"Unity, Plasticity, Catastrophe: Order and Pathology in the Cybernetic Era" [chapter]

David W. Bates
Catastrophe is usually seen as something that befalls the organized, adaptive system from the outside, threatening its future existence. While some cyberneticians explicitly pathologized catastrophe, the French mathematician René Thom in the 1970s redefined catastrophe as a sudden unexpected turn that is generated from within the complex system. While "catastrophe theory" had a limited impact, unlike the broader notions of chaos theory and complexity theory that are now more familiar, I use
more » ... familiar, I use this idea to turn back to the earlier twentieth century, to locate the ways in which catastrophic events were understood to be essential to the functioning of a complex unity. I trace in Kurt Goldstein's The Organism (1934) the idea of "weak catastophe" and its relation to Georges Canguilhem's ideas of pathology and norm in order to demonstrate that in fact, cybernetic-era theorists of the automatic machine were interested in developing what we might call a "pathology of the machine" that was influenced by organismic ideas of internal catastrophe. Cybernetics was centered on a fundamental analogy between organism and machine. As W. Ross Ashby asserted: "I shall consider the organism ... as a mechanism which faces a hostile and difficult world and has as its fundamental task keeping itself alive."1 Because cybernetics intentionally blurred the boundaries between humans, animals, and sophisticated technological objects, it has often been accused of reducing living beings to the mere interplay of mechanisms. However, cybernetics always wanted to infuse machinic beings with the essence of life-purpose, adaptive responsiveness, learning, and so on-while opening up new insights by comparing organisms to some of the most innovative technologies of the era, namely servo-mechanisms, scanning instruments, electronic communication systems, analog computers, and, perhaps most notably, the new high-speed digital calculators that were emerging from secrecy in the postwar era. Cybernetics drew together advanced automatic machines and organisms on the basis of their shared capacity to respond flexibly to a changing environment-
doi:10.1515/9783110312584.32 fatcat:zlqoht5nhbbglog6g7fhr4efcu