Melancholic Media by Hannah Zeavin

21 Oct, 2022

Melancholic Media by Hannah Zeavin

Hannah Zeavin published "Melancholic media: virtual reality, traumatic loss, and magic" in Media, Culture, & Society. This essay concerns itself with the status of ‘melancholic media’, or digital objects in psychic life after trauma on the grounds of three very different cases: Replika (a chatbot with avatar), Deep Nostalgia (the reanimating of family photographs), and Not the Only One (a noncommercial virtual agent). If for Freud, trauma is more than mind can endure; these surrogates both suggest concretization that which is being endured. Instead of directly confronting trauma and its overwhelm, these users might omnipotently reproduce a literal figure of their loss. Rather than examining these human and non-human interactions via the lens of the uncanny, she will return to the status of objects as melancholic media to think about psychic states in relationship to trauma and its multi-temporal aftermath. she troubles what these digital partial revivifications might do to and for psyches.

From the essay:

"Consider Replika, one iteration of the timeless imaginary internal object sent out from the psyche and represenced as an AI companion. Replika is a bot derived from a neural net, thus it learns its user, and, well, replicates them. That is, if the library of conversational data is supplied is of that user. The bot is positioned as a mental health companion, developed ostensibly to stem the tide of human loneliness frequently associated with the information age. In practice, the service is an avatar for an algorithm which engages users on their laptops or phones and presents as a customizable AI agent. Users can change the likeness, pronouns, and name of their Replika. It can therefore look more like oneself or less, be named the same name as a user, or that of whomever they are trying to conjure. But Replika is also a game. One earns experience points the more one chats with the agent, levels up, and so on. The Replika’s feelings are represented not only in the chat, but in a diary – which its user can read (if they choose). And of course, almost all users are chatting with an AI trained on their own vocabulary, creating a closed circuit of self-engagement and care, what I elsewhere call an ‘auto-intimate’ encounter."

To read the full article, please visit here.