Writing Technologies

‘Hard Drives… ?’

Julian Murphet

Lacan alerted us to the unequivocal role of the Other’s desire in the material constituency of the subject: ‘the subject finds anew in the Other’s desire the equivalent of what he is qua subject of the unconscious’. 9 As an ‘effect of speech’, the subject is perforce a moment of the Other’s desire; where things become interesting is at the point where this pervasive ‘desire of the Other’ dovetails with and services a Trieb, or drive, in the historical subject. In Žižek’s snappy formulation, ‘drive is not an infinite longing for the Thing which gets fixated onto a partial object – “drive” is this fixation itself in which resides the “death” dimension of every drive’.10 In a culture (like ours) of the drive, the constitutive failure of social subjects to gain any durable satisfaction is turned into an ironic triumph, by way of the empty, circular repetition of the fixation itself; something the computer has been particularly good at installing, as a modus operandi of the technology, within the Lebenswelt. Computers give nothing substantial, of course, but this giving of nothing itself is precisely addictive and perversely pleasurable to a delirious extent. In no other technology is the ‘circulation around the Void’ 11 so fundamentally a part of the process; print was comparatively ‘substantial’, while handwriting obviously gestured at an irreducible presence. The hard drive of digital technology is the Void around which contemporary jouissance (and writing) circulates, and the drive of the subject trapped in orbit around it is more than just a paronomasic echo of it, but a looped modality of its very technicity.

Let us say that the omnipresence of digital technology in the production of writing today (not only its practice, but the subsumption of all previous writing within it: a total digitalisation of writing) is adequate to an historical moment at which the Trieb as such would appear to have displaced the earlier, Oedipal mechanics of desire in the social body; a moment, that is to say, in which the hard drive of late capitalism is now the signifying cause of all fleeting and contingent subject-formation. The passage of all writing through the ‘Other-Unconscious’ of the digitally organized, electronic hard drive, suggests that the incorporeal status of the ghostly, streaming text on our monitors shares something uncanny with Lacan’s ‘lamella’: the shapeless ‘organ’ through which the contemporary subject most dramatically makes ‘his death the object of the Other’s desire’. 12 To the extent that, as Derrida put it, thanks to this ubiquitous drive we all inhabit a ‘World Wide Web that a network of computers weaves all about us, across the world, but also all about us, in us’, 13 so are we installed within the purest message-stream of the Other’s desire as an open importuning or solicitation of the death drive.

At the same time, one cannot help sensing at play here a cryptic reincarnation of the central problematic of materialist semiotics: namely, the passage of a dynamic, diachronic signifier through the synchronic social langue whose ‘layers of code’ now outnumber Barthes’ ‘five’ by an order of many megabytes. 14 This ineffable multiplicity of ‘layered codes’ in the hard drive is surely an apt metaphor for the mediation of all meaning by an absent but necessarily material totality of socio-linguistic ‘structure’, without which not even a glimmer of signification could succeed. This detour of all semiotic material through the ‘internal demon of the apparatus’, this crudely material, mediated incorporeality of digitised writing today, reminds us with a start of the unsettled debt of structuralism itself. For here we are directly confronted by the enormously unsettling fact that ‘English’, as it were, is not really the language we believe we are using when we type the sentence ‘the cat sat on the mat’ into a word processing program and witness the appearance of ‘those same words’ on our screens. Rather, ‘English’ is like the parole we speak into the hard drive, and which it deigns to speak back, while all the time the deeper langue of those ‘layers of code’ in some orchestrating other script, about which we (or I) know nothing, is generating the entirety of these effects of language. The correlations here with the good old Marxist dialectic between superstructure and base are hard to miss; it is time again to rethink this opposition in terms of speech-act and code, signification and technology, meaning and economics; to accept the prostration of our ‘speech’ before this almighty Other of code.

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9. Jacques Lacan, "Position of the Unconscious," in Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English, trans. Bruce Fink (New York: Norton, 2006), p. 715.

10. Slavoj Žižek, The Parallax View (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2006), p. 62.

11. Žižek, Parallax View, p. 63.

12. Lacan, Écrits, p. 720.

13. Derrida, Paper Machine, p. 27.

14. Roland Barthes, S/Z, trans. Richard Miller (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990), pp. 18-22 ff.

  Hard drives