Virtual Desire and a New York Police Officer

There’s a really interesting article in the New York Times today about a police office who was being charged with brutality in a criminal case. The suspect was caught carrying a gun and was purportedly punched by the officer while he was in cuffs. The Times reports that, “Officer E. said he has never been disciplined for brutality.” In other words, according to him this was his first offense.

The interesting thing about this case is how he was finally convicted with the brutality. The day prior to the confrontation the officer posted on his myspace page that he was feeling “devious.” And an earlier facebook status revealed that he had been “watching ‘Training Day’ to brush up on proper police procedure.”

The officer was quoted as saying:

“You have your Internet persona, and you have what you actually do on the street,” Officer E. said on Tuesday. “What you say on the Internet is all bravado talk, like what you say in a locker room.”

(From About New York – A New York Police Officer Who Put Too Much on MySpace –

The usual way to look at this would be to see the internet as a place where people escape to, where they go to let off steam: The virtual is the space that keeps us from doing these things in “Reality” or what they fantasize about. But I think a better understanding, or at least more interesting read of this situation (following Žižek), is this: what happens on the web, in the virtual or dreams or fantasy, is where comes closet to the real of our desire. In other words, reality – the day to day of our existence – is where we escape to in order to hide from desire. If this is (at least somewhat) accurate, far from devaluing the experiences we share online, in the virtual, we see just how important these expressions are. It’s not two selves represented: the one in reality is the true one and the one in the virtual is the false one, rather, it works the other way around and we can use reality to masks our desires.

This seems to be exactly what happened with this officer. All the bravado in the locker-room is who he really desired to be, it reflected in a sense who he really was, masked beneath a self-controlled (he’s never been convicted of brutality before) enforcer of law and order. He was unable to control the flux between the two and his desire flowed into his physical action. The problem is that instead of repent and be reconciled for the destructiveness of this “kernel” he masks it, covering it in yet another layer of fantasy. The Christian response is not to cover up the kernel of our desire but to redirect, hand it over, to God. If our desire becomes destructive it needs to be unmasked, not hidden under another mask which is how this officer is dealing with it:

Officer E. said he is now being careful to mask his identity on the Web and that he has curbed his tongue because of the acquittal. “I feel it’s partially my fault,” he said. “It paints a picture of a person who could be overly aggressive. You put that together, it’s reasonable doubt in anybody’s mind.”

9 responses to “Virtual Desire and a New York Police Officer”

  1. There are so many themes to study in the virtualisation of desire. Not just the Lacanian angle, but also the way this story speaks to Mimetic desire and even a straightforward Freudian aspect.

    Interestingly, I was reading last night about Daniwl Burnham’s original plans for Chicago (New Yorker). Apparently his idea was that Police stations would allow “…all police activities to be open and visible to the public.”

    It’s a fascinating idea.

  2. Fernando – absolutely. I don’t think Lacan’s reading is the only or the best, but it is an interesting one and I do think it makes a helpful point. I’d be interested to hear more about “Mimetic desire,” it’s not something I’ve heard of before.

    How do you think something like Burnham’s idea would turn out? You’re right, it’s fascinating.

  3. This is an interesting story. Nice connection with Zizek. On a related note, Z allows his young son to play violent computer games because Z doesn’t believe that virtually realizing these fantasies makes one more likely to “really” realize them. This is where he likes to say that sometimes the worst that can happen is for one’s fantasy to come true.

    One can also connect this discussion to Z’s idea that our personal narratives are the purest ideologies–the biggest symbolic fictions–of them all. This becomes complicated when thinking about a Christian approach. From where can we turn our desires over to God, if not from within our personal narratives? And then how do we know what we really desire?

    Z’s solution might be similar to yours; that in submitting to the Christian experience we unmask what we really desire. Of course, he would mean something radically different–that we must traverse our fantasy, realize that the big other does not exist, and re-enter the symbolic order on our own terms.

    So by all accounts, the officer in question needs Jesus.

  4. Will – thanks for the comment. Yea, I recently listened to an interview where he talks about Kung Fu Panda and his son playing violent video games! It’s pretty interesting to say the least.

    I’d challenge his understanding of personal narratives with such a strong stance “purest ideology,” from a Christian and theological standpoint. If a narrative that is something simply, individually, constructed, then it would be possible that one could construct it in such a way as to be mislead by it, but I don’t see the need to view even that as a necessity. Still, Christians assume the role of the community, tradition, and the on going witness of the Holy Spirit to supplement our own understandings of self. Certainly I can spin a story about myself if I wish, yet my community (both in the church and at fuller) along with the guidance of the Spirit can, and will attest differently.

    I was telling Tim today that I the point you guys drew out about Z and community (which I appreciate), I am pretty sure, is the only place I’ve ever come across where he actually even uses the word. He has no vision or space for a community of people and the ecclesia this gives his readings of self, etc., a pretty interesting (and unhelpful in a number of ways) reading of the world.

    BTW – very nice job today.

  5. I’m not sure every part of a police station could be public, since there is an issue with regards to privacy, especially for incorrect arrests and the giving of evidence in some situations.

    But, the issue of how architecture gives “permission” for forms of behaviour is pretty compelling. Buildings sometimes legitimate violence and breed fear.

  6. I love this take on desire vs. reality, that we go to daily reality to escape from desire, and that the self in the virtual space is closer to the real self than, for example, the self at the workplace.

    The fact that virtual spaces are ones where we feel freer to explore desire and other underground parts of ourselves is, I think, what gives Quaker blogging the opportunity to become a place of “lives lived more openly”, to quote Martin Kelley. It may or may not be that we actually _live_ our lives more opening, in the daily reality we return to after blogging, but we may at least get to share ourselves more openly with one another. It’s a legitimate first step.

    The real question here is where God is in relationship to our desires–is God for or against them? This may seem like a stupid question, because how can the answer simply be yes or no, right? In fact, however, I think conventional Christianity has pretty uniformly concluded that our desires are always wrong, therefore the self we encounter in the virtual space is the self that deserves to be condemned / expunged / transformed / saved / redeemed / etc. It is the self that, without the intervention of Jesus, would bear the brunt of God’s wrath at humanity’s sin, to put it in another conventional Christian formulation.

    When we as Christians consider these secular philosophical ideas, I think it’s important to recognize the biases we bring to the table (desire = bad, hidden self = bad). I’ve never found that view of the self or of desire helpful, although it’s taken me most of my adult life to become able to articulate why. There are some religious people who talk about God speaking to us through our desires. That’s a thread present throughout the history of Christian thought, but I think it’s never been the strongest thread and it’s certainly not how my evangelical upbringing raised me. Once we have virtual spaces to reveal our desires to ourselves, we need to be careful with what we find there and treat it with the respect due to another, newly discovered part of God’s creation.