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The aim of this paper is to connect the history of art to its future via a political fantasy.

Published onNov 10, 2017

Neo-Sigma: Art, Agency, and Revolution


Andrew Pickering

Professor of Sociology and Philosophy, University of Exeter, UK

Email: [email protected]




The aim of this paper is to connect the history of art to its future via a political fantasy. I am interested in the so-called Project Sigma launched in the early 1960s by Alexander Trocchi. Trocchi thought of revolution as an outflanking maneuver and of sigma as a parallel world that would escape from the grip of the dead hand of modernity. Sigma was envisaged as primarily an art collective or “spontaneous university,” but Trocchi was not specific about the art that it would include. I want to bring sigma back to life by re-specifying it around works that stage an ontology of becoming. I discuss the potential of ontological thought to create bonds between otherwise disparate classes of artworks and, importantly, beyond the art world. I argue that ontology makes a difference politically: how we understand the world and how we act in it are systematically bound together.



Ontology, counterculture, Trocchi, sigma, Heidegger, becoming, performance


Trocchi and Sigma

Trocchi set out his basic thinking in two short and much reprinted essays which first appeared in the New Saltire Review in 1962: “A Revolutionary Proposal: The Invisible Insurrection of a Million Minds” and “Sigma: A Tactical Blueprint.” The background to Trocchi’s proposal was a feeling that was widely shared in the 1960s, that “the world [is] at the edge of extinction [...] awfully near the brink of disaster,” and that something drastic needed to be done about it. It was time for drastic, discontinuous, and revolutionary change. [1]

Back in the sixties, the principal referent for such assertions was the threat of nuclear annihilation, but there is an irony worth noticing about this. On the one hand, mutually assured destruction did not happen; we are still here. On the other hand, the early sixties were in fact a happier decade, at least in the West, than any that followed. Personally, I believe the world has gotten grimmer since the sixties in endless sub-apocalyptic ways. The backdrop to my interest in resurrecting sigma is the same old sense of a “yawning tide of bloody disasters” that calls for desperate measures, even if the threat is not quite what the sixties imagined it to be. [2]

What was Trocchi’s revolutionary proposal? He was clear that it there is no use trying to fight it out with the Establishment. “We have already rejected any idea of a frontal attack. Mind cannot withstand matter (brute force) in open battle.” Instead, he imagined the growth of a parallel social universe, “a shadow reality of the future”: [3]

History will not overthrow national governments; it will outflank them. [...] It is [...] a question of perceiving clearly and without prejudice what are the forces that are at work [...] and then [...] by a kind of mental ju-jitsu ... of modifying, correcting, polluting, deflecting, corrupting, eroding, outflanking [...] inspiring what we might call the invisible insurrection... We are concerned not with the coup d’état of Trotsky and Lenin, but with the coup du monde (seizure of the world), a transition of necessity more complex, more diffuse than the other, and so more gradual, less spectacular. [4]

What, concretely, would this parallel universe look like? Trocchi looked to the arts to begin the invisible insurrection. In principle, artists were the people equipped to break up the mind-numbing society of the spectacle and to revitalize society in open-ended ways. However, the arts had become so entwined with the art market that they no longer fulfilled their function, and this was the situation that Trocchi aimed to change. Individual artists might opt out of the circuits of capital, but acting alone they could not accomplish much: “‘Without organization [...] the energy of individuals and small groups is dissipated in a hundred and one unconnected little acts of protest ... a manifesto here, a hunger strike there. [...] the artist has a profound sense of his own impotence. He is frustrated; even confounded.”’ [5] Collectively, however, something might be done and Trocchi's vision was a maneuver that would at once detach a willing group of artists from the market. “Our first move must be to eliminate the brokers,” [6] bring them together, and re-insert them into the world in a new way. ‘Sigma’ is the mathematical symbol for ‘sum,’ and Trocchi’s political dream was to assemble a loose association of artists under this label. Sigma as an organization would manage the economic connections of these artists to the world—by managing royalties, consulting contracts, and other things—leaving the artists free to pursue their own creativity. At the same time, this would make possible their direct re-engagement with the community and this in turn would foster transformative interventions into the real world.

The details are not crucial, but it is important that Trocchi felt that some real institutional basis, especially a place, was needed to establish a real community of artists and get the invisible insurrection going:

At a chosen moment in a vacant country house (mill, abbey, church or castle) not too far from the City of London, we shall foment a kind of cultural “jam session.” Out of this will evolve the prototype of our spontaneous university. The original building will stand deep within its own grounds, preferably on a riverbank. It should be large enough for a pilot group (astronauts of inner space) to situate itself, orgasm and genius, and their tools and dream-machines and amazing apparatus and appurtenances, with outhouses for ‘workshops’ large as could accommodate light industry, the entire site to allow for spontaneous architecture and eventual town planning. [7]

These ideas—that artists could help transform the world, but only collectively and with suitable institutional basis—are part of the sigma vision that I would like to recycle into the present. But now we can turn to the first key question: which artists?

On the surface, Trocchi was agnostic. He wrote as if art were a homogeneous category defined by some generalized intelligence, creativity, and probably the good-will of the artist. If you put such people together and free them from the market to interact directly with the population, then who knows what might happen? That was his rhetoric—certainly new worlds and parallel universes would emerge, purged of the auto-destructive tendencies of the Cold War. Perhaps he was right. It is a nice idea and a nicely inclusive political pitch. But my vision of a renovated sigma would be more tightly specified, and to get at this, we can pick up a subtext of Trocchi’s manifestos.

He did not specify what sorts of art sigma would embrace, but he sprinkled his texts with names. In sequential order in the “revolutionary proposal” these are: Antonin Artaud, Berthold Brecht, the situationist international, “post Charlie Parker” jazz, Dada, Guy Debord and “revolutionary” and “spontaneous architecture,” dream-machines, Black Mountain College as the prototype of an action university, the painter Franz Kline, and the poet Robert Creeley.

What should we make of this list? Its contents are not random. It does not treat all art forms equally. There is no trace of the Pop Art for which the British sixties are now largely remembered. It does not include conventional painting, sculpture, or music at all. It has, in fact, a systematic quality that resonates with me because almost all of these names and phrases have come up in my work on the history of cybernetics. [8] So now I want to change gears and explore this point as a way to start specifying my own vision of a new sigma project and how it would engage with the world.


Art and Ontology

The key move for establishing my vision is to think about ontology, questions of what the world is like, including us as human beings. My concern is not with details but generalities: what sort of a place do we live in, how do we engage with it, what sorts of entities are we? This might sound vague but it does not have to be, and a crude contrast might help. The taken-for-granted ontology of modernity, its overall vision of how the world is, endlessly reinforced by the mainstream academic disciplines, remains a Cartesian and dualist one. Since people and things are different sorts of entities, they have to be understood separately. Humans are exceptional in having genuine agency, and this specialness is what the humanities and social sciences emphasize. Nonhumans lack this special quality; they are passive and machine-like, as described by the natural sciences, and await the human hand to give them form and purpose. That is the dominant ontological vision of modernity. But the world is actually not like that all. My work in STS convinces me that the Taoists, for example, had the right sort of ontology. The history of science shows us that we actually live in a non-Cartesian, non-dualist world—an endlessly lively world of flux and becoming, that we are just a part of. Linked to this idea at the level of performance, we are never reliably in control—ourselves part of the flow. That is the non-modern ontological vision that has emerged in science and technology studies. [9]

Now we can go back to art. In my work on the history of cybernetics, I found myself discussing artworks as instances of what I call ontological theatre—as helping us to grasp different ontological pictures and, at the same time, bringing those ontologies down to earth, staging them as art. [10] By and large, I would say that the Western canon functions as an ontological theatre for Cartesian dualism. Most obviously, paintings and sculpture are static objects without agency; they just stand there passively awaiting human consumption. The canon thus stages for us the modern dualist split between living people and dead things. But Trocchi clearly favored what I just called a Taoist ontology: “We envisage [sigma] as a vital laboratory for the creation (and evaluation) of conscious situations; it goes without saying that it is not only the environment which is in question, plastic, subject to change, but men also. [...] We must reject the conventional fiction of ‘unchanging human nature.’ There is in fact no such permanence anywhere. There is only becoming.” [11] And his list of representative artists and objects in fact consists entirely of works and projects that somehow stage, thematize, foreground, or act out such an ontological vision. His implicit message, which I want to follow rather than his explicit inclusivity, is that sigma should be a basis for non-modern ontological theatre. This is a central point for me. But I also have to recognize that I have gone off on a strange track here. People do not usually do this sort of ontological reading of artworks (or sciences or engineering)—so now I want to spend some time exploring what is at issue. [12]

We can start with one of Trocchi’s examples. In the quote about astronauts of inner space down by the river but not too far from London, he mentions ‘dream-machines.’ As John Geiger’s amazing book Chapel of Extreme Experience (2003) tells us, the dream-machine was the name given by the Beat writer and artist Brion Gysin to a strobe flickering at around ten cycles a second, the so-called alpha rhythm of electrical waves in the brain. [13] As anyone can check, gazing into such a device with your eyes shut immediately induces rather beautiful visions of dynamic geometrical patterns. After a while, some people also see quasi-realistic visions like waking dreams. As Gysin once wrote: “What is art? What is color? What is vision? These old questions demand new answers when, in the light of the Dream Machine, one sees all ancient and modern abstract art with eyes closed.” [14]

Gysin thought that dream-machines were fantastic, exhibited them as a strange sort of art object and tried to sell them as replacements for TVs. But we can also grasp them as non-modern ontological theatre. They stage for us, literally before our eyes, a dissolution of any sort of taken-for-granted dualism of subject and object, and this in a direct performative way. If modern art is all about active subjects contemplating passive objects, the dream-machine brutally undermines this sort of detached separation. You can indeed think of a strobe light as just a piece of furniture, but the visions it induces are not like that. They are not in the outside world at all, and yet they depend on an intimate coupling of the human sensory apparatus and a lively object, a material agent, the strobe itself. Examined from another angle, dream-machines problematize the stability of the human and point instead toward our plasticity, as Trocchi called it—our ability to show up in new ways in new sorts of situations to become new selves. Perhaps we already knew from Michel Foucault that the modern self is a historical construction, but the dream-machine pointed forward not back, to performative and experimental explorations of what we might become. Gysin, like his friend William Burroughs, was one of the great 1960s explorers of consciousness.

This is what it means to describe the dream-machine as ontological theatre: the visions challenge the modern idea of a stable self independent of its surroundings, and help us to grasp instead a non-modern vision of the self as caught up in the flows and transformations of becoming.

Now we can turn to another item on Trocchi’s list: ‘spontaneous architecture.’ What was on his mind here was, partly, Guy Debord’s situationist perspective on space. But closer to home he also suggested that the spontaneous university “will have much in common with Joan Littlewood’s ‘leisuredrome’”—more commonly referred to as the ‘Fun Palace.’ [15] As wonderfully documented and analyzed in Stanley Mathews’s book From Agit-Prop to Free Space, the Fun Palace was a building in London that loomed very large in the sixties imagination but never quite got built. [16] The key feature of the Fun Palace was that it was not conceived to fulfill any specific function, instead it was designed to reconfigure itself in use, adapting from day to day to whatever activities grew up there—education, theatre, sports, politics, etc.. And the cybernetician, Gordon Pask, devised a control system for the Fun Palace such that it would ‘get bored.’ Instead of just going along with its occupants’ desires, it would occasionally transform itself in some other way, inviting people to find something new to do inside it—something new to want, some new way to be.

It seems unlikely that Joan Littlewood, whose fantasy it was, or Cedric Price, the architect, or even Gordon Pask, thought of the Fun Palace as ontological theatre. For them it was a great building where great and unexpected things might happen. We can, if we like, step back from the details and read the building ontologically. Conventional architecture conjures up a more static environment, where people decide its function. The beautiful medieval cathedral I could see out of the window when I was writing this essay has stood there passively for centuries, while the human agents come and go and actively find uses for it—prayer and religious services, but also concerts, meditation, furtive assignations, and other functions. And the point to grasp is that the Fun Palace was not like that. It acted out a Taoist ontology of agency and liveliness, performative couplings, surprise, and emergence. One never knew what the building would do next, and the humans had to be ready to adapt to that. Passing through the Fun Palace was to experience directly the flow of becoming. Well, it would have been; we can imagine how it would go. Imagine the entire cosmos as the Fun Palace and you start to get the hang of non-modern ontology.

Here I can begin to consider another point about the neo-sigma project as I conceive it. What is the point of this ontology-talk? If artists do not actually talk that way, why should I? The first part of the answer is that it creates an axis of assembly. At ground level, so to speak, it is hard to find any point of contact or relation between strobes and fun palaces. Only by stepping back from specifics to ontology can one see the sort of alternative space they create and how they supplement each other’s challenge to modernity. So this odd translation to an ontological plane supplies something that was missing in Trocchi’s vision. As he conceived it, explicitly at least, the only unifying feature of sigma was the intelligence and creativity of its participants. I prefer to back something more focused, and a non-modern ontology seems to me to be a possible key axis.

At this point we could move in several directions. I will review some more examples from art history and then return to the ‘so what?’ question: What’s so great about ontology? Why am I keen to make it the organizing principle in re-specifying sigma?  I think is necessary to broaden the frame beyond the arts. I will discuss further an institutional basis for sigma in the third millennium.

I think of ontology as an axis of assembly, a principle for bringing specific artists and artworks together in a common project. To put more flesh on this idea I can review more examples of the sorts of work I would count as non-modern ontological theatre. I find that a crude threefold typology is helpful to classify works according to the aspect of the overall non-modern ontology they foreground. Here are the headings and examples:

1) “Technologies of the self"—these are works that operate on the plasticity of the participant beyond the usual channels of everyday seeing and hearing. Dream machines would be canonical examples, but one can find many more in the history of the arts. John Geiger’s book documents the many appearances of stroboscopic flicker up to the present in film and light shows, and even in William Burroughs’s fiction. All of these are instances of the sort of artwork that could find a place in the new sigma. From the sixties, we could include Bridget Riley’s op art which, likewise, problematizes any contemplative relation between subject and object. Any sort of biofeedback art would come under this heading too, with Alvin Lucier’s 1965 Music for Solo Performer as a canonical example. The music in question was generated by the performer entering into a meditative state characterized by brainwaves at the alpha frequency, but at the same time the music constituted the biofeedback channel that let the performer know he had achieved such a state, and helped him or her maintain it. In yet another register, we could include the use of sensory deprivation techniques to explore novel states of consciousness, running from John Lilly’s heroic and LSD-assisted explorations of inner space in the 60s up to Chris Salter’s JND—Just Noticeable Difference—project today. [17]

2) “Dances of agency”—this is a phrase I take from my work in science and technology studies, referring, when I first used it, to performative and reciprocally transformative back-and-forth interactions in the lab between scientists and the material world. [18] Thinking about dances of agency in science led me to the nonmodern ontological vision I am talking about here. But what I later realized is that studying scientific practice is the hard way to get to the overall picture. Much easier is to look at artworks like the Fun Palace. What the Fun Palace would have staged if it had ever been built was precisely transformative and performative dances of agency between the building and its human users. And again, we can endlessly multiply examples: the Fun Palace and the 1960s designs of the Archigram group were exemplary for the development of a growing stream of adaptive architecture that is still expanding today.

Staying with Gordon Pask for a moment, his famous Musicolour machine from 1952 also staged a dance of agency between the machine and the human performer. Musicolour turned a musical performance into a light show, but like the Fun Palace, it would get bored and cease to respond to repeated tropes, encouraging the performer to try something new, on and on, back and forth between the human agent and the nonhuman one—a beautiful example of ontological theatre. It was a little model of our Taoist ontological condition, caught up in the uncontrollable flow of becoming. Pask also built robots that staged dances of agency with each other—this was a work he called a Colloquy of Mobiles, exhibited at the Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition at the ICA in London in 1968. You can find accounts of Musicolour and the Colloquy in Charlie Gere’s book, Digital Culture, though he contextualizes it differently, and I mention this to emphasize the direction of the present line of thought. [20] Only by thinking about Musicolour in ontological terms can one align it with the otherwise heterogeneous range of works I want to assemble under the banner of sigma. At the ground level of specifics, Musicolour had nothing in common with dream-machines or brainwave music; only by stepping back from the details can one see all these works and others as staging aspects of a unitary ontological picture. That observation is what I am trying to add to the history of art and to art criticism.

There are many other threads we could follow under this heading. Another of the cyberneticians I studied, Grey Walter, is worth mentioning. Walter’s scientific research on flicker in the late 1940s was in fact the historical inspiration for Gysin’s dream-machines; but in 1948 Walter also built the first of his famous robot tortoises which, with their mirror and mating dances, mutated over time into works like Simon Penny’s Petit Mal, first exhibited in the 1990s, and Garnet Hertz's cockroach-controlled robot from the early 2000s. [20] From another angle, it would be interesting to think about Brian Eno’s generative music, which he explicitly associates with an ontology of decentered emergence and becoming. [21]


Figure 1 - "The Tortoise in Action." Pierre de Latil, Thinking by Machine: A Study of Cybernetics (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1956), facing p. 275 [1].


Figure 2 - Petit Mal, Simon Penny, 1993. Photograph by Simon Perry. © Simon Penny, 1993. Used with permission.


Figure 3 - Cockroach-controlled Robot, Garnet Hertz, 2004. Photograph by Garnet Hertz, 2004. © Garnet Hertz. Used with permission.


3) Material agency and hylozoism. Here we can think of works that foreground what is suppressed in the modern ontology, namely the sheer agency and liveliness of nature itself. I call it hylozoist because it stages the idea that everything, including art, is already there in nature, so that the work of the artist is less to create art than to set up the conditions for nature to manifest itself as art. I can give two examples here.

One is Chris Welsby’s work in experimental cinema, beginning in the late sixties and continuing to the present. Welsby’s enduring idea has been to hand over control to nature: the wind, the weather, and the motion of the planet. His 1974 movie Seven Days, for example, is a time-lapse film of a land- and sky-scape in Wales over the period of a week, in which the camera was set to track the sun, pointing upward when the sun was hidden by clouds, but flipping around to point downward whenever the sun came out. [22] As ontological theatre, Seven Days confronts the viewer with the liveliness and agency of nature in two ways: showing us images of the wind blowing and the rain falling, but also letting nature—here the sun and the clouds—control the camera-angles. And this might be a good point at which to emphasize a related observation. Like all of the artworks I have mentioned, I think, Welsby’s work centers on relinquishing the display of human control and mastery that characterizes the heroic masterpieces of the Western canon. As he puts it, if you have to edit it you’ve done something wrong. As ontological theatre, then, this work stages strikingly and directly the sort of posthumanist decentering that is integral to a non-modern, Taoist, and cybernetic ontology.

Finally, for some added breadth, I can mention a beautiful artwork by Richard Brown called Electrochemical Glass. Three electrodes of copper, aluminum and iron were sandwiched in a conducting fluid between two glass plates and evolved over time into a continuously changing work of art. In a conference description, Brown emphasized the unexpected appearance between April and October 2002 of the black ‘dendrite’ climbing up the left hand side. Like Welsby’s cinema, then, but in a very different register, Brown’s work surrenders human control and confronts us directly with the agency of nature. He described the Electrochemical Glass as “a daily reflection of process, decay, transmutation and growth; the slow changes resonating with memory and notions of self—a form of contemplative alchemy,” but he might equally have invoked the Tao, as staging in miniature the world of flow and becoming. [23]


Figure 4 - Electrochemical Glass, Richard Brown, 1997-2007. Photograph by Richard Brown, 2006. © Richard Brown, 2006. Used with permission.


Ontology and Action

I hope this is enough to specify my idea of non-modern ontological theatre, the demarcations it and the sort of artworks it picks out. The list is potentially infinite and always growing. There is no definitive and final work of nonmodern art, any more than there is in modern art. Trocchi’s sigma was intended as a place for people to work creatively and productively together, not a museum—though the inclusion of a museum might not be a bad idea, either.

But now I need to confront the 'so what?' question. What could a neo-sigma assemblage accomplish? How would it transform the world? Trocchi was vague on this question in a principled way. Becoming was central to his thinking, and he insisted that one could not know in advance just what the wider impact of sigma would be or what the project would evolve into. We just have to try it and find out. In a way, I am sure he was right, and much the same would have to be said about a renewed version of sigma. But because I have specified the range of art to be assembled, I can also be more precise about what one could hope for from it and how it would interfere with the world.

The key idea is simple: Ontology makes a difference. Ontology and action work together. How we understand the world and how we go on in it reinforce one another. If you think of the nonhuman world as passive and machine-like, the tendency is to seek to reconfigure it to suit our human ends—to control and dominate it, to treat the environment as standing reserve. One might even begin to think of aspects of the human world in similar terms: maybe we should go around imposing democracy on people, for example, or productivity measures on professors. This is the stance that Martin Heidegger called ‘enframing’ and that Jürgen Habermas referred to as instrumental rationality. [24] No doubt we need some of this sort of rationality; we need to stabilize some aspects of the world to suit our needs. But the ontology that goes with it is just wrong. The world, human or nonhuman, does not passively await the imposition of form, and when we try to act that way we should expect surprises and unintended consequences. And, to put it telegraphically, that is my conjecture about the origins of the grey backcloth to this essay, and Trocchi’s 1960s talk of disaster, too. Instrumental rationality running wild is what has brought us the grimness and fear of what Ulrich Beck called the ‘risk society’ in 1992. [25]

This is of course arguable, but my thought is that attempts to bring democracy to people by invading and occupying their countries, or thinking it makes sense to drill for oil a mile below the surface of the sea, or that one can and should rationally optimize the extraction of surplus value from financial markets or English universities, are underpinned and naturalized by the modern, Cartesian, dualist ontology. Independent of specifics, vile or not—well intentioned or not—the mad plans of our masters would make sense if the world really were enframable. The desperate political fantasy I am suggesting is, perhaps, artists could help denaturalize that ontology—could help us to see and understand that the world is not like that—and, even more importantly, could show us that there are other ways in which we can act in the world that ontological make sense.

As individual works, I cannot see how dream-machines, or bits of adaptive architecture, or time-lapse movies of the Welsh countryside could achieve much. But moving to an ontological plane as a way of putting them all together just might create a new gestalt—“revelation,” Trocchi called it—and achieve some collective impact. Neo-sigma could stage and elaborate vividly many simultaneous aspects of a non-modern ontology, and perhaps this could have an effect on our cultural imagination—giving us pause before acceding to the next project of enframing, and, at the same time, presenting us with examples of another way not just to think about the world but to go on, to act in it. This is my reworking of Trocchi's “revolutionary proposal.” The “invisible insurrection” would be at the level of ontological imagination, coming at the world from a new angle.

I said this was a desperate fantasy, but less desperate modes of resistance—voting, striking, demonstrating, rioting—seem to have less impact now than they did even in the sixties. The sigma fantasy actually presents a concrete alternative to enframing and overweening rationalization.


Beyond Art

I’ll finish with two more lines of thought. First, Trocchi’s vision of sigma was dominated by the arts, which is precisely where both sigma and counterculture from the sixties went wrong. The arts alone cannot carry enough weight to sustain a revolution (which is probably why the Fun Palace, a massive and enduring pile of steel, concrete, and glass, attracted so many of the hopes and dreams of the sixties). [26] But Trocchi left space in the margins of his vision for others who were not artists. In two brief passages of his “‘tactical blueprint”’ he extended the list of participants in sigma: “‘We must choose our original associates widely from amongst the most brilliant creative talents in the arts and sciences... We are writers, painters, sculptors, musicians, dancers”'—the usual suspects—but also, “'physicists, bio-chemists, philosophers, neurologists, engineers, and whatnots, of every race and nationality.” [27] ‘Whatnots’ shows Trocchi’s determination to be inclusive. My new version of sigma would again be more focused. Trocchi’s list needs to be rebalanced so that no group, even the artists, constitutes its defining center; and while some of my best friends are physicists and engineers, I would not invite them all to this party.

We need to be more discriminating. Just as some art can be assimilated to nonmodern ontological theatre, so can some sciences, forms of engineering, and so on—and these are the people I would invite to join new-sigma. This is a topic I explored in The Cybernetic Brain, thus will not take it further here. But engineers—people who do big and immensely consequential things in the world that affect millions of people—would be important. Some of them already recognize that command-and-control is not solely the best way of relating to the environment and ecosystems, and that in fact enframing invites disaster. [28] These same engineers are actively developing new approaches that recognize our lack of control and the need to be responsive to emergent phenomena—and this sort of adaptive engineering should certainly find a place in sigma. It shows that one can stage and act out decentered becoming, not just in the arts but in heavy-duty, immediately worldly projects too—and perhaps it shows that non-modern engineering might be considered a wonderful art form. Anti-psychiatry and non-standard spiritualities also deserve a mention here—Trocchi was friends with R. D. Laing, one of the founders in the mid-1960s of Kingsley Hall, which became a sort of real-world version of sigma. When Trocchi mentioned “cultural activities in Big Sur, California,” I think he had in mind the newly established Esalen Institute, which became one of the epicenters of both anti-psychiatry and the New Age movement in the West. [29]

How much of a fantasy is this neo-revolutionary proposal for a renewed and respecified sigma project? I long regarded it as a total fantasy. I would float it on the rare occasions I met rich men, hoping they would endow an institute of antidisciplinary studies, but at that point they would look at their watches and leap into their BMWs. But now I am not so sure. Trocchi thought of sigma as a sort of university, though different in many ways from the conventional university—something more like the legendary Black Mountain College in North Carolina. And given our masters’ determination to marketize the educational system, what better time than now to establish a sigma-style university? Our masters want us to think of undergraduates as cost-benefit maximizers. But even if most of them are, there must be plenty of odd ones who still dream of a real education—and from personal observation I would say this is a big niche just waiting to be filled. A new kind of university would be the perfect place to start moving the world ontologically and practically—a speck of dust around which a parallel universe might start to condense and grow—“a living model for society at large” as Trocchi put it. [30]

The main flaw in this version of Trocchi’s revolutionary proposal is that ontological brainwashing begins at a much earlier age than eighteen. Maybe alongside Trocchi’s ‘spontaneous university’ we should have a ‘spontaneous kindergarten.’ But we have to start somewhere—fifty years after Trocchi, it would be nice to get on with it. [31]


References and Notes

[1] Alexander Trocchi, “A Revolutionary Proposal: The Invisible Insurrection of a Million Minds,” in Invisible Insurrection of a Million Minds: A Trocchi Reader, ED.  A. Scott (Edinburgh: Polygon, 1991), 1, 8. All page citations to Trocchi’s writings are to online versions at the website of Situationist International Online, (accessed April 21, 2014).

[2] Ibid, 2. Apart from the extinction of the human race, Trocchi’s rhetoric also circled around the ‘leisure problem,’ the idea that technology was making paid work irrelevant and potentially precipitating the sort of dystopian scenario played out in Anthony Burgess’ Clockwork Orange (1963, and later the film). Like nuclear annihilation, the leisure problem never quite arrived.

[3] Alexander Trocchi, “sigma: A Tactical Blueprint,” in Invisible Insurrection of a Million Minds: A Trocchi Reader,  ed. A. Scott (Edinburgh: Polygon, 1991), 5.

[4] Alexander Trocchi, “A Revolutionary Proposal: The Invisible Insurrection of a Million Minds," 1-2.

[5] Ibid., 2, 4.

[6] Ibid., 5.

[7] Ibid., 6.

[8] Andrew Pickering, The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches of Another Future (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010).

[9] Andrew Pickering, The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency, and Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995); A. Pickering, "Culture, Science Studies and Technoscience," in Handbook of Cultural Analysis (London: SAGE, 2008), ed. T. Bennett and J. Frow, 291-310.

[10] Andrew Pickering, The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches of Another Future.

[11] Alexander Trocchi, “A Revolutionary Proposal: The Invisible Insurrection of a Million Minds," 6, 2.

[12] My concern with ontology is a tactical departure from Trocchi’s rhetoric: “People must be located and activated: we are confronted with the technical problem of elaborating the ways of gearing the power of all of us individuals to an effective flywheel. This must be solved without requiring anyone to sink his identity in anything noxiously metapysical.” Alexander Trocchi, “sigma: A Tactical Blueprint,” 2.

[13] John Geiger, Chapel of Extreme Experience: A Short History of Stroboscopic Light and the Dream Machine (New York: Soft Skull Press, 2003).

[14] Ibid., 62.

[15] Alexander Trocchi, “sigma: A Tactical Blueprint,” 5.

[16] Stanley Mathews, From Agit-Prop to Free Space: The Architecture of Cedric Price (London: Black Dog, 2007).

[17] Alvin Lucier, Reflections: Interviews, Scores, Writings, ed. G. Gronemeyer and R. Oehlschlägel (Köln: MusicTexte, 1995); John Lilly, The Center of the Cyclone: An Autobiography of Inner Space (New York: The Julian Press, 1972).

[18] Andrew Pickering, The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency, and Science.

[19] Gordon Pask, “A Comment, a Case History and a Plan,” in Cybernetics, Art, and Ideas, ed. Jasia Reichardt (Greenwich, CT: New York Graphics Society, 1971); Charlie Gere, Digital Culture (London: Reaktion Books, 2002).

[20] For a video of the tortoise, see "Grey Walter's Tortoises" YouTube video, 2:17, posted by "skitterbot," August 20, 2008, On Petit Mal, see Simon Penny's web site, (accessed April 21, 2014).

[21] Brian Eno, “Generative Music,” a talk delivered at the Imagination Conference, San Francisco, June 8, 1996. Reproduced in In Motion Magazine, July 7, 1996, (accessed April 21, 2014).

[22] Chris Welsby: British Artists' Films, Chris Welsby (London: British Film Institute, 2005), DVD.

[23] Richard Brown, “Alchemy, Mimetics, Immersion and Consciousness” (paper presented at MelbourneDAC 2003, Melborne, May 2003),, 20.

[24] Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. W. Lovitt (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), 3-35; Jurgen Habermas, Toward a Rational Society: Student Protest, Science, and Politics (Boston: Beacon Press, 1970).

[25] Ulrich Beck, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity (London: SAGE, 1992).

[26] “Let us build adventures, environments, mazes, and gardens we can walk in and be reinformed continuously of our fine vitality. Let us turn away from the contemplators and listen to the architects, the activists, the engineers—the Archigram group with their Plug-In City scheme; Cedric Price, the Fun Palace designer; Geoffrey Shaw and his constructions in plastic; Keith Albarn and his furniture sculpture.” Jeff Nuttall, Bomb Culture (New York: Delacorte Press, 1968), 270. Even Nuttall’s list fails to get further than architecture.

[27] Alexander Trocchi, “sigma: A Tactical Blueprint,” 5, 3.

[28] Andrew Pickering, “Being in an Environment: A Performative Perspective,” Natures Sciences Sociétés 21, no. 1 (2013): 77-83.

[29] Alexander Trocchi, “sigma: A Tactical Blueprint," 5; Alexander Trocchi, “A Revolutionary Proposal: The Invisible Insurrection of a Million Minds."

[30] Alexander Trocchi, “sigma: A Tactical Blueprint,” 6.

[31] As Jeff Nuttall wrote in 1968: ‘Let's not wait for [...] the administration to hand out money or land, and let's not wait for them to grant us the future they owe us. They won't. They can't. Let's start thinking in terms of permanence now and build our own damn future." Jeff Nuttall, Bomb Culture, 270, slightly bowdlerised.



This is a revised version of a talk originally presented at Rewire: fourth international conference on the histories of media art, science and technology, Liverpool John Moores University, 28-30 September 28, 30, 2011, and I am grateful to Charlie Gere for the invitation to speak there. Revisions were done while I was a fellow of the Internationales Kolleg für Kulturtechnikforschung und Medienphilosophie, Bauhaus University, Weimar, Germany, and I thank the directors of the IKKM for their hospitality. This work was supported in part by a National Research Foundation of Korea Grant funded by the Korean Government (NRF-2013S1A3A2053087).


Author Biography

Andrew Pickering's early work was in theoretical particle physics, but in the late 1970s he joined the Science Studies Unit at the University of Edinburgh and moved into science and technology studies—STS. He taught for many years at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign before returning to England in 2007 and joining the University of Exeter, where he is now emeritus professor of sociology and philosophy. His books include Constructing Quarks: A Sociological History of Particle Physics, The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency and Science, Kybernetik und Neue Ontologien, and, most recently, The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches of Another Future. His work in STS explores a shift from thinking of science as a body of representations of nature to thinking of it as emerging in action, agency, and performance in a lively material world. Growing out of his work on cybernetics, Pickering’s current research focuses on art, agency, the environment, and traditional Chinese philosophy.

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