digital arts & culture 1998


Terry Harpold:

Before the Subject: Some Remarks on the Ethic of New Media

The title of this paper was suggested by the epilogue of From Text to Hypertext, Sylvio Gaggi's recently-published study of the decentered subject of new media. Echoing the title of Cadava, Connor, and Nancy's 1990 collection of essays, Who Comes After the Subject?, Gaggi notes some unfinished business for postmodern critics of the autonomous ("Enlightenment," "logocentric," "auto-affective," etc. -- insert your preferred adjective here) subject. Now that the subject of the modern era has been dispersed into an inconsistent chorus of "subject-positions," how do we speak of the individual-cum-subject, after the "subject"? How do we define an ethic of the dispersed subject -- how do we investigate the qualities of her pleasure and suffering, the effects of a material order upon her -- within a discourse that seems to dissolve every prior ground of moral critique?

It is easy to deflect claims that equate a decentered subject with moral relativism, but it is much more difficult to specify how a practical ethic of that subject might be constituted. Gaggi doesn't have a conclusive answer to this problem; neither do Norris, Derrida, Lyotard, nor the other critics and philosophers whose work Gaggi cites. (Let me hasten to add that I will not propose a solution here either.) But Gaggi's analysis of the wake of the subject's dispersal, coming at the close of his examination of the subject's status in relation to the forms of new media, suggests that there is something about new media that poses this before-and-after of the subject in a new way. I believe that this is the case, although convincing you of it would perhaps take more time than I am allotted in this forum. I want to go only so far now as to suggest that we may approach the question of the after of the subject specific to its dispersal within the field of new media by asking Gaggi, et al.'s question in another way. Rather than inquiring, "who comes after the subject?", I'd like to ask instead, "who" -- or, more precisely, "what" -- "comes before the subject of new media?"

I reformulate the question in this way because my investigation of the ethic of new media starts from the fact of the unconscious, and follows on the important contribution of Jacques Lacan to the analysis of ethical activity. Lacan argues that the morality of human action and agency is supported by an irreducible structure of lack, upon which the existence of the speaking subject is constituted. The good and the bad are defined, framed by the impossibility of the thing -- Lacan uses Freud's term, das Ding -- that is the object-cause of human desire, but which is radically eccentric to the symbolic domain within which desire operates.

In Lacan's view, signification is supported by phantasies that stop up an absence; phantasy gives positive form to a lack that is without meaning in the field of language. Phantasy has this quality of making-seem, of bringing-before, that protects -- I would say, screens -- the subject from an abyss, even as it presents her with the tantalizing possibility that the telos of her desire is approachable. The ethical dimensions of human activity are thus oriented along the boundary of an excluded center -- the object in its purest sense -- which has no ethical status in its own right, because it is outside the systems of signification that determine good from bad, satisfaction from dissatisfaction.

I have argued elsewhere (Vicissitudes) that the visual planes of the graphical user interface (GUI) function as a screen, in the doubled sense in which I used that word just a moment ago. The screen of the interface covers up, blots out a hole in the symbolic register (of which the interface is only a subset), where something is missing for the user. The screen constitutes a surface upon which is projected the precarious work of the user to see through and been seen by an Other, whose existence depends on a fiction that It is capable of seeing all. Interaction is subjectification -- the subject (the "user") is posited at a place (the screen) where a lack might be filled, under the reassuring eye of another subject who would know just where to go, just which widget to click, to get to the end of things.

But this subject of absolute knowledge and satisfaction is a fraud. The Other is just as lacking as we are -- that's how we came to be this way in the first place: the desire of the subject is the desire of the Other, goes the familiar Lacanian dictum. The screen hides the truth of this fraudulent satisfaction from you (enables you to hide it from yourself), so long as you fulfill your obligation to the Other by bringing the signifiers of the interface together in a fiction of agency-toward-resolution: to cast the Other's lack in a positive light, as something -- some-thing -- (the object of phantasy) that stops up a hole in the images before you.

Defining the elements of human-computer interfaces as structures of desire is, I believe, an essential manoeuvre for the metapsychological investigation of digital media. To many working in this field, this will seem an overwrought endeavour, out of keeping with the pragmatics of new media design and production. The influence of human factors science and cognitive psychology has skewed theorization of new media (even among critics well-versed in other paradigms) toward critically-foggy concepts like "usability," "efficiency," and "intuitiveness." The dominance of these concepts has tended to distract researchers from the operations of new media artifacts as subjectifying constructs, run through with epistemological and ontological puzzles for the subjects interpellated by them.

"What comes before the subject of digital media?" I frame the question in this way because it permits at least two readings in English that figure the subject's relation to the interfaces of new media.

1) Something comes before the subject, precedes her in a logical and temporal sense: a condition of lack that supports her desirous relation to the digital artifact in the form we call "interaction." That's what an interface does: it sustains the work of stopping up a prior lack that is there, that is felt as potential satisfaction, so as to prod the user into further action. The resistances and rewards of interaction coincide with structures of representation that engage our subjectivity-as-lack.

2) Something comes before the subject -- interaction is a exercise in creative discovery, presenting to view on the stage of the Other's potential satisfaction. In this context, interaction is a process of excavation, the uncovering of stand-ins for an object-cause that is discernible only by indirection. It is for this reason that we need to be cautious of the connotations of the word, "interaction": it suggests a collaboration between structurally equivalent entities. The responsiveness of the interface may be better described as the trace of an imaginary, satisfied subject who is not present, but toward the presentification of whom our efforts are directed.

What comes before the subject at the juncture of the screen is: eccentric discovery, impossible satisfaction. These are elementary principles of an ethic of new media, conceived of as an ethic of dissatisfaction, of the inconsistency of satisfaction as a precondition of the subject. This changes the stakes for what comes after the subject: much the same as what comes before -- nothing, a thing that is gone missing. To make that claim does not, however, amount to an endorsement of moral nihilism. Psychoanalysis has made it very clear that the codification of moral law is the precondition of desire, in order than we may name its limits -- the only sense in which desire may be satisfied. It means, rather, to focus our attentions elsewhere.

To paraphrase Mark Taylor, the interface -- seen in its own terms, apart from the metaphysics of discovery -- is a play of surfaces without depth, revelation, or sublimation: where nothing is hiding. The first step to a practical ethic of the subject of new media is to outline the contours of the eccentricity upon which that subject is constituted. We must read the interface as a screen in the most literal senses of the word. We must begin by reconceiving the events of interaction as though they occur on the surfaces of an abyssal field projected before us, where the subject finds herself wanting.


Cadava, Eduardo, Peter Connor, and Jean-Luc Nancy, eds. Who Comes After the Subject? New York: Routledge, 1991.

Gaggi, Silvio. From Text to Hypertext: Decentering the Subject in Fiction, Film, the Visual Arts, and Electronic Media. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997.

Harpold, Terry. Links and Their Vicissitudes. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1999.

Lacan, Jacques. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1981.

---. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis (1959-1960). Trans. Dennis Porter. New York: Norton, 1992.

Taylor, Mark C. Hiding. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Terry Harpold is Asst. Professor in Literature, Communication & Culture at the Georgia Institute of Technology. His home page is at





about Bergen

Please send us an email if you have any questions or comments.
Last update: 28
th of October 1998.