André Nusselder, Interface Fantasy

Scott Sundvall
Bowling Green State University

Nusselder. André. Interface Fantasy: A Lacanian Cyborg Ontology. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009. 170 pp. (978-0-262-51300-5)

[1] From this digital terminal to another, it could be said that this review is written by a cyborg for cyborgs. How appropriate and necessary, then, is the task of "fleshing" out a cyborg ontology? In the field of new media discourse, one seemingly saturated by semiotic, phenomenological and ethical concerns (both utopic and dystopic), it is refreshing to read a book whose goal is to fundamentally reinsert the human in the posthuman discussion via Lacanian psychoanalysis. Taking the concept of (Lacanian) desire as its main thetical trajectory and charge, André Nusselder's Interface Fantasy: A Lacanian Cyborg Ontology performs a double discursive reformulation: it extends the horizon of Lacanian psychoanalysis by applying the principles of such a methodology to cyborgs; and conversely, it broadens the horizon of posthumanism by recovering the (still present, albeit perhaps telepresent) human (ego, unconscious, desire, fantasy, etc.) behind the computer screen. In this sense, the book lends itself to those not only interested in new media and techno-centric posthumanism, but also to Lacanian scholars, as well as to anyone who is interested in the burgeoning phenomenon of digital immersion.

[2] One need not be a Lacanian scholar in order to navigate this text, as Nusselder is patient and clear in the framing of his analysis. Noting that "Lacan often calls fantasy a screen," Nusselder extends this concept to the computer screen, which acts as an "interface" for human desire (111). By extension, "cyberspace is a psychological space" that opens up an opportunity to act out fantasies and desires, understand psycho-social relations, and possibly provide a new form of transference and talk-therapy, as discussed towards the end of the book (5). For example, avatars act as an extension of the imaginary "I," with the computer screen functioning as a reflective mirror, enabling one to fulfill "imagined" parts of one's self that would otherwise be "lacking." [i] That is, we (re)discover (the image of) ourselves through a process of exteriorization that is mediated, and made possible, by the computer "interface" ("interface" implying an interactivity, neither an in-here or out-there, but an intermediary). Nusselder, then, makes a point that has long been missing in posthumanist discourse: we do not simply work with technology (implying a distantiation and removal); we are immersed in it.

[3] In addition, Nusselder resolves the false dichotomy of "real" and "not-real" that has long permeated discussions regarding human-computer interaction. Recursively using Jean Baudrillard's concepts of hyperreality, simulation and simulacra—and perhaps, at times, in too expedient a manner—Nusselder makes the case that computer interfacing is not a turning-away from the real but, rather, a process which creates "new forms of reality" (20). This theoretical turn cannot be over-valued: insistence in certain posthuman circles that there needs to be a univocally understood (and thus, often Enlightenment, Cartesian) sense of reality, and that we are losing such a reality to the delusion and illusion of digitality, is to ignore the spatio-temporal reconfigurations of digitality itself. Nusselder is able to reconcile such claims not only through a theoretical engagement, but with a careful attention to the historical development of digital technologies (and all its spatial implications), especially in contrast to their analogue counter-parts.

[4] To this end, Nusselder creates an interesting, if not confusing, double-bind: in one sense, computer interfacing is, at most, a variant of a real(ity); and in another sense, computer interfacing offers a unique desire-engagement that exceeds and potentially empties out the offline real(ity). Nusselder folds and collapses this double-bind with the concept of virtuality. Virtuality, Nusselder explains, precedes and exceeds digital technologies; it is present in the very technicity of our language, in what makes the symbolic realm possible (41). Because "language implies a mediation of the world ... no subject is outside language;" and, with such being said, "the subject of the signifier is virtual" (50; 43). As the unconscious is, in Lacanian psychoanalysis, structured as a language, it expresses itself through metaphor and metonymy, whether in cyberspace or "meatspace." With this assertion, Nusselder makes an insightful claim: the metaphorical and/or metonymic expression of the unconscious is always already virtual, with computer interfacing being but an exaggerative possibility of the "floating signifier," of the Lacanian privileging of the signifier over the signified. Thus, there is a unique "telepresence" to computer-interfacing, as enacted by digital technology, which "offers a reality less bound by the symbolic order"—and perhaps more open to the imaginary (74). [ii] Fantasy is unconscious; desire drives fantasy—the virtual interface of the computer screen is thus quite the vehicle.

[5] It would be remiss not to note another contribution Nusselder makes not only to techno-centric posthumanism, but to critical theory in general: the "subjective-objective" system. As Nusselder writes: "in Lacanian theory, we cannot fully separate the 'subjective' and the 'objective' position," as they are bound up with, and in, each other (117). As one's unconscious fantasy or desire is metaphorically and/or metonymically expressed, it is exteriorized; and, as such, the unconscious is not only within, but "the unconscious is [also] outside" (116, italics mine). While this inter-play (dare we call it a dialectic?) exists outside of computer interfacing (he uses the example of film and the critic), it is particularly important in the discourse of techno-centric posthumanism, especially in neutralizing the volatility of those who see the human-computer interaction as singular, removed, and excessively and necessarily narcissistic. Nusselder does note the possibility of an over-determined narcissism via computer-interfacing—an over-determination which would result in the proverbial drowning of the Narcissus subject—but makes clear that this is not necessarily the case in computer interfacing.

[6] This is not to indicate that Nusselder idealizes computer interfacing, as he takes careful steps to avoid the utopic/dystopic trap that posthumanist discourse has created. In fact, while detailing all the potentials and possibilities computer interfacing has for a subject or analysand (e.g., a new method of talk-therapy, free association, digitally automated transference, etc.), he also points to the dangers. As already mentioned, an over-determination of the ego is one (the drowning of Narcissus). Second, as the computer interface does, indeed, function as a screen, there is a certain removal that can lead to violent eruptions without the possibility of grief and remorse. For example, and as is already being utilized in the military today, a soldier can annihilate "enemies" without having to endure face-to-face confrontation. Lastly, there is the possibility of a techno-fetishism which may devolve into a pathology, a schizoid need for repetition:

We may end up in a never-ending circuit: one more SMS, one more call, one more image, and one more link to check. "Encore!" When the subject of technoculture gets wrapped up in, or loses itself in, the circuits of communication, it loses its relation with a stabilizing (fantasmatic) reference (as good as real) that rules its desire. (134)

These are very real techno-psychoanalytic dangers, and ones which have already been outlined by Delueze and Guattari's schizoanalysis, as well as by Paul Virilio's sense of an overwhelming technical speed that is "kept far, and beyond our grasp," amongst many others. [iii] To this end, it is cautious and appropriate for Nusselder to restate these potential dangers in the language of Lacanian psychoanalysis.

[7] And yet there are difficulties and needed interrogations in, and into, Nusselder's text. It is by no accident that, above, "real(ity)" was chosen as the qualifier. While Nusselder takes great pains to demarcate the "real" from "reality," it is never clear to what "real" he is actually writing. One could easily, though perhaps erroneously, assume that he is writing to the Lacanian Real; however, this would mean that he is writing to that which is beyond language, to that which is— with the exception of fleeting moments of jouissance ecstasy, abjection, or divine transcendence—beyond accessibility. And, considering the currency of the term in the text, this does not seem to be the case. Interestingly enough, Nusselder does explicate the Lacanian Real, and yet he does not clearly unpack what seem to be three disparate, albeit inter-mingled, concepts—real, reality and the Lacanian Real. This is particularly confounding concerning the etymological light he brings to so many other terms that are so often bandied about in post-humanist discourse (such as virtuality and techne). Also, considering the emphasis placed upon desire in this text, one must posit a question concerning Lacanian desire: understanding Lacanian desire as not merely desiring, but being desired by one's object-choice (fueled, of course, by a "lack" which renders impossible any "true" or, better yet, "consummate" love), one must wonder what or who functions as the objet petit a—the computer interface, or the "other" at the other end of the digital network terminal? These, of course, are not criticisms so much as perceived loose ends which a selfish critic desires to be knotted.

[8] Nonetheless, Nusselder brings forth a text that is beyond value, not only to the field of posthumanism, but to Lacanian scholarship as well. Nusselder does not, to any large degree, problematize or complicate posthumanist discourse; better yet, he resolves and adds. He broadens discursive horizons. In the end, it is important to remember (as Nusselder reminds us), that "humans," as such, as iterable, as capable of being articulated (within the symbolic realm), are always already technical, by such a possibility. The oversight is the over-determination of new media. If computers are the new Techno-Public-Enemy Number One, what do we make—or what can we learn—from the historical precedent of the technics which precede it: orthographic writing (in the Platonic sense, perverted speech); cameras capturing life (but they "steal the soul," and can now be digitally altered); television mediating our (tele)presence (and "killing the radio")? The point, as clearly stated by Nusselder, is not to over-examine the development in media technologies but, rather, to find why and how we (re)mediate our desires in, and within, such technologies. This is a project often touched upon by the Short Circuits series, and is a reason to keep a cyborganic eye on it.


[i] This is not to indicate that Nusselder considers the computer screen interface to function as a certain "mirror-stage;" although, if one were to take the concept of cyborg speciation to full extension, such a possibility is implicit, if not in Nusselder's work, then in Lacanian methodology in general.

[ii] Katherine Hayles re-cyber-formulates the Lacanian notion of "floating signifiers" as "flickering signifiers." She also notes in her essay, "Seductions of Cyberspace:" "One advantage of cyberspace over ordinary reality is its flexibility" (from Rethinking Technologies, ed. Verena Andermatt Conley [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993] 177). This flexibility could be understood as the un-bounding of the symbolic order.

[iii] See: Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem and Helen K. Lane (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983); Paul Virilio, "The Third Interval: A Critical Transition," in Rethinking Technologies, ed. Verena Andermatt Conley (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993) 5.