Today there is little need to make a specific reference for the first term in this list. We are in the midst of an impeachment trial over an attempted insurrection. More locally, in my class, we are in the midst of How We Became Posthuman and N. Katherine Hayles’ historical investigation of how we got to where we are (or were, in 1999, when the book was published).
Here’s the TL;DR version… The panic over realizing that we are (always already) cyborgs threatens our teleological fantasies and leads to violent, insurrectional acts.
Chapter four focuses on Norbert Weiner. Despite the debasement of the term, I think it is fair to say he was a genius (PhD at 17). Hayles takes a psychoanalytic approach, portraying Weiner in a kind of Victor Frankenstein vein. Much like Frankenstein’s creation, Weiner imagines (in the tradition of 18th century thought) a noble/intelligent savage. As Hayles observes, “Alone together in the woods, the two men construct a world of objects through the interplay of their gazes In the processes they also reconstitute themselves as autonomous subjects who achieve intimacy through their voyeuristic participation in each other’s emotion and ‘special, active attention’… This passage reveals in miniature how the use of the plural by the liberal humanist subject can appropriate the voices of subaltern others, who if they could speak for themselves might say something very different” (110). In short, what Hayles sees in Weiner is someone who develops a sophisticated and powerful information theory only to realize, with some great horror, the implications it might have for our sense of humans.
Weiner’s worry (and he is hardly alone) is that cybernetics demonstrates that humans are not ontologically exceptional. That is, while we might be special to our familial mommies and daddies, we are not actually special in the larger scheme of things. Teleology is basically a philosophical term for destiny. It is the premise that all this is headed somewhere specific. For some that’s “Judgment Day,” but there are possibly other secular teleologies such as the Marxist worker’s revolution and subsequent utopia. But what happens if/when human bodies, societies, and even thoughts become explained by a theory of emergent structure, as simply something frothing up from the chaos rather than as something designed with a purpose and a destiny?
We now come to the crux of the argument. The danger of cybernetics from Wiener’s point of view is that it can potentially annihilate the liberal subject as the locus of control. On the microscale, the individual is merely the container for still smaller unites within, units that dictate actions and desires; on the macroscale, these desires make the individual into a fool to be manipulated by knaves. Under a cybernetic program, these two scales of organization would be joined to each other.How We Became Posthuman 110
For Wiener, the experiences of fascism and WWII must have provided an indelible context for potential for fools to be manipulated by knaves. Though this isn’t addressed in this chapter, we can think of fascism (as Deleuze and Guattari do) as occurring at the microscale, within individual subjects, that becomes intensified within crowds at the macroscale. Wiener wants to hold on to the idea of the liberal subject, the possessed individual, as the site where agency and judgment ultimately reside, as the locus of control.
Over the last few years, but especially in the last couple months, we have borne witness here in America to the unfolding of this process. In QAnon and MAGA there are cybernetically-enacted political and teleological movements. They are teleological in that they promise a destiny. They are cybernetic inasmuch as they rely upon data collection and analysis to target people at the microscale, not even as individuals but as subjects connected to specific desires and fears that can be triggered, intensified, and organized. I wonder what Wiener would have made of the irony that it is his own fear over the threat to individual sovereignty that is manipulated through cybernetics. That we end up on 1/6 with a violent mob of cultists throughly managed and orchestrated through digital networks committing insurrection in the name of an individual sovereignty and agency that they had long ago surrendered, to the extent that we might say they ever had any at all.
A recent survey, reported today, indicates that 2/3 of Republicans still believe that the election was not legitimate. And 29% believe the core QAnon conspiracy about child sex trafficking. The study of information and media helps us understand how this happens. Setting aside, for a minute, the particular content of the message, we can describe the mechanisms–technological, material, rhetorical, aesthetic, cultural, psychological, and/or cognitive–that produce these outcomes. As the cliché goes, these folks didn’t lick these ideas off the grass. These are not independent conclusions reached by “liberal subjects.”