Prof. Bullock’s response to hybrid assignment 09

In response to the question posed in this week’s reading, about what distinguishes the New Left from the New Communalists, many of you noted the change of consciousness that was sought by the New Communalists in contrast to political efforts to eliminate the hierarchy of power prevalent in the US in the 1960s. There is an interesting relationship to institutionality that is implicit to the way Turner distinguishes these two groups. Where members of the New Left were fighting the University, “laying their bodies across the stairways and office floors of the institution” (Turner 2006:13), Turner proposes the New Communalists sought freedom from the institution itself. More over freedom from the institution is characterized in relationship to matter, and an identity that has no body. As former lyricist for the Grateful Dead, John Perry Barlow, writes “Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are all based in matter, and there is matter here. Our identities have no bodies, so, unlike you, we cannot obtain order by physical coercion. We believe that from ethics, enlightened self-interest, and the commonweal, our governance will emerge” (Quoted in Turner 2006:13).

But equally as curious as the identity that Barlow describes is the way Turner is linking this social identity to the institutional context of MIT’s Radiation Laboratory (the Rad Lab). He describes Rad Lab as “a site of flexible, collaborative work and a distinctly nonhierarchical management style” (Turner 2006:19). Turner suggests that the new interdisciplinary networks that produced technologies for fighting the war were at the same time generating new ways of thinking and speaking. Drawing on the work of Peter Galison, Turner writes that “scientists, engineers, and administrators in the wartime laboratories worked not so much as members of a single culture, but rather as members of different professional subcultures bound together by common purpose and a set of linguistic tools they had invented to achieve it” (2006:19). Turner suggests the process of computation emerged from this context: where cybernetician Norbert Wiener and electrical engineer Vannevar Bush alongside others pursued scientific work in the boundaries between their varying disciplines.

All this is even more interesting when we consider how Turner connects the metaphor of computation to Wiener and Julian Bigelow’s visions for the automaton and the self-regulating system. Wiener and Bigelow suggest that human beings are machines on some level that can be programmed as mechanical information processors. Understanding the relationship of behavior and purpose for these processors in connection with information theory is how Wiener defined the field of cybernetics. Cybernetics can also be understood as altering the way that society is defined. As both an organism and a machine, Wiener viewed society as a self-regulating system that uses the TV screen to measure and adjust its performance.

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