Definition of Cybernetics

Ever wonder what cybernetics was? Or maybe is? It's a baffling question and even the leading theorists of cybernetics in the 1940s and 1950s could hardly agree on the definition. In the last few years historians Eden Medina and Andrew Pickering, for example, have shown that the understanding, definition, and use of cybernetics varied tremendously from one context to another. Even Norbert Wiener, who is widely credited with founding cybernetics, offered varying and contradictory accounts of the field.


Beyond the Aesthetics-Technology Dichotomy

It's six or seven years now since I first moved to France for graduate research, and nearly three since I relocated to Germany to carry on those studies in Berlin and Weimar. At the time I had imagined immersing myself in "French theory" and "German media theory" so that I could return to the United States as some kind of expert in continental theories of media, science and technology. What ultimately happened was a bit different. I've dveloped a more complicated sense of the polyvalent currents, trends, and tensions underway in these contexts and theoretical communities.

Programming as a Cultural Technique

I'm planning a course in the fall that co-mingles recent work in software studies and platform studies with German theories of Kulturtechniken. The course also features programming instruction and assignments in Perl. An initial copy of the syllabus is attached here as a PDF, and described in excerpt below, so that I can solicit tips and suggestions from colleagues from the interwebs. Since the course is for undergrads who are non-native English speakers, the final syllabus will feature fewer readdings. For the full syllabus in its present state, see the attached PDF. If you have any ideas or suggestions, please contact me at

Note: Since first posting this I've received some great tips that are now appended at the bottom of the post. With luck I can reduce this to a streamlined course in the next few months. Additional tips welcome.

Was heißt Kulturtechnik?

Last week Ana Ofak and I co-organized a workshop at the Humboldt University dedicated to bringing together a small group of Germanophone and Anglophone scholars to discuss current questions and emerging methods in research on culture, technology, and media science. Our ostensible point of departure was new German research on Kulturtechnik(en), variously translatable as cultural techniques, cultural technology, or more obscurely (though perhaps more precisely) as cultural technics. I touched on this in an earlier post, where I mentioned that Jussi Parikka, Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, and Ilinca Iuraşcu are putting together a collection of essays on Kulturtechnik for Theory, Culture & Society.

The Difficulties of Gift-Giving

A couple weeks ago I gave a talk at the Franke Institute of the University of Chicago, where Jim Chandler runs a program on disciplines and technologies. I gave a talk on Marcel Mauss, Lévi-Strauss, and cybernetics, examining how the former's critique of modern, rationalist schemas of exchange could be used to critically assess the rise of cybernetic concepts in the 1950s and 1960s. This is part of a larger project on liberalism, technology, and cybernetics that I've been redeveloping  in various iterations for a year or so now, with the goal of understanding how and why liberal societies valorize technological communications as a way of resolving or neutralizing political conflict. Anthropologists Poornima Paidipaty and John Kelly, both of the University of Chicago, made elegant and provocative addresses as well that--in tandem with audience questions--have reignited my interest in going further with this research.

An Introduction to Kulturtechnik: American Liberalism as a Cultural Technology

Jussi Parikka, my former colleague in Weimar Ilinca Iuraşcu, and Geoffrey Winthrop-Young are editing an issue of Theory, Culture & Society dedicated to Kulturtechnik. What is Kulturtechnik? One of my German friends described as a way to do German media theory while also "talking about people." This could be parsed in the term itself, which conjoins culture (Kultur) with a word that may designate techniques, technologies, or technics (Technik). In research on Kulturtechnik, culture and technology are generally taken to have a mutually constitutive relationship. Technology is taken to be a strategic assembly of practices, instruments, media forms, and perhaps rituals. This project is aided by the fact that, unlike English, the German term Technik doesn't immediately parse human actions (techniques) from non-human actors (technologies).

The Technologies of Liberalism (Mp3 lecture)

Attached as an MP3 is a recording of a talk I gave on what I call "the technologies of liberalism." In brief, I tried to unpack the transition between two kinds of liberal political strategy in the United States, and the peculiar relation each had to communicative techniques. The first, "techniques of liberalism," dominated the early American Republic and assigned antagonistic private interactions & interest (political agitation, commerce, a free press) with the task of articulating the public. Private interest was the pivot and engine for this strategy. I argued that this strategy was gradually superseded in the 19th century by "technologies of liberalism," premised on subordinating private interest to transcendent technical systems.

In Memoriam of Friedrich A. Kittler, 1943-2011

I recently wrote an obituary for Friedrich Kittler for the Critical Inquiry blog. It's online at


Below is a slightly modified version of the text. I thank Paul Feigelfeld for his comments on an earlier draft.


Postwar American social science

I've been invited to speak in Cachan, France in November at a colloquium organized by the ANR Research Group on cross-disciplinary research ventures in postwar American social science. The conference is organized by Philippe Fontaine of Ecole Normale Supérieure de Cachan and will feature presentations by historian of science Jamie Cohen-Cole, communications scholar Jeff Pooley, and historian Michael P. Rossi, among others. When I have a draft of the talk I'll put it online here.

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