A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Freudian Typos, Rhetorical Parapraxis, and the Psychopathology of Digital Life

Jake Cowan

(Published June 5, 2019)


To err is human, but to really foul things up you need a computer.

— Paul Ehrlich


Make no mistake about it, for as long as people have been writing on computers, others have been whining about how computers negatively affect writing. Digital technology amplifies how blithely we make mistakes about “its”and “it’s” and other linguistic lapses, or so the trope goes. Case in point, Naomi Baron has suggested that predictive text and autocorrection tools have begun “obviating the need to type carefully, look up words in a dictionary, or simply think” (200). According to Baron, digital tools permit writers to completely forgo conventional orthographic standards like the distinction between “its” and “it’s,” “since spell-check will automatically insert the punctuation mark for them” (179). Moral panic about a perceived decline in “proper” writing habits has hardly subsided; even teaching professionals now frequently turn to digital media to complain about its apparent deleterious effects, as when one professor went viral tweeting: “I’m grading grad student papers and one of them keeps using ‘it’s’ when ‘its’ is appropriate and I’m not saying I’m a harsh grader but I’m torn between giving the paper a failing grade or stabbing the author with an ice pick.” Though most commenters seconded this sentiment, a few pointed out how such pedantic attitudes are ableist and classist, resting on a violent ontological hierarchy of “us-teachers” over/against “them-students” who must be disciplined for mistakes.

It seems that Ken Macrorie’s well-known lament still rings true: The majority of “teachers have been trained to correct students’ writing, not to read it; so they put down those bloody correction marks in the margins” (11, emphasis added). Rarely seen as equal partners co-producing knowledge, students are treated as compositional Others. Intellectually subordinate, their writing is valued for the sole purpose of evaluation. It is something to find fault in, decidedly not a vault of new ideas. This troublesome-if-typical approach is further compounded by its technological component, which, according to a conventional humanist logic that traditionally grounds rhetorical pedagogy, places student slip-ups on the side of an Other who needs setting straight or putting right whenever acting out or up. Placed against the presumption of the classical teaching subject who knows best and is in control of a writing situation, what emerges is a whole complex of Others on the problematic side of pedagogy—students, technology, errors—which in combination seem all the stranger to standard rhetorical instruction that seeks only precision and clarity. Confronted with so many Others, conventional pedagogies are thus compelled to correct, castigate, or cast aside whatever seems out of place.

Frameworks that center processes of signification and agency on the outmoded ideal of whole, autonomous, conscious, knowledgeable (hence: WHACK) subjects end up precluding presumably passive object-entities like students or computers along with their mechanical mistakes. Within such perspectives, how an Other might contribute to rhetorical situations, and the agentive role they might play in meaning making, gets treated as a secondary question. If asked at all, the agency of Others is a mere afterthought (thought being, of course, the province of so-called thinking beings, i.e., mature humans). As in the aforementioned tweet, the traditional humanist stance has left us ill-equipped pedagogically for valuing the contemporary writing practices of students born into an already webbed world, digital natives who leave apostrophes to their own devices, and so this stance has rightfully come under fire from recent theorists who are seeking to reimagine the meaning of the Other in rhetoric. From critical projects that call attention to the communicative work of the vegetal and animal (e.g. Davis; Hawhee) to addressing the onto-rhetorical status of the dead and gone (Ballif; Cowan), these efforts often share ethical commitments to rethinking the rhetorical role played by the Other, seeing alterity and what is outside the ordinary not as needing righting but as constitutive of writing and, therefore, of creative value in and of itself.

Just think of the uproar that usually follows whenever Donald Trump’s blustery tweets contain a typo (which is often) such as the time just before taking office when he misspelled the word “unprecedented” as “unpresidented.” This blunder provoked such a hell of a hullabaloo that The Guardian named the neologism the publication’s 2016 word of the year, even going so far as to provide a derisive definition: “An instance of someone being ‘prepared to say what most of us are thinking,’ but actually saying things most of us are not thinking” (Gabbatt). Trump’s gaffes often produce brouhaha among pundits who (to reference another of his flubs) “pour” over such solecisms solemnly, offering as antipathetic explanations for his “symptomatic misspellings” that he is thoughtless, illiterate, or otherwise mentally incapacitated one way or another (Sutherland). Yet, contrary to the moralistic handwringing, the point to make is not that these typos indicate his disdain for his role or his general ignorance—all of which may be true—but that such mechanical failures point to an unprecedented, unwieldy collusion between long-established rhetorical norms expected of political leaders and their emerging, ill-defined relationship to newfangled technology. Hence, into this situation might now step theorists who seek not to revise objectionable blunders but to reconceive such slip-ups, theorists interested in how to open ontology, writing, and rhetoric to the disruptions and object-ions of the Other—a move much more at odds with Trump’s oligarchic authoritarianism than classist concerns about orthographic accuracy. Scholarship ranging from Gregory Ulmer’s deconstructive puncept and Victor Vitanza’s neo-sophistic theatricks and dissoi paralogoi, which reinterpret rhetorical breakdowns as breakthroughs, to Alex Reid’s recent Latour-inspired work on the compositional potential of glitches, which I discuss more below, all work, in their own ways, to revaluate the role of commonplace lapses in meaning making practices.

In their own ways, each of these approaches is indebted to Sigmund Freud’s analysis of linguistic slips, heretofore underdeveloped in rhetorical theory, which suggests failures like those above cannot solely be ascribed to carelessness. For Freud, rather, ostensibly careless errors indicate a moment when an “uninhibited stream of associations comes into action” and produces such typos (Psychopathology 84). Little changes when we transpose Freud’s argument into the Internet age: Whatever the slip of the finger, mistakes still point to some unconscious cause, even if “the unconscious” in this instance appears different than the prevalent human-based model. The notion of Freudian typos, or what I will term digital parapraxes, has been overlooked in contemporary psychoanalytic literature and rhetorical criticism in no small part because the underlying idea has become distorted as its popularity has grown. Even someone for whom an hour on the couch means watching In Treatment can still define a Freudian slip as when you mean one thing but say your mother. Yet, as I will show in short, that commonplace gloss does not quite capture the original meaning of parapraxes, and if we hope to update and recuperate the concept for digital communication, we will need to first (à Lacan) return to Freud’s example(s) and understand the purpose of his explication. In that vein, my general contention is that, rather than reject or correct mechanical mistakes in student writing as many teachers and administrators still demand (Gagich), rhetoricians must learn to read slips in Other ways.

Accordingly, this paper offers a preliminary discussion of what constitutes digital parapraxes, aiming neither for a taxonomy of the different forms a Freudian typo might take nor for a clinical analysis of any specific unconscious. Rather, I seek to explore the rhetorical conditions parapraxes entail, particularly an ontological entanglement between rhetors and technology that I will call the digital unconscious. Taking a cue from Freud’s procedure of cursorily describing his own many errors in order to evince the unconscious at work in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, this essay “will not start with postulates but with an investigation” into the operative symptoms of a contemporary digital unconscious (Freud, Introductory Lectures 29). In brief, the digital unconscious names a unique, dynamic immixture between humans and media, which in-/trans-form each other as a capacity for meaning making emerges between them. What follows will consider some ways psychical slips emerge in an epoch saturated by systems of digital communication not in order to interpret individual neuroses but instead, echoing Freud’s procedure and answering Macrorie’s charge, to read parapraxes as revealing a digital manifestation of the classical psychoanalytic unconscious. Beginning with a comparison between Freudian typos and the rhetorical theorization of glitches, the paper next turns to Freud’s own examples in order to explain how parapraxes function before inductively arriving at an explication of the digital unconscious and its import for rhetoric. In my effort to articulate both a Freudian reading of typos and a digital unconscious, I aim to simultaneously demonstrate how contemporary writing technology, such as “the peculiar and persistent keyboard layout with which many of us interact daily[,] is not something to be bested or blamed but rather something to be lauded” as a co-agent of rhetorical invention (Brown and Rivers 213). To conclude, I argue that insofar as digital parapraxes reveal a writer’s indebtedness to and embeddedness within modern media, a rhetoric attuned to the Other should embrace such unconscious symptoms.

Glitches Get (in) Stitches

It would make sense to begin a discussion of digitally mediated parapraxes by following Freud’s famous example in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life where he traced the psychical mechanism involved in forgetting a proper name—except for the fact that something else already sticks out and gives pause. According to the Microsoft Word spellcheck function, “parapraxes” is not a recognized term, marked as such underneath by a red tremolo line: the digital version of Macrorie’s “bloody correction marks in the margin” (297). The best suggestion to replace “parapraxes” is “paraphrases,” which adds an /h/ and moves the /x/ one keystroke upward to the /s/—precisely the sort of minor displacement of individual linguistic elements that Freud means to identify with his diagnostic terminology. Even so, whereas Freud’s clinical gaze was focused on the repressive-cum-replacement mechanisms that seemed to govern psychical apparatuses, the computer’s assumption is that in my impatience I mistyped “paraphrases,” which it wants to correct rather than accept that I desired a word not in its lexicon. How might that insistent tremolo mark and other signs of digital parapraxis help us to reconceive the relationship between writers and technology in an age of digital rhetorics? What becomes possible when we recast excitable typos and autocorrect not as inevitable annoyances of computerized composition but as points of agentive invention or rhetorical action? What are the implications when rhetoric is given over to automatic, unconscious processes that, as with Google’s Smart Reply/Compose email features, learn from a person’s previous writing to guess (with uncanny accuracy) at what she desires to say?

Among work already done within rhetoric, we can consider the compositional import of digital parapraxes through comparison with another nosological nuisance: the glitch. Alex Reid has claimed that such irritating irregularities are not only an occasional intrusion into the flows of everyday digital life but more fundamentally are “everywhere, and they are features, not bugs.” Likewise, Casey Boyle proposes that glitches function in their dysfunction to “reveal and foreground knowledge of otherwise transparent structures enacted with our software, infrastructure, and technological policies throughout our institutions” (13). When a user encounters a glitch—as occurs when a file has been indexed using the wrong extension, an .mp3 taken for an .mp4 in an indexical slip—it occasions what Boyle calls “productive errors [that] disrupt the seamlessness and intuitiveness of our electronic environments,” rendering discernable the ubiquitous yet unconscious conditions of everyday digitality (23). Thomas Rickert has described this contemporary media omnipresence in terms of “ambient” technology that, though unseen, is not unfelt. Rickert argues that the ubiquity of media unsettles from the first any mere binary separating a subject-rhetor from “their” object-world or a message from “its” medium. “There is no specific sense of locus or agency here, or more precisely, no singular locus,” writes Rickert, pointing instead to how “the material things, forces, agencies, assessments, discourses, and people all disperse, circulating through a dynamic material-informatic ecology” (32). Rickert’s unconscious ambience challenges us to reconceive being in general, and rhetoric in particular, as a co-productive negotiation among mutually dependent actants.

Seen this way, glitches are not only epistemic objections but also “a key ontological condition,” says Reid, “the source of agency and thought rather than their limits.” To err is not just human, pace Pope, but to err is to be whatsoever. As Boyle explains: 

an individual does not wholly exist prior to its relations, and those relations are always in excess, created by and further re-creating tensions, ruptures, and the differences necessary to maintain individuation as an ongoing process. The tensions and incompatibilities—glitches—often thought to be exceptions and markers for critical positions are, instead, recast as the conditions through which individuation persists as an ongoing process. It is not that those moments of disruptions are errors to be corrected . . . they are instead the conditions of possibility for rhetorical action. (20)

Everyday life, increasingly digital, is thoroughly glitchy, bugged out, and slippery. Ontologically, neither subject nor object can exist without the other; as such, we have become utterly indissoluble from digitality and in turn from the parapraxes of code that are its necessary condition of possibility. Human subjects are thereby no more distinct from what disturbs them than they are from what technologies sustain them, for these amount to a metastatic impurity constituted through “a mutual practice between human and nonhuman, an ongoing, co-operative mediation” (Boyle 13–14). This is a crucial point for rhetoricians for it suggests that, when we notice things slipping up or glitching out, rather than think our digital systems infested with virtual bugs to be exterminated, we might consider mechanical misfires and disturbed deliveries as prerequisites for inventional processes. 

While digital ubiquity may encourage a belief “that we no longer need to think in terms of Freudian slips but rather of information processing errors,” as Sherry Turkle cautioned (12), the psychical and the technological are not necessarily at cross-purposes; they are fundamentally intercrossed. Like the glitch, whenever we make a Freudian slip or typo, we often become hyperaware of phenomena that had previously (and necessarily if interactions are to function) remained in the background: We perceive the mechanics of enunciating, scrutinize word choice, study the microreactions of conversation partners, and so on. When everyday life breaks down, what comes to attention is the process by which everyday life comes to be enacted and overlooked, made and missed, and we discover just how embedded within digitality we have become. Misspellings (epistemic-failure) and mistypings (performance-failure) have become, from the perspective of technology, indistinguishable; and because typographic misfires have become so extraordinarily typical, people are prone to chalk up these mistakes to the keyboard layout, tired fingers, lack of attention, or whatnot. Accidentally tweet in ALL CAPS? It’s not your fault: Shift happens. From a psychoanalytic perspective, however, such slips are not reducible to “a quantitative lessening of attention;” rather, they are caused by “a disturbance of attention by an alien thought which claims consideration” (Psychopathology 173). Slips are streams of preoccupation unconscious within ordinary social interactions that surface like objections to conscious thought. Thus, the task of rhetoricians and analysts alike is to trace those invisible (and increasingly digital) conditions that are always subtending and occasionally suspending conscious communication. This tracing does not necessarily entail parsing code per se, no more than being a rhetorician or analyst means becoming a linguist, but more generally attending to the overlooked processes by which we have become digitally entangled.

Accordingly, the sort of digital parapraxes that we seek are those breakdowns in the suppression of everyday digital being that light up the unconscious configurations that allow for life on the screen to seem so seamless. Such slips would point less to a repression of some originary computational trauma than a structural and technological obliviousness that grounds consciousness. Of a similar order as the glitch, Freudian typos should, therefore, not only be understood as psychopathological but also as exposing an ontological condition and potential for rhetorical action. A Freudian typo is a moment split open to agentive invention by the suspension of everyday expectation through the intervention of a disruptive element. The failures or “glitches” that constitute (mis)typing, (mis)writing, and (mis)speaking are less an effect of mechanical causes than mental ones, but this is a mentality, I want to suggest, that is structured by and (e)merges dynamically with its (now principally digital) mediation. Hence, what psychoanalysis can add to the more object-oriented rhetorics laid out above is an account of these misfires not only as issuing from technological complexities but also arising from (and simultaneously forming) the complexes of a psychical apparatus. A subject is not only caught up and conditioned by a preexisting media network but also is unwittingly and unceasingly transforming that rhetorical ecology through their interaction. Said otherwise: Whereas glitches do not require individual actors in order to arise and disrupt symbolic machinery, a theory of Freudian typos reveals how networks and subjects are always already interdependent and mutually dynamic.

The Practice of Parapraxes

It would make sense to begin a discussion of digitally mediated parapraxes by following Freud’s famous example in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, where he tracked the psychical mechanism involved in forgetting a proper mane—except, again, something has gone wrong and we must hit the breaks . . . err, the brakes. In a royally hairy slip, my fingers have crisscrossed and jumped around the laptop keyboard, swapping the /m/ and the /n/ in “name.” Because “mane” is to be found in the average dictionary, Word’s spell checker fails to under-squiggle the word, recognize the nonsense of the new sentence, or autocorrect to the proper noun. When considering digital parapraxes, this is likely the sort that comes to mind first: A slip of the finger that is tantamount to a slip of the pen is likewise equivalent to a slip of the tongue—“not surprisingly, in view of the close kinship between these functions,” says Freud (Psychopathology 140). Whether on a Remington or an iPhone, mistyping (Vertippen) is very much akin to the other words prefixed with /mis-/ (German: Ver-) that Freud identifies: misremembering (Vergessen), misspeaking (Versprechen), miswriting (Verschreiben), mishearing (Verhören), misreading (Verlesen), misplacing (Verlegen), mistaking (Vergreifen), and so on.

Freud obviously did not encounter the colorful nuisance of word processing errors when he introduced a new sense to such common phenomena, although he did encounter resistance from the general public. Both The Psychopathology (1901) and the Introductory Lectures (1915) delineate parapraxes in order to demonstrate the fundamental thesis of psychoanalysis: that there exists in the psyche two distinct yet interrelated dimensions, the conscious and the unconscious. In these works, Freud fought a dominant conception of the mind wherein mental life was understood to be conscious, intentional, and self-evident; any slip would be nothing more than an accident. Against this commonsense assumption, Freud insists that “nothing in the mind is arbitrary or undetermined” (Psychopathology 310), that parapraxes are not mental hiccups but opportune eruptions that should be scrutinized for how they reveal “an alien train of thought which is not at the time conscious” (Psychopathology 58). 

To elucidate how parapraxes (mis)function, Freud relays a personal anecdote of his replacing the name of Signorelli, who painted the apocalyptic frescoes at Orvieto, with that of other artists, Botticelli and Boltraffio. In Freud’s self-analysis, a “disturbing element” has been repressed, rejected from consciousness, because of the excitation, positive or negative, that it triggers within the psyche, upsetting mental equilibrium (Psychopathology 84). Specifically, feelings toward sex and death—especially as they relate to Freud’s father (“Signor”), who had died of heart disease two weeks prior (Stewart 80)—are too much to handle, causing an imbalance in affect, and so before the analyst even consciously apprehends these apprehensions, they become involuntarily, automatically repressed and replaced by arbitrary proxy signifiers. As he will write later, an impression “which is not put into words, or a psychial [sic] act which is not hypercathected, remains thereafter in the [unconscious] in a state of repression” (qutd. in Stewart 83). As used here, the sort of repression (verdrängung: note the prefix) that underlies parapraxes requires no moralistic censorship; instead it is a form of displacement when faced with overwhelming impulses. This repression functions as “an operation whereby the subject attempts to repel” unsymbolized and unsettling affects that lay “on the border between [the] somatic and mental” (Laplanche and Pontalis 390, 475). 

The act of repression notwithstanding, what disturbs disturbs, for “a suppressed element always strives to assert itself elsewhere” (Freud, Psychopathology 15); hence, affective impulses become associated with an otherwise random and harmless signifier, which is in Freud’s case the first syllables in the name of the Italian Renaissance artist Signorelli. “The repressed signifier is still the same,” explains David W. Stewart, “it is the ‘instinct’ [Trieb] of which the signifier ‘Signorelli’ is only a representative”—and a necessary one insofar as “[t]he death instinct could never make an appearance on the conscious level in a raw, unadulterated form” (81). What Freud misremembers and fails to perform is the signifier Signorelli, not because of who’s behind the name but because of what’s in the name—Signor being Italian for the German Herr, signifier of authority and paternity. In other words, Freud is unable to remember an arbitrary signifier (Signorelli) because linguistic resonances within the name evoke by chance an association so upsetting he is disinclined to think about it whatsoever. Neither the particular name forgotten nor those wrongly remembered really matter for Freud’s analysis, except insofar as examining their connection helps expose the unconscious motive and mechanisms of repression.

As with dreams, parapraxes turn out to be a(nother) road to the unconscious, though perhaps not so royal, which makes them easier to dismiss as insignificant, mere nuisances worthy only of correction rather than deeper consideration. While the poor might fantasize that royalty have dreams of a different color than the rest of us, slips of the tongue and forgotten names are things that everyone experiences, prince and proletariat alike. In the end, the great social equalizers are death and parapraxes. Despite that ubiquity and familiarity—or, more likely, because of it—such ordinary performance failures “attract little attention, give rise to no more than feeble emotions, and so on” (Freud, Introductory Lectures 30); in fact, as James Strachey points out, prior to Freud “the general concept [of parapraxes] seems not to have existed in psychology, and in English a new word had to be invented to cover it” (Psychopathology 5). Thus, Freud had to devote hundreds of pages and as many examples to persuade his readership of at least three things: (1) a methodology that focuses on ostensible trivialities, (2) the reliability of parapraxes for analysis, and (3) the reality of the unconscious. In this effort, parapraxes function methodologically not as keys that unlock the mystery of the unconscious but as keyholes that allow a limited view into restricted psychical space, a peek into the unconscious apparatus. 

Such symptomatic formations—parapraxes, dreams, jokes, tics, and whatnot—can thus teach us a great deal about how the unconscious functions both in its classical form as described by psychoanalysis and the digital iteration I am suggesting. Foremost, parapraxes demonstrate that the unconscious system is fundamentally not a “repressed consciousness,” as often assumed, especially in popular accounts of Freudian slips that take a substitute word to equal a real underlying thought tout court. The problem with this widespread definition—you said “sex-cess,” so we know what’s really on your mind!—is that, like dream books professing to decode oneiric imagery, it implies a collective unconscious where signifiers have shared, stable meanings. The unconscious in both its Freudian and digital forms is altogether (better: all-together) subjective and individual, emerging in fact prior to consciousness with a far “wider compass” than moral repression. “Everything that is repressed must remain unconscious,” Freud explains, but “the repressed does not compromise the whole unconscious” (“The Unconscious” 573). Instead of a burial ground for repugnant and hidden meanings, what the rhetorical peculiarities of parapraxes reveal for Freud is how the unconscious functions to, as a rule, rule out and oust meaning in the first place (Attridge 151). The unconscious, in other words, works practically algorithmically to proclaim, “something here cannot be recognized, and so it must be repressed and replaced.” Hence, in the prior section, I used “paraphrases” over “parapraxes” because parapraxes precisely are not paraphrases of a repressed meaning but an expression that no meaning is yet recognized.

From an Intimate Mother to an Extimate Other

Thus far, in order to demonstrate the unexpected ontological importance of ordinary typos and autocorrect failures, I have compared these routine malfunctions to previous rhetorical work on the inventional potential of glitches, while explaining how, following Freud, parapraxes expose the fundamental procedures of the unconscious. If in the final (or at least the Freudian) analysis parapraxes of every ver- serve to verify unconscious motivation, then sharper delineation of its mechanisms should shed light on what happens when fingers, tongues, and signifiers slip. In his well-known “return to Freud,” Jacques Lacan refined the classical theory of the unconscious by rearticulating its contents and borders, clarifying how its “compass” extends beyond the repressed. For the French clinician, the unconscious consists of a dynamic network of differential signifiers “structured like a language” with only an indefinite, arbitrary connection to any specified signified (Seminar XI 20). By associating it with the signifier, Lacan places the unconscious squarely within the realm of what he calls the Symbolic register. This does not mean, however, that the unconscious is language, any more than Freud implies that the unconscious is a repressed consciousness; rather, the point is that subjectivity and signification emerge through a semantic system of displacements and deferrals where what remains unconscious are the obverse signifiers against which meaning unfolds as well as the differential process itself. In step with Kenneth Burke’s conviction that rhetoric simultaneously reflects and deflects selections of reality (45), those disclaimed signifiers leave a constitutive mark on whatever becomes conscious through this dynamic signifying process while requiring neither intention nor awareness. This psychical automatism leads Lacan to describe the unconscious as “autonomous to the human being” (Seminar II 116), functioning like cybernetic algorithms that set the contours of what a person finds meaningful (see Lacan’s lecture “Cybernetics and Psychoanalysis,” Seminar II 294–308). This conceptual link between the unconscious and algorithms is Lacan’s own; he finds meaning in how these formulae are constructed of only abstract variables “devoid of meaning” in the same way as the unconscious (Écrits 416). Accordingly, “the topography of this unconscious” can be said to be “defined by the algorithm,” which runs on its own without subjective interference while running the subject via the signifier’s insistence (Écrits 428).

By rearticulating the unconscious as an autonomous, differential force rather than a crypt of clandestine meanings, Lacan defines it as a domain of constitutive alterity that perpetually disrupts the possibility of self-consistency and self-control for human subjects. Consequently, Lacan equates the unconscious with “the Other’s discourse” (Écrits 10). Said otherwise, even as the unconscious is a part of the subject, it exists apart from the subject. In this sense, the unconscious consists of extrinsic ideological productions, ethical injunctions, familial constructions, and other social instructions that emerge before and beyond the subject’s control yet, nonetheless, assert control over a subject. Lacan names this the “extimate” structure of the unconscious wherein what is subjectively most internal is a kernel of exterior objectivity: The Symbolic world we participate in, participates in us simultaneously. This pre-originary Symbolic universe comes to envelop, involve, and invade us all at once, entwining Other and self like two points along a Möbius strip—thereby supplanting conventional subject/object binaries with an extimate unconscious that is trans-individually marked by a diffusion in agency (Écrits 258). 

Symptomatic formations like parapraxes, even simple typos like those caused by autocorrect or the nonsense of predictive text, expose an extimate ontological condition, illustrating the Lacanian thesis that, rather than made up of latent messages awaiting opportunities to erupt from our psychical depths, the unconscious emerges at the point where subjectivity cannot coincide with itself, where self-consistency fails because it is constitutively interrupted by an Other to whom the subject owes her being. As when a former student who was studying to become a veterinarian ascribed the rhetorical definition of humanity as a “symbol-using animal” to one Kenneth Bark, such slips reveal a radical entwinement between self and Other, interior psyche and exterior social discourse. In effect, a Lacanian parapraxis is when you say one thing but mean the Other. On those grounds, to be (human or not) means not only to err but also to have an ear—to be fundamentally vulnerable and open to the discourse of the Other. This is not to suggest, however, that the Other is somehow coherent and whole in contrast to the split subject. Instead, as Slavoj Žižek explains, the Other is “inconsistent, self-contradictory, thwarted, traversed by antagonisms, without any guarantee . . . a stumbling malfunctioning machinery” (Absolute Recoil 21). Here, as the Other’s self-contradictions interrupt any pretense of a subject’s self-consistency, is where parapraxes emerge, “a result of internal contradiction” that arises from the multiplicity of competing conscriptions and codes that constitute the unconscious (Freud, Psychopathology 347). That is to say, because the socio-algorithmic Other is made up of discourses that rarely reach consensus, the extimate unconscious ineluctably short-circuits, resulting in symptomatic lapses.

The Lacanian reframing of the unconscious, indebted nearly as much to contemporaneous cyberneticians as to psychoanalysts, exposes an extimate ontology wherein subjectivity is overflowing and in-fused with Otherness rather than defined against it. When parapraxes break up regular communicative flows, disrupting illusions of grandeur and conscious autonomy, they reveal this Möbius-esque structure of transindividual mutuality. Such slips indicate a dynamic unconscious apparatus always already working within signifying processes and insisting upon rhetoric as if from the outside (as if because the conventional outside/inside dichotomy dissipates in Lacan’s ontology). Like their cousin the glitch, parapraxes are less fluke bugs than they are features constitutive of unconscious operations as such: “repression cannot be distinguished from the return of the repressed” in symptomatic slips (Écrits 322). Yet, unlike glitches, which are fundamentally situated on the side of code and hence do not require human input or consciousness to occur, parapraxes reveal instead an extimate immixture of the human (subject) and nonhuman (Symbolic machinery) as ontological co-participants shaping one another. Said another way, a theory of parapraxes supplements other object-oriented accounts of rhetoric to demonstrate how agency and signification can emerge dynamically between rhetor and media, human and nonhuman. 

The Digital Unconscious: Have a Nice Slip…

Thinking in terms of digital parapraxes can help open wide the wetware of these mechano-mental (mal)functions and leads to what I term the digital unconscious. Take, for instance, a piece from The Wall Street Journal that quotes former presidential candidate John Edwards as equating political “[r]hetoric” to “[h]igh flatulent language” rather than the more common compound (but not necessarily more correct) “highfalutin language” (Zimmer, emphasis added). This sort of miscorrection (Verschlimmbessern, to add to Freud’s Ver- list) is commonly called the “Cupertino Effect,” so named because some of the earliest word processors would automatically convert “cooperation”—without the hyphen—into “Cupertino,” the California headquarters of Apple. While a naïve-albeit-routine reading of the brain fart in this example would suggest an overworked and incautious proofreader who had run out of gas as the cause, or even a writer who was simply gassy, a Freudo-Lacanian might argue that the parapraxial overcorrection brings to the fore a point where various discourses come into conflict—the lexicographer who compiled a wordlist that included “highfalutin” but not “falutin,” the programmer who wrote the spellchecker, the original speech by Edwards, its transcription by the Wall Street journalist—resulting in a failure of meaning to cohere and producing an overdetermined disruption wherein the Other slips through.

Freudian typos lay bare a rhetorical condition wherein meaning and motivation are shared between self and Other. The unconscious is no longer understood as located solely within the human psyche but as emerging among users and technology, as in the aforementioned case of Google’s Smart Reply/Compose artificial intelligence technology that can learn and predict what a person intends to say even before they have thought about it. Inasmuch as the unconscious is “the Other’s discourse,” and insofar as digitality is becoming a principle locus of interpersonal communication and the realm where we encounter others, it stands to reason that the substantival category of the unconscious must be increasingly evident in and influenced by the advent of digital media. In a sense, digital ecology is nothing other than the Other’s discourse—on one level composed of syntactical work done by programmers, on another consisting of content provided by other individuals and occasional AI, which fill the newsfeeds that make up our insular epistemological and communicative filter bubbles (Pariser). 

This is especially discernable when parapraxes occur on social media, which not only make manifest the scene of the Other but, in mediating and restructuring the Symbolic according to proprietary personalizing algorithms, inevitably affect conceptions of and connections with the Other. Consider the plight of journalist Corinne Purtill: Every time she tried to upload photos of herself to Facebook, the platform’s facial recognition software would automatically tag Purtill as her mother—digital parapraxes are when you post one thing but tag your Mother. Such cases of mistaken identity (Verwechslung) cannot simply be chalked up to glitches in the API; Facebook itself, rather, ascribed the uncanny misidentification to a combination of user and software error. Facebook suggested that perhaps Purtill’s father had, through a slip of his finger, previously mistagged daughter as mother, teaching the software a primal parapraxis (Purtill). Instances of misrecognition like this help us recognize what I call a digital unconscious, which actualizes Lacan’s claim that “the very notion of the unconscious” is “that the symbolic is located outside of man” (Écrits 392), as much in media as in Other transpersonal contexts. In its digital manifestation, new media hijack the unconscious so that its extimate ontology is made newly visible, evincing the rudimentary psychoanalytic contention that history, whether psychical or browser, has a determinative effect that personalizes the unconscious (Écrits 217). Fundamental operations of the unconscious remain unchanged, but they become digitized in the sense that the more we use new media, algorithmically anamnestic and automatically amendable, the more technology reflects the unconscious. In turn, the more it can reflect (and direct) user preferences, the more media infects the unconscious, further blurring ontological lines (really feedback loops) between subjects and technology. From this perspective, the digital unconscious designates a distributed, idiosyncratic, and mutable immixture among humans and media, which inform and transform each other as a capacity for signification and rhetoric emerges.

Again, functioning in similar fashion to its classical Freudo-Lacanian predecessor, the digital unconscious institutes an algorithmic rhythm of injunctions that overdetermine behavior and response, preferences and expectations. The psychoanalytic unconscious by no means implies some repressed signified waiting to erupt, so rather than suggesting the unconscious prescribes certain meanings, it would be more accurate to say that it proscribes unfamiliar, uncertain, or unwelcome significations, parapraxially offering alternative signifiers instead. Like its classical counterpart, the digital unconscious consists of signifying chains, sequences of signifiers linked together yet otherwise arbitrary in meaning, that function like algorithms both to program particular procedures and to prohibit users from going off script. This programming is evident whenever autocorrect goes haywire, such as the time I tried mansplaining the Kleinian infantile paranoid-schizoid position via text and gave the example of “Donald ducking Trump,” which I frantically attempted to rectify as “*tucking” before finally abandoning all hope. This daffy “ducking” puritanism betrays—as often with Trump—the interplay of repression, resistance, and replacement. The expletive is verboten and so verdrängt, not with truer thinking but with something still more meaningless: a foul word supplanted by a waterfowl, marking a rhetorical condition in which writer and technology share agency.

Moreover, Lacan’s extimate ontology and its subsequent distribution of agency between humans and nonhumans help differentiate the digital unconscious from what Nigel Thrift and others outline as a technological unconscious—a productive concept, but one that does not account for what happens when media deviate from expectations, such as in digital parapraxes. In Thrift’s formulation, the unconscious is neither hidden haven of differential signifiers nor chamber for hitherto-meaningless affect; rather it is a formal zone of repetition “whose content is the bending of bodies with environments to a specific set of addresses without the benefit of any cognitive inputs, a prepersonal substrate of guaranteed correlations, assured encounters, and therefore unconsidered anticipations” (213, emphasis added). Inverting the Freudo-Lacanian unconscious, which through repression prohibits overwhelming and overdetermined associations, Thrift’s technological unconscious seeks instead to “produce successful repetitions and consistent consistencies” that can “set out sequences and prime practice” to define future actions (214). Thrift’s term aims to identify “a new kind of embodied phenomenality of position and juxtaposition” conditioned by “a dynamic iterability” (223–224), a performative knowledge of form achieved through the technical standardization of “sequence in time, which in turn allows orderly and guaranteed repetition” (215). Capturing actions and anticipations within processes of habitual automation, this technological substructure becomes “integrated into bodily routines carried on without conscious awareness” (Hayles 96), as when our fingers impulsively detect typing errors without our minds realizing it (Logan and Crump 684).

While this theorization moves in the right direction by materially embodying the unconscious, it narrowly limits unconscious operation to disciplining regularity, ignoring the disturbances and contingencies of parapraxes. From the vantage of the technological unconscious, the red squiggle that marks misspellings and neologisms alike functions only to keep writing in (spell)check, training typers in proper orthography rather than underscoring ontological or rhetorical possibilities. Thrift gives short shrift to how technologies err, defining the unconscious epistemically as a set of expectations through rote practice rather than ontologically through unpredictable failures, implying a collective instead of subjective unconscious. This “more general unconscious,” as Thrift’s source Patricia Clough explains, “puts thought outside subjectivity, even outside human intersubjectivity,” becoming “postpersonal” and “subindividual” (2–3). Yet such an account obscures the rapid, reflexive information exchanges between users and technology that characterize the personalized malleability of computers: That squiggle beneath “parapraxis” eventually grew irritating, so I added it to my laptop’s lexicon, augmenting my Symbolic. Additionally, a subindividual general substrate retains an ontological distinction separating technology from the bodies it routinely organizes, affected en masse without regard to any particularity. While at first glance a material substrate being “outside subjectivity” appears in line with Lacan’s unconscious, in effect agency is relinquished to one side of a binary, making the human second to technology rather than equal participants in a shared rhetorical ontology. A technological unconscious is something that through continuous repetition subjects become accustomed to and by, the human and media existing symbiotically but independently. Conversely, a digital unconscious, disruptive of distinctions between humans and nonhumans by regarding them as ontogenetically extimate, is always responsive and customizable in accordance with the unexpected and singular. Media does not merely mold me through repetition; rather I in turn mold it through by my repeating symptomatically the same mistakes, which establishes a signifying scene of shared agency: By now, my smartphone has learned that when I type “Donald,” I mean a quack, not a duck. 

We undersquiggle possibilities of rhetorical invention and shared agency when we refigure the unconscious as digital—or put an Other way, as manipulable, placing emphasis on relations between bodily self and technological Other (since both digi- and mani- etymologically refer to the hands). In the key shift away from a general regulatory “technical substrate,” at stake is the ability to rethink the unconscious not as a “postpersonal” force “outside subjectivity,” but as a metastable field of negotiation and e-mergence in which human-self and nonhuman-Other overlap and overdetermine without overwhelming one another. A parapraxial rhetoric informed by the digital unconscious would encourage writers to embrace bugs and bungled actions as unimagined possibilities, to relinquish the hierarchy of intentional authority, and to open up writing to a signifying situation that is always already collaborative. Instead of conceiving technological worlds as essentially distinct from human worlds, “[i]f we imagine knowledge as built from a network of [O]ther objects,” to heed Reid’s call, “then perhaps we can also see the way in which those objects’ objections would participate in the act of composing,” ways we might subjectively assume parapraxes as inventive rhetorical potentials.

…See You Next Fail

It would make sense to me to be a positive person to make it a positive person to do it to the end and then I have to go see y’all next week… What in the world wide web is happening here? This repetitious nonsense provides the clearest demonstration yet of the digital unconscious in all its idiosyncrasy. Assign the following prompt and results will vary, a failure of reproducibility that underscores the essence of the digital unconscious: Ask students to type “It would make sense” on their smartphones, following the phrase with only the predictive keyboard’s suggestions. In my own classroom, I encourage students to practice this as a technique for invention whenever they feel stuck for ideas or hit a writer’s block. What non-sequiturs and neoterisms appear will be peculiar to each phone and person—as with “y’all” above, which is more characteristic of someone from Austin than from Boston—indicative of an individualized digital unconscious blurring ontological boundaries between technology and rhetor. Like updated free association, the aim of these false starts and half conclusions is not to draw out some repressed true consciousness but to open up writing to its extimate interrelationship with the Other. If identifying the unconscious Symbolic lies at the start of analysis, then the end, at least for Lacan, is a matter of learning what to do/how to deal with this newfound underground knowledge. In that, psychoanalysis seeks no more to curb or cure symptomatic slips so they disappear than dream interpretation works to rid analysands of their dreams. Rather, a Lacanian approach reframes parapraxes as indispensable, inventive formations conferring “on the subject its very ontological consistency” (Žižek, Enjoy Your Symptom! 155). Through playful heuristics that incorporate rather than repress typos, autocorrections, predictive text, and the like, instructors can open rhetoric anew to the Other of the digital unconscious and so turn away from a typical humanist pedagogy that seeks to correct and castigate student writing instead of reading it for creative potential.

Laying bare the ver-ious displacements of the digital unconscious, parapraxes draw attention to the unknown symbolic knowledge that grounds every affective constraint, desire, and signification. Rather than perceiving misfires as nuisances needing rectification—as bugs rather than constitutive features as such—rhetoricians might regard digital slips as proffering unexpected avenues for expression that turn and tune writing toward the Other. Like Ulmer’s puncept, itself informed by Lacan’s formulation of unconscious enjoyment, parapraxes have the possibility of becoming “the philosopheme of a new cognition” that redefines the “relation between and among thought, language[,] and writing” (16566). Lacan and Ulmer both look to James Joyce’s wordplay (especially Finnegans Wake, which prima facie contains a typo in its title) as exemplifying an alternative rhetorical practice founded on slips and lapses that sets signifiers free “to generate conceptual material mechanically” (Ulmer 182, emphasis in original)—and in the digital update from puncept to parapraxes, a further mechanization of misfires begets further conceptual generation and rhetorical possibility. As an inventional technique, identifying with and enjoying digital symptoms can work to counteract conventional rhetorical presuppositions about an autonomous and complete authorial self; instead, we might begin to understand (verstehen!) Freudian typos and the like as ways to embrace an ontological condition of extimacy revealed by the digital unconscious.

Tracing the dynamics of an extimate digitality remains imperative for thinking through what novel possibilities might arise for contemporary rhetorical subjects, who are always already grounded by a digital unconscious. Reframing parapraxes encourages a radical response-ability and openness to the extimate Other-inside-me, a compositional practice that engages constitutive contradictions in order to find/found shared rhetorical agency. By writing in ways that rely on rupture rather than repression and treating typos not as mistakes but possibilities, a parapraxial rhetoric would allow the digital unconscious to “show itself now and again so that we remember how intricately it is threaded through our composing activities,” and thereby “flatten the universe of being” (Brown and Rivers 223–24). Faced with student writing peppered red with spellcheck squiggles, littered with misplaced letters and Freudian typos, we can upset the hierarchies of conventional humanist pedagogies when we begin to recognize that in rhetoric, it(’)s always a matter of the Other.



My very special thanks to Joshua Gunn, Diane Davis, Casey Boyle, my anonymous reviewers, and especially to Laurie Gries for all the generosity, insight, and patience they showed me, without which this project would itself be little more than a misfire.

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