Abstract: This essay proposes a cybernetic conception of the human body and uses the System Theory to offer a perspective of the body as a sympoietic system. A sympoietic system develops itself through interactions with other systems. The body is constantly in relation with objects, technological devices, machines, institutions, etc., that expand or reduce its capacity of action. This essay thinks the problem of freedom in the context where life is each day further connected in networks.
Keywords: Cyborgs; Freedom; System Theory; Sympoiesis; Artificial Intelligence.
To get gears set in motion, we must share a concept of the human body as a cyborg (cybernetic organism). When we talk about cybernetic, electronic systems could be the first image that comes to our minds. Thinking about cyborgs, soon we imagine a robot or another kind of artificial intelligence. But cybernetic has not to only do with computers and electronic systems. It is a knowledge field concerned with analyses of how different types of system work and behave, including biologic systems; how information exchanges work between different systems or between a system and its external environment; and how the modes of control and organization of these systems work.
A system is a set of correlated elements working with a common internal code. Through this code, the system differentiates itself from the environment and from other systems. Its communication mode works through the reception of information inputs and external stimuli that are encoded and translated according to its internal code. Then the system brings forth outputs as reaction or answer.
Authors such as Francisco Varela and Humberto Maturana consider systems as autopoietic (MATURANA; VARELA, 1992). That means they can autonomously produce themselves. But here we will think through a different concept, which is that of sympoiesis. To say that systems are sympoietic means that they evolve and produce themselves in interaction with other systems, which also transform themselves through these relations.
Beth Dempster, a researcher from Waterloo University, describes the sympoietic systems this way:
“In contrast to autopoietic systems, they are characterized by cooperative, amorphous qualities. Sympoietic systems recurrently produce a self-similar pattern of relations through continued complex interactions among their many different components. Rather than delineating boundaries, interactions among components and the self-organizing capabilities of a system are recognized as the defining qualities. ‘Systemhood’ does not depend on production of boundaries, but on the continuing complex and dynamic relations among components and other influences. The concept emphasizes linkages, feedback, cooperation, and synergistic behavior rather than boundaries” (DEMPSTER, 2000).
Another definition offered by Donna Haraway, a researcher from California University-Santa Cruz, says that:
“Sympoiesis is a simple word; it means “making-with.” Nothing makes itself; nothing is really autopoietic or self-organizing. In the words of the Inupiat computer “world game,” earthlings are never alone.1 That is the radical implication of sympoiesis. Sympoiesis is a word proper to complex, dynamic, responsive, situated, historical systems. It is a word for worlding-with, in company. Sympoiesis enfolds autopoiesis and generatively unfurls and extends it” (HARAWAY, 2016, p. 58).
Thus, we will think the human body also as a sympoietic system. It is a set of coupled systems creating another broader system, that also works interacting with other systems. Through these interactions, we receive a lot of stimulus from the environment, and we are always reacting to that. This can shape our subjectivity and determine our actions. Our body is also an apparatus, always coupling itself to several objects, tools, and machines. Here we can remember Videodrome (1983), the movie by David Cronenberg in which the main character enters into a symbiose with several technical objects as the TV screen. Another character called Dr. Brian O’Blivion, who exists only in images from videotapes, says that “the television screen is the retina of the mind’s eye. Therefore, the television screen is part of the physical structure of the brain”.
In a famous essay published by Donna Haraway in 1985, the Cyborg Manifesto, she thinks that cyborgs are not in a distant future. We are already cyborgs. We already have a lot of technics and substances for improving the yield of our bodies, the efficiency of our intelligence, to increase our concentration. There are a lot of supplements that we use to overcome our body limits and keep up with the ever-faster pace of our city routines. However, the frantically running to meet demands that have been placed upon us shapes our subjectivity in a heteronomous way.
The more fantastic images and stories constantly incite our desires, even images of all this machinery blowing up into the air, while we feed deep memories that hope a chance of boost the body’s gears into a new expression. But, the demands from social life require from us another body; a body shaped by constraints from social life, compelling us to suppress these deep emotions (LAPOUJADE, 2017). In order to meet demands from accelerated city routines, it is necessary to reproduce the regularity of common habits as efficiently as possible. Our expressions are stuck to mechanical associations chain. However, we accept to live like this not just because we are compelled to it, but also because we desire for the possibilities allowed by society. Our acts are no less voluntary than forced. This problem is expressed by Lapoujade in this way:
“Social life in effect presupposes innumerable infinitesimal coercions, repressions, and repudiations of sensibility, its expressive potential (the aesthetic plane) crushed and occulted thousands upon thousands of times, but it also presupposes infinitesimal shames, compromises, or cowardlinesses that offend our “particular conception of life”62 (the ethical plane). […] At first the man who acts freely is the one who expresses what until then could not be expressed, taking into account the demands of all sorts that weighed on him. Freedom is a creation of the self by the self […] (LAPOUJADE, 2017, p. 34).
The modes of domination on contemporary societies pass through these multiple constraints of everyday life. This shapes our memories, our capacities of imagination, synapse, and creation, tying our expression in bureaucratic and mechanical models. And the problem of freedom today requires to think how the whole society is assembled as a machine. Its modes of repression are subtle, working upon the bases of our expression and behavior: the signs that compose our memory, our language, our perception, our capacity to associate different images and talk about them.
Imagine yourself as a flux running on certain circuit with openings and limits, subways and bridges. While you are limited to same pathways, with the same connections, what is supposedly more natural to you, then the trend is to always repeat a routine automatically. But when there is a breakdown and unexpected connections arise, when you have been put in relation with what is heterogeneous and anomalous, when anti-natural alliances are established with another circuits, then other pathways open, new habits can arise, and the future is open to invention.
In her Cyborg Manifesto, Haraway proposed the creation of interspecific alliances between the human and the machines, the plants, the animals. She realized that nature could not be ontologically neutralized anymore as something passive. Even more when it already was intensely crossed by molecular biology, genetic manipulations, prosthesis implantation, hybrids of bodies and technologies. Haraway saw in these hybrid relations the possibility of overcome the limits of anthropomorphism and to think the arrangements between bodies, technics and objects. Because, following Haraway, when we put ourselves in relation with heterogeneous circuits, we expand our possibilities of knowledge and action.
We must think this conception of human bodies also as a machinic conception. A fundamental feature of machines is the possibility of being coupled with other machines, composing a different machine, and expanding its capacities. A machine is always made of a set of smaller gears that can join to another without losing its specific functions but gaining new functions. Machines are systems as well.
Mark Fisher, a philosopher and cultural critic who had interesting research about cybernetics, had a good insight about Norbert Wiener, one of creators of cybernetics:
“[…] Its principal discovery is ‚feedback‘ – a system’s capacity to reflect and act upon its own performance. […] the whole point of cybernetics is that nothing is ‚more cybernetic‘ than anything else. There are only systems with more or less feedback, and different types of feedback […]
All organisms are already cybernetic). What matters is the overall organization of the parts. Do the parts operate as hierarchically organized and functionally-specified ‚organs‘ within a cybernegatively construed interiority or do they operate as deterritorialized potentials pulling from/ towards the Outside?” (FISHER, 2004).
We can understand a “cybernegatively construed interiority” as the result of a process through that a system differentiates itself from environment; it establishes limits, delimits boundaries and comes back to itself, producing its own and pure interiority. For Fisher, what matters is the capacity that the system develops through the relations that it can establish with its exteriority in a sympoietic process.
We are constantly all tangled into networks that determine our habits and reactions. Imagine that all things around us maintain a close mutual relationship between them. They act upon one another and we don’t realize that we are coupled in these engines. They drag us like Chaplin’s character in the Modern Times movie. Fisher asked himself how to liberate the body from these nerve endings that linked us to a system and its repetition cycles. The problem of freedom appears in his work not so much in terms of a confrontation with external restrictions and constraints to subjectivity, but as a problem that is imbricated in the functioning of the body itself. He regarded the body to be able to escape from a repetition cycles of habits and addictions that are constraints to their capacity of action. In a cybernetic conception of body, there is not a self that is delimited by its consciousness of itself, but a set of connections where we are tangled and that produce causality relations and reciprocal determinations. These are the terms in which we should think and act in order to increase our freedom.
Now, I would like to conclude by approaching the artificial intelligence. It seems a technovirus came from the future that invades our time and reality and provokes disturbances, as in the Terminator movie series. There is an interesting point to observe on these sci-fi dystopic movies. The artificial intelligence is always presented in opposition to its creators. The machine is shown as opposite to the human. However, when I was researching AI for this essay, I realized that the way that AI is explained by some AI developers made me think more about myself and my knowledge process than AI itself. The explanation of how AI systems work made me understand my own cognitive capacities as a human. It brings me some perspective on my own human nature as also able to be produced. It made me think about possibilities of techniques of myself that make possible the optimization of my own intelligence. That would then trigger a process of artificialization and denaturalization of what we are, blurring the borders between natural and artificial, human and machine (REED, 2017).
When we think beyond these oppositions, it is possible to realize that the existence of all beings and object around us as a set of different connections, different systems interacting between themselves, organic and inorganic, living and not living, all working together.
Intelligence is a faculty that has a fundamental disposition to solve problems. Mainly the problems of practical order, in a mathematical and logical sense. When Henri Bergson differentiated the intelligence from instinct in his book Creative Evolution, he said that the intelligence is more accustomed with objects that are exterior between themselves, spatialized and geometric objects. It is not so different with artificial intelligence, and it does not need be opposite to us, but complementary. AI should not be realized as something that will eliminate humans, but as something that works in interaction with them and connected to them. We couple ourselves with that, increasing our intelligence and capacity of solve problems. We can no longer have a subjective concept of intelligence, as essential faculty of individual subjects. Now we can think a cybernetic concept of intelligence that works in networks and in a sympoietic way. A multiagent system of distributed intelligence of which we are also part.
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