Almost a decade ago I was sitting eating a sandwich in the strange little cafe in the foyer of the Social Science Building at the University of Warwick. For no discernible reason I was suddenly hit with the realisation that I’d always assumed the world would trend towards stability and that there was absolutely no reason for me to think this. I could see intellectual inspirations for this view (my reading of Maruyama’s cybernetics, recently learning about thermodynamics, critiques of liberal progress) but this wasn’t an intellectual conclusion but rather an image, a feeling, a sense: a cybernetic black pill? It was a sudden recognition of the world’s capacity to spin ever further into chaos, a vision of a system spiralling out of control to the point where the category of system itself breaks down. It left me intermittently preoccupied by questions of civilisation collapse (particularly representations in novels such as The Road when even the possibility of narrative identity breaks down). It really started to seep into how I see the world with the collapse of Corbynism (which largely meant the end of my belief that we could collectively reshape society) and the chaos of the pandemic. It’s a depressing outlook but it’s one which curiously co-exists with my developing a much stronger sense of purpose.
What I’ve come to think of as post-pandemic hedonism is the challenge of how we sustain the capacity to flourish under these circumstances, by going through the darkness because there’s no way around it. The idea the world is broken is not a new one but if you grow up with what Jana Bacevic describes as the “predictability of a middle-class English childhood” then this brokenness was likely ontologically veiled from an early age. How do we grope nervously towards the expression of inner life under these conditions? Is it possible to live a good life while recognising the fundamental truth of Rust Cohle’s world view? The quite deliberate choice not to have children sharpens this challenge because it unpicks any sense of continuity after death. But what feels to me like a nascent cybernetic black pill could become something much less despairing if it’s possible to secure meaning, creation, growth and connection against this backdrop of radical contingency as the life world inevitably finds itself pulled apart by the trend towards entropy.
2 responses to “A cybernetic black pill”
The mathematics of this intuition is articulated by the theory of self-organized criticality (SOC), first proposed by Per Bak and colleagues at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, Long Island, New York, in the 1980s.
Consider Bak’s sand pile, to which additional grains of sand are continually added.
Eventually, avalanches will take down portions of the sand pile, perhaps even leveling it.
It turns out WHAT was a stable equilibrium point was, in fact, a critical point that was eventually crossed with devastating effect. Stability and equilibrium(s) for complex systems are essentially the same, it is argued.
Ted Lewis 2011 book, Bak’s Sand Pile: Strategies for a Catastrophic World, puts SOC in a much larger intellectual context, including Nassim Taleb of “black swan” fame.
Ted Lewis interviewed. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fGSwMC3qYuk