Reality 2.0: Steven Botticelli interviews Stephen Hartman

Steven Botticelli interviews Steven Hartman on his view of the effects of modern telecommunications on the experience of interpersonal relations

By Steven Botticelli

In his recently published essay in Psychoanalytic Dialogues, “Reality 2.0: When Loss Is Lost,” Stephen Hartman (2011) argues that cyberspace is creating a shift in how we experience and understand reality. Here Steven Botticelli interviews him about his provocative thesis.

SB: In your essay, you make the provocative argument that the kinds of experiences available through the Internet challenge some of our traditional psychoanalytic ideas about the acceptance of loss as a necessary condition for the development of self and a sense of reality.

SH: Thanks for this opportunity to elaborate on my ideas about Reality 2.0. In three recent papers, I’ve been arguing that a paradigm shift is taking place in the culture at large. More specifically, I argue that the Internet is changing the way we experience reality. If Reality 1.0 hinges on accepting loss and limit, Reality 2.0 unfolds through access and search. Critics of the Internet write that this facilitates all manner of narcissistic evils: grandiosity; hypersexuality; disavowal of the difference between presence and absence; disembodiment. All of these arguments prioritize loss as the benchmark of authentic experience and disregard the relational potential of search.

Just last week, there was a story in the New York Times reporting findings by cognitive psychologists that attest to subtle changes in the way that mnemonic functions are being structured in response to Internet use. Likewise, almost daily, there are incidents of crimes solved, battles called, silences unmuzzled, and new forms of access to knowledge that stream from the Internet to the media to rapid uptake in the general population. It sounds like this: “Did you hear that you can make international calls for free on Viber?” Next thing you know, your patients are talking about daily conversations with people in Melbourne.

It used to be that when a person traveled far afield, they said good-bye for a while. Remember the Elton John song, “Daniel,” from the 1970s? Intercontinental separations used to occasion grieving. Now, most airlines have the Internet on board. There is still a good-bye moment. But it is quite different. If you bootleg a URL through Hidemyass, you can fool the Internet into believing that you are still in the United States as you fly across the globe—meaning that you can stream and chat about the same Netflix with the partner who kissed you good-bye at the airport while your plane is landing in Sydney.

A moment of loss, and the fantasies that that moment activates, is a very different moment. There are still very tangible losses that circumscribe aspects of experience, but they have a very different temporal and material status. Even the loss of a loved one is mediated online differently than was ever imaginable. Plus, I argue, loss becomes more of a collective event than an aspect of individual “working though and letting go.”

As loss is increasingly lost, or transformed, we need to retool many of our traditional psychoanalytic concepts that tie the development of selfhood and subjectivity to the reality of loss. We need to imagine a paradigm of infinite access that prioritizes searching over losing. Otherwise, we may not be able to consider emergent experiences of self without foreshortening them.

SB: When you write that “we need to imagine a paradigm of infinite access that prioritizes searching over losing,” I wonder what happens if the searched-for other is actually gone, unfindable. Within this new paradigm, how do you take account of the specificity and emotional gravity of people’s attachments? Also, I wonder what you would say to someone who would maintain that there is a quality of experience that in-person, physical presence allows that is not available through the Internet.

SH: Grief and loss are, to my mind, different aspects of losing someone. We suffer when our loved ones pass away, there is no question about it. That we will dine together next week clearly has a different flavor than I remember dining with him. When French author Nathalie Sauraute described grief as “a feeling like the taste left on the tongue by a poor meal,” she captured so many of the aspects of attachment: anticipation, longing, disappointment, regret. One is attached to these feelings long before and after a person is lost. To search among these feelings is to be intimate, no?

Being with someone face-to-face is remarkable, to be sure, but I would hesitate to call it the real McCoy. Main and Hesse, as I read them, view intimacy in the strange situation as a temporal variable. Critics who attribute to the Internet the same “all time is now” structure that analysts equate to autism and trauma reify the moment of direct encounter. Even when one is playing Internet solitaire, one sits with oneself as an Other in time.

The notion that someone is “unfindable” startles me. Surely we appreciate that people do (or do not) discover very poetic and personal aspects of their attachments only after the other is materially absent? I think it’s a mistake to equate “reaching someone” in an embodied way with being in the same physical space and time zone with them.

In my commentary on your fine paper about the suppression of anal eroticism, I proposed that we disavow experiences of interembodiment just as we preach intersubjectivity. (It must be some evacuated content of your mind that is making my body tingle!) I think this phobia of cyber bodies demonstrates the same shortcoming. Muriel Dimen got it just right: we become so anxious when asked to think in the body’s language that we refuse to. I want to argue that embodied experience on—and offline communicates beyond the “reality” of face-to-face encounter.

For a paper that is about to be published in Psychoanalytic Inquiry, I researched online rituals of cybermourning. A community of online mourners often has a very visceral bond to the deceased’s body that can be extremely generative. Plus, online attachment is less one-to-one and has a collective temporality. In cybermourning, the body begins to inhabit collective experience (recall Douglas Crimp’s brilliant observations about mourning and militancy during the AIDS crisis.) Is the infamous baby that gets made when analyst and analysand approach termination merely a chimera to be lost and mourned? I don’t think so. I suspect it is as real a baby as the analytic project that it fosters.

SB: More therapists are conducting sessions and having other forms of communication with patients online these days, with varying degrees of comfort. You clearly are an enthusiast of the medium, holding sessions over iChat, accepting “friend” status with patients and exchanging text messages with patients. Could you speak to your thoughts about the effect this has on transference (and countertransference) in these cases?

SH: Necessity is the mother of invention. I got involved in online work when my life suddenly shifted coasts. Faced with closing my New York practice and launching a new one in California, it occurred to me that I had to choose between what I could not offer my patients and what I might be able to. The idea actually came from a patient whose previous analyst interpreted her constant work travel as “resistance” to intimacy. She had friends all over the world and bills for phone sessions with her intransigent ex-analyst to prove it. It seemed so obvious: let’s meet on iChat—“it’s free, it works well, and we don’t have to lose each other.”

I don’t think I realized at the time that not having to lose each other would become an important element in the transference. You might think that the Internet and Facebook and Google all conspire to make the analyst too knowable. But my experience is the opposite. All manner of potential space opens up in a cyber frame. When we don’t have to lose each other, the conditions of our searching for each other set the scene for what we might find. By comparison to the analytic couch, which anchors the dyad in the reality of difference and taboo, the computer is a flexible flier. The same screen that streams porno frames the analytic session, facilitating frank discussion of sexual matters. (It’s amazing what someone will say to you when they can’t smell your fear.) I’ve become aware of the various affects that accompany potential space—many of which are stifled when two bodies sniff each other out.

In a very primal way, I think the various intimacies and deprivations of online psychotherapy foster what Laplanche and Scarfone call “the hollowed-out transference.” It’s that part of the transference that begins with the need not to be found, and branches out from there to address hopes and dreads. I do believe, as I’ve written, that the transference and countertransference spaces provided by Reality 2.0 foster multiplicity just as often as they enact psychic retreat. I tend to work somewhere in overlap between the two realities (one of loss and one of access), just as I try to respect the need to be alone in the wish to surrender.

The trick is to not confuse access to information with definition and definition with reality. Reality is, in and of itself, uninteresting. Texture is a relation between subjects and time. There is plenty of time online.

SB: Could you say what you mean by “When we don’t have to lose each other, the conditions of our searching for each other set the scene for what we might find”?

SH: When fantasy is anchored in lament, “we’ll always have Paris,” we are enlivened within a frame of what we accept will never be. This is the traditional assumption of transference in Reality 1.0: so long as there is an end in sight and an acceptable termination, the sky is the limit. Otherwise, we would have incest and madness and anarchy.

In Reality 2.0, this limit does not exist. Searching replaces loss as the bulwark of meaning. What it means to “always have Paris” is that Paris will never be used up. It will always be a new opportunity. By no means is it outrageous online to fly beyond the limits set by “reality,” so long as one is searching for a new experience. The reason that I draw so much attention to this is that our patients are increasingly going to use transference differently. Whereas transference love is set in a Paris that we once shared, more and more it will become April in Paris, any seed that we plant in blossom…

As patients’ reality is increasingly morphing, analysts have to be prepared to surf and search along with them.

By comparison to the analytic couch, which anchors the dyad in the reality of difference and taboo, the computer is a flexible flier. The same screen that streams porno frames the analytic session, facilitating frank discussion of sexual matters. (It's amazing what someone will say to you when they can't smell your fear.)

SB: You challenge the idea that patients’ involvement with the Internet is a pathological (regressive, avoidant) phenomenon, arguing that what some might see as a “cyber retreat” may actually be in the service of a person’s development through their participation in fantastic-in-some-ways, realistic-in-other-ways cyberrelationships. Yet you do seem to believe that a person’s relationships should move into the “real world” at some point. For instance, your patient Mike, who restricts his romantic relationships entirely online, seems to make you a bit anxious, as you notice that as you work with him to make relationships with “real” men possible, he increasingly hunkers down online.

SH: I understand your concern: cyber relations must reach toward the “real world” at some point if only because a body is made of flesh and blood. We are complex creatures with complex needs and, as I’ve said repeatedly, we live in two realities at the same time: one contoured by loss and an emerging reality that privileges access. I wouldn’t want to think of these two realities as binary—or to place them in some complementarity. I am trying to have a both/and perspective. I also wouldn’t (as many do) locate the body in one reality and the mind, aka fantasy, in the other. It is not easy to think (as Jodie Davies might say) kaleidoscopically about material life, to dissolve the body into its enigmas, and allow them to regroup as they might, but we try! And we wish the same for our patients, no?

A patient who is a porn star remarks that when people recognize him on the street, “there is me who is this guy” and “me who is that guy.” As Orna Gurlalnik so beautifully writes, I think our job is to relate to both aspects of personhood, that which is embodied and that which is interpellated. In an unpublished essay about the International Psychoanlytic Association’s stance against cyber analyses, I borrowed from Dimen and Goldner to suggest that, if personhood was something found, in Reality 2.0, personhood is something finding out.

SB: Regarding your description of how therapy sessions by computer may facilitate frank discussion of sexual matters, you seem to be saying that the computer allows the patient to say more by bypassing the patient’s resistance (if I may use that term) by hiding the therapist’s anxiety from the patient. This seems an acknowledgement that the computer is a more restricted medium of communication than in-person contact. Yet you also want to maintain that the availability of the medium undercuts loss, even as you acknowledge that there’s already a loss (of information, of communication, of affect states) inherent in its use.

SH: Many people see the use of the computer as a defense against intimacy. I do not. There are sacrifices in any type of encounter. Face-to-face, people are often less daring than they turn out to be on the couch. Likewise, online therapeutic encounters have their own nooks and crannies where one can hide out or strike a pose. It’s not a matter of more or less “resistance”—it’s just different.

Because loss is not as important a marker of reality online, lost time is not the same online as it is in conventional reality. Dissociation is not the same kind of event in cyberspace as it is in the temporal flow of an in-person encounter. Realizing this has helped me to see dissociation as a much more generative experience than I had previously understood it to be—more like the generative mood that Bollas describes or the lawlessness that Guralnik chronicles.

SB: Could you say more about your intriguing comment that “if personhood was something found, in Reality 2.0, personhood is something finding out”?

SH: All this is to say that personhood is not a Eureka moment!


Hartman, S. (2011). Reality 2.0: When loss is lost. Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 21, 468–482.