Platform Epistemics, Slavoj Žižek and Digital Reflexivity

It would be hard to imagine two thinkers with seemingly less in common than Margaret Archer and Slavoj Žižek. However one of the reasons I enjoy the latter’s work, in spite of my many reservations about him, relates to the status of reflexivity within their work. In spite of their different terminology, emphasis and interests I believe they are talking about the same thing*. In fact he’s often prone to making Lacanian statements which could easily have come from philosophers like Harry Frankfurt or Charles Taylor if you were to only slightly change the phrasing. For example this claim on pg 106 of Hegel in a Wired Brain echoes the account of Frankfurt and Taylor on the structure of desire. The annunciation of desire, internally or externally, entails a question about whether I desire that desire:

It is in this sense that Lacan emphasizes how desire is always also a desire to desire–every desire is by definition reflexive, it includes a reflexive stance towards itself: when I say “I desire that,” it is never an external report on my immediate propensity since it always includes its own reflexive redoubling (do I desire to desire that?).

In this book Žižek tries to take the idea of Elon Musk’s Neuralink seriously, considering familiar speculations about how this technology might lead to mind uploading into a collective consciousness after the singularity. The thrust of his argument is that it is being assumed that the mind has ‘contents’ which reside in the brain (implausible), as opposed to readable brain states correlating with mind states in a way which facilitates interaction (plausible). I’m less interested in this argument than I am in his reflections on what would get lost in this reduction, as described on pg 139-140:

when they try to describe how our life will be in a Singularity, the partisans of Singularity as a rule show breathtaking naivety: they describe a subject who argues and communicates in the same way as we do, with the same worries and desires as us, just with his powers and cognitions multiplied–we will basically remain the same individuals, just that we will be far stronger and with a vastly wider scope of experiences. The question they never raise is: but what if our inner life, inclusive of our highest spiritual achievements, is rooted in our finite bodily existence and its limitations, so that, with the passage into Singularity, we are deprived of the basic features of our inner life?

This is a point I’ve tried to make in a different setting when arguing about the evisceration of the human involved in the reduction of human agency to its behavioural traces. It cuts out reflexivity, relationality and participation; treating us as distinct atoms crashing into other distinct atoms with patterns which can be studied as a form of social physics. It’s a critique which Howard Becker (and Margaret Archer) have both made of Bourdieusian sociology, albeit one which Jana Bacevic has gradually persuaded me is somewhat unfair:

“Bourdieu’ s big idea was the champs, field, and mine was monde, world—what’s the difference?” Becker asks rhetorically. “Bourdieu’s idea of field is kind of mystical. It’s a metaphor from physics. I always imagined it as a zero-sum game being played in a box. The box is full of little things that zing around. And he doesn’t speak about people. He just speaks about forces. There aren’t any people doing anything.” People in Bourdieu’s field are merely atom-like entities. (It was Bourdieu’s vision that helped inspire Michel Houellebecq’s nihilistic novel of the meaningless collisions of modern life, “The Elementary Particles.”)


As Becker has written elsewhere, enlarging the end-credits metaphor, “A ‘world’ as I understand it consists of real people who are trying to get things done, largely by getting other people to do things that will assist them in their project. . . . The resulting collective activity is something that perhaps no one wanted, but is the best everyone could get out of this situation and therefore what they all, in effect, agreed to.”

What I found so thought provoking about Žižek’s argument was his reliance upon psychoanalytical theory to account for what the singularity post-humans will be missing. He writes on pg 145 that “if the innermost core of our being is not accessible to the stream of our consciousness, and if this repressed part nonetheless expresses itself in what we do or say without willing it (slips of the tongue, etc.), then, paradoxically, the registration of our external acts can reveal more about the core of our being than a direct insight into our mind“. Is this not the premise of big data i.e. the epistemology of platformised traces? This has always been best summed up for me by the subtitle of OK Cupid data scientist Christian Rudder’s book Datacylsm: who we are when we think nobody is looking.  Platform epistemics** rests on the assumption that behavioural traces capture the reality of users beyond the thickets of self-narrative and interpretation, at least if they are captured consistently, in real time and at scale.

It’s ironic that in trying to resist one form of machinic dissolution of the subject (the upload) Žižek epistemically endorses another form of dissolution (the platform). Perhaps the key term in the quote above is that behaviour can reveal more about the core of our being than a direct insight into our mind. But in the case of platform behaviour will it? Earlier he makes the useful point about the horizon of expectation built into digital machines. From pg 102:

In short, what a digital machine can do is to include a horizon of expectation: if a subject is expected to do something (and this expectation is based on its past repetitive acts), then its not-doing it can be registered as a “without.” What a digital machine doesn’t seem to be able to do is to register an original failure, an original not-doing it–a case when not doing something accompanies from the very beginning what a subject does.

Another way of putting this would be the empiricism of platform epistemics. There’s a reliance on behaviour which registers empirically within a data infrastructure, with anything which doesn’t dropping out of the picture. This means that platforms are ill-equipped to register inaction or inertia. They also struggle with anticipation as something which is an inevitable byproduct of reflexivity, as Žižek writes on pg 131:

The contrast is clear here with the case of Oedipus in which the future (the destiny foretold to Oedipus’s father) realizes itself through the very fact that it was anticipated (told to the father) and that the father reacted to this by way of trying to avoid it (leaving the young Oedipus in a forest, expecting that he will die there)–without its anticipation, fate would not actualize itself.

How can we distinguish an anticipatory act from a non-anticipatory act? If all we have is action then the former is indistinguishable from the latter but the implications of it can be very different. Anticipation entails an orientation towards future outcomes, liable to feed into further action beyond a particular point in time. This is I think how reflexivity will tend to elude platform epistemics because it’s one of the mundane ways in which purposiveness can’t register empirically within these systems. There’s an extremely limited sense of reflexivity which digital platforms feed upon in order to analyse user behaviour i.e. the digital reflexivity involved in selecting, connecting and communicating. But there’s a thicker social reflexivity which this behaviour presupposes and expresses, something which remains mostly unthinkable within the epistemic horizons of the platform.

*In a sense I think that Archer top slices it and deals primarily with the sociological, Žižek bottom slices it and deals primary with the psychoanalytical but crucially both retain the the relationality of a subject being reflexive towards a world.

**I use the term epistemics rather than epistemology because this is a matter of practices of knowing rather than theories of knowing. There often isn’t an explicit and/or coherent theory when it comes to platformised knowledge-production, as opposed to the use of available data for operationally relevant purposes.

About Mark