[ExI] Brains, Selves and Spirituality in the History of Cybernetics :: Andrew Pickering :: Global Spiral

Jef Allbright jef at jefallbright.net
Thu Jun 12 13:58:28 UTC 2008

Here's an excellent opportunity for thoughtful, rational criticism and
comment. [2 of 6]

- Jef

Brains, Selves and Spirituality in the History of Cybernetics :: Andrew
Pickering :: Global

Brains, Selves and Spirituality in the History of Cybernetics
By Andrew Pickering <http://metanexus.net/tabid/72/Default.aspx?aid=599>

*This essay is a revised version of a paper presented at the Max Planck
Institute for History of science, Berlin, 3 November 2007.*


[image: bubbles]I was pleased to be invited to this meeting—I knew almost
nothing about transhumanism when I got the invitation, and thinking about it
seemed like an interesting challenge. I had intended to write a paper just
for the meeting, somehow the time evaporated (my return to England) so I
sent along a recent paper deriving from my research into the history of
cybernetics that touches on some relevant issues, I think, and in these
remarks I'll try to join up a few dots.

First remark: if transhumanism didn't exist it would be necessary to invent
it. The aspiration to transcend the human form does a wonderful job in
inviting the numinous question: what does it mean to be human? Or as Don
Ihde put it, "of which human are we trans?" So that is the question that I
want to dwell on—what does it mean to be human? And the best way I've found
to proceed is to contrast the answer that I'm inclined to give, based on my
analyses of scientific practice and my more recent work on the history of
cybernetics, with the answer offered by the transhumanists. Immediately we
run into a problem—I think the transhumanists might not have a single agreed
position. So for the purpose of exposition I'll narrow my definition of
transhumanism down to the goal of 'cybernetic immortality' as a sort of
defining outer limit of transhumanist thought.

So, what is cybernetic immortality? I take it be the idea that we can
achieve a sort of immortality by downloading (or uploading) our
consciousness into a computer (and then it can move around from machine to
machine forever). What can we say about this idea? First, it exemplifies the
transhuman aspiration very nicely—it envisages shuffling off the material
form of the human body entirely. Second, it answers the question "what does
it mean to be human" very clearly. A certain timeless *essence* of
humanity—consciousness, the mind—is to achieve immortality, with all the
useless paraphernalia of humanity—the body, even the unconscious and
subconscious reaches of the mind—to be sloughed off.

How might we react to this version of what it means to be human? We could
start by noting that there is something very odd about it. Its vision of the
human essence is actually a historical construction, invented by the
Enlightenment. Of course, you might like the Enlightenment and you might
want to make its privileging of the mind and reason a permanent feature of
humanity, as in cybernetic immortality. However, it's worth noting that what
is envisaged here is a *freezing* and a *narrowing* of the human form—the
imposition of a historically specific definition rather than the liberation
of an eternal essence. Actually, it's this impulse towards freezing that
worries me most about transhumanism.

As I move towards my own work, a few more thoughts spring to mind. In my
book *The Mangle of Practice*:* Time, Agency, and Science* (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1995) I was led to emphasize two aspects of
being in the world: what I called a *posthumanist* entanglement of the human
and the nonhuman, and temporal *emergence*: the continual bubbling up of
irreducible novelty in the world. My sense of 'posthumanism' is thus more or
less the inverse of how the same word is used in connection with
transhumanism. The latter refers to a splitting off of consciousness from
materiality, whereas I want to argue for a decentered analysis that
foregounds the constitutive coupling of consciousness, reason, the self, etc
with the material world. Where does this divergence leave us? I'm inclined
to stick to my story, but that doesn't mean I have to regard cybernetic
immortality as a totally mistaken idea. Presumably even downloaded
consciousnesses would have something to interact with—the material world via
some sort of motor organs, or just each other—so, oddly, a decentered
posthumanist analysis, in my sense, would still go through. These
disembodied consciousnesses would still be constitutively plugged into the
world as we are, but *differently*—not through the medium of the fleshly

This, of course, raises the question of whether the medium of being matters.
And this, in turn, is the sort of question that phenomenologists like to
meditate on, so maybe I should leave it for Don Ihde to answer. However for
myself, I have to say that, as mentioned in my paper, I'm taken by a very
literal understanding of Michel Foucault's notion of *technologies of the
self*. Different technologies, different material set-ups, indeed elicit
different inner states. And I'm willing to bet that cybernetic immortality
would entail some sort of technologies of the self, and that the selves they
elicit would be very different from the selves we have today. And the moral
of this is that even if transhumanists aim at the simple liberation of some
timeless human essence, they would end up with something they did not
expect—which again problematizes their version of what it means to be human.
And, of course, we could have reached the same conclusion by thinking about
emergence—we have to expect new selves to be continually bubbling up in our
dealings with the material world, even dealings that aim to hold the self

I should think more now about this phrase, 'cybernetic immortality,' and I
want to make a distinction concerning the referent of 'cybernetic.' The
sense invoked by the transhumanists appeals to the information-theory branch
of cybernetics, and more broadly to anything to do with AI and computers.
This hangs together perfectly with the Enlightenment image of reason as the
human essence. However, in *The Mangle* I argued that we can't get to grips
even with Enlightenment science itself by focusing on reason alone. Instead
we need to begin with *performance*—the idea that we humans are linked into
the world via dances of agency, coupling our performances with those of the
world. This emphasis on performance is a very different answer to the
question of what it means to be human than the Enlightenment's, and, as it
happens, there is a very different branch of cybernetics that stages and
acts out this vision for us, the branch that flourished in Britain after the
war, and that I talk about in my paper. And one interesting aspect of this
difference is that it invites very different fantasies of immortality from
Enlightenment cybernetics.

This revolves around the biological computers that I mentioned in my paper
below—meaning naturally occurring adaptive systems enrolled into human
projects as performative brains. Stafford Beer and Gordon Pask imagined
these as substitutes for human factory managers, and went so far as to
devise ways to train them to function as such. The basic idea was that the
human manager would monitor the performance of the adaptive system and
somehow reinforce moves that he or she approved of, until the system
achieved a level of performance that the human could live with—at which
point the human could withdraw and leave the factory to be managed by a pond
or some electrochemical threads or whatever.

The simple point I want to make here is that after training one can regard
the computer as a sort of *model* of the human manager, inheriting his or
her performative competence—and I cannot see why one should not think of
this as a species of genuinely cybernetic immortality: the key competence of
the human would here be indeed downloaded, not into a digital machine but
into some lively and adaptive nonhuman material. However, something very
different from consciousness gets downloaded here, into a medium very
different from a digital computer. Hence, we can see that very different
modes of immortality are imaginable depending on what one thinks it means to
be human. To put it another way, we can see more concretely through this
example how current discussions of cybernetic immortality amount to a
freezing and narrowing of the space of future possibilities. I would hate to
see the Enlightenment story of humanity made irrevocably true by biotech and

I could say some more about my cyberneticians. If I wanted to persuade you
to take them seriously, I would go on about their work in robotics, complex
systems theory, management and so on—nice down to earth topics that
Enlightenment thinkers can recognize—but one thing that interests me a lot
about them is precisely that they had some unconventional ideas about the *
self*, as discussed at some length in my paper. These follow immediately
from the notion of the brain and the self as performative. The Enlightenment
self is given and conscious—it's the kind of self that does IQ tests and
that AI models—which is why academics can mistake it for an essence. The
performative self, in contrast, is opaque to consciousness, the sort of
thing one can *find out about* experimentally. And in my paper I show how in
the history of cybernetics this sort of curiosity about the performative
self has been entangled with all sorts of technologies of the self
(including flickering strobe lights and hallucinogens, as well as
meditation), and with associated altered states, explorations of
consciousness, strange performances, magic, the *siddhis*, the decentered
dissolution of the self, tantric yoga and union with the divine. The self,
as revealed here, turns out to be inexhaustibly emergent, just like the
world—the antithesis of the given human essence of the Enlightenment and
cybernetic immortality. And again, for me, this shows the extent of the
freezing and narrowing of the human that transhumanism entails—the severity
of *its editing of what the human might be*. Of course, all of the practices
and states that I talk about in my paper are already marginalized in
contemporary society—it feels vaguely embarrassing to talk about them in
public. But at least the margins exist, and one can go there if one likes.
The transhumanists would like to engineer them out of existence entirely and
forever. Yes, I'm starting not to like transhumanism.

As an aside here I could state the obvious: that cybernetic investigations
of the self lead straight into the space of the spiritual, though the
immediate resonances and affiliations are with Eastern spirituality rather
than Christianity. There is, of course, an important and distinctly
Christian line of the critique of transhumanism that emphasizes a deep
significance of death and resurrection that transhumanism skates over.
However, it is worth emphasizing a certain isomorphism here of critique and
criticized: both positions assume that they already know substantively what
it means to be human. Both would like to freeze the human in place; neither
acknowledges a significant space for emergence. From this spiritual angle,
then, the mangle, cybernetics and Eastern spirituality all serve to
thematize the narrowness of current debates both for and against
transhumanism. "Who knows what a body can do?"—do we want to foreclose this

Let me come at this topic from one last angle. Transhumanism has a *telos*:
it thinks it can see the future and how to mobilize science and technology
to get there. Clearly the mangle and cybernetics contest this idea. But I
find it interesting to confront it historically, too. In a paper available
on the web ('Facing the Challenges of Transhumanism: Philosophical,
Religious, and Ethical Considerations'), Hava Tirosh-Samuelson credits the
word 'transhumanism' to Julian Huxley in 1957, but traces the origins of the
idea back to the 1920s and 1930s in the writings of J.B.S. Haldane, J.D.
Bernal and Julian's brother, Aldous Huxley. I would be interested to know
more about Haldane's and Bernal's thinking in this area, but I know
something about Aldous and Julian Huxley from my work on cybernetics and the
1960s. Their writings are, for example, central to the present-day human
potential movement, which focuses on precisely the sort of altered states
and strange performances that I just mentioned as edited out of the
transhumanist vision. The canonical recent text here would be Michael
Murphy's enormous 1992 book, *The Future of the Body: Explorations into the
Further Evolution of Human Nature*.

So there is a continuing, if marginal, tradition here of imagining an
emergent rather than essentialized answer to the question of what it means
to be human. It interests me that also back in the 1920s and 1930s one can
find important works of fiction that point in the same direction. A couple
of weeks ago I happened to read a canonical fantasy novel from the period,
David Lindsay's *Voyage to Arcturus*, and in it Lindsay elaborates the idea
of an unstable material and physical environment in which humanity
continually develops entirely new limbs and sense organs. I also think of
Olaf Stapledon's 1931 novel, *Last and First Men*. This sketches out an
imaginary *longue durée* history of the future of the human race stretching
over millions of years, in which humanity eventually seizes control of its
own evolution, as the transhumanists would say. However, instead of freezing
our form in the name of transhumanist perfection, we experiment with it. In
the chapter that I remember best, the human race acquires wings and takes to
the air, and Stapledon elaborates the posthumanist (in my sense) point
brilliantly by conjuring up the changes in subjectivities and social
relations that go along with the new aerial existence—flight as a technology
of the self, producing a new kind of people.

Why do I mention this now? For three reasons: First, because *Last and First
Men* is a very nice example of the sort of vision of the future that might
go with the mangle and cybernetics—a vision of open-ended experimentation,
emergence and transformation with no fixed end. Second, because an
interesting project in the history of ideas comes into sight here. I would
like to know how it came to be that in the 20s and 30s people were able to
imagine radical transformations of the human form, when no evident
technological possibilities were at hand. And third, from the opposite
angle, I am struck by the impoverishment of our imagination that has since
come to pass. Now we have biotechnology, now we really could dream of
equipping ourselves with wings or new senses, but we don't. Instead of
experimentation with the endless possibilities of humanity, we dream
transhumanist dreams of purification and the excision of what already
exists, of downloading consciousness. Something profoundly sad has happened
to our imagination. That, in the end, is what transhumanism brings home to


My research in the history of cybernetics in Britain has taken me to strange
and unexpected places. Grey Walter's 1953 popular book, *The Living Brain*,
is, on the one hand, a down-to-earth, materialist and evolutionary story of
how the brain functions. I know how to deal with that. However, it is also
full of references to dreams, visions, ESP, nirvana and the magical powers
of the Eastern yogi, such as suspending the breath and the heartbeat—*
siddhis* as they are called. I never knew what to make of this, except to
note how strange it is and that respectable scientists don't write about
such things now. But then I realized that I should pay attention to it.
Walter was by no means alone on the wild side. All of the other
cyberneticians were there with him. In his private notebooks Ross Ashby, the
other great first-generation cybernetician in Britain, announced that
intellectual honesty required him to be a spiritualist, that he despised the
Christian image of God and that instead he had become a 'time worshipper.'
Gordon Pask wrote supernatural detective stories. Stafford Beer was deeply
absorbed by mystical number-systems and geometries, happily sketched out his
version of the great chain of being, taught Tantric yoga and attributed
magical powers like levitation to his fictional alter ego, the Wizard Prang.
Echoing Aldous Huxley on mescaline, Gregory Bateson and R D Laing
triangulated between Zen enlightenment, madness and ecstasy.

Strange and wonderful, surprising stuff. What is going on here? I want to
try to sort this out, and tie it back to a distinctive conception of the
human brain.2<http://metanexus.net/Magazine/Default.aspx?TabId=68&id=10545&SkinSrc=%5bG%5dSkins%2f_default%2fNo+Skin&ContainerSrc=%5bG%5dContainers%2f_default%2fNo+Container#_ftn2>

Meditating on the history of cybernetics has helped me see just how deeply
modern thought is enmeshed in an endlessly repetitive discourse on *how
special we are*, how *different* human beings are from animals and brute
matter. It is, of course, traditional to blame Descartes for this *human
exceptionalism*, as we might call
while we may no longer believe we have immortal and immaterial
souls, the human sciences seem always to have been predicated on some
immaterial equivalent that sets us apart: language, reason, emotions,
culture, the social, the dreaded knowledge or information society in which
are now said to live. This sort of master-narrative is so pervasive and
taken for granted that it is hard to see, let alone to shake off and imagine
our way out of. This is why we might learn from cybernetics. It stages a
non-dualist vision of brains, selves and the world that might help us put
the dualist human and physical sciences in their place and, more
importantly, to see ourselves differently and to act differently. Let me
talk about how this goes.

We should start with the brain. The modern brain, as staged since the 1950s
by AI for example, is cognitive, representational, deliberative—the locus of
a certain version of human specialness. The key point to grasp is that the
cybernetic brain *was not like that*. It was just another organ of the body,
an organ that happens to be especially engaged with bodily *performance* in
the world. In this sense, the human brain is no different from the animal
brain except in mundane specifics: Ashby, for example, noted that we have
more neurons and more neuronal interconnections than other species, making
possible more nuanced forms of adaptation to the environment. And, of
course, the defining activity of first-generation cybernetics was building
little electromechanical models of the performative brain—Walter's tortoises
and Ashby's homeostats—thus completing the effacement of difference between
humans on the one side and animals, machines and brute matter on the other.
This is what I like about cybernetics: it was and is nowhere in the
Cartesian space of human exceptionalism. It reminds us that we are
performative stuff in a performative world—and then elaborates fascinatingly
on that. Now I want to try to make sense of some of these elaborations as
they bear on non-Cartesian understandings of minds, selves and spirit.

[image: tortoise]
[image: homeostat]

*pictures: tortoise & homeostat*

*Altered States and Strange Performances*

The Cartesian brain is available for introspection. We know our own special
cognitive powers and feelings, and it is the job of AI, say, to reproduce
those powers in a computer program. However, the performative brain is not
like that. Walter's tortoises navigated their environments without
representing them at all. In general, cybernetics understood performance as
largely happening below the level of consciousness and as thus unavailable
to inspection. Ashby's model for the performative brain was bodily processes
of homeostasis—keeping the blood temperature constant—something that all
mammals do, but not by thinking about it. This unavailability of the
performative brain at once made it an object of *curiosity*—who knows what a
performative brain can do? This simple curiosity in turn explains much,
though by no means all, of the cyberneticians' travels in forbidden lands.
If mainstream Western culture defines itself by a rejection of strange
performances, well then, other cultures can be seen as a repository of
possibilities, hence Walter's interest in nirvana and the yogic *siddhis*.
He was happy to recognise that Eastern yogis have strange powers; he just
wanted to give a naturalistic explanation of them in terms of the
performative brain. The *siddhis* were thus, according to Walter, instances
of disciplined conscious control of otherwise autonomic bodily functions;
nirvana was the absence of thought in the achievement of perfect
homeostasis—the disappearance of the last relic of the Cartesian mind. Beer
thought differently. He practiced yoga; the *siddhis* were real to him, the
incidental powers that arise on a spiritual journey. We can come back to
spiritual matters in a minute.

With the exception of Beer, *siddhis* and the like were matters of distant
report to the cyberneticians, not personal experience, and another hallmark
of early cybernetics was the pursuit of parallel phenomena that were
accessible to Western means of investigation, hence the interest in
ESP-phenomena. Hence, several of my cyberneticians belonged to the British
Society for Psychical Research, as I recently found out. However, the key
discovery in this respect was undoubtedly Walter's of *flicker*. In the
course of EEG research in 1945, Walter and his colleagues discovered that
gazing with eyes closed at a strobe light flickering near the alpha
frequency of the brain induced visions: moving, coloured patterns, often
geometrical ones but also visions of events like waking dreams. This flicker
experience was important to the cyberneticians and psychical researchers
precisely as a vindication of an understanding of the brain as performative
and endlessly explorable rather than cognitive and immediately available. So
a couple of comments are appropriate here.

First, flicker vividly problematised any notion of the brain as an organ of
representation. One indeed sees strange and beautiful patterns in a flicker
set-up, but the patterns are equally obviously *not there* in the world. The
strobe just flashes on and off, but the patterns move and spiral through
space. Second, flicker thematizes a non-dualist coupling of the brain to the
world. The brain does not choose to see moving patterns; the external
environment elicits this behavior from the brain. To see what is going on
here, I can't help thinking of Michel Foucault's idea of *technologies of
the self*. In Foucault's own work, these are technologies that produce a
distinctly human, self-controlled self—the kind of self that sets us apart
from animals and things. Flicker, then, is a different kind of non-modern,
non-Cartesian technology of self—a technology for *losing control* and going
to unintended places, for *experiment* in a performative sense. Much of the
literature in this area can be read as devoted to strange performances and
the technologies of the self that elicit them. Aldous Huxley's second book
on his mescaline experience, *Heaven and Hell* (1956), is one long catalogue
of technologies for eliciting non-modern selves open to mystical
experiences, including holding one's breath, chanting and flagellation as
well as psychedelic drugs and, yes, flicker.

What interests me most here, I think, is how drastically these technologies
and their associated altered states undercut our notions of the modern self.
They remind us that there are other ways to be; other selves that we can
inhabit. They show vividly and by contrast, just how straitened the modern
self is, and just how constrained the human sciences that celebrate the
modern self are.

*The Decentered Self** *

We can think about another aspect of the cybernetic brain. I said that it
was performative, and now I need to add that in the main line of cybernetic
descent, the brain's role in performance was that of *adaptation*. The
brain, above all the organs, is what helps us cope with the unknown and get
along in a world that can always surprise us in its performance. Adaptation
is an interesting concept in the present connection because it is
intrinsically relational. One adapts to specific others as they appear, not
to the world in general once and for all. This in turn implies a sort of *
decentring* of the self that, again, cybernetic technologies of the self
help stage for us. When Allen Ginsberg, the Beat poet, took LSD for the
first time it was in conjunction with a feedback-controlled flicker set-up,
and he afterwards wrote that he felt that his soul was being sucked away
down the wires. So much for Descartes.

We could move in several directions from here. One is into the arts. Gordon
Pask constructed an original aesthetic theory based on the idea that human
beings actually find pleasure and satisfaction in performative adaptation to
others, human or nonhuman. In the early 1950s, his famous Musicolour machine
was an instance of this. Musicolour translated a musical performance into a
light show, but its defining feature was that its parameters evolved as a
function of what had gone before, so that it was impossible to gain a
cognitive overview of the linkage between sounds and lights. The performer
thus had continually to adapt to the machine just as it adapted to him or
her, and the overall performance was a dynamic and decentered joint product
of the human and the nonhuman—literally a staging of the relational brain
and self, now in the realm of the arts and entertainment. Here I could make
two observations: The first is that here we can see clearly that what is at
stake is not simply *ideas* about the brain and the self. Distinct and
specific projects and forms of life hang together with these ideas—*different
ways to live*. Again, this observation serves to thematize the straitened
character of both the Cartesian self and the human sciences, now aesthetics,
that conspire to naturalize these selves. The other observation is that the
strangeness of Pask's work is manifest in the fact that no-one, not even
Pask, was sure what a Musicolour machine was. He later wrote of trying 'to
sell it in any possible way: at one extreme as a pure art form, at the other
as an attachment for juke boxes.' Much the same could be said of the Beat
writer and artist Brion Gysin's attempt to market flicker machines as a
performative substitute for the living-room TV.

[image: flicker]

*picture: flicker -- gysin*

Another direction in which we could travel is madness. Madness for the
cyberneticians was just another of those altered states the performative
brain could get into, as usual elicited by specific technologies of the
self. Walter drove his robot tortoises mad by placing them in contradictory
set-ups in which their conditioning pointed them to contradictory responses.
He also cured them with other set-ups that he analogized to the brutal
psychiatry of his day: shock, sleep therapy and lobotomy. Gregory Bateson
refined this picture in his story of the double-bind as a contradictory
social situation to which the symptoms of schizophrenia were an unfortunate
adaptation. Here what interests me most is that at Kingsley Hall in the
second half of the 1960s, R D Laing and his colleagues put this decentered
and performative image of schizophrenia into practice, in a community in
which psychiatrists and the mad (as well as artists and dancers) lived
together on a par, rather than in the rigidly hierarchic relations of the
traditional mental hospital. Kingsley Hall was another technology of the
self—both an antidote to the double bind for sufferers, and, as Laing put
it, a place where the mad could teach the sane to go mad—where new kinds of
self could emerge. Again, Kingsley Hall makes the point that it is not just
ideas that are at stake here, but other forms of life too. And something of
the strangeness of this other form of life is caught up by the label *
anti-psychiatry* that attached to the Bateson-Laing enterprise. A style of
adaptive architecture, associated with the Archigram group as well as Cedric
Price and Gordon Pask, likewise found itself described as *anti-architecture
*. I find these links from the non-Cartesian performative and adaptive brain
to these strange forms of life fascinating.

The third axis we can explore under this heading is 'alternative
spiritualities.' The decentering that goes with the adaptive brain of course
pushes us in the direction of Eastern spirituality. Instead of the centered
and unchangeable soul one finds a self that evolves and becomes in the thick
of things, and this just is a Buddhist analysis of the self. One can plunge
into this further. Here is a diagram drawn by Gordon Pask in connection with
his work on cybernetic machines for entertainment and education. It is
labeled 'two views of minds and media.' Both views are decentered, focusing
on the relationality of communication. One diagram enshrines a conventional
view of this process and shows minds communicating with one another through
some medium—words traveling through the air, say. But Pask wrote that 'I
have a hankering' for the other view, in which minds are somehow 'embedded'
in an all-pervasive communicational medium.

[image: minds]

[image: media]

*diagrams: minds and media (1977)*

These diagrams seem quite innocuous unless one immerses oneself in the sort
of scientific/spiritual literature found in the *Journal of the Society for
Psychical Research*, when the occult significance of diagram (b) becomes
clear. The idea behind diagram (b) is that the brain is the organ of a
strange sense, unrecognized in the West, capable of accessing some other,
non-human and intrinsically spiritual realm that one may as well call
'universal mind.' One finds this idea in Ashby's notebooks from the early
1930s. In the passage where he admits to himself that he should be a
spiritualist, he sketches out precisely the idea of the brain as a sort of
hyper-sensitive (by virtue of its material complexity) radio receiver,
uniquely open to signals in a spiritual aether. Over the years, one finds
this image endlessly elaborated in attempts to understand phenomena like
ESP, which become much more plausible if they have their own medium in which
to happen, and in the ideas of 'evolutionary consciousness' which one finds
in important branches of New Age philosophy.

If Pask's diagram of minds and media remains philosophical and
representational, Aldous Huxley made a different connection to the spiritual
realm in making sense of his mescaline experience. In the beautiful
description of the phenomenology of psychedelic drugs that he gave in *The
Doors of Perception*, Huxley appealed to Buddhist imagery to convey the
intensity of his experiences—seeing the Dharma-body of the Buddha in the
hedge at the bottom of the garden is the image that sticks in my mind. So
here the altered states induced by chemical technologies of the non-modern
self are immediately identified with those other altered states induced by
Buddhist and more generally mystical technologies of the self.
Interestingly, Huxley even offers an explanation of why mystical experiences
are so rare in terms of the key concept of cybernetics, adaptation. His
famous theory of the brain as a 'reducing valve' elaborates the idea that
evolutionary processes have set us up to perceive the world in directly
functional and performative terms. Mescaline and other technologies of the
self then serve to undo this focused and performative stance, at least for a
while, allowing us to latch onto the world in other ways.
Finally, I can just note that the references so far to *siddhis* and strange
performances point directly not just to Eastern philosophy but also to
Eastern spiritual practices—to non-modern technologies of the self again. If
you really want to know about *siddhis*, a place to start is with Mircea
Eliade's big book, *Yoga: Immortality and Freedom* (1958). This intensely
scholarly tome surveys the history and substance of the whole range of
Indian yogic traditions, and singles out *tantric *yoga as the form that
emphasized bodily techniques, altered states and strange performances—the *
siddhis*—as well as magic and alchemy. Stafford Beer, as I said, practised
and taught tantric yoga—he lived all this stuff.

In all these ways, then, the adaptive brain of cybernetics extended into a
distinctly and integrally spiritualized set of understandings and forms of
life, running from psychedelic explorations of consciousness to strange
yogic performances. The oddity of it all against the backdrop of, say,
mainstream contemporary Christianity, is manifest. Again, we are reminded of
the straitened and impoverished conceptions of the self and the spirit that
the modern West affords us, and that we act out in our daily lives, and of
the complicity of the modern social and human sciences in this narrowing and
constriction of thought and action.


So far I have been dwelling on cybernetics as a science of the performative
brain, in contrast to the more familiar cognitive version. Now I should
recognize that the cyberneticians did not deny the brain its cognitive
capacity. Rather, they wanted *to put cognition in its place*. Like me in *The
Mangle of Practice*, they argued for a *performative epistemology* in which
knowledge and representation are seen as intimately engaged in performance,
as revisable components of performance, having to do with getting along
better or worse in the world, rather than as something especially human and
having to do with making accurate maps and winning arguments. Beyond that,
however, the cybernetic focus on the adaptive brain—the brain that helps us
get along with the unknown and unknowable—in turn thematized what one might
call the *performative excess* of the world in relation to our cognitive
capacity—precisely the ability of the world always to surprise us with novel

This explicit recognition of the performative excess of the world feeds into
my last topic, which I refer to by the slippery word *hylozoism*. Hylozoism,
for me, refers to a kind of spiritually charged wonder at the performativity
and agency of matter, and Stafford Beer was certainly a hylozoist under this
definition. He wrote poems on the computational power of the Irish Sea as
indefinitely exceeding our own. '*Nature* is (let it be clear that)
*nature*is in charge' he wrote in 1977. What interests me most, again,
is that this
hylozoism was not just a philosophical position, an idea of what the world
is like. Again, the cyberneticians elaborated it in all sorts of practices,
including engineering and the arts.

In modern engineering, the dominant approach is a version of what Martin
Heidegger called *enframing*. The world is materially reformed and
reconfigured to try to accomplish some preconceived goal according to a
preconceived plan. Beer and Pask developed a quite different approach, that
one could associate with *revealing*, not enframing—an open-ended
exploratory approach of *finding out* what the world can offer us. Perhaps
the best way to grasp this is via the notion that whatever one wants in the
world, it's already there, somewhere in nature. I think here of the craziest
and most visionary project I have ever come across in the history of
technology, Beer and Pask's attempt to construct non-representational
computers*. The idea is simple enough once you see it. Ashby had argued for
the idea of the brain as an organ of performative adaptation, and Beer stood
this idea on its head: any adaptive system can function as a brain. In the
late 1950s and early 1960s Beer and Pask then embarked on a long search
through the space of adaptive systems running from pond ecosystems to
electrochemically deposited metal threads as some sort of substitute for
human factory managers.4
failed, but the problem lay in getting adaptive systems to care about our
projects rather than any difficulties of principle. Once more the contrast
between this sort of hylozoist engineering and that taught in engineering
schools is manifest; this time we would have to blame the modern natural
sciences and IT strategies, rather than the social sciences, for conspiring
with the narrowing of our imagination of the world itself against which
biological computing stands out.

We can see hylozoist parallels in the arts to this style of cybernetic
engineering. Brian Eno said he was indebted to Stafford Beer's *Brain of the
Firm* for innovative changes in his music in the 1970s. If classical music
consists in the reproduction of a pre-conceptualised score, Eno's generative
music consists, as he once put it, in 'riding the dynamics' of unpredictable
algorithms and *finding out* what emerges, as if the music was already
there, now in the domain of computational systems. In the realm of what used
to be called sculpture, Garnet Hertz built a robot very similar to Grey
Walter's tortoises, but with the electronics replaced by an optically and
mechanically coupled giant Madagascan cockroach, and exhibited it as an art

[image: roach robot]*

*picture: roach robot*

The artist Eduardo Kac has done much the same with bio-robots and
genetically modified animals, and Andy Gracie's artwork explores the dynamic
possibilities of interfering with natural processes of growth and
adaptation. My favorite example of hylozoist art, however, is biofeedback
music. Developed by people like Alvin Lucier, biofeedback music consists in
extracting naturally occurring electrical rhythms from the brain and using
them to control sound-making equipment. Once more we arrive at the hylozoist
idea that it's all already there in nature; there is no need for that long
trip through the centuries of compositional development in the history of
the West—all you need is a few electrodes and wires. And yet again, the
strangeness of this sort of performance is evident. As James Tenney (1995,
12) put it: 'Before [the first performance of Lucier's *Music for a Solo
Performer*] no one would have thought it necessary to define the word
"music" in a way which allowed for such a manifestation; afterwards some
definition could not be avoided.'

[image: music]

[image: biofeedback]

*pictures: music for solo performer; john cage & biofeedback*

It is also worth noting that biofeedback is historically related to Grey
Walter's EEG research, and originated as a technique for interfering with
one's own brainwaves. It was taken up in the 60s as a technique for
achieving the same sort of transcendental inner states as meditation and
psychedelic drugs, and performances of biofeedback music often entailed the
achievement of such altered states by performers (individually or
collectively) and the audience. So this new sort of music was directly
performative as itself a technology of the self for achieving altered states
and non-modern subject-positions.5

To wrap things up, I want to say that in elaborating a conception of the
brain as adaptive and performative, the history of cybernetics dramatizes
visions of the self and spirituality and the arts and engineering and the
world, that go far beyond those prevalent in contemporary society and the
mainstream sciences, and that cybernetics acted out those visions in all
sorts of strange, surprising and wonderful projects. As I have said several
times, I take it that this sort of ontological theatre points up the
narrowness of our hegemonic forms of life and the role of the natural as
well as the social sciences in closing down our imagination and naturalizing
this constriction.


is, of course, no shortage of genres that circle around the *fear* of
variations on the human form. Canonical works would have to include Mary
Shelley's *Frankenstein* and HG Wells' *The Island of Dr Moreau*, but it
seems to me that this genre really flourished after WWII and during the Cold
War: endless American B-movies about mutants, John Wyndham's *Midwich
Cuckoos*, Greg Bear and *Darwin's Radio* (though, as usual, Bear is more
interesting, portraying the promise as well as the fear of the next stage of
human evolution).

much fuller treatment of the topics to follow (and much else) complete with
citations to sources is to be found in my forthcoming book: *Sketches of
Another Future: The Cybernetic Brain, 1940-2000* (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, forthcoming).

canonical transhumanist dream of downloading consciousness to a computer is,
of course, a species of human exceptionalism writ very large. My idea here
is to explore a different mode of being in the world and where it might lead
us, especially across spiritual terrain.

is a close resemblance between this idea of substituting biological
computers for human managers and the transhumanist project of downloading
human consciousness into a digital computer. The axis of differentiation,
besides the very different substrates involved, is that what gains
'cybernetic immortality' in biological computing is not the conscious,
reasoning brain of the manager but his or her preconscious, performative and
adaptive capabilities.

are many threads that one could follow in exploring the theme of hylozoism
in the arts and science including the role of the camera obscura in the
extreme realism of Vermeer's paintings (which apparently include reflections
of the camera itself); Bernard Palissy's amazing techniques for turning
living creatures into pottery; Pamela Smith's writings, which suggest that
much of what is usually taken to be alchemical symbolism is actually a
literal description of the mediaeval vermilion synthesis; Galison's account
of the history of the bubble chamber, with C T R Wilson trying to create
real meteorological phenomena in his early cloud chambers; and D'Arcy
Thompson on the 19th-century science of inkdrops.

**[image: Separater]*
*A paper prepared for the "Transhumanism and the Meanings of Progress"
workshop, ASU, Tempe, AZ, April 24-25, 2008.**

Published   2008.06.05 * *Comments:* Share your thoughts on this article:
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