- Cybernetic Modernism and the Feedback Loop:Ezra Pound’s Poetics of Transmission
I am at best trying to provide the average reader with a few tools for dealing with the heteroclite mass of undigested information hurled at him daily and monthly.Ezra Pound
Fed up with the crowded and cacophonous world of early twentieth-century media culture, Ezra Pound makes this grouchy declaration in the early pages of his 1938 Guide to Kulchur.1 As he sees it, the world is becoming ever more saturated with disorganized information, and readers of all persuasions are in desperate need of tools to help them negotiate their social reality. These sentiments underscore Pound’s commitment, in both his critical writing and his poetry, to developing communication strategies capable of sifting through and making sense of modernity’s “heteroclite mass of undigested information.” In the pages to come, I trace how this ambition permeates the infamous Radio Rome broadcasts and finds powerful creative expression in the poetics of the Chinese History Cantos. Most crucially, though, I cast this valence, which is not only an aspect of Pound’s writing but also literary modernism more broadly, as an aesthetic counterpart to the technological and scientific discourse of World War II cybernetics.
Cybernetics was the brainchild of Norbert Wiener, an MIT mathematician who maintained such a highly fraught influence on the field of twentieth-century communication technology that recent biographers have hailed him as the “dark hero of the information age.”2 Wiener coined “cybernetics” by adapting the [End Page 89] Greek term “kubernētēs”—meaning “steersman” or “governor.”3 He initially described the technology-based discipline as the science of “control and communication in the animal and the machine.”4 As more recent definitions appearing on the American Society for Cybernetics (ASC) website helpfully clarify, cybernetics “was adopted in the 1940s at MIT to refer to a way of thinking about how complex systems coordinate themselves in action.” It “was originally formulated as a way of producing mathematical descriptions of systems and machines,” and it comprises “the study of systems which can be mapped using loops (or more complicated looping structures) in the network defining the flow of information.”5 I contend that Wiener’s theories have important implications for the work of modernist scholarship: his concepts of cybernetic feedback loops and mechanical learning enable a new understanding of modernists’ intense preoccupation with information culture. Wiener, I show, helps us read modernism’s experimental communication structures and understand how authors situate meaning at the intersection of evolving linguistic pattern and readerly response. Cybernetic theories enable us to see how these artistic strategies attune audiences to particular ways of reading—cybernetic ways of reading—that are essential for negotiating the data-saturated spaces of modernity.
This interpretive context repositions the cultural significance of specific texts like Pound’s Cantos, which emerge as fundamentally linked to and in sync with the technological discourses of the twentieth century’s complex communication networks. At the same time, and perhaps more importantly, my reading also casts modernist literature as an essential yet underexplored component in the lineage of cybernetic thought. From this perspective, the general trends of modernism’s literary aesthetics as well as Pound’s unique experiments with poetic form can fundamentally reorient our understanding of Wiener’s theories. Rather than standing as the original, founding articulation of cybernetic thought, his work finds its place within a much broader cultural network of feedback loops, one that integrates not only statistical and technological but also aesthetic transmissions.
Cybernetics: A Comparative Critical Context
Robert Crawford’s The Modern Poet, in its chapter on “Modernist Cybernetics and the Poetry of Knowledge,” anticipates my use of cybernetics as an interpretive framework for modernist literature. Crawford’s discussion of the connections that bind modernist poetry to academia gives works by T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, and Hugh Mac-Diarmid the most prominent treatment, but posits that the Cantos “mark the growth of that modernist poetry so involved with the government of knowledge that it can be called cybernetic.”6 His comment notwithstanding, cybernetics constitutes rather an anomalous point of departure for modernist (and, more specifically, Poundian) poetic analysis...