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Interface Fantasy: A Lacanian Cyborg Ontology

Interface Fantasy: A Lacanian Cyborg Ontology

by André Nusselder
The MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2009
176 pp. Paper, $18.95 USD
ISBN: 978-0-262-51300-5.

Reviewed by Rob Harle


This book is an extremely well researched and detailed exploration of the psychological nature of cyberspace. If as suggested, cyberspace is a mental space, then applying psychoanalytical theory to analysing its social, cultural, and individual influences makes a lot of sense. Nusselder has undertaken this analysis primarily from a Lacanian perspective, using a notion central to Lacan's thought that, fantasy is an indispensable screen for interaction with the world at large. The screen has many forms, one of which is now the ubiquitous computer screen. “What we cannot have in reality, we can have via the fantasy screen (of the computer)” (p. 11).

Interface Fantasy: A Lacanian Cyborg Ontology is not for the faint hearted, nor for the general reader. Lacan's work is complex enough by itself, coupled with Nusselder's own analysis this work is a highly complex, convoluted intellectual tour de force. This is the nature of the subject, not Nusselder's writing style. Although the writing flows along nicely and is enjoyable to read the book at times gets bogged down saying the same thing from a only a slightly different angle.

The book is divided into six chapters, followed by extensive Notes, an excellent Bibliography and Index.
Chapter 1 – The Question Concerning Technology and Desire
Chapter 2 – The Technologization of Human Virtuality
Chapter 3 – Fantasy and the Virtual Mind
Chapter 4 – Cyborg Space
Chapter 5 – Displays of the Real: Reality as an Effect
Chapter 6 – Mediated Enjoyment, Enjoyed Media

The chapters proceed from introducing Lacan's relevant psychoanalytical theories through to examples of avatars as alter egos in various virtual spaces. Nusselder always keeps his central thesis in mind as he draws on the greats of philosophy, cybernetics, and psychotherapy (Kant, Hegel, Freud, Weiner, Saussure, Shannon, Merleau-Ponty and so on) to support his thesis. “My central thesis is that the computer screen functions in cyberspace as a psychological space — as a screen of fantasy. Since the world as a database (the matrix) cannot appear to us (in cyberspace) without media that open it up (interfaces), I claim, has a similar status to that of fantasy in Lacanian theory” (p. 5).

Imagination is an important factor in psychoanalytical discourse that Nusselder discusses at length, showing Descartes dismissal of imagination as untenable through to its vital importance in cybernetics. Lacan spent much time thinking about cybernetics as is evident from this quote. “At this point we come upon a precious fact revealed to us by cybernetics — there is something in the symbolic function of human discourse that cannot be eliminated, and that is the role played in it by the imaginary” (p. 69). Clearly imagination and fantasy are closely related whether we are conducting psychoanalytical analysis from the perspective of an electronic screen or via speech from the couch. The imaginary is one of the three main factors Lacan uses to analyse human reality. The other two are the symbolic and the real.

The fairly recent phenomenon of visual avatars functioning in virtual worlds has added considerable weight to Nusselder's thesis. He discusses avatars in detail in chapter four, along with the general concept of embodiment and the various notions of what constitutes space or its dissolution. Even from a common-sense interpretation it is not hard to see how one's personal creation of an avatar draws on factors from the unconscious and as such presents as an alter ego. From my own experience observing avatars in Second Life it is highly instructive to note how closely an avatar resembles its creator sitting on the other side of the fantasy screen in so called Real Life! I believe there is much more room for further research in this specific area.

This book also explores why we are so attracted to and attached to the new media. “Why we love our devices, why we are fascinated by the images on their screens; and how it is possible that virtual images can provide physical pleasure” (back cover). Interface Fantasy will prove to be a valuable asset to the libraries of academics working in quite disparate fields, and I believe has significantly extended our understanding of cyberspace, new media and the psychoanalytical importance of media technology.

Last Updated 1 April, 2010

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