Annotation of Nichols Bill (1988), “The Work of Culture in the Age of Cybernetic Systems” in Wardrip-Fruin Noah, Montfort Nick (eds.) The New Media Reader.
“The Work of Culture in the Age of Cybernetic Systems” was written in 1988 by the American historian and theoretician of documentary Bill Nichols. His purpose was to extend the analysis conducted by Walter Benjamin more than fifty years earlier in the essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”.
In 1936, Benjamin investigated the consequences of mechanical reproduction on society and subjectivity. Its main characteristic -the deconstruction and consequent reassembling of reality in new combinations- becomes evident in the practice of movie editing. According to Benjamin, the succession of sequences provokes a shock to the spectator who rediscovers a drastically rearranged world. The shock effect implies at the same time an adaptation to the mechanical age and a revelation of its deep structure. Therefore it could trigger a political engagement: editing has a liberation potential. However, the advent of mechanical reproduction is characterized by an ambivalence: the emancipation potential is defused by the dominant hierarchy in order to reproduce itself and to empower its control.
Nichols indicates cybernetic system as his coeval parallel for mechanical reproduction. He brings on a comparison of the repercussions of the two models on the perception of the self and the environment. In the cybernetics paradigm, the interactive simulation becomes the equivalent of the camera. While the mechanical reproduction raised questions on authenticity of texts, the dialogical nature of cybernetics questions the text itself, which becomes a non-defined, changeable form. Nichols claims that cybernetics affect perception of reality through a metaphor of substitution: “not only the simulation of reality, but the reality of simulation.” In this simulated experience of reality, the shock is provided by the simulation of a social process. As in the advent of mechanical reproduction, shock can lead to an emancipation in the cybernetics age, but Nichols focuses on the ways in which the new metaphor is absorbed by the dominant hierarchy of control and the new paradigm becomes effective in changing perception.
Referring to military videogames, Nichols describes how cybernetics are intrinsecally gender-related: control on a system limited by rules and constraints is what determines fascination. The analysis also shows how the juridical context legitimazes a cybernetics-wise perception, covering such arguments as life and intellectual property. In the former case, simulation prevails on reality because biologic and technologic are interpreted with the same categories. In the latter, law must define a legal status for automated but intelligent systems. Copyright and patent issues in this field clarify the shift from a fetishization on the image -as for Benjamin- to the fetishization of the process.
Even if the cybernetics metaphor is embedded in the dominant hierarchy, it fosters the possibility of reorganizing and rethinkink the social system. Nichols claims that the shock of simulation reveals the basic principles of hierarchy under certain constraints. From this point of view the role of the individual becomes to question these boundaries trying not to subvert the prevailing model but to repurpose it. The subject should become acquainted with the logic of cybernetics and conceive him/herself as an interconnected part of a whole global system.