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Modernism, Cybernetics, and Systems Theory: Disciplinary Relevance in a STEM-focused World

In 1926, Gertrude Stein delivered the lecture “Composition as Explanation” to the Cambridge Literary Club at Oxford University (fig. 1). The talk couches a description of her own evolution as an experimental author within a broader discussion of history, culture, and art as a series of distinct “composition[s].”As Kristin Bergen helpfully explains, the “multivocal term” composition at once designates “the dominant mode of daily life for a given period and also the production of those who represent that mode in art.”[1] In Stein’s (unsurprisingly) less-straightforward talk, the details of what exactly “composition” entails emerge through a series of looping, gestural statements that echo one another as they offer minor variations on a repeated idea:

Each generation has something different at which they are all looking. .  . . composition is the difference. (par. 1)

Nothing changes from generation to generation except the thing seen and that makes a composition. (par. 2)

The composition is the thing seen by every one living in the living they are doing, they are the composing of the composition that at the time they are living in the composition of the time in which they are living. (par. 12)

Each period of living differs from any other period of living not in the way life is but in the way life is conducted and that authentically speaking is composition. (par. 17)

My summer project this year (amidst my own life’s “composition” that has involved the rather repetitive, yet endlessly varied tasks of caring for a two-year-old while daycare was shut down, planning for multiple sections of remote course delivery in a fall semester that is nearly upon me as I write this post, and responding to an ongoing stream of calamitous news headlines) has been to draft a book chapter focused on Stein’s theories of culture and identity as composition. I have been reading her work—and her strategy of repetitive insistence, or shifting emphasis—alongside writing by anthropologists Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, and Mary Catherine Bateson. The argument that is emerging centers on how (a) Stein is undertaking a form of self-reflexive cultural study that we can think of as autobiographical ethnography, and how (b) this mode of writing constitutes an early example of the attitudes and practices that would later coalesce in the interdisciplinary field of second-order cybernetics.

Gertrude Stein (1874 - 1946) in 1935 (photograph by Carl Van Vechten).
Fig. 1. Gertrude Stein (1874 - 1946) in 1935 (photograph by Carl Van Vechten). Wikimedia Commons.

A Cybernetics of Cybernetics

Second-order cybernetics incorporated earlier cybernetics principles like feedback loops, the accumulation of large-scale data sets, and statistical predictive mechanisms.[2] However, it moved beyond the closed-system approach that “first-order” cyberneticians like Norbert Wiener and Warren McCulloch had prioritized, and instead invited theorists and practitioners to account more fully for the role observers play in shaping the systems they observe.[3] Mead’s call for the development of a “cybernetics of cybernetics” in her 1968 keynote address to the American Society for Cybernetics (i.e. her invitation for participants to engage in self-reflexive deliberation about what they wanted their society to become) is often cited as the initial articulation of the second-order turn; and Gregory Bateson’s ecologically oriented cybernetics theories, often encapsulated in pithy aphorisms such as “without context, there is no communication” (“Cybernetic Explanation,” 1967), also offer important early calls for cyberneticians to shift their attention towards more self-awareness and self-referentiality. Within the broader field of cybernetics, these concepts are often grounded in statistical methods—cyberneticians develop mathematical models for understanding processes of learning and predicting behavior in scenarios where uncertainty prevails. As a case in point, take Ranulph Glanville’s progressively more layered diagrams that are meant to represent the opacity inherent in any observed system (fig. 2). However, the social scientists who were part of these circles (anthropologists like Mead and Bateson; psychologists like W. Ross Ashby) brought those statistical frameworks to bear more directly on specific human subjects, one-on-one interactions, and individual communities.

Four “stages” in Ranulph Glanville’s representation of the interaction between an observer and a black box
Fig. 2. Four “stages” in Ranulph Glanville’s representation of the interaction between an observer (represented by the circle that first appears in his Figure 2) and a black box (represented by the square shape, which receives inputs [I] and produces outputs [O]). The accumulating layers of observers highlights the fact that uncertainty still exists even when an observer thinks they have figured out what’s going on in a black box. From “Inside Every White Box There are Two Black Boxes Trying to Get Out,” Behavioral Science, vol. 27, no. 1 (1982): 1-11.

Gertrude Stein: Second-Order Cyberneticist

Mead and Gregory Bateson’s daughter, Mary Catherine Bateson, developed aspects of both her parents’ second-order cybernetics ideas as she conducted her own ethnographic projects (published from the 1970s through the 2010s) (fig. 3). As I have been thinking about Stein’s cybernetics leanings, the prominence of the term “composition” in M. C. Bateson’s writing has been especially generative. One of her best-known books is titled Composing a Life (1991), and like in Stein’s texts, “composition” figures here as a framework for suturing cultural awareness to creative activity, and also as a tool for mobilizing the potential of circular representational strategies (i.e. the seemingly repetitive accumulation of and reflection on large quantities of similar-but-non-identical data points) to produce insight about culture and identity.

American anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson (1939-) at a conference in 2004
Fig. 3. American anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson (1939-) at a conference in 2004. Wikimedia Commons.

Put differently, Bateson’s and Stein’s repeated references to the term “composition” illustrate a shared rhetorical technique: they refer back to previous statements as a way of modelling a process of gradual learning; by forcing readers to experience that process, Bateson and Stein cultivate a form of perception in which progressively more nuanced understanding emerges through encounters with near repetition. The verb “to compose” resonates, after all, across various contexts—academic, artistic, and embodied. The word’s multivalent meanings underpin M. C. Bateson’s self-reflexive musings about the common patterns that underlie linguistic communication and the experience of everyday life. “The weave of continuity and creativity in the ways that individuals ‘compose’ their lives,” she writes in Peripheral Visions (1994), “is not unlike the way they put together sentences and other sequences of behavior” (87). In both Stein’s and Bateson’s thinking, these sorts of insights emerge through attentiveness to the details of lived experience, and by seeking patterns amidst the collections of observations they make about themselves and their surroundings. Those surroundings include the environments, landscapes, and communities they find themselves within; the institutions, buildings, and machines they encounter; the varied interpersonal relationships they cultivate; and the distinct habits they notice and compare across these different fields of observation. By understanding Stein and Bateson as mobilizing similar strategies for (and obsessions with) understanding culture, I propose that Stein-the-repetitively-insistent-observer can be recast as Stein-the-second-order-cyberneticist.[4] This repositioning allows us to argue for the status of that broader discipline as not only a technical, scientific undertaking that emerged in the late-twentieth century, but also part of a longer cultural and aesthetic movement with ties to modernism; and it also provides us with new insight into the cybernetic and anthropological dimensions of Stein’s lifelong commitment to capturing the essence of American culture and identity.

Cybernetics, Systems Theory, Modernism, Literary Studies

My approach to reading Stein’s literary innovations, then, positions her work as part of an intellectual and artistic lineage that produced second-order cybernetics, with its central principles of circularity and self-reflexivity, and its foundation in first-order cybernetics methods, such as the statistical processing of large-scale sets of accumulated, near-identical data. This interdisciplinary pairing is an example of what I see as an emerging trend within literary studies generally, and modernist studies in particular. An expanding group of critics is turning to fields like cybernetics, information, and systems theory for concepts and frameworks to guide textual analysis and to make arguments about literature’s cross-disciplinary significance.[5]

Scholars grounded in modernist studies have made rich contributions to this subfield. See, for example, Paul Jaussen’s work on emergence and the long poem, Avery Slater’s explorations of mid-century poetry alongside autopoiesis and automation, and the numerous examples of recent projects that read modernism through rubrics of scale (Rebecca Walkowitz’s 2019 Print+ cluster), networks (Wesley Beal, Matthew Hannah), information (James Purdon, Paul Stephens), and more. The trend, though, is not limited to modernist studies; it extends more broadly across literary fields, as evidenced by Megan Ward’s work on artificial intelligence and Victorian realism and Marjorie Levinson’s use of concepts like recursion and self-reference to read Romantic lyric poetry, to cite only a few examples. I am looking forward to discussing the “promises and limitations of systems thinking for our field” with several of these scholars at a (virtual) roundtable on “Literary Cybernetics” at the upcoming MLA 2021 convention; I hope that readers of this blog will consider attending that event. In the space that remains of this blog post, I’d like to sketch out what I see as three of the key driving factors behind this turn, and gesture towards some of the payoffs it promises.

Cultural Currency

The turn to systems theory or cybernetic thinking in literary studies is intensely “self-referential” (to borrow from Stein’s and Bateson’s second-order vocabulary) in its appeal to cultural currency. After all, the cybernetic discourse of big data—algorithms, machine learning, artificial intelligence; health-tracking apps, election forecasting websites, individually curated “you might like . . .” suggestions on Amazon and Netflix—permeates our existence right now. It’s no wonder that we are tapping into its potential as a source of new models for understanding and relating to our objects of study. The connections seem particularly apt for scholars of modernism, given the alignments between our rapidly changing present-day technology environment and the world in which modernist-era authors found themselves. Paul Stephens’s scholarly and more popular work (2015) on information overload makes a compelling case for this type of transhistorical resonance, as does Lisa Mendelman’s blog post on “The Quantified Self” here on the M/m Print+ platform (2018). This work suggests we have something to learn from modernists like Stein as we struggle to manage multiple competing responsibilities and to grapple with the pervasive effects of new technologies on our everyday lives (the feeling of panic is particularly acute right now, as I scramble to figure out which one or two or three of a seemingly endless list of remote course-delivery platforms will make sense for my fall classes, and as I attempt to focus on the obligations of semester prep amidst the constant onslaught of distressing news stories). As so many critics have claimed, a strong pedagogical impulse runs through much of modernist aesthetic production.[6] By drawing from systems theory and cybernetics—which are also, with their grounding in statistics and prediction and feedback loops, fundamentally about theories of learning—we confirm the pedagogical potential of the modernist authors, texts, and historical periods that we study. In doing so, we cast them as valuable “objects-to-think-with-together” here in the twenty-first century.[7]

Interdisciplinary Influence

The turn to discourses like cybernetics and system theory is also a strategy that literary scholars can use to stake a claim for our discipline’s relevance and mobilize our work’s interdisciplinary potential within an academic (and a political and an economic) climate that often privileges applied, STEM research. Asserting the value of humanistic perspectives within technical fields complements a broader trend in STEM, which is starting to acknowledge that it might not have sufficient “in-house” resources, perspectives, training, and expertise to fully confront and responsibly address the myriad ethical and sociological issues that technological innovation produces.[8] To take my own experience as a literary scholar working at one of Canada’s most tech- and innovation-focused institutions (the University of Waterloo) as a case in point: my work with cybernetics theory has opened up possibilities for cross-faculty teaching appointments (in science, engineering, and interdisciplinary English programs) and collaborative research studies and grant-writing projects (related to ethics and communication in Engineering curriculum, and to broader questions about Responsible Innovation in Technology); it has also produced networking opportunities with professional and non-profit organizations that seek input from humanities experts who are already versed in tech sector “lingo” (like the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ [IEEE’s] Society on Social Implications of Technology and TechEthics branch, the Canadian-based Engineering Change Lab, and Kitchener Ontario’s Communitech hub).

I’m not saying that I’ve convinced all the engineers and biologists I’ve met to go home and read Gertrude Stein. But I have met people working in these disciplines who are intrigued when I tell them about my research—who are excited to include a presentation on Ezra Pound and cybernetic feedback loops as part of an engineering conference program, or to have a literary scholar who has conducted archival research on Norbert Wiener guest edit a special issue of a technical magazine. Perhaps, then, the arguments and interpretations literary scholars come to as we apply systems thinking to texts can filter across the disciplinary boundary as we position ourselves to work alongside and in collaboration with more technical experts. Perhaps our work can prompt engineers, scientists, and other tech-focused professionals—or at least a subset of these communities—to engage in more self-reflexive, interpersonally attuned, ethically oriented ways with their products, institutions, and infrastructure. Modernist experimental authors, after all, were fairly relentless in their pursuit of new attitudes, forms of perception, and ways of being within an increasingly technologized world. By reading their work through the lenses that systems theory and other technical discourses offer, and communicating the implications of their ideas to the people working in those fields today—students, researchers, industry professionals, policymakers—might it be possible to influence, enrich, and adjust the narratives we tell about present-day techno-culture and our roles within it?

Insights into Modernism

In closing, I want to return to the humanities and emphasize that these systems-theory frameworks from the late twentieth and early twenty-first century can help us understand modernist literary and cultural production in new and important ways. This is a crucial aspect of the impulse behind these approaches as well as their payoff, particularly if we are to avoid becoming handmaids of STEM researchers and practitioners. What compels me about the “techno-language” of systems theory and networks and cybernetics is the way it helps us appreciate anew, and from different angles, many of the formal and contextual intricacies of modernist literary experiments. I’ve argued, for instance, that the idea of a cybernetic feedback loop helps us understand how, for Ezra Pound, circulation (of ideas, of art, of people, of money) is essential to cultural transmission.[9] And that midcentury theories of information illuminate the models of knowledge at work in John Dos Passos’s sprawling, multi-modal narratives.[10] I opened this post with a short case study in how later-twentieth-century developments in anthropology, whose researchers were responding to the rise of techno-culture by engaging in practices that became known as second-order cybernetics, can open up new ways of approaching Stein’s modernist representations of identity and culture. By exploring the lines of “interdependence” (to borrow from Mary Catherine Bateson) that run between disciplines and across contexts, and that only become clear if we are willing to reflect self-critically on the positions we occupy within our deeply interconnected intellectual, cultural, and social environments, we can enrich our own field of study as well.


[1] See Kristin Bergen, “‘Dogs Bark’: War, Narrative, and Historical Syncopation in Gertrude Stein’s Late Work,” Criticism, vol. 57, no. 4 (2015): 609-629, 616.

[2] Ranulph Glanville and Bernard Scott have both offered detailed accounts of the emergence of second-order cybernetics, including its key ideas on central figures.

[3] This is not to say that these earlier figures were not interested in ideas like self-reflexivity and circularity; rather, those concepts became central with the turn to second-order cybernetics.

[4] Other parts of my project explore connections between modernist authors and first-order cybernetics thinkers.

[5] I want to distinguish what I see in this turn to systems theory as a source of concepts for developing textual analysis from projects more explicitly grounded in the digital humanities. In the latter, as we see in something like Shawna Ross and James O’Sullivan’s 2016 collection or the Linked Modernisms initiative, these ideas about digital information management and large-scale data-processing instead perform a methodological function.

[6] See, for example, the essays in the June 2019 special issue of Modernist Cultures (vol. 14, no. 3), focused on “Modernism and/as Pedagogy” (edited by Peter Howarth), and Benjamin D. Hagen’s recent book, The Sensuous Pedagogies of Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence (Clemson, SC: Clemson University Press, 2020).

[8] See, for example, reviews of ethics instruction in sciences by Watts et al. (May 2017 and November 2017), which argue that interdisciplinary expertise is key to successfully incorporating ethics into STEM curriculum.

[9] See Heather A. Love, “Cybernetic Modernism and the Feedback Loop: Ezra Pound’s Poetics of Transmission.” Modernism/modernity, vol. 23, no. 1 (2016): 89-111. 

[10] See Heather A. Love, “Novels, Newsreels, and Cybernetics: Reading the Random Patterns of John Dos Passos’s U.S.A.” Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 40, no. 2 (2017): 112-131.