Today's reading

Kline, Ronald R. 2015. "Circular Causality." In The Cybernetics Moment: Or Why We Call Our Age the Information Age, First edition, 37--67. New Studies in American Intellectual and Cultural History. New York: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Why we read this particular text?

The first and previous two sessions dealt with cybernetics as an all-encompassing ideology that underpins social domination since the Second World War. This was Tiqqun's text on the Cybernetic Hypothesis (2012, 2020) and the BBC documentary series entitled All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace from Adam Curtis (2011). We follow up on these high-level arguments by looking at cybernetics itself, not as an ideology, but a scientific field or body of knowledge that came out of the interdisciplinary research culture of the Second World War. So, instead of a political critique of cybernetics, this chapter is on cybernetics as a moment in the history of science where the basic categories criticised by Tiqqun and Adam Curtis have been worked out.

[I think by this point Polan is concerned that the reading session will turn out to be a lecture instead of a discussion... so she proposes a round of reactions.]

What we liked / disliked about the text?

  • PN: It is quite clear from the text that the meaning of information (from Shannon) was the central issue, it was both structuring the debate and defracting it through their various conflicting interpetations of what information might be.

  • BD: There was a strong interdisciplinary ambition to bring together the sciences. This played out in a power play between scientific disciplines. In particular, I was stuck by the sense of the risk that sociologists could loose control of their discipline.

  • JN: The discussion of analogue, and the partial success of interdisciplinarity, was inspiring. I was surprised that the analogue versus the digital was discussed to such lengths, including some interesting reflections. Also, Kline is emphasises that they tried and somewhat succeeded in imposing a "tribal language" that bridges these various scientific disciplines.

  • AR: I liked the power struggle between STEM vs. social sciences. In retrospect, my impression is that it worked out quite well in psychology. It was nice to see what actually was happening at the conference itself.

  • PJ: I was inspired by the weird connections to the culture that we know in retrospect followed from the discussions at the Macy Conferences. Mead was there as an anthropologist, who kickstarted a sexual revolution in the 1960s. The other anthropologists, Bateson's countercultural book in the 1970s was very influential (e.g. Bateson 1972). Vannevar Bush also participated in the Macy Conferences, and then went on to design the Memex, a conceptual precursor of the Internet. Their lives went in interesting directions!

  • F: I am curious about the homeostat: how does that is supposed to work? My interest lies in these models, and how they used them in their research. They emphasised that they are actually models and they are not supposed to be more than models! But later it became problematic in cybernetics. They already complain that the popular media simplifies things, so in the end it's like "All mouses are like robots." / The other thing that stuck in my mind was this mystical riddle from McCulloch: "What is a number that man may know it and a man that one may know it?" He consciously structured his whole life work around this captivating phrase, whatever it may mean. I am curious what could it be!

  • CE: I did not manage to read lot of it. There was a lot of social dynamics between cool kids and nerds, etc. It is a funny thing to see how this very human relationships could influence the pursuit of knowledge. These models seem to be quite detached from real life, but maybe that was not the point. I liked the phrase that "The best model for the brain behaviour is a brain." (The best model of a cat is a (preferably the same) cat." (N.B. A version of this appeard in the article discussed later below; Rosenblueth, Wiener, and Bigelow 1943)

  • RS: I only read two pages. So, I have not much to say.

  • AE: I also did not read too much. Found the point on the discussion on analogies and how it was taken up in the context of cybernetics. We do not have to do that a-posteriori because it was already brought up in the beginning! The connection between analogue and digital is also an interesting perspective.

What is a stochastic process?

This came up from Wiener's definition of cybernetics as "the application of statistics to stochastic processes.

Deterministic but not predictable. Stochastic basically means random. From the Greek "to aim at a mark, guess". A prime example is Brownian motion, which also called the Wiener process (after the founding father of cybernetics). Brownian motion can be observed in a wide range of natural phenomena from particles suspended in liquid through the movement of electrons to white noise.

Apart from physics phenomena, what is commonly cited is Wiener's work on anti-aircraft gun turret servos during the war, where they had to shoot down an enemy airplane which was, of course, on an unpredictable path. As in classic ballistic problems, shooting down the airplane actually means shooting before the airplane, e.g. at a certain point in space where the gunner predicts the airplane will be located at a certain moment in the near future. So, the calculation has to take into account the coordinated equations for the trajectory of the projectile and the trajectory of the target at the same time.

There are entry points here to understand cybernetics as a means to incorporate resistance into governance, use noise to stabilise the system, make science work even if some variables are unknowns, etc.

Why they talk about circular causality?

It is a kind of founding idea that came out of an early protocybernetic paper published before the second world war:

Rosenblueth, Arturo, Norbert Wiener, and Julian Bigelow. 1943. "Behavior, Purpose and Teleology." Philosophy of Science 10 (1): 18--24.

So, after the war they pick up this thread based on their inter-disciplinary and classified military work during the war. This paper made a big splash in some circles because it promises a quasi-mathematical description of consciousness, which was out of scope for hard science research for a long time. It also is interesting to note that they take a stand against behaviouralism in the paper, which is often -- but perhaps mistakenly -- identified with cybernetics.1

Of course, we can already see in circular causality the motif of the feedback loop that is the ordering diagram of cybernetic imaginaries.

Kline mentions two "proto-cybernetic" meetings, and I think this paper was presented in one of them. Kline also says that the only Macy Conference members who attended both meetings were McCullogh and Mead, two of the main organisers (and editors of the transcripts). The title of the Macy Conferences included circular causality (at least in the beginning, not sure about whether it stayed there also in the last years).

Some memorable moments from the paper we kind of mentioned in the discussion:

"Finally, it revelas that a uniform behaviouristic analysis is applicable to both machines and living organisms, regardless of the complexity of the behaviour." (4) ➔ I think this is what Hayles (1999) focuses on when she proposes a cybernetic ontology that posits man-machine equivalence as the main thrust of cybernetics-as-ideology. In simple words, humans and machines are treated the same, and it is suggested that they are actually the same -- at least for the purposes and concerns of the cyberneticians. Therefore, cybernetics is understood as an anti-humanist intellectual movement or tradition.

"The ultimate model of a cat is of course another car, whether it be born of still another cat or synthesized in a laboratory." ➔ Here the cybernetic ontology that posits the equivalence of living organisms and technological artefacts is much more concrete. We can recall that the subtitle of Wiener's foundational book is "in the Animal and the Machine". So, the anti-humanism of cybernetics works on several levels. On a fundamental level, the distinction what cybernetics attacks is not the one dividing humans and non-humans, subjects and objects, nature and culture -- but the distinction between life and design, or something like that. But then again, this always already implies a previous gesture of reducing (or generalising) the category of humans to the category of animals.


This is where we arrive to the problematics of diagramatology: the diagram as a specific technique of abstraction. We conjecture that cybernetics is diagrammatical, in the sense that whereas previous modes of thought sought to understand phenomena in terms of their logic and meaning, cybernetics seeks to understand phenomena in terms of a diagram drawn for the purpose of "handling" (dealing with) such phenomena. This explains why cybernetics can work without concerning itself with classic questions about the essence of things, the meaning of life, or cause-effect relationships that can ground explanations.

For instance, consciousness is defined as a diagram of circular causality in the abtsract: a relationship between elements. What these elements are is arbitrary in the sense that the definition of consciousness does not depends on them. Once consciousness is defined diagrammatically, in the abstract, as a functional relationship between arbitrary elements, it does not matter any more whether consciousness as a function is implemented

Another example is life, defined as the capacity of something to "reproduce its own form" by Maturana and Varela (1980). They originally proposed this definition in order to define life as specifically biological. In other words, they came up with this definition in order to delineate the proper subject of biology from other disciplines, e.g. to provide a foundation and core research interest for biology as a systematic body of knowledge. However, other cyberneticians read and received their definition as sufficiently abstract to apply it to the design of machines. Then, the idea of self-reproducing machines was born. There is a famous one that was proposed for Mars missions where machines would build machines for the purpose of interplanetary colonisation. More recently, open-source 3D printers were originally proposed (in a manifesto called The Self-Replicating Rapid Prototyper: Manufacturing for the Masses; Bowyer 2006) as self-replicating machines. By virtue of being self-replicating machines, they could be framed as having their own teleology -- that of destroying or superseding the commodity form and markets as the fundamental building blocks of capitalism (see Söderberg 2014).

In any case, we continue to examine the hypothesis that the historical specificity ("innovation") of cybernetics, in contrast with previous ways of thinking about stuff, is that it is proposing problems and solutions in terms of diagrams rather than interpretations, etc. We already determined that cybernetics is very solution oriented, managerial, dominating, while the Humanities tradition is about complicating interpretations, complexifying debates, asking new questions, etc.

Octopus paper →

EXPERIMENT: Removed the optical lobe from

  • maiming the octopus was a study used by one of the of cyberneticians at the Macy conference to suggest that either the mouse or the homeostate were not correct models for the brain (if I recall correctly)
  • in response to the question of why octopuses are used to extensively in experiments, proj indicated that they believe it is because the octopus nervous system is similar to the human and also very exposed (thus simple to study), this is one of the underlying explanations for why they fed them MDMA I believe:

Universalist project

How do we get from the Macy Conferences to All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace? and the Cybernetic Hypothesis?

What is the connection?

Answer: Cybernetics works but it does not have to be true.

They mention in the discussion. The use of the model is t

Power relations: STEM scientists imposing some stuff.

They could not see that it would be so successful.

why was the cybernetic frame so attractive? Why was it picked up in the following years?

  • some of the excerpts in Kline suggest that even at the Macy conference participants had in their minds a more universalist project and that they were enamored with their new way of thinking

Tentative suggestions as to why the allure:

  1. a boring answer: the post-war international order had the US as a super-power and thus its hegemonic influence meant that the ideas were spread in much the same way that Disney or any other US cultural output/industrial technique of the time was
  2. following from the idea of the crisis of modernity, if god is dead (and the hollocaust / WWII illustrated this - nb: Arendt is to be believed the general population did not undersatnd the full horror of the Hollocaust until the 1960s), then perhaps people were looking for mystery in the world. Emergence (this is the book I read years ago: Emergence: From Chaos to Order By John H. Holland) and circular causality can hint at mystery due to their unintuitive results. They bring some measure of mystery into the world and perhaps give a sense of transcendent reality - thus cybernetics provided a proxy for religion and spirituality
  3. nb: looking through the book, there are already some points on models which might be interesting to re-read
  4. nb: human rights emerged (no pun intended) at exactly the same year as cybernetics as the first Macy conference (Universal Declaration of Human Rights - 1948) - sometimes human rights is also suggested to be a proxy / substitute for the absense of religion (e.g. universalist normative moral order)

The hermeneutic circle versus the feedback loop

Dupuy (2000): The Mechanization of the Mind: On the Origins of Cognitive Science

The social sciences and humanities (SSH

"You cannot prove human behaviour". All the electrons are the same. You can describe them as stochastic processes. But when it comes to humans and societies, they are always different.

Electrical engineer Robert Fano at MIT, recalled that sometime in 1947, Wiener “walks into my office, energetically sucking and puffing on his cigar. His belly sticking out and slightly bent backward as he walks, [and] announced ‘information is entropy’ and then walks out again. No explanation, no elaboration.”

Nancy Fraser article (Behind Marx's Hidden Abode) among other things addresses the claim that commodification/capitalism will absorb all of life but that this is not actually the case because capitalism depends upon a number of other spheres (abodes) for which it is necessary to sustain capitalismthat they retain their distinct existences and ontologies etc. There is a an analogy that could be made to the way that the Cybernetic Hypothesis claims that that everything is being absorbed by cybernetics.

Post meeting questions that would flow this would be:

1. are there similar spheres of life that like the 'hidden abodes' are outside of 
cybernetics but are necessary to sustain it (perhaps the same abodes I wonder...)
2. Fraser suggests that the abodes contain with them different logics to capitalism 
that may provides mechanisms for resisting capitalism - would these be the same 
for the cybernetic hypothesis? ex. love and private life?

The question of life.

[life vs existence]

Cybernetics as a historical horizon

During the discussion there were many moments when ideas and concepts outside of the Western canon have been proposed as alternatives, predecessors, potential successors or merely parallels of cybernetic diagrams. Glimpses of Buddhism and Hinduism came up several times. I insisted on two or three points about a post-colonial approach to cybernetics:


  • if the claim in the cybernetic hypothesis is that we (particularly in Western capitalism) cannot escape the hegemonic horizon, then one way may be to encounter other cosmologies and engage with other cultures (ex. indigenous) ways of understanding technology or the universe more generally

Round: "Do you have an essence? How do you personally feel about essence?"

  • PJ: I have a long lasting axe to grind about the behavioural sciences versus how most people think of themselves. I am convinced that people are much more predictable than how they perceive themselves to be. Our aggregate behaviour is rather predictable.

  • JN: Essence is overrated. I don't think of myself in essentialist terms. I think of essence in historical terms, so modern society undermined essence.

  • AE: As Sartre wrote, "existence precedes essence". This is a fundamental idea of various strands of existentialisms in the twentieth century. If from essence we are seeking to retain singularity, there are other ways (again, moving from the what to the how ->push forwards to form-of-life discussion)

  • MS: How I understand this is in Hegelian terms: there is essence (or essences) but it/they are historically variable, and develop through contradictions.

  • CE: I'm blinded by it

  • SI: yes, we need to. And these are the questions we should be asking.

It is also mentioned that we should consider Spinoza's idea that "all nature speaks in the same voice", e.g. there is only one essence (the essence of God, of course, but we can also call it Being), which is expressed through the various real phenomena, some of which we can perceive.

Cybernetics: not interested in what something is, but in how it works, what it can do. Similarly, concerns in continental philosophy, makes the passage from an investigation in the ‘what’ (essence, and through it, finality, proper place, normality etc) into an investigation into the ‘how’ (conditions, constructions, techniques, practices etc) We should investigate what is going how and how things are different.

Future scenarios

  • Life (vitalism vs. cybernetics) → Form-of-life. (nb: after thought reading through the notes - what also of

  • Hermeneutic circle vs. feedback loops (SSH vs. cybernetics):

  • Nihilism

  • Circular causality (changing causalities - from determinsitic to probabilistic --> question of statistics causation/ correlation | from explanation to prediction)

Anthropology course on Witchcraft.

  • Question of analogy (a related question is the aporia of analogue and digital, etc.).

  • Question of essence in relation to meaning

[or: so what is going on with circles?]


Bateson, Gregory. 1972. Steps Towards an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution and Epistemology. Northvale, NJ; London: Jason Aronson.

Bowyer, Adrian. 2006. "The Self-Replicating Rapid Prototyper: Manufacturing for the Masses." Paper presented at the 8th National Conference on Rapid Design, Prototyping & Manufacturing.

Curtis, Adam. 2011. "All Watched over by Machines of Loving Grace." Documentary series, BBC.

Dupuy, Jean-Pierre. 2000. The Mechanization of the Mind: On the Origins of Cognitive Science. Princeton; Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Hayles, Kathrine. 1999. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Maturana, Humberto, and Francisco Varela. 1980. Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living. Dordrecht, London, Boston: D. Reidel.

Rosenblueth, Arturo, Norbert Wiener, and Julian Bigelow. 1943. "Behavior, Purpose and Teleology." Philosophy of Science 10 (1): 18--24.

Söderberg, Johan. 2014. "Reproducing Wealth Without Money, One 3D Printer at a Time: The Cunning of Instrumental Reason." Journal of Peer Production, no. 4.

Tiqqun. 2020. The Cybernetic Hypothesis. Translated by Robert Hurley. Revised edition with a new introduction by the authors. Semiotext(e) Intervention Series. South Pasadena, CA: MIT Press; Semiotext(e).

---------. 2012. The Cybernetic Hypothesis. The Anarchist Library.

  1. Behaviourialism is a theoretical framework in social psychology and sociology where subjects (like individual people or social groups) are treated as a black box whose internal mechanisms cannot be known, so that the analysis is reduced to observations of correlations between inputs and outputs. In simple words, this means conceptualising human behaviour as "we can observe that given this stimulus, this response will follow". As we saw in many other quasi-cybernetic approaches, behaviouralism does not try to explain much -- rather, it focuses on observations that can be generalised and operationalised for the purpose of prediction and behavioural modification. The point is that it should work, rather than that it should be a correct explanation/interpretation/description of what is really going on.