The particular use that Lyotard makes of the term ‘performativity’, i.e. that it is synonymous with ‘productivity’, does not seem to be a move that can be legitimated by reference to philosophy of language or indeed to cybernetics.
In the cybernetic context, a similar reduction seems to be taking place to that which occurs with performativity-as-productivity. The suggestion is that cybernetics takes ‘control systems’ to be ‘systems of control’, i.e. ‘control’ is taken to mean ‘command and control’.
As Beatrice Fazi (2011) points out, cyberneticians must themselves be held partly responsible for this reduction. Wiener (1948) defined cybernetics as the study of control and communication in the animal and the machine. This definition has stuck, despite its meaning being contested throughout the history of cybernetics. Much of the suspicion towards cybernetics, Fazi continues, seems to derive from this tainted interest in achieving and preserving mechanisms of control.
However, as Fazi notes, Andrew Pickering (2010) examines a varied body of works in cybernetics that allow for a wider range of meanings of the term ‘control’. Thus, while post-war British cyberneticians are interested in control machines, the controlling exerted can be articulated as a means of adaptation, interaction or, in Gordon Pask’s terms, ‘conversation’ (Scott, 2001), i.e. a “form of reciprocally productive and open-ended exchange between two or more parties” (Pickering, 2010: 322).
From this point of view, Pickering claims, cybernetics would favour a sort of Heideggerian ‘revealing’, in contrast to the ‘enframing’ of traditional sciences, which seek to command and control, via knowledge, whatever the world has to offer (Fazi, 2011).
So, although Pickering does not dismiss the political importance of a critique of control, “the dystopian association of cybernetics with Big-Brotheresque agendas or panoptical projects is also refused” (Fazi, 2011). The attacks on cybernetics by some intellectual and artistic avant-gardes in the 1960s, for example, from the Situationist International, could be seen as deriving from the same misplaced understanding of control mechanisms, the validity of which Pickering is challenging. Lyotard, in The Postmodern Condition, may equally be seen to partake in this limited understanding of ‘control’ as ‘command and control’.
For Pickering, cybernetic reality is always new and perpetually in a state of becoming. It is populated by entities that are entangled with the “endless performativity of matter” (Pickering, 2010: 289). Such a reality cannot possibly be captured by the representational capabilities of traditional epistemology, Pickering suggests.
Here is the very sense of ‘performativity’ that Lyotard might have derived from philosophy of language and from cybernetics, i.e. the sense of its being protean, beyond productivity and beyond control.
Rather, the topic of Lyotard’s critique are those modes of discourse and practice that narrow down performativity to productivity and which equate control with command and control.
Such discursive practices might go under the name of managerialism or corporatisation, which may indeed draw on resources available through philosophy of language and cybernetics, but not in any simple, direct or necessarily legitimate way.
What Lyotard seems to be striving to critique is the corporatisation of the university, in which academic practice becomes labour or ‘work’ and therefore productive, and human resource management seeks to increase the productivity of that labour (Gulli, 2009: 98).
The language of ‘productivity’ is part of the corporate university. The language of ‘performativity’ arose in the context of the the university as a place of and for learning, perhaps even disinterested learning. The reduction of performativity to productivity is performed through managerialism as discourse and field of practice.
It is then a question of whether, by insisting on the fullness of performativity and the ‘conversational’ or interactive nature of control, one is engaging in fantasising a Romantic past or indeed engaging in “a useless, if not politically dangerous, nostalgia” (Gulli, 2009: 95); or whether one is engaged in a kind of struggle, which is not simply an academic contest, as defined by Gulli:
“If capital asserts its sovereignty primarily by means of the logic and language of productivity, and if productivity is a central moment of the corporate university, fighting against it – through creative and caring labour – is ending the sovereign claim, the dominance of capital and property over labor and life, outlining a model of social justice.” (Gulli, 2009: 107)
If so, where does this restoration of the creative and caring dimensions of ‘performativity’ take place?
Fazi, M.B. (2011). Cybernetics in action. Computational Culture, (November). Available at: http://computationalculture.net/review/cybernetics-in-action Accessed on 19 October 2013.
Gullì, B. (2010). Earthly plenitudes: a study on sovereignty and labor. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Pickering, A. (2010). The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches of Another Future. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Scott, B. (2001). Gordon Pask’s conversation theory: a domain independent constructivist model of human knowing. Foundations of Science, 6(4), pp.343–360.
Wiener, N. (1948). Cybernetics; or, Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.