“At this point we come upon a precious fact revealed to us by cybernetics – there is something in the symbolic function of human discourse that cannot be eliminated, and that is the role played in it by the imaginary” (Lacan, 1954-5, p 306)
Identity is in fact, an answer to the question of who I am. From our ethnicity, gender, nationality, political and religious views to our general appearance, they are all included in the concept of identity. The topic of the subject’s identity in a society in which he lives (social identity), has been discussed broadly as an explanatory apparatus in a variety of social psychology disciplines (Brown, 2000). Social identity theory indicates that a subject’s identity is the evaluation of being in or out of a certain group which influences his body image and furthermore, encourages the subject to look for an appealing social identity (Turner et al, 1987). In today’s world, identity is not constructed merely in communities such as family, educational and professional environments. Cyberspace as a virtual community has a key role in identity formation (Grodin & Lindlof, 1996). The identity has different aspects that the subject is not able to manage, such as physical appearance, age, ethnicity and etc. Cyberspace has provided the subject a control over these fixed components of the identity. In other words, these components are more manageable by the subject in cyberspace (Calvert, 2002). In fact, cyberspace is a place for constituting or even reconstituting the subject’s identity (Turkle, 1995). Furthermore, according to the subject’s experience of the image of his body, cyberspace lets the subject evade his body to surfing in the virtual world, results in a split between physical body and the cyber self or in other words a ‘disembodied subjectivity’ (Lemma, 2010, p 691). Therefore, using cyberspace will be a “psychic refuge from the challenge of integrating the reality and meaning of the sexual body into the image of the self.” (Lemma, 2010, p 691) According to Lacan’s notion of the mirror stage (Lacan, 1949), cyberspace can be considered as a ‘digital mirror’ which lets the subject project his image on it and furthermore, the so-called ‘digital mirror’ facilitates the identity formation and development in the era of cyber communication (Asgari & Kaufman, 2011, p 8).
The purpose of this chapter is evaluating the dimensions of the subject’s cyber-profile as a sort of representation or identity to discuss the Imaginary, Symbolic and Real dimensions of the subject’s cyber identity and moreover, how the subject’s cyber-identity and cyber-representation, which are more manageable by the subject rather than in face to face communication, differ from his identity and representation in non-virtual communication.
From a Freudian perspective, the ego is a concept which represents identity. Freud conceptualised the ego formation originating from the child’s identification with his parents, as a main core of identity, and subsequently, other identification components, which refer to a particular object relation, add to a primitive form of the ego (Freud, 1923). In other words, Freud believes that the subsequent identification layers finally construct the identity. Furthermore, he points to the internal splitting of the ego and assumes that such splitting has been resulted from the conflicts between different layers of secondary form of identification (Freud, 1923).
“The ego is ultimately derived from bodily sensations, chiefly from those springing from the surface of the body. It may thus be regarded as a mental projection of the surface of the body, besides, as we have seen above, representing the superficies of the mental apparatus.” (Freud, 1923, p 25) According to Freud’s ‘Group psychology and the Analysis of the Ego’ (Freud, 1921), it can be considered that the values and ideals of a group are shared among the group members and are conceived as the identity of the members (Hinshelwood, 2009). In fact, the social identity is what keeps the members of a community together. It is “a shared relationship to a thing, towards enjoyment incarnated.” (Zizek, 1990, pp 51-52) In other words, subjects in a community identify with the Other which stands for the values and ideals of a specific group or community or in Lacanian language, Symbolic identification.
As mentioned in the previous chapter, in Lacan’s early work, subjectivity is dependent on an external representation or image, which is the subject’s own body in Imaginary other. Therefore, the subject is alienated by the image coming from the outside. As he states: “Now, he only perceives the unity of this specific image from the outside, and in an anticipating manner.” (Lacan, 1954-5, p 166) In fact, this illusory perception of his image makes the subject carry on identifying with specific images which are ideal for the subject but he is never fully satisfied. “The very image of man brings in here a mediation which is always problematic, and which is therefore never completely fulfilled.” (Lacan, 1954-5, p 166) Later on Lacan formulates Symbolic identification as an attempt of the subject, under the gaze of the Other, to become the ego ideal. As mentioned in the previous chapter, Symbolic identification is the subject’s identifying with an ideal Signifier such as a single trait (unitary trait) of the Other which makes the core of ego-ideal for the subject in which he relies on (Lacan, 1961-2). In fact, Imaginary and Symbolic identifications are not two separated forms of identification. On the contrary, Symbolic identification is modelled on Imaginary identification showing that the subject has entered to Symbolic order. From a Lacanian perspective, it can be argued that the subject’s identity in a social network, either virtual or non-virtual, has both Imaginary, Symbolic and Real components. When a subject provides a certain form of representation, he assumes it to be perfect and complete but in fact, nothing more than an illusory perception. On the other hand, the Other (such as norms and ideals of a specific society) limits the ideal image of the subject and therefore, shapes the Symbolic dimension of the subject‘s identity. By applying Lacan’s notion of the Real, it can be said that the Real dimension of the identity is what cannot be symbolised and represented at all. It can refer to the unknown aspect of a subject for other subjects. The Real identity of the subject can be considered as an aspect of the self which remains as a private part of one’s subjectivity. Moreover, it is concealed from other subjects since its revelation brings anxiety to the subject.
As can be seen, the three dimensions of the subject’s identity are not separated aspects of one’s self and they exist in the subject and let him feel his subjectivity which represents the subject to himself (internally) and other subjects (externally). Now by illustrating the psychoanalytic concepts on the subject’s identity, we will apply the above concepts on the subject’s cyber identity and cyber representation.
Tisseron points to Lacan’s theory of mirror stage and argues that in our era from new tradition of familial photography and filming, audio-visual media like television and cinema to computer and the internet, they all act as potential mirrors. The difference between cyber mirrors to the actual mirror is, contrary to the illusory effect of the mirror, the image of the subject is not reverse to him (seeing one’s self in the picture not in the mirror). Therefore, he perceives himself in a different way: the subject sees himself as he is seen by others, which differs from seeing himself in the mirror. This affects the construction of the subject’s identity and his relation to the self and to his Ideal image. Eventually this form of identification influences the subject’s relationship with others in a way that some subjects would not be able to recognise the real from virtual identity (Tisseron, 2008).
Nowadays subjects spend most of their time on different computer applications and experience life periodically in real and virtual world. Communication in cyberspace has even challenged the traditional concept of identity such as letting the subject to have multiple characters and multiple self representations which is different from the actual definition of identity in non virtual spaces which stands for a unity and being oneself. As mentioned earlier, the subject’s identity is constructed through Imaginary and Symbolic identifications. Cyberspace influences the subject’s identity both its Imaginary and Symbolic dimensions through online interactions and provides new definition of identity to the subject. In other words, cyberspace can be considered as a ‘psychosocial moratorium’ which gives the subject a break from reality and moreover, this interruption of unbearable reality helps him to construct his core identity (Turkle, 2002, p 4). Moreover, cyberspace provides subjects experiencing a new form of identity which cannot have in real form of interaction and is called anonymous identity, which stands for being an active user in cyber-communities or discussions while keeping one’s identity concealed from others. In fact, anonymous identity in online interaction can be used for a variety of reasons such as being shy, lack of self-confidence, avoiding from further harassing and etc. As a matter of fact, in cyberspace the anonymous subject is assumed by the other subjects with identity just without a name. For instance, they argue, agree or disagree, exchange ideas, in one word, they communicate. In other words, anonymity is not an obstacle to the identity but an identity in itself, a new form of identity introduced by cyberspace which can be called a Real identity in Lacanian language as it exist but unknown to other subjects. Similar to the identity of the subject in non virtual spaces, cyber identity of the subject consists of Imaginary, Symbolic and Real dimensions. For instance, in an online social network the profile of the subject includes the avatar (Imaginary), descriptions and information (Symbolic) provided by the subject to others, while many aspect of the subject’s identity may remain unknown for other online communicators (Real). The Symbolic dimension which can refer to the subject’s descriptive information and moreover, such dimension is revealed by using the cyber language as cyber Signifiers. For instance, through making comments or exchanging ideas in online communication, the cyber Symbolic identity will be revealed. What remains unknown, unrevealed and unsymbolised in cyber representation of the subject which may even evoke the curiosity of other subjects in cyber communication is the Real cyber identity. The Real cyber identity is always there but protected by using privacy setting by the subject, since the revelation of it brings anxiety to him.
In social networks such as Facebook, the users have a descriptive profile including basic information such as name, date of birth, marital status to their interests and activities. Since the most fundamental representation of a user in social networks of cyberspace is his/her image as an avatar, in the following paragraphs the Imaginary dimension of the subject’s identity will be elaborated in more details.
What is called the subject’s representative image in cyberspace is avatar. In Hinduism avatar is God’s incarnation on the earth (Nusselder, 2009). Therefore, the avatar is the embodiment form of the subject in cyberspace. Since our relationship to others is based on how we are conceived by others, the representative image (embodiment) of the subject plays an important role in his communication. Furthermore, the avatar of the subject in online communication can be conceived as the visualised form of the self that helps the subject to recognise himself in cyber mirrors or in other words an ideal image which can function as ‘alter egos’ (Vasseleu, 2002, pp 86-88). In fact, being in virtual space is not disembodiment of the self but on the contrary is embodied form of the self (Nusselder, 2009). The avatar in cyberspace is a ‘cyberbody’ (Kennedy, 2000, p 474) which represents the Imaginary dimension of the subject’s identity in cyberspace. In fact, the avatar or cyberbody of the subject is attuned to the actual presence of the subject in non-virtual space. The avatar plays a major role in online communication, since the avatar of a subject, as a virtual corporation, transmits to other subjects the same feelings and sensations similar in the real life, which means the subject has identified with his virtual avatar as with his image in the mirror (Tisseron, 2008). As such, the avatar reminds the subject to remember “the sensation of alienation and identification, nurturing the familiar sense of existing between wholeness and fragmentation.” (Knox, 2010, p 5) Furthermore, the subject’s avatar, similar to the mirror image, brings him a sense of fascination (Lacan’s notion of mirror stage, 1949). Since the avatar of the subject in cyberspace is more manageable rather than the subject’s image in the mirror or in other words, the avatar is the modified version of the subject’s ideal image, the nature of such fascination is even more deceitful and the subject’s jubilant sense is more appealing than the first encountering of the subject with his mirror image and therefore, it reminds to the subject the sense of alienation more than what he perceives from his mirror image.
A question can be raised here is how does the subject’s cyber identity differ from his identity in real world? Although cyber identity and cyber representation of the subject have the Imaginary, Symbolic and Real dimensions as the subject’s identity in non virtual spaces (face to face interactions), what differentiates the representation of the subject in cyber communication from face to face ones in real world is the form and the way of representations in cyberspace. In contrast to the real form of communication, cyberspace has provided subjects faster and easier availability to other subjects’ identity. However, in real form of communication it takes time for two subjects to get familiar with each other through exchanging the Signifiers. In cyber communication the identity formation, both Imaginary and Symbolic dimensions, happens once the subject creates his profile as the embodiment of his cyber identity, while the subject’s identity in the real world forms through the mirror stage in Imaginary order and then by identifying with a Signifier in Symbolic order. It can be considered that cyberspace has the role of a tool providing a situation in which the subject’s identity is possible to be ‘contested’ and ‘reformulated’ or in other words, a terrain for new type of subjectivity (Niezen, 2005, p 549) Moreover, cyberspace can be assumed as a facilitating environment to nurture and develop the new type of the subject’s identity of the twenty first century (Gee, 2005). In this way, Turkle goes even further about the subject cyber identity and claims that living in cyberspace introduces new form of subjectivity which differs from what Lacan conceptualises about the subject as a divided subject who desires to be connected and the subjectivity “is constituted by and through language … and there is no such a thing as the ego.” However, in cyberspace the subject is “multiple, fluid, constituted by machinelike connectivity” and furthermore, the cyber identity is made and transformed by cyber language (Turkle, 1997, p 75). According to what Turkle assumes of subjectivity, cyberspace has provided subjects a new form of subjectivity with a different type of identity formation. What we need to bear in mind is that, although cyber identity formation and development is not the same as what happens in the actual process of identity formation, there is a real subject with an actual identity behind the cyber subject who surf in cyberspace. In other words, the subject is experiencing a new subjectivity (the virtual one) through his interaction with cyberspace while he is aware of his actual identity in the real world. In fact, the current conceptualization of the identity in today’s world of cybers has two dimensions of the real and the virtual that in both of them we can find Imaginary, Symbolic and Real orders.
What has been outlined above was a critical elaboration of cyber-identity and cyber-representation in order to illustrate how cyberspace influences our identity. In fact, living a second life of virtuality and furthermore, communication in cyberspace acts as a sine qua non factor of our identity formation and development in our contemporary time. Since in the era of cyber world, we cannot live without benefiting or in general, interacting with virtual world, identity, as the fundamental component of human being, has been affected by new technologies of cyberspace. Our cyberspace identity and representation, similar to our identity in the real world, have the same dimensions as Imaginary, Symbolic and Real. How and to what extent ICTs revolution has affected identity formation and moreover, how subjects represent their identity in cyberspace were the questions we tried to answer in this article.