s especially telling of the alienation behind such circumstances that they often become discussions of what the other has recently missed on Facebook and/or Twitter. A second, more general, consequence is that the social media presence of members of our network constantly reassures us that they are alive and well, and hence do not require our personal attention (if it wasn’t easy enough to become complacent about relationships naturally).

Such alienating effects call to mind Lacan’s notion ‘the wall of language’.vii Like language, the social network -as a system abstracted from any subject- presents an inhuman obstruction between us and our interlocutors.viii Indeed, it is more insightful to think of social media as an extension of language -as a symbolic order- than as analogous with reality. Not that this is much of a jump, because as Lacan matured (if I guy who draws diagrams about phalluses can be said to mature) he increased his emphasis on the symbolic register rather than the imaginary, and moreover, it is the symbolic which plays the essential regulating function for reality.ix

I will come back to some of the problems for communication that stem from this in Part 2, but before discussing some other issues I should point out that the division (or ‘cleavage’ as psychoanalyst’s would no doubt prefer) caused by social media qua language, is not limited to our imagination and communication within personal networks. As you may have noted, my model of social media engagement applies only to particularly active users, often of a younger generation. And it is from here that these divisions begat ramifications on a societal level. Namely, the all-pervasive dominance of new electronic media in society excludes non-users as if they don’t speak the local language,x which, in a significant sense, they do not. When he lived without the internet for a year, the tech journalist Paul Miller discovered in the strongest possible sense that “The internet is where people are.”xi And while this means that “the internet isn’t an individual pursuit”, this very fantasy of social harmony allows its isolating and divisive effects to go unnoticed.

Let us shift focus from the ubiquity of social media to its other chief characteristic: speed. I imagine that most of the people who will read this are in North America, but I in the UK will nevertheless be able to engage in instant conversation with those of you who in the comments will obliterate the my position. Contrast this with the communicative technologies available a little over a century ago: “A letter” Nietzsche says, “is an unannounced visit, the mailman the mediator of impolite excursions.” Not only are they slow and received just once daily, but in a culture unaccustomed to our high volume of (mostly text based) distance communications, letters can be viewed as awkward intrusions. Yet it is with such joy that the contemporary consumer awaits the enhanced hyperconnectivity offered by the latest Apple products. Moreover, Nietzsche continues: “One ought to have one hour in every eight days for receiving letters, and then take a bath.”xii Admittedly, Friedrich was not the most amiable fellow (as few of us who bathe less than weekly are)xiii but the contrast in attitudes could not be starker.

Of course, Nietzsche was not enthralled to the rapid scheduling of business life under global capitalism (apropos, this is a major driver of demand for greater immersion). But if we are sending more messages, to a greater number of people, and doing so more quickly, what affect does this have on our communication? The time we spend on long and/or slow-paced discussions is in general reduced. Perhaps we are also moving towards a norm of fewer closer relationships and more causal ones. But most clearly we are simplifying our messages.

Now, I am not referring to ‘textspeak’ because after all that arose in telegrams as well as in the SMS medium. Indeed, preeminent linguists such as David Crystal have quite responsibly weighed in against popular hysteria that it is corroding language skills, particularly among the young. Abbreviation is not in itself particularly significant.

One form of simplification derives from the interface of a given platform. Along with many newspaper and magazine sites, Reddit and YouTube present those comments which have received the most positive ratings at the top. By using a scoring system that includes the option for either a positive or a negative rating, popular views can be suppressed simply because they are controversial. These more visible comments -which are the only ones that many users read- tend to reflect a ‘lowest common denominator’ attitude of the least controversial and hence often trivial views. (Because it only allows positive ratings, Facebook avoids this). This form of simplification can also be seen as a reinforcement of bias, other examples of which are the effects of filter bubbles and echo chambers.

The most significant form of simplification, however, derives from the fact that things (in the most general sense) are often much more complex than people would like to accept,xiv and the creeping simplification of our communication may well exacerbate the effects of such denial. What is complexity that is blocked by the symbolic? It is the Real. Lacan insists that it is because the Real is “extremely complex” that it is “incomprehensible”.xv Let us place this in the context of the register theory. The imaginary is prior to the symbolic: first the Real is ‘carved up’ into images, and then in a second movement, the images are carved up into linguistic symbols. This second ‘carving’ nails down the images, giving them a ‘value’ in Saussure’s sense.xvi Darian Leader elaborates: “A word does not reveal its meaning so simply. Rather it leads on to other words in a linguistic chain, just like one meaning itself to others. The group of meanings is organized by the links between the words.”xvii Lacan’s semiotics, therefore, emphasises resistance between signifier and signified rather than transparency.

Not only is there a resistence inherent in the structure because meaning is organized in groups of words (a ‘semantic field’) rather than in an ideal correspondence of one signifier to one signified. More importantly, there is a resistance in practice between what we experience, what we feel we should say, and the meaning that is attributed to what we have said. There are many reasons why this can be, but the increased frequency and simplification of our messages factors especially in the expediency of today’s social media culture. The consequence of this is that the complex, the Real, is suppressed (ignored or blocked), perpetuating an illusory ‘reality’.

Perhaps having read this far you would be interested in an opinion of my own. I want to say that these simplified understandings of ours ‘grate’ against each other like broken gears, leading us into misunderstandings by various degrees. Three modalities are especially prone to this disruptive simplification: the general/specific, the theoretical/practical and the evaluative/descriptive. Whether consciously or not, we mistake statements for pertaining to a different level of specificity, for having a different orientation towards theory or practice, or for expressing more evaluative judgement than that which it was intended by their author.


i Although I began here by reading Slavoj Zizek’s book How To Read Lacan I won’t be looking into Zizek’s own views on social media (which I’m sure he has plenty of out there), nor for that matter, what Lacanian psychoanalysts have written about it. If you’d like to do this, it would be great to comment about it.

ii I didn’t plan on digressing this early on, but I couldn’t fail to mention that no sooner had I written those words than, in one of my reality’s more poetic moments, a large pink truck with the Facebook logo on each side drove past me!

iii Currently the most prevalent augmented reality technology is the QR code, which is arguably an instantiation of the same principle behind the ‘annotated vision’ of the Google Glass, albeit presented in reverse. That is, rather than the subject imposing relevant electronic media upon the objects of experience, objects of experience present the subject with relevant electronic media.

iv A further complication is that ‘the Real’ does not itself denote real reality either, since it is a psychoanalytic category referring to phenomenological reality in the form of senses, urges and feelings. As Wikipedia puts it, it is “something faced with which all words cease and all categories fail, the object of anxiety par excellence.” The primary way in which the Real makes us anxious is that it is the home of jouissance, violent intrusions of unbearable visceral emotion. Since the Real is unmediated it is truly real, and is indeed our only direct contact with real reality for Lacan. For this reason it is appropriate to use it in Lacanian analyses as a correlate for (real) reality more generally.

vi I must stress that Lacan does not equate ‘reality’ and fantasy. He conceives of fantasy as function of desire in broadly Freudian terms that I do not have space to elaborate here. Related to this is his distinct notion of the ‘Phantasy’, which is itself related to the ‘phallus’ which is a signifier associated with the objet a (though not a symbol for it- since the objet a belongs to the register of the Real it is unsymbolizable).

vii That interpersonal communication on Facebook takes place through ‘walls’ is purely incidental here, however apt that name may turn out to be.

viii Leader, Darian, (2005), Introducing Lacan, Icon, Cambridge (UK), p. 78. An illustration of this interruption of the inhuman into my imitate self I experienced very recently was a suggestion from Facebook that I make someone a ‘close friend’ just as I had realised that this person had in fact become my close friend. The success of the network’s prediction here is ironically what makes it uncomfortable. 

ix Kul-Want, Christopher, (2011), Introducing Zizek, Icon, London, p. 122

xii Nietzsche, Friedrich, (1880), The Wanderer and His Shadow, §261

xiii Although I’m joking, the fact that we cannot smell each other in electronic communication (even on Skype!) is rarely remarked upon, and is salient from a physiological point of view. For example, bodily pheromones play an important role in sexual attraction. Perhaps if Nietzsche had been able to impress girls with aphoristic tweets he wouldn’t have got that crush on that horse.

xiv Along with such protestations for simplicity it is not unusual to encounter statements to the effect that ‘anything that cannot be expressed clearly cannot be true’. A large claim to make, and one which anyone who has benefited from studying obtusely technical philosophy knows to be false. Ironically, defenders of this position occasionally appeal to the authority of Einstein even though it was just this position that lead him to be so wrong about quantum mechanics.

xv Quoted in: Zizek, Slavoj, (2006), How To Read Lacan, Granta, London,p. 65. The Real is not simply the residuum of that true reality which could not be symbolized, “It is not a substantial thing that resists being caught in the symbolic network, but the fissure between the symbolic network itself.” Zizek explains that Lacan had a similar shift in thought to Einstein. Just as the Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity stated that matter caused the curvature in space but the General Theory reversed the causality to hold that matter is an effect of space’s curvature, Lacan shifted from the view that the Real caused the fragmentation of the symbolic (its “gaps and inconsistencies”) to the view that the Real was itself an effect of this fragmentation. It doesn’t exist in its own right, rather, he says that it ex/ists. (pp. 72-3) Elsewhere this is put that the Real is a disruption in the unconcious caused by the inadequacy of the signifier attached to a signified.

xvi For Ferdinand de Saussure, the father of structural linguistics, languages are formal systems of signs, structures in which the value of an element is derived from its relationships to other elements- it’s place in the structure. This value is a structural construct separate from meaning. Meaning, by contrast, arises from the process of signification. Here Saussure calls the sign that refers but is itself meaningless, ‘the signifier’, and the meaning to which a signifier corresponds, ‘the signified’. (Both meaning and value are dependent on the differences between signs, but a specific meaning is not dependent on a specific value since the same word can have the same meaning in two different languages without having the same value.)

xvii Leader, Darian, (2005), Introducing Lacan, Icon, Cambridge (UK), p. 39

4 responses »

  1. Hi – if you edit the posts using the “text” mode in wordpress, you may spot some rogue tags which you can delete to make the text size consistent (assuming you know a tiny bit of html).

      • I am not really an expert and can’t remember how to tell you what to delete. If you can find even someone close to you with basic web skills they should be able to help. You have to delete some stuff inside the but not all.

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