Bernard Geoghegan – “The Family as Machine: Cybernetic Kinship in Postwar America”

Bernard Geoghegan – “The Family as Machine: Cybernetic Kinship in Postwar America”


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.

This talk 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.

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.

Monday, March 7, 2016 from 4:15PM to 6:15PM in the Stanford Humanities Center Boardroom

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