a research practice working at the intersection of architecture, technology, art and ecological pedagogy

Neocybernetics – Sketches of Another Future: review in Radical Philosophy 165

I have a new article in the new issue of Radical Philosophy, a double book review of Bruce Clarke and Mark B.N. Hansen (eds.), Emergence and Embodiment: New Essays in Second-Order Systems Theory (Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2009), and Andrew Pickering, The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches of Another Future (University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2010).

Both books are of interest. The Clarke and Hansen collection contains important pieces by the two editors, together with a mix of works from contemporary and canonic thinkers in the field, including Francisco Varela, Niklas Luhmann, Heinz von Foerster, Evan Thompson, and John Protevi, amongst others. The broad drive of the collection, for the editors, is that:

“it is only by theorising the operational closure of cognizing systems that cultural theory can rescue agency – albeit agency of a far more complex variety than that of traditional humanism – from being overrun by the technoscientific processes that are everywhere transforming the material world in which we live today.. Better late than never, second-order cybernetics can now perhaps finally come through on its promise to provide the ecology of mind best fitted to the demands of our intellectual, institutional, and global crises.”

I am particularly fond of Andrew Pickering’s new work. I first met him in February last year, when we were both speaking at a symposium at the University of Nottingham, organised by their Science Technology Culture Research Group, and was not aware of his work before then (although I probably should have been). Pickering shares an interest in the same collection of cyberneticians that have animated sections of my PhD research, although he has been able to articulate better than I could, why they were interesting. His move is simple. He basically rejects, or perhaps just ignores, the first-order/second-order distinction that characterises most accounts of cybernetics, and instead describes a radical tendency within cybernetics of ‘anti-control’, almost exclusively composed of British researchers. This would be as opposed, I guess, to a more mainstream and American/German systems theory of ‘control’. Pickering – a former quantum physicist turned historian/theorist of science – has written about the social forms of scientific practice, and the effect of these forms upon the knowledge claims made by science. Importantly for Pickering, “the ontology of cybernetics is a strange and unfamiliar one, very different from that of the modern sciences”. He argues that the modern ideology of science is fundamentally representational, and claims that the experimental work of British cybernetics (in which he includes Gregory Bateson, R.D. Laing, Stafford Beer, Gordon Pask, Ross Ashby, and Grey Walter) stages a non-representational approach, a “hylozoic wonder”, and a “reciprocal coupling of people and things” and “an understanding of science as a mode of performative engagement with the world.” Pickering describes how radical cybernetics stages what he calls “ontological theatre”. In Pickering’s account, we find a distinctive and radical outline for a new “nomadic science”, a “forward-looking search … [for] a vision not of a world characterised by graspable causes, but rather of one in which reality is always ‘in the making’.”

In the review, I argue that both books move beyond the dominant critique of cybernetics that emerged in recent decades, perhaps most energetically found in the French group Tiqqun’s Cybernetic Hypothesis. I conclude (all too briefly – but see my forthcoming PhD and elsewhere for a more extended argument), that in these accounts of radical/neo-cybernetics, there can be found an important critical contribution to the renewed interest in the concept of metabolism, that has developed in recent Marxian theories of  Urban Political Ecology and Landscape Urbanism.

I have recently found this interview with Andrew Pickering on the University of Nottingham’s Science Technology Culture Research Group website, which gives an accessible introduction to his thinking:


NB I have another article where I consider Pickering’s work and the question of interactive design, on the Creative Applications Network.

Filed under: ecology, research

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