There’s an interesting section in Andrew Pickering’s The Cybernetic Brain discussing Ross Ashby’s experiments in building cybernetic systems and the design philosophy these undertakings led him to articulate. As Pickering describes on pg 128:
If, beyond a certain degree of complexity, the performance of a machine could not be predicted from a knowledge of its elementary parts, as proved to be the case with DAMS, then one would have to abandon the modern engineering paradigm of knowledge-based design in favor of evolutionary tinkering—messing around with the configuration of DAMS and retaining any steps in the desired direction.
This is a design philosophy orientated towards an esoteric class of projects in electrical engineering. But it also conveys an epistemic libertarianism, in which the impulse to build projects around established knowledge is suspended in order to create the space for exploration. It’s not a dismissal of existing knowledge and practice, only a reduction of its role to that of direction finder rather than final arbiter of epistemic legitimacy.
It left me thinking about the temporal conditions in which this epistemic libertarianism can flourish. Not only might it take more time, in the sense that it will be as conducive to missteps as to advancements, it also comes to look suspicious to any managerial techniques which asks people to account for their time. In both senses, the accelerated academy entails a subtle epistemological conservatism and chips away at the space in which which this exploratory work could take place.
There’s an interesting aside in Andrew Pickering’s The Cybernetic Brain on pg 98 which has left me thinking about why I’m so interested in distraction:
Here he tied his essay into a venerable tradition in psychiatry going back at least to the early twentieth century, namely, that madness and mental illness pointed to a failure to adapt—an inappropriate mental fixity in the face of the flux of events.
While I obviously don’t think distraction is a mental illness, I do think it can be characterised as a failure to adapt. But as insufficient mental fixity in the face of events, as opposed to an excess of fixity. It is a failure to find form, a distinct stance towards a situation liable to give rise to action within it.
This section of Andrew Pickering’s The Cybernetic Brain just reawakened my interest in psychedelic drugs and their effects upon consciousness. From pg 73:
Walter’s 1953 book The Living Brain is largely devoted to the science of the normal brain and its pathologies, epilepsy and mental illness. But in different passages it also goes beyond the pathological to include a whole range of what one might call altered states and strange performances: dreams, visions, synesthesia, hallucination, hypnotic trance, extrasensory perception, the achievement of nirvana and the weird abilities of Eastern yogis and fakirs—the “strange feats” of “grotesque cults” (1953, 148) such as suspending breathing and the heartbeat and tolerating intense pain.
What should we make of this? It exemplifies the sort of curiosity about the performative brain that I just mentioned—this is a list of odd things that brains, according to Walter, can do. It conjures up an understanding of the brain as an active participant in the world. Even in the field of perception and representation, phenomena such as dreams and hallucinations might be taken to indicate that the brain does not copy the world but assimilates sensory inputs to a rich inner dynamics. The tortoise did not thematize this aspect of the brain (except, to a limited degree, in its scanning mechanism), but it is part of what I tried to get at in chapter 2 by mentioning the work of Kauffman and Wolfram on the endogenous dynamics of complex systems, which we will see elaborated in in the following chapters.
The significance of such substances lies their capacity to modify the “rich inner dynamics” of the brain, in the process opening out new intersections with the world. What makes them interesting is not the subjective changes they bring about but rather the different relations to the objective world which those subjective changes reflect. They illustrate the range of ways we can psycho-physically inhabit our reality, casting a light upon the usual range as usual through the alternatives which they open up.
Another theme which feels important to me in Pickering’s superb The Cybernetic Brain is the ontological gap between entities and interaction. If we imagine the world as composed of discrete entities with defined characteristics, it invites an approach to knowledge in which we merely place them into a taxonomy in a manner which leaves them in principle knowable in full.
If I understand the cybernetic impulse correctly, it rests on the aforementioned ontological gap. Even if we learn stuff through this approach, it tells us little about the interaction of these entities and obscures much that is important about the world in which this interaction occurs. What matters is how these discrete elements enter into interaction with each other, in a manner which is inherently unpredictable and cannot be discerned through the decompositional and representational approach to knowledge previously described. This is why we should start with the performance i.e. the reality of their interaction.
It’s possible I’m translating this too much into the conceptual idiom of morphogenetic theory and perhaps missing something of cybernetics in the process. But I’m finding it a stimulating activity nonetheless, something which I think the cyberneticians would have approved of.
It’s difficult to read Andrew Pickering’s The Cybernetic Brain and not be swept up in his infectious enthusiasm for the British cyberneticians. They were the fun wing of an approach which “emerged from nowhere as far as established fields and career paths were concerned” with the “cyberneticians and their projects were outsiders to established fields of endeavor” (55). Cybernetics had no social basis, as he terms it, something which was a strength in many ways. The radically open character of its intellectual inquiry clearly had a foundation in modes of academic sociality, such as the Ratio dining club described on pg 58:
Ratio was interinstitutional, as one might say. It did not simply elide disciplinary boundaries within the university; it brought together representatives from different sorts of institutions: people from the universities, but also medical men and physiologists based in hospitals and research institutes, including Walter and Ashby, and workers in government laboratories.
But this strength came hand-in-hand with the weakness of cybernetics, as Pickering describes on pg 59-60:
Academic disciplines are very good at holding neophytes to specific disciplinary agendas, and it was both a strength and a weakness of cybernetics that it could not do this—a strength, inasmuch as cybernetics retained an undisciplined and open-ended vitality, an ability to sprout off in all sorts of new directions, that the established disciplines often lack; a weakness, as an inability both to impose standards on research and to establish career paths for new cyberneticians left enthusiasts to improvise careers much as did the founders.
In this sense, we can see disciplines as a dual-edged sword. They are effective carries of tradition, ensuring insights, ideas and methods get reproduced from one generation to the next. But they do this at the cost of disciplining, with the perpetual risk that creativity and innovation are foreclosed by an adherence to inherited standards.
Is it possible to overcome this by developing nomadic movements within the conservative structure of disciplines? I’m prone to seeing the bias towards novelty within the contemporary scholarly ecosystem as a fundamentally negative thing, as much as I’m well suited to it in many ways. But an optimistic reading of it cold be that it mitigates the stultifying potential inherent in disciplinarity and ensures there is room for creativity which might not otherwise be there.
This is a wonderful section from pg 9 of Andrew Pickering’s The Cybernetic Brain:
Unlike more familiar sciences such as physics, which remain tied to specific academic departments and scholarly modes of transmission, cybernetics is better seen as a form of life , a way of going on in the world, even an attitude, that can be, and was, instantiated both within and beyond academic departments, mental institutions, businesses, political organizations, churches, concert halls, theaters, and art museums. This is to put the case positively. But from another angle, we should note the continuing marginality of cybernetics to established institutions.
It captures why I find the early British sociologists so fascinating, for whom sociology was a way of life in the same sense conveyed here. Even if institutionalisation was necessary for sociology to grow, it’s hard not to wonder if this more than anything else was what eroded the liveliness Pickering conveys here, which these sociologists had in common with the cyberneticians he describes.