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The Family as Machine: Cybernetic Kinship in Postwar America

Date and Time: 
Monday, March 7, 2016. 04:15 PM - 06:15 PM
Meeting Location: 
Humanities Center Board Room
Workshop: 
Techniques of Mediation
Meeting Description: 

How did the American family become a machine? Starting in the 1950s a community of progressive mental health therapists, ethnographers, and artists around the Bay Area put forth visions of the modern American family as a cybernetic machine. Researchers including anthropologist Gregory Bateson, filmmaker Weldon Kees, and psychiatrist Don Jackson proposed that family members encode and decode informational streams in feedback loops that promote the stability (or “homeostasis”) of the individual as well as the group. Mental illness, in this account, sprang from atypical coding patterns. 

Bernard Geoghegan delivers this talk which examines how technical affordances of mid-twentieth century “new media” such as experimental film and information theory facilitated this production of cybernetic families.  I also consider the changing fortunes of the cybernetic family as an inspiration for leftwing antipsychiatric reform (e.g. Félix Guattari) as well as neoliberal mental health policies implemented in the Reagan era. These changes fit within a longer history of “media aesthetics” as a tool for managing aberrant selves from hysterics of the nineteenth-century to the quantified self of today.

About the speaker:
Bernard Geoghegan is a cultural historian of media and technology at Humboldt University of Berlin, where he is currently Assistant Professor. His writing has been featured in journals including Critical Inquiry, The IEEE Annals on the History of Computing, and Theory, Culture & Society
 
About the workshop:
This workshop is co-sponsored by the Stanford Humanities Center, the Program in History & Philosophy of Science, and the Department of Communications.

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