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by Robert M. Young

I shall begin by talking about primitive reactions to computers and to the internet and then move on to talking about some psychodynamics involving relations with the internet once one is on-line.

I am struck by the gap between what’s happening on the internet, on the one hand, and the involvement of people in Britain I know and with whom I work, on the other. There are several general email forums on psychoanalysis and psychotherapy, many Lacanian ones, some Jungian, one on object relations one on Bion, dozens concerned with particular disorders (e.g., depression, post-traumatic stress, eating disorders), with psychiatry, group therapy, group relations, mental health, self-help, user’s groups, followers of Thomas Szasz, critics of orthodox psychiatry and DSM IV. There is a forum on practically any philosopher or writer or persuasion you could name - Foucault, Nietzsche, Freud, Hillman, French feminists, Kristeva, existentialism, phenomenology, critical sociology, Boudrillard, Popper. In our own particular domain, there are forums on Psychoanalytic Studies, Psychoanalysis and the Public Sphere, Psychotherapy and Counselling, Radical Psychology, Current Issues in Psychology and Psychiatry. There is a consortium of about forty forums in the mental health area called Inter-Psych and a related one with a wider brief called Global-Psych. Each forum has from dozens to over a thousand subscribers. Some are very active, some hardly at all.

I report these data as a way of introducing my first point about primitive processes. Except for my colleagues at the Centre for Psychotherapeutic Studies at Sheffield and a handful of others with university links, I could not list more than about two dozen people whom I regard as professional colleagues in psychoanalysis and psychotherapy in this country who are on the internet (fifteen therapists, ten academics) — none in the THERIP committee, none on the planning committee for the biennial conference at Essex University on Psychosis, none on the Psychoanalysis and the Public Sphere conference committee, none in the two training organisations to which I belong, half a dozen analysts. In America and on the Continent, by contrast, there are thousands — about ten thousand in the Inter-Psych consortium, for example.

The first point to note, then, is a kind of primitive aversion. People are indifferent, daunted or put off by the idea of getting onto the net. I admit that I was one of them until about eighteen months ago. I was even daunted by trying to use a computer at all until Joe Berke persuaded me to get an Apple Macintosh. I had an Amstrad and even wrote a book on it, but I feared and hated it, even after overcoming my initial and serious phobia. But I soldiered on, because I found the ease of making corrections so attractive. I never chose to spend time on it, though. When I got a Mac my life was transformed. My productivity increased many times, as did my ability to find things. On the other hand, when I had a crash or something went wrong, I was literally panicked. It felt like a stroke, and my dependency on my (very helpful and responsive) dealer was utterly desperate, regressed, infantile. Indeed, I had a crush on the woman in the dealership who taught me the rudiments of Microsoft Word processing. She was essential to my well-being for a period of months, and I thought of her as an idealised breast — always available with sustenance and comfort.

I am completely helpless without my Mac. Once I became accustomed to the computer and once internet service providers were available for private users I set out to get on the net, and this was also a very distressing process. I got a modem (the box which connects your computer to a phone line) and finally got it to work for faxing, but it was hell to move on to the net. You have to read instructions, something I am bad at; then you have to ring helplines (and bear the busy signals and being kept on hold until two minutes before your next patient is arriving). Then you have to admit to them just how hopeless you are. Then - after all the glitches are sorted out - you have to blunder around and do stupid things for a time. (It has comforted me to learn in the course of this week that Joe Berke cannot yet send an email message, and the director of the centre where I work, Tim Kendall, cannot yet upload a document from his computer onto a blank email form, even though both of them have been using computers and on the net for a long time.) Many people just cannot contain their anxiety and frustration. I had the help on two crucial Sunday evenings with a computer professional, Mark Alexander, and managed - with difficulty - to work through some elementary things. You simply have to forget about pride.

The situation is not now as bad as it was when I spent some months getting on-line. You can buy much more sophisticated packages from the THES or from various internet providers, one of which, called BOGOMIP, specialises in helping hopeless people (and charges for it). Apple will give you a complete set-up and get you on-line before relegating you to telephone back-up, which is excellent (though there can be delays) from my dealer in Hendon, Chromasonic. Once you are on the net there are innumerable email forums specifically designed to give back-up, and people are endlessly generous with help and advice. The dentist in Romford who devised AddMail, a crucial bit of software connecting my internet provider to my email software, has over the months spent a number of hours sorting out my email system and files. (Fortunately for my conscience, he likes a particularly expensive brand of Scotch whiskey.) In short, things are getting better, but it’s best to have a hand to hold and essential to practice more self-containment than you thought you had. You can also pick up a lot from internet magazines and booklets. The best magazine is called .Net (‘dot Net), and another, Internet, has an up-to-date league table of how efficient the various dial-up service providers are.

But there is another level of primitive anxiety. Many people fear that they will be taken over, overwhelmed, invaded, flooded. They experience an email mailbox in their computer (actually the mailbox is at the internet provider, and you control when it is opened or whether or not to open any letter onto your screen) as a junk-mail salt mill grinding perpetually at the bottom of their unconscious or a sorcerer’s apprentice’s water well, endlessly overflowing. The fear is that it is inside your house, in your study, inside your private places, utterly invasive. I have been told this by a number of friends and colleagues who hate the very thought of email. It is as if all of the nearly forty million people thought to be on-line (no one knows how many there really are) will crawl straight into their orifices and along their neurones. I suppose I am omnivorous or perhaps greedy. Yet I don’t feel that way. If I don’t like the look of something or a whole string of things, I can just highlight and delete them without opening them, like throwing away unwanted brown envelopes. I have a form of software, Eudora Pro (whose manufacturer and dealers do not, in my experience, provide good back-up, but there is a friendly user email forum), which can automatically file things into different mailboxes inside my Mac. I don’t let it do it automatically. I let the titles come up and then select the ones to file away after opening the ones which look interesting or urgent or personally addressed to me.

What I am saying is that the technology is at my service, and I have mastered it enough to feel in control of the several hundred postings I receive every day and of the 327 megabytes of email information on my hard discs. Before you roll your eyes, I should say that I am the moderator of two email forums and am involved with several web sites and electronic journals and that by far the bulk of the messages sent to me are about administrative and software matters and don’t even get a glance unless I happen to be interested in the subject. Even so, I have friends and colleagues who will have nothing to do with computers or, if they have one, absolutely do not want to get onto the internet. I think that’s a pity and that they will change their minds just as people did about radio, telephone, tape recorders, video recorders and are doing so with respect to portable phones. The sheer convenience and utility and cultural benefits eventually outweigh the disinclination.

So far I have only alluded to internet email forums, of which there are over 24,000 — on any subject you can name, and if there isn’t, you can start one. One of the forums to which I subscribe has as its sole purpose the announcement of new forums and another announces new electronic journals and magazines, for example, the new ejournal _Psychoanalytic Studies_ or the new _International Journal of Psychopathology, Psychopharmacology and Psychotherapy_ or a nascent one called _Psyart_ on the psychological study of literature. There is a search engine for forums and another for the tens of thousands of bulletin boards. You type in Irigaray, and it tells you if there is a forum and/or bulletin board (no, there isn’t one at present; it’s changed its name to French Feminism). Moving on, you can download free Netscape software, which replaces all sorts of devices and is all you need to move from email to the World Wide Web. On the web you can find sites for many institutions, the writings of various scholars, articles for discussion, for example, about the future of the annual Psychoanalysis and the Public Sphere conferences or the state of the culture of British psychoanalysis or recent debates about humanism, or a world-wide listing of forthcoming conferences in the mental health sphere, or the addresses of all American analysts, or a conference on Bion next summer or neuro-linguistic programming or humanistic psychotherapy. You can access various bibliographies, including one of nearly 30,000 psychoanalytic articles. You type in the topic, e.g., envy, and it gives you a dozen references in a moment. Type in ‘psychoanalysis and film’, and you get many dozen. If you type in Jacques Lacan into the Alta Vista search engine, you are offered 4000 items, many about another Jacques, many about another Lacan but many about the very man. You can also get results if you type in Laplanche, Winnicott, Klein, Adam Phillips, Darian Leader, even me. You can access the catalogues of the British Museum, the Library of Congress, innumerable publishers. You can get Routledge to inform you whenever they publish a book in philosophy or cultural studies or psychoanalysis. Various national psychoanalytic associations have their own web sites. So do various university departments and centres, including mine at http://www.shef.ac.uk/~psysc/

I could go on indefinitely about the information available on the internet. In fact, I have made some lists of potentially interesting email forums and web sites which I’d be glad to provide to anyone who wants them. As you can imagine, these are growing daily. Forums or bulletin boards are created by software which sends your message to everyone who has subscribed to that forum. You can reply to the whole forum or to any individual. Bulletin boards are places where postings are displayed, and anyone who is a member of that group (some have restricted access, e.g., for professional psychotherapists) can come and read it. You get mail from a forum automatically; you have to go to a bulletin board and look up what’s there. Then there are Internet Relay Chat (IRC) sites where people can be in the same bit of cyberspace at the same time, in effect, conducting a seminar via keyboard and screen while physically scattered around the world. There is an IRC of psychotherapists every Thursday evening. There are more elaborate simultaneous spaces called MUDs and MOOs. A MUD is a Multi-User Dimension, a cyberspace version of Dungeons and Dragons, and a MOO is a MUD Object Oriented, a text-based virtual reality site that allows people to connect to the same place at the same time. They are completely unlike conventional chat rooms in that they allow the manipulation of and interaction with cyber-objects in addition to just chatting with other people. Ask a web search engine, and you can download all sorts of information about any of these matters.

Instead of going further into the realms of net venues, I want to turn to some issues of internet psychodynamics, a subject which is only beginning to generate a literature (Holland, 1995; Young, 1995; Zenhausern, 1995). My thoughts on this topic have been importantly catalysed by an article on ‘The Internet Regression’ by Norman Holland and by two very interesting books by the psychoanalytically-oriented sociologist of science and technology, Sherry Turkle, whose early book on Lacanianism, Psychoanalytic Politics, will be known to many of you. Her next book, The Second Self, was about computers, and she has recently published one called Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, which I have just read. One of the topics on which she dwells in both of the computer books is the question of how we experience computers. She explores the attitudes of children, students, and others about the boundaries between the living and the electronic, between the human and the machine and between the virtual and the real. For me ‘the second self’ is an apt phrase, since my Mac is so essential to my well-being. I turn off the screen last thing before going to bed and check my email immediately after my bath and before my first patient in the morning. I am sitting at it much of the time when I am not doing therapy, teaching or spending time with my lovedones. I experience it in a way as a large part of the inside of my head. Indeed, it is in many ways more reliable and orderly, even though I nominally control it. I cannot find things in my study, which is a sea of papers. I usually can find things in the computer, though I confess that my personality is infusing it, and slippage is setting in. Increasingly I cannot read my handwriting; but I can read my computer notes. I find it hard to write letters, often because I cannot find the one written to me, but when they are in the computer I can quickly fax or email a reply. Indeed, the instantaneousness of email never ceases to thrill me. I am of a generation for whom a long distance phonecall was a major event, for whom television was an innovation in my teens, for whom audio and video tapes were and remain huge boons. I say this, because many of the communications technologies we take for granted have come on stream during my lifetime, and general access to the internet is really a phenomenon of the last couple of years, and its use is growing very rapidly.

One of the most striking features of email forums and letters is that people can experience almost no impediment to expressing themselves — for good or ill. They can say something which they would be very unlikely to say on the phone or write in a letter, largely, I think, because it all feels as if it its happening in the head. You do not even have the other person’s voice cues; no piece of paper, envelope, stamp or trip to the post is required. Cyberspace has a fantasy quality. As a result, people say the most intimate thing and the most horrid things with considerable ease. I have had postings from utter strangers about their breakdowns and sexual predilections. I have had insults unparalleled in my other experience. One follower of Thomas Szasz wrote of my attempt to engage him in debate as follows: ‘The ultimate rejection - to have your hand fall asleep while masturbating.’ Sometimes this sort of invective becomes widespread, and that’s called a ’flame war’. They can burn down whole forums.

In her new book Turkle writes at length about the question of identity on the internet and more broadly on the nature of the real in a culture of simulation. In particular, she writes about a form of fantasy game I mentioned a moment ago, called MUD for Multi-User Domain or Multi-User Dimensions, where people can be whomsoever they like. They change their genders, their degree of assertiveness, their sexual predilections at will. Anything goes — from flirtation to cross-dressing to virtual rape and weird fetishisms. She ponders this phenomenon at length and gives some fascinating case studies, one of a young man who was, in RL (the net abbreviation for Real Life) ill and unable to exercise much. In the MUD he became a dashing young man, called Achilles, wooed and won a lovely lady, married her on the net ,and other members of the MUD game had a wedding party in Germany, while the virtual husband was languishing in America. The result was not, however, an increase in confidence. He felt devastated by the gap between his game self and his real self. Another of her examples is a person who did gain confidence from roles he played on the net. He treated it as a transitional space, one where he could play and develop at the same time by taking on some major responsibilities in administering the MUD. She tells other stories of constructive use of experimentation with identifies during MUDs. The one which struck me most forcibly was a woman who had lost a leg in an accident. In her MUD game, she ’played’ a woman who had lost a leg, i.e., on the computer. What she learned from doing this enabled her to gain self-awareness and self-confidence and to move on to meeting people, including potential partners, off screen or, as true internet addicts say only half-self-mockingly, ‘on RL’, as if real life was just another net channel (Turkle, 1995, p. 186) .

I found these stories moving and illuminating. I think they raise interesting issues, on which Turkle touches but into which she does not go very deeply, about part-object and whole-object relations (for introductions to object relations theory, see Greenberg and Mitchell, 1983; Summers, 1994). On the net it is easy to split into idealised and denigrated part-object relations. This can have huge benefits, as a forum on traumatology showed in providing instant and massive support to people involved in the Oklahoma City disaster. People are also much more generous and helpful on the net in scholarly matters than I have found them to be in the rest of life. On the other hand, people can project violently and utterly denigrate another or a whole forum and have tantrums and even, in one case I experienced, simply and murderously close down a forum as a result of feeling too got at by some polemicists.

I think cues are important here. The coinage of email communications is the written word, usually composed quickly, often in haste. The keyboard is one’s palate. There is no eye contact; there are no nuances of intonation, no instantaneous chance to measure and correct misunderstandings, as there are in the feedback loops of face-to-face conversation or even a phonecall. There is no necessary space for reflection. There are various means which netters use for mitigating the effects of this set of omissions in the dialectics of communication. Rules of nettiquette are often spelled out when one joins a forum. There are also ’emoticons’, often called ’smileys’, which are crude but inventive pictures made with the keyboard, using the colon for eyes, a dash for a nose, brackets for smiles & frowns, etc., which are meant convey when one is smiling, joking, happy :-), sad (:-(, being sarcastic :-> and so on. You can get a dictionary of these (Godin, 1993).

It is also the case that one is in a private space and alone while writing, inside the head. No other face or voice is in the room. It can seem like reflecting, with no external consequences. People are usually unaware as they compose email postings that messages are archived by the recipient or automatically by the forum. There is no sense of a permanent record. It can all seem like passing thoughts, of no long-term consequence. A computer file does not feel like a permanent record. Even though it can be printed out its reality is experienced as virtual.

It is my experience that these features make the net particularly attractive to shy and even schizoid people. I have met a few face to face after knowing them only on the net for some time, and some have seemed much more strange than I had imagined them to be. I have also recently been involved in a striking example of the ‘you never know’ aspect of net life. There is a forum called NETDYNAMICS which was set up by a psychiatrist in Kansas for the express purpose of exploring the dynamics of an internet group. It was explicitly based on the model of a group investigating its own unconscious dynamics evolved from the work of Wilfred Bion at the Tavistock Institute and the Leicester Conferences (See Bion, 1961; Miller, 1990; Young, 1994a). When I was invited to join this group by a woman who had read and appreciated some of my writings I was flattered. However, when I did subscribe to the forum I somehow did not feel able to join in. I experienced it as a closed group with its own rhetoric, referring to interactions and issues which I could not get into. All the other groups to which I belonged (fifty-four of them) were based on issues or tasks, e.g., psychoanalysis or psychotherapy or the administration of forums or the use fo software. This one had only itself as an object of study. I found myself in the unusual position of ‘lurker’, the term for someone who reads the postings but never sends any or many to the forum. In fact, most people on most forums do not join in very often, and many do not do so at all. They lurk and are suspected of voyeurism. My response to a large group, e.g., the large group at a group relations conference, is usually not to keep my head down but - as if threatened by drowning - to seek to encompass the whole by intervening, a version of swimming like mad. In this case, I just couldn’t. I couldn’t even individuate the different voices on the forum.

Then one day someone suggested that something was really wrong with the forum’s deliberations and made some observations with which I identified about the cliquey nature of the group, how it did not draw on the tradition in the name of which it was set up, and so on. I then left the lurker’s lair and ventured to agree with this person. This got taken under the subject thread, ‘Is Netdynam a failure?’, a way of summarising the issues which did not accurately capture my own reflections. This thread went on for some days with people saying useful things pro and con. The founder of the forum took a lively part in the debate, including a posting with which I agreed in which he suggested that a false dichotomy was being put forward. It was his last.

I went off to Bulgaria for a weekend to do some supervising and returned to find a message that the forum leader had been found dead, apparently a suicide. This was later confirmed. He had taken a huge overdose, got into the bathtub and opened some large blood vessels. There ensued many messages, which I hesitate to characterise, but among the themes were shock and extreme idealisation, followed by gushing gratitude directed at those on the forum who tried to contain others’ distress. One, in particular, was a colleague of the dead man, and she relayed a series of discoveries about the suicide, the funeral and so on. It slowly emerged that he had lost his job (a job he hated), had none to go to, was estranged from his ex-wife and father and was a seriously alienated loner whose social relations were confined to the internet. It also emerged that no one on the internet forum felt that they knew him. Finally, everyone, including me, experienced a load of guilt hanging in the air, waiting to fall on someone or on the whole forum membership. His last messages were re-sent and carefully scrutinised. Amazingly, the forum leadership has passed to a nineteen-year old young man, and so far no one seems willing to suggest that this is an Oedipally striking and perhaps risky sequel.

The person who had invited me to join wrote privately to me about her distress and asked for help. I didn’t and still don’t have anything very insightful to say, but I did share with her my extensive experience of the world of suicide — rather more openly than I would be prepared to do here or, in fact, with anyone but my most intimate confidantes. It turns out that she found this very helpful and was able to say how little the forum leader had meant to her as an individual; she had felt no significant contact with him. Perhaps what helped her was my openness and the belief (justified in this case) that someone was being truly as open as he could manage and providing reassurance that nothing awful was being hidden. Worst fears and experiences, when stated, can often reassure one that painful truths can, after all, be borne, contained and survived. One can also be helped by the discovery that someone else’s response is an idiosyncratic as one’s own, no matter how different it is.

What is now happening on the forum is that people are beginning to note and comment on the atmosphere of idealisation and denial and tentatively to acknowledge that no one really knew or (it seems hard to write) cared very much about the man before he died. One person has reported to me that about a month before his death she ’had accused him of holding up the process by shutting down on anything emotional’. I hasten to add that many felt his loss acutely and were eloquent in their expressions of how much their senses of loss taught them about how much he had, after all, meant to them. (I had a similar experience when someone died whose presence in my intellectual and political life I took for granted, the writer and critic, Raymond Williams. I’d had no idea of how important to me it was that he was there until he was gone. A line from a Paul Simon song has come to represent this discovery: ’Who’ll be our role model, now that our role model is gone?’) It has not yet been said that he was in control of and in some way responsible for the process of self-withholding and that it is therefore in no sense the group’s fault that they (notice that I did not say ‘we’) did not support him sufficiently to keep him going. As far as we know no one had the faintest idea that he was thinking of checking out. (A line from an Eagles song, ‘Hotel California’, comes to mind: ’You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave’.) His ultimate distress was split off and concealed, while his best and most reasonable self was projected into the forum membership as an idealised community, perhaps even a virtual family.

At the time of writing, the forum is largely stuck on its members’ attempts to make reparation, while a minority risk severe criticism by trying to get it moving again. No one has yet drawn in any sustained way on psychoanalytic or group relations theory to probe the massive (I suppose it is to say fatal) split which was going on in the inner world of its founder and perhaps had its echoes in the group relations of the forum as a large group. I suggest that looking closely at the potential utility of the Kleinian concept of the paranoid-schizoid position (see Young, 1994a, pp. 77-78) and at the forms of basic assumption functioning (ibid., p. 157) about which Bion wrote might be a way forward .

In fact, after I delivered the first version of this paper, I found the following recent comments about him and about the group’s process written by an active forum member: ’Frankly, I think he was extremely ambivalent about conducting this research the way he knew perfectly well it needed to be conducted. It wasn't his "style" to look too deeply into process and affect — I think it downright terrified him. As leader, he consistently directed our conversations (for such a non-directive type, believe me, he was directive), away from deep process work. I think he was also fascinated by this approach — but he consistently steered away from it.’ The same person made the following suggestion to two key members of the forum: ’Just for fun, imagine that your roles here were shaped by... projective identification of parts of himself (wanted or unwanted) onto you. What would those roles be?’ (for an exposition of the concept of projective identification, see Young, 1994a, ch. 7). There is reason to hope that something may yet be learned about net dynamics from this distressing set of events.

It is, of course, too early to say what this example may turn out to mean about primitive processes on the internet. It is already clear that it says something about the fragility of the authenticity and intimacy which is claimed for the internet. I normally feel more myself when communicating in email forums and in exchanges with individuals than I do in other highly-mediated forms of contact. However, Turkle’s research and the example I have just given show that people can be involved in elaborate control of what they expose or reveal on the net. It may be a highly-selected part of the self. It may even be, as it often is in MUD games, a false, deviant or idealised self. This is not so remarkable in the rest of life, nor is it as easy. What is remarkable is the illusion that what one sees on the net is the real self, when it is so obvious that it is a highly-selected version of the self.

This leads to the question of whether a form of psychodrama can usefully be based on internet role-playing, a form of therapy which MUDs can be described as approaching. There is the related question of psychotherapy on the internet, something which many deplore, while others ask if it is more alarming than telephone therapy. Believe me, there is plenty of it on-line already, just as there are innumerable self-help groups, and there is much, much more to come. Beyond that is the issue of clinical supervision and teaching in the net. I am particularly interested in these issues, because I am in charge of setting up distance learning MA programmes at the Sheffield Centre for Psychotherapeutic Studies in Psychoanalytic Studies, in Psychiatry, Philosophy and Society and in Disability Studies, which we hope to offer on the net after an initial year based mostly on more traditional Open University model paper courses (information at http://www.shef.ac.uk/~psysc/). These are extremely important issues which it behoves us to investigate now, and some internet forums are beginning to do just that.

The internet is immensely facilitative, but its instantaneousness and its being based on the keyboard raise as many problems as these features mitigate or solve. (I should mention that a ’see-you, see me’ picture gadget is soon to become commonplace.) The feature of net culture which seems to me most important at present is the lack of physicality, something which in most settings plays a central role in mediating object relations. Turkle is absolutely right to raise the question, ‘What are the social implications of spinning off virtual personae that can run around with names and genders of our choosing, unhindered by the weight and physicality of embodiment?’ (p. 249). The net is in important ways uncontained; it has no boundaries, no skin, no density. It is an ideal medium for indulging part-object relations. It seems to offer unlimited access, to allow one to believe that one can know all, to be omniscient, even omnipotent. One can set up huge enterprises with a few keystrokes. I have seen it done. I have even seen them succeed.

An issue which lies at the heart of Turkle’s new book is the extent to which the representations of self on the internet reflect the loss of coherence and a sense of integrated identity which is central to the currently fashionable theory known as postmodernism (see Docherty, 1993). This approach denies that the modern, unified concepts of self, identity and individual can any longer be sustained, and many of the promoters of postmodernism reject any idea of a bottom line in the self or a basic, foundational discourse in cultural, philosophical or scientific theory. Turkle does not quite advocate this position; rather, she points out that ‘Computers embody postmodern theory and bring it down to earth’ (p.18) Postmodernism and modern computers are both parts of a ’culture of simulation’ (p. 20). One feature of the postmodern condition, according to one of its analysts, Frederic Jameson, is that it is ’depthless’: there is nothing beyond simulation and surface. There is also a ’waning of affect’ (p. 103). Turkle argues that ’The internet has become a significant social laboratory for experimenting with the constructions and reconstructions of self that characterize postmodern life’ (p. 180). She also refers to the internet as ‘the symbol and tool of postmodern politics’ (p.243) and asks the question, ’Is the real self always the naturally occurring one?’ (p. 241). I understand her interest in these questions and the parallels she draws between net culture and the world depicted by postmodernists but am a unreconstructed modernist believer that psychoanalytic object relations theory stands four-square against any idea that we can settle for part-object relations, no matter how fundamentally the coherence of the object relations in our internal worlds may be under attack by various forms of distress, superficiality and alienation (Young, 1989; 1994; 1994b). I also grant the utility of some of the explorations of identity which she undertakes, but I am also cautious about the evasive, escapist and sometimes perverse aspects of life on the internet.

One area which illustrates the baleful consequences of settling for part-object relations is the notorious one of pornography, a theme I am researching for a book I am writing for Polity Press on changing ideas of sexuality (and which, by the way, Sherry Turkle hardly mentions). One of the concomitants of the fragmentation of a coherent set of mores which is investigated in postmodern theory is the increasing boldness of pornography and various paraphilias, in particular, fetishisms (Young, in press). We all know that there is every imaginable kind of pornography available in certain shops, but most of us would not think of entering them. On the internet such materials are instantly accessible (and the requirement that one declare oneself of age is easily got round). If you call up a lists of the hundred most visited sites on the net, a fair number will be pornographic. All you have to do is click on the name, and in a few seconds you are either being told what you will have to pay or you are offered free samples. There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of such sites, each with thousands of pictures and offers of videos, CD-ROMS and telephone sex.

Pornography is the quintessence of a pre-genital, part object relationship, and no imaginable taste is uncatered-for on the net. This is particularly true of fetishisms, many of which I doubt that you have imagined, e.g., tampon fetishism which is pictured alongside the usual ones of rubber, leather, bondage, domination, sado-masochism, boy-boy, girl-girl, black, exotic nationalities, groups, hair, ugliness, grossness, amputee, oral, anal, transsexual, bestiality, fisting, coprophagia, golden showers, various forms of dressing up, including ones where body parts have been pierced (labia, for example) or exaggerated (by surgery or by doctoring photos) beyond what one believd to be physically possible. There is a widely-reproduced picture of a vagina with teeth, a virtual realisation of the psychoanalytic fantasy image of vagina dentata. There are also huge archives of stories and net versions of all the top rack porn magazines. There is literally no limit to the amount of pornography which is available or to the discussion groups for each and every taste. There are also discussion groups for those who are seeking partners as well as for people who are ashamed of their tastes and even net places to pray for forgiveness. Finally, there are sites for interactive virtual sex of any kind with professionals or amateurs. At one site there is nothing but a huge collection of tiny pictures of labia, covering the entire screen. Each one, when clicked, leads to a different pornographic location: pornutopia for the insatiable. On the subject of virtual sex, Turkle says, ‘Although they involve other people and are no longer pure fantasy [in the way the role playing in MUDs is], they are not "in the world". Their boundary status offers new possibilities. TinySex [as it’s called] and virtual gender-bending are part of the larger story of people using virtual spaces to construct identity’ (p. 226).

I suggest that with respect to pornography, as in the case of email correspondence, email forums, bulletin boards, MUDs and MOOs, the lack of physicality and embodiment is central to the experience. No chance of discovery, no boundaries, no limits, no risks of pregnancy or disease. It’s all in a private space. Even coded names are substituted so that anonymity is guaranteed in this purely private fantasy world where the person clicking the mouse is neither fat nor thin, buxom or flat-chested, young or old, potent or impotent, orgasmic or not.

Sherry Turkle takes a rather optimistic view of the object relations engendered by the internet. She writes, ‘Today, people are being helped to develop ideas about identity as multiplicity by new practice of identity as multiplicity in on-line life. Virtual personae are objects-to-think-with’ (p. 260). She quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson: ‘Dreams and beasts are two keys by which we are to find out the secrets of our nature... They are test objects’ (p. 266). I am more ambivalent than she is. It is certainly true that the breakthrough of the computer into the internet makes utterly passť the old view that computers are about information and are only of interest to nerds. Whatever else they are or may become, they are already rich in imaginative possibilities, replete with both conscious fantasies and unconscious phantasies, utterly facilitative in making new contacts with individuals and perspectives with whom and with which one would be much less likely to make contact by other means. It allows one to dip into something with low investment, low personal risk, low exposure, low commitment. At the same time it can lead to tremendously rewarding and tremendously troubling new contacts. It can also be truly addictive. I suppose I am currently a high-risk user. I comfort myself with the fact that I have not yet reached the point which Turkle calls ‘head-banging’ (p. 184), which, on the net means that the only way out is to set up the system for a new password and then bang your head on the keyboard several times, thus generating a random, nonsense password which you cannot know or reproduce.

This is a revised version of a talk delivered to the annual conference on ‘New Developments in Psychoanalysis’, of THERIP, The Higher Education Network for Teaching and Research in Psychoanalysis, London, 20 April 1996. I want to thank Ian Pitchford for introducing me to so much and for ongoing support, Norman Holland, Harriet Meek and Sherry Turkle for inspiration and Sherry, Harriet, Em Farrell and Ivan Goldberg for helpful comments. I dedicate this paper to the memory of Matt Merkley.


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Address for correspondence: 26 Freegrove Road, London, N7 9RQ

email robert@rmy1.demon.co.uk


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