Cybernetics, epistemological struggles, unwanted consequences?


The world is big, the ocean is wide, and sometimes you hear of events you know you’ll miss and would like to have gone to some summer afternoon. Well, that’s how close I got to the Whole Earth exhibition at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin. Fortunately it’s possible to catch the lectures, here. For the catalogue, just click on the image above.

A conversation about it arose on Nettime, particularly about Fred Turner’s book From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism. I read the book when it came out, thought it was great and once met the author, whom I found worth listening to. However in the book and even more, in its reception, there is a kind of simplification or reduction of the counter-cultural moment, and therefore, of what cultural politics can achieve. This kind of reduction has become widespread and I think it is connected to a further misunderstanding of what’s at stake in some of the most important struggles of the technological societies, which are epistemological struggles, struggles over what counts as truth and the procedures used to get there. At the same time, there is also a reason for for this misunderstanding, and a good one: people are immensely disappointed by promises that did not deliver, or rather, by civilizational processes that delivered something else, under the cover of promises, attempts, questions, artworks, movements, revolts and so on. That’s what Turner’s book really shows, through the career of Stewart Brand in particular, and that’s why it’s so interesting. A decade ago I myself attempted to tease out that kind of reversal of promises, in The Flexible Personality; so I’m still attuned to the whole question.

In the Nettime thread, one participant caught my attention with a comment about how people in France “did not buy into the counterculture, prefering to stick to good old-fashioned agonistic politics.” It seemed like a good place to intervene:

…I lived a long time in France and engaged with collective struggles there, so I appreciate where you’re coming from. I also grew up in the Bay Area in the Seventies with the Whole Earth Catalogue in the house – in other words, thoroughly imbued with the Californian Ideology – and I think Fred Turner’s book is great, it’s full of fabulously precise and curious history about real people who are more commonly and less generously treated as myths. Yet in certain respects, his thesis is a bit too pat. As I recall it, his treatment of early counterculture/ cyberculture is reminiscent of something like Boltanski and Chiapello’s treatment of Deleuze & Guattari, or indeed, of “artistic critique” in general, in their book “The New Spirit of Capitalism.” In both of these otherwise impressive works, the authors write as though the worm of Neoliberalism were already in the Sixties’ fruit, and what we mistook for a sweet taste was actually a time-delay poison. Adam Curtis adopts a similar strategy in films like “The Trap”; and the list could go on. I think life is more complicated and more ambivalent than that.

Certainly in the US, the good old agonistic politics of the labor/capital confrontation was dead in the water after WWII, and in France – as Boltanski and Chiapello show so well – that kind of politics was institutionally paralyzed from the 1968 Grenelle accords onward, which used historic salary hikes to split union labor away from the student movement and literally buy its acquiescence to the subsequent processes of automation, flexibilization and outsourcing that are common to all the fully industrialized countries. The structuralization of right-left conflict, its neutralization within a far larger and more powerful system of bureaucratic management, was a reality of the postwar period whose consequences we can still observe around us. The good old days were not necessarily better. In fact, they were what so many people rebelled against.

Today it is often said that the quest for liberation, expressed in many different ways from third-worldism to psychedelia via second-order cybernetics, finally amounted to nothing more than the freedom theorized by Milton Friedman, the freedom to choose a product on a market, or maybe an identity-position in a surveilled and overcoded network. This is to argue at once too little, and too much. Too much, because such a judgment renders the challenges that the cyberneticians and counter-culturalists faced entirely unrecognizable: one can no longer see, for instance, how figures such as Bateson and Von Foerster, who had clearly been complicit with the power structure of the Second World War, strove in the Sixties and especially in the Seventies to render cybernetics, not just self-reflexive and meta-theoretical, but above all, strictly useless for the military, pointing either towards an ecological care for the planet (in Bateson’s case) or to an ethics of respect for the possibilities of the other (in Von Foerster’s). One could say even more compelling things about the Chilean cyberneticists, Maturana and Varela, whose notion of autopoiesis has everything to do with the effort to create an autonomous socialist project in a hemisphere dominated and overdetermined by the political-economic coercion of the United States. Deleuze and Guattari’s readings of the potentials for subversion lying within the very mainstream of what they call “royal science” are a reflection on exactly these threads of cybernetic history. The so-called “hippie” version of cybernetics springs from an intense epistemologial struggle over the uses of high-level technical, scientific and philosophical knowledge; and even if none of the cyberneticists was really a hippie, still it’s to the counter-culture’s credit that its participants recognized this struggle and tried to embody it in a more popular, daily-life sort of way.

But time passes, all that is far far behind us now, and what has actually been wrought by computerized capitalism is far more intense, detailed and terrifying than any simple caricature of Friedmanite neoliberalism – or Deleuzo-Guattarian nomadism, for that matter – can possibly convey. Tarring cybernetics with such brushes is too little. Sixties’ liberationism was everywhere based on an ontology of authentic experience and an openness to, or at least a yearning for, the encounter with the wholly other. That was the desire behind the fascination with “open systems.” In the present, twenty years after the invention of the World Wide Web, identity has been fractalized into the rival and strictly parcellary functions of hundreds of different companies and organizations, all using coded messages and screenic techniques to vie for some part of your attention, your energy, your money, your activity, your drives, your dreams – whose basic characterstics they have already captured by surveillance. The very idea of an “identity position” becomes quaint in this context. Post-modern schizophrenia and “self-shattering” is no longer the work of a “patient, immense and methodical derangement of all the senses” a la Rimbaud. Instead it is the calculated result of corporate strategies.

For Bateson, ecology was about “organism plus environment,” by which he meant the natural environment in all its multifarious interdependencies. For the hardliners of military cybernetics – true AI believers like Herbert Simon – it sufficed to create the proper environment in order to generate the organism of your choice, a theorem which is daily proven by human behavior in shopping malls, airports, social networks, war games and so-called creative cities. To be sure, for a real determinist there is ultimately no separation between the organism and the environment, so the former might have to be tweaked a little as well; and why not, if you have the power to do it? As Simon wrote in a telltale phrase, “If the inner system is properly designed, it will be adapted to the outer environment, so that its behavior will be determined in large part by the latter, exactly as in the case of ‘economic man.’” In that one little sentence, the cat comes out of the bag: we see that the great neoclassical subject of truck and bartering homo economicus has never been ‘natural’ in the Scottish-enlightenment sense of Adam Smith, but instead, always a cultural construct fitting into purpose-built markets. Twenty years on into massive immersion in capitalist networks, how far have we been redesigned? How well do we now adapt to the outer environments that are offered us, whether on the web, in urban spaces, in corporations, in universities, at borders or on battlefields?

In my own case, the lucid answer would be: far more than I would like. That said, I still agree with what Ted Byfield wrote not long ago on this list: “I don’t think it’s safe, wise, or shrewd to rely on nostalgic assumptions about the boundaries of the self.” The gender and culture-bending struggles for liberation, to which Ted alludes in that phrase, have left behind many valuable possibilities in the networks. Let’s use ’em for a new kinds of political resistance and political proposals in the present and for the future.

best, Brian


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