Organized Session

SHOT Joint Session

Cybernetic Entanglements: The Human, Environment and Second-Order Cybernetics

Organizer

Angelica Barbara Clayton

Yale University

Chair

Carolyn Kane

Ryerson University

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Session Abstract

This panel examines how in the second half of the 20th century, second-order cybernetics was used as a frame for researching the human and the environment. Rather than thinking about the history of cybernetics in itself, these papers examine cybernetics' varied and diffuse lives as a foundation for building entanglements of the psychological, biological and environmental at different scales. Moving from the individual human to the whole Earth system, this panel asks what can be revealed when looking at cybernetics as a tool for thinking about the definitions of the human and our place within the natural world, as well as how the unique set of metaphors from second-order cybernetics contributed to more usable and multiscalar understandings of a cybernetic human world.

Each of the panelists investigate a scientific project inflected by second-order cybernetics, moving through a diverse set of spaces, including hospitals, laboratories, clinics and sensory deprivation tanks. Angelica Clayton's paper examines the body in Gregory Bateson's work on schizophrenia, showing how "the double bind" provides an example of an embodied cybernetic mind. Caitlin Kossmann analyzes how cybernetic metaphors were used with the engineering approach to the Earth system to create and reformulate the Gaia hypothesis. Jeff Mathias investigates John C. Lilly's work on sensory deprivation and hallucinations, revealing how isolation became a method for thinking about the human as a subject. Jeff Nagy considers Manfred Clynes' emotion science, sentics, and how the fusion of the cybernetic and psychiatric created new theories of emotion in addition to practical therapies.

Presenter 1

Diagnosing the Embodied Mind: Schizophrenia and Gregory Bateson's "Ecology of Mind"

Angelica Barbara Clayton

Yale University

Abstract

This paper will examine the anthropologist Gregory Bateson's work on schizophrenia as part of a relational theory of the human and the environment that ultimately proposes a type of embodied cybernetics. As scholars like N. Katherine Hayles have observed, the history of cybernetics, and cyberneticists themselves, have often neglected the body and materiality. But what might an embodied cybernetic mind and human look like and did this exist as an idea in the mid- to late twentieth century, when cybernetics was in its most prominent years? It is the contention of this paper that we can access this embodied cybernetics by positioning Bateson's visual anthropological work alongside his work on schizophrenia and his "ecology of mind." Bateson's double bind theory emphasizes the mother-child relationship as the origin of schizophrenia, pointing to how a simultaneous demanding and denying of affection can lead to a child interpreting all communication as metaphorical. He places this theory within his larger "ecology of mind" which emphasizes the human as part of the larger global and natural cybernetic system, necessitating a type of porous embodiment in which the boundaries of the human body are the surfaces through which information is interpreted and communicated. This multiscalar view of the human, alongside his early visual anthropological work, which emphasizes the bodily interactions between mother and child as the origin point of the Balinese "schizoid" character, allows us to read in Bateson's schizophrenic research an embodied view of mental illness and the cybernetic mind.

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Presenter 2

Tinkering with Gaia: Engineering and Evolution in the Earth System

Caitlin Kossmann

Yale University

Abstract

Gaia theory, the idea that life has created and maintained habitable conditions on the Earth, has been a slippery and shape-shifting theory since its first introduction to the scientific community by atmospheric chemist James Lovelock in 1974. My focus in this paper will be to think about the idea of "tinkering" with relation to Gaia. As a concept-entity built on the metaphor of the homeostat, Gaia is always tinkering with conditions, correcting "herself" when things are too hot or too cold, too acidic or basic. Criticisms of early Gaia caused Lovelock and his co-theorist, biologist and evolutionary theorist Lynn Margulis, to continually modify the claims and evidence of Gaia theory in a kind of endless cybernetic feedback. Using Lévi-Strauss's idea of bricolage, as well as Philip Pauly's idea of the engineering ideal in biology, I will think through what it means to take an engineering approach to the Earth system and how this speaks to the idea of second-order cybernetics. What does it mean to think about the engineer as the observer in the self-observing system? And how do these ideas of tinkering and self-observing systems help us to understand the turn among Gaia- affiliated scientists to geoengineering?

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Presenter 3

My Eyes Make Pictures When They Are Shut: John C. Lilly and the Echo of Observation

Jeffrey Mathias

Cornell University

Abstract

Between 1952 and 1970, research on isolation and sensory deprivation was a short lived sensation, capturing the attention of a wide range of North American mind/brain scientists. The isolated body in monotonous experimental conditions was at the center of studies of what psychiatrist Woodburn Heron referred to as "pathologies of boredom." These studies hoped to illuminate phenomena ranging from the collapse of vigilance amongst radar operators to the rumored forced confessions of military prisoners during the Korean War. Unexpectedly, experimental subjects in these minimally stimulating environments reported vivid hallucinations, interpreted variously as a temporary psychosis, part of the residual natural history of the brain, or as the "discharge" of the senses under conditions of duress. Best known for his alter attempt to establish interspecies communication with dolphins, neurophysiologist John C. Lilly first came to prominence in this period as a sensory deprivation researcher, self-experimenting with a war-surplus water tank. Lilly is of interest here given his scientific practice of self-observation - recording and analyzing his own visions and using the water tank as a medium through which he might examine his own psyche. In this talk, I trace the emergence of hallucination as an uncanny scientific object for studies of both isolation and perception in the mid-20th century. Further, I argue that, bound up with these practices of self-observation is a shift from isolation as object to isolation as method. The body in isolation became a model of the thinking subject itself - which is to say, the scientific self-observer.

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Presenter 4

Touching Emotions at Rockland State Hospital: Manfred Clynes and the Datafication of Feeling, 1956-1972

Jeff Nagy

Stanford University

Abstract

One day in 1968, the Chief Research Scientist of Rockland State Hospital made a surprising discovery: he found himself "feeling unduly well!" Manfred Clynes had been hired to lead Rockland's research efforts in 1956, with the brief of applying cybernetic feedback principles to the treatment of psychiatric disorders. Over the course of the 1960s, Clynes developed a cybernetic emotion science that he called sentics, which aimed at transforming emotions into computer-readable data. In experiments in the later 1960s, Clynes collected subjects' emotional responses and collated them into curves that he asserted were universally representative of basic emotions.

But as Clynes discovered in 1968 while experimenting on himself, sentics was not merely a science; it was also a therapy. Clynes took the outputs of his emotional computers and fed them back into human subjects, in experiments he claimed showed those subjects underwent emotions corresponding to the datafied feelings used as input. Via sentics, not only might computers begin to register human feelings, but human feelings could be reprogrammed thanks to man-machine feedback.

In this paper, I draw on original archival research to show how cybernetics was fused at Rockland with psychological and psychiatric approaches to emotion. I argue that Clynes' program of using computers to record and analyze emotion is a bridge between mid-century cybernetics and the emotional recording and analysis that are increasingly ubiquitous on digital platforms. Finally, I consider how sentics was shaped by its institutional environment, a psychiatric hospital that repeatedly pioneered new media systems for patient surveillance.

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