Lydia H. Liu


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

Cover Interview of June 13, 2011

A close-up

Are we turning into Freudian robots anytime soon?

This is a question I was greatly tempted to put to a psychoanalyst.  It turns out that French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan showed a keen interest in the logic of the human psyche as proposed by cyberneticians and tried to reinterpret Freud in that light.  In one of my chapters, I singled him out for analysis and hoped that his insight would help answer the above question (pp.153-199).  It is interesting that Lacan did not come up with the notion of the Symbolic Order until after he had been exposed to the cybernetic hypothesis about the logic of the human psyche.

Strangely, Lacan’s engagement with game theory and cybernetics in the mid-1950s has remained hidden in plain sight.  And this oversight is largely responsible for many of the misleading interpretations of his theory.  It also prevents us from reflecting on the reception of American cybernetics in France.  I spent a lot of time researching how Lacan was first introduced to cybernetics and game theory and published the results in an article called “The Cybernetic Unconscious” in Critical Inquiry in spring 2010.  That article was subsequently elaborated and turned into a chapter of the book.

In that chapter, I point out that the transatlantic invention of French literary theory, and the translation of Lacan in particular during the 1950s and 60s has succeeded in obscuring the vital historical linkages between game theory, cybernetics, and information theory on the one hand and French literary and social theories on the other.

I see this as a kind of blindness in the play of mirrors between postwar France and America.  As a matter of fact, Lacan’s own seminars of 1954-55 provide clear evidence that the French psychoanalyst looked upon cybernetics and information theory as an alternative intellectual framework—alternative to French Hegelianism—for rethinking Freud, especially his notion of the unconscious.  Lacan tried very hard to get away from the philosophy of consciousness in all its incarnations from his time.

But why should we be concerned with the work of Lacan in a study of the Freudian robot?  Well, we need to remember that the spectacular developments in cybernetics and cognitive sciences in the latter part of the 20th century were all driven by the assumption that the logic of the computing machine was isomorphic with the logic of the human psyche.  This assumption comes originally from a hypothesis in the pioneering work of first-generation cybernetians Warren McCulloch and Walter Pitts. Lacan was not only attracted to this hypothesis but also attempted to develop the idea of the unconscious from this unique angle.

People say that Lacan’s Symbolic Order is all about language.  Yes, and no, that is to say, if we take his idea of language not in a Saussurian sense—as is commonly asserted—but in a cybernetic sense or in the language of cybernetic machines as my book has tried to make clear—then I think we are getting a bit closer to what he means by language.

Lacan calls the computer “a calculating machine” and says that this machine can be “far more dangerous for man than the atom bomb.”  This enigmatic remark compresses some of his most important insights on the unconscious and the Symbolic Order. I believe that Lacan contribution in this area—which I try to spell out for him since he did not do so himself—lies in what he can tell us about the cybernetic unconscious of the postwar Euro-American world order.  That was his genius.  The birth of the Freudian robot cannot be thought independently of the postwar Anglo-American world order.

Unfortunately, we have not been able to escape that world order after Lacan’s passing and after the Cold War.  Today, theoretical discourses devolve into all kinds of loose descriptive pronouncements about globalization, if not glib postmodern rhetoric.  But there are compelling reasons for us to once again engage with Lacan’s hard won insights and make them relevant to future thought.