Fall 2023 - CMNS 804 G100

Seminar in Advanced Communication Theory (5)

Class Number: 1090

Delivery Method: In Person


  • Course Times + Location:

    Sep 6 – Dec 5, 2023: Wed, 4:30–8:20 p.m.



The automation of cognitive, linguistic, and even emotional capacities commonly understood as uniquely human has long accompanied theories of communication. Drawing on and contributing to cybernetics, anthropology, semiotics and psychoanalysis, critical communication theory has combined its preoccupation with thinking and desiring machines with a sensitivity to the socially and historically mediated character – the classed, gendered and racialised genesis – of our conceptions of thought, language, and their possible mechanization.

As the everyday use of artificial intelligence as a tool for symbolic analysis and the generation of meaning becomes an object of public and institutional debate – oscillating between promises of limitless progress and omens of human obsolescence – this course seeks to explore the multiple theoretical, political, and speculative possibilities that inhere in the question of automation.

The course begins by considering the way in which the question of the capitalist use of machinery was always entangled with the problem of what Marx called ‘the general intellect’ and of science and knowledge as productive forces. We will connect the investigation of this ‘futurological’ Marx with current debates on the contradictions of automation and its relation to the rendering surplus of labour and populations, as well as to promissory visions of the knowledge economy of ‘cognitive capitalism’.

As psychoanalysis and feminism differently elucidate, the question of thinking is inextricable from those of desire, emotion and affect; we will accordingly explore the ways in which our understanding of the unconscious and of machines entertain complex and intimate links to one another – something evident not only from the role of robots and machines in psychoanalytic theory, but also from ideas such as the surrealist vision of ‘automatic writing’. It was drawing on psychoanalysis, as well as techniques of audience and opinion research central to early communication theory, that Theodor Adorno and his collaborators developed the notion of ‘the authoritarian personality’; following Moira Weigel, we will explore the ways in which Adorno’s mid-century methodology and his conceptualisation of the psychic dimensions of capitalist authority need to be inflected and revised in an era of ‘surveillance capitalism’ and big data.

Is contemporary authoritarianism and the forms of social violence and symbolic domination it expresses also subject to automation? This question will be explored in terms of transformations in political economy (the debate on ‘techno-feudalism’), war, and differentially targeted political surveillance. All these mutations in contemporary capitalism, the ‘state-machine’ and their apparatuses of control need to be grasped in their articulation with racial capitalism, and with the ways in which the valorisation and devaluing, the capture and disposal of social difference are embedded in ongoing histories of race and (settler-)colonialism, not least in the ongoing associations between automata and the enslaved.

The course will conclude with sessions exploring practices and imaginaries of autonomy and liberation that either refunction or interrupt the authority of automation, enacting futures in which machines and automata are not fated to be instruments of segregation, dispossession, and domination.

I encourage you to speak to me early on in the course to discuss your interests and enable me to support you in working strategically toward your final term paper.


  • Weekly response papers (250-500 words) 10@2.5% 25%
  • Seminar participation 20%
  • Final paper (3500-4000 words for MAs; 5000-6000 words for PhDs) due December 14 55%



All assigned readings available as pdfs on course canvas page or through the SFU library.


Your personalized Course Material list, including digital and physical textbooks, are available through the SFU Bookstore website by simply entering your Computing ID at: shop.sfu.ca/course-materials/my-personalized-course-materials.

Graduate Studies Notes:

Important dates and deadlines for graduate students are found here: http://www.sfu.ca/dean-gradstudies/current/important_dates/guidelines.html. The deadline to drop a course with a 100% refund is the end of week 2. The deadline to drop with no notation on your transcript is the end of week 3.

Registrar Notes:


SFU’s Academic Integrity website http://www.sfu.ca/students/academicintegrity.html is filled with information on what is meant by academic dishonesty, where you can find resources to help with your studies and the consequences of cheating. Check out the site for more information and videos that help explain the issues in plain English.

Each student is responsible for his or her conduct as it affects the university community. Academic dishonesty, in whatever form, is ultimately destructive of the values of the university. Furthermore, it is unfair and discouraging to the majority of students who pursue their studies honestly. Scholarly integrity is required of all members of the university. http://www.sfu.ca/policies/gazette/student/s10-01.html


Students with a faith background who may need accommodations during the semester are encouraged to assess their needs as soon as possible and review the Multifaith religious accommodations website. The page outlines ways they begin working toward an accommodation and ensure solutions can be reached in a timely fashion.