Enlightenment Cybernetics: Communications and Control in the Man-Machine

By Muri, Allison | Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Enlightenment Cybernetics: Communications and Control in the Man-Machine


Muri, Allison, Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation


A scientific commonplace is that the human organism is a complex communications system. Within the body, the network of nervous system and brain communicates or transmits information through a series of electrical channels compared to telephone wires or computer processors. (1) Such comparisons have resonated with portrayals of networked communications technologies as an "extension" of the human nervous system in certain strands of media theory and cultural studies. Following Marshall McLuhan's decades-old pronouncement of a new "global consciousness," the imagined melding of individual subjectivity with the network of electric and electronic communications media has symbolized the evolution to a new technological identity frequently identified as the posthuman or the cyborg. And for many writers theorizing this new identity, the cyborg has signified either a more democratic future or an imminent disintegration of morals and community engagement. These predictions, however, are contingent upon a history of metaphors, and their apparent certainty has been reinforced by a discursive tradition that has defined the laws of matter and motion since at least the early modern period when the human body was first imagined as a machine. The "posthuman cyborg" is a descendent of the man-machine, not merely because the mechanistic philosophy made simplistic and ultimately unsatisfactory comparisons of clockwork mechanisms to organic ones. Most particularly, we should understand the cyborg and its historical counterpart in the early modern man-machine as steered organisms, whose functions depend upon the transmission of messages. The speculations upon the government of cyborg individuals and cyborg society that were especially common in the 1980s and 1990s have a lexical history in early modern representations of the man-machine's knowledge, judgment, and will as a function of control and communications.

In 1948, when Norbert Wiener coined the term that would describe the study of control and communications in the human nervous system and automatic machines, he based it upon an analogy of steering ships or machine governors:

   We have decided to call the entire field of control and
   communication theory, whether in the machine or in the animal, by
   the name cybernetics, which we form from the Greek [TEXT NOT
   REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] [sic] or steersman. In choosing this term,
   we wish to recognize that the first significant paper on feed-back
   mechanisms is an article on governors, which was published by Clerk
   Maxwell in 1868, and that governor is derived from a Latin
   corruption of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] [sic]. We also wish
   to refer to the fact that the steering engines of a ship are indeed
   one of the earliest and best developed forms of feed-back
   mechanisms. (2)

The cybernetic organism is steered, or governed, and it is a communications system. The equation of cybernetic human and machine in mathematically based analogies eventually would be posed in media and cultural studies as an actual synthesis of human being into cybernetic organism--a new being both human and machine. By the end of the twentieth century the cyborg, a self "situated beyond the skin," was frequently imagined as a substantiated certainty of the radical evolution to posthumanity, where "what it means to be human is no longer being immersed in genetic memory but in being reconfigured in the electromagnetic field of the circuit." (3)

Such pronouncements of radical change are seemingly unaware of their congruence with three-hundred-year-old metaphors for human consciousness or identity as pilot, steersman, or monarch in the brain communicating via material mechanisms with body systems and external environment. What has in part inspired this investigation into what we might call the "Enlightenment cyborg" is the confidence that networked communications mean inevitable and profound changes to the physiology of consciousness and the government of the body politic. …

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