Be Still, Be Good, Be Cool: The Ambivalent Powers of Stillness in an Overactive World

Andrew Murphie


The [...] myth of the unmoved mover has been amply reconfirmed by some of history’s most effective agitators: Hitler liked to cast himself as a detached appraiser of his own frenzies at the podium (Mark Crispin Miller, in Bernays’s Propaganda: 21—my emphasis).

Be aware of the ability to move your body, but that you are not using that ability [...] I can move my body but I am choosing to not move my body [...] Be aware of the deep stillness and silence that is in that space (Swami Jnaneshvara Bharati, Yoga Nidra Meditation: Extreme Relaxation of Conscious Deep Sleep).

What is the power of the unmoved in the “unmoved mover” of propaganda, or of the “deep silence and stillness” of Yoga Nidra meditation? Why does sitting still at school constitute “being good”? Or, why might sitting on the couch in front of the tele constitute a refusal of politics, as Baudrillard suggests in In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities? Cultures—micro and macro—are arguably their tensions between movement and stillness: between work and the idea that it might be a good thing to sit and look at the sky, or the ongoing problem of the exact relation between thought and action. Philosophy is also full of strange still/movement assemblages: Plato's ideal forms; Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching (“something and nothing produce each other” [6]; “do that which consists in no action, and order will prevail” [7]); Derrida’s erasure of "being"; Deleuze’s celebrated “immobile intensities” (Stivale 5). The differences between all of these demonstrate the variety of assemblages of the still and moving. More importantly, the differential tensions between these often co-present assemblages further complicate our understanding of cultural and transcultural events. These events are not only their tensions between movement and stillness, as I suggested above. They are also a second group of tensions between different assemblages that attempt to express/order the relations between the still and the moving. Furthermore, any specific mix of assemblages of the still/moving not only "grounds" cultural and transcultural events, it also ungrounds them. It is that with which cultural events struggle, even within these events' ongoing constitution.

This article sketches moments in modernity’s peculiar struggles with stillness. “Modernity” always needs definition, even if this always fails. Here “modernity”—in all its diversity—will be taken to mean the ongoing generation of variation, mutation and fracture (see Murphie 2005 and 2007). It is commonly suggested that this ongoing generation in large part emerges from a new series of attitudes to movement. Yet, more precisely, it emerges from the variable assemblage of movement with stillness (modern architecture and Futurist painting are two obvious examples). Even more precisely, the proliferation of concepts and diagrams of stillness/movement relations, alongside practical interventions in stillness’ particular assemblages with movement, are all prime technics of modernity. Foucault's Panopticon comes to mind, but so does the book’s mutation into the contemporary complexity of publishing and reading. Likewise the telephone, the capture of perception by various screens, the complexities of spectacle and consumption, even the sophistication with which we now design ergonomic chairs. I will suggest that the practical engagement with the still, with apparently weak states, energises the modern as much as the more direct use of "strong" forces.

The article is, then, a hop through the history of the modern variety of attitudes to stillness/movement. It begins with early moderns Anton Chekhov and Alfred Jarry’s very different explorations of the powers of the still, as only two of many early tendencies in the modern attitude to stillness/movement. It then moves to the peculiar assemblages of, and mixed attitudes to, the still in two founding media/cultural events: public relations as developed by Edward Bernays, and cybernetics in the thinking of Norbert Wiener. It argues that these new assemblages of stillness/movement exploited the still as a site of power as never before. Yet at the same time, stillness, breakdown, slowness, even rest, remain a challenge to contemporary culture, and to a cultural and media theory heavily in debt to the modern. The article finishes with a brief discussion of the complex and ambivalent status of stillness in an overactive world now experiencing a catastrophic deleveraging, which could itself be seen as the revenge of the still.

Through all this I will leave both the definition and limits of the still open. Indeed, the ongoing problem in pinning down the relation between the still and moving—or the clear limit or nature of either with regard to the other—is perhaps the point. This is more than an ambivalence of definition. More fundamentally, it indicates the power within these functional assemblages—a differential power of constitution lying between stillness and movement that is crucial to the modern. Here we can think of the differently problematic constitutions of the still, the moving, and their status as events cultural and otherwise, in sleep, coma or even death. In all of these, the problem is perhaps, as Alfred Whitehead noted, that of "…the status of life in nature […] the central meeting point of all the strains of systematic thought, humanistic, naturalistic, philosophic. The very meaning of life is in doubt" (Whitehead 148).

I will begin to sketch this out with a kiss.

My Beating Heart

In Chekhov’s well known short story, The Kiss, a decidedly ordinary artillery officer in the Russian army—Ryabovich—is invited along with other officers to the house of a wealthy landowner, as is custom when the army comes through town. All goes according to the regular norms and rituals, until Ryabovich finds himself a little lost in the house, and enters a very dark room.  Here he finds himself kissed, it seems for the first time in this manner, although he cannot see by whom.

Ryabovich stopped, undecided what to do [...] Just then he was astonished to hear footsteps, the rustle of a dress and a female voice whispering breathlessly, “At last!” Two soft, sweet-smelling arms (undoubtedly a woman’s) encircled his neck, a burning cheek pressed against his and at the same time there was the sound of a kiss. But immediately after the kiss the woman gave a faint cry and shrank back in disgust—that was how it seemed to Ryabovich. (Chekhov 36—my emphasis)

Ryabovich is awakened by the accident to passion. He is overcome by a “strange, new feeling,” forgets “his stoop, his insignificant appearance, his lynx-like whiskers” (37).

The fantasy crashes to earth—or, more precisely, is swept away in a river, but the kiss has opened the world to Ryabovich. This is not, however, the world of clichéd romance, or a normative social life, but the world of things pulled apart, violently redistributed—although in stillness.  As Ryabovich stands contemplating a river:

He looked down at the water … The red moon was reflected in the water near the left bank; tiny waves rippled through the reflection, pulling it apart and breaking it up into little patches, as if trying to bear it away.

“How stupid, how very stupid!” Ryabovich thought as he looked at the fast-flowing water. (47)

When he returns to his “hut,” he ignores the invitation to another general’s house that has arrived while he was away. He “lay on his bed and in defiance of fate—as though he wanted to bring its wrath down on his own head” (48). Ryabovich lies on his bed with a new kind of power. He has seen something that exhausts the (heteronormative) distribution of affective intensities, but perhaps opens another, a broader ecology, in which he will no longer fulfill expectations or hierarchies (“he did not go to the general’s,” ends the story).

Stillness as Vertigo

Stillness has often implied something like Ryabovich’s “immobile intensity” for modernist art. In Chekhov this is the intensity of the non-event, the banal, but there is another side to this coin. At the beginning of the twentieth century, performance art pioneer Alfred Jarry described a fictional time machine, which he calls a “Machine of Absolute Rest.” Jarry writes: “To be stationary in Time means, therefore, to pass with impunity through all bodies, movements, or forces” (Jarry 116). Stillness becomes a kind of powerful (if masculinist) aesthetic of absolute movement. Both Chekhov and Jarry describe a generative vertigo within stillness that is peculiar to the modern. Guattari has commented that the performance art that was to follow Jarry “… delivers the instant to the vertigo of the emergence of the Universes … machinic paths capable of engendering mutant subjectivities” (90).

For some, this modern claim on absolute freedom, not only within the aesthetic, but within the everyday, within mutant subjectivity, was a problem. The solution would give us twentieth century communications.

“The Impotence of Force to Organize Anything”

Only through the active energy of the intelligent few can the public at large become aware of and act upon new ideas (Bernays 57—my emphasis).

In the first half of the twentieth century, mainstream media theory, practice, and cultural events were founded not by academics, or even artists, but by pioneering media (PR) practitioners such as Walter Lippmann and Edward Bernays (Curtis). Central to this founding was the desire to induce stillness and breakdown where there was movement (in “too much democracy” for example) and movement where there was too much stillness or economy (in the development of consumerism for example). In short, communications (and other related) disciplines were founded on the political desirability of reworking assemblages of stillness and movement. One would not only be told where to move, but when, and crucially how, to be still—how to manage the intensities of passion as much as action. A new “science” was required, one that would organise the new chaos of  the masses (Bernays 37ff). For Bernays this was the science of public relations, but this feeds into the sciences of communications as a whole. There is a subtler level to this new “science” than is often realised. Pioneers such as Bernays saw there were challenging new kinds of power in the world—of the kind perhaps described by Chekhov and Jarry (or later, Baudrillard). These powers needed to be addressed and harnessed by the new practices of communications.

In a strangely Taoist moment in his book Propaganda, Bernays quotes some supposed remarks of Napoleon. “‘Do you know’, he said in those days, ‘what amazes me more than all else? The impotence of force to organize anything’” (44). This is Ryabovich and Jarry seen from the perspective of governance (or what will become “governmentality”). Bernays’ response was to attempt to usurp and regulate the powers of both stillness (in  “the unmoved mover” of the propagandist, in the fostering of the spectacle of consumption) and action (in which “the active energy of the intelligent few” controlled all). Yet Bernays and others did this via a new assemblage in which public relations extended to a much expanded deployment of psychology and the social sciences (Curtis; Edwards). This assemblage was simultaneously overdetermined and invisible, its “sciences” expanding to fill in the cracks as much in stillness as in action in everyday life. It famously colonised kissing, silence and still rebellion, the psyche, the social, aiming, like Jarry, to move with “impunity through all bodies, movements, or forces.” It is famously described by Foucault in the use of statistical forms of power in biopolitics (and ideology theory among others, although many of these arguably arose from this assemblage themselves [Dupuy 19]).

The “Bernays assemblage” is a diffuse and positive form of power that attempts to move around the “impotence of force to organize anything.” Bernays describes the ambition and character of this assemblage quite simply.

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. … We are governed, our minds molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of (37).

It bears repeating that from this point on much of the evolution of both communications techniques and general social expertise (and more of the social sciences that we might care to admit), is directed towards precision assemblages of stillness and action, towards the power of the passive as well as the active. Screens and channels, technologies of  distribution and archival technologies, “better communications”, the power of positive thinking, personal development, statistics, mood manipulation and pharmaceuticals, the very flexible but very precise contemporary assemblages of networked, mobile and locative media and the acts of communication/movement/stoppage/stillness/intensity that move through them: all these come together as loose progeny of the like of the Bernays assemblage (its mistakes as much as its brilliance).

This is not a matter only of pacification (via “the spectacle,” for example). Chekhov, Jarry and Bernays all understood that whether “natural” or induced, even in stoppage or arrest, stillness involves a continuity of micromovements and impulses beyond gross movement. Stillness is where movements and actions, forces and events, come together and fall apart, and where they can be transformed/transduced, where potentials can be more easily accessed before they play themselves out. If force is impotent to organise anything, the Napoleonic Bernays’ and his ilk rethink—practically, technically—the very nature of both action and stillness. Although it is in stillness that both we and our enemies (the “system” even) are most vulnerable to the old-fashioned imposition of force, this has little consequence, because true organisation lies elsewhere. Stillness has its own powers. Its lack of apparent movement frees it, in fact, from the play of obvious force. Without having to cancel themselves out in decisive action, even paradoxical or contradictory intensities grow. It is also possible, as with Ryabovich, that orders and hierarchies fall away simply because they no longer take hold in action. So stillness provides both a challenge to the system and a rich opportunity for intervention in patterns of intensity—we might say simply passions—that develop, pre or post-action. Bernays realised that such an intervention—via what he called “the big think” (Tye 51ff)—was both necessary and desirable. Melinda Cooper has called a contemporary version of this (within the uneasy relation between contemporary biotechnology and neoliberalism) “preempting emergence” (74).

In short, Bernays is perhaps the most important example of a new kind of catalyst within the open fields of the social, one that allows for the enhanced leveraging of the powers of stillness. Media, communications and social science interventions in daily life no longer restrict themselves to organising the “message”, or even the “spectacle”, and only apparently centre their attention on well-formed actions or coherent movements. The game is elsewhere, with much more at stake. The aim is intervention within the entire synaesthetic and proprioceptive ecologies (the term came up in discussion with Ingrid Richardson) via which experience itself is organised (see Massumi 178ff on proprioception, synaesthesia and space; also Manning 2007; 2009). By synaesthetic ecologies I mean that communication interventions involve not only a singular reworking of vision, or sound, etc, but of the way in which the senses are dynamically assembled, bled into each other, and crucially, often in stillness, allow new forms of potentiality and intensity to emerge in that “bleed” (Massumi 46ff). Complex ecologies of proprioception, so basic to the assemblages of movement and stillness, and these to the emergence of experience as lived, yet often so ignored in media and cultural theory, seem crucial in this. For example, it is not only that I now stop and look at a shop window, or sit and gaze at a screen for hours on end, or that my visual sense is captured or even dominant. It is first that I stand or sit still in front of both. This standing or sitting still is in fact an ongoing assemblage of complex, felt micro and partial movements, in a new kind of hesitant, shifting ecology of differential communication. My body and its potentiality is re-framed.  A new series of potential inflections for what will become “suggestibility” forms a kind of still matrix of intensities in which my existing potentials are enveloped.

Bernays’ new understanding of powers within the social was soon to be matched by technical developments—even a mathematical precision—that would enhance the social  organisation exponentially. At the same time, as cybernetics pioneer Norbert Wiener realised, working with these new potentials could involve a massive undoing of the social. 

“Weak Currents”

The second information/communications revolution of the twentieth century, that surrounding the development of cybernetics, information and communications theory, mathematics, and computing, is also based on a rethinking of the nature of force. Like Chekov, Jarry or Bernays, the cyberneticists looked for power where it could not usually be found, in the apparently still, the invisible, the weak.

The well-known key figure in much of this was Norbert Wiener, who himself had his own unique configurations of stillness and activity. As part of his father’s experiment in turning out child prodigies, he was forced to stand still beside his father and recite his lessons. Wiener recalls: “‘My father [...] would ignore me until I made the simplest  mistake, then he would verbally reduce me to dusk’” (Conway and Siegelmann 13).

When eight years old, Wiener had worked so hard that his eyes were giving up and his doctor banned him from reading for six months. His father had Norbert’s sister and others read his lessons to him. The result was a lesson in the powers of stillness.

Norbert learnt to do algebra, geometry, and trigonometry, not on paper, but in the inner eye of his mind. He developed a near-photographic memory and […] an astute ear for languages […] 'I relearned the world. My mind completely opened up. I could see things I never saw before' (Conway and Siegelmann 14).

Perhaps it was these odd early inductions of a powerful passive state that led him, like Bernays, to rethink the relations between force and power, in Wiener’s case at the junction of communications technology and mathematics. He built his statistical approach to communications events on the realisation that:

the new electronics that were transforming the sights and sounds of the Roaring Twenties were comprised of barely detectable “weak” currents whose subtle electrical actions marked a world apart from the “strong” currents of electrical power engineering (65 – my emphasis).

It is these weak currents that make our often apparently stationary media, information and communications technologies and contexts so powerful. The cybernetics group tied the same set of realisations concerning the power of weak currents into mapping out the function of the brain and nervous system—in an account of thought and feeling that was to become so much of what we now call psychology.

Wiener’s understanding of the different powers of weak currents also made for a different concept of computing to many of his rivals. Conway and Siegelman argue for a profound difference between Vannevar Bush’s/Von Neumann’s concepts of computing, and Wieners’. The former’s models were aligned with gross actions, clarity and coherence of movement, and singular outcomes (that is, targeting). Bush’s prototype “could parse only ordinary differential equations in which a single variable changed continuously”. Wiener, however (and here a precursor of so much to come in contemporary cultural theory):

… envisioned a machine that could parse more complicated partial differential equations—monsters of the mathematical deep in which two or more factors changed simultaneously, a situation that often arose in weak-current technology (72).

Or in apparent passivity, in social relations and embodied events as much as in electronics. Stillness becomes an assemblage that attends to weak states, that can allow for partial, and multiple, differential forces in mutual and uncertain transformation.

Arguably the current tensions in media theory, institutions, university departments and media work between “heritage” media and “new media” are mutating descendants of the tensions between Bush (and Von Neumann) and Wiener, between clear control, singular variations, relatively fixed machinic contexts and determined disciplines and outcomes on the one hand, and participation, complications, multiple and unpredictable variation on the other.

The second half of this article sketches the contemporary ambivalence that surrounds the powers of stillness: an out of control “Bernays assemblage;” the ongoing pursuit of “weak currents;” exploitation of/and via stillness; an ethical choice between stillness as first aid for an overactive world, or stillness as a real slowing down; research into still states and intensities. All these now confront a catastrophic deleveraging of movement—the return of Stillness as ecological limit—within both the financial and the social.

Hypnosis, Suggestion, Torture and Leverage

Consider first that we even now understand so little in general about stillness and the social function of weak states (for example sleep and dreams—there is still no precise understanding of the function of either), even as we leverage their powers (for example in sleep management). Or consider that, as recent as 2001 (Raichle and Shulman) a paper was published that discovered a “secret life of the brain” (Fox), along with a new network of activity within the organ itself. This network came alive precisely when the brain seemed to be idle—at the very ground zero of biological stillness. It might serve daydreaming. Scientists are not sure. However, “whatever it does, it fires up whenever the brain is otherwise unoccupied and burns white hot, guzzling more oxygen, gram for gram, than your beating heart” (Fox).

Or consider the confusion of “hypnosis” and a more general suggestibility. McLuhan famously wrote: "[...] one is hypnotized by the amputation and extension of his own being in a new technical form [...] For any medium has the power of imposing its own assumption on the unwary" (11 and 15).

Yet there are now doubts about whether hypnosis is a distinct state of consciousness, or whether it even exists separately from a more general suggestibility (Lilienfeld and Arkowitz). This general suggestibility, framed by complex synaesthetic and proprioceptive ecologies, are far more diffuse (differential, partial, multiple) than hypnosis, but the more powerful for that. Yet to focus on a complex framing and suggestibility, rather than the clearer outlines and outcomes of hypnosis, or even “ideology,” is difficult. It means we have to think much more carefully about what happens when we sit still in front of screens, about a general predispositioning, or working through, of that which José Gil has called the body as “this crucible of energy mutations” (Gil 107).

A further complication is that still or weak states are not just about things coming together. They are just as much about things falling apart. Consider torture. Alfred McCoy has documented the history in which two assemblages of stillness form the twin pillars of contemporary torture (McCoy 21ff). These are sensory deprivation, and being forced to hold a (stressed) position for a particularly long time (arms raised for example—the most famous image of Abu Ghraib is precisely an image of both). They are not the same but there is undoubtedly some continuity with the use of sitting or standing still as a form of discipline, to break potentials down as much as instill others. Yet as often noted, such techniques so not provide reliable information or even receptivity. Rather, they (sensory deprivation in particular, as fictionalised in the film Altered States) lead to hallucination (Lehrer and Zarranica, 2009 show how to do this at home) and, under duress, full breakdown.

Thinking the technics of suggestibility and torture together is another way of understanding the potential for reorganisation, and for de-organisation in stillness, in a technical framing, in the induction of “weak states,” in media and in other cultural assemblages. This is not an all or nothing affair. It is again diffuse, partial, multiple, differential across varying contexts and events.

Stillness is Movement, Stillness in Movement

Yet, as with the activity in the supposedly idle brain, and as I have begun to suggest above more generally, all this requires us to complete what is often an incomplete rethinking of stillness and movement together. Erin Manning asks “how can we think a political body that resists the dichotomy between stillness and movement?” (2009)

First, all stillness is movement. As Manning puts it: “Movement never stops. Every movement resonates with its incipient preacceleration and its potential surplus or remainder, active in a contagion of speeds and slownesses” (2009). Apparent or relative immobility masks what in many ways is a different but increased intensity in transactions between mobilities, perhaps an ongoing repotentialising of more obvious mobility, at another level, another place, a transduced energy. We could say that in immobility movement continues otherwise, in space but not quite cardinal space (Massumi 178ff).

Second, all action has something like stillness within it. We don’t need to head to the mysticism of the martial arts to understand this. Consider the simple lever which gives us leverage. A lever also involves a fulcrum, and this is a stillness at the heart of action. This fulcrum, a still point of transformation/transduction of forces, is what allows for more obvious action. So stillness is the complex and ongoing transformation of forces that inhabits the cloth of coherent action. Gertrude Stein points to a kind of natural slowness infusing even nervous action.

Resisting being then as I was saying is to me a kind of being … Generally speaking those having resisting being in them have a slow way of responding, they may be nervous and quick and all that but it is in them, nervousness is in them as the effect of slow-moving going too fast (Gertrude Stein The Making of Americans in Ngai 284). 

De-Leveraging the Network of Actions

Yet here Stein also points out the strange lack of fit between the intertwined movement-forms of mobility and “immobility,” becoming-fast and becoming-slow, being and resisting being. This lack of fit is differential intensity—Stein’s “nervousness” perhaps. It is with precisely this sense of nervousness that we now live with the confused cultural progeny of PR’s attempt to organise not only the movements, but the “habits and opinions,” eventually the proprioceptive ecologies, the actions and stillness of the masses, and this further energised by the information revolution. The recent injunction has been to over-capitalise on every transaction, every communication, every network, every action, every passion—as we “reach our full potential” or “maximise our productivity” or “happiness.” Simply put, contemporary stress involves an over-leveraging of experience, designed to make more things/intensities (even stillness/weak currents) move more, so as to profit from that movement. Yet now there is a concurrent and extensive “de-leveraging” (in UK Prime Minister Gordon’s Brown’s anxious terms)—a breakdown of actions and networks for potential actions, an unwanted turn to stillness. This combination of over-leveraging and de-leveraging occurs globally, nationally, in corporations and institutions and at the level of the individual. The latter occurs not only, for example, in multi-tasking, and not only in a multi-leveraging of every task, but in  a concurrent increased potential for breakdown.

In the resulting anxiety, it sometimes seems that if we don’t avoid stillness, we attempt to subdue its powers to those of gross action, or to reduce these powers to exceptionality: to yoga classes, to afternoon tea, to television, to the medicinal. Stillness becomes respite when and only when action is in danger of breaking down. The latter—action and its breakdown and re-stimulus, as with the current “financial” crisis—has become the question that masks the more fundamental question of the nature and role of stillness.  Whole systems of governance and increasingly education and research are devoted to avoiding individuals and even nations becoming introspective in the wrong way, casting themselves adrift from clearly defined “outcomes,” from maximum leverage of every nook and cranny of proprioceptive ecologies. Stillness’ larger threat, however, is everywhere, most clearly expressed by Gordon Brown: “the world is at risk of a damaging spiral of de-globalizing … fuelled by .. deleveraging” (Anon 2009). This is “fast-moving going too slow” as much as “slow-moving going too fast.”

Wiener was, long ago, prescient: “I wonder greatly what will happen to our bottle feeding of all possible disruptive inventions … I dread to think of the amount of individual misfortune and desolation which may come of all this” (Conway and Siegelmann: 337).

It is traditional to conclude with some answers.

Slowing Down

Nervousness, depression and insomnia, and so on, are symptomatic of our complex relations to, and expressions arising from, stillness. They are an attempt at a counter-organisation of intensity/time. In a counter perhaps to Bernay’s “big think,” Léfebvre writes, “The rhythmed organisation of everyday time is in one sense what is most personal, most internal” and to “become insomniac, love-struck, or bulimic is to enter into another everydayness” (75). Or to question the constitution of stillness/movement from within their constitution as an assemblage. To enter into the banal perhaps. Gregory Seigworth has pointed out that the banal can be one of the major modes of being in which linear action is challenged. "Banality is time off its hinges … Banality is temporal succession tipped on its side: making way for the simultaneous and the subjacent" (Seigworth 234).

Making way for a more flexible, and a more open engagement with the still perhaps, one that frees up suggestibility and framings, that frees up the “pre” and the “post” of coherent movement. Or simply a slowing down and opening up the threshold between the still and moving. This is a different way of thinking the modern’s ongoing re-assemblage of still and moving. Isabelle Stengers suggests that we do not have to abandon the progress of the modern, but insists that “slowing down” is the “condition” under which we can accept it (Zournazi and Stengers 252).

Slowing down is not only about capitalism. It is about giving a chance to the event, to the encounters which have you feeling and thinking … we must utterly disentangle [progress] from mobilisation, when you quietly destroy what you define as an obstacle to progress. And this is the test for everybody (252-3).

To assemble what might simply be called an “open stillness”, although remaining aware of the ambivalence even within de-mobilisation. Be still, in other words, but be aware of what’s going on in the stillness. Its powers are ambivalent. Don’t sit still or stand still to be good, if all that means is quiet destruction. Don’t be overactive if all that means is going to meet destruction more quickly. Be cool.


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movement; stillness; PR; cybernetics; Wiener; cultural theory;

Copyright (c) 2009 Andrew Murphie

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