Thursday, May 30, 2019
The Cybernetic Plot of Ulysses :: Ulysses
The Cybernetic Plot of Ulysses A paper delivered at the CALIFORNIA JOYCE conference (6/30/93) To quote the opening of Norbert Wieners address on Cybernetics to theAmerican Academy of Arts and Sciences in March of 1950, The wordcybernetics has been taken from the Greek word kubernitiz (ky-ber-NEE-tis)meaning steersman. It has been invented because there is not in theliterature any sufficient term describing the general study of communicationand the related study of control in both machines and in living beings. In this paper, I mean by cybernetics those activities and ideas that haveto do with the sending, carrying, and receiving of breeding. My thesisis that there is a cybernetic plot to ULYSSES -- a constellation ormeaningful pattern to the novels many images of people sending, carrying,and receiving -- or distorting, or losing -- signals of varying import andvalue. This plot -- the plot of signals that are launched on perilousOdyssean journeys, and that reach home, if they do, on ly through deviouspaths -- parallels and augments the novels more central journeys, itsdangers encountered, and its self-made returns. ULYSSES works ratherneatly as a cybernetic allegory, in fact, not only in its representedaction, but also in its history as a text. The book itself, that is, hasreached us only by a devious path around Cyclopean censors and the Scyllaand Charybdis of pirates and obtuse editors and publishers. ULYSSES bothretells and re-enacts, that is, the Odyssean journey of information that,once sent, is threatened and nearly thwarted before it is finally received.We are talking, of course, of cybernetics avant la lettre -- before NorbertWiener and others had coined the term. But like Molieres Monsieur Jourdaindiscovering that all along hes been mouth prose, so Leopold Bloom mightdelight in learning that he is actually quite a proficient cyberneticist.Joyce made his protagonist an advertizing headcounter at the moment whenadvertizing had just entered the modern age. Blooms job is to put hisclients messages into forms that are digestible by the mass medium of thepress. If Bloom shows up in the National Library, for instance, it will beto find a logo (in what we would call clip art) for his client AlexanderKeyes. The conduct of spirit through space and epoch is what communications about.And James Joyce was interested, as we know, in the conduct of spirit hisown, that of his home town, and that of his species. Once theyre sent, what are some of the things that can happen to messages?