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Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Worlds unbound: Cybernetics and the arabesque
by Ibrahim, Haitham, Ph.D., The University of Chicago, 2014, 266; 3638596
Abstract (Summary)

My dissertation project focuses on the history of cybernetics and aesthetics as a key site for the comparative study of cultural exchange between Arabic and American cultures. I argue that the emergence of cybernetics in the post-WWII era provided an infrastructure for a synthesis of Arabic and American aesthetic traditions, centering on the arabesque as a key aesthetic form driving this synthesis. The arabesque gained importance with the transformation of the technological media environment of American societyin the 1950s and 60s, when computational machines were first introduced. I contend that the arabesque form proved highly relevant for providing a formal description of the recursive systems cybernetics studied (also known as self-organizing systems), regardless of whether these systems existed in nature, technology, or society. Cybernetic notions, such as feedback and information, self-organization and emergence, could be correlated with the recursive forms found in the Arabic aesthetic tradition because the arabesque offered suitable aesthetic forms for the emerging post-human age that appeared with the cybernetic paradigm.

Drawing on Laura Marks' pioneering work in this area (in her Enfoldment and Infinity), my thesis examines the influence of the arabesque on narrative aesthetics, focusing on two key novelists: Thomas Pynchon and Frank Herbert. The arabesque provided these authors with a mode of aesthetic presentation that allowed the creation of aesthetic worlds fit for the emergent complexity of the post-human age as it unfolded in the post-WWII era. This age demanded modes of aesthetic practice and observation based in feedback between humans and computational machines. Philosophically, I examine how the arabesque informs a systems ontology in the narratives I discuss that goes beyond notions of organic wholes and totalities in the representation of systems that are typical of the Hegelian notion of system, thus generating an aesthetic mode of systems mapping that avoids the dualities of organicism and atomism. A post-human imaginary intertwining the social, technical media and aesthetic domains arises from this new ontology of systems, characterized by assemblage formations. Politically, I point to the way this imaginary in narratives by Herbert and Pynchon observes the U.S. from the perspective of its embeddedness in the world system, exploring points of transformation in the system the U.S. inherited from the European powers after WWII, particularly in relation to the Mideast region. In observing the U.S. within this system, I argue that the novels offer potential escape routes from European colonialism, using the tools of cybernetics and systems theories to explore points of systemic transformation that may overcome historically inherited relations of domination.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Meltzer, Francoise
Commitee: Hansen, Mark B. N., Jagoda, Patrick
School: The University of Chicago
Department: Comparative Literature
School Location: United States -- Illinois
Source: DAI-A 76/02(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Comparative literature, Middle Eastern literature, American literature, Aesthetics
Keywords: Cybernetics, Herbert, frank, Media studies, Pynchon, thomas, Systems theory, U.s. and arab mideast
Publication Number: 3638596
ISBN: 978-1-321-22398-9
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