Counter-Signals #5: Systems and Their Discontents

Beginning in the 1990s, the efflorescence of a technology-driven, ostensibly post-industrial “new economy” brought with it a revival of interest in an array of concepts and discourses relating systems and systems thinking that had animated both progressive utopian projects of the 1960s and 70s and the totalizing global geopolitical schemas of the Cold War. The theme for this issue of Counter-Signals began as an attempt to assemble a reappraisal of this reappraisal of cybernetics and systems theory that, it was hoped, would offer critical perspectives to counter the uncritical affirmation that characterized much of architecture and design discourse. However, as the call propagated outwards through a world still very much in the grip of capitalism’s grim cycle of expansion, crisis, and consolidation, which Gramsci observed in the 1930s, much of the optimism and exuberance hardened and darkened in ways strikingly similar to the trajectory of the original discourses of the 70s and then 80s. The theme therefore expanded into wider fields of systematicity and a more complex, though no less urgent and acute, constellation of discontents. Paradoxically, and perhaps now optimistically, these many points of protest and critique appear to offer hope for a future, however difficult, of continuing intransigence, refusal, and resistance. The structures are hard, the systems are total, the abstractions are real but so too is the struggle.