Close to the start of the year, I reflected on the plight of language under digital conditions. I was motivated by the sense that “something of consequence is happening to ordinary language, the lifeblood of human thought and action, under digital conditions.” More specifically, I proposed the following thesis: “that having built our political structures on the assumption that human experience and human society can be ordered by human language and speech, we may now be suffering through the discovery that the world we have built is no longer responsive to either.” [emphasis added by me]
To put this in parlance that has grown increasingly familiar in the intervening months, the human-built world is already unaligned to human values and well-being because it operates at a scale and according to a logic that elude our comprehension and confound our agency. […] we may all be forgiven for feeling as if we are the idiots whose words, however full of sound and fury, finally signify nothing, and, more to the point, effect no change in the world.
As I read this and the rest of the newsletter, I thought that Sacasas was saying something about something often discussed in the Lacanian world —how the symbolic (i.e., the signifier, the Law, the social order, etc.) has become increasingly weaker.
The symbolic, which is based on the laws of language that enable people to speak and be understood, has traditionally been built up around “human values and well-being.” The fraying of the symbolic has led to the decaying of social and political systems established to protect what humans value and the overall well-being of the human species.
Considering all this through the insights of the Borromean clinic, we could say the link between the imaginary and the real has grown in strength, while what links the symbolic to the imaginary and the real has become far more precarious.
The result of this is the knot that holds human society together is getting weaker and weaker over time.
More Imaginary & Less Symbolic:
Today, captured and shared images that invoke powerful emotional effects have become how many people try to influence the world around them. This is an imaginary intervention that has a real effect. Rather than try to work through the eruptions of violence via language —by talking and writing— people are more and more frequently using technology to spread the images of violence…
(Yes, we do still speak and write. But the idea of long-from discussions, debates, essays, and so on., which allow for a slow but deep understanding of complex, nuanced situations, has been replaced by short bits of text designed to grab attention more than explain a position.)
The effect of this is that people live in a world where the stability provided by the symbolic can’t be used to structure life in the ways it was used in prior forms of human civilization.
Sacasas goes on to write,
It seems that language itself is being likewise banished to the realm of the private, which is to say that, whatever pretenses to the contrary, real power no longer resides in ordinary human speech.
This makes me think of the role psychoanalysis plays or can play in our broken world.
Going to a psychoanalysis session is going to a private space where one can speak for a long time in a way that might allow for the labor of working through who and what we are relative to who and what we might become.
Having the possibility of such a place has always been important. I don’t know if it is more important today… but I suspect it is.