Juhani Ihanus, PhD, Adjunct Professor of Cultural Psychology at the University of Helsinki

The Virtual Mind and the Cultural Matrix

Juhani Ihanus–University of Helsinki


The Machine and the Body

In science fiction, the rise of technological consciousness is often attached to the rise of an ego consciousness, which boosts itself as the controller of the universe, thus gaining god-like mastery. This tale of hubris ends with the destruction of the master (the “mad scientist”), after his beloved have been destroyed. In the field of psychoanalysis, Viktor Tausk in his posthumously published article “Über die Entstehung des ’Beeinflussungsapparates’ in der Schizophrenie (originally published in German in Internationale Zeitschrift für ärztliche Psychoanalyse, 5: 1–33, in 1919; the English translation ”On the origin of the ’Influencing Machine’ in schizophrenia” was published in the Psychoanalytic Quarterly in 1933) proposed that “The Influencing Machine delusion” consists of the patient’s claims that an evil person operates a machine that is able to produce bodily changes in the patient. The evil operator is the great manipulator par excellence, capable of inserting thoughts into the mind, or of sucking out thoughts and feelings. Different kinds of sensations, movements, acts, or verbal expressions are also seen as the products of the machine. When asked how such a machine was constructed, the patient could give only vague guesses such as, the pushing of buttons, the setting into motion of levers, and the turning of cranks.

The Influencing Machine delusion seems not to be restricted to schizophrenic states. It, like the mad scientist story, resonates in the minds of different people in different times and places, branching off into myths, literature, and art. It was not until after the Industrial Revolution, however, that the machine really became an influencer, an object for the displacement and projection of one’s unacceptable thoughts, feelings, and actions. The desires of the machine called “I” are elusive, its “infantile attractors” having seductive and possessive powers.

Prior to the 18th century, normal science studied the nervous system with the help of the animal spirits hypothesis. This hypothesis, passed on from Galen of Pergamon, stated that the “Natural Spirit” is created in the liver after the eaten food arrives in the intestines. The heat of the heart converts the Natural Spirit to the “Vital Spirit.” The proposed structure of the brain, called the rete mirabile, or “wonderful net,” then further converts the Vital Spirit to the animal spirits that are purified, collected in the ventricles and finally transported through the “hollow nerves” of the body to produce sensation and movement.

Tausk already suggested that the mysterious Influencing Machine is derived from the child’s curiosity and unclearness of how one’s body develops and functions. Children cherish a common belief that their caretaker can read and insert their thoughts and feelings, manipulate their body members, take things out of their body, anally invade them, threaten to mutilate or even maim, dismember, and mince them. These largely unconscious bodily memories can be at the basis of uncanny feelings when one meets with such experiences as inanimate mummies (both meanings of this word: mummy and Mom) suddenly and unexpectedly move, pacing slowly toward a frightened spectator.

The main aspect in the persecutory Influencing Machine fantasy is the state of being passive and helpless, at the mercy of stronger powers. This developmental stage is situated in the quasi-separation, in “between,” where the urge to merge and to separate fluctuate, and anxiety and excitement vacillate in the push-pull dynamics. Even younger children nowadays get access to and are gradually immersed into the world of the computerized, digitalized, and virtualized extensions of the mind-brain-body. Their neuroplastic and -dynamic minds are given continuous non-parental instructions about how to relate to different kinds of inscriptions and icons of the online play world technology. Not only physical and cognitive extensions and artifacts but also increasingly emotion-regulatory extensions embrace the computer-directed mobile beings.

Spielraum, Artificial Objects and Virtual Characters


The Machine Age was followed by electronic technology and the networked consciousness. The newer influencing machines have succeeded the mechanical ones. The current controllers are post-biological, artificially intelligent, genetically programmed, and hyper-mediated. Virtual abductions, deaths, and resurrections form the post-human mind, net and body scape. Operating people are handed over to wireless hot spots and “terminal identities” are connected to endless data banks.

Cyberspace is full of invaders and snatchers; the mindset of cartoons and videos abound with images of mind-sucking and raping. The rete mirabile is a matrix that holds its promises and nightmares in store for the computerized selves. The revitalized and transformed Influencing Machine fantasy belongs to those multiple and hybrid selves that are always online. They are linked to novel computational “evocative objects” (Sherry Turkle, “Whither Psychoanalysis in Computer Culture?” Psychoanalytic Psychology, 21, 2004, pp. 16-30) which are objects to think (and feel) with. Such artificial objects evoke emotions in the user without having “real” emotions. An evocative pet object can, for example, function as a remote-controlled guardian of the old people and help them smile in their loneliness.

Computer culture calculates the effects of affects, dependency, and other relational phenomena, producing intimate machines that demand the human users to attend to virtual psychology. Companion species (quasi-alive virtual pets, digital dolls smiling, and robot nurses taking care of the elderly) and affective computing devices (such as the human-like robots) are relational artifacts that give the appearance of aliveness. However, unlike humans, they do not disappoint or betray, and thus they open new vistas for perfect narcissistic relations with machines. Persecutory fantasies can be excluded in the “wonderful net” where everybody is marked by an errorless identifying code (chip). Psychopharmacological ingredients add to and accompany internet addictions and dissociations.

Spielraum (the Internet play space) is a ground for identity play. It may advance self-reflection: “What does my behavior in cyberspace tell me about what I want, who I am, what I may not be getting in the rest of my life?” (Turkle, 2004, p. 22). However, such reflections may also inflate and confuse identities. Virtual infonauts do not proceed so much through self-analysis as by navigation through cyberspace. They cherish sensation seeking rather than truth seeking. In the Second Life online world, people embody themselves through virtual characters, “avatars,” which are image-tailored and represent the real-life self and live on online.

There may be a final loss of ambivalence when we get irreducibly and inextricably intertwined with and immersed in “programmed worlds and relationships with digital creatures and robotic pets,” as Sherry Turkle has pointed out. In cyberspace, the regulations are clear, but “never have we so needed the ability to think [and rethink], so to speak, ‘ambivalently,’ to consider life in shades of gray, consider moral dilemmas, […] to hold many different and contradictory thoughts and feelings at the same time” (Turkle, 2004, pp. 29-30).

For virtual travelers, cyberspace is the space of apparition where the virtual and the real co-emerge and co-evolve. Virtual reality, image technologies, and high speed cognitive and affective computing are no longer simply our tools; they now constitute the very environment within which our telehumanity is developing. Ethnographic studies on human online behavior produce “netnographic” research questions that are not so much concerned with data banks or telecommunication per se as with the interface between different data worlds, between resonating fields of intersecting and overlapping memories, and larger virtual consciousness centers. What was earlier regarded as an artificial appendix is now becoming a huge virtual central nervous system. The neural interface is connected with complex dynamic systems and regulative circuits. It may be that our intersubjective experience will be increasingly virtualized and electro-epigenetically disseminated.

Traditionally, we saw the human condition through a shared sense of mortality. Now, the artificial objects will not die, so that we will never have to face their loss. We need not mourn anymore. There are still depressions around, but they can be doped away through psychopharmacology. The pharmacological human being does not have to slow down because of depression. As Robert Romanyshyn has stated, “Depression might be the last refuge of difference in a society hell bent on engineered conformity. But depression terrifies us.” Depression could have something to say if only we stopped to listen to it: “Take account of what you are doing, where you are going.” (“On Technology as Symptom & Dream: A Conversation with Dolores O. Brien,” www.cgjungpage.org, 2000.)

Grieving is also dangerous, and even more old-fashioned than depression. We used to grieve because we dared to love, and we could love again because we let ourselves to grieve. New psychiatric credo states that sorrow has to be extremely short; otherwise it will be diagnosed as depression to be treated with antidepressants.

Interactive Art and the Cultural Matrix

Art has always concerned itself with presence. Religious art dealt with the presence of gods; classical art with the presence of heroes; the artist-male-genius with his “imagination” (no “weak” female “fancy” was allowed there) fought for his presence in romantic art; the presence of presence itself concerned abstract art. Now, in telematic art, telepresence is distributed throughout the Internet, and we are both here and there, out-of-the-body and reembodied, dematerialized and reconfigured at the same time. (Cf. Roy Ascott, Telematic Embrace: Visionary Theories of Art, Technology, and Consciousness. Ed. Edward A. Shanken. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.)

Philosophy of the mind, psychoanalysis, cognitive psychology, and neuroscience have all been interested in questions of “mental” representations. In cyberspace and telematic art, representations are uninteresting appearances, mendacious and counterfeit. For globally networking artists, mentalized content and cyberspace identities appear and disappear, get intensely included and all of a sudden excluded, as a waste of time and neural activation. So far, there is a shift (lift-off) taking place in art from appearance (representation) to apparition, from the finite and final object to the process of emergence, from the resolution or conclusion to the unresolved and rhizomatic inter- or transdisciplinary leaps (interpolations) toward the unknown.

Instead of creating, expressing, or transmitting content, the artist is designing contexts within which the participant observer or viewer can construct meanings and experiential and experimental worlds. Art may still have some function as the learning window onto the world, but its more actual presence offers a doorway (a portal) through which participant observers are invited to enter into interaction and transformation. On the threshold of artistic transformation, between the virtual and the real, new exciting and terrifying (to merge or to emerge, that is the question) forms and deformations of connectivity (of people, forums, ideas, media, and systems) are taking place, in cumulative and interconnected matrices.

Cyberspace and interactive art construct and reconstruct matrices of values. There are charges and sparks involved. “In the cyberculture, to construct art is to construct reality, the networks of cyberspace underpinning our desire to amplify human cooperation and interaction in the constructive process.” (Ascott, 2003.) Robert Romanyshyn (2000) has reminded us that “cyber-reality is that kind of consciousness which asks us not only to be aware that we are always dreaming, even while awake, dreaming as it were with eyes wide open, but also challenges us to take responsibility for what our dreams create.” In a cultural matrix, there are ambiguities and tensions (of separation and fusion, exclusion and inclusion) embedded in individual and cultural experiential contexts.

The work of creation continues, even if (and because) we have our symptoms and shadows of technological telenoia. However, the computerized diagnostic systems dumb the annoying symptoms. Excluded meanings like stigmatized people are treated as objects to be set into controlling machinery. In a consumer culture, so called innovative meanings and shifting perspectives of art can become branded as commodities (products) of a cultural matrix that sucks human resources.

When art moves across boundaries, it may recreate and re-orientate memories and desires in mindscapes that construct unanticipated temporal places. However, it may also regress to archaic mirroring of sameness where nothing shakes or stirs the scene. Then the “other” is again a “hellish” disorder that has to be annihilated by the rule of the normal. Nihilism operates with the help of faceless laws, denying all the efforts of the rejected and the vulnerable to keep on living and loving with the little help from their friends.

Art hovers between form and formlessness, present and past. It embodies and disembodies; it embraces and lets loose. Its attachment styles are variegated. It always launches projects for the futures to come: What next – ? Is there anybody to observe? Who’s I/eye is watching? Is there anybody/any body to hold on, to plunge in?

Juhani Ihanus, PhD, is Adjunct Professor of Cultural Psychology at the University of Helsinki, Adjunct Professor of Art Education and Art Psychology at the Aalto University, Adjunct Professor of the History of Science and Ideas at the University of Oulu, Senior Lecturer and Member of the Board of Directors at the Open University of the University of Helsinki. He is also an international member of the Psychohistory Forum who has published books and articles on psychohistory, cultural, art, and clinical psychology, and the history of psychology. He may be reached at juhani.ihanus@helsinki.fi

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