surfing with lacan

zizek, how to read lacan, chapter 2:

To properly grasp this strange process, one should supplement the fashionable notion of interactivity with its uncanny double, interpassivity. It is commonplace to emphasize how, with new electronic media, the passive consumption of a text or a work of art is over: I no longer merely stare at the screen, I increasingly interact with it, entering into a dialogic relationship with it (from choosing the programmes, through participating in debates in a Virtual Community, to directly determining the outcome of the plot in so-called ‘interactive narratives’). Those who praise the democratic potential of the new media generally focus on precisely these features: on how cyberspace opens up the chance for a large majority of people to break out of the role of the passive observer following a spectacle staged by others, and to participate actively not only in the spectacle, but more and more in establishing the rules of the spectacle.

The other side of this interactivity is interpassivity. The obverse of interacting with the object (instead of just passively following the show) is the situation in which the object itself takes from me, deprives me of, my own passivity, so that it is the object itself that enjoys the show instead of me, relieving me of the duty to enjoy myself. Almost every VCR aficionado who compulsively records movies (myself among them) is well aware that the immediate effect of owning a VCR is that one effectively watches fewer films than in the good old days of a simple TV set. One never has time for TV, so, instead of losing a precious evening, one simply tapes the film and stores it for future viewing (for which, of course, there is almost never time). Although I do not actually watch the films, the very awareness that the films I love are stored in my video library gives me a profound satisfaction, and occasionally enables me to simply relax and indulge in the exquisite art of far miente - as if the VCR is in a way watching them for me, in my place. VCR stands here for the big Other, the medium of symbolic registration. It seems that, today, even pornography functions more and more in an interpassive way: X-rated movies are no longer primarily the means to excite the user for his (or her) solitary masturbatory activity - just staring at the screen where ‘the action takes place’ is sufficient, it is enough for me to observe how others enjoy in the place of me.

this reminded me of my tendency (and, i suspect, that of many others) to open an interesting or potentially inspirational video or article in a new tab so as to continue with the business that had previously been the focus of my web surfing - often the tab ends up in a folder on my bookmarks bar or is lost when i close it (sometimes days) later or exit the browser. zizek continues interpreting lacan with a passage that reminds me a lot of a short conversation i had with sterling crispin a while ago about the pervading themes in discourse about internet art -

Even in much of today’s progressive politics, the danger is not passivity but pseudo-activity, the urge to be active and to participate. People intervene all the time, attempting to ‘do something’, academics participate in meaningless debates; the truly difficult thing is to step back and withdraw from it. Those in power often prefer even a critical participation to silence - just to engage us in a dialogue, to make sure that our ominous passivity is broken. Against such an interpassive mode, in which we are active all the time to make sure that nothing will really change, the first truly critical step is to withdraw into passivity and to refuse to participate. This first step clears the ground for a true activity, for an act that will effectively change the coordinates of the scene.

it’s hard to relate to this last passage or summarize the chat with sterling without calling out people or groups that i’ve actually learned a lot from, and who have supported and inspired me greatly. speaking in (maybe overly) general terms, i think a lot of the talking that goes on about how artists and others relate with the internet and how the internet is affecting our social space meets somewhere with zizek’s analysis, relegating sources of inspiration and intelligent discussion to a new tab (the VCR box) while engaging mindlessly in the present business in other, more important tabs (pseudo-activity, lazy art, mindless debates, simulated criticism and scrutiny). i guess, if this is one of the ways in which the symbolic accesses lacan’s big other, and the big other is here given by the internet, we can arrive at a precise explanation of the internet as an obstacle to change and meaningful criticism in the art communities and other communities.. earlier in the book, zizek described what lacan meant by big other, using the example of mexican soap operas in which the director speaks to actors through an earpiece telling them what to do - the director is the big other, dictating the rules the actors will follow as they go about their dialogue, but at the same time the big other only exists as the sum of the practices of its subjects, who enforce it. the whole attempt to understand what the internet is doing to the people (like me) who are growing up virtually dependent on it presumes a lacanian framework of social design, in which we all participate in the internet’s dominance over our lives knowing that it’s probably pulling a significant portion of the strings. these strings are seen in long comment threads and the extra tabs in my browser leading to youtube and news sites

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