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


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 other world."

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

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:


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