Reading Facebook Through Lacan

Oliver Mannion. New Zealand Sociology. Volume 26, Issue 1. 2011.

Facebook is a juggernaut. The online social network site currently boasts more than 500 million users, 200 million of whom log in daily, with 700,000 new users joining every day (Facebook 2011; Pingdom 2010). Few social phenomena in contemporary Western society can match the scale, reach and hegemony of Facebook. Like mobile phone use, it has often got to the point where non-users have to justify their non-use, which is usually framed as some sort of resistance where non-users talk about “holding out.”

To see the Facebook phenomenon as superficial is to miss the point. To see it as a site of self-interested rational actors is simply wrong. Given the enormity of the Facebook phenomenon, and the vastness of social theory’s horizon, something of its dimensions ought to be a target of critical theory. Others have examined social networking sites as implicated in the commodification of community and the extraction of surplus value from relationships (Kreps and Pearson 2009; Hodgkinson 2008). Another starting point might be Foucault, with his notions of technologies of the self. But instead of taking this, or the Big Brother and surveillance angle, I will approach the topic via Lacan’s concepts of the big Other, the mirror stage, the unconscious, jouissance and desire.

Using these Lacanian concepts enables an understanding of Facebook subjectivity that goes beyond more surface level ‘looking-glass self’ notions of how we might construct our identities and interact with others on the site (Cooley, 1964). Our Facebook selves operate according to Lacanian logic, a subjectivity that places us into relationships with others and structures our desire and enjoyment. Just as Lacancan help us understand Facebook, Facebook itself can provide an understanding of Lacan’s theories of subjectivity. Furthermore, Facebook reveals an understanding of our offline selves in a similar way toLacan, and illuminates that something more in us than ourselves.

Facebook is promoted as an online “social network” which allows you to “connect and share with the people in your life.” But you can connect and share with email, so why use Facebook? In order to connect and share, Facebook enables profoundly narcissistic elements of identification via user profiles and in the articulation of one’s social network. Narcissim is fundamental for a Lacanian understanding of subjectivity. (Elliott, 1992, p.123). The Facebook site is double sided that, like the Foucauldian panopticon, compels subjects to self-monitoring and internalization of the surveillance gaze, as well as its complete opposite; an externalization of identification and recognition-seeking projected onto a social network (Grassman & Case, 2009, p.183).

In the Facebook profile we are provided with the mirror in which to make our own image. We are captured by this image, and enjoy the pleasure of staging a unity in the face of our offline disunity. Just as we supplement our physical inadequacies with stints, pacemakers, glasses, plastic surgery and mobility scooters, we supplement our inadequate and vulnerable identity with a Facebook profile. Lacan talks of anxiety as emerging at the point when the ego’s imaginary frame breaks down, and what he calls the Real, in its dimension as an object of anxiety par excellence (Lacan & Miller, 1988, p.164), erupts. Anxiety is an experience of the fragmented body, in its pieces, before the mirror stage and the crafting of a self (Jagodzinski, 2004, p.54). Indeed Orr et. al find that shyness, as that cluster of anxiety reactions and inhibitions in the presence of others, is positively related to increased Facebook use (2009). Is it any wonder that Facebook’s birth and rapid growth occurred primarily amongst college graduates and teens who are in that stage of life that is full of struggles for identify and finding oneself and their place in the world?

Facebook’s success in performing its narcissistic function relies on bringing the user into virtual contact with these others, where the user is able to be recognised and reified. Here Facebook clearly reveals the inexorable potency of Kojève’s reading of Hegel. Kojève sees dialectical recognition as the basis for establishing the identities of Master and Slave (1980, p.8). Lacan, following Kojève, would agree that not only do we look for recognition as a confirmation of our existence in an other, but we also gauge the worthiness of our existence in that other person. This is what happens in Facebook. Very rarely do users create a profile and not add any friends. The purpose of our existence on the site is to exist for these others. In Facebook this intersubjectivity is staged from the very beginning via the mutually recognising pact of inviting/accepting a friend request. Becoming a friend always requires the mutual recognition of each other, by another. This begins the process wherein our Facebook profile, or ego, can be further recognised through profile details, photos and the shared area of the profile called “The Wall.”

For dialectical recognition, the existential question at the heart of subjectivity is not “Who am I?” but “Who am I to others? What do you see/want in me?” or “Che vuoi?” (iek, 1989, p.95). This is very much the question of the decentred subject; that what constitutes my being is located outside of me. By bringing the self into contact with the other, Facebook is embodying this fundamental psychoanalytical insight introduced by Freud and much elaborated since. This is not a self that is a closed system, but a self that incorporates elements of the world, including others, in its internal representations of itself. This is highly visible in a literal way in Facebook, where the other can interject elements directly into your profile by, for example, posting photos and tagging (identifying) you in them, and writing on your Wall. More subtly it is present in the way in which Facebook profiles are orientated towards the gaze of others, in ways that seek to capture the recognition and desire of the other. Imaginary identification, as iek says, is always identification on behalf of a certain gaze of the other (1989, p.117).

An examination of Zhao et. al’s (2008) empirical study of the content of 63 Facebook accounts that follows reveals how profiles on the Facebook site fail to represent conscious and unconscious subjects in all their complexity but, like the ego ideal, are objects from and outside of ourselves. These ego ideals are who, and what, users identify with. Zhao et al talk in the social constructivist vernacular about these ego ideals as socially desirable “hoped-for possible” selves and identify three broadly used Facebook profile types (2008, p.1821).

The first Facebook ego ideal is the “popular with friends” profile which explicitly reveals its recognition by the other through the display of photos, particularly the predominant profile picture, which show the self together with others (Zhao, Grasmuck, & Martin, 2008, p.1827). Generally these photos will show how the user is having fun, as if the superego is commanding them with the imperative to enjoy. A second ideal ego could be called the “well-rounded” self. Wedding photos, pictures of the house and family, and descriptions which portray the self active in a wide range of activities comprise these sorts of Facebook profiles. Interests and activities are varied, as in this example:

Fashion/shopping, travelling, NBA/NCAA b-ball, … cooking/food, animals, booze, men, poetry/literature, movies, RED, anything highly sexual, being bronze and devilish, partying, dancing like a fool and not caring, ON DEMAND, my mom-mom” (Zhao, Grasmuck, & Martin, 2008, p.1827).

The third and final ego-ideal type evidenced is “thoughtfulness.” These profiles may have the predominant profile picture showing the user in a non-typical pose with an intra-diegetic gaze not focused on the camera, or they may use a photo or picture of something else entirely, such as an artwork. The quotes section of the profile may be filled with witty or uplifting words which convey a positive upbeat attitude to life:

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow, and learn as if you were to live forever”

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow, and learn as if you were to live forever”

“I do not intend to tiptoe through life only to arrive safely at death” (Zhao, Grasmuck, & Martin, 2008, p.1828).

What are we seeing here, or rather what is not being portrayed? What is missing from these general broad-brush profile types is any sense of antagonism or cleavage in the self. Depressed and anxious personalities and identities of alternative sexualities are hardly ever seen (Zhao, Grasmuck, & Martin, 2008, 1829). For this we can infer that the processes of ego formation on Facebook, like ego identifications formed via the mirror stage, operate under a skewing, or misrecognition of the self. Facebook illuminates this fundamental process of méconnaissance (double misrecognition) elaborated by Lacan. The production of socially desirable selves on Facebook highlights the first type of misrecognition in which the ego is alienated and located in the place of the other (Chiesa, 2007, p.16).

The second, and more fundamental, misrecognition is that the ego does not recognise itself as alienated and in the place of the other. It fails to realise that the ego (like the Master) requires the other (the Slave) to know itself (as the Master). Instead, it posits that I am myself and the other is the other. This gives the ego a sense of unity that it does not in fact possess. Take the common definition of madness as someone who thinks they are not what they are, such as the pauper who thinks he is God. Lacan would turn this around and say instead, that it is no more crazy to believe one is God than to believe one is oneself (Chiesa, 2007, p.16). Or in other words, the ego deludes itself into believing that it is an isolated independent autonomous entity.

Like the offline world, Facebook is a place where our sense of a singular and unique identity is challenged. What we see on Facebook are attempts by users to convey a unified brand image. In doing so the Facebook self, like the ego, tries to ignore that it is decentred and formed in reference to the other via mirror stage identification processes. Users must instead struggle to maintain a single identity between multiple others, be they family, work colleagues, friends or lovers. What for example are we supposed to do when we encounter long lost friends from primary school that try to add us on Facebook? This forces us to confront a mirror image of who we were to them back in the day, a sense of self that is probably completely different and alien to who we think we are now. Some may create multiple Facebook accounts to avoid this, and others, as they try to navigate conflicting versions of themselves in the Facebook profiles, may tend towards a minimal and mainstream acceptable version that accommodates a wide range of others.

Lacanian theories are not only useful for understanding processes of identification on Facebook and in the offline world, but can elucidate interactions between ourselves and others both on and offline. Consider a typical interaction that occurs on the Facebook Wall. Suppose Judith writes on her wall: “I had a lovely weekend with my husband. Thank you Friedrich.” To which Friedrich responds “As did I Judith, as did I.” Of course, by posting these statements on her Wall, Judith and Friedrich are not just communicating to each other, but to all of their friends, all of whom can see the exchange as well. It may seem strange to broadcast this to everyone, for surely if Judith was communicating just to tell her husband how enjoyable the weekend was she could email him the same message or talk to him in person even?

What this example reveals is that any interaction between two individuals always requires a third party, what Lacan calls the Other, as witness. This is similar to saying that in love there are always three parties, two lovers and the idea of love itself which permeates their interaction. This impersonal, non-psychological site of registering what takes place is the function of the Lacanian Big Other at its purest (iek, 2006, p.66).

We can think about it another way. When we post a status update to our Facebook Wall to whom are we writing? It is not to any particular individual. Instead, we presuppose a frame, a big Other when we write on our Wall. In order to speak we need this frame, without it our position as subject is unknown and no social interaction can take place. The existence of actual friends to receive the message is immaterial. This is what Lacan means when he says that a letter always arrives at its destination, or the Other is the locus in which speech is constituted.

The point can also be illustrated by Grassman and Case’s Facebook profile example (2009, p.181). They describe a profile displaying a photo of the user passionately kissing his girlfriend in the sunset in front of a beautiful ocean view. Beneath the picture the user describes the photo, which can be seen by everyone, with elaborations of “butterflies in the stomach” and descriptions of the immense happiness he feels. Such displays for the Other are similar to wedding photos displayed in the lounge of wedded couples’ homes. That point is not to dispute that this user is obviously in love, but considering the way the experience is being narrated and displayed for the gaze of the Other suggests that there is more going on here than just his feelings of love. It is almost that by inscribing such feelings in the register of the Other they become more real, and he becomes even more convinced of his own love.

There is a colloquial expression among Facebook users that your relationship status is only official once it is registered on Facebook. Implicit in this suggestion is a recognition of the power of the big Other as a symbolic authority that can grant this status. What this shows is not a decline in symbolic efficiency, external authority or otherness that provides a point from which to define our subjectivity. Instead, contrary to some cyberspace commentators (Pelletier, 2005, p.319), we see an increase in external authority; a return of the Other that confers identity. Facebook replicates offline communities online and serves to recreate traditional social structures via the use of real names and shared institutional communities (particularly places of work or study). But more than just a replication, the online Facebook symbolic space becomes part of the offline community with effects that flow both ways.

What is this symbolic space, how does Lacan understand it, and how can we understand it in Facebook? Lacan begins with the Saussaurean insight that language is a total system, or in other words a system that governs what speakers say while they remain unconscious of the rules (Homer, 2005, p.37). So when we use language we do so within a structure that consists of grammar, syntax, vocabulary and conventions. The subject becomes enmeshed in a symbolic order that does not in any way address its actual being, but orders its existence according to an unconscious social logic. So to speak of the unconscious, or Symbolic, of Facebook we need to understand its structuring logic and form.

Facebook’s primary logic is one of inclusion. To enter the Facebook world one must have sufficient resources in terms of computer and internet access and time. Joining requires a certain renunciation of privacy. For most people, joining happens at the request of a friend via an invitation to join. And so, before we even log on for the first time, Facebook has a profile waiting for us, a reserved symbolic space that maps out initial connections to all those who have invited us prior to our symbolic birth (Grassman & Case, 2009, p.180). Inclusion in Facebook requires immersion in an already operating social network and power constellation; one that like language provides a subject position for us that is not of our own making. This logic of inclusion structures not only who we are amongst whom, but like the unconscious of language, what we say. Indeed, empirical researchers of online social networks have documented emotional homophily in messages sent via sites such as Facebook (Thelwall, 2010).

But inclusion always implies an exclusion of something else, of those who do not join Facebook. The excluded are taunted in real life for not being part of it, by missing out on invitations to events or not being able to participate in conversations or the flows of information. The owners of Facebook are well aware of this and understand the site’s power to confer social standing, suggesting that if you are not on Facebook you do not exist in your offline communities (Cassidy, 2006). In this sense membership of Facebook is not a choice between two equal alternatives but a false choice devoid of agency, an “enforced volunteerism” (Bigge, 2006). The act of “friending” someone on Facebook is similarly a false choice and has become an act of passive obligation. Being friends on Facebook is seen as a polite gesture and social expectation after even the smallest amount of offline interaction.

It is at the Symbolic level that we find the Lacanian subject. This subject is quite distinct from the ego. Whereas the ego is a narcissistic Imaginary form at the conscious level, the subject appears and disappears unconsciously at the level of the Symbolic. The subject proper is an empty void, but appears to have substance because of symbolic authority. Lacan elaborates: “man (sic) is nothing but a signifier” (1998, p.33). What does he mean? Lacan is positing that the subject only acquires its status as an active agent by its, fundamentally alienating, relationship to the Symbolic order. It is only through the mechanisms of language, the Symbolic and law that individuals can obtain a position in the outer world as a subject, but in doing so they are cut off from aspects of their being.

We can examine the form of the Facebook site and see how this symbolic space operates. Just as the Imaginary is inscribed in the Symbolic for Lacan, our Facebook profile is grounded in a set of signifiers provided by the Facebook symbolic structure. The set of spaces for expressive identification include elements for one’s name, gender, relationship status, employment and education record, and who their friends are. These all anchor users to offline social orders. Activities, interests, music, books, movies and television categories allow and encourage identification with consumption products. Facebook selves are alienated from constitution as ethnic beings for strangely there is no field for ethnicity or nationality. This is something Ginger sees as perpetuating discriminating norms of colour blindness and racialised visual classification of others (2008) by suppressing them. Also contestable is the “Interested in” field, which allows multiple selections from the categories “Men” and “Women.” As the wording of this field allows broad interpretation it is not quite clear what it is for, and could mean sexuality or just “people I would like to meet.” The Symbolic thus gives you the superficial ability to choose a non-hetero-normative sexuality, but because of the vagueness of this field the big Other will never actually accord you that status here, which paves the way for declarations via other means.

But because signifiers only have meaning within their own system, in other words because a signified is another signifier, they have no direct reference to any real world object or phenomenon. Thus the signified inevitably slips beneath the signifier, resisting attempts to fix it permanently. For example the signifier “friend” in the world of Facebook cannot be equated directly with the meaning of an offline friend, but seems to have expanded in scope to include just about anyone. Witness the case of the British judge who declared in a harassment case that being “Facebook friends” does not necessarily make them your friend (Emerson, 2008), or the sad case of the man from Toronto who invited all of his 700 Facebook to a party expecting his Facebook friends to join him but had only one turn up (Niedzviecki, 2008).

This slipping signifier is symptomatic of a gap between the signified and signifier, a lack in the Other. This gap in the Symbolic is structurally always present and means the subject can never be completely subjectivised, which also means the subject has a space for freedom and creativity. Like the subject, the Other is also lacking. The Other can never completely confer a permanent place in the Symbolic order because the Symbolic order itself has holes.

Facebook presents users with this lack in the Other to fill in throughout the site. This is a staging or filling in of what the subject thinks the Other wants. When first joining the site, Facebook presents you with the subject as void, an empty space for one’s profile picture, which used to be a question mark but is now a blank cut-out that invites completion. Activities, interests, music, books, movies and television categories all allow selections from pre-existing items, but users can create their own item page if there is no existing entry. Finding and creating a niche Facebook Page that did not already exist allows one to experience jouissance, in the filling in of the lack, but also to receive recognition for a particular cause, product, or lifestyle choice through the number of people “liking” that page.

It is also in status updates, which display on the Wall and in the News Feed, that we see the constant dialectic between lack and its substitution play out. The fact that the Wall feed does not exist permanently, but vanishes and rolls away, makes it a lure to be continually updated and chased and drives us to continue to speak to it. Filling in a status update provides a certain jouissance, or satisfaction, when one posts a thought and has it commented on or liked by others, but accompanying this can be a certain dissatisfaction in that what was meant was never quite articulated right, or what was said was not appreciated by enough people or appreciated in the right way. In the ambiguity of the signifier we can always find multiple meanings behind a literal one, which makes it impossible to speak literally or occupy the Symbolic without remainder. There is always a certain mismatch between the enunciated and its enunciation (Butler, 2005, p.55). We can never convincingly know what the Other wants and this invites us to speak and fill in that anxiety provoking gap. The subject, confronted with the enigma of the desire of the Other, tries to verbalise this desire via the Wall but can never completely do so. The subject can only repeated speak a Wall, which does not stay fixed, but continually invites further content.

While we may recognise the inherent narcissism of Facebook, and bemoan its lack of meaningful connection, we may still not be able to lose or organise our desire to use it in an alternative way. How, if we see Facebook as so inadequate, as a meagre compensation tolerated in the absence of substantial connection, does it retain its dominance and why would users who think otherwise return to the site? Even if we intellectually disagree, Facebook still sustains our investment through enjoyment and experiences of partial jouissance, which give rise to and shape desire. It is difficult to understand passionate attachment without paying attention to dimensions of enjoyment (Stavrakakis, 2008, p.1053).

Facebook is a guilty addictive pleasure that goes beyond any biological need and is symptomatic of excessive enjoyment or jouissance. It is both partial, because complete satisfaction can never been achieved, and excessive because it goes beyond necessary need, or what is rational, prudent or useful. Jouissance is not able to be symbolized or approached rationally. It is often instead that excess for the sake of which we might do something irrational or counter-productive, like procrastinate on Facebook. We obtain a partial, but never complete, jouissance when we use Facebook which stimulates further desire and reproduces our attachment, and exploitation, by the Facebook site. This is found in the scoptophilic enjoyment of the Facebook stalker whose offline voyeuristic tendencies are intensified by access to countless images of others to devour with their eyes (Fenichel, 1999), or in the tendency to amass jouissance through the accumulation of friends. Receiving recognition from the other is a source of partial jouissance in a society and social matrix of “continuous partial attention” (Burt, 2010), where desire is structured to crave constant responses. No matter how often and fast we check our Facebook Wall, inbox, or blog, we will never be completely satisfied but will continue to look for the next status update, email, or comment to the point where desire desires nothing but itself.

While Facebook constructs the fantasy frame in which we desire connection, it also prevents us from actually having it too. If we did not use Facebook we would have to seek out friends by other more invested means as opposed to being content just lazily reading their Wall. Facebook helps maintain a barrier to the connection we desire by maintaining connection at a sustained distance. Enjoyment via Facebook can fix us in our place as just dispersed nodes in a network and not as real face to face bodies. The iekian notion of interpassivity applies here: instead of actually being friends with someone we can just add them as a Facebook friend and forget about forging any substantial connection with them without feeling guilty! If close friends are those for whom one does not have to keep up appearances, but allow you to relax and escape the aggregated gaze of the Other to some degree and express yourself in a direct and personal way, then Facebook with its porous information boundaries and relaxed privacy defaults seems to be moving us further towards diluted standards of friendship and intimacy.

Zizek uses Lacan to show how cultural products reflect back to us the way we constitute reality (Kay, 2003, p.51). For Zizek, cinema is the art of appearance that shows us how reality constitutes itself. Facebook is the art of the ego, which shows us how we construe our identities and relate to others. The virtualization of our social networks on Facebook makes us aware that our offline world is already minimally virtual and that Lacan’s theories can be used to explain real life too. The value of Facebook, and Lacan, is therefore in helping us realise how we structure our everyday worlds. We are living in a time when the rational man view of the human subject is under attack, not just from the refutation of rational actor economic theory, but from Facebook. It is a refutation of that view of subjectivity that emanates from a rationally calculating cogito, and views individuals as beings of complete free choice. In answer to the individualist libertarian Ayn Rand’s question “Who is John Galt?”—a character without inner conflict but perfectly integrated, indivisible and with complete autonomy of action—we can reply, via Facebook and Lacan: “There is no John Galt.”