Deconstructing Cybernetics

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abstract machine / catastrophe / chaos / communication / conservatism / cybernetics / decentralization / derrida / distinction / exteriority / godel / humanity / machine / metaphysics / ontology / spencer-brown / spirit / writing

Notes on Derrida and Cybernetics

Let us conjecture that the invention of the transistor — an auto-controllable circuit — indicates the attainment of a critical level of development in cybernetics, a “tipping point.” Then for writing the corresponding moment is the invention of the video camera, perhaps more precisely the photograph: now seeing is writing, literally marking. Visio-literature is the only kind that can ever exists for us today — even ancient literature is post-modern for 21st-century readers. We cannot simply forget the history of writing, which is also the history of humanity — a spirit which is more like a ghost successively inhabiting our bodies, then our writing-instruments, then our machines, and next…?

Driven by a new kind of virtue, cybernetics questions the character or essence of humanity. It ungrounds our classical assumptions, our metaphysical coordinates. It has an uncanny tendency to dissolve rigorous divisions between human beings and animals, and then in turn the holy division between animals and machines. Ontological collapse. Becoming-machine is always a becoming-animal, but the dissolution goes even further than this.

In its fullest and strangest sense — as both a theory of systems and a theory of control — cybernetics blurs the division between information and noise, between chaos and organization. Cybernetics extrudes not only a difference at the heart of hominid unicity, in the specific identity of the human — the closure of a certain conservative metaphysic — but also the awakening of a new kind of multiplicity — cybernetics, in its own way just like writing, a new kind of writing: a massive, convivial and tool-generating science of social technology.

There are no universal codes. Automation demands a new philosophy of writing, writing beyond codes, surpassing the regime of pure and mixed order-signs. Cybernetics is co-extensive with a spontaneous revival of humanity, waiting in a sense upon the closure of certain ‘closed’ metaphysics, and the gentle re-opening of smooth spaces for thought — the illumination of ‘in-between’ spaces for new experiments, new explorers. In a profound sense, the practice of cybernetics has a vital connection to the future of the human struggle for freedom — a future, whether of absolute violence or unequalled pity, which seems almost precluded by the ravenous shadows of colossal war machines.

Our languages, our religions, our economies, our political groups and rules, even our sciences and philosophies, are violent swarms of machines (waging wars for peace) — and this catastrophe which is erupting, which is already here, is of the order of true “event,” but also enigmatically is of another order entirely — a futural order — indicaticating an entirely new position with regard to the tangled mazes of classical ontology. Cybernetics is already a position beyond thought, even in a sense beyond cybernetics — a movement beyond motion, telecommunication, uncannily points beyond the bloody quagmires characteristic of contemporary political and economic culture — indeed beyond all the tiny slaveries of “civic” society.

Within the networked folds of communicating devices, a new aspect of humanity is awakening, a new kind of struggle for enlightenment and freedom across the globe. A revolution between people, a revival of human society, a dynamic, even exuberant regeneration through interconnection and multiplicity. Cybernetics provokes an apparent and disturbing contradiction: it is a purely immanent, historical intervention, itself a kind of abstract social ‘machine’ which transforms all manner of social practices.

Yet, within this operation, a completely new dimension intrudes, guiding these transformations unconsciously, like a shadow or precursor — a glimmer of pure exteriority. An intimation of closure, not of an ending but of vast, chaotic and potentially dangerous transformations occuring all aspects of society. Decentralization and reintegration on a massive scale. An out of joint time, indeed.

One of Derrida’s most important projects in the Grammatology is to show the essential necessity of writing, of the “trace,” in (‘classical’) philosophical discourse — especially in those discourses which had always believed it possible to do without them! For example, Hegel — the first cybernetician — rehabilitates thought on the basis of a memory which is productive of signs.

The trace is a disjunction before it is a decision — an oversight which completely overturns the metaphysical machinery of classical philosophy. In this sense, Derrida’s overall critique of metaphysics resonates not only with cybernetics as a world-historical system of deterritorialization, but perhaps even more curiously, with certain rupturous developments in abstract algebra and pure mathematics.

In particular, the cautious critique of the signifier, and the advocation of a more primordial logic of the mark, trace, differentiation or distinction, functions in a quite similar way in relation to the philosophy of writing as does Herbert Spencer-Brown’s groundbreaking work in metamathematics — in particular his development of a ‘primary algebra’ or mathematical logic of “distinction”2 — to the philosophy of mathematics.

Spencer-Brown constructs his system presuming only the existence of two asymmetrical states — a marked state (a cross) and an unmarked state (a void) — upon which two asymmetrical operations can be performed. Namely, marks can be repeated — placed alongside another, or ‘called’ — and marks can be reversed — embedded within another, or ‘crossed.’

Here is an example of possible notation, as well as the identities for the two basic operations:

Mark                 ( ).
Un-mark             .

Calling:             ( ) ( ) = ( ).
Crossing:         ( ( ) ) = .

[For those wishing a brief demonstration on the primary arithmetic and algebra, as well as further information on connections to other areas of mathematics and science, you will find some wonderful resources here.]

Astoundingly, using this minimal system, Spencer-Brown was able to derive a majority of the results of mathematical logic, arithmetic, and set theory; and in this way he resolved many formerly irresolvable difficulties. In fact, many results from all of these fundamental branches of mathematics can be derived without difficulty — and sometimes in easier ways! — from Spencer-Brown’s primary algebra.

Godel writes in his proof (on unprovable statements in fundamental arithmetic) about the ‘possibility’ that there may indeed be a proof of completeness — however, it will necessarily be one which is not in the language of set theory or arithmetic. Spencer-Brown’s logic is a candidate for a rehabilitation of just this kind — a ‘primary’ arithmetic which grounds logic itself — illustrating that even the notion of proof itself depends not (only) upon a formal system, but even upon a pre-systematic logic of distinction, a marking in some form or another.

Another way to express the same logic: writing comes before mathematical intuition, even before speech — it provides the ground, the possibility for intellection, the virtual field in which intuition can be set free. Writing supplants formal systems, reinvents them, plays with them, comprehends and surpasses them. The notion of “supplanting” is, for Derrida, an adequate definition of the art of writing itself.

We wish to ask in turn how the mark itself is supplanted by a pure machinic operation, by ‘parasitic’ systems of control — how the logic of writing finally becomes curious and makes an experiment of itself, overturning and tearing itself apart, decentralizing and reintegrating the quantized pieces, in a wild and Dionysian burst of radical self-transformation.

Is a whole new kind of “writing” beginning to seem closer to reality than ever before? — a question which itself may also be a symptom that writing is always already unfolding a new dimension from within itself. But it seems like today a new kind of possibility is becoming visible. While the question of technology is not the substance of Derrida’s analysis, but rather a peripheral inquiry or marginal case, it serves as a useful interruption which causes a coherence at a higher structural level of writing. Such twists and rearrangements are all over Derrida’s work — they are practically a signature — but especially in this case they have more than a rhetorical import.

Derrida is reminding us that cybernetics, in some sense, also points to the closure of a certain metaphysical and historical age — not merely that it is a new science of writing equally as “deep” as philosophy, but on the contrary, that cybernetics has a tendency to precisely supplant philosophy, as writing had already done to images.

The Author

mostly noise and glare


  1. I thought that cybernetics finally defined the difference between animal, machine and human, or at least started to by grounding that difference in a series of transformations. They are no longer different merely because they are different domains of thought, but are distinguished within a single domain by the relationships between them: Like numbers on a scale are different because they are joined by algebra, so the various forms of existence are separated. It also seems to me that cybernetics undermines Derra’s “game”, because it allows deferred meaning to become substantial, as patterns of relative meaning, and possibly, an expression of the semantic world of a living being. By undermining the veracity of a language tradition as anything more than a history created by it’s own participants, it undermines the claim that word meanings must be the product of an infinite chain deferring meaning back into the past. In fact it inverts this, making ancient language a very foreign thing, accessible only by recurring consistency. On the other hand, it allows a raft of partial realities where the text to be rendered consistent is not the one presented but a composite of it and others or it and partials of others or even nearby road-signs, redacting your own new history from these sources. But any such game is rendered distinct from normal life by comparison to your reaction to more conventional communication; when asked what you will publish, you do not claim they are referring to the alcoholic qualities of relativism, you answer them, thus showing the difference between play and life!

  2. Coming back to this after some experience I see something different here, but firstly to add to my previous statement:

    Derrida’s play and centre can find a pretty solid representation in cybernetics as the self-reconfigurations of a homeostat, and as the semiotic self-declaration of a living (and autopoietic) being respectively. Play in his terms becomes a non-terminating release of chaotic determinism, the force a being unleashes to rework itself. Thought of like this, even derrida’s opening up of play via expanding “writing” seems restrictive, why that logic scheme and not another? Well historical reasons obviously, to put a bomb in the middle of the local stability, to open up reconfiguration within a mainstay of french identity.

    It also recognises that meaning-play is a loss of self, but that equally it’s beginning is an act of personal rebellion against the current structure. It’s purpose (however much the moment might rebel against it) is to find new identity within absurdity. Instead of construction of identity, along the lines of the previous model, reconfiguration proceeds with force, until it happens upon a nugget of coherent conceptualisation-praxis pairing and earns it’s success in riddicule:

    When we look back at the things we put great passion into in our teenage years, or a wasted evening of pontification, and think “why on earth did I do that” it’s because we stand on structure and insight birthed in that time. A drowning man scrabbles, until he reaches the shore, and in the rear view mirror the desperation is transformed into a rediculous dance.

    In the moment of deconstruction of pathological structure, playing with words seems powerful and important. When a new structure is encountered in that play, the thing that could never end now seems a 20 minute joke. But if we remember that link, and we know our godel, then we share our respect between the two a little more evenly.

    In other words I prefer to cyberneticly model deconstruction, rather than deconstructing cybernetics. The cybernetic model has a wonderful mix of that playfulness with substance because even when you nail down a structure, that structure could appear anywhere, turn back on itself, overlay, mix and inter-relate with other structures. The thoughts are actually not nailed down at all, but rigged together.

    Course, I don’t have the rigour to rig all that and abolish probabilities of interpretation, just as every model gets messy moving from personal image of the world to public encoding schemes. So I don’t begrudge myself a little dock-yard gambling either.

    That was my second point, that if models are fixed by the control processes to which they correspond (the centre(‘s)), then any patterns corresponding to a conception uprooted from that framework will start to do strange and interesting things. In the various implications heading off in that direction Cybernetics confirms both Derrida and Wittgenstein, at least partially anyway, and dealing with the linguistic domaign properly might be what it needs to get finished to the basic level, so there can be a cybernetics of cybernetic study, but also of conversations about cybernetics!

    If you can’t tell what this has to do with the specifics of your post (and I wouldn’t blame you, part of this is pure enthusiasm for the ideas!), you refer to the photograph as the victory of writing over the image, instead I’d say it is evidence of the distance of human conception beyond the old concept of image-reality; the passive reciever mind. Because it becomes abundantly clear that the photo-image does not contain the subjective content of being a present (or even telepresent) observer. It is another object within a partially formed public language. Even the computer game does not bring human mind’s images into transferable form, though it comes much closer in it’s framing. Both are still ammeanable to public code-play, not to mention the usual interface dances.

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