The Cybernetic Hypothesis – Alexander Galloway

In a recent talk, recorded at the Winchester School of Art, Alexander Galloway constructs a wide-ranging critical engagement with cybernetics that nicely resonates with Andrew Pickering’s alternate history of cybernetics and harks back to his work on protocols. It also overlaps nicely with the work I’ve been involved with around attention.

Alexander Galloway from WSA Global Futures on Vimeo.

(Galloway begins at around 1:43).

Galloway offers a talk that addresses the aftermath of the ‘Cybernetic Hypothesis‘, pace Tiqqun’s critique of cybernetics and perhaps Deleuze’s ‘Control Societies’, which functioned as a vast experiment that has swallowed the planet in an impervious logic of administration and connectivity. Galloway begins from the premise, following Tiqqun, that cybernetics is a new fable for our contemporary milieu that proposes that (our) biological, social and physical behaviour is conceived as fully programmed and reprogrammable. For those conversant with recent debates around ‘neurophilosophy‘ this is, of course, striking familiar with some of the populist arguments around the nature of neuroplasticity [for example by Nicholas Carr] and the resulting critiques, provided by philosophers such as Catherine Malabou.

Galloway observes that cybernetics, and the hypothesis (as outlined) is typically situated in the immediate post-World War II era, with the advent of the transistor and the growth of computation, and literature by people like Norbert Weiner. He charts something like an alternate history of cybernetics, that stretches back a little further (into the 19th Century) – providing two landmarks: the ‘Photo Sculpture’ work of François Willème and work on cellular automata by the mathematician Nils Aal Barracelli. His aim is to offer, in contra-distinction to Kittler, a genealogy “not for… the moving image but form the information model… not for serial media but for parallel media, not for the linear but for the multiplexed… not for something like cinema but for something like cybernetics and the computer”.

Galloway’s alternate genealogy attends to ‘what is selected, what is repressed and what is accentuated’ in different kinds of historical media, charting the slips between space and time, which in its regularised frequencies becomes the naturalised infrastructure for the ‘cinematic mode of mediation’. For Galloway, this allows us to chart a genealogy that does not necessarily lead us to cinema but the multiple ways in which space and time become in some sense automated.

An interesting aspect of this argument, for geographers, is the significance Galloway places upon spatialised, rather than serialised (in time), processing. For Galloway, this sets a distinction between parallel computation (in space) and serialised computation (in time), founded with the advent of ‘cellular automata’. The ‘exploit‘, proposed by Galloway and Thacker, is thus suggested as a source of revolutionary potential – as the laws of asymmetry that exists within cybernetic networked systems: “every network has its own exceptional topology, [am] asymmetric counter-network that can threaten it, that can exploit it”. The challenge then is to identify this exceptional topology and access it, using the ‘appropriate exploit’.

Galloway argues that, today, we have a form of universality, however that universality is without collectivity – which, he argues, is revealed by the cybernetic hypothesis. For Galloway, the ‘singularity’ of people like Agamben, the ‘exodus’ and ‘dissertion’ of Hardt & Negri, Deleuze’s ‘impersonal’, and the ‘generic humanity’ of Laruelle are all attempts to address the dilemma of the cybernetic hypothesis. He argues this is ‘not… by illuminating universality but by showing how collectivity is the natural outcome of the generic, how the common is only achieved by those who have nothing in common’.

As an example of this ‘commonality by nothing in common’, Galloway cites the Occupy movement’s cry “we have no demands” as powerful precisely because it makes no institutional demands, it makes claims about power but outside of the discursive regime of institutions – instead seeking to “upend this power circuit through… non-participation” as kind of “practical non-existence”. This mode of the ‘generic’ is not utopian, neither is it supposed to be a kind of Maoism, it is a practical suggestion, an ethos to de-militarise being, to forget 1968: “let it be. Leave being”.

Its worth spending the 50 minutes to listen to an interesting ‘genealogy’ and argument, although I’m not sure I would buy this account of the political…



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