Mind in Matter

Scott McLemee reviews Daniel Belgrad's The Culture of Feedback: Ecological Thinking in '70s America.

January 17, 2020

Somewhere on its way to entering the vernacular, the word cybernetics took on connotations of high technology, with tremendous computational power almost as a given. But the quintessential cybernetic system is humble, indeed, and very much simpler than any computer. It is the thermostat.

Just to be clear, the "cybernetic system" in this case consists of not just the device on the wall with its dials or buttons, but also a temperature sensor as well as whatever apparatus heats or cools the room. When the sensor registers that the room's temperature has fallen below, say, 70 degrees (to use a season-appropriate example of a likely setting), the thermostat translates that information into a command to turn the heat on, then off again, once the sensor reports that the target temperature has been reached. Framing this a little more abstractly, we have here a system engaged in posing a question to its environment, generating a binary (yes/no) answer and then, as necessary, taking action to cause change in a certain determinate direction.

Not much computational power is required. Then again, "cybernetics" derives from an ancient Greek word referring to the pilot of a ship. Navigation, not calculation, is at its root.

To the best of my recollection, I first came across the thermostat as quintessential example of a closed feedback system in a wildly interdisciplinary volume by Anthony Wilden called System and Structure: Essays in Communication and Exchange (1980). Wilden in turn adopted it from Gregory Bateson's Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972), an even more category-defying volume. Besides the anthropological fieldwork he had carried out (some of it carried on with Margaret Mead, his wife for a time) Bateson pulled together his research into schizophrenia, evolutionary theory and biological symmetry -- besides which he had participated in the Macy Conferences on Cybernetics held between 1946 and 1953. Among the papers in Steps to an Ecology of Mind is Bateson's analysis of Alcoholics Anonymous as a cybernetic system -- one more adaptive and functional than the alcoholic's personality, which otherwise remains trapped in a short-circuiting feedback loop of trying to establish its own power over the bottle.

Through Batesonian lenses, the world looked like one huge array of self-regulating systems. Some were at cross purposes (imagine two thermostats in the same room, at different settings) and some just did not work very well.

"An entirely new epistemology must come out of cybernetics and systems theory," wrote Bateson in the alcoholism study. It would require "a new understanding of mind, self, human relationship and power." Daniel Belgrad's The Culture of Feedback: Ecological Thinking in '70s America (University of Chicago Press) finds much the same set of priorities reflected in the work of artists, musicians, activists, film directors and the makers of public service announcements that ran on TV.

Relatively few of them read Bateson; it seems fair to say that his ideas were more exemplary than influential. A sense that old ways of living were no longer viable became common in the 1960s. It gave way over the following decade to feelings that some comprehensive new perspective on human existence was in order. Belgrad, an associate professor of humanities and cultural studies at the University of South Florida, identifies one of the most flexible and pervasive ways of framing this quest to have been ecology -- one of Bateson's key terms, after all.

It encompasses more than the natural environment. The ecology could be conceived, Belgrad writes, as "an evolving, self-regulating system, governed by feedback loops that placed constraints on the behaviors of its various parts," in which "the 'outside' environment of a system on one level was itself subject to the dynamic forces of a larger system of which both were subsystems." Conversely, the wider environment may be subject to the impact, possibly catastrophic, of activity within one of its subsystems.

Examples such as the Dust Bowl (the result of decades of unsound plowing technique) and long-term contamination of the soil by pesticides were known to Americans prior the ecological concerns of the 1970s, but without much thought to what other unsustainable practices with system-destroying effects might be going on unnoticed. One turning point was the first Earth Day, which has its 50th anniversary on April 22. Another was the emergence of the iconic "Crying Indian" spots on television, which Belgrad analyzes with care in a chapter taking up the complex issues around Native American representation and spirituality raised by the growing ecological consciousness. I must have been 8 years old when the first ad with "Iron Eyes" Cody appeared, and had tears in my own eyeballs at the time -- completely unaware that the actor was, in fact, an Italian American guy from Louisiana.

In a number of developments analyzed in The Culture of Feedback, the call for an ecological sensibility came with a definite mystical overtone. It was already there in Bateson. When you "logically and naturally see yourself as outside and against the things around you," he wrote, it becomes a matter of course to imagine "the world … as mindless and therefore not entitled to moral or ethical consideration." No one would ever confuse a page of Bateson with one of William Blake, but there is a certain resemblance even so.

To comprehend the world as feedback system within feedback system (refracting in unknowable complexity) means seeing it as suffused with and sustained by processes of communication and exchange. There are more or less philosophical versions of this perspective, but also more or less kitschy ones, and I will leave it to you to guess which one featured more prominently in American culture of the 1970s. There's something particularly enjoyable about a volume of intellectual history that deals with serious ideas but also makes some room for their less respectable offspring.


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