[iDC] how long is a piece of string?

brian.holmes at wanadoo.fr brian.holmes at wanadoo.fr
Wed Oct 24 19:11:15 UTC 2007

Hello Mark, hello Katharine -

I'm still not sure how long is a piece of string, but I am quite interested
in the knots, the loosenings, the tangles and the way it breaks when you
pull too hard on it - or when it pulls too hard on you.

> cybernetics still considers 'systems', which to some extent is grounded 
> in the underlying assumption that a system in itself has some form of 
> boundary and can be studied objectively as an entity- which can be 
> limiting as  an approach. 

Indeed, very limiting. My understanding is that the feedback loop, whose
purpose or "teleology" is to maintain a system in a steady state, has
become the paradigm of control in contemporary societies. To achieve this
steady state, the control engineer must identify the variables of the
system, both in the machinic actor and in its environment. The loops then
begin to form a system of knots, slip-knots in a dynamic, closely adhering,
increasingly coercive mesh of elastic strings. Complex, to be sure, snappy,
most inventive, but not always a very nice way to conceive the environment
of human beings!

> Although, having said this, related-theories 
> such as those of emergence do seem to be able to at least recognise the 
> inherently open nature of changeful processes, and can allow for  
> a process to be an outcome. The question then lies in how we can try to 
> understand information flows which do not break processes down into 
> components which no longer give us any insight into the changeful whole. 

Yes, this is what interests me. Felix Guattari, from whom I'm currently
drawing some inspiration, drew some of his in turn from the biologist,
Varela (who had theorized the autopoetic or self-creating nature of the
living), and from the physicist, Prigogine (who did so much to introduce
the idea of phase changes where a more complex process emerges from a state
of apparent chaos, far from equilibrium). But Guattari was neither a
biologist or a physicist. His life work was in psychiatry, and his interest
in schizophrenia tended to focus not only on the splitting, multiplication
and infinite differentiation of the delirious self, but also on the cosmic
(and catatonic) fusion of self with everything, and fundamentally with the
dirt, the density of the existential territory. My understanding is that he
saw two extremes, or two very differently chaotic outsides, of any human
state: the multiple, ever-changing scission of the self into code, and the
ineffable affect of a kind of unconscious oneness that overpowers any
thought or language.

> My only thought is that we need to look away from science for solutions; 
> to literature, film, theatre and other such fields to give us paradigms 
> for interacting with information and which can deal with loose, sticky 
> and ambiguous threads. These fields deal with subjective qualities of 
> things rather than objective quantities.

This is the liberating side of art: when you really engage with it, it
brings you into contact with what you don't know, it vibrates you, as it
were, between the presence and absence of any consistency of the self, and
in this way opens you up a processual change of state, which is the very
process of living. Recently I was in a museum in Spain and I became very
fascinated with one of Lucio Fontana's paintings, from the Fine di Dio
series. It is a large brown oval, like a stretch of territory, but also
like the catatonic egg of the body without organs: and yet it is pierced
everywhere by holes, so that the depth of this territory is open, and the
openness itself is rhythmic, the territorial crust is rhythmically broken
to the light while still remaining as a density and a presence. Or think of
the quality of a voice in a narrative, the way it permeates you, affects
you, so that in a way you ARE the grain of this voice; and yet at the same
time it is asking you constantly to be aware of elsewhere, of the speaker,
of the story, of the referents, of the others.

Similarly, but in a completely different way, the leading edges of
scientific experimentation and discovery also dissolve whatever reigning
map one might have of the world, of its states, its regularities. A
radically new code changes everything! Here you come closer to that
infinite splitting of the self, which can be violent, which transforms even
the earth, rips apart atoms, transforms voices into informational vectors
that cross airless space, etc. How to live with such change? How to create
a ground for such experience?

It seems to me that if Guattari, in particular, engaged a more sustained
relationship with certain aspects of second- and third-order cybernetics in
his later life, it was not because he had forgotten the profound critique
that he and Deleuze had made of cybernetic control, that is, of the
homeostatic systems or steady states with which they equated the state-form
itself. Rather I suspect that he returned to the deterritorializing fringes
of official cybernetics in order to grapple somehow with the major
institutions of today's society, to be at existential grips with the
imposed patternings of everyday existence in technological societies (or
what he called integrated world capitalism). It's interesting to see him
quoting Bateson, in the Three Ecologies, on the idea that the psychology of
individuals is organized in systems of mind whose borders do not coincide
with the apparent limits of the participating individuals. But then he
immediately differs from Bateson, saying that for him, the "existential
grasp of context" is alway a rupture of the "systemic pretext." The elastic
snaps at that pathic or delirious moment, and it is from the tangle of
threads that some new possible patterning may emerge.

> I realise this is all very far away from the reality of a software 
> engineer programming a mobile device so that it can respond to the 
> change in location of the device and the corresponding sophisticated 
> switching of network coverage from one cell to another. I just  wonder 
> how  it is possible to start to reveal somehow  both the ambiguity and 
> change inherent in such systems as well as the actual eventfulness 
> occurring in the flow of information so that we can start to weave them 
> more meaningfully into our messy 'real' world.

Well, yes, it is far away from the norms of engineering, but I keep looking
for less normalized, less statically mapped out situations, where the
technological present shatters without disaster and allows some of those
reweavings. Anyone who would like to narrate such situations will certainly
tickle my ear!

best to all, Brian

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