Heinz von Foerster Festschrift

The Eye of the Coyote

Heinz von Foerster’s attempt to teach me mathematics is one of my most memorable stories about my stay at Stanford University in 1990/1991. Every month or so I climbed into my sky-blue 1976 Ford Mercury Comet and drove through the Pescadero hills to Rattlesnake Hill, the von Foerster’s estate. Heinz knew that I studied with Niklas Luhmann and seized on the opportunity to draw my attention to the use of recursive functions in sociology. I was already deep into Spencer-Brown’s calculus of form and had begun to explore the relationship between marked states and unmarked states of complexity. I was not able to marvel at recursivity at the time, taking it, rather shortsightedly, just for granted.

A visit to Rattlesnake Hill used to start with a stroll up the hill to take a look at the wonderful grounds of the estate and to catch the breeze of the Pacific. Sometimes Mai came with us, sometimes she was already preparing the supper which we had after our stroll. The supper did not last very long. At a certain point Heinz would become restless and say to me, “Let’s do some mathematics.” We withdrew to his study, all wood-paneled and filled with books in perfect order. As dusk gathered, a group of deer might appear from the trees beyond, holding us in their gaze.

Actually I was more interested in the stroll and the supper than in mathematics. On every visit I admired the “sun shower” which Heinz had set up on a small plateau high above the house. It had a hose spiraled on the ground filled with water which was heated up by the sun shining on it all day. In the evening when his work in the vast gardens was done, Heinz would take his shower naked as the Lord had made him, enjoying the warm water and washing the dust off his body while looking at the setting sun. Heinz once told me that the shower was the only invention of which he was really proud and asked me to accept the sad task of writing his obituary for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung some day in the distant future, if only to mention the “sun shower”.

At the suppers we talked about Heinz’s years in Berlin during the war, the years at Vienna after the war, the Biological Computer Laboratory, and the many friends of Mai and Heinz. Friedrich Kittler had asked me to inquire into the research Heinz had done in Berlin, which seems to have been of some considerable importance for the war. But Heinz only told me how he had managed to get out of Berlin in the very last days by offering to take the valuable instruments and important documents of the laboratory to the safety of Vienna. Indeed, I myself was more interested in the years at Vienna and in Heinz’s activities as founder of a radio station and broadcaster. He intercepted many of the emigrants searching struggling to find their way after the war from east to west and did not let them pass Vienna without giving him an interview in his studio. None other than Paul Celan was among them. I should very much like to know whether these broadcasts were recorded and collected for some radio archive.

And I was also interested in the story of the Biological Computer Laboratory, where inventions like the parallel operating computer and the neural network were already in use when the MIT was still into the logical computer and smiled at the ideas published by the Heinz von Foerster circle. The history of this laboratory is still unwritten. To write it could well be the next step after the history of the Josiah Macy, jr., Foundation conferences and their importance in the emergence of “cybernetics” has been told by Steve J. Heims, Paul N. Edwards, Katherine N. Hayles and others. There is a suspicion that Claude Shannon, John von Neumann and others at RAND had designed a kind of cybernetics that is still classified up to today. Yet in the years after the war Heinz von Foerster was already well on the way to developing a notion of systems capable of processing information which owed more to a theory of the observer stimulated by Sigmund Freud and Ludwig Wittgenstein back in Heinz’s Vienna than to the radar screens so important to others. The question of the observer together with a notion of memory that depended on the reuse of memorized items (and not on locking them away into some memory unit) was about all Heinz took with him when he moved from old Europe to a maturing America. The notion of systems capable of processing information, i.e. of making differences from differences, might explain in retrospect why Claude Shannon’s idea of “communication” is far more fruitful than a social sciences debate, stimulated by Warren Weaver’s channel model of communication and horrified by the idea that semantics could amount to engineering, was able to grasp. When debating communication Heinz von Foerster and Gregory Bateson, W. Ross Ashby, Herbert Bruen, Gotthard Guenther, and others were already thinking in terms of redundancy and variety, and thus in terms of non-identical, non-linear, iterative reproduction. Their contribution to the emerging science of cryptography, which appears set to become the premier science of the new century, still awaits its historian.

When we talked about the BCL, Mai once asked why on earth Heinz had never received a Nobel Prize. Of course, she raised the question the way a second-order cybernetician does, not looking specifically at Heinz and whether he merited the prize or not (this was not at issue), but rather at the Nobel Prize committees and the way they work. Besides, both Heinz and Mai were all too familiar with the nervousness suffered each year by some of their friends who knew that they figured prominently on the lists of the committees. Thus, they were in a way glad that the kind of epistemological mathematics, physics, and neurophysiology invented by Heinz did not meet any of the criteria set out by the committees.

The climax of those visits of mine to Rattlesnake Hill was one afternoon in February 1991 when I accompanied Niklas Luhmann to see Mai and Heinz. Luhmann had been invited by Sepp Gumbrecht to participate in the conference on “Writing/Ecriture/Schrift” and had taken an afternoon off. I introduced Luhmann to my Mercury Comet and without hesitation he climbed in beside me for the drive to Pescadero. We had the usual stroll uphill, Mai this time accompanying us. Heinz told us the story of the day he watched a coyote teasing a farmer’s dog. The coyote had the dog chasing him and just as the dog thought he had him, he disappeared as if the earth had swallowed him up. Just a second later the coyote reappeared some distance away, sitting there, looking calmly at the dog, and waiting to repeat the game. Coyotes are just incredibly quick. I liked the story a lot because at the time I was reading coyote stories told by Indians and thought I had finally discovered the pattern, which Jacques Derrida also used when playing his games with the American universities.

The picture is also reminiscent of the games Heinz von Foerster plays with a kind of “science” which he thinks far too closely linked to “scientia” instead of to “magic”. He took great pleasure in reminding his audience in 1994 at Frankfurt am Main, when giving his talk “Ueber Bewusstsein, Gedaechtnis, Sprache, Magie und andere unbegreifliche Alltaeglichkeiten” that “scientia” shared its linguistic root “ski” (Indo-European for distinction, separation) not only with “schism” and “schizophrenia” but also with “shit”. Presumably the only reason why Heinz is not too resentful of people calling him a “systems theorist” (whereas he greatly dislikes being called a “constructivist”, since he believes in the world and not in -isms) is that the word “system” combines the Greek “syn” and “histamein” and means “combine”, “unite”, even “unify”. That is why Heinz sees himself not as a scientist, but as a magician, one of his few heroes being the magician Albertus Mag(n)us.

We returned from our walk and admired the house of the von Foersters which they had built in best American pioneer tradition and style all by themselves, with the help of their two sons, one of them the architect of the house, and a few neighbors. Heinz had cleared away the weed covering the entire hill only to learn afterwards that he had been dealing with poisonous oak and that he must number among the very small percentage of the world population not allergic to it. Without thinking twice, Heinz had a dowser find a deep well, which supplies water up to this day, surviving even the 1991 earthquake. We stood in the middle of the hall and only then spoke of the events of the day which were almost all related to the Gulf War that had been under way then in its seventh week.

Or rather, we would have talked about the war if the subject had not been dropped almost as soon as it was raised. This was remarkable. Heinz said he thought the war was the duel of two statesmen gone crazy. Luhmann considered it a problem of international law to allow one country to violate the sovereign territory of another. There was silence for a few seconds—and then a change of theme. I had the impression that each man had reflected on the other’s view-point, comparing law to morality and morality to politics, and had then considered the rare situation of seeing each other. They seemed to decide that they already knew enough about the other’s opinion and that there was no need to get into an argument about it and allow the situation to become unpleasant. The issue was dropped tactfully and with a the speed and shrewdness worthy of a coyote. Everybody knew what he wanted to know and saw no reason to insist.

The situation was typical of the relationship between Heinz von Foerster and Niklas Luhmann. Luhmann admired von Foerster like few other people. He used all his notions of recursivity, non-triviality, and second-order observing, yet he claimed that social sciences had been into complexity well before the natural sciences discovered it. And for him there was no question that language, being different in structure from mathematics, was very able to express complexity, self-reference, and paradox on its own. Heinz looked on Luhmann’s oeuvre with great respect, but even while acknowledging that he had updated sociology to the possibilities of systems theory, he was disappointed that Luhmann had not really taken the idea of recursivity seriously. For Heinz it is not complexity, which is the issue of modern epistemology, but recursivity: “If somebody is ignorant enough to want to deal with complexity, he will stay that way”.

The question of recursivity versus complexity was never the object of discursive argument between the two men. It was dealt with rather like the issue of the Gulf War. Neither of them believed that questions could be answered by argument. Both believed it necessary to find tactful forms of putting questions to one another and then to allow the other the time and space to find an opportunity to answer those questions in some way. Heinz’s address at Luhmann’s sixty-fifth birthday was his answer to Luhmann’s contribution to Heinz von Foerster’s eightieth birthday festschrift. Here Luhmann had raised the problem of latency: How necessary is the emergence of latency domains among second-order observers observing each other who will end up in implicitly contracting upon areas they will not observe? Will not the problem of cognition never to be able to find an end solve itself this way just as the nerve of a tooth strangles itself when the pain becomes too strong?

Heinz is not prepared to accept such an indication of a protective area of latency as long as he is forced to watch a communication, as in the Yugoslavian conflicts, that recursively reproduces the problem of non-understanding, and as long as such a communication ends up in argument and violence. Should not sociologists be able to find an answer to a problem of this kind, he asks Luhmann. Luhmann answered questions like this with his concept of “sociological enlightenment”, which includes a sensibility for complexity that makes it (more) difficult for people too eager to reduce complexity to do so. Presumably Heinz thinks it is taking just too long to create this sensibility.

By the way, Niklas Luhmann never really tried to form a theory of complexity. He simply took complexity as a given of the world. And a “theory of the world” he did not deem possible. Instead, he based the architecture of his theory, as did Jerome S. Bruner and Kenneth Burke, on the notion of the necessity for scope, which is a reduction of complexity. That is why his theory is an observer-dependent theory, a systems theory, a theory of recursive play. Heinz is well aware of this. He is just sitting there, letting the dogs approach, disappearing miraculously, reappearing, and smiling at us from a distance.

Dirk Baecker

Heinz von Foerster Festschrift