Ecology, ontology, politics: These three terms are among the most common themes of this blog, but their intersections deserve a more sustained exploration. This is the first of a series of posts that will do that through critical discussion of various readings and concepts.

This first post reviews and reflects on some of the questions raised by Andrew Pickering’s latest book The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches of Another Future (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2010). The next two posts will examine the integral theory of Sean Esbjörn-Hargens as applied to climate change, and integral theory pioneer Ken Wilber’s critique of process philosopher Alfred North Whitehead.

Andrew Pickering’s The Cybernetic Brain is only in part about a brain. It is actually about the entire cybernetic organism, the cyborg — though not quite the one that fellow science studies scholar Donna Haraway made famous in her “Cyborg Manifesto.” It is, rather, about a cybernetic ontology of the organism, where “organism” is writ large in the same sense that Whitehead meant in calling his metaphysics a “philosophy of organism.”

The book is effectively two books in one. The first is an incisive and insightful history, somewhat actor-network-styled (though privileging the individuals much more than any tools or techniques), of British cybernetics. Since two of his subjects, Gregory Bateson and R. D. Laing, have been much written about already, Pickering focuses more closely on four other figures: Grey Walter, Ross Ashby, Stafford Beer, and Gordon Pask. He provides a wonderfully detailed and enjoyable foray into the history and sociology of cybernetic thought, with episodic glances to a range of people and tools it has influenced or given birth to, such as strobe lights and biofeedback devices, the Dream Machine of Brion Gysin, the music of Brian Eno, the “pattern language” architecture of Christopher Alexander and the adaptive architecture of Archigram, Price, and Pask, and more. For its historical connections and its sheer entertainment value, this book is well worth reading.

The second book-within-a-book is an extended argument about the ontology (or one might say onto-epistemology) of cybernetics, its connections to the Sixties counterculture, and its value as an alternative to the dominant scientific mindset. (I use the word “mindset” because Pickering’s own characterizations are not much more definite than that.) This argument is, I believe, less successful than the history provided by the first “book,” but it’s nevertheless very interesting. It’s worth reading because it raises so many interesting questions. It’s the one I wish to focus on in my comments.

An ontology of cybernetics?

One of Pickering’s favorite ways of distinguishing between these rival ontologies is through Martin Heidegger’s distinction between “enframing” and “revealing.” Modern science, insofar as it challenges the world to reveal its secrets, taking things apart to see how they work in order to control them better, maximize their resource potential, and so on, is a science that “enframes” things and the world. Cybernetic ontology, according to Pickering, aims to “reveal” the world, which in a Heideggerian sense means something more like a slow unfoldment of the world in and around us, rather than a grand revelation of a universe exposed to light.

Cybernetic ontology, in Pickering’s account, is all about working adaptively within systems that are too complex to know and control. This ontology understands the world to be one of “dynamic entities evolving in performative (rather than representational) interaction with one another” (p. 154). Cybernetics, as Pickering puts it, “stages for us a vision not of a world characterized by graspable causes, but rather of one in which reality is always ‘in the making’” (p. 18-19). The ontology and epistemology of cybernetics are performative; they enact a vision of knowledge as performing and participating within its own object.

Much of what’s most enjoyable about the book is Pickering’s following of the strands between cybernetics and other key nodes of alternative thinking, particularly within the Sixties counterculture. Cybernetics, in this account, shares much with the sources of countercultural mysticism, particularly in East Asian philosophies including Mahayana Buddhism (Madhyamika as well as Chan/Zen) and Indian Tantrism. It shares a lot as well with the process-relational views espoused on this blog (though Pickering doesn’t mention the process philosophy of Whitehead, and refers to Deleuze and Guattari only in passing, but many other pieces of the picture get picked up here and there in his argument: pragmatism and William James, hylozoism, and more).

All of those connections are interesting and informative. The broader argument, however, that cybernetic ontology is thoroughly alternative to mainstream science, with cybernetics itself being a central nexus of that alternative, is one I’m not so sure about. In part this is because Pickering’s account is of only a certain branch of cybernetics (the British one), and the cultural contexts he follows his cyberneticists into are somewhat selective.

There is a larger story that always remains in the background of the one Pickering tells, and it’s one that makes it more difficult to generalize about cybernetic ontology. It includes other figures who flirted with or even participated in the Sixties counterculture: Norbert Wiener, Barry Commoner, Paul Goodman, Marshall McLuhan, James Lovelock, Stewart Brand, John Lilly, and others. But it also includes NASA, the U. S. Air Force, robotics and bionics (anyone remember “The Six Million Dollar Man” and “The Bionic Woman”?), science fiction, automation, and technophilia of the sort that doesn’t really fit Pickering’s description of “cybernetic spirituality” as “earthy” and “hylozoist” (essentially, the idea that all things are alive) (297). (For more context on cybernetics, see here and here.)

Cybernetics may have been inspired by non-scientific, and even in some cases non-Western, trends, but it is not a foreigner that appeared suddenly in the land of modern science. It is roughly the same ontology that underpins a number of scientific subdisciplines, including dynamic systems and complexity theories, embodied-embedded-enactive cognition studies,  robotics and computer science (in many respects), and even perhaps the entire science of ecology. In the social sciences, something like cybernetics can be found within various forms of systems thinking, from Talcott Parsons to Niklas Luhmann, many of which have been favored by technocrats and social engineers. The political inflections of all of these are, in any case, rather divergent. Holism  has been a long-running partner to individualism in both the social and natural sciences, and the relationship between holist ontologies and cybernetic ontologies is one that’s not explored much in the book.

Where I think cybernetics gets more interesting is when it is pushed outside of its more limited compass — which has to do with the performance of adaptive interactions between complex, dynamic systems (with a particular focus on information flow within these systems) — to a challenging of broader cultural assumptions, for instance, about the boundaries between the social and the natural, the mental and the material, the individual and the collective. To the extent that cybernetics inherently challenges such boundaries, to that extent it is what Pickering wants it to be. But because cybernetics starts with the way things are and attempts to work and do things within them, and because its original focus is on information rather than semiosis in a broader (Peircian and more hermeneutic) sense, I’m not sure that it is the basis of the ontology Pickering is looking for.

My question, in other words, is whether what Pickering likes about cybernetic ontology is really cybernetic ontology, or if it is something else (which I would call process-relational ontology) in cybernetic garb.

Cybernetic politics

Pickering’s thoughts about the politics of cybernetics are equally exciting and thought-provoking. He suggests that these politics are inherently democratic, or something like it. (One could interpret them, at their best, as being benignly liberal, radically democratic, egalitarian, or anarchist, but he doesn’t spend a great deal of time dealing with the distinctions between these, so I’ll stick with “democratic.”)

To be fair and precise, he writes that the “symmetric” version of cybernetics — by which he means the version in which adaptive coupling is multi-directional, not one-way and top-down, encompassing all the actors or actants involved — has “something inherently democratic” about it: this cybernetic ontology “evokes a democratic stance” and “necessarily implies respect for the other, not because respect is nice but because the world is that way” (391).

Arguments like this have been made before, for instance, by “new paradigm” intellectuals like Theodore Roszak and Fritjof Capra, and by the techno-intelligentsia that gathered around Wired magazine in the 1990s (Kevin Kelly, Stewart Brand, and others). At the same time, as Pickering notes, the very opposite has long been declared by cybernetics’ critics, who either take their cues from the titles of Norbert Wiener’s books Cybernetics: Or, Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine and The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society, or from historical connections between cybernetics and the military-industrial complex. They have assumed cybernetics to be about control and domination, while Pickering argues that it is about the opposite, about anticontrol. He makes as strong a case for the latter as has recently been made, so in this sense I would recommend that those critical of cybernetics for political reasons read Pickering’s book.

Cybernetic politics, for Pickering, follow an “ontology of unknowability” founded on “a notion of respect for the other — as someone with whom we have to get along but whom we can never possibly know fully or control” (263). It “stages an ontology in which the fundamental entities were dynamic systems evolving and becoming in unpredictable ways” (31). Its task “was to figure out how to get along in a world that was not enframable, that could not be subjugated to human designs” (32). It is, he suggests, not ontologically “monotheistic” but something else (33). (This theological strand is one I’d love him to have pursued further, but it remains only a mere suggestion.)

My hunch, however, is that the connection between an ontology and a politics can never be determining, in any strong sense of that word. And even if it could, the ontology of cybernetics tells us more about relations between entities than it does about what or who qualifies as an entity. It is more a pragmatic way of working, of performing within given conditions, than a philosophy outlining what sorts of conditions are better than others, whose should be in the position of creating those conditions, and so on.

One of the case studies described in the book provides a good indicator of how the practical politics of cybernetics always remains an open question. This is Pickering’s account of Project Cybersyn, an economic management experiment run by Fernando Flores as part of Salvador Allende’s socialist government in Chile. (This was eye-opening for me to read, since I was aware of the connection between Flores, now a management consultant and Heidegger-inspired philosopher living in the U.S., and “Santiago School” biologists Humberto Maturana and Francesco Varela, and of the latter duo’s exile following the 1973 military coup, but I had no idea of the role cybernetics played in Allende’s socialist experiment.)

Flores, whom Allende made his finance minister, had apparently invited cyberneticist Stafford Beer to design a system that would manage factory production across the country by coordinating between factory flow charts, workers’ committees, national and global economic indicators, and a room-sized computer in Santiago that modeled the entirety of relations between them. The U.S.-backed coup cut things short, leaving Allende dead and Flores imprisoned for three years until his release under pressure from Amnesty International. Cybernetic socialism, meanwhile, was replaced by the first national experiment in top-down Milton Friedmanite neoliberal economics.

Pickering is careful to establish that Project Cybersyn was not in itself a model of bottom-up democracy. It in fact centralized a certain measure of authority in in the technocratic hands of its Santiago experts, provided mechanisms by which the upper levels of the system could be used to surveill the lower ones (and, at least on one occasion, were), and ultimately favored the built-in plans and goals imposed “from above” rather than any new ones that might emerge “from below.” But he also argues that the “adaptive couplings” that were built into the project — note the resemblance to Maturana’s and Varela’s notion of “structural coupling,” which describes an autopoietic organism’s relationship with its environment — did in fact “serve to undo hierarchies of command and control,” and that while they could easily be rendered asymmetrical, favoring management and/or government over any worker- or popularly defined goals, they were not intended this way. Pickering also suggests that they could be made more responsive to “the people,” more two-way (or multi-way), more democratic in other words.

Pickering seems to be suggesting in this that cybernetics could be rendered top-down, bottom-up, or something in between or perhaps different altogether. Everything depends on how a cybernetic system is designed, what factors it takes into account, what kinds of feedback mechanisms are built into it, and to what extent its goals are pre-programmed as opposed to open-ended. Reality, to the extent that it is cybernetic, is fully open-ended: it is an evolutionary, adaptive system of complex systems. But any cybernetic system created by humans will remain structured by the assumptions and goals that have been built into it, and even if those may be radically democratic or anti-authoritarian, there is no necessity that they would be. The point is not that thinking cybernetically automatically makes us better democrats (or anarchists). But it could, if skillfully applied, make for more effective democratic (or anarchist) practice. All the same, if one wanted it to serve the interests of institutionalized power, it could also do that.

Cybernetic spirituality and aesthetics

Pickering’s treatment of spirituality is enjoyable as well, but perhaps least satisfying of all his topics. It comes out most in his chapter on Stafford Beer, whose personal journey took him from Church of England to Catholicism to Tantric yoga. There’s much that could be said to contextualize Beer’s journey, and Pickering does a little of that. I would have liked to hear more.

Pickering writes: “I cannot trace out anything like an adequate history of the lineage of the scientific-spiritual space in which I want to situated Beer, and I know of no scholarly treatments, but, in my own thinking at least, all roads lead to William James” (300). Many of them do that, I agree, but they also go far beyond James. Situating Beer’s cybernetic tantrism could be done with the aid of Jeffrey Kripal’s work on Esalen, Hugh Urban’s work on Tantra, Randall Styers’s Making Magic, and many other scholars’ work on esotericism (e.g., Wouter Hanegraaf‘s and Antoine Faivre‘s), occultism (e.g., Alex Owen’s), nature religion (e.g. Cathy Albanese’s), re-enchantment (e.g. Chris Partridge‘s and Michael Saler‘s), the many historical encounters between Eastern and Western thought, and much more. But religious studies isn’t Pickering’s field, so we can forgive him for not doing that research (and hope he does if he pursues it in future writing).

Pickering’s arguments about the arts, while similarly enjoyable, also leave a little to be desired. “My argument,” he writes, “is that all of the works in this tradition, cybernetically inspired and otherwise, can be understood as ontological theater and help us to see where a cybernetic ontology might lead us when staged as music” (307). His examples — Brian Eno’s ambient music, John Cage’s chance compositions, Jimi Hendrix’s guitar feedback, et al. — are all interesting applications of the idea that when a composer or performs opens things up to chance processes, the performance can become much more interesting.

But music itself has always been both performative and improvised. The ultimate form of cybernetic music, if one follows Pickering’s definition — a music in which one plays along with others “dynamic entities evolving in performative [...] interaction with one another” — is contemporary improvised music, also known as free jazz. (The two aren’t identical, but they share historical origins and overlap significantly.) Here there is little but a group of musicians and instruments, equipped with their techniques and musical predilections, all creating music essentially from scratch, not knowing what the next moment will bring or what one’s fellow players might bring to it.

But that isn’t cybernetics; it’s just music. It’s the shape things take when we live creatively improvising from one moment to the next while paying skillful and respectful attention to those we live those moments with. It’s process-relational practice that doesn’t need computer systems to initiate it, inspire it, or organize it (though it could make use of them if it wished). Its politics and ethics come first; they don’t arise out of cybernetics.


Pickering’s history is well written, entertaining, and detailed in its documentation. As a work of science studies (or history of science), it is excellent. Its ontological, or onto-epistemological, or onto-political, arguments are arguments worth reading. Since I don’t find all of them convincing, I would say that they (or the differences between them and my own) are arguments worth having. I like that he has moved in this direction, and I hope he goes further.

Cybernetic ontology may not provide the whole answer to the problems Pickering identifies, but I agree that a certain sort of cybernetic ontology — symmetric (as he calls it), multi-directional, and multi-dimensional, encompassing not just what’s convertible into “information” but other things that may not be (values, ethics, affects, aesthetics) — are part of the larger picture that does harbor that answer.


Follow-up note: Pickering’s book has also attracted positive attention from Levi Bryant. Despite our differences (explored in many previous exchanges here), Bryant’s “object-oriented onticology,” in my assessment (based on my reading of his blog and of sections of The Democracy of Objects) by and large fits within the process-relational ontological stream, albeit with a strong leaning toward a substance- rather than process-based metaphysics. (I hope he doesn’t mind my saying that.)

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