Issue 3/2021 - Digital Ecology

Byron the Bulb – Death, Technology, and Transformation

Diedrich Diederichsen

Byron the Bulb is no ordinary light bulb. Byron is something special. Because Byron is immortal. That is how Byron could see and cast light on all kinds of things. Born in the Osram factories in 1920s Berlin, he became a problem by outperforming his intended service life. That attracted the attention of the international light bulb cartel, controlled by the three largest light bulb manufacturers, who tried to track him down in his workplace at the time "in an all-girl opium in Charlottenburg, almost within sight of the statue of Wernher Siemens".1 All kinds of episodes ensued: he came across other bulbs, one hanging in a kabbalist’s study rooms in Lyons and another illuminating the Arctic ice outside a Norwegian warehouse; Byron evaded the clutches of the hit man dispatched by the Committee for Incandescent Anomalies after his deviant 1,000-hour operating life; he drifted through the "poor sections, Jewish section, drug, homosexual, prostitute and magic sections of the capital",2 and ended up in Hamburg with a prostitute who had a customer who was a "cost accountant, who likes to have light bulbs screwed into his asshole, and this John had also brought along some hashish to smoke, so that by the time he leaves he’s completely forgotten about Byron there in his asshole – doesn’t ever, in fact, find out, because when he finally gets around to sitting down [...], it’s on his own home toilet, and plop! – there goes Byron in the water and flush! away down the waste lines to the Elbe estuary".3 His journey continued via Helgoland, Nazi party conferences, canonisation etc. "Any talk of Bulb’s transcendence was, of course, clear subversion. Phoebus based everything on bulb efficiency – the ratio of the usable power coming out, to the power put in. The Grid demanded that this ratio stay as small as possible. That meant they got to sell more juice. On the other hand, low efficiency meant longer burning hours, and that cut into bulb sales for Phoebus".4
The classics of cybernetics-inspired fiction are riddled with conspiracy theories. In this case, however, conspiracy theory is not simply a world-view dear to certain individuals and juxtaposed with a reality that looks either incomparably more complex or much more sober than the two equally classic strategies for breaking the spell of such visions would have it ("You just simplify everything" and "You just ascribe meaning to everything"). Something different is going on here: when it comes to William S. Burroughs and, to an even greater extent, Thomas Pynchon, conspiracy theory has taken over the narrative itself. That does not mean that conspiracy theory is vindicated or that its constructs and principles of construction are contradicted, but rather that the world can only be narrated as a conspiracy in the universe conjured up by these authors. After all, in narrative-driven literature, the linking principle holding the storyline together had already merged with the detective’s gaze, the revealing gaze that links cause-and-effect. Anything else would no longer be narrative, prose, epic, narration, diegesis, but rather calculation, prognosis and intervention. Experimentation.
The principle that informs conspiracy narratives is, after all, akin to a negative religion or magic. Religions usually assert that there is a hidden order underlying the visible world – underpinning appearances, lies, everyday life, godlessness, immorality or simply there for metaphysical and non-moral reasons – that becomes visible in a revelation. It is exactly the same in conspiracy theory, except that what is revealed is not reconciliatory, instead subscribing to the world’s definitive divisiveness, its intolerable nature. On the one hand, Pynchon goes to great lengths to make his conspiracy theories colourful, replete with facts and fictions, simultaneously crazy and plausible; on the other hand, he lets them fizzle out as they multiply. This is his optimistic vanishing point: subjects and narrative strands spread across the entire world, fugitives who are in different places at the same time. In the end, rather than one elite or one systemic constraint, an endless multiplication of processes and constraints unfurl that never, or rarely, abandon the rules of techno-materialist plausibility, yet cannot be resolved either – neither an apocalypse nor a happy ending, but a continuing process of capitalist, economic zero-sum games of oppression, persecution and influence-peddling, offset by omnipresent power play and all-pervading fear:
"Byron, as he burns on, sees more and more of this pattern. He learns how to make contact with other kinds of electric appliances, in homes, in factories and out in the streets. Each has something to tell him. The pattern gathers in his soul (Seele, as the core of the earlier carbon filament was known in Germany), and the more grander and clearer it grows, the more desperate Byron gets. Someday he will know everything, and still be as impotent as before. His youthful dreams of organizing all the bulbs in the world seem impossible now – the Grid is wide open, all messages can be overheard, and there are more than enough traitors out on the line. Prophets traditionally don’t last long – they are either killed outright, or given an accident serious enough to make them stop and think, and most often they do pull back. But on Byron, however, has been visited an even better fate. He is condemned to go on forever, knowing the truth and powerless to change anything. No longer will he seek to get off the wheel. His anger and frustration will grow without limit, and he will find himself, poor perverse bulb, enjoying it...".5
It is no coincidence that Byron bears the name of a Romantic poet, just as it is no coincidence that the world of beatniks and hippies, which spawned conspiracy theory, stands in for biographical and social development in work by Pynchon and Burroughs. In 1938, in Die Zeit des Weltbildes (The Age of the World Picture), Heidegger was already setting Hölderlin in opposition to cybernetics, although the latter did not yet exist as a concept, and developing his concept of the gigantic or the huge as "that through which the quantitative acquires its own kind of quality, becoming thereby, a remarkable form of the great. A historical age is not only great in a different way from others; it also has, in every case, its own concept of greatness. As soon, however, as the gigantic, in planning, calculating, establishing, and securing, changes from the quantitative and becomes its own special quality, then the gigantic and seemingly completely calculable become, through this shift, the incalculable. This incalculability becomes the invisible shadow cast over all things when man has become the subjectum and world has become picture".6
The linguistic-philosophical hue of the form in which this cultural pessimism and nihilism is manifested is certainly peculiar to Heidegger, especially his late work. The expression gigantic or huge first appears in his infamous 1930s Black Notebooks, in which the loss of the world, which is occasioned by the world becoming picture and by the quality of the quantitative, is also ascribed to the worldlessness of Jewry. However, such critique of rationalism and later of cybernetics is not just the realm of fascist and anti-Semitic right-wingers. Diagnosis of the world that has become an image is subsequently a central idea in the work of Guy Debord, one of the most explicit despisers of cybernetics.7 However, rationalist, proto-cybernetic positivism, enamoured of the purportedly neutral objectivity of numbers, another great adversary of Critical Theory, which likewise also began taking pot-shots at positivism around 1937/38. Conversely, German logic dissident, philosopher and science-fiction author Gotthard Günther accused Heidegger and later Habermas of a simply provincial German attitude to cybernetics, reflected not least in the refusal to engage with computing that would lead to German economic decoupling – in other words, discourse on cyber-illiterate Germans was already around in the 1960s.8
Criticism of cybernetics from the left, i.e. from advocates of Critical Theory, Situationism, as well as beatnik and hippie culture, stands in contrast, particularly in the latter group, to an enthusiasm about cybernetics that has nothing to do with economic optimism or the leftist, positivist lineage running from Otto Neurath to Salvador Allende that displays an interest in planning and overcoming the market. In hippie culture, cybernetics was seen as a new mode of exploration, harmonising with ecological and planetary-holistic, pro-Gaia views that viewed inner life as a system, creating reconciliation between the psychological opposites of introspection and behaviourism; in this context it is in a sense as if behaviourism no longer functions in a black-box mode but instead deploys the cybernetics of the inner realm allegedly long since described by mystics, kabbalists and yogis. Gotthard Günther quotes from Hegel’s Phenomenology: "It is manifest that behind the so-called curtain which is supposed to conceal the inner world, there is nothing to be seen unless we go behind it ourselves, as much in order that we may see, as that there may be something behind there which can be seen".9 This strand, armed with Gregory Bateson and Heinz von Foerster, runs from hippie communes to Silicon Valley. Interestingly, however, scepticism about cybernetics from the left takes an interest precisely in failure and in what is lacking, in a sense, in the capacities of the non-identical, the contingent, but also the poetic and the partial, situational – in other words, in the various formulae and forms of alienation: reification, economisation, the dominance of exchange value.
On the one hand, that line of thought is open to attack, as a humanistic and not entirely non-metaphysical assumption of essence is implicit in all ideas of alienation, a human inner world characterised precisely by being elusive and/or pure determination through labour. On the other hand, that argument is outright prophetic and highly suited to our purposes, because it already conceptualises a critique that addresses what could be called 1940s to 1980s high and late Fordist governmentality-driven cybernetics of administration and government, read in conjunction with the algorithmic and economic cybernetics of data and digital capitalism in the neoliberal era. Disappointed residual humanism, in particular the class-specific narcissistic mortification of a declining provincial petit bourgeoisie, also provides fertile ground for contemporary conspiracy theories. Even if talk of structural anti-Semitism is perhaps somewhat overworked, it nevertheless rather aptly captures the entangled conflict-laden state of affairs that fosters projection onto anomalous, illegitimate elites, traitors of the people, cosmopolitans, etc., and attributes to these elites – Bill Gates, Silicon Valley, the East Coast, Wall Street – precisely the anticipatory algorithmic control system that we call cybernetics. The sentiment behind these conspiracy theories, however, is fairly closed related to leftist alienation critique, or, to use today’s buzzword: leftist critique by artists. Where, though, can we find pathways that are up to the mark of digital rationality and will stand in its way, without just looking for lost poetry?
On a cultural level, the answer could perhaps lie in avoiding chasing in vain after a technical status and an economic-political-mathematical power that is difficult to counter, and, by way of parrying it, not striving to reconstruct whatever is intended to oppose it nostalgically or in a traditionalistic, residually metaphysical vein or neo-humanistically, but rather redefining what can be drawn from numbers and enumeration. This will occur, and can only occur, in a new form of introspection that no longer references the inventories of the ego and the psyche in traditional ownership-based relations of petty-bourgeois narcissism, but instead takes as its point of reference transformation or transformability and the relationship as the smallest and most decisive components of the molecule that has replaced the old human being and is striving to attain a new poetry – eluding description, in the quantum vein, so that even the gaze directed to the self no longer encounters a self, but only teeming particles in the throes of transformation. Hubert Fichte said that they behave camply and Karen Barad described them as queer; a locus where one writes and composes neither by hand nor by computer, but with tentacles.
Contrasting with esoteric-cybernetic systematisation of the inner world in the transition from old Californian hippie to New Age culture, a new determination of the world and dwelling in the world by those who dwell in it can be found in the connection and transformation techniques used nowadays in autofictional and autotheoretical texts. These do not reject systems per se, but they repeatedly discover connections and non-conclusive transformations unfolding before the observing eye that do not add up to operational governmentality-driven systems. The politicisation of the connection between what is dubbed identity politics and queer introspection is still in its infancy and must defend itself again and again, not entirely without reason, against a universal suspicion of narcissism and navel-gazing. There will be no political mobilisation worthy of the name unless transformation-open and transforming selves are mobilised, along with their knowledge, which alters with its recognisability. All that remains would be sharing the fate of poor Byron, who was also once a Communist: relishing his own failure in a somewhat non-autonomous manner, omniscient, yet with no hope of transformation, not even of death. For if he could die, he would also have been able to act, in other words to put something in place; casting into the balance of the game an anti-cybernetic risk, a not-knowing. Being unable to do this is the whole point of his stable, reified knowledge-ego, his enlightenment, which he owed to a cybernetic calculation intended to make the electricity grid more expensive. Cybernetic criticism is immortal, yet all the while erroneously adopts a negative fixation on the focus of its critique, whose greatest enemy, after all, is history.

The text is based on a lecture given at the online symposium Sharing and Responding (Academy of Fine Arts Vienna and Kunsthalle Wien) on 24th April 2021.


Translated by Helen Ferguson


[1] Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow. New York: The Viking Press, 1973, p. 649.
[2] Ibid, p. 651.
[3] Ibid, p. 652.
[4] Ibid, p. 654.
[5] Ibid. p. 654-655.
[6] Martin Heidegger, The Age of the World Picture [1938], in, id, Off the Beaten Track. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002, edited and translated by Julian Young and Kenneth Haynes, pp. 57-85, here p. 72
[7] Guy Debord, Correspondance avec un cybernéticien, Internationale Situationniste No. 9, August 1964, pp.44-48
EN translation at
[8] Gotthard Günther, Martin Heidegger und die Weltgeschichte des Nichts,; first publication in: Ute Guzzoni (ed.), Nachdenken über Heidegger. Hildesheim 1980, reprinted in: Gotthard Günther, Beiträge zur Grundlegung einer operationsfähigen Dialektik, vol. 3. Hamburg 1980, pp. 260-296.
[9] Ibid
English translation of the Hegel quote from Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977, p.103