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E-scaping Responsibility and Enjoyment Through ChatGPT: A New Unconscious?

Mark G. Murphy

19 March 2023

The advent of ChatGPT has caused a stir. Many conversations revolve around asking questions about putative intelligence, sentience and whether or not it can dialogue with you. Noam Chomsky has just put out a piece arguing for a complete ontological divide between us and artificial intelligence. All of these pieces are missing a key idea, though: artificial intelligence does not function as a substitute for intelligence/sentience as such. No: It seems - and this is reflective of work that Duane Rousselle has just put out - that ChatGPT is an unconscious. Rousselle argues that the conditions for a traditional unconscious of castration have been foreclosed. He illustrates this in terms of the inability to dream; he states that we dream outside of ourselves today, and hence that systems like ChatGPT and the Metaverse operate by offering themselves the very space we have lost due to the old castrative models falling by the wayside.

The Zuckerbergian fantasy of the Metaverse has quietly dissolved.

Interestingly, as of writing, the Zuckerbergian fantasy of the Metaverse has quietly dissolved. What has now captured his attention is the promise of artificial intelligence. From the pandemic onward, we see iterations of these fix-it-all hacks that can give the promise either of comfort now, or in the future. These range from Virtual Reality to Crypto to Artificial Intelligence. We can see here a transition from the imaginary to the symbolic with a new focus where we become less interested in Facebook’s dystopian VR promise - as it essentially makes the future look like an extended vision of the office - to the endless manipulation of the signifier that comes with ChatGPT and OpenAI.

The promises of the latter range from the ability to write essays quickly to making bureaucratic tasks more efficient. These algorithmic models can be used to generate ‘creative’ writing, assist in language translation, provide customer service in online chatbots. In both iterations of digital promise - VR or OpenAI - the future is inconceivable without workstretching across the horizon.

However, as my good friend Barney Carroll has pointed out, the common academic reaction (and, in general, online conversation) has occupied itself with mocking and excoriating the imperfection and mistakes that ChatGPT makes. He suggests that the success of such software is not its accuracy but how enjoyment can be deferred and disavowed: how wecan create something completely and horrifically obscene and not take responsibility for it. Its genius is found in aping the split subject in such a way that we can yet openly say, ‘this is not mine.’ Indeed, we see many cases where people make ChatGPT - and other programmes like the Microsoft Bing version - say egregious things; but the enjoyment comes precisely from disowning agency at such point: pointing at it and saying, ‘look how idiotic it is.’ The idiotic as a term has its etymology in the term private; it essentially means a private person. In short, the privacy of the unconscious always comes with scorn for what we slip up on in the parapraxis. But in a world where monstration, transparency and proximity, a replacement with writing as such over speech, privacy as the condition for responsibility for the unconscious is forcefully booted out the window.

Much has been written about transitioning from an era of desire and constitutive lack to our new era of jouissance; endless culture wars are caught up with questions of who is enjoying, and the fantasy of the other who is illicitly enjoying. These invariably collapse into questions of bad faith interlocutors and accusations of implicit, unconscious bigotry.

Because of this rejection of the space of linguistic ambiguity - the possibility of idiotic space - were we to imagine conversations where: someone says X, then another states that X is bigoted; and in response, a simple, vulgar, gleeful denial… Such a response is, first and foremost, a rejection of ownership of what we say, the rejection of the premise of the unconscious as a place of obscene enjoyment. In Difficulty in the Path of Psycho-Analysis, Freud spoke about how we are not masters in our own houses, but we still must take responsibility for what we say. And - to use a Žižekian rhetorical question - is this precisely not what is at stake here? The fact that - as Rousselle states - we suffer a lack of a lack: a false twist that ultimately results in segregation as opposed to repression, a continuity of topological surfaces that preclude the field social bond: the unconscious.

Last summer, at a conference discussing what it means to Go To the End, we discussed the dissolution of the social bond — the rise of the inverse of the Lacanian concept of the non-rapport of the One All Alone — and its implications: Concepts of singularity, toxic enjoyment, and the lathouse as a replacement for the ability to speak to the other. This foreclosure of the unconscious has resulted in the significant symptom of an inability to speak outwith the inherent aggression of the imaginary register, the need for unwavering certainty in what we write — as opposed to speak — and thus aggression that has typified nearly all political discourse. Lacan spoke of this tendency in Seminar XXI: about those who do not allow themselves to be duped by the unconscious; and how the non-duped err.

The clownish characteristics of the père-verse-ity (turning toward the Father) of much online conservativism is precisely the need to resurrect the Father. From Trump to sundry triumphalist self-help lifestyle gurus, from Andrew Tate to Jordan Peterson, we see that function as prosthetic paternal figures. In these futile events we see attempts at the reactionary resurrection of the prosthetic phallic logic of the ‘All' and an era of invention to perpetuate this logic. Barring questions of the already artificial nature of the classical unconscious, it seems that in failing to manifest a castrating figure, there is now a direct invention of the unconscious without the paternal structuring point.

Elon Musk, with vulgar sci-fi nerd affection, perpetuates the facile utopian notion of cod Artificial Intelligence as offering all-encompassing solution to the various crisis we are, in essence, mitigating. But what is foreclosed always returns in the Real, and the unconscious without the paternal structuring element results in its violent return: Musk presents like Bart on ‘do what you feel day’ while engaging in the most tyrannical oppressive behaviour toward his detractors and employees.

If we can argue that Chat GPT operates as an unconscious without responsibility, what will its further ramifications be? In all these functions, it offers a scapegoat. Just as the proverbial scapegoat was taken on the Day of Atonement, to be burdened with the sins of the collective before being driven out into the wilderness. Whereas reactionaries goad AI into politically correct diatribes, progressives evince its political improprieties. It is made to symbolically manifest the transgressions that shame & outrage the community, and in so doing take them out of us.

At that point, we chip in and say, ‘That wasn’t me! It was my AI.’

The point, however, is that these stupidities, slips, mistakes and moronic myopias — its constant apologies for getting stuff wrong — are precisely its value. AI is the mechanised infantry taking our place in the trenches of the culture war, which we can now dig without having to occupy in fear of annihilation. Just as we create an online avatar through which to engage the other and affiliate with online fraternities, might we not similarly use AI personas to take over these risky functions when we grow tired, in the same way bots are used to cheat in competitive online video games, or a a driverless car might navigate the critical journey to our destination? Imagine a situation where we see a progressive avatar and a reactionary avatar on Twitter — both powered by ChatGPT — arguing over some Big Cultural Issue that everyone is up in arms about. We just sit back and cheer on our digital AI persona until it says something completely unacceptable. At that point, we chip in and say, ‘That wasn’t me! It was my AI.’

In situating ourselves amidst these new dynamics, the prosthetic unconscious suggests in turn the possibility of a prosthetic listener/reader: Does the panic and enjoyment surrounding plagiarism and its relation to OpenAI indicate the need for an artificial analyst? Youtube videos show students how to use ChatGPT in such a way as to evade university detection systems; the question raised of university bureaucracies is how it might evaluate, police and adjudicate — with ever more parsimonious and precarious human intellectual labour resources — the problem of artificially intellectual currency. Do we not see that we are fantasising about the analysts position, who tells us we have an unconscious in our speech?

Inasmuch as all of these phenomena can be considered ‘mistakes,’ they won’t be gotten rid of. But they will become more pronounced, creative and surreal, signifying something of the lost dream of work we yearn for.

ChatGPT and OpenAI represent an unconscious without responsibility, and this represents a threat to the social bond. It offers no solution to segregation and the fundamental isolation and antagonism we still suffer from, since without responsibility, there can be no post-givenness. This is a term that Rousselle uses to articulate the minimal coordinates that allow the possibility of forgiveness to take place, even retroactively. Post-giveness is the field of ambiguity and linguistic uncertainty that allows a reaching out to the other in the field of what is known as the non-rapport. It thus deals directly with the question of impossibility as we relate to the other. It is about dealing with our neighbour’s opaque monstrosity that can never be effaced even as we reach out to them on the best terms. As a theologian - I see post-giveness as synonymous with the concept of Grace, but obviously, Rousselle is articulating something of its necessity without referring to its metaphysical realism. As such – realism or not -without this, response-ability is foreclosed.

I suppose this is why - reflecting on my recent work - I have become fascinated with Julian of Norwich. Here is a person completely and utterly isolated in a grim and broken world. However, even in this foreclosure of the world, she still manages to recover the coordinates of responsibility, love and forgiveness. She was walled in with death. And yet, she still took responsibility for what’s in her house, and from there - in radical love- she says All will be well, all will be well. It’s a radical act of dupery- a radical fixion if you will - that allows the structure (of the social bond to be). Ultimately, these exotic algorithms can say sorry as much as they want for each blunder they make; it doesn’t matter.

In the same way, corporate apologies don’t matter. The blunder only matters if there is the possibility of response-ability. The birth of an agency that says ‘Yes, that’s mine.’ A radical act of affirmation that is born from love, as Lacan makes clear in the 24th seminar.


I thank Barney, Wanyoung and Duane for their helpful edits and conversations on this article.



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