The Anti-Oedipal Subject of Cyberspace

(c) Jerry Everard 1996

1. I want to take as my point of departure a footnote. A footnote that on the one hand signals its own marginalisation, and on the other that signals desire. It is a footnote that hankers after a path not taken - a potential. I am referring to the first footnote in Fred Jameson's POSTMODERNISM OR THE CULTURAL LOGIC OF LATE CAPITALISM, and it reads, in part, as follows:

... This is the place to regret the absence from this book of a chapter on cyberpunk, henceforth for many of us, the supreme literary expression, if not of postmodernism, then of late capitalism itself.

2. It seems at first sight a large claim to make of a marginal sub-group of a marginal genre. Of course there is the potential to read cyberpunk in terms of the notional "centre" to which is opposed its own marginality.

3. Now, to speak of marginality is to speak metaphors of territorialisation and of boundary-making. In genre terms we are speaking of the definition of a subject which is marked out from other forms. The same is true of the notion of subjectivity itself - which is a related concept.

4. We live in an age of distributed subjectivity - but then again - perhaps we always have done. Nonetheless the internet has given us a powerful externalising metaphor for our own immersion and constitution by and through the slop and flow of social intercourse - through our language or semiotic system.

5. Deleuze and Guattari recognised this in the implicit cyborgisation of the body-without-organs (prosthesis as supplement). Subjectivities have always been networked - context based. One could (indeed should) go so far as to say that the Deleuzian schizophrenia is the norm - the Oedipal the pathologically autistic exception.

6. This paper will explore a theory of networked subjectivity which relates Deleuze and Guattari's 'anti-Oedipal' subject with three aspects of subjectivity: two of them relating to the individual of modernist discourse, (the culturally immersed biological subject and the internet-immersed subject of MOO-space) and the third dealing with the subject of territory - exemplified by, but not restricted to, sovereign states.

7. In doing so I want to address the issue of boundaries and their definition in terms of the triangle of desire. I want to do this in two directions: between the individual and the subject of virtuality - the avatar - and between the individual and the State.

8. In mapping this pathway, I want to turn briefly to note that recent approaches to subjectivity offer a critique of the rational unitary subject of psychology - a critique of the Oedipal subject. Such a view is predicated on the marination of the subject in discourse. Under this rubric, the subject is not construed as unitary, but rather as a site upon which multiple subject positions may be enacted. Such a view would argue that, far from being a unitary and originary source, subjectivity is rather an effect of the processes of enacting (by differentiating/digitising) the subject. The subject, under this rubric is therefore a cultural artefact, a symptom of hir practices.

9. Moreover, insofar as the subject is culturally construed by hir entry into the symbolic order at a specific time and place, then the available subject positions are historically differentiated such that the foundations upon which action is predicated (including the ethical/moral order) are to a large extent historically contingent, but nonetheless evident, however provisional.

10. In order to feel his/her way into position within a discourse community, the subject extends along the multiple and fragmentory planes of discourse - by way of extrusions/irruptions which test/transgress the social boundaries which circumscribe the subject.

11. These practices form extensions of the subject into discourse. These forms of deterritorialisation are essential practices of risk-taking to establish the boundary along which the subject travels in hir becoming. The subject here is rhizomic.

12. The subject is rhizomic because in marking-out the subject (as digital) from the matrix of discourse (which is analogic) the subject is precipitated into a fictive/figurative analogic subject. (The self who I tell myself I am - the self-conscious self). This is accomplished through the narrativisation derived from the territorialising practice of boundary-making between Self as digit, and Other as analogue against which the Self is construed across time.

Rhizomic Subjects:

13. Linguistically and semiotically we speak in different voices according to the context in which the subject is being construed. On the net we construe personae to suit different aspects of our personality - different subjectivities. The net provides a 'space' arguably beyond the cartographic to model and articulate a variety of subjectivities under a range of proper names. This raises debate about 'authenticity' among the 'pathologically Oedipal' modernist discourses of the unitary subject.

14. By articulating the subject as a symptom of the cultural practices that invoke it, the process of subjectivity can be said to be precisely that - a process (or verb) rather than an object (or noun). Such an account of subjectivity would therefore articulate the state as a mode of subjectivity that is of the same kind (if different order) as that of the individual. The distinction between the individual and the state, insofar as they can be said to act, is one of LOCUS of practice, rather than of ontological difference,

15. Let me be clear on this point. While there are clear ontological differences between biological individuals and States, I am dealing here with the cultural individual which is socially produced through communicative acts within a cultural framework. In this sense, states and individuals may both be construed in terms of 'speaking subjects' rather than as biological entities. Let me be clear too, that in speaking of 'speaking subjects', I am not restricting that term to written or vocal language, but rather to broader practices of socially meaningful action.

16. Ironically, what passes for schizophrenia in individuals problematises the state-as-subject. States as distributed subjects, however, are losing some of their AUTHORity to a deterritorialised global economy. But I shall return to this point later.

Deterritorialisation: The State of the Subject

17. And what of the Gibsonian body-without-organs, epitomised by the character Wintermute, in Gibson's book Neuromancer. This character, who exists purely in cyberspace as the encoding of an artificial intelligence (AI), now distributed on the net (the Matrix) is a desiring machine whose being-towards-death mirrors ironically the desparate struggle for life played out by the 'meat' characters. It is no coincidence that Gibson's protagonist is called 'Case'. What happened to the sovereign subject? Has the net moved subjectivity beyond cartography?

18. Drawing on 'Anti-Oedipus' and 'On the Line' I want to go into some of the specifics of net-based subjectivites.

19. While clearly the majority of internet users who act within discussion lists usually seem to use their own (proper) name, those who act in MUD or MOO-spaces often do not. Let me note here that MUD stands for Multi-User Domain, which allows people to interact online in real-time via their computers. A MOO is an Object-Oriented version of the same thing - a real-time discussion which can include the actants interacting with virtual objects as well as each other. Hence a MOO is a Multi-User Domain: Object Oriented.

20. By using alternative names, the player takes on a mask, which often articulates characteristics that allow the person operating the character to behave in ways different from those available to the person in 'real life' (RL). It allows a person to model other versions of themselves, model new ways of relating to other people, and see how other people might react to them were they other than themselves.

21. Nonetheless, the masks of character retain a relationship with the person operating the character, so, as Levi-Stauss1 found when studying masks, they cannot be studied in isolation, but rather must be seen in terms of their relations with the cultures from which they emerge. Here again, we see the bipolar arrangement between the analogue and the digital - the flow and instantiations that emerge from the flow. Once again we are seeing in action the Deleuzian body-without-organs.


22. From Deleuze and Guattari, subjects can be seen as organisational arrangements existing only in connection with other arrangements - in relation (as it were) to other bodies without organs.

23. Subjects are arranged according to lines of articulation, level of organisation, territorialities; as well as being arranged (perhaps more significantly) along its systematic dispersions, movements/moments of deterritorialisation and boundary violation. This brings Deleuze and Guattari close to the work of Foucault on the analysis of systemic dispersions by which the subject is characterised.

24. Analogically, these moments of deterritorialisation may be considered as lines of flow (OTL/2); or digitally, they may be considered as ruptures. Such a view entails the chora-like ZERO against which the One is defined and which forms part of the conditions under which the subject can be seen to emerge. The possibility of the (illusory) binary thus calls the subject into being.

25. What is interesting about this is the drive or necessity by which we seek to bridge the gap between the One and the zero (hole) with the idea of relationship - lines of flow which, in their ultimate dispersion, leads us inevitably to consider the prime conditions of the subject to be, in Deleuze and Guattari's terms, inherently schizophrenic. What is elided here, however, is that in the analysis of flows there is no dialectic. There is no being-towards something, for that something would entail a rupture/rature (erasure) in terms of that which is not the 'something's goal. So the schizophrenic is of necessity anti-teleological. Autistic.

26. The pathological thereby exists in the artifice of culturally produced and militarily reinforced boundaries dividing one subject off from the Other. Moreover, I want to argue that this happens at all levels from the biologically individual to the community, ethnicity, belief system, corporation, nation state and geographic region.

27. In addition, the forms which articulate boundaries, by demarcating inclusion and exclusion zones, are linked closely with the nature of the flows and arrangements that constitute subjects.

28. As an aside, one can note that it is perhaps no accident that where there is a growing perception of the digital as 'good' and as 'superseding' the analogue, so too politically we are seeing a concomitant rise in conservatism and boundary articulation. This suggests a direct correlation between deterritorialisation and discourses of danger.

29. This is articulated perhaps most fully in the contemporary world in military/industrial terms through the discourses surrounding so-called 'information warfare'.

30. Indeed the pathogenic metaphors of virus and infection are quite revealing (as though late capitalism and American articulations of democracy were not themselves viral in their operation and effects).

31. The State, like the individual subject, is a cultural artefact. The States exists as data. It is historically contingent and essentially contested. States exist as software in the wetware of those who subscribe to the identity of the state. Like software, the state exists while it is 'run' and maintained. It is a very complex piece of software written in a number of languages, such as economics, military security, environmental discourse and so on.

32. These exist as particular modes of defining Self and Other. It is about sets of relations between those who are included and those who are excluded - Us vs Them. It is about identifying a sense of self and a sense of belonging - loosely and traditionally interpreted as a sense of place.

33. States are above all, cultural artefacts, or information produced by and through practices of signification - from the writing of foundational documents - constitutions - to the discourses of smart bombs and the global spread of coca cola. Sovereign identity is thus composed of Bits, rather than Atoms (Negroponte).

34. Moreover, it is relations of power that habve characterised relations:

  • within the domestic polity;
  • between the domestic polity and the broader interests of the state, and
  • between states within the global state system.

35. As the internet grows, and as economic globalisation grows, the question of the territoriality of the state is being called into question.

36. And so to RE-territorialisation. Re-territorialisation is immanent in De-territorialisation. The one would seem to imply the Other. The forces that tend towards deterritorialisation are in fact the forces that tend toward reterritorialisation.

37. Moreover, the territorialisation by and through which subjectivity is invoked implies the pressure for reterritorialisation. The one cannot exist without presupposing the Other in the pathologically Oedipal subject.

38. The object of schizoanalysis, however, is always already a subject under construction. For such a subject there can only be a process of reterritorialisation - a singing-up of the land (without which the subject would simply cease to be).

39. The subject of cyberspace is such a subject, and that is precisely why so many countries seek to control access to this deterritorialising flow. By immersion in globalising communications networks, states are stitched-in (sutured) to international money flows - encodings of values - stock markets, information structures (with few exceptions Western information structures), international organisations, multinational corporations, refugee flows, and cultural influences.

40. The point is that, far from being a unitary cohesive subject, the state is rather a confluence of flows - each without a pre-determined direction or a predictable set of effects. The state system is constantly reinventing itself - experimenting - along with all the other flows that comprise the activites of all the other states, and sub-state actors.

41. At each step the effects are both beyond the state and within it. Beyond, insofar as it becomes subject to the vagaries of global markets and transnational organisations. Within the state, such flows affect (for Deleuze and Guattari):

  • Territorial divisions,
  • Mechanisms of economic subjugation/opportunity
    • new aspects of unemployment and inflation

  • Basic structures of regulation
    • schools, unions, army, among women, etc

  • Social claims and demands
    • the right to desire (p112)

collectively, this is what deleuze and guattari refer to as deterritorialisation.

42. The point I want to make here, is that, like the idea of deconstruction, deterritorialisation is more of a process of re-construal, rather than destruction.

43. Let me turn now to the 'n-1' of the rhizomic subject. Modernist discourse based on the Cartesian subject has been challenged in the cultural logic of late capitalism by articulations of the subject of culture by and through discourse.

44. In simplistic terms this has led to articulations of the subject as multiplicities produced by adding levels or dimensions. Deleuze and Guattari, (in Anti-Oedipus) by contrast propose that the subject, rather than being painted by adding layer upon layer of discourse, is rather sculpted from stone - carved out/subtracted from the slop and flow of social intercourse. Subjectivity, under this rubric becomes an extractive industry - the rhizomorphic subject.

45. Is discourse itself then, an extractive industry? If so, then we can suggest that by fashioning (chipping out) the instantiations of meaning from a global potential-to-mean, then we have a plausible machinic account for what Lyotard terms the agonistics of language. (where by to speak is to silence other positions, which results in injustice) At the same time, however, a rhizomorphic account leaves in place that which is necessarily unsaid, in the tailings from which the statement is fashioned. These tailings, necessarily form the negative shape of what is said; it is that Other to which the Self of the statement is addressed.

46. These tailings indeed may contain a variety of artefacts - fossil memes - embedded in the sedimentation of language. They may be root words encrusted in prefixes and suffixes, sometimes (to pursue the geological metaphor further) embedded in a conglomerate, which is in turn chipped loose and reformed in the deconstructive reading/ anal-ysis whereby shit is transmogrified into food for further thought - reentering the flow. The Hutchinson Dictionary of Science defines conglomerate thus:

Coarse sedimentary rock, composed of rounded fragments of pre-existing rocks cemented in a finer matrix ... A bed of conglomerate is often associated with a break in a sequence of rock beds (an unconformity), where it marks the advance of of the sea over an old eroded landscape.
(Lafferty and Rowe 1994:144)

47. Staying fairly close to the spirit of this definition, I want to suggest that these fossil memes, eroded (hence rounded) have become embedded in the matrix - the flow between bodies without organs, and in terms of computer mediated communication, the matrix of cyberspace itself. A bed of such fossilised items may be found where there has been the greatest challenge to the established order of things - an unconformity where the flow is overcoming the pathologically Oedipal quest for unified subjects.

48. By situating the emergence of the subject in terms flows and eddies within flows (arrangements), the emergence/production of the subject can be seen as a form of cyborgisation through the dual processes of:

  • programming (by situating a formation), and
  • feedback (definition against the Other)

49. The subject is thus always already cyborg, completing the cycle of the body-without-organs.

50. Finally, to complete the cycle, the immersion of the subject necessarily into flows that take it beyond his/her boundaries, also serves to imbricate the subject into the wider cultural process. This stitching-in of the subject is, arguably, precisely the mechanism Jacques Alain Miller describes as narrative suture.

51. I have sought in this paper to render visible a number of complex processes in ways that seek to make sense of observable behaviour at each level of subjectivity-as cultural process. We have seen this played out at the level of the sovereign individual, net-based subjectivity and through this process shown it to be equally applicable to States within the international community of states.

52. It is a process that has observable effects within wider society. It is a process that offers Deleuze and Guattari's rhizomatic structure as having useful explanatory power for observable phenomena. Will this century be known as Deleuzian? Perhaps not in so many words, but the process is nonetheless in evidence.


53. Let me review again the ground we have covered in the course of this paper.

1. Individuals, communities and states can be seen as biproducts of intersections of the flows of social intercourse.

2. The internet can be seen as an externalising metaphor for this process.

3. Because socially constructed identities are inherently unstable - historically contingent and essentially contested - their boundaries are vigorously maintained in every arena.

4. Net subjectivities are continuations of the subject-making process by other means (Clausewitz).

5. because the internet reminds us again of the contingent nature of identity (by means of its anarchical global web of flows), states, communities and individuals seek to place controls on its operation and its effects (ineffectually).

6. The imbrication of identity into flow is also a form of cyborgisation through programming (situating a formation) and feedback (definition against teh Other)

7. At the centre (if such can be put in place, albeit provisionally) is the issue of narrative suture (J-A Miller).


1 Claude Levi-Strauss The way of the Masks University of Washington Press: Seattle (1990) pp.12-14. "...[M]asks, too, cannot be interpreted in and by themselves as separate objects... Similarly, one type of mask, considered only from the plastic point of view, echoes other types whose lines and colours it transforms while it assumes its own individuality. For this individuality to stand out against that of another mask, it is necessary that the same relationship exist between the message that the first mask has to transmit or conote and the message that the other mask must convey within the same culture or in a neighbouring culture.;

(c) Jerry Everard 1996
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