Tagged: cybernetics Toggle Comment Threads | Keyboard Shortcuts

  • Mark 7:56 pm on September 3, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , cybernetics   

    Social media and improvising our careers 

    The familiar repertoires of scholarly interaction are called into question by the emergence of social media. One way to grasp their routine character is to consider notable exceptions in which networks, projects and fields emerged in unfamiliar and exceptional ways. Pickering’s (2010) accounts of the emergence of British cybernetics provides a fascinating example of this, detailing  how a field coalesced without any institutional home; the vibrancy of which clearly reflected the heterogeneity of the scholars who came together under this banner. As he puts it,  it “emerged from nowhere as far as established fields and career paths were concerned” and the “cyberneticians and their projects were outsiders to established fields of endeavor” (Pickering 2010: 55). Though too did its weakness, as the freedom this distance from institutions afforded went hand-in-hand with the absence of the familiar means of intellectual reproduction which disciplinarity provides. It’s interesting to consider this as a predicament for individual cyberneticians who, as Pickering (2010: 60) describes them, were left to “improvise careers much as did the founders” because of the inability of cybernetics to “impose standards on research and to establish career paths for new cyberneticians”.

    My suggestion is that social media expands the range of tools which can be used for improvisational career work, providers scholars with a wider range of options which can be used with lower costs of time and energy than would be involved in their analogue equivalents. Consider Ashby’s letters and the form that might take in a contemporary context. Not only would it be much quicker to identify relevant people and send them e-mails, it would be mediated by an intellectual apparatus of webpages, blogs and social media feeds. Problems undoubtedly flow from this as well, with the low cost of making contact potentially inducing a lack of care. Even if we can’t quantify it precisely, it seems to be a common experience for those with an extensive digital footprint to receive questions and requests with only a passing relationship to their expertise. If you assume that most requests will go unrealised, it makes sense to cast the net as wide as possible in the hope that at least one will respond, even if this leaves the overall search looking distinctly scatter gun. But what we want to get across is that the almost feral sociality we can see in a figure like Ashby, roaming around increasingly unconstrained by convention and searching for others with whom it would be possible to explore conjointly, finds itself increasingly supported by a knowledge system which is both digitalised and platformised. It is simply much easier to work like this, not least of all because it no longer presupposes the clarity which clearly animated the British cyberneticians in their improvisational work and searching for interlocutors. At various points Pickering (2010) describes this as a chancey mode of transmission, subject to uncertainty and reliant on luck in a way that the familiar mechanisms of disciplinary reproduction simply are not.

    • BeingQuest 8:15 pm on September 3, 2019 Permalink

      Leave it to the Brits, their empirical excess and conceits!

  • Mark 6:38 pm on April 1, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , cybernetics, epistemic conservatism   

    The epistemological conservatism of the accelerated academy 

    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.

  • Mark 8:41 am on March 30, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , cybernetics,   

    A cybernetics of distraction? 

    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.

  • Mark 10:18 am on March 27, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , brain, cybernetics, hallucination, psychadelics   

    The strange performances of the brain 

    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. 

    • landzek 3:51 pm on March 27, 2019 Permalink

      …When there is no resources to use, then being and existence itself becomes the resource that is used by the world.

  • Mark 12:55 pm on March 25, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , cybernetics, ,   

    The ontological gap between entities and interaction 

    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.

    • Steven Watson 1:16 pm on March 25, 2019 Permalink

      The cybernetic view does challenge the discrete object or entity – it doesn’t reject these ideas entirely, it treats the entity as ‘outputs’ of a dynamic system. What cybernetics opens up is the possibility of exploring the behaviour of dynamics systems and the interaction between different systems, rather than just looking at the possible relationships between outputs. I guess post-structuralism was of a similar mind, but was a critique rather than an alternative philosophical project.

    • Mark 2:33 pm on March 25, 2019 Permalink

      but that’s what a system is right, the pattern of interaction between interdependent entities?

    • Steven Watson 4:18 pm on March 25, 2019 Permalink

      a dynamic system is defined by its capacity to equilibrate or achieve equilibrium. That involves interaction with other systems. But an entity is the characterisation of the outputs of a system in any moment or over a period of time when it is in equilibrium. The life phases of a butterfly or the phases of matter (gas, solid, liquid). What we sense of the butterfly is its output (of itself as a dynamic system) and that’s what make it a thing, an entity.

    • Mark 4:32 pm on March 25, 2019 Permalink

      I agree, just using a different lingo to convey

    • Jeff Wright 8:18 pm on March 26, 2019 Permalink

      I think you’re onto something here that has been explored in different ways. For example Von Foerster’s second-order cybernetics, the notion of applying cybernetics to itself.

      In my opinion, though, this “go meta” approach complicates the structural model without actually helping the “ontological gap” problem. Instead it reifies the construct of the “observer” as separate from the “model”, reproducing the gap and leaving agency and interaction as metaphysically mysterious as ever.

      The crux of the problem lies not in modeling, but in metaphysics, or should I say, the metaphysics of modeling. Cybernetics is essentially a theory of modeling the world descriptively, but in a way that the modeled parameters are dynamic, but not the model itself. Modeling is construed via a paradigm of description (vs observation) that has the “gap” baked into it from the beginning. Adding another observer level that can alter the model does not change the quality of descriptivism to which the model approach is committed.

      There are two metaphysical assumptions in the cybernetic approach which are mostly unexamined, and that replicate broader western cultural metaphysics. The first is the notion of static ontology, the idea that the values might change but the ontology is static, replicating the theological construct of the “eternal”. Thus in cybernetics the construct of a “system” is defined by equilibrium, the posited capacity to stay the same. There’s no (or not much) theorizing or modeling process and change, because the static version seems adequate given the metaphysical ethos. The second is the separate transcendental position of the “observer”, which even in modernity and cybernetics is derived from the construct of the transcendent universal observer (in one version, the “god” that created everything and now stands back as a mostly-passive observer). This same construct will be encountered in any metaphysically-informed social ontology of agency and interaction. And maybe I don’t need to point out that this “gap” is also the explanatory gap of the so-called “hard problem” of consciousness.

      If there is a way for the fly to escape the metaphorical / metaphysical bottle, it might be found in process metaphysics, which are unfortunately so counter to the broad cultural ethos that it has not been retrieved from the more mystical aspects of Whitehead’s thought and brought into a naturalized metaphysics. But there is some action in this area, for example, Isabelle Stengers _Thinking with Whitehead_

      Another more practical site of activity for this “leading edge” concerns the current critique and effort to understand the limitations and cultural effects (and ultimately, metaphysics) of our use of artificial “intelligence” and the nature of its statistical modeling approaches. Philosophically they are in some ways a step backward (e.g. away from rule-based modeling), unless one is prepared to go “all in” with pragmatism and dispense with the rule and “law” constructs in favor of data-driven models. But one could argue that doing so simply conceals the causal forces and regularities of the human, agentic, interacting, relational world behind a veneer of measured and sampled behaviour, which itself is born within the human world of agentic and metaphysically-saturated interaction.

      One representative example in this area is Sridhar Mahadevan’s article “Imagination Machines: A New Challenge for Artificial Intelligence. He does not, however, attempt to engage metaphysics but mainly seeks to improve the mathematics of modeling without questioning its basis. That is, the tacit attempt in this and related work (e.g. Gardenfor’s Conceptual Spaces) is a somewhat philosophically naive attempt to “ground” the modeling in better mathematical constructs. This carries the risk of creating more powerful pseudo-reality models whose obscuring power is proportional to their power to create compelling simulacra, reasonable-seeming concepts, and practical tools that reproduce specific cultural practices. I think you (Mark) alluded to something similar using the term “ontological veiling”.




    • Mark 10:29 am on March 27, 2019 Permalink

      Links are very interesting thanks. In terms of cybernetics though, surely what you’re saying a true of first wave but not of subsequent approaches?

  • Mark 12:41 pm on March 25, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , cybernetics, , , , novelty,   

    Cybernetics and the dual-edged sword of disciplinarity 

    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.

  • Mark 10:24 pm on March 21, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: academic sociability, , cybernetics, meetings, , workshops   

    Scholarly centres of gravity 

    This is a term which Andrew Pickering uses on pg 10 of the Cybernetic Brain to describe the conference series and dining club around which cybernetics coalesced, as organisationally loose and somewhat self-selecting gatherings substituted for the secure institutional base which the majority of participants lacked.

    Scholarly centres of gravity are what bring people together outside of institutional concerns, with the intellectual and relational goods which can be found there drawing people back to them. In the process of course, this contributes to the reproduction of those goods as common projects, commitments and understandings emerge from what people do in these assemblies. If they stop coming back, or if the meetings cease to resonate for those concerned, these goods will rapidly erode.

    This is the perils of scholarly centres of gravity outside of institutional settings. They can provide a richer lived experience of why we do what we do. But the resources of an institution can help buttress projects and initiatives during fallow times when things don’t quite work. In their absence, a shared project can rapidly unwind with nothing beyond the commitment of those involved to hold it in its place.

  • Mark 9:38 pm on March 20, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , cybernetics,   

    Cybernetics as a way of life 

    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.

    • Steven Watson 8:57 am on March 21, 2019 Permalink

      The quote by Ross Ashby on p. 19 is probably the clearest account of object oriented ontology that I have come across

      “What is being suggested now is not that black boxes behave somewhat like real objects but that real objects are in fact all black boxes, and that we have been operating with black boxes all our lives”

      My reading of this – and Pickering’s posthumanism – is that new materialism can only really be unpacked by considering subject-object relationships as a relationship between complex dynamic systems i.e. in the spirit of the British cybernetics tradition.

      Makes me think that some new materialist writing is just REF clickbait 🙂

    • Mark 6:22 pm on March 21, 2019 Permalink

      I’m not a fan of new materialism personally.

      Very much like that quote!

  • Mark 7:44 pm on November 5, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: cybernetics, , , , worldliness   

    The worldly intellectualism of Stafford Beer 

    Earlier today I visited the Stafford Beer archive at Liverpool John Moores University. I had been curious about it for some time after talking to Mark Johnson who has been exploring the archive for a number of years. For those unfamiliar with him, I should start by pointing out how Beer was a fascinating and contradictory figure. He was a management guru before gurus. A consultant and a scholar. A scientist and an artist. A man who lived in abstractions yet was immensely practical. A cybernetician and a yoga teacher. He was polymathic in a way which is hard to imagine from our contemporary vantage point, traversing an immense range of fields in which he made significant intellectual and practical contributions. Therefore the range of the materials contained in the archive wasn’t a surprise.

    What did shock me was the variety of his outputs. He wrote books, papers, essays, reports and letters. He produced endless diagrams which have been as much a source of inspiration for artists as they have for systems analysts. He produced artefacts to convey his ideas and to serve practical purposes in his consultancy. He painted and his work was exhibited in a ground breaking exhibition at Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral. He published two books of poetry. He wrote a number of children’s books which he tried to publish. He produced a book of aphorisms which I suspect could have been published if he had tried. His astonishing repertoire of  communication blew me away. Can we point to any contemporary figure with the same range? He wasn’t just prolific, he was prolific in so many ways it is hard to conceive of how he structured his time to facilitate this outpouring of work. Furthermore, he did so while deeply engaged in the world, travelling regularly and tied up with all manner of diverse commitments. His scholarship didn’t involve a withdrawal from the world but rather an energetic embrace of it and the creative possibilities it opened up. His was a profoundly worldly intellectualism and I find it enormously inspiring.

    This theme of the worldliness or otherwise of intellectuals keeps coming to mind recently and I’m hoping to explore it further in relation to the long term implications of social media for the university. 

    • whitestudiolo 12:09 pm on November 6, 2018 Permalink

      Thank you for this introduction! I have read that in the 1980s Beer established a home in Toronto and spent part of his time there until his death is 2002. When perusing Beer’s archives, did you find evidence of Toronto-based practice?

    • Mark 10:20 am on November 9, 2018 Permalink

      I didn’t but I really only skimmed the surface

  • Mark 8:20 am on January 20, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: cybernetics, ict, ,   

    Wolfgang Hofkirchner – ICTs and Society Research – What for? 

  • Mark 4:26 pm on November 19, 2013 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: cybernetics, deviance, Maruyama, ,   

    Theorising Heterogeneity for Sociology 

    I’ve recently been reading Magoroh Maruyama’s writing on the second cybernetics and I’m quite taken with it. There’s a context to his work which I only dimly understand, given my lack of grounding in the first cybernetics, though I’m still finding his writing extremely thought-provoking. One of the key themes seems to be the critique of an exclusive focus within the first cybernetics on deviation-counteracting processes and the self-equilibrating systems which they engender. In contrast Maruyama is interested in the role of deviation-amplifying causal relationships in shaping systems over time. This is the example which has really caught my imagination:

    Development of a city in an agricultural plain may be understood with the same principle. At the beginning, a large plain is entirely homogeneous as to its potentiality for agriculture. By some chance an ambitious farmer opens a farm at a spot on it. This is the initial kick. Several farmers follow the example and several farms are established. One of the farmers opens a tool shop. Then this tool shop becomes a meeting place of farmers. A food stand is established next to the tool shop. Gradually a village grows. The village facilitates the marketing of the agricultural products, and more farms flourish around the village. Increased agricultural activity necessitates development of industry in the village, and the village grows into a city.

    This is a very familiar process. But there are a few important theoretical implications in such a process. On what part of the entire plain the city starts growing depends on where accidentally the initial kick occurred – The first farmer could have chosen any spot on the plain, since the plain was homogeneous. But once he has chosen a spot, a city grows from that spot, and the plain becomes inhomogeneous. If a historian should try to find a geographical “cause” which made this spot a city rather than some other spots, he will fail to find it in the initial homogeneity of the plain. Nor can the first farmer be credited with the establishment of the city. The secret of the growth of the city is in the process of deviation-amplifying mutual positive feedback networks rather than in the initial condition or in the initial kick. This process, rather than the initial condition, has generated the complexly structured city. It is in this sense that the deviation-amplifying mutual causal process is called “morphogenesis.


    But this has also left me thinking about reflexivity and subjectivity in these terms. Particularly in terms of how the preponderance of certain forms of reflexivity will tend to engender morphostatic responses to relations and institutions, while the preponderance of others will tend to engender morphogenetic ones. On this view, we could think of practitioners of certain forms of reflexivity as vectors of deviance-amplification. I’m trying to think this through at present with my PhD data chapters in terms of the implications which a developing mode of reflexivity has for the significant others of the practitioner. What influence does their growing heterogeneity have on those they stand in relation to? I think they will tend to be a source of new variety (new things to do, to think and to be) in a way which it feels important for me to get a better handle on.

  • Mark 12:18 pm on August 4, 2013 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: cybernetics, , ,   

    The Reflexive Imperative, Social Change and Cybernetics 

    One unexpected aspect of the Reflexive Imperative was Archer’s return to cybernetics in its conclusion. Though having long seen herself as a critic of this theoretical tradition, the systems theory of Walter Buckley was an important influence on the Morphogenetic Approach. In the Reflexive Imperative she critically engages with the ‘second cybernetics’ of Magorah Maruyama in order to try and develop her account of ‘variety’ which has become integral to her approach. This concept has come to play a crucial role in linking the predominately macro social perspective of the first two books of the Morphogenetic trilogy (Culture and Agency, Realist Social Theory) with Being Human and her three books on reflexivity (Structure Agency and the Internal Conversation, Making Our Way Through The World, The Reflexive Imperative). To understand the questions raised in the final chapter of the latter book, it’s essential to have some grasp of how her broader project fits together:

    Moreover, this trilogy on reflexivity has not been undertaken out of an intrinsic interest in one aspect of human subjectivity per se. It began from seeking to answer the theoretical question about how structure and culture got in on our personal acts for those of us who were dissatisfied with both positivistic ‘social hydraulics’ and Parsonian ‘internalization’. In their place, ‘reflexivity’ was advanced in Structure, Agency and the Internal Conversation as the process responsible for mediating between structural and cultural ‘conditioning’ and human agents, without entailing the obliteration or suspension of the agential properties and powers of persons.

    In the second volume, Making Our Way Through The World: Human Reflexivity and Social Mobility, which did use a sample of the local population of Coventry, stratified by age, gender and socio-economic position, the aim was to ascertain whether or not a personal emergent property (in this case dominant mode of reflexivity practiced) governed the type of social mobility desired and achieved under people’s own descriptions. These patterns of mobility (i.e., social stability, upwards mobility or lateral volatility) were held to result from actions arrived at through the reflexive deliberations of singular subjects in social contexts not of their own making. Reflexivity thus acquired a stronger claim for mediating between one macroscopic aspect of the social order – the patterning of social mobility – and the personal ‘projects’ pursued by subjects through their reflexive internal conversations, which defined the precise courses of action taken by them.  (Archer 2012: 294)

    My understanding of this book is that it’s an attempt to build upon this elaborated notion of reflexivity as mediating between the macro and the micro in order to better understand the consequence which the proliferation of ‘variety’, deposited as contextual incongruity in the situations concrete persons confront, has for how they in turn act in relation to this increasingly varied social order and contribute, as a consequence of both their actions and their own elaboration as persons, to the intensification of the social changes generative of variety. Reflexivity is integral to understanding the “differential and selective take-up of new opportunities” which is itself generative of greater variety (Archer 2012: 2999). It’s an initial attempt to get beyond what Archer identifies as the chronic empiricism which characterises the contemporary theoretical literature on social change and instead get to the generative mechanisms which are producing these empirically observable phenomenon of ‘flows’ and ‘liquidity’. Her point here can seem contentious, given the affection with which many (including myself) hold the work of people like Bauman, but I think it’s an important critique. Liquidity is a metaphorical characterisation of an empirical phenomenon, beguiling because of the incisiveness with which Bauman has been able to analyse and convey what seems to be the inner nature of a whole range of disparate phenomena. But no matter how sophisticated our measures, tracking flows is like seeking to ‘explain’ the tides by intricately charting their movements. I’m entirely with Archer in her argument that sociology needs to move from metaphors to mechanisms:

    Today, the leading trope is “liquid modernity,” but metaphors explain nothing and often mislead (remember the mechanical, organic and cybernetic similes). Particular theories of change have accentuated one element of SAC alone: “culture” for “Information Society;” “structure” for “Globalized Capitalism” or “Empire;” and “agency” for the “institutionalized individualism” of “Reflexive Modernization.” Each seizes upon one (empirically striking) component, considers it to be the leading part and wrongly equates it with the generative mechanism of change. Instead, we need to examine the SAC synergies and positive feedbacks making social morphogenesis the process responsible for intensifying change – in a non-metaphorical manner.


    It’s to this end that the final chapter of the Reflexive Imperative turns. It marks a transition point between her previous two projects (developing the morphogenetic approach and the three empirical studies of reflexivity plus their associated volumes) and her next major project, which is being conducted with a really interestingly international and interdisciplinary group, on the morphogenetic society. This is how she describes the project,

    The new generative mechanism at work is for variety to induce further variety.  All change is ‘activity dependent’, but the new social relations and relations between relations that accelerate innovation, opportunities and choices await adequate theorization. The danger in the new millennium is that social solidarity could be further reduced by new hierarchies based upon differential expertise. The challenge isto identify ways of integrating variety as diversity throughout the population. Hence the particular interest of the burgeoning Third Sector and Cyber Sector as means for transforming civil society.

    1. Understanding the mechanism at the micro-level. Morphogenesis fosters a new situational logic for action. During late modernity the latter remained a logic of competition, whose outcomes were zero-sum. Conversely, the new logic of opportunity associated with the unbinding of morphogenesis could, in principle, represent a ‘win-win’ situation for many more people. In turn, the Reflexive Imperativeapplies to all because given the acceleration of change, past experience is no guide to action. Such ‘contextual incongruity’ means that socialization can no longer prepare young people for working life or life-style through the inter-generational transmission of a ‘habitus’ (Bourdieu), operating quasi-automatically. Instead, agents’ guidelines personal concerns become their courses of action are determined and realized through reflexive deliberation – both individual and collective.
    2. Understanding the mechanism at the meso-level. Here, network theory requires re-conceptualization to embrace not only how connectivity fosters the flexible production of knowledge but transforms social relations and the generation of new relational goods (indivisible, non-material goods and services). Hence considerable interest attaches to  developing ‘Relational Realism’.
    3. Understanding the mechanism at the macro-level. How do Market ‘exchange relations’ and State ‘command relations’ become reconfigured into more dispersed and participatory social forms, no longer based upon instrumental rationality but on social engagement?

    However, the project must start at the beginning with a theoretical clarification of the morphogenetic process itself. Since the concept of morphogenesis began in biology, EPFL with its prominence in neurobiology is the ideal venue to promote interdisciplinary conceptual advances.


    This is why ‘variety’ is such an important concept. It’s at the heart of everyday and journalistic discussions of the “increasing pace of social change, the novelties people have already encountered in their lifetimes, and their expectations for new variety to continue to grow during those of their children” (Archer 2012: 295). However variety can be a tricky concept to put into practice. The first cybernetics construed variety in terms of the distinguishable elements within a set: it was an objective property of an aggregate. If ‘variety’, which I do think she’s convincingly operationalised at the level of biography, will be used for social analysis then we need to rethink the concept of it that can be found in information theory. Aggregate variety of this sort can actually diminish with new innovations because new items can displace old ones e.g. all the many businesses which smart phones have destroyed. Furthermore this concept of variety is atomistic and precludes the recognition of ‘relational goods’.  This atomism also leads to a failure to consider the distribution of variety. What’s important about variety from a sociological perspective is not just the number of discrete elements within a given set but the relations between them and their distribution across the social order.

    Archer engages with the later cybernetics of Maruyama precisely because he was, given his interest in deviation-amplifying feedback within systems, concerned with the distribution of variety. However she argues that Maruyama was preoccupied with heterogeneity (differences) at the expense of homogeneity (similarities). She argues that the latter is responsible for the “bonding that links together members of a group (community, team or enterprise) that accentuates their human commonalities and makes their belongingness something more than rational instrumental opportunism” (Archer 2012: 301). The biographical accumulation of variety which can be seen in the lives of meta-reflexives (and to a lesser extent the fractured and autonomous) serves to ‘differentiate’ them from their peers, generating an increasingly particularistic inner life which precludes the ‘similarity and ‘familiarity’ upon which communicative reflexivity depends. Left unchecked this means that “association with other social units becomes less and less rewarding and prompts a multiplication of the number of smaller and smaller social units that follows” (Archer 2012: 303). Underlying the Morphogenetic Society project is a concern to understand “the generation of new variety that in one sense carries society (now one and global) forward” but also the neglected topic of “what holds it together or pulls it apart” (Archer 2012: 304).

    Social morphogenesis “destroys the modus vivendi continuous from the past but also defies the re-establishment of new continuities on the basis of residence, community, occupation, religion, ethnicity and kinship” (Archer 2012: 305). It’s for this reason that Archer sees the decline of communicative reflexivity as going hand-in-hand with a reduction in social solidarity. The normative conventionalism which was secured through the ‘thought and talk’ of communicative reflexivity, as the reliance on others to complete and confirm one’s inner deliberation exposed them to immediate censure before they got beyond the planning stage, increasingly lacks purchase beyond the pockets of contextual continuity which communicative reflexives now have to work to maintain. Normative conventionalism has no long term future as a basis for social integration because the conditions underlying its efficacy are rapidly disappearing and the intensification of social change precludes the easy establishment of new norms because “action needs to be at least recurrent in kind in order for norms to develop to cover it” (Archer 2012: 306). Even when norms do develop, as can be seen for example in the stabilisation of standards relating to social media platforms, the efficacy with which they can be enforced is severely curtailed because of these underlying changes in the relational dynamics of reflexivity. Norms can function on the basis of intersubjective negotiation and collective self-regulation yet “negotiated norms lack the binding power of the generalized normativity that communicative reflexivity used to promote” (Archer 2012: 306).

Compose new post
Next post/Next comment
Previous post/Previous comment
Show/Hide comments
Go to top
Go to login
Show/Hide help
shift + esc