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L'Empire cybernétique : Des…

L'Empire cybernétique : Des machines à penser à…

by Céline Lafontaine

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In recent months I have read various introductions to systems thinking and cybernetics, in which this approach is presented as a radical break with the classic reductionism that characterizes Western science since Descartes, but which allows a much better analysis of complex realities. It was an acquaintance that intrigued me and charmed me. But the central thesis of this book by the Canadian sociologiste Céline Lafontaine is that the cybernetic approach is actually just as reductionistic, and has led to a look at reality in which every form of subjectivism and thus every humanism is radically banished. According to her that is a devastating development that threatens to destroy our society. That’s quite some message to swallow!

Lafontaine provides a detailed sketch of the development of cybernetics (starting with Wiener and Bateson and the information theory of Shannon) and its propagation in various domains. Time and time again she stresses how in the models and theories influenced by cybernetics the individual is wiped out, the inner subjectivity is ignored, and only the system is given real value, objective reality. Lafontaine zooms in on three successors of cybernetics: structuralism, system thinking and postmodernism. Each in their own way they have incorporated cybernetic thinking, and consequently have deleted the human factor. And for her that is fundamentally anti-humanist.

I must say: her argument is a strong example of intellectual historiography. With numerous citations she is able to effectively identify the explicit and often implicit influence of cybernetics on the above-mentioned currents. Many big names pass by and are inexorably "filleted": the structuralists Lévi-Strauss, Lacan, and Foucault, system thinkers like von Bertalanffy, Laszlo, von Foerster and to a lesser extent also Morin, Maturana and Varela, and postmodernists like Derrida, Deleuze & Guattari, and Lyotard. It is a disconcerting analysis that Lafontaine presents. And I have to confess that to some extent it captivated me: Lafontaine puts her finger on a problem that I struggled with during my acquaintance with systems thinking: where is the place of man as an autonomous individual, as a person (and for me personally specifically the historical person)?

On the negative side: no matter how revealing, at the same time Lafontaine looks a little too zealous for me in her unmasking of the cybernetics adepts. She is on a kind of crusade and connects everything with everything, sometimes rightly, but sometimes also into the absurd: chance encounters, indirect references, similar formulations are presented as evidence for agreements. This goes in the direction of steering and tunnel vision; Lafontaine wants to prove per se that the anti-humanism of cybernetics has ignited every flow of thought after the Second World War. So much persistence always makes me skeptical and contradictory enough it points to an culture-deterministic vision.

Occasionally she really goes over the top, and the most divergent developments and trends of thought are presented as descendants of cybernetics: neoliberalism (in the version of von Hayek), the rise of the internet and cyberspace, techno-music, the evolutions in the biomedical sector (genetic manipulation, cloning, etc) and even the increasing interest in Eastern religions; I understand what she means, but she really exaggerates things. In her final conclusion, Lafontaine seems to be aware of these derailments, and she puts her discourse more into perspective.

But I also have fundamental objections to the lack of nuance in her main thesis (cybernetics = anti-humanism). For instance, it is striking (as she herself admits) that many big names in cybernetics and related currents explicitly call themselves humanists and strive for a more correct analysis of the place of man in the world. And I think she clearly misjudges some more developed parts of systems thinking, namely those currents that rely on cybernetics of 2nd order (in which the element of auto-organization within complex structures is emphasized and in which there is also room for subjectivity); according to her, this is only a duplication of cybernetics of the 1st order, but she is mistaken. Systems thinkers such as Varela clearly emphasize the relational interaction within systems, whereby relative autonomy is assigned to the participating elements. Within that vision there is clearly room for a full humanism.

Anyway, to me it is an “and-and”-issue, not an “or-or”: man is a unique and to a certain extent autonomous subject with an own inwardness, but embedded and partly driven by the wider tissue, the systems (biological-genetic, historical, socio-economic, cultural) that make up its environment. Within systems thinking there certainly is room for that relational aspect and the human individual is not (always) erased.

Conclusion: Lafontaine certainly points to a weak spot in a too radical formulation of cybernetics, and thus also of systems thinking, but she is guilty of an over-simplified and too alarmistic analysis. At the same time, this book is a thought provoking example of intellectual historiography in which unsuspected links between various technical-scientific developments are uncovered. I do not understand why this work, from a (French) Canadian, has not been translated into English yet. Absolutely recommended reading! ( )
  bookomaniac | Apr 23, 2018 |
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