Notes on MySpace and Legendary Psychasthenia

From Cyborg Anthropology
Jump to: navigation, search
"Will Merrin posted a fascinating essay at Media Studies 2.o back in September, which I have only just now got around to reading. He addresses the social networking user through Roger Caillois’s 1935 essay “Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia“. Merrin critiques the social networking profile and points out a beef I’ve had for a while with the proliferation of Facebook and its boring, blue and white layout used for every person on the site:

Once the construction of a personal webpage required some degree of programming expertise. Today the social networking user merely interacts with, manipulates and fills-in pre-programmed templates and applications".

In an interesting twist, especially with the references to Baudrillard, who often points to the importance of symbolic exchange in pre-industrial society in his work, it seems that the personally designed webpage now takes on the aura of artisanship. In effect, opportunities for difference and “individuality” are better able to be expressed through the freedom of basic html design than the restricted and similar nature of the Facebook profile page, which looks the same for everyone and the content of which is dictated by that which is made available to Facebook users.
What one hopes will add to one’s distinction only adds to ones depersonalisation: how many images of friends posing with drinks are there already on Facebook? And there is no hope here of resistance. Even the refusal to post a photo, the use of alternative images or attempts at an artistic subversion of the form merely take their place within a pre-coded representational system as part of the normal range of allowed responses.
Indeed, while many view social networking as liberatory, this essay points out some fairly important reasons why it can also been seen as further disconnecting and “depersonalising” the self from the world.

Paul Aitken - March 23, 2008 at 13:27

@Kishore – I certainly agree that even using Frontpage or Dreamweaver is yet another level of the “template” in action. What I found interesting was Merrin’s conflation of the hardcoded HTML page with a greater level of individuality. In that analysis, the old-school personal homepage seemingly occupies the position of synthesis in the dialectic of older presentations of the self through print media, and newer presentations through the web. The individual’s labour in coding a page becomes seen as somehow more authentic than the less labour-intensive act of creating a Facebook, Myspace, etc. profile. Of course, this proposition touches on the elitism of actually knowing the coding language and suggests then that the authenticity of one’s web-self is linked to the ability to understand and deploy the technical possibilities of code. Recourse to discourses of technical mastery in this case does indicate that despite the so-called liberatory aspects of online participation, we are still led to deal with perennial issues of power and control.
Which speaks to your point about the “big Other” corporations. Indeed there has been great debate over the involvement of Facebook in surveillance and data mining, most of which raise flags over the sheer amount of personal information users voluntarily put on their profiles and how this can be used for target advertising and the like. It seems to me that there are two related issues here, and that the notion of depersonalisation inheres in both. One is that there is a distinct financial benefit in attracting a great number of users to a social networking site and requiring them to “flatten” our themselves in order to fit with the aesthetics of the site – the limited options make the processes of data gathering for advertising purposes much simpler. Secondly, perhaps the similarity of profiles can lead to an overall user mentality of “We’re all the same here” which greatly assists the advertisers on the site who rely on the sense of belonging that the site espouses to suggest that if one of your “friends” is buying a product, then you might like it too.


This sort of identity production (the idea of templated identity vs. the hardcoded identity on a personal website is especially relevant today, and is being discussed by people such as Chris Messina and Tantek Celik, who push for owning one's identity and using one's personal website as an identity broker vs. connecting and signing in to websites through free-ad based identity providers such as Facebook.

Myspace and Legendary Psychasthenia

Friday, 14 September 2007

We have barely begun to consider the importance of Roger Caillois’s 1935 claim that ‘from whichever side one approaches things, the ultimate problem turns out in the final analysis to be that of distinction’ (1).

Caillois’s essay, ‘Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia’ is a remarkable, unclassifiable masterpiece. From a reflection on insect mimicry, Caillois develops an entire surrealist-naturalist metaphysics, linking entomology, sorcery and abnormal psychology in a unique vision whose implications, one gradually realises, extend far beyond its apparent subject matter to encompass the whole field of social relations, personal identity and corporal existence. Building from the smallest things – from the physiology and behaviour of insects – it’s an essay that expands out to fill and explain our own world. Celeste Olalquiaga, thought so. In her 1992 book Megalopolis she recognised the value of Caillois’ concept of psychasthenia for understanding our relation to and experience of the contemporary urban environment (2). But Caillois’ reflections on space and identity find another, perhaps more powerful and disturbing, illustration today in the our relationship to cyberspace and in particular the world of online social networking. This is what I want to explore here. I want to suggest that Myspace, Facebook and their ilk represent, not a flowering of self and individuality but its psychasthenic absorption, renunciation and loss.

Of all the distinctions that organise our life the most clear-cut, Caillois argues, is ‘that between the organism and its surroundings’. Or at least, he says, ‘there is none in which the tangible experience of separation is more immediate’. It is this topic that brings him to insect mimicry – to the morphological and behavioural adaptation of a living form to resemble and simulate its environment. All current explanations for mimicry are inadequate, he suggests. The limits of mimicry as self-defence are obvious, for example, when one realises that inedible species are also mimetic; that predators are not fooled by the tactics, happily ingesting camouflaged insects, and that the protected species risk being eaten by each other. In the sad case of the Phyllia, for example, insects ‘browse among themselves, taking each other for real leaves’. Caillois’s initial explanation focuses on sympathetic magic, on mimicry as ‘an incantation fixed at its culminating point’: as a spell that has ‘caught the sorcerer in his own trap’, leading the insect into ‘an assimilation to the surroundings’. It is this last point that interests him most. How does this assimilation to the surroundings occur? Caillois’s explanation is astonishing: it is, he says, ‘a real temptation by space’. In some way the organism itself is overcome by its surroundings – is less than its surroundings.

The visual nature of mimicry also leads Caillois to suggest that it has to be understood from without, as ‘a disturbance in the perception of space’. Within a perceived and represented space the mimetic organism is lost. Dispossessed of its privilege it ‘no longer knows where to place itself’: 'The feeling of personality, considered as the organism’s feeling of distinction from its surroundings, of the connection between consciousness and a particular point in space, cannot fail under these conditions to be seriously undermined; one enters then into the psychology of psychasthenia, and more specifically, of legendary psychasthenia'. Psychasthenia can be defined, therefore, as a disturbance in the relations between personality and space, and, more specifically, as a ‘depersonalisation by assimilation to space’.

Janet’s writings on schizophrenia shed light on this process for Caillois. For the schizophrenic, he says, ‘space is a devouring force’: ‘space pursues them, encircles them, digests them in a gigantic phagocytosis’. The insect experience of their environment and the schizophrenic’s experience of space are, therefore, linked. Each is assimilated and in each too this process is accompanied by ‘a decline in the feeling of personality and life’. The mimetic process occurs in one direction, Caillois says, as, ‘life takes a step backwards’, towards an earlier organic and even non-organic state. Thus ‘the generalisation of space’ takes place ‘at the expense of the individual’. Bewitched and overwhelmed by the greater power and the temptation of the environment the individual organism is lost. Caillois’s conclusions are Freudian: ‘alongside the instinct of self-preservation, which in some way orients the creature towards life, there is generally speaking a sort of instinct of renunciation that orients it toward a mode of reduced existence’. The ‘attraction by space’ leads to a thanatophilic movement blurring the frontier between the organism and their milieu.

Although Caillois’s essay has attracted its own form of fascination upon generations of readers, few have yet recognised its significance for understanding our contemporary electronic media. Perhaps the closest media theory has come is Jean’s Baudrillard’s prescient analysis of our wired and networked lives first put forward in his 1983 book, Fatal Strategies and appearing also in his 1987 text, The Ecstasy of Communication (3). Baudrillard’s entire theory is built upon a critique of contemporary mediated relations as merely simulations of human communication (or what he calls ‘symbolic exchange’) (4) and this is expanded in this text as he describes the implosion of the private and public spheres and its implications.

We simultaneously suffer, Baudrillard says, a ‘forced extraversion of all interiority’, as everything once private unfolds upon the screens of the world and a ‘forced introversion of all exteriority’ as the world’s events and people and places penetrate the private realm. Writing years before the rise of the internet as a public medium Baudrillard describes the development of a ‘private telematics’ in which the individual is ‘promoted to the controls of a hypothetical machine, isolated in a position of personal sovereignty … in the same position as the astronaut in his bubble’. Electronic technologies, therefore, transform our habitat ‘into a kind of archaic closed-off cell, into a vestige of human relations’ whilst we interact by remote control. Interior space ceases to be the stage of the self and its drama but instead becomes ‘a receiving and operating area’ and we are reduced to being merely ‘terminals of multiple networks’.

Baudrillard admits that this is close to ‘science fiction’. It is perhaps closer than he realised: E.M. Forster had already suggested this in his 1909 short story, ‘The Machine Stops’ which depicted a world of individuals closed off in their rooms away from all real contact, all connected by a web-like communicational machine (5). The rise of the internet as a popular, everyday medium, however, casts a new light on these ideas. Baudrillard’s 1980s vision of the path of a society where ‘everything becomes immediately transparent, visible, exposed in the raw and inexorable light of information and communication’; where a ‘pornography’ of the real dominates is now all too easy to recognise. Like Caillois Baudrillard also draws upon the figure of the schizophrenic to explain the impact of all this. Ours is ‘a new form of schizophrenia’, he says. The emergence of ‘an immanent promiscuity and the perpetual interconnection of all information and communication networks’ leads to ‘a state of terror which is characteristic of the schizophrenic’, that of ‘an over-proximity of all things’: 'In spite of himself the schizophrenic is open to everything and lives in the most extreme confusion. He is the obscene victim of the world’s obscenity. The schizophrenic is not, as generally claimed, characterised by his loss of touch with reality, but by the absolute proximity to and total instantaneousness with things, this overexposure to the transparency of the world'. Stripped of a stage, Baudrillard concludes, the schizophrenic ‘cannot produce the limits of his very being’: ‘he becomes a pure screen, a pure absorption and resorption surface of the influent networks’. In Baudrillard we find, therefore, an electronic fulfilment of Caillois’s psychasthenia. Integrated and assimilated into the networks of communication and crossed by their content and output the individual self physically and mentally disappears.

It’s not surprising that these ideas have rarely been related to the emerging world of online life and communication. The dominant voices within the literature on cyberculture and new media have been those that have granted the reality of online relations, the potential offered by the net for self-expression and play and the genuine communities that they give rise to. Sherry Turkle recognises the contemporary culture of simulation but has famously argued for the psycho-therapeutic possibilities of online identity play. The ‘self’ she valorises may well be ‘multiple’ and ‘distributed’ rather than a natural real-life given, but her conclusion that the online world is a space of self-expression and an aid to greater ‘self-knowledge’, ‘personal transformation’ and ‘growth’ clearly indicates that for her the self is strengthened by its virtual connections (6). Harold Rheingold follows a similarly McLuhanist path in emphasising the reality of online relations. ‘To the millions who have been drawn into it, the richness and vitality of computer-linked cultures is attractive, even addictive, he wrote in 1994 (7). The ‘hunger for community’ inevitably leads to the building of online communities, he argues, replacing those public spaces lost in real life. The online world, therefore, is restorative: it is a tool restoring sociality and allowing the full expression of public, individual life.

Rheingold was writing at an early stage in the development of virtual communities. Many people at the time of the book’s publication had not even heard of the World Wide Web and its regular experience was popularly limited. Since the explosion of the net, of domestic installation, of high-speed access and the spread of basic computing skills the ‘social web’ has rapidly developed beyond the early bulletin board systems, forums and discussion groups Rheingold discussed. The most famous contemporary form of ‘social networking’ is that typified by websites such as Myspace and Facebook. Their success is due to their combination of hosting facilities and functions that were either previously difficult for non-specialists to produce (personal web pages) or spread across several systems (email, messaging, photo hosting, blogs etc.), combined with their word-of-mouth growth through real-life networks. At the heart of Myspace and Facebook is the personal profile: the potentially global expression and promotion of the self.

The first thing we see when we look at a Myspace or Facebook page is the profile: each page is a constructed, promotional self. Writing in an age when the media disconnection of the two was clearly limited, Caillois saw the sense of self as depending upon a connection between consciousness and a point in space; when that was lost, psychasthenic absorption occurred. On an obvious level the experience of cyberspace is the experience of that disconnection as the self surfs an electronic network divorced from one’s point in space. With personal webpages and social networking profiles that self no longer even returns to its user, remaining behind as we log off. The self is set free as a profile, fixed to another point – to a non-space existing only as proprietal code within an electronic network – and subsequently lost to us. And we do this voluntarily: just as Caillois writes of the ‘temptation by space’ so the popularity of social networking sites tempts and traps each new user. And each new user, confident in their control as they construct and daily manipulate their promotional self, is, like Caillois’s insects, caught by its own spell, trapped by their own incantation.

But more important than this loss of self to the virtual world is the loss of self – the loss of any trace of individuality – in one’s assimilation to cyberspace and incorporation into the network of near-identical profiles. The schizophrenic experience of space as an overwhelming force is realised online: cyberspace devours the individual and their individuality.

Insect mimicry provides the best way of understanding this as it is fundamentally a morphological issue. Morphology in biology is the outward form – the shape, colour, structure, pattern and appearance of the organism, as opposed to physiology which is the study of the physical, mechanical and biochemical functioning of the organism. In cyberspace morphology dominates. Online, it is appearance that constitutes reality and this is especially true for social networking sites. What counts is the personal profile – the appearance of the self rather than the functioning of the actual being. The physiology of cyberspace, like the physiology of the organism is hidden: what we interact with is the outward form, the polished websites and functions that make up the network rather than the underlying, internal source code.

Social networking sites exemplify this. Once the construction of a personal webpage required some degree of programming expertise. Today the social networking user merely interacts with, manipulates and fills-in pre-programmed templates and applications. What they produce is a template self : their choice of templates, their provision of information to fill out and give shape to their profile and the applications they add and accumulate in a further process of ‘personalisation’ constitutes their online self and its social identity. Thus, just as the Phillidae and the Phasmatodea morphologically conform to the templates of nature – the leaves, sticks, branches and bark of their environment – so the networking users morphologically conform to the world they inhabit, simulating and assimilating themselves to its structures, colours and patterns.

The result, following Caillois, can be defined as a depersonalisation by assimilation to cyberspace. Each new profile adds to the pages, the scope and the social power of the networking environment, not to the sum of individuality. Each new profile represents not another flowering of a unique and special self but its capture and diabolical conformity to its devouring environment. As in Caillois, therefore, cyberspace is generalised at the expense of the individual. Each added page renders all the others more and more alike. Each friendship creates a sliding metonymic movement along the link to another individual whose difference is negligible, and each link followed to another self reduces that individuality still further. The more profiles you surf the less individuality you experience.

Each new profile adds, therefore, not to self-distinction, but to the background. Each user becomes, not as they assume, a self distinct from the background but only a background for every other user: their mimetic incorporation is so complete that other users can hardly make them out. Just as the Phyllia, seeing only themselves, browse among an indistinct background of their own taxonomic cousins and real leaves, so each unique and distinct user is only the background that others browse and feed on.

At the heart of mimicry is similitude and simulation: a mode of resemblance to the model and the efficacious production of this resemblance. In social networking this mimetic process takes several forms, from the voluntary incorporation of the self into the environment, to the forced conformity to the profile templates and the choice of applications that, more often than not, follows and mimics those that ones’ ‘friends’ have added and recommended. What this produces is a resemblant self: a self that resembles not its originator but instead all the other virtual selves. What one constructs has a far close morphological relationship with all other profiles than it does with the being outside who constructs it.

The result is a remarkable similarity in every profile. On Facebook, for example, the simplified and pre-set background, colour scheme and page layout makes each profile a minor –and insignificant – variation on all others. Down the right-hand side one finds one’s status, personal details, min-feed to oneself of personal ‘news’ about what you yourself have done, followed by one’s ‘information’. Here the user constructs lists that signify their self and its unique tastes and personality: one’s activities, interests and favourite books, film, TV programmes and music.

Each user’s list is different to every others and yet each user’s list is indistinguishable. What appears is not one’s innermost core of meaning, memory and experience, but only a seemingly-random collection of popular cultural products displaying, like a Borgesian classificatory scheme, no apparent meaning for any outside observer. As we move from one profile to another, each list merges into the next and the banality of all inputted information becomes obvious. Asked what one ‘likes’, there is nothing of significance in any reply. Regardless of the personal meaning one attaches to one’s choices and even the cultural connotations implied by them, all are nullified by their appearance. Preferences become merely references that take their place in a personal list linked, through one’s profile, to all other lists in the network and every choice becomes no different to any choice. Ultimately the over-production of ‘information’ fuels an implosion of meaning. Again, therefore, every new list added to the network represents not a flowering of individuality but its assimilation and renunciation. Individuality reverses into anonymity. Distinction disappears and depersonalisation follows.

One’s photographs too are indistinguishable. Again these are added to personalise the profile and to represent those unique and individual experiences and moments that comprise one’s life. In practice there is little to choose between any of them. Images of yourself; images of yourself posing with friends; images of yourself out in the evening; images of you and your friends partying; images of yourself holding a drink; images of yourself and your friends holding drinks; images of you and your friends laughing; images of you and your friends at home; images of you and your friends on holiday, relaxing or chilling. Each image takes its place within a set of predictable conventions and connotations and each ‘album’ of images conforms to the totalitarian social dictates of the network in its desperate attempt to over-signify one’s personality; one’s pleasures and one’s centre of an aspirational scene or set of experiences. Like the profile applications and lists of likes, the user’s photographs blur and merge into a generic, imagic background. What one hopes will add to one’s distinction only adds to ones depersonalisation: how many images of friends posing with drinks are there already on Facebook? And there is no hope here of resistance. Even the refusal to post a photo, the use of alternative images or attempts at an artistic subversion of the form merely take their place within a pre-coded representational system as part of the normal range of allowed responses.

All of this contradicts common sense. Received wisdom sees social networking as a defining contemporary means of expression of the self, an outpouring of individuality and a remarkable display and cataloguing of difference and unique experiences and tastes. All of this should signal ‘distinction’. The obviously competitive nature of the profile and its choices and images as each user attempts to display themselves, their personality and life should lead us to conclude, following Veblen and Bourdieu, that a remarkable symbolic struggle for status and recognition is happening here. Never before has personal ‘identity’ been so vigorously and completely displayed. But the self that is constructed and displayed remains a simulation, a ‘personalisation’, as Baudrillard argued in The Consumer Society in 1970 (8) that is only a conformity to and adoption of a pre-programmed set of differences from which one chooses one’s self. It is a semiotic process in which pre-set differences are chosen and combined to construct the self as a fashioned sign-object. This semiotic labour is never over. Networking users condemn themselves to a perpetual labour of virtual self-grooming, updating, communicating, adding, removing, informing, displaying and saving their changes. For years to come they will be found sending each other an octopus and starfish, writing on each others walls, commenting on each other’s blogs, tagging their photos, changing their musical tastes and updating their status. The rest of their lives may be spent serving their own simulacrum, renouncing their life as they invest it into their virtual self.

This brings us back to Caillois’s most controversial claim: that this assimilation to space represents a thanatophilic process. ‘Life takes a step backwards’, he suggests, towards an earlier, less evolved and conscious form in a self-renunciation producing a ‘reduced existence’. The very experience of the internet confirms this. The exhaustion one feels after a period of time online is not physical strain but something more: an exhaustion with one’s interests and with one’s interest in life itself. If you look at profile after profile, list after list and application after application, your own self begins to renounce its spirit. And if you spend your life daily logged-in to social networking, checking your notifications, updating your self, responding to wall comments and playing with one’s own applications – adding to the force of the environment, not the force of distinction – you spend less and less time away from the screen.

In his 1995 book, Open Sky, Paul Virilio describes the rise of this ‘terminal citizen’ (9), a concept with an intentional double meaning. On the one hand he employs the term for the transformation of humanity into an electronic terminal, an ‘interactive being’ who is both a transmitter and receiver of information. His second meaning is more theological. For Christianity to be alive and to be human is to possess a soul, or anima. Movement and life have always been correlated. The traditional Christian explanation for when the moment of life originates has been the moment when the baby’s movement was first felt – the moment of ‘the quickening’. This moment when the movement of the foetus was first detected was thought to be the moment when the soul had entered the body. Anima and animation, therefore, are interlinked. For Virilio, to be without animation is to be without anima. The loss of movement as we voluntarily plug ourselves into a network to become a ‘static audiovisual vehicle’ and our ‘behavioural inertia’ as we interact with a virtual rather than with our proximate environment constitutes, for him, a loss of life: a thanatophilic renunciation. ‘Doomed to inertia, the interactive being transfers his natural capacities for movement and displacement to probes and scanners which instantaneously inform him about a remote reality, to the detriment of his own faculties of apprehension of the real.’ This, Virilio says, is ‘a catastrophic figure’, who has ‘lost the capacity for immediate intervention along with natural motoricity’. This is the Myspace and Facebook user.

We return at the end, therefore, to Caillois’s beloved Phyllia and Phasmatodea. Read through Baudrillard’s schizophrenic man and Virilio’s terminal man, we can see the immobile networking user spasmodically twitching at their keyboard is like the Phyllia twitching in the wind, simulating a leaf in the breeze. Renouncing real-life for the screen, blending perfectly into the background, their mottled profiles and uncannily similar applications rendering them invisible, the cyberphillia sit frozen: tempted and ultimately paralysed by cyberspace, losing their self and their life. ‘The ultimate problem turns out in the final analysis to be one of distinction’, Caillois wrote. With every page added to social network sites and every individual’s capitulation to the profile the species as a whole loses its morphological struggle for distinction from its environment.


(2) Olalquiaga, C. (1992) Megalopolis, London: University of Minnesota Press.

(3) Baudrillard, J. (1990) Fatal Strategies, New York: Semiotext(e); (1988) The Ecstasy of Communication, New York: Semiotext(e).

(4) See Merrin, W. (2005) Baudrillard and the Media, Cambridge: Polity Press; and Merrin, W. (2006) ‘“On the Horizon of a Programmed Reality”: Baudrillard and New Media’, at:

(5) Forster, E. M. (1909) ‘The Machine Stops’, at:

(6) Turkle, S. (1996) Life on the Screen, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

(7) Rheingold, H. (1994) The Virtual Community, at:

(8) Baudrillard, J. (1998) The Consumer Society, London: Sage.

(9) Virilio, P. (1997) Open Sky, London: Verso.

The False Ideology of Individuality, or, Always Multiply

A major criticism to Myspace and legendary Psychasthenia from Swarming Media

I've just been reading an entry at Media Studies 2.0 entitled "MySpace and Legendary Psychasthenia" and while I generally like his blog quite a bit, I found myself disagreeing with a lot of what William was writing and his methods of argument. Essentially, the essay bemoans a loss of "individuality" in our subjective immigration to online social networks. This is an argument that has been heard before, and one that does have some valuable claims, but ultimately the entry fails to properly account for the multiplicity of subjective interaction and archivization via online social networks. And by thus mistaking the global for the local and vice-versa, it's tough to give the point much weight.

The piece begins by setting up a spuriously dichotomous thesis: "I want to suggest that Myspace, Facebook and their ilk represent, not a flowering of self and individuality but its psychasthenic absorption, renunciation and loss." In this situation online social networks can have one of two effects: a "flowering of self and individuality" or "psychasthenic absorption, renunciation and loss." Defining these as the two subjective potentialities for these new media is almost ridiculous. Should anyone take seriously claims that these media could do either? Generally, I dismiss both the most dire and the most optimistic assessments of online social networks for what they are: hyperbole.

Secondly, neither in the thesis nor in the body of the essay is "individuality" properly defined or contextualized. Is it merely the difference of definable characteristics between individual subjects? Must actions of social conformity be viewed as undesirable? Do they not allow us to have a functional society in the first place? To use the term "individuality" in such a decontextualized, more-is-better manner is really to ascribe to a vague and misleading ideology of personal gratification, fueled by a healthy dose of egotism.

The body of the essay often refers to users of MySpace and Facebook as though they use one and only one of these services at the exclusion of the other and any other socio-archival web-based media. Despite citing Sherry Turkle's cogent and convincing defense of a multiple and distributed online self, William goes on to ignore it an focus entirely on a user's individual profile on one of the two major online social networks, and thus drawing questionable conclusions about online subjectivity: "The self is set free as a profile, fixed to another point – to a non-space existing only as proprietal code within an electronic network – and subsequently lost to us."

Within this sentence the following assumptions are made: (1) subjective tendrils, once created, are entirely divorced from their creator; (2) online social networks are a "non-space"; and that (3) our online self is thus "lost to us." The first assumption falls into the trap that many writing about online identity fall into - the idea that when we turn off our computer that we have severed ties to the actions we have just performed. We interact on these networks long after we cease to alter our profiles, just look at the phenomenon of online graveyards and death-centric social networks. Yes these are simulacra, but they continue to signify as subjective proxies for us after we have moved on in one way or another. A profile has not been "set-free" but retains as much a connection to its creator as anything we create does if not more so on account of its personal-representational mode. Just because it exists on a server somewhere does not imply that we have somehow lost ownership or subjective links.

The second assumption, that online social networks are a "non-space," requires quite a leap. The idea that online social networks should be considered within the realm of "space" at all is merely a rhetorical and metaphorical construction to begin with. This is the familiar ideology of "cyberspace" - which is actually used several times in the essay - an ideology that began in science fiction novels and has been used to conceptualize a series of new media that did not fit easily into any other boxes we might have. On top of this, the term is used in an inexplicably derogatory manner. Even if this was a non-space, the reason why this serves to divorce or homogenize networked subjectivity goes unexplained.

The third assumption is merely the result of the first two. Certainly if we were to actually be setting little chunks of our identity "free" in a "non-space," we'd be at a loss. The fact is however that we never manage to lose our subjective tendrils online, and when you consider (as William does not) the multiplicity of venues for subjective in/dividuation and construction and the fact that many of these tendrils continue to exist and thrive in a networked-archival environment - it seem like we actually are seeing exactly what Turkle describes.

That said, the essay does hit on some key points, and William's analysis of interaction through online social networks as perpetual semiotic (or affective, I might suggest) labor is spot on - even if he doesn't apply it to a multiple-subjective environment. For these reasons - and for the sake of debate - I do recommend this essay.

Original Essay

Micicry and Legendaty Psychasthenia | Roger Caillois

From whatever side one approaches things, the ultimate problem turns out in the final analysis to be that of distinction: distinctions between the real and the imaginary, between waking and sleeping, between ignorance and knowledge, etc. -- all of them, in short, distinctions in which valid consideration must demonstrate a keen awareness and the demand for resolution. Among distinctions, there is assuredly none more clear-cut than that between the organism and its surroundings; at least there is none in which the tangible experience of separation is more immediate. So it is worthwhile to observe the phenomenon with particular attention and, within the phenomenon, what is even more necessary, given the present state of our knowledge, is to consider its condition as pathology (the word here having only a statistical meaning)--i.e., all the facts that come under the heading of mimicry.

For some time now, for various and often undesirable reasons, these facts have been the object of those biologists with a heavy predilection for ulterior motives: some dream of proving metamorphosis, which, fortunately for that phenomenon, rests on other foundations, others, the clear-sighted providence of the famous God whose bounty extends over the whole of nature. Under these conditions, a strict method is essential. First of all, it is important to list these phenomena very rigorously, for experience has shown that there are too many bad explanations pushing them toward confusion. It is also not a bad idea to adopt as much as possible a classification that relates to facts and not to their interpretation, since the latter threatens to be misleading, and is moreover controversial in almost every case. Girard's categories will thus be mentioned, but not retained. Neither the first: offensive mimicry designed to surprise the prey, defensive mimicry designed either to escape the sight of the aggressor (mimicry of dissimulation) or to frighten it away by a deceptive appearance (mimicry of terrification); nor the second: direct mimicry when it is in the immediate interests of the imitating animal to take on the disguise, indirect mimicry when animals belonging to different species, following a common adaptation, a convergence, in some way show "professional resemblances."

It has been assumed that, in order to protect itself, an inoffensive animal took on the appearance of a forbidding one: for example, the butterfly Trochilium and the wasp Vespa Crabro- the same smoky wings, the same brown legs and antennae, the same black and yellow striped abdomen and thorax, the same vigorous and noisy flight in broad daylight. Sometimes the imitative creature goes further, like the caterpillar of Choerocampa Elpenor, which on its fourth and fifth segments has two eye-shaped spots outlined in black: when it is alarmed, its front segments retract and the fourth swells considerably, achieving the effect of a snake's head capable of deceiving lizards and small birds, which are frightened by this sudden apparition. According to Weismann, when the Smerinthus ocellata, which like all hawk moths conceals its hind wings when at rest, is in danger, it exposes them abruptly with their two large blue "eyes" on a red background, giving the aggressor a sudden fright. The butterfly, wings spread, thus becomes the head of a huge bird of prey. The clearest example of this kind is surely that of the Caligo butterfly in the jungles of Brazil, described by Vignon as follows: "There is a bright spot surrounded by a palpebral circle, then by circular and overlapping rows of small radial feathery strokes of variegated appearance, imitating to perfection the plumage of an owl, while the body of the butterfly corresponds to the beak of the same bird." The resemblance is so striking that the natives of Brazil affix it to the doors of their barns as a replacement for the creature it imitates. It is only too obvious that in the previous cases anthropomorphism plays a decisive role: the resemblance is all in the eye of the beholder. The objective fact is fascination, as is shown especially by Smerinthus ocellata, which does not resemble anything frightening. Only the eye-shaped spots play a role. The behavior of the Brazilian natives only confirms this proposition: the "eyes" of the Caligo should probably be compared to the apotropaic Oculus indiviosus, the evil eye that can not only harm but protect, if one turns it back against the evil powers to which, as an organ of fascination par excellence, it naturally belongs.

Here the anthropomorphic argument does not apply, since the eye is the vehicle of fascination in the whole animal kingdom. It is, on the other hand, decisive for the biased declaration of resemblance: besides, even from the human point of view, none of the resemblances in this group of facts is absolutely conclusive. For the adaptation of form to form (homomorphy), there is no lack of examples: box crabs resemble rounded pebbles; chlamydes, seeds; moenas, gravel; prawns, fucus; the fish Phyllopteryx, from the Sargasso Sea, is simply "torn seaweed in the shape of floating strands," like the Antennarius and the Pterophrynx. The octopus retracts its tentacles, curves its back, adapts its color, and thus comes to resemble a stone. The green and white hind wings of the Aurora Pierid simulate umbelliferae; the bumps, knots, and streaks of symbiotic lichens make them identical with the bark of the poplars on which they grow. One cannot distinguish Lithnius nigrocristinus of Madagascar and Flatoids from lichens.

We know how far the mimicry of mantises can go: their legs simulate petals or are curved into corollas and resemble flowers, imitating by a slight instinctive swaying the action of the wind on these latter. The Cilix compressa resembles bird droppings; the Cerodeylus laceratus of Borneo with its leafy excrescences, light olive-green in color, a stick covered with moss. Everyone knows the Phyllia, or leaf insects, so similar to leaves, from which it is only a step to the perfect homomorphy represented by certain butterflies: first the Oxydia, which places itself at the end of a branch at right angles to its direction, the front wings held in such a position as to present the appearance of a terminal leaf, an appearance accentuated by a thin dark line extending crosswise over the four wings in such a way as to simulate the leaf's principal veins. Other species are even more improved, their hind wings being furnished with a slender appendage that they use as a petiole, acquiring by this means "a sort of insertion into the plant world." The combination of the two wings on each side represents the lanceolate oval characteristic of the leaf: here, too, a spot, but longitudinal this time, continuing from one wing onto the other, replaces the middle vein; thus "the vital organic force.. .has had to shape and cleverly organize each of the wings since it thereby achieves a fixed form, not in itself, but by its union with the other wing."

These are chiefly the Coenophlebia Archidona of Central America and the various kinds of Kallima in India and Malaysia, the latter deserving further study. The lower side of their wings reproduces, following the pattern indicated above, the leaf of the Nephelium Longane where they prefer to alight. Furthermore, according to a naturalist employed in Java by the London firm of Kirby and Co. for the trade in these butterflies, each of the different varieties of Kallima (K. Inachis, K. Parallecta, etc.) frequents a specific kind of bush that it most particularly resembles. Among these butterflies, imitation is pushed to the smallest details: indeed, the wings bear gray-green spots simulating the mold of lichens and glistening surfaces that give them the look of torn and perforated leaves: "including spots of mold of the sphaeriaceous kind that stud the leaves of these plants; everything, including the transparent scars produced by phytophagic insects when, devouring the parenchyma of the leaves in places, they leave only the translucid skin. Imitations are produced by pearly spots that correspond to similar spots on the upper surface of the wings."

These extreme examples have given rise to numerous attempts at explanation, none of them truly satisfactory. Even the mechanism of the phenomenon is unclear. One can certainly observe with E.-L. Bouvier that mimetic species depart from the normal type by the addition of ornaments: "lateral expansions of the body and appendages in Phyllia, modelling of the front wings in Flatoids, development of tuberosities in the larva of many geometer moths, etc . . . ." But this is a singular abuse of the word ornament, and above all it is more an observation than an explanation. The notion of preadaptation (insects seeking out milieux that match their dominant shade of colour or adjusting to the object they most resemble) is insufficient on its side in the face of equally precise phenomena. More insufficient still is the recourse to chance, even in Cuénot's subtle fashion. He attaches himself in the beginning to the case of certain Phyllia of Java and Ceylon (Ph. siccifolium and Ph. pulchrifolium) that live by preference on the leaves of the guava tree, which they resemble by the subterminal constriction of their abdomens. The guava, however, is not an indigenous plant but has been imported from America. So if similarity exists in this example, it is fortuitous. Without being disturbed by the exceptional (not to say unique) nature of this fact, Cuénot goes on to say that the similarity of the Kallima butterfly is no less the result of chance, being produced by the simple accumulation of factors (appendage in the shape of a petiole, lanceolate front wings, middle veining, transparent and mirror areas) that are found separately in nonmimetic species and are there unremarkable: "resemblance is therefore obtained by the sum of a certain number of small details, each of which has nothing exceptional about it and can be found isolated in neighbouring species, but whose combination produces an extraordinary imitation of a dry leaf, more or less successful depending on individuals, which quite notably differ among themselves .... It is one combination like any other, astonishing because of its resemblance to an object."

Likewise, according to this author, the Urapteryx samqucaria caterpillar is one combination like any other of a characteristic attitude, a certain skin colour, tegumentary rough spots, and the instinct to live on certain plants. But properly speaking, it is hard to believe that we are dealing here with combinations like any other, since all these details can be brought together without being joined, without their contributing to some resemblance: it is not the presence of the elements that is perplexing and decisive, it is their mutual organization, their reciprocal topography. Better to adopt under these conditions a shaky hypothesis that could be drawn from a remark by Le Dantec, according to which there may have been in the ancestors of the Kallima a set of cutaneous organs permitting the simulation of the imperfections of leaves, the imitating mechanism having disappeared once the morphological character was acquired (that is to say, in the present case, once the resemblance was achieved) in accordance with Lamarck's very law. Morphological mimicry could then be, after the fashion of chromatic mimicry, an actual photography, but of the form and the relief, a photography on the level of the object and not on that of the image, a reproduction in three-dimensional space with solids and voids: sculpture-photography or better teleplasty, if one strips the word of any metapsychical content. There are reasons more immediate, and at the same time less to be suspected of sophistry, that keep mimicry from being taken for a defense reaction. First of all, it would only apply to carnivores that hunt by sight and not by smell as is often the case. Carnivores, moreover, do not generally bother with motionless prey: immobility would thus be a better defense, and indeed insects are exceedingly prone to employ a false corpselike rigidity.

There are other means: a butterfly, in order to make itself invisible, may do nothing more than use the tactics of the Satyride asiatique, whose flattened wings in repose appear simply as a line almost without thickness, imperceptible, perpendicular to the flower where it has alighted, and which turns simultaneously with the observer so that it is only this minimum surface that is always seen. The experiments of Judd and Foucher have definitely resolved the question: predators are not at all fooled by homomorphy or homochromy: they eat crickets that mingle with the foliage of oak trees or weevils that resemble small stones, completely invisible to man. The phasma Carausius Morosus, which by its form, color, and attitude simulates a plant twig, cannot emerge into the open air without being immediately discovered and dined on by sparrows. Generally speaking, one finds many remains of mimetic insects in the stomachs of predators. So it should come as no surprise that such insects sometimes have other and more effective ways to protect themselves. Conversely, some species that are inedible, and would thus have nothing to fear, are also mimetic. It therefore seems that one ought to conclude with Cuénot that this is an "epiphenomenon" whose "defensive utility appears to be nul."

Delage and Goldsmith had already pointed out in the Kallima an "exaggeration of precautions." We are thus dealing with a luxury and even a dangerous luxury, for there are cases in which mimicry causes the creature to go from bad to worse: geometer-moth caterpillars simulate shoots of shrubbery so well that gardeners cut them with their pruning shears. The case of the Phyllia is even sadder: they browse among themselves, taking each other for real leaves, in such a way that one might accept the idea of a sort of collective masochism leading to mutual homophagy, the simulation of the leaf being a provocation to cannibalism in this kind of totem feast. This interpretation is not so gratuitous as it sounds: indeed, there seem to exist in man psychological potentialities strangely corresponding to these facts. Even putting aside the problem of totemism, which is surely too risky to approach from this point of view, there remains the huge realm of sympathetic magic, according to which like produces like and upon which all incantational practice is more or less based. There is no need to reproduce the facts here: they can be found listed and classified in the classic works of Tylor, Hubert and Mauss, and Frazer. One point, however, needs to be made, the correspondence, fortunately brought to light by these authors, between the principles of magic and those of the association of ideas: to the law of magic -- things that have once been in contact remain united--corresponds association by contiguity, just as association by resemblance corresponds quite precisely to the attractio sireilium of magic: like produces like.

Hence the same governing principles: here the subjective association of ideas, there the objective association of facts; here the fortuitous or supposedly fortuitous connections of ideas, there the causal connections of phenomena. The point is that there remains in the "primitive" an overwhelming tendency to imitate, combined with a belief in the efficacy of this imitation, a tendency still quite strong in "civilized" man, since in him it continues to be one of the two conditions for the progress of his untrammelled thought. So as not to complicate the problem unnecessarily, I leave aside the general question of resemblance, which is far from being clear and plays a sometimes decisive role in affectivity and, under the name of correspondence, in aesthetics. This tendency, whose universality thus becomes difficult to deny, may have been the determining force responsible for the present morphology of mimetic insects, at a time when their organisms were more plastic than they are today, as one must suppose in any case given the fact of transformation. Mimicry would thus be accurately defined as an incantation fixed at its culminating point and having caught the sorcerer in his own trap. No one should say it is nonsense to attribute magic to insects: the fresh application of the words ought not to hide the profound simplicity of the thing. What else but prestigious magic and fascination can the phenomena be called that have been unanimously classified precisely under the name of mimicry (incorrectly as I see it, one will recall, for in my opinion the perceived resemblances are too reducible in this case to anthropomorphism, but there is no doubt that once rid of these questionable additions and reduced to the essential, these facts are similar at least in their origins to those of true mimicry), phenomena some of which I have reported above (the examples of the Smerinthus ocellata, the Caligo, and the Choerocampa Elpenor caterpillar), and of which the sudden exhibition of ocelli by the mantis in a spectral attitude, when it is a matter of paralyzing its prey, is by no means of the least?

Recourse to the magical tendency in the search for the similar can only, however, be an initial approximation, and it is advisable to take account of it in its turn. The search for the similar would seem to be a means, if not an intermediate stage. Indeed, the end would appear to be assimilation to the surroundings. Here instinct completes morphology: the Kallima places itself symmetrically on a real leaf, the appendage on its hind wings in the place that a real petiole would occupy; the Oxydia alights at right angles to the end of a branch because the arrangement of the spot representing the middle veining requires it; the Clolia, Brazilian butterflies, position themselves in a row on small stalks in such a way as to represent bell flowers, in the manner of a sprig of lily of the valley, for example. It is thus a real temptation by space. Other phenomena, moreover, such as so-called "protective coverings," contribute to the same end. The larvae of mayflies fashion a sheath for themselves with twigs and gravel, those of Chrysomelidae with their excrements. Oxyrrhyncha or spider crabs haphazardly gather and collect on their shells the seaweed and polyps of the milieu in which they live, and "the disguise seems like an act of pure automatism," since they deck themselves in whatever is offered to them, including some of the most conspicuous elements (experiments by Hermann Fol, 1886). Furthermore, this behaviour depends on vision, since it neither takes place at night nor after the removal of the ocular peduncles (experiments by Aurivillius, 1889), which shows once again that what is involved is a disturbance in the perception of space. In short, from the moment when it can no longer be a process of defense, mimicry can be nothing else but this. Besides, there can be no doubt that the perception of space is a complex phenomenon: space is indissolubly perceived and represented. From this standpoint, it is a double dihedral changing at every moment in size and position: a dihedral of action whose horizontal plane is formed by the ground and the vertical plane by the man himself who walks and who, by this fact, carries the dihedral along with him; and a dihedral of representation determined by the same horizontal plane as the previous one (but represented and not perceived) intersected vertically at the distance where the object appears. It is with represented space that the drama becomes specific, since the living creature, the organism, is no longer the origin of the coordinates, but one point among others; it is dispossessed of its privilege and literally no longer knows where to place itself. One can already recognize the characteristic scientific attitudes and, indeed, it is remarkable that represented spaces are just what is multiplied by contemporary science: Finsler's spaces, Fermat's spaces, Riemann-Christoffel's hyper-space, abstract, generalized, open, and closed spaces, spaces dense in themselves, thinned out, and so on. The feeling of personality, considered as the organism's feeling of distinction from its surroundings, of the connection between consciousness and a particular point in space, cannot fail under these conditions to be seriously undermined; one then enters into the psychology of psychasthenia, and more specifically of legendary psychasthenia, if we agree to use this name for the disturbance in the above relations between personality and space.

Here it is possible to give only a rough summary of what is involved, and Pierre Janet's theoretical and clinical writings are moreover available to everyone. I will, however, briefly describe some personal experiences, but which are wholly in accord with observations published in the medical literature, for example with the invariable response of schizophrenics to the question: where are you? I know where I am, but I do not feel as though I'm at the spot where I find myself. To these dispossessed souls, space seems to be a devouring force. Space pursues them, encircles them, digests them in a gigantic phagocytosis. It ends by replacing them. Then the body separates itself from thought, the individual breaks the boundary of his skin and occupies the other side of his senses. He tries to look at himself from any point whatever in space. He feels himself becoming space, dark space where things cannot be put. He is similar, not similar to something, but just similar. And he invents spaces of which he is "the convulsive possession." All these expressions shed light on a single process: depersonalization by assimilation to space, i.e., what mimicry achieves morphologically in certain animal species. The magical hold (one can truly call it so without doing violence to the language) of night and obscurity, the fear of the dark, probably also has its roots in the peril in which it puts the opposition between the organism and the milieu. Minkowski's analyses are invaluable here: darkness is not the mere absence of light; there is something positive about it. While light space is eliminated by the materiality of objects, darkness is "filled," it touches the individual directly, envelops him, penetrates him, and even passes through him: hence "the ego is permeable for darkness while it is not so for light"; the feeling of mystery that one experiences at night would not come from anything else. Minkowski likewise comes to speak of dark space and almost of a lack of distinction between the milieu and the organism: "Dark space envelops me on all sides and penetrates me much deeper than light space, the distinction between inside and outside and consequently the sense organs as well, insofar as they are designed for external perception, here play only a totally modest role." This assimilation to space is necessarily accompanied by a decline in the feeling of personality and life. It should be noted in any case that in mimetic species the phenomenon is never carried out except in a single direction: the animal mimics the plant, leaf, flower, or thorn, and dissembles or ceases to perform its functions in relation to others. Life takes a step backwards. Sometimes assimilation does not stop at the surface: the eggs of phasmas resemble seeds not only by their form and colour, but also by their internal biological structure. On the other hand, cataleptic attitudes often aid the insect in its entry into another realm: the immobility of weevils, while bacilliform Phasmida let their long legs hang, and not to mention the rigidity of geometer-moth caterpillars standing bolt upright, which cannot fail to suggest hysterical contraction.

On the other hand, is not the automatic swaying of mantises comparable to a tic? Among others in literature, Gustave Flaubert seems to have understood the meaning of the phenomenon, when he ends The Temptation of Saint Anthony with a general spectacle of mimicry to which the hermit succumbs: "plants are now no longer distinguished from animals .... Insects identical with rose petals adorn a bush . . . . And then plants are confused with stones. Rocks look like brains, stalactites like breasts, veins of iron like tapestries adorned with figures." In thus seeing the three realms of nature merging into each other, Anthony in his turn suffers the lure of material space: he wants to split himself thoroughly, to be in everything, "to penetrate each atom, to descend to the bottom of matter, to be matter." The emphasis is surely placed on the pantheistic and even overwhelming aspect of this descent into hell, but this in no way lessens its appearance here as a form of the process of the generalisation of space at the expense of the individual, unless one were to employ a psychoanalytic vocabulary and speak of reintegration with original insensibility and prenatal unconsciousness: a contradiction in terms. One does not need to look far to find supporting examples in art: hence the extraordinary motifs of Slovak popular decoration, which are such that one does not know whether it is a question of flowers with wings or of birds with petals; hence the pictures painted by Salvador Dalí around 1930, in which, whatever the artist may say, these invisible men, sleeping women, horses, and lions are less the expression of ambiguities or of paranoiac "plurivocities" than of mimetic assimilations of the animate to the inanimate.

Beyond doubt some of the above developments are far from offering any guarantee from the standpoint of certainty. It may even seem questionable to compare such diverse realities as homomorphy and the external morphology of certain insects, sympathetic magic and the concrete behaviour of people of a certain type of civilization and perhaps a certain type of thought, and finally psychasthenia and the psychological postulations of people belonging, from these points of view, to opposite types. Such comparisons, however, seem to me not only legitimate (just as it is impossible to condemn comparative biology) but even indispensable as soon as we approach the obscure realm of unconscious determinations. Besides, the solution proposed contains nothing that should give rise to suspicions of dogmatism: it merely suggests that alongside the instinct of self-preservation, which in some way orients the creature toward life, there is generally speaking a sort of instinct of renunciation that orients it toward a mode of reduced existence, which in the end would no longer know either consciousness or feeling--the inertia of the élan vital, so to speak. It is on this level that it can be gratifying to give a common root to phenomena of mimicry both biological and magical and to psychasthenic experience, since the facts seem so well to impose one on them: this attraction by space, as elementary and mechanical as are tropisms, and by the effect of which life seems to lose ground, blurring in its retreat the frontier between the organism and the milieu and expanding to the same degree the limits within which, according to Pythagoras, we are allowed to know, as we should, that nature is everywhere the same.

  • Originally published in Minatoure, 7, 1935 (N.B the demarcation of paragraphs in this text is not as it occurs in the original).