Jill LeVine




How human-machine relationships can be rethought at the level of the unconscious

Cover Interview of

In a nutshell

I wrote this book to ask some new questions about our relationship to modern technology. As the world is constantly being changed by new technological inventions, what is the psychic impact of these changes on people as individuals and collectives? I am referring to the kind of social transformations that used to take centuries to develop but now accelerate by leaps and bounds in a person’s lifetime.

Of course, I am not the first to raise these issues; critics have been concerned about human-machine relationship for decades. What interests me here is the emergence of Freudian robots in our time.

I devote a chapter to analyzing the psychic implications of artificial intelligence and robotics—such as the work of AI scientist Marvin Minsky. Robot designers have been promoting the science fiction of cyborgs, androids, and humanoids and want their robots to resemble human beings not only in basic cognitive and motor abilities but also in the unconscious, complete with neurosis, ego, superego and whatnot.

I am fascinated by this unreflective narcissism and am worried about its destructive potential in the future.

I think the reader will find the work of Japanese robot engineer Masahiro Mori intriguing. Mori is known for his theory of “the Uncanny Valley” in the AI industry and he happens to share my criticism of the narcissism of current robot models.

Mori read his Freud for critical insight. His idea of a Buddha robot appears to present an alternative to the Freudian robot, but no one has yet attempted to build a model of the Buddha robot. What would it look like? Will it be easier for machines to achieve Buddhahood than for humans? Essentially, we need to face some larger questions concerning the received notion of humanness and its limits. That notion, I argue, is being fundamentally challenged by the appearance of Freudian robots.

What is a Freudian robot? I define the Freudian robot as “any networked being who embodies the feedback loop of human-machine simulacra and cannot free her/him/itself from the cybernetic unconscious.”

Call it a cyborg, android, or posthuman, the lines between robots and humans are getting increasingly blurred. Just as robots are built to resemble humans more and more closely, humans think and behave more and more like robots. I believe this can tell us something about our co-evolution with the technologies we invent and, ultimately, what human civilization is all about.

“James Joyce was the first to coin ‘iSpace,’ a curious ideograph that anticipated ‘iPod,’ ‘iPhone,’ and many other such novelties by many decades.”

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.

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.

“Claude Shannon invented a 27th letter for the English alphabet—the letter ‘space.’ 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.”


The narrowness of academic literary training tends to blind us to some of the most important inventions not only in communication technologies but in the evolution of alphabetical writing. Literary scholars work with written texts—even those who study oral literature cannot do without textual inscriptions—yet many of us remain ignorant of what scientists have done to the idea of alphabetical writing.

To reeducate myself, I looked into the cross-disciplinary evolution of written symbols, especially English writing, and its relation to digital writing. I hope that teachers and students in the humanities and social sciences will read The Freudian Robot and experience a similar kind of reeducation as I did in the writing of this book.

New media studies attract a great deal of attention these days both in academia and among the general public. A common perception there is that psychoanalysis has little to do with digital media and that digital media have nothing to do with psychoanalysis.

I believe I offer in this book indisputable evidence that digital media and psychoanalysis have been mutually entangled from the very beginning.

The pivot of that entanglement is the changing identity and role of language and writing after alphabetical writing made an ideographic turn in the mid-twentieth century. This raises the fundamental question of how human-machine relationships can be rethought at the level of the unconscious. And this is where a comparative and cross-disciplinary approach proves necessary and particularly fruitful.

The reader may judge this book by its cover. I love the Dadaist image by Raoul Hausmann—one of my favorite Dadaists who lived in a time when avant-garde art and politics enjoyed a meaningful relationship. Hausmann’s original installation was called The Mechanical Head: The Spirit of Our Age. It mesmerized me when I first encountered it in a museum exhibition, and I could not think of a better metaphor for the image of the Freudian Robot.

© 2011 Lydia Liu
Lydia H. Liu The Freudian Robot: Digital Media and the Future of the Unconscious University of Chicago Press 320 pages, 6 x 9 inches ISBN 978 0226486826 ISBN 978 0226486833
Jill LeVine

Lydia H. Liu is a theorist of media and translingual practices and a scholar of modern Chinese literature and culture. She is the W. T. Tam Professor in the Humanities in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures and at the Institute of Comparative Literature and Society at Columbia University. Besides The Freudian Robot, featured in her Rorotoko interview, she is the author of The Clash of Empires: The Invention of China in Modern World Making (2004), Translingual Practice: Literature, National Culture, and Translated Modernity (1995) and other works in English and Chinese.

Cover Interview of
June 13, 2011