WRITING THE IMPOSSIBLE: JOYCE, REALISM & THE ANTHROPOCENE, by Louis Armand*

*Paper presented at the 2019 North American James Joyce Symposium, “Joyce Without Borders”, 14 June 2019, at the CASUL, Ciudad de Mexico.

ABSTRACT: For the catalogue of the groundbreaking Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition at London’s ICA in 1968, John Cage wrote: “What we need is a computer that isn’t labour-saving but which increases the work for us to do – that puns (this is McLuhan’s idea as well as Joyce’s) revealing bridges (this is Brown’s idea) where we thought there weren’t any – turns us (my idea) not ‘on’ but into artists.” In the period since, the connection between Joyce, McLuhan, Cage & cybernetics has opened a purview onto what Donald Theall in 1995 famously called the “Joyce Era of technology, culture & communication.” At the time, Joyce’s later work heavily inflected postructuralist theories of writing & technicity, from Derrida onwards, productive of a radical “posthumanism” avant la lettre. The question that obtains today is, How do the implications of Joyce’s “revolution of the word” open new possibilities for experiment & resistance in the epoch of the Anthropocene? How does the Wake, as anti-labour-saving, affect more than merely a “critique” of our posthuman condition & define a strategy for writing back against the Anthropocene via an active subversionof the industrial/capitalist sublime? That is to say, via the subversion of those “means of production of reality” vested in logic of a realism defined by the obsolescence of semantic labour: that seamless acquiescence to the fantasy of perpetual cultural consumption without responsibility. If there is an ethical dimension to Joyce’s work it lies not so much in the question of semantic “content,” but in the resistance of medium; of language itself as the substance of the representable. If, in contradiction to the apocalyptic blandishments of neoliberalism, another end of the world is possible, it is firstly a question of articulating it. The supposed “impossibility” of going beyond the permissions of capitalist-realism & its world-totalising schemas, stands in direct relation to the experimental task of writing set down by Joyce.

KEYWORDS: Anthropocene, Cybernetics, Finnegans Wake, Alienation, James Joyce

1. It has been observed that Finnegans Wake is a kind of machine: a word-machine, an analytic engine, a critical apparatus, capable – like Turing’s universal computer – of pre-comprehending, as if in advance,virtually everything that can be said about it. This idea has exercised a strange fascination over the cybernetic imaginary – from McLuhan’s Gutenberg Galaxy (originally conceived under the title The Road to Finnegans Wake) to Murray Gell-Mann’s naming of the fundamental constituent of the nucleon after a line in Book II: “Three quarks for Muster Mark!” (383.01)[1] – opening a purview onto what, in 1995, Donald Theall went so far as to call the “Joyce Era of technology, culture & communication.”[2] Perceiving in the Wake a logic that extends the “revolution of the word” into a revolution of the world, Félix Guattari likewise derived from Joyce the term “chaosophy” – a synthesis of cybernetics & schizoanalysis, evoking a generalised artificial intelligence of distributed subjectivities, extending Gramsci’s idea of the “molecular revolution” across a system of machinic subjectivities. Such a revolutionary world-machine must nevertheless wield an uncanny power. Indeed, the Wake itself frequently alludes to itself as a type of portentous doomsday device – one that generates discourse in order to totalise the field of discourse itself: “That’s the point of eschatology our book of kills reaches for now in soandso many counterpoint words” (482.32). And here lies the apparent contradiction of the Wakean “chaosmos”: that its irreducibility coincides with its universality.

2. Finnegans Wake describes itself as “mythametical” (286.23), a “vicociclometer” (614.27), propelled by a “harmonic condenser enginium” (310.01) whose permutations of the universal “adomic structure” (615.06) expend the probability of any outcome not already subjected to its calculus. Its operation might be described as programming, by an interminable self-inscription – “as highly charged with electrons as hophazards can effective it” (615.07-08) – a generalised future-obsolescence. This End of History – mythic in scale – would presuppose nothing short of the subsumption of historia itself into a Wakean recursive or re-causal “altereffect” (483.01). By a quasi-Viconian re-evolving, an inflated dialogical present would invade the dimension of the historical in the mythic guise of its own transcendence: an event that can only ever occur in prototype or, so to speak, precessionally:

a split in their infinitive from to have to have been to will be. As they warred in their big innings ease now we never shall know. [271.21-24]

To speak of an “end” would thus be to speak of an effect inscribed already in its own beginning: a discontinuity at the origin subsumed into the form of a blueprint, programme, or matrix: a semantic DNA, perhaps, whose autonomy has come to represent the dominant form of a world order. This Wakean “polyhedron of scripture” (107.08) appears to exist as if to demonstrate nothing else than this paradoxical drive to discontinuity & totality. And yet it exists – an existence posited as both the kernel & exteriorisationof History– while nevertheless signifying the very impossibility of a “beyond.” Moreover, it repeatedly advertises this contradiction through the interminability of its processes.

Occupying something akin to an event-horizon between the “End of the Book,” as Derrida says, & the “beginning of writing,”[3] Joyce’s text conjures a “cosmic” totality – “In the name of Annah the Allmaziful, the Everliving, the Bringer of Plurabilities” (104.01-02) – that is, at the same time, nothing if not provisional – an “untitled mamafesta memorialising the Mosthighest” which “has gone by many names at disjointed times” (104.04-05) – yet its dominant characteristic is that it is provisional at every point. If we read the Wake as a kind of doppelgänger of the system of modernity – describing, in effect, a feedback of self-presentation in the interminable form of a to come that saturates the now– we do so not simply as a reflection of a totalising movement (its self-inscription as “chaosmos of Alle”), but as operative; not simply miming but producing “nichthemerically,” as Joyce tells us, “by its corrosive sublimation one continuous present tense integumented slowly unfolded in all marryvoising moodmoulded cyclewheeling history” (FW185.29, 186.02).

3. In Of Grammatology Derrida charts the movement of a crisis in the logic of representation that, today, we are able to recognise as the constituent form of the Anthropocene. As both the demystification of a belated Humanism (in which industrial capitalism had long disguised itself) & the reification of its processes, the Anthropocene stands in a paradoxical relation to a certain self-evidence– exemplified in those ideologies of mimēsis that Derrida shows to be the true constituents of the term “language” – which has “dominated the history of the world during an entire epoch, & has even produced the idea of the world”[4]; an idea that, in the course of modernity, has come to be “overwhelmed” & “effaced” in what is called writing.

By a hardly perceptible necessity, it seems as though the concept of writing – no longer 
indicating a particular, derivative, auxiliary form of language in general… no longer 
designating the exterior surface, the insubstantial double of a major signifier, 
the signifier of the signifier – is beginning to go beyond the extension of language. 
In all senses of the word, writing thus comprehends language.[5]

In Derrida’s critique, language – corresponding to a Platonic ideal of “living speech” – enters into crisis with the invention of the technē of writing: of an autonomous form of signifying-exchange, presaging that of currency & of the commodity, the reification of surplus-value, alienation & abstraction-in-general. That is to say, “as the universal category of society as a whole.”[6] What is of central importance here, as Lukács tells us, is that a certain agency– a certain provisional consciousness– “becomes something objective & independent… by virtue of an autonomy alien to man.”[7] Joyce calls this the “poeta”:

The prouts who will invent a writing there ultimately is the poeta, still more learned, 
who discovered the raiding there originally. That’s the point of eschatology our book 
of kills reaches for now in soandso many counterpoint words. What can’t be coded can be 
decorded if an ear aye seize what no eye ere grieved for. Now, the doctrine obtains, 
we have occasioning cause causing effects and affects occasionally recausing altereffects. [FW: 482.31-483.01]

This movement of autopoiesis can in turn be regarded as “producing” an excess of signifying agency: from the world as semiosphere to the critical mass of its termination in the Real – the eschatology of the “Ends of Man” transfigured into the world-crisis we call the Anthropocene. Just as we might speak of a techno-anthropological shift in the geological register, so too the dimension of the “Real” that returns in writing – as the proof of the poeta, so to speak, & in the discrediting of a certain metaphysics – presages a crisis in the idea of the world: onewhose transcendence henceforth designates the impossible.

4. Once again we’re dealing with an eschatology – Joyce’s “eternal chimerahunter” (107.14) – in which the disappearance of the socalled subject of History is both reified & anticipated in an apocalyptic “return of the Real.”[8] Yet we must be wary, here, of any appeal to a tragic view of the socalled posthuman that would absolve the historical subject of what, in the Anthropocene, appears uniquely “machinic”: that permits, in other words, the anthropos to be erased in its “disappearance.” It is important to bear in mind Lacan’s warning that – like the author of the Cyclops’ blindness – “the subject is no-one”; that it is, from its origin, “decomposed, in pieces”[9] as that which emerges from “the gap of the unconscious.”[10] What, then, does it mean to write (transitively? intransitively?) in the consciousness of the Anthropocene? That is to say, in the wake of this Joycean “hypermnesiac machine”[11] that appears to exhaust all future possibility by reifying & pre-comprehending everything, including the very possibility of a subject? Where all that was once supposedly human returns in the traumatic “self-evidence” of the Real, as the absolute horizon of non-Being?

5. For the catalogue of the Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition at London’s ICA in 1968 – the first major international exhibition devoted to the nascent field of “computer art” – John Cage wrote:

What we need is a computer that isn’t labour-saving but which increases the work for us to do – that puns (this is McLuhan’s idea as well as Joyce’s) revealing bridges 
(this is Brown’s idea) where we thought there weren’t any – turns us (my idea) not “on” 
but into artists.[12]

What kind of work produces artists in place of an industrial consciousness (“turned on” by salvation from labour) – if by “artist” we mean an agency that stands at odds with the cold & pragmatic implementation of the control apparatuses whose “predominant mode,” as the Invisible Committee remind, is the “management of crisis”?[13] An agency that is irreducible beyond its alienation-effect – to a palliative realism, for example, in which the myth of History struggles on to its manifest destiny in the image of a humanoid “fundamental fantasy”? That puns – & thereby calls forth a techno-poetics inimical to rationalisation? In other words, the polysemy of a writing born of resistance?

The apparent contradiction on which Cage’s Joycean “computer” is built – between the automation of cognitive production in the Fordist mode (the machine assumes the burden of thought & action, proclaiming an emancipation from onerous labour) & a systematic demand for an increasein intellectual effort (in which artis identified with the very contrary of convenience) – is not one that Cage seeks to resolve but rather to exacerbate. We might say that the product of such an exacerbation is what Derrida later calls Joyce’s “1000thgeneration computer,” Finnegans Wake.[14] And it is as if, by means of a generalised resistance, this 1000th generation computer programmes itself to evolve into a fully autonomous system of “artificial intelligence.”

So the question becomes – not What does it mean to write in the consciousness of the Anthropocene, but What writes? What is this consciousness of the Joycean poeta that on the one hand resists technē, while at the same time superseding it? In the vertigo of this movement there is indeed “a certain pleasure in calculating the risks”[15] – a certain jouissance of the acceleration towards a catastrophe, in which the possible is both foreclosed & made to appear to open out indefinitely – & in which the path of greatest resistance inscribes itself on the face of the Void.

6. At the beginning of the “History Lessons” episode of the Wake, Fordist eschatology is construed the portmanteau “teetootomtotalitarian” (260.02) – evoking Huxley’s T-totem[16] & the “total” process of the Model-T integrated-assembly line (the apotheosis, as McLuhan observed, of the Gutenberg printing press). What begins as the divine word is transubstantiated into the machine-made-commodity bereft of any transcendental signified. So, too, the materiality of the Wakean cosmos is nothing but text, vectors of information flows. There is no Anthropocenic end-in-sight outside the text: it is, as Beckett might well have said, that End itself.[17]

Between the logic of the book as an eschatology or apocalyptō of “revelation,” & writing as technē – which is to say, as History – a recursive, machinic conception of an art that thinks, & thereby construes a general consciousness, permeates the Wake. As counter-eschatology, it describes an acceleration by cosmic détournement:

Anyhow, somehow and somewhere, before the bookflood or after her ebb... wrote it all, 
wrote it all down, and there you are, full stop... But one who deeper thinks will always 
bear in the baccbuccus of his mind that this downright there you are and there it is 
only all of his eye. Why?

Because Soferim Bebel... every person, place and thing in the chaosmos of Alle anyway 
connected… was moving and changing every part of the time: the travelling inkhorn…, 
the hare and turtle pen and paper, the continually more or less intermisunderstanding 
minds of the anticollaborators, the as time went on as it will variously inflected, 
differently pronounced, otherwise spelled, changeably meaning vocable scriptsigns... 
riot of inkblots and blurs and bars and balls and hoops and wriggles and juxtaposed 
jottings linked by spurts of speed. [118.11-30]

In this sense, the Wake is a time-machine producing modernity by radical anachronism. Where the logic of the book begets history, writing begets a temporality ambivalent to historical subjectivity. “Who in hallhagal wrote the durn thing anyhow?” (107.36-108.01) the Wake demands. If Cage seeks to distinguish a mode of art (& of artificial intelligence) as agency of thought, by an appeal to acts of resistance, the Wake itself situates that point of resistance outside any end in itself. What we might call its deconstructive labour of “AMBIVIOLENCE”[18] evokes nothing less than a writing of the impossible, or rather, writing as the impossible.

7. Behind the appearance of self-evidence is the sheer vertigo of a calculus of indeterminacy. The presentation of the Anthropocene as “Return of the Real” – as the critical mass of an accumulated entropy that can no longer be recuperated within an economy of hyperproduction – appears to distort the fabric of presentation itself. In place of Sartre’s pebble on the beach – an inert, base materiality – the approach of the Real announces itself by way of a radically deformed signspace. An event-horizon in which time is simultaneously compressed & distended. A paradoxical structure of “pure information”: a “Nichtian glossery which purveys aprioric roots for aposteriorous tongues this is nat language at any sinse of the world” (83.10-12). What we find in the Wake is precisely this conception of a “Return of the Real” in the resistance of writing. Towards the end of Book I, for example, Shem is depicted as producing:

nichthemerically from his unheavenly body… till by its corrosive sublimation one 
continuous present tense integumented slowly unfolded in all marryvoising 
moodmoulded cyclewheeling history. [FW185.29, 186.02]

In this way, according to Lyotard, “Joyce allows the unpresentable to become perceptible in his writing itself, in the signifier.”[19] Yet this preoccupation with the signifier distracts from what is at stake here, & what Cage intuits in the resistance of polysemy & the labour of a certain ambivalence in which the algorithm of automated sign-substitution is no longer available as the constituent mode of subjectivity, historical or otherwise. That is to say, the dimension of the Real “in” the symbolic, which is precisely that of its operations.

8. To this end, the “return of the Real” in the Anthropocene marks that singularity in which the End of History fails to coincide with itself. Which in turn marks the failure of an idea of the world to coincide with itself. As Žižek has said, “humanity became aware of its self-limitation as a species precisely when it became so strong that it influenced the balance of all life on Earth. It was able to dream of being a Subject only until its influence on nature (Earth) was no longer marginal, i.e. only against the backdrop of a stable nature.”[20] That is to say, a homeostatic nature – nature “in balance” – the husbanded, supplemental “nature” of Rousseau which is, has always been, at its core, “ideological” because techno-poetic. The question of nature has never been separate from that of power: What hegemony exercises itself in the construction of nature? In the organic conception of the text? In the evocation of a body of writing, for example? The topology of its relation to its “object” (intractable nature) is at the same time tropological (there is no intractable nature, only information): a circuit of production which is itself a semiosphere – a world autopoietically constituted. And insofar as the “consciousness” of the Anthropocene exceeds subjectivity – this is not simply because it “manifests” on a purely technological, cybernetic scale: a global array irreducible to an anthropocentrism– but because this excess is also constitutive of the subject in the first place. A subjectivity inseparable from the “nichthemeric production” of surplus-value – of that excess of fetishised alienation on which its currency, as world-determining agency, is founded. An excess masking a void. And this void of subjectivity is the Real.

Louis Armand is the author of Techne: James Joyce, Hypertext & Technology (1997), Literate Technologies (2006), The Organ Grinder’s Monkey: Culture after the Avant-Garde (2013) and Helixtrolysis: Cyberology & the Joycean Machine (2014). He is also the editor of Mind Factory (2005), Technicity (2007) and Hypermedia Joyce (with David Vichnar; 2010), and was founding editor of the journal Hypermedia Joyce Studies in 1995. He directs the Centre for Critical and Cultural Theory at Charles University, Prague. www.louis-armand.com

[1]Murray Gell-Mann, The Quark & the Jaguar(New York: W.H. Freeman, 1994) 180.

[2]Donald F. Theall, Beyond the Word: Reconstructing Sense in the Joyce Era of Technology, Culture & Communication(Toronto: Toronto University Press, 1995).

[3]Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1976) 6ff.

[4]Derrida, Of Grammatology, 8.

[5]Derrida, Of Grammatology, 6-7.

[6]Georg Lukács, History & Class Consciousness, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1971) 86.

[7]Lukács, History & Class Consciousness, 87 – emphasis added.

[8]Cf. Jacques Lacan, “A Materialist Definition of the Phenomenon of Consciousness,” The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book II: The Ego in Freud’s Theory & in the Technique of Psychoanalysis 1954-1955, trans. S. Tomaselli (London: Cambridge University Press, 1988) 51.

[9]Jacques Lacan, “Homeostasis & Insistence,” The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book II: The Ego in Freud’s Theory & in the Technique of Psychoanalysis 1954-1955, trans. S. Tomaselli (London: Cambridge University Press, 1988) 54.

[10]Jacques Lacan, “Of the Subject of Certainty,” The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, trans. Alan Sheridan (London: Hogarth Press, 1977) 54.

[11]Jacques Derrida, “Two Words for Joyce,” Post-structuralist Joyce: Essays from the French, eds. Derek Attridge & Daniel Ferrer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984) 147-148.

[12]John Cage, xxx

[13]Invisible Committee, The Coming Insurrections (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2009) 10.

[14]Derrida, “Two Words for Joyce,” 147-148.

[15]Invisible Committee, The Coming Insurrections, 9.

[16]Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (London: Chatto & Windus, 1932).

[17]Samuel Beckett, “Dante… Bruno. Vico.. Joyce,” Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress(New York: New Directions Press, 1962) 14.

[18]See Stephen Heath, “Ambiviolences: Notes for reading Joyce,” trans. Isabelle Mahieu, Post-structuralist Joyce: Essays from the French, eds. Derek Attridge & Daniel Ferrer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984) 46.

[19]Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, 80-1.

[20]Slavoj Žižek, “Ecology against Mother Nature,” Verso (26 May 2015): http://www.versobooks.com/blogs/2007-ecology-against-mother-nature-slavoj-zizek-on-molecular-red/

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