formalizing the cultural observer

by Sebastian Benthall

I’m taking a brief break from Horkheimer because he is so depressing and because I believe the second half of Eclipse of Reason may include new ideas that will take energy to internalize.

In the meantime, I’ve rediscovered Soren Brier’s Cybersemiotics: Why Information Is Not Enough! (2008), which has remained faithfully on my desk for months.

Brier is concerned with the possibility of meaning generally, and attempts to synthesize the positions of Pierce (recall: philosophically disliked by Horkheimer as a pragmatist), Wittgenstein (who first was an advocate of the formalization of reason and language in his Tractatus, then turned dramatically against it in his Philosophical Investigations), second-order cyberneticists like Varela and Maturana, and the social theorist Niklas Luhmann.

Brier does not make any concessions to simplicity. Rather, his approach is to begin with the simplest theories of communication (Shannon) and show where each fails to account for a more complex form of interaction between more completely defined organisms. In this way, he reveals how each simpler form of communication is the core around which a more elaborate form of meaning-making is formed. He finally arrives at a picture of meaning-making that encompasses all of reality, including that which can be scientifically understood, but one that is necessarily incomplete and an open system. Meaning is all-pervading but never all-encompassing.

One element that makes meaning more complex than simple Shannon-esque communication is the role of the observer, who is maintained semiotically through an accomplishment of self-reference through time. This observer is a product of her own contingency. The language she uses is the result of nature, AND history, AND her own lived life. There is a specificity to her words and meanings that radiates outward as she communicates, meanings that interact in cybernetic exchange with the specific meanings of other speakers/observers. Language evolves in an ecology of meaning that can only poorly be reflected back upon the speaker.

What then can be said of the cultural observer, who carefully gathers meanings, distills them, and expresses new ones conclusively? She is a cybernetic captain, steering the world in one way or another, but only the world she perceives and conceives. Perhaps this is Haraway’s cyborg, existing in time and space through a self-referential loop, reinforced by stories told again and again: “I am this, I am this, I am this.” It is by clinging to this identity that the cyborg achieves the partiality glorified by Haraway. It is also this identity that positions her as an antagonist as she must daily fight the forces of entropy that would dissolve her personality.

Built on cybernetic foundations, does anything in principle prevent the formalization and implementation of Brier’s semiotic logic? What would a cultural observer that stands betwixt all cultures, looming like a spider on the webs of communication that wrap the earth at inconceivable scale? Without the same constraints of partiality of one human observer, belonging to one culture, what could such a robot scientist see? What meaning would they make for themselves or intend?

This is not simply an issue of the interpretability of the algorithms used by such a machine. More deeply, it is the problem that these machines do not speak for themselves. They have no self-reference or identity, and so do not participate in meaning-making except instrumentally as infrastructure. This cultural observer that is in the position to observe culture in the making without the limits of human partiality for now only serves to amplify signal or dampen noise. The design is incomplete.