, Volume 21, Issue 2, pp 435–438

The fateful entanglements of psychoanalysis, cybernetics and digital media

Lydia H. Liu: The Freudian robot: Digital media and the future of the unconscious. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011, xi+302pp, $24.00 PB


    • Department of History and Philosophy of ScienceUniversity of Cambridge
Book Review

DOI: 10.1007/s11016-011-9570-0

Cite this article as:
Rocha, L.A. Metascience (2012) 21: 435. doi:10.1007/s11016-011-9570-0

In The Freudian robot, Lydia Liu analyses the links between psychoanalysis, cybernetics and digital media. This is a rich and dense, arresting and demanding, compelling and remarkable book. Every chapter contains enough research and provocative questions to furnish entire monographs. Liu sometimes seems to take for granted that her readers have read, if not fully understood, Freud, Lacan, Derrida, Jakobson, Habermas, Kittler and W.J.T. Mitchell, not to mention a good chunk of modernist literature and difficult scientific papers. The Freudian robot is thus an innovative and intoxicating mixture, rewarding to the reader but challenging to digest.

At the heart of Liu’s book is the “emergence of Freudian robots in the post-war Euro-American world order”, and “any networked being that embodies the feedback loop of human–machine simulacra and cannot free her/him/itself from the cybernetic unconscious is a Freudian robot” (p. 2). Liu wonders how machines that resembled humans came to be made and how humans are being conceptualised as machines and even compelled to imitate them, thus “keeping an infinite feedback loop of simulacra or doppelgänger in place” (p. 2). Liu is concerned with the following: (1) the entanglements of psychoanalysis, artificial intelligence, information theory and computer science and the migrations of the concept of the unconscious across these disciplines; these connections prompt the use of “Freudian robot” as a trope; (2) the interdisciplinary convergences that precipitated the “ideographic turn of alphabetical writing as the basis of a new universalism in the digital revolution” (p. 26); (3) the confrontation of the extent we can “assume that the unfolding of digital media makes the conditions of its own critique legible when the self-understanding of a civilisation is often limited by what it knows” (p. 29).

Chapter 1 is a “systematic scrutiny of many of our presuppositions about the mind, machine, language, writing, symbol processing and inscription technologies” (p. 12). Liu argues that, while it is reasonable “to assume that digital media have the power to transform our ideas about writing, language, memory, consciousness, and social reality”, it is more difficult to “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” (p. 15). She is not so much applying psychoanalytic theories to digital media; she suggests that psychoanalysis was always already involved in the making of digital media.

Chapter 2 explores the invention of Printed English and the twenty-seventh letter of the English alphabet—whitespace—by American mathematician Claude Shannon. Shannon’s influences included the Morse code, Markov chains and the Basic English of C.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards. Shannon approached language as a mathematical problem—the statistical laws that governed the production of letter sequences and the possibilities of designing efficient communication systems (p. 53). He “treated the phonetic alphabet as an ideographic system, not as a symbolic representation of speech” (p. 43), and his underlying assumption was that the human mind was a “psychic machine subject to chance, error, and repetition automatism” (p. 44). Shannon’s project allowed different scientific disciplines to “meet and cross one another’s boundaries” (p. 67). English alphabetical writing became “the shared code of inscription across the fields and disciplines of ‘world literature’, literary theory, mathematics, molecular biology, information theory, international law, and other regimes of desired and desirable knowledge” (p. 31).

Chapter 3 further demonstrates that information theory and Printed English are the “logical outcomes of the earlier crossbreeding of ideas in the literary, psychoanalytic, and scientific experiments” (p. 99). Liu concentrates on theories on sense and nonsense and discusses the cybernetic appropriations of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939). Liu compares these insights with those of Derrida, Lacan and other French theorists; their readings of Joyce were heavily influenced by these American scientists. She then tackles the history of the research conducted at Bell Labs and by attendees of the Macy Conferences (1946–1953), arguing that “Printed English arrived in the wake of Basic English and modernist ideographic experimentation to fulfil the mission of universal communication boldly envisioned by C.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards in the interwar years [… which] presupposes a universal psychic mechanism to guarantee its global reach” (p. 130). She ends with a reconsideration of Jung’s Studies in Word-Association (1904) and Freud’s Psychopathology in Everyday Life (1901). Psychoanalysis “haunted” cybernetics because the various games conceived by cyberneticians to investigate computable verse, music and schizophrenia “owed their existence to the psychic models developed by the first generation of psychoanalysts [… who] relied on their word-association games and automatic writing, which would later be associated with the work of the Surrealists, to compel random selections of written or linguistic symbols by the human subject” (p. 142).

Chapter 4 reveals that a great deal of so-called French theory was “already a translation of American theory before it landed in America to be reinvented as French theory” (p. 153). Liu makes a strong case that Lacan’s ideas in the mid-1950s, especially his reading of Poe’s “The Purloined Letter” (1844), make better sense in the context of the global travels of game theory and cybernetics. She points out that some major translations of French texts into English obscure the American cybernetic origins of the concepts that French thinkers invoke—“the roundtrip cycles of translation […] function like movie screens on which we sometimes project our fantasies and stories about transatlantic intellectual exchanges and displace the history of those exchanges” (p. 154).

Chapter 5 examines Ernst Jentsch’s reading of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Sandman” (1816) and Freud’s “vigorous repudiation” of Jentsch in his famous essay “The ‘Uncanny’” (1919). Liu finds similarities between Freud’s discussions of puppets, mannequins and automatons, and Jentsch’s argument that the uncanny arises from the “uncertainty between animate and inanimate” (p. 207). From this Liu points to the “Uncanny Valley hypothesis”, which “speculated that as robots become progressively humanlike, our sense of empathy and familiarity increases until we come to the Uncanny Valley, and at this point the robots will start to elicit negative feelings in us” (p. 225). Liu ends this diverse chapter with discussions on computer programmes ELIZA and PARRY, as well as Marvin Minsky’s appropriation of Freud to “design machines that can do what human minds do” (p. 242). Throughout Liu argues for the continual importance of psychoanalysis in studies on the human–machine dynamic.

The conclusion addresses the “missed rendezvous between critical theory and cybernetics” (p. 250). In Computer Power and Human Reason (1976), Joseph Weizenbaum reflects on the limitations of computers and simulations, worrying that the “instrumentalisation of reason” (p. 249) will turn democracy into technocracy, and the impoverishment and instrumentalisation of language and discourse. On the other hand, the Frankfurt School and Jürgen Habermas have ignored “what the scientist has done with our concepts of language, writing, and symbolic code” (p. 252). Liu argues that Habermas’ theory of communicative action is “strangely archaic” (p. 263), because it fails to see that information technologies push “the philosophical consideration of sense and nonsense beyond the realms of semantics, speech act theory, theories of meaning, and all other theoretical models that are premised on face-to-face verbal communication” (p. 256). The conclusion on the need to go beyond the “inherited philosophical problems of consciousness and anthropocentrism” (p. 265) feels oddly unsatisfying. Liu rightly suggests that closure may not be “possible or necessary” (p. 265), but it is not clear, after her painstaking deconstruction, what the politics of the “Freudian robot” may be.

In the Introduction, Liu mentions Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto” (1991) and asserts that her Freudian robot “promises a firmer and more critical grasp of the precarious nature of our networked society” (p. 10). Liu argues that we need to “figure out what kinds of psychic and political transformation remain open and available to cybernetics and digital media” (p. 11), but the book ends abruptly with the recommendation of “public debate” (p. 265) without suggestions on what political projects may emerge. Liu emphasises that cybernetics and game theory were colluded with Cold War politics, and characterises these enterprises as part of an “imperial technoscience” (p. 12, p. 33, p. 75) or a “military-industrial-academic complex” (p. 71). Is the Freudian robot to be resisted? Or are we now all Freudian robots—tragic bastard-children of militarism and patriarchal capitalism à la Haraway? How does the figure of Freudian robot help us cope with the “digital revolution”? Sociologist Sherry Turkle illuminates our “networked selves”, our human–computer relationships and our hopes and anxieties as users of information technology in everyday life. Turkle’s work—curiously omitted in Liu’s book—will help formulate some kind of politics.

One noticeable problem of Liu’s book is the writing. In her previous works, even when she untangles difficult concepts and draws from very diverse sources, Liu’s style is always crisp and clear. In The Freudian robot, there are an unusual number of comments on what has been discussed or what will be argued in the following sections. These authorial interventions—no less than thirty in the first three chapters—end up being distracting. One may be tempted to say that Liu’s prose needed more editorial attention, but such criticism masks a serious point. Perhaps, Lydia Liu ends up showing the limitations and trappings of printed media. Liu’s story, and the way that she needs to narrate it, will benefit from being written in hypertext, which has already received critical attention from scholars such as N. Katherine Hayles. The hypertext will allow Liu to elucidate with ease the dense connections, complicated references, manifold intertextualities, multilingual (mis)translations, and the long-range networks of psychoanalysts, mathematicians, engineers, avant-garde artists and public intellectuals involved in the co-emergence of information technologies, a new “human–machine ecology” (p. 265), and so-called French theory. Liu wants us to “contemplate how to incorporate digital media effectively and rigorously into the social or critical theory of our time” (p. 265). Surely, it is timely to think hard about the presentation and dissemination of these cutting-edge insights.

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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011