Virtual Hysteria: Cyberspace and Reality

The experience of engaging in cyberspace, of living through this interface, presents one with challenging experiences as to the virtuality of the self and to the virtuality of reality. That is, the ability to create (or have created for you), maintain (be maintained) and, ultimately lose control of one’s internet identity and the greeting of the disconnected other fosters what Slavoj Zizek calls “the hysterical experience” of cyberspace.

In his online interview, aptly entitled “Hysteria and Cyberspace,” Zizek challenges the idea of reality by saying, “What was so shocking about virtual space was not that before there was a ‘real’ reality and now there is only a virtual reality, but through the experience of VR we have somehow retroactively become aware how there never was ‘real reality.'” For Zizek, our experience of “reality” is always caught up in our phantasmatic perceptions of reality. That is, we are constantly seeing things as we interpret-ably experience them to be, how they are talked about and how we phantastically relate to them in terms of what they mean to us. We do not see the other in all of his or her traumatic (and horrifying) intensity, but in our fantasizing as to who we see them to be (perhaps in relation to ‘the big Other’). As he says, “I think a certain dimension of virtuality is co-substantial with the symbolic order or the order of language as such.” That is to say, the idea of “virtual reality” is nothing new, that in fact, our experience via language or via symbols are already immersing us in the virtual.

Also, Zizek speaks of “the undead” horror of cyberspace. That is to say, one’s identity disperses, is present even after one is gone or after one “logs off.” Recently, a vlogger on Youtube passed away and many videos honoring (or criticizing) him were uploaded. Most of the people honoring his death had never met him face-to-face, but only through the interface of Youtube. The horror of the situation is that his videos continue to circulate, they continue to be watched by people who may or may not know that he has passed away.

The idea of hysteria can be readily understood as Zizek points us to the situation of reading/writing emails. He writes, “There is actually a great deal of uncertainty in these forms of communication: You can never be sure who is reading your input or in what way.” It is this absence of the flesh-and-blood other, which has escaped us and we are left with only a trace of the other, a trace void of situational context. One can perceive this horror in the threat of spam mail. That is, what appeared to be an email from a friend or relative turns out to be a meaningless yet threatening virus.

I think that ultimately for Zizek, hysteria arises from the uncertainty of addressing the other via cyberspace. “I don’t know what the other wants from me and thus I try in advance to reflect this uncertainty.”

Does this not adequately reflect the problem which we face in our cyberspatial existences? Who is the other who addresses me and what do they want from me? Is this other a real other or simply a ‘chat bot’ conversing through programmed outbursts of grammar.

This interview can be read in its entirety here:
All quotations are taken from this article.