An Ecology of Artifacts in Language. Or: The Cybernetics of Discourse and the Discourse of Cybernetics

Participant: Klaus Krippendorff
Affiliation: Gregory Bateson Professor for Cybernetics, Language, and Culture – Emeritus
Format: Plenary Speech


I hope to continue Gregory Bateson’s intellectual path towards a critical, socially active, and culturally sensitive cybernetics that needs, however, to shed some of its current constraints. Along this journey, I will enlist Ludwig Wittgenstein’s work on language, Mikhail Bakhtin’s writing on dialogue, and Richard Rorty’s epistemology to claim the obvious, that cybernetics and human agency arises in discourse (i.e. institutionally constrained conversations) which create, as all discourses do, their own artifacts.

One of the constraints that I wish to overcome is the individualism enshrined in the notion of the observer and radical constructivism. Another is the naturalist preoccupation with understanding and description at the expense of human agency. I suggest that searching for foundations in biology, cognitive science, mathematics, and various holisms leaves little space for human agency and makes it difficult for cyberneticians to engage larger social constructions – family, social organization, technology, economics, legal and political systems, or terrorism. To me, biology, cognitive science and mathematics are self-organizing discourses that define, play with, and construct their own realities. A discourse that claims universal truths is condemned to be blind to the constitutive use of language in performing agency and to the constructedness of its reality.

Cybernetics has a history of pursuing a variety of recursive constructions, which encourage not only self-reflection but also the liberation from confining social constructions whether through therapy, innovation, or revolution. When Margaret Mead called for a cybernetics of cybernetics, she insisted that cyberneticians address the inevitable politics in which they work. When Gregory Bateson argued against the ecological blindness of conscious purpose, he envisioned a cybernetics that does not fall prey to and instead provides a radical alternative to traditional scientific theorizing. I suggest that moving human agency into the center of the discourse of cybernetics continues these and other still unfinished projects and presents cybernetics as the practice of reflexivity in the social domain.

An online PDF version of the booklet mentioned at the beginning of the video recording is available here.