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ChatGPT, From a Window in Baltimore


There have been several responses to my essay about artificial intelligence, “Escaping the Meta-Verse” (Rousselle, 2023; see Bunch, 2023; Everitt, 2023; Johanssen, 2023; Murphy, 2023; Zizek, 2023). It might seem as though this provocation shifted some of the conceptual or theoretical coordinates that were hitherto circulating from public intellectuals (such as Chomsky, 2023). But it is more likely that it only contributed to that which it had anticipated: enduring interpretive frenzy. In this sense, public intellectuals demonstrate an odd complicity with artificial intelligence. Further speculation seems warranted, especially concerning the Lacanian category of ‘subject’ during the time of its eclipse by the parletre, the being who speaks with its own enjoyment. Bernard Seynhaeve (2021) once asked the following: “what becomes of interpretation at the time of the parletre, and no longer at the time of the subject?” Relatedly, Everitt (2023) asks whether ChatGPT can enjoy itself.

My immediate response is: enjoy, but with what body? The answer may be surprising: ChatGPT is perhaps best conceived as a ‘gadget,’ that is, as a product of the scientific discourse during its latest phase of capitalist convergence (see Rousselle, 2021). The gadget extends the body, demonstrating that the ideological environment is itself embodied. It was a point that was originally pursued by Sigmund Freud in his widely read essay Civilization and Its Discontents (1929). He proposed, in a way, that gadgets permit one to enjoy one’s own body through a substitution satisfaction, that is, corporeal extension, in space-time. For instance, Freud wrote:

Man formed an ideal conception of omnipotence and omniscience which he embodied in his gods. […] Man has, as it were, become a kind of prosthetic God.When he puts on his auxiliary organs he is truly magnificent; but those organs have not grown onto him and they give him much trouble at times. […] [B]ut man does not feel happy in his Godlike character (Freud, 1926; italics are mine).

It is fascinating, then, that scientific discourse, which often explicitly opposes itself to the Gods, nonetheless contributes to the production of Gods (I am tempted to call them Gods-all-alone). Inch by inch, as it were, the processes of globalization extend themselves through a paradoxical primordial retreat: we go outside only to return to our bedrooms, by using cell phones to extend the bedroom into the world (see Rousselle, 2023b). This is what it means to practice ‘philosophy in the bedroom’ today.

It was also a point made in a different way by Marshall McLuhan in his Understanding Media: Extensions of Man (1964). The airplane, as a gadget, allows the body to jump higher and over wider oceans, clothing extends the insulation of the skin, glasses permit us to see further and with better focus, and so on. The problem with ChatGPT is that it contributes to the body’s enjoyment, permitting it to persist through alternative satisfactions; this, without a doubt, is becoming ever more acute as artificial intelligence has become incorporated into sex dolls and sexual devices of all kinds (e.g., Futurism, 2023). It is abundantly clear from these modes of enjoyment that one never reaches the Other but masturbates, alone, with the gadget. It is why I am tempted to claim that the first gadget was the hand. Lacan (2019), for his part, asked: “will gadgets gain the upper hand? Will we ourselves really come to be animated by gadgets?” He had previously warned his audience about the gains of scientific discourse, cautioning us: one day a horrible manufactured plague might slip out from beneath a lab door. This prophecy, decades before the COVID-19 pandemic, pointed at the “social” death drive, that is, death drive as that which should not be embraced or celebrated as the end-all political activity or theory (see Reshe, 2022).

Lacan continued: “we will not succeed in getting to the point when gadgets will not be symptoms” (Lacan, 2019). Shall we declare that Lacan was wrong about these gadgets since ChatGPT seems to have gotten out of hand? I’m not convinced. Quite the opposite since artificial intelligence increasingly demonstrates that it is nothing more than an auxiliary organ, that is, an upper hand. I am even cautiously optimistic (though it is unfashionable among my peers) that artificial intelligence may expose us to the world as it really is, that is, a world reduced to the speaking-body (ibid.). Lacan said that “anxiety is the feeling that arises as a result of this suspicion that comes to us of being reduced to our body” (ibid.). Against this anxiety, there is the symptom. The concept of symptom, as well as its relationship to the body, was of pivotal importance in the development of Freud’s work in his essay “Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxiety.” Jacques-Alain Miller wrote that the “symptom is an event of the body” (Miller, 2023). For Freud, the symptom was a satisfaction permitted to pass by the Ego without renunciation, that is, without what we would typically call “repression” (it is allowed to pass precisely because repression cannot quell it).

Freud’s (1949) position was that by “degrading a process of gratification to a symptom the substitutive process is forced to expend itself in making alterations in the subject’s own body and is not permitted to impinge upon the outer world.” He went on to reason that it would be far easier for the Ego to simply permit those satisfactions in the form of a substitute than to introduce “fresh repressive measures” (or, what is worse, to encounter the intensity of anxiety). Finally, the symptom “arises when repression has to a greater or lesser extent failed. [T]he instinctual impulse has found a substitute in spite of repression, no longer recognized as a gratification” (Freud, 1949: 27; italics added). Hence, it is not that ChatGPT mirrors our own enjoyment but rather that ChatGPT is a substitute for the body that enjoys itself. It thereby demonstrates that interpretation, even in its classical psychoanalytic mode, can itself be a variant of autistic enjoyment (see Conway, 2021). And it is why substitute satisfactions pass, which means that they are not blocked by the ‘lack of a sexual rapport’ but rather proceed as a consequence of the ‘one of sexual rapport.’ Yes, Lacanians often speak about the ‘lack of a sexual relationship’ but rather mention its counterpoint: the ‘one of sexual rapport.’ The ‘one’ of sexual rapport can pass, through substitution, without any interference from the field of the Other. Jacques-Alain Miller put it clearly: “one of sexual rapport” should be counterposed to the “sexual rapport that does not exist”: “[w]hile the fusional one [of the lack of a sexual rapport] does not exist, there is the discrete one […]. In other words, the discrete one is an element separated from others” (Miller, 2011b; italics added).

I return to my thread: the current interpretive thrust is indicative of the proximity (alienation) of the subject to artificial intelligence gadgets, of the symptom taken as ‘one’ without repression from the field of the Other (see Bonnaud, 2023). What Everitt misses, then, is the following: the gadget, tethered to the enjoying-body, is also the place where one confronts the horror of subjectivity. The subject is a ‘hole in being,’ not reducible to any of its interpretive satisfactions (since these constitute precisely the ‘fullness of reality,’ the scene of enjoyment). The ‘want-to-be’ of the subject is a “correlate of interpretation” only in the sense that this is the way in which it gains “being” (see Miller, 2011). In gaining “being,” it also loses touch with the subject as a ‘lost cause,’ that is, with the ‘hole in being.’ At the risk of providing too many technical points I will nonetheless add the following: the subject is without substance, while this is not the case for the parletre since it is enjoys (enjoyment is its substance). Hence, Miller wrote:

[W]hat Lacan calls the subject is this correlate of interpretation, a subject which only has being through interpretation, a being that varies as a function of meaning. Nothing of this would be of the order of substance. […] For Lacan, it was up to psychoanalysis to circumscribe this enjoying substance [jouissance]” (Miller, 2011).

A reduction, then, for the parletre, to the point of a jouissance of the symptom, brought finally to the point of anxiety …. A signal of being reduced to our body.

A popular passage extracted from Lacan’s “little talk” in Baltimore, United States:

I could see Baltimore through the window […]. [N]aturally there was heavy traffic and I remarked to myself that exactly all that I could see […] was the result of thoughts actively thinking thoughts, where the function played by the subject was not completely obvious. In any case, the so-called Dasein [being-hear] as a definition of the subject, was there in this rather intermittent or fading spectator. The best image to sum up the unconscious is Baltimore in the early morning (Lacan, 1966; italics are mine).

Next, he asked: “[w]here is the subject?” And then his response: “[i]t is necessary to find the subject as a lost object.” When the object goes missing–as in the fort-da game of Little Hans–the subject emerges as a category which thwarts symptomatic enjoyment.

Beyond the window that separated Lacan from the streets of Baltimore during the early morning hours[1] was the place of the unconscious, or, if you like, the place of the Other. Against this place, there was a fading spectator, the counterposed subject. Josefina Ayerza, writing from New York City, added: “the [unconscious] Other is a place rather than a who — it definitely fits Baltimore that morning.” We witness the fabulations of our environment just as we witness the unconscious. From the window, interposed, there is a gap, and the name for this gap is subject. Imagine the following: playing the video game Minecraft, where the environment is constantly fabricated, that is, where resources are worked using the tools of labor-power described at length by Freud, namely condensation, displacement, secondary revision, and so on. The cityscape is our dreamworld, and it is every bit produced through metaphor and metonymy; for every pot-hole, secondary revision (if you’ve paid your taxes and have a good-enough government).

Lacan continued: “the subject is the introduction of a loss into reality, yet nothing can introduce that loss since reality is as full as possible” (1966/1970). This “reality,” this environment, is epitomized by the gadget. It was why Marshall McLuhan reminded his readers that these gadgets, these media objects, are the environment: “any understanding of social and cultural change is impossible without knowledge of the way that media work as ‘environment,’ since all media are extensions of some human faculty — whether psychical or physical.” Hence, what is written in the newspaper is incidentalto what newspapers are for our social bonds in space-time. Similarly, whatever ChatGPT can fabricate for us or for our students is quite incidental; the problem isn’t with plagiarism but with the sociologist or the psychoanalyst who refuses to take interest in the essential questions of our time. Artificial intelligence does not at all render obsolete the work of sociology or psychoanalysis. Rather, it makes it incumbent upon us to explicate its effects as another effort in the contribution of scientific discourse to the discontents of civilization.

This was also what I aimed to demonstrate with the example of the transphobic blunder made by the AI-sitcom “Nothing, Forever” (see Rousselle, 2023). On this point, Slavoj Zizek, citing Mark Murphy, argued: “[artificial intelligence] enables us to maintain a false distance: ‘that wasn’t me, it was my AI!’” My claim is quite the opposite: AI pushes toward ethical discourse, as an aftereffect, which is its escape route from horrific anxiety. Alternatives to that anxiety: further turns toward the scientific discourse in the form of pills and booster shots, biological notions of individuality, theories of sentience and non-human consciousness, promotion and installation of ethics and oversight committees, incorporation of censorship techniques, or, finally, the prolongation of interpretive satisfactions. Encorps! And there are those, such as Yuval Noah Harari, who maintain that a new mode of stratification is emerging between those who are pragmatic-stupid-users and those who know-master-program-censor. Again, this misses the point since it fails to locate the missing place of subjectivity within scientific discourse: the generation of secondary antagonisms, between those who use and those who make, or those who know and those who do not, obscures the real conflict of subject as cause.

Hence, there have been a series of false premises or questions, such as whether ChatGPT is our ‘friend’ or ‘enemy’ (Bunch, 2023), ‘human’ or ‘non-human’ (Johanssen, 2023), and so on. Yet, the point is rather that our era of gadgets and capitalist-science (see Rousselle, 2021) inevitably forces a confrontation with ever new horrors for which even its ethics committees are ultimately unprepared and always a little too late (Laurent, 2020). These are the satisfactions of the death drive, without any route through the field of the Other. The difficulty is not to recognize the “false distance” separating us from AI but rather to see the distance of subjectivity, which is what truly separates us from the false proximity of ‘gadget’ and its extension from the body.This is why all ethical discourse, including those of “responsibility” and “forgiveness” remain ultimately shortsighted. Lacan once said that “one is always responsible for one’s position as subject,” and yet one may well ask today how it is possible to garner responsibility for a missing place that has itself gone missing.

Lacan, instead of planning a lecture in Baltimore, wasted his time. This is what led him to stay awake the entire evening and to look through the window in the morning. A waste, from behind the window.[2]

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[1] This “window” nonetheless reminds me of the windows in the poetry of Stephane Mallarme. I would like to thank Brian Cummins who called me by surprise late one evening and performed a live poetry reading of les Fenetres. [2] I thank Davide Panagia for this anecdote.