Practically determining ‘that which is feminine’ – along with ‘that which is masculine’, and even ‘that which is human’ – has become an increasing concern in an age dominated by networked computers and the world of social media. This is a world of catfishing, virtual transvestitism, sexual grooming and the increasing use of robot online personae using fake profiles with convincing backgrounds and histories to infiltrate social networks for the purpose of spying, propaganda and intimate advertising and marketing. Online, the world of Bladerunner (Ridley Scott, 1982) is already here and the question of that which is or isn’t feminine has become intimately bound to that which is – or was – human.
All of this was anticipated by Alan Turing at the very dawn of the computer age. Turing’s work founded the modern computer, the essential ingredients for machine intelligence and artificial life. Turing was of course the subject of the recent film The Imitation Game (Graham Moore, 2014) starring Benedict Cumberbatch that tells the story of how Turing lead the team that decoded the German encryption device ‘Enigma’ at Bletchley Park in England during World War Two. The title of the film refers to his essay ‘Computing Machinery and Intelligence’ (1950) in which he outlines the famous ‘imitation game’ or ‘Turing test’ for answering the question of whether or not machines can be said to think. Turing prefaces this test with a similar one concerning the problem of distinguishing ‘that which is feminine’.
The ‘imitation game’ is introduced as a game ‘played with three people, a man (A), a woman (B), and an interrogator (C) who may be of either sex. The interrogator stays in a room apart from the other two. The object of the game is for the interrogator to determine which of the other two is the man and which is the woman. (Copeland, 2004: 441).
The interrogator knows them by different labels, say ‘X’ and ‘Y’, and poses various questions to them. In order to hide factors such as tone of voice and so on, their answers must be in writing, ‘or better still typewritten’. The sample questions concern the usual conventions of gender difference in the 1940s and 50s in Europe such as ‘please tell me the length of your hair’. Since the object of the game is for (A) to try and make (C) fail to determine that which is feminine, he can give answers such as ‘My hair is shingled, and the longest strands are about nine inches long’. (441). The point of the example is to demonstrate that under these conditions, it is of course impossible to tell which is the man and which is the woman. Turing then goes on to describe a similar process in which he hopes to show that it is – or soon will be – just as impossible to tell the difference between machines and men and women assuming the former are equipped with enough information about signifiers of gender, say, and sufficient processing speed and power. ‘What will happen’, writes Turing, ‘when a machine takes the part of A in this game? Will the interrogator decide wrongly as often when the game is played like this as he does when the game is played between a man and a woman?’ (441) The answer of course is yes.
It is interesting that the two questions posed by Turing in the imitation game are the very same questions that Lacan says are central to the structure of hysteria and obsessional neurosis, the structures that are generally associated with femininity in the former case, and masculinity in the latter. In Seminar III Lacan states that for the hysteric ‘everything that’s said, expressed, gestured, manifested, assumes its sense only as a function of a response that has to be formulated concerning the fundamentally symbolic relation – Am I a man or am I a woman? (Lacan, 1993: 171.) Similarly, the question ‘can a machine think’ or ‘can a machine be mistaken for a man?’ amounts to asking if it is alive or dead. This is the existential question that is central to the obsessional who has indeed reduced his being to the thoughts that afflicts him. These thoughts continually concern ‘the question of death [that is] another mode of the neurotic creation of the question – its obsessional mode’ (Lacan, 1993: 179-80). These thoughts, for Dominique Miller, constitute the ‘automatism’ of the ‘thinking machine’ that is the obsessional. (See Miller, 2005)
In this short essay I want to argue for the mutually beneficial study of media and psychoanalysis. ‘You are now’ announced Lacan to his students in 1973, ‘infinitely more than you think, subjects of instruments that, from the microscope right down to the radiotelevision, are becoming the elements of your existence. You cannot currently even gauge the import of this, but it is nonetheless part of scientific discourse, insofar as a discourse is what determines a social link’ (Lacan, 1999: 82). Psychoanalysis, I argue, needs increasingly to acknowledge its efficacy as a media theory in its negotiation of contemporary forms of social bond whose effects are manifested in the clinic.
As early as Seminar II, Lacan is keenly aware of this, suggesting that ‘in so far as he speaks, the subject can perfectly well find his answer, his return, his secret, his mystery, in the constructed symbol which modern machines represent for us’ (Lacan, 1988: 186). That is to say, the parlêtre that we acknowledge today as the metaphor for the Freudian unconscious, is also always a more generally médiêtre. We are not just speaking bodies, but mediated beings who in the computer age might also be designated as technobodies to indicate that the body is hollowed-out and cadaverized. While its images are simulated and displaced among a variety of screens, objects and gadgets that displace identity across a ‘nobody’ or a central void, its fleshly surface enjoys and suffers from processes of machined thought from which it is separated.
The emergence of the modern computer takes place at a moment in the twentieth century when media systems had already changed our understanding of the arbitrary nature of gender signification. Freud was one of the first to take note of this. In his seminal work Discourse Networks 1800/1900 (1991), Friedrich Kittler argues that both Freud and Lacan were great media theorists as well as cryptanalysts because they recognized the central importance of new systems of communications. For example, it was the appearance of the typewriter, argues Kittler, that first made manifest the fact that language is a symbolic system, and not something simply given in nature. The typewriter can thus be regarded as the ‘technical a priori’ for those Freudian case studies that ‘demonstrate that the romanticism of the soul has yielded to the materialism of written signs’ (Kittler, 1991: 283.) Indeed, in his ‘Notes Upon a Case of Obsessional Neurosis’ (1909) also known as the case study of the ‘Rat Man’, Freud argues that ‘the obsessional command (or whatever it may be) … is known only, in waking life, in a truncated or distorted form, like a mutilated telegraph message.’ (Freud, 1993: 60) Type emphasizes that letters are the a-natural keys to the unconscious, knowledge of which is hinted at in typographic errors betraying the jouissance of language in the presence of bodies – in particular female bodies. This is because the role of ‘steno-typist’ quickly became one of the main types of female employment and autonomy. The speed and mechanical efficiency of the female shorthand typist replaced the laborious handwriting of the male bureaucrat and manager who could now simply ‘dictate’ in person or via a dictaphone. In his essay ‘Dracula’s Legacy’, Kittler writes ‘if the great word emancipation has any historical meaning, it is only in the area of word processing, which continues to employ more women world-wide than any other field’ (Kittler, 1997: 64). In an essay exploring the implications for female workers of this change in labour and gender relations brought about by the semiotics of the typewriter, Katherine Biers (2015) suggests that the increasing presence in the workplace of female bodies, contributed to the de-idealization of women, even as it consigned women to a highly mechanized and over-sexualized world of office work.
Colette Soler makes a similar point in her essay ‘Hysteria in Scientific Discourse’ (2002), when she remarks that the rise of techno-science has resulted in the ‘universalization’ of a subject that, while it may be gendered, ‘knows nothing of sexual difference’, and instead promotes ‘unisex’ that ‘consequently adapts very easily to the reduction of every subject to universal worker’ whose satisfactions may only be met by the goods, symbols and gadgets of commodifiable – that is to say phallic – jouissance. ‘Unisex means the phallic jouissance that is available to everyone’ (Soler, 2002: 49). For Soler, it is the female hysteric who is uncertainly located as both the symptom of this process and its signifier of (phallic) resistance.
This is nicely illustrated by the emergence of the femme fatale in the Hollywood noir tradition of the 1930s and 40s, as Biers shows. In her essay, Biers reads two texts, Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) and a much earlier play, Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal (1928), that are based on Ruth Snyder, a typist and stenographer who was executed for murdering her husband. Biers argues that unlike Wilder’s film in which the femme fatale retains in a negative form ‘woman’ as both ideal and symptom of man, Treadwell’s play draws attention to the stultifying, mechanized conditions of women’s labour, suggesting that in the climactic scene, the ‘young woman’s moaning voice’ provides a discordant accompaniment to the ‘telegraphic instruments’ of the journalists reporting her confession to the murder, ‘making it impossible to decide whether the material order outside or the psychic order inside rules over her fate’ (Biers, 2015: 149). The woman’s voice here however, does not provide the sonorous support for the bureaucratic writing machine, but the jouissance (suffering) of its internal dissonance. For Soler, while ‘our scientific civilization and the universalization it promotes engenders unisex’, hysterical women ‘have inspired psychoanalysis to keep open the question of sex’ in order to provide them with a response. (54)
But science and hysteria are not necessarily opposites. As he continued to think about discourse in the 1970s, Lacan seems to have begun to shift his position on science, moving it away from university discourse towards the discourse of the hysteric. ‘I conclude’, he states in Television (1974), ‘that scientific discourse and the hysteric’s discourse have almost the same structure’ (1990: 19). By 1975 and 1977 he is stating that scientific discourse and the discourse of the hysteric are identical (Scilicet 5, 1975: 7 and ‘Propos sur ‘hysterie’’, Quarto (1977). This is because unlike university discourse, where the truth of knowledge (S2) is power (S1), the truth of science, as with the hysteric, is the real (a). To look at this identification more closely, and to analyze its implications, requires of course that the (scientific) subject of the unconscious is placed in the position of agency. But here we are not concerned with the subject that has been occluded by science, that is to say sutured by systems of measurement or calculation. Rather, we are concerned with the subject of encryption. It is precisely this distinction that Lacan makes in Television between psychoanalytic and scientific method, drawing on the example of Freud. ‘What Freud articulates as primary process in the unconscious … isn’t something to be numerically expressed [se chiffre], but to be deciphered [se dechiffre]. I mean: jouissance itself.’ (1990: 18-19).
The reference to ‘deciphering’ of course brings us directly back to Alan Turing, the greatest cryptanalyst of the twentieth century. If we look again at his imitation game, in which he juxtaposes the question of the difference between men and women with that of human and machine, we can see that the point of this juxtaposition is not only to stress the importance of symbolic differences, but also their limit. The juxtaposition acknowledges that it is not just signifiers of difference that are at issue in the question concerning femininity and masculinity, but the jouissance that these signifiers orient. Or as his biographer suggests, Turing’s question was meant to imply that sex ‘depended on facts which were not reducible to sequences of symbols’ (Hodges, 2013: 523). These ‘facts’ of course are not essentially biological; they pertain to the fact that knowledge of sex is not a question of information, but jouissance. Accordingly, Lacan’s own re-framing of Turing’s question concerns not whether or not a machine can think, but whether it can be said to know, because ‘the foundation of knowledge is that the jouissance of its exercise is the same as its acquisition’ (Lacan, 1999: 97). Turing’s imitation game anticipates the distinction made by Lacan in Seminar XX where he emphasizes that his ‘formulas of sexuation’ do not map on to gender difference. In this essay, then, I want to stress the importance of media theory to psychoanalysis, but also underscore the correlative importance of assessing the subject of media and technology from the psychoanalytic perspective, that is to say from the perspective of the real that resists all scientific observation and measurement.
In so doing it is necessary nevertheless to acknowledge that the particular configurations of signifiers supported by the different types of technical systems that mediate them have had significant effects on the unconscious, and what it means to be feminine or masculine. In what follows I am going to argue that Alan Turing, in spite of the legacy represented by Silicon Valley and the Americanization of digital culture, also attempted to keep open the question of sex both in his research into machine intelligence and artificial life. In so doing he managed to bring into proximity scientific discourse with the discourse of the hysteric in the manner of the true scientist in his attempt to ‘formulate the encounter with the real cause’ (Fink, 1995: 141).