Sunday, 2 December 2012

Freud, Wiener and Education

I visited Freud's apartment (now a museum) in the Bergasse, Vienna today. It's somewhat empty because all his books and many of his artifacts are now in Hampstead, but it was a moving visit because it emphasised the terrible effect of Nazi occupation on this beautiful city. A lifetime's work was hurriedly shipped-out via Paris to London.

But what of the work itself? Psychoanalysis is about 50 years older than cybernetics. Just as cybernetics has bifurcated, different leaders coming to take it in different directions, so too with psychoanalysis. Today to say you are a psychoanalyst is immediately to invite the question "who do you follow?" It's a tribal thing. Cybernetics is the same. 1st order (cybernetics for engineers)? 2nd order (cybernetics for (second-rate?) philosophers)? Luhmann? Bateson? etc. It's difficult to claim it all. In order to do that, you would have to have a view of the whole thing, and as time passes, it all gets more obscure.

The truth is, in both cases, although there is a 'moment of birth' - the work of Freud, the work of Wiener - both subjects are much older. The consideration of the relationship between the mechanisms of living things and the mechanisms of the world goes back at least to scholasticism, with its roots in Aristotelian philosophy. There the consideration of the mind as mechanism lies latent in not only in the hands of artists (one has only to look at Sophocles or even Homer to see this) but in Platonic theories of education and society. Freud knew and acknowledged this.

But Freud is considered revolutionary because within the society he lived he had the courage to say something shocking which nevertheless people recognised as valuable and important. He reawoke his society to a primeval concern. He determined an absence which was recognised as a shared, but unarticulated, experience. It is a dialectical move which is perhaps comparable with that of Marx. Indeed, where Marx identified the absences of relationship between human beings, Freud identified the absences within each human being.

Did Wiener do something similar? Cybernetics didn't quite have the same Freud 'moment', but even so, Wiener identified something about 'feedback and control' (and a mathematics to go with it) which allowed a number of thinkers to gravitate around it. Wiener's identified 'absence' isn't quite at the same depth as Freud's emphasis on sex and drives, although it was perhaps a bit more practical in terms of giving rise to technologies.

The depth of an absence identified is related to the impact of a movement. Sex is a deep absence: describing the impact of its mechanisms on everyday life is a powerful move. Because of the depth of the absence, it strikes a chord with many (or at least identifies a question). Jung's archetypes are similarly deep: interestingly producing the same kind of effect. Wiener's 'feedback and control' is less deep, but nevertheless becomes shared between the small group of individuals who understood it. The impact of cybernetics was contained in the impact of what cybernetic thinking produced: advances in technology. It was the technology that was the deep absence that everyone could see. The internet is only the latest instantiation of this. It is important to remember this particular with regard to 2nd order cybernetics and a less practical, philosophical orientation.

I think at the heart of this lies the issue of materiality. Material things produce visceral reactions. Those reactions are shared because the experience of encountering a material object is shared. I know that the way I feel staring at an iPad isn't that different from the way you feel. Because of this, design of such items is possible. This is the shared absence related to the materiality of technology. Similarly, I know, deep down, the way I feel staring at an erotic Japanese print (saw some of these today in the Leopold museum) is not that different to the way you feel (or anyone else might feel). That is the shared absence related to the  materiality of sex.

Freud took the intangible (for example dreams) and turned them into material narratives. This created literary objects which had causal power in making individuals feel things which they knew were shared. The sharedness of the absence had a organisational effect (maybe like Luhmann's contingency formula?). A movement was born. Shared absences produces new concepts, new discourse.

In the case of Freud, once the novelty of the underlying interpretation had lost its shock and the basic principles became accepted, the underlying principle lost its power as a centre of gravity. Other absences emerged within the group that was engaged in psychoanalysis. Tribal differences arose.

In cybernetics, those who concentrated on the material artifacts (computers, for example) gradually split from those wondering about more ancient questions of cognition and being. The remarkable practical discoveries that kicked the thing off lost their power. New absences arose within the group: tribal squabbles separated people.

What now?

Is education the space where cybernetics, psychoanalysis and material technology come together? I'm thinking that "emotional management" may be one of the most important things that goes on in education (when it works). People don't learn new things when they feel bad about their ability to learn new things. Education too often encourages this. Feeling good requires some sort of therapy, which sometimes we might simply attribute to 'good teaching'. But that therapy/good teaching will involve some kind of materially-realised artifacts: resources, tools, etc as well as activites. These may be the technological product of thinking about "feedback and control". Maybe we should be pursuing "higher education for all" with the same passion, creativity and technical innovation as the Viennese Secessionists pursued their artistic ideals!

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