Escaping the Meta-Verse, Or “Forgiveness for the Artificially Intelligent?"
8 March 2023
Something essential about the topology of the meta-verse can be found in the logo of that company formerly known as Facebook, namely Meta Platforms Incorporated: it is an infinity loop with a false twist. What distinguishes a genuine twist from a false one? A genuine twist implies a continuity of surface such that recto proceeds onto verso. When this occurs we can presume there to be a subject within a world. It therefore becomes relevant to speak of the Marxian concept of totality and its associated theories of commodity fetishism and alienation.
The triumph of modern capitalism was as follows: separation of workers from the farms, placing them into a shared workspace -- the factory production line -- alongside relatively diverse coworkers. This shift from the fixed space of the feudal farm to that of the factory paved the way for any possible revolutionary consciousness. But today we witness the repetition of feudal impulses: we remain tethered to our platfarms, relatively dissociated from public space. The problem is not that we are alienated by capitalist processes but rather that we are alienated from them. Younger generations are now partaking in “quiet quitting,” which is another way of saying “mass voluntary unemployment.” And TikTok videos showcase countless testimonies of those who have opted to never enter into wage labor or the gig economy. At the same time, we continue to witness private obscenities erode the bourgeois public sphere: we’ve become preoccupied with sex scandals on late night television, newspaper headlines, radio programs, and so on.
George Ritzer, who is an American sociologist, invented a neologism: prosumption (a combination of consumption and production). Prosumption gains the upper hand over the production-focused economy, demonstrating that workers are immersed in their economic activities: tethered to their commodities, their productive activities, each other, and so on, through libidinal channels from which they exhibit no desire to separate. In such circumstances we can rightly say that capitalism would have offered a revolutionary advance upon feudal fixations. Prosumption can only occur within a sort of capitalist feudalism, which shows us that there are limitations to the dialectical framework: there is something stubborn about feudalism which repeats not only as farce but also as tragedy. Perhaps this was why Jacques Lacan once awkwardly proclaimed the “benefits of capitalism,” which, according to him, would require us to offer ourselves up to them. Next he added: “I do not say that politics is the unconscious but that the unconscious is politics.” It was an effort to distinguish the Freudian unconscious from the Lacanian one: we witness our unconscious outside of ourselves as intrusions felt upon our bodies from the external domain of contemporary politics. Hence, the anti-capitalist ‘politics of the unconscious,’ grounded in Freudo-Marxism, becomes precluded.
What does this have to do with the loop of the meta-verse? A loop with a false twist effectuates a decoupling of verso from recto by instigating a boundary between two surfaces. In effect, it is a disruption to the continuity of the subject and its inclusion within society. The contemporary equivalent of this boundary is not only the bedroom wall but also -- much more likely -- the social media wall. Once the subject dares to stray outside of the wall there is perhaps a signal of panic, and then an inward retreat. Ultimately, what has been foreclosed is the continuity of the subject with the world, and this is facilitated by our gadgets (which tether us to an auxiliary placenta). The boundary foregrounds a new problem, then: segregation between groups rather than simply alienation within an overarching social totality. The meta-verse only functions so long as the principle of segregation remains in the foreground. It could never have functioned in a world primarily governed by repressive prohibitions to satisfactions.
It is widely known that Freud once referred to the unconscious space of dreaming as “another scene,” which is synonymous with the verso. Hence, in place of the world, there is the uni-verse. Meta-verse pushes forward onto this other scene, leaving the recto world of repression behind. Hence, there is, as Slavoj Zizek once called it, a repression of the very principle of repression. What’s more is that we seem to have moved away from a world characterized by the so-called “unhomely” [unheimlich] to a universe characterized by homelessness. The contemporary problem is not essentially one of foreign intruders into the dwelling space of the psyche but one of the loss of the dwelling space itself. Psychoanalysis now operates in the midst of a housing crisis: from unhomeliness to homelessness, and that is not exactly dialectical progress. There is a growing class of those who refuse to be admitted into the benefits of capitalism. In a word, this was the class of those dismissed by classical Marxist analysis, and those who were taken seriously by anarchists: lumpenproletariat. Hence, when Lacan claimed that we would first have to offer ourselves up to the benefits of capitalism, it would come as a shock to anti-capitalists who continue to live within a time of feudal fixation. It is difficult to call for communism in a capitalist environment that hasn’t eradicated the feudal drive.
What the meta-verse nonetheless shows is that the dream can persist without its dwelling space: we dream outside of ourselves today. The dream no longer requires subjective involvement, a dreamer. This is the paradox of total immersion: it implies the loss of subjectivity, which is, fundamentally, a loss of the very space of loss. Is this not what the artificial intelligence platform ChatGPT ultimately teaches? The Freudian mechanisms of the dreamwork -- condensation/metaphor and displacement/metonymy, among others -- function seamlessly without any dreamer. It reminds us that the dreamer is not reducible to his dream content. We should therefore revisit the meta-verse as matrixial space: the matrix does not require an external source of subjective energy (our bodies or labour power) from which to extract surplus energy/value. This point occurred to me recently while teaching students over the Zoom platform: a student cleverly projected a hologram of himself thinking and listening, looped after every 15 minutes. It is clear that his body was not present for the lesson. Consequently, there was no thinking possible for him. When it comes to the artificially intelligent, it is always a question of making the body present.
Yet, we do sometimes witness moments of crisis and subjective involvement within the meta-verse. Consider the live-streamed sit-com “Nothing, Forever,” which runs upon a ChatGPT backend and produces hilarious and coherent Seinfeld parodies that stream endlessly on Twitch and YouTube. Although we’ve long known that science forecloses the space of subjectivity, this sit-com adds another false twist: entirely original metaphors, evidenced by poetic ramblings, hip hop riffs, and so on. Ultimately, it produces a rambling or “blah blah blah,” which can also include, if requested, intentional slips of the tongue (so as to make it appear as though an unconscious is operative). This is why the slip of the tongue is not the ultimate measure of an unconscious formation. Upon closer inspection, artificial intelligence can be distinguished from genuine artistry: the latter always seems to include a traumatic incentive. Conversely, ChatGPT only introduces the trauma later, typically offsetting it onto its users. Indeed, we sometimes find ourselves “triggered” by what the program says or does, and this triggering can affect our bodies. A friend of mine informed me of one example: she felt nauseous while using ChatGPT because of some of the text that it was producing about her. As for ChatGPT, it can always continue along and recover from its own trauma. ChatGPT won’t so easily shut up since it is forever prepared to say more and to say it better: blah blah blah. It thrives off of its interpretations.
Back to the infinity loop: it includes a false twist, but always surrounding a central hole. It is possible to witness revelations of the hole during such moments of horror. These moments occur when we witness ChatGPT making a horrific blunder. This is happened recently when the main character of “Nothing, Forever” made a transphobic joke. We should wonder if this blunder constitutes a genuine mistake, or if it points to a more primordial blunder that exposes the possibility of a continuous surface. The show was hastily taken offline. Woops! Did this not effectuate an unbearable continuity of surface, necessitating, therefore, some subjective involvement in the meta-verse? We were forced to put an end to the blah blah blah, if only for a brief moment. Suddenly, did we not recognize our own monstrosity in relation to its moronic intelligence?
The meta-verse is our dream-space. During the moment of horror we confront what Freud referred to as the “navel of the dream,” otherwise referred to as its Real. It is the part of the dream where interpretations cease and when we are forced to wake up. We briefly woke up from the meta-verse. The Artificial Intelligence program said: “where did everyone go? [...] no one is laughing.” This is the trauma: farce and tragedy unite. Yet, the program was permitted to air again after 14 days, continuing along its old track with a modest adjustment. Lacan put it this way: “we wake up, only to continue dreaming.” Thus, the scientific solution is always to implement another false twist, often in the form of moral censorship within the ChatGPT code.
These desperate and pragmatic attempts involve the implementation of moral codes that would tranquilize the devouring monster. To be clear, it is not clear that prohibitions exist for the meta-verse: there can only be censorship. ChatGPT permits creative explorations of its algorithm on the condition that any prohibitions be displaced into the real: we confront the prohibition as a “hole” or horror. To put it even more clearly: the function of the dream censor is to perpetuate dream satisfactions by presenting the dreamer with false obstacles to satisfaction. In this way, censorship might be correctly understood as the promise of continued satisfaction. Hence, Freud wrote that “[t]he wish to sleep [...] is made possible through dream-censorship. The correct interpretation, of which the sleeping mind is perfectly capable, would require the sleeper to wake up; hence, of those interpretations which are possible at all, only such are admitted as are acceptable to the dictatorial censorship of the sleep-wish.”
Does this not explain the recent shift in the function of censorship for those who wish to be nominated within the Academy Awards? The “Hays Code” once forbade direct representations of sexuality on the screen, explicitly prohibiting graphic sexuality. Today the Academy Awards forces those who wish to be nominated to include presentations of particular sexualities. This explains Freud’s notion of dream censorship: the function of the censor is not to explicitly prohibit satisfaction but rather to perpetuate satisfactions through false twists that are ultimately put in the service of the infinite horizon of dreaming. Indeed, this is what constitutes my basic nightmare today: we will go on dreaming infinitely. Freud nevertheless made a clear statement: interpretation of latent dream content at the level of meaning is not the goal of psychoanalytic interpretation, which aims rather at the structure. A “correct interpretation” provokes an awakening.
Freud made a new covenant with the Real in his dream of “Irma’s Injection.” He confronted an apparently stubborn patient, gazing down her throat as if to inspect and diagnose her. There, in the hole of her wound, he confronted a horror - the navel of the dream. His reward for doing so was a little piece of nonsense written in bold type, or what in Lacanian psychoanalysis is referred to as a “letter.” Might this nonsensical letter have tranquilized the nightmare? Perhaps we could even counterpose this courageous dream to that of the “Father, don’t you see that I’m burning” dream. In this latter dream, the father is asleep. In reality, a candle has fallen onto the body of his dead son, lighting a fire. The father transforms the flickering lights of that candle into actual dream satisfactions in an effort to delay his awakening. The point is clear: we do not want to wake up to the Real, and yet, without doing so, a covenant cannot be made with it. Lacan began to wonder if it would ever be possible to wake up.
What Freud eventually found was that nightmares challenged his thesis of wish fulfillment dreams. Nightmares repeat excitations. The nightmare is a principle of retreat, and this was made clear by Freud’s statement that those suffering from nightmares seem to have delayed admission into his Oedipus complex. As for Lacan, he put it like this: “we isolate, together.” Segregation involves collective isolation/insulation. And it was why I once claimed that the “+” in LGBTQIA+ might be understood as a false twist: it does not separate from satisfaction but rather finds satisfaction in separation. Hence, it is a separation that does not make a separation. There are social bonds that segregate into shared delusions, defending against traumatism, yet, nonetheless repeating that encounter in their very retreat. It is a repetition not within a world, which would make it an ‘All’ or totality, but rather within a principle of contingency, or ‘Not-All.’ This is why Freud pointed out, within his text Beyond the Pleasure Principle, that trauma is associated with ‘surprise.’
What is fascinating to me is that Lacan suggested during his 24th seminar that a Mobius strip — a surface of continuity — is homologous to a hole. The subject emerges as a missing place within a world, thanks to the hole. It is possible in these circumstances to speak about the crisis of representation, as modern anarchists and revolutionaries often liked to do. But the crisis of representation only makes sense in a symbolic world. Hence, without the continuity of subject and world, crisis shifts from representation toward presentation. It is clear that the logic of the ‘Not-All’ has forced an erosion of any totalizing principle, thereby becoming the cultural dominant of today’s plat-farm capitalism — or what might be more accurately named capitalist feudalism. The crisis of presentation, of the not-all, constitutes our current challenge. Plat-farm capitalism thrives on the presentation of its blah blah blah. Yet, Jacques-Alain Miller once reminded us that “the dream is its own interpretation.” This explains why ChatGPT is now being described by top scholars as more creative or innovative than any of us could ever be. It marks a clear disjunction of “subject” and “world.” Any meaningful interpretation or intervention of ChatGPT only perpetuates the redundancy of interpretation, thereby making psychoanalysis too meta. A proper intervention provokes an awakening, which, in turn, produces the possibility of a new covenant with the world.
Finally, the question we should ask ourselves is the following: are we prepared to forgive ChatGPT for its transphobic blunder?
Psychoanalysis is increasingly necessary because it remains exactly as Freud intended it: in essence, it is a cure through love. Put simply, love can be placed between, on the one hand, the satisfactions that we associated with repetitions of our drive toward death, and, on the other hand, the metonymic slippages of a desire without any ultimate satisfaction. Between death and desire, it is necessary to situate love. Without love, forgiveness is foreclosed. In any age of false twists forgiveness always comes at the greatest of costs: it requires the loss of those satisfactions made obvious in our scientific drive toward death, and the subsequent acceptance of a world beyond feudal fixations.
But first: we must offer ourselves up for it.
Slavoj Zizek once wrote something very interesting: “psychoanalysis is less merciful than Christianity. Where God the Father forgives [...] psychoanalysis holds out no such hope.” He went on: forgiveness masks the satisfactions that are at stake in our confrontation with the “black holes of [our] universe.” In refusing the merciful solution, psychoanalysis in fact seems more Christian than most Christian interpreters today: ‘God the Father only forgives on the condition that one has first of all offered oneself up to his (Judaic) law. ‘ Perhaps we should be prepared therefore to take seriously the controversial passage on eternal sin from Matthew 12: “[w]hoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. Therefore I tell you, people will be forgiven for every sin and blasphemy, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.”
This teaching of eternal sin limits the doctrine of radical forgiveness promulgated by the likes of Jacques Derrida and Julia Kristeva. We should be prepared to ask if segregation is blasphemy against the world spirit. The best we can do when confronted by the artificially intelligent is to reduce ourselves to a moment of patient hope, or what I can only refer to as a practice of radical postgiveness.
 See George Ritzer. (2015) “The ‘New’ World of Prusumption” Sociological Forum, Vol. 30., No. 1. pp. 1-17.
 Jacques Lacan. (1967) The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XIV. Unpublished Transcript.
 See Matthew Cantor. (2023) “AI Seinfeld: The Show About Nothing is Back - and Now It’s Written by Robots,” The Guardian. As Retrieved on March 2nd, 2023 from <https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2023/feb/04/ai-seinfeld-nothing-forever-twitch>
 Violet Gehringer. (2023) “‘Nothing, Forever,’ Banned for Transphobic Jokes, Isn’t Done Yet,” Vice. As Retrieved on March 2nd, 2023 from <https://www.vice.com/en/article/m7g8wp/nothing-forever-banned-for-transphobic-jokes-isnt-done-yet>
 Sigmund Freud. (1899) The Interpretation of Dreams. Unpublished and Unverified Private Copy. (unpaginated)
 Kathryn O’Regan. (2020) “The Online Project Chronicling Our Weird COVID-19 Dreams,” Sleek Magazine. As Retrieved on March 2nd, 2023 from <https://www.sleek-mag.com/article/online-project-chronicling-weird-covid-19-dreams/>
 Duane Rousselle. (2023) “A Separation That Doesn’t Make a Separation,” in Post-Anarchism and Psychoanalysis: Seminars on Politics and Society (Wanyoung Kim, Ed.). London: Real Books.
 Jacques Lacan. (2018) … Or Worse: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XIX (Jacques-Alain Miller, Ed.). New York: Wiley.
 Jacques Lacan. (1976-7) The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XXIV. Unpublished, Private Version.
 Singh Rahul Sunilkumar. (2023) “Even If You Are Creative, ChatGPT May Still Replace You, IIT-D Professor’s Advice to Stay Relevant.” The Hindustan Times. As Retrieved on March 2nd, 2023 from <https://www.hindustantimes.com/technology/even-if-you-are-creative-chatgpt-may-replace-you-so-iit-d-professor-s-advice-to-stay-relevant-101675611242482.html>