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Noise on the line: cybernetics, structuralism and beyond

Lecturer: Graham Jones

Originally Taught: Winter School 2018

Cybernetics is the metaphysics of the atomic age.
- Martin Heidegger, 1976

Although cybernetics today seems like an obsolete 'science', a mere relic of Cold-War politics and naive 1950s science fiction novels, its influence upon various philosophical, social, political, psychological and economic theories and models over the last 70 years has been enormous - in fact, to such a degree that it would be difficult to exaggerate its true significance. 

This course offers an introduction to cybernetics and its legacy. It begins by examining the origins of cybernetics, its key contributors, fundamental concepts, and subsequent evolution, offshoots and criticism, before turning towards looking at its influence on the genesis of 'French' structuralism and a particularly pervasive and influential paradigm of communication (the 'SMR' model). With these co-ordinates in place the course then examines the responses of three specific thinkers - Jacques Lacan, Michel Serres and Gilbert Simondon - each of whom sought to go beyond the inherent limitations of cybernetics and structuralism.

Course Schedule

Seminar 1:  'The future just ain’t what it used to be!’

The first seminar presents a philosophical and political genealogy of cybernetics, as well as its subsequent conceptual influence (game theory) and offshoots (information theory and systems theory). It explains the key notions of control, equilibrium, feedback, information, entropy and noise, and presents some examples of how these were then, collectively or in part, applied with differing degrees of 'success' to other domains. It then examines some of the more well-known responses in the humanities - both positive and negative - towards cybernetic's concepts and influence.

Seminar 2:  'If the world’s a text then where can I get the cheaper ebook version?'

The second seminar explains how cybernetics influenced the origin of the structuralist movement in France. It outlines the precepts of structuralism and presents examples of the latter’s application in different cultural fields (such as the anthropological analysis of kinship-relations and gift-giving). It also looks at Jakobson’s model of communication (itself influenced by the work of Claude Shannon) and the influence of this model upon the study of communications and the mass media. Time permitting, the seminar will finish by examining the criticisms of cybernetics and its legacy presented by Jean-François Lyotard in The Postmodern Condition.

Seminar 3:  'A ghost in the machine or just a machine in the ghost?'

This seminar provides a brief overview and introduction to key Freudian and Lacanian ideas before examining the specific influence of cybernetics and structuralism upon the account of the 'unconscious' and the Symbolic presented in Lacan’s famous seminars of the 1950s and 1960s. It will then look at several examples in Lacan’s work, including his discussion of the circulating letter in Poe’s short story 'The Purloined Letter', and his later elaboration of the 'graph of desire'.

Seminar 4:  ’There’s no such thing as a free lunch!’

This discussion provides an introduction to the general assumptions underlying Serres’ 'isomorphic' approach to the inter-relations of the physical sciences, humanities and the fine arts, evident throughout his extensive oeuvre. It will then explain his views on communication and interference (from the series of books referred to as 'Hermes’ which were heavily influenced by cybernetics), as well as some of his later ideas about 'noise' and the 'quasi-object', before finally examining in detail his related discussion of the 'parasite'.

Seminar 5:  'An individuation, a tool, and a genome all walk into a bar . . .'

This seminar introduces the (until recently) little-known work of Simondon, which was a direct response to the perceived shortcomings of the cybernetic paradigm. It will briefly examine Simondon’s own intellectual genealogy (particularly the influence of Leroi-Ghouran) before outlining his ontology, his modification of the notions of information and technology, and the related concepts of the pre-individual, technics, transduction, individuation, modulation, and disparity elaborated in his work. 

A preliminary reading list for those eager to get started

Wiener, Norbert. Cybernetics: on control and communication in the animal and the machine (2nd edition)

Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book 2: The Ego in Freud’s Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis 1954-1955.

Serres, Michel. The Parasite

Simondon, Gilbert. On the mode of existence of technical objects

[Note: Although there will be a lot of detailed philosophical discussion in this course it does not require any familiarity with mathematics or coding in order to comprehend the relevant concepts]