Following his discussion on the mechanism of Ashby’s homeostat –or thermostat- and from his own investigations on self-regulating machines, Wiener emphasizes the close link between the feedback mechanism and the pursuit of purpose, of which the homeostat is an extremely simple form. A simple description of the device can be found in Pickering:
Each homeostat was built so that if its needle departed too much from its central position a relay would trip, and the device would randomly reconfigure itself.(1)
That is, the thermostat works with a negative feedback (see the previous post) (2) and its needle is normally confined between two operating limits. If the needle stays within the operating zone, the feedback makes it search the central position; but if it overshoots, the feedback is no longer operative and the homeostat goes unstable. Therefore, it is necessary to provide the machine with a decoupling device that takes the system back to equilibrium –by taking the needle back to the operating zone-. This work is carried out by the relay.
Right away, Wiener makes a biological analogy by assimilating this feedback and purpose-correction operation to kinestheses of the living body. Etymologically, kinesthesis is the “feeling or perception of motion” (3): it denotes the sensations that an individual experiences as a result of the coordination of several communication processes taking place between all nerve endings, tissues and nodes of the nervous system of that individual. Kinestheses provide the individual two types of sensation: about its being in equilibrium or “interoceptive” and about its being in motion, postural or “proprioceptive”; through kinestheses, the individual perceives its own balance and attains unified perception of its environment, as well as unified perception of its moves in it. (4)
Kinesthesis is, therefore, a communication process that brings into play and binds together the nervous and the locomotive system, all the senses and the human brain through a specific logic, with this system becoming, thereby, a coordinator of the experience that the individual -in Wiener’s example, the human individual- realizes of itself and its environment. Against the manifold forms of appearance of inner and outer things and objects, kinestheses organize human experience so that the human being perceives himself as an individual and, at the time, as part of a world where external multiplicities reveal an overall consistency of the world containing them.
This way of organizing or stabilizing experience has been specifically addressed by various philosophers. Kant offers the first and best known study of kinesthesis and, shortly before Wiener’s work on the subject, Edmund Husserl points at kinesthetic mechanisms as fundamental processes for the sensory coordination of individuals. Processes which, from a perception of multiplicities, organize experience around “purposeful centers” (5) by providing a sense of balance and consistency to the human immersed in its environment, or man-in-the-world. In words of the German philosopher:
Previously our gaze was directed at the multiplicity of side-exhibitings of one and the same thing and to the alteration of near and far perspectives. We soon note that these systems of “exhibiting of” are related back to correlative multiplicities of kinesthetic processes having the peculiar character of the “I do,” “I move” (to which even the “I hold still” must be added). The kinestheses are different from the movements of the living body which exhibit themselves merely as those of a physical body, yet they are somehow one with them, belonging to one’s own living body with its two-sided character (internal kinestheses, external physical-real movements). If we inquire into this “belonging”, we notice that in each case “my living body” requires particular and extensive descriptions, that it has its special peculiarities in the manner of exhibiting itself in multiplicities. (6)
However, this sense of validity and consistency provided by kinesthesis is not permanent, but subject to displacement and correction, a process that Husserl calls “alteration of validity”:
In continuous perception a thing is there for me in the straightforward ontic certainty of immediate presence— though I must add: normally; for only when, giving my kinestheses free play, I experience concurrent exhibitings as belonging to it is the consciousness sustained of the one thing in actual presence, exhibiting itself in manifold fashion as itself. But if I ask what is implied in the fact that the thing-exhibitings belong to the altering kinestheses, I recognize that a hidden intentional “if-then” relation is at work here: the exhibiting must occur in a certain systematic order; it is in this way that they are indicated in advance, in expectation, in the course of a In a continuing perception, one thing is there for me in the clear ontic certainty immediate presence, although I must add: usually, it is only when, given the free play of my cinestesis, I experience “presentations” competing as belonging to it, is then sustained the consciousness of a factual thing in his presence, exhibiting herself as such in its various forms. But if I ask what is implied in the fact that the “presentation of things” belong to the changing cinestesis, I recognize that a hidden intentional relationship “if-then” at work here: the “presentations” must occur in a systematic order; is this form that are given, in expectation, in the course of a harmonious perception […]
Often, however, a fracture occurs in this harmony: it is transformed into illusion or just be-doubtful, be-merely-possible-likely be be-after-all-not-fully- illusory, and so on. The illusion is shattered by the correction, through a change in the sense that the thing had been received. (7)
In Ashby’s thermostat, the relay recognizes the state of instability and generates random outputs until it takes the needle back into its operating zone; it works just as our intuition when, groping in a dark night, we try to correct our ways. Instead, a thermostat without relay would operate, according to Wiener, as a person sick of tabes dorsalis. This syndrome, caused by syphilis, disables for locomotive or kinesthetic or coordination. As a result, a patient with tabes finds it almost imposible to grab a pencil, for example, and if he or she misses the first attempt, will be unable to hit upon the following, and will even swing further and further away with respect to the pencil (8). That is, the kinesthetic system of the tabes patient is unable to alter the validity of his –her- outputs (maneuvers) ensuing from his first outputs. As Wiener explains, his –her- kinesthesis lack a proper feedback mechanism and, when she system overshoots, oscillations grow beyond the control of the individual, rendering impossible the return to stability -unlike epileptic seizures, for instance, where instability is only temporary-. We would say, then, that the tabes patient lives, permanently, groping in an impenetrable darkness; his perceived world is, in some sense, completely illusory, since he –she- is unable to attain operational focus and to give unity to his-her perceptions in a harmonious and stable way.
Let us now turn to the sensory logic that manages to realize what we have been calling kinesthesis. We should expect, from our own experience and after reading the excerpt from Husserl above, that the different senses, nerve reception centers and locomotive system would function in a coherent, stable and coordinated way. For they show us these external and internal multiplicities as arising from something consistent, something that definitely is. This organization of perceptions is described by Wiener along his neurophysiological research as a process of synchronization or correlation of distributed frequencies. This is, the various nerve communication systems appear as a uniform distribution of frequencies that, in the human being, is housed around the band of 1/10 seconds (or ten cycles / second), which is the alpha rhythm of the brain.
This data has remarkable ontological consequences. The alpha rhythm of the brain is something like a “sweep rate” that leads the brain to receive and send pulses about every 0.1 seconds. The brain appears to act as a resonator that operates at a certain particular pace. But the key point is that, far from achieving this synchronization or correlation through the imposition of a frequency pattern from a central agency (i.e., the brain itself) synchronization occurs through the interaction between different rates, or rhythms, from different nervous subsystems:
Consider the possibility that the brain contains a number of oscillators of frequencies of nearly 10 per second, and that within limitations these frequencies can be attracted to one another. Under such circumstances, the frequencies are likely to be pulled together into one or more little clumps, at least in certain regions of the spectrum. The frequencies that are pulled into these clumps will have to be pulled away from somewhere, thus causing gaps in the spectrum, where the power is lower than that which we should otherwise expect. That such a phenomenon may actually take place in the generation of brain waves for the individual […] is suggested by the sharp drop in the power for frequencies above 9.0 cycles per second.
[…]The pulling together of these short-time oscillations into a continuing oscillation has been observed in other bodily rhythms, as for example the approximately 23.5-hour diurnal rhythm which is observed in many living beings. This rhythm is capable of being pulled into the 24-hour rhythm of day and night by the changes in the external environment.(9)
What Wiener is presenting here, as we just said, is an ontogenetic theory, at least a partial one. Or otherwise, the description of a mechanism of constitution of life processes. According to Wiener, the individual’s kinesthesis operate since the synchronization of rhythms from different perceptual subsystems, each one functioning at different rates. This is a process of mutual assimilation, by which these perceptual subsystems enter codependency, leaving their operating frequency to cooperate with others, and forming a larger unit. This is the organization of a resonator, a device that pushes the operating frequencies of different subsystems to a central frequency, around which the total power of the coordinating system is accumulated, resulting in the joint operation of the system around that central frequency. But if we picture the brain as such a resonator device, then the brain appears to us as a place of synchronization, not an actively synchronizing center; center where the codependent subsystems resonate, not a hierarchical center to which the manifold subsystems are subdued through a preset frequency (as would occur, for example, with the soul or with a Cartesian pineal gland).
Thereon we may conclude that the operating condition of the system consists in operating around a center frequency, and not beyond a certain cutoff frequency (which, in the case of the nervous system would respectively be 10 and 9 cps). Diseases such as tabes dorsalis could then be understood as a decoupling of the subsystems with regard to this pattern of operation: failure occurs in one or several of the feedback mechanisms that keep the various perceptual subsystems bound to this pattern; when this happens, those particular subsystems overshoot, unleashing these dynamics in the whole system and dragging other subsystems into overshoot as well. Say, then, that rules are broken, and besides in an irreversible way.
This in regard to the construction of kinestheses, or coordinated system of perceptions of an individual. But nodoby builds his experience in isolation. Indeed, our perceptions are constantly mediated by our environment; their validity is more and more altered in contact with others. Perceptions are exchanged, negotiated, imposed, denied. As Husserl explains it:
But in living with one another each one can take part in the life of the others. Thus in general the world exists not only for isolated men but for the community of men; and this is due to the fact that even what is straightforwardly perceptual is communalized.
In this communalization, too, there constantly occurs an alteration of validity through reciprocal correction. In reciprocal understanding, my experiences and experiential acquisitions enter into contact with those of others, similar to the contact between individual series of experiences within my (one’s own) experiential life; and here again, for the most part, intersubjective harmony of validity occurs, [establishing what is] “normal” in respect to particular details, and thus an intersubjective unity also comes about in the multiplicity of validities and of what is valid through them; here again, furthermore, intersubjective discrepancies show themselves often enough; but then, whether it is unspoken and even unnoticed, or is expressed through discussion and criticism, a unification is brought about or at least is certain in advance as possibly attainable by everyone. All this takes place in such a way that in the consciousness of each individual, and in the overarching community consciousness which has grown up through [social] contact, one and the same world achieves and continuously maintains constant validity as the world which is in part already experienced and in part the open horizon of possible experiences for all; it is the world as the universal horizon, common to all men, of actually existing things. (10)
It follows that the operation mechanism of the resonator, postulated by Wiener as a model for understanding the coordinated kinesthetic mechanisms of the individual, follows laws very similar to those of the formation of opinion in the intersubjective level, which happens within the community. Things appear to us initially in its most exuberant multiplicity; they are first filtered and organized by the individual, resulting in a coordinated scheme of perceptions that, coming from different subsystems, operate in synchronization around a central frequency and not beyond a cutoff frequency; these perceptions are pooled and follow the cybernetic mechanism of feedback and correction. Thus, one is not free to express his –her- own opinion, as it can be believed in complete naiveté, nor does he –she- perceive things simply according to his –her- senses or as dictated by his –her- understanding, but this opinions and view are modulated by social interaction. The effect of public opinion is, therefore, to drag “frequencies” (individual views, opinions, beliefs and wishes) to a central frequency around which a normative region or territory is created –this territory of public opinion contains perceptions and opinions that are closer to those the perceiving community feel as “normal”. But the absolutely normal opinion, the central frequency, does not have to be occupied by anyone. In fact, it precisely happens that experience changes its status, and now comes to be considered, according to Husserl, “appearance of”:
If one attends to the distinction between things as “originally one’s own” and as “empathized” from others, in respect to the how of the manners of appearance, and if one attends to the possibility of discrepancies between one’s own and empathized views, then what one actually experiences originaliter as a perceptual thing is transformed, for each of us, into a mere “representation of” [“Vorstellung von”], “appearance of/’ the one objectively existing thing. From the synthesis these have taken on precisely the new sense “appearance of,” and as such they are henceforth valid. ‘The” thing itself is actually that which no one experiences as really seen, since it is always in motion, always, and for everyone, a unity for consciousness of the openly endless multiplicity of changing experiences and experienced things, one’s own and those of others. (11)
Representation is, thus, an empty or virtual place which works as a reference for individual opinions, that are invited by, and attracted to representation. The central opinion, public opinion, is then the attractor or “representative” of the community: its “attractive force” is inherently conservative. We will say that this force is caused by the very desire of belonging to the community; this desire, constantly combined and in interaction with individual desires, is the ultimate reason for the raise of representation and public opinion. In turn, public opinion stands as the basic and decisive element in a social organization. It exists in every community, as the first crystallization of the desire of making community: just as Ortega highlighted (12), the rest of institutions, interactions and social customs are nothing but attachments that channel, enhance, distort, alter or impose such public opinion in relation to purposes intended – by the whole community, as an aggregate of the individual purposes of the members of such community. Public opinion, oriented to goals and desires created collectively, is the bare form of all social organization.
This normative center is, originally, everyone’s and of no one, and its emergence involves the creation of a stable region, which reaches up to what we can call social cutoff frequency. This stable region has, thus, the semblance of a territory, with a central key site and limits around him; just as a cell membrane, this limits permeate what is or is not permitted in the community. Cannot we call this center “community values and beliefs”, since they are the reference and the starting point of community life? And the cutoff frequency, this bordering region of the territory, does it not look like our morals and laws? For it is when a invididual, or a part of the community, are beyond morality, or beyond the law, that (s)he or they endanger the community fate and, of course, themselves.
Taking the basic functioning of the nervous system to an analogy to social systems, as we have seen with Husserl and will soon see with Simondon and Bateson, does not the brain appear as the site of a power vacuum (meeting place for inter pares) where the construction of the opinion of the individual takes place? Does not the brain make up the perfect image of the agora, the town square? Do we not see the square, much more clearly now, as the nerve center of activity and communication of the city, and respect to which the physical and administrative centers, the palace or the central computer are ulterior construction, in all sense artificial and perhaps unnecessary? So often the town square was called the “nerve center” of the city: did this name not contain a social truth, so that any other historic form of the socius looks now as a distortion and perversion of the most basic one?
In another passage, Wiener speaks about the building of virtual generators in frequency from individual generators operating in parallel:
Historically it is interesting that in the early days of alternting-current engineering, attemps were made to connect generating systems in series rather than in parallel. It was found that the interaction of the individual generators in frequency was a repulsion rather than an attraction. The result ws that such systems were impossibly unstable unless the rotating parts of the individual generators were connected rigidly by a common shaft or by gearing. To use a biological analogy, the parallel system had a better homeostasis than the series system and therefore survived, while the series system eliminated itself by natural selection.(13)
We ought to explore the validity of an analogy that, as an immediate consequence of Wiener’s assertion, would establish the superiority, for the purpose of biological preservation, of a social system designed “in parallel” with respect to a “series” social system. In fact, it seems too tempting to identify the series system with a system of vertical organization, governed by the first element in series and needed of authoritarian deterrence to work, as opposed to a system of horizontal organization based on the principle of democratic isonomy, which houses the social power in equal distance from all citizens and needs no uncomfortable additions to run smoothly and harmoniously. Power that would be everyone’s and of no one, and that could be suggested as a place meant to be freed from being occupied by any person or specific organization.
Naturally, these considerations lead us to make social and political questions of all kinds, and to make interpretations of the most controversial phenomena, of which only a few have a place in the narrow format offered by a blog. For instance, do not the Emperor, the President or the firm manager appear to us as mere reifications of a virtual governor which, in any case, introduce redundancy in a social system? What distortions are caused by the introduction of such physical element in the system, of a governor made flesh, a governor working like a series system, a governor that only operates connected to an army or a bureaucratic machine? How can a person get involved in the struggle for power accurately, that is, in the benefit of the community? If one has the chance to non-mediated, peer-to-peer communication in its absolute purity and nudity, as it happens in a social network, or more particularly between true lovers or friends, does (s)he not experiment, with all lucidity, the immense power of this social mechanism of resonance? So much, in fact, (s)he does that, when being imposed a series scheme, if the natural parallel scheme is disabled or blocked, the frustration of the communicating person can be paralyzing. And yet, we get excited in a particular way when reading Habermas’ and Castells’ texts, that speak with amazement and overwhelming clarity about this mode of inter-subjective, parallel or network communication: it cannot be otherwise, as they are actually uncovering the ultimate reality of community intercourse, that in its primal form, should be deployed evenly among the citizens, entracing them in their quest for social resonance. And this is, likewise, the seductive power distilled by some moral or religious doctrines. The communication scheme by which each individual represents himself in a naked network, each of them free of distortions and redundancy, is dreamed by many with the nostalgic feel to the edenic, archaic past and, at the time, with the hope that sparkles in the promise of a golden future; promise whose fulfillment seems inevitable in light of the latest communication technologies.
But what if we were wrong? What if the apparently natural transition of social agencies, that spans from the band to the village, from the village to the city and the Empire, from the Empire to the Kingdom and the Liberal government, and from these to the network society, is not that natural? What if this transition was indefinitely blocked by certain reactive forces, forces that work aided by agencies and technologies of all types to prevent societies from the germination of open networks? One might also expect, for example, that such transition could not end in a network society as described, but rather continue relentlessly, perhaps reaching other forms, just not as alluring as a network society. Are we betting all our chips on the network society as a kind of actualization of a Christian parousia? It is necessary to unravel the role of communication technologies, like that of other technologies, in the construction and modeling of social systems: study to which we are dued and that we will undertake henceforth.
On the other hand, is there not a mechanism of self-censorship in any society? Against what? Obviously, against noise; all societies centralize information and create an normative territory to oppose to the entropic force that, in communication, we identify with the noise. For such a force can, ultimately, destroy a community. The community is a place of creation of order and, as such, it excludes states of its components (individual members) that could shake the foundations of communitary building. Therefore, we have to see morality as a safety belt that community builds for individuals, to prevent the community from an unbearable noise. Which, of course, does in no way mean that communities are static. Forms of communitary equilibrium are many, and only some acquire a relatively static appearance.
Take for instance a small, closed and traditional, a relatively static community: just as any other, this community builds a moat around its core values – its moral normativity, which places limits for the unbearable, and produces its inhibitions and prohibitions over individuals. This self-censorship can acquire a “fortified” form inasmuch as the community is rather closed to other cultures. You can then speak of a secret, a core of experiences and assumptions about the world which is shared by all members of the community, while being impenetrable to the eyes of the stranger.
In contrast, in less ideal and more complex communities, as ours, the secret proliferates, rising barriers and creating specialized sub-communities, more or less closed, that operate with different rhythms and territories (lodges, sects, financial markets, local associations, government intelligentsia, etc.). . And so much pace and territory, in constant interactions of exclusion, overlay and fusion, are central to the construction of any biological community, that through using these concepts, we can come to understand a major part of Deleuze’s philosophy: it is desire, a central element of social and biologic becomings, which has to be encoded in rhythms and territories. Only this we need to understand tentatively: there are rhythms and territories in societies, built as encoded responses to individual and collective desires. And it belongs to societies, through interactions between their power networks, to determine how desires shall be encoded. To such a extent this is the core of social thought that, according to Deleuze, the one and only social problem consists in how to encode desire. For it has to be encoded in one form or another, social desire always is found encoded: desire will be encoded as fascist, rather than stay decoded (14).
What is, then, resonance or synchronization, but a mechanism which, in the social, produces encodings of desire from its nerve centers or organs of power, and which is mediated through various technologies and institutions? Technologies that can discipline or liberate, such as those discussed so broadly and beautifully by Foucault (15), but also technologies that strengthen links, open or enclose communities, create or reveal secrets, and use natural forces to satisfy desires collectively coded, organizing social dynamics around different rhythms and territories.
Technological typologies reveal, through mechanisms of social resonance, the healthiness of the emotional and moral grounds of a society, and they do so through their management of desires, ie. through the codification of desire in particular and coexisting rhythms and territories. An open society, and such is the ideal of liberal societies, encodes desire in the multiplication and release of rhythms and territories, in the opening of the moral space, in the imperatives of tolerance, diversity and equality: its ideal is the all-pass transmission filter.
But obviously, the realisation of this purpose generates rhythmic and territorial tension, demanding substantive and continuous correction. Noise shows up everywhere in the form of multiplication of messages, that hinder a homogeneous communication such as it is required by the state apparatus (the power held by a central body). Manifold social filters are then required: hence the success of the technical-industrial capitalist apparatus, extensively used by the state to meet all conceivable needs, thus reducing the power of desires. Yet that is not sufficient in many cases, and a disciplinary apparatus is required; one way or another, every society needs to standardize, to control its territories, to mark its cutoff frequencies. And the society which needs it most is that which contains rigid central elements, that which has an absolute center and aims to become the absolute center of all societies, with specific and stable borders. The central power, as a rigid apparatus (a series system) does not interact, as virtual resonators do; it is reluctant to shifts and moves. It is a sort of black hole of the social: as the size of the power complex grows, it becomes stiffer and more and more it subordinates the society that it governs to its self-preservation. The central power hinders and distorts, it adds rigidity to a system whose origin and ability to survive resides in its flexibility, its ability to interact and constantly shift its boundaries.
In this post we have illustrated and given concretion to the findings of Norbert Wiener around mechanisms of feedback and purpose-correction. We have shown how his understanding of kinesthesis as a result of processes related to synchronization and frequency correlation, and what is called resonance, admits an analogy with the understanding that Husserl and Deleuze make of the mechanisms of codification of desire and creation of communitary experience. And we have discussed problems associated with this analogy, by asking questions that will continue to be discussed in the following texts.
The claim of validity for these analogies is based on a paradigm of thinking taken from the systems theory, which as we will see, leads Ludwig von Bertalanffy to admit the isomorphism between laws of different areas of science (16). This isomorphism in turn, does not lay on the simple desire to link mathematical and empirical results from some areas to assumptions or interpretations in areas where mathematical laws find no inmediate or easy formulation, such as social sciences; on the contrary , it is the tangible result of a fundamental ontological principle that Gilbert Simondon calls transductive operation, and that the philosopher describes as
[…] a physical, biological, mental or social operation by which an activity increasingly spreads within a domain, founding this propagation on a structuring of that domain which is operated from place to place: each region of constituted structure serves the next region as a constitutive principle, although a modification is gradually extended at the same time the structuring is being operated. (16)
We are now ready to plunge ourselves into Gregory Bateson’s thinking. As we intend to do, he establishes relations between seemingly distant scientific fields, aided by an effort of transductive thinking and motivated by the aim to theorize about social, anthropological or psychological issues that would otherwise look very difficult to solve. We will see, in particular, Bateson’s ethnological studies on Balinese society, which he contrasted to Western societies according to concepts and criteria inherited from cybernetics or game theory.
(1) PICKERING, Andrew. Cybernetics and the mangle. University of Illinois, 2002.
(4) WIENER, Norbert. Cybernetics or Control and communication in the animal and the machine. 2ª edición. Massachussets Institute of Technology, 1961.
(5) HUSSERL, Edmund. The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology. 4th edition. Northwestern University Press, 1978.
(6) Ibid., p. 161
(7) Ibid., p. 162.
(8) WIENER, Norbert. Cybernetics or Control and communication in the animal and the machine. 2ª edición. Massachussets Institute of Technology, 1961.
(9) Ibid., pp. 199-200.
(10) HUSSERL, Edmund. The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology. 4th edition. Northwestern University Press, 1978. pp. 163-4.
(11) Ibid., p. 164.
(12) ORTEGA Y GASSET, José. La rebelión de las masas. Alianza Editorial, 1978.
(13) WIENER, Norbert. Cybernetics or Control and communication in the animal and the machine. 2ª edición. Massachussets Institute of Technology, 1961. p. 201.
(14) DELEUZE, Gilles y GUATTARI, Felix. Mil mesetas: capitalismo y esquizofrenia. 5ª edición. Valencia: Pre-textos, 2002.
(15) FOUCAULT, Michel. Vigilar y Castigar. Madrid: Siglo XXI Editores, 2008.
(16) Von BERTALANFFY, Ludwig. Teoría General de los Sistemas. 5ª edición. Fondo de Cultura Económica de México, 1986.
(17) SIMONDON, Gilbert. La inviduación a la luz de las nociones de forma y de información. Buenos Aires: Ediciones La Cebra y Editorial Cactus, 2009. p.38