Santiago / Valdivia: | Berlin:
Berlin, December 2020
Refuse (visual) reification — embrace contradiction
In our effort to trace the uncertainties traversing that we have called the Chilean case —uncertainties that would in turn shape its intrinsically although subterranean refusing character—, we take Mark Fisher's critique —here particularly the one emerging through his No Romance Without Finance essay (Fisher 2018a)— as a starting point to design a mode of reading, thinking, and reimagining such topology. A mode where a sort of fetishism, perhaps a type of reification, could constitute both the danger and the space of possibility to reimagine other futures for and from this terrain of inquiry —our mode's own speculative hinge—. This may be particularly clear in the first uncertain object of refusal we invite to revisit; namely, project Cybersyn: the network of telecommunications and computational processing system that, commissioned by the government of Salvador Allende, Stafford Beer and his team designed, developed, and implemented between 1971 and 1973 to cybernetically manage Chile's industrial economy.
While in the context of this inquiry one would be called, for example, to ask to which extent and how Beer's cybernetics of management met and got connected with Allende's democratic socialist project, as well as how cybernetic thinking and the technologies through which it got materialized would have been coupled to the social fabric sustaining such political process, what we did have, instead, is a case that has been constantly depicted by an over-fetishized operations room —or rather its image— which seems to evoke ideas of power and progress quite removed from the historico-political moment it was supposed to serve. The constant suggestion that the so-called Opsroom had found inspiration in certain science-fiction aesthetics popularized by Hollywood movies and TV series in the 1960s (Cf. Medina 2011: 121), probably tells more of the frameworks from which the project has been seen and sometimes mistakenly (pre)analyzed in the last twenty or so years, than of the true scientific, technological, and political schemes actually supporting it. And although one could recall the work of Galina Balashova (Meuser 2015) or even Solaris (Tarkovsky 1972) to keep pushing this sort of reading, the truth is that insisting on a visual reified strategy of analysis would always crash into the same wall: whose voices speak through this room? For whom was this space actually designed? The anecdote about the moment in which Beer presents his cybernetic model to Salvador Allende in the very early stages of the project, reverberates here: "at last" —the president would have replied when Beer signaled the top level of his model—, "el pueblo" (Beer 1981: 258).
Let's not forget that by the early 1970s our cybernetician was a highly successful and reputed consultant working for major industrial corporations in Britain and beyond. Thus, his 1972's book, Brain of the Firm, which constituted the conceptual basis for the design and development of project Cybersyn, lay precisely —and until then only— on the knowledge and experiences Beer forged in such a context —even though he would claim somewhere else that his theories were suited for the management of all sort of organizations, including governments (Beer 1966: 461-495)—. Hence, in November 1971 he arrived in Santiago de Chile with a final draft and a five story model —his Viable System Model— that from the distance had little to do, one could say, with a progressive project aiming to redefine highly stratified social and political structures. Take for example chapter thirteen of Brain of the Firm; the one entitled Environment for Decision. There, Beer develops the arguments, the concept, and the modes of operation for what would be later known as the Opsroom. More interesting, however, is the fact that his main reference in this chapter is the WWII's war room:
[A] large operations centre equipped with relief maps spread out on tables, on which incoming information could be depicted by the movement of counters. Girls were deployed, like croupiers, to switch the counters around. The senior management, operating on a balcony, surveyed the entire and changing scene without respite. (Beer 1981: 193)
And yet, we call to embrace contradiction. This book, whose original version would be published in 1972, got in his second edition of 1981 —the one we are using and citing here— the addition of an entire section recounting the Cybersyn experience; one that would not only change the structure and scope of the book, but Stafford Beer's deepest desires, and perhaps the very essence of Cybersyn too. In other words, a whole historical, technological, political, and thus epistemological topology, or rather network, that by being its own object transformed itself and all its nodes. There may lie the condition of uncertainty we insist on grasping; in the fact that events like this one just can't be drawn by clear margins because they are redrawn by their very mode of existence; in the fact that they can't be situated in a fixed point because they are movement itself. Therefore, the stubborn idea of summarizing a project like this one in a single decision room, or even worse, in a single set of photographs, falls off the cliff —its "'appearance' in reality can no longer claim to be given all in one piece" (Guattari 2011: 11)—.
In project Cybersyn, we will argue, several forces collide and end up generating something new; something as uncertain as the future that was taken away from it. A collision where a type of socialism that didn't want to emulate Stalinism crashed into a type of capitalism that aimed to be just and effective through scientism; a collision where a somehow fictional type of capitalism got finally enmeshed and somehow instantiated in that peripheral order of socialism. In a few words, the fertile terrain for a "social and psychic revolution of almost inconceivable magnitude" (Willis 1992, as cited in Fisher 2018b: 762) —an uncertain space-time of post-capitalism we are still looking for; one that the people on the streets of Santiago de Chile, like many more in other horizons, are still screaming for—.
Beer, S. (1981). Brain of the Firm, second edition. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.
Beer, S. (1966). Decision and Control: The Meaning of Operational Research and Management Cybernetics. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.
Fisher, M. (2018a). No Romance Without Finance. In Fisher, M. & Ambrose, D. (ed.), K-Punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher (2004 - 2016) (pp. 419-425). London: Repeater.
Fisher, M. (2018b). Acid Communism (Unfinished Introduction). In Fisher, M. & Ambrose, D. (ed.), K-Punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher (2004 - 2016) (pp. 753-770). London: Repeater.
Guattari, F. (2011). The Machinic Unconscious: Essays in Schizoanalysis. South Pasadena: Semiotext(e).
Medina, E. (2011). Cybernetic Revolutionaries: Technology and Politics in Allende's Chile. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Meuser, P. (2015). Galina Balashova: Architect of the Soviet Space Programme. Berlin: Dom.
Tarkovsky, A. (Director). (1972). Solaris [Film]. Mosfilm.