Passage to Urbana

The Queen Mary, passage for one cybernetician

Today, on the late Heinz von Foerster’s 97th birthday, two missionaries asked me on the street whether my dog had been castrated.

Today, on Heinz von Foerster’s 97th birthday, Ricardo Uribe treated me to a gyro sandwich. I learned that before he fled Pinochet’s Chile for a post at Urbana, he helped wire the control room for Allende’s Cybersyn system.

Today, on von Foerster’s 97th birthday, I came the closest to establishing my government’s role in Heinz’s emigration from Austria.

It’s not that I think there’s some big secret here, that Heinz was hiding something in his accounts of the move. There are people I could ask who likely know exactly what role the US government played in Heinz’s move to Urbana. My curiosity is not that of a conspiracy theorist; I’m not after cause-and-effect chains that add up to a grand design. Rather, I’m interested in the messy convergences and rhymes of how a particular collection of people end up in a particular place, how our paths do and do not reflect our wills, how diverse forces shape the migrations that we call living.

Cybernetics, and Heinz von Foerster’s work in that area, is both omnipresent and absent from the world. I chair a program in New Media, a field avowedly indebted to cybernetic thought. Yet even on this campus, where Heinz built a major hub for the discipline, neither the lab nor the field have any official presence. Here and around the world, Cybernetics is either dead, banished, or unconsciously alive in places it never aimed to be. Doppelgangers of cybernetic research move effortlessly through the worlds of finance, management, education, in the sensoria of contemporary western consumers. Their DNA bear no genetic link, they seem to have sprung up on their own.

Who triggered whom? What privileges, desires, or resources led to which approaches to individual subjectivity and collective learning? It’s impossible to tell. Cybernetic Serendipity was the name of an influential early art exhibit of works inspired by cybernetic research. What is ever serendipitous about an event that is part of a system of stimuli and response, and therefore possibly subject to control? A serendipitous event within such a system might only look serendipitous from the perspective of an observer within that system.

So how did Heinz end up in America, in Urbana? How did a global center in the development of cybernetic theory grow out of my humble town? As gathered primarily from Heinz’s interviews with Monika Brocker, the story goes like this:

An aristrocratic Austrian from Vienna, Heinz finished his studies as war loomed on Europe’s horizon. He then spent much of the War concealing his Jewish ancestry and conducting reluctant research for GEMA, a Berlin-based radar and armaments company. After a series of moves together and apart, Heinz returned to Vienna with his family* just as the Allies were wrapping up their victory in Europe.

In American-occupied Vienna, Heinz took a paying research job as well as a post at the new American-run radio station, where he served as editor and talk-show host. By night, propped up on Benzedrine, Heinz wrote his first book, a study of Memory, which he was able to publish with the blessing of a famous psychotherapist (Viktor Frankl) and a Nobel Prize winner (Erwin Schrodinger).

Back in Berlin during the War’s early days, the family had stayed with Mai’s good friend and fellow performer Ilse Werner, a well-known German actress. Shortly into the war, Ilse had moved to America; with the war over she began pleading with Heinz and Mai to come to the States. She eventually booked passage for Heinz on the Queen Mary. Heinz didn’t see much of a future for research in post-War Vienna, with the Russians and Americans already competing for space and resources. So he accepted Ilse’s invitation and set out for New York.

Once in America, Heinz sent copies of his short treatise on memory to a few contacts around America. This effort earned him an invitation to Chicago, where he lectured to medical students at the University of Illinois; there Heinz met the famous neurophysiologist, Warren McCullough. The work so impressed McCullough that he quickly secured for Heinz a post at University of Illinois’ campus in Urbana-Champaign, and an invitation to the influential Macy Conferences in New York.

Heinz travelled South to Urbana-Champaign and made an immediate good impression. He was to be the new head of the Electron Tube Research Lab. But Heinz had no permit for work in the States, so he had to go back East to secure one.

He spent the following weeks bouncing between immigration offices in New York and D.C., never getting a straight answer. He was told he would have to return to Austria – a daunting prospect. Then he remembered his old friend William Bullitt. The two had first met in Vienna before the War, while Bullitt was as an ambassador to France; Heinz had performed magic for daughter Anne Bullitt’s birthday party. In Vienna after the war, Mai translated and championed Bullitt’s book The Great Globe Itself, an early warning against the dangers of Soviet aggression.

When Heinz found Bullitt again in 1949, the former ambassador and close friend of Franklin Roosevelt had fallen out of political favor. His anti-communist convictions had not yet found an audience (his testimony later led to the conviction of Alger Hiss), and there was no place for him within the Truman administration. Yet according to Heinz’s account, Bullitt was able to secure a work permit within a day. Heinz tells it this way:

So there in Washington I again remembered William Bullitt. I told myself: “Well, call Bullitt. Perhaps he can help you.” So I call him. He says: “Heinz, you are in America? Wonderful! Come have lunch with me.”

So I go for lunch. Unfortunately, my English was not yet very good at that time. He had invited several other very interesting people. I bring along my little book on memory; he gives me his beautiful book The Great Globe Itself; with a dedication. And there I tell him: “I have an immigration problem. I need a visa. I’ve got the invitation from the University of Illinois, but I don’t have a work permit.” – “Well, Heinz, no problem. Tomorrow I will send two people to your hotel to pick up your letter and your passprt. They will find out, where you can get your work permit.” On the next day two very elegant young men show up. I give them my passport and the letter. They say: “We will take care of it.”

Two days later, Heinz has his permit. What’s curious about this story is that in 1949 Bullitt held no government post. His political career was finished, especially in light of his vocal objections to American policies in Europe. By all accounts, Bullitt’s remaining friends in Washington would have been his fellow anti-communists and critics of the Soviet Union. Among these were longtime friend (some say lover) and former assistant Carmel Offie. In 1949, Offie was working for the Office of Policy Coordination, a new covert entity within the State Department. The OPC, which later merged with the CIA, was charged with psychological operations and paramilitary activity; Offie’s specific mandate in 1948 and 1949 was the recruitment of European personnel, especially former Nazis, away from the Soviets to take up the anti-communist cause, under the name of Operation Bloodstone. Under a Congressional act of 1949, Offie had the ability to bring in 100 people a year to work in the States, no questions asked.

Given Bullitt’s lack of credentials, and his close relations with Offie, George Kennan and other anti-communists, I suspect that Heinz must have been one of Offie’s 100 in 1949. Again, I mean to infer no secrets here. Other recruits within Operation Bloodstone certainly had plenty to hide, but I don’t suspect Heinz of wrongdoing. If Bullitt and Offie worked together to ensure Heinz didn’t end up in the hands of the Soviets, however, it is interesting to think of them doing so in light of his work on neurology and memory. Offie did work, after all, for a psychological operations office.

It wasn’t long before Heinz was back in D.C. again, securing funding for his new lab from the Office of Naval Research. His next decades of work with the Electron Tube Research Lab and later the Biological Computing Lab depended on military funding, as did most Cold War American academic research. Are you looking for evidence of Heinz’s complicity in military violence, or even in the actions of a state engaged in torture and coercion? There’s plenty to find, in Heinz’s work in Germany and in the States. You’ll also find evidence of Heinz’s deliberate acts against the state, of re-routing resources to counter-state purposes.

The exposure of guilt or worth through association is no place to stop, or even to start. We’re all included and implicated in every way, as taxpayers, as employees, as people who act when they shouldn’t and who refuse to act when we should. If you’re looking to biography for examples or counter-examples of moral action, I suggest you look first to a person’s actions over time at the relational level, what ethic she lives out as a peer, family member, co-citizen. Only then will your examination of the origins and destinations of a person’s institutional clout will be seen in the proper light.

Anyway, my interest in this story lies elsewhere. For me, to understand the origins of a person’s institutional, vocational location is to reveal as mobile what before was static. The histories of narrative biography and institutional canon tend toward an understanding of agents as bound for rest; the “greats” of the world get up from where they sit, take long strides to a new location, and sit again. Whether they move or sit is dependent either on heroic and inspired determination, or on fateful and mysterious serendipity. I prefer to see these figures – and all figures – as perpetually in motion, a motion contingent on multiple material and spiritual sources. Neither personal will nor the alignment of stars can fully account for one’s ability to move, and rest is a relative state.

To discern deeper stories of influence, of bodies in motion both influenced and influencing, is to deepen one’s picture of the present. We separate out the simultaneous strands of related and seemingly-unrelated current. To do so is to make a picture too big for one person to perceive at once – a complex space that requires one to shift position, close one eye, pretend not to see certain things, and compare impressions with others. That’s the picture of history I need, because that’s the relationship to the present and the future I desire.

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