Does the Internet Have a Libido?
A Sketch

1.0 Of the available metaphors with which to conceptualize the character of the Internet, two of the most profound to date have been Internet-as-landscape (web/cyberspace, site, streams and fast lanes) and Internet-as-person (more on this below).

1.1 Currently, we are witnessing a shift away from Internet-as-landscape and toward Internet-as-person.

1.1.1 At the very least, the Internet, by dint of our linguistic figuration of it as a singular entity instead of a more accurate rendering as multiple and countervailing Internets, is already accepted as an anthropomorphized thing. Here I wish to take to heart what Angus Sinclair writes in The Conditions of Knowing (1951) regarding the ambiguation of sensations, perceptions, feelings, emotions and things: “Even though we ordinarily employ the dichotomy of states of the self and objects which it knows, and regard things as indubitably the latter, yet it has often been remarked by poets and mystics, and by some psychologists, that if we concentrate our attention on any particular thing or object and succeed in doing so exclusively, then we have what can be described as the experience of being that object” (163).

2.0 By presenting these metaphors I wish to acknowledge the ways in which our experience of the Internet is made and re-made around the dominant metaphors we use. I don’t wish to “purify” our understandings of the Internet from “metaphoric thinking” as Susan Sontag famously suggested we do for illness, cancer, HIV/AIDS (3). Metaphors can be useful tools for apprehending how we invest in something.

2.1 For example, the new, and I would argue pernicious (thus far), metaphor for the Internet’s potentiality is a subset of Internet-as-landscape: weather––specifically “the cloud.” At its most ignoble this metaphor deflects and dodges the assignation of agency, rendering the workings of the Internet as both unpredictable and unchangeable––the weather’s the weather after all, whether you like it or not.

2.2 At the same time Internet-as-weather can also equally––usefully––characterize our ambivalence towards the Internet via an extended set of meteorological observations of clouds: more or less dense, more or less shapely, more or less predictable, more or less consequential.

3.0 Yet, both of these metaphors obscure what may be the Internet’s intrinsic character: a constellated corporate unconscious of the information-industrial complex (created and sustained by governments, corporations and higher education). Because this constellated corporate apparatus has concentrated “exclusively” on the development and character of the Internet, it has ceased to become an “object that the body knows” but is instead a body in and of itself, replete with an unconscious.

4.0 Therefore, when I ask, “Does the Internet have a libido?” I mean the question literally. Taking into account the current thrust of technological innovation––toward an interconnected Internet of Things (electronics, objects, earth)––and subscribing to Jung’s definition of libido as general “psychic energy,” not exclusively sexual in coloration, it is a cultural necessity to begin limning a psychological profile of the Internet (158).

4.1 Under these  definitions,  the  Internet’s libido is  already extant  and it already  works on us.

4.1.1 Do you ever wonder why you feel guilt, self-loathing, exhaustion after encountering the Internet? Could it be that a transference has occurred? You have taken on the projections, the sublimations of the Internet’s unconscious drives.

5.0 Legally, and therefore at least spectrally in everyday life, we already extend the real assignation of personhood to multinational corporations––who are, like the Internet, dispersed networks of capital and people.

5.1 Citizens United v. FEC (2010) and Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (2014) are only two links in a long chain of juridical acts to proclaim this.

6.0 Because the corporations who guide the Internet’s development are persons, so too are their creations/offspring. Whether formatted as a phantasmic child or ghostly polis, whether the access point is individual psychoanalysis or mass psychology, the Internet has a distinctive psychic life. Its constellated corporate unconscious may be difficult to map, but then, so is any unconscious.

7.0 I coordinate this line of argument with those laid out in 1959 by Norman O. Brown in his book Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History. Brown recuperates and invests a great deal of intellectual time and energy on Freud’s death drive, a late-career concept discarded by many of Freud’s followers.

7.1 The death drive––or what Freud also calls “Ego-instincts”––rests in opposition to life instincts, which Freud also terms “sexual instincts.” He hypothesizes in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1922) that the death instinct “springs from the vitalising of inanimate matter, and have as their aim the reinstatement of lifelessness." The anal stage of development correlates closely with the development of the ego. There is thus a link between anality and the death drive.

8.0 Exploring the death drive’s relationship to anality and the anal stage of development, Brown arrives at a powerful critique of a conformist and capitalist West. In one of the most bracing sections of Life Against Death, Brown reformats money, the gasoline “driving” progress and innovation, as feces. Extending the scope of Freud’s description of the anal phase, a developmental stage wherein the child associates the excremental product of his own body as gift, weapon, property and plaything, Brown usefully makes the argument that money is not merely a symbol or substitute for feces; it is, in a very real psychological sense, feces itself (91). Money is then “the quintessential symbol of the human endeavor to sublimate” (258).

9.0 Not content to simply critique, Brown proposes “a way out.” Conversant with psychology, theology and literary criticism, Brown critiques the conception of a normal (heterosexual, genitally focused) sexuality in orthodox psychoanalysis, calling it a “tyranny of one component in infantile sexuality” (27). Instead, he advocates for a reinvestment in a Dionysian body-ego, the entire body as a sexual instrument, a polymorphous perversity detached from the moralizations and repressions of culture. His incantation for politicians to “deliver happiness instead of power” prefigured and inspired counter-cultural ideologues of the 1960s (318).

9.1 Many spiritual seekers who sought out Brown were disappointed by what they found: instead of a cultish guru/father-substitute, they found a bookish academic.

9.2 This essay could be viewed as a Talmudic endeavor, because I seek to extend and apply Brown’s lengthy and complicated analysis to our current predicament. Of course, Brown’s book could not have taken into account the digital revolution. It was written a decade before the first host computer was connected to the earliest version of the Internet, called ARPANET.  

9.2.1 Doug Englebart, who was working at the Stanford Research Institute on an early version of hypertext, was one of the first people to connect to ARPANET. Like so many of the early, visionary architects of the Internet who considered it a utopian tool for expanding human capability, Englebart’s connection rested on a conceptual metaphor. In 1962, he described a system for “augmenting human intellect” via a computer “clerk.”

9.2.2 Englebart’s clerk may be the first human metaphor for the Internet. The character of the clerk is highly evocative: industrious, detail-oriented and subservient. In the ontology of capitalism the clerk has no other function, no other psychic life but to file, file, file. Clerks, needless to say, are people too; they have rich psychic lives regardless of the demands of capitalism.

10.0 If we accept that the Internet has a psychic life we might first understand the Internet as we understand Englebart’s clerk: a dumb transmitter of human libido. The Internet’s libido would thus take on and mimic the characteristics of human libido. This model imagines the Internet as both vessel and progeny.

10.1 In this arrangement it might be easier to align the Internet with the life instinct, the creative act and a subsequent sense of limitless possibility. In its most utopian renderings the Internet is exactly this.

10.1.1 As inventory and catalogue it purports to contain nearly everything. Every cat meme is valid and every cat meme is good.

10.2 But this comprehensiveness is merely a film of illusory depth laid atop shallow waters. Search out the ephemera and artifacts of historical sexual subcultures and you’re likely to come up empty-handed. Only the things that are easily monetized or can carry cultural capital (which leads to monetization) are to be found on the Internet.

10.2.1 Your status update is an opportunity, not an act of creative expression.

11.0 The promise here is an Internet that will make the physical body obsolete––or by augmenting it, kill the body as we currently culturally understand it. The Internet thus qualifies as a sublimation of cultural psychoses, a mass eruption and realization of the death drive. With a newly conceptualized Internet of Things the body can now become dead matter: excrement.

11.1 As Brown notes: “Sublimations are these negations of the body which simultaneously affirm it; and sublimations achieve this dialectical tour de force by the simple but basic mechanism of projecting the repressed body into things” (297).

11.2 What if, like the architects of the Internet, the Internet’s operations are a sublimation of its own unconscious drives?

12.0 Mutual antagonisms inform the basic features of a psychoanalytic cosmos:
Pleasure Principle/Reality Principle
These are not dualisms, strictly speaking, even though I’ve graphically outlined them as such here. As Brown argues (via Freud), the makeup of one is intrinsic to the other and vice versa. In other words life/death, sex/aggression, pleasure/reality are overlaid onto a single sheet, share the same space, are responsive to the same stimuli. They are not dualisms in the sense that they are polarized, but rather complicit in a dialectical engagement.

12.1 And perhaps like a person, we can detect the unconscious makeup of the Internet in a variety of ruptures in and on the digital body: glitches, bugs, errors, viruses, bit flips, algorithmic irregularities––digital equivalents of emotional contagions and effluvia from Narcissistic transference.

12.1.1 Logically, of course, glitches are just failures in code, runt pulses and spikes, oversights in hardware or software, in circuitry or coding. Logically, everything comes down to the ubiquitous user error. The machine only does what people tell it to do. 

12.2 Regardless of whether you buy into any of the above lines of argument, the glitch is certainly the eruption of the Internet’s unconscious in the popular imagination.

12.2.1 It is a glitch in wiring that sets in motion the action of so many robotics-dystopian action movies. Or a momentary glitch in the matrix that reveals things as they are (as opposed to as they seem).

12.3 The glitch is therefore a speech act, a revealing of the computational unconscious.

13.0 Glitches are evidence of the Internet’s libidinal death drive, just as surely as the Internet’s utopian gloss signals the projection of its own repressed body into things: us.

13.1 The dualism of human/Internet, like so many of the dualisms in psychoanalysis, is not the description of separate points on a map, but rather the revealed interior dialectic reality of each term.

14.0 It may be hard to accept, but daily non-corporate users no longer shape the structure of the Internet. Users, as a group, express daily the shape and hue of their resistance to this fact via any number of corporate-sponsored outlets: Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, Squarespace and the now defunct LiveJournal and Geocities.

14.1 We tell ourselves that we are smarter than these tools, that we can turn Twitter towards the promise of revolution (as exemplified by Twitter’s role in the Arab Spring).

14.2 But revolutionary potential is easily co-opted, handily increasing stock-prices.

14.2.1 We would do well to remember what artist Gretchen Bender had to say about her work, often critical of the telecommunications complex: “I think, basically, by the time a corporation has decided to buy my work, that it is a carcass.”

14.3 Our digital lives are being pilloried and pilfered, our existences now inexorably tied to this corporate constellated unconscious.

15.0 In the years since 1959 we have not turned towards Brown’s body-ego, the polymorphously perverse body ready for pleasure any which way. Instead we have doubled down our investment in filthy lucre, masking it as utopian promise, and, as ever, progress.

16.0 Is there a way out? Hardly. But as Brown holds onto a belief that poetry and art (Sinclair’s poets and mystics) can express something that psychoanalysis can only hint at, there are those who use the operations of the Internet as a way of conjuring forth something else, who animate these drives that undergird the Internet in subversive ways.

16.1 Glyphic and graphic, these artists/mystics (Ivan LOZANO is one) whisper: If we wish to grapple with the irrational Internet, its unconscious drives, we must formulate a truly useless magic. A Santería of the screen. Loopy. Glitchy.

16.1.1 Per Rosa Menkman’s “Glitch Studies Manifesto”: “The glitch does not only invoke the death of the author, but also the death of the apparatus, medium or tool” (343).

17.0 For these poets and artists, the annihilation of the Internet (which might just appear as a similar-but-different Internet), the wish fulfillment of its own constellated corporate death drive, could help trigger the endgame in Brown’s analysis: the return of “our souls to our bodies,” and of “ourselves to ourselves” (158).


Sources cited:

Brown, Norman O. Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History. 2nd ed. Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1986.

Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Translated by C. J. M. Hubback. London, Vienna: Int’l Psycho-Analytical, 1922. New York:, 2010.

Jung, Carl. “On the Psychology of the Unconscious.” The Essential Jung. Edited by Anthony Storr. London: Fontana Press, 1998. 147-167.

Menkman, Rosa. “The Glitch Studies Manifesto.” In Video Vortex Reader II: Moving Images Beyond YouTube, edited by Geert Lovink and Rachel Somers Miles, 336-247. Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2011.

Sinclair, Angus. The Conditions of Knowing: An Essay Towards a Theory of Knowledge. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1951.

Sontag, Susan. Illness as Metaphor. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977.


Andy Campbell, Ph.D. is Critic-In-Residence with the Core Program (MFAH/Glassell School of Art), an adjunct instructor at Rice University, and a feminist. He is an independent critic and curator of contemporary art whose recent interests include black negativity, gay/lesbian leather/BDSM communities, foliage and the curatorial scene, and, of course, #realness.