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The Freudian Robot

Digital Media and the Future of the Unconscious

The identity and role of writing has evolved in the age of digital media. But how did writing itself make digital media possible in the first place? Lydia H. Liu offers here the first rigorous study of the political history of digital writing and its fateful entanglement with the Freudian unconscious.

Liu’s innovative analysis brings the work of theorists and writers back into conversation with one another to document significant meetings of minds and disciplines. She shows how the earlier avant-garde literary experiments with alphabetical writing and the word-association games of psychoanalysis contributed to the mathematical making of digital media. Such intellectual convergence, she argues, completed the transformation of alphabetical writing into the postphonetic, ideographic system of digital media, which not only altered the threshold of sense and nonsense in communication processes but also compelled a new understanding of human-machine interplay at the level of the unconscious.

Ranging across information theory, cybernetics, modernism, literary theory, neurotic machines, and psychoanalysis, The Freudian Robot rewrites the history of digital media and the literary theory of the twentieth century.

320 pages | 26 halftones, 7 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2011

Cognitive Science: Language

Literature and Literary Criticism: General Criticism and Critical Theory

Media Studies


“Lydia H. Liu is a rare scholar whose work combines rigorous analysis with imaginative interpretation, reaching across an unusually broad range of fields and disciplines. The Freudian Robot is a stunning book that completely reframes psychoanalysis by revealing its previously undetected debt to cybernetics and information theory. In an age of overspecialization and glib popularization, Liu’s study is a model of the kind of work we need.”

Mark C. Taylor, Columbia University

“From this book’s comfortable cruising altitude of 10,000 feet, Lydia Liu—with great virtuosity, superb analysis, and wit—reveals an astonishing landscape.”

Technology and Culture

 “This rich and thought-provoking book eschews the traditional dichotomy ‘human’ versus ‘mechanical,’ proposing instead the notion of the ‘Freudian Robot’ as a way of understanding contemporary civilization. . . . This book paves the way for a new focus on the osmotic interaction between human beings and machines, providing a challenging contribution for an audience widely read in literary theory, media studies, psychoanalysis, and semiotics.”

Modern Language Review

Table of Contents

List of Figures and Tables

INTRODUCTION: The Psychic Life of Digital Media

1 Where Is the Writing of Digital Media?
Why Civilization Matters
Postmodernity and New Media
Three Conceptual Lacunae
Fundamental Challenge to Literary Theory
The Techne of the Unconscious

2 The Invention of Printed English
How the English Alphabet Gained a New Letter
What Is Printed English?
The Genetic Code and Grammatology
The Ideographic Turn of the Phonetic Alphabet
The Number Game in the Empires of the Mind

3 Sense and Nonsense in the Psychic Machine
Finnegans Wake: A Hypermnesiac Machine?
iSpace: Joyce’s Paper Wounds
Schizoprenic Writing at Bell Labs
The Cybernetics Group
The Psychic Machine

4 The Cybernetic Unconscious
French Theory or American Theory?
Lacan Reading Poe: “The Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter’”
Les Jeux: Game and Play on the Symbolic Chain
The Cybernetic Unconscious
Return to Sender

5 The Freudian Robot
The Uncanny in the Automaton
The Psychic Life of Media
What Is the Medium of das Unheimliche?
The Uncanny Valley
The Neurotic Machine
Minsky and the Cognitive Unconscious

6 The Future of the Unconscious
The Missed Rendezvous between Critical Theory and Cybernetics
The Ideology Machine
Our Game with the Little “Letters”
Works Cited

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