Bateson, Beer and Pask: Emergence of an Eco-Materialist Aesthetics
University of Westminster, London, UK
Andrew Pickering has noted that “the ontology of cybernetics is a strange and unfamiliar one, very different from that of the modern sciences”. He argues that the modern ideology and practice of science is fundamentally representational, but that within post-war cybernetics there was a radical and marginalised research interest, which staged a non-representational approach, based upon a “hylozoic wonder”, and a “reciprocal coupling of people and things”, and which tried to develop a new philosophy and science of material process. Across an ecology of practices – art, architecture, psychiatry, robotics, biological computing, cognitive science and even management theory – we find in this research the beginnings of a reformulation of the project of western knowledge, and a different way of thinking about what “things” are, and what we can know about them. Binary oppositions that continue to structure much thought, such as matter and pattern, nature and culture, subject and object, were profoundly re-imagined here, not just conceptually, but through real experimental projects.
In this paper I focus on Gregory Bateson’s conceptions of an ecological aesthetics and an ecology of mind, and Stafford Beer and Gordon Pask’s ideas around biological computing. All of these thinkers engaged in architectural or urban issues in various ways. Bateson tried to make available the insights of complex systems theory to NY planners, Pask famously collaborated with Cedric Price, and worked at the AA, whilst Beer fantasised about designing factories that were managed by complex systems in the local environment!
I review these more obvious engagements with architectural and ecological knowledge, but will also ask what kinds of questions and possibilities this neocybernetic research – which staged a very novel conception of time and agency – poses for the practice and knowledge of architectural historiography, an eco-materialist aesthetics and critical-political urban ecology.