Lydia H. Liu


On her book The Freudian Robot: Digital Media and the Future of the Unconscious

Cover Interview of June 13, 2011

The wide angle

As someone who trained in comparative literature, I have been taught to focus on literary text and ignore science and technology.  I was among the first generation of graduate students in the United States to write seminar papers on a personal computer in the late 1980s.  Still it took me several decades to discover that mathematician Claude Shannon—the pioneer of information theory—read his James Joyce and, above all else, Finnegans Wake!

I was also surprised to discover that Shannon invented a 27th letter for the English alphabet—the letter “space”— and created what he terms “Printed English” in 1948 to revolutionize communication technologies.  The addition of the letter “space” has transformed English writing into a statistical system of symbols.  Our good old English has become ideographic through Shannon’s mathematical work.  Yes, ideographic, rather than phonetic.

A friend once asked if my interest in statistical, ideographical English was due to a bilingual background in Chinese and English.  Now that I look back on it, bilingualism may have played a role.  If anything, my knowledge of Chinese writing—which is ideographic as well as phonetic—would have sensitized me to the presence of ideographic elements. For example, I would never confuse a phonetic representation—a written symbol—with speech sound.  In any case, only ideographic symbols can serve as universal symbols, hence the preferred system in digital writing.  What is digital writing?  It is a system of discrete ideographic symbols—numerals or letters—that can be recognized and processed by the computing machine.  In the book, I argue that ideographical Printed English is the foundation of digital writing.

What is a universal discrete symbol?  How do such symbols work across digital media?  These questions are central to my study because the manipulation of written symbols—not language, as is commonly believed—is what makes the computer tick.  Those who study digital media are already familiar with the technical aspect of how a machine processes symbols, since symbol processing is all that a computer does and does well.

But this understanding is too narrow and too limited.  I wanted to show that the earlier avant-garde literary experiments with alphabetical writing and the word-association games of psychoanalysis also contributed significantly to the making of digital media.

For instance, Finnegans Wake was susceptible to Shannon’s treatment as a statistical system because Joyce had already engineered his experimental work as a mathematical construct.  And Joyce was the first to coin “iSpace” in Finnegans Wake, a curious ideograph that anticipated “iPod,” “iPhone,” and many other such novelties by many decades.

On the psychoanalytical front, Carl Jung’s word association games very popular around 1900 were adopted by Shannon and other cognitive scientists to ascertain the unconscious structure of language.  The convergence of literary modernism, mathematics, and psychoanalysis in digital media not only alters the threshold of sense and nonsense for the mind but also compels a new understanding of human-machine interplay at the level of the unconscious.

In researching for this book, I was greatly intrigued by the political history of digital writing. It may not be self-evident that cybernetics, information theory, game theory and AI all bear the imprints of Cold War ideology. Computer simulation, cognitive modeling, and Operations Research are but part of a larger story which other scholars have explored extensively. My own research is focused on the rise of structuralism and poststructuralism in the social sciences and humanities in connection with Cold-War sciences.

This research has changed my views on how structuralism and poststructuralism came about during the Cold War.  I tried to address the following: Why was Roman Jakobson eager to import Shannon’s mathematical theory of communication into linguistics?  To what extent was Derrida’s project of grammatology inspired by the cybernetic revolution?  Why did Lacan find game theory particularly relevant to his reading of Poe’s story “The Purloined Letter”?

In short, my book is intended to bring Lacan back into conversation with Von Neumann, Claude Shannon with James Joyce, Marvin Minsky with Freud, and so on.  I wanted to document significant meetings of minds to show that the development of scientific theories and social sciences spanned across many disciplines during the Cold War.