The Sociology of Intellectual Faddishness and the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit

I’m resisting pursuing this thought until my PhD is submitted (and probably until I’ve finished the bulk of my social media book) but if I’m ever going to do some real work on the sociology of intellectual faddishness, it’s increasingly obvious to me that the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit would be a pretty great place to start. I’m particularly fascinated by Land’s personal and political trajectory over the years but the CCRU as a whole is so much more interesting than it seemed when I first encountered it – why it was so gripping for those involved, how the institutional context contributed to this and how it dissipated etc.

I think it was Will Davies who tweeted a link to this great piece:

Smack in the middle of the United Kingdom, Leamington Spa is like a less picturesque Bath–genteel, sedate, irredeemably English in a Masterpiece Theater sort of way. But the town has darker undercurrents: Aleister Crowley was born here in 1875, and today it’s home to a mysterious entity called Cybernetic Culture Research Unit. Now in its third year of existence, CCRU’s institutional status is, to say the least, disputed. Which is why its membership is currently holed up in an office on The Parade (Leamington’s main street), rather than working c/o the Philosophy Department of Warwick University a few miles away, as was the case the last academic year.

Since my knowledge of CCRU stems from its disorientating textual output–the journal Abstract Culture–plus a few wilfully opaque email communiques, I’ve scant idea what I’ll encounter after pressing the button marked ‘Central Computer’. Inside CCRU’s top-floor HQ above The Body Shop, I find three women and four men in their mid to late twenties, who all look reassuringly normal. The walls, though, are covered with peculiar diagrams and charts that hint at the breadth and bizareness of the unit’s research.

But before I can enquire further, I’m entreated to sit in the middle of three ghettoblasters. CCRU have prepared a re-enactment of a performance-cum-reading given at their Virotechnics conference in October 1997. The first cassette-player issues a looped cycle of words that resembles an incantation or spell. From the second machine comes a text recited in a baleful deadpan by a female American voice–not a presentation but a sort of prose-poem, full of imagery of “swarmachines” and “strobing centipede flutters”. The third ghettoblaster emits what could either be Stockhausen-style electroacoustic composition or the pizzicato, mandible-clicking music of the insect world. Later, I find out it’s a human voice that’s been synthetically processed, with all the vowels removed to leave just consonants and fricatives.

Even without the back-projected video-imagery that usually accompanies CCRU audio, the piece is an impressively mesmeric example of what the unit are aiming for–an ultra-vivid amalgam of text, sound, and visuals designed to “libidinise” that most juiceless of academic events, the lecture. CCRU try to pull off the same trick on the printed page. Their “theory-fiction” is studded with neologisms, delirious with dystopian cyberpunk imagery, and boasts an extravagantly high concentration of ideas per sentence. Bearing the same distillate relation to its sources (Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, Paul Virilio,William Gibson) that crack does to cocaine, CCRU-text offers an almighty theory-rush.

What CCRU are striving to achieve is a kind of nomadic thought that–to use the Deleuzian term– “deterritorializes” itself every which way: theory melded with fiction, philosophy cross-contaminated by natural sciences (neurology, bacteriology, thermodynamics, metallurgy, chaos and complexity theory, connectionism). It’s a project of monstrous ambition. And that’s before you take into account the the most daring deterritorialisation of all–crossing the thin line between reason and unreason. But as they say, later for that.

Founded in the 1960s, Warwick rapidly became the epitome of a modern university. Through the early to mid Seventies, the university was rife with militancy–not just student unrest, but discontent amongst the staff (70 percent of whom at one point gave a vote of no confidence in the Vice Chancellor). Socialist historian E.P.Thompson was a “thorn in the side of the adminstiration”, recalls one Warwick veteran, and eventually left because he wasn’t given the Labour History Unit he was promised. At the same time, Warwick was ahead of its time in terms of seeking corporate funding, such that by the mid-Eighties Margaret Thatcher could describe it as her favourite university. “Warwick University Inc.” (as E.P. Thompson titled a book) is financially buoyant compared with other British universities, and well prepared for any future withdrawal of government funding that may be up the current Labour administration’s sleeve.

Warwick also has a very modern Philosophy Department. It is Britain’s largest graduate school in philosophy outside Oxford, with about 120 postgraduate and masters students, and a similar number of undergraduates. The majority are lured by the department’s reputation as the country’s leading center for Continental Philosophy. Events like the October 1997 “DeleuzeGuattari and Matter” seminar and “Going Australian”, a February 1988 conference devoted to the new school of Australian feminist philosophy, indicate the kind of work going on at Warwick. It is to this cutting edge Philosophy Department to which CCRU was linked in a fatally ambigous fashion.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.