Call: Counter-Signals 5

Systems and Their Discontents

Various forms of “Systems Thinking” are part of organized human society wherever it has congealed into “civilization.” In a classically Structuralist dramaturgy, the primal scene of the western world has Mesopotamian farmers-turned-scribes demarcating the landscape of their linear, riverine world into gridded agricultural fields, and then developing a written language to record the accumulated abundance of surplus production, which would later be used to write history, laws, and epic poetry. Elsewhere, however, Polynesian navigators learned to read and map the fluid mechanics of ocean waves in a much different way, defining a different conception of space; and the Incas farmed the high Andes and developed their own cosmology and chronology, while their accountants kept the “books,” not in printed leaves but in a sophisticated system of knotted ropes. These various thought-forms are defined by the different way in which they deploy practices of seeing, representing, and building structures of interrelated parts, in which the abstract and the concrete are synthesized and hybridized, and through which energy and information, matter and meaning, flow and are transformed. These techniques and technologies then run parallel with, or even drive, the development of more abstract, ontological, and metaphysical schema which define the ideological frameworks of social lifeworlds, and the perceptions and experiences of those who inhabit them.

A specific genealogy of systems and the systematizing impulse can, however, be imagined that, in the west, develops from the Renaissance reappraisal of classical idealism and runs from there through the reformation, the enlightenment, and into the succession of catastrophes and revolutions — both political and industrial — through which capitalism and modern techno-science emerged and came to define first, modernity and then, modernism. The power, and as well as many of the tragic flaws, of this intellectual tradition lies in the ability to see, in such things as a steam engine’s “self-indexing,” regulation systems or the pragmatics of double-entry book keeping, integrated regimes of abstraction, rationalization, and interconnection expanding to encompass the entire world or, as Stewart Brand termed it, the “Whole Earth.” The Enlightenment, as both a period and a project, would give systems an explicit role in the imagination of the newly emerging bourgeoisie who were transforming the world by building networks of dynamic circulation and fluid exchange that would rupture and dissolve the power of the static, grounded, and heaven-ordained structures of the old feudal order. The philosophy — perhaps “their philosophy” — that sought to understand, find reason in, and impose order upon, the new world taking shape in the wake of this disruption, would construct a clock-work universe which, however unknowably hypercomplex it might be, was fundamentally rational and causal. The unknowability of the ways of god, and of the sacred world over which he reigned sovereign, was replaced by the chaotic, but manageable world of risk, chance, and fortune; and the miraculous and the mysterious were replaced by the aleatoric, the parametric, and the statically determined. With the development of modernity, the theorization of systems became an element of practical, material projects aimed at creating limited, constructible “worlds” within whatever universal order could be said to exist. As a cataloging of different things and kinds of things, and a mapping of the interactions that take place between them, the thinking of systems has made it possible to conceive of language, culture, and time-based events as having structure, and to give form to such immaterial things as social relations and networks of exchange or communication — thus opening all of these as sites for engineering, management, and design in all its various forms.

There is, of course, a constellation of projects and discourses directly and explicitly related to systems and systems thinking, which have come to be understood as hallmarks of the historical moment of the 1960s and 1970s. The foundational elements, such as the theory of cybernetics, developed from being specific, if ambitiously framed, concepts relating information science and industrial management, to become a broad, at times almost spiritual, cultural ethos applied to a wide array of subjects including ecology, political-economy, architecture and urban space, media, and society. Interest in systems would flourish in both technocratic government and corporate environments; and in some of the most radical, counter-cultural contexts, and would, in fact, connect and form points of exchange between these. These linkages existed both in the contemporary moment and extended backwards in time from the utopian speculations, Architecture Machines, and cybernetic world games, of the 60s and 70s through the modernist conceptions of function and functionalism, Fordism and Scientific Management in industry, and to the technocratic utopian theories of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Tracing this trajectory produces a collection of often contradictory conceptions of the way in which architecture, engineering, and design can be “linguistic” or carry semiotic meaning, conceptions that would prefigure debates and struggles to define postmodernism and determine its stakes. Conversely, parallel conceptualizations of relationships between energy flows and material transformation, to the production and transmission of information, would trouble and give an ideological loading to the terms by which these concepts are objectified and take on concrete materiality. Within this historical context, themes of the political — and perhaps even more interestingly, the apolitical — reoccur as designers, planners, managers, and technicians would seek to define, dictate, or escape from the terms of their engagement with, or entanglement within, the circuits of power and the social relations of production.

As systems thinking and the Structuralist schema supporting it hardened into an established — if never monolithic — paradigm, the limitations and contradictions became increasingly manifest, and it would face both sharp criticism and a wider cultural backlash from a number of directions. Leftist poststructuralist and post-colonial projects would critique the violence of the reductive abstraction underpinning many systems concepts, and push back on the ahistorical, universalizing, and totalizing impulses of projects that would impose, rather than simply imagine, a global wholeness. Conservative opposition would, in often similar ways, seek to assert the continuity of culture, the autonomy of the presumed-to-be-natural human subject, and the fundamentally unknowable and thus unmappable and unplannable nature of the world — or at least the market. As the 1970s became the 1970s, microcosmic utopias seemed less like bright futures and more like dystopian dead-ends; rational economic and social planning was increasingly rejected in favor of chaotic, “market-based solutions;” and mysteriously mutating viruses made the free expression of desire in relations between people deadly, while making brutally manifest the deeply ideological nature of science, medicine, and the production of knowledge.

This rhizomatic force — equal parts critique, course correction, and simple reaction — would proceed under the often confusingly interchangeable, double banners of neoconservatism and neoliberalism. It would continue to mutate and transform itself until it was able to return to a posture of futurist optimism in which many of the previously rejected systems concepts reappeared after having been reformed, rehabilitated, or simply reanimated by the voodoo of an imagined “new economy.” Since the later 1990s much critical scholarship, and often-less-critical design discourse, has mapped connections between ostensibly new discussions of networks, information economies, “smart” cities (constructed of smart materials and filled with smart consumer products), the social implications of “big data,” and the political implications of “social media;” and conceptualizations of systems and “structure” that had originally informed cybernetics, expanded media/cinema, systems ecology, and the diverse manifestations of a ‘structuralist’ turn in modern architecture in the 1960s and 1970s. The more uncritical parts of this discourse — of which citations will not be given to protect the inexcusably innocent — have tended to trade in a certain nostalgic retro-revivalism that either seeks to mine this history as a source for formal play or, taking up shopworn reactionary tropes about the failure of modernism and foreclosure of utopia, read it as the earnest but unrealistically delirious fantasies of wild dreamers and holy fools. In its more critical valences, however, this reappraisal can be seen as recalling the ways in which cybernetic concepts and the range of techno-utopian art, design, architecture, and scientific and pseudoscientific projects they informed and inspired, have persisted and been reutilized in the “California Ideology” of tech industry and culture.

Ten or even five years ago, when this ideology was still in ascendance, it would have been possible to talk about a resurgence of interest in systems as ‘contemporary’ and understand it as a — more or less critical, more or less conscious — attempt to understand the origins, directions, and temporality of a time in which it seemed that the eternal present imagined by neoliberal Capitalism had arrived. Recently, however, this multifaceted revival movement has been met, on a discursive level, by a corresponding remobilization of the critiques and contestations leveled at cybernetics and Structuralism in their original formations. At the same time, its more optimistically affirmative forms in popular culture seem increasingly eclipsed by a corresponding rise of reactionary and conservative tendencies which darkly mirror the other, more malign counter currents that opposed structuralist or systems thinking when they appeared as hallmarks of a continuing, expanding, later modernism.

This issue of Counter-Signals will attempt to assemble a reappraisal of the reappraisal that returned systems to the discursive foreground. It will ask whether there is still utility, value, or “truth” in returning to the project to embrace rationalized hyper-complexity, and understand, map, and hopefully control or at least negotiate with the totality and wholeness of a dynamic, interconnected, network world. It will consider whether it is necessarily and universally the case that metabolic, “living systems” are delivered dead-on-arrival as, in Baudrillard’s terms, “carcass[es] of signs and flux,” dreams of harmonious homeostatic balance have become counter-insurgency doctrines and oppressive regimes of diffuse but all-pervasive social control, and cybernetic utopias collapse into what Clare Bishop calls “artificial hells.” And it will seek out insights, lessons, and what Superstudio called “cautionary tales,” in the history of systems and their revivals, revisions, and reactions.

The issue is currently in process and developing in dialogue with friends, critics and contributors. We hereby extend an open invitation to anyone who would like to become a part of this conversation by offering comments, suggestions, and especially contributions.