The Cybernetic Plot of Ulysses

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The Cybernetic Plot of Ulysses

A paper delivered at the CALIFORNIA JOYCE conference (6/30/93)

To quote the opening of Norbert Wiener's address on Cybernetics to the

American Academy of Arts and Sciences in March of 1950, The word

cybernetics has been taken from the Greek word kubernitiz (ky-ber-NEE-tis)

meaning steersman. It has been invented because there is not in the

literature any adequate term describing the general study of communication

and the related study of control in both machines and in living beings.

In this paper, I mean by cybernetics those activities and ideas that have

to do with the sending, carrying, and receiving of information. My thesis

is that there is a cybernetic plot to ULYSSES -- a constellation or

meaningful pattern to the novel's many images of people sending, carrying,

and receiving -- or distorting, or losing -- signals of varying import and

value. This plot -- the plot of signals that are launched on perilous

Odyssean journeys, and that reach home, if they do, only through devious

paths -- parallels and augments the novel's more central journeys, its

dangers encountered, and its successful returns. ULYSSES works rather

neatly as a cybernetic allegory, in fact, not only in its represented

action, but also in its history as a text. The book itself, that is, has

reached us only by a devious path around Cyclopean censors and the Scylla

and Charybdis of pirates and obtuse editors and publishers. ULYSSES both

retells 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 Norbert

Wiener and others had coined the term. But like Moliere's Monsieur Jourdain

discovering that all along he's been speaking prose, so Leopold Bloom might

delight in learning that he is actually quite a proficient cyberneticist.

Joyce made his protagonist an advertizing canvasser at the moment when

advertizing had just entered the modern age. Bloom's job is to put his

clients' messages into forms that are digestible by the mass medium of the

press. If Bloom shows up in the National Library, for instance, it will be

to find a logo (in what we would call clip art) for his client Alexander

Keyes.

The conduct of spirit through space and time is what communication's about.

And James Joyce was interested, as we know, in the conduct of spirit: his

own, that of his home town, and that of his species.

Once they're sent, what are some of the things that can happen to messages?

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