Lecture Series

16 December 2022


Detoxifying Cybernetics:
From Homeostasis to Autopoiesis and Beyond


media lab

As is well known, first order cybernetics, developed in the 1940s-50s Macy Conferences, focused on homeostasis, feedback loops and control mechanisms for human, animal and mechanical systems. A central figure in this early period was Norbert Wiener; as Peter Galison has pointed out, Wiener’s research included work for the Defense Department and was deeply involved in war planning and implementation.

For historians like Galison and critics like Donna Haraway, this gave cybernetics a toxic association with the military-industrial complex, apparent in Haraway’s 1995 description of cybernetics as a techno-addiction that had “technical and popular culture...shooting up with all things cybernetics in the 1950s and 1960s.” Starting in the early 1970s, James Lovelock changed the tenor of these connotations when he drew on first order cybernetics to argue that the Earth itself was a homeostatic entity, with living organisms tightly coupled to the environment to form a single self-regulating system. When Lovelock then joined forces with microbiologist Lynn Margulis, her work on biosymbiosis expanded the argument with convincing evidence for the power of microorganisms to change the environment even as they were changed by it.

In the genealogy carefully traced by Bruce Clarke, Margulis became aware of the work of Maturana and Varela on autopoiesis, and thereafter she adopted the term “autopoietic Gaia.” In contrast to first-order cybernetics, this remained almost completely a biotic concept; machines seem to have faded from the picture (aside from a brief essay Margulis co-authored with Dorion Sagan on the evolution of machines). Clarke, for his part, argues that the Gaia theory should properly be located within neocybernetics systems theory, which focuses on recursivity, reentry, and the necessary inclusion of the observer in what is observed. However, the historically contingent manner in which cybernetics moved from homeostasis to autopoiesis left a hefty conceptual debt stemming from the way in which Maturana and Varela defined cognition, which basically conflated it with the process of living as a self-making, self-organizing and self-structuring autopoiesis. This makes it difficult to re-introduce machines into the picture since all machines are allopoietic (that is, not able to self-make and self-maintain themselves).

This talk concludes by offering an alternative way to think about cognition that enables an integrated framework for understanding our present condition of technosymbiosis, which augments and drives the further evolution of biosymbiosis as humans and nonhumans enter into deep integration with computational media.

N. Katherine Hayles, Distinguished Research Professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles and the James B. Duke Professor of Literature Emerita at Duke University, teaches and writes on the relations of literature, science and technology in the 20th and 21st centuries. She has published eleven books and over 100 peer-reviewed articles, and her research has been recognized by a Guggenheim Fellowship, two National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowships, a Rockefeller Residential Fellowship at Bellagio, a National Humanities Center Fellowship, and a University of California Presidential Award, among other awards. She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Her books have won numerous awards, including the Rene Wellek Prize for the Best Book in Literary Theory in 1998-99 for How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics, and the Suzanne Langer Award for Outstanding Scholarship for Writing Machines. She writes on media theory, experimental fiction, literary and cultural theory, science fiction, and contemporary American fiction. She has won two teaching awards, and has held visiting appointments at Princeton, University of Chicago as the Critical Inquiry Visiting Professor, and Institute for Advanced Studies at Durham University UK, among others. Her most recent book is Postprint: Books and Becoming C’omputational (2021, Columbia UP).

About Lecture Series

The Lecture Series is an annual event revolved around a theme curated and presented by Media Lab, inviting scholars and artists from different fields to engage in a dialogue between art, technology, and philosophy to explore critical issues in media studies.