Pragmatism and its Continuation(s) as Philosophy of Cybernetics: Habit, Immanence, Efficiency without Knowledge

Abstract Submitted to a conference in Parma; rejected.

Artificial Life, Artificial Unconscious

Mohammad Ali Rahebi


The Unconscious is the Body

Michel Serres

Cybernetics and the Cartesian Problem

The way the body works without knowledge or consciousness has been a complex and certainly consequential problem since Descartes at the latest. The question of how we do something without knowing how we are in fact doing so was a scandal that drove Cartesians to Occasionalism (a concept that is perhaps more true now than ever, with cloud computing and distributed computation).

Since then, we have come very far indeed but it is in AI that we come to again feel the real force of this problem again. Minsky has famously stated that

Social cognition qua language based and mainly representational, is a highly inefficient mode of signal processing or computation in general. As Minsky (despite his own strict adherence to the representational models, strangely enough) said:

It’s mainly when our other systems start to fail that we engage the special agencies involved with what we call “consciousness.”

As I shall try to while discussing the Peircean notion of “community of believers” and the way the Cybernetic schema manages to overcome its necessity, the most efficient manifestations of artificial intelligence are not representational, as is the case with the recent success of neural networks and machine learning. In fact, if we are to investigate artificial life instead of artificial consciousness (a failed project; consciousness qua delay is simply obsolete in machinic terms), we have to look at the body, at the habitual, that is to say at the non-representational, non-knowledge-based mechanisms and automations that are not language-based in the least.


In a relatively recent book edited by Raffaela Giovagnoli, one of the organizers, Computing Nature, the issue of alternative computation models to Turing Machines was broached and discussed to some extent. Here I will argue that Cybernetics is one such alternative model that has been growing, from its origin as a strange interdisciplinary field in the late 1940s, to become the dominant model of computation. Although it is not named as such, the models that are not algorithmic and termination- oriented are all operating on the basis of the “cybernetic schema of intelligibility.” These are very familiar processes for all of us, being ubiquitous in “smart” machines and smart software. Giovagnoli et al describe Cybernetics as computational processes where

The main criterion of success of this computation is not its termination, but its behavior – response to changes, its speed, generality and flexibility, adaptability, and tolerance to noise, error, faults, and damage.

If consciousness is to be taken as linguistic and representational, and as such mediated by the social in its historicity and theoretical bias, Cybernetics would have to be seen as an artificial unconsciousness, and in fact, is much closer to artificial life than such AI trends as GOFAI or even most strands of embodied cognition.

In French philosophy, under the influence of Derrida and his reading of Plato, the problem of technology has been tied to that of writing, as some form of Ur-Technics that contains the essence of all future technics qua mnemotechnics. This idea has been also taken up by Bernard Stiegler who has taken it further by discussing all technologies as means of “retention” and “protention.” All of this starts with Plato, however, for in his famous Phaedrus, he comes to barrage writing as a dangerous method, a supplement to spoken language, which unbeknownst to its to its users, had deleterious effects on memory as well as on truth and on the polis. We are not here concerned with all that; what is of interest is something he mentions in passing, namely that if you were to write down something that is true at one moment (‘it is day’), it would become false the next (as night fell) because unlike the speaker, it did not the ability to correct itself according to its surrounding reality, its environment. In the same manner, he says that when you write down the teachings of some philosopher, the written text will not be able to answer new questions or clarify obscure passage when asked to do so, in comparison to the person using living language.

This is, in fact, the same thing that distinguishes Cybernetics completely from all the technics that came before: cybernetic machines (think of your smartphone) can change their displayed content and their behavior in response to changes in their environment. Unlike previous forms of technology, which might have been mnemotechnics (or not), cybernetic technologies are adaptive, self-modifying, robust. In fact, this same Platonic problem occurs in Descartes (of whom we will not have time to speak) and later, Turing. In his famous “On Computation,” Turing states that although certain numbers might be uncomputable for the Turing Machine, they might be very well computable for human mathematicians. The reason for this is that the human mathematician is capable of revising and changing “their strategy” completely from the ground up, while the Turing Machine, the representational computing machine, cannot change its own behavior when faced with an unsolvable problem. It does not have the ability to change its actions spontaneously and in response to its specific problem-environment. This is of course recognizable as the same Platonic problem that we encountered with writing and other technological artifacts. They are Leibnizian in principle, relying on some pre-established harmony, on the stability of the operations in the environment and thus are rendered absolutely inoperative once the smallest change occurs.

The cybernetic machine, moreover, does not start from a human-defined state or representation but is an immanent, non-representational computing machine whose operations (e.g. in the case of a neural network running Big Data analyses) cannot be even comprehended by a human observer. As long as there be no need for the cybernetic machine to interact with a human, there is no need for representational information; data is much more efficient.

Peirce, Habits, Neural Networks

Finally, I will present some of my current research on the relation between the American Pragmatist philosophies, the very important yet undervalued concept of habits, and the recently most successful manifestation of the cybernetic schema, namely Neural Networks.

Neurotics of Yore: Cyber-Capitalist Schizos vs. Germinal Neuroses

The Abstract of my contribution to C. W. Johns’ The Neurotic Turn, a collection of essays on neurosis and its reconceptualization. This follows Johns’ own work on neurosis and its re-purposing as a philosophical concept. His Neurosis and Assimilatioin: Contemporary Revisions on the Life of the Concept (see this post for a brief general introduction).

*The illustration, “Well Connected” is by Ebrahim Zargari-Marandi as part of his New Monstrosities Project.

The Neurotics of Yore: Cyber-Schizos vs Germinal Neuroses

“There are no neurotics anymore; and not just according to the DSM-IV and V. When Deleuze and Guattari were writing Anti-Oedipus, their call for schizophrenia the emancipation of desire-flows seemed most revolutionary, even idealistic or utopian sometimes. When Nick Land wrote his controversial texts in the 1990s, things had changed and Land was perhaps one of the first to see how deeply the Deleuzian concepts of Schizophrenia, of Becoming and the Body without Organs, were connected to Cybernetic Capitalism.
In this chapter I will argue that the Schizo, the emancipatory model of non-subjective (non-individuated) singularity, is already here, living next door, ordering a customized bicycle online. The Schizo has been here for a while now, to the detriment of all things neurotic-normal.
If neurosis is indeed a form of behavioral learning mechanism, a habit-contraction mechanism at the lowest levels of the psyche, a subjectifying, individuating process of response-limitation, then we must realize that Cybernetic Capitalism, the “prosumer” culture, has no use for the neurotic just as it has no room for such outdated processes as individuation. All the similarity between Deleuzian literature and the self-help books now available are not really random; the call to creativity and self-curation goes beyond a nice figure of speech. The market cannot afford a neurotic, stuck in a rut, her consumption choices as limited as her capacity to adapt to change. While the neurotics of yore came up with the New Deal and lifetime jobs, the schizophrenics (a statistical norm today) have come up with precarious labor, and millennials that conceive of jobs as short-term stints. The obsession with the apocalypse in the entertainment sector is the most recent manifestation of the majority view of machinic humanity. The message in all those high budget films is clear enough: if all changes in an instant, will you adapt (be cybernetic, schizophrenic) or will you perish in your old ways.
I will argue that neurosis qua limit case of habit-formation and behavioral subjectification is still at play as a force or an “attractor” among others, but that it has succumbed to other forces, to the schizophrenic-consumerist attractors, limited to very basic levels of individuation. We do not yearn nostalgically for the neurotic times to be back, nor are we comfortable with the remnants of neurotic formations in philosophy (the linguistic turn, for example). What we have to do is to examine the somatic levels of habit-formation for indications of the emergence of new ideas or modes of being.”


P.S. The Neurotic Turn has added two other great philosophers to its contributors, Benjamin Noys and Patricia Reeds will also be included in the book, alongside Graham Harman, Nick Land, Sean McGrath, C. W. Johns, Katerina Kolozova, John Russon, Alex Nevil, and a host of other distinguished scholars.

Death and Machine Creativity: Spontaneity and Radical Plasticity

Originally written as an abstract for a conference in May 2015.
There is a deep affinity between the dead and the machinic when it comes to creativity, the creation of novelty; an affinity that is not reducible to their shared character of non-life. If creativity is the creation of an alterity, an act of spontaneity and a whim through which an other “without genealogy” (Malabou 2012, p. 3) comes to be, and if an organ(ism) creates itself into something new through an instant of self-determination, then by necessity that acts is a near-death experience; there is something of death in every spontaneous (self)creation. Spinoza mentions the zombie-poet Góngora, in his illustration of a death that is not actually dying but the emergence of new structures, new “ratios of motion and rest” (Spinoza and Parkinson 2000) between the parts, of novelty in a body that can no longer be the same. The amnesiac is a popular and necessary figure in the anthropology of creativity, yet one which pales against the cybernetic machine.

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