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<nettime> Automatism/Autonomy/Virtual Unconscious I
Josephine Berry on Thu, 23 Aug 2001 11:11:51 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Automatism/Autonomy/Virtual Unconscious I

This is the last chapter of my dissertation on site-specific art and seems
to chime with some of the things said recently about noise v information.

Please forgive the 'in the last chapter I said' style sentences. It
obviously belongs to a bigger whole, but I think it's quite understandable
on its own.



Automatism, Autonomy and the Virtual Unconscious

"With human means art wants to realise the language of what is not human"
Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory(1)

In the last chapter the question of artistic autonomy was examined in terms
of the demise of the authority of the object, as defined by Benjamin, under
the conditions of digital reproducibility and in conjunction with the new
meaning of dematerialisation in biopower. I concluded that art's autonomy
has managed to survive the technological attack on its aura, the excavation
of its ontology through its institutional critique, the attempt to dissolve
it into political praxis, and its threatening proximity to economic
symbolic production within biopower - but not unscathed. In this last
chapter I will attempt to push the question of autonomy one step further by
examining it in relation to psychoanalytic models of the subject in
modernity and postmodernity. Although the issue of art's autonomy does not
neatly intersect with psychoanalytic theories of the subject, and in
particular the unconscious and related discussions of its repressive or
liberatory potential, they are mutually implicated within avant-garde
history. As with avant-garde efforts to determine a political basis for art
through the democratisation or redistribution of creativity, the liberation
of the unconscious has been mobilised by artists seeking to challenge the
reign of rationality and effect a wider social transformation.
Within Bretonian surrealism, the agency of the unconscious was solicited as
a means of exposing the repressed inconsistencies of reality as part of a
wider project of political revolution. It is possible to see parallels
between this formulation of derepression and the attempts to reveal the
repressed preconditions of art (e.g. its contextual and institutional
dependency) advanced by Duchamp and his conceptual legacy. However, in
contrast to modernity and modernist art practice, here I will be arguing
that, for various epistemological and technological reasons, postmodern
society can be said to have undergone a phase shift in which a sort of
general 'derepression' has occurred. This derepression is in part driven by
the power of information technology to track and model systems whose
complexity is greater than our ability to make sense of them. Where chaos
might once have been seen to reside in the obscured interior of the
Freudian unconscious, it can now be found all around us in the everyday
descriptions of physical, social and economic systems.
Reminiscent of the surrealists use of automatist techniques to explore and
explode the techno-rationality of the industrial age, net artists have
employed automatist techniques to explore the chaotic zeitgeist of the
computer age. However, this later variant of automatism relies upon the
highly regulated automatic functions of computation to circumvent conscious
control and reveal what I will here be calling the 'virtual unconscious'.
In contrast to the automation of Fordist/Taylorist production which
preoccupied the surrealists, digital computation reveals a world, arugably,
as 'non-rational' and unpredictable as the unconscious mobilised by
surrealists to combat the technocratic status quo. As we shall see below,
this unpredictability, defined by the inability to detect recurrent
patterns, is often experienced not as the absence of order but the reign of
disorder. If non-rationality or irrationality, once associated with the
unconscious and deployed to wage war on the hegemony of Enlightenment
rationality, has become a kind of meta-narrative in itself, what is its
significance and attraction for net artists? Should it be understood
exclusively as the ruling and instrumentalised epistemology of our times or
can we see within it something more disruptive and antithetical to such a
 In this chapter I will discuss the artificial language called Kroperom
developed by the anonymous artist Antiorp, together with Vuk Cosic's video
Deep Ascii and Olia Lialina's hyperlinked narrative Agatha Appears. In all
three cases automatic software functions and the automatic agency of
computers are either directly employed or explored as the work's central

Derepression and its Discontents

'The unconscious' is not a concept often touched upon either by net artists
or writers on digital culture. Importantly, however, the term is
occasionally raised in connection with Benjamin's theory of the 'optical
unconscious'; the notion of an unconscious visual dimension to the material
world which is ordinarily screened out by social consciousness but which is
opened up to us by the invention of mechanical recording techniques,
specifically photography.(2)  This important hidden realm of signification
is revealed by catching reality 'off guard', much in the same way that a
slip of the tongue reveals the existence of an obscured psychical dimension
ordinarily repressed from conscious experience. Benjamin's concept of the
optical unconscious is important for this enquiry in that it points toward
the possibility of a depersonalised, depsychologised unconscious; one which
could be understood as a material sedimentation of social and cultural
history. Nonetheless Benjamin's concept crucially coincides with the
Freudian model of the individual unconscious in that it provides us with a
depth model in which the 'truth' is partially obscured, or rather one in
which the truth of a psychical or social economy hinges on an obscured but
unifying logic.(3)  For Freud, the unconscious consists of a heteronomy of
primal, quasi-biological drives either repressed or sublimated by the
workings of the Ego. For Benjamin, the photograph reveals the
socio-historical repressed which resides in the visual field; one which the
automatic, regulative operations of social consciousness sift out. Latterly
the terms 'digital' or 'virtual unconscious' have been coined to describe
the visual dimension opened up by the non-chemical techniques of
'post-photography' (digital photography and computer simulation) which,
without the image's indexical relation to its subject or indeed the need
for a referent in material reality, casts the metaphysics of Benjamin's
model into doubt.(4)  Kevin Robins stresses the potential autonomy of the
post-photographic image:

"By superseding any indexical or referential relation to reality, the new
image space assumes increasing autonomyŠWhat we perceive as a photographic
duplication exists in fact as a mathematical algorithm simulating or
modeling the geometrical form of the image it generates. This dislocation
of image and referent 'reinforces its perception as an object in its own
rightŠIt presents itself as a new source of knowledge'. In the factitious
space of the computer memory it becomes possible to simulate a surrogate
reality, a synthetic hyperreality that is difficult to differentiate from
our conventional reality, and that, indeed, now threatens to eclipse
itŠ.Modern life appears to be increasingly a matter of interaction and
negotiation with images and simulations which no longer serve to mediate
reality. The simulation culture promises to open up whole new dimensions of
existence and experience." (5)

In the case of the virtual unconscious we approach a flatter hermeneutic
model than the depth models of Freudian modernity, in which, in a manner of
speaking, a 'derepression' has occurred, in which to borrow a borrowing of
Zizek's, 'the truth is out there' not hidden underneath. What the term
'virtual unconscious' points to is how, if the Real is not necessarily
captured off guard, if it is no longer behind the surface of appearance,
then it is at the level of the simulation that we must look for it. In this
respect, there is no category of information which can be discounted as
secondary or non-meaningful - there is no such thing as noise.
For the sake of this discussion, we will be stretching the term beyond its
more narrow technology-bound application (post-photography) to indicate the
passage from a hidden, Benjaminian optical and social unconscious whose
strict mediation is simultaneously repressive and productive of a
consistent identity, to a depression in which external reality becomes
increasingly complex and indeterminate.(6)  This indeterminacy can be
summarised as the shift from systems of knowledge and behaviour based in
the linear dynamics of Enlightenment rationality, to the nonlinear dynamics
of the risk society. In this chapter the concept of 'systemised
indeterminacy' or 'deterministic chaos', derived from writingn on chaos
theory, will serve as a description for the postmodern epistemological
crisis reached through a complexification in our modeling of physical,
economic, and social phenomena.(7)  Increased knowledge paradoxically
produces a realisation, perhaps epitomised in chaos theory, that we are
unable to define the causality of events and thus also to predict or
control them. In this respect, the unitary universe of the Enlightenment
cedes to one which increasingly resembles the threatening, disaggregative
chaos of the unconscious. What I will here be calling the virtual
unconscious refers to this loss of control, partially produced by computer
driven representations of complexity and the associated proliferation of
information, which is variously celebrated (e.g. Donna Haraway's cyborg,
the multidimensional logic of Deleuzian strata), and feared, as in the
potentially massive threats to mankind which cannot be unequivocally
predicted let alone prevented (e.g. global warming, nuclear disaster,
market crashes, CJD and species jumps from GM life forms). Deeply
implicated in this reordering are digital technologies and the
semi-automatic, self-generating processes they set into train.(8) The term
'virtual' itself, when applied to any substantive, produces an ontological
uncertainty - as in 'virtual reality'. In this chapter then the
destabilising effects of virtuality will be brought together with the
concept of the unconscious to produce a reading of the increased
externalisation of disaggregated and automatic drives, by turns both
liberatory and deathly.
This chapter will attempt to ascertain how net artists' investigation of
the semi-autonomous agency of computers opens up onto questions of social
and aesthetic agency and related freedoms. As touched on above, surrealism
will provide a significant point of comparison due to its far more overt
conceptual concatenation of the unconscious, the automatic and social
liberation. In contrast to the net artists' own more ambivalent stance, the
concept of category confusion (between intention and automation,
consciousness and dreams, sound and image, different signifying systems
etc.) provided the recipe for an explosive liberation, a euphoric
derepression, which Benjamin describes in his short essay on surrealism:

"Life only seemed worth living where the threshold between waking and
sleeping was worn away in everyone as by the steps of multitudinous images
flooding back and forth, language only seemed itself where sound and image,
image and sound interpenetrated with automatic precision and such felicity
that no chink was left for the penny-in-the-slot called 'meaning'. Image
and language take precedence. Saint-Pol Roux, retiring to bed about
daybreak, fixes a notice on his door: 'Poet at work.' Breton notes:
'Quietly. I want to pass where no one yet has passed, quietly! - After you,
dearest language.' Language takes precedence."(9)

Benjamin's rather elliptical reference to 'meaning' could be taken to mean
the semi-conscious act of its construction, an act comparable to the Ego's
semi-automatic mediation between the unconscious drives of the Id and the
societal demands imposed by the Superego. Leaving no space for the
"penny-in-the-slot called 'meaning'", and bidding language to take
precedence are both gestures towards the freeing of that which the Ego
filters out; the semi-automatic momentum of language, the power resident in
the world to signify itself, and the automatic drives of the unmediated Id.
Surrealist interest in wearing away a threshold between the conscious and
unconscious relates to the insight, shared by Freud, that the development
and preservation of civilisation is predicated on the repression of
'natural' instincts and desires, and that the derepression of this
alienated content would also entail the liberation of society as a whole,
the repression of the two being mutually implicated. This conflict between
the Id and the Superego, between the fulfillment of basic desires and the
development of civilisation was regarded by Freud to be an irresolvable
historical constant.(10)  This question of the relationship between the
repressed psychic content and the social condition will be fundamental to
our enquiry into the net artists' investigation of the virtual unconscious.
In an age in which what Lyotard terms the 'paralogy' of postmodern
knowledge systems presents us with a picture of the world that is
impregnably contradictory and experientially irrational, how does this
question of derepression relate to net artists working with highly complex
computer networks?(11)
It is precisely surrounding the question of the deadlock raised by Freud's
predication of civilisation on psychic repression that the Frankfurt School
made an important contribution. In contrast to certain Marxo-Freudian
revisionists who wanted to rid the psychoanalytic model of the unconscious
of its historically impervious, biological character, the Frankfurt
School's insight preserves its biological character but in the revised form
of a 'second nature'.(12)   Rusell Jacoby summarises their historicising of
the Freudian Id thus:

"The 'sub-individual' and 'pre-individual factors' that define the
individual belong to the realm of the archaic and biological; but it is not
a question of pure nature. Rather it is second nature: history that has
hardened into nature. The distinction between nature and second nature, if
unfamiliar to most social thought, is vital to critical theory. What is
second nature to the individual is accumulated and sedimented history. It
is history so long unliberated - history so long monotonously oppressive -
that it congeals. Second nature is not simply nature or history, but frozen
history that surfaces as nature."(13)

Through this concept of second nature we also come closer to an
understanding of how social history and the individual unconscious are by
no means separable (hence the idea of a social unconscious) and, further,
how their mutual repression and/or derepression exists within a circuit of
Unlike the surrealists, however, the Frankfurt School did not view the
derepression of this 'alienated psychic content' as necessarily leading to
social liberation. Instead, they considered 'post-liberal', totalitarian
societies as having brought about a kind of short-circuit between the Id
and the Superego, wherein the unthinkable happens: "the triumphant archaic
urges, the victory of the Id over the Ego, live in harmony with the triumph
of the society over the individual".(14)   In their terms, this dissolution
of the subject's relative autonomy provided by the Ego's mediation between
the life-substance of the drives and the social repression exerted by the
Superego gives way to an immediate enlistment of regressive, compulsive,
blind, automatic behaviour by society. This they termed 'repressive
desublimation' which they saw exemplified in the slavish adherence to the
leader and the imitative behaviour of the crowd in fascist societies.
But, both the Frankfurt School and the surrealists recognised a consonance
between the social relations of industrial capitalism and the 'alienated
psychic substance' of the unconscious.(15)  Adorno read the 'autonomy' of
the liberal bourgeois subject as an ideological lure from the 'opaqueness
of alienated objectivity.'(16)  In other words, as Enlightenment
rationality creates an ever more objectified and instrumentalised world,
the alienation of the subject is accordingly inverted into the
glorification of its autonomy. But for net artists working in what has been
discussed as the biopoltical age - a time in which capitalism is described
by Negri and Hardt as having 'no outside anymore', when social reproduction
is entirely assimilated as a productive force, when the externalities of
nationhood and the binary structures of colonisation and decolonisation
have been flattened into the internalised omnicrisis of Empire -  in short
where information and interconnectivity come to overdetermine social
relations, a very different mass psychological subject should be imagined.
Given that the promise derepression and desublimation once held for the
surrealists has been parodied by advertising's adoption of its forms, in
which 'repressed' libidinal desires are decoded as the drive to consume
commodities, and that a primary mode of ideological interpellation occurs
under the rubric of 'enjoyment', large-scale social
derepression/desublimation must certainly be viewed today with some
suspicion.(17)  And yet, as we shall see, cyborg theorists and Deleuzian
techno-Marxists (whose discourse of networks, rhizomes and cybernetic
systems importantly inform the politico-cultural environment of the Net)
see within this break-down of the myth of the autonomous subject the
potential to overcome the oppressive metanarratives of the Enlightenment
and its legacy of instrumental rationality.


 1) Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, 1970, (republished London: Athlone
Press, 1999) p.78
  2)See Walter Benjamin's 'A Small History of Photography', One-Way Street,
(London: Verso, 2000)
 3) It is important to emphasise that if there is something like a unified
logic of the unconscious, its effects should in no way be understood as
tending towards unification or resolution. The action of the death drive,
the most potent of the unconscious drives described by Freud, is understood
as both compulsively repetitious and ultimately disaggregative, tending
towards inanimacy.
 4) For a discussion of the virtual unconscious, see 'The Virtual
Unconscious in Postphotography', Electronic Culture: Technology and Visual
Representation, Op. Cit.
 5) Ibid, pp. 156-7
  6)In other words, as with Freud's discussion of the repression of the
unconscious by the Ego and the Superego, which he attributes with the
production of the subject's consistent identity, the 'repression' of what
N. Katherine Hayles calls the 'non-order' of the physical world by Western
science and the Enlightenment in general created a feeling of stability and
predictability. When 'derepression' occurs and the universe is cast as
chaotic, it starts to appear as unmanageable and hence threatening. See
Sigmund Freud, 'The Unconscious' in On Metapsychology, (London: Pelican,
 7) 'Systemised indeterminacy' is used by Jean Baudrillard in Illusions of
the End, and 'determinate chaos' is used by N. Katherine Hayles in her
various books on chaos theory and culture. For a lengthy discussion of the
cultuarl adoption of chaos theory in which these terms are discussed, see
Brian Ward's The Literary Appropriation of Chaos Theory, Ph.D thesis,
(Dept. of English, University of Australia, 1998),
 8) See especially Kevin Kelly's Out of Control: The New Biology of
Machines, Social Systems and the Economic World, Perseus, 1995
 9) Walter Benjamin, 'Surrealism', in One-Way Street, p. 226
 10) Zizek sees this as the reason for the inherently contradictory nature
of psychoanalytic practice: "There is thus a radical and constitutive
indecision which pertains to the fundamental intention of psychoanalytic
theory and practice: it is split between the 'liberating' gesture of
setting free repressed libidinal potential and the 'resigned conservatism'
of accepting repression as the necessary price for the progress of
civilisation." In 'The Deadlock of 'Repressive Desublimation'' in The
Metastases of Enjoyment: Six Essays on Woman and Causality, Slavoy Zizek,
(London: Verso, 1995), p.12
 11) Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on
Knowledge, 1979, (republished Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997)
12)  For a discussion on the debate between Freudian revisionists and the
Frankfurt School see ibid
13)  Russell Jacoby, Social Amnesia: A Critique of Conformist Psychology
from Adler to Laing, (Brighton: Harvester, 1977), p.31, cited in Slavoy
Zizek, Metastases of Enjoyment, ibid, p.10
 14) Theodor Adorno, 'Zum Verhältnis von Soziologie und Psychologie', in
Gesellschaftstheorie und Kulturkritik, Frankfurt, Suhrkamp, 1975, p.122,
cited in Zizek, ibid, p.16
15)  See Hal Foster's 'Exquisite Corpses' in Compulsive Beauty, (London:
October Books, MIT Press, 1993)
16)  Adorno, cited in Zizek, Metastases of Enjoyment, p.14
 17) For a discussion of the Superego's injunction to enjoy, see Slavoy
Zizek's 'Whither Oedipus' in The Ticklish Subject: the Absent Centre of
Political Ontology, (London: Verso, 1999)

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