- Cybernetics, Intelligence, and Cosmotechnics
Carolyn Shread, trans.
Columbia University Press
224 Pages; Cloth, $28.00
Rowman and Littlefield
336 Pages; Print, $39.95
What, then, is cybernetics? It would seem, a monster with many heads. In Recursivity and Contingency, Yuk Hui notes that cybernetics is "not really a discipline but rather a movement with enormous richness and heterogeneity of ideas." Hui codifies the diversity of cybernetics in two mirror images capturing how its concept has been split into opposing personae: "One is reductionist: it reduces organisms to feedback systems, which are imitations." This is the image of cybernetics reflected in machine systems that imitate the organic performances of the human mind, the perceptions and senses of the animal nervous system, or other physiological capacities and regularities, by reduction to routines of calculation and prediction. "The other is nonreductionist ... beyond any form of technological determinism; it is open to contingency without only reducing it to calculation."
Catherine Malabou's Morphing Intelligence follows the concept of intelligence and its contingencies through several transformations. Cybernetics here is shorthand for AI engineering programs developing computational architectures aimed at simulating the plasticity of synaptic connections in the brain. In contrast, Recursivity and Contingency submits cybernetics to a massive genealogical reading grounded in German idealism and Naturphilosphie, demonstrating its deepest roots in the "organic condition of philosophizing" since Immanuel Kant, which has developed the concept of the organic in a way that subordinates the phenomenon of technicity to a more general definition of organism. Cybernetics in its nonreductionist unfolding mediates the arrival of a general organology that Hui proposes to fashion into a cosmotechnics fit to counter the current threat of being overtaken by a globalized metastasis of reductionistic systems in the service of capitalist finality.
Developed from the 2015 Wellek Library Lectures at the University of California, Irvine, Catherine Malabou's Morphing Intelligence, a slim and accessible volume, retains the format of the occasion prompting it. Much of it glosses significant figures in two centuries of debates between psychology as an emergent discipline with scientific ambitions to submit notions of intelligence to empirical tests, and philosophy looking on critically as the perennial arbiter of intellect. Malabou begins this history with the development of Wilhelm Wundt's experimental psychology in the schools of Théodule Ribot and Alfred Binet, eventually challenged by Henri Bergson's philosophy of the élan vital. In Creative Evolution (1907), Bergson sets the mold for the "protective shield" by which those modern philosophies most influential in Continental critical theory have guarded the impalpable stuff of intelligence from the material graspings of biology and psychology. This defensive attitude is now obsolete, Malabou argues: "It has no future" in the "cognitive era." Morphing Intelligence maps the ideological resistance to artificial intelligence so that Malabou can reiterate her own conversion, with the arrival the new "cognitive era" of "cybernetic intelligence," to a view that no longer labors to distinguish between organic and computational minds.
The path to be taken in Morphing Intelligence is "the exploration of ... the space between biological and symbolic life." Intelligence is "a border concept found between biological life and symbolic life," that is, "all those dimensions of life that cannot be reduced to .... life." Indeed, in Bergson's formulation, "in this precisely lies the [End Page 12] difficulty—born of life, intelligence turns its back on life, for it 'is characterized by a natural inability to comprehend life.'" In Bergson's dialectic, intelligence is the negation of life by life. Malabou will rest her discourse of intelligence upon a sort of vitalist monism akin to Bergson's, but then reverse the sign of intelligence: organic life posits intelligence as the vehicle to carry life over to its "cybernetic definition." For, Malabou continues, "It is no longer possible to determine relations between biological and symbolic life without considering the third type of life, which is the simulation of life."
Morphing Intelligence presents three "metamorphoses of intelligence" since the rise of...