Cybernetic Hypothesis

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* Article: The Cybernetic Hypothesis. Tiqqun, 2010.


Source: Retrieved on May 29, 2010 from


„The Cybernetic Hypothesis is thus a political hypothesis, a new fable that after the second world war has definitively supplanted the liberal hypothesis. Contrary to the latter, it proposes to conceive biological, physical, and social behaviors as something integrally programmed and re-programmable. More precisely, it conceives of each individual behavior as something “piloted,” in the last analysis, by the need for the survival of a “system” that makes it possible, and which it must contribute to.“




" critical minds hardly appear to be very inclined to take into account the emergence of cybernetics as a new technology of government, which federates and associates both discipline and bio-politics, police and advertising, its ancestors in the exercise of domination, all too ineffective today. That is to say, cybernetics is not, as we are supposed to believe, a separate sphere of the production of information and communication, a virtual space superimposed on the real world. No, it is, rather, an autonomous world of apparatuses so blended with the capitalist project that it has become a political project, a gigantic “abstract machine” made of binary machines run by the Empire, a new form of political sovereignty, which must be called an abstract machine that has made itself into a global war machine. Deleuze and Guattari link this rupture to a new kind of appropriation of war machines by Nation-States: “Automation, and then the automation of the war machine, only came truly into effect after the Second World War. The war machine, considering the new antagonisms running through it, no longer had War as its exclusive object, but rather it began to take charge of and make Peace, policy, and world order into its object; in short: such is its goal. Thus we see the inversion of Clausewitz’s formula: politics becomes the continuation of war, and peace will release, technologically, the unlimited material process of total war. War ceases to be the materialization of the war machine, and rather it is the war machine that itself becomes war itself materialized.” That’s why it’s not worth it anymore to critique the cybernetic hypothesis either: it has to be fought and defeated. It’s just a matter of time.

The Cybernetic Hypothesis is thus a political hypothesis, a new fable that after the second world war has definitively supplanted the liberal hypothesis. Contrary to the latter, it proposes to conceive biological, physical, and social behaviors as something integrally programmed and re-programmable. More precisely, it conceives of each individual behavior as something “piloted,” in the last analysis, by the need for the survival of a “system” that makes it possible, and which it must contribute to. It is a way of thinking about balance, born in a crisis context. Whereas 1914 sanctioned the decomposition of the anthropological conditions for the verification of the liberal hypothesis — the emergence of Bloom and the bankruptcy, plain to see in flesh and bone in the trenches, of the idea of the individual and all metaphysics of the subject — and 1917 sanctioned its historical contestation by the Bolshevik “revolution,” 1940 on the other hand marked the extinction of the idea of “society,” so obviously brought about by totalitarian self-destruction. As the limit-experiences of political modernity, Bloom and totalitarianism thus have been the most solid refutations of the liberal hypothesis. What Foucault would later call (in a playful tone) “the death of Mankind,” is none other than the devastation brought about by these two kinds of skepticism, the one directed at individuals, and the other at society, and brought about by the Thirty Years’ War which had so effected the course of Europe and the world in the first half of the last century. The problem posed by the Zeitgeist of those years was once again how to “defend society” against the forces driving it towards decomposition, how to restore the social totality in spite of a general crisis of presence afflicting it in its every atom. The cybernetic hypothesis corresponds, consequently, to a desire for order and certitude, both in the natural and social sciences. The most effective arrangement of a constellation of reactions animated by an active desire for totality — and not just by a nostalgia for it, as it was with the various variants of romanticism — the cybernetic hypothesis is a relative of not only the totalitarian ideologies, but also of all the Holisms, mysticisms, and solidarities, like those of Durkheim, the functionalists, or the Marxists; it merely takes over from them.

As an ethical position, the cybernetic hypothesis is the complement, however strictly opposed to it, of the humanist pathos that has been back in vogue since the 1940s and which is nothing more than an attempt to act as if “Man” could still think itself intact after Auschwitz, an attempt to restore the classical metaphysics on the subject in spite of totalitarianism. But whereas the cybernetic hypothesis includes the liberal hypothesis at the same time as it transcends it, humanism’s aim is to extend the liberal hypothesis to the ever more numerous situations that resist it: It’s the “bad faith” of someone like Sartre, to turn one of the author’s most inoperative categories against him. The ambiguity that constitutes modernity, seen superficially either as a disciplinary process or as a liberal process, or as the realization of totalitarianism or as the advent of liberalism, is contained and suppressed in, with and by the new governance mentality emerging now, inspired by the cybernetic hypothesis. This is but the life-sized experimentation protocol of the Empire in formation. Its realization and extension, with the devastating truth-effects it produces, is already corroding all the social institutions and social relations founded by liberalism, and transforming both the nature of capitalism and the possibilities of its contestation. The cybernetic gesture affirms itself in the negation of everything that escapes regulation, all the escape routes that existence might have in the interstices of the norms and apparatuses, all the behavioral fluctuations that do not follow, in fine, from natural laws. Insofar as it has come to produce its own truths, the cybernetic hypothesis is today the most consequential anti-humanism, which pushes to maintain the general order of things, all the while bragging that it has transcended the human.

Like any discourse, the cybernetic hypothesis could only check to verify itself by associating the beings or ideas that reinforce it, by testing itself through contact with them, and folding the world into its laws in a continuous self-validation process. It’s now an ensemble of devices aspiring to take control over all of existence and what exists. The Greek word kubernèsis means “the act of piloting a vessel,” and in the figurative sense, the “act of directing, governing.” In his 1981–1982 classes, Foucault insisted on working out the meaning of this category of “piloting” in the Greek and Roman world, suggesting that it could have a more contemporary scope to it: “the idea of piloting as an art, as a theoretical and practical technology necessary for existence, is an idea that I think is rather important and may eventually merit a closer analysis; one can see at least three types of technology regularly attached to this ‘piloting’ idea: first of all medicine; second of all, political government; third of all self-direction and self-government. These three activities (healing, directing others, and governing oneself) are quite regularly attached to this image of piloting in Greek, Hellenic and Roman literature. And I think that this ‘piloting’ image also paints a good picture of a kind of knowledge and practice that the Greeks and Romans had a certain affinity for, for which they attempted to establish a tekhnè (an art, a planned system of practices connected to general principles, notions, and concepts): the Prince, insofar as he must govern others, govern himself, heal the ills of the city, the ills of the citizens, and his own ills; he who governs himself as if he were governing a city, by healing his own ills; the doctor who must give his advice not only about the ills of the body but about the ills of individuals’ souls. And so you see you have here a whole pack of ideas in the minds of the Greeks and Romans that have to do I think with one and the same kind of knowledge, the same type of activity, the same type of conjectural understanding. And I think that one could dig up the whole history of that metaphor practically all the way up to the 16th century, when a whole new art of governing, centered around Reasons of State, would split apart — in a radical way — self government/medicine/government of others — not without this image of ‘piloting,’ as you well know, remaining linked to this activity, that activity which we call the activity of government.”

What Foucault’s listeners are here supposed to know well and which he refrains from pointing out, is that at the end of the 20th century, the image of piloting, that is, management, became the cardinal metaphor for describing not only politics but also all human activity. Cybernetics had become the project of unlimited rationalization. In 1953, when he published The Nerves of Government in the middle of the development of the cybernetic hypothesis in the natural sciences, Karl Deutsch, an American university social sciences academic, took the political possibilities of cybernetics seriously. He recommended abandoning the old concept that power was sovereign, which had too long been the essence of politics. To govern would become a rational coordination of the flows of information and decisions that circulate through the social body. Three conditions would need to be met, he said: an ensemble of capturers would have to be installed so that no information originating from the “subjects” would be lost; information handling by correlation and association; and a proximity to every living community. The cybernetic modernization of power and the expired forms of social authority thus can be seen as the visible production of what Adam Smith called the “invisible hand,” which until then had served as the mystical keystone of liberal experimentation. The communications system would be the nerve system of societies, the source and destination of all power. The cybernetic hypothesis thus expresses no more or less than the politics of the “end of politics.” It represents at the same time both a paradigm and a technique of government. Its study shows that the police is not just an organ of power, but also a way of thinking.

Cybernetics is the police-like thinking of the Empire, entirely animated by an offensive concept of politics, both in an historical and metaphysical sense. It is now completing its integration of the techniques of individuation — or separation — and totalization that had been developing separately: normalization, “anatomo-politics,” and regulation, “bio-politics,” as Foucault calls it. I call his “techniques of separation” the police of qualities. And, following Lukács, I call his “techniques of totalization” the social production of society. With cybernetics, the production of singular subjectivities and the production of collective totalities work together like gears to replicate History in the form of a feigned movement of evolution. It acts out the fantasy of a Same that always manages to integrate the Other; as one cybernetician puts it, “all real integration is based on a prior differentiation.” In this regard, doubtless no one could put it better than the “automaton” Abraham Moles, cybernetics’ most zealous French ideologue, who here expresses this unparalleled murder impulse that drives cybernetics: “We envision that one global society, one State, could be managed in such a way that they could be protected against all the accidents of the future: such that eternity changes them into themselves. This is the ideal of a stable society, expressed by objectively controllable social mechanisms.” Cybernetics is war against all that lives and all that is lasting. By studying the formation of the cybernetic hypothesis, I hereby propose a genealogy of imperial governance. I then counterpose other wisdom for the fight, which it erases daily, and by which it will be defeated.


“Synthetic life is certainly one of the possible products of the evolution of techno-bureaucratic control, in the same way as the return of the whole planet to the inorganic level, is -rather ironically — another of the results of that same revolution, which has to do with the technology of control.” James R Beniger, The Control Revolution, 1986.

Even if the origins of the Internet device are today well known, it is not uncalled for to highlight once again their political meaning. The Internet is a war machine invented to be like the highway system, which was also designed by the American Army as a decentralized internal mobilization tool. The American military wanted a device which would preserve the command structure in case of a nuclear attack. The response would consist in an electronic network capable of automatically retaking control over information itself if nearly the whole of the communications links were destroyed, thus permitting the surviving authorities to remain in communication with one another and make decisions. With such a device, military authority could be maintained in the face of the worst catastrophes. The Internet is thus the result of a nomadic transformation of military strategy. With that kind of a plan at its roots, one might doubt the supposedly anti-authoritarian characteristics of this device. As is the Internet, which derives from it, cybernetics is an art of war, the objective of which is to save the head of the social body in case of catastrophe. What stands out historically and politically during the period between the great wars, and which the cybernetic hypothesis was a response to, was the metaphysical problem of creating order out of disorder. The whole of the great scientific edifice, in terms of what it had to do with the determinist concepts of Newton’s mechanical physics, fell apart in the first half of the century. The sciences, at that time, were like plots of territory torn between the neo-positivist restoration and the probabilist revolution, and slowly inching its way towards a historical compromise so that the law could be re-established after the chaos, the certain re-established after the probable. Cybernetics passed through this whole movement — which began in Vienna at the turn of the century, and was transported to England and the United States in the 1930s and 1940s, and constructed a Second Empire of Reason where the idea of the Subject, up to that time considered indispensable, was absent. As a kind of knowledge, it brought together an ensemble of heterogeneous discourses all dealing with the practical problems of mastering uncertainty. Discourses fundamentally expressing, in the various domains of their application, the desire for a restoration of one order, and furthermore the maintenance thereof.

Underlying the founding of Cybernetics was a context of total war. It would be in vain to look for some malicious purpose or the traces of a plot: one simply finds a handful of ordinary men mobilized by America during the Second world war. Norbert Wiener, an American savant of Russian origin, was charged with developing, with the aid of a few colleagues, a machine for predicting and monitoring the positions of enemy planes so as to more effectively destroy them. It was at the time only possible at the time to predict with certitude certain correlations between certain airplane positions and certain airplane behaviors/movements. The elaboration of the “Predictor,” the prediction machine ordered from Wiener, thus required a specific method of airplane position handling and a comprehension of how the weapon interacts with its target. The whole history of cybernetics has aimed to do away with the impossibility of determining at the same time the position and behavior of bodies. Wiener’s innovation was to express the problem of uncertainty as an information problem, within a temporal series where certain data is already known, and others not, and to consider the object and the subject of knowledge as a whole, as a “system.” The solution consisted in constantly introducing into the play of the initial data the gap seen between the desired behavior and the effective behavior, so that they coincide when the gap closes, like the mechanism of a thermostat. The discovery goes considerably beyond the frontiers of the experimental sciences: controlling a system would in the end require a circulation of information to be instituted, called feed-back, or retro-action. The wide implications of these results for the natural and social sciences was exposed in 1948 in Paris in a work presented under the foreboding name of Cybernetics, which for Wiener meant the doctrine of “control and communication between animal and machine.”

Cybernetics thus emerged as a simple, inoffensive theory of information, a theory for handling information with no precise origin, always potentially present in the environment around any situation. It claims that the control of a system is obtained by establishing an optimum degree of communication between the parties to it. This objective calls above all for the continuous extortion of information — a process of the separation of beings from their qualities, of the production of differences. In other words, as it were, mastery of a uncertainty would arise from the proper representation and memorization of the past. The spectacular image, binary mathematical encoding — invented by Claude Shannon in Mathematical Theory of Communication in the very same year that the cybernetic hypothesis was first expressed — on the one hand they’ve invented memory machines that do not alter information, and put incredible effort into miniaturizing them (this is the determinant strategy behind today’s nanotechnology) and on the other they conspire to create such conditions on the collective level. Thus put into form, information would then be directed towards the world of beings, connecting them to one another in the same way as commodity circulation guarantees they will be put into equivalence. Retro-action, key to the system’s regulation, now calls for communication in the strict sense. Cybernetics is the project of recreating the world within an infinite feedback loop involving these two moments: representation separating, communication connecting, the first bringing death, the second mimicking life.

The cybernetic discourse begins by dismissing as a false problem the controversies of the 19th century that counterposed mechanist visions to vitalist or organicist visions of the world. It postulates a functional analogy between living organisms and machines, assimilated into the idea of “systems.” Thus the cybernetic hypothesis justifies two kinds of scientific and social experiments. The first essentially aimed to turn living beings into machines, to master, program, and determine mankind and life, society and its “future.” This gave fuel for a return of eugenics as bionic fantasy. It seeks, scientifically, the end of History; initially here we are dealing with the terrain of control. The second aims to imitate the living with machines, first of all as individuals, which has now led to the development of robots and artificial intelligence; then as collectives — and this has given rise to the new intense circulation of information and the setting up of “networks.” Here we’re dealing rather with the terrain of communication. However much they may be socially comprised of highly diversified populations — biologists, doctors, computer scientists, neurologists, engineers, consultants, police, ad-men, etc. — the two currents among the cyberneticians are perfectly in harmony concerning their common fantasy of a Universal Automaton, analogous to Hobbes’ vision of the State in Leviathan, “the artificial man (or animal).”

The unity of cybernetic progress arises from a particular method; it has imposed itself as the world-wide method of universal enrollment, simultaneously a rage to experiment, and a proliferating oversimplification. It corresponds to the explosion of applied mathematics that arose subsequent to the despair caused by the Austrian Kurt Godel when he demonstrated that all attempts to give a logical foundation to mathematics and unify the sciences was doomed to “incompleteness.” With the help of Heisenberg, more than a century of positivist justifications had just collapsed. It was Von Neumann that expressed to the greatest extreme this abrupt feeling that the foundations had been annihilated. He interpreted the logical crisis of mathematics as the mark of the unavoidable imperfection of all human creations. And consequently he laid out a logic that could only come from a robot! From being a pure mathematician, he made himself an agent of scientific crossbreeding, of a general mathematization that would allow a reconstruction from below, in practice, of the lost unity of the sciences of which cybernetics was to be the most stable theoretical expression. Not a demonstration, not a speech, not a book, and no place has not since then been animated by the universal language of explanatory diagrams, the visual form of reasoning. Cybernetics transports the rationalization process common to bureaucracy and to capitalism up onto the plane of total templating (modeling). Herbert Simon, the prophet of Artificial Intelligence, took up the Von Neumann program again in the 1960s, to build a thinking automaton. It was to be a machine equipped with a program, called expert system, which was to be capable of handling information so as to resolve the problems that every particular domain of technique had to deal with, and by association, to be able to solve all the practical problems encountered by humanity! The General Problem Solver (GPS), created in 1972, was the model that this universal technique that gathered together all the others, the model of all models, the most applied intellectualism, the practical realization of the preferred adage of the little masters without mastery, according to which “there are no problems, there are only solutions.”

The cybernetic hypothesis progresses indistinctly as theory and technology, the one always certifying the other. In 1943, Wiener met John Von Neumann, who was in charge of building machines fast and powerful enough to carry out the Manhattan Project that 15,000 scholars and engineers, and 300,000 technicians and workers were working on, under the direction of the physicist Robert Oppenheimer: the modern computer and the atomic bomb, were thus born together. From the perspective of contemporary imagining, the “communications utopia” is thus the complementary myth to the myth of the invention of nuclear power and weaponry: it is always a question of doing away with being-together (the ensemble of beings) either by an excess of life or an excess of death, either by terrestrial fusion or by cosmic suicide. Cybernetics presents itself as the response most suited to deal with the Great Fear of the destruction of the world and of the human species. And Von Neumann was its double agent, the “inside outsider” par excellence. The analogy between his descriptive categories for his machines, living organisms, and Wiener’s categories sealed the alliance between cybernetics and computer science. A few years would pass before molecular biology, when decoding DNA, would in turn use that theory of information to explain man as an individual and as a species, giving an unequalled technical power to the experimental genetic manipulation of human beings."