Against the lures of the imaginary, Jacques-Alain Miller has defined psychoanalysis as “an invitation for the subject to abstract himself from the ineluctable modality of the visible and renounce the image in favour of the signifier.”[1] How crucial a clinical orientation this is, in our Society of the Spectacle, becomes clear when we consider the recent phenomenon of ‘suicide porn’…

In its juxtaposition of sex and the passage à l’acte, this precise phrase invokes the digital mediation of the death-drive today. According to the Urban Dictionary, ‘suicide porn’ involves going online to look “at dangerous objects or places and to fantasize over causing yourself harm/death using them. The warm feelings this brings up”, the dictionary claims, “are psychologically gratifying, rather than sexual.” Of course, our focus on jouissance exposes the falsity of this last distinction: the signifier ‘porn’ is far from being a mere analogy here, and it indexes an enjoyment that will not be psychologised.

The issues raised by ‘suicide porn’ have risen to prominence in the UK because of the tragic case of Molly Russell. Aged just 14, Molly took her own life in November 2014 after months of viewing ‘self-harm porn’ on her mobile phone via her Instagram account. Sadly, Molly’s case is not an isolated one. In January 2018, Ursula Harlow, aged only 11, also committed suicide following prolonged exposure to suicide porn sites, prompting her mother to say “if I could turn back time I’d destroy her phone”. Behind a pretence of mutual self-help, these kinds of sites encourage users to swap hints and tips on the best methods for ending one’s life. Many also involve exchanging graphic images of self-harm: lurid ‘selfies’ of lacerated arms dripping with blood prompt appreciative comments from fellow ‘cutters’, along with helpful advice on how and where to make the incisions.[2] Molly’s father, Ian Russell, accused Instagram of “helping her to die”, not simply because it did little to curb the proliferation of such sites on its platform, but also because its algorithms ensured his daughter’s entrapment within an “echo chamber” of suicidal voices. He is right! Recursive data-profiling means that once you search for these sites (or indeed stumble across them), Instagram’s software points you in the direction of more of the same, effectively interpellating you as a ‘fan’ of suicide porn. Social networking in this instance means connecting around a common identification with death, the speech of each echoing in a self-enclosed bubble of the imaginary. It seems that Molly’s initial online search for support with her depression took a tragic turn because algorithms amplified exponentially the echo of her own complaint (in precisely the way Lacan argued against).

Is this not a new algorithmic mutation of the ego? The ego has always been a kind of iterative sameness machine, and as Freud’s shrewd reference to the myth of Narcissus warned, at its heart lies a deadly effect of capture by the image. But the digital redistribution of narcissism seems to have unleashed its mortifying aspect with new ferocity. Where once the mirror stage required a symbolic Other to pin the ego to an image in an imago, there is little or no such symbolic mediation now. Instead, the ego is delegated to a computational Other whose algorithms are programmed primarily to make jouissance circulate as a surplus from which capital can profit. The result is not so much subjects of the signifier divided by alienation as it is consumers of a limitless jouissance that also consumes them.

In this sense, we should probably be sceptical about the attempts to make another Other exist that could police the problem that ‘suicide porn’ names. The UK government’s Science and Technology Committee has responded by launching an enquiry into the links between social media usage and young people’s mental health, something about which the Education Policy Institute already produced a report in 2017. The UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock even arranged a personal meeting with Adam Mosseri, CEO of Instagram, in order to seek assurances about the platform’s response to Molly’s case. Whilst Mosseri made a number of no-doubt sincere commitments – for example, “Sensitivity Screens” that will blur images of self-harm, as well automated prompts for people who search for them to contact the Samaritans – these measures seem impotent before what some social media theorists have referred to as “algorithmic governmentality”.[3] Foucault’s concept of governmentality was always meant to push beyond state-centric models of top-down power, towards a microphysics of dispersed and productive power. How much more pertinent does this become as we voluntarily submit ourselves to datafication by the likes of Google and Facebook? As is clear in the area of high finance and the stock markets, computational transactions have an inhuman agency that now far outstrip any individual’s ability to know, let alone control, them. The University Discourse ultimately real-ises the S2 of a knowledge decoupled from an S1 that would master it. Hence the new algorithmic ego.

To return to the invaluable clinical indication Miller’s comment gives us, it is arguably only the discourse of the analyst that can support the subject’s attempts to extract itself from the “ineluctable modality of the visible”[4] which has such deadly effects today. Renouncing the image in favour of the signifier means risking a step outside algorithmic echo chambers, the better to hear the speech of the Other.


[1] Miller, Jacques-Alain, “The Sovereign Image”, The Lacanian Review: Hurly Burly, No. 5, Summer 2018, p. 42.

[2] This recalls Lacan’s comment on ‘self-flagellation’ in Seminar XVII: “I am speaking of the mark on the skin, which, in this fantasy, inspires nothing other than a subject identifying itself as the object of jouissance” (Lacan: 2007. p. 49)

[3] See also Galloway, Alexander and Thacker, Eugene, The Exploit: A Theory of Networks (Electronic Mediations), Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2007.

[4] This beautiful phrase was in fact coined by James Joyce in Ulysses.


Image: Vicky Leta / Mashable