Rock & Roll, Cybernetics and Literature:
Bruno Clarke’s Intersecting, Interconnecting World
How did a musician who saw Jimi Hendrix blow “the rooftop off” an empty club in Washington, DC, find similar resonance in the field of “second order cybernetics?”
For Dr. Bruce “Bruno” Clarke, professor of literature and science at Texas Tech University, Woodstock performer and survivor, (his band, Sha-na-na was the penultimate act before Jimi Hendrix closed the Festival), it’s all connected, but not in ways we might expect.
I met Clarke on a bench in the stone and wood living room at Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico. We were guests of cultural philosopher William Irwin Thompson and Roshi Joan Halifax at the annual meeting of the Lindisfarne Fellows.
In the serene and heady atmosphere, Clarke told me about his then forthcoming book, Post Human Metamorphosis, Narrative and Systems, which explores “second order cybernetics” through the lens of science and literature.
The term cybernetics, the study and analysis of regulatory systems and how they are structured, was coined by mathematician Norbert Weiner in the late 1940s in his book Cybernetics OR Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine.
“Cybernetics contains the same root we use for the word governor—meaning ‘steersman,’” says Clarke. “And that captures the thrust of the original cybernetic program, which was to study the organic mechanisms of self-regulation (the tendency to maintain a stable, constant condition) in order to design technological systems.”
According to Clarke, within a decade after Weiner’s Cybernetics was published, the idea of ‘artificial intelligence’ was off and running.
“To a large extent,” says Clarke. “That is what cybernetics has come to mean as a mainstream idea—the intelligent control and regulation of systems of all sorts. Cybernetics also carries with it the notion of the ‘cyborg,’ the amalgam of a cybernetic machine and organism that continues to carry the ominous overtone or specter of living systems—bodies and embodied persons—being controlled by machines, invaded by machines, and transformed into machines.”
Think Arnold Scwharzenegger’s role as a cyborg in The Terminator film series.
“But a counter-trend was developing,” adds Clarke, “Second order cybernetics, driven from the biological rather than technological side of cybernetic synthesis; where matters of environment and ecology, the world in which we live and breathe, are given a far more prominent role.”
So, how might rock and roll have played into Clarke’s scholarship?
“The era in which I was born produced philosophers, artists and scientists who re-evaluated how we look at the world, its systems and our place in it,” he says, “people who came to adulthood during the sixties, a time of musical and societal tumult. My high school years coincided with the British invasion led by the Beatles and Stones and then the rise of psychedelia. My friends and I saw an unknown Jimi Hendrix in the spring of ’67, a pick-up gig on his way from London to Monterey for the pop festival he would set on fire with his famous guitar immolation on ‘Wild Thing.'”
Clarke later had the opportunity to meet Hendrix.
“He flashed us his beautiful smile,” says Clarke, “Shook hands all around and, shaking mine, uttered the personal compliment I’ve tried to live by ever since: “You got soul, man.’ And that is what I seek in my work.”
WRR: Let’s start with music. When did you start playing?
I was ten and my uncle Dave, then a cadet at West Point, gifted me his Here’s Little Richardalbum, the classic on the Specialty label, with Tutti Frutti, Rip it Up, Long Tall Sally, andSlipping and Sliding. That was in 1960. I played it about a million times.
Sometime after that I acquired an Elvis Presley Greatest Hits album. So I was as wired into rock’n’roll as the next early-60s suburban pre-teen, maybe a little more. I built a crystal radio, strung an antenna wire out my McLean, Virginia, bedroom window, and picked up rock stations from places as far away as Buffalo. When the Beatles burst on the scene in the winter of 1964, my freshman year in high school, it was time to buy my first guitar. I took the ten obligatory classical-guitar lessons, then went electric—bought a Gibson Melody Maker and an amp, and banded up with some high-school buds.
That became The Fuzz—“the band with the arresting sound.” The fuzztone had just gone on the market, and you needed one to sound like Keith Richards’s guitar on “Satisfaction.” I played rhythm guitar in The Fuzz. We started to get regular gigs, which meant that somebody’s parents had to schlep us there. That’s when our bass player’s parents gave him the hook. I took over on bass guitar and planted my musical flag on that instrument.
After a bit more personnel reshuffling we changed names to the Fantastic Plastic (in honor of Jefferson Airplane’s Plastic Fantastic Lover). We were now old enough (16 was driving age in Virginia) to get ourselves to gigs, and we made enough money doing weekend gigs that I could drop my Washington Post paper route.
Somehow (I think it was the afterglow of the beer I drank the night before) I knocked the SATs out of the park, which, when placed against my overall lackluster grades helped me sell myself to Columbia University.
You were the bass player for the fifties revival band, Sha-Na-Na. How did you end up at Woodstock?
Sha-Na-Na began as a one-night-only, end-of-semester lark produced by the King’s Men, the traditional a Capella student vocal group named for Columbia University’s pre-Revolutionary incarnation as King’s College. Normally, and for decades prior, the King’s Men stood in horseshoe formation in blue blazers singing old standards and folk-songs in five-part harmony. I was not a member of that, but to complete their plans to turn their vocal chops on 1950s doo-wop material for a one-night spectacular, they needed to add in a few instruments to form a back-up band. So I got tapped and we whipped up a 45-minute show complete with gold-lamé suits and rudimentary choreography.
That night a thousand drunken Columbia and Barnard kids stressed-out on term papers showed up with greased-back hair and rolled-up T-shirts, hooting and hollering and dancing on the tables. Our unassuming little musical satire was a hit and we became a band.
A month and a half later we had fixed on the name Sha-Na-Na (from the chorus of the fifties doo-wop song, Get a Job), but then abruptly fired our first manager, who’d been caught shorting us on the meager pay-checks of the lousy New Jersey gigs we were getting. It was looking kind of grim when the officer corps of the erstwhile King’s Men hit the midtown Manhattan streets knocking on nightclub doors. Fatefully, the one door that opened was Steve Paul’s Scene. Steve Paul was Johnny Winter’s manager, and his hole-in-the-basement-wall club at 8th Avenue and 46th Street was the premier after-hours venue for the industry elite. After an audition we were hired for a two-week run, two shows a night, one at 12:30 a.m. and another at 2:30, for $50 a night for all twelve of us. We must have struck them as a total goof not to be passed up, as we could not have been more nerdy, naïve, unhip and unpsychedelic. We were thrilled.
And once again that unfathomable Sha magic kicked in. The material was really only a decade or so old—great and beloved stuff like the Five Satins’ In the Still of the Night and the Marcels’Blue Moon. Our band, if I may say so, was good enough to hold the total package together, and we sure didn’t take ourselves any more seriously than necessary. Everything that made us big came out of those crazy two weeks in late June in the summer of ’69. After that the William Morris agency represented us, Buddha Records signed us, Concert promoter, Bill Graham, booked us at the first of many gigs at the Fillmore East, then West. The Woodstock promoters saw us there and made us a late, unpublicized addition to their three-day line-up later that summer. (See Bruno Clarke’s blog on WRR@Large – August 14, 2009.)
WRR: You titled your fourth book, Post Human Metamorphosis. What is a post humanist?
The more extreme “post humanists” would be those who desire to become cyborgs, or in some way to adapt some technological prosthesis or bioengineering technique to “improve” their skills or intelligence or longevity. These folks are still sold on, we can say, the imaginary of first-order cybernetics. I have no interest in this version of posthumanism, except as a telling cultural phenomenon and as a productive theme in cyberpunk fiction.
The posthumanism worth contemplation–and you are welcome to call me a “posthumanist” in that I pursue this contemplation–is an effort to think beyond the legacies of “humanism,” that is, the notion that, as Protagoras put it long ago, “man is the measure of all things.”
We’re currently reaping a field of bitter harvests produced by instrumental applications of this exaggeration. What systems thinking in its second-order development observes is that “man” is a phenomenon resting upon the interpenetration of multiple systems, each with its own relative autonomy, modes of association, and environmental demands and effects.
George Lagelaan’s short story, The Fly, which was also the source of 1958 and 1986 movie versions, and Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy can be read for the way they refract the very developments in cybernetic systems theory.
The Fly is precisely about the disaster of a first-order technological regime going out of control. The teleporter that the protagonist creates out of humanitarian intentions turns out to be his downfall once he turns it on himself without due consideration for the other creatures—the fly in the ointment, in this instance—that may also be coming along for the ride. So the metamorphosis here becomes a spectacular wreck of the technoscientific aims, and an indictment, so to speak, of the obliviousness of its conceptual regime.
In contrast, in the Xenogenesis trilogy, Butler approaches posthuman metamorphosis with a deliberate application of biologist Lynn Margulis’s theories of evolutionary development through the symbiotic merger of living systems. So, in this case I observe a second-order systems approach to the coupling of earthly with alien life forms, played out in terms of entire evolutionary populations, instead of individual experimenters. The result, in Butler’s fictional world, at least, is a viable and believable transformation of the human—mind, body, and all—into something “posthuman.”
WRR: Octavia Butler won the MacArthur Genius Grant for, among other things, her Xenogenesis Trilogy. What makes her science fiction stand out?
A while back the trilogy was reissued in an omnibus edition under the title Lilith’s Brood, but I still prefer the early composite title Butler gave to the three novels in the series —Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago—since “xeno-” (alien) “genesis” (coming into being) resonates correctly against Lynn Margulis’s technical concept of “symbiogenesis,” or evolution by genetic merger rather than by random mutation.
Lilith is a twenty-something African-American woman among the few hundred human beings salvaged by the alien race of the Oankali from a Reagan-era all-out nuclear exchange, or vaguely understood effort by a few military crazies as “humanicide.”
The Oankali wake Lilith up after several hundred years of controlled slumber and probing investigation, and explain that they are “gene traders.” They’ve made their cosmic livelihood by trolling the galaxy for “trade partners,” to whom they offer a biological merger with a portion of their population—leaving most aside in case things go bad. If things go well, they aim to complexify and revivify their species.
Although the Oankali are hideous to human eyes—“sea slugs” is what comes to Lilith’s mind at first—they are considerate, communal, and “egalitarian” creatures, except where their biological imperatives to “merge” are concerned. So, Lilith is informed that she will help them explain to her fellow humans who are about to be “awakened,” who the Oankali are and what they want.
Lilith is eventually persuaded to accede to the Oankali, to begin a “trade family” which the trilogy then follows through three generations of “construct” offspring, as the genetic complements of human and Oankali genomes are manipulated through the specialized organs of the ooloi or Oankali beings who are neither male nor female, but the mediators of sexual commerce and developmental transitions within Oankali life and society.
Lilith is paired off with a young ooloi, Nikanj, who becomes her primary trade partner in the raising of their “brood.” Needless to say, the trade project is not one that most of the other humans find appealing, even once they are convinced that they are on a huge living spaceship with nowhere to run, and therein lies the tale.
WRR: Do you think that being gay, African American and a female affected how Butler shaped her writing and thoughts about how systems are organized?
I don’t know that Butler necessarily thought about systems explicitly. It’s just that a second-order form of systems thinking was active in the work of Margulis, which Butler read when she was writing the Xenogenesis trilogy – specifically Microcosmos: Four Billion Years of Evolution from our Microbial Ancestors, co-written in 1986 with Dorion Sagan. I know of Butler’s close familiarity with this book since, when writing Posthuman Metamorphosis, I emailed her on this point and received confirmation less than a year before she so tragically died.
As a white male I can’t speak with any particular authority to the question of how Butler’s sexual and racial identifications may have shaped her work. But my hunch, for which I present the arguments in Posthuman Metamorphosis in a chapter on Butler, is that she found in Margulis and Sagan’s presentation of the ways of life of bacteria—about which most people are woefully under-informed and/or grossly misinformed—a number of natural or “microcosmic” analogues to behaviors that could be adapted to the positive qualities of the Oankali and carried over into her characters’ posthuman merger with them.
After all, bacteria literally “trade genes”, coexist and coevolve in myriad varieties, and have shaped the planet over four billion years of evolving life, creating and maintaining the foundations of a living environment for all other living forms, which are in fact nothing but variously elaborated consortia of primordial bacteria.
Margulis is credited with the contemporary molecular-biological confirmation that the cellular organelles called mitochondria derive from free-living aerobic bacteria of the Archean eon (3.5 to 2.8 billion years ago) that merged with other bacterial symbionts to form the nucleated cell. All nonbacterial life is postbacterial.
In the Xenogenesis trilogy, everything in the Oankali world is living—including their vast intergalactic ship—and as such, possesses the “Oankali organelle,” which carries the primeval genetic message and “operating system” enabling their gene trading to function.
Margulis warns against the unwarranted political allegorizing of her revisions to evolutionary thinking because nature is not to be anthropomorphized. But it is still the case that for most of life, evolutionary success has had a lot more to do with finding ways to get along and live off each other’s livelihoods than it has to do with killing off one’s competitors. The Oankali are a powerful metaphor for a way of life that seeks self-transformation through symbiosis rather than self-preservation through defensive violence.
WRR: In your book, you make the comparison between Butler’s trilogy and the work of scientists, Carl Sagan, James Lovelock, and Lynn Margulis – how fiction mirrors science. Can you speak to this?
The Xenogenesis trilogy is rightly considered science fiction—hard science fiction, meaning a fictional narrative in which the scientific ideas are relatively non-fictional. In this narrative milieu, going back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, for instance, the representation of science is fairly direct and intrinsic to the situations depicted. One moves out from there to folks considered mainstream literary authors—such as Thomas Pynchon, A. S. Byatt, or Richard Powers—who know science well and bring it into contemporary social scenarios without obvious science-fictional devices.
Something I’ve been interested in is the fate of ideas that fall away from approved scientific discourse but enjoy a sort of afterlife in cultural conversation—such as the luminiferous etherthat was backed with the full authority of Victorian physics as the medium of light, only to be eliminated from the cosmos when Einstein’s special law of relativity showed in 1905 that one could dispense with it and still account for the propagation of radiation.
And yet the ether and its variants—such as “radio waves”—was all over modernist literature for decades thereafter. The point is that the “mirror” of fiction and cultural discourse, when it comes to science, can be more like a time warp. And as with the divergence in cybernetics we talked about earlier, science itself can fray into competing camps that do not keep up with developments that may come to fruition in other areas and in collaboration with extra-scientific discussions. Gaia theory would be a good example here, in that much of mainstream American science still holds it at arm’s length, while it has maintained and developed its international scientific credentials and also generated all kinds of literary, philosophical, and spiritual responses.
WRR: In the context of Gaia, what is autopoiesis and what are autopoietic systems? Many people find autopoeisis difficult to understand.
Autopoiesis is the premier concept of second-order cybernetics. It is a way of describing the self-referential form of a system whose product is itself. The original example is a living cell. In order to reproduce itself, a cell, or an organism, must have maintained its own living processes from the moment of its own reproductive origination.
The autopoietic system produces the internal circumstances that allows for maintenance of its own processes. In the cell this is most easily observed in the membrane. A cell produces and maintains the membrane that cuts it out of its environment, that encloses and maintains the autonomy of its own operations, which then continue to replenish the membrane, which protects the metabolism that maintains the membrane that binds the cell, and so on.
Metabiotic autopoietic systems are psychic and social systems that provide the immediate and indispensible environment of the other, providing resources—just as their environments provide cells with energy and nutrients. Social systems bring communications to consciousness, but psychic systems must then reconstruct them in the mode of their own psychic operations. In the same way, psychic systems bring conscious ideas to social systems, but in order to enter into communication, psychic ideas must be reconstructed in the forms proper to social systems. In short, ideas must be converted into signs, which can then circulate so as to produce further communications.
Just as no cell can live the life of any other cell, no mind can know from the inside any mind other than its own. Second-order cybernetics calls that “operational closure.” And that, of course, is why we need literary narrators, and take delight in such fictional communications. They stage for us the observation of other minds, and we are ready and willing to suspend our disbelief.
In 2006, Joy E. Stocke founded Wild River Review with Kimberly Nagy, an outgrowth of the literary magazine, The Bucks County Writer, of which Stocke was Editor in Chief. In 2009, as their editorial practice grew, Stocke and Nagy founded Wild River Consulting & Publishing, LLC.
With more than twenty-five years experience as a writer and journalist, Stocke works with many of the writers who appear in the pages of Wild River Review, as well as clients from around the world.
In addition, Stocke has shepherded numerous writers into print. She has interviewed Nobel Prize winners Orhan Pamuk and Muhammud Yunus, Pulitzer Prizewinner Paul Muldoon, Paul Holdengraber, host of LIVE from the NYPL; Roshi Joan Halifax, founder of Upaya Zen Center; anthropologist and expert on end of life care, Mary Catherine Bateson; Ivonne Baki, President of the Andean Parliament; and Templeton Prizewinner Freeman Dyson among others.
In 2006, along with Nagy, Stocke interviewed scientists and artists including former Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman and Dean of Faculty, David P. Dobkin for the documentary Quark Park, chronicling the creation of an award-winning park built on a vacant lot in the heart of Princeton, New Jersey; a park that united art, science and community.
She is president of the Board of Directors at the Cabo Pulmo Learning Center, Cabo Pulmo, Baja Sur, Mexico; and is a member of the Turkish Women’s International Network.
In addition, Stocke has written extensively about her travels in Greece and Turkey. Her memoir, Anatolian Days and Nights: A Love Affair with Turkey, Land of Dervishes, Goddesses & Saints, based on more than ten years of travel through Turkey, co-written with Angie Brenner was published in March 2012. Her cookbook, Tree of Life: Turkish Home Cooking will be published in March, 2017 by Quarto Books under the Burgess Lea Press imprint . Stocke and Brenner are currently testing recipes for a companion book, which will feature Anatolian-inspired mezes from around the world.
Stocke’s essay “Turkish American Food” appears in the 2nd edition of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America (OUP, 2013). The volume won both International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) for Beverage/Reference/Technical category, 2014; and the Gourmand Award for the Best Food Book of the Year, 2014.
She is the author of a bi-lingual book of poems, Cave of the Bear, translated into Greek by Lili Bita based on her travels in Western Crete, and is currently researching a book about the only hard-finger coral reef in Mexico on the Baja Sur Peninsula. She has been writing about environmental issues there since 2011.
A graduate of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, with a Bachelor of Science in Broadcast Journalism from the Agriculture Journalism School where she also received a minor of Food Science, she participated in the Lindisfarne Symposium on The Evolution of Consciousness with cultural philosopher, poet and historian, William Irwin Thompson. In 2009, she became a Lindisfarne Fellow.
Works by Joy E. Stocke in this Edition
AIRMAIL – LETTERS FROM AROUND THE WORLD
AIRMAIL – VOICE FROM SYRIA
ARTS – ART
COLUMNS – THE MYSTIC PEN
FOOD & DRINK – ANATOLIAN KITCHEN
FREYMAN & PETERSON- Your Life is a Book: How to Craft and Publish Your Memoir
LITERATURE – BOOK REVIEWS
LITERATURE – ESSAYS
LITERATURE – MEMOIR
LITERATURE – POETRY
LIVE FROM THE NYPL
The Euphoria of Ignorance: Being Jewish, Becoming Jewish, The Paradox of Being Carlo Ginzburg
Fountain of Curiosity: Paul Holdengraber on Attention, Tension and Stretching the Limits of Conversation at the New York Public Library
Paul Holdengraber – The Afterlife of Conversation
2013 – Three Questions: Festival Director Jakab Orsos talks about Art, Bravery, and Sonia Sotomayor
Critical Minds, Social Revolution: Egyptian Activist Nawal El Saadawi
INTERVIEW – Laszlo Jakab Orsos: Written on Water
Tonight We Rest Here: An Interview with Poet Saadi Youssef
Georgian Writer David Dephy’s Second Skin
On the High Line: Diamonds on the Soles of Our Shoes
Car Bombs on the West Side, Journalists Uptown
New York City – Parade of Illuminations: Behind the Scenes with Festival Director Jakab Orsos
The Pen Cabaret 2008: Bowery Ballroom — Featuring..
Anatolian Days and Nights: A Love Affair with Turkey, Land of Dervishes, Goddesses and Saints
Daring Collaborations: Rolex and LIVE from the NYPL at the New York Public Library Composing a Further Life: with Mary Catherine Bateson
WRR@LARGE: From the Editors – UP THE CREEK
Up the Creek: Volume 1, Number 1
Up the Creek: Volume 1, Number 2.5
Up the Creek: Volume 1, Number 3.3
Up the Creek: Number 4.4
Up the Creek: Beautiful Solutions
Up the Creek: Blind Faith, July 2009
Up the Creek: Create Dangerously
Up the Creek: What Price Choice?
Up the Creek: Before and After: September 11, 2001
Up the Creek: Candle in a Long Street
Up the Creek: Crossing Cultures: Transcending History
Up the Creek: Man in the Mirror; A Map of the World
Up the Creek: Stories and the Shape of Time
Up the Creek: The Divine Road To Istanbul
Up the Creek: What It Means to Yearn
WRR@LARGE – WILD COVERAGE
UNESCO World Heritage Site Under Threat of Mega-Devlopment Sparks International Protests
The Other Side Of Abu Ghraib — Part One: The Detainees’ Quest For Justice
The Other Side of Abu Ghraib – Part Two: The Yoga Teacher Goes to Istanbul