reading Alex Galloway's "Cybernetic Hypothesis"

This is an article that came out last year in Differences (25.1), but my library doesn’t have access to the most recent issues, so I’m catching up. I’m writing here about it in part because it connects with my recent post on reading practices, as well as more generally with interest in digital matters. In the past I’ve certainly taken some issue with some of Galloway’s arguments, though I regularly use his Gaming book in my course on video games. Here, I think my overall reception of his argument is more balanced.

Galloway begins by noting that in the contemporary humanities one finds a wide range of methods: “methodology today is often more a question of appropriateness than existential fit, more a question of personal style than universal context, more a question of pragmatism than unwavering conviction.” He applies this observation equally to quantitative investigation and ethnographic interviews as he does to the “instrumentalized strains of hermeneutics such as the Marxist reading, the feminist reading, or the psychoanalytic reading.” However, “such liberalism nevertheless simultaneously enshrines the law of positivistic efficiency, for what could be more efficient than infinite customization?” I think he has a point here, but it’s a curious one.  On the one hand, there’s the defense of academic freedom that insists on allowing for this “liberal ecumenicalism” as he terms it, but then perhaps also the realization that such a position might undermine the critical-oppositional effect one might hope to have. I think Galloway is accurately pinpointing a site of consternation for many humanists here, but let me bookmark that thought for a moment.

The main interest of the article is Galloway’s titular cybernetic hypothesis, which he describes as “a specific epistemological regime in which systems or networks combine both human and nonhuman agents in mutual communication and command.” I find this reasonable though I probably need to think through the particulars of his argument more thoroughly. Presumably, one can examine any cultural-historical moment and find one or more “epistemological regimes” at work. I would certainly argue, and I imagine Galloway would agree, that this cybernetic regime begins in particular places and spreads unevenly, so that not all humans (or nonhumans) are equally invested in this regime. I was particularly interested in his observation that

This has produced a number of contentious debates around the nature and culture of knowledge work. Perhaps the most active conversation concerns the status of hermeneutics and critique, or “what it means to read today.” Some assert that the turn toward computers and media destabilizes the typical way in which texts are read and interpreted.

As I wrote in a recent post, I share this interest in the shift in reading practices (which, I would add, are interwoven with a shift in composing). At it turns out though, the crux of the matter seems to lie in how when values this shift. Following his historical investigation Galloway writes, “The debate over digital humanities is thus properly framed as a debate not simply over this or that research methodology but over a general regime of knowledge going back several decades at least. Given what we have established thus far—that digital methods are at best a benign part of the zeitgeist and at worst a promulgation of late twentieth-century computationalism.” I don’t have much of an issue with this either, Presumably we can say essentially the same thing about the pre-digital or print humanities–that they were at best a benign part of the zeitgeist of the early-mid twentieth century and at worst a promulgation of industrialization and nationalism.

Right? I’m less certain Galloway would agree here. And here is why, and here is also where I disagree. Galloway contends that “the naturalization of technology has reached unprecedented levels with the advent of digital machines,” by which he means that they operate invisibly in our lives. I’m not sure that’s true. Like most middle-aged Americans, I certainly feel like my life is more technological than ever: my smartphone, the Internet, all these media devices, everything has got a computer chip in it (even the dog), etc. But it doesn’t seem “natural” to me, and it certainly isn’t invisible. Technology probably seemed more natural and invisible to me 30 years ago. Are our lives more technological and less natural than those of Native Americans in the 17th century? How about factory workers in New York in the 1880s? For Galloway’s argument it is necessary to be able to answer Yes to those questions. He wants to be able to argue that increased technologicalization means an increased ideological-hegemonic power that we, especially we in the humanities, must resist.

This leads to a second point of disagreement. He writes, “Ever since Kant and Marx inaugurated the modern regime of critical thought, a single notion has united the various discussions around criticality: critique is foe to ideology (or, in Kant’s case, not so much ideology as dogma).” My disagreement here is more subtle. I agree with the history here, and it’s probably also accurate to say that those who engage in critique view it as a “foe to ideology.” However, to return to where we started, if we view “theory” as a toolbox of methods, as Galloway puts it “more a question of pragmatism than unwavering conviction,” then how is it really a foe to ideology? Isn’t it just ideologies all the way down? Like many others, Galloway wants to connect interest in the digital humanities with the effects of neoliberalism on higher education, such as the adjunctification of faculty. However, significant interest in the digital humanities is really just a decade old and those neoliberal effects started in the 80s. If we really wanted to play the historical coincidence game, didn’t the rise of cultural studies and critical theory begin in the 80s? Critique and theory may claim to be a foe to ideology just as technologies may claim to liberate us, but I would suggest skepticism toward both claims. I would hypothesize that the institutional and disciplinary operation of critical theory is just as complicit in the neoliberal transformation of the humanities as digital technology has been, and moreso than the fledgling digital humanities.

However, despite these disagreements, in the end, I find myself in agreement with much of Galloway’s project which he describes as “a multimodal strategy of producing academic writing concurrent with software production, the goal of which being not to quarantine criticality, but rather to unify  critical theory and digital media.” I’m sure we have different ideas of what that would look like, but that’s OK too. I have no more invested in promulgating some corporate view of a pseudo-technotopia than I do preserving some disciplinary vision of a fading print culture, so I am interested in studying the ways emerging technologies shape rhetorical practice without taking as an assumption either that a) those technologies uniformly represent the imposition of some evil hegemonic power or b) that print technologies were better. Nor do I think the only other available position is technophilia. If we want to hold media technologies accountable for the nasty things done by the cultures that use them then… Is it really necessary to finish that sentence?

So, to end with the “reading” issue. Yes, reading practices have changed with the media ecology in which they operate. I suggest that we try to understand those changes, that we invest in exploring, experimenting with, and establishing digital scholarly and pedagogical practices as we did with industrial-print practices a century or so ago. Will we end up with something that can operate in opposition to the dominant ideology? I’m sure we will… at least as much as we did in the past.

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