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    the mechanisms and metaphors of a democratic machine: cybernetics and cultural governance in Lithuania

    | 2006-06-28 | 06:06
    temos: ENGLISH

    The article focuses on a relatively unexplored area – the history of the relation between culture and technology in Lithuania. The author briefly discusses historical aspects of cybernetics – the science of control and communication – and its theoretical implications for a general theory of governance. Being an experimental sketch, the article does not aim to deliver an exhaustive analysis of the phenomenon. Rather, its purpose is finding an integrating perspective for understanding the development of science, politics and culture in the twentieth century Lithuania.

    Egle Rindzeviciute is currently working on her doctoral dissertation on cybernetics and cultural policy in Lithuania. Her main research interests concern neo-liberal governance in Lithuania and Western Europe and especially the governmentality theory of Michel Foucault. She is also interested in culture and organization theory, and the history of science and politics.

    The idea that society can be understood as operating like a machine is not a new one. Since the seventeenth century, theories of engineering and of social and state governance often borrowed metaphors and mechanisms from each other (Mayr 1986; Beniger 1986). On the other hand, there had been many philosophical arguments made that imagining society as a machine inevitably simplifies and impoverishes human relations.

    This attitude is often expressed in the debates about the fatal effects of totalitarian governance. Its adherents say that using the analogy of the machine for understanding and regulating the sphere of human relations distorts the very essence of these connections. In their view, the mechanisms created by man can not reflect social diversity, the predictability of the machines is not compatible with creativity and the machines’ instrumental function contradicts the idea of freedom. Precisely these arguments were articulated in post-Marxist theory by Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man (1991) or Theodor Adorno, The Culture Industry (2001). This position has been also defended by the critics of Max Weber. Think of Hannah Arendt’s critique of a totalitarian bureaucracy (1976) or the criticisms of the factory as a model of civilization by Lithuanian sociologist Vytautas Kavolis (1998).

    However, from an historical perspective, the relationship of machine-governance-society is much more complicated. As a rule, the above-mentioned representatives of a rage against the machine did not look deeper into the history of engineering and mechanical thought. Therefore it is not surprising that they ended up reducing the notion of a machine when defending the autonomy of social relations.

    Thus, the critics of society-quo-machine often drew on a specific concept of machine and did not take into consideration other possible dimensions of the subject. Rephrasing Marcuse, their critical theories were based on a one-dimensional understanding of a machine. That is, they saw the machine as a closed and deterministic mechanism, but there have been many different kinds of machines. Otto Mayr, a German historian of technology and science, attempted to relate the development of machines, engineering and democratic governance. According to Mayr, it is not by an accident that the invention of a self-regulating mechanism (Watt’s steam engine, 1769) was contemporaneous with eighteenth century philosopher David Hume’s ideas on political economy (1752) and economic self-regulation by Adam Smith (1776). Certainly, the mechanism of self-regulation or, in other words, automated action, predated the theory of a liberal economic system – an original invention of the eighteenth century (see Mayr 1970; Mindell 2002). But, as Mayr says, if the clockwork mechanism can be used as a metaphor for authoritarian rule, the steam engine, that is open to other substances and is controlled by a special “governor” which releases the steam excess when pressure raises, can be held out as an example of a democratic mechanism. Here Mayr has in mind an important novelty: the possibility of inducing change that exists in a self-regulating mechanism (Mayr 1986).

    Even though the nineteenth century delivered a really amazing multitude of inventions of automated mechanisms, a real paradigmatic break in the history of machines took place during World War II (Agar 2003). On the one hand, the first electronic calculation machines (ENIAC and COLOSSUS) were constructed in the USA and Great Britain at that time. On the other hand, essentially new principles of control that demanded the use of electronic mechanisms were formulated in developing anti-aircraft defence in the USA. Developed in the creation and improvement of servomechanisms, those principles of control drew on statistical probability theory, information transmission and feedback. After the war these concepts and technologies were integrated into a discipline called cybernetics. Further, they came to be used not only in the military, but also in economics, communication, medicine, genetics, biotechnologies, psychology et cetera (Hayles 1999). Together with the parallel development of general system theory by Austrian mathematician Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1973), the theoretical principles and vocabulary of cybernetics permeated different spheres of knowledge and power.

    Eventually cybernetics – a science that was born through creating machines of destruction – became a source of ideas that was plentifully used by theoreticians and practitioners of liberal democratic governance in the twentieth century. At the beginning of the 1970s, the heights of cybernetics’ popularity, many were convinced that the application of this mechanism might be nearly universal. From the 1960s, cybernetics, created by the genius American mathematician Norbert Wiener (Wiener 1949; 1950) became a dominating paradigm in discourses and practices of technological, social and biological governance (Harraway 1991; Hayles 1999).

    From today’s perspective it is quite clear that some cybernetic concepts outlived the discipline they were originally conceived in (see Hayles 1999). If the word “cybernetics” sounds like an exotic relict today (1), its key idea of “feedback” became an essential element of governance, both in private organizations and state politics. Thinking about organizations as systems – that are dynamic and interact with other systems and are open to the influence of their environment – became a commonplace in everyday discourses in both public policy and industry management. The idea that an object of governance is a part of a dynamic system that is defined through multiple flows of information became not only a conceptual tool of every manager, but also was embodied in computer networks. Digital electronic machines that enable cybernetic governance became as commonplace as a clock.

    In this way Wiener’s simple but radically new ideas, formulated in 1948, became an integral part of common knowledge in the “advanced” parts of the world. Moreover, those ideas being a part of an everyday discourse of “normality” and “naturality” represent power and are the source of power (Foucault 1972). Therefore it is extremely interesting to look closer at the genealogy of cybernetics and notions of new machines. How did the science of governance, the metaphors and mechanisms of a cybernetic machine develop in Lithuania? What was their relation with and influence on culture? It seemed, in the Lithuania of the 1960s, that the authoritarian socialist regime was there to stay forever. How was communist governance combined with cybernetics and to what extent did it appropriate the principles of a democratic machine?

    Historically, “soft” methods of governance, based not on brutal force but on feedback and the adaptation of self-regulating systems (individuals, communities), were identified with the technologies of Western democratic regimes. The very idea of freedom figured as an important instrument of governance in liberal discourse (Rose 2004). To implement this, new conceptual and administrative technologies of governance were used (Foucault 2001). Now, Norbert Wiener held that cybernetics was the most suitable system for dealing with a liberal subject, because cybernetic technology was specially designed to control objects that act in an indeterminate way. In other words, the “free” behaviour of a governed object was understood not causally, but with the help of statistical probability theory.

    However, as history has revealed, a seemingly strong parallel between the theoretical principles of cybernetics and liberalism did not prevent its use in cruel authoritarian regimes. So-called “liberal” technologies of government – that designate a new mode of power, an administrative and technical governance-at-a-distance that is based upon the idea of self-regulation of governed objects – were used in both Western democracies and the Soviet Union (Agar 2003; Beniger 1986). On the other hand, cybernetic methods contributed to the softening of authoritarian rule. They were important: no other scientific discipline, according to eminent historians of science (Vucinich 1984; Graham 1987; Gerovitch 2002) could measure up in significance and influence to cybernetics in the Soviet Union. Since the 1970s cybernetic concepts, so much resembling the vocabulary of  liberal “government-at-a-distance”, permeated cultural and political discourses not only in Moscow, but also, even though sometimes less reflexively used, in Soviet Lithuania.

    In the Soviet Union the science of cybernetics was condemned as a bourgeois pseudo-science (in Russian lzhenauka) at the beginning of the 1950s, but by 1955 was fully rehabilitated. Since then its application has broadened. At the beginning of the 1970s the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) more than once attempted to draw the attention of the American government that “the Soviet notion of cybernetics is much wider than America” (Conway and Siegelman 2005) and that “its sphere became so wide that threaten to overcome even Marxism” (Graham cf Conway and Siegelman 2005; also Dechert 1966). Although the CIA certainly overestimated the cybernetic powers of the Soviets (see Castells 1995) it is an important cue for further investigation into the spread of cybernetics in governance and culture.

    As the historian of science Slava Gerovitch sharply noted, the expansion of cybernetics from a mathematical theory and technical science into a general theory of control can be seen first in terminology. According to Gerovitch, in cybernetic texts the English term control used to be translated into Russian as kontrol’ (in Lithuanian kontrolė). Eventually, during the 1960s “control” came to be translated as upravleniie that is closer to governance (In Lithuanian valdymas). If the first version of translation refers rather to a technical and secondary supervision, based on checks, then upravleniie and valdymas possess a much wider meaning and entails the constitution of the governable object (Gerovitch 2002:252, for more 2000).

    To what extent cybernetics as a theory of governance influenced culture in the Soviet period is an interesting and complicated question. As is widely known, despite ideological rigidity and official formalization in setting plans, norms and methodologies, in practice Soviet governance often did not live up to its formal norms of rationality and relied instead on the power of individual actors (Hanson 2003). On the other hand, attempts to use cybernetic principles of governance in economics or organizations were often confined to theory because of the shortage of an adequate technology (Castells 1995). Soviet computers were mostly used for pure science and their function was often limited to calculations and did not extend to communication and control (Trogemann et al 2001). Does that mean that cybernetics’ influence on culture was merely declarative? In the rest of this essay I will try to show that was not at all the case.

    The effect of cybernetics on the concepts of governance and culture was indeed revolutionary, although not always straightforward. As the Lithuanian literary scholar Tomas Venclova sharply noted in 1964, from being a specific mathematic theory and secret science of engineering, cybernetics became a general style of thinking (Venclova 1964:124). The theoretical instruments provided by cybernetics gradually opened up a rich source of metaphors and mechanisms for understanding and governing culture. How did that happen?

    First let’s have a look at cybernetics’ theoretical influence on culture. A typical example of how cybernetics was applied to cultural theory is given in the book of Russian cyberneticians Boris V. Biriukov and Efim S. Geller (1973). Starting with the 1970s, similar writings proliferated in Soviet scholarship that attempted to bridge culture and science. The core assumption of Biriukov and Geller was that the cybernetic attitude stresses the precision and rigidity of knowledge. Knowledge was acquired by observing and studying objective facts, preferably with the help of mathematical analysis. Now different aspects of reality could be conceptualized as systems. From this point of view, culture was understood as a complex system that both had its subsystems (fine arts, architecture, etc) and was a part of larger systems (class, society, state, etc). Those systems were connected by channels of information. In addition the systems were hierarchically organized. Further they were not only complex (potentially bringing together subsystems and suprasystems) but also dynamic (changing). Now, the dynamics of culture as a system, in the view of the Soviet theory, was principally evolutionary. Further, culture as a system was endowed with a capacity for self-regulation via feedback. Biriukov and Geller conclude their overview stating that the primary goal of a “system-cybernetic” theory of culture and the analysis of “actual culture systems” is their governance.

    Now, from this perspective, to govern culture meant first and foremost to ensure its optimal functioning. This meant that governance aimed to make sure that the channels of communication and organization functioned optimally, while all the rest is taken care of by the “natural” structure of the culture/system itself. Culture as a system automatically self-regulates (Biriukov and Geller 1973: 273-275). This view was supplemented with the theory of semiotics, especially the works of Yurii Lotman (2). Drawing on Lotman, it was argued that culture was a mechanism with the purpose of producing and storing information. Thus, culture translated “the world of facts” into “the world of signs” and organized it into “systems” and “texts” (Biriukov and Geller 1973:290).

    Unfortunately, there is not enough space to go deeper into the genealogy and problems of cybernetic cultural theory. But it is not surprising that the cybernetic discourse that depicted culture as a logical and governable system that can be recognized through facts and governed as a sophisticated electronic machine, gradually came to dominate Soviet cultural policy. However, this machine was marked with numerous tensions. Among the greatest ones was the striking importance of the idea of self-regulation. How could self-regulation be possibly combined with the “leading and educating line of the party,” the overblown bureaucracy and the unceasing control of KGB?

    It has to be noted that in principle cybernetic governance is not incompatible with a bureaucratic system. Quite the contrary, the main function of cybernetic governance is to enable the efficient operation of large, complex bureaucratic systems. The emancipating effect of cybernetic machines was grounded on precisely the same feature (McLuhan 1966). Therefore the early Soviet bureaucratization and centralization in Lithuania (1945-1955) formed a necessary milieu for application of cybernetic methods.

    In other words, being a post-industrial technology, cybernetics was possible only in an advanced industrial context. How did this relate to culture? After World War II the Soviet government quickly started to form a wide and complicated network of cultural organizations in Lithuania. The culture sphere acquired its bureaucracy, hierarchies of governance and personnel.

    After 1945, Lithuanian culture became a field for the systemic intervention of the government. The solidity of these interventions grew and became more centralized. Immediately after Stalin’s death (1953), the All-Union (USSR) and Union-Republic (Lithuania) Ministries of Culture were established. The network of ministerial organizations was continuously widening. The cultural sphere was included in the structure of the state plan (gosplan). In this context of planning and accountability, culture had to acquire a clearly defined numeric and organizational form.

    This was quite new in the Lithuanian context. In interwar Lithuania (1919-1940) art organizations were mostly founded “from below” and were only little or indirectly related to the government, while the government’s attitude to culture was mostly quite liberal. Meanwhile in the Soviet period culture was understood firstly as a machine, an instrument of control, and secondly, as a complicated object of governance that required a specific governmental technique (Rindzeviciute 2005).

    But through an energetic bureaucratization and centralization Soviet governance achieved quite ambivalent results in culture. On the one hand, the Soviet regime was ideologically against the bourgeois idea of artistic autonomy. But on the other hand, it was under the Soviet regime that art and culture came to be clearly delineated and in some ways autonomous fields due to the development and structure of organizational networks. Of course, the autonomy of the cultural field (Bourdieu 1996) was strictly limited because it did not have a right to form its own hierarchy of values. Instead it had to guide itself according to the official ideology of Marxism-Leninism. But on the other hand, the field gained a particularly clear form in terms of organizations, the status of agents, typologies of practices and matter (artefacts) (3).

    I argue that cybernetics enabled Soviet governance to move from understanding culture as diverse practices to seeing it as an aggregated and dynamic system. First, the mathematical nature of cybernetics was not necessarily an obstacle for using it on culture. In the Soviet Union, well before the emergence of cybernetics, the famous Russian Taylorist Aleksei Gastev initiated applications of quantitative methods in management. In turn, the cultural sphere was described in positivist terms (agents, organizations, materials, created things, consumers) even when Stalin banned Gastev’s ideas and prohibited management science as a vicious bourgeois bureaucratization. Thus it is not surprising that after Stalin’s death in 1953, when administrative science was rehabilitated, the cybernetic idea of information as a key element of control was enthusiastically accommodated by Soviet theoreticians of management (Urban 1982: 56).

    In short, starting in 1955, the positivist approach was reinforced with cybernetics and increasingly influential in translating culture into calculable and comparable forms. As a result, the government saw culture not as a loose collection of pictures, artists, dances and songs, but as a sequence of aggregated numbers, with the help of which the average of the republic was comparable with the averages of the Soviet Union and other countries (see the cultural policy reports of the world countries initiated by the Unesco in the 1960s-1970s).

    The development of sciences in general was crucial for the further rapprochement of cybernetics and culture. In the 1960s mathematics and physics sciences started to recover and develop in Lithuania. The main scientific research and education institutions were established and mostly populated by young scholars who had just defended their doctoral dissertations in Moscow or Saint Petersburg. In 1956 The Mathematics and Physics Institute was established as a part of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences. The Institute was subsequently divided into the Physics Institute and the Institute of Mathematics and Cybernetics in 1977. The first electronic calculation machines (EVM in Russian, ESM in Lithuanian, computer in English) were used, developed and created after 1961.

    Further, the 1960s also saw the rehabilitation of the discipline of sociology, which considerably contributed to the creating the methods of social governance (Weinberg 1974). The Laboratory for Sociological Research was opened in Vilnius University in 1965 and Kaunas Institute of Polytechnics in 1966. It can be argued that sociological studies enabled the effects of culture as a governing system to be brought out and articulated. The findings of various surveys and studies were continuously published in the official monthly of the Lithuanian Ministry of Culture Kultūros barai. The surveys of “the progress of the culture of the Soviet Republic of Lithuania” were prepared by the ideological secretaries of the Central Committee (see Barkauskas 1975; Griškevičius 1985) who used sociological graphs and were proud of the “achieved optimisation of the activity of the cultural system.” Gradually econometric methods of calculation were applied in designing the state plan, and in turn culture, being an object of planning, had to submit adequate statistical information. In turn, the structure and practice of producing this information (collection, reduction, storage and – sometimes – analysis) again strongly influenced the conceptualization of culture as a system.

    The systemic nature of the practices performed in relation to the cultural sphere were transferred onto the sphere itself. One does not have to look far for examples. Take the so called “inventorisation”, a notion taken from the discourse of audit, which still dominates the contemporary discourse of Lithuanian cultural policy.

    In this context culture was perceived as a rational – when needed mathematically formulated – machine, by the help of which the population could be governed. The concept of culture as a machine was often used for making sense of an individual cultural experience:

    A book for me is like a spark in an engine. When I read it, flocks of thoughts surround me, I get inspiration, plans are being aligned, self-reflection takes place. The better the book – the brighter this process, more bulbs light up in the brains (V. Motiejūnas, pedagogue). (4)

    The journal editors obviously used the citation for demonstrating an ideal model of cultural effect. The cultural product – in this case, a book – has an impact on the brain like a signal. In turn, the brain is stimulated to act (inspiration). It is important that culture stimulates not a particular action, but an organizing activity (plans are lined up). It can further be interpreted as a governmentalizing effect because the action prompted by culture seeks self-organization (self-reflection). In this way, “a pedagogue reading a book” is implied to be a self-regulating system. Culture acts as a controlling system towards him, as by sending signals it optimizes the action of self-regulating Motiejūnas. It has to be emphasized that here the value of a cultural object depends on its efficacy as a regulating system (more signal bulbs…). Using this example I intended to demonstrate the extent to which the cybernetic model of interpretation permeated the everyday discourses of institutions (the Ministry of Culture’s journal editorial) and became a part of everyday normality for many (either the reading audiences or at least the pedagogues).

    It has to be noted, however, that the development of cybernetics as a way of thinking cannot be understood in a straightforward manner. In the 1970s, as historian Gerovitch noted, cybernetics transformed from an innovative and alternative science into an Orwellian newspeak in the Soviet Union. Orwell’s newspeak refers to an official discourse that is used rather to express one’s loyalty to the dominating ruler than to actually say something meaningful. The expanding use of the cybernetic vocabulary and worldview tended to gain precisely those functional features. The absurd aspects of the discourse were rooted in the pathetic discrepancy of the pronounced ideas and the actual reality, as for example self-regulation vs censorship, optimisation vs shortage economy, system vs voluntarism of the party leaders. This cybernetic newspeak was not only limited to its popular adaptation but also permeated academic circles. One can refer to a fantastic satire The Yawning Heights by Alexander Zinov’ev (1976). Thus, on the one hand serious cybernetics became established as an important and perhaps leading paradigm of interdisciplinary scholarship. On the other hand (and perhaps therefore) the cyberspeak became a jargon used by high officials, bureaucrats and cultural operators (Gerovitch 2002) when speaking about culture as an instrument and object of governance.

    One can not help noticing that the reflexive rapprochement of cybernetics and culture was considerably stronger in the centre of the Soviet Union and not at its margins. Here, Lithuania and the other Baltic states belong to the margins, despite being the Soviet frontier of extreme importance. Since the 1970s in Moscow many philosophical studies on the implications of cybernetics to culture were written, journals were published, special departments were established at the Ministry of Culture and the Academy of Sciences, but in Lithuania only a few were interested in this symbiosis of science, governance and culture.

    However, that does not mean that the wave of cybernetizing culture hardly ever reached Lithuania. Due to Soviet centralization, when cyberspeak became a normative discourse, the cybernetic jargon was also widely used by Lithuanian politicians, scholars and cultural operators. And even though at the end of the 1980s the term “cybernetics” was officially abandoned and (although not entirely) replaced with “informatics,” the cyberspeak did not wither away. Rather the opposite, it only strengthened, being reinforced as the source of the vocabulary so widely used for liberal governance. While learning democracy from the West, a big part of the Soviet governmental vocabulary was mobilized. This should not be seen as a paradox, but rather as proof that the two systems – the Soviet and the Western democratic – had much more to share than either wished to acknowledge. The concept of culture as a cybernetic machine did not disappear, although a lack of studies deconstructing this discourse still persists. Finally, after sixteen years of independence, culture-as-a-machine gradually materializes from a utopian vision of the 1960s into a palpable and governable reality of today. We all are participants in this amazing transformation of a metaphor into a mechanism.

    Egle Rindzeviciute is a doctoral candidate in Cultural Studies and Communications (Baltic & East European Graduate School, Sodertorn University College and Linkoping University, Sweden).



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    (1) Though there are several international scientific journals for cybernetics. See <http://www.francisandtaylor.com/>.
    (2) Its development in the Soviet Union was partially influenced by the mathematical information theory. Further, Wiener’s ideas directly motivated linguist Roman Jakobson to formulate his semiotic communication theory (Gerovitch 2002).
    (3) Thus it is not surprising that after regaining the independence in 1991, the notion of autonomous art was quite dominant in Lithuanian art criticism and education discourses.
    (4) Kultūros barai, 1 (1967):15.
    (5) This actually applies not only to Lithuania, but also Western world. Among few exceptions are Haraway (1991) ir Hayles (1999).

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