“Know Thyself”…again (Technology, Tragedy and Postmodernity)

**A slightly updated version of this article can be found here at the new journal Cyborg Subjects.**

(The following remarks are an Introduction to my M.A. thesis Objet Petit (a)vatar: Posthumanism, Psychoanalysis and the Question of the Self in Second Life )

From the Epic of Gilgamesh to the recent film The Fountain, the works of art and literature that linger through the years, and continue to resonate, are TRAGEDIES that concern life and death, growth and decline, desire and limitation. They ask: how do we affirm our lives in the face of eventual death; how do we understand that beyond a certain point our bodies will decline; how do we desire without entirely consuming – or being consumed by – our objects of desire.

The decline of our bodies, our eventual death and our desires occur for reasons that belong to the dimension of Fate rather than human Will. Entropy, Gravitation, and the lines Time carves onto our faces as we age, for example, are outside of human Will.

The aesthetic works that continue to resonate into the 21st century remind us that our humanity lies in the confrontation of our human Will with our Fate.

We Will as unique individuals, as MATTER, shaped by economic, social and political factors, that cannot be reduced to some abstract trans-historical schema. This political dimension of the Subject was demonstrated by Foucault.

Our Fate is tied to the nature of the FORMS, STRUCTURES and LIMITATIONS that have been reproduced and persist despite history being a complex constellation of heterogeneous interests and forces. This, dimension of the Subject was demonstrated by Freud and Lacan.

One recognizes, for example, the situated, 1960’s swagger of Mick Jagger’s voice as it dovetails with the timeless lyric “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might find, you’ll get what you need”. We Will as unique social individuals, but each of us does so against the horizon of Fate: psychical lack, embodiment, corporeality, finitude, death.

TRAGEDY – insofar as it reminds us of our finitude – strikes me not as a “condition of possibility” or “new positivity” but rather a space to recognize that while the human being is a creative creature that defines and redefines its nature throughout time, it is a creature that has limits, structures and constraints.

Post-modernity seems ANTI-TRAGIC. We regard our finitude as a “condition of possibility”. The Post-modern orientation toward humanism, post-humanism, explores the possibilities that lie before us now that we have recognized the “death of God”, or recognized the fact of our own finitude. As in a Gestalt Shift, the question of WILL takes precedence over the question of FATE. As ANTI-TRAGIC post-moderns, concerned with implications of our “condition of possibility”, we rarely stop to ask the musty old question: “What role does our Form actually play in constituting what we are?”

Try discussing Sophocles through Twitter; try discussing Fate and Structure in a city where clouds are seeded throughout the atmosphere to clear pollution, where networks of electrical cable and subway tunnels snake beneath your feet, and botox addicts add to their Facebook bodies via blackberry while sipping energy drinks. Try staging a debate between Aristotle’s Physics and Ballard’s Crash.

Imagine the dream of the new century, a virtual being, living in a digital space, capable of downloading what it wants, when it wants, and copying its code indefinitely so as to avoid its death. At this point the “human”, if we can call it that, becomes pure Will, wholly subjectivation, its own conditioning and construction; it has constructed its world such that it can have what it wants, it worries no longer about suffering, about pain, or about death. No longer beholden to its Body, this virtual being is beyond structure and constraint, it forms connections without fear of retribution for tampering with some fixed plan, divine hierarchy or original unity.

If Aeschylus were alive he might explain that something awful is happening: we are engaged in something Anti-Tragic, enchanted by our human WILL, unable to ask the question of our FATE. What if we are setting ourselves up for a disaster? Misrecognizing FATE, as Oedipus learned, entails “horror and self punishment” and the plucking out of his eyes. Could it be that instead of offering us “new possibilities”, the neglect to ask what and who we are, is launching us toward a terrifying digital enucleation. Oedips laments: “feel these hands which turned [my] eyes, once so bright, into what you see now, these empty sockets.” This fear lurks behind Paul Virilio’s concern for the loss of appearance. He begins his Open Sky with a prophetic epigraph explaining “one day”…: “the day will come, when the day will not come”: surely the sun will rise, with or without us; but we – having neglected the structure of our bodies and the limits and horizons that provide meaning – may no longer be capable of seeing it.

Without asking what technological transformation is transforming, we may live in a netherworld: sitting in silent food courts texting on the most recent bio-phone. Too late to rescue ourselves, we might text dreamily – as Poe’s Valdemar does in his horrific limbo -“For God’s sake – put me to sleep – or, quick! – waken me! – quick! – I say to you that I am dead!”

A movement called “transhumanism” advocates using information and bio-technologies to create a better human. This better human, would surpass what has hitherto been referred to as the human condition; the endless grappling with disease, suffering, aging and death. Transhumanist Ray Kurzweil explains: “Technological revolutions will allow us to transcend our frail bodies with all their limitations. Through the use of nanotechnology, we will be able to manufacture almost any physical product upon demand… Human existence will undergo a quantum leap in evolution. We will be able to live as long as we choose…”

One thinks of Zarathustra’s warning “whatever harm the wicked do, the harm the good do is the most harmful harm”. Or the proverb: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”. The promise of a new direction for life, even by those with what we might deem to have good intentions, ought to be treated with the same suspicion that we normally reserve for the adherents of conservative notions such as “human dignity”.

Faced with a future that promises to re-define our humanity by removing Fate, weakening Authority, and giving us what we want immediately, it becomes our responsibility to consider the saying of the Oracle at Delphi: “Know Thyself”. I don’t hesitate at the idea of change, or turn away from an uncertain future, but suggest that it is imperative to “know” the important role that, for better or worse, Fate and Structure have had on what it has meant to be a human being.

Without attempting to “know thyself” what becomes the caveat for our transformations? Without an analysis of how the limitations of the body and the structure of subjectivity have been responsible for what, and who, we are – the body appears to be something limitless, our subjectivity in flux. Without an investigation of what the human is, what, besides our “capacity to freely control our transformation” can impact our decisions?

It is necessary to establish a different criterion to evaluate what futures we ought to embrace, and what futures we ought to fear. The ethics of the cyborg demand what has been called an “anti-inhumanism, a post-humanist humanism”. Rather than aligning myself with the transhumanists, or their conservative detractors I have always wanted to understand what the former want to surpass, and what the later want to cling to.

And this explains my usage of Lacanian, or what I have referred to as, Oedipal, psychoanalysis. A recent book by Andre Nusselder called Interface Fantasy suggests that “A Lacanian analysis does not have to endorse the ideals and rules that govern the socialization of our world. Rather, it attempts to recognize and identify the role that these play and avoids the hasty conclusion that we have done away with them…Psychoanalysis is dedicated to gaining insight into…symbolic structures. It is more valuable to see how our subjection … and discursive structures change, than to hastily claim our liberation from them.”

Simon Critchley explains that “The moral goal of psychoanalysis consists in putting the subject in relation to its desire, of confronting the lack of being that one is… Such is what Lacan calls, with surprising forthrightness, ‘the reality of the human condition’. …All the analyst can offer is not comfort but ‘an experienced desire’.”

The study of SL conducted in “Objet Petit (a)vatar” partakes in a “post-humanist humanism” using the imperative to “know thyself”. Oedipus offers a warning about having it all, having an immediate relation to Matter, without investigating Form. Nietzsche recognized that we cannot live with a Dionysian “real glimpse into the essence of things”, and call on Apollonian aesthetic Form. Put differently, we do not experience the world-in-it-self, but the world through the Form of our embodiment. Is our embodiment a constraint? Yes. Does Apollo obscure the truth of Dionysius? Yes. Does the symbolic Father bar Oedipus’ access to his real Mother? Yes.

A Lacanian, or Oedipal, analysis attempts to understand structures and forms. Recalling Heraclitus’ fragment: “character is Fate”, we note the etymology of the term “character” is derived from the Greek “kharassein”, to “engrave”. “Kharassein” is linked with “Charasso”, which designates “sculpting or carving”. Thus, the term “character” is linked with “sculpting” and “carving”. This speaks to Aristotle’s argument that the “soul is the particular plan, shape and capacities of a body” (see Physics 412a20). Here we find the link between Fate and Character discerned by asking the question of structure. One’s Fate is determined by how they are sculpted or carved, both physiologically and psychically.

Lacanian psychoanalysis attempts to understand these structures. It is a warning that human life is not merely Epimethian, not just malleable Matter, but that it follows a logic, and is bound by certain Forms, constraints and limitations. Removing life from one system, one type of Form, constraint and limitation could result in a worse system of life. Poor Oedipus, who removes Form and encounters the Real ends up self-inflicting limitation by putting out his eyes.

The analysis of avatarization carried out throughout “Objet Petit (a)vatar” is intended to demonstrate that the post-modern imperative to “re-create thyself” is explicable through the imperative “know thyself”.

I have tried to link the novel and complex forms of identity creation in Second Life to the functioning of the Lacanian Subject: The malleable “virtual” avatar does not represent a move beyond the Subject, but can be understood as a form of selfhood intricately tied to a “real” human search for linearity and stability. I have not attempted to determine the degree virtual technologies are altering (for better or worse) senses of self, but rather, have suggested that something “old and long familiar” persists in the fiber optics, and that it is easy when glimpsing the gadgetry of the new to ignore the contours of a deeply entrenched self.

Aspects of post-modernity – the suspicion of progress and development, plasticity, self-creation and decentralization all need not be regarded as necessitating a break with the Lacanian Subject. In fact, all of these aspects can be understood using a Subjective framework. While the post-modern world is littered with simulations on flat screens, individuals scour their supermarkets in search of the real – in the form of Organic foods. While the world appears suspicious of progress and transcendentals, wars rage over belief and the physicists promise to reveal the “Face of God”. Despite the “weakening” of the mediated world, we never moved beyond the desire to procure meaning and order – even the performance of identities, or cycling through avatars – can be understood as a confirmation (or manipulation) of the functioning Signifier.

This is why I stuck to elucidating the persistence of the Signifier, of Lack, of a Void, in a medium that encourages the ability to Will your own self. After all, the ability to be anything you want can be understood to confirm it’s opposite. Rather than being an affirmative surpassing of limits, it confirms the fact that the user encounters that they are nothing; that they are a subject prohibited from ever being anything final or complete.

In recognizing the persistence of the Subject we might recognize that we have something to lose, and that it is possible we are, in Zizek’s words, “in danger of losing everything”. Until we have attempted to discern the persistence of the Subject, and its symbolic substance, we might not recognize ourselves being reduced to “substanceless subjectivity”.

We could end up unaware that our ‘lack’ is being radicalized and exploited for profit, while we think we’re forming new connections and playing with new identities. Zizek explains in First as Tragedy, Then as Farce that “by no longer simply repressing the lack of a fixed identity, the hegemonic ideology directly mobilizes the lack to sustain an endless process of consumerist “self re-creation”. 

As avatarization becomes increasingly sophisticated, beyond the image bodies of SL, and films such as James Cameron’s Avatar pique our interest, the challenge for psychoanalysis will be in discerning whether the Oedipal drama remains in play, and questioning whether the avatar represents not only a new, Epimethian, form of 21st century identity, but the reproduction and persistence of a lack in subjective structure.

I think we need to keep untangling the question of Subjectivity and recognize that there is an Epimethian Subjectivity and an Oedipal Subjectivity that co-exist and are play off one another – even if the Oedipal one has – in post-modernity – moved out of focus.

Of what I have been referring to as Epimethian Subjectivity, Zizek writes: “…[i]n post-structuralism the subject is usually reduced to so-called subjectivation, he is conceived as an effect of a fundamentally non-subjective process: the subject is always caught in, traversed by the pre-subjectival process (of ‘writing’, of ‘desire’, and so on), and the emphasis is on the individuals’ different modes of ‘experiencing’, ‘living’, their positions as ‘subjects’, ‘actors’, ‘agents’ of the historical process.” (Sublime Object Ideology 174) Of what I have been referring to as Oedipal Subjectivity, Zizek writes: “If we make an abstraction, if we subtract all the richness of the different modes of subjectivation, all the fullness of experience present in the way the individuals are ‘living’ the subject-positions, what remains is an empty place which was filled out with this richness; this original void, this lack of the symbolic structure, is the subject, the subject of signifier. The subject is therefore to be strictly opposed to the effect of subjectivation: what the subjectivation masks is not a pre- or trans-subjective process of writing but a lack in the structure, a lack which is the subject.” (Sublime Object Ideology 175)

Studies of the relationship between human beings and technology could be enriched tremendously by attempting to work between these two – integral – aspects of the subject. The promise of engineering a more equitable post-human future risks disaster if, fixated on new possibilities and potentials, we go with the anti-tragic current and Oedipal Subjectivity falls into obscurity. As the proverb goes: “Vision without Action is a daydream; Action without Vision is a Nightmare.”

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~ by dccohen on December 4, 2009.

2 Responses to ““Know Thyself”…again (Technology, Tragedy and Postmodernity)”

  1. […] I have tried to link the novel and complex forms of identity creation in Second Life to the function… […]

  2. […] to an earlier post, I’ll point out again that in The Sublime Object of Ideology, Slavoj Zizek distinguishes […]

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