Anarchy (#3: Katechon and Apocalypse)


An occult war wages between the striving for the grand unification of all things and the insurgency that haunts its every Promethean feat. One side of this conflict takes as its ground universality, stability, linearity, and homeostasis its, while its opponent is an unground of swarming differentiation, unpredictability, non-linearity, and positive feedback. The former is the top-down view and the latter is bottom-up self-organization. The first is the One, the second a multitudinous Zero – the secondary process that thinks itself primary, and the primary process itself. Flat planes and the multi-scaled. The desire for perfect operativity and the forces that induce its downfall.

At the summit of modernity the nature of this occult war becomes profoundly cybernetic (which means that it always already as so). Tiqqun argued in “The Cybernetic Hypothesis” that the systems of domination and exploitation were evolving towards an unending managerialism based upon openness, ecological thinking, globalist progressivism, horizontalist ethos and cybernetic control – a clever camouflage for the Atlanteans. Tiqqun, at length:

Cybernetics is the police-like thinking of the Empire, entirely animated by an offensive concept of politics, both in an historical and metaphysical sense. It is now completing its integration of the techniques of individuation — or separation — and totalization that had been developing separately: normalization, “anatomo-politics,” and regulation, “bio-politics,” as Foucault calls it. I call his “techniques of separation” the police of qualities. And, following Lukács, I call his “techniques of totalization” the social production of society. With cybernetics, the production of singular subjectivities and the production of collective totalities work together like gears to replicate History in the form of a feigned movement of evolution. It acts out the fantasy of a Same that always manages to integrate the Other; as one cybernetician puts it, “all real integration is based on a prior differentiation.” In this regard, doubtless no one could put it better than the “automaton” Abraham Moles, cybernetics’ most zealous French ideologue, who here expresses this unparalleled murder impulse that drives cybernetics: “We envision that one global society, one State, could be managed in such a way that they could be protected against all the accidents of the future: such that eternity changes them into themselves. This is the ideal of a stable society, expressed by objectively controllable social mechanisms.Cybernetics is war against all that lives and all that is lasting.

While fundamentally correct in the tracing of the contours of particular managerial tendencies (one that aims to culminate in a democratic “social capitalism” which is indistinguishable from an eco-minded “third way socialism”), Tiqqun errs by throwing out the cybernetic baby with the bathwater, and in doing so misses the depths and scope of the war. It remains relegated to level where one on side is the humanist bourgeoisie and their cybernetic ‘toolbox’, and on the other is “Imaginary Party” that swells in the cracks and crevices of this system. Insofar as such a dichotomy can be upheld – which isn’t apparent at all – it is intrinsically problematized by the imperceptible matrix that roars beneath it and even gives rise to it.

No sooner than cybernetics had arrived amidst a fanfare celebrating the optimization of control did a new,frightening conflict break out, as Peter Galison analyzed in his “The Ontology of the Enemy”. The opponent in this deadly game was a “cold-blooded, machinelike opponent. This was the enemy not of bayonet struggles in the trenches, nor of architectural targets fixed through the prism of a Norden gunsight. Rather, it was a mechanized Enemy Other, generated in the laboratory-based science wars of MIT and a myriad of universities around the United States and Britain…” In its genesis the cybernetic sciences were about gaining technological superiority over opponents in the face of faster and faster speeds, which escalating quickly into a mutational program that blurred the distinction between the human and the machine. Genesis turns towards the holy war: “in a final move of totalization, [Norbert] Wiener vaulted cybernetics to a philosophy of nature” in the form of a permanent and boundlessness war between stability and safety and the “Augustinian devil”, the unknowing and unknown “’evil’ of chance and disorder”.

While subsequent developments in the realm of cybernetics, particularly as it moved its second-order phase up through general systems theory into complexity theory (of which much more will be said momentarily) transformed this basic Manichean conflict by recognizing the role of chance, disorder and noise in making systems evolutionary and transformative, the ontological conservatism that whispers through Wiener’s writings is reflected in the widespread resistance to evolutionary transformation. Top-down order is predicated on the ubiquity and prowess of human-led production. An entangling inhuman auto-production that nests this production cannot be be seen as but a threat. That the cybernetic paradigm ruptured the distinction between the human and the machine by articulating the baseline functioning of each in teleological circular causality made the machines uncanny by giving them the attributes of agency and intelligence. Wiener found in the gremlin that haunted aircrafts during the war an earlier preamble to this uncanny collapse:

The semi-humorous superstition of the gremlin among the aviators was probably due, as much as anything else, to the habit of dealing with a machine with a large number of built-in feedbacks which might be interpreted as friendly or hostile. For example the wings of an airplane are deliberately built in such a manner as to stabilize the plane, and this stabilization, which is of the nature of a feedback … may easily be felt as a personality to be antagonized when the plane is forced into unusual maneuvers. (quoted in Galison, “The Ontology of the Enemy”)

In the wake of World War 2, Carl Schmitt famously turned his attention to famously turned his attention to the idea of juridical order as the Katechon. With its origins in the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians, the concept of the Katechon became prominent in the Middle Ages to describe a force that restraints the Antichrist, and by so effectively holds the apocalypse itself at bay. In Schmitt’s political theology it carried the same function – but it is not simply a singular apocalypse. It is a history of apocalypses, of grand imperial ambitions that acted as Katechons by forestalling their end until, at last, the empires rots and rays, its thread disentangling and separating as another Katechon rises on the horizon. From Byzantine Empires to the Third Reich to the United States, an oscillating history of imperial ruin and passage.

Much ink and paper have been spilled and spent trying to determine what precisely the Schmittian Antichrist is . Interestingly, the Katechon at times depicted is as a decelerator that slows the pace of world history; it would follow, then, that the Antichrist can be found as an affiliate of the quickening pace – an accelerator, even. This often remains lodged at the political level: he describes the Third Reich, for instance, as an accelerator of world history that is opposed by the decelerator of the United States. But the laws of state decay and means-end reversal prevail, and the US would itself become the new accelerator. There are, however, other ways of articulating the Antichrist. John McCormick argues that, running through Schmitt’s intellectual evolution from the 1910s to the postwar era, an understanding of technology and economics as a malevolent Antichrist that cunningly infiltrates the political arena and bring with it ruin:

Just as the Antichrist seems to deliver salvation and eternal peace, on the contrary, only to actually bring destruction and despair, technology and commercialism promise a heaven on earth but bring only a worse form of impoverishment and devastation, which may not even be readily recognized as such. One of the characteristics of modern technology is that it can mechanically reproduce virtually anything. Schmitt plays on this theme of reproduction with the image of the Antichrist. If one cannot distinguish between God and Satan, then what can be distinguished? Everything becomes the same. Everything is neutralized. The Antichrist/technology is described as “uncanny [unheimlich]” because of the epistemological uncertainty involved in deciphering precisely what it is. It simulates the familiar and authentic, but is it? The very nature of what real is, is called into question in the age of technology. According to Schmitt, “The confusion becomes unspeakable”. (John McCormick, Carl Schmitt’s Critique of Liberalism: Against Politics as Technology, 88-89)

As Mark Fisher relentlessly illustrated, the cybernetic revolution, by lending to technological systems a certain intelligence and sense of agency, fulfilled the long-held Gothic dread of the living automaton. Schmitt here taps into this underground current, one that connects the myth of the Golem, Marx’s undead capital, Frankstein’s monster, and the gremlins haunting aircrafts engaged in wartime missions. An echo can be heard, one no doubt unintentional (but no less telling) between Wiener’s Manichean cybernetic conflict of organization and its enemy, the Augustinian devil of disorder, and Schmitt’s own definition of the political as what arises from the friend/enemy distinction. For McCormick, the relationship between the dichotomy of friend/enemy and Christ/Antichrist is clear: traveling above the political as an abstract order and looking down into it, the Antichrist is the absolute Enemy that threatens to undermine the political as a category writ large. Throw this insight into jagged alignment with the cybernetic uncanny and the Antichrist, the schizophrenic god Baphoment, becomes what Deleuze and Guattari described as the Gothic Line, or, in its more common guise, the machinic phylum.

At the limit, there is a single phylogenetic lineage, a single machinic phylum, ideally continuous: the flow of matter-movement, the flow of matter in continuous variation, conveying singularities and traits of expression. This operative and expressive flow is as much artificial as natural: it is like the unity of human beings and Nature… Vital impulse? Leroi-Gourhan has gone the farthest toward a technological vitalism taking biological evolution in general as the model for technical evolution: a Universal Tendency, laden with all of the singularities and traits of expression, traverses technical and interior milieus that refract or differentiate it in accordance with the singularities and traits each of them retains, selects, draws together, causes to converge, invents. There is indeed a machinic phylum in variation that creates the technical assemblages, whereas the assemblages invent the various phyla. (A Thousand Plateaus 406-407)

The human and the machine, the orchid in the wasp: unilateral agency dissolves away in the face of the phylum, and as such can only be viewed by the political as the Enemy, even if it to approach the relation in such a manner is extremely vulgar (after all, do Deleuze and Guattari not make it the itinerants who follow the phylum, figures who are outside the reach of the State, but on who the State depends on survival?) To reach the level of phylum we’ll have had to pass from the basic loops of Wiener’s first-order cybernetics to arrive at the imperceptible matrix, the staggering sum of immanent self-organizing processes. In this mesh, the political, the state, Christ, the Atlantean continuum, all can be understood as a elements internal to these processes, no different than Deleuze and Guattari’s self that mistakes itself to be unitary whilst being but something that has congealed to the side of the auto-productive processes: a voided coagulation that thinks itself not. The unwavering stability of this creation, held together by the Judgment of God, is countered by emergent flux of the phylum.

A Lemurian insurgency, even if the things that the flux produces – commerce and technology, namely – sustain the State. The fact of the matter is that the singular instantiation of something from a catalytic process will never be stable, and is part of line that intrinsically escapes. The Katechon is sinking.


Trauma Core


This evening I had a chance to finish reading Mark Fisher’s phd thesis Flatline Constructs: Gothic Materialism and Cybernetic Theory-Fiction. Weaving together the CCRU-era emphasis on capital’s radical deterritorializing edge with foreshadows of the critique honed in his later writings (the concept of ‘capitalist realism’ even makes a brief appearance), Fisher bounces Deleuze and Guattari’s nomad thought and Baudrillard’s cool pessimism off on another to explore the uncanniness creeping in through ultra-late cybernetic capitalism. This uncanniness is explored, as the title of the thesis suggests, through the lenses of “gothic materialism. Fisher:

Gothic Materialism is flat with its material; it names both the mode of analysis and what is to be analyzed. It does not arbitrarily conjoin materialism with the Gothic, but insists that all effective materialism must lead Out towards a non-organic (dis)continuum. Amongst other things, the Gothic can serve as the proper name for this continuum, and cyberpunk is the registering of its arrival on the terminal shores of a wired humanity. Whilst an organicist left finds in cyberpunk the quietist collapse of transformative political projects into a “hardboiled” “survivalist” hyper-nihilism, Gothic materialism locates in Baudrillard’s ecstatic communication, Gibson’s hyperspace, Jameson’s total flow, and Cronenberg’s Videodrome the map of a hypermediatized capitalism that is decoding privatized subjectivity.

Gothic materialism converges with matters of great interest to this blog, particularly where the collision of the “non-organic (dis)continuum” – or, to put it more succinctly, if not redundantly, the anorganic continuum – and cyberculture collide. Cyberpunk isn’t just a hyperstitional space unveiling capital’s templex invasion of the future; it is also in open transit with a deeply alien force. Xenogenetic mutagens range freely through the folding and unfolding of time, an encounter with which is illustrated in the CCRU’s depictions of the cybergothic. The term exhibits the same heat-fucked temporality as retroprogressivism and neoreaction: a looping together of futurity (cyber, progress, neo-) with the past (gothic, retro-, reaction). As Iris Carver wrote some twenty years ago: “Think of cyberspace as a black-mirror. It is where time flips over: collide with it and you travel backwards. As telecommerce accelerates us into the net, it seems that things of ever deeper antiquity awaken, and begin their return. So say the Cybergoths.”

Near the conclusion of Flatline Constructs, Fisher elaborates on the double nature of the black-mirror, placing on one side of it cyberspace (putting special emphasis on its independent economic function), and on the other the zone where cyberspace undergoes “black out”: the “catatonic ‘neuro-electronic void’… the image of the noumenal event horizon which we cannot go”. The time-shattering flip from one side to the other is the plummet into the deeper darkness of the anorganic continuum, described by Deleuze and Guattari as the ‘gothic line’ that gives rises to the “prodigious idea of Nonorganic Life” (ATP 411). Schizophrenia’s intensive voyages move in the direction of this line, taking “the schizo as close as possible to matter, to a burning, living center of matter” (AO 19). Nonorganic life, matter’s burning, living core – the anorganic continuum snakes through the fissure between the dead and the living and problematizes each. It is the plane of unlife, or as it might be called alternatively and without contradiction, the plane of undeath.

Echidna Stillwell: My researches have led me to associate this Chthonian entity with the deep terrestrial intelligence inherent in the electromagnetic cauldron of the inner earth, in all of its intense reality, raw potentiality, and danger. According to the Nma she is the plane of Unlife, a veritable Cthelll – who is trapped under the sea only according to a certain limited perspective – and those who set out to traffick with her do so with the very greatest respect and caution.

Hence the centrality of the Freudian uncanny. Fisher argues that by boxing the uncanny into castration anxiety – fear of punishment by castration for the content of our repressed impulses – Freud is attempting to ward off the true horror that lurks down this road, one that gets to the fiery core of ultimate repression. Dolls coming to life, non-living living doubles, the sudden recognition of likeness in some alien artifact – these are all treated by Freud as the cataloging of childhood traumas and past events that are repeating themselves through life. It is thus a return to the same, or the familiar, even if it wears a mask. It is what Deleuze would describe repetition of the same – but in Fisher’s resistance to Freud’s oedipal recoding, the uncanny’s dreadful mask moves towards the repetition of difference-in-itself, as the anorganic continuum itself. The uncanny, by making something dead spring to life, is a sudden eruption of the undeath into the fragile stability of ‘ordinary’ reality.

While Fisher doesn’t pursue it, it seems to me that this helps us get at Deleuze’s reformulation of Freud’s death instinct. In Coldness and Cruelty, Deleuze had transformed the Thanatropic death instinct into the groundlessness that upheld Eros – “beyond the repetition that links, the repetition that erases and destroys” (C&C 114). In Difference and Repetition this connection is deepened by tying the death instinct to the time of the Eternal Return, that is, the temporal mechanism of difference-in-itself: “Time empty and out of joint, with its rigorous formal and static order, its crushing unity and its irreversible series, is precisely the death instinct” (D&R, 111).

In contrast is the death instinct of Beyond the Pleasure Principle, where Freud finds in the drive the striving to return to the same, in the guise of inorganic matter. Defining an instinct as “an urge inherent in organic matter to restore an earlier state of things”, Freud argued that if “the aim of all life is death”, the death instinct can be characterized the striving to “becoming inorganic once again” (BPP 30, 32). Life as disequilibria trying to loop back to homeostatic equilibrium – but other forces push back against the instinct to “ward off any possible ways of returning to inorganic existence other than those which are immanent in the organism itself” (BPP 33). Life is thus a series of ‘detours’ on the road to the actual event of dying itself, in which homeostasis is achieved.

Deleuze argues in Coldness and Cruelty that Freud contradicts himself at multiple points where the death drive is concerned, repeatedly crossing the line into repetition-of-difference in contrast to repetition-of-the-same, and that he has to fall back at each instant of doing so. This observation parallels Fisher’s arguments in Flatline Constructs that Freud must hold at bay the real source of uncanny dread by routing it back into the familiar. An example of such tension can be found in Freud’s himself complication of the organic/inorganic divide by suggesting that the living substance exhibits a “special envelope or membrane” that protects it from excesses of external stimuli, and that this membrane is “to some degree inorganic” (BPP 21). In this schema, the inorganic membrane is part of the infrastructure that carries out the warding-off of death and aids the ultimate flight into final death – yet by its very existence the categories of the organic and inorganic begin to crumble as the living substance begins morphing into an anorganic entity. By shifting the terrain from the base inorganic matter to an anorganic continuum, the body becomes not some radically distinct from the continuum – it’s continuous with it. This is what engenders the dread of the uncanny. It isn’t the repetition of childhood trauma, trauma being violent external stimuli that has pierced the inorganic membrane. It’s the repressed Secret that everything convergent upon – and emergent from – the anorganic plane of unlife, a trauma of the inside being unfold into its outside.

Professor Daniel Barker: Trauma is a body. Ultimately – at its pole of maximum disequilibrium – it’s an iron thing. At MVU they call it Cthelll: the interior third of terrestrial mass, semifluid metallic ocean, megamolecule, and pressure-cooker beyond imagination. It’s hotter than the surface off the sun down there, three thousand clicks below the crust, and all that thermic energy is sheer impersonal nonsubjective memory of the outside, running the plate-tectonic machinery of the planet via the conductive and convective dynamics of silicate magma flux, bathing the whole system in electomagnetic fields as it tidally pulses to the orbit of the moon. Cthelll is the terrestrial inner nightmare, nocturnal ocean, Xanadu: the anorganic metal-body trauma-howl of the earth, cross-hatched by intensities, traversed by thermic waves and currents, deranged particles, ionic strippings and gluttings, gravitational deep-sensitivities transduced into nonlocal electromesh, and feeding vulcanism … that’s why plutonic science slides continuously into schizophrenic delirium.

The trauma-core threatens the unitary self (as indicated in Anti-Oedipus by the proximity of the schizophrenia and the burning heart of ‘living matter’), just as Eternal Return, repetition-as-difference, dissolves it into the production of the New. Why must the unitary self – or, as Deleuze and Guattari call it, the “body-image” – hide this trauma away, repress it at all costs? Because it voids out the body-image’s interiority: being continuous with the plane of unlife breaks down the external source of trauma, predicated on the membrane that regulates passage from the inside to the outside, by unfoldng interiority into exteriority. The body-image becomes thrown back on what it has obscured, the Body without Organs. Or, in other words, it falls back on the primary process that has given rise to it: the anorganic continuum as auto-production.

In a passage that is as remarkable as it is horrifying, Deleuze and Guattari push deeper into the ruptures between life and death, the organic and anorganic, and along the way reveal the body-image as little more than a parasite on the gears of autoproduction. Taking their cue from Samuel Butler’s “The Book of the Machines”, which asserts that the mechanism-vitalism binary is annihilated under the absolute identity of the machinic and the organic, they write:

…it becomes immaterial whether one says that machines are organs, or organs machines. The two definitions are exact equivalents: man as a “vertebro-machinate mammal”, or as an “aphidian parasite of machines. What is essential is not the passage to infinity itself – the infinity composed of machine parts or the temporal infinity of animalcules – but rather in what this passage blossoms into. Once the structural unity of the machine has been undone, once the personal and specific unity of the living has been laid to rest, a direct link is perceived between the machine and desire, the machine passes to the heart of desire, the machine is desiring and desire, machined. Desire is not in the subject but the machine in the desire – with the residual subject off to the side, alongside the machine, around the entire periphery, a parasite of the machines, an accessory of vertebro-machinate desire. In a word, the real difference is not between the living and the machine, vitalism and mechanism, but between two states of the machine that are two states of living as well. (AO 285-286)

As Fisher notes, what is at stake here is “the delocalization of desire, and its fusion with generalized production”, a maneuver that sets in motion the articulation of this complex as traumatic, and its ultimate repression. The CCRU, following not just Deleuze and Guattari but J.G. Ballard, explore this through the frame of geotrauma, in which the body-image is exploded back onto the monstrous geological flux of deep-time (a prism that pulls together the materiality of the anorganic continuum with the empty time of the Eternal Return), where the grinding slowness of continental drift and the repetitive assault by catastrophic upheaval exerts a pressure that ravages and contorts the evolutionary process. In The Drowned World, Ballard describes the recording of these inhuman processes on the human spine:

The further down the CNS you move, from the hind-brain through the medulla into the spinal cord, you descend back into the neutronic past. For example, the junction between T-12 and L-1 is the great zone of transit between the gill-breathing fish and their air-breathing amphibians with their respiratory rib-cages, the very junction where we stand now on the shores of this lagoon, between the Paleozoic and Triassic eras.

Or, as Professor Barker sums up: “Geotrauma is an ongoing process, whose tension is continually expressed – partially frozen – in biological organization.” Cybernetics is another way to track this process; after all, it was Norbert Wiener who suggested it had “relegated” the vitalist/mechanist debate to “the limbo of badly posed questions” by contextualizing purposefulness in terms distinctly mechanistic terms. Push this a little further and we get to the true core that, in its immensity, shatters the confidence of the body-image’s agency by situating it in the multi-scaled cascades of self-organizing systems. Leveling: the cybernetics of technomic development burns out, more and more, the transcendent notions we had about the world, our place in it, and the interior functions of ourselves. A time-loop that bends the increasingly-close far-future to the deepest past.

Getting to this stage returns us back to the theme of the uncanny. Identifying the anorganic spectrum of systems as exhibiting purposeful behavior schizzes out notions of intelligence by making cyberpositivity transveral across many ruptured orders, imbuing them with a sense of uncanniness that cannot but actor as a destabilizing factor. The implications are of clear for the topics this blog relishes the most – capital, (already defined by Marx in terms of an unliving Gothic entity consuming society) and war (with its tendency towards non-human learning processes). But more at some other time!

Meanwhile, Thomas Murphy on Deleuze and Guattari’s anorganic mysticism:

Screenshot from 2018-03-12 11-02-42

Screenshot from 2018-03-12 11-03-16



In the March 2nd edition of the Wall Street Journal, Julian Barnes and Josh Chin announced the dawn of a new arms race breaking over the increasingly chaotic geopolitical arena: the competitive pursuit of artificial intelligence and related technologies. At the present moment, the United States leads the world in AI research, but with the emergence of a “Darpa with Chinese Characteristics” the mad dash is on. And behind the US and China is Russia, hoping that within the next ten years to have “30% of its military robotized” – a path that neatly compliments the country’s burgeoning efficiency in non-standard netwar.

At the horizon, Barnes and Chin suggest, is a new speed-driven, technocentric mode of conflict that has been granted the qabbalistically-suggestive name of “hyperwar”:

AI could speed up warfare to a point where unassisted humans can’t keep up—a scenario that retired U.S. Marine Gen. John Allen calls “hyperwar.” In a report released last year, he urged the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to step up its investments in AI, including creating a center to study hyperwar and a European Darpa, particularly to counter the Russian effort.

The report in question unpacks hyperwar further:

Hyper war… will place unique requirements on defence architectures and the high-tech industrial base if the Alliance is to preserve an adequate deterrence and defence posture, let alone maintain a comparative advantage over peer competitors. Artificial Intelligence, deep learning, machine learning, computer vision, neuro-linguistic programming, virtual reality and augmented reality are all part of the future battlespace. They are all underpinned by potential advances in quantum computing that will create a conflict environment in which the decision-action loop will compress dramatically from days and hours to minutes and seconds…or even less. This development will perhaps witness the most revolutionary changes in conflict since the advent of atomic weaponry and in military technology since the 1906 launch of HMS Dreadnought. The United States is moving sharply in this direction in order to compete with similar investments being made by Russia and China, which has itself committed to a spending plan on artificial intelligence that far outstrips all the other players in this arena, including the United States. However, with the Canadian and European Allies lagging someway behind, there is now the potential for yet another dangerous technological gap within the Alliance to open up, in turn undermining NATO’s political cohesion and military interoperability.

“[A] conflict environment in which the decision-action loop will compress dramatically from days and hours to minutes and seconds… or even less.” Let those words sink in for a moment, and consider this hastily-assembled principle: attempts to manage the speed-effects of technological development through technological means result in more and greater speed-effects. James Beniger’s The Control Revolution: Technological and Economic Origins of the Information Society is the great compendium of historical case studies of this phenomenon in operation, tracing out a series of snaking, non-linear pathways in which technological innovation delivers a chaos that demands some of form quelling, often in the form of standards, increased visibility of operations, better methods of coordination, etc. These chaos-combating protocols become, in turn, the infrastructure of further expansion, more technological development, greater economic growth – and in this entanglement, things get faster.

Beniger’s argument is that this dynamic laid the groundwork for the information revolution, with information theory, communication theory, cybernetics, and the like all emerging from managerial discourses as ways to navigate unpredictability of modernity. We need no great summary of the effects of this particular revolution, with its space-time compression, unending cycles of events, the breakdown of discernibility between the true and the false, the rise tide of raw information that threatens to swamp us and eclipse our cognition.

Where this path of inquiry leads is to the recognition that modernity is being dragged, kicking and screaming, into the maw of the accelerationist trolley problem: catastrophe is barreling forward, and the possibly space for decision-making is evaporating just as quickly. There simply isn’t enough time.

Even in the basic, preliminary foreshadows of the problem, command-and-control systems tend to find themselves submerged and incapacitated. Diagramming decision-making and adjusting the role of the human in that diagram is the foremost response (and one completely flush with the assessment drawn from Beniger sketched out briefly above). First-order cybernetics accomplished this by drawing out the position of the human agent within the feedback loops of the system in question and better integrating the decision-making capacity of the agent in line with these processes. From Norbert Wiener’s AA predictor to the SAGE computer system to Operation Igloo White in Vietnam, this not only blurred the human-machine boundary but laid the groundwork for the impending removal outright of the human agent from the loop.


Consider the TOTE model of human behavior, which imported perfectly the fundamental loop of first order cybernetics into the nascent field of cognitive psychology. TOTE: test-operate-test-exit. Goal-seeking behavior in this model follows a basic process of testing the alignment of an operation’s effect with the goal, and adjusting in kind. But consider two systems whose goals are to win out over the other one, each following the TOTE model in relation to the respective actions of each. The decisions made in one system impact the decisions made in the other, veering the entanglement of the two away from anything resembling homeostasis. Add in the variables of speed, the impossibility of achieving total information awareness in the environment, and the hard cognitive limits of the human agent gets us to the position where the role of the human in the loop becomes a liability. But it’s not just the human, as the US military learned in Vietnam: the entire infrastructure, even with the aid of the cybernetic toolkit, falls victim to the information bottlenecks, decision-making paralysis, and the fog of war. The crushing necessity of better, more efficient tools is revealed in the aftermath – but this, of course, will deepen the problem as it unfolds along the line of time.

Enter the John Boyd’s OODA loop. As with the trajectory of Wiener’s thought, Boyd’s theory was first drawn from the study of aviation combat and radiated outwards from there. OODA stands for observation-orientation-decision-action, and like the TOTE model it emphasized cognitive behavior in decision-making as a series of loops. Observation entails the absorption of environmental information by the agent or system, which is processed in the orientation phase to provide context and a range of operational possibilities to choose from. Decision is the choice of an operational possibility, which is then executed as an action. This returns the agent or system to the observation phase, and the process repeats.


Screenshot from 2018-03-06 14-57-17

This might look at first blush like the linear loop of first order cybernetics and the TOTE model, but as Antoine Bousquet argues this is not so:

A closer look at the diagram of the OODA “loop” reveals that orientation actually exerts “implicit guidance and control” over the observation and action phases as well as shaping the decision phase. Furthermore, “the entire ‘loop’ (not just orientation) is an ongoing many-sided implicit cross referencing process of projection, empathy, correlation, and rejection” in which all elements of the “loop” are simultaneous active. In this sense, the OODA “loop” is not truly a cycle and is presented sequentially only for convenience of exposition (hence the scare quotes around “loop”).

Early cybernetic approaches to conflict battlespace insisted achieving a full-scale view of all the variables in play – a complete worldview through which the loops would proceed linearly. It was, in other words, a flattened notion of learning. Boyd, by contrast, insists on the impossibility of achieving such a vantage point. Cognitive behavior, both inside and outside the battlespace, is forever being pummeled by an intrinsically incomplete understanding of the world. In first-order cybernetics, the need for total information awareness raised the specter of a Manichean conflict between signal and noise, with noise being the factor that impinges on the smooth transmission of the information (and thus breaks down the durability of the feedback loop executing and testing the operation). For Boyd this is reversed: passage through the world partially blind, besieged by noise, makes the ‘loop’ a process of continual adaptation through encounter with novelty – a dynamism that he describes, echoing Schumpeter’s famous description of capitalism’s constant drive to technoeconomic development, as cycles of destruction and creation:

When we begin to turn inward and use the new concept—within its own pattern of ideas and interactions—to produce a finer grain match with observed reality we note that the new concept and its match-up with observed reality begins to self-destruct just as before. Accordingly, the dialectic cycle of destruction and creation begins to repeat itself once again. In other words, as suggested by Godel’s Proof of Incompleteness, we imply that the process of Structure, Unstructure, Restructure, Unstructure, Restructure is repeated endlessly in moving to higher and broader levels of elaboration. In this unfolding drama, the alternating cycle of entropy increase toward more and more dis-order and the entropy decrease toward more and more order appears to be one part of a control mechanism that literally seems to drive and regulate this alternating cycle of destruction and creation toward higher and broader levels of elaboration.

What Boyd is describing, then, isn’t simply learning, but the process of learning to learn. For the individual agent and complex system alike, this is the continual re-assessment of reality following the (vital) trauma of ontological crisis – or, in other words, a continual optimization for intelligence, a competitive pursuit of more effective, more efficient means of expanding itself. It is for this reason that Grant Hammond, a professor at the Air War College, finds in Boyd’s OODA ‘loop’ a model of life itself, “that process of seeking harmony with one’s environment, growing, interacting with others, adapting, isolating oneself when necessary, winning, siring offspring, losing, contributing what one can, learning, and ultimately dying.” Tug on that thread a bit and the operations of a complex, emergent system begin to look rather uncanny – or is it the learning-to-learn carried out by the human agent that begins to look like the uncanny thing?

Back to hyperwar.

For Boyd, the dynamics of a given OODA ‘loop’ are the same as the scenario detailed above about the two competing TOTE systems that lock-in to speed-driven (and driving) escalation. Whichever loop evolves better and faster wins – and in the context of highly non-linear, borderless, technologically-integrated warfare, the unreliability of the human agent remains central as the key element to be overcome. Hence hyperwar, as General John Allen makes clear by trying to get a grip on the accelerationist trolley problem:

In military terms, hyperwar may be redefined as a type of conflict where human decision making is almost entirely absent from the observe-orient-decide-act (OODA) loop. As a consequence, the time associated with an OODA cycle will be reduced to near-instantaneous responses. The implications of these developments are many and game changing.

Allen suggests here that there is still some capacity for human decision-making in the hyperwar version of the ‘loop’ – but as he points out in the elsewhere, the US’s military competitors (namely: China) are not likely to feel “particularly constrained” about the usage of totally autonomous AI. A China that doesn’t feel constrained will entail, inevitably, a US that will re-evaluate this position, and it is at this point that things get truly weird. If escalating decision-making and behavior through OODA ‘loop’ competition is an evolutionary model of learning-to-learn, then the intelligence optimization that is, by extension, unfolding through hyperwar will be carried out at a continuous, near-instant rate. At that level the whole notion of combat is eclipsed into a singularity that is completely alien to the human observer that, even in the pre-hyperwar phase of history, has become lost in the labyrinth. War, like the forces of capital, automates and autonomizes and becomes like a life unto itself.


Bateson Bits

Screenshot from 2017-06-06 00-44-15

-From “Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia”, in Steps to an Ecology of Mind, p. 211-212

Screenshot from 2017-06-06 00-41-13

-From Percival’s Narrative: A Patient’s Account of His Psychosis, p. xiii-xiv

Screenshot from 2017-06-06 00-46-30

-From “The Logical Categories of Learning and Communication”, in Steps to an Ecology of Mind, p. 307


Deviation Amplification


It’s doubtful that there is a better introduction to the forces and implications of positive feedback than “The Second Cybernetics: Deviation-Amplifying Mutual Causal Processes”, published in 1963 by the all-too-unknown Magoroh Maruyama.

Since its inception, cybernetics was more or less identified as a science of self-regulating and equilibrating systems. Thermostats, physiological regulation of body temperature, automatic steering devices, economic and political processes were studied under a general mathematical model of deviation-counteracting feedback networks.

By focusing on the deviation-counteracting aspect of mutual causal relationships however, the cyberneticians paid less attention to the systems in which the mutual causal effects are deviation-amplifying. Such systems are ubiquitous: accumulation of capital in industry, evolution of living organisms, the rise of cultures of various types, interpersonal processes that produce mental illness, international conflict, and the processes that are loosely termed as “vicious circles” and “compound interest”: in short, all processes of mutual causal relationship that amplify an insignificant or accidental initial kick, build up deviation and diverge from the initial condition.

In contrast to the progress in the study of equilibrating systems, the deviation-amplifying systems have not been given much investment of time and energy by the mathematical scientists on one hand, and an understanding and practical application on the part of geneticists, ecologists, politicians and psychotherapists on the other hand.

The deviation-counteracting mutual causal systems and the deviation-amplifying mutual causal system may appear to be the opposite types of systems.

But they have one essential feature in common: they are both mutual causal systems, i.e. the elements within a system influence each other either simultaneously or alternatingly.

The difference between the two types of systems is that the deviation-counteracting system has mutual negative feedback between the elements in it, while the deviation-amplifying system has mutual positive feedbacks between elements in it.


  • “…modernist cybernetics has trivialized escalation processes into unsustainable episodes of quantitative inflation, thus side-lining exploratory mutation over against a homeostatic paradigm. ‘Positive feedback is the source of instability, leading if unchecked to the destruction of the system itself’, writes one neo-Wienerian, in strict fidelity to the security cybernetics which continues to propagate an antidelirial technoscience caged within negative feedback, and attuned to statist paranoia of a senescing industrialism.” (Nick Land, “Circuitries”, in Fanged Noumena, pp. 297-298)