31 May 2010

Book Review: The Cybernetic Brain

Wo aber Gefahr ist, wächst/
Das Rettende auch.

["But where danger is, there grows / also that which saves"]

The poet Hölderlin’s “Wink” (“beckon”, let’s say), famously quoted by the infamous philosopher Martin Heidegger in his musings on technology (or enframing) from 1949 (known as Technology and The Turning [Die Technik und Die Kehre]), might very well have served as the subtitle to Andrew Pickering’s own recent Wink, The Cybernetic Brain (Chicago UP, 2010). The prominence of the Brain in the title indeed is likely to disappoint those expecting brains, or history; Pickering’s compass at any rate is better captured by the (actual) subtitle: Sketches of Another Future. The Cybernetic Brain is Pickering’s road-map to this other, and “non-modern”, future, passionately developed in five chapters, each of which is spun around one of Pickering’s five or six cybernetic heroes – the Britons Grey Walter, Ross Ashby, Gordon Pask, Stafford Beer, Gregory Bateson, and, perhaps the most unlikely among the lot, R.D. Laing.

Anyone picking up a copy will learn a great deal about the lives of these various - more or less obscure - cybernetic missionaries, and their cybernetic “performances” (one of Pickering’s favourite notions here) in particular – all in the service of Pickering’s central purpose, to spell out his vision of the “non-modern”. Long in the making, and eagerly awaited, The Cybernetic Brain draws together Pickering’s various excursions into the cybernetic mangle and (“performative”) ontology that have been leaking out over the course of the last few years, considerably elaborating on some of these themes – the cybernetic, “adaptive”, “performative” and “non-representational” brain holding it all together - and more interestingly, omitting others (notably, the main lines of his earlier, and less celebratory, writings on "Cyborg History" and "Decentring").

Pickering’s book relishes in the bizarre, playful and “performative” dimensions of cybernetic thinking and (especially) doing, and has little time for the somewhat less edifying aspects of cybernetic history (something clearly reflected in his choice of actors); it minutely recounts the workings of any number of whimsical cybernetic machines, the merits of naked-wrestling (under the influence of LSD), of biomorphic (aka analogue, aka performative) computing or of cybernetic music and art; and it doesn’t shy away even from taking sides (as when defending Beer against long-deceased, technocracy-phobic critics, or, as when having little patience with “GOFAI”); and neither does it shy away from giving a fashionable Heideggerian spin to all (albeit with a heavy dose of the Latourian “non-modern” and Foucaultesque technologies of the self). Pickering discerns in these several cybernetics projects the “models” of this another future - different epistemologies, different selves (and self technologies), a different world and order: The cybernetic practices of non-modern complexity and performativity, unjustly marginalized by a hierarchical, orderly, disciplined, unjust and unfun - in brief, “modern” - world, we better had resurrected. Admirably, Pickering’s book has a mission and an agenda; the result, however, to the disciplined ears of this reader at least, all too often veers off into the metaphysical and post-human utopianism; and worse, comes close to sounding indistinguishable from the gospel of the ideologues of the digital age; or indeed, from what others might prefer to denounce as the “new spirit of capitalism”. The Cybernetic Brain certainly is a strange kind of book, half manifesto, half nostalgia for a (countercultural) world lost. In fact, it is easier to say what The Cybernetic Brain is not.

Indeed, although the main cast evidently is all British, and has, to various degrees, profoundly shaped the (public) face of cybernetics in the UK, it clearly is not, for one, a history of cybernetics (or the cybernetic brain) in Britain - something Pickering is emphatically clear about. Readers interested in the history of cybernetics will find little, or nothing, on the lively, and considerable broader cybernetics scene in post-war Britain (let alone, its many distractors). There is, for instance, no room in Pickering’s story (to name only the more obvious suspects) for figures such as J.Z. Young, John Bates, Colin Cherry, Donald MacKay, Arthur Porter, and - the most suspicious absentee - the British ur-cybernetician Kenneth Craik; neither will readers learn much that is new, say, about the “Ratio Club”, the famous British pendant to the Macy conferences, and nothing about the rather more nameless scientists of the man-machine who gathered at the Applied Psychology Unit in Cambridge for example, or under the auspices of the (British) Ergonomics Society; they will learn even less about British history, the history of World War II, or of the cold war, and of cybernetics’ place in it – in brief, little of the historical “context” (however defined) of cybernetics in Britain. Quite to the contrary, Pickering displays a remarkable eagerness not to historicize, or contextualize, the post-war cybernetic moment.

Instead, The Cybernetic Brain invests considerable efforts in demarcating and distancing the brand of hedonistic, artistic, and fun and exciting cybernetics Pickering is “interested” in (or invents), from the equally familiar image - thanks, in part, to contributions by Pickering himself - of a dark and sinister, technocratic science that had sprung from the heart of the military-industrial complex itself, forever contaminated. Pickering insists on this other, and good, cybernetics, and he insists, quite justifiably so, on the “protean” nature of the cybernetic project, and its “multiplicity” as well. Hence, too, the choice of actors, sites and scenes: whether Grey Walter’s robotic turtles, Stafford Beers’ company-simulating ponds, or Laing’s anti-psychiatric refuges, each one of these “ontological theatres” functions to illustrate Pickering’s vision of another future, a future where hierarchies are non-existent, selves and things perform (rather than represent and being represented), science is “nomadic”, and institutions by-passed. The outcome, unfortunately, seems historically simplistic, and is not always particularly compelling – certainly, it comes nowhere near the complex entanglements between and among all manner of social, technological and industrial domains Pickering has explored with much gusto elsewhere (in his work, already mentioned, on cyborg science and the synthetic dye stuffs industry notably). In The Cybernetic Brain, all the mangle happens within a carefully demarcated domain: a cybernetics that is visionary, and “fun”.

That said, The Cybernetic Brain does advance some historical claims that are well worth pondering. Indeed one correlate to Pickering’s resurrection mission is his emphasis on the tremendously marginal status of cybernetics, or what he labels its peculiar “social basis”: odd people ultimately failing to succeed with their wacky projects, hence always “nomadic”, inherently anti-institutional and non-disciplinary (all adding up to “non-modern” and worth emulation). This is an emphasis and picture refreshingly different from the epistemic rupture stories which stylize cybernetics into a world-historic event that signaled the end of matter and energy, and the beginning of the post-modern information age. The plotline of The Cybernetic Brain is a different one: for Pickering, Grey Walter, Ross Ashby and descendants are interesting precisely because their cybernetic projects were all about “ontology” (at any rate, certainly not about ethereal information); and second, precisely because the cybernetic, non-modern vision that each one of them heralded has made so little impact – yet. “Modernity” (rather than post-modernity) is alive and kicking, on Pickering’s mind, and so are its ill effects.

And these effects, as it were, also bring us to the other historical message that’s worth emphasizing here: that of a special affinity between cybernetics and psychiatry which Pickering perceptively argues for. Though Wiener’s own somewhat neurotic constitution, or the many cyberneticians with pertinent interests and occupations – including such central figures as R.W. Gerard, Warren McCulloch, Lawrence Kubie and Frank Fremont-Smith (or on the fringes, someone like Jacques Lacan) - or, for that matter, the role in the genesis of cybernetics of the Macy Josiah Foundation for Mental Health, is hardly news to students of cybernetics, few scholars have made much of this connection. They perhaps should. For, there can indeed be little doubt - in the wake of WWII, both human behaviour and mental health - injured by a very recent, violent past and endangered by a fully-automatized future - had turned into fundamental problems of planetary dimensions. For many (and especially the cybernetically minded), here was a world where life, peace, and truth would be matters of “communication”. For Pickering, psychiatry (or more properly, the subversion thereof) indeed is the thread that not only weaves together the projects of Walter, Ashby, Bateson and Laing (less so, of course, Pask and Beer); it is here that Pickering comes closest to something of an alternative, systematic historical contextualization of cybernetics: psychiatry rather than war-time techno-science, military and engineering. But here too, unfortunately enough, historical breadth and argument isn’t exactly one of The Cybernetic Brain’s strengths. Pickering bases his claims largely on the individual biographies of his main actors, noting that in each case, psychiatric practice somehow shaped and informed their respective cybernetic careers, even if ultimately, their odd researches remained – laudably - marginal to the psychiatric mainstream; he does little, however, to substantiate the case; to give readers a broader sense of the world of post-war (British) psychiatry (and more broadly, of brain science); or indeed, to explain just why there might have been such a special affinity, or why it should have been peculiar to the “fun” type of “British” cybernetics (the strong presence of psychiatrists among the - according to Pickering’s characterization - more un-fun American cybernetic aficionados would seem to make this rather implausible).

It will be for other historians to push and explore further this special affinity, if indeed there was one. As was already said, Pickering’s interests reside elsewhere – Sketches of Another Future - a non-modern, “ontology of becoming”, signs of which he discerns were emergent in the work of the British cyberneticians and their counter-cultural resonances which feature so prominently in his book; and signs of which he discerns were being taken up again, and finally vindicated, in the work of complexity scientists and "third culture" propagandists such as Stuart Kauffman (formerly of the Santa Fe Institute), “New AI” apostle Rodney Brooks, or Stephen Wolfram of Mathematica © -fame. It all might sound more convincing, if it didn’t sound so familiar and ideologically suspect (see, for instance, Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture). And indeed, if not perhaps there might be reasons to be a little less sanguine about the demise of the “modern” (as one might wonder along with Paul Forman and others). Some of Pickering’s recommendations, for instance, that Science and Art are – if only cybernetically mangled enough – fundamentally one and eternally “becoming” and as such “revealing” (as opposed to inherently “enframing”), smell of bad ideology (and one post-pictorial-turn historians of science have enthusiastically cultivated) rather than anything resembling the realities of either science or art. And, of course, it’s no secret just how uncannily close the countercultural imperative of “nomadic” becoming which Pickering aims to “critically recover” has come to resemble the neoliberal appellation. 

Pickering, to be sure, knows all that, and he perhaps would insist that there is room for “another future”, and that any such reservations are just as paranoid and pessimistic as the one leveled against cybernetics by its technophobic critics, obsessed with there being no escape from “enframing”, command and control. Maybe. The Cybernetic Brain, at any rate, does little to resolve these tensions, and it may as well make one wonder just how little the “theatres” of cybernetics may in fact contribute to transform us ("spiritually", "ontologically"), or at least take our thinking into new (non-modern?) directions. Indeed, Pickering, despite spending a great deal on lamenting the marginalization of cybernetics in all that is "modern", equally often insists on the always already cybernetic constitution – the mangle - of science especially (an argument familiar from his earlier work). Cybernetics merely “dramatizes” for us, as Pickering says, the way science works, modern and otherwise - we are back at networks, becoming, and performing. Indeed, sixty years on, I find it difficult to see how cybernetics might help me, or my academic, nomadic friends - equipped with their little yoga mats, i-phones and supplies of SSRIs -, think outside of the box.


  1. Thanks for this excellent, in-depth review !

  2. Read this book, especially if you are interested in the history of science, of technology or science studies. It is incredibly refreshing and thought-provoking.

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