Feminism in the Digital Era: Fear of Disintegration and Obsessive Urban Culture | Lee Hyun-Jae

by Critical Asia

by Lee Hyun-Jae, June 2022】

Digital Media and Changes of Perceptive Structure

We perceive the world through the media. I cannot experience my pain without my body. The body as a medium expands the scale of experience through a variety of tools. Which tool you use is a matter of which world you encounter. A body connected to a computer has a different sense of space and time than a body using a stone axe or sword. The body connected to a 5G mobile phone is connected faster and more widely than before. In this regard, Herbert Marshall McLuhan in Understanding Media insisted that humans dramatically expanded the central nerve system in the era of electricity. For example, the introduction of railroads gave birth to an industrial city, and the introduction of the Internet environment made it possible to live in a global city by simply connecting to a computer anytime, anywhere.

McLuhan noted that a change in the media creates a change in ways of communication in particular. For example, in the ancient polis, citizens communicated verbally, hearing speeches and responding immediately to them, and with the development of typography, people communicated literally—reading texts previously written. With the electrical network, the literal era has passed and the non-literal era has come again. McLuhan described the electrical network time-space (filled with digital images rather than spoken or written language) as “the delicate auditory space of the non-literal world.”[1]

However, the digital world is different from the non-literal or literal world of the past. This is because the digital world is full of audiovisual content, neither a place nor a territory with a built environment. Digital photos, videos, and messages require both visual and auditory perception and both non-literal and literal language. For example, the mother hears the heart sound of the fetus through a machine connected to her. We have to pay attention to the fact that the sense of touch is being replaced by audiovisual content. In the digital world, tasting and smelling foods are also displaced by watching and hearing cooking videos.

In the digital age, the distinction between fake and real is becoming increasingly meaningless. Virtual images affect us more than reality. Cyberspace is not a virtual world, as opposed to real space. In this regard, Soja describes the post-metropolis as “not only a real place, but also an imagined and simulated reality” in which we live,[2] which clearly expresses how the dichotomous world with clear boundaries has been dismantled, and the era of fusion and connection has arrived.

Psychasthenia and the Fear of Disintegration

I think the psychological phenomenon typical of this digital network is psychasthenia. Psychasthenia is a mental breakdown from the fear that one’s physical self will disappear. Soja pointed out that as the territoriality of postmodern urban space weakened, it has become difficult to draw the boundaries between nature and man-made, between cities and countryside, and between cities and other cities. Soja, citing Celeste Olalquiaga, explained that the fear caused by the territorial disintegration of urban space appears as psychasthenia at the physical level. Anxiety about losing hard material, a place to anchor, is expressed as fear about losing the body. In the digital network, the body is not a physical organism, but a flat image, a represented space, and a person who stays in a represented space for a long time becomes a floating image beyond the volume and weight of the body. According to Olalquiaga, “defined as a disturbance in the relation between self and surrounding territory, psychasthenia is a state in which the space defined by the coordinates of the organism’s own body is confused with represented space.”[3]

According to Soja, our identities become more and more entangled in our computer screens and we come to understand ourselves through images handed down by computer networks. This means that one’s inner and outer (self and environment) are no longer clearly separated. As we are increasingly drawn into the imaginary world, what Lefebvre called the space of representation, “hard materiality” evaporates and leads to the loss of physical self. In this respect, “psychasthenia is a psychological syndrome associated with life in the post-metropolis.”[4]

The Urban Imaginary and Obsessive Urban Culture

How do people respond to the fear of disintegration in the digital world? One can completely give up the physical self and be content with the ubiquitous self or live in depression without accepting the loss of the bodily self. Another possible attitude is the obsessive repetition of imaginary images of the separate and integrated body. I would like to draw attention to this third attitude, the obsessive repetition with “biological bodies” in cyberspace in Korea today. I argue that people with mental breakdowns tend to repeat imaginary images such as “biological bodies” to overcome the fear of losing their bodies.

To understand the obsessive repetition, it is worth noting once again that some visual images have power in the world of simulation. In the past, face-to-face education or codified medical or legal regulations were the most influential ways of regulating gender identity and sexuality. Soja explains that nowadays what regulates urban space is “the urban imaginary.” This refers to “our mental or cognitive mappings of urban reality and the interpretive grids through which we think about, experience, evaluate, and decide to act in the places, spaces, and communities in which we live.”[5]

People with mental breakdowns in Korea try to counteract the fear of disintegration by obsessively repeating an urban imaginary image such as a “biological body”. The urban imaginary image, which has a stronger influence than the real, is the key to connecting fragmented bodies, securing internal boundaries from the outside, and creating order. Recall Jacques Lacan’s mirror stage. Through the image reflected in the mirror, a child identifies himself as a holistic and integrated being. Unlike partial body perception, the holistic and integrated image of the imaginary image provides a self-image that “acquires a sense of wholeness” that enables the ego to maintain identity in the face of the fear of body disintegration.[6] Similarly, the obsessive repetition of the imaginary image of biological women” or biological men connects the identity of the fragmented body. According to Olalquiaga, people with psychasthenia compulsively repeat the imaginary body in order to overcome the fear of deconstruction of the boundary between the body and the environment. Olalquiaga describes this as the struggle of the body to survive the loss of reference. In the world of simulation, “as the body disappears, it is imaginarily reconstructed from its leftover fragments and traces.[7]

Olalquiaga sees modern urban culture, such as mirror rooms, voyeurism, bodyless sex, and pornography, as attempts to save the bodily self from the crisis of disintegration by a compulsive repetition of body images. Take the example of pornography. Pornography is an attempt to offset the absence of the body and the absence of sex through images. The act of gaining satisfaction by viewing body images is the way of life of a flat body that tries to maintain identity in response to disappearance of the thick body. Those who watch porn forget the depth of the body in pursuit of new audiovisual satisfaction that a flat body can achieve. Here, reification of the body means that a body with volume and weight becomes a flat image and is alienated from tactile satisfaction.[8]

I believe that digital sexual violence, which has recently become a big problem in Korean society, is a representative pathology of male subjects who do not want to lose their bodies in a simulated environment. From the so-called Red Scarf Video incident in the 2000s to the present, watching, filming, and distributing non-consensual videos, with the rapid development of digital cameras, become typical of an obsessive-compulsive culture that consumes women’s bodies as flat images. Male subjects, who have fears of physical annihilation, have arrived at objectifying and controlling the female body as a flat digital image, to confirm their masculine bodily self. In their understanding of the body reduced to images, it is difficult to understand the pain with a tactile sense. Those who watch body images of others reify not only others but also their own bodies into flat images and are subject to audiovisual satisfaction.

Digital Feminism and the Obsessive Repetition of “Biological Women”

Imagine what kind of fear these digital conditions bring to Korean women! The development of computers and digital media has promoted aversion to alien beings as much as it has increased freedom of communication. Hate speech on social media was amplified, and non-consensual videos were commercialized, bought, and sold. The logic of capital and the development of digital technology have met the current of misogyny and created an unexpected danger from digital sexual violence. We can see images of female bodies being exploited more often and easier than in industrial urbanism. Digital undertakers have been created to delete non-consensual videos, but they often pretend not to notice that illegal videos they deleted are re-uploaded to the platform. With the development of digital media, non-consensual video trading continues to evade all control because they are distributed from Internet sites to social media and then to various applications. In the digital era, where the logic of capital, digital media, and digital sexual violence are mixed, women can easily be gripped with fear due to the anxiety of losing their physical integrity and the uncertainty of when and how this loss will occur.

Digital feminism in Korea was rebooted in this context. In a situation where body image is unfairly invaded and exploited, Korean feminists have gathered in online communities such as Megalia (MERS+Egalia’s Daughters), Womad (women+nomad), or Women’s Time. They also use the urban imaginary of biological body to resist online misogyny. They began to imagine themselves as strong subjects, objectifying men as objects and bodies. Through the strategy of mirroring, they countered, for example, kimchi-nyeo (kimchi+girl) with another compound word: hannam-chung (Korean men+worms).

However, despite their resistance, misogyny and digital sexual exploitation did not leave Korean society. On the contrary, online personal information robbing of resisting women has further progressed. Korean women have no choice but to fall into a state of nervous breakdown. Image exploitation destroys not only women’s body, but also their dignity. Image exploitation brings the fear of disintegration to women. As a result, some radical feminists tend to target their mirroring against refugee men, transgender people, and even boys, obsessively repeating the antagonism between urban imaginary biological women and biological men. Ironically, the compulsive repetition of the biological body has come to be practiced not only by misogynistic men but also by feminist women.

Lee Hyun-Jae, University of Seoul, South Korea


* I would like to point out that this paper was reconstructed with reference to my previous paper “A Critical Study of Identity Politics Based on the Category ‘Biological Women’ in the Digital Era” (in Journal of Asian Sociology, Volume 49, Number 4, 2020, pp. 425~448) and “Digital Urbanization and Emergence of Psychasthenia: ‘Biological Woman’ in Obsessive Urban Culture【dijiteol dosihwawa jeongsinsoeyagjeog juche-ui tansaeng: ‘saengmulhagjeog yeoseong’gwa gangbagjeog dosimunhwa】” (Youngpbong Inmun Nonchong, Volume 59, 2021).

[1] Marshall McLuhan (McLuhan), Translated by Im Sangwon, 『Gutenberg Galaxy』, Seoul; Communication Books, 2001, p. 67.

[2] Edward W. Soja, Postmetropolis, London: Bla`ckwell, 2000, p.150.

[3] Celeste Olalquiaga, Megalopolis: contemporary cultural sensibilities, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1992, pp.1~2.

[4] Soja (2000), p. 151.

[5] ibid., p. 324.

[6] Olalquiaga (1992), p. 4.

[7] ibid., p. 7.

[8] ibid., p. 6.

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