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James Joyce
Louis Armand
SEMIOTIC MACHINES: JOYCE & PYNCHON

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The investigation of entropy, repetition and recursion has become a central feature of the study of language and technology over the last fifty years and more. Linked to the advent of cybernetics and a new species of “semiotic machines,” these investigations have given rise to a broadly procedure-driven understanding of discursive systems, according to which the institutions of twentieth century “art” and “literature” are viewed in something like a mechanical, autopoietic relation to themselves and to each other—between modernity and its revenance or reflection-effect in what is often referred to as postmodernism. At the same time, the impression conjured up by the term postmodern, of a type of historico-cultural surplus, points not only to the supplemental character of this reflexivity, but also to its investment in a certain surplus logic of the machine. In the commodity phase of late capitalism, the machine becomes the meta-symptom par excellence of an “excess of discourse,” of a generalised discursus interwoven—as Marx was first to acknowledge—with the “totalising” dissipative-inflationary operations of satire and farce. Consequently, the “periodicity” of the modern and postmodern may be viewed in something like statistical terms of recursion and what Henri Lefebvre has called “the idea of cyclical regularity of change, and of the change as a norm.”(1)

The question of modernity’s status in terms of an historical or discursive post-effect is linked to the problems of systemic paradox, ambivalence, and the recursive topology of interfaces that have come to characterise the ways in which such things as periodisation are regarded within a broadly discursive context, and in accordance with “modernism’s” critique of those ideologies of Enlightenment rationalism invested in a linear progressivist model of history. That such problems have commonly assumed a schematic form is only to be expected, and yet it is perhaps in the very radicalisation of this schematic tendency that modernity—itself something between schematised object and enigmatic signifier—achieves its most incisive formulation.

One writer whose work has had an enormous impact in this area is James Joyce. Joyce’s last completed work, Finnegans Wake, assembled over a period of seventeen years and published in 1941, has been widely cited as of key importance to the question of modernity and the claims of postmodernism. Responding to Joyce’s affinity with a long genealogy of social satirists—from Aristophanes and Apuleius to Swift, Rabelais and Cervantes—Marshall McLuhan recognised in Finnegans Wake a synthesis of historico-comedic form and discursive excess, at once encyclopaedic and atomistic. In his 1962 study The Guttenberg Galaxy—initially entitled “the Road to Finnegans Wake”—McLuhan expressed the view that Joyce was “making his own Altamira cave drawings of the entire history of the human mind, in terms of its basic gestures and postures during all phases of human culture and technology.(2) In particular, McLuhan—who was himself intent upon charting the “history of communication and technology as a history of writing”(3) —was responding to the echoes of Nietzsche’s concept of eternal recurrence and Vico’s cycles of historical recursion in Joyce’s text, in which historical and technological dimensions are combined in the mechanisms of inscription. As with Stéphane Mallarmé—whose radical exploration of typography in “Un Coup de Dés” prefigured the later concrete poetics of Guillaume Apollinaire and Augusto de Campos, as well as the later “concrete essays” of Le Corbusier, McLuhan himself, and others—Joyce linked the signifying function of linguistic particles to the articulative function of “paperspace” as interval of repetition and semantic recursion. For Joyce, this articulative function is ostensibly that of all mechanical or technological processes—one which can be generalised from any binary graphemic relation, to sign structure, trope, schema, and to the “inexcessibility” of discourse “as a whole.” Hence, in place of the Cartesian Artifex Maximus, there is instead “Blankdeblank, the god of all machineries.”(4)

Above all, the importance of Joyce for McLuhan resides in the decisive role of Finnegans Wake in re-defining the late stages of print culture and the advent of digiculture (the so-called “postmodern moment”). In this sense, Joyce’s text assumes a pre-eminent status among the agents and historians of late modernity—among them John von Neumann, Norbert Wiener, Claude Shannon, Lewis Mumford and Siegfried Giedion—and, along with the Mallarméan critique of the book and Marcel Duchamp’s satirisation of mechanical rationalism, the Wake becomes something of a benchmark in the early discourse of cyberspace.

Joyce’s technique of “verbivocovisual presentement”(5)—reprising the symbolist preoccupation with effects of synaesthesia—bears directly upon the conceptualisation of virtual reality and emersive signifying environments. Gene Youngblood’s Expanded Cinema (1970?), which proposes the integration of computing technology and other forms of telecommunications for the synaesthetic and syncretistic expansion of film, is heavily indebted to McLuhan’s reading of Finnegans Wake in Understanding Media (1964) and The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962). “The stripping of the senses and the interruption of their interplay in tactile synaesthesia,” McLuhan writes, “may well have been one of the effects of the Gutenberg technology”—of which Finnegans Wake is considered a kind of apotheosis.(6) Joyce’s direct treatment of various teletechnologies, and in particular television (Joyce himself was in possession of the first number of Télévision magazine, from 1935) led McLuhan to identify this medium, more than telegraphy, radio or cinema, as the defining factor in the turn from typographic consciousness to a new image-consciousness; from the Gutenberg-effect to digiculture—arguing that it was “the TV image” that above all else “has exerted a unifying force” on both the “imaginary life” and the “sense life.”(7) Only later does television cede to the computer in McLuhan’s schema, so that Joyce—who had earlier been cited by Claude Shannon (the architect of information theory, in 1945), and who is acknowledged by William Gibson (the architect of cyberculture) as a major influence at the beginning of the 1980s—then assumes the belated role of patron saint of virtuality.

What is important to keep in mind is that, despite the role Joyce is made to play in the McLuhan pantheon, Finnegans Wake does not represent an exception to the structural underpinnings of discourse or sign operations. As Shannon was perhaps the first to acknowledge, the technological character of language foregrounded by Joyce can equally be discerned as the basis of all signifying systems—so that it becomes senseless to speak, in these terms, of such things as natural or artificial, ordinary or experimental language. Insofar as all language may be characterised as technological, so too all language is essentially experimental.

This in itself ought to be enough to alert us to the pitfalls of McLuhan’s technological optimism and heavily schematised view of technological history (i.e. as a progressive history of the transformation of human consciousness): it is, despite its broadly syncretistic pattern, an historical view in which man may be redeemed from a fragmentation of consciousness by way of a universal synaesthesia. Hence, when McLuhan writes of virtuality, it is in the dualistic, almost messianic terms with which we are familiar from Gibson’s Neuromancer and recent cinema visions of a global computerised matrix. “As man succeeds in translating his central nervous system into electronic circuitry,” McLuhan writes, “he stands on the threshold of outering his consciousness into the computer. Consciousness … may be thought of as a projection to the outside of an inner synaesthesia, corresponding generally with that ancient definition of common sense … The computer moving information at a speed somewhat below the barrier of light might end thousands of years of man fragmenting himself.”(8)

 

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One of the chief difficulties in treating the various discourses of technological modernity lies in properly describing the assumptions so far made about the relations—for example—of such things as consciousness, agency, structure, technics, and signification. Recognition of the heuristic character of experimentation does not remove the necessity of accounting for the nature of the experimental premises—even if the contingency of outcomes based upon these premises leads experimentality itself to describe a critical relation to the notion of causally linear progress. This has remained a key difficulty in the treatment of historical “avant-gardism,” in which experimentation is often tied to a programme of social reform or of aestheticised social action. In such cases, an assumed historical object is arrived at “by other means,” so that rather than affecting an epistemological rupture, what in fact obtains is a mere aberration or detour—as though the experimental described nothing but an accompanying parallel scenario within an acceptable degree of variance from the one theme of historical unfolding.

If Finnegans Wake presents a technological critique of the idea of historical consciousness, its literary counterpart may be found in Thomas Pynchon’s critique of history as technological consciousness—presented with varying degrees of coherence in his three early texts, V (1963), The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), and Gravity’s Rainbow (1973). Pynchon’s broadly discursive technique—from a restatement of Salvador Dalí’s “paranoiac-critical method” to Warholian pop; from Swiftian satire and vaudeville, to Joycean “vicocyclometry”—might otherwise be described as an excessive costume spectacle of historicism, narratology and the ruse of hermeneutic closure. Exploiting a catalogue of sentimental stereotypes and the popular residue of historiography, Pynchon’s V and Gravity’s Rainbow resemble the extravagant, often satirical and sometimes farcical pageantry and melodrama of post-war German cinema. That Pynchon’s own texts reflect upon cinema and “postwar amnesia and the repression of history” in partitioned Germany,(9) is hardly accidental, and likewise echoes Joyce’s interest in the cinematographic medium (Joyce, for example, opened the first cinema in Dublin, the Volta, in 1909).

While Sergei Eisenstein praised Joyce’s “physiological palpability” (much in the way McLuhan responded to his synaesthetic immediacy) he nevertheless insisted upon the filmic limitations of Joyce’s writing, primarily on the grounds that it decomposed the relation of form to content in a way that “is not progressive, but destructive.”(10) Pynchon’s writing may be subject to similar critique. But like Joyce, who—through his influence upon the French Nouveau Roman—can be linked to the radically disjunctive, “physiological” techniques of Jean-Luc Godard, for example, Pynchon’s echoing of new German cinema points to a departure from the notion of a technological redemption of society.

Negotiating a détournement of historical progress, between the counter-claims of nostalgia and Realpolitik, films like Ulrike Ottinger’s Madame X (1977) and Dorian Gray in the Popular Press (1983), or Hans Syberberg’s Our Hitler (1976), Scarabea (1968) and the “Baroque theatrum mundi”(11) of Ludwig: Requiem for a Virgin King, present an almost Pynchonesque critique of the “rose-tinted vision of mass fantasy” prevalent in both European and American post-War society. But whereas in Ottinger and Syberberg such mass fantasies retain an ideological orientation, in Pynchon the paraphernalia and imagery of Fascism, for example, are primarily revealed as commodifications. The alienation of the history concept is, for Pynchon, a question of the surplus-effect of historical discourse itself—metaphorised in terms of political economy, the “search for reality,” and causal indeterminacy. Like Joyce, Pynchon identifies narrative variation with a technological condition of discourse, rather than as a mere characteristic. Such variation is fundamentally ambivalent, and this ambivalence is considered as underwriting the entire edifice of signification, and not as representing a departure from an underlying or somehow historically or semantically “objective” narrative.

In The Crying of Lot 49, discourse itself becomes the “topic” of a staged hermeneutic quest. Comprised of a series of textual events and mises-en-scènes, Pynchon’s novel appears to represent what Alain Robbe-Grillet has described as “neither the realm of psychology nor that of sociology, nor even of symbolism, still less history or ethics.”(12) This novel that invents itself, as Robbe-Grillet says, suggests instead a type of “pathological proliferation” of discourse, represented by way of a sinister postal system, whose evidence—everywhere visible yet nowhere verifiable—is constituted by the elicit circulation of “letters”: envoys of a writing that serves no other end, it seems, than to proclaim its own lack of a message. Like the play upon coded messages in Beckett’s Watt, and the iterative dissimulations of Shem-the-Penman and Shaun-the-Post in Finnegans Wake, Pynchon’s rote cycles of signifying exchange tend inexorably towards a type of inflationary, discursive, entropic spiral—as a form of “W.A.S.T.E.”—thus linking, as in Joyce and Beckett, the letter and litter, literature and litter-ature.

Throughout Pynchon’s texts, the question of meaning is linked to the notion of conspiracy, of a hidden system of operations by which the apparently real world is détourned, and in which the structure of verification and attestation break down. A whole network of cinematic doubles, echoes, variora, analogues and spectres, contributes to affecting a type of semiotic phantasmagoria of “Metaphor. Signs and symptoms” each “Mapping onto different co-ordinate systems.”(13) This ambivalence of identity between the assumed world of sense and its “otherness” in the realm of simulacra, acquires, then, the function of a discursive mechanism; and the theme of the conspiracy of letters or posts becomes tied to the conspiracy of a universal system of meaning—one which is then “symbolised,” in The Crying of Lot 49,by Clerk Maxwell’s notorious hypothetical Demon.

As a metaphorical machine, Maxwell’s demon is fundamentally binary in conception, its “tropic” function being to reverse the process of thermodynamic entropy by re-sorting the elements of any given system according to an arbitrarily defined axis of difference, thus reinstating a dynamic interval between the two groups of elements. Maxwell’s demon, in effect, is supposed to represent an engine of negative entropy, and it is easy enough to see how such an hypothetical mechanism might be attractive as a model for a purely “mechanical agency” underwriting the relation between base matter and signification.

In Pynchon’s text, the hypothetical operations of Maxwell’s demon are linked to Shannon’s use of the term “entropy” in his “Mathematical Theory of Communication,” in which the amount of information in a given system is measured in terms of chance, indeterminacy and coincidence, while the predictable element of any system is viewed as redundant and thus characteristic of a type of semiotic entropy. For Pynchon, the metaphoric equivalence of Maxwell’s and Shannon’s entropy implies a meta-entropic tension. “There were two distinct types of entropy,” Pynchon’s protagonist recounts: “One having to do with heat-engines, the other to do with communication. The equation of one … had looked very like the other. It was a coincidence. The two fields were entirely unconnected, except at one point: Maxwell’s Demon. As the Demon sat and sorted his molecules into hot and cold, the system was said to lose entropy. But somehow the loss was offset by the information the Demon gained about what molecules were where.”(14)

For his part, Shannon cites Finnegans Wake as an example of a semiotic system with a high degree of indeterminacy (in distinction, for example, to Charles Ogden’s Basic English), and in a sense this corresponds to the seemingly inexhaustible potential Joyce’s text has in generating different readings. “The basic English vocabulary,” Shannon observes, “is limited to 850 words and the redundancy is very high. This is reflected in the expansion that occurs when a passage is translated into Basic English. Joyce on the other hand enlarges the vocabulary and is alleged to achieve a compression of semantic content.”(15) In this sense, the Wake can itself be considered a type of engine of information, operating between the entropic tendency of semantic normalisation and an excessive, counter-entropic discursus. Pynchon’s version of Maxwell’s Demon is, however, like Joyce’s “vicocyclometer,” fundamentally parodic. “Entropy is a figure of speech,” says Nefastis, the inventor of a simulacrum Maxwell’s Demon in The Crying of Lot 49. “It connects the world of thermodynamics to the world of information flow. The Machine uses both. The Demon makes the metaphor not only verbally graceful, but also objectively true.”(16)

The objective truth of metaphor, of course, is that in order to be what it is, it must cease to be what it is: its structure of equivalence across contiguity renders the simultaneous verification of both of its elements fictive. Just as with Joycean synaesthesia—the “verbivocovisual” register of the text cannot be reduced to any one of its constituents, or to any mere technological representation, nor can it be apprehended “on all levels at once.” In this way, McLuhan’s anticipation of a technological de-fragmentation of consciousness is of the same ambivalent and hypothetical type as the operations of Maxwell’s Demon. We might say that such a “loss” of fragmentation would in any case be offset by the “information we gain from it.”

What we are left with may be described as a type of post-effect: the residue of a system in excess of itself, in which the prosthetic function of its “semiotic mechanisms” resides not in the addition made to progressivist history—even if this history is said to be formally deviational, discontinuous or “experimental”—but in the addition of the historical itself as the devolution of a generalised discourse upon the particular and indeterminate.

 

Prague, May, 2006

1 Henri Lefebvre, Introduction to Modernity, trans. John Moore (London: Verso, 1995) 168.
2 Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962) 75.
3 Donald Theall, The Virtual Martial McLuhan (McGill-Queens University Press, 1991) 156.
4 James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (London: Faber, 1939) 341.19.
5 Joyce, Finnegans Wake, 341.19.
6 McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy, 17.
7 Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964) 315.
8 Marshall McLuhan and Bruce Powers, The Global Village: Transformations in World Life and Media in the 21st Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989) 94.
9 Thomas Elsaesser, New German Cinema: A History (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1989) 264.
10 Sergei Eisenstein, Film Form, ed. and trans. Jay Leda (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1949) 185.
11 Elsaesser, New German Cinema, 266.
12 Alain Robbe-Grillet, “A Novel that Invents Itself,” For a New Novel: Essays on Fiction, trans. Richard Howard (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1989) 128.
13 Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow (London: Picador, 1973) 159.
14 Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49 (London: Picador, 1966) 72.
15 Claude Shannon, “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” Bell System Technical Journal 27 (July-October, 1948): 394.
16 Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49, 73.