Reading The Cybernetic Hypothesis

Tiqqun was a French journal that published two issues in 1999 and 2001.1 The authors wrote as an editorial collective of seven people in the first edition and went uncredited in the second edition. More recently, one member of the original collective, Fulvia Carnevale, has said that:

I would like to say that Tiqqun is not an author, first of all. Tiqqun was a space for experimentation. It was an attempt at bridging the gap between theory and a number of practices and certain ways of “being together”. It was something that existed for a certain time and that then stopped because the people working at it weren’t happy with the relation between theory and practice and that certain people had decided that Tiqqun 3 would be a movie.2

This space for experimentation amounted to to 450 pages over three years, producing several substantial texts such as Bloom Theory, Introduction to Civil War, and The Cybernetic Hypothesis.3

Published in Tiqqun 2, The Cybernetic Hypothesis is forty-three pages long (in the original journal) and divided into eleven sections. Each section begins with one or two quotes which are then critiqued in order to further our understanding of the hypothesis and develop the author’s response. The author(s) write in the first person singular. They quote from a range of sources but do not offer precise references.

What follows are my notes on the text. A much more extended version of my notes is available here. Neither of these are a review of the text, simply a summary of my reading of each section.

Section one provides historical references for the objectives of cybernetics and argues that as a political capitalist project it has supplanted liberalism as both a paradigm and technique of government that aims to dissolve human subjectivity into a rationalised and stable (i.e. inoffensive) totality through the automated capture of increasingly transparent flows of information and communication. The authors understand this subjugation of subjectivity as an offensive, anti-human act of war which must be counteracted.

Section two establishes cybernetics as the theoretical and technological outcome and continuation of a state of war, in which stability and control are its objectives. Developing with the emergence of post-war information and communication theory and corresponding innovation in computer software and hardware, intelligence is abstracted from the human population as generalised representations that are retained and communicated back to individuals in a commodified form. This feedback loop is understood as a ‘system’ and later as a naturalised ‘network’ which, drawing on the 19th century thermodynamic law of entropy, is at continual risk of degradation and must therefore be reinforced by the development of cybernetics itself.

Section three ends with a useful summary of its own:

The Internet simultaneously permits one to know consumer preferences and to condition them with advertising. On another level, all information regarding the behaviour of economic agents circulates in the form of headings managed by financial markets. Each actor in capitalist valorization is a real-time back-up of quasi-permanent feedback loops. On the real markets, as on the virtual markets, each transaction now gives rise to a circulation of information concerning the subjects and objects of the exchange that goes beyond simply fixing the price, which has become a secondary aspect. On the one hand, people have realized the importance of information as a factor in production distinct from labour and capital and playing a decisive role in “growth” in the form of knowledge, technical innovation, and distributed capacities. On the other, the sector specializing in the production of information has not ceased to increase in size. In light of its reciprocal reinforcement of these two tendencies, today’s capitalism should be called the information economy. Information has become wealth to be extracted and accumulated, transforming capitalism into a simple auxiliary of cybernetics. The relationship between capitalism and cybernetics has inverted over the course of the century: whereas after the 1929 crisis, PEOPLE built a system of information concerning economic activity in order to serve the needs of regulation – this was the objective of all planning – for the economy after the 1973 crisis, the social self-regulation process came to be based on the valorization of information.

Section four focuses on the role of information to both terrorise and control people. The sphere of circulation of commodities/information is increasingly seen as a source of profit and as this circulation accelerated with the development of mass transportation and communication, so the risk of disruption to the flow of commodities/information became more of a threat. In cybernetics, total transparency is seen as a means of control yet because the removal of risk is never absolutely possible, citizens are understood as both presenting a risk to the system and a means to regulate that risk through self-control. Control is therefore socialised and now defines the real-time information society. An awareness of risk brings with it an awareness of the vulnerability of a system that is dependent on an accelerated circulation/flow of information. Time/duration is a weakness and disruption to time is signalled as an opportunity to halt the flow and therefore the project of cybernetic capitalism.

Section five is a critique of socialism and the ecology movement proposing how these two movements have been subsumed by cybernetic capitalism. The popular forms of protest over the last 30 years have only strengthened the cybernetic objectives of social interdependence, transparency and management. This marked the second period of cybernetics which has sought to devolve the responsibility of regulation through surveillance through the affirmation of ‘citizenship’ and ‘democracy’.

Section six offers a critique of the Marxist response to cybernetic capitalism and finds it contaminated and complicit in its economism, humanism and totalising view of the world.

Section seven offers a brief critique of critical theory and finds it to be an ineffectual performance cloistered in the mythology of the Word and secretly fascinated by the cybernetic hypothesis. The section introduces insinuation as a mode of interference and tactic for overcoming the controlled circulation of communication. The author(s) indicate that the remaining sections of The Cybernetic Hypothesis are an attempt to undo the world that cybernetics constructs.

Section eight discusses panic, noise, invisibility and desire as categories of revolutionary force against the cybernetic framework. Panic is irrational behaviour that represents absolute risk to the system; noise is a distortion of behaviour in the system, neither desired behaviour nor the anticipated real behaviour. These invisible discrepancies are small variations (‘non-conforming acts’) that take place within the system and are amplified and intensified by desire. An individual acting alone has no influence, but their desire can produce an ecstatic politics which is made visible in a lifestyle which is, quite literally, attractive, with the potential to produce whole territories of revolt.

Section nine elaborates on invisibility as the preferred mode of diffuse guerilla action. A method of small selective strikes on the lines of communication followed by strategic withdrawal are preferred over large blows to institutions. Despite the distributed nature of the Internet, territorial interests have produced a conceivably vulnerable network reliant on a relatively small number of main trunks. Both individual spontaneity and the organisational abilities of institutions are valued but both should remain distant from cybernetic power and adopt a wandering course of unpredictability.

Section ten develops the author(s) tactics for countering cybernetic capitalism, through the application of slowness, disruptive rhythms, and the possibilities that arise from encounters with others. The cybernetic system is a politics of rhythm which thrives on speed for stability (as was discussed in section four) and a range of predictability. The guerilla strategy is therefore one of dissonant tempos, improvisation and ‘wobbly’ rhythmic action.

Section eleven is a final attempt to define the key categories of struggle against the domination of cybernetic capitalism. These can be summarily listed as slowness, invisibility, fog, haze, interference, encounters, zones of opacity, noise, panic, rhythm/reverberation/amplification/momentum and finally, autonomy. Combined, these constitute an offensive practice against the requirement and expectation of cybernetics for transparency/clarity, predictability, and speed in terms of the information communicated and regulation of its feedbacks. The author(s) do not reject the cybernetic system outright but rather see the possibility for autonomous zones of opacity from which the invisible revolt can reverberate outwards and lead to a collapse of the cybernetic hypothesis and the rise of communism.

Originally published in French in Tiqqun II (2001). http://www.archive.org/details/Tiqqun2 Translated into English 2010 http://cybernet.jottit.com/

  1. http://www.archive.org/details/Tiqqun1 ; http://www.archive.org/details/Tiqqun2 []
  2. See the interview with Agamben. http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x929gp A video of the Q&A which followed his talk has since been removed but an English transcript of both the talk and Q&A can be found here: http://anarchistwithoutcontent.wordpress.com/2010/04/18/tiqqun-apocrypha-repost/ []
  3. Semiotext(e) (MIT Press) has recently published Introduction to Civil War and How is it to be done? in a single volume. A growing number of translations can be found on the web. The best source for these in English is: http://tiqqunista.jottit.com/ []

12 thoughts on “Reading The Cybernetic Hypothesis

  1. hello, i’d just like to note that “l’hypothese cybernetique” comes from tiqqun #2, not from #1.
    glad you like my translation, there’s more on the way.
    feel free to drop me a line if you want; I’ve funneled hundreds of thousands of words of this stuff through my head…

    • Thanks for the correction. A stupid mistake, which I’ve corrected. I think your translation is excellent – all the translations of their texts that you’ve done are very good – to be honest I don’t know how you manage to turn them out so quickly and to such high quality. I thought a lot about *your* work, while reading The Cybernetic Hypothesis. I can only imagine you’ve been translating this kind of text half your life. Thanks.

      Having “funnelled hundred of thousands of words of this stuff through my head”, what’s your critique of Tiqqun? I guess you’ve offered something in your remarks.

      Much of this theory is new to me, but I thought that the text was coherent and offered some useful, practical ideas to think about (summarised in Section eleven, above). Their use of language like ‘war’, ‘sabotage’, ‘panic’ is a bit difficult to swallow at first, but by the end of the text, the terms seemed more nuanced and less aggressive. In your translations, I think there’s a sense of melancholy. Do you sense that in the originals?

  2. I’ve noticed that a good deal of your work in on the concept of the ‘commons.’ I would be interested to see where you see this fitting in with the cybernetic hypothesis.

    • Yes, my work is often around open source, open data and the commons. Reading The Cybernetic Hypothesis has been a useful, critical exercise in questioning these aspects of net culture. I like Tiqqun’s ideas around invisibility – much of the net commons seems to be about shifting the commodification of goods to the commodification of services, often based on personal or organisational reputation. Invisibility counters this. It is a ‘creative commons’ without even attribution attached to it.

      My research around energy, particularly oil, has highlighted how the net ‘commons’ remains reliant on/enclosed by an energy infrastructure that is highly politicised and commodified. Personally, I think the current net ‘commons’, if there is one, is a bubble based on cheap energy that we should enjoy/use strategically while it lasts.

      A great deal of attention is being given over to the commons vs. private property at the moment, to the neglect of wage work, the other half of the organising principle. P2P culture and Benkler’s commons-based peer production appear to be addressing this, but are struggling in the real world of food and shelter. Again, diminishing returns on energy could pull the rug from under the idealism of commons-based peer production, as I understand it.

      Still, the pragmatist in me, thinks, ‘so what, these are aspects of the struggle today and still worth pursuing’, but the metaphysician in me, is doubtful that the commons that net culture is seeking, offers anything more than a superficial freedom.

      I think that while Tiqqun’s ideas around fog, slowness, noise, etc. are interesting and even useful in practice if countering cybernetics is your thing, the ‘tyranny of transparency’ on the net (and I think there is a real danger of this tyranny), is likely to suffer a greater blow from other external factors like lack of money and energy supplies to keep it running, than a movement of anti-cybernetic guerillas.

      I found the text’s history of Cybernetics interesting. It’s new to me, so I’ve no way of comparing it to anyone else’s history, but their references seemed sound though no doubt selective. I was particularly pleased to come across Beniger’s ‘Control Revolution’. It looks like an excellent history.

      • My work focuses mostly on 1) how to describe the current modality of power and governance and 2) forms of politics that attend to it, so I don’t have a lot of meaningful things to say about the aspects of the Cybernetic Hypothesis you find most salient.

        I would note that I think the military-history stuff almost approaches a ‘guilt by association’ indictment. There seems to be an ongoing desire in the Tiqqun texts for a ‘revolutionary break’, which results in a very partisan description of concepts. A truly Foucauldian insistence on genealogy would focus much more on their contingencies, but as you note. The tactics described later in the text, to me, seem like those contingencies. Yet they are posed only in terms of their oppositional potential. And while fog, invisibility, diffuse guerilla war, etc, don’t generate symmetrical effects for both ‘sides’, there is no critical monopoly on their use.

        I guess at the end, they do sort of note that the tactics of speed and slowness, amplification and invisibility, etc are only useful in their ability to produce effects immanent to their field. But there still seems to be a implicit faith in their deployment…

        Anyway — good to hear that other people are getting good things out of it. I’m interested to see where you go with it.

  3. Thanks. I think you’re right, their approach (in this text at least) does focus more on oppositional contingencies, rather than a revolutionary break. While reading it, I was reminded of John Holloway’s ‘Change The World Without Taking Power’ and more recent ‘Crack Capitalism’ (only read reviews so far), where he advocates opposition in the interstices of capitalism. Tiqqun’s guerilla approach of invisibility, interference, opacity and rhythm/momentum seem to accord with Holloway’s every day acts of revolution. Maintaining the necessary force and momentum, seems key to both, too.

  4. Pingback: Tiqqun journal 1-2 (1999-2001) [French/transl.] at Monoskop/log

  5. The design goal is nearly always underspecified and the “controller”
    is no longer the authoritarian app aratus which this purely technical
    name commonly brings to mind. In contrast the controller is an odd
    mixture of catalyst, crutch, memory and arbiter. These, I believe,
    are the dispositions a designer should bring to bear upon his work
    (when he professionally plays the part of a controller) and these
    are the qualities he should embed in the systems (control systems)
    which he designs.

  6. Well,
    cybersystemic modelling and simulations can be used by anyone with a good understanding of basic cybernetic :- ( S/N ratio, receiver-uncertainty-reduction-information, feedback (balancing and multiplying) herterarchical systemic nemergence, dynamic systems modelling and simulation) to understasnd the behavior of an perhaps predict the behavior of any system acting/provessing this side of chaos and randomicity.
    So far, Nothing much can help on the other side ?
    Comsequemtly it is a potrmt way of steering for good or for ilol.
    To makr it good loops and lrvels smbodying Habermas’ criteria for non-dominative legitimating discourse must be used to deecide whicgh governing options are de,ocratically permissible and which are not.

    A vision of some direction for our evolution such as
    tpwars SYMVIABILITY is al;so needed.

    A bit of dragging and humourous sabotage may indeed be need depending on who is suffering and who is benefiting and who has the advertising power to mobilize action?

    ANY POTENT TOOL can build hope and Happiness or destroy hope and life.
    TUUM EST !

  7. Pingback: Educational futures, educational technology and digital social media | Richard Hall's Space

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