This article was written on 12 May 2013, and is filled under Science / Technology.

Of Phantom Limbs and Foreign Bodies: Reentering the BCL

Photo courtesy of the University of Illinois Archives, Faculty and Staff Press Release File, RS 39/1/11

Heinz von Foerster at the BCL
Photo courtesy of the University of Illinois Archives, Faculty and Staff Press Release File, RS 39/1/11

In the summer of 1975, as his Biological Computer Laboratory (BCL) at the University of Illinois shut down its functions and he faced the prospect of an unwanted retirement, 63-year-old Heinz von Foerster became the subject of a disturbing observation by his wife Mai. In a letter to BCL associates Mieke and Gotthard Günther, Mai wrote:

We have noted that like an amputee he suffers from phantom pain. He still has not learned that he is amputated. Instead of cancelling when hundreds of people write to him—please do this for me, write that recommendation for me, send me this article, explain that problem to me—he tries to answer all of them but has no apparatus anymore to execute it, and he feels more and more cornered and desperate.[1]

The observation is all the more haunting when you consider that a major research theme of BCL in its early years (the lab was founded in 1958) had been none other than bionics. While that program yielded little of immediate practical use, the lab itself metamorphosed, in some sense at least, into a bodily organ of the only director it ever knew.

What’s more, Mai’s observation comes in the context of a years-long correspondence with the Günthers in which she had previously fretted: “From day to day the university is turning more and more into a ‘corporation’ [from Latin corporāre, to embody] in which mass solutions are sought and found for mass fabrication.”[ii] While historian Albert Müller suggests that BCL’s breadth of research made it a “foreign body”[iii] within its home department of electrical engineering, Mai’s remark, together with myriad other accounts, indicates BCL’s increasing status as an irritant to administration of the whole university, even as the lab evolved to embrace, and be embraced by, the student body.[iv]

Perhaps the ultimate symbol of both the embrace and the irritation was The Whole University Catalog (55 megabyte PDF file posted here), the irreverent yet benign student-produced capstone project for a fall 1969 seminar called “Heuristics,” which was reluctantly led by Heinz in response to overwhelming student demand.  Up until then, Heinz the magician had ingratiated corporate employers, accommodated himself both to the Third Reich and to the Allied occupation of Austria, sailed through immigration to the U.S., and cultivated sponsors in the Air Force and Navy—all of it without ever making himself a marked man, despite his freethinking and unorthodox style. The Catalog changed all that. The publication caught the attention of Illinois state senator William Horsley, who chaired a legislative commission investigating campus unrest. Horsley called Heinz to testify and answer for what the senator saw as “dirty, filthy material.”[v] University administration, which had tried to disassociate the institution from the Catalog, was scandalized, and Heinz recalled years later that only tenure saved his job. “The Whole University Catalog,” he put it, “was a thorn in their eye.”[vi]

Heinz could well have said the same of BCL during its later years as his protectors in the Pentagon and the university retired or were reassigned, research contracts dried up, and the lab became less of a “milking cow”[vii] for administration and more of an outlet for the countercultural impulses in the student body (though BCL, however it might have been seen, was never a self-conscious site of opposition). As BCL withered, Heinz and the state’s flagship university—two bodies, two complex systems—renegotiated their borders with the laboratory that had been the preeminent American center of cybernetics during the heyday of the field.

Regenerative Tissue

Our amputee resettled in California and flourished in what was at least the third career of his astonishing life. The reputations of the lab and its director not only grew, but grew together, as they entered history joined at the hip. Indeed, BCL seemed almost to transcend its physical death on the university campus as Heinz and colleagues, old and new, continued the conversations begun there.

An information graphic called a “Küppers matrix” provides one illustration of this recovery. Developed by science historian and systems theorist Günter Küppers, the matrix renders data from citation indexes into readily grasped networks of people and ideas. Following is a set of four Küppers matrices that show Heinz (blue dot) and a set of related thinkers being progressively subsumed in an emerging body of interdisciplinary work.

Matrices are reproduced courtesy of Dr. Günter Küppers

Matrices are reproduced courtesy of Dr. Günter Küppers.

Key: BA = Bateson, BE = Beer, BL = Bertalanffy, EI = Eigen, FÖ = von Foerster, GL = von Glasersfeld, GÜ = Günther, HA = Haken, LA = Laszlo, MA = Maturana, NE = von Neumann, OD = Odum, PA = Pask, PRI = Prigonine, VA = Varela. Based on ISI citation index. A line indicates a threshold level of citation activity in the direction of the arrow; for example, “MA→FÖ” means “Maturana cites von Foerster.”  I have hyperlinked names that are today most closely associated with Heinz, BCL, and second-order cybernetics.     

Note, first, the network’s continued development well after BCL’s closing in 1975, and second, Heinz’s centrality not only in terms of citation activity, but also in terms of his position in relation to the disciplines represented (i.e., his transdisciplinarity). To my mind, the matrices illustrate not so much the restoration of a limb or faculty by Heinz, as the recovery—Osiris-like—of a once-sundered Heinz/BCL into something bigger. And since the date of the last available matrix (indeed, since Heinz’s death in 2002), the recovery continues; see, for example, here, here, and here.

And what of our other patient, the university?

Scar Tissue

University of Illinois artist Kevin Hamilton, with his ambitious and multifaceted 2010 work entitled BCL/IGB—a permanent, public exhibit in the university’s Institute for Genomic Biology (IGB)—undertook to feed a memory back into the institution that had given Heinz and BCL nary an official thought in 35 years.


Photos and composite image courtesy of Kevin Hamilton.

 Photos and composite image courtesy of Kevin Hamilton.

Three main components of Kevin Hamilton’s BCL/IGB. Left to right: Mural depicting cybernetics and genetics history, reading area with BCL publications on display, and a detail from the recreation (or “reenactment”) of an early BCL machine, the Adaptive Reorganizing Automaton. The Automaton, a collaboration with artist/engineer Skot Wiedmann, is a work in progress.

Says Kevin: “I learned about cybernetics through the various media historians and theorists talking about technology’s role in modernity. When, around 2004 [two years into his stint as a University of Illinois faculty member], I sat down to watch Lutz Dammbeck’s documentary called Das Netz (‘The Net’), I nearly fell off my chair when I learned about the Biological Computer Laboratory.”[viii] So he applied for and won a State of Illinois grant to create public art for the IGB’s new state-funded facility, and set about designing “a catalyst to dialogue … a destination space for people on campus who wish to talk about issues of value in society, why we study and produce what we do as a university.”[ix]

You can read about and see more photos of BCL/IGB at Kevin’s web site, but an in-person visit may disappoint. In fall 2012 the IGB, under new directorship, sealed off the sunlit west end of the lobby housing BCL/IGB, rendering half of the mural/timeline component of the work largely inaccessible to the public and completely displacing the BCL library component with its beautiful replicas of BCL texts. As of this writing, the library still awaits a new home somewhere in the building. The new private conference room at the root of all the disruption is not, I’ll venture, the sort of “catalyst to dialogue” Kevin had in mind.

When I expressed dismay at seeing BCL/IGB so dismembered less than two years after its dedication, Kevin helped me see events more philosophically—much as Heinz might have done, I like to think. “These things,” said the artist, now absorbed in other projects, “just become a part of the story of the work.”

Like an old scar.

Jamie Hutchinson
University of Illinois 

[i]Letter dated 14 July 1975, transcribed in A. Müller, “The End of the Biological Computer Laboratory,” in A. Müller and K. Müller, eds., An Unfinished Revolution? Heinz von Foerster and the Biological Computer Laboratory, Edition Echoraum, Vienna, 2008, pp. 303–321. Müller provides an English translation that I have polished and corrected.

[ii] Ibid. 6 December 1972.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] On the pedagogical turn within BCL in its later years, see B. Clarke, “From Information to Cognition: The Systems Counterculture, Heinz von Foerster’s Pedagogy, and Second-Order Cybernetics,” Constructivist Foundations, vol. 7, no. 3, 15 July 2012, pp. 194–205.

[v]Quoted in The Daily Illini, 23 Sept. 1970, p. 5.

[vi] “Dieser Whole University Catalog war denen ein Dorn im Auge,” he tells coauthor Monika Bröcker in Teil Der Welt: Fraktale einer Ethik—oder Heinz von Foersters Tanz mit der Welt, 2nd ed., Carl-Auer, Heidelberg, 2007, p. 249.

[vii] “Melkkuh,” ibid., p. 267.

[viii] Quoted in J. Hutchinson, “Illinois Artist Commemorates Legendary ECE Cybernetics Lab,” 1 Nov. 2010.

[ix] Ibid.

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