Santiago / Valdivia: | Berlin:
The text below is a reply we prepared and shared in the context of the 2021 Transmediale Workshop on Research Refusal (December 2020 / January 2021), as a response to comments we received after the publication of our three mini-essays on Refuse to Avoid the Uncertainty of Post-Capitalism – Embrace Uncertain Objects. While we will not be able to share such comments, we think that publishing our reply can help us to clarify some general questions that our essays may have triggered, as well as the overall goal of our research call.
The System of The Collective – A Machine for The Multiple
Regarding our first essay and thus our first uncertain object of research – i.e. project Cybersyn –, our goal has been to sketch the necessity of overcoming the perhaps too extended strategy of visually reifying the case through the so-called Opsroom; a strategy that by singularizing it through an overly idealized space of fanciful control and power, would just create obstacles to understand the full potential of the project to actually imagine other societies, other cultures, other futures – and thus, even other human/s; post-humanism. In other words, a strategy that insists on seeing the project as a certain object of research; something that fits the 20th century’s hegemonic imaginary of power/control; one that as we have attempted to show, keeps invoking the old World Wars schemes. To put it in Lacanian terms, a still too phallic imaginary of power/control, that, perhaps unconsciously, keeps ignoring, if not denying, the extent of the symbolic-real complex brought about by the machinic – one which of course would inevitably yield to another imaginary order.
For that reason we have pointed out the importance of understanding project Cybersyn as an in-process system. As a case that cannot be drawn by its apparent temporal or physical borders, because they were redrawn through its own development, and all the more, because they were – and they keep being – rewritten even after its alleged conclusion. In brief, understanding project Cybersyn not only through what happened between November 1971 and September 1973, but also through what occurred before and after it.
Can we fully assess the extent and/or potential of this case without acknowledging the influence Ashby’s, Maturana’s and Varela’s works, and even von Foerster’s, would have had on it? And moreover, without paying attention to the sort of a posteriori influence that all the work somehow linked to the case, deployed later in the 1980s and even in the 1990s – including of course that developed by Maturana and Varela, but also by Flores and Winograd, just as by Espejo and others? But perhaps more importantly for our research, could we actually assess its relevance without tracing its links to the current techno-economical and techno-political unrest hitting Chile and other countries? – Let us say again that we deeply think that Cybersyn is part of a broader scattered network of events shaping the turn of history in the 1970s; not only in Chile, not only in South-America, but probably everywhere.
One example: at some point during 1972 – while project Cybersyn was in full development and Allende’s government struggled with the obscene pressures orchestrated by its national and international opponents – Stafford Beer devised a sort of satellite project that has been called Cyberfolk or just the People’s project. It consisted of a so-called algedonic network to remotely measure the levels of “pleasure” and “pain” the people experienced – satisfaction and dissatisfaction we could now say – regarding the policies and actions deployed by the government. A knobbing device would be attached to household’s TV sets, and thus, when relevant information from the government were broadcasted – e.g. presidential speeches or news coverages –, the people could give real-time remote feedback to the government, which in turn would be able to adapt itself in attention to the people’s desires.
According to Beer, the people have high levels of variety; a notion developed by Ross Ashby, somehow similar to Shannon’s entropy, which refers to the degree of complexity/uncertainty of a system – its potential to power. Beer claimed that such a variety was the best tool the people had to contrarest the then increasing variety of techno-capitalism (he actually said technocracy) – i.e. the complexity sustaining its broad power capacity. However, the cybernetician also thought, the people didn’t have any material nor technological system to process and channel their variety, and thus, as usual, they were left adrift. But a project like Cyberfolk – which was never implemented but had indeed a low-scale prototype – had the potential, he claimed, to revert such a scenario.
In brief, Beer’s cybernetics of management ended up proposing that what we could call capitalistic technologies, had the potentiality to allow an alternative circulation of power/knowledge; the capacity to constitute a new capillarity where the flows are not only top-down – to paraphrase Foucault in The Confession of the Flesh. A perspective that not only connects with the perhaps still speculative claims developed by Fisher and some of his contemporaries, but that apparently resonates in the role networked technologies have had in the recent uprisings in Hong-Kong, Chile, and elsewhere.
A Machine not a Camera
Regarding which are and where we could find the “conditions for the construction of a group consciousness”, we believe that they are closely related to the platforms actually mentioned in the Interfaces for Refusal’s comment. The identification of cynicism – as a state of mind akin to the imperative of capitalist realism – allows to evaluate the relations between knowledge and power by recognizing a pathological dimension in the latter: in the act rather than in cognition. The important thing is to pay attention to what an object "does", to how it functions, and not to the “awareness” derived from noticing its existence. It is a machine rather than a camera. It is a matter of production rather than of representation. In Marxist terms, cynicism is part of the infrastructure rather than the superstructure (false consciousness). The cynic has made his depression operative and functional to the capitalist world. She/he is fully aware of the uncertainty of her/his situation but prefers not to think about it (as shown in this famous scene from the film “Children of Men”). The problem, then, is not in what is said but in what is done. That is why we say No is not enough.
We must pay attention to the operations of these machines (rather than to our observations or discourses); to their material (infrastructure) rather than to their ideological base (superstructure). In the case of this Chilean film school from the mid-2000s, we note that its object becomes cynical precisely in its montage, in its material operations, in that which is left out of shot, rather than in the film's narrative. It is its material conditions that what promotes a subjective point of view (the handheld shooting makes it possible, a material restriction that becomes it’s main aesthetic value). The aesthetic community that hosts this type of cinema is equally restricted to the architecture of a circuit of international film festivals. We see in this case, therefore, both a symptom and an indication of the subjectivity contested by the generation that made the social uprising possible.
At this point cybernetics could operate as a phármakon rather than a therapy. The “Whole Objects'' that reduce desire to the Oedipus complex are easily recognizable in the filming techniques adopted in works such as "The Sacred Family" (Lelio), "The Maid" (Silva) or "The Life of Fish" (Bize). Although second order cybernetics is present in many coaching programs (under the slogan: change yourself to change the world), we believe that an Anoedipal use of cybernetics is appropriate to account for the asignifying connection of uncertain or partial objects (as Melanie Klein would say). Objects that no longer seem the same as before. This is what is presented in our third essay dedicated to indirect action. Such decentralization makes us imagine a type of realism that starts from the margins of reality. Not a “depressive realism” that emanates from the subject, but a centripetal movement starting from the most peripheral position possible to one’s own point of view; modifying it in the process.
Cyberculture – A Machine for Fiction
In his doctoral thesis Flatline Constructs: Gothic Materialism and Cybernetic Theory-Fiction (1999/2018), Mark Fisher points out that in a cybernetic society experience is inseparable from its mediatization. Even more, he suggests that in our cyberculture “trauma and mass communication have become indivisible” (Fisher 2018, 84), raising the question of how the transformations in the mediatic landscape – towards the end of the century – generated deep mutations in human experiences and subjectivities. The deployment of cybernetic technologies in the second half of the twentieth century and their progressive transfer from the military industry to the entertainment and consumer goods industry will be key in the configuration of the "cyberculture" at the turn of the century. The deep transformations of culture in "late capitalism", product of the advance of information and communication technologies, was already announced by several texts of the 1980’s postmodern theory by Frederic Jameson, Jean Baudrillard and Jean-François Lyotard, with whom Fisher establishes dialogues in an important part of his reflection, as well as with Slavoj Zizek, Jacques Lacan, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari.
We once lived in a world where the realm of the imaginary was governed by the mirror, by dividing one into two, by theatre, by otherness and alienation. Today that realm is the realm of the screen, of interfaces and duplication, of contiguity and networks (Baudrillard cited in Fisher 2018, 141).
In this scenario, Fisher’s proposal is to think of a cybernetic theory-fiction in tune to our contemporary artificial reality. This means not so much the hybridization of fiction and theory but rather their dissolution in the context of cyberculture. Fiction, as a virus, is capable of spreading itself “contaminating” reality. Fisher's question is how the cultural feedback loops of the current phase of capitalism can no longer be understood under the logic of "mirror fiction" and "realism in its mimetic mode," but in a stage of cybernetic simulation (ibid., 138). This problem appears both in post-modern theory and in the writings of William Burrougs, J.G. Ballard, Phillip K. Dick and William Gibson, also fundamental to the thought of this theorist and his idea that fiction produces theory, and not only contains it. Fisher recovers Baudrillard's idea that the emergence of cybernetics has generated an "expansion of fiction into theory" that has an "ambivalent effect" on it (ibid., 155). "If theory can no longer be distinguished from fiction", since fiction can build theory, then theory must become fiction (ibid.).
The becoming-fiction of theory is necessarily accompanied by the becoming-real of fiction (…) Certainly, it is now no longer adequate to consider fiction to be on the side of the false, the fake or the imaginary. It can be considered to belong to the artificial, once we understand (…), that the Real, far from being opposed to the artificial, is composed of it (Fisher 2018, 156).
Nowadays, cybernetic technologies that serve centralized power can also be used to produce collectivities that refuse consensus. But – as Fisher warns – for that we need some kind of “existential reframing” that allows us to see what happens, not as Kapital wants us to see it. That’s why Fisher appoints that direct political action is always necessary but never enough to transform reality. We need to act indirectly through culture. Fictions – literary, graphic, cinematic, theoretical, sonic, etc. – have the power to divert us from the narrow horizon of expectations shaped by the cynical atmosphere of capitalist realism, mobilizing our voices, gestures, bodies, and affects toward other possibilities of political subjectivization in imaginary communities around dissent. Perhaps in the exercise of imagining fictions of the future we will find valuable tools for transforming the present.
* Perhaps we should say, as a footnote, that methodologically speaking our uncertain objects do not amount to uncertainty in general. While the latter give way to an open field of infinitude, the former are actual objects of research that although they can be found in specific space-time frames, are defined (or well not defined) by scattered margins from which long and hard to predict threads move out, connecting those space-time frames to many others, constantly. Uncertain objects are thus nodes of always-in-process networks.
** We should also add that while the sort of cynicism we see in the “novísimo” Chilean cinema is in fact an uncertain object – or well that, as we argue, it should be studied as such –, not every uncertain object is a cynic one. All the more, an uncertain object which is strategically cynic as the aforementioned film school, can be connected through the threads that define (undefine) its character, to other uncertain objects that are not necessarily cynic, as it seems to be the case of the 2019 Chilean social uprising.