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.

The Neurotic Turn

The Neurotic Turn, edited by Charles Johns and featuring the work of Graham Harman, Nick Land, and John Russon among others, is where my most recent work, “the Neurotics of Yore” will be published. In this upcoming book selected scholars will present different re-conceptualizations of the once-popular idea of Neurosis in a philosophical register. This is a tentative “Table of Contents” (my emphasis)

Conrad Hamilton – Neurosis in America

Charles Johns – The Neurotic Turn

Mike Ardoline – Neurosis and the Impossibility of Meta-Philosophy


Dany Nobus – Antrozoological Neurosis: On the Trials of Domestication and the Psychology of Happy Pets

Nick Land – Neurosys: On the Fictional Psychopathology of Abstract Horror

Christopher Ketcham – Neurosis: Asymmetry and Infinity


Mohammad-Ali Rahebi – The Neurotics of Yore

Katerina Kolosova – Anorexia Nervosa and Capitalism

Graham Harman – Freud’s Wolf Man in an Object-Oriented Light

Sean McGrath – A Schellingian Take on the Difference between Neurosis and Psychosis

John Russon – Neurosis


Patricia Friedrich – Neurosis, Obsession and Dis-identification relief

Bernardo Kastrup. – Physicalism and Neo-Darwinism as Neurotic Defense Mechanisms

Roderick Orner – Stepping Beyond Our Omnipotence: Neurosis As Branding The Incomprehensible

Petteri Pietikainen – Magic and Loss: Modalities of the Nervous Mind

My next post will introduce the themes of my own contribution to the book.

Charles William Johns’s Neurosis and Assimilation

This is the most recent work by Charles William Johns, the editor of The Neurotic Turn, an anthology featuring selected scholars (among them Graham Harman and Nick Land; also myself) reinventing the concept of neurosis for a philosophical afterlife.

Neurosis and Assimilation is Johns’s third book to deal with neurosis and its re-conceptualization. As part of my research on the subject, I will be referring to this book for the novel insight it affords by discontinuing the monopoly of psychoanalysis over the notion of neurosis and re-purposing it as a tool of philosophy.

Here is the abstract:

This book deals with the possibility of an ontological and epistemological account of the psychological category ‘neurosis’. Intertwining thoughts from German idealism, Continental philosophy and psychology, the book shows how neurosis precedes and exists independently from human experience and lays the foundations for a non-essentialist, non-rational theory of neurosis; in cognition, in perception, in linguistics and in theories of object-relations and vitalism. The personal essays collected in this volume examine such issues as assimilation, the philosophy of neurosis, aneurysmal philosophy, and the connection between Hegel and Neurosis, among others. The volume establishes the connection between a now redundant psycho-analytic term and an extremely progressive discipline of Continental philosophy and Speculative realism.

See also the Springer’s own page.

The General Organology Conference Videos are Online, My Presetation Included

The Noötechnics YouTube channel has made almost all of the talks given at The General Organology Conference available. The conference held November 2014 at Kent University to honor and celebrate the 20th anniversary of the publication of Technics and Time, vol. 1 included keynote speeches by Bernard Stiegler, Maurizio Lazzarato, Antoinette Rouvroy, and other prominent scholars. I was honored to be one of the speakers at the conference, presenting my paper “Cybernetics as the Efficient Organon: the Obsolescence of Knowledge and Subjectivity.” Thanks to the efforts of the founders of the Noötechnics and all involved for making all of this freely available.

I have embedded here my the video of my own presentation, as well as the video of its discussion by Stiegler, Alexander Wilson, and others. Please see Noötechnics’ YouTube channel for the other videos.

“Fuck off, Google!” The Invisible Committe’s Revolutionary Analysis of Cybernetics and the Internet

The Invisible Committee came back again about 7 days ago, with a brilliantly original and unapologetic essay on the naïvete of the many, many celebrations of the “new technologies” of Web 2.0 (Google, Facebook, etc.) as potentially emancipatory or revolutionary. “There are no “Facebook revolutions”, but there is a new science of government, cybernetics.” The new tract of the Invisible Committee, available both in writing (download the PDF file below) and audio, lays bare the roots of current communication technologies mired in the post-WWII military construction of “Cybernetics” as a scientific discipline. Cybernetics, however, cannot be farther from a branch of the sciences; Simondon’s description of cybernetics as the “second schema of intelligibility” after the Cartesian “method” is much more accurate, although even this does not capture the deeply political nature of cybernetics. By drawing attention to the latter as a pervasive albeit barely noticeable form of government(ality), the Committee joins the relatively thin ranks of the thinkers that recognize and announce the shifting of the forms of government, control, and even human-being/species-being away from the rational and grounded towards the cybernetic, the real-time, the empire of data. The essay is unbelievably refreshing, a development of original ideas without following any big philosophers. Its descriptions of the new human beings produced by the cybernetic organon (although the latter is my term) is a clear critique of Deleuze and “Deleuzian” thinkers.

The rational Western subject, aspiring to master the world and governable thereby, gives way to the cybernetic conception of a being without an interiority, of a selfless self, an emergent, climatic being, constituted by its exteriority, by its relations. A being which, armed with its Apple Watch, comes to understand itself entirely on the basis of external data, the statistics that each of its behaviors generates.

As I am attempting to demonstrate in a work in progress, Deleuze’s once radical or revolutionary theories, especially his pursuit of immanence have now become the ideologies of the diffused, absolute, singularized cybernetic control;they read like prophecies that came true not by the revolutionaries, but by the reactionary State. The authors’ clear and uncompromising declaration of the end of the era of rationality (the end of the rule of the principle of sufficient reason) and its correlate-subjects.

Political economy reigned over beings by leaving them free to pursue their interest; cybernetics controls them by leaving them free to communicate.

The essay’s treatment of data-mining as the more recent part/procedure of the cybernetic organon together with the cult of self-sharing amounts to lucid statements that show why the celebration of all things “social” is not such a great idea. Their emphasis on the cybernetic procedures as bypassing the universal-individual plane echoes my own conclusions to the same effect (see earlier posts, or one of my recent essays).

The great refrigerated storehouses of data are the pantry of current government. In its rummaging through the databases produced and continuously updated by the everyday life of connected humans, it looks for the correlations it can use to establish not universal laws nor even “whys,” but rather “whens” and “whats,” one-time, situated predictions, not to say oracles.

Please read the article in its PDF version I have placed below, or hear the presentation given by one of the Tarnac 9 here.


Actuarial Judgment and Decision-Making Machines: Introducing Rouvroy’s Algorithmic Governmentality

The relation between machines and judgment in the legal sense is already somewhat actualized in terms of “actuarial” judgment: in parole boards, for example, the “judges” are given a computer-produced risk-probability based on preexisting statistics and the convict’s behavioral pattern. The “judgment” they render is thus really not ought to be considered on a par with legal judgment in the non-actuarial, more common form. Antoinette Rouvroy, the French philosopher of law who has coined the phrase “algorithmic governmentality,” has given an insightful talk on the subject, which I believe is available in written form, entitled “Governmentality in an Age of Autonomic Computing: Technology, Virtuality, and Utopia” (there is also another talk, “Algorithmic Governmentality and the End(s) of Critique,” available on the web for free).

She meticulously analyzes the forms of governmentality that are increasingly dependent upon predictions made from large data-sets by autonomic machines. Examples include risk-assessment of individuals to identify likely terrorists or offenders early on and preempt crime, as well as the already mentioned actuarial decision-making in certain legal settings. The most important issue here as well as in every discussion regarding the data-technologies is the notion of protocol and the “standardization” of the data produced by different profiling resources (these include Facebook as well as state-related polls and profiling projects): not only is the human being to be reduced to a (huge) number of data-fields (name, age, …) processable by “intelligent” and autonomic machines (the latter are defined by their autonomous decision-making; the more common examples are AI enemy players in games and shopping-bots, not to mention the Google PageRank and Facebook’s now (in)famous NewsFeed), but the data thus produced are to be standardized according to protocols and pooled together to form data-mines as “complete” as possible, making for more “accurate” predictions, whether about potential criminality in the “risk society” or the personalization of ads and services.

The decisions and predictions made by these autonomous agents is the result of turning the human being (and the world) into a black-box, whose internal life, intentionality, and states of mind are simply made to do not exist, at least where it matters. They are thus not in any way comparable to human judgment, although their end-result can be made to approach human judgment to determinable degrees. The most concise way to describe the difference between the two is to say that machinic decision-making does not know anything of the “excluded middle” and (perhaps) syllogism in general: it is absolutely singular and does not bypass the universal-individual continuum characteristic of judgment.

Occasionalism and AI

There is a most subtle Occasionalism at work in the cluster-concept of AI. It is well-known that Descartes first comes up with the idea of Occasionalism (for anyone reading this and not familiar with the term, roughly put it is: a cosmo-theological doctrine that attributes all causation to an omnipotent God who constantly intervenes to ensure the workings of the world) is humans’ lack of knowledge of their bodies’ movement: how does one move one’s arm without knowing how, without even knowing what physiological processes are at work? For a philosopher with the highest regards for the cogitative capacities of humans, acting without knowledge is a scandal; the idea of an omniscient God intervening between my will (to move my hand) and its fulfillment (my hand moving), acting as the cause sets things right again, for Descartes’ God knows the what and the how of every act.

Now let us fast-forward to the present. In the preface to Ethem Alpaydın’s Introduction to Machine Learning, 2nd Ed. we read that one of the two principal reasons for using machine learning (as a sub-field of AI, it can be implemented in different fashions, from simple transfer functions to neural networks to genetic algorithms) is the inability of humans to “explain their expertise.” Language recognition is one among such cases. In a sense, the creation of intelligence can be seen as the final piece of what Freud termed the “Prosthetic God” humans are forever building. Some philosophers object to the use of the term “intelligence” for merely algorithmic behavior; but what about instances of artificial behavior for which no human-devised algorithm exist? I would also like to ask what forms of intentionality are valid in cases where we don’t know what we know, meaning of course the tasks we perform without knowing how to perform them.

There is also another point that I’d like to discuss, and that is the issue of the smart fire-detector (Jürgen Lawrenz had asked whether a “smart” fire-detector that calls your cellphone in case of a fire can be deemed as really intelligent or capable of judgment). Fully agreeing that such a gadget can in no way be deemed intelligent, I still feel it is important to remember that machines and technical objects were unable to respond to changes in their milieu before Wiener’s feedback-based cybernetic devices. The very possibility of “learning” even learning as bare memory accumulation (but there is also change in behavior) is of recent origin. All this aside, I too believe that the most important feat that distinguishes the human consciousness from the (perhaps) intelligent machine is judgment, something the latter is incapable of, but also something that it renders more or less obsolete.

Defined in terms of subsuming the particular to the universal, that is defined in loosely Kantian terms, judgment is a human process, and a costly one. Plato was somewhat right in disregarding the Sophists for their attempts at creating shortcuts (“short-circuits”, in Stiegler’s terminology), claiming that universal knowledge was essential to understanding and judgment. Such knowledge could only be amassed by years of study and learning and as such a very costly thing. This is one of the reasons why the earlier AI models based on human judgment failed to yield any efficiency. We must not forget that machines are built to be efficient, and the human process of judgment cannot be a successful model; Instead, we get the less-than-judgment machines; the cybernetic machines operating at a level below representation and knowledge.

The Unknown Masterpiece: “Heart String Marionette” and Authenticity

One would think that in the era of sharing and the omniscience of the “interweb” there would be at least one or two reviews for any given film recently released. I started to search for a review after I incidentally got my hands on a copy of the animated feature film Heart-String Marionette; I was so impressed with and in awe of this film that I just took it for granted that it had won several awards and is a celebrated work of art, at least in the right corners. Do a search yourselves and you will discover that there is not a single review or rating even on sites like IMDb. This post, however, is not a speculative attempt at a pathology of aesthetic reception and Internet fame. I am currently working on several essays and reviews on HSM in order to draw much deserved attention to it, at least in philosophical quarters. Here I will place a piece of a work in progress, hoping to get some feedback.

The film is made freely available by its generous director, M dot Strange. Watch Heart String Marionette on YouTube.

Continue reading

Monads and Cybernetic Organs

Leibniz’s monads do not have “windows” through which they could perceive the world; their milieu is unknowable to them. Yet they continue to function in perfect “harmony” with one-another, which is very crucial, given that according to Leibniz the whole world is made up of monads. Leibniz, whose invention of the integral calculus and life insurance alone might make him a fit candidate for the progenitor of the modern world (in which we are still living, although a bit less each day), explained the monads’ blindness through reference to their perfect design: being omni-scient and ditto-potent, God factored in all the world in its entirety in the workings of each monad and it is as such that each could be said to contain or reflect the whole world. The cult of design, the cult of the engineer, is only an extension of the ideas that gave birth to the Monadology. Leibniz is the progenitor of the modern world of engineering and design; his is a revival of mathematics in its true meaning: fore-knowledge. Heidegger explains the modern age as the time where the “principle of sufficient reason (ratio)” holds sway, a principle first stated by Leibniz (“nothing exists without a reason”). It is the same Leibniz who comes up with the idea now known as algorithmic complexity, of understanding as compression. He is the prime representative of the modern efficiency.

It was not until the WWII that modelling-prediction gained an alternative: real-time, feed-back driven prediction: cybernetics was born; the idea to end all ideas. For an introduction to what comes next see my presentation at the General Organology Conference held at the University of Kent in 20-22 November 2014 (the link will be up soon).

With the cybernetic organ (prosthesis), we are facing the exact opposite of a Leibnizian monad: the Leibnizian monad is the result of ultimate design, the kind of design only a God could be capable of: EVERYTHING has been factored in so that it functions smoothly without needing to see anything at all; it has no windows and yet functions perfectly. The cybernetic device, however, is the opposite of that. Not that it does away with blindness, like so many of the Capitalists and would-be technopriests might wish, but rather, it displaces the blindness: rather than being a blind work of perfect design, it becomes a seeing work of no design that turns a blind eye to the essence of its “object.” Instead of the blind monad, we get the black-box. What silently disappears in the process is human-ness, the capacity for thought and the possibility of science as knowledge of causes, of the “why” and the “what.”