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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. Compared to the majority of technological contexts that recent modernist critics have explored, and cultural frameworks that dominate Pound scholarship (Italian fascism, education, Chinese history, translation, among others), cybernetics is rather more unlikely.7 We rarely—if ever—encounter explicit references to cybernetics, [End Page 90] computers, Norbert Wiener, or mechanized feats of large-scale data processing in modernist literature. Nonetheless, I want to posit Wiener’s midcentury conception of cybernetics as an essential comparative context for comprehending the far-reaching circuits of cultural exchange that link technological cybernetics to modernist aesthetics. Most importantly, cybernetics opens up a crucial set of insights into one of modernist literary experimentation’s important cultural contexts: its position within the twentieth century’s increasingly complex, technologically driven networks of, as Wiener puts it, “control and communication.”

This phrase, a useful entry point into cybernetic theory, comes from a technical treatise that Wiener published in 1948. In both Cybernetics; or, Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine and his more sociologically focused The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society (1950), Wiener outlines the “theory of messages” that he had been developing with a group of scientists over the previous decade (Human Use, 77). To twenty-first-century readers, the word “cybernetics” might most immediately conjure the image of a dystopic sci-fi future, in which machines with artificial intelligence have turned on their human creators, and cyborgs control the world. While the discipline—even as early as Wiener’s first treatises—certainly does pursue the interface between human and machine communication, the science of cybernetics is far less apocalyptic and single-minded in scope.8 As the ASC constitution proclaims, cybernetics concepts are “applicable to any empirical domain in which processes of communication and their numerous correlates occur,” and its “applications … are widespread, notably in the computer and information sciences, in the natural and social sciences, in politics, education and management.”9 This general concept of cybernetics as a widely applicable way of thinking is already present in Wiener’s midcentury texts; his most well-known monographs—whose publication dates closely coincide with those of the middle installments of the Cantos—illustrate the discipline’s far-reaching implications for nearly all aspects of human life and cognition. As the ASC constitution makes explicit, this range of influence includes the fields of science, politics, education, and management; however, out of the mathematical discourse of cybernetics, there also emerges an underexplored, yet significant, set of connections to the arts and to modernism.10

Crawford’s The Modern Poet provides a starting point for thinking through these connections. He traces the biographical points of contact between Eliot and Wiener: they were fellow Harvard students who studied under Josiah Royce only one academic year apart; they “shared interests in the foundations of knowledge and in the work of such philosophers as Leibniz, William James, Bradley, and Bergson”; and they maintained “close contact” in 1914–15, when they both lived in England (185). Crawford convincingly explicates the commonalities between Wiener’s theories and Eliot’s critical writing (“Tradition and the Individual Talent” in particular), arguing that they both emphasize “the vital part played by the transmission of information in structuring a community” (187). Furthermore, he makes general claims for the aptness of reading modernist texts through a cybernetic lens: “Cybernetics emphasizes the transmission of information as crucial, and as constructing both the communities and the relational [End Page 91] patterns on which knowledge depends. So does modernist poetry. Its constant use of textual and cultural allusion sets up a potentially endless knowledge and information flow, and seems designed to do so” (189). In the service of his ultimate rhetorical goal, Crawford frequently uses the notion of cybernetics as a conceptual analogy for general notions of computer- or hypertext-based modes of expression.11 As he explicitly acknowledges, “The cybernetically developed computer systems of postmodernity allow us to comprehend better the poetry of literary modernism … [because] they provide analogies that did not exist at the time” (190; emphasis added).

My argument builds from Crawford’s analogical use of Wiener’s ideas; however, my reading of Pound parses one specific component of the cybernetics analogy—the feedback loop—in order to gain a new perspective on his pedagogical aesthetics. First, though, I want to invert Crawford’s analogy and cast Wiener’s theories in terms of wider modernist cultural perspectives. In doing so, I aim to resituate our understanding of cybernetics’ constituent features and communicative goals in the aesthetic realm. From this perspective, modernism’s experiments with literary form become just as crucial to cybernetics’ cultural significance as any of the “ultra-rapid computing machines” that Wiener and his colleagues developed in their MIT labs (Human Use, 157).

The Modernist Aesthetics of Norbert Wiener’s Cybernetics

As evidence of his underlying preoccupation with matters of aesthetic import and his cultural ties to literary modernism, we can consider the premise on which Wiener bases his explanation of cybernetics: for humans, he writes, “the beginning of the twentieth century marked more than the end of one hundred-year period and the start of another” (Human Use, 7). In singling out the turn of the twentieth century as a pronounced moment of historical separation, Wiener here echoes the definitional catchphrase of modernism as a “break with the past.” Wiener’s words even more directly recall Virginia Woolf’s oft-cited proclamation, “On or about December 1910, human character changed”; as the mathematician goes on to say, humans experienced “a real change of point of view” (7).12 The theory he proceeds to articulate is most overtly concerned with the scientific and sociological fields—he emphasizes connections between the new twentieth-century “point of view” and the emerging technologies that increasingly permeate our information transmission and communication systems. However, the phrase’s sensory dimensions also implicitly signal Wiener’s imbrication within a particular aesthetic realm—a modernist one.

Pericles Lewis defines modernist aesthetics as a response to a twofold “crisis of representation”: “a crisis in what could be represented and a crisis in how it should be represented.”13 This statement also provides a helpful way to understand Wiener’s theories. Within cybernetics’ complex discourse of statistics and prediction, the technical concepts of “transmission” and “encoding” take the place of Lewis’s “representation”—the process of encoding serves to represent information as data, so it can be transmitted over various media channels. Wiener’s theories and experiments attempt to mitigate a pressing “crisis” in this field of twentieth-century communications. In the wake of new [End Page 92] technological developments, he recognizes, humans must suddenly confront “the limits of communication within and among individuals” and negotiate a daunting communicational context wherein “messages between man and machines, between machines and man, and between machine and machine, are destined to play an ever-increasing part” (Human Use, 16–17). Wiener’s work maps the affinity between mechanical and human modes of communication and seeks innovative ways to understand, refine, and regulate their new forms of interaction. In doing so, though, the cyberneticist assumes not only a scientific role but also a stance that valorizes aesthetics as a powerful tool for combatting this new communication crisis.

The aesthetic dimensions of Wiener’s approach to information transmission are visible in a late chapter of The Human Use of Human Beings, where he explicates the processes through which information accrues value by comparing them to the ways art objects acquire value. “The problem of the work of art as a commodity,” he begins, “raises a large number of questions important in the theory of information” (117). It soon becomes clear that the work of art’s “importance” for Wiener lies in its distinct relationship to originality, innovation, and newness—three of the definitional touchstones of modernism: “The informative value of a painting or a piece of literature cannot be judged without knowing what it contains that is not easily available to the public in contemporary or earlier works” (119). The implications of this statement extend far beyond painting and literature and in fact encapsulate Wiener’s understanding of all “informative value.” “A piece of information, in order to contribute to the general information of the community,” he continues, “must say something substantially different from the community’s previous stock of information” (119). This unfolding argument, as it circulates among and builds up a range of artistic examples, gradually but persistently establishes the notion of innovative aesthetic form as crucial to all informational contexts.

This fixation on form allows Wiener to move seamlessly from a discussion of Picasso (“who runs through many periods and phases, ends up by saying all those things which are on the tip of the tongue of the age to say, and finally sterilizes the originality of his contemporaries and juniors”) to an account of the “technique of war” (where “the efficacy of a weapon depends on precisely what other weapons there are to meet it at a given time”) and finally to the sweeping statement that “even in the most material field, production and security are in the long run matters of continued invention and development” (120–21). In short, he casts the evolution of information as a pandisciplinary pursuit of “perpetually advancing” formal responsiveness (122). This goal unites the artist, the cyberneticist, and indeed all subjects as participants in the “continuous process by which we observe the outer world, and [attempt to] act effectively upon it” (122).

As it orchestrates a semantic drift between aesthetic and informational value and between Picasso’s paintings and the technologies of modern warfare, Wiener’s argument also formally enacts the concept of feedback that is crucial to his own technological experiments. Feedback, in Wiener’s words, is “the property of being able to adjust future conduct by past performance” (33). For humans, this idea signifies the ability to learn from the messages we receive and then respond by adapting our behavior so as to make [End Page 93] our future actions more effective. In perhaps the most significant technological twist of cybernetics, Wiener posits that this adaptive-response capacity can function across the human-machine divide. “It is my thesis,” he writes, “that the physical functioning of the living individual and the operation of some of the newer communication machines are precisely parallel in their analogous attempts to control entropy through feedback” (26).14 Within this new world of technologically driven communication, Wiener is saying, machines can learn from experience just as humans can. The contentious nature of his proposition further establishes his modernist affinities, given modernists’ oft-touted “resolve” to “make radical linguistic experiment” and “startle and disturb the public.”15 Cybernetic feedback radically breaks down any rhetorical structures that posit human perceptual experience as distinct from or superior to mechanical existence, positioning the two in formal alignment.

We can see a techno-aestheticized version of feedback at work in the kick-start project for Wiener’s theories: a series of attempts, during World War II, to develop an automated antiaircraft gun that could accurately predict enemy flight paths based on a mathematically calculated understanding of their likelihood. This cybernetic antiaircraft machine, by constantly adjusting to the “feedback” it received in the form of an ever-accumulating series of data sets about past flight paths, would alter its behavior to more effectively aim its shells.16 The machine deployed statistics, the “science of distribution” to combat what Wiener recognized as “a fundamental element of chance in the texture of the universe itself” (8, 11). Pilots, as human agents, may be unpredictable in their evasion tactics; however, various factors (mechanical, psychological, geographical, meteorological) limit their range of possible flight paths. These limitations, posits Wiener, make it possible to find a pattern within the past routes that planes have flown and to organize these data in order to more accurately predict which route a given plane will likely take this time. There is something astonishingly modernist in the image of this machine at work, especially if we consider its actions in light of Michael Levenson’s basic description of literary modernism as “the act of fragmenting unities” (introduction to Cambridge Companion to Modernism, 3). Through fragmented syntax and linguistic repatterning, we get the aesthetic utterance of the modernist text. Through fragmented data and its patterned reinterpretation, we get the cybernetic machine’s version of this modernist aesthetic: an arc of bullets, perfectly aligned with a plane’s future position. It is futurism’s fantastical vision of aestheticized warfare come to life.17 To again quote Levenson, for both the modernist artist and the cybernetic theorist, “nothing [is] beyond the reach of technical concern” (4).

The goal of the cybernetic antiaircraft machine, in this scenario, is to process and interpret large quantities of fed-back information at fast enough speeds to be effective. In its use of stored-up (“shored”-up, the modernist might say) information from the past to recalibrate and alter future actions, we see a feedback loop at work. To put it in Wiener’s more theoretical terms, the cybernetic device mobilizes feedback to decipher a reliable “form of pattern and organization” that will render an incoming “message” (in this case, the enemy plane’s flight path) more “predictable” (i.e. legible, comprehensible, and therefore hit-able) (Human Use, 21). The cybernetic machine, [End Page 94] though, as it flexibly adjusts and responds to feedback, is valuable for more than simply its wartime efficiency. It also accrues informational value by engaging in and improving on aesthetic practices that we usually only associate with human ingenuity: interpretation and creativity. As a cognitive “extension of man” (to quote Marshall McLuhan’s popularization of the phrase Wiener also used), the cybernetic machine replicates and adapts these practices to conjure new forms of communication within a realm of data whose quantity and speed exceed human intellectual capabilities.18

Modernist literary practice thus offers a generative analogy for recasting the technical elements of Wiener’s cybernetic experiments in aesthetic terms and focusing our attention on the moments where he reveals his artistic affinities. “In the arts, the desire to find new things to say and new ways of saying them is the source of all life and interest,” he observes; his point, though, is that this drive is also crucial to any “scientific artist” who hopes to actually have something valuable “to communicate” (Human Use, 134–35). If we read these statements as imbricated in the aesthetic discourse of literary modernism, with its experimental techniques that strive to awaken readers to new valences of human perception in the twentieth century, our notion of scientific cybernetics necessarily expands and evolves.

This new perspective that posits cybernetic technologies as embodying a distinctly modernist communication aesthetic as they identify and create new forms also opens up new readings of modernist texts. Wiener’s discussions of human-machine cognitive affinities perhaps speak most explicitly to authors like F. T. Marinetti, George Orwell, or Aldous Huxley, whose technology-riddled visions of the future emphatically blur the lines separating human figures from their mechanical counterparts. Looking back to a slightly earlier cultural moment, we might even consider Sherlock Holmes’s data-crunching brilliance as part of this cybernetic tradition. Less obvious, but nonetheless rich in possibility are the potential connections we can draw between cybernetic feedback—construed as a dynamic process of evolving intersubjective responses—and modernist explorations of interiority. Virginia Woolf’s 1931 novel The Waves, for example, offers a multifaceted portrait of human subjectivity and its ever-adapting affective capacities. Understood in terms of cybernetic feedback, this text enacts a theory of associative language and fluid relationships that dramatizes strategies for negotiating the affective “data” of personal experience.

Furthermore, cybernetics offers new approaches to comprehending modernism’s famously fragmented and expansive literary works—texts like John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy, James Joyce’s Ulysses and Dubliners, Jean Toomer’s Cane, T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”, or even Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project. Cybernetic theories of communication emphasize the productive interplay between pattern and randomness, and they deploy statistics and feedback to harness the information potential in large-scale data sets.19 As interpretive frameworks, these concepts can help us unpack the often-baffling informational content and communication strategies that modernists deploy to represent the twentieth century’s complex political, cultural, racial, and economic matrices.

Within this last group of texts, Ezra Pound’s Cantos takes its place as one of the most fragmented and expansive. Indeed, a cybernetics-inflected reading is especially apt in [End Page 95] the case of a poet like Pound, who relentlessly and self-consciously commits himself to the pursuit of literary production as a form of cultural “transmission”: his poems incorporate elaborate patterns designed to communicate a message about information processing within the data-saturated modern world. Pound’s poetics, I contend, resonate with but also aesthetically exceed the transmission structures that constitute cybernetic theory.

The Feedback Loop: Idealized Poundian Transmission

Pound’s poetry constitutes a rich point of departure for tracing modernism’s relationship to cybernetic communication structures thanks to several shared preoccupations that closely link the theoretical explanation and practical application of cybernetics to the pedagogical ambitions and poetic innovations of Pound. First and foremost, both interrogate the networks that shape information transmission in the twentieth century. Wiener and Pound strive, in their respective writings, to lay bare the structures of language, interpretation, and learning that govern communication within their highly wrought, data-saturated culture. Significantly, both do so by envisioning communication as a two-part process of creating aesthetic responses to feedback. This process involves the interplay between, on the one hand, the discernment and articulation of organized patterns, and, on the other, a constant practice of responsive and flexible adaptation to ever-accumulating information.20 For both the poet and the cyberneticist, this interplay is essential to any transmission—poetic, electric, human generated, machine derived—and the project of communicating effective messages will inevitably fall short if either component is missing.

Wiener, I have illustrated, stages the cybernetic machine’s approach to this type of communication as a function of feedback—through the feedback loop, statistical pattern finding meets and melds with responsive adaptability, and the machine learns how to improve its future actions. Pound, I propose, offers a literary rendering of this communicative structure, albeit one that requires some interpretive untangling. The concept of the cybernetic feedback loop, in my reading, constitutes an ideal technological schema for exploring and clarifying the strategies of transmission that Pound espouses and enacts through his formal, thematic, and linguistic techniques. These strategies permeate the Cantos as a whole, but are especially evident in the 1940 sequence of poems known as the Chinese History Cantos. Furthermore, the ideas extend beyond his poetry and find a clear voice in his broadcast speeches.

By positing that cybernetics’ technological communication structures are richly echoed in Pound’s poetic strategies, I am also asking us to revise the standard critical accounts of the relationship between Pound’s work and emergent twentieth-century technologies. After all, critics most frequently discuss Pound in the technological context of radio. This pairing can be largely attributed to his Radio Rome broadcasts, which defined his later life and career trajectory, as well as much of his critical reception. As Jane Lewty explains, the broadcasts “intrude themselves insistently into any discussion of [Pound’s] achievements. They preclude any praise of Pound or dampen [End Page 96] existing arguments for his genius, his generosity, and his status in twentieth-century poetics.”21 Furthermore, radio is often understood, both formally and metaphorically, as a technological counterpart to Pound’s poetry itself. In radio, Lewty writes, “Pound had found the ideal medium for his multitude of voices” and (here she quotes Forrest Read) “the apt medium for expressing the kind of modern language he had created” (204, 210). The Cantos, in this context, become “a radio-imbued text,” and Lewty deftly employs the trope of radio to explore the sonic elements of Pound’s work (206).22 Pound and his poetry, her argument suggests, make most sense when we understand their writerly, textual, political, and formal elements in the context of radio—the disembodied sonic medium that got Pound, in the long run, into so much trouble.

Yet however generative a radiogenic reading of Pound might be on various formal and biographical levels, this context for interpretation elides at least one of the poet’s core convictions about communication: his repeatedly articulated commitment to the ideal (if perhaps not always the practice) of transmission as a flexible process of circulation and response—in short, as a feedback loop. Radio’s formal characteristics are, after all, infamous in twentieth-century media theory for preventing response and for the ease with which they can be put to the service of authoritarian registers. As Lewty herself remarks, there is a connection between the medium and those “figures in Modernist literature [who] are frequently suspended in stasis and unable to communicate; they act as silent broadcasters fruitlessly emitting signals” (200; emphasis added). In addition, she notes, fascism “might be conceived as a radio relay, whereby static is twisted into a formative address heard by listeners who cannot reply” (210; emphasis added).23 The fact that radio forecloses the possibility of response from its audience might seem to fit snugly with Pound’s World War II political leanings, and the connection certainly opens up productive avenues of interpretation.24 However, the idea of such a relationship between poet and medium is undermined by the fact that Pound’s decision to take to the airwaves was necessitated by World War II’s far-reaching blockages of transmission—textual, technological, and financial—rather than any inherent desire on his part to embrace radio.

In many senses, Pound turned to radio broadcasting as a last resort. He needed money desperately, since Italy’s allegiance with Germany had cut off his access to American and British-based funds.25 He was also at a loss for alternative publishing venues. As he put it, radio was “the ONLY medium still open for free (if you can call it free) communication with the outer world.”26 This sentence’s brief parenthesis reveals Pound’s ambivalent relationship with the broadcasting medium: its capacities for unhindered transmission are suspect, especially insofar as large broadcasting institutions, the BBC in particular, are concerned.27 He may stake out an aesthetic affinity between the medium’s multivocal elements and his own work (he claims that he “anticipated the damn thing in the first third of the Cantos”); however, he states that he was only able to write Cantos 52–71 “because I was the last survivin’ monolith who did not have a bloody radio in the ’ome” (Ezra Pound Speaking, 343).28 In addition to being a source of auditory annoyance “pok[ing] into every bleedin’ ’ome and smearing the mind of the peapull,” then, for Pound radio also represented a hindrance to the very possibility of artistic production (Selected Letters, 343). [End Page 97]

These biographical anecdotes mirror my larger argument about Pound’s aesthetics: that the Cantos’ rhetorical ambitions and communicational attempts extend further than the radio’s form allows us to see. The poems deliberately position their voices, utterances, quotations, and textual fragments in relationships that the audience can only understand by cultivating an ability to simultaneously recognize patterns and respond to their evolving forms. In doing so, the Cantos foster a set of interpretive and learning strategies particularly fitting to twentieth-century modernity: they obliquely teach readers about the cognitive faculties that are necessary for negotiating large quantities of information. From this perspective, the aesthetic dimensions of Wiener’s technological cybernetics, with their statistical data processing and intricate feedback loops, attune us to the complex articulation and operation of these specific valences of communication within Pound’s poetic transmissions.

Circulation and Dialogue versus Blockage and Obfuscation

Wiener’s theories of cybernetic communication and feedback-loop learning cast into relief a few key aspects of Pound’s own critical and nonpoetic writings, which frame my discussion of the Chinese History Cantos. Perhaps most importantly, the underlying structure of communication that organizes Wiener’s cybernetics prompts us to reconsider Pound’s vehemently articulated convictions about linguistic transmission. That the concept of transmission constitutes a central concern for Pound is a well-established critical truism. As Lawrence S. Rainey notes, even early Pound critics like Hugh Kenner were “deeply aware that transmission (motz) was crucial in the constitution of his work.”29 However, the notion of the cybernetic feedback loop allows us to zoom in on and reframe a particular element of Pound’s vision for ideal transmission: circulation. Cybernetic communication absolutely relies on a circular flow of information. As Heinz von Foerster (one of Wiener’s contemporaries) puts it, “Should one name one central concept, a first principle, of cybernetics, it would be circularity.”30 Pound, too, holds up “circularity”—often articulated in his writings through the trope of “circulation”—as an important cultural, economic, and aesthetic value. Rebecca Beasley refers to one of Pound’s early invocations of the term when she cites a 1917 essay he published in Poetry. The importance of what Pound called “the free circulation of thought,” she writes, “had become his chief preoccupation” (Ezra Pound and the Visual Culture of Modernism, 8). Other critics obliquely echo this sentiment by highlighting the importance of active dialogue—that is, interpersonal interactions that enabled Pound to informally circulate his ideas—to his intellectual and artistic formation. Steven G. Yao and Michael Coyle posit that Pound developed a “deep attraction to education in the shape of conversations among people who come to know one another personally.”31 Taking the inverse approach, John Xiros Cooper contends that the increasing “impenetrability” of Pound’s work after the 1920s “was the result of his relative isolation from a vigorous daily dialogue with those who disagreed with him. Without the back and forth of argument, response, and reformulation,” he argues, “Pound’s thought seemed more and more frozen and incomprehensible as the years [End Page 98] passed.”32 While I would challenge the notion of Pound’s later work as irretrievably “frozen and incomprehensible,” the idea that his mental flexibility suffered when he was cut off from his peers’ feedback is particularly resonant in the context of cybernetics. It implies that Pound—and his poetry—flourished best when he could circulate and receive feedback on ideas; his ideal mode of transmission comprised a dynamic loop of feedback and response.

The fact that Pound embraced a model of transmission predicated on the circulation rather than simply the dissemination of information and ideas emerges in a variety of contexts. Ironically enough, he emphasizes this stance in many of his own radio broadcasts, where he repeatedly denounces institutions and systems whose culpability lies in the fact that they impede the circulation of information and thus foreclose the possibility for cultural feedback and learning. The term “circulation” itself appears here most frequently in the context of economics. To Pound’s thinking (thanks to the influence of C. H. Douglas’s theories of social credit), circulation should be the driving force behind economic systems—specifically, he valorizes the public circulation of debt-free currency.33 From his perspective, America’s financial institutions have been “handed over to VERMIN” who declare that they “‘can not permit the circulation of greenbacks,’ can not permit the circulation of NATIONAL money … because [they] cannot control ’em” (Ezra Pound Speaking, 63). As a result of this refusal to allow currency to properly circulate (as Pound’s argument goes), the country is locked in economic stagnation—usury rules the financial world, and “billions of DEBT” are allowed to accumulate (91).

Usury appears as a dominant theme throughout the broadcasts (as it does in the later cantos), frequently in conjunction with the motif of wartime economics. World War II, specifically, becomes one of Pound’s most frequently cited examples of usury-in-action and, by extension, of blocked economic circulation. Pound believes that Europe’s ongoing war is the product of an international conspiracy to control the world by saddling everyone in it with massive amounts of debt, thus crippling the postwar circulation of currency. The larger lines of this argument nearly always get bogged down in anti-Semitic rhetoric.34 Despite the virulently offensive nature of so much of their content, however, Pound’s controversial comments also reveal a much more benign (albeit politically charged) belief in the social and cultural imperative to keep not only money but also information, news, ideas, and art in active circulation. In discussing the war’s negative effects on these latter elements, Pound focuses on the literal blockage of movement and transportation. When mail, books, and newspapers cannot move freely across international borders, people lose access to the types of ideas that are emerging in other countries. So much, at least, Pound proclaims on the air in January 1942: “England was CUT off,” he states, “from the current of European thought during and BY the Napoleonic Wars. … [S]he never got ketched up again [and is] … Always laggin’ behind” (Ezra Pound Speaking, 20). A few months later (April 30, 1942) he bluntly posits that “isolations of this kind are BAD for a nation” (65). In cybernetic terms, these war-induced isolations thwart the feedback loop of cultural learning that Pound deems essential to human thought.35 [End Page 99]

Another important context that provides a frequent point of reference for Pound’s evocations of circulation as a communicative value is public education. Throughout the broadcasts, Pound castigates twentieth-century educational institutions, most frequently for what he considers their calculatedly patchy approaches to teaching history and economics. Blunt as ever, he proclaims: “My generation was brought up ham ignorant of economics. History was taught with OMISSIONS of the most vital facts”; “we WERE being taught to forget” (Ezra Pound Speaking, 41, 45). Pound’s 1938 book Guide to Kulchur presages these indignant broadcast passages; in this earlier text, he already evinces a belief that “whole beams and ropes of real history have been shelved, overclouded and buried” and that “history as it was written the day before yesterday is unwittingly partial; full of fatal lacunae” (31). The detrimental effects of a “partial” version of history gain magnitude in light of a cybernetic communication aesthetic, which illuminates the rationale behind Pound’s emphasis on pedagogical practice in so much of his writing. Cybernetics, like Pound, operates on the premise that access to information about past behavior is essential to the process of learning. A blockage in the circulation of this information is synonymous with a rift in the cybernetic feedback loop: it can cause irreparable systemic confusion, and thus impede any individual’s ability to effectively think and creatively act within the present.

Collectively, these statements about the failure of circulation in Pound’s contemporary cultural context (whether the result of federal decisions to curb the circulation of currency, wartime governmental tactics, or educational trends) serve to conjure, through negation, the outlines of an idealized poetics of transmission—one that Pound strives to create in the Cantos. In his ideal realm of communication, feedback will play an essential role, and readers will have unimpeded access to the “data” of the past. They will therefore be able to continually reorient their relationship to the rich yet ever-shifting stores of information available in the twentieth-century present. The impetus for this ambition appears in a statement Pound makes early in his broadcast career, which clearly reveals the ethical imperative underlying his belief in the importance of literary tradition as a feedback loop:

I thought in 1908 and before that a nation’s literature IS important. State of a nation’s literature, is important. Words, means of communication, literature, the most condensed form of communication, communication of the most basic and essential facts, ideas necessary for leading the good life, registered in the best books.

And man’s duty, as soon as he is fully a man, is to keep those books, to keep that tradition available. Keep it handy.

(Ezra Pound Speaking, 53)

By the time he aired these remarks in April 1942, Pound clearly saw the poet’s mission as more than simply keeping information handy—it needed to be brought back out of obscurity and put into circulation. A cybernetics-based aesthetic of circulating communication helpfully enables us to read Pound, in his engagement with these complex processes, as attempting to kick-start a specific kind of feedback loop—to reintroduce into cultural circulation a whole slew of discourses from the forgotten past that will improve his readers’ abilities to think and act in the present. This model of [End Page 100] transmission and communication, Pound hopes, will enable his audiences to engage with twentieth-century modernity in productive ways. To do so—that is, to develop strategies for learning from and adapting to the generative feedback loops that emerge in Pound’s carefully configured poetic messages—readers must assume the role of cybernetic machines.

Becoming Cybernetic Machines: Reading the Chinese History Cantos

Wiener’s cybernetic machine is a device that first processes and makes sense of large quantities of data and then mobilizes the feedback it receives to learn from the past and adjust its future performance. As we have seen, the transmission ideals that Pound articulates in his broadcasts reveal that he, too, valorizes the capacity not simply to discern patterns in the annals of history but, more importantly, to make them useful in the present. This approach to an aesthetics of transmission permeates the Chinese History Cantos, and by tracing its permutations, we gain insight into the particular cybernetic stakes of Pound’s larger body of work. The poems’ inclusion of a sweeping range of data from across the history of China’s dynasties and the way in which those data create linguistic patterns that circulate in relation to one another (and to the present) cultivate in readers a distinctly cybernetic set of critical faculties.

China’s linguistic, economic, political, and religious traditions, of course, fascinated Pound from his first encounters with Ernest Fenollosa’s notebooks, which led to his theory of the poetic ideogram and his early Cathay poem-translations.36 Within the nine-poem sequence of the Chinese History Cantos, though, Pound further elevates China’s position within his poetic oeuvre by giving it the most sustained, uninterrupted treatment of any global culture that appears in the Cantos: he charts the chronology of China’s dynastic leaders across thirty-five hundred years of history and more than eighty pages of poetry. Published only two years before Pound broadcast his ambition to “keep [tradition] handy,” the sequence epitomizes this communication-centered goal. And although the poems have received scant critical treatment, they offer a unique and often startlingly beautiful blending of historical chronology and poetic form that lends itself to a cybernetic-inflected reading.37 Because they structure their subject matter as a lengthy series of legible facts, rather than as spliced fragments of varied, often opaque, historical reference (as is the case in many other Cantos), it becomes all the more appropriate to conceive of their details as sequences of interrelated data, data that evoke thematic patterns from the past.

Perhaps the most pervasive theme within the Chinese History Cantos circulates around the concept and practice of leadership, and Pound’s treatment of this theme offers a compelling case study in the cybernetic dimensions of his modernist poetics. He crafts a complex vision of leadership through various linguistic motifs and historical anecdotes. These data create overlapping patterns, which feed back into one another as they affect readers’ ever-evolving understanding of not only the qualities necessary for effective political leadership in ancient China but also the human characteristics necessary for effective information processing in the present. The poetic sequence [End Page 101] ends up subtly imparting a lesson about the cybernetic nature of learning that takes place in modernity, when all people must confront the types and ranges of information with which past leaders grappled.

One of the central linguistic motifs that shapes this pattern is none other than the three-word phrase that has become a stand-in for the underlying intentions and ambitions of Pound’s work (and even modernism as a whole) writ large: “MAKE IT NEW.”38 It is not surprising that the sentence resonates so widely. After all, the potential connotations of the three short words are myriad: the verb “make” possesses remarkable flexibility in its far-reaching associations with construction, innovation, and creativity; the pronoun “it” is notable in its utter lack of fixed referent (and consequently limitless potential significations); and the adjective “new” shimmers with the indistinct aura of novelty and progress. As the kernel of an expansive poetic pattern (i.e., the “acorn” that will give rise to the “oak” in Pound’s 1913 essay), “MAKE IT NEW” is ideal in its capacity for near infinite replication across a huge spectrum of contexts.39

From a cybernetic perspective, though, we can also consider the three words as a single “data set” within the complex informational transmission of the Chinese History Cantos (and, by extension, of the Cantos as a whole). As such, their status shifts. Rather than signifying the (singular, fixed, central) core of the sequence’s poetic message (again, singular), they become part of a vast feedback loop that positions readers as cybernetic machines by teaching the importance of flexible, responsive interpretation of messages (plural). We encounter multiple reiterations of the phrase’s underlying structure as the sequence unfolds, each of which resonates in distinct ways with our prior intellectual experiences and nuances our understanding of the Cantos’ emergent cultural, ethical and aesthetic principles. For example, immediately after the phrase “MAKE IT NEW” appears (an inscription “on [the emperor Tching’s] bathtub”) in Canto 53, Pound offers a four-line series of terse images that repetitively (and grammatically) echo its structure and meaning yet focus our attention on different valences of emphasis:

    Day by day make it newcut underbrush,pile the logskeep it growing.

(265)

As we see here, each line’s short phrase continues the essential imperative structure of the first “MAKE IT NEW” utterance but adds something to either qualify or elaborate its signification. The first line provides a three-word modifier that specifies the reach of the command: “making it new,” we read, is not meant to be a singular occurrence. Instead, it needs to happen on a “day by day” basis; it should be part of the pattern of quotidian life, an integral component of our existence and interactions with the world. The subsequent lines shift our attention to the practical application of the “make it new” concept and offer three distinct suggestions for fulfilling its invitation. Through their structural parallels, these lines extend the phrase’s verbal potential: to “make” becomes linked, in a network of transmissions, with the verbs “cut,” “pile,” and “keep.” Each line also specifies the types of things to which the central “it” of “make it new” [End Page 102] might refer (respectively, “underbrush,” “logs,” or a still somewhat nebulous something that we at least know has the capacity for “growing”).

We acquire new layers of conceptual feedback if we consider each phrase separately. The injunction to “cut underbrush” suggests an act of clearing away, pruning, thinning. Making it new, then, does not always involve positive production; perhaps unsurprisingly, the relentlessly self-edited author of “In a Station of the Metro” reminds us that thoughtful and careful removal can also be a creative act. In “pile the logs” we glean an impetus to organization, as the “new” in “make it new” also comes to signal new arrangements and configurations of existing things. Finally, the deliberate vagueness of “keep it growing” evokes a range of possible images circulating around ideas of maintenance and attention, the desire for longevity, and a commitment to gradual processes of development. We also encounter a more passive inflection of “mak[ing] it new,” in which the ability to facilitate one of nature’s most basic processes—“growing”—is valorized. Each of the lines thus elicits shifting responses as it feeds back into our cognitive network of linguistic understanding; the images prompt us to adjust our interpretation of the poem’s accumulating messages about transformative innovation in all of its variations.

Furthermore, an extended feedback loop has already subtly conditioned our understanding of the verb “to make”—and its implications within the context of leader-ship—in advance of its capitalized appearance. During the pages leading up to the bathtub inscription, Pound unleashes a cascade of descriptive images that, in their surface content, chart the accomplishments of different emperors under whom China alternately prospered and struggled. On Canto 53’s first page alone, the verb appears four different times: “Chin Nong … /made a plough that is used five thousand years”; “Souan yen … /made signs out of bird tracks”; “Hoang Ti contrived the making of bricks” and also “had four wives and 25 males of his making” (262; emphasis added). It also enters twice within the eight lines preceding “MAKE IT NEW,” once in reference to “Tching Tang,” who

  made discs with square holes in their middles  and gave these to the peoplewherewith they might buy grain      where there was grain

(264; emphasis added)

and once in German: “der im Baluba das Gewitter gemacht hat” (a rough translation would read “who made the storm in Baluba” [264; emphasis added]).40 Through these diverse iterations, Pound imbues his repeated verb with connotations ranging from the agricultural and the architectural through to the economic, meteorological, natural, and reproductive (this last also implying the establishment of patriarchal royal lineage). Each appearance of the verb “make” resonates with a core pattern about creativity and innovative governance but invites us to contemplate, firstly, how these central ideals shift as they transform across diverse contexts and secondly, how different leaders have put them into practice. By thus transmitting poetic images according to the accumulative logic of the feedback loop, Pound conjures a dizzyingly complex vision of the type of information-processing skills that Chinese leadership entailed. [End Page 103]

Thanks to the specific deeds, innovations, and lessons that Pound transcribes (and the various verbs that he uses to do so), the poems become, in many ways, an elaborate yet oblique treatise on the “making,” if you will, of a leader.41 “MAKE IT NEW,” from this perspective, constitutes a basic pattern that characterizes successful leadership—it’s what one must do to be “Lord of the four seas of China” (270). The sequence thus constitutes something of a “Mirrors of Princes” text, offering, as Bjorn Weiler puts it, “basic principles of rulerly conduct and of the structure and purpose of secular power,” or, more simply, a manual of “effective governance.”42 Insofar as Pound introduces the concept of governance into his poetry, his diverse examples from the past confirm, through their plurality, the complex and precarious flexibility that governing entails.43 Emperors must be able to assume an active role—this much is clear in Pound’s laudatory references to leaders who have taught concrete skills, invented practical and useful tools, managed the large-scale production of food and finances, and “founded” cities and familial dynasties (Cantos, 271). On the other hand, they must also excel at the more passive, yet equally essential, elements of governing: keeping things growing, letting things happen, and even, as an anecdote of Chao-Kong and the “pear-trees” exemplifies, simply sitting still and “deeming justice” (269).44

As a “Mirror of Princes” text, this poetry envisions the ideal leader as a type of cybernetic machine: capable of learning about, understanding the patterns of, and creatively acting within complex informational systems (economics, agriculture, lineage, etc.). However, the implications of this idealized figure shift within the context of the Cantos’ twentieth-century audience, in which every reader has access to the type of informational overload that the erstwhile “prince” might have experienced and must use this information to “govern” his or her conduct. Information transmitted through the intricate networks of communications media now democratically saturates the world. Audiences confront international radio broadcasts from Allied and Axis sources, widespread advertising campaigns designed to cultivate mass allegiance, and even, one could argue, the uniform curriculum of the public education system that Pound finds so deplorable. For readers situated within this culture of informational excess, the “lesson” of Pound’s historical references to leadership (a lesson that extends, of course, far beyond the bounds of the Chinese History Cantos) becomes part of a feedback loop designed to influence their own individual perspectives as well.

In short, all of Pound’s readers—not only idealized leaders like Confucius and the Chinese emperors we meet in this sequence or Adams, Mussolini, Malatesta, and the countless other figures who populate the Cantos—must wield the data-processing capacity of cybernetic machines. If leaders of the past had to respond to feedback in flexible, adaptive, and productive ways to become effective actors in their ever-unfolding, ever-shifting present, then by extension, the cybernetic lesson goes, so must we. Pound’s poems therefore invoke diverse historical, cultural, and aesthetic references in order to teach us about productive modes of engagement with large-scale informational transmissions. In doing so, they prompt a decidedly cybernetic response from readers. We enter into the information-processing cognitive space of the cybernetic machine as we adapt our understanding of creativity and innovation in the wake of the historical feedback Pound sends our way. [End Page 104]

Defying Data: Modernism’s Aesthetic Cybernetics

Before closing, I want to briefly parse the broader implications of this Pound-Wiener, poetics-cybernetics contextual comparison. We have seen how historical and linguistic patterns organize the myriad messages of the Chinese History Cantos according to the logic of the feedback loop; this principle promotes a constantly evolving recalibration of critical understanding as readers amass and process large quantities of information. This new perspective, which sees Pound’s poetry as a network of pedagogical transmissions that teach us to adopt the learning strategies of cybernetic machines, opens Pound-specific scholarship to several new avenues of analysis.45 However, the overall “payoff” of the cybernetic reading extends much further: it destabilizes and refigures the definitional boundaries of cybernetics as a whole and opens up modernist criticism to a vast network of unexplored feedback loops.

As the Cantos progress, Pound deploys cybernetic structures and modes of communication using tactics that unsettle our widespread assumptions about the privileged position of technology and data in cybernetic discourse. These subtle disruptions occur in places such as the second poem from the Rock Drill section of the Cantos (1955). Here, Pound enacts a cybernetic plurality of feedback loops as he amasses a compendium of multilingual, multicultural statements that project nearly analogous but never quite identical messages. Specifically, he emphasizes a painful irony of human conflict through echoed fragments of text. One passage includes a loosely translated quotation:

“Sono tutti eretici, San Padre,  ma non sono cattivi.”It can’t be all in one language”  “They are all prots YR HOLINESS,      but not bad.

(583)

A few pages later, a sequence of quoted phrases similarly reinforces the message:

“We don’t hate anybody.”      Quoted Konody,“We fight when our Emperor says so.”        (Austrians 1914)“Decent chaps” (Schwartz ’43)  “a shame that we have to fight ’em.”“Mais le prussien!  Le prussien    c’est un chic homme.”

(586)

In offering up so many examples of a shared sentiment (Why hate or kill our enemies? They may be wearing different uniforms from us, but they’re not so bad when it comes down to it), Canto 86 might seem a perfect candidate for a Wienerian, technology-based analogy. After all, Wiener’s theories deploy “ultra-rapid computing machines” to find patterns in ever-accumulating data sets of nearly identical messages.46 [End Page 105] Is Pound not asking his readers to exercise their capacity to engage in just such an interpretive pattern-seeking act as his repetitive poetic images accrue over multiple lines and myriad references?

In one way (as my reading of the “MAKE IT NEW” passage corroborates), he is. Readers unquestionably must take on the role of Wienerian cybernetic machines. However, Pound’s poetic invitation to cybernetic pattern seeking also runs counter to Wiener’s technological apparatus, which encodes all unique messages as uniform data for automatic, cybernetic processing. “It can’t all be in one language,” Pound writes, between translated scraps of text. This brief yet significant interjection signals the distinct cybernetic mode that he carves out for his poetics—a mode in which the generative potential of linguistic patterns exceeds the Wienerian analogy. The poetry’s layers of multilingual fragments enable a cybernetic reading not (as do Wiener’s machines) by coding each utterance into the consistent language of data but rather by preserving and presenting linguistic, cultural, and aesthetic difference as such. The fragments do not appear to us, as they would to a computer, “all … in one language.” Instead, they conjure cybernetic patterns through spliced and accumulating aesthetic encounters. Their informational value thus accrues in much the same way that Canto 53 stages its commentary on leadership—i.e., through multiple iterations of the verb “to make,” which generate an explosion of semantic feedback.

The Rock Drill poem makes the generative potential of cross-cultural linguistic feedback even more explicit. Feedback loops between echoed iterations emerge in a variety of ways. They appear in the contrasting shapes and sounds of words (the rat-a-tat of t and i in Italian, the rounder o, d, and b of English, French’s frequent double letters), in the common lilt of nearby phrases (notice how “fight ’em,” “fight when,” and “prussien” sonically overlap), in the connotations of historical figures (the passing reference to P. G. Konody might conjure a recollection of Wyndham Lewis’s BLAST, where the art critic’s name also appears), and in the recall of a prior context (Pound introduces the “Sono tutti eretici, Santo Padre” line earlier in the poem, that time alongside a sequence of German references) (580).47 These aestheticized feedback loops generate connotative spinoffs as they inflect our understanding of the poetry’s underlying messages. Through the poetry, Pound certainly enacts a cybernetic communication strategy. Its wildly looping linguistic feedback, however, presents an aesthetically excessive alternative to the regulated, statistical pattern seeking of Wiener’s prediction machines.

Given their conviction that twentieth-century modernity had surpassed “the limits of communication within and among individuals” as well as their imbrication in the urgency of World War II’s combat demands, it is not surprising that Wiener and his colleagues so wholeheartedly pursued technological, data-based solutions to their cybernetic pattern-processing problems (Human Use, 17). As I have demonstrated, there is an important aesthetic and creative dimension to these cybernetic technologies. Pound’s work, though, in its often-dazzling feats of multilinguistic and pancultural reference, represents an even more emphatically aestheticized version of cybernetic thought and learning. As such, it points us to an alternative, and important, dimension [End Page 106] of cybernetics’ cultural lineage: the arts. If, as I have argued, the language of cybernetic feedback provides a resonant cultural analogy for understanding Pound’s poetics, the comparison becomes even richer in light of the aesthetic feedback Pound reinserts into cybernetic discourse. Alongside Pound’s poetry, Wiener’s version of cybernetics accrues new aesthetic dimensions, and its status shifts. The technological, data-processing machines of his World War II experiments take their place as part of a longer and more diverse cultural lineage, in which modernist formal experimentation plays a central role.

I have sketched the outlines of Pound’s specific contributions to this aesthetics-driven cybernetics, in which poetic language provides an essential source of generative feedback. The work now remains to locate and trace additional feedback loops that inscribe modernist artistic practice within the pandisciplinary field of cybernetic communication. So-called high modernist authors, after all, only constitute one small part of the communication network. During the early years of the twentieth century, information access and data saturation increased not only in elite literary circles but also across the cultural spectrum—in the faster production rates of the popular press and news media outlets, in the high-volume documentary potential of scientific pursuits like photographic land surveying and mathematical modeling, and in the rise of amateur shortwave radio broadcasting and newsreel film production around the globe, to name only a few sites of major cybernetic change. Indeed, cybernetics’ core tenet of looping feedback circuits holds the potential to decenter the cultural stability of the modernist canon in the same way that this article’s reading of Pound displaces the technological science of cybernetics from its so-called originary position within the broader discourse. Cybernetic reading calls us to comprehend all cultural texts as imbricated within a multivalent, dynamic system of ever-adapting information networks. Pound’s work is particularly apt for implementing this type of approach, given its explicit involvement with various media channels and cultural contexts and its formal evolution (Pound is, after all, both the author of the Cantos and the founder of imagism).

Finally, this interpretive stance holds the potential to produce generative connections not only between modernist literary texts and their broader technological and cultural milieu but also between modernist literary studies and the technocentric disciplines that currently flourish around us. In the increasingly interdisciplinary academic world, an idea like “cybernetic modernism” brings the humanities into fresh contact with a broader scholarly community that includes both the social and hard sciences.48 Modernist authors—and modernist culture more broadly—contributed early and important ideas to the twentieth century’s evolving conceptions of information and data and also to its emergent understanding of technology’s social implications and subjective dimensions. By explicating these connections, we can showcase modernism’s status as a formative movement in the looping cultural lineage of cybernetic thought.

Heather A. Love

Heather A. Love is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of South Dakota. Her research explores connections between modernist literature and the twentieth century’s emergent fields of information and data processing, and she is working on a book about modernism’s cybernetic aesthetics.

Notes

1. Ezra Pound, Guide to Kulchur (London: Peter Owen, 1938), 23.

2. Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman, Dark Hero of the Information Age: In Search of Norbert Wiener, the Father of Cybernetics (New York: Basic Books, 2005). [End Page 107]

3. Norbert Weiner, The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society (Boston: Da Capo, 1954), 15. The monograph was first published in 1950.

4. Wiener’s first monograph-length study of cybernetic principles was titled Cybernetics; or, Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1948). All references are to the second edition, published in 1961, in which he discusses the title’s etymological referents on page 11.

5. As it evolved, the word “cybernetics” accrued a wide range of associations. These phrases come from the ASC’s current website (“Defining Cybernetics”), which provides more than forty quotations from sources in which scholars have developed their own definitions.

6. Robert Crawford, The Modern Poet: Poetry, Academia, and Knowledge since the 1750s (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 184.

7. In framing my discussion of modernism’s connections to technology in terms of its affinities with cybernetics, this article departs from the types of archives that recent modernist and early twentieth-century media scholars typically emphasize. Works such as Mark Wollaeger’s Modernism, Media, and Propaganda: British Narrative from 1900–1945 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006) situate modernist literary practice within a broader context of media culture and its effects on the public. Other critics focus on specific communication technologies and parse their relationship to modernist literature’s formal and cultural valences and their ability to illuminate those qualities—see, for example, Debra Rae Cohen, Michael Coyle, and Jane Lewty, eds., Broadcasting Modernism (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2009). A “techno-literary” approach, as showcased in Mark Goble’s Beautiful Circuits: Modernism and the Mediated Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010) and Katherine Biers’s Virtual Modernism: Writing and Technology in the Progressive Era (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), allows critics to extend the definitions of terms such as “mediation” and “virtuality” across disciplines and genres. This recent scholarship, with its compelling explorations of media such as the telegraph, the phonograph, radio, film, and even the postcard, has certainly influenced my own methodology. My turn to cybernetics, however, offers a distinct interpretive framework insofar as it links modernism with a technological field that did not yet exist during the early decades of the twentieth century. The connections that I establish between modernist texts and cybernetics therefore significantly alter our understanding of both modernism (i.e., its imbrication with twentieth-century technological innovation), and Wiener’s discipline (which accrues a much longer cultural lineage than has previously been ascribed to it).

Recent work exploring Pound’s poetry through varied contextual lenses includes Lawrence S. Rainey, ed., A Poem Containing History: Textual Studies in the “Cantos” (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997), Peter Makin, ed., Pound’s “Cantos”: A Casebook (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), Rebecca Beasley, Ezra Pound and the Visual Culture of Modernism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), Ira B. Nadel, ed., Ezra Pound in Context (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), David Barnes, “Fascist Aesthetics: Ezra Pound’s Cultural Negotiations in 1930s Italy,” Journal of Modern Literature 34, no. 1 (2010): 19–35, and Matthew Feldman, “The ‘Pound Case’ in Historical Perspective: An Archival Overview,” Journal of Modern Literature 35, no. 2 (2012): 83–97.

8. See Conway and Siegleman, Dark Hero of the Information Age, 279–81 and 320–21, for a discussion of the emergence of artificial intelligence (AI) as a field and the way in which governmental and military funding was funneled away from cybernetics toward AI in the middle decades of the twentieth century, which contributed to the former’s decline as a dominant conceptual framework for new technology in the popular imaginary.

10. Because cybernetics as both a concept and a field of inquiry is notoriously multivalent, it adopts various guises and assumes a range of emphases in the hands of different theorists and scholars. As Andrew Pickering puts it in The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches of Another Future, “There are many stories to be told of the evolution, the comings together, and the driftings apart of [the varied] threads [of scientific discourse that make up cybernetics]. … One can almost say that everyone can have their own history of cybernetics” (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010, 3). Pickering cites several examples of these “histories” (and indeed, his own book comprises one such example). Perhaps most well known to literary critics is N. Katherine Hayles’s How We Became Posthuman, in which she [End Page 108] parses cybernetics’ vexed relationship to questions of embodiment and challenges what she reads as the discipline’s tendency to “think of information as a kind of bodiless fluid that could flow between different substrates without loss of meaning or form” (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999, xi). Hayles explicates literary examples from mid- to late twentieth-century texts to trace a story of cybernetics’ cultural lineage into the present. Pickering offers a similar cybernetic timeline, though he draws examples primarily from British popular culture and psychiatry. By casting Wiener’s theories as counterparts to modernism’s literary innovations, my argument aligns with the interdisciplinary ambitions of these scholars. However, this project offers a chronologically “reverse” cybernetic history that instead positions the earlier context of modernist literature as a crucial yet typically overlooked element in the development of cybernetic thought.

11. As Crawford writes, “The closeness of some elements of [Hugh] MacDiarmid’s late poetry to the cybernetic textures and forms of the modern computer is one of his poetry’s splendours. … [It] anticipates and articulates for the first time in English the world of the computer with its databases and hypertext systems” (212, 216).

12. Virginia Woolf, Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown (London: Hogarth Press, 1924), 4.

13. Pericles Lewis, The Cambridge Introduction to Modernism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 2.

14. Wiener defines entropy as “nature’s statistical tendency to disorder,” and opposes it to “organization and its correlative, information” (29, 31).

15. Michael Levenson, introduction to The Cambridge Companion to Modernism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 3.

16. See Wiener’s preface to the second edition of Cybernetics, xiii. “In the anti-aircraft predictors which I described, the linear characteristics of the predictor which is used at any given time depend on a long-time acquaintance with the statistics of the ensemble of time series which we desire to predict.” See also Cybernetics, 4–8. The antiaircraft gun was never successful enough to be put into mass production; the ideas that Wiener used to develop his prototypes, however, became the foundation for his future cybernetics work.

17. The aesthetic dimensions of Wiener’s cybernetic processing of wartime data suggest F.T. Marinetti as another important cybernetic interlocutor, especially if we consider texts such as his frenzied and violent “allegorical fable” “Let’s Kill Off the Moonlight” (F.T. Marinetti: Critical Writings, ed. Günter Berghaus, trans. Doug Thompson, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2006, 31).

18. The phrase McLuhan used for the subtitle of his 1964 monograph Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man had appeared in Wiener’s Human Use: “The transportation of messages [through technologically assisted means] serves to forward an extension of man’s senses and his capabilities of action from one end of the world to another” (98; emphasis added).

19. For a detailed discussion of these theories of cybernetics and their paradoxical alignment of information with either pattern or randomness, see chapter 3 of Hayles, How We Became Posthuman.

20. The ultimate goals of Pound’s poetics are, in some senses, less concrete than those of Wiener’s cybernetic projects; each of the latter possesses a readily articulated (and quantifiable) intention: to shoot down an enemy plane, to beat an opponent at chess, to process visual data and transmit it to a blind person, and so forth. Through poetry, though, Pound attempts something rather more intangible: to change his readers’ very ways of interacting with information. We might say that he wants to create a new kind of thinker. Ideally, this thinking subject will intelligently deploy the content and patterns of humankind’s past experiences toward making the present world a more intellectually, aesthetically, socially, and culturally informed place.

21. Jane Lewty, “‘What they had heard said written’: Joyce, Pound and the Cross-Correspondence of Radio,” in Broadcasting Modernism, 210.

22. Here, Lewty draws from Daniel Tiffany’s argument in Radio Corpse. She also posits the centrality of “the vast expanse opened up between transmitter and receiver” (200) to both Poundian and radiophonic communication practice and uses the technological medium to contextualize his notion of the poet-translator as a mediumistic “coherer/writer” who must “transpose the message [received from the past] accurately” (209). [End Page 109]

23. For the latter part of this argument, Lewty draws on Timothy Campbell’s Wireless Writing in the Age of Marconi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006).

24. See, for example, Campbell’s Wireless Writing.

25. As Humphrey Carpenter notes, “Quite apart from ideological considerations, [Pound] had to resume broadcasting now that he had decided to stay [in Italy] to survive financially and help maintain several households.” See A Serious Character: The Life of Ezra Pound (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988), 608.

26. Ezra Pound, “Ezra Pound Speaking”: Radio Speeches of WWII, ed. Leonard W. Doob (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1978), 145.

27. Take, for example, one remark he makes about the British organization: “The BBC never answers. And therein lies its damnation, and the damnation of those who tolerate its continuance. Mostly from sheer laziness.” See Ezra Pound Speaking, 159. Note, also, that the poet’s Rapallo residence didn’t even boast a radio until some “blasted friends left [one as a gift]” on March 30, 1940. In its social effects, Pound considered the technology a “God damn destructive and dispersive devil of an invention,” which he believed would “further reduc[e] to passivity” a large “mass” of the listening public. See The Selected Letters of Ezra Pound, 1907–1941, ed. D. D. Paige (New York: New Directions, 1971), 342. Pound’s remark resonates with Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s famous proclamation in “The Culture Industry” that radio’s mass transmissions are bound up in authoritarian politics because they lack any “mechanisms of reply” through which listeners might participate in social discourse as active subjects rather than passive receivers. See Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), 96.

28. Lewty reads the statements Pound makes in this letter as “a mournful acceptance of the new medium and its status in the arts, which is to say as the beginning of Pound’s paradoxical relationship with radio, which saw him recognizing its capacities for creative experiment but also utilizing it as a site of invective—and thus gradually becoming one of the ‘personae’ to which he had so fiercely objected” (“‘What they had heard said written,’” 201).

29. Lawrence S. Rainey, introduction to A Poem Containing History, 10. Kenner’s most well-known monographs include The Poetry of Ezra Pound (London: Faber and Faber, 1951) and The Pound Era (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971).

30. ASC, “Defining Cybernetics,”; www.asc-cybernetics.org/foundations/definitions.htm. Ranulph Granville, the current president of the ASC, echoes this sentiment: “Cybernetics is essentially about circularity.”

31. Steven G. Yao and Michael Coyle, eds., Ezra Pound and Education (Orono, ME: National Poetry Foundation, 2012), xii.

32. John Xiros Cooper, “Pound before Pisa: 1920–1945,” in Ezra Pound in Context, 453.

33. For more on Pound’s indebtedness to Douglas’s theories of social credit, see Carpenter, A Serious Character, 353–62.

34. Especially during the 1970s and 1980s, many Pound critics emphasized the poet’s anti-Semitism and ideological associations with fascist politics. See, for example, William M. Chace, The Political Identities of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1973), Massimo Bacigalupo, The Forméd Trace: The Later Poetry of Ezra Pound (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980), Alan Durant, Ezra Pound, and Identity in Crisis: A Fundamental Reassessment of the Poet and his Work (Brighton, UK: Harvester Press, 1981); and Robert Casillo, The Genealogy of Demons: Anti-Semitism, Fascism, and the Myths of Ezra Pound (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1988).

35. Not only is blocked informational circulation “BAD” on a national scale but it also stifles the development of thought at the level of the individual. As Pound again complains in spring 1942, although “American news items, and utterances of prominent Americans reach me,” it is “often with lamentable delays.” Eventually, he admits, even his “view of Europe is a bit out of date” thanks to the war’s “interruption of communications.” See Ezra Pound Speaking, 60, 160.

36. Pound edited and published Fenollosa’s The Chinese Character as a Medium for Poetry in 1919; its central ideas became the core of his concept of the ideogram as the “basis of a new universal language.” See Huan Saussy, “Fenollosa Compounded: A Discrimination,” in Ernest Fenollosa and Ezra [End Page 110] Pound, The Chinese Character as a Medium for Poetry: A Critical Edition, ed. Huan Sassy, Jonathan Stalling, and Lucas Klein (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), 7. Pound’s fascination with China has been the subject of considerable critical attention. It was even the topic of the Eighteenth International Ezra Pound Conference (held in Beijing in 1999), out of which emerged the edited collection Ezra Pound in China, ed. Zhaoming Qian (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003).

37. Indeed, the poetic quality of the Chinese History Cantos is often called into question. As Daniel D. Pearlman puts it in his chapter on the sequence, “All this is meant as no defense of the poetic quality of the dynastic cantos” (The Barb of Time: On the Unity of Ezra Pound’s Cantos [London: Oxford University Press, 1969], 214). In general, the Chinese History Cantos might garner a sentence of grudging acknowledgment en route to a discussion of the more loudly celebrated Pisan Cantos; extended treatments more often catalogue sources and evaluate historical accuracy rather than attend to poetic elements. The quintessential example of such a treatment is John J. Nolde’s Blossoms from the East: The China Cantos of Ezra Pound, which meticulously charts Pound’s source materials throughout the sequence (Orono, ME; National Poetry Foundation, 1983).

38. Ezra Pound, The Cantos of Ezra Pound (New York: New Directions, 1996), 265.

39. I here refer to “The Serious Artist,” in which Pound explains that the “ideas, or fragments of ideas, the emotion and concomitant emotions of [any] ‘Intellectual and Emotional Complex’ … must be in harmony, they must form an organism, they must be an oak sprung from an acorn.” See Ezra Pound, The Literary Essays of Ezra Pound (New York: New Directions, 1968), 51.

40. The verb “to make” gains even more expansive signification when we consider it in translation. In both German (machen) and French (faire), after all, the word connotes both “to make” and “to do.”

41. There is a repeated sentence-level pattern that emerges as the poem progresses, which is structured as follows: name of emperor + verb expressing his creative contribution + description of his action. In addition to the phrases already cited, which hinge on the verb “to make,” we find several clusters that highlight verbs such as “taught” and “let.” See Cantos, 262, 270.

42. Bjorn Weiler, “‘Mirror of Princes’ Genre,” in Encyclopedia of Political Theory, ed. Mark Bevir (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2010), doi: 10.4135/9781412958660.n287. The definitional overlap with Wiener’s cybernetic etymology makes this generic connection particularly apt.

43. This tactic of offering up of examples without critical commentary (i.e., simply presenting them for the reader to explore and learn from) epitomizes Pound’s theories of pedagogy that he articulated in his 1934 treatise The ABC of Reading (New York: New Directions, 1960).

44. This complex and multivalent conception of ideal and just leadership finds its ultimate expression, at least insofar as Canto 53 is concerned, in the figure of Kung-fu-tseu—Confucius, who both exemplifies the complex, creative logic of “MAKE IT NEW” and also cybernetically “makes new” our understanding of what is possible in a person of power. See Cantos, 272–74.

45. We can trace Pound’s cybernetic affinities to his earliest artistic endeavors, where the ethic of responsive adaptability to feedback that drives cybernetic thinking is remarkably evident. We might think of the heated dialogue of coterie chit-chat or the collaborative editing projects that influenced authors like T. S. Eliot and W. B. Yeats, not to mention Pound’s tendency to flit from one “–ism” to the next in search of new authors and trends at the forefront of literary innovation. Furthermore, Pound’s constantly shifting poetic ambitions during this time illustrate his investment in precisely the approach to transmission that constitutes the basis of feedback-induced learning. As Eliot himself wrote in his brief 1917 treatise on Pound, his friend’s work “demands” a “constant readjustment” on the part of the reader (Ezra Pound: His Metric and Poetry, New York: Alfred Knopf, 1917).

46. For a discussion of these concepts in the context of Wiener’s antiaircraft gun experiments, see Conway and Siegelman, Dark Hero of the Information Age, 103–28.

47. See Carroll F. Terrell, A Companion to the “Cantos” of Ezra Pound (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), 487.

48. I learned so much as a presenter at the June 2014 IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) conference “Norbert Wiener in the 21st Century.” The conference’s interdisciplinary scope yielded panels covering a wide range of topics from fuzzy set theory, data management, statistical modeling, and medical applications of cybernetics to Wiener’s influences on the fields of art, design, philosophy, and writing. Keynote speakers ranged from particle physicists to cybersecurity experts, from popular historians to Wiener’s personal friends, and from engineers to sociologists, and a selection of contributions to the conference appeared it the September 2015 issue of Technology and Society. [End Page 111]