The Cybernetic Plot of Ulysses
A paper delivered at the CALIFORNIA JOYCE conference
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
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? They can be lost, like the words
that Bloom starts to scratch in the sand: "I AM A..."
Signals can be degraded by faulty transmission, like the
telegram that Stephen received in Paris from his father
back in Dublin: "NOTHER DYING. COME HOME. FATHER." A slip
of the pen -- as in Martha Clifford's letter to Bloom --
destroys intended meanings, but it also, as Joyce loves to
point out, creates new ones. "I called you naughty boy,"
Martha wrote to Henry Flower, "because I do not like that
Signals can be abused and discarded, like the fate of
"Matcham's Masterstroke" in Bloom's outhouse. Signals can
be censored, pirated, misprinted, and malpracticed upon by
editors, as happened the text of this novel itself. Signals
can fall into the wrong hands, like the executioners'
letters in the pub, or they can land where they're sent but
make little sense, like the postcard reading "U.P. up" that
Dennis Breen gets in the mail.
And signals can, finally, reach their intended recipient
with the intended meaning, as in Bloom's pleasure in
reading Milly's letter to him in the morning's mail. And
what about that book that Stephen is going to write in ten
years? There's a premonitory cybernetic allegory for you,
and one with a happy ending to boot.
* * * I would like to sketch for you, then, a brief and
cursory chapter-by-chapter account of the cybernetic plot
of Ulysses. But lest the listener persist in harboring
doubts, as we say, concerning the cybernetic signature of
the Joycean narrative, let me anticipate the first sentence
of the 'Lotus-Eaters' episode:
BY LORRIES ALONG SIR JOHN ROGERSON'S QUAY MR BLOOM walked
soberly, past Windmill lane, Leask's the linseed crusher's,
the postal telegraph office. As befits the narcotic theme
of the episode, this first sentence is itself not quite
sober. Even the first two words -- "BY LORRIES" -- are
ambiguous, since the mail moves "by lorries" in a parallel
but different sense of Mr Bloom walking "by lorries." Most
significantly for our reading, this first sentence of
'Lotus-eaters' ends in "the postal telegraph office,"
suggesting that the episode, like the novel at large, is
concerned with sending messages.
STATELY, PLUMP Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead,
bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay
That mirror will be used shortly for heliography, when
Mulligan will have "swept the mirror a half circle in the
air to flash the tidings abroad in sunlight now radiant on
the sea." This is idle signal-sending, with no clear sense
of a recipient. Up close, Buck has just hurt Stephen's
feelings on the subject of his mother, and is about to hurt
them again. In other words, between the two men,
communication is poor. The signals don't get through.
Also in the first episode, the old milkwoman prompts a
Homeric thought attributed to Stephen: "Old and secret she
had entered from a morning world, maybe a messenger."
"Maybe a messenger!" Cyberneticists love ambiguity,
particularly about subjects like messages and messengers in
The Homeric scheme for the novel tells us that the elderly
milkwoman as messenger stands for or signifies the goddess
Athena disguised in the form of Mentor. From the first,
sending a successful signal is understood from that great
cyberneticist Homer to require a disguise. The wire that
conducts truth, in an image that Pynchon favors, must be
insulated. Furthermore, our best ideas, the Greeks thought,
come to us as if from without. Thus, Telemachus receives
his prompt from Athena disguised as Mentor, just as Stephen
is metaphorically roused from inaction by the old
milkwoman. A signal gets through, not despite but thanks to
its padding, and for both Homer's and Joyce's young man,
the signal prompts new ideas.
History, the subject of Stephen's instruction in 'Nestor,'
is what remains of signals from the past. Education itself
is the ultimate cybernetic challenge, and Stephen grapples
with it in trying to explain a math problem to a slow
student from Vico Road. Throughout the novel, ignorance and
stupidity -- respectively, a lack of knowledge and a lack
of intelligence -- pose threats to both the characters and
the culture. They are not helpful insulation; rather, they
interfere with and frustrate successful communication. "My
patience are exhausted," writes Martha Clifford to her
penpal Henry Flower. Stupidity threatens to reduce signal
to noise just as surely as the citizen later threatens to
bean poor Bloom. The bigotry of anti-Semitism that Mr.
Deasy incarnates at the end of 'Nestor' epitomizes noise,
then, in the form of injurious stupidity.
In 'Proteus,' the third episode, Joyce combines the
references to space and time, respectively, of the first
two episodes, by allowing the sight of the midwives on the
beach to prompt Stephen's thoughts of a navelcord telephone
to Eden. The famous telegram from his father, containing
the typo which Joyce deliberately repeated from the actual
telegram but which his editors from 1934 until 1986
insisted on correcting, also appears in this episode.
"Nother dying. Come home. Father." Accidental noise in the
signal seemed to Joyce to possess profundity, alluding as
the error did to the universal condition of mortality -- a
theme dear, as we know, to the author of "The Dead."
Near the end of the 'Proteus' episode, Stephen on the
strand at Sandymount wonders "Who ever anywhere will read
these written words? Signs on a white field. Somewhere to
someone in your flutiest voice." Stephen has just torn off
the bottom of Mr Deasy's letter to the editor, so as to jot
a poetic idea on it, and showing that for him the medium of
a signal means nothing; only its spirit, or content,
matters. Bloom will write letters on these sands, too; it's
as if proximity to water brings out the playful side in
signal-sending, as with Buck's earlier mirror-flashing.
There is a kind of playful, throwaway signal-sending that
we indulge in for the pleasure of NOT knowing who will
receive it. "I shot an arrow into the air; it fell to
earth, I know not where." Sending real messages is serious
business; sending pseudo-messages, or non-messages to
random audiences, is play. Stuff for the beach, not the
In 'Calypso' (the first Bloom chapter), velopes themselves
carry meaning; the one from Blazes to Molly scorches poor
Bloom's heart. But the (quote) "letter for me from Milly"
does Bloom's heart good. Signals full of meaning, ones like
Milly's that land where they're sent, and are properly
understood, can do a world of good.
"Metempsychosis" is the word in this episode that prevents
Molly from understanding a sentence in the trashy novel
she's reading. The transmission of spirit across time and
space is itself an idea that Poldy must translate into
plain words in order for its meaning to reach Molly. But he
does so, and she does understand. Meanings need new clothes
to cross some borders, but quick wits know how to smuggle
those meanings across.
The fate of the magazine story ("Matcham's Masterstroke")
that Bloom reads in the outhouse shows that some signals
belong in the toilet. The joke's cybernetic subtext
concerns the need to evaluate our culture's signs, to
digest them, and to dispose of the unworthy ones
In 'Lotus-Eaters,' the first sentence of which we followed
into the post office, Bloom receives his letter from Martha
Clifford, with its misspelled "world." Noise threatens to
wreck signal, to put meaning to narcotic sleep, but again
(as with Simon Dedalus' telegram about "Nother dying")
Joyce is fascinated by the meanings born of random error.
Like the bicycle tire's lemniscate that fascinates John
Shade, in Nabokov's PALE FIRE, the noise that seems to
spell out its own new meaning offers another kind of
pseudo-signal: not one without an intended audience, this
time, but one without a real author other than chance
itself. The Surrealists, of course, would have you believe
that they cornered the market in such random marks believed
to bear meaning.
When Bloom tells Bantam Lyons that he was just about to
"throw away" the newspaper, and Lyons thinks that Bloom is
tipping him about the racehorse Throwaway, it's a clear
case of noise being mistaken for signal. That's why the
winning horse is named for disposable refuse ("Throwaway")
in the first place: some signals go about disguised as
noise. Joyce, unlike Martha, DOES "like that other world."
In Hades, Bloom very simply and matter-of-factly draws the
limits of communication at mortality. "Once you are dead
you are dead." No serious signals reach us from the other
side, only ridiculous ones, as Christine van Boheemen
reminded us on Monday. The cybernetic comedy of errors
deepens here as an idle word, M'Intosh, is boosted to human
status, one more erroneous conflation of words and things.
'Aeolus' is about communication, set as it is in the
newspaper office. The rhetorical devices that run rampant
through the episode show the dangers of one's medium going
opaque on one, of language becoming windy through a fatuous
obsession with its own sound. A thoughtful style
strengthens, a thoughtless style weakens any signal.
In 'Lestrygonians,' Bloom receives the novel's third
throwaway, the advertizing handout, which he throws to the
unappreciative gulls. Signals only work on their intended
human receivers, as we all knew already but Joyce still
needed to show. As an advertising canvasser, as we've
noted, Bloom's occupation centrally concerns the sending
and receiving of commercial messages, and so the cybernetic
conundrums of the billboard floating on the Liffey and of
HELY'S sandwichboard men go under instant analysis in
'Scylla and Charybdis,' outside the novel, may perhaps best
be seen behind the prudish censors on one side and the
unscrupulous copyright violators who threatened the book's
successful publication on the other. Piracy we call this
latter crime, unwittingly evoking a maritime metaphor of
the novel as a ship on a dangerous journey. (Recall how apt
it was of Wiener to name cybernetics for a Greek
steersman.) In the case of Ulysses, a novel that faced and
continues to face Odyssean obstacles at every stage of the
journey, the metaphor is peculiarly apt.
In 'Wandering Rocks,' Father Conmee furthers the cybernetic
plot by posting a letter with the help of young Brunny
LyNam. Boylan, meanwhile, plays the cybernetic flirt:
"--May I say a word to your telephone, Missy? he asked
roguishly." Stephen and Bloom, meanwhile, are both eyeing
the booksellers' carts, seeking stray signals that may or
may not be meant for them,
'Sirens,' for Joyce as for Homer, reminds us that some of
the most beguiling signals intend us nothing but harm.
Survival may come only through voluntary paralysis, as when
Odysseus has himself lashed to the mast. As Bloom ties and
unties his fingers with the elastic band, Joyce again shows
us insulation proving an effective defense against hurtful
thoughts; in this case, Bloom's thoughts of marital
'Cyclops' has that mock-theosophic signal from the other
side, reporting that the currents of abodes of the departed
spirits were (quote) "equipped with every modern home
comfort such as tlfn," and so on. 'Cyclops' is also where
Joe Hynes reads aloud from the job application letter of
one H. Rumbold, Master Barber, implicitly reiterating the
need for moral discrimination in the matter of meanings
"Still, it was a kind of communication between us." So
thinks Bloom of his silent tryst with Nausicaa in the form
of Gertie MacDowell. And of course: "For this relief much
thanks." Successfully sent and received erotic signals
gratify in this narrative quite explicitly beyond the reach
of mere music or language.
'Oxen of the Sun' allows that medium of transmission,
language, to turn opaque again, to foreground itself at the
risk of letting meanings die undelivered. (Quote:) "The
debate which ensued was in its scope and progress an
epitome of the course of life." Some signals can be made to
bear multiple meanings on levels of varying profundity.
In 'Circe,' Bloom shows us that the recall and timing of
information can be crucial to success. He remembers what
he's heard about Bella Cohen's son at Oxford, and uses the
information in a timely fashion to protect Stephen from
harm. Judgment of what to listen to, what to remember of
what one's heard, and what to repeat and when are all
essential cybernetic skills. Bloom also, at episode's end,
picks up an imagined signal from the imagined spirit of his
son Rudy, proving that to the artistic imagination, at
least, mortality is no barrier to spirit after all. (Of
course, readers of Dubliners had already learned that from
Its absurd pedantic deadpan notwithstanding, the 'Ithaca'
episode nonetheless communicates that even the worthless
crumbs of Plumtree's Potted Meat in one's bed may be read
'Eumaeus' features yet more signal degraded into noise. The
newspaper account of the funeral inadvertently drops an L
from the name of L. Boom. Even the mock sailor's postcard
from landlocked Bolivia furthers the episode's theme of
exhausted and phony meanings.
In 'Penelope,' finally, communication comes once again to
mean the successful transmission of spirit among bodies.
The flesh assents all too indiscriminately in this episode,
but Bloom is home safe, dominant at last in his wife's
thoughts, his message of unprepossessing love mocked,
ridiculed, travestied, and betrayed, but ultimately
received, understood, and acknowledged.
The style of Joyce's novel, with its access from the very
first scene to Stephen's own thoughts, and then to Bloom's,
and finally to Molly's, implies that no communication, no
means of meaning, succeeds so well as that of the artistic
imagination. When he said "Madame Bovary, c'est moi,"
Gustave Flaubert was teaching Joyce to disregard and
ultimately to refute the supposed inscrutability and
reputed inaccessibility of the Other. The lines may be down
between husband and wife, they may be tottering between
father and daughter, but between the author's spirit and
that of his characters, le courant passe, the current flows
Any signal, like a Homeric hero, is threatened with ruin by
the alluring sirens of noise. Any piece of information, or
any spirit afloat in our culture, that is, faces an
Odyssean battle in order to make it through. Consider the
obeisance of publisher to legal power that used to appear
at this novel's front gate, for instance. This NOVEL had to
undergo an odyssey before coming home to our minds. The law
tried to stop it, pirates tried to loot it, but the text,
like its characters, came through relatively unscathed.
Cybernetic messages and the obstacles to their correct
transmission present one of the manifold yet parallel plots
in ULYSSES -- with our own successful comprehension of the
novel furnishing the happy ending to a cybernetic allegory
in which character, action, and text all come through,
finally, loud and clear. The book, that is, enacted a
Joycean design over which Joyce himself could have had
little control, for the book itself recapitulated the
Odyssean journey across perilous seas. Pirates, monstrous
one-eyed censors, Procrustean editors kept mangling a
Protean text. And yet here it is, home free, safely
harbored in our minds and in our hearts.
Thank you very much.