What does the sexting scandal involving Tony Clement — the MP who sent “intimate” photos of himself to women he met online — tell us, if not that all texting is sexting? Whenever we go online, use our phones, surf the net or click on a link, we are involved with our deepest desires, fears or enjoyment.
Because of this deep involvement with our desires, beneath the shiny surface of apps and the “like” buttons of Instagram and Facebook, there exists what the philosopher Slavoj Žižek calls the “obscene underside,” a murky world where we fall in love with our computers (as in the film Her) and allow conglomerates to tell us what books to read and who to date.
But this paradise, where all our desires are at our fingertips, can go horribly awry. The wrong click or swipe suddenly lands us in all kinds of trouble. Trouble that can seem small — who remembers rickrolling? — or big, as the news about Clement demonstrates.
A psychoanalytic way of thinking about online culture can help us understand why the former Conservative MP is not the first politician or public figure caught behaving badly with their smartphone, nor will he be the last. We all remember Anthony Weiner, the New York state politician who kept sending “dick pics” to women he met online.
Aggressively ‘liking’ online
So, what do I mean by a psychoanalytic way of thinking about this?
A few hours after Clement resigned from the Conservative caucus, he posted a letter admitting to various acts of infidelity. At first glance, there appear to be two different issues at play.
First, Clement allegedly exchanged or sent explicit pictures (and a video) to women on a number of occasions. This resulted in at least two potential extortion attempts that came through social media.
Second, when this news broke, some women who knew him through social media said on Twitter that they were not surprised by these allegations. He was known to them, as Canadian journalist Kim Fox, an editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer discussed on CBC Radio’s As It Happens. Fox said he was known for “aggressive” liking of women’s posts on Instagram, especially on selfies.
Clement’s behaviour, Fox said, kept Instagram from being a safe space for women.
I teach a graduate course called “Digital Fantasy,” where we examine online culture from a psychoanalytic perspective, drawing on the work of Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan and Žižek, and also critics like Angela Nagle (author of Kill All Normies) and Jodi Dean (Blog Theory).
Freud tells us that we often do things for reasons we do not understand — the unconscious. Lacan argues that those closest to us — our neighbours — can provoke the greatest anxiety, and the same is true online, isn’t it?
Žižek emphasizes how our search for enjoyment paradoxically results in less enjoyment, and who hasn’t felt that after an hour going down a YouTube rabbit hole? Nagle examines how online culture fosters extreme viewpoints: “millenial snowflakes,” “alt-right dweebs,” and the rise of figures like Donald Trump. Dean points out how that the longer we spend online the more we think I could be doing something more useful, as if we would otherwise be reading a Russian novel.
In general, a psychoanalytic approach teaches us that the problem with online culture isn’t that now we can see, read or learn about anything, but that such plenitude is never enough.
Because I am on Instagram myself, and roughly the same age group as Clement, I checked in with some of my female students to ask: Is this a thing? Aggressive liking?
Well, you can just block someone, one student said. If it’s someone you know, then no problem, added another. It’s kind of how you get someone’s attention, the first pointed out. This is not to say someone may not feel creeped out with a deluge of likes.
Of course we post selfies and other pictures on the socials for that attention . And the technology contributes, I would argue, to this obsessive behaviour — especially on Instagram, where to like something, you press a heart.
So if your student or your boss puts a picture up, you have to think about loving them just a little, even if you just think their cat is cute.
All texting is sexting
This takes us back to my original thesis: all texting is sexting.
Think of where you keep your phone — on your body, sometimes in your pocket next to your genitals, in your purse with your wallet. You put it next to you when you go to sleep and it’s the first thing you touch when you wake up — perhaps even before you talk to your partner.
The structure, the technology of social media, of the internet, of digital devices — they all lead us to blur the boundaries of public and private. Who has not had that frisson with someone else, when sitting with their partner, at a boring dinner party or watching your child skate, that distraction of texting a friend?
Think, even, of the generic word we have for this technology: digital. What a few years ago might have seemed like an anodyne description, now in the era of swiping right and pinching photos, has come to seem downright carnal.
‘The obscene underside’
What Clement’s debacle tells us is that Žižek’s “obscene underside” of the internet is not simply the trolls and other basement-dwelling knuckle-draggers, with their racist rants and misogynistic comments on blogs.
This “obscenity” is not just “dick pics” or “aggressive liking.” Rather, it points to a fundamental ambiguity in communication that has been exacerbated with online and social media.
Do I want my pictures to be looked at, or am I worried about surveillance? I want you to “like” me … but not too much.
I am not saying we need more rules, what used to be called “netiquette” for online behaviour. Don’t like more than three or four pictures, and so forth.
If we don’t need more rules, what do we need?
We should accept that there’s no getting around the messy, sexy, possibilities of miscommunication. We posses the desire to flirt, to engage. But this is not an invitation to harass each other.
Sexting did not begin with the internet. What people who proclaim the superiority of literature over texting forget is that the novel began as an “espistolary” form, as a collection of letters. And if you want to see some really sexy texts, read Les Liaisons dangereuses (Dangerous Liasons), a French novel of letters by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos and a “damning portrayal of a decadent society.” First published in 1782, it could give Tony Clement a few lessons.