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The Tragedy of Radical Subjectivity: From Radical Software to Proprietary Subjects


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Considering the aestheticization of post-World War II research in cybernetics as part of a cultural shift in art practices and human and machine subjectivities, the author brings these spheres together by analyzing encounters between the experimental artists and researchers who wrote for and edited Radical Software in the early 1970s, including Harry A. Wilmer, Gregory Bateson and Paul Ryan. She then connects their experimental uses of video feedback (a central tenet of cybernetics) to new and increasingly pervasive human-machine subjectivities.
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lished in 1947 by MIT mathemati-
cian Norbert Wiener. Cybernetics
was further developed at the Macy
Conferences (1946–1953), a set of
conferences initiated by Warren
McCulloch and held at the Josiah
Macy, Jr. Foundation in New York.
These meetings brought together
researchers from such diverse and
disparate fields as psychology, sci-
ence, mathematics, engineering
and anthropology, with the general
goal of building and developing
what has become known as a science of the workings of the hu-
man mind. Through these conferences cybernetics extended
to fields beyond mathematics and engineering, becoming a
blueprint for what we now call interdisciplinary studies, or
the hybridization and breakdown of the boundaries between
previously unique disciplines, methods and systems.
Prior to these conferences, cybernetics was exclusively predi-
cated on the Mathematical Theory of Communication (also
known as information theory) engineered by Claude Shannon
in 1948, then a researcher at Bell Telephone Laboratories.
Shannon’s information theory prescribes the quantization of
data in order to make communication processes more effi-
cient, accomplished by separating redundancy, repetition and
as much noise as possible from an encoded signal so that it
could travel swiftly through numerous, interchangeable chan-
nels. After Wiener merged his earlier studies in feedback with
Shannon’s research in the mathematical theory of commu-
nications, cybernetics was born. Cybernetics is thus defined
through the two tenets of feedback and information processing.
The term “feedback” is commonly used in English. Tech-
nically, however, it describes the phenomenon wherein data
is sampled and adjusted through inputs and outputs, in real
time, allowing a system to change, strive for balance and au-
tomatically adjust itself in dynamic and interactive situations.
The term “cybernetics” derives from the Greek kybernetikos,
meaning governor, steersman, or guide; Wiener adopted it
after studying steam engines and rudder-feedback systems on
ships [2]. Feedback is an efficient way of recycling energy or
momentum within a system, increasing output and introduc-
ing computer automation with self-directive, generative possi-
bilities. As Wiener puts it, a feedback system “tends to make the
performance of the steering engine relatively independent of
its load.” With the correct amount of feedback, the system can
“guide” itself [3]. Feedback, joined with information theory,
paved the way for automation and “intelligence” in modern
The aestheticization of post–World War II com-
puting and military industrial research should be seen as part
of a larger cultural shift in media art practices and as having
introduced radically new human–machine subjectivities. In
this article I analyze the encounters between the experimen-
tal artists, scientists and psychologists who wrote for and ed-
ited the short-lived journal Radical Software (1970–1974). In
particular, I focus on the experimental work of psychologist
Harry A. Wilmer, the work of pioneering cybernetic video art-
ist Paul Ryan, and the work of experimental anthropologist
Gregory Bateson. Together, these three figures’ appropriation
of cybernetics has led to new art, social theory and psycho-
logical practices rooted in notions of the group, relational
transcendence [1], therapeutic actualization and a liberation
from Occidental notions of autonomy and selfhood.
Many of the technical goals once envisioned in this early
work have been realized. Today we are surrounded by oppor-
tunities for human and machine fusions, peer-to-peer sharing
and computer-mediated socialization, helping us to become
more self-aware and self-reflexive. However, in contrast to the
radical subjectivities offered in Radical Software, contemporary
media platforms reinforce personalization and individualiza-
tion in a way precisely the opposite to what the Radical Software
visionaries had in mind. Today we are all “free” to use media to
“connect” to others or “express” ourselves in the blogosphere,
so long as these expressions are beneficial to, and in accor-
dance with, advertising, social media and corporate mandates.
One then wonders: How did these once radical and visionary
aims for human-machine fusions become inverted to embody
their opposites? To answer this, we must first understand the
social and cultural background that supported these views,
after which I will return to contemporary instantiations of
(proprietary) human-machine subjectivity.
The Science of Cybernetics
In the United States after World War II, research in modern
computing was greatly accelerated through the development
of cybernetics: the study of the flow of information, messages
and signals between humans, animals and machines, estab-
©2014 ISAST LEONARDO, Vol. 47, No. 5, pp. 480–487, 2014 481
The Tragedy of Radical Subjectivity:
From Radical Software to Proprietary
Carolyn L. Kane
Carolyn L. Kane (educator, researcher), Department of Film and Media, Hunter College,
City University of New York. Email: <>.
See <> for supplemental files associated
with this issue.
Considering the aesthetici-
zation of post–World War II
research in cybernetics as part
of a cultural shift in art prac-
tices and human and machine
subjectivities, the author brings
these spheres together by
analyzing encounters between
the experimental artists and
researchers who wrote for and
edited Radical Software in the
early 1970s, including Harry A.
Wilmer, Gregory Bateson and
Paul Ryan. She then connects
their experimental uses of video
feedback (a central tenet of
cybernetics) to new and increas-
ingly pervasive human-machine
Article Frontispiece. Cover of Radical Software Volume 2, Issue 4
1971. (Image courtesy of Ira Schneider for Radical Software.)
482 Kane, The Tragedy of Radical Subjectivity
cybernetics, as notions of self-awareness
and presence became central to cyber-
netics research. Because the period of
reflexivity acknowledges the pivotal role
of the observer within the system and the
way in which the observer alters the flow
and transmission of information in it, in
this phase of development, cybernetic
models effectively blurred the boundar-
ies between inside and outside, thus chal-
lenging not only traditional (Western)
notions of the subject as an autonomous,
private being but also Western scientific
practices and research methods that do
not take into account the effects of the
privileged observer on the system ob-
served [5].
It is also vital to note that in cyber-
netics, humans, animals and machines
are treated equally: All are seen as me-
dia technologies capable of analyzing,
storing, transmitting and processing in-
formation. Thus a “subject” in a cyber-
computing, first implemented in self-
guided anti-aircraft missiles and soon
after in the burgeoning modern com-
puting and software industries. Examples
include the “smart” algorithms deployed
in Amazon’s “book suggestions” or Face-
book’s “friend suggestions,” offered to
users when they log back in to the site.
The ethical and political implications of
such applications, especially in terms of
user privacy and data mining, must be ex-
plored elsewhere, though I briefly return
to this in my conclusion [4].
In cybernetics, the capacity to act as
a dynamic and flexible system entails a
successful breach of the boundaries be-
tween humans and machines, as well as
the need to view one’s own role as an ob-
server in the system and thus as an entity
that also bears influence on the system.
The period of reflexivity that occurred
in the 1960s through the early 1980s
became known as the second order of
netic system must be seen as a “part of a
whole,” or a node within a larger system,
versus being seen as an individual subject
or being. Cybernetics, Katherine Hayles
has argued, introduced a fundamental
shift in human ontology away from the
liberal humanist subject identified in
C.B. Macpherson’s analysis of the posses-
sive Western individual who is essentially
“the proprietor of his own person or ca-
pacities, owing nothing to society for them.
According to Macpherson, as Hayles
puts it, “human essence is freedom
from the wills of others, and freedom is
a function of possession,” which is also
to say, the myths of the private (cogito)
self. In contrast, cybernetics breaks with
this tradition by introducing a systems
approach to human-machine networks
and collective consciousness. This new
subjectivity is also what Hayles terms
the “posthuman,” where the post simply
means a post-individualized human; the
human here persists, through machines
[6]. Hayles’s argument, while critical of
those strains of cybernetics contingent
on disembodiment (such as Shannon
and Weaver’s [7]), nonetheless reflects
the cultural moment of the 1960s and
1970s, when the principles of reflexivity,
feedback and radical subjectivity through
human-machine integration were popu-
larized in the counterculture and subse-
quently adopted by artists, scientists and
psychologists. Herein lies an important
distinction between the metaphoric and
literal application of cybernetics.
As noted, information theory is rooted
in mathematics; information is a “func-
tion of message probabilities,” which is
to say a statistical form of communica-
tion used to control and predict future
possible values and probable outcomes.
Information theory aims to account for
the “futurity” of data and its “probabilis-
tic tendencies,” Pamela Lee writes, in the
attempt to “regulate its outcome through
the transfer of messages” [8]. Through
the statistical and algorithmic analysis
of a system, data from the past can be
used to envision future possible move-
ments and changes within the system,
whether in terms of humans, animals or
machines. Herein lies the origin of its
In these intelligent, mathemati-
cal circuits, however, concepts such as
“meaning” or “purpose,” normally given
significance in the humanities, become
quantified and calculable “units of mea-
sure.” As Shannon and Weaver put it in
1948, information “must not be confused
with meaning. . . . In fact, two messages,
one of which is heavily loaded with mean-
ing and the other of which is pure non-
Fig. 1. The cover of short-lived alternative journal Radical Software, Volume 1, No. 3 (1971).
(Image courtesy Ira Schneider for Radical Software)
Kane, The Tragedy of Radical Subjectivity 483
sense, can be exactly equivalent” [7].
Or, as Shannon writes elsewhere, the
“semantic aspects of communication are
irrelevant to the engineering problem”
[9]. Meaning is the statistically mea-
sured quanta, not its metaphoric or se-
miotic denotation. To put it differently:
Cybernetics is a mathematical model of
information analysis that from the start
calls attention to the way it “brackets”
out (semiotic and cultural) meaning.
This crucial point helps to explain how
and why cybernetics, in its appropriation
by artists and visionaries in the 1960s, is
precisely appropriated not literally but
as a metaphor. The use of cybernetics as
metaphor no doubt has drawbacks but
it has also brought about many unfore-
seen ideas and disparate possibilities for
art and life in the electronic age.
Radical SoftwaRe, Radical
When video cameras, computers, sen-
sors and similar devices became afford-
able to artists and activists in the 1960s
and 1970s, these devices were instantly
framed as the vehicles through which hu-
manity could realize its cosmic and mysti-
cal future (Article Frontispiece and Figs
1–3). By integrating human-machine
consciousness, video feedback and the
principles of cybernetics promised an
unprecedented liberal democracy and
social landscape of shared, communal
worlds. Thus the SONY Portapak, the
first portable video camera available to
consumers in 1967, was featured in the
first issue of Radical Software in 1970. The
contributing members of the Radical
Software group consisted of Beryl Korot,
Phyllis Gershuny (now Phyllis Segura),
Ira Schneider and others including
Frank Gilette, Paul Ryan and Michael
Shamberg (both members of the Rain-
dance Corporation, which formed as an
alternative “think tank” to the RAND
Corporation); Shamberg was author of
the Raindance publication Guerrilla Tele-
vision (1971) [10]. The Radical Software
members were influenced by the writings
of artists, scientists and visionaries rang-
ing from Marshall McLuhan to Warren
McCulloch, Norbert Wiener, Nam June
Paik, Gregory Bateson and Buckminster
Fuller; they were especially influenced
by the new philosophies of electronic
media (with a focus on video feedback)
and computing technologies articulated
in their work, e.g. on the cover of their
journal issues. The journal’s “freewheel-
ing editorial policy,” David Joselit ex-
plains, was epitomized by a section titled
“Feedback,” placed at the “end of each is-
cal Software group is not as well known
as other pioneering video artists from
this generation (such as Paik), they were
nonetheless significant and innovative in
their articulation and production of radi-
cal cybernetic subjectivities.
For instance, Jungian analyst Harry A.
Wilmer, trained at the Mayo Clinic and
founder of the Institute for Humanities
at Salado, Texas, contributed an article
to Radical Software in 1970 entitled “Feed-
back: TV Monologue Psychotherapy”
[13]. The piece was a fascinating account
of his 1969 application of the cybernetic
tenets to the treatment of youth addicted
to chemical substances in a drug rehab
facility, located nine blocks from Haight
and Ashbury in San Francisco [14]. In
the clinic Wilmer used video feedback as
a therapeutic tool, harnessing its capac-
ity for instant replay in order to equip
sue of the first volume,” in which “blurbs
from various video groups or individu-
als [were] crudely pasted together on a
skewed grid” [11].
The liberation of personal and col-
lective desires, it was believed, could be
accomplished through the increased
use and accessing of, and integration of
humans with, electronic computing ma-
chines. The journal proudly declared, “If
one could understand how our culture
used information, one could devise a mix
of strategies using ½" video equipment,
to leverage the rigid world information
order of the time” [12]. Through video
access and video feedback, the doors
could open to increased self-reflection
and therapeutic self-awareness, thus
radically redefining what it meant to be
human and to live in a human commu-
nity (or the “earthship”). While the Radi-
Fig. 2. Issue cover, Radical Software Volume 1, No. 4 (1971). (Image courtesy Ira Schneider
for Radical Software)
484 Kane, The Tragedy of Radical Subjectivity
tently revolved around the figure of the
Möbius Strip. The cybernetic subject, as
Ryan puts it, is a
Möbius Strip [where] . . . the outside
is the inside. The inside is the outside.
. . . When you see yourself on tape, you
see the image you are presenting to the
world. When you see yourself watching
yourself on tape, you are seeing your real
self, your “inside” [19].
In the Möbius strip, your inside has
been externalized into the image that
exists in the outside world, thus allowing
internal and external selves to fuse. In
this act of self-awareness, for Ryan, the
“self” is dissolved into the larger (cyber-
netic) feedback loop qua cosmos.
Ryan’s work also turns on the trope of
“infolding” (Fig. 4), a term he borrowed
from the cosmological thinker Teilhard
de Chardin. Applying the trope of infold-
ing to the experience of video feedback,
Ryan suggested that when a subject be-
comes self-aware, it is not just an “in-spin-
ning” into “separate strips of selfishness
[but is also] becoming a part of Teil-
hard’s emergent noosphere” (a kind of
cosmos of human-communal thought)
[20]. In Ryan’s 1969 artwork Everyman’s
Möbius Strip, for instance, visitors entered
a room in a gallery and followed instruc-
tions given to them by an audiotape. As
they followed the instructions they were
recorded by a video camera, the tape
of which was later viewed before it was
erased and the next visitor was recorded
in the space. In the piece, boundaries be-
tween inside and outside dissolved. The
Möbius strip, Ryan explained, “offers no
differentiation at all; it is a continuous,
undifferentiated surface.” The concept is
analogous to “Zen meditation and falling
in love,” both of which are “states of mind
where orientation is absent” [21]. In
other words, the social space of viewing
dissolves the delusion of being a singular,
isolated subject, as was also the case with
Wilmer’s video experiments. Instead,
one becomes One in the disoriented
cosmic soup of human-machine circuitry.
The radical cybernetic-inspired subjec-
tivity offered in both Wilmer’s and Ryan’s
work serves to break down mythologies
of the autonomous, rational Western
subject and, in so doing, offers alterna-
tives to the now-concretized theories of
video and narcissism. In a recent inter-
view, Ryan explains, “by contemplating
our experience with video, using the in-
sights of McLuhan and others, I hoped
that we could learn to use video in ways
that avoid narcissistic closure and unin-
tended consequences” [22].
Narcissism, for anyone familiar with
media art history after 1976, references
patients with a kind of video mirror, or
“mirror with a memory,” that engen-
dered a shift in perspective and new
self-understanding of their addictive
behavior [15]. In his report he argued,
“Television helps mixed-up kids get in fo-
cus—on and off camera” [16]. Because
media theories today frame television as
the epitome of danger and corruption
for youth, this statement seems absurd,
but in 1969 television was still relatively
new and seen as analogous to video,
which, if placed in the hands of “the peo-
ple,” was seen, in contrast to commercial
broadcast television, as something that
could empower the average person to
seek democratic goals. It is important to
note, however, that this instantiation of a
human- machine circuit does not in itself
automatically bring about such demo-
cratic goals but rather sets the material
conditions of possibility for this to occur.
Nonetheless, the mystery remains: How
exactly was television (or video feedback)
going to break substance abuse patterns?
In the clinic, Wilmer would typically
invite new patients into a private room,
where they could videotape their own
monologues for 15 minutes. They could
do or say whatever they wished. After
this “opening up on camera,” the tape
was immediately replayed. One could
“choose to have it erased or to review
it with his therapist. (Few refused to let
others see the tapes)” [17]. The video-
tape was used as a corrective mirror to
catalyze the process of “self confronta-
tion.” The goal was not to create a more
cohesive self-image, complementing the
patient’s delusions of control, but on the
contrary to introduce a mirror, just ob-
jective enough, to fracture delusions of
autonomy and self-control. For instance,
in one case a 16-year-old girl admitted
to the youth drug ward was “extremely
self-conscious about having a camera
around her in [the] rehab.” Despite her
inhibitions and reports of feeling ugly,
she eventually decided to make a mono-
logue. After watching it, she saw in “her-
self” the “voice of her mom,” for whom
“everything I did was wrong.” The video
feedback mirrored, and externalized,
the previously internalized voice of her
mother, which had unbeknownst to her
become a driving force in her addictive
Transmitting notions of an interior
“self” onto the (externalized) video loop
is also what cybernetic-video pioneer
Paul Ryan had in mind with his notion of
“self-cybernation” [18], a subject borne
from reflexive immersion into an elec-
tronic feedback system. Ryan’s work with
Radical Software and Raindance consis-
Rosalind Krauss’s groundbreaking essay,
“Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism.”
In this piece Krauss analyzed several
installation-based and performance-
based video artworks from the late 1960s
and early 1970s and aligned the video
medium–-–through its capabilities for
real-time feedback and signal process-
ing––-with the psychological condition of
narcissism. Because of the way in which
a video artist’s or performer’s body is
situated in the circuit between monitor
and camera, when the circuit is turned
on, his or her own image is re-projected
on a cathode-ray tube and, like a mirror,
reflects one’s own “self” back to oneself,
resulting in a subjectivity that has, ac-
cording to Krauss, severed all relations
to the past or future, creating a closed
system where one is looped into the hyp-
notic spell of one’s (misrecognized) self-
image. Narcissism being “so endemic to
works of video,” Krauss concluded, it may
be “generalize[d] . . . as the condition of
the entire genre” [23].
There are however two problems with
Krauss’s recourse to narcissism as a condi-
tion of video. First, narcissism is a concept
belonging to Western psychology and is
thus very much a part of Occidental no-
tions of human subjectivity, precisely the
notions to which the artists and visionar-
ies of Radical Software sought an alterna-
tive. Second, the Occidental condition
of narcissism relies on the assumption
of an isolated subject who is (psychologi-
cally) severed from social, historical and
cultural realities. As David Joselit points
out in reference to Vito Acconci’s video
work from this period, there is “the obvi-
ous fact that in pointing at his reflected
image on the playback monitor, Acconci
simultaneously points out at the viewer of
the tape.” That is to say, it is a “thoroughly
social act that interpellates the spectator
as an object and an other” [24]. Likewise,
the artists and theorists associated with
Radical Software necessarily implicated
and included others, many others: Cul-
ture, history and politics are not only in
the resultant “image” but are the precon-
dition for the radicalism of cybernetic-
aesthetic experience. Viewers, artists or
anyone immersed in the cybernetic feed-
back loop gains self-awareness only by vir-
tue of breaking delusions of selfhood and
becoming instead part of a larger whole.
For instance, one sees for the first time
that an aspect of “self ” is addicted to
drugs, is like one’s mother or is moni-
tored through a gallery space. In con-
trast to the closed loop of psychological
narcissism, these “infolded” cybernetic
subjects come into existence by destroy-
ing the very possibility of narcissism, em-
Kane, The Tragedy of Radical Subjectivity 485
phasizing instead another “dimension
of the video mirror,” one “diametrically
opposed to Krauss’s” [25]. These radical
subjectivities generate and activate new
forms of (productive, affirmative) expe-
rience for being-in-the-world, a refreshing
contrast to theories of the subject that
emphasize its pathological dimensions,
such as neurosis, narcissism, or “Oedi-
pal-lack,” as Deleuze and Guattari put it.
This work can now be linked to the
work of experimental anthropologist
Gregory Bateson and his early use of cy-
bernetic systems to theorize a model of
social subjectivity, also alternative to occi-
dental psychologies of the self. However,
instead of using technology, Bateson
translated the tropes and metaphors of
cybernetics onto the framework of the
American phenomenon of Alcoholics
Anonymous. Bateson had been work-
a mirror to reflect and rupture illusions
of self-control and autonomy held by all
members singularly but not collectively.
Listening to one member’s drinking ex-
periences may transform the listener’s
sense of self-willed autonomy into an
understanding that one’s existence is
instead dispersed and reliant on and
within the group; herein the structure of
AA emulates the structure of cybernetics,
albeit metaphorically, which is also to say
without electronic circuitry or quantiza-
tion. Moreover, in these groups there
is no leader or single person in charge,
but rather the groups are run “from the
ground up.” Similarly, in cybernetic sys-
tems no one part can exert unilateral
control over all the others [26]. Each
member is like a node in a system: To-
gether the nodes make up the system,
but no one single node is needed for the
system to exist or run effectively.
The radical subjectivity of cybernet-
ics, Bateson argued, poses an entirely
new cultural epistemology. “Cybernetics
. . . recognizes that the ‘self’ as ordinar-
ily understood is only a small part of a
much larger trial-and-error system which
does the thinking, acting, and deciding.
. . . The [Western notion of the] ‘self’ is
a false reification of an improperly de-
limited part of this much larger field of
interlocking processes” [27]. Character-
ized by the fragmentation of autonomy
and the individual, and yet rich in uto-
pian visions for collective belonging,
the alcoholic in Alcoholics Anonymous
(read through cybernetics) is analogous
to Wilmer’s patient who intuitively grasps
a new sense of self after seeing (through
feedback) that her mother’s dialogue
has become “her own.” For Bateson, cy-
bernetics helps inform a post-Occidental
theory of subjectivity where, following
the second order of cybernetics, the so-
called observer is merely part of the sys-
tem and not separate from it.
The fracturing of autonomy intrinsic
to cybernetics should not be confused
with the fractured psyche of modern-
ism or modernist angst. The cybernetic
subject is not the alienated or tormented
subject of modernist art and literature,
who remains eternally split and lost, un-
able to cope with life or existence. Rather,
in the cybernetic circuit, alienation is
abandoned to and within the loop; one
becomes a part of the ongoing and cease-
less flow and exchange of information. To
contemporary readers, this Dionysian ex-
stasis no doubt sounds like an idealized
cosmos, but in the late 1960s and early
1970s, such mystical views of the new and
yet-to-be-standardized technology were
simply normative. What the technology
ing with cybernetics in relation to social
science since the early 1950s (he also at-
tended the Macy Conferences). In his
1971 study he focused on the similarities
between the system-based subject of cy-
bernetics and the Alcoholics Anonymous
group and its members.
Alcoholics Anonymous is a network
of groups for recovering alcoholics who
hold regular meetings to help each
other to abstain from drinking. In these
groups, members come together and
“share” their stories and experiences in a
nonhierarchical way. Members “identify”
with the stories of others and through
an empathetic process come to see their
own alcohol use in a new way. Very much
as with the use of video feedback as a tool
for increased self-awareness, here other
human beings (fellow alcoholics seek-
ing recovery from alcoholism) serve as
Fig. 3. Issue cover, Radical Software Volume 2, No. 1 (1972). (Image courtesy Ira Schneider
for Radical Software)
486 Kane, The Tragedy of Radical Subjectivity
On the one hand, then, there is in-
creased access to video cameras on cell
phones and computers, but at the same
time our freedom to use them in personal
and public spaces also means increased
and pervasive monitoring and tracking
of all our practices and uses. Moreover,
the ability to transmit electronic images
is simple and free, but also only possible
by way of predesignated and increasingly
commercialized channels. There is also
an incredible degree of hyperawareness
of oneself in media spaces, especially on
social media platforms. However, the
form of self-awareness available here is
a “freedom” limited to updating and
“personalizing” one’s Facebook or Twit-
ter profile or at best posting a YouTube
video, which, if it is too edgy, will be re-
moved by the website’s administration.
And, to be clear, all this takes place
through––-what social media frames as—
“free” websites and portals. However, this
freedom is in fact a kind of voluntary, im-
material labor. Today Internet users have
increased “freedoms” to express and
“play” with “identity” online to achieve
would, and has, become—a global and
proprietary late-capitalist market sys-
tem—could not have been known at the
time. Cartesian and Occidental notions
of the transcendental “I” or empirical
“subject” (a subject that can be mastered
and controlled), which had been central
to Western thought since Descartes, were
in this moment challenged and in such
a way that, it seemed at the time, they
could be overcome through these collec-
tive, electronic circuits of connectivity.
No longer the alienated “brain in a vat,”
human beings were on their way to be-
coming a part of a larger communication
process that emphasized the larger whole
and the greater good, and electronic
technology would help us to get there.
Proprietary Subjects
That these radical collectives and cosmo-
logical subjects never fully materialized
is telling. Forty years later, the once-
visionary utopias and progressive coun-
tercultural attitudes have dwindled (save
for pseudo-sparks over the latest techno-
fashion). This shift occurred after the
advent of personal computing, the rise
of industry standard software, the Inter-
net and e-commerce models, all of which
have vested interests in maintaining the sta-
tus of the individual consumer and “private”
owner of goods and commodities.
At the same time, many of the techno-
logical mandates envisioned in the 1960s
have been realized. For instance, there
is an influx of easy-to-use two-way inter-
active technologies and pervasive audio-
visual media available on a global scale.
There is widespread access to video and
distribution technology and an increase
in self-reflexive technology and “feed-
back” from peers, friends, family and co-
workers. One cannot deny the pleasures,
affordances and comforts of such tech-
nologies. However, there is one crucial
difference: These feats have been real-
ized through corporate and commercial
platforms that rely on personal identities
and profiles to sell, circulate and adver-
tise products. This could not be further
from the anonymous relations articu-
lated in the pages of Radical Software.
Fig. 4. Paul Ryan setting up Everyman’s Möbius Strip for the exhibition TV as a Creative Medium, at the Howard Wise Gallery, 1969.
(Video still documentation © Ira Schneider)
Kane, The Tragedy of Radical Subjectivity 487
self-awareness through what Mark Zuck-
erberg terms “radical transparency”: an
approach to identity management that,
ultimately, makes it easier for the com-
pany to collect data and information
about you (your browser history, IP ad-
dress, various profiles, user accounts and
“preferences”) to sell to viral marketing,
social media or various other online com-
merce venues. The transcendence of,
and alternative to, Occidental theories of
the “self,” once imagined as a radical new
future for a liberated human-machine
cosmological system, has resulted in the
exact opposite: an intensification of indi-
viduality through e-commerce and pro-
prietary enframing. At the threshold of
human-machine expressions stands the
technocratic, “democratic” Internet that,
as Krauss diagnosed, acts a self-reflexive
mirror to reinforce precisely the notions
of an Occidental “I” who (conveniently)
forgets history and otherness but is none-
theless “free” to generate profile statistics
in exchange for access.
In closing, while the radical subjectivi-
ties of the short-lived Radical Software have
not been realized on corporate Internet
spaces and e-commerce “communities,”
the emerging practices of net art may in
turn be seen as a means to reclaim and
criticize the homogenizing and reifying
subjectivities that today ensue. Examples
include the work of JODI, Olia Lialina,
Cory Arcangel and Keith and Mendi
Obadike, who, since the 1990s, have been
making art from within the confines of
Facebook, eBay and YouTube channels.
Instead of the proprietary subjects nor-
matively constituted through these plat-
forms, this work offers “subjectivity” as
a critical play and subversion. Moving
forward, remembering this history of
radical subjectivity in the work of Radical
Software helps us to avoid the perpetual
10. D. Joselit, “Tale of the Tape: David Joselit on
Radical Software,” Artforum International Vol. 40, No.
9, p. 153 (2002); D. Ross, “Radical Software Redux”
(2003), <>.
11. Joselit [10] p. 154.
12. “The Alternate Television Movement,” Radical
Software Vol. 1, No. 1 (1970).
13. Wilmer later became professor of psychiatry at
the University of Texas in San Antonio, creating one
of the first wards to train AIDS patient caregivers.
14. H.A. Wilmer, “TV Monologue Psychotherapy,”
Radical Software Vol. 1, No. 4, p. 11 (1971).
15. Paul Ryan suggests that the notion of a mirror
with a memory is attributed to Tony Schwartz.
16. Wilmer [14] p. 11.
17. Wilmer [14] p. 11.
18. Paul Ryan, “Everyman’s Möbius Strip.” Radical
Software Vol. 1, No. 4, p. 11 (1971).
19. Ryan [18].
20. F.D. Scott, M. Wasiuta, and P. Ryan, “Cybernetic
Guerrilla Warfare Revisited: From Klein Worms to
Relational Circuits,” Grey Room Vol. 44, p. 124 (2011).
21. Scott et al. [20] p. 123.
22. Scott et al. [20] pp. 122–123.
23. R. Krauss, “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism,”
October Vol. 1, p. 52 (1976).
24. Joselit [10] p. 154.
25. Joselit [10] p. 154.
26. G. Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1972), p. 313.
27. Bateson [26] p. 331.
Manuscript received 14 November 2012.
Carolyn Kane is an Assistant Professor in the
Department of Film and Media at Hunter
College, CUNY. She received her Ph.D. from
New York University (2011) and recently
completed her first book project, Chromatic
Algorithms: Synthetic Color, Computer
Art, and Aesthetics after Code (University
of Chicago Press, expected July 2014).
amnesia surrounding the emergence of
new media and to insist instead that we
continue to ask questions about the con-
flation of utopia and new technologies
in relation to human subjectivity. Does
video have an intrinsic ability to open
space and thought, or is this merely the
result of particular social and histori-
cal circumstances? Are commerce and
radical subjectivity compatible in hyper-
technological worlds such as ours? And,
finally, if there is something about hu-
man-machine feedback that does open
up thought and experience, how then
can we better orient and employ these
relations for future artmaking?
References and Notes
Unedited references as provided by the author.
1. This process is also what Paul Ryan refers to as
the “sociality of video threeing,” and Harries-Jones
as “Transcendence in relational circuits.”
2. N. Wiener, Cybernetics: Or Control and Communica-
tion in the Animal and the Machine (Cambridge, MA:
The MIT Press, 1947), p. 11.
3. Wiener [2] p. 11.
4. For more see “Infrared, or, Algorithmic Aesthet-
ics,” in C. Kane, Chromatic Algorithms (Chicago: Uni-
versity of Chicago Press, 2014).
5. N.K. Hayles, “Cybernetics,” in Critical Terms in Me-
dia Studies, ed. W.J.T. Mitchell and Mark B.N. Hansen
(Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2010), p. 147.
6. N.K. Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bod-
ies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1999), p. 3.
7. C. Shannon and W. Weaver, The Mathematical
Theory of Communication (Champaign, IL: The Uni-
versity of Illinois Press, 1963 [1948]), p. 8. Also see
W. Kaizen, “Steps to an Ecology of Communication:
Radical Software, Dan Graham, and the Legacy of
Gregory Bateson.” Art Journal, Vol. 67, No. 3, pp.
86–107 (2008).
8. P.M. Lee, “‘Ultramoderne’: Or, How George
Kubler Stole the Time in Sixties Art,” Grey Room No.
2, p. 64 (2001).
9. C. Shannon, “A Mathematical Theory of Com-
munication,” The Bell System Technical Journal 27, pp.
379–423 (1948).
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If recalled at all today in the context of the art world, ecology is often reduced to its affiliation with earthworks. Its broader associations have been written out of most later accounts of the 1960s and 1970s in favor of phenomenology, semiotics, and institutional critique. Circa 1970, ecology was linked with cybernetics and transformed into media ecology, providing a means for recasting the psychology of the self and how it communicates. Ecology became a model for both understanding and producing art, one which allowed for the notion of context to be reinvented, as postwar abstraction gave way to an exploration of the formats of the mass media. Ecology was inaugurated as a science during the nineteenth century with the work of the naturalist Ernst Haeckel and others. By the middle of the twentieth century in the United States, following the development of cybernetics and especially through the work of Gregory Bateson, ecological systems came to be understood not only as natural but also as social and technological. They were extended to include humanity with a particular focus on the problem of communication and communication media.
Paul Ryan’s "Cybernetic Guerrilla Warfare" first appeared in spring 1971 in Radical Software , the legendary alternative video magazine affiliated with the Raindance Corporation, which was wryly cast as an alternative "think tank" to the RAND Corporation and with which Ryan collaborated from 1969 to 1971. Illustrated by diagrams of the tubular topology of Klein worms delineated by his friend the painter Claude Ponsot, the article opened by suggesting the possible connections of guerrilla actions to portable video technology and the sciences of cybernetics and ecology. "Traditional guerrilla activity such as bombings, snipings and kidnappings complete with printed manifestos seem like so many ecologically risky short change feedback devices compared with the real possibilities of portable video, maverick data banks, acid metaprogramming, Cable TV, satellites, cybernetic craft industries, and alternative lifestyles," he proposed, adding, "Yet the guerrilla tradition is highly relevant in the current information environment. Guerrilla warfare is by nature irregular and non-repetitive. Like information theory, it recognizes that redundancy can easily become reactionary and result in entropy and defeat. " 1 This nexus of video, cybernetics, and ecology remained central to Ryan’s work and, along with his involvement with fund
Bell System Technical Journal, also pp. 623-656 (October)
  • D Joselit
D. Joselit, "Tale of the Tape: David Joselit on Radical Software," Artforum International Vol. 40, No. 9, p. 153 (2002);
Radical Software Redux
  • D Ross
D. Ross, "Radical Software Redux" (2003), <>.
TV Monologue Psychotherapy
  • H A Wilmer
H.A. Wilmer, "TV Monologue Psychotherapy," Radical Software Vol. 1, No. 4, p. 11 (1971).
Everyman's Möbius Strip
  • Paul Ryan
Paul Ryan, "Everyman's Möbius Strip." Radical Software Vol. 1, No. 4, p. 11 (1971).