Language delivers its judgment to whoever knows how to hear it…It is the realist’s imbecility, which does not pause to observe that nothing, however deep in the bowels of the earth a hand may seek to ensconce it, will ever be hidden there, since another hand can always retrieve it, and that what is hidden is never but what is missing from its place, as the call slip puts it when speaking of a volume lost in a library. And even if the book be on an adjacent shelf or in the next slot, it would be hidden there, however visibly it may appear. For it can literally be said that something is missing from its place only of what can change it: the symbolic. For the real, whatever upheaval we subject it to, is always in its place; it carries it glued to its heel, ignorant of what might exile it from it…a letter always arrives at its destination.
Jacques Lacan, Seminar on The Purloined Letter, ÉCRITS
Rereading, for a project, Lacan’s Seminar on The Purloined Letter, and a few of the many critical texts that it has generated, I could not help but think of the role of the algorithm in the ways in which “letters” circulate today.
I won’t go into the details of Lacan’s argument, and those of his critics, and his critics’ critics, but suffice it to say that some of the salient points concern the circulation of signifiers. In the Poe story, a letter written to a Queen, containing what is alluded to as compromising language were the King to see it, is stolen under the Queen’s gaze and the unseeing eyes of the King by a Minister who replaces her letter with his own. She then hides that letter by crumpling it up. A Police Prefect who is offered a reward to retrieve the letter then offers to pay an amateur Detective to steal the letter from the Minister, as the police have not been able to locate it in spite of having searched the Minister’s accommodations thoroughly. The Detective surmises that the Minister has “hidden” the letter by leaving it in plain sight, proves himself right on first visit, and arranging for a second visit, manages to distract the Minister and replace the stolen Queen’s letter with one of his own. At no time is the substance of the letter described in the story. It is the signifier which circulates in relation to power and powerlessness, to femininity, the circulation of disclosure and concealment as they draw the characters into the established symbolic order.
Here are diagrams found online, from what looks like a students’ college course site. What can I say? It’s a complex story line:
Lacan, and some of his critics, analyze the story in relation to concepts of floating signifiers, the notion of subjectivity assumed through mis-recognition (i.e. a “letter” arrives at its destination as soon as someone receives it and presumes to be its recipient, correct or not), and the debunking of teleological illusionism (i.e. events that seem to have been pre-ordained are understood as such through a retrospective logic by the one who has received a “letter,” intended for them or not). The concept of mis-recognition, as rarefied as it sounds, actually has a great deal to say about the very popular process of how subjects today do or don’t assume political subjectivity. Zizek’s quote from my previous post is apt. Those who recognize themselves in the Tea Party, for example, do so not necessarily because they assume an informed and educated identification with those anti-government politics. In fact, polls (for whatever they’re worth) indicate that many who identify with categoric anti-government politics (and I don’t mean anti-this administration, but anti-government overall) mis-identify which programs are state-funded at the same time as they identify with the opposing rhetoric. Somewhere in there lies resistance to assuming informed subjectivity, ironic in a discourse about self-determination.
In oblique relation to these analyses, the algorithm today can be viewed as functioning like one of those letters that always arrives at its destination. As adults, today we no longer receive information (and I use the term information here indiscriminately) in a collective sense, other than through those media that cross our paths without our choice – magazines and newspaper headlines in a subway kiosk or doctor’s office, billboards, crawling type in outdoor urban spaces, logos on building surfaces, etc.
The rest of the time we seem to make “choices” by selecting our customized news, entertainment, information, data, material items for consumption, etc. We create our entertainment through subscription processes, particularly as they are now distributed through the internet, rather than cable. Even radio has become exponentially expanded, non-regional, and customized through subscription satellite. And there now exist 50 sites similar to Kickstarter – “crowd-funding” sites that allow one to fund one’s personal future entertainment, reading material, and events. Through the “choices” we make – and including those of material consumption of all kinds – the algorithms cull information from the many sites we use to construct the “letters” that are sent back to us on virtually every page we search online. Customized advertising. When we click on those links, we recognize ourselves as the recipients of those “letters.” Hundreds or thousands of people reading a blog at the same time will be addressed by completely different ads, at the same time as the reading of that blog may partially determine the next advertisement you see, as the algorithm “monetizes” the intricate puzzle pieces of the shared desires, or the desires it presumes to exist. Now, there may be spaces of disjunction in the puzzle games played by the algorithm. The algorithm is a machine we humans have created, and it has its own fallibilities and quirks, as well as its overdeterminations. But the dynamics involved in mis-recognition are not inconsequential.
It has become commonplace for pop and media culture critics to extol the virtues of the digital in relation to political resistance. And some of those claims are legitimate. But the lack of a shared information realm – irrespective even of the question of quality – has its sinister consequences. The dispersion involved in technologized globalization often ends up producing isolation, as it creates pools of coherence. Perhaps that creates a more crucial opening for cultural production, since we are sharing less and less in the political realm.
It seems crucial to see the function of the algorithm as a floating signifier, in addition to its function as an applied instrument of capitalism today. We miss the symptomatic, and symbolic, aspects of the algorithm at our peril.