Reflections on Bernadette Mayer’s ‘Studying Hunger Journals’

Bernadette Mayer visiting the Kelly Writers House on March 26, 2018.
Bernadette Mayer visiting the Kelly Writers House on March 26, 2018, for a Fellows reading. Photo by Kelly Writers House staff.

Jacques (Lacan) has wise words 4 me, it’s 2 good to B true, you’re 2 good to B’dette.  Bernadette Mayer, Studying Hunger Journals[1]

Saying it all is literally impossible. — Jacques Lacan, Television[2]

In the reflections that follow, I refer to media-archaeological reassessments of psychoanalytic theory as a way of opening American poet Bernadette Mayer’s Studying Hunger Journals (1972–1975) to new readings. If, as has been argued by the likes of Jacques Derrida and Friedrich Kittler, among others, psychoanalytic models of the human mind, from the “psychic apparatus” of Sigmund Freud to the cybernetically enhanced schema of Jacques Lacan, are in fact underwritten by the media-technical conditions of their respective historical eras, then how might this insight shift perspectives on Mayer’s book, a project undertaken not only as an aid to psychoanalysis, but also at the dawn of the so-called Information Age? 

“Freud’s materialism,” writes Kittler in “The World of the Symbolic — A World of the Machine,” “reasoned only as far as the information machines of his era — no more, no less.”[3] Cataloging the various ways in which the founder of psychoanalysis implemented the media technologies of his day, the German media theorist concludes that “Telephone, film, phonograph and print … shaped the psychic apparatus.”[4] Indeed, in Interpretation of Dreams (1900), Freud famously envisioned the human mind functioning like a camera whereby sense perceptions are refracted through a system of lenses, leaving memory-traces in the unconscious as would images on a photo-sensitive surface. And yet, as is often discussed, he was ambivalent about technology: curiously, he did not utilize sound-recording technologies such as the phonograph or the dictaphone during his analytical sessions; moreover, he was deeply skeptical of photography and film — Hollywood cinema in particular. This may provide a partial accounting for why, in a short text written a quarter of a century later, Freud departs from his optical model and analogizes using a rather less advanced technology.

Written in 1925, A Note Upon the Mystic Writing Pad is a discussion of the so-called “wunderblock,” a device that Derrida in “Freud and the Scene of Writing” ironically called “a writing machine of marvelous complexity into which the whole of the psychical apparatus [is] projected.”[5] Freud discovers in this children’s toy a device that matches his hypothetical dual-system relationship between perception and memory, an apparatus that “provide[s] both an ever-ready receptive surface and permanent traces of the notes have been made upon it.”[6] Ignoring the fact that instead of writing upon the mystic pad a child might presumably draw, the shift in the doctor’s thinking is nonetheless clear: images are exchanged for letters; figuration and representability are replaced by inscription and storage. Put differently, as Freud’s theories develop, the psychic apparatus becomes less photographic and more like lines of code — a substitution compatible with the analytical method of the talking cure. As Kittler wryly observes in Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, “psychoanalysis means chopping up an internal film, in steps that are as methodical as they are discrete, until all of its images have disappeared.”[7]

More recently, in “Freud and the Technical Media: The Enduring Magic of the Wunderblock,” film historian Thomas Elsaesser goes as far as to suggest that the notion of the unconscious might be more properly understood as a “provisional answer … to the question of ‘memory’” and problems of data management posed by the various media technologies that emerged during Freud’s lifetime.[8] Drawing on the work of Derrida and Kittler, as well as that of film theorist Mary Ann Doane, Elsaesser makes a case for a Freudian theory of media appropriate to the Information Age. That is:

more from the side of reproduction, as a problem of generation and replication, of storage and processing, which is to say, as a general mode of information transmission, of which “memory” in its widest sense (including history and cultural memory) is the special human form.[9]

On a slightly different register, media theorist and literary critic Lydia H. Liu has shown in The Freudian RobotDigital Media and the Future of the Unconscious, that the return of the repressed is also to some extent the return of repressed media environments. Following Heléne Cixous’s reading of “The Uncanny” and Freud’s treatment of E. T. A. Hoffmann’s 1816 short story “The Sandman,” Liu considers the psychoanalyst’s theory as a restaging of themes in German Romanticist puppet theater, a form rife with marionettes, mirrors, and mechanical dolls, all of which beg questions surrounding agency and what is (and is not) alive. Psychoanalysis, she posits, finds a doppelgänger of sorts in the automaton. Meanwhile, Liu calls readers’ attention to the fact that, in its refiguring of the concept of entropy and the second law of thermodynamics, the psychoanalytic notion of the “ death-drive” finds its own uncanny double in the information theory of mathematician Claude Shannon.[10] From this vantage, Jacques Lacan’s reworking of Freudian thought during the postwar period was occasioned less by the former’s encounters with structuralist linguistics than by upgrades to the computational technology of his era. Like Kittler, Liu reframes the Lacanian unconscious as the discourse of thinking machines, demonstrating in painstaking detail the French psychoanalyst’s indebtedness to American game theory and cybernetics — the interdisciplinary metascience of information exchange that incubated inside defense research laboratories at MIT during the Second World War.[11] If the phallus has its mathematical twin in the √-1, then this is perhaps because the unconscious was always haunted by the recording, storage, and processing of bits of information. The medium of the symbolic is, to paraphrase Kittler, binary code. 

As it was for Freud, the question of information transmission was among American poet Bernadette Mayer’s major preoccupations during the early 1970s. This is attested by her “film diary of still pictures,” Memory (1972), an audiovisual installation comprising 1,116 photographs and nearly eight hours of audio.[12] During the month of July, 1971, Mayer shot one thirty-five-millimeter roll of Kodachrome slide film each day, an activity that she supplemented by keeping a detailed journal of her activities. The following year, the photographs were presented in a thirty-six-by-four-foot grid of three-by-five-inch prints at Holly Solomon’s 98 Greene St. Loft in New York, where they were accompanied by a sound recording of the author reading aloud a draft of the text that would eventually be published in 1975 under the same title.

In terms echoing the binaries of absence and presence at the core of digital technologies, Mayer — who, it is often remarked, lists Interpretation of Dreams as being among of her favorite works of fiction — poses the question in Memory thusly: “to leave all out or to include all.”[13] Just so, the poet would revisit this question throughout the remainder of the decade, writing in her book-length poem from 1978, Midwinter Day

                                How preoccupying 
Is the wish to include all or to leave all out
Some say either wish is against a poem or art 
                                I’m asking 
Is it an insane wish?[14]

To varying degrees, Mayer’s major time-structured works from the 1970s employ an inclusive poetics which attempts to record and reproduce everything from the author’s shifting states of consciousness to her daily childcare routines. However, there is no more decisive an attempt within her oeuvre to answer the question of whether or not to “include all” than Studying Hunger Journals (hereafter referred to simply as Journals), a six-part epic poem in prose and verse based on notebooks that the author kept during a period of psychoanalysisMayer embarked upon Journals following the closing of the Memory exhibition in April, 1972 (the same month that Intel introduced the 8008, its first eight-bit microprocessor), and continued work on the project for approximately three years. Conceptually, stylistically, and, to a lesser extent, methodologically, the two books have much in common. The opening sentences of Mayer’s introduction to the 457-page complete edition of Journals published in 2011 by Station Hill unambiguously spell out the contiguity between the two projects: 

I kept these journals while seeing a psychiatrist. I’d gone to see him because I thought I might be crazy following my work on Memory, shooting 36 pictures a day & keeping a detailed journal having driven me to the brink. But I thought why not go over that brink & see what’s there.[15] 

Issuing from a nexus of media and hysteria that might’ve made even Kittler blush, Journals was conceived explicitly as a psychoanalytical aid, encouraged by Mayer’s analyst David L. Rubinfine, MD, with whom the notebooks were shared as part of the analysis.[16] Not surprisingly, much of Journals is spent recounting and cataloging dreams, setting it apart from Memory, which was composed using a cut-up technique splicing journal entries together with texts prompted by the photographs. 

Yet, whereas Mayer opposed both projects to the “accumulation of data” — insisting that the former were “emotional science” while the latter was merely “a pose” — her descriptions of Journals can sound downright computational. In the abridged fifty-eight-page edition published by Bill Berkson’s Big Sky in 1975 under the title Studying Hunger, she signals the motivations behind the project in language that, rather more than the psychoanalytic vocabulary of condensation and displacement, evokes the lingo of programming:

I had an idea … that if a human, a writer, could come up with a workable code, or shorthand, for the transcription of every event, every motion, every transition of his or her own mind, & could perform this process of translation on himself using the code, for a 24-hour period, he or we or someone could come up with a great piece of language/information.[17] [emphasis added]

Mayer’s coupling of language/information here is remarkably consistent with Lacan’s techno-materialist (i.e. nonlinguistic) view of language, in which communication is an effect caused when stochastic processes within the brain’s neural network are stimulated by circulating information. During the finale to his 1954–55 seminar, in a lecture called “Where is Speech? Where is Language?,” the psychoanalyst makes reference to the mathematized verbum of binary code which, he asserts, shows that: 

language exists completely independently of us. … All of this can circulate in all manner of ways in the universal machine, which is more universal than anything you could imagine. One can imagine an indefinite number of levels, where all this turns around and circulates. The world of signs functions and it has no signification whatsoever.[18] 

“We thus find ourselves,” Lacan continues, “confronted with the problematic situation that there is in fact a reality of signs within which there exists a world of truth entirely deprived of subjectivity.”[19] Closely approximating cybernetic theories of the human brain, Lacan’s view of language seems to suggest that animating every “speaking subject” is a self-regulating psychic machine. It’s within this theoretical context, I think, that Mayer’s rejection of data might be productively reconsidered as pertaining to the transmission of messages through digital communication circuits.

Indeed, from the perspective of information theory, successfully sending a message depends not on its linguistic content, but rather its mathematical value. Information exists only insofar as alternative messages or sequences of letters remain possibilities and is calculated primarily according to the factor of uncertainty or probability of a particular message’s appearance from a statistical standpoint. Or, somewhat more straightforwardly, the more improbable a particular sequence of letters or words, the greater the amount information it contains (and vice versa). Understood in such a way, a singular piece of language/information like Journals would therefore have little to do with intelligibility or signification. As if poetry’s “language game” were anything else. 

For when Mayer states toward the beginning of the book’s first section that her intention is “to record states of consciousness,” she also does so in terms of pattern recognition: “What states of consciousness and patterns of them are new to language?”[20] Some of these patterns she sought to uncover by using, at least initially, different colored pens, not only to color-code affects, but also to mirror her grapheme-color synesthesia: she saw words in color and hoped that such coding would “help me see emotions.”[21] If this were not enough, lines recalling the Shannon-inspired experiments in stochastic verse produced at Bell Labs during the 1960s occur throughout the book. Take, for example: “FREUD FREUND FRIEND FREEZING FJORD FEUD FEND for yourself FRIGID,” or, “UFOs and crabmeat, crabclaws, a Sunday School Jesus, that’s someone I know and some spider I don’t know.”[22] Elsewhere: “Mine a bee in tree near time / Spring coil and diversification.”[23] Although similar syntactical experiments were carried out in much of the language-centered writing from the 1970s, as well as the poetics of n+7 constraints (Oulipo) and chance-operations (John Cage, Jackson MacLow), within the context of an analytical practice, these words read as though the writer’s unconscious really were structured by Markov chains. In any case, readers working their way through the dense, relentless passages of Journals might on occasion feel like they are decoding a form of technologized inscription, to borrow Liu’s phrase. 

Returning to Elsaesser’s suggestion, it is not unreasonable to infer that the stakes of Mayer’s encoding, transcribing, and translating her every experience, feeling, and thought, are also those of information transmission, processing, and exchange. Or, as Kittler might’ve put it, psychoanalysis under hi-tech conditions. Of course, whereas during the early 1970s “universal machines” were behemoths familiar mainly to mathematicians, engineers, and subscribers to the Whole Earth Catalog, contemporary readers need not look much further than their smartphones and tablets in order to understand what sort of code might be adequate to the tasks of including all and leaving all out. It would seem, therefore, that Mayer’s “great piece of language/information” is haunted by an automaton of its own — or at the very least, by strings of ones and zeroes.

But while cybernetic theories of information exchange provide a backdrop, of sorts, for Mayer’s astonishing act of self-transcription, it is yet another media technology which, much like Lacan’s psychic machine or the mechanical dolls of Hoffman’s “Sandman,” animates her project. Among the many references in Journals to audiovisual technologies, one in particular stands out.[24] It appears in the book’s sixth and final section, and by way of a conclusion I shall quote it at length: 

But I will color-code what I do in red, green, blue and white (or blank) So that a picture of this arrangement up to here could be described by the sentence: 

                                    B W B R B B W R W R G W G B W G B R B

Red is the personal, what I and others I know do 
Green for dialogue, what I speak and hear spoken
Blue is the rhetoric, which is the main part — the idea of giving the language to you
And white corresponds to dreams, which are also blank 
This then includes all the colors and I will tell you what I am doing with them: 

A certain type of color television camera contains three image orthicon tubes. By means of a system of mirrors and color filters the first tube forms a red image (R), the second forms a green image (G), and the third forms a blue image (B). The three camera tubes have essentially identical scanning patterns, so that the picture signals developed by the respective tubes represent images which are identical except that they differ in color. 

By means of an electric transmission system the primary color signals ER, EG and EB are simultaneously fed to three color picture tubes and converted back into three separate color images (red, green and blue). By means of a system of color-sensitive (dichroic) mirrors the viewer sees the three pictures as one superimposed picture in which the three colors are blended to give additively mixed colors, just as in color printing. 

So that the rest of the arrangement or sorting or blending, could be described by this sentence:
                                    G R G W R G R B R B R B W G W G R B B B B [25

In this remarkable passage, Mayer does not so much abandon the filmic apparatus that she developed for Memory as much as reconfigure it: an internal film, chopped up into bits of information and converted into workable code; methodically scanned, broken apart, and reassembled, that is, until all its images become televisual. The implications of this complex coding and the questions that it prompts are beyond the scope of these reflections.[26] Suffice it to say that further inquiry is clearly worth pursuing for studies concerned with the reciprocal inscriptions among technical media, literature, gender, and psychoanalysis. After all, it was none other than the author of Écrits who in January of 1973, with the help of director Benoît Jacquot and the ORTF Service de la Recherche, took the bold step of broadcasting his image into millions of French homes. At the time of its airing, the program was called “Psychoanalysis.” But, as Kittler never tired of noting: the title of the transcript, published one year later, was simply Television.

1. Bernadette Mayer, Studying Hunger Journals (Barrytown, NY: Station Hill Press, 2011), 154.

2. Jacques Lacan, Television, trans. Denis Hollier, Rosalind Krauss, and Annette Michelson, October, no. 40 (Spring 1987): 6.

3. Friedrich Kittler, Literature, Media, Information Systems, ed. John Johnston (New York: Routledge, 1997), 134.

4. Kittler, 135.

5. Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 200.

6. Freud describes the pad and its operations thus: “The Mystic Pad is a slab of dark brown resin or wax with a paper edging; over the slab is laid a thin transparent sheet … it itself consists of two layers … the upper layer is a transparent piece of celluloid; the lower layer is made of thin translucent waxed paper… To make use of the Mystic pad, one writes upon the celluloid portion of the covering-sheet which rests on the wax slab … at the points which the stylus touches, it presses the lower surface of the waxed paper on to the wax slab, and the grooves are visible as dark writing … if one wishes to erase what has been written, all that is necessary is to raise the double covering sheet from the wax slab by a light pull.” Sigmund Freud, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works, trans. James Strachey, vol. 19 (London: Hogarth Press, 1961), 228–29.

7. Friedrich Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999), 143.

8. Thomas Elsaesser, “Freud and the Technical Media: The Enduring Magic of the Wunderblock” in Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications and Implications, ed. Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2011), 99.

9. Elsaesser, 102.

10. Lydia H. Liu, The Freudian Robot: Digital Media and the Future of the Unconscious (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 203.

11. Liu, 161.

12. Proposal to Holly Solomon (no date), Bernadette Mayer Papers, Special Collections and Archives, University of California San Diego.

13. Bernadette Mayer, Memory (Plainfield, VT: North Atlantic Books, 1976), 132.

14. Bernadette Mayer, Midwinter Day (New York: New Directions, 1982),102.

15. Mayer, Studying Hunger Journals, 1.

16. Mayer describes the analysis as “traditional,” adding however that “he was not a traditional analyst. We went out together in his Mercedes-Benz, kissed & once we came close to making love” (Studying Hunger Journals, 3). Interestingly, it was Rubinfine who penned the introduction to the 1975 edition of Memory published by North Atlantic Books.

17. Bernadette Mayer, Studying Hunger (New York: Adventures in Poetry; Bolinas, CA: Big Sky, 1975), 1.

18. Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book II: The Ego in Freud’s Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis 1954–1955, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Sylvana Tomaselli. (London and New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991), 284.

19. Lacan, The Seminar, 285.

20. Mayer, Studying Hunger Journals, 15.

21. Mayer, Studying Hunger Journals, 1.

22. Mayer, Studying Hunger Journals, 129, 271.

23. Mayer, Studying Hunger Journals, 291.

24. To cite another example: “The writing in my book is a tape and pictures … the writing as tape is flowing but one eye, or half the human head, is the part of a cinemascope screen to the very far left, or, you should say, where you would begin to read ‘a line.’ The other eye, which is ‘I’ is outside the screen’s periphery.” Mayer, Studying Hunger Journals,155.

25. Mayer, Studying Hunger Journals, 425–26.

26. Why, for instance, does Mayer refer to these coded strings of letters as sentences? To what extent might the RGB coding relate to her synesthesia? Could one actually produce a “picture of this arrangement”? If so, what would it look like? These are just some of the questions which arise.