Pickering (2010) The Cybernetic Brain

Andrew Pickering’s (2010) The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches of Another Future offers readers a thorough and detailed view into this history of cybernetic science. This history focuses on and is presented through a series of professional biographies of six prominent British cyberneticians who conducted most of their work during the first half of the last century (Grey Walter, Ross Ashby, Gregory Bateson, R.D. Laing, Stafford Beer, and Gordon Pask). Pickering’s narratives explore the major cybernetic experiments and inventions of these figures while interrogating the personal, professional, and cultural contexts surrounding each experiment/invention. Along the way Pickering identifies a series of key themes that constitute core issues for both cybernetics discourse and its historical study. These themes include: ontology, design, power, the arts, selves, spirituality, the sixties, altered states, and the social bases of cybernetics. The broad scope of these themes offers readers an enactment of Pickering’s subtitle. His “sketch of another future” is meant to provide the reader with a view of what a nonmodern world might look like. (Pickering’s use of the term “nonmodern” capitalizes on and extends Latour’s sense of the term from his 1991 We Have Never Been Modern.) Indeed, in Pickering’s own words, The Cybernetic Brain is devoted to two primary goals:

the book is an attempt to rescue cybernetics from the margins and to launder it into mainstream discourse, to make it more widely available. The other future I have in mind is “another future” for people who have not yet stumbled into this area, and for a world that seems to me presently dominated by a modern ontology and all that goes with it. (p. 390)

Let me take each of these goals in turn. First, as a history of cybernetics, The Cybernetic Brain is extraordinarily well researched and clearly written. Pickering does on excellent job of rendering the complex theories and experiments that comprise cybernetics accessible to the uninitiated. At the same time, he managed to include a wealth of detail about the professional contexts, disciplinary influences, and theoretical implications of the various scientific episodes discussed. Historiographically, however, there is a profound dissonance between Pickering’s theoretical argument and his academic practice. The Cybernetic Brain is a tale of nonmodernism told in an almost entirely modernist format. Before I criticize, let me point out the exception. Pickering artfully traces the articulations among the various experiments and a wide variety of socio-cultural influences that would be entirely neglected by a purely modernist account. For example it would be easy to offer a detailed history of cybernetics that focused on the mechanical and robotics experiments that tend to dominate popular thought on the matter. However, Pickering traces, for example, the reciprocal influences between those experiments and cybernetically-inspired psychiatric innovations—including therapeutic techniques that involve both patient and provider taking LSD (Pickering, pp. 183-210).

That being said, there are several aspects of Pickering’s historiography that left me wanting more. Throughout most of the book, The Cybernetic Brain seems to unquestioningly accept the subjects perspectives and interests as a complete portrayal. For example, issues of classism, corporate power, and technocracy which could be significant at any point in the history of cybernetics only appear as they enter the consciousness of Pickering’s protagonists. Additionally, it should not go without noting that the existence of women is almost entirely elided in The Cybernetic Brain. Indeed, women are only mentioned as wives, mothers, disembodied legs, a schizophrenia patient, and a female robot (designed by a man, of course). Certainly this oversight is in keeping with his focus on the professional discourse of scientists the bulk of whose work occurred before 1970. Nevertheless, I find it hard to believe that the entire history of British cybernetics so completely lacked the influence of women.

Historiography aside, I find Pickering’s second major goal to be the more engaging and interesting. The Cybernetic Brain argues that the practices of cybernetic science exhibit a number of nonmodern ontologies worthy of investigation and emulation. Pickering grounds this argument is a theory of “ontological theater.” This idea stems from the argument that science and technology studies has been too long focused on issues of epistemology and metaphysics and that explorations of ontology provide an excellent avenue for future research. In brief, this argument suggests that the focus on epistemology and metaphysics forces researchers to into interrogating the infinitely problematic sphere of representation. Pickering argues that this is a dead-end (p. 25). The historical efforts of science and technology studies to account for how (or if) scientific knowledge represents the world neither have nor will bear fruit. As an alternative, Pickering’s notion of ontological theater argues that scientific performances evoke particular ontologies. (Here Pickering specifically references Austin’s notion of speech-act theory as a point of comparison [p. 438n5] though he misses the obvious parallel with Mol’s [2002] well-known (in STS circles) theory of multiple ontologies evoked through scientific practice explored in The Body Multiple.) In any event, Pickering argues that cybernetics research deploys nonmodern ontologies in contrast with traditional scientific practices. A few examples: whereas traditional science deploys on ontology of knowablity (i.e. the world can be known), cybernetics focuses on unknowable complex systems that can be interacted with but not known (an ontology of unknowablity). Similarly, he identifies a nonmodern ontology of object symmetry in cybernetics. Cybernetic experiments seamlessly explore the interactions of humans an nonhumans in dynamic systems.

I see a lot of productive possibilities for rhetorical studies that could arise from embracing Pickering’s model of ontological theater. It would certainly coordinate well with those rhetorical theorists who embrace a performative understanding of discourse. (Of course, the shift away from issues of representation might be painful for some.) For its theoretical insights alone, I’d say this is a book that should not be skipped. The theory-building being done here is clear, cogent, and eminently useful. That being said, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t nitpick a bit more. I was less persuaded by Pickering’s application of this theoretical model. I’ve a BA in philosophy and I fancy myself a theorists. Those two things combined mean I have enough of a chip on my shoulder to be bothered by Pickering’s loose application of ontology. The analyses in The Cybernetic Brain did not satisfactorily distinguish between metaphysics and ontology. Rather I found Pickering’s use of the term to slip back and forth between the two spheres of inquiry. Which is not to say I’m entirely unsympathetic. The shift from a singular definitive modern ontology to the idea that there are multiple ontologies staged in practice/performance is a difficult one. STS as a field is still coming to grips with what that would mean and how to talk about it. No doubt this will necessitate a shift both in what we mean by ontology and what we mean by metaphysics. I don’t expect to keep the same definitions. I just wanted to see a more explicit (even if different) delineation offered in The Cybernetic Brain.

Enough. I’ve been critical here as I’ve explored Pickering’s work, but let me reiterate again that I recommend it. It is a thorough and thoughtful example of STS scholarship. It does, indeed, open up interesting avenues of inquiry into cybernetics. And finally, his theory of ontological theater is well worth exploring and extending.

Latour, B. (1991). We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Mol, A. (2002). The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Pickering, A. (2010). The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches of Another Future. Chicago: University of Chicago.