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Reviews201 sity for a tension between words (specifically sensation-words) and the world. What Pears does not do is explicitly explain why this tension is necessary and what it could consist in, but the way he develops the idea is sufficient for the reader to get a sense of why without overburdening him with the intricacies of the argument, a strategy entirely appropriate to an introductory text. Whitman CollegeCarolyn G. Hartz TAe Soft Machine: Cybernetic Fiction, by David Porush; xii & 244 pp. New York: Methuen, 1985, $29.95 cloth, $10.95 paper. Porush identifies a distinctive literary genre whose fictional themes, stylistic elements, and assertions of authorship react to recent technological developments . His book reviews twentieth-century advances in physics and information science, and shows how contemporary writers, such as Vonnegut, Burroughs , Pynchon, and Barth incorporate them into literary exercises in self-reflection which exemplify, as well as depict, the limits of mechanistic reasoning. His treatment is original, since it goes beyond extant discussions of technological determinism as a topic in modern fiction, but it is also uneven and at times sketchy in its ambitious coverage of an array of issues from philosophy, science, and literary theory. The central theme in the book is cybernetics, a term coined by Norbert Wiener in the 1940s to describe an interdisciplinary field adapting thermodynamic and other physical principles to the study of human communication. Cybernetics has had widespread influence on artificial intelligence, linguistics, the human sciences, and, as Porush shows, the arts. Porush identifies "cybernetic fiction" as a genre whose texts "operationalize" the imagery of artificial intelligence and systems theory, adopting a language of information, system, redundancy, and entropy to give the reader a sense of entering into an autonomous text or programmed language. In various ways, the texts construe the machine as author, as man-the-machine becomes both theme and reflexive presence. Porush treats Raymond Roussel's Locus Solus as a "positivistic" precursor to cybernetic fiction because its authorial mechanism is implemented in a failed attempt at complete and certain self-reference. In contrast to Roussel, the more recent writers are playfully irreverent in their use of formalisms. Borrowing William Burroughs' title, but giving it a new sense, Porush tries to demonstrate that the machine-authors become "soft" by the way their texts qualify, contradict, parody, or otherwise provide for the insufficiency of their apparent determinism. In other words, these exercises in artificially intelligent 202Philosophy and Literature authorship are self-negating; they demonstrate the necessity of phenomenological presence, where the machine is "constantly being exposed in its insufficiency and saved from total disintegration only by the fact that it is sustained by our [readers'] imaginations" (p. 171). The works of cybernetic fiction utilize a variety of strategies to juxtapose technical autonomy with uncertainty and ineffability. These range from the paranoid visions of a technological society in Vonnegut's Player Piano, Pynchon 's "elaborate systems and metaphors whose purpose is to make the reader aware of the special place beyond systems and codes and information where our humanness resides" (p. 117), and the formalistic discourses and "computer-authors" which exhibit their own limits in works by Barth, Beckett, McElroy, and Barthelme. For instance, author-as-mechanism manifests itself in distinctive literary devices such as the clipped, subject-free, "machine language" in Samuel Beckett 's The Lost Ones. At the same time, the machine language's authorship is undermined by oxymorons, blatant contradictions between successive passages , abundant qualifiers and mitigating phrases, and obviously inaccurate calculations. This "language of uncertainty" intertwines with the machine language to dramatize the absurdity of the text's mechanistic posturing. Porush demonstrates how postmodern fiction parodies and resists the encroachment of positivist discourse and technique upon human intentionality and artistic creativity. His book is ultimately ambiguous, however, on the role cybernetic theory plays in this dialectic. At times, Porush presents cybernetics as an extension of positivism; a mechanistic language that attempts to encompass such "uniquely human" capacities as self-reflection and creativity, but which can only do so through a reductionist sleight-of-hand. At other times, however, he portrays the language of cybernetics as an author's resource for transcending the limits of a simpler positivism. One is left...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 201-202
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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