[SIGCIS-Members] CFP: SHOT Milan Panel 'Cybernetics and Mysticism'

Jeffrey Mathias jm2499 at cornell.edu
Tue Mar 12 07:47:40 PDT 2019


Dear SIGCIS members,

We are seeking two more presenters and a chair for a session on
"Cybernetics and Mysticism" at the forthcoming SHOT 2019 meeting in Milan.
Please let us know if you are interested by March 18th. If you have any
questions, please contact us at jm2499 at cornell.edu & mueggenburg at leuphana.de

Best regards,

Jeff Mathias and Jan Müggenburg

---
*Society for the History of Technology*, Annual meeting 2019, Milan, 24-27
October 2019
*Session proposal:* "Cybernetics and Mysticism"

*Organizers:*
Jeffrey Mathias, Cornell University
Jan Müggenburg, Leuphana University Lüneburg



*Description:*
“The reprobation attaching in former ages to the sin of sorcery attaches
now on in many minds to the speculations of modern cybernetics” (Wiener
1963, 49).  Norbert Wiener's repeated comparison of ‘modern cybernetics’ -
the Cold War science of communication and control - and ancient sorcery was
motivated by a humanist impulse, attempting to strictly separate
superstition from science and disenchant the cybernetic machines that
seemed disturbingly lively (ibid., p50). Wiener fretted over the
possibility of his scientific peers exploiting the awe of the “man on the
street” at these machines for political purposes. For Wiener, the sin
ultimately might lie not in the sorcery of cybernetics but in “using the
magic of modern automatization to further personal profit or let loose the
apocalyptic terrors of nuclear war” (ibid. p. 52). Seen from a cultural
historical perspective, this intuition that cybernetics might be perceived
as a successor to occult and mystical practices- and that this has
particular political stakes- allows us to get at the heart of many of the
questions provoked by cybernetics.

Indeed, cybernetics inspired and proliferated all kinds of ‘magical
thinking‘. At its margins, fringe groups like L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics
and countercultural figures such as neurophysiologist and ‘LSD guru’ John
C. Lilly and video artist Paul Ryan tried to combine cybernetic theories
with mystical and religious concepts (Kline 2015, p. 183) (Lilly 1972)
(Sachs-Collopy 2015). Within the original cybernetic cluster, many key
figures found themselves drawn to holistic and esoteric styles of thought.
In his 1953 popular book *The Living Brain*, William Grey Walter, for one,
couched his theoretical neurophysiology in broad speculation about
telepathy, dreams, and the uncanny powers displayed by Indian yogis (Walter
1953) (Pickering 2011).  Heinz von Foerster was further a certified
magician and, to a certain degree, understood the construction of
cybernetic machines as a continuation of his engagement with magic
(Müggenburg 2018). Stafford Beer, disillusioned by the violent collapse of
Project Cybersyn in Chile, turned to tantric yoga, a practice he saw as
largely consonant with management cybernetics (Medina 2014).

Beginning from this “mysticism” as a racialized, colonial formation, this
panel this aims to take seriously the esoteric and utopian imaginaries that
emerge from and subtend cybernetics and its associated sciences. A central
question of the panel is thus how mystical thinking and gendered concepts
of charisma and polymathy in cybernetics relate to each other. We ask how
narratives of cybernetics as “an up-to-date form of Black Magic” play out
central anxieties and tensions- political and personal- inherent to this
variegated interdisciplinary field (Young, quoted in Kline 2015, p.183). To
what ends did these imaginaries function?

----
Kline, Ron (2015): *The Cybernetics Moment. Or Why We Call Our Age the
Information Age*, Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Lilly, John C. (1972). *Programming and metaprogramming in the human
biocomputer : theory and experiments* (2nd ed.). Julian Press.

Medina, Eden (2014): *Cybernetic Revolutionaries:Technology and Politics in
Allendes Chile*, Cambridge, Mass.:MIT Press.

Müggenburg, Jan (2018): *Lebhafte Artefakte. Heinz von Foerster und die
Maschinen des Biological Computer Laboratory*, Göttingen: Konstanz
University Press.

Pickering, Andrew (2011): *The Cybernetic Brain. Sketches of Another Future*,
Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Sachs Collopy, Peter (2015): *The Revolution Will Be Videotaped: Making a
Technology of Consciousness in the Long 1960s*, Publicly Accessible Penn
Dissertations.

Walter, William Grey. (1953). *The living brain.* New York: Norton.

Wiener, Norbert (1963): *God & Golem, Inc. A Comment on Certain Points were
Cybernetics Impinges on Religion*, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.


-- 
Jeffrey Mathias
Department of Science and Technology Studies
Cornell University
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