Alex Galloway ‘In the Aftermath of the Cybernetic Hypothesis’

On the 16th of May I attended the workshop ‘In the Aftermath of the Cybernetic Hypothesis’, organised by the Digital and Social Media Research Theme at the University of Sussex. Guest speaker Alexander R. Galloway (New York University) proposed a way of thinking about the history of information and the emergence of computational systems which is interesting. Here is the abstract disseminated before the workshop:

“In an essay from 2001, the French collective Tiqqun speaks of what they call the cybernetic hypothesis: “[A]t the end of the twentieth century the image of steering, that is to say management, has become the primary metaphor to describe not only politics but all of human activity as well.” The cybernetic hypothesis is a vast experiment beginning in the overdeveloped nations after World War II and eventually spreading to swallow the planet in an impervious logic of administration and interconnectivity. What are the origins of the cybernetic hypothesis, and what are its futures? This talk offers a media archeology of cybernetics through an exploration of nineteenth-century chronophotography, the history of the pixel, developments in computer modeling, bit arrays and grid systems, and that most enigmatic cybernetic device, the black box. Instead of contributing to the many heroic histories of cybernetics that already populate the cultural imagination, this talk aims to uncover
an alternative history of digital systems via an examination of the aesthetics and politics of control”.

I had followed Tiqqun‘s trajectory for some time and had been sceptical about the buzz around their work (especially in the US), so I was intrigued to find out how Galloway would speak about this. Unfortunately, only in the final part of his talk Galloway refered to his understanding of collectivity today, which related to “counter-strategies of repetition” and “unpredictable revolt”. For the main part, Galloway re-visited Willeme’s “photosculpture”, chronophotography and the “cellular space”, in order to show how the single-camera viewpoint became dominant in the western world. What I found interesting is how Galloway thought early visual media, such as chronophotography, to be digital; in turn, he defined the digital as inherently anti-cinematic. For Galloway, the fact that cinema is based on seriality (Kittler), synthesis and composition, whereas the view of the photosculpture was segmented, multiple and synchronous, makes this second way of viewing “metastable” – and digital. To extend this argument and to create a model of multichannel – information media, Galloway turned to Nils Aall Barricelli. In the 1950s Barricelli, a mathematician interested in artificial life, used van Neumann’s cellular space to produce an evolution model which featured “bionumeric organisms” (see also Galloway’s essay here). From this model Galloway extrapolated perhaps a bit too freely to argue about difference and complexity in political organisations and formations like Occupy, which he clearly approached through a lenses of Deleuzian becoming. Nonetheless, Barricelli’s image was also thought as art in the workshop, which opened up interesting questions for me (and other participants) about the overlaps and crossings of bio/art/information objects with the political.

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