Special Issue: Cybernetics and the Human Sciences

AHP readers will be interested in a just published special issue of History of the Human Sciences on “Cybernetics and the Human Sciences.” Full details below.

Introduction: “Cybernetics and the human sciences,” Stefanos Geroulanos, Leif Weatherby. Abstract:

Cybernetics saturates the humanities. Norbert Wiener’s movement gave vocabulary and hardware to developments all across the early digital era, and still does so today to those who seek to interpret it. Even while the Macy Conferences were still taking place in the early 1950s, talk of feedback and information and pattern had spread to popular culture – and to Europe. The new science created a shared language and culture for surpassing political and intellectual ideas that could be relegated to a pre-computing tradition, and it refracted or channelled currents developing in fields from manufacturing to human physiology. It produced conceptions of the political world, as well as new forms of historical consciousness. It offered frameworks for structuralist thought, but also for policies regarding manufacturing and technology, international relations, and governmental decision-making. But the rising sense of the breadth, importance, and even shock of cybernetics long remained understudied, even as its intellectual assemblages continued to, well, relay. In devices and the so-called ‘digital humanities’, a refracted legacy of cybernetics is also visible. From mainframes to category-frameworks, cybernetics is everywhere in our material and intellectual worlds, even as the name and its meaning have faded. To the extent that cybernetics permeates the human sciences and our culture at large, it remains opaque – an only partially visible legacy often deemed too complex to form a simple object of historical narrative. This special issue on cybernetics in the human sciences outlines the history and stakes of cybernetics, as well as the possibilities of returning to it today.

“How disunity matters to the history of cybernetics in the human sciences in the United States, 1940–80,” Ronald Kline. Abstract:

Rather than assume a unitary cybernetics, I ask how its disunity mattered to the history of the human sciences in the United States from about 1940 to 1980. I compare the work of four prominent social scientists – Herbert Simon, George Miller, Karl Deutsch, and Talcott Parsons – who created cybernetic models in psychology, economics, political science, and sociology with the work of anthropologist Gregory Bateson, and relate their interpretations of cybernetics to those of such well-known cyberneticians as Norbert Wiener, Warren McCulloch, W. Ross Ashby, and Heinz von Foerster. I argue that viewing cybernetics through the lens of disunity – asking what was at stake in choosing a specific cybernetic model – shows the complexity of the relationship between first-order cybernetics and the postwar human sciences, and helps us rethink the history of second-order cybernetics.

“Cybernetics for the command economy: Foregrounding entropy in late Soviet planning,” Diana Kurkovsky West. Abstract:

The Soviet Union had a long and complex relationship with cybernetics, especially in the domain of planning. This article looks at Soviet postwar efforts to draw up plans for the rapidly developing, industrializing, and urbanizing Siberia, where cybernetic models were used to develop a vision of cybernetic socialism. Removed from Moscow bureaucracy and politics, the various planning institutes of the Siberian Academy of Sciences became a key frontier for exploring the potential of cybernetic thinking to offer a necessary corrective to Soviet planning. Researchers there put forth a vision of a dynamic Soviet economy managed through partially automated subsystems, which, while decentralized, would grant the central planning apparatus flexibility, a capacity for emergence, and overall solvency in the face of increasingly complex factors that required consideration.

“Textocracy, or, the cybernetic logic of French theory,” Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan. Abstract:

This article situates the emergence of cybernetic concepts in postwar French thought within a longer history of struggles surrounding the technocratic reform of French universities, including Marcel Mauss’s failed efforts to establish a large-scale centre for social-scientific research with support from the Rockefeller Foundation, the intellectual and administrative endeavours of Claude Lévi-Strauss during the 1940s and 1950s, and the rise of communications research in connection with the Centre d’Études des Communications de Masse (CECMAS). Although semioticians and poststructuralists used cybernetic discourse critically and ironically, I argue that their embrace of a ‘textocratic’ perspective – that is, a theory of power and epistemology as tied to technical inscription – sustained elements of the technocratic reasoning dating back to these 1920s efforts to reform French universities.

“Cybernetic times: Norbert Wiener, John Stroud, and the ‘brain clock’ hypothesis,” Henning Schmidgen. Abstract:

In 1955, Norbert Wiener suggested a sociological model according to which all forms of culture ultimately depended on the temporal coordination of human activities, in particular their synchronization. The basis for Wiener’s model was provided by his insights into the temporal structures of cerebral processes. This article reconstructs the historical context of Wiener’s ‘brain clock’ hypothesis, largely via his dialogues with John W. Stroud and other scholars working at the intersection of neurophysiology, experimental psychology, and electrical engineering. Since the 19th century, physiologists and psychologists have been conducting experimental investigations into the relation between time and the brain. Using innovative instruments and technologies, Stroud rehearsed these experiments, in part without paying any attention at all to the experimental traditions involved. Against this background, this article argues that the novelty of Wiener’s model relies largely on his productive rephrasing of physiological and psychological findings that had been established long before the Second World War.

“The political theology of entropy: A Katechon for the cybernetic age,” David Bates. Abstract:

The digital revolution invites a reconsideration of the very essence of politics. How can we think about decision, control, and will at a time when technologies of automation are transforming every dimension of human life, from military combat to mental attention, from financial systems to the intimate lives of individuals? This article looks back to a moment in the 20th century when the concept of the political as an independent logic was developed, in a time when the boundaries and operations of the classic state were in question. At the same moment, a whole new technological era was opened up with the emergence of intelligent machines and computers in the postwar cybernetic age. Technology, and cybernetics in particular, loomed large in Carl Schmitt’s articulation of the concept of the political, while the problem of radical open decision was at the heart of influential cybernetic approaches to politics. Linking these was the idea of entropic decay. Schmitt’s invocation of the theological concept of the Katechon, who restrains chaos in the time before Christ’s return, in fact exemplifies the new understandings of order in a cybernetic age facing new challenges of technology in a globalized condition.

“Automatic Leviathan: Cybernetics and politics in Carl Schmitt’s postwar writings,” Nicolas Guilhot. Abstract:

This article questions the current vogue of Carl Schmitt among political theorists who read him as an antidote to the depoliticizing force of economics and technology in the age of neoliberalism and its algorithmic rationalities. It takes Schmitt’s sparse reflections about cybernetics and game theory as paradigmatic of the theoretical and political problems raised by any theory positing the autonomy of the political. It suggests that this ultimately misunderstands the role of cybernetic representations of political decision-making in shoring up in the 1960s and 1970s the autonomy of the political that Schmitt so vehemently defended.

“‘Ghastly marionettes’ and the political metaphysics of cognitive liberalism: Anti-behaviourism, language, and the origins of totalitarianism,” Danielle Judith Zola Carr. Abstract:

While behaviourist psychology had proven its worth to the US military during the Second World War, the 1950s saw behaviourism increasingly associated with a Cold War discourse of ‘totalitarianism’. This article considers the argument made in Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism on totalitarianism as a form of behaviourist control. By connecting Arendt’s Cold War anti-behaviourism both to its discursive antecedents in a Progressive-era critique of industrial labour, and to contemporaneous attacks on behaviourism, this paper aims to answer two interlocking questions: Why was behaviourism overtaken by cognitivism as the dominant theoretical orientation of psychologists in the 1960s, and what role did the concept of language play in this shift?

“Design as aesthetic education: On the politics and aesthetics of learning environments,” Christina Vagt. Abstract:

The article, speaking from the double perspective of media history and political aesthetics, discusses the impact of behaviourism and early computer technology on the design of learning environments in the United States after the Second World War. By revisiting B. F. Skinner’s approaches to behavioural techniques and cultural engineering, and by showing how these principles were applied first at US design departments, and later to prison education, it argues that cybernetic and behavioural techniques merged in the common field of design and education. Behavioural design of the 1960s and 1970s furthered the cybernetic dream of total control over the world by addressing the learning environment rather than the individual, and operated within a space of possibility that was governed equally by technology and aesthetics. Behavioural design can therefore be understood as a political technology.

“What is the ‘cybernetic’ in the ‘history of cybernetics’? A French case, 1968 to the present,” Jacob Krell. Abstract:

This article examines the history of cybernetics in France, and the history of French cybernetics in the context of the emergent field of the history of cybernetics. Drawing upon an unfamiliar group of intellectuals and sources, I discuss the way in which French cybernetics was not primarily the hyper-philosophical strain we have come to associate with names such as Derrida and Lévi-Strauss, but an approach to thinking through political and social problems that some on the left would even deign to call pragmatic. In particular, I follow a group of intellectuals known as the Groupe des dix, who, in the aftermath of the tumult of May ‘68, formed an interdisciplinary think tank to try to work out how to bridge the gap between science and society. In order to facilitate conversations between politicians, philosophers, biologists, and sociologists (to name just a few of the represented disciplines), the Groupe reached for a language that was supposed to be truly omnidisciplinary: that of cybernetics. And they did so in a country where cybernetics was not properly represented as a laboratory science. On this last point, this paper makes an addition to the history of cybernetics by offering a portrait not of cybernetics in action, but of cybernetics in vulgarization. Not that the Groupe would not make their own stamp on politics: Several of them still hold significant power in adjudicating the role of science and technology in the public sphere in the French state.

About Jacy Young

Jacy Young is a professor at Quest University Canada. A critical feminist psychologist and historian of psychology, she is committed to critical pedagogy and public engagement with feminist psychology and the history of the discipline.