In 1966, the Beach Boys released the legendary Pet Sounds, Bob Dylan dropped the double album Blonde on Blonde on us, the Fab Four shot Revolver our way, and Jacques Lacan published his collected papers up to that point, Écrits. The various essays and talks are presented in more or less chronological order—and I mean Lacan’s, not Lennon’s, work here—with the exception of the first text, the Seminar on “The Purloined Letter” from 1956, the height of Lacan’s structuralist period and his investigation into the Symbolic register of psychical experience. Lacan himself draws the reader’s attention to this anachronism in an appended introduction to the introductory material—a few prefatory pages which, mind you, are placed after the Seminar text: It’s confusing and temporally convoluted, but, hey, that’s psychoanalysis in general and Lacan was nothing if not performative. He saw in the Seminar the widest ranging and most accessible elucidation of his theory of “intersubjective communication…in which the sender,” to quote Lacan, “receives from the receiver his own message in an inverted form” (30). Isn’t it ironic, then, don’t ya think, that the Seminar on “The Purloined Letter” ends, right before the new beginnings, with what is perhaps Lacan’s most contentious and misunderstood claim: “[W]hat the ‘purloined letter,’ nay, the ‘letter en souffrance,’ means is that a letter always arrives at its destination” (ibid). No doubt, Lacan meant here many things, and chief among them that a letter, a signifier rather than the signified, is beyond the guidance or control of its so-called sender and will arrive where it arrives, when it arrives, by any means of arriving, regardless of whatever conscious intent is behind the letter.
In his extensive account of Poe’s short detective story, Lacan shows that it is the locative instance or syntagmatic contingency of the titular letter that triangulates and transforms the various intersubjective relationships of the narrative, irrespective of what message the letter might in actuality contain. All that matters is the materiality and position of the letter within a signifying chain for it to have a perturbing effect; as such, a letter never need leave a desk to arrive, it never even needs to be opened—hence a letter is no more than an envelope. Knowledge of the mere existence of a letter, the threat that it might reveal something dangerous or the possibility it contains something titillating, is enough for a plot to be thrown into motion, to cause people to act a part. For Lacan, the entirety of a Symbolic network—which consists of the plurality of competing discourses and contexts that make up our subjective environs, and which he also famously calls the unconscious “structured like a language”—can dramatically shift with the unexpected intervention of a letter; the point here being that letters or signifiers, the envelopes that say more than the ink they contain, in their performative materiality are the actual agents motivating and organizing unconscious desires and patterns of thought. In that case, to say that the letter always arrives means simply that a signifier, in a gravitational relationship to itself, defines who is who, the receiver or the sender, rather than the latter the letter; moreover, it is to say that meaning ineluctably, ultimately, is beyond the subject’s attempts at mastery.
Perhaps a pithier way of saying all this, losing only some of Lacan’s ambiguity and polysemy, is to recall Marshall McLuhan’s maxim that the medium is the message because, as he explained in 1964’s Understanding Media—released the same year Beatlemania hit American shores and that Lacan formed the École freudienne de Paris—“it is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action,” while, on the other hand, “[t]he content or uses of such media are as diverse as they are ineffectual in shaping the form of human association and action” (20). As McLuhan would have it, a medium unconsciously prescribes a relational ontology and a system of values through the practice of its material affordances: Prior to written language, for example, it was well-nigh impossible to think in terms of linear cause and effect or, with printing, a self-conscious authorial subject; after cable TV overtook the newspaper as the West’s principle medium, and the home computer soon after that, there has emerged an increasingly neoliberal and apathetic egoism as a result of a media environment algorithmically tailored to individual tastes. In doing this, says McLuhan, “media work us over completely. They are so pervasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical, and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered. The medium is the massage,” and always an extension “of some human faculty—psychic or physical” (MM 26), prosthetically reorienting our perception and expectation of the world, and thereby reflexively redefining our own position within those surroundings. What is written on a page or put on display serves merely to distract and conceal the real work of the medium; it matters less what’s on the screen than the social and subjective situations the viewer assumes in order to see the screen at all.
The Lacanian conception of the signifier, in its performative materialism, thus shares resonances with McLuhanite media theory, particularly in the way that both defer the determination of meaning to external inputs over an easily fooled and misconceived consciousness. It is the medium that signifies, whoever may have signed the letter itself: “Such is the signifier’s answer, beyond all significations,” says Lacan: “You believe you are taking action when [the letter is] the one making you stir at the bidding of the bonds with which [it] weaves your desires” (29). Accordingly, Poe’s letter becomes an impeccable instance of McLuhan’s medium: Whatever state secret or erotic admission the envelope contains is negligible compared to the ability of a letter to be passed around easily and to easily pass notice; to say that a letter always arrives is to say little more than that a letter can be sealed in an envelope, addressed more or less, then sent—and consider what machinery kicks into gear to ensure the letter finds its destination: The stamps to print, the people to outfit, the dogs to muzzle! Moreover, in its function as a medium of long-distance communication, it is forever the possibility of a missive to be missed, such that its inevitable arrival will inevitably come as a surprise—neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night may deter the workers of the U.S. Postal Service, but whether and when the mail appears is as uncertain as the weather. So we check the mailbox, digital or dentable, made of tin or ten thousand lines of code, even if we expect nothing but spam and bills; we swipe down and hit refresh to reassure ourselves that nothing somehow escaped the panoptic server’s notice; or we shove hands into pockets, positive we felt the phone buzz and heard it ring only to find the phantoms are no longer in the machine, but under the skin.
The differences between Gmail or snail mail aside, what our current digital media ecology actualizes even more today than in 1956—the year Elvis struck it big—is Lacan’s claim that “the very notion of the unconscious” is “that the symbolic is located outside of man” (392), in our technological objects as much as in our social context, realized material practice as much as in psychical reality. Such an extimate structure—wherein what is most internal to our psychical operation is a kernel of the exterior world—does not deny the unconscious, but rather reveals the everyday character of the unconscious: The symbolic world that we participate in, participates in us simultaneously, conscribing the limits of our reality both intentionally and automatically, socially and technologically. In Lacanese, this symbolic world that envelops, involves, and invades us is one definition of the big Other—and hence Lacan will claim that “the unconscious is the Other’s discourse” (É 10), structured for us by more names and numbers than we could begin to forget, but which the uncanny machine itself remembers forever: In that it contains these multitudes, the medium is thus also the mass-age. The more ingrained technological devices become in our absentminded routines, the more their algorithms define our desires and practices, and the more our unconscious becomes digitized through a hegemonic culture and instantaneous, distance-defying global medium.
Following Freud’s procedure in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, the logic of what we might call a digital unconscious becomes evident if we look into the cracks in code opened up when technology breaks down—or, at least, breaks up whatever feelings of tranquil consistency and narcissistic mastery that media prosthetically produce. Consider, for instance, the ceaseless frustration of autocorrect software—perpetually changing my outraged outbursts to complain instead about “Donald ducking Trump”—which in its intrusive failures elucidates the overdetermined enframent of our digital symbolic networks, becoming the digital analog of parapraxes, or slips of the tongue; hence we might call these autocorrect overcorrections Freudian typos. Such daffy “ducking” puritanism has been a problem since the first iterations of predictive text in the mid-2000s, and a decade later our smartphones, the primary medium for textual communication today, seem to have failed to learn to swear—just try to get Siri to do it! Linguistic normativity is asserted here with more banality and pervasiveness than it ever was by lexicographers of the past, done so in a manner that sets limits on writing creatively, on exploring new avenues of poetic expression through slang or neologisms; hence a friend’s playfully calling me the nonstandard “hommie” becomes, after autocorrect interference, the yet more absurd “homage”—which might as well be seen as an homage to nothing other than the textual constriction that suggested the replacement in the first place.
With contemporary media, as much as designers in-scribe their planned uses and expectations for technologies into the final product—hold the phone in this way, write in that way—those technological objects in turn pre-scribe whatever interactions with them and through them users might have. Developers write algorithms that set the rhythm for everyday digital life, rhythms that, as Bruno Latour has convincingly explained, enjoin users “silently and continuously” to “do this, do that, behave this way, don’t go that way, you may do so, be allowed to go there. Such sentences look very much like a programming language” (157), which produce something like a digital unconscious, a structure of desires and injunctions that overdetermine user behavior. We might go so far as to think of this as a form of technical con-scription, a system, as Deleuze wrote at the advent of the Internet age with Nirvana on the airwaves, wherein “perpetual training tends to replace the school, and continuous control to replace the examination,” so that “one is never finished with anything—the corporation, the educational system, the armed services being metastable states coexisting in one and the same modulation, like a universal system of deformation,” of parapraxial slippage (5). As Freud has taught us, it would be a mistake to write of these social mechanisms of control as entirely exterior to us, as mere distractions disrupting otherwise normal mental functioning; rather, they form a digital unconscious, a rhythm of values and politics and desires set by our media ecology which reframe the relationship between subject and object, self and technology.
To some degree, then, if we push the logic that the medium is the message-slash-massage to its extreme, we would be justified in flipping McLuhan on his head to suggest that humans are the unconscious extensions of their media and that online users might instead be thought of as used online. This is more than merely the simple cinematic trope of a billion-dollar brain pulling strings of code behind the scenes or screens—there is no Other of the Other, Lacan asserted in 1960, the year the Beatles formed and Elvis was discharged; rather, my claim is that the ostensible creativity and imagined anonymity experienced on the screen works to conceal the very symbolic network of institutional algorithms that make the screen work at all. We realize without realizing, we are apprehended without apprehending: Those who have ears will never hear code running and those who have eyes will never see protocol as it functions, only when and if it crashes—no Neo exists among us to see the Matrix in all its furious green glory. Less and less, quantitatively and qualitatively, we are offline; that is to say, we spend more time with computers and put more of ourselves online then we have with any medium previously—with the necessary and necessarily invisible result that the ideological rules of intersubjective language and computer language increasingly coincide. Insofar as social media networking platforms construct in advance affective relationships according to predictive algorithms, represent constricted personality traits over a virtual multiplicity, and increasingly restrict the ability to reimagine history against the archive, the affordances of a digital environment become the limits of subjective experience—which is why we can say, in a seriousness concealed behind laughter, that a new relationship or a new job or that new connection you met at MLA is not official until it’s Facebook official.