|ASC HOME||2002 Conference Home||About this Contribution|
American Society for Cybernetics
Design and the Call for Transcendence
865 Shalar Court
The conference organizers propose that the conference consider the assertion that: "Design is successful in proportion to its conformance with the systemics -- or cybernetics -- of ecology."
At the same time, their formulation of this assertion is carefully attuned to the possibility, indeed, the inevitability that paradox and contradiction will result as the processes of design and ecology enfold each other. In their words, "In all designing there is dissonance between the ideal, which is vague and perfect, and the manifestation in the world of an outcome, which is detailed and imperfect."
In this paper, I explore one of these paradoxes which I believe is both largely unavoidable, and quite troubling to our confidence in the desirability of design. This is the paradox surrounding those design projects which, on their face, appear to an outside observer to be irrational, ill-considered, self-defeating, where the perfection of the ideal is taken to excuse the already acknowledged imperfection of its manifestation, yet which succeed nonetheless. In contrast are those projects of which we ordinarily approve, which we may fervently hope achieve completion, yet which almost invariably do not. My claim is that the former group of projects -- apparently irrational in nature but successful in execution -- are ultimately motivated by what we can describe as "a call to transcendence"; in turn, the latter group -- rational but failures -- are not. I want to examine the logic of the apparently irrational in order to disclose a deeper rationality at the level of metaphysics, and the failure of the rational in terms of its disappointing vacuity at the level of metaphysics.
I should begin by saying a few words about what I mean by "transcendence." In this essay, I use the word synonymously with "myth," and use both words to describe the experience of finding oneself living in terms of a reality that one cannot control, that is larger than the self, a reality which one may not even have consciously chosen to enter. To live in terms of transcendence is to live out of oneself, ec-statically. It is to live inside myth, to find oneself carried along by the logic of the myth rather than by conscious intention. In the sense that I intend, to live in terms of transcendence, or to live in terms of myth, are amoral designations, neither necessarily morally good nor morally evil. To be addicted to some substance or to find oneself passionately in love would be examples of living under the call of transcendence, as equally would lives motivated by religious conviction or imperatives of social justice.
We experience the call of transcendence on a small scale on a regular basis. It is quite common. We often find ourselves taken over, sometimes by moods and strong emotions, sometimes by powerful ideas whose origin is obscure, by compelling memories that seem to arise from nowhere, by dreams and dream images. On the scale of life-projects, projects of design that serve to organize our living on the timescale of decades, this call is experienced as benign and desirable. We fall in love and form deep attachments to particular individuals. We plan families and the commitments they entail. We find ourselves called to vocation, to witnessing, to response-ibility. In these instances and many more, we find ourselves taken out of ourselves, impelled by psychological forces that often elude understanding but that we nonetheless accept.
Responding to such a call is an existential matter, not a cognitive matter. It is a demand placed upon one's entire being that one that one does not choose. One does not agree or disagree with it as though it were an objective business proposition. The domain of transcendence does not reach us as objective considerations to be carefully adjudicated. Rather, it manifests itself by our finding ourselves already swept up in it, participating prior to and even in opposition to conscious reflection.
Such calls lead one to lay claim to one's life as one's destiny. While the deep structure motivating such calls may remain forever obscure to us, we ordinarily do not consider submission to such calls to be irrational. Insofar as such projects make sense in terms of our lives, make sense of our lives, we say that they further our living, bring us to ourselves, enrich our experience. Indeed, participation within such a life-project is often understood as the experience of having found one's destiny.
It is worth underscoring that living in terms of a transcendent call takes place on the level of ordinary prosaic reality. It is not the case that one lives within myth as a separate reality, sacredly on Sunday morning and profanely the rest of the week (as in popular caricatures of religious sensibility) or in a dreamworld separate from the everyday, as a Walter Mitty. Rather, one lives within myth in one's everyday life; everydayness is how one lives mythically. The sacred and the profane, the transcendent and the ordinary, are lived simultaneously, inextricably.
This much I believe to be generally true of how we live with respect to transcendence. My particular concern in what follows, though, is with those calls of transcendence submission to which may appear to be difficult to comprehend and even irrational in character. Paradoxically, such calls are often highly motivating, and may energize design projects in ways that seemingly more comprehensible motivations may not. In what follows, I want to explore the paradox whereby the irrational can motivate more strongly than the rational. I develop my argument through a series of six assertions.
1. The call for transcendence is the ultimate motivation behind most, if not all, projects of design which an external observer would likely characterize as "irrational."
As cyberneticians, we already understand that the project of design is not original and independent, but rather arises within an ongoing whole (or system or ecology) as a "solution" to a "problem" (or "lack" or "gap" or "disequilibration," etc.) as perceived by some agency who, in this case, we can call the designers. I would argue that what is fundamental if we are to understand the process of design is to understand the motivation of the designers. How is it that a problem is conceived such that a proposed action will result in an outcome which will be deemed to have solved the problem?
In understanding motivation and the project of design, then, we cannot be content to try to understand it in terms of an immediate response to a perceived problem because to locate design at that level is to have isolated a part from the systemic whole in which the design project rests. Instead, hermeneutically and cybernetically, one must equally understand the whole to see how the particular project of design arose and makes sense in terms of that whole.
Part of my argument is to characterize the larger whole within which particular projects of design take on their meaning. In its general form, I would describe this larger whole as whatever it is that makes the designer feel most alive, what will impart the satisfying sense of self, what will confer upon one's actions the most personal meaning. For convenience, we can call this source of motivation a "myth," and we can think of myth as a domain of transcendence larger than the self that co-exists with the prosaic tedium of everyday life as its bright double. Participation within myth confers an enhanced vitality, an enriched life-feeling. It also confers a sense of profound importance and meaning upon one's living, redeeming it from its apparent mundanity and triviality. Indeed, part of the call of myth for many is precisely its superhero, comic book aspect, that one may appear to be Clark Kent when all the while also being Superman. One may be living in an heroic mode while to all observers one appears to be painfully ordinary, and may even cultivate this ordinariness as part of the mythos.
As a first pass, then, we could say that someone will have an illicit love affair to preserve their sense of eros, of feeling most alive, even in the face of consequences that are straightforwardly destructive of a marriage relationship.
2. Design projects that fail to take into account the call for transcendence will fail.
Gregory Bateson offers a suggestive account of how such a call motivates existential and epistemic change in his 1971 essay, "The Cybernetics of Self: A Theory of Alcoholism." (Psychiatry 34, No. 1 (1971): 1-18, reprinted in Steps to an Ecology of MInd (New York: Ballantine Books, 1972, pp. 309-337). There he contrasts the standard Western epistemology that opposes a self-sufficient subject to an external world with a "theological" model in which the self is understood to be a part of a larger whole. The former model, failing to acknowledge transcendence, makes resistance to alcohol a matter of will power; it is notably unsuccessful in treating alcoholism. The latter model, acknowledging transcendence, transforms resistance into an act of surrender to a more powerful being. As Bateson comments, "To be defeated by the bottle and to know it is the first spiritual experience.' The myth of self-power is thereby broken by the demonstration of a greater power" (p. 313).
His analysis of alcoholism rests upon an epistemic shift in the thinking of the alcoholic. According to Bateson, the alcoholic at first sees himself caught in a classic Cartesian opposition between an inviolate self and competing other -- the self versus desire, the body, alcohol. The will power of the isolated self is challenged by the temptation of drink; the struggle to resist alcohol is a struggle of the will. The alcoholic, by definition, fails, repeatedly, in this struggle, but he fails not as a consequence of a weak will or of the overwhelming power of desire, but precisely as a result of his own strength. As long as alcohol is resisted, the will is strong; but the very strength of the will, in order to be maintained as strong, requires further challenge. Such challenge can only be provided by alcohol, by challenging oneself to take one and only one drink and then to resist taking a second and a third. But of course, once one drink is consumed, the desire to have a second and a third proves to be overwhelming, and the cycle of drunkenness, resistance, temptation, test, failure, and drunkenness repeats itself.
Bateson's insight was that the symmetric logic of schismogenesis, in which temptation is countered by resistance in an ever-increasing series of challenges, is transformed by the logic of Alcoholic Anonymous. AA performs logical judo, transforming the symmetric logic of increasing struggle into the complementary logic of mutual accommodation. The first rule of AA is that "There is a Power greater than the self." Once this Power is truly acknowledged, and once one understands that alcohol is one version of this Power while God is another, the possibility exists for cure. One can cease struggling against alcohol by acknowledging its superior strength; but one can be cured of alcoholism by surrendering to a different fount of superior strength, God.
Both alcohol and God are stronger than the alcoholic. The alcoholic's error lies in thinking that he is as strong as alcohol, and can resist it through an act of will. Once he acknowledges his own limitation, once he acknowledges the existence of greater powers than himself, then his surrender to them will not be understood as a sign of weakness but rather as an act of self-knowlege and inner strength. He must surrender, but to God rather than to alcohol.
Bateson's lovely argument is that what is required of the alcoholic is, at first, a shift in epistemology: "Notably, the change is from a incorrect to a more correct epistemology" (p. 313). Here I would disagree in that the shift does not happen in this way experientially. Rather than the shift occurring on the epistemic level, I would suggest that it is a shift in metaphysics from which an epistemic shift also results secondarily. Metaphysics precedes epistemology. That is, I believe that first one experiences one's own limited power not as a cognitive matter, but as a matter of lived-experience -- of job loss, of destroyed relationships, of the deterioration of personal health, of finances, and, ultimately, of the acknowledgement of the failure of will alone -- and then one comes to an understanding both that there is a Power greater than the self, and that surrender to this Power offers a chance at salvation.
Bateson endorses the approach of AA because, in its understanding of how the person is situated as a part within a greater whole, its epistemology is correct. Following Bateson, I would do so because underlying that epistemology is an accurate framing of human motivation.
3. Design projects based on transcendence can "succeed" (even if they seem to be irrational).
What makes the suicide-bomber of, say, the Palestinian intifada so formidable is the apparent irrationality of his or her act, part of whose result will be the death of the bomber him- or herself. Yet it is not difficult to understand the appeal of being a suicide-bomber. It is payback against a hated enemy; it instills the fear of God; it is martyrdom for a sacred cause; it ensures that one's life will have honor within communal memory; it is an act of defiance against oppression, of freedom against tyranny, of desperation against implacable forces. It confers meaning on a life whose prosaic form is one of despair, of constant humiliation and indignity. In brief, it redeems existence. Its motivation is a motivation of transcendence.
The epistemology of the suicide-bomber is also that of Bateson's alcoholic. The prosaic style of life in which one acts on the basis of an implicit mutual respect that characterizes civil society is not viable. The suicide-bomber lives like the alcoholic who seeks to fight alcohol through a strong will. S/he may think s/he is an equal, opposed to an other, in a dance of mutual respect, but s/he is not. Instead, s/he is continually defeated, at every turn, by the generalized oppression of particular indignities, of inspection and interrogation and constant surveillance.
To live mythically, in a realm of transcendence, changes all this. Islam, after all, means surrender. To surrender to the higher will, the higher purpose, sanctifies one's living and one's dying, and removes forever the possible stain of personal responsibility. There is no personal responsibility in the realm of myth beyond loyalty to the myth itself.
In this context, it is useful to recall how much recent terror has been committed in the name of religious fundamentalism. The attacks of September 11 are the obvious example for us, but we should not forget a number of others. These include, among others:
Mark Juergensmeyer has interestingly observed of these acts that they are a kind of "performance violence," "intended to illustrate or refer to something beyond their immediate target: a grander conquest, for instance, or a struggle more awesome than meets the eye" (Terror in the Mind of God, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2001, pp. 123-124). But Juergensmeyer tends to literalize his metaphor of performance. He says, "When we who observe these acts take them seriously -- are disgusted and repelled by them, and begin to distrust the peacefulness of the world around us -- the purposes of this theater are achieved" (p. 126).
Agreeing in the main with Jeurgensmeyer but going a step further, I would suggest that the intention of this performance violence is less toward the literal audience of bystanders than it is to the community of adherents, and ultimately to the source of transcendence in whose name the acts are committed. These distinct forms of terror all take place within distinct mythic logoi such that the particularity of each mundane historical moment takes on transcendent meaning. In turn, the mythos legitimates the acts of terror themselves, sanctifying them with a perverse innocence. If I sacrifice myself for my god, I am blameless.
But it is important that we not restrict our conception of the mythic or the transcendent to the domain of religion alone. There are any number of secular examples that illustrate the same dynamic, running a full gamut from the isolated individual to the collective nation state:
One might reasonably ask, where is the transcendence to be found in such murders as these? Theo Padnos, who taught a literature class in the Vermont state prisons in which Laird Beer was his best student, has observed of his students: "'The goal for the bright ones is to truly mesmerize the middle class with violence....The papers always describe their crimes as "senseless," and "meaningless," and "unmotivated," and these kids themselves always come off as "cold" and "distant" to the reporters. The details of their crimes are always covered with the tightest possible focus, as if meaning might be found there. The result is just what they'd been hoping for: terrifying, mesmerizing violence, and no context.'" (Theo Padnos, quoted in Ron Powers, "The Apocalypse of Adolescence," Atlantic Monthly (March 2002): 68). In other words, my ability to utterly confound you, to act in a way that is so alien to all your accustomed modes of reason and explanation that your only response to me can be dumbfounded terror and confusion, can itself be a project of transcendence. This is particularly the case for youth, all of whose sense of reality, and all of that against which they will therefore react, has been provided for them, ready-made and apparently complete, by their parents and schools. For youth, confuting what seems so undeniable and inevitable can be highly motivating.
Of the Nazis, Adolf Eichmann brings into sharp relief the psychological dynamic of the pull of transcendence. On the one hand, Hannah Arendt famously found his cunning, bureaucratic mind to be so ordinary that it embodied the "banality of evil." On the other, Eichmann was devoted to Hitler and clearly saw the Nazis as engaged in a world-historical project of profound importance, within which he modestly fulfilled his minor role. As Arendt herself observes of Eichmann upon his joining the SS, "From a humdrum life without significance and consequence the wind had blown him into History, as he understood it, namely, into a Movement." (Eichmann in Jerusalem, as quoted in Daniel Gochberg, ed., Classics of Western Thought, Volume V, The Twentieth Century, New York, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1980, p. 38). As I have argued above, one lives the mundane and the mythic in the same moments.
I would cite one other figure from the German context for his intrinsic interest to cyberneticians. Jakob von Uexkull is important to cybernetics in general, and to biology in particular, for his development of the concept of the Umwelt, or of the functional, sensory-motor universe within which organisms live. (Much of the following discussion of von Uexkull is indebted to Anne Harrington, Reenchanted Science. Holism in German Culture from Wilhelm II to Hitler (Princeton University Press, 1996).) The Umwelt is a systemic concept, specifying how the activity of the organism cannot be separated from its environment, how instead organism and environment enact an ongoing, self-regulating whole of mutual adaptation. von Uexkull drew upon the tradition of Goethean holistic biology, given increasing importance in the context of the strict mechanism of mainstream biology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Goethean biology, romantic biology, offered an alternative to what was widely understood to be the soulless, reductionist, and life-hating world-view of contemporary science and its industrial civilization.
von Uexkull's biology was and is important to me personally. It was very influential on my thinking when I was in graduate school in the 1980s for its compatibility with Piaget's constructivism, Maturana's autopoiesis, and Varela's enactivism. It was an alternative to the hegemony of mechanistic biology, an hegemony that continues today. Yet at the same time, von Uexkull's biology suggested a world-view that affiliated him with the worst aspects of National Socialism. Though not a Nazi himself, he shared its anti-Semitism, but for the best of cybernetic reasons.
Following the racial theories of his time, von Uexkull believed that races were natural subdivisions of species, and that Volker were natural subdivisions of races. Each Volk could be identified by its distinct language. Germany clearly consisted of one such Volk. The organizational realization of the Volk on the micro level was the family; on the macro level it was the State.
von Uexkull was devasted by the defeat of Germany in World War I. In a letter to his good friend and the Nazi's favorite ideologue, Houston Stuart Chamberlain, written one month after the armistice, von Uexkull observes,
"And here is where the genotype comes in....This healthy basic energy exists in the Germans, and there will also never be a dearth of spiritual leaders who can cause a state organism to develop out of this material. When the sickness has worn itself out, and the stuff responsible for the infection has been neutralized, the new process of growth can begin." (quoted in Harrington, p. 58)
What is this sickness to which he refers? In another letter to Chamberlain, he points out,
"The cohesive power of the Jewish Volk is admirable. For that, the Jews are completely incapable of building a state. All they produce is just a parasitic net that everywhere corrodes national structures and transforms the Volk into fermenting piles of pulp." (quoted in Harrington, p. 60)
In von Uexkull's vision, the creative, self-regulating whole that is Germany is being parasitized by the uncreative, self-regulating whole that is the Jews.
The point that this example allows me to underscore is the danger of the call to transcendence. Why would a thinker as naturally insightful as von Uexkull distort holistic, cybernetic thinking? In von Uexkull's particular case, it has much to do with his aristocratic upbringing and lifelong preferences for natural hierarchy against the chaos of the democratic mob. But more generally, we can characterize it as a failure to enact the observer function of second-order cybernetics. The lesson here might be, cybernetics without second-order cybernetics is inadequate for social theory.
4. Living in terms of transcendence is as dangerous as it is attractive.
Like all epistemology, that of myth and the domain of transcendence is self-confirming and self-generating. Cybernetically, this is a predictable consequence of the circular nature of causality. Existentially, however, it means that human motivation will act inertially, making it difficult to alter an existential commitment once that commitment is set into motion.
Cognitively, the alteration to such a commitment takes the form of critique, of internal criticism. To speak the language of second-order cybernetics, it is the function of the observer to notice one's existential commitments and alter them as required in order to bring them into accord with all that one knows.
Within the domain of myth, however, such critique is extremely difficult if not impossible altogether. The surrender to higher purpose sanctifies one's living and one's dying as it removes forever the possible stain of personal responsibility. There is no personal responsibility in the realm of myth beyond loyalty to the myth itself.
Indeed, living in terms of transcendence makes cybernetic self-correction very difficult, for two distinct reasons. First, the act of existential surrender to the myth makes critique of the myth unlikely, for the act of surrender already entails a whole-hearted self-subjectification to the truth of transcendence. To submit to the pull of myth is uncritical by definition.
Second, that from which one has fled equally makes resistance to the myth unlikely. The appeal of myth in the first place is precisely that surrender to it seems the most coherent and life-fulfilling act one could perform under unsatisfactory real-world conditions. To abandon the myth is both to revoke allegiance from that which promised to be salvific, and worse, to return one without resources to precisely the same unsatisfying reality from which one sought to escape.
To put it another way, consider how difficult it is to invoke the observer from within a mythic frame, let alone to act upon what one notices. One cannot afford to allow oneself to observe for fear of what one might notice; one cannot afford to doubt. As in a classic double-bind, should one find oneself beginning to doubt the myth, one must suppress not only one's doubting but also the consciousness that one was on the verge of doubting. To even entertain, even in the most provisional way, any notion of doubt toward the myth is already to have moved beyond it. To be in the myth is to accept the truth of the myth without question.
Alternatively, the consequences of doubt are almost entirely negative both psychologically and socially. Socially, one encounters dishonor and further alienation, the disrespect and contempt of one's peers. Psychologically, if one abandons the myth one may not simply re-assume a posture within prosaic reality, as though nothing had happened. One is likely to feel even more alienated, but also to now feel anomie, a loss of ground, as that which was thought to be salvific is revealed as fraudulent or flawed. Moreover, one returns to prosaic reality with no more affection for it and no more psychological resources to cope with it than before.
In short, living in terms of transcendence will tend to deaden the observer function of second-order cybernetics. Within the myth there is no critique. Indeed, one might generalize and simply note that wherever one lives without the possibility of self-critique -- for instance, uncritical love towards one's country or family or lover -- then one lives within myth.
5. These observations can be brought together within what I will call "the paradox of transcendence and design," or the realization that rational design sometimes fails, while irrational design sometimes succeeds, depending on whether or not the deep rationale for the design project is provided by a domain of transcendence.
Rational design -- that is, design that is often desirable from the perspective of the observer but that is not grounded in transcendence -- will often fail through its lack of motivational appeal. For example, such worthy but unglamourous projects as those concerned with social justice and human rights often fail insofar as they are unable to capture a lasting existential enthusiasm. In fighting hunger of homelessness or poverty, too much of the effort seems purely prosaic, a grinding out of aid and comfort day by day. The rhetorical appeal of a "war on drugs" cannot match the existential appeal of a drug-induced high. The good cause is always a good cause, but it may lack the existential pull of transcendence.
More prosaically, I would argue that the reason that it is so difficult to break bad habits -- smoking, overeating, nailbiting, that sort of thing
-- is that their secure place within the overall ecology of the psyche is coupled with a lack of motivation to alter that ecology. What myth does one invoke to motivate a change on that level? Appeals to "common sense," or to "my future good health", etc., seem so abstract, so weak. If the sole cognitive force one can muster is that of the will, of Bateson's alcoholic resolving to master the bottle all by oneself, then the outcome of one's resolve is likely to disappoint more often than not.
Conversely, irrational design -- that is, design that is often undesirable from the perspective of the observer but that is motivated by transcendence -- will often succeed, but at the cost of a perpetuation of the irrational. The Nazi project to re-design German life, or the Palestianian intifada as an effort to secure nationhood were/are compelling in their mythic aspiration even as they countenance a disturbing degree of violence in their prosaic manifestation. To participate in the myth, one must trivialize not the violence itself, but one's narrow, personal responsibility for violent acts. Violence carried out for the self is selfish and unworthy; violence committed for the Other, for the cause, is redemptive. Again the double-bind: the observer of such holy violence is enjoined not to notice the fact that the perpetrator is in fact responsible for the violence as an act of freely generated, willful aggression, especially when the observer and the perpetrator are one and the same person. There then follow the ingenuous attempts at legitimation put forward by spokespersons of terrorist causes -- that attacks on infants and pregnant women are justified, for example, because they too are the enemy, or that oppression forced desperate acts of resistance. These "justifications" are hollow on their face. It is hard to believe anyone could believe them. Yet they are not cynical rationalization, precisely because the terrorist and the spokesperson must believe them in order to remain within the myth.
6. The paradox of transcendence and design suggests that desirable and effective design projects must possess a kind of passionate telos that is deeply motivating while at the same time remaining subject to the critique of the observer.
What is needed is a kind of motivational goal that deeply involves the self while also being revocable in the face of changing facts on the ground, changing realities and circumstances. Such a balance between passion and critique, between conviction and flexibility, is extremely difficult to achieve. It is essentially impossible to achieve as long as true believers remain enthralled, not as a matter of cognitive conviction, but as a matter of existential immersion within transcendence.
There is something deeply troubling here, especially as it goes to the heart of the observer-function. It seems strange yet oddly true that we are divided against ourselves, that we can live simultaneously in two distinct worlds, one of the mundane, one of the transcendent, and that living in terms of transcendence is vitalizing while living without transcendence is moribund. It seems even more oddly true that the ability to bring these worlds into coincidence, to live in both not only simultaneously as an experiential fact but as a realized calling, is amoral. Despite our intuition that living one's transcendence within one's immanence seems infinitely desirable, a rare possibility of profound fulfillment that rescues ordinary lives from routine and decline, it nonetheless seems to be the case that such a mode of living has no moral compass centered in personal judgment. Instead, living in myth demands that one surrender one's moral sensibility -- a sensibility whose cultivation within the individual is perhaps the proudest claim of the Western intellectual tradition -- to the moral imperatives of the myth. Virtually every example I have cited in this paper is of an individual or group who brought their mythos into consciousness as they lived it, and virtually every example I have cited in this paper is of pathology. To live within myth is to live set free from the mundane, to live with a kind of contempt and disregard for the mundane including that mundanity we call personal ethics.
To live one's transcendence is an existential affirmation of what one might call one's destiny. Yet to live one's destiny may only be possible at the cost of distorting or destroying the observer-function altogether.
|ASC HOME||BACK: 2002 Conference Contributions||Top of Page|
ABOUT THIS ARCHIVED CONTRIBUTION:
This HTML transcription was generated from (e.g.) an electronic manuscript and/or whatever other record materials were available. The manuscript has been transcribed "as is" - i.e., with no modifications beyond those minor ones required for basic Web viewing (e.g., tagging special characters, converting graphics).
HTML transcription: Randy Whitaker, October 2002