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Orit Halpern: The Neural Network
The Neural Network
(p. 119 – 144)

Temporality, Rationality, Affect in Cybernetics

Orit Halpern

The Neural Network
Temporality, Rationality, and Affect in Cybernetics

PDF, 26 pages

What we thought we were doing (and I think we succeeded fairly well) was treating the brain
as a Turing machine; that is, as a device which could perform the kind of functions which a brain
must perform if it is only to go wrong and have a psychosis.

Warren McCulloch (1948)1

In 1948 on a conference on circuits and brains in Pasadena California, the prominent cybernetician and neural net pioneer Warren McCulloch addressed a room of the most prominent mathematicians, psychologists, and physiologists of the day. In his comments he sought to titillate his respectable audience by offering them a seemingly unintuitive analogy. Finite state automata, those models of calculative and computational reason, the templates for programming, the very seats of repetition, reliability, mechanical, logical and anticipatable behavior, were “psychotic” but brain-like.

These statements cannot, however, be thought in terms of human subjectivity or psychology. McCulloch, while trained as a psychiatrist, was not discussing patients in mental clinics. Rather he was responding to a famous paper delivered by the mathematician John von Neumann on logical automata.2 The psychiatrist had no intention to argue about the essential characteristics, the ontology, of machines or minds. He recognized that computers were not yet the same as organic brains. The question of equivalence was not at stake.

What was at stake was the set of methodologies and practices, the epistemology that might build new machines – whether organic or mechanical. And the answer, both McCulloch and von Neumann suggested, was to develop a new form of logic, an epistemology they labeled “psychotic” and rational, that might make processes usually assigned to analytic functions of the brain, perhaps associated with consciousness and psychology, amenable to technical replication. McCulloch gave voice to an aspiration to turn a world framed in terms of consciousness and liberal reason, into one of control, communication, and rationality. And he did not dream alone. At this conference where many of the foremost architects of Cold War computing, psychology, economics, and life sciences sat, we hear a multitude of similar statements arguing for a new world, now comprised of “psychotic” but logical and rational agents.

I want to take this turn away from pathology and reason, to a new discourse of cognition and rationality, as a starting point to consider the relationship between memory, reason, and temporality in cybernetic discourse. McCulloch and the works...

  • logics
  • temporality
  • perception
  • network theory
  • epistemology
  • artificial intelligence
  • Cybernetics
  • rationality
  • psychology
  • affects
  • Neuroscience

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Orit Halpern

is an assistant professor in History at the New School of Social Research. Her focus is on histories of digital media, cybernetics, cognitive and neuroscience, art and design. Her current work focuses on excavating a genealogy of big data and interactivity. Published works and multimedia projects have appeared in numerous venues, including The Journal of Visual Culture, Public Culture and at ZKM in Karlsruhe, Germany.

Marie-Luise Angerer (ed.), Bernd Bösel (ed.), ...: Timing of Affect

Affect, or the process by which emotions come to be embodied, is a burgeoning area of interest in both the humanities and the sciences. For »Timing of Affect«, Marie-Luise Angerer, Bernd Bösel, and Michaela Ott have assembled leading scholars to explore the temporal aspects of affect through the perspectives of philosophy, music, film, media, and art, as well as technology and neurology. The contributions address possibilities for affect as a capacity of the body; as an anthropological inscription and a primary, ontological conjunctive and disjunctive process as an interruption of chains of stimulus and response; and as an arena within cultural history for political, media, and psychopharmacological interventions. Showing how these and other temporal aspects of affect are articulated both throughout history and in contemporary society, the editors then explore the implications for the current knowledge structures surrounding affect today.


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