Lydia H. Liu, The Freudian Robot

Lydia H. Liu, The Freudian Robot: Digital Media and the Future of the Unconscious (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 302pp. £15.50 pb. ISBN 978-0-226-48683-3.

What is the most powerful and widespread language in the world today? Is it English? Mandarin? Lydia Liu would probably argue that it is not one specific tongue, but the fundamental notion that language is a kind of information rather than a means of communication between people. Today, the common language that unites us is what she terms a “postphonetic” system: letters no longer signify the spoken word, but rather encode a measurable quantity of information according to a mathematical theory of communication. This idea of language as information underpins molecular biology, communication systems, computation, neuroscience, and thereby influences every aspect of our globalised world today, from computers to our understanding of our minds and bodies.

There have, of course, been many studies within the history and philosophy of science looking at the significance of the metaphor of “language” in the development of knowledge in biology, neuroscience, information theory, and so on. Liu is more interested, though, in the root idea: how did this certain, flexible idea of the printed symbol as a kind of information emerge so that it could then become the “shared code of inscription” across so many disciplines in the post-War period, from psychology to cybernetics to literary theory (31)?

Her uncovering of this area takes her (among many other things) into Jakobson’s linguistics, the Macy group’s various views of information theory, Derrida’s reading of Finnegan’s Wake, C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards’s Basic English and, most extensively, to Lacan and his hitherto unnoticed interest in cybernetics. Although couched in different ways, the information theory of language became the basic principle, the new kind of alphabet, of a broad variety of disciplines.
By extension from this, our notion of the human must also have changed radically. Although the information revolution is commonly compared to the industrial one, its effects are more fundamental than this: if we are creatures of genetic writing, thinkers in computational language, so Liu argues it can only be comparable to the discovery of writing itself, which was essential to the advent of civilization. Far from being a science that passively explains the human, cybernetics simultaneously changes our notion of what it is to be human in the first place.
Again, this is not a new observation in itself. The simile that likens the human brain to a massively interconnected computer is by now well-established, whilst plenty of prophets have lined up to celebrate or – most often from literary humanists – denounce the way in which cybernetic ideas or technologies are manipulating our nature. However, Liu contends that there are “good reasons for the humanist to get acquainted at least with what the scientist has done with our concepts of language, writing, and symbolic code at a level that goes deeper than the instrumentalization of reason” (252). The depth here is in particular that which belongs to the unconscious in the human-cybernetic interface. If computer scientists are allegedly interested in rational (computational) thought, why did engineers at Bell Laboratories take a special interest in schizophrenia, speculating about the random processes of the human mind? Is it not odd that Shannon’s mathematical information theory drew upon one of the least predictable modernist works, Finnegan’s Wake? How did cybernetics affect Lacan’s thinking about the unconscious? Why is it that the post-War cyberneticists and psychologists alike moved away from the Enlightenment model of rational man, to think of the human as something analogous to a “Freudian robot,” driven by impulses and stochastic processes of thought and language? Liu re-situates cybernetics within a psychoanalytic framework whereby the “unspoken assumption behind [the cybernetic] approach to alphabetical writing is that the mind is a psychic machine subject to chance, error, and repetition automatism” (44).

Liu’s overall thesis suggests that it was the crossbreeding of ideas from literary, psychoanalytic and scientific experiments that permitted a flexible notion of language as information to translate across the disciplines. However, this notion of language was not rational and mathematical, as conventional interpretations of information theory suggest; rather, cyberneticists struggled to develop a theory of language to describe and model human minds that express themselves in ways that are unpredictable, aleatory, chaotic: the Freudian unconscious, in other words. Reciprocally, this explains why we – creatures of the unconscious – find virtual and robotic representations of our selves so unsettling, similar but different: the Freudian uncanny, in other words.

This complex interrelationship emerges more as a patchwork than as a continuous thread from a monograph that is sometimes bewilderingly multidisciplinary. Liu’s connections between fields or thinkers are not always presented clearly, and her chapter subsections make some disorientating leaps across different areas of knowledge and different moments in the development of cybernetics, psychoanalysis, literary modernism. This  is a theoretical work that makes no apologies for being difficult. Although Liu does summarise key scientific and literary theories, she does not pander to popular science, whilst the literary-theoretical aspects are heady with postmodern thinking and terminology. Her broad pattern, then, only emerges via some knotty theory and some bewildering loops from one topic to another. Readers from literary studies should probably approach this book only if they are already familiar with structuralist and linguistic concepts, and know their phonemes from their morphemes, ideographs from pictographs, signifiers from signifieds. Some familiarity with the core cybernetic concepts would also likely be useful (N. Katharine Hayles’ Writing Machines, F. Scott Dupuy’s The Mechanization of the Mind, Margaret Boden’s Mind as Machine might be good places to start).

Having said this, the book’s patchwork form does mean that readers can also dip into some specific areas without having to take the book as a whole. Liu’s discussion of Derrida’s reading of Finnegan’s Wake might well be interesting simply to Joyce scholars; her coverage of the post-War cyberneticists at the Macy conferences should be helpful to those looking at the history of the science; in what is perhaps her most accessible chapter, she intriguingly resituates Freud and Jentsch’s disputed reading of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “Der Sandmann” in relation to modern ideas in robotics, thus developing a new twist on a short story that is a common touchstone for scholars working between cybernetics and literature.

More generally, to those working in cybernetics and psychoanalysis, literary theory or linguistics, this book offers some valuable insights. It takes us beyond mainstream thinking about cybernetics and society which focuses on the computer-like brain, the genetically-coded body, and the rational mind; instead it looks beneath the surface at how cybernetics changes our attitudes to the unconscious self, and the languages we use in the struggle to express and explain it.

Alistair Brown, Durham University