The Freudian Robot: Digital Media and the Future of the Unconscious

The Freudian Robot: Digital Media and the Future of the Unconscious

by Lydia H. Liu

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The identity and role of writing has evolved in the age of digital media. But how did writing itself make digital media possible in the first place? Lydia H. Liu offers here the first rigorous study of the political history of digital writing and its fateful entanglement with the Freudian unconscious.

Liu’s innovative analysis brings the work of theorists and writers back into conversation with one another to document significant meetings of minds and disciplines. She shows how the earlier avant-garde literary experiments with alphabetical writing and the word-association games of psychoanalysis contributed to the mathematical making of digital media. Such intellectual convergence, she argues, completed the transformation of alphabetical writing into the postphonetic, ideographic system of digital media, which not only altered the threshold of sense and nonsense in communication processes but also compelled a new understanding of human-machine interplay at the level of the unconscious.

Ranging across information theory, cybernetics, modernism, literary theory, neurotic machines, and psychoanalysis, The Freudian Robot rewrites the history of digital media and the literary theory of the twentieth century.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226486840
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 05/23/2011
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 320
File size: 7 MB

About the Author

Lydia H. Liu is W. T. Tam Professor in the Humanities in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures and Director of Graduate Studies at the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society at Columbia University. She is the author or editor of seven books in English and Chinese, including, most recently The Clash of Empires: The Invention of China in Modern World Making.

Read an Excerpt

The Freudian Robot

Digital Media and the Future of the Unconscious

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2010 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-48682-6

Chapter One

Where Is the Writing of Digital Media?

The two images, sound and visual, enter into complex relations with neither subordination nor commensurability, and reach a common limit insofar as each reaches its own limit. In all these senses, the new spiritual automatism in turn refers to new psychological automata.

Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image

It is reasonable and convenient to assume that the digital media have the power to transform our ideas about writing, language, memory, consciousness, and social reality. The vast majority of scholarly studies and popular literature on new media readily prove the point. An equally reasonable but much more difficult task is to suspend that assumption for the moment and reflect on how the identity and role of writing itself has evolved significantly enough to make the invention of digital media possible in the first place. This chapter attempts the task by investigating the situation of writing in the digital revolution.

I have set out to document and interpret the remarkable evolution of alphabetical writing that took place at the crossroads of literature and science and has profoundly impacted both. This evolution has brought about the new media as we know them today just as much as it had inspired literary modernism in the early decades of the twentieth century. Bearing in mind how alphabetical writing has become the symbolic sine qua non of both the literary medium and the mathematical medium in many regions of the world, we will explore how the transformation of this writing in recent history—what I mean by "writing" should not to be lumped together with "language" as a category or with any particular vernacular language—has led to the invention of digital media and furthermore to a contemporary civilization that theorists have variously characterized as postmodern, postindustrial, late capitalist, and so on. The question in the chapter title "where is the writing of digital media?" invites a critical examination of digital media and of what Deleuze grasped tentatively as "the new spiritual automatism." I hope that this approach will help open up some new avenues of research and understanding with respect to the social and psychic makeup of contemporary digital technology.

There is no simple answer to the question of where one is likely to encounter the writing of digital media. Is it in the hardware or the software of the computer? Is it in the "hardware" of the brain or the "software" of the mind? To raise these questions is to place a new demand on our knowledge of the role and identity of writing in relation to machine and to have a new understanding of digital media itself. The priority of the notion of writing does not imply an exercise in idealist speculation; on the contrary, the book begins by taking into full consideration a shared understanding among archaeologists and historians that writing was invented, first and foremost, as a material technology and that it has been one of the oldest surviving technologies we still practice. In fact, the technological essence of writing has turned out to be much more resilient in the making and dissemination of knowledge and information than the much touted powers of phonetic symbolism attributed by linguists and others to alphabetical and some nonalphabetical systems of writing. What is ultimately at stake—and what therefore must greatly concern us here—is none other than the changing face and psyche of civilization itself.

We begin, therefore, by questioning how the (world) civilization is doing these days. Is the future of a new spiritual automatism already in sight? Neither the description of the modern or postmodern condition nor the charting of capitalist and postindustrial developments from one stage to the next can adequately explain how the digital revolution happened the way it did and why it is impacting our lives at such multiple levels. The time is therefore ripe to reengage the notion of civilization and examine one of its most enduring and important technologies.

Why Civilization Matters

Civilization is unthinkable without writing. This common sense is best captured by the characters wenming [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Japanese pronunciation: bunmei), which the Chinese and Japanese—who share this transgraphic script but not each other's language—have adopted to translate "civilization." These two characters mean literally "illumination through written text(s)" or, literally, "text shines forth." For a visual approximation of the same idea in today's mass media, let us consider the shimmering digits and codes that famously race across the opening frames of the film The Matrix. Symptomatically, the computer screen in that film shows no boundaries, as "a blinking cursor pulses in the electric darkness like a heart coursing with phosphorous light, burning beneath the derma of black-neon glass. The entire screen fills with racing columns of numbers. Shimmering like green-electric rivers, they rush at a 10 digit phone number in the top corner." These racing columns of numbers appear to redraw the boundaries of nature and civilization and make them both new and strangely familiar. Over the past century, this notion of writing has expanded into all areas of knowledge and is even invading previously unknown areas of scientific research and technology to help "illuminate" genetic engineering, cybernetics, neuroscience, and so on.

Inasmuch as writing has been the oldest and one of the most enduring technologies we know, the characters wenming [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] assert the technological core of civilization more manifestly than does the Latin root of the English word "civilization," since the former puts emphasis on the wen or "written text." Keeping these cross-cultural references in the back of our minds, we may now embark on our course of discovery to find out how the technology of writing has evolved to become what it is for digital media. What philosophical truths does this changing technology deliver to help us make sense of the digital revolution? By the same token, will the digital revolution throw new light on the theory of writing?

Bernard Stiegler remarks: "The informatization of knowledge is only possible because informatics, as a technique for recording, reading, and diffusing of information, is a kind of writing." This is true, but we must press further and ask what kind of writing. From clay tablets to microchips, the technology of writing has always involved at least a twofold physiological process of preparing material surfaces on which signs or codes are to be inscribed and of coordinating the human motor skills (or prosthetic robot arms) required for making the inscription. This does not mean that writing is necessarily a visual medium, and in fact our common view of writing as an arrangement of visual signs on a surface can be very limiting. For instance, the six-dot matrix of marks known as Braille is one of the formal mechanisms that rely on spatial rather than visual arrangement. Moreover, this book demonstrates that writing has been entangled with numerical symbols since its early invention, and traces of their co-origination are easier to document than any particular visual representation of early speech across ancient civilizations. With the arrival of informatics and computer technology, writing has further penetrated the biomechanics of human speech to such an extent that sound (including speech) becomes a translation of text or an artifact of AI engineering—a notable example being TTS (text to speech) synthesis—rather than a visual representation of speech. What we need today is a global and integrated concept of writing that is simultaneously historical and theoretical to guide us toward a richer knowledge of these extraordinary processes. And for good reason, we also need to incorporate numerical thinking and discrete analysis into the theory of writing, especially with respect to alphabetical writing systems.

Postmodernity and New Media

Scholars of postmodernity have provided comprehensive analyses of the ways in which postwar socioeconomic developments and information technology have transformed advanced societies in late capitalism. One of the hallmarks of such transformation they point to is the storage and retrieval of a colossal amount of electronic information, including digitized written and printed records, in data banks, libraries, museums, archival centers, and global communication networks. From the time Jean-François Lyotard proposed the idea of "computerized society" in the 1970s to characterize the kinds of technological breakthroughs that were taking place in advanced societies, not only has the digital revolution happened and taken hold, but the momentum it generated has swept across every corner of the world and brought about the networked globe we inhabit today. The effect of the digital revolution upon social life has been variously compared to the introduction of the printing press or photography into early modern Europe but is widely acknowledged as being more powerful and irreversible than anything human society has experienced before. This is largely due to the fact that "the computer media revolution," in Lev Manovich's idiom, "affects all stages of communication, including acquisition, manipulation, storage, and distribution; it also affects all types of media—texts, still images, moving images, sound, and spatial constructions." These totalizing and universalizing processes indicate how much the technology of writing has developed to reshape modern life and the future of humanity with vast implications for planetary and interplanetary ecology.

Reflecting on the history of digital technology, Manovich, the author of The Language of New Media, shows us that the outcomes of these accelerated developments over the past few decades actually represent the convergence of two separate trajectories. One trajectory concerns the invention of the modern digital computer that performs calculations on numerical data faster than the mechanical tabulators and calculators it has replaced. The other involves modern media technologies that allow images, image sequences, sounds, and text to be stored on photographic plates, film stocks, gramophone records, and so on. The effective synthesis of these developments has led to the translation of all existing media into numerical data accessible through computers. The outcome is the new media through which graphics, moving images, sounds, waves, shapes, spaces, and texts all become computable at the digital level. Manovich identifies five principles whereby the new media organize these computable data. These are numerical representation, modularity, automation, variability, and cultural transcoding (20). All five principles undoubtedly bear on the central aspects of digital media examined in this book, and a number of them are also shared by writing and print media in general. The first principle—numerical representation—receives special attention in this chapter because it implies the indispensible notion of "discrete unit," which has provided the universal conceptual basis for digital technology.

In mathematics, a discrete unit is considered indivisible and is opposed to the continuous. A thing, an individual, or a symbol may qualify as a discrete unit when that unit cannot be further divided without losing its identity. Individuals are treated as discrete units by population census and are computed as data in that sense, but continuous lengths or waves must first be converted into discrete units, such as time series, to be computed in digits. For the purpose of the machine's processing of symbols, printed letters and numerals are regarded as discrete units whereas handwritten symbols are not, such as the letter B on the left (Fig. 1). A detailed discussion of this technical distinction and other distinctions in chapter 2 should help clarify the importance of this theoretical point.

One question that the numerical principle of digital media has raised for us is why modern media technologies must rely on discrete units in order to generate data. Manovich alludes to a number of historical circumstances such as the Industrial Revolution, the assembly line, the standardization of types and fonts in the publishing industry, the standardization of image dimension and temporary sampling rate in cinema, and so on. These are undoubtedly important dimensions but the numerical representation of discrete units also involves a certain kind of abstract thinking and algorithmic manipulation that needs to be explained as well. Interestingly, instead of going to modern mathematics for an answer, Manovich turns his attention to semiotic theory and the human language as a natural ground for discrete analysis, the evidence being that we speak in sentences and a sentence is made up of words and a word consists of morphemes, etc. Roland Barthes's definition of language is cited to show that "language is, as it were, that which divides reality (for instance, the continuous spectrum of the colors is verbally reduced to a series of discontinuous terms)." After setting up the parallel between language and digital media, Manovich quickly adds that "the discrete units of modern media are usually not units of meanings in the way morphemes are" (29). Namely, the difference lies in the perceived disjuncture between symbol and meaning. Chapter 3 addresses the question of symbol and meaning in digital media, since the identity of discrete unit is the focus here. Note that Manovich's conceptualization of the discrete leaves "writing" out of the picture, and what he says about language and linguistic representation cannot but get him into a certain philosophical quandary: if language is made up of units of meaning that divide reality—a hypothesis more often asserted than proven—what reality or unreality do the discrete symbols of digital media divide?

It is well known that the study of phonemes—more so than morphemes—has been the strong suit of structural linguistics in its approach to discrete analysis. Structural linguists have introduced elaborate distinctions among the sound units and phonemes of various languages and have routinely relied on written alphabetical symbols to measure discrete units. These linguistic studies, as Jacques Derrida and others have noted, are premised upon the unacknowledged mental slippage between writing and language—for example, when the theorist mistakes written alphabetical letters for speech sounds. It is this metaphysical slippage, rather than the ineffable morpheme or units of meaning as Manovich has contended, that troubles the linguistic understanding of digital code and discrete analysis.

There is one more reason why language itself cannot properly ground a theoretical or historical understanding of discrete units for new media. For we no longer have at our disposal a pure linguistic theory or semiotic theory across the humanistic disciplines that remains untouched by information theory or long-distance communication technologies. Barthes's semiology and Jakobson's linguistics were both historical responses—successful or unsuccessful—to the pressures of information theory as each tried to refigure language and semiotic behavior in general on the model of a communication machine. Series, division, discontinuity, and so on put Barthes and Jakobson in the company of their fellow structural linguists and philosophers who never tried to hide the fact that their semiotic view of language was specifically indebted to information theory. The same can be said of the other major figures of Structuralist or Poststructuralist persuasion in the twentieth century—Claude Lévi-Strauss, Julia Kristeva, Pierre Bourdieu, Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, and Jacques Lacan, to name a just few. We have no choice but to go back to the founding moments of information theory and cybernetics in postwar America and rediscover which symbols were figured as discrete units and which were not and reconsider how the communication machine began to dominate the theory of language and shape structural linguistics itself.

For example, when Michel Foucault conceptualized the identity and role of power across modern disciplinary regimes, he made a decisive methodological foray into cybernetics and the communication machine. Power is no longer viewed by him as an exercise of brute force or a source of homogeneous domination, nor does it separate those who have it and hold it exclusively from those who are subjected to it. Instead, Foucault writes:

Power must, I think, be analyzed as something that circulates, or rather as something that functions only when it is part of a chain. It is never localized here or there, it is never in the hands of some, and it is never appropriated in the way that wealth or a commodity can be appropriated. Power functions. Power is exercised through networks, and individuals do not simply circulate in those networks, they are in a position to both submit to and exercise this power. They are never the inert or consenting targets of power; they are always its relays. In other words, power passes through individuals. It is not applied to them. (my emphasis)


Excerpted from The Freudian Robot by LYDIA H. LIU Copyright © 2010 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Figures and Tables

INTRODUCTION: The Psychic Life of Digital Media

1 Where Is the Writing of Digital Media?
Why Civilization Matters
Postmodernity and New Media
Three Conceptual Lacunae
Fundamental Challenge to Literary Theory
The Techne of the Unconscious

2 The Invention of Printed English
How the English Alphabet Gained a New Letter
What Is Printed English?
The Genetic Code and Grammatology
The Ideographic Turn of the Phonetic Alphabet
The Number Game in the Empires of the Mind

3 Sense and Nonsense in the Psychic Machine
Finnegans Wake: A Hypermnesiac Machine?
iSpace: Joyce’s Paper Wounds
Schizoprenic Writing at Bell Labs
The Cybernetics Group
The Psychic Machine

4 The Cybernetic Unconscious
French Theory or American Theory?
Lacan Reading Poe: “The Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter’”
Les Jeux: Game and Play on the Symbolic Chain
The Cybernetic Unconscious
Return to Sender

5 The Freudian Robot
The Uncanny in the Automaton
The Psychic Life of Media
What Is the Medium of das Unheimliche?
The Uncanny Valley
The Neurotic Machine
Minsky and the Cognitive Unconscious

6 The Future of the Unconscious
The Missed Rendezvous between Critical Theory and Cybernetics
The Ideology Machine
Our Game with the Little “Letters” Works Cited

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