25 January 2010

Mode und Methode: Die Kybernetik in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland. (Göttingen 2009)

Pop-cybernetics

'Keiner weiß, was Kybernetik ist’ [No one knows what cybernetics is].

Thus pondered Rolf Lohberg and Theo Lutz in a 1968 book of that very title - a book designed to teach their fellow Germans a little of what could be known about this very ‘modern science’, after all. The message - that no one knows – also, and aptly, serves as something of a motto to Philipp Aumann’s more recent book on cybernetics in the German Federal Republic, an ambitious foray into largely uncharted historical territories. Though Aumann’s book is in German, and largely about Germany - the peculiarities of cybernetics in Western Germany, to be exact - historians interested in the matter should take note: it differs in refreshing ways from the standard lore of cybernetics.

Alliteratively titled Mode und Methode (which we may render into the less alliterative ‘Fad and Method’), and infused with an almost Rankean spirit, it presents itself as a history which takes seriously cybernetics as the ‘historical event’ that it was - in historical terms, that is, and in all its perplexing heterogeneity. Aumann has delved deeply into the archives of cybernetics in order to reconstruct this difficult-to-fathom science in its German incarnations. The result is an impressive inventory of all things cybernetic in the Federal Republic - a Republic eager to modernize, teeming with techno-optimism, and economically prospering. This, at any rate, is the historical frame Aumann adopts for his story, which to a large extents focuses on the ‘long 1960s’, the period when cybernetics most visibly - and sometimes successfully - inserted itself into a broad range of pertinent Teutonic projects: Biokybernetik, Ingenieurskybernetik, Humankybernetik, Sozialkybernetik and a plethora of further mutations of this new Science of control and communication. These all come under Aumann’s purview as he follows actors, the label, and its shifting meanings and motifs into institutions, grant committees, university degree curricula, and the realms of popular science.

The obvious strength of this somewhat panoramic sampling-procedure is that it rather nicely brings out the sheer variety of these cybernetic departures, as well as, significantly, the plentiful frustrations, tensions and failures cybernetic theorizing quickly generated once it was to be translated into practical and institutional realities (something all-too-rarely explored in the literature). It’s from this vantage point that Aumann’s core message - cybernetics as "fad": a science inherently constituted by its public relations - derives much of its plausibility.

Like many historians of German science, Aumann pays much detailed attention in fact to the research activities initiated within or by Germany’s major post-war research agencies (Max-Planck-Society, German Research Foundation (DFG), Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft), and the new managerial devices in matters of research administration one was beginning to toy around with (notably, this concerned the so-called DFG Schwerpunktprogramme [‘concentration programmes’] and Sonderforschungsbereiche ['collaborative research centres'], initiatives which got rolling in 1953 and 1967 respectively). The Max-Planck-Society, no enemy of the interdisciplinarity ideology either, had launched its own cybernetics ‘research group’ around the biophysicist-turned-biocybernetician Werner Reichardt by 1958 as part, initially, of the Max Planck Institute for Biology. It became the seed of a future MPI for Biological Cybernetics some ten years later. (Today, it is one of Germany’s major neurosciences research centres). The Fraunhofer Society, meanwhile, notably intervened with the rather more applications-oriented Institute for Technological and Biological Information-processing in Karlsruhe, a take-over (1967) of an equally applications-oriented Institute for Schwingungsforschung (‘communications physics’ roughly).

Perhaps not too surprisingly, in the majority of these cases ‘cybernetics’ routinely functioned, as Aumann shows, as a reformist agenda, inspiring and licensing projects and collaborations beyond traditional, disciplinary boundaries; agendas which typically and quickly degenerated, however, into far less adventurous and more recognizably disciplined research programmes. The pattern is more striking even, and the picture even less reminiscent of cyberneticians' received image as mid-century revolutionaries, once we lower our eyes (along with Aumann’s) to the university sector. More often than not, especially, it seems, in Germany’s many control, communications and otherwise technical engineering departments, cybernetics spelt ‘reform’, ‘interdisciplinarity’, and progressive ‘borderland’. But, attempts at institutionalization – Berlin, Stuttgart, Karlsruhe, and Munich are Aumann’s examples - foundered rapidly in the face of institutional (and disciplinary) realities, and left amorphous traces at best. By the mid-1970s, ‘cybernetics’ had all but evaporated, even in Western Germany.

But what, again, was it? In developing answers, the minutely empirical, often a bit tediously schematic, picture which Aumann paints of cybernetics as it unfolded in post-WWII Germany, has little patience, for one, with what he identifies, with some justification, as the grand malaise inflicting the cybernetics historiography. Namely, the tendency on part of the cyber-historiographers to proceed on somewhat narrowly circumscribed terrains of intellectual history - and on a thin empirical basis at that.

Too often perhaps, Aumann laments, cybernetics has served less as an object of historical inquiry than a ‘quarry for further philosophical and cultural theorizing’ (the express empirical temper displayed by Aumann, for its part, is more understandable perhaps considering that he writes in the German context where it is indeed media and cultural studies that have flirted most heavily with the history of cybernetics -although the tendency is certainly not absent in the Anglo-American literature). The received plot-line of cybernetics as mid-century epistemological rupture triggering all-pervasive ontological confusion (and not least, a new science of the brain) Aumann confronts with a more sober story of cybernetic furore. It’s certainly here that the attention the book pays to the ‘fad’ in cybernetics – Mode rather than Methode – reveals its great strengths; and its major short-comings as well.

Of course, it’s not exactly news that cybernetics was immensely popular, making its rounds far beyond the laboratories of science. Much of what has been written about cybernetics, after all, has focused on cybernetics’ reverberations in literature, philosophy and art (and more generally, on the somewhat ethereal entity ‘information discourse’). Rarely though, have historians put the ‘fad’ dimension as programmatically at the centre as Mode und Methode wants it to be and rarely were the consequences made so explicit. To treat cybernetics, if indeed it resembled so little anything in the way of a (institutionalized) science, rather more like popular, or inherently public, science. And less, that is, as science emanating from the circles of Norbert Wiener et al., an arcane technoscientific wisdom propelling the world into an age of information. Aumann, no doubt, succeeds rather convincingly along the former axis, showing how little really existing cybernetics may have resembled the discursive elaborations that have come to supplant its history. It is far less convincing at the second task; it’s here, the question of cybernetics as a science essentially constituted by its social and public relations - unfortunately, that Aumann’s book is bound to disappoint its readers. Aumann’s excursions into these popular dimensions indeed come largely tagged onto the main part book (largely focusing on newspaper and magazine articles), and they do not greatly inform his prior analyses.

For all the criticism one could level against the standard story, then, there is, regrettably, no historical counter-narrative emerging on the pages of Mode und Methode, despite the many pointers it certainly provides. Aumann acknowledges, for instance, but makes little of, such prior attempts at historicizing as have been produced notably by David Mindell, Ronald Kline, Friedrich-Wilhelm Hagemeyer, and others; Mode und Methode provides only little sense of the (local/national/etc) infrastructures of cybernetic knowing in Western Germany, or its wider technological/historical conditions of possibility, or the disciplinary and academic landscapes within which FRG-cyberneticians presumably inserted their agendas.

The ‘cybernetics’ one finds, is largely, and far from atypically, a story of reception and appropriations, a German variation on an US import. Remarkably, for instance, one learns little of the role the considerable technoscientific mobilization of the German Volk prior to 1945 may have played in the process, or what, if any, home-grown forms of cybernetic expertise it may have generated. Neither is there much contextualization going on, say, of cybernetics within the much broader swaths of technophobic theorizing (or techno-euphoria) that swept across post-war Germany, in so many attempts to (re)construct, or comprehend, an inconvenient past and relentlessly modern present - from Heidegger to Brecht to the lesser mortals. Granted, Aumann’s book concentrates on the 1950s and 1960s, and it does include discussion of the odd precursor figure (such as, notably, the physiologist Richard Wagner or the circles around the neurophysiologist/ethologist Erich von Holst), but the result comes with an unsatisfactory ‘zero hour’ feel.

Others have ultimately succeeded better in grounding cybernetics in national contexts other than the US – Gerovitch’s From Newspeak to Cyberspeak is a case in point – or, in historicizing the apparently cybernetic within decidedly less epic narratives (Jamie Cohen-Cole’s work is especially worth mentioning here). Still, Aumann’s fad story does have, or could have, its definite merits. For, it invites reading the cybernetic discourse, in historical terms, as a (non-revolutionary) symptom of much vaster (and mundane) sea-changes - and, for the purposes of writing the history of the neurosciences, in ways that bring to the fore the multiple and non-convergent forces that shaped the sciences of the nervous system in the period.

Arguably, it was, more fundamentally than anything else, cybernetics that served to frame historical narratives of brains and minds in the mid-twentieth century. It was here, the story goes, where not only a new vision of the brain/mind was in the making – the brain-as-computer, a model-making and information processing thing – but where the ‘living’ brain/mind was introduced as an object of experimental and quantitative study in the first place – perhaps, after half a century of ‘eclipse’, as one historian put it; after a dark age of behaviouristic superficialities, timid physiologists of the peripheral nervous system and primitive research-technologies, as cybernetics aficionados themselves like to style it. And yet, though it would be difficult indeed to imagine a cultural history of the nervous system in the period without cybernetics, it arguably would be equally mistaken to take the cultural/intellectual effects (which it evidently had) for this history. More broadly, it is, I would argue, the near-inevitability with which this problematically cultural (and intellectual) vision - a function, more than anything else, of cybernetics’ public visibility – figures in the stories we actually tell that is problematic; Mode und Methode deserves the credit for forcefully articulating these conflations. Indeed, taking our cue from Aumann’s call to engaging more deeply the fundamentally heterogeneous and popular/public nature of cybernetics, we would, perhaps, quickly arrive at a dramatically deflated and thoroughly cultural picture of its significance, while at the same time come to better appreciate just how tangential its discourse may have been, for one, to whatever happened in the neuro-laboratories, or in most of them.

Perhaps all that is needed is pushing only slightly further the line of inquiry Aumann at least gestures at; locating the ‘fad’, that is, more definitely within the content and format of the cybernetic message itself. Certainly enough, whether they deflated, head-on, ‘the Descartian split between mind and body’ (‘so abhorrent to my way of looking at these problems’ as the neuropsychiatrist/cybernetician McCulloch disclaimed), brought inspiration to art and music, or mounted robotic spectacle at the Festival of Britain, the stimulating phrases – the popular, philosophical and techno-futuristic - was never far in this cybernetic delirium of a universal science of control and communication; and never far, of course, was the brain – albeit, on the whole, a somewhat virtual one: a brain modelled, theorized, and imagined rather than brains dissected and measured. Take the instructive case of Norbert Wiener, whose immense public presence as the Cassandra of the dawning age of automation has been documented thoroughly enough. Even Wiener’s notoriously difficult, formula-laden Cybernetics (1948) had sold a spectacular 13,931 copies by 1949, with another 5,000 copies waiting to be printed. A more accessible version was already in commission. The Human Use of Human Beings, Wiener’s powerful vision of the technological future had hit the shelves in 1950; ‘PANDORA’ or ‘CASSANDRA’, Wiener’s own, preferred titles, had, however, been ‘absolutely out of the question’ (‘from the publishing point of view’).

Just how actively Wiener was courted by journalists, and the extent to which these medialisations may have shaped the message and nature of the cybernetic project itself, is a dimension yet to be explored. One had, after all, to keep in mind ways of reaching out that ‘might permit broad public understanding and appreciation,’ as Wiener frequently was advised: ‘Channel[s]’ that ‘would make the implications of CYBERNETICS amenable to presentation in dramatic and concrete terms with meaning for the average man’. Cybernetics would, as one such helpful scribe opined, ‘make the foremost story of the 20th century’ - but only ‘if’, that was, ‘the essential element of CYBERNETICS could be reduced to simple symbols --- blocks of wood, even’ or, even better, ‘photographs’. Meanwhile, ‘detailed quantitative experimental programme[s]’ such as the one on a ‘rigorous description of the time-course of the spike potential’ of a single axon which Wiener in fact enthusiastically cooked up as well - together with the Mexican electro-physiologist Arturo Rosenblueth (and the aid of the Rockefeller Foundation) – quite definitely didn’t seem to mesh with Wiener’s public role as chief communications-philosopher. Wiener’s cybernetic allies, for one, did not necessarily find such utterly undramatic and difficult matters worthy of discussion, as Wiener learnt when his parallel, electro-physiological effort concerning a quantitative, rigorous ‘study of [heart] flutter and fibrillation’ wasn’t admitted to the programme of the first of the Macy conferences in 1946 – despite, that is, Wiener’s insistence as to their importance ‘for the purposes of our conference’.

Models, metaphors, visual aids, charts, analogies, or diagrams answered specific needs and served specific purposes beyond the emphatically epistemic, as not least the then thoroughly professionalizing community of science-journalists would have come to appreciate. More than ever before were these devices beginning to live precarious double lives as tools of communication, a problem felt in particular when they seemingly were needed most - when scientists ventured beyond their own disciplinary terrains, or, as happened with similarly increasing frequency, beyond their laboratories. Such transgressions were programmatic to what cybernetics was, and, as Geoffrey Bowker has shown, much of the cyberneticians’s success was dependent on strategically exploiting an idiom of ‘universalism’; it would smooth the implantations of the cybernetic discourse in potentially any science. A more historical, and less sociological, approach would highlight instead how profoundly such ‘cybernetic strategies’ were themselves parasitic on the literary and visual technologies then being floated for exactly such purposes. Models, and related, verbal and visual technologies of communication, weren’t, that is, the exclusive domain of the cyber-scientists. Advertisers, journalists and educators in particular had by then generated an impressive armature of models, visual aids, and other technologies of persuasion.

Among educationists, a visual movement had notably been gaining ground during the 1930s already spearheading the use and proffering the signal importance of visual aids to learning: film, film-strips, models, maps, charts and diagrams. ‘To tell the truth [was] not enough’ as Patrick Meredith, science teacher turned director of the Visual Education Centre, Exeter, explained it in 1948, ‘it must be communicated’. In other words, not least the discourse of ‘models’ for which cybernetics rightly acquired fame, might, on closer inspection, turn out to be less the epistemic rupture and technology-driven achievement that opened up fundamentally new spaces of scientific complexity (such as the brain); but rather, to indulge in a little speculation, an effect, or condensation, of the media-technological infrastructure with which it came interlaced. Its significance would reside in the light it casts on the mediations of post-war intellectual life; far less so, in what it tells us about the evolutions of brain (or neuro-) science. By no means were model-strategies the proprietary format of the cyberneticians, even though they may have been particularly adept at the task. UCL neuroanatomist J.Z. Young - ‘highly stimulating ... [and] quick, vigourous, imaginative’ unlike the ‘usual scientist’, as one BBC employee judged - was blossoming out when he explained in the ‘lingo’ of the communication engineer ‘this idea of models in our brain’, or how ‘Science consists in exact description of one’s observation to other people’. By the same token, this cybernetic embrace was neither total, nor unambiguous. Tools of communication, models, analogies and the like in fact were highly problematic; their use entailed forgoing scientific and symbolic precision for the vulgar sake of wider intelligibility, as worried, not least, arch-cyberneticist Norbert Wiener: ‘I find that there is a great increase in entropy of any information that seeps though this appalling industry’, he wrote in response to yet another request to spread his gospel. Wiener indeed only reluctantly assumed the public role as ‘Philosoph[er] of Communication’ into which he was fashioned as much as he pushed for it (and, no doubt, Wiener had some serious issues with the state of the world). But, just as much cybernetics amalgamated rather than originated vast amounts of knowledge, so the format of its presentation is perhaps better construed as parasitic on a set of fairly mundane practices.

It was, at any rate, the ‘really first-rate science popularizer[s]’ such as Grey Walter who more palpably excelled - much to the pleasure of the BBC - at bringing closer to the post-war public the most recent conflations of minds, brains and machines. Like many another who had contracted the ‘virus’ of cybernetics, he eagerly weighed in - with programmes such as ‘Patterns in your head’, ‘Minds and Machines’ or a six-part instalment on ‘Communication’ - on the general ‘spate of Brain talks’ which was hitting the ether waves at the time. Here the man of the street (at least, the one of ‘average, not exceptional intelligence’), as Grey Walter was instructed, was to be offered ‘synoptic glimpses’ of difficult subject matter - hence, not least, the many models, analogies and other ‘illustrations’ - of ‘the way information is conveyed from one creature to another’. It is, in part, the fact that such symbiotic relations as the one between Wiener and the press, or Young and the BBC above, were by no means exceptional which renders the cybernetic discourse highly problematic indeed as an historical account of brain science (or of scientific modeling, or of technological evolution). This discourse, to be sure, was real enough, and as such, part of very real transformations. But, as Aumann’s book usefully reminds us, as historians, we may have largely failed to interrogate its historical realities (and conditions of possibility) when mobilizing it to frame our narratives. Matters of models and analogies are by no means the only such fairly un-revolutionary dimension (much the same, for instance, could be said about ‘interdisciplinarity’); neither were their mediations only a matter of journalistic past-times or inspired radio-speeches.

When Norbert Wiener, appalled by the rumours of hordes of war-traumatized Americans and, more disconcerting even, of housewives, now ‘“practising” “dianetic therapy” upon each other’, pondered filing an infringement law-suit against the ‘dianetics boys’ in the early 1950s, it may have been a signal of just how deeply cybernetics expressed, rather then informed, the cultural climate of the times. In those deeply technology-infused societies, it must have seemed difficult indeed to draw distinctions between the ‘intellectual validity’ of Wiener’s ‘philosophy of technology’ and the only apparently ‘Cybernetic principles’ under-girding Ron Hubbard’s ‘speech and writings’. (This confusion was in fact only ‘understandable, since both sets of postulates’, or so Hubbard promptly explained it to Wiener, ‘do both stem from electronic engineering’).

Aumann’s book, despite its ambitions, conveys little of these kinds of intersections, or of whatever the more intimate intersections might have between cybernetics and the scientific life in the land of the Germans. Had it done so, it might have made for a more convincing account of cybernetics’ faddish nature (not an easy task, given the amount of material Aumann surveys.) Even so, the sober case it advances, is a very welcome historical intervention into the cybernetics-genre. In passing, the inclined reader will pick up, no doubt, much valuable information on neuroscientific figures and developments outside the entrenched Macy canon. More significant perhaps, to her Mode und Methode might suggest that in matters ca. 1950, the standard cybernetic story is not very illuminating as a guide to the mundane and less revolutionary world of the average neuro-physiological laboratory (or asylum, or neurological clinic, or...).


Aumann, Philipp: Mode und Methode. Die Kybernetik in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland. Göttingen 2009 (all other citations come from: Wiener papers (MIT Special Collections) and the BBC Written Archives Centre, Reading, respectively).

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