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The Culture of Feedback

Ecological Thinking in Seventies America

When we want advice from others, we often casually speak of “getting some feedback.” But how many of us give a thought to what this phrase means? The idea of feedback actually dates to World War II, when the term was developed to describe the dynamics of self-regulating systems, which correct their actions by feeding their effects back into themselves. By the early 1970s, feedback had become the governing trope for a counterculture that was reoriented and reinvigorated by ecological thinking.

The Culture of Feedback digs deep into a dazzling variety of left-of-center experiences and attitudes from this misunderstood period, bringing us a new look at the wild side of the 1970s. Belgrad shows us how ideas from systems theory were taken up by the counterculture and the environmental movement, eventually influencing a wide range of beliefs and behaviors, particularly related to the question of what is and is not intelligence. He tells the story of a generation of Americans who were struck by a newfound interest in—and respect for—plants, animals, indigenous populations, and the very sounds around them, threading his tapestry with cogent insights on environmentalism, feminism, systems theory, and psychedelics. The Culture of Feedback repaints the familiar image of the ’70s as a time of Me Generation malaise to reveal an era of revolutionary and hopeful social currents, driven by desires to radically improve—and feed back into—the systems that had come before.

264 pages | 8 color plates, 13 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2019

Biological Sciences: Ecology

Culture Studies

History: American History, History of Ideas

Sociology: Social History


“Belgrad’s book is a big, hulking idea, laid out in fractal detail. . . .He gives us Talmudic exegeses of everything from the famous “crying Indian” public service announcement to John Cage’s works to a lesser-known EPA pamphlet cautioning against the dangers of noise pollution. . . .  Belgrad makes a convincing argument for looking carefully at this past, parsing it gently. In a moment without much optimism, it might be worth recovering these old seeds of hope.”

Los Angeles Review of Books

“There's something particularly enjoyable about a volume of intellectual history that deals with serious ideas but also makes some room for their less respectable offspring.”

Inside Higher Ed

“Recommended. . . Belgrad has made a significant contribution to understanding the 1970s.”


The Culture of Feedback is informative, insightful and written with clarity and interest as it rightly refocuses attention on the value of the decade and its ecological consciousness.”

Journal of American Culture

"Belgrad’s Culture of Feedback is an excellent example of recent provocative work engaging the long arc of the 1970s. . . . Belgrad has crafted argument full of depth and nuance that all serious students of ecological history, the counterculture, and the evolution of American thought will have to take seriously. All in all, this book a valuable addition to the growing literature on the 1970s."

Western Historical Quarterly

“This book is a glittering kaleidoscope, spinning through cybernetic theory, ecofeminism, the music of Brian Eno, and the songs of whales. As important as it is fun, The Culture of Feedback shows us how science and American culture shaped each other in the 1970s and, in the process, shaped our lives today.”

Fred Turner, author of From Counterculture to Cyberculture

“Belgrad offers a valuable reassessment of the American 1970s in this wide-ranging, clearly written account of an ecological ‘culture of feedback’ whose diverse roots ranged from Norbert Wiener’s cybernetics to Gary Snyder’s explorations of Native American philosophy, and whose theories of self-organizing coevolutionary development animated such varied endeavors as John Lilly’s work with dolphins and Brian Eno’s ambient music. Belgrad’s superb intellectual history counters the widespread notion that the decade was marked by a narcissistic national decline.”

Jeffrey L. Meikle, author of Design in the USA

"[Belgrad] uses a wide range of published primary and secondary sources to frame the 1970s as defined by ecological thinking and feedback. . . . Belgrad’s book challenges what he sees  s a distorted and dour historiography that overemphasizes national lethargy and narcissism."

American Historical Review

"Data from the philosophical, the political and the aesthetic sit side by side in these pages, with nary a creak in the prose."


Table of Contents

The Historiographical Context
Why It Matters: Two Ideas of Efficiency
The Historical Context
The Culture of Feedback as Practice and Form

1         Systems, Ecology, and Environmentalism
Systems Ecology and Information Theory
Ecological Thinking versus Game Theory
Gary Snyder’s Ecological Ethic
The Subversive Science
Nature’s Feedback

2         Self-Organizing Systems and Mind in Nature
General Systems Theory

3         Crying Indian
The Crying Indian
The Ecological Critique of the Scientific Method
Neo-Paganism and Ecofeminism
Inheriting Native Ways
Native American Intellectuals and Ecological Thinking

4         Talking with Plants
Ecology and Plants’ Rights
Vegetal Signings
Listening to Our Vegetal Selves
Psychedelics: Talking Plant-to-Plant
Freaks Like Us
Music for Plants

5         Ambient Music
Sonic Meditations
Noise as Pollution
Acoustic Ecology and “Schizophonia”
Ambient Sound
Ambient Drone and Just Intonation: The Influence of Indian Classical Music
Evolving Pieces: Music as an Ecological System
Brian Eno’s Ambient Music for Airports

6         Dancing with Animals
Beyond Behaviorism
The Willfulness of Dolphins and Horses
Whale Song
Animal Choreographies
Contact Improvisation
Horse Whispering
Choreographies of Confinement
A Tale of Two Dolphins

7         Neo-Orthodoxies
Genetic Determinism
The Resurgence of Game Theory and the End of Limits
Protective Barriers
Conclusion: A Metahistory

Selected Bibliography


Media Ecology Association: Dorothy Lee Award for Outstanding Scholarship in the Ecology of Culture

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