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For Vilém Flusser, the word “cybernetic” has two meanings: as a technical term, it characterizes the technological condition of the present; at the same time, it is a concept of an absolute presence in the sense of the loss of historical categories of thought, such as politics, ideology, critique, and ethics. Cybernetics stands, in the first meaning, for the “automatic guidance and control of complex systems to take advantage of improbable accidents and to generate information” (Into the Universe of Technical Images, 2011, p. 125); in the second, for the epistemological signature of a present in which all historicity shrinks to a new, ahistorical form of the present.

In various theoretical contexts (image, writing, work, etc.), cybernetics refers to the third and final phase of a historical macrostructure. For example, terminological trinities, such as ontological – ethical – technical, politics – science – method, engaged – researching – functioning, to what end? – why? – how?, commandments – laws – programs, respectively refer to the periods classical antiquity to the Middle Ages, the modern era, and the brief twentieth century. For Flusser, cybernetics occurred toward the end of the industrial revolution with the synchronization and coupling of machines and people into cybernetic “apparatuses.” In the apparatus, functioning becomes absolute: it becomes an end in itself of value-free thinking and action and hence a “totalitarianism of the apparatus” (Nachgeschichte, 1993, p. 192; translated from the German)*. Because “how” questions become dominant as a result, cybernetics reduces every epistemological interest to methodology. Ontological or metaphysical questions thus become questions that are wrongly posed existentially, because they presume transcendence over the cybernetic dominance of functioning and systemic self-control. From the eradication of the difference of “to be” and “supposed to” associated with this, the “post-historical” situation of cybernetics results.

Flusser was reserved with respect to cybernetic hopes. For him, the disappearance of historical, political, and ethical categories also meant the disappearance of freedom and hence of human dignity. The cybernetic promise that human beings would come into their own as those who set the goals for the cybernetic ensembles, would be freed up for creative activity, and would establish an economy of surplus rather than one of scarcity is deceptive because it is itself still conceived in historical categories. Instead, Flusser designs various “post-historical” social types, such as the functionary, the desperate, the technocrat, the terrorist, and the environmentalist. Attempts to resist the dominance of functioning are systematically discouraged, because they are integrated cybernetically as new functions of the apparatus.

Although Flusser hardly cites any references at all, it is possible to locate his reflections on cybernetics within the history of this discourse. The discussion of Sachzwang [objective constraint], a term coined by Helmut Schelsky, points to a disillusionment about the pathos of historical change after 1945. Cybernetics as an agent of objectivity was supposed to reduce political decisions and individual actions in favor of fulfilling functions, and was criticized for “lacking alternatives” already in the 1960s. Reinhart Koselleck identied the modern interweaving of the “space of experience” (past) and the “horizon of expectation” (future) as a feature of historical epochs, which Flusser collapses into the functionality of a present without a horizon. Norbert Wiener, Max Bense, and others combined the emergence of cybernetic “slaves” with the hope for a new economy and a new humanism – a notion that Flusser rejects as “optimism of faith in progress” based on erroneous basic concepts. Finally, Niklas Luhmann proposed that stability should no longer be presumed to be the core of the essence of beings, but rather placed on the agenda for nonontological research as a resolvable problem and embedded in the systemic categories of purpose. In combination with the simultaneously “built” systems theories in computer simulation, this would appear to be the source of Flusser’s diagnosis of a hegemony of method.

* Editorial note: This passage does not exist in the English edition.

Original article by Claus Pias in Flusseriana

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