IN HIS BOOK On the Existence of Digital Objects (2016), Chinese philosopher Yuk Hui drew on his background as a computer engineer and programmer to investigate digital entities like computer viruses, video clips, algorithms, and networks. In the foreword to the book, the French philosopher Bernard Stiegler described Hui’s thinking as a “generous and open theoretical milieu for exploration of human experience in connection to the infosphere.” A distinctive trait of Hui’s philosophy is its combination of Eastern thought with the European philosophical tradition. In The Question Concerning Technology in China: An Essay in Cosmotechnics (2016), Hui analyzes China’s hyper-rapid modernization in light of its long history of technological development and its relationship to the West. His most recent book, Recursivity and Contingency (2019), explores cybernetics and its merging of the artificial and the natural — i.e., machines and organisms. More than mere reflection, the philosophy of history underlying Hui’s work can be read as a program for practical change.
After a video-call with Hui in Hong Kong, where he was teaching aesthetics, I met with him in Los Angeles, where we continued our conversation on a visit to the Griffith Observatory, with its fitting double view of metropole and cosmos. In our discussion, Hui demonstrated his wide range of interests and his singular capacity to focus on philosophical problems in order either to solve them or to move beyond them. As the conversation unfolded, we continued over video-call, this time from Berlin, where Hui now lives and teaches.
ANDERS DUNKER: In your book about technology in China, you discuss the concept of “sinofuturism” — a Chinese vision of the future that is distinctively different from the one we have in the West. At the same time, you point out that China is becoming more like the West and thus risks cutting ties with its own traditions. You describe the new relationship between the Occident and the Orient as a “dis-orientation.” What does this process entail?
YUK HUI: The Greeks made a distinction between the Occident, which Germans still call das Abendland, and the Orient. What counts as Occident and Orient has changed many times. For the Greeks, the Orient was Egypt and Persia, not China and Japan. Geographical orientation was also a technical issue, because it was only through novel navigational instruments that the West discovered the globe. From the 16th century onward, China and Japan found themselves lagging behind the West in technology and knowledge. As a direct consequence, the empires of the East were at last forced to open their gates and accept the colonizing powers of the West. China wasn’t conquered by the writings, values, or ideas of Europeans, it was conquered by technological discoveries and inventions. If we look at the history of East Asia (say, Korea, China, and Japan) we see that each of these countries at some point decided that they wanted to “catch up with the West.” One of the reasons was warfare — competition and military activities were closely connected to colonization. In fact, China started modernizing only after defeat in the opium wars against the British Empire at the end of the 19th century.
Being defeated often means you have to copy the conquering enemy. Must we accept this logic when it comes to modernization, no matter how much we want to reject cultural imperialism and a universal history wherein some countries and regions are more advanced while others lag behind?
Let us remember that Oswald Spengler, in Man and Technics (1931), remarks that Europeans made a major mistake in exporting their technologies to other countries at the end of the 19th century. In his opinion, Europeans should have kept their technologies to themselves to make sure they kept their lead. That Japan vanquished Russia in 1905 was a signal that they might soon have the power to surpass the West in technological capacity.
For centuries, Japan resisted direct competition with the West — for instance, limiting their artilleries to bows and arrows and banning guns for over 200 years to protect traditional samurai sword fighting. Isn’t it striking that Japan started modernizing only after American warships forced them to open up for world trade?
The West needed hundreds of years to modernize. Japan completed the task in record time, moving from the middle ages to hypermodernity in 150 years. The same goes for China. Martin Heidegger wrote in the 1940s that only when communism comes to power in China will technology be “free.” What does he mean by that? Free means that it can be everywhere — that there is no longer any resistance. Heidegger talks about a technological planetarization. He says that civilization as such will be based on Western European thought, since non-European cultures haven’t managed to resist European technology. There is little point in writing local history and bolstering up regional traditions if you don’t know what to do when Google enters the world stage. Typically, you withdraw and defend your culture against the new technology, or you marginalize yourself as a subaltern. What has happened in globalization is that Western cultures have infiltrated other cultures and turned them upside down.
For a long time, as you point out in your book, China had a higher technological level than the West. And yet, China’s modernization still followed a Western blueprint. Did the world lose the opportunity to see an authentically Chinese modernity?
This is the big question. It was meticulously examined by the great sinologist and philosopher of technology Joseph Needham, who was a world-famous biochemist before he became a sinologist, writing and editing a great work in 26 volumes called Science and Civilisation in China (1954–2016). The question he asked was: If we accept that certain sciences were more advanced in China and the East than in the West before the 16th century, what were the crucial conditions that stopped China from developing modern technology and science? I have tried to ask this question in a different way. If we assume instead that China and Europe moved in two different directions in their scientific development, we can also avoid saying that one part of the world is ahead of the other.
Still, the act of resisting technological change means lagging behind, even in our times. Is there any viable alternative to the planetarization of technology — what you call a synchronization of the history of technology?
Instead of a universal history describing one technology with various stages of development, we can step back for a moment and instead describe technological development as involving different cosmotechnics. I call this technodiversity. Here, we must revisit the question of locality, which doesn’t necessarily entail that we take part in a discussion of ethnic groups and ideologies: Aryan, German, Russian, or whatever. We must rather think of locality in terms of systems of knowledge. Michel Foucault called knowledge systems epistemes and understood them as ways of life — ways of sensing and ordering experience, producing in turn certain forms of knowledge. Foucault emphasizes different epistemes in European history and orders them into epochs: Renaissance knowledge, classical knowledge, and modern knowledge. In his famous article “What is Enlightenment?” — which he prepared before his death in 1984 — he says that we also can understand knowledge as a way of thinking and feeling, as a sensibility.
In other words, different places and times have their own epistemes. What would it take for this diversity not to be effaced by the complete synchronization of cultural development?
First, we must recognize the diversity; then we must develop it further. Let me give you an example. I grew up in Hong Kong. My father had a Chinese pharmacy where he sold plants and herbs. Chinese pharmacists walk mountain paths collecting herbs to be made into medicines. Making medicine is a complicated procedure: some plants must first be treated, to extract the poisonous substances they contain, before they can be made beneficial to human health. Chinese medicine is based on Daoist cosmology, with Yin, Yang, and five kinds of Qi. If, from a Western perspective, you approach a Chinese doctor and ask, “Can you please show me your Qi and prove that this energy exists?” the answer would have to be no. If you can’t prove the existence of the energy at the base of your practice, how can you say that you practice a science? Here lies the problem.
But this doesn’t mean that Chinese medicine isn’t scientific. As an empirical science, it has functioned for 2,000 years based on a different epistemology. For a long time in Hong Kong, Chinese medicine has been ranked lower than Western medicine. If you go to a Chinese doctor, it won’t be covered by your health insurance because Chinese medicine is seen as unscientific.
Is this how Western technology establishes itself as universal, by monopolizing credibility and marginalizing what is different?
Here we must be careful. I am not aiming to pit the relative against the universal, or see the particular in contrast to the universal, as philosophy often has done. I would rather point out that the universal is just one dimension of what is. You and I are both humans, but we are individual and different humans. In the same way, technology has some universal traits: from an anthropological perspective, technology is an extension of the body and an externalization of memory. But these gestures don’t work in the same way in all cultures. Chinese writing and the Latin alphabet are both externalizations of memory, but they are still extremely different. Chinese pictogram has a very different philosophical foundation compared to Western phonogram.
Derrida tried to explore this difference in On Grammatology (1967) in terms of a philosophy of relation versus a philosophy of substance — Leibniz versus Hegel — but he didn’t carry it further. Writing is a system for both memory and education of sensibility, and it can also be seen as a technology to preserve the distinctiveness of our culture. We cannot say which is better than the other. For the same reason, I don’t claim that Chinese medicine is better, but that different systems have different merits. If you have cancer, you might have to remove the tumor immediately, using surgery, because it can spread aggressively. Afterward, Chinese medicine can help you recover your health and strength.
Even granting that technological diversity has its advantages, is simply promoting diversity enough to combat the impending and fatal ecological disaster that you think synchronous technological development is causing? Isn’t it also necessary to change our technologies en bloc on a global scale?
Western thinking always draws a distinction between good and bad, and seeks to remove what is deemed bad. We want to implement everywhere only the good side of technology. Peter Sloterdijk distinguishes between a dangerous “allotechnics” manipulating nature and a good “homeotechnics” cooperating with it. Bernard Stiegler says that technology is always both a poison and a cure, and he wants to separate the good pharmakon from the bad pharmakon. The division between good and bad is a philosophical gesture that goes back to Plato. He presents the philosopher as a judge with the task of determining what is good for the people.
For me, this is all very problematic. I don’t think we can come to a global agreement as to what is good and what is bad. Even if we have common problems we are trying to solve, that doesn’t mean there is a universal solution. There is no single way to respond to the collapse of ecosystems. We must understand that variation is a consequence of local adaptation. Biodiversity develops because of climatic variations, biological niches, and relations between particular plants, animals, and microorganisms. Something similar should hold for technologies. We need to explore the problem of the local, but we must be careful, since this is an extremely sensitive topic these days. Who is concerned with the local today? Marine Le Pen in France, Alternative für Deutschland in Germany, Aleksandr Dugin in Russia.
Dugin is influenced by a reading of Heidegger that tends to see technology as a tool for the spread of the moral hollowness he sees in liberal Western societies. To reject what is foreign and romanticize tradition seems an altogether obvious and dangerous mode of resistance.
Dugin misinterprets what Heidegger says. Heidegger doesn’t say that we should resist technology. He says that we mustn’t forget that there is also something else. This something else is the unconcealment of Being, which is forgotten in modern technology. Or, more precisely, the unconcealment in modern technology can only be carried out through a mode of challenging, of violence. With this statement, Heidegger abruptly ends his argument, but the way I understand him, he doesn’t call for a resistance to modern technology but rather a transformation of it. This transformation is at the same time a stepping back and a leap ahead.
If we want to deepen our understanding of the local, we should perhaps give a fresh look at the pre-romantic German thinker Herder, as Peter Sloterdijk told me he aims to do in a forthcoming book. Herder was the origin of German nationalism with all it entails, because of what he writes about the spirit of the people — der Volksgeist. In one way, he was the inventor of “the people.” Herder’s ideas are dangerous, but if you don’t dare confront danger, as Heidegger says, you end up with catastrophe.
Herder was worried that everything distinctive and original would be erased through the course of history, as the exchange between cultures makes them all similar. He despaired that Europeans were all speaking French, were forgetting their national customs, and seemed to dislike their own history and traditions. Today we find the same process all over the world, evidenced not only by the rapid loss of languages but also by technological unification. Is the world inevitably becoming more and more homogeneous?
Herder defends difference: different ways of life, different languages, different aesthetics. All these differences he sees as irreducible, as something that can’t and shouldn’t be replaced by something more universal. At the same time, we need to remember that Herder is not only a thinker of the local also an early cosmopolitan thinker, maybe even in a more interesting and theoretically credible way than Kant, whose courses he has attended in Königsberg. We must have the local as our point of departure, Herder says, but the local doesn’t need to be exclusive.
So, we might aim for a universality that is inclusive of diversity? The Chinese philosopher Zhao Tingyang has suggested that the Chinese concept of tianxia — “all under heaven” — is precisely such a concept of inclusive universality.
The problem, as I see it, is that the concept of tianxia is only relevant as long as “Heaven” exists. And in a Chinese context, Heaven is Cosmos. Tianxia was the cosmotechnics of the Chinese government, connecting morality and the cosmos, legitimizing laws and practices (as well as the government itself). The emperor was called tianzi, the son of Heaven. As such, he had the legitimacy to be at the center of the political sovereignty, and to govern the people, including the fringe “barbarians.”
And what is cosmotechnics, exactly?
For the Greeks, “cosmos” means an ordered world. At the same time, the concept points to what lies beyond the Earth. Morality is first and foremost something that concerns the human realm. Cosmotechnics, as I understand it, is the unification of the moral order and cosmic order through technical activities. If we compare Greece and China in ancient times, we discover that they have very different understandings of the cosmos, and very different conceptions of morality as well. The arbitration between them also takes place in different ways, with different technologies. A cosmotechnics of the tianxia type is no longer possible in a time that no longer has a conception of “Heaven,” as people did in the past. Like other big nations, China has satellites orbiting the Earth. The heavens have become a secular place, utilized by humans, and can no longer play a role as a morally legitimizing power.
In Recursivity and Contingency, you speak about the need to “recosmicize the world.” You borrow this term from Augustin Berque, who pointed out that the modern world no longer has a cosmos, understood as a moral and meaningful order, and that colonization by the West has robbed other cultures of their distinctive conceptions of the cosmos. He says that the universe, as it is described in science, has nothing to do with the classical cosmos, since scientific explanation has no moral significance whatsoever. Does this mean that we are faced with the task of recosmicizing not only our world, but the universe itself? Is the universe, discovered by astronomy, still waiting to be given a proper moral significance?
When we think of astrophysics, we see the universe as a thermodynamic system that inexorably moves toward destruction and heat-death, where stars are nothing but basic elements in nuclear reactions and where their twinkling has nothing to do with us. In this sense, it seems absurd to recosmicize the Earth and the universe; it can’t lead to anything but superficial mysticism and naïveté. Astrophysics only informs us of certain facts about the universe. It has no ambitions of telling us how to live. What kind of life should we imagine in light of recent astrophysical discoveries? Physics has no ambition to answer these questions.
“Recosmicizing” doesn’t mean giving some mystique back to the stars and cosmos, or giving technology a mystical meaning, but rather understanding that we must develop ways of life that solve the conflict between modern science and tradition, between technology and mysticism — whether we choose to talk about the Chinese Dao or Heidegger’s Sein. We must give the non-rational a place in a culture that is otherwise rational — the way, for example, that poetry gives the unknown a place in communication through an unconventional and paradoxical use of language. Art and philosophy can’t choose science as their point of departure. If they do, they become footnotes to positivism. They should not abandon science either, but rather tend to it and show the way to other modes of understanding the world. To paraphrase Georges Canguilhem, we must return technology to life.
What about people who want to develop new technologies in order to establish a new life in outer space? Does this also represent a cosmotechnics? For instance, the rocket billionaires, Bezos and Musk, who dream of colonies in space and a colonization of Mars?
There is a great passage in Nietzsche’s The Gay Science (1882), where he talks about “the horizon of the infinite.” It describes the moderns who have abandoned land for the pursuit of the infinite, yet, when they are in the middle of the ocean, there is nothing more fearful than the infinite — there is no more home to return to. The desire of the moderns, described by Nietzsche, continues to produce an effect of disorientation, while the sentiment that there is no longer any home to return to provides a huge market for psychotherapy and spiritual salvation. The longing for the infinite transports us toward the inhuman.
For Jean-François Lyotard, there are both positive and negative infinities, which are connected to different forms of rationality. Positive inhumanity captures us in rigid technological systems, like we see in China with the social credit system. The positive inhuman is one that is “more interior in myself than me” — for example, God for St. Augustine. We humans carry something inhuman in us, which is irreducible to the human and which maintains the highest intimacy with us. At the outset of his book L’Inhumain (1998), Lyotard asks if the ultimate goal for science is not that of preparing for the death of the sun, which, granted, lies unimaginably in the future, but which also entails the destruction of all living beings on Earth.
Rocket billionaires, who are all transhumanists, want to overcome finitude: the finitude of human life and of life as such. This longing for the infinite also implies no limit to capital accumulation. Overcoming human limitations — the search for eternal life — also implies an infinite market. In a way, the same happens in space exploration: investors want to profit from the Earth losing its meaning, as if leaving the planet were a matter of leaving one spaceship to enter another. I don’t think it is wrong to explore, or to try to understand the universe, but the conquest we see today seems to me to be merely a preparation for tomorrow’s consumerism. Transhumanists impose on us a false choice because they connect the question of the future of human existence with the question of immortality and describe Earth as a mere spacecraft.
In your last book, there is a passage about the secularization of space in which you mention that Elon Musk has launched his Tesla roadster into orbit around the sun. You see this as the first step in the commercialization of the cosmos and the next step as mining on other planets, effectively reducing them to mere natural resources, raw material.
As far as I’m concerned, Elon Musk can send his car into space or even travel to Mars, but we should not believe that these projects are the necessary next step in a certain technological development. This doesn’t mean that I see travel in outer space as irrelevant or dangerous in itself. Humankind has speculated for a long time about what is out there among the twinkling stars. It is the same curiosity that has brought forth science and technology. The progressives choose science and the reactionaries choose tradition, but we can also choose to follow a third path — the way of thinking.
I have meticulously followed this third path by asking if we can begin from a cosmological perspective and find new ways of coexisting that will allow us to transform modern technology. My aim is not to refuse modern technology nor to see it as a cause for uprootedness, but rather to see the irreconcilability of technology and science with tradition as something fruitful, as a gesture I call “tragist.” This is a main subject of my new book Art and Cosmotechnics [published by the University of Minnesota Press in May]. The discrepancy can be fertile soil for new thinking. In The Question Concerning Technology in China, I try to find out how we can deploy Chinese philosophy to enable ourselves to think differently about the contradiction between tradition and modern technology. I hope to derive a Chinese technological thought from an interpretation of Qi and Dao, which should not be understood as mystical concepts but rather as frameworks for thinking about our relationship to the nonhuman — to the 10,000 beings that Lao-Tse talks about — whereby the use of technology must follow Dao, as a philosophy of nature and a philosophy of life.
Since the Renaissance, nature has often been reduced to something solely material and mechanical that can be manipulated through human cunning. Is there a credible Western alternative to such a mechanistic worldview and its associated instrumental rationality?
Romantics and idealists in Kant’s time felt a need for something different from the mechanistic legacy of Descartes. They found a new metaphor in the “organism.” What we have here is an idealization of the organic, which also manifests itself in Kant’s cosmopolitan philosophy. The idea is that if a country misbehaves, it will be punished by losing the respect of other countries. More concretely, it will be subjected to boycotts and embargoes. The interests of trade make international politics into a self-regulating, organic system.
In Recursivity and Contingency, you explicitly read Kant’s organic thinking as an early form of cybernetic theory. Heidegger famously pointed out that cybernetics was about to take over our thinking, or at least the philosophical form of thought that seeks to reflect upon the world and play an active role in history. How could the idea of organic self-regulating systems look so promising and inclusive at first, and yet end up becoming such a threat to philosophy?
Cybernetics was promoted as an attempt to transcend the many contradictions of science. Hans Jonas, a pupil of Heidegger, discusses this in his book The Phenomenon of Life (1966). He said that with cybernetics we have, for the first time, a unified theory that is not dualistic. Instead of thinking in terms of logical contradictions, we think in terms of processes: inputs, outputs, and feedback loops. In the 20th century, organicist thinking was further elaborated in Alfred North Whitehead’s philosophy, but it also became a part of the practical development of technology. Two centuries after Kant wanted to save philosophy from the mechanical by recourse to the organic, this way of thinking has become a part of technology. Using organic thinking, based on technology, to criticize modern technology becomes a fallacy — a misplaced fallacy, as Whitehead would say. When the organic already has merged with technology, cybernetic thinking has come to an end.
Do we end up in a position where a critique of technology functions as part of the same technological system — i.e., where criticism becomes just another piece of input, another feedback loop programmed into the machinery? If we really think cybernetically, when we repair or upgrade a machine, program, or mechanism, are we not also becoming a part of the machinery, an instrument for its improvement?
Yes, according to what we call second-order cybernetics, humans and machines are connected in a recursive movement, which becomes an instance of what Hegel calls a master-slave dialectic.
For Hegel, this dialectic was about power, knowledge, and recognition. The master exploits the slave for work and services. But who is the master and who is the slave here?
Machines are slaves but at the same time masters because human beings have to service them and come to depend on them. Once we look at ourselves as servants of machines, we arrive at what Hegel calls unhappy consciousness. To overcome unhappy consciousness, we need either a Hegelian reconciliation or a Nietzschean will to power. At the moment, however, there is difficulty in gaining recognition from machines unless we hardcode them to unconditionally subordinate themselves to us; this is what has been proposed in so-called “AI-ethics.”
For us to have a real choice with respect to the growing influence of new technologies, we also need to assume that technological evolution isn’t determined — that is, that we could have developed radically different technologies than those we have today. Are we really free to choose and shape tomorrow’s technologies?
History is contingent, which means simply that it could have been otherwise. If the Mongols had conquered the whole world, we would have a different world history, and probably another understanding of history as such. In light of this, it’s important to be open to different futures, to see numerous possibilities.
That the conception we have about our technological future really matters in the present day is something I can illustrate with a personal experience. I recently gave a course in the philosophy of technology in Germany that had 25 students, mostly from the humanities. I asked them: “How do you see the future given the latest developments in artificial intelligence and genetic engineering?” Ninety percent of them said they found our future prospects despair-inducing. The reason is obviously that they have very determined ideas about the future — for instance, that they will be replaced by machines. They will have to upgrade themselves to find a place in society. Personally, I don’t think this needs to be the answer. We shouldn’t give in to such perspectives but rather actively resist them.
Isn’t technological determinism, so ubiquitous in Silicon Valley, just a lot of hype, as if to say: “These disruptions are on their way, so it’s better to get ahead of things than to bother resisting”?
This rhetoric is the reason why all these tech companies employ futurists. The worst is Ray Kurzweil, of course, who says that that the so-called singularity is near and by 2025 we will become immortal. I say it in all my books: we must not give in to this kind of deterministic propaganda from Silicon Valley.
What about Elon Musk’s research program, Neuralink, which aims to connect computers to the brain? What do you say to his argument that humans should upgrade themselves to stay relevant when artificial intelligence starts outperforming us?
It is very vague, if not illogical, to say that we need to be ahead of technology, since if the “we” is humanity, then it is constituted by technology itself. “We” will only find ourselves always being late. Human-machine interface research has existed for a long time, and the desire to perfect the human being (including intelligence, emotion, and lifespan) has been a major motivation for that research, also known as transhumanism. In the past, perfecting the human being was done through education — aesthetic training, physical discipline, intellectual development, et cetera. In Musk’s vision, education will be replaced by a brain-microchip apparatus. This undermines the idea of Enlightenment humanism because microchips, instead of reason, are to mediate between the human mind and its world.
So where do we go from here?
Human beings have created a problematic decision for themselves: “to cut” or “to connect.” Biotechnology is introducing a new eugenics, which is at the core of 21st-century biopolitics. Enhancement of intelligence suggests better chances for employment and success. If you remember the famous Japanese anime Ghost in the Shell (1995), the anarchists who decided to cut were finally raided and transformed into cyborgs.
So, what is the message here — is the general idea that we don’t have a choice to disconnect from these biopolitical networks and impending updates to our bodies and our lives?
Precisely because our idea of “progress” implies a historical movement toward a unified goal, it resists all fragmentation and diversity in evolution. As a consequence, freedom and democracy are placed under threat. On top of this, the ideology of Silicon Valley increasingly sees freedom and democracy as irreconcilable goals. This is the case, in particular, for the investor Peter Thiel: for him, there is no doubt that freedom first and foremost means economic freedom, freedom for multinational corporations. The enormous investments in biotech are a preparation for a time when ethical limitations will be overcome or set aside so that technologies of biological intervention can freely circulate in the market. This is a gigantic force that everyone feels, but nobody knows how it will manifest or how people will react. To me, this is the point where technodiversity becomes important and decisive. If we don’t manage to demonstrate that there are other alternatives, the transhumanist ideology will conquer the whole world.
Do globalized and ubiquitous technologies have to become universal, in the sense of being regarded as true, necessary, and binding?
If you read Henry Kissinger’s article “How the Enlightenment Ends,” which appeared in a 2018 issue of The Atlantic, he discusses how the Enlightenment depended on the new technology of the printed word to spread its philosophy. Kissinger says that we now have technology that spreads itself, but which lacks a philosophy. This leads to the end of the Enlightenment. There is a blind spot in this argument, however — namely that the Enlightenment’s claim to universality persists, even after its end, in the guise of “technology.” In that sense, technology in itself becomes the universal. So, what we have to do is to radicalize Kissinger’s critique by rejecting this understanding of technological development as something given and predetermined — i.e., as something universal.
Still, shouldn’t we be able to accommodate the best of Enlightenment humanism, which educates us to reason and allows us to navigate between ourselves and the world?
Kissinger’s understanding of the Enlightenment is narrowly restricted to what we call the Age of Reason, which consisted in a fight against superstition, injustice, and poverty. The spread of Enlightenment ideals is important to understanding contemporary democracies. My response to Kissinger should not be understood as a claim against the Enlightenment. The problem, rather, is that, in his critique, he contributes to universalizing a dubious mentality. Kissinger’s article is an invitation to conceive of a new form of politics, a new form of technological globalization, and a new world order. Even if Kissinger’s article strikes a critical note, it leads us into a dangerous way of thinking, into a politics racing toward technological singularity, particularly with respect to military technology, surveillance, and administration. In the years to come, everything will revolve around artificial intelligence. China, Russia, and America all strive to be the leader in this field. This development cannot possibly be seen as a continuation of the Enlightenment. Technological singularity is a completely apocalyptic goal.
In this respect, do globalization and the synchronization of technology represent a world-historical level of risk? Are these factors present in the climate crisis, given that Earth’s atmosphere absorbs the by-products of modern technology? Can we call global warming a negative universality, as Dipesh Chakrabarty does, defining humanity by means of a common, grand-scale problem-complex?
What we now call the Anthropocene is a consequence of technological and industrial expansion after World War II. The basic premise for this period of growth was rapid industrialization. Industrialization over the last 70 years is the direct cause of global warming and the dawning of the Anthropocene. But that doesn’t imply that we can or should attempt to remove industry to try to solve our problems. We have become dependent on an industrial form of life, so the only conceivable solution is to change our industries.
As Charles Fourier said in his time, we need to encourage a new industrial spirit. The kind of industrialization we have today is deeply problematic because it is so closely connected with industrial society. Constant abundance implies constant overproduction. If we look at agriculture, this is demonstrated flagrantly by the meat industry. Do we really need to eat this much meat? I don’t think so. When I grew up, I had chicken only once in a while, and I didn’t complain. We all know that the current industrial system is unsustainable.
Even those who promote organic agriculture emphasize that overproduction is harmful due to the development of monoculture and the widespread use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, all of which contribute to the destruction of biological and cultural diversity. Would you consider a variety of local farming techniques to be an example of technodiversity?
Absolutely. If you want to avoid using pesticides, you will soon discover that there are a number of alternative approaches, including rotations of particular combinations of crops. There are also, for instance, specialized techniques of breeding certain insects that will eat harmful insects. This is technodiversity. My suggestion is that we organize a collective project to deliberate and discuss questions concerning technodiversity and the future of philosophy. And this is not a task for a single person — it is a task for a whole community.
Should we conceive of this community as planetary in size? Given that the problems we face are common to all, governance and decision-making regarding the development of technology is part of the destiny of the Earth itself. In your book about cybernetics, you also discuss James Lovelock and his Gaia theory. What is the relationship between your reconsideration of modern technologies and a planetary cybernetics?
Lovelock was a former NASA employee. He had worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory doing research on the atmosphere of Mars. Comparing the lifeless desert environment of Mars to the living Earth inspired him to develop his Gaia theory, which says that our planet works like a cybernetic system stabilizing itself through organic processes. He added another point: through technology we can “wake up Gaia.” Satellites and antennas, for instance, are technical extensions giving Gaia new senses and technological unity. We can start to understand its workings through intelligible feedback mechanisms. The early Lovelock was a cybernetician.
Yet even with all of our satellites and antennae, we have yet to wake up Gaia. We have only just begun the technification of the Earth. Since cybernetics seems to transcend the divide between technology and nature, it is tempting to see it as a universal solution — a new universalism. If we really were to understand the Earth cybernetically, we would need to experiment with it, like a black box, where we find out, through trial and error, what works and what doesn’t. But how many times can we flirt with destroying the Earth in an effort to make that work? If we try to use cybernetic theory to solve environmental problems, we lose sight of the fact that our relationship to nature is integrally related to human sensibility, for which there is little room in cybernetics. When we think of humans and the Earth as a cybernetic system, we have already lost the world.
Because reducing the world is losing the world. This is what Heidegger calls forgetfulness of Being. Forgetfulness is not something that happens because we overlook Being, or because we fail to give Being a place in our understanding of the world, but rather because we think that the whole world is transparent and penetrable to our understanding — we think that everything can be calculated. The first thing we need to do is to reconsider the distinction between what is calculable and what is incalculable. Then we must learn anew how to approach the world as the Unknown.
A Norwegian-language version of this interview is scheduled to appear in the pan-Scandinavian journal Vagant, edited by Audun Lindholm, later this year. We would like to thank Julian Davis for helping to prepare this English version.
Anders Dunker is a Norwegian writer and journalist, currently living in Los Angeles.
from Journal #102 – September 2019: https://www.e-flux.com/journal/102/282271/cybernetics-for-the-twenty-first-century-an-interview-with-philosopher-yuk-hui/
In his latest book, Recursivity and Contingency (2019), the Hong Kong philosopher Yuk Hui argues that recursivity is not merely mechanical repetition. He is interested in “irregularity deviating from rules.” He develops what could be called a neovitalist position, which goes beyond the view, dominant in popular culture today, that there is life inside the robot (or soon will be). In the “organology” Hui proposes, a system mimics growth and variation inside its own technical realm. “Recursivity is characterised,” he writes, “by the looping movement of returning to itself in order to determine itself, while every movement is open to contingency, which in turn determines its singularity.”
Following On the Existence of Digital Objects (2016) and The Question Concerning Technology in China: An Essay in Cosmotechnics (2017), Recursivity and Contingency is Yuk Hui’s third and by far most ambitious book. Divided into five chapters that deal with different eras and thinkers, it starts with Kant’s reflective judgement, which Hui sees as a precursor to recursivity. The book then moves on to Hegel’s reflective logic, which anticipates cybernetics. According to Hui’s organology (and that of Bernard Stiegler), science and technology should be understood as means for returning to life, as paths towards true pluralism, or “multiple cosmotechnics,” to use Hui’s own key concept from his earlier book.
Our understanding of computational possibilities should not be limited to the “disruptive” technologies of Silicon Valley, oriented as they are towards short-term profits. Hui looks beyond this myopic view of technology. His foundational project is to dig into the philosophical foundations of today’s digitality, to examine the episteme that presents itself as a new form of totality (or as a “techno-subconsciousness,” as I have described it elsewhere). How can we think individuation in an age when the online self is surrounded by artificial stupidity and algorithmic exclusion in the name of ruthless profit maximization and state control? Is there a liberated self inside cybernetics?
Geert Lovink: Could you introduce the terms “recursivity” and “contingency”? How do these two terms relate to feedback, which is a central concept in cybernetics? Is it possible to sketch out potential cybernetic technologies that are not based on the principles of the current information revolution?
Yuk Hui: Recursivity is a general term for looping. This is not mere repetition, but rather more like a spiral, where every loop is different as the process moves generally towards an end, whether a closed one or an open one. As a computer science student, I was fascinated by recursion because it is the true spirit of automation: with a few lines of recursive code you can solve a complicated problem that might demand much more code if you tried to solve it in a linear way.
The notion of recursivity represents an epistemological break from the mechanistic worldview that dominated the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, especially Cartesian mechanism. The most well-known treatise on this break is Immanuel Kant’s 1790 Critique of Judgment, which proposes a reflective judgment whose mode of operation is anti-Cartesian, nonlinear, and self-legitimate (i.e., it derives universal rules from the particular instead of being determined by a priori universal laws). Reflective judgment is central to Kant’s understanding of both beauty and nature, which is why the two parts of his book are dedicated to aesthetic judgment and teleological judgment. Departing from Kant, and with a generalized concept of recursivity, I try to analyze the emergence of two lines of thought related to the concept of the organic in the twentieth century: organicism and organology. The former opens towards a philosophy of biology and the latter a philosophy of life. In the book, I attempt to recontextualize organicism and organology within today’s technical reality.
Contingency is central to recursivity. In the mechanical mode of operation, which is built on linear causation, a contingent event may lead to the collapse of the system. For example, machinery may malfunction and cause an industrial catastrophe. But in the recursive mode of operation, contingency is necessary since it enriches the system and allows it to develop. A living organism can absorb contingency and render it valuable. So can today’s machine learning.
GL: Cybernetic concepts such as feedback and the “black box” often gives rise to a simplistic understanding of automation. How can we overcome this?
YH: In the time of Descartes, and later Marx (who described human–machine relations in the factories of nineteenth-century Manchester), automated machines performed homogeneous, repetitive work, like a clock. As Marx wrote, a craftsman-turned-factory-worker failed to cooperate with this kind of machine on both a psychological and somatic level because a machine enclosed within itself is a separated reality. Marx attributed this failure to alienation. In our time, however, automated machines are no longer based on the same epistemology. Rather, they are recursive—capable of integrating contingency into their operations.
This centrality of recursivity to contemporary machinery has been obscured by various ways of describing capitalism, due to the fact that Marxists tend to discuss information technology in much too abstract terms—“immaterial labor,” “free labor,” and so forth. Deleuze tried to make this point in his famous “Postscript on Societies of Control,” but he lacked the vocabulary to do so, and simply borrowed the concept of modulation from the philosopher Gilbert Simondon.
If we want to overcome this failure to appreciate recursivity, we need to understand its significance, and find ways to describe it and analyze it. Martin Heidegger claimed that the emergence of cybernetics in the mid-twentieth century marked the completion and end of philosophy. In response to Heidegger, I recontextualize cybernetics within the history of philosophy, with the aim of exposing both its limits and potential. In order to do this, a new language and new concepts are needed. This is why the book focuses on developing the concepts of recursivity and contingency, which I then use to analyze the theoretical foundations of organicism and organology.
We can distinguish two strains of organicism: a philosophy of nature (exemplified by Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling, Joseph Needham, Joseph Henry Woodger, and Alfred North Whitehead, among others), and a what I call a “mechano-organicism,” which encompasses cybernetics as well as systems theory. Through historical analysis I try to think recursivity beyond cybernetics. This is reflected in how the book is structured: the first two chapters are dedicated to organicism from Kant to cybernetics via Schelling, Hegel, Norbert Wiener, and Kurt Gödel; the third and fourth chapters are dedicated to organology from Kant to Henri Bergson, Georges Canguilhem, Simondon, Bernard Stiegler, and my own reflection on this tradition; the last chapter unfolds a political philosophy that argues against the totalizing tendency of far-too-humanist modern technology.
GL: What is mechanism today, in a world where digitization has taken over? The nineteenth-century mechanistic worldview essentially tried to explain life without life. This has since given way to the “organic” perspective that is dominant today. Why is it nonetheless necessary to distance ourselves from the mechanistic? Is it still a living ideology?
YH: We live in an age of neo-mechanism, in which technical objects are becoming organic. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, Kant wanted to give a new life to philosophy in the wake of mechanism, so he set up a new condition of philosophizing, namely the organic. Being mechanistic doesn’t necessarily mean being related to machines; rather, it refers to machines that are built on linear causality, for example clocks, or thermodynamic machines like the steam engine. When I say that Kant set up the “organic” as the condition of philosophizing, it means that for philosophy to be, it has to be organic. So for post-Kantians like Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel, there is a pronounced organic mode of thinking, ranging from the philosophy of nature to political philosophy. And if philosophy since Kant has mechanism as its counterpart, it seems that today, as you and others have observed, this counterpart has been transformed into an organic being. Our computers, smartphones, and domestic robots are no longer mechanical but are rather becoming organic. I propose this as a new condition of philosophizing. Philosophy has to painfully break away from the self-contentment of organicity, and open up new realms of thinking.
What I wanted to elaborate in this book is not only a history of philosophy and a history of technology, but also what comes after this organic mode of thinking, or a new condition of philosophizing after Kant. Organicism is still regarded as a remedy to industrialism today, even though the actualities of machines and industry in the twenty-first century are no longer the same as they were hundreds of years ago. A false analysis can be misleading and also harmful for the understanding and assessment of our situation today. Philosophy has to negate the totalizing tendency in organic thinking, which is in the process of being implemented in different technical apparatuses, from social credit systems to the “superintelligence.” I think Jean-François Lyotard already reflected on this some forty years ago in his Postmodern Condition, especially in his critique of Niklas Luhmann’s systems theory. One should reread Lyotard carefully. This is why my last chapter is devoted to Lyotard and the “inhumanism” that I want to elaborate as a philosophy of fragmentation.
GL: You write that for a vitalist such as Bergson, artificial systems are mechanical and not real. “Science, when it becomes mechanical, prevents us from comprehending the creativity which is life itself. Life is a recursive process of making in the unmaking.”
In this passage you quote Canguilhem, Foucault’s mentor, who argued in Knowledge of Life from 1966 that we should “rejoin life through science.”
YH: Bergson was a philosopher who opposed the organic to the mechanical. This was due to the historical background that we briefly mentioned before, the nineteenth century being the age of mechanism, physics, and industrialism. In 1907, Bergson published Creative Evolution, which for Canguilhem, together with the journal L’Année Biologique launched in the same year, marked the birth of the philosophy of biology in France. It was also Canguilhem, in his 1947 essay “Machine and Organism,” who proposes that there is a general organology in Bergson’s Creative Evolution. The return to life is a return to an organic whole which renders the mechanical part possible. This organic whole takes the name of “élan vital” in Bergson. Life is a recursive process; it is a constant exchange between the figure and the ground (if we use Gestalt vocabulary) through a process of making and unmaking.
This is also why evolution is creative, since it is fundamentally organological in the sense that evolution is also a process in which human beings are obliged to constantly create new organs (e.g., figures), while not being blinded by them, i.e., by not regarding them as the totality of reality. Mechanism wants to explain life, without realizing that it is only a phase of life, e.g., a figure. Bergson, on the other hand, wants to resituate mechanism in a broader reality—namely life itself. So Bergson is not against science or even mechanism, but rather against science becoming merely mechanical and ignoring life. There is basically no opposition between Bergson and Canguilhem, since both of them reject the proposal to explain life without life. They want to “rejoin life through science.”
GL: Should we no longer be concerned about the uncritical use of biological metaphors in technological and social contexts? I come from a political generation where this was openly questioned. Why do you speak of the “evolution” of systems? What do we gain by speaking of “emergence,” knowing that all these technologies are consciously fabricated by humans, aka male engineers?
YH: Today, when certain dualist logics (e.g., human vs. machine) have been more or less overcome, yet criticism of dualism as such remains essential for various social and political projects—such as overcoming modernity, for example—isn’t this ignorance problematic? How do we reflect critically on all this? That is the aim of my book. What does it mean for one to become cyborg? Donna Haraway has always been an organicist. Her work was significant in the 1990s for overcoming the dichotomy between the mechanical and the organic. However, at that time the organic mode of thinking was already coming to an end. Maybe today we should reconsider all these concepts from the new condition of philosophizing that I tried to explain above and that I elaborate in my book.
To ask a concrete question: Is someone who has an artificial arm and an artificial eye no longer human, since within this person the organic and the mechanistic are no longer opposed? Or from another perspective, is transhumanism, with its belief that the entire body can be replaced and enhanced, actually built upon a linear way of thinking, one that expresses an extreme humanism? On the surface, transhumanism seems to want to get rid of the concept of the human. However, this gesture is only camouflage. Transhumanism is a quintessentially humanist approach to the world, since all is captured within a metaphysical gaze.
How helpful is it to think from the perspective of organology? The term “general organology” was coined by Canguilhem in “Machine and Organism.” But more than anyone else it was Bernard Stiegler who elaborated on the subject. He developed the concept of organology around 2003 while he was the director of IRCAM at the Centre Georges Pompidou, an institute dedicated to experimental music. The term actually comes from music, not Bergson. Notwithstanding the different motivations of Canguilhem, Stiegler, and Bergson, they all point to the idea that human life can only be maintained through the organization of the inorganic, i.e., through the invention and use of tools. Maybe we should pose the question in this way: Will the development of artificial intelligence and machine learning allow us to rejoin life?
Let’s move a step further. What if these machines are no longer simply “organized inorganic” entities, but rather gigantic systems in the making? The evolution from technical objects to technical systems was my focus in On the Existence of Digital Objects, and it is further elaborated in Recursivity and Contingency. These systems are now the organizing agents of human lives and social orders. It seems to me necessary to return to these questions and to extend the concept of organology already developed by anthropologists and philosophers to the analysis of our actual situation.
GL: Towards the end of your new book you ask if recursive thinking will allow us to the relaunch the question of organicism and technodiversity, or if it will only by used by a deterministic system “that is moving toward its own destruction.”
We already know about the reductionist school of thought—it has taken over the world. How about the non-reductionist school of thought? What can people do to become part of it? Is it a movement? What forms of organizations do you envision for it? A Frankfurt School? Bauhaus? What are some contemporary examples that inspire you?
YH: You are absolutely right, this has to be a new movement, or a new school of thought that develops different understandings and practices of technology. In recent years, many people have been talking about a certain revival of the Black Mountain College model, since this new movement will first of all demand a new syllabus and new forms of collectivity, with the aim of transforming the industrial world, like what the Bauhaus wanted to do. For my part, in 2014 I established a research network called “Research Network of Philosophy and Technology.” We have been trying to develop collaborations between different institutions and individuals, but we still have a long way to go. I believe that this has to be a collaborative project. We will need the participation of researchers who share a certain analysis and set of problematics.
GL: Is cybernetics the metaphysics of today? Heidegger may have predicted that cybernetics would replace philosophy, but there is no sign of this so far, at least not in the Western academic world. Philosophy of technology is a marginal subdiscipline at best. Is it time for a radical reform of the academic disciplines?
YH: In Recursivity and Contingency, I try to show why Heidegger was right concerning the end of metaphysics and also why it is necessary to think beyond Heidegger. In 1966, journalists from Der Spiegel asked Heidegger what comes after philosophy. He replied: cybernetics. The organic is, for Heidegger, nothing but the mechanical-technological triumph of modernity over nature. This is why I think the organic mode of thinking, and the fields it has given rise to such as ecology, cybernetics, Gaia theory, etc., are manifestations of this “end.” The question is how to think beyond this end.
In his 1964 essay “The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking,” Heidegger also says that this end means that world civilization will henceforth be based on Western European thought. This is of course a provocative assertion, and I deal with it extensively in my second book, The Question Concerning Technology in China: An Essay in Cosmotechnics.
The concept of cosmotechnics concerns the idea that different cultures and epochs have different ways of thinking about technology. Cosmotechnics is central to Recursivity and Contingency too, since the book tries to reconstruct different understandings of technology, with the aim of developing Heidegger’s concept of “enframing” (Gestell), which he regards as the essence of modern technology. I do not argue that we abandon cybernetics, just recognize both its limits and its potential.
In Recursivity and Contingency there is a dialogue between cybernetics and Chinese thought through the figure of Joseph Needham. You can see the book as a footnote to §17 of The Question Concerning Technology in China, where I discussed Needham’s characterization of Chinese philosophy as organicism. In the latter book, I argue for the existence of a Chinese technological thought that is grounded in a different understanding of the cosmos and the moral. I am glad to see that this proposal has been welcomed in China, Japan, and Korea (largely because of the similarity of thought in those places). Some younger scholars have enthusiastically engaged with it. The Korean translation has already come out, and the Chinese and Japanese translations will come out later in the year.
If we follow what Heidegger says—that world civilization is now completely based on Western European thought—then the end of philosophy is also a call for other ways of thinking. Can the Global South rediscover its own cosmotechnics and technological thought, and thereby give new direction to technological development in general? Will the defeat of Huawei in the recent political struggle between the US and China force the company to develop its own operating system, or will it just develop another version of Android coded in Chinese? This is decisive for a new technological agenda as well as a new geopolitics to come.
You asked about philosophy of technology. I rarely present myself as a philosopher of technology unless I find myself in a situation where I am forced to choose a narrow discipline. Like Stiegler, I tend to believe that technology is the first philosophy. Philosophy has always been conditioned and called forth by the technological conditions of its given epoch.
GL: Just as cybernetics has failed to replace philosophy in the academy, disciplines like “digital studies” and “internet studies” have yet to catch on. At the same time, we’ve seen the rise of “digital humanities,” which has been given the unholy task of innovating a dwindling field of knowledge from the inside. Any humanities approach that is not data-driven is in fact fading away. What’s going on here?
YH: Today, every discipline wants to have artificial intelligence, machine learning, and big data as their research subjects. We see it in sociology, architecture, philosophy, anthropology, media studies, the natural sciences—you name it. But as you suggested, the research questions are often rather narrow. I am not against digital humanities. The problem is that its agenda is far too limited. Two years ago, I was invited for a job interview by a department of digital humanities in England. Afterward I was told, with a certain amount of regret, that they didn’t need a philosopher at the moment.
It seems to me that technology has become the common thread across disparate disciplines. In other words, different disciplines all want to respond to the challenge of technology. Will this bring forth new forms of radical technological thought that aren’t limited to twentieth-century media theory, philosophy of technology, and literature studies? Digital humanities is not yet a global discipline. Maybe as it is adopted in different localities, it should be questioned and redefined. I think this is what researchers from different disciplines have to think together. We have to take this opportunity to rethink the existing disciplines and allow new thoughts to flourish.
GL: The gap between the intense use of digital technology and the fundamental understanding of the transformations caused by these technologies is growing by the day. What would you suggest to bridge this gap? I don’t see this happening in Europe, a continent that is rapidly closing in on itself, becoming more and more regressive. Should we pin our hopes for new technological thinking on Asia? Or should we perhaps envision distributed networks of knowledge production?
YH: We need to rethink the education system and the existing divisions of disciplines that have been adopted in the past several decades. It is probably not possible to bridge the gap between already existing disciplines, since when you attempt to bridge a gap, this gap is at the same time maintained. One possibility is to create a new discipline in which this gap no longer exists.
I spent the best time of my youth studying and working in England, France, and Germany. Europe is deep in my heart, but I am afraid that Europe will be impoverished by its increasing racism and conservatism. I wouldn’t want to say that new technological thought will necessarily come out of Asia instead of Europe, but I do believe that such thought can only emerge out of the incompatibility between systems of thought, since it is the incompatibility between them that leads to the individuation of thinking itself, avoiding both subordination and domination. However, I have increasing doubts if Europe is ready for this. It seems to me of ultimate importance to rearticulate the relation between philosophy, technology, and geopolitics today, which I am afraid remains largely unthought.
Yuk Hui is a philosopher based in Berlin. He is the author of three monographs: On the Existence of Digital Objects (Univ. of Minessota Press, 2016), The Question Concerning Technology in China: An Essay in Cosmotechnics (MIT Press, 2016), and Recursivity and Contingency (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019).
Geert Lovink is a Dutch media theorist and internet critic. Since 2004 he has led the Institute of Network Cultures. His latest book is Sad by Design (Pluto Press, 2019).
Yuk Hui has just conducted an interview with The Paper on sensitivity in the era of AI. Interview is in Chinese only, for more information, please refer to site of The Paper: http://www.thepaper.cn/newsDetail_forward_2063536
Interview by Giovanni Menegalle
Photography by Hudson Hayden
Originally from Tank Magazine Issue 74: https://tankmagazine.com/issue-74/features/yuk-hui/
Yuk Hui has emerged as one of the foremost contemporary theorists on digital technology, drawing academic and non-specialist audiences from Berlin to Hangzhou. His two recent books, On the Existence of Digital Objects and The Question Concerning Technology in China, both seek ways to recover technology’s meaning and potential, whether in the seemingly depersonalised milieu of computer code or through a cosmological understanding of technology across the Chinese and European traditions. The question of how humans can affect such a recovery within a bio-technical environment that is global in scale yet fragmented in its cultural contents and representations is central to his concept of “cosmotechnics”. In this interview, Yuk discusses his background, work and ideas, laying multiple trails for a planetary politics of the future.
Giovanni Menegalle Could you start by outlining your intellectual trajectory? I’m thinking in particular of two important axes in your work: the relationship between philosophy and technics; and the relationship between the European and Chinese philosophical traditions. Do you think the most transformative possibilities for thought today lie at the point of intersection of these two axes?
Yuk Hui I first studied computer engineering in Hong Kong with a focus on AI before I went on to study philosophy in Europe. The work of Heidegger, especially what is known as Heideggerian AI, was a key to this transition. At the beginning, I wanted to prepare a thesis on Heidegger, but I changed my plan in 2008 after encountering Bernard Stiegler. He opened a new horizon for me – how to practice philosophy with and through technology. It was also a period of confusion and excitement, since such a practice demands constant creations, searching for convergences and reformulating conceptual schemas. So one is in constant negotiation between the preciseness of concepts and the concreteness of evidence. There aren’t many conventions one can follow, and it turns out to be a method in its own right, a modus operandi.
It is in the same spirit that I want to conduct a new dialogue between European and Chinese philosophy through the question of technology, since I am convinced that we will have to develop a new concept of world history and cosmopolitanism after hundreds of years of modernisation, as a response to the Anthropocene.
GM Does technological change expose philosophy to the impossibility of its own closure, and so help open up different philosophical traditions to one another? There is a kind of reflexive moment, in which the cultural and semantic limits of a particular philosophical tradition could be challenged by a new technological reality. But there could also be a moment of contamination across different philosophical traditions – an exchange in which the very openness of technics comes to be re-articulated in an instance of conceptual transformation or invention. To turn the question around: do you think that what is at stake in these transformational encounters is the very technicity of philosophy, the operational universality
of philosophical concepts one could say?
YH I interpret your question as what would be the condition of doing philosophy? And especially what is the condition of doing it today?
GM I mean that philosophy is by definition oriented towards the idea of universality, and that this is what is at stake in its encounter with technics. As Husserl says, philosophy is a “universal task”, even if this universality remains infinitely deferred – a regulative idea. This is necessary for philosophy, as well as the sciences and technology, all of which, formally speaking, depend on a field of universal intelligibility. In thinking about the relationship between philosophy and technics, as well as that between different philosophical traditions, this seems an absolutely central problem. Take for example Heidegger, who rejects the modern reduction of philosophy to an objective, techno-scientific “world-picture.” He says, “science does not think.” But then, what is thinking and what remains of philosophy for him after that? A mytho-poetic practice of “saying” something that is beyond language and thought, against their technicisation. And all this through a reassertion of the cultural, historical, and semantic specificities of the German or Ancient Greek language. I think this is a trap, and it’s why I’m very interested in how you reconcile this problem in your work. Perhaps the way out is to approach technology as embodying schemas of infinite repetition (logical, mathematical, mechanical, chemical, et cetera), as instances of concretised thought which bring philosophy to reflect on its own universal horizons with and through technics, as you just talked about. Bachelard said that philosophy in the 20th century can no longer regard itself as “preceding” science and technology, but must instead open itself up to them. What I’m wondering is whether, both in its encounter with technology and via a dialogue across different traditions, philosophy in the 21st century must go further and confront the technicity of its own concepts, as schemas of infinite repetition that can be combined, transformed, reassembled…
YH You said that “philosophy is by definition oriented towards the idea of universality” – you are right, but you are talking about the European tradition. François Jullien has shown in his book On the Universal: The Uniform, the Common and Dialogue between Cultures, the necessity of reconsidering the concept of universality and developing a different political plan based on the common. It is true that in Europe the concept of the universal, given a priori, is the guarantee of a political project. In fact, this universality is only guaranteed by the fact that it is a priori. Not to mention the Greeks and the Romans. Just look at Kant, in his “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose”, the inwardly universal history and externally “perfect state constitution” is the “completion of a hidden plan of nature”. The teleology of nature conceals an a priori, which can only be known through an analogy with the reflective judgement, which Kant elaborated in the second book of the Critique of Judgement. However, this universality reveals a certain negativity in the confrontation with non-European cultures. And if you are right in describing the role of technology in the dialogues between different philosophies, you are actually admitting that there is a process of “universalisation” through “universal technology”. If Bachelard is right, as you invoke him here, that philosophy is closely related to phenomenotechnics, since a phenomenon is always produced by a certain apparatus and our knowledge is mediated by such apparatus, then the “universal” is put into question again; here we will also have to recognise that it is also through the apparatus that knowledge can be transmitted and universalised. And it is the question of universalisation that interests me and against which I propose to start with differences in order to arrive at the same – but not to start with the same to conquer the differences.
For sure, one can always do historical studies on how philosophical thoughts migrate, transfer, contaminate – that is very important. But, to philosophise has another meaning. Heidegger, in his Letter on “Humanism” (1947), says that “people don’t think anymore, they occupy themselves with philosophy”. What Heidegger means here by thinking is the attempt to think according to new historical conditions. I think we will have to recognise the fact that, firstly, technological development has reached such a stage that it produces a technological consciousness, in contrast to the technological unconsciousness of the modern. This technological consciousness is named in different ways, for example posthuman, transhuman et cetera, though these terms are very different from one another. Secondly, philosophy, which owes its root to the Greek language, becomes global today, but what does it mean to become global? Such becoming-global has been possible only because of technological globalisation.
I have the impression that if non-European philosophies have become “obsolete”, it is not simply because of imperialism, but more fundamentally because they are not able to deal with the question of technology, therefore one is easily trapped in simple oppositions. Non-European philosophies cannot be reduced to European philosophy, although such a “reduction” or search for equivalence, or maybe we can say universalisation, has been the project of modernity, either consciously or unconsciously among philosophers. For example, towards the end of the 19th century, some Chinese philosophers were looking for an equivalence between the concept of ether and the Confucian notion of benevolence or rén. However, today it is important for us to mobilise this “irreducibility” in order to go much further, if not to create a new philosophical situation.
Back to these two conditions, they are not separated if we follow Heidegger here: since technology is for him the product of Western metaphysics, it indicates the end or fulfilment of metaphysics. Heidegger didn’t think of technology in terms of support – even though he had the concept of facticity – in the way Derrida and Stiegler have argued and what you have just formulated. And Heidegger doesn’t think with science and technology; as you pointed out, he says “science does not think”, since science involves a reduction to calculability, while thinking and poetry search for the unknown or Unbekannte, the incalculable. And you are right that technology, and primarily writing, constitutes the traces and conditions of dialogues between philosophical systems. However, we should be careful not to jump too quickly to any conclusion that technology is operationally universal, since we still have to ask: is the relation between technology and philosophy the same in the West and in China? What Heidegger says in his “black notebooks”, that technology is not universal but international, is very intriguing. It is true that there is a certain “universality” in the definition of technology, for example, when André Leroi-Gourhan says that the process of hominisation entails exteriorisation of memory and liberation of organ functions, or as you said, with laws of nature or mathematical axioms, but this is not yet sufficient. For this question, we can put forward a Kantian antinomy: 1) technology is anthropologically universal, insofar as it is understood as exteriorisation of memory and liberation of organ functions, as Leroi-Gourhan defines it; 2) technology is not anthropologically universal, because it is conditioned and constrained by particular cosmologies. The spirit of the Kantian antinomy is to relativise the absoluteness of a thesis, not denouncing it as false but showing it as insufficient. My last book, The Question Concerning Technology in China, develops this antinomy through a historical study of technological thought in China. In it I propose that it is possible to follow the historical dynamic of the relation between qi (meaning utensil) and dao, so as to conceive of a Chinese cosmotechnics which cannot be explained by either the Greek notion of technē or modern technology.
GM In the same book you argue that the Anthropocene heralds a collapse of the distinction between geological time and human time. How does the notion of a plural cosmotechnics intervene within this conjuncture?
YH I understand the Anthropocene as an intensive synchronisation and amplification brought about by industrialisation and its technological globalisation, which underlies such a process of modernisation. The Anthropocene appears, and is described by many authors, as a closure, a crisis of modernity, an ecological mutation for Bruno Latour and the Entropocene for Bernard Stiegler. Latour and his colleagues have been talking about “resetting modernity” and intend to extend such a project outside of Europe to other cultures. He is right that it is not possible to resolve such a crisis without profound dialogues with non-European thought. By modernity I understand a methodological and epistemological rupture that took place in the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe. This form of knowledge was globalised as a consequence of colonisation and later by “globalisation”. If we want to redirect this process of modernisation, we will have to suspend this “tendency” enforced by the process of universalisation of epistemology inherited from modernity, which is described by the Portuguese sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos as an “epistemicide”. Anthropologists such as Philippe Descola, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro and others have been talking about multinaturalism by reaffirming the multiple cosmologies and variant natures in non-European cultures, and if for Kant, nature is the “guarantee of perpetual peace”, the concept of multinaturalism suggests a new cosmopolitics. However, returning to nature is not sufficient. It seems to be a fashion now that to be a leftist intellectual, you have to subscribe to an indigenous ontology. But it is also risky if not dangerous, since it is the germen of proto-nationalism and proto-fascism. For me the “rediscovery” of cosmotechnics is not a gesture of “homecoming” – not at all – it is the suggestion that every culture needs to develop its history of cosmotechnics. The Question Concerning Technology in China is such an exercise.
To give cultures new life in order to reappropriate modern technology; to redirect the process of modernisation by suspending such an entropic becoming, in Stiegler’s sense. Such a reorientation (in contradistinction to the disorientation of the postmodern) will require several generations to complete, but I am convinced it is something we will have to try.
GM The titles of your two books reference Gilbert Simondon’s 1958 On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects and Heidegger’s 1954 The Question Concerning Technology. Both those texts were responses to a very specific political and ideological context: the Cold War, the rise of cybernetic technologies, post-war European technocracy. How is their thinking developed in your work?
YH I think that we should read these texts by contextualising them historically. Both Simondon and Heidegger witnessed the rapid development of new telecommunication technologies. Heidegger often talks of radio, television, telegraphy, atomic bombs, et cetera, and Simondon’s supplementary thesis on technical objects is full of examples of electronic devices used in communication, for example, diode, triode, tetrode, pentode and transductor. Heidegger and Simondon both want to give a new role to technics. Simondon speaks about reconciling culture and technics, and these new technical objects for him are endowed with philosophical potentials; while for Heidegger, these technical objects claim to reduce distances, but they blind us from seeing what is nearest, so he reconstructs a parallel history between modern technology and metaphysics. Simondon was inspired by cybernetics, and he wanted to develop something even more radical, namely, a universal cybernetics, which would allow him to overcome the culture/technics antagonism. Heidegger, by contrast, was critical of cybernetics, since for him, as he famously claimed, the beginning of cybernetics is the end of metaphysics. This obliges him to propose a new thinking beyond all forms of calculative thought. This confrontation between Simondon and Heidegger is very important for my work, and I try to create a dialogue between them through such confrontations since there are clearly some resonances. We should also read them as transitional figures from the standpoint of our current technological condition, that of the digital, and give new meanings to their work. In my book on digital objects, I extend Simondon’s analysis of technical objects to digital objects and suggest adding a more speculative dimension to it, looking at the individuation of digital and technical objects, which draws very much from Heidegger’s analysis of signs and world. In my book on cosmotechnics, this concept is itself a further development of the third part of On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects, where Simondon talks about the bifurcation of an original magical phase into technics and religion, and beyond that into theoretical and practical phases respectively. I use the concept of cosmotechnics to negotiate with Heidegger’s famous 1949 lecture, later published as The Question Concerning Technology.
GM Is there a danger that by focussing on the digital, the form of technical relation you are trying to describe becomes reduced to a purely logical relation devoid of subjective mediation? Maurizio Lazzarato, following the work of Félix Guattari, has spoken of “asignifying semiotics” to describe the stratum of non-conscious cybernetic processes which today increasingly constitute the algorithmic and commercial infrastructure of human life. How do we reactivate our technicity, as Simondon demands, in the face of these asignifying processes? What forms of collective individuation can emerge that would avoid reincorporation into the immanent logic of these systems?
YH I don’t think that one should oppose subjectivity to techno-logos, but rather it is necessary to understand that the techno-logos is at the same time the condition of struggle and something to be overcome. The opposition between subjectivity and the “asignifying semiotics” is a symptomatic reading of Marx’s opposition between living labour and dead labour, namely, fixed capital. But this opposition doesn’t lead us too far, precisely because the forms of fixed capital are changing. For example, they are moving away from factories to become “environmental”, manifested in smart cities, smart homes, smart devices, and therefore we need to access them from new perspectives on labour, production, consumption. This will demand a much more elaborated concept than the one of “asignifying semiotics” coined by Guattari. You know that when Guattari was talking about the “asignifying”, he refers precisely to the hypertext. In Chaosmosis, he speaks of “the superlinearity of a-signifying substances of expression, where the signifier loses its despotism. The informational lines of hypertexts can recover a certain dynamic polymorphism and work in direct contact with referent Universes which are in no way linear and, what is more, tend to escape a logic of spatialised sets”. I have the impression that towards the end of the 20th century, theorists were eager to find the transcendental of technology, to defend its ontological dignity and emancipatory potential; while following the digital acceleration of the first decade of the 21st century, people have been overtaken by algorithmic governmentality and conquered by technological pessimism. However, the battlefield has changed and new strategies have to be developed, which can only be revealed when we understand these technologies concretely and historically.
Hypertext is not sufficient to describe the “asignifying semiotics” today. In my book on the existence of digital objects, I analysed this history from GML to HTML, 1.0 to 5.0, to XML/XHTML, and to web ontologies, and how this history corresponds to the concretisation of a technological system as outlined by Jacques Ellul. I also try to analyse the existence of digital objects in terms of both discursive relations and existential relations, with the latter opening the question of the world – in Heidegger’s sense – of digital objects. Maybe we can say logic belongs to discursive relations. Digital objects cannot be reduced to mere discursive relations, but without discursive relations, they are nothing. That is why I have mobilised Husserl against Frege to develop the political consequences by distinguishing between two forms of logic, intentional logic and extensional logic, since if we follow Frege’s formal logic, which is the foundation of first order logic, then it is true that we cannot talk about operation in Simondon’s sense and therefore subjectivity, which is a central concern of Husserl. In his famous Sense and Reference, Frege wrote that because grasping and judging “is a mental (seelisches) event, we do not have to care about it. It is enough that we can grasp thoughts and acknowledge their truth; how this might happen is another question.” We can see here that the formalisation of digital objects becomes a true philosophical debate, and not only a question regarding classification as many science and technology researchers have claimed.
I hope that the relational analysis of the digital object will be able to open us to a new analysis of collective individuation. Collective individuation can only be achieved by working with “asignifying semiotics” to fight against the dominant industrial models. This was a project that I did with the computer scientist Harry Halpin within Bernard Stiegler’s Institute for Research and Innovation between 2012 and 2013.(1) There we proposed an alternative model of a social network based on the notion of group, which I include as a closing example in my book on digital objects. The term “collective individuation” is from Simondon, and for him, individuation is always at the same time psychic and collective. What Paolo Virno says in A Grammar of the Multitude, that collective individuation is a “second degree of individuation”, is a rather problematic thesis.(2) If Simondon has to emphasise that individuation is at the same time psychic and collective, it is because he wants to refuse that there is a first degree of individuation – the individual – passing to a second degree, the collective. Simondon’s concept of individuation was very much inspired by the “group dynamics” developed by Kurt Lewin, as well as sociometry founded by Jacob Moreno, and here we must recognise that Moreno’s sociometry is the foundation of today’s social networks, of which Facebook is exemplary. They are fundamentally based on the idea that individuals are social atoms – first degree – and a collective is a collection of such atoms, or second degree.
It is possible to reject these industrial models with alternatives developed from other epistemologies and ontologies, and this is not repurposing like using Facebook to organise social events, it is what I prefer to call reappropriation of technology. It is in this sense that I want to think about struggle.
In recent years, I’ve continued to work with some computer scientists on conceptual frameworks for social networks based on groups instead of individuals – the recommendation system, for example.(3)We must go beyond this opposition between dead labour and living labour, and also beyond the subsumption of dead labour as a product of living labour, which reduces the question of struggle to humanist critique. Instead, it is necessary, I think, to conceive the struggle with and beyond machines.
Mitya Lebedev from the Russian cultural platfrom COLTA interviewed Yuk Hui: Юк Хуэй: «Технологии должны стать частью нас, функцией разума», in which Yuk Hui discussed about AI, Social Networks, Modernity and Aleksander Dugin. You can check out the interview at here.
Юк Хуэй: «Технологии должны стать частью нас, функцией разума»
Гонконгский философ о том, как нам подружить технологию и миф, о грядущей борьбе государств за цифровую гегемонию и о соцсетях нового типа
В рамках IV Уральской индустриальной биеннале на прошлой неделе прошел симпозиум, посвященный новой грамотности в эпоху высоких технологий. Митя Лебедев поговорил уже для Кольты с его участниками Гертом Ловинком и Львом Мановичем.
На очереди — Юк Хуэй, гонконгский философ технологии, компьютерный инженер и автор книг «On the Existence of Digital Objects» и «The Question Concerning Technology in China», ученик и последователь знаменитого французского философа техники Бернара Стиглера, вместе с которым Юк работает сейчас над альтернативной архитектурой социальных сетей.
— Ваша работа продолжает философскую традицию XX века, которая пытается преодолеть антагонистическое отношение к технологиям. При этом живем мы в мире, где технологии стали главной культурной доминантой.
— Представление о том, что техника — это деструктивная сила, которая насилует матушку-природу, существует с XVIII века. С другой стороны, мы имеем дело с повсеместно господствующей утилитарной концепцией технологий, в которой технологические объекты всегда определяются исключительно их функционалом. В культуре это выражается, например, в оценке технологий как чего-то рабского: скажем, роботы — это всегда рабы. Сейчас эта мысль постоянно воспроизводится в новейших дискуссиях об автоматизации: вот роботы будут работать за нас 24 часа в сутки, в отличие от людей, ни на что не жалуясь. Но проблема состоит в том, что, когда мы рассматриваем технологии таким образом, мы продолжаем существовать в чужом мире. Именно это Маркс называет отчуждением, от которого мы не в силах избавиться.
— Тексты Кристиана Фукса и Ника Дайер-Уизефорда описывают, как цифровые технологии формируют армию киберпролетариата, чьи когнитивные способности капитализируются сетевой экономикой. Все эти фриланс-программисты, контент-модераторы, клик-фермеры в Китае, занятые производством лайков за гроши, и кто только не.
— Верно. В индустриальную эпоху человек должен был брать сырье, ставить его на конвейер и синхронизироваться потом с производственным процессом. И это описанное Марксом отчуждение не ушло в прошлое: многие высокотехнологичные фабрики в Китае работают по такому же принципу. Рабочие не могут наделить эту деятельность смыслом, а это приводит к росту суицидов.
Если мы — только операторы, если мы знаем, что при загорании зеленой лампочки нам нужно нажать конкретную кнопку, мы отрезаны от процесса изобретения и производства, то есть отчуждены. Еще в индустриальную эпоху рабочим всегда противостояли обладатели технического знания, ученые и инженеры, способные разработать новую машину. Но эта поляризация происходит от неверного понимания, что такое техника. Потому что знание машины — это тоже способ продолжить процесс ее изобретения.
Что касается марксистской критики цифрового труда, то она оправданна, но часто проблематична. Если Маркс смотрит на отчуждение как политэконом, то Жильбер Симондон (французский философ, создатель философии техники. — Ред.) говорит нам, что в корне всего — именно проблема самого понимания техники. Мы не сможем разобраться с фундаментальным вопросом отношений между человеком и машиной до тех пор, пока машина будет редуцирована до экономической категории. Нам нужно думать о значении, о смысле этой деятельности человека.
С приходом цифровых технологий отчасти происходит открытие технического знания «простым пользователям». Например, мы сами изучаем какой-нибудь фотошоп. Но эти инструменты становятся тоже все более абсурдными и консьюмеристскими. Новый айфон устареет за год, в Германии дешевле купить себе новый принтер, чем починить старый. Шумпетер (австро-американский экономист, исследователь капитализма. — Ред.) называл такие процессы «созидательным разрушением», то есть метаболизмом капитализма, которому для собственного выживания всегда необходимо что-то уничтожать.
— Так называемый капитализм платформ, то есть централизация соцсетей вокруг международных гигантов типа Facebook или Twitter, которые автоматически уничтожают более мелкие сетевые возможности, — это новый виток такого созидательного разрушения?
— Да, то, что сегодня называется капитализмом платформ, — это пример такого внутреннего кризиса капитализма, который порождает новые экономические модели и уничтожает старые. Сидя на Фейсбуке, многие из нас в принципе не переходят на другие сайты. Airbnb — крупнейшая отельная сеть без отелей, Uber — крупнейший оператор такси без таксопарка, и обе компании выводят из игры привычные индустрии с целью производства капитала.
А новым двигателем этой модели являются данные. Недавно The Economist вышел с обложкой про то, что главный источник энергии — уже не нефть, а именно данные. И платформы систематично превращают все формы социального в товар. Помимо прочего это приводит к тому, что мы оказываемся внутри того, что Жиль Делез называет «обществом контроля». Каждый индивид — это источник производства данных, что приводит к сочетанию двух как бы противоположных феноменов: ощущения свободы в цифровой системе и глобальной слежки. На Фейсбуке вроде бы можно делать почти что угодно, но эта деятельность всегда находится под контролем.
— При этом глобализация идет отнюдь не плавно. Мы видим, как страны вроде России и Китая продолжают использовать риторику национального суверенитета, когда дело касается технологий. Один из свежих примеров — государственная стратегия развития искусственного интеллекта в Китае и в России.
— Если мы вспомним Карла Шмитта, то у него суверенитет всегда был вопросом территории. Сегодня цифровые технологии меняют эту ситуацию, но сложно сказать — насколько. Великий китайский фаервол был попыткой создать суверенитет внутри глобального киберпространства. Но Китай это сделал просто потому, что без фаервола не было бы AliBaba, WeChat и все использовали бы Facebook вместо Baidoo. Это было сохранением суверенитета как бизнес-инкубатора для китайской индустрии.
Или возьмем Трампа, который утверждает, что хочет вернуть в Америку производство. Единственный способ это сделать — развитие автоматизации. Если Штаты полностью автоматизируют производство, рабочие места в Китай не уйдут, потому что производить товары будет дешевле в Америке, это простая экономическая идея. Так что вопрос национального суверенитета сегодня — это действительно вопрос технологической конкуренции. И в следующую декаду мы увидим масштабную технологическую конкуренцию между национальными государствами. Ее зачатки видны и сегодня: та же упомянутая стратегия развития искусственного интеллекта.
— Ваш учитель — философ Бернар Стиглер постоянно говорит о том, что новая технологическая реальность, несмотря на свой мощнейший потенциал, стала эпохой глупости: потребления и потери культурных смыслов, преемственности. При этом технологический дискурс всегда вертится вокруг понятия smart: «умные» города, «умные» дома, «умные» тостеры.
— В Китае каждый город хочет быть «умным», существует специальная госпрограмма по развитию «умных» городов. В Корее этого еще больше. Там пути в метро отделены от платформы гигантской дверью, которая на деле оказывается гигантским экраном, на котором, пока ты ждешь поезда, ты можешь заказать себе с помощью смартфона еду из супермаркета, которая будет ждать тебя дома. Недавно мы с японским писателем и философом Хироки Адзумой сидели в кафе, где люди заказывают со смартфона себе суши, потом к тебе подъезжает тележка с едой, что упраздняет роль официанта. Под «умом» всегда подразумевается автоматизация сервисной экономики или развитие алгоритмических предсказаний, которые тоже призваны умерить или улучшить потребление. И как раз поэтому «умные» технологии — часть сегодняшней глупости. Их огромный потенциал сводится к консьюмеризму, который понимается как единственный вариант их использования. Ну, и конечно, этот сценарий глубже загоняет нас в общество контроля.
— Давайте поговорим о том, как должно меняться образование. Сегодня крупные корпорации из Силиконовой долины вкладываются в публичное образование гораздо активнее, чем прежде.
— Да, например, Google University, который, по сути, готовит разработчиков для Google, учит использованию API и всевозможных сервисов компании. А альтернативой должны стать программы, в которых сочетаются инженерия и гуманитарные науки. Это было бы обновленным проектом того, что называется liberal arts. Если сегодня вы идете в гуманитарный институт, вы не получаете никакого технического знания, вы изучаете классику, историю, психологию, философию и так далее. С другой стороны, когда я был в инженерной школе, мы изучали только прикладные вопросы: инженерия и законодательство, инженерия и экономика. Но этого недостаточно для развития критического мышления о технологиях. Мы должны предложить гораздо более широкий концепт технического знания и развивать педагогическую парадигму, в которой техническое знание — это не просто знание юзера. Технологическое знание не может быть исключительно рациональным. В противном случае мы продолжим жить в ситуации, когда гуманитарные и технические науки разделены.
— В прошлом году издательство Urbanomic выпустило вашу книгу «The Question Concerning Technology in China», в которой вы развиваете концепцию космотехники. Что это за идея и как технологии связаны с представлениями о космосе?
— Концепция космотехники предполагает, что мы создаем не какой-то однородный тип технологий, а разные культуры присваивают, а потом развивают технологии в соответствии со своим представлением о космосе и человеке. Например, в Китае самобытное развитие техники остановилось в XVI веке, за этим последовали только заимствования европейских технологий. Это говорит о том, что мы имеем дело с двумя разными концептами техники: у нас разные эпистемологии и эпистемы, и я назвал эти эпистемы космотехникой.
Сегодня мы живем в антропоцене, а антропоцен — это реализация смерти космоса как цельной картины мира и места человека в нем. Раньше представления о космосе основывались на мифах, но сегодня картина мира математизирована. Вместо мифа мы имеем дело с калькуляцией, а отношения с космосом заменены желанием его исследовать. Причем это желание объяснить не так просто. Сначала оно работало как технологическое бессознательное, давшее старт колонизации мира, а потом и колонизации космоса, но сейчас оно стало осознанным, рационализированным. Программы исследования космоса сегодня подразумевают, что Земля — это искусственная планета, а космос — это такая гигантская кибернетическая система, механизированная, контролируемая по кибернетическому принципу обратной связи.
В основе этих идей лежит представление о технологии гомогенного характера. Когда я говорил о суверенитете, то уже упомянул, что нас ожидает серьезная технологическая конкуренция между странами. Но вопрос в том, какие технологии будут развиты. Скорее всего, это будет гомогенный тип технологий: искусственный интеллект, освоение космоса и т.д. Мы движемся по направлению к воображаемой технологической сингулярности и таким образом неизбежно оказываемся в деполитизирующей парадигме трансгуманизма. Апологеты технологической акселерации вроде Питера Тиля и Илона Маска ратуют за бесконтрольное развитие технологий и завязанной на них экономики. Для них политика с ее государственными комитетами по этике — это только тормоз для такого развития.
— Российского читателя вашей книги о технологиях в Китае наверняка заинтересует внимание к работам Александра Дугина.
— Дугин интересен тем, что он — хайдеггерианец, но при этом грустный хайдеггерианец. В нем присутствует хайдеггерианский экзистенциальный пессимизм, и в качестве антидота он пытается переизобрести русскую традицию в отрыве от современных технологий. Для Хайдеггера, как мы помним, технологии — это источник «неукорененности» культуры. В своих «Черных тетрадях» он пишет, что европейцы стали туристами. В таком случае весь процесс модернизации — это устранение культурных корней. Дугин же предлагает переизобретение русской традиции как эпистемы. Вообще-то в этой идее есть смысл, но проблема Дугина в том, что он не может примирить современную технологию и традицию и поэтому просто действует в русле обычного реакционного традиционализма. А нам нужно избегать и метафизического фашизма с традиционализмом по типу Дугина, и гомогенного развития технологий в сторону сингулярности. Для этого необходимы новая концепция техники и новая технологическая культурная программа. Проблема в том, что мир стал слишком однородным и мы поэтому не можем создать себе образ будущего.
Вообще я не традиционалист, хотя и ценю множество традиций. Но традиции мы должны освободить от национализма и одного из его следствий — наживающихся на традициях культурных индустрий. В Китае, например, есть деревни со своим традиционным промыслом, но эти регионы превращаются в гомогенные индустриальные зоны, которые производят единственно этот продукт. Десубстанциализация традиций — это превращение их в техническую деятельность в ином режиме, нежели простое использование. У древних технологическая активность — например, рыбалка — всегда была подчинена картине мира с ее символами и связью с природой. Она была формой чувственности, особого отношения к космосу. В XVIII веке эта модель разрушается, и сегодня нам нужно присвоить себе обратно современные технологии, сделать их осмысленной частью более цельной картины мира. Так мы сможем сохранить культурную преемственность без ухода в традиционализм.
— Когда вы говорите о «присвоении» современных технологий, то в каких все-таки терминах мы должны это понимать? Очевидно, что это политическая, но при этом не марксистско-ленинистская программа.
— «Присвоение» я понимаю как принятие современных технологий, чтобы сделать их функцией нас самих и, таким образом, функцией разума. Это проект, отличающийся и от простой негативной критики технологий, и от идеи использования их с новой целью, когда, например, Фейсбук используют для продвижения социальных проектов. Присвоение в данном случае — это оспаривание представления о том, что индустриальные технологии — единственные возможные, а не один из многих способов применения технических знаний.
Скажем, тот же Фейсбук — это только одна модель построения социальных отношений на основе протокола Open Graph и социометрии Якоба Морено, которая рассматривает общество как собрание изолированных индивидов-атомов. Но индивид — это всегда еще часть коллектива. Именно поэтому мы с Бернаром Стиглером и Гарри Гальпином пытаемся создать новую модель социальной сети, которая отражала бы другую структуру социальных отношений. Этот проект организован при парижском Центре Помпиду и спонсируется американским Офисом военно-морского исследования. В отличие от Фейсбука, главной социальной единицей в этой новой модели соцсети выступает не индивидуальный пользователь, а группа. Пользователь получает возможность использовать все функции сети, как только вступает в группу. Но это не похоже на группы в Фейсбуке, последние работают по тем же функциям, что и индивидуальные страницы, это не коллаборативные пространства. Мы стараемся в эти группы нового типа интегрировать такие инструменты, как коллективное письмо (похожее по типу на Hackpad) и коллаборативный тегинг для организации информации, и много других инструментов, которые можно бесконечно развивать в зависимости от области их применения. Такая сеть гораздо лучше Фейсбука подходит для производства нового знания и работы над ним, скажем, для совместного изучения Хайдеггера в университете. Это совсем другая эпистемология. Здесь дизайн и технологии становятся политической программой, они проблематизируют формы социальности; в противном случае они превращаются просто в средства капитализации.
The latest issue of Parrhesia just published an interview titled “For a Philosophy of Technology in China” by Geert Lovink with Yuk Hui. You can check the complete interview as PDF at here.
In the latest in the HKRB Interview series with philosophers, Jordan Skinner asks internationally renowned technology theorist Yuk Hui about modernity, AI, the future and the digital objects we live with today.
Jordan Skinner: I wanted to begin my first question by considering the title of your first book, On the Existence of Digital Objects, which I understand came from your PhD dissertation with Bernard Stiegler and Matt Fuller at Goldsmiths University. Can you begin by exposing some of the philosophical influences behind this book?
Yuk Hui: When I started doing my research a decade ago, there was little discussion on digital objects, while there was a lot of discussion on object-oriented philosophy culminating in 2007 after the Speculative Realism conference in Goldsmiths. Graham Harman’s reading of Heidegger’s ready-to-hand was fascinating for me at that time, partly because I have been reading Heidegger since I studied Artificial Intelligence during my undergraduate years, and the ready-to-hand was a watershed between the weak (classical Cartesian) AI and the strong AI in the sense explained by Hubert Dreyfus.
But later, I started finding it problematic: firstly regarding everything as tool-being is an ontological statement and it ignores the technical-historical question, which makes OOO unable to answer the challenge of Heidegger in his 1953 lecture “The Question Concerning Technology”; secondly I developed an opposite reading of Heidegger from Harman, since he has to deny the relations of the Zuhandene in favour of his concept of withdraw, while for me it was the moment where a multiplicity of relation manifests and it was evident to me when we read Heidegger’s first division of Being and Time carefully and taking his project as a whole. Therefore, I would like to emphasize on the “existence” of digital objects, whose technical-historical question has been buried in the fascination with the general concept of objects, which are always only about chair, table, billiard or so. What I call digital objects are essentially data formalized by computational ontologies, and here the term ontology becomes intriguing again, so I wanted to reintroduce the concept of ontology into the understanding of digital objects in light of this coincidence.
JS: The title, it seems, is indicative not only of the book’s aim but also of your philosophical lineage and influences. It reveals your general philosophical modus operandi which is to reach into the past and revisit, reevaluate, and at times refuse philosophy’s history in order to “find the possibility of a transformation through the reevaluation of the associated milieux in both philosophical and technical terms”. Thus, the title of your book seems to immediately recall one of your influences: Gilbert Simondon’s On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects. My second question relates to this title but it also responds to a quote that you use from Gaston Bachelard: “that which we can neglect, we should neglect.” My question, therefore, is why do you neglect this phrase “mode of existence” in Simondon’s title for simply “existence” in your own? You briefly discuss it in the introduction to your book but I wonder whether it is more substantial choice then you let on.
YH: The title of book, as you have rightly pointed out, pays homage to Simondon’s On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects, which is a book very dear to me. And I have been translating it into Chinese. You may see that I was no longer in the same program as Simondon, and I didn’t intend to write a book to introduce the thought of Simondon or to do something like Simondon studies. This is the main reason why I decided not to include, instead of neglecting, the word “mode” in the title. I have briefly explained in the book why I didn’t want to use the word “mode”. It is a long story indeed. There are two ways that the word “mode” from Simondon is received. The first way, as I have explained in the introduction, is considered to be an influence from Étienne Souriau, whose The different modes of existence, was published in 1943. Jean-Hugues Barthélemy said in a personal correspondence that Simondon probably has read the book. The second interpretation is from Anne Sauvagnargues who considered the word “mode” is an inspiration from Spinoza.
On the contrary to this interpretation, I am not sure if it really has anything to do with Spinoza, since in Du mode d’existence des objets techniques there is NO mention of Spinoza; in L’Individuation à la lumière des notions de forme et d’information, Simondon invoked Spinoza but never to any depth. In MEOT, Simondon used this term “mode” in many different occasions, sometimes rather casual, for example: “mode pratique”, “modes de pensée”, “mode déterminé de pensée”, “mode non-modal” (art), etc. It is true that sometimes it resembles mode from Spinoza and Souriau, but it is just because the term mode of Spinoza has very broad meaning—it means “affection” of substance, which manifests as quality, predicates, etc. (“that which exists in and through another; or that which is an affection (modification) of a substance” (1d5, Ethics)).
I tend to think that the word mode – for Simondon – doesn’t bear too much philosophical weight here since it means the status of development of technical objects; for example, element, individual and ensemble, which have their own epoch. Technical ensemble for him is the actual mode of existence of technical objects, and it is also the reason for which Simondon sees in the actual technological development a possibility of convergence which situates well in his theory of technical genesis. The second meaning of the word “mode” comes out of his distinction between two modes of relation between man and technics in Part II of MEOT, one is the major mode (adult) and minor mode (child); the former corresponds to the technical knowledge of technical objects characterized by the encyclopedism of the 18th century, the latter habitual and daily use without much awareness. These two modes seem to Simondon to pose a perpetual historical problem, therefore, and his MEOT has a task to overcome this “inequality” by proposing the use of information machines in the technical education of children. These two aspects were no longer my question in On the Existence of Digital Objects. This doesn’t mean that Simondon’s questions are no longer important, in the contrary, they have to be continued with more rigors, but I didn’t pretend to do so. I agree with Simondon that each epoch has to discover the unique source of technological alienation in order to reinvent a technological humanism (but let’s put this term aside first because citing this term of Simondon brought me an attack of being a humanist). So it was my task to identify the question of digital objects as my own inquiry.
JS: When considering the digital object, you examine its multifarious dimensions: the logical components, its material and symbolic ordering, and its temporal regime, among others. I would like to hone in on the temporal dimension. In the text you determine that the digital object is historically conditioned, and much of your work shows the historical formation of the digital object. In reference to the present, you turn to what Husserl called the “historically primary in itself”. When it comes to talking about the future, however, you seem to offer “tertiary protention”, or the anticipation of the next moment, as the digital object’s futural dimension. This future is a horizon of probability which in turn orients the present, or as you say it “situates future as present”. Can you unpack this in order to see the stakes of thinking the future in your work? Is this the future of the digital object, or rather a mode of its futurity?
YH: The concept of tertiary protention was intended to be supplement to the system of retention and protention that Stiegler has developed, partly through his reading of Husserl and Derrida’s reading of Husserl. For Derrida, the play of retention and protention is the source of the deconstruction of the ‘metaphysics of presence’, since every consciousness of the ‘now’ demands a delay [retardment, Nachträglichkeit]— for example the Now B is constituted by the retention of Now A and the protention of Now C. There is indeed a play of ‘non-presence’ conditioned by ‘archi-writing’, which can never be reduced to any word or any concept such as retention or protention. The irreducibility of archi-writing, which involves proto-traces, lies in the fact of différance.
If in his lectures on time-consciousness, Husserl has distinguished on the first level primary retention and protention, and on the second level recollection and anticipation, which Stiegler will later call secondary retention and protention, then Derrida refused to grant the absoluteness of any such distinction, on the grounds that the differences between protentions and retentions are only differences of degree. Derrida has good reason for refusing this distinction, since Husserl’s phenomenology of time-consciousness has always contained a threat of an infinite regress, an infinite presupposition either of protention or retention. For example, if there is a secondary retention, and it presupposes a primary retention, then does the primary retention presuppose another retention of a lower order? Husserl himself often talks about a primal or original stream [Urstrom], primal presentation [Urpräsentation], primal data [Urdaten], primal process [Urprozess], and so on, and sometimes, following Brentano, an “unconscious consciousness”, all in order to avoid such a danger. Derrida’s archi-writing becomes the default by refusing the orders of retention and protention, on the one hand, by parrying the danger of infinite regress, while, on the other hand, seeming to provide an ontological ‘ground’ for the completion of a phenomenology of time consciousness.
For his part, Bernard Stiegler is strongly influenced by Husserl’s phenomenology of time consciousness, but he adds to it what Derrida calls the ‘supplement’ and what he himself calls ‘tertiary retention’, arguing that Husserl’s model of time consciousness largely excluded the role of tertiary retention. My point of departure was to reconsider the relation between retention and protention— can protention be reducible to retention? In the Bernauer Manuscript, Husserl affirms the difference between the roles of protention and retention; he says that even when both protention and retention are empty representations, an immeasurable [gewaltig] difference must still remain between them: firstly, retention lacks directedness, since it does nothing but push back to the past, whereas protention continuously directs attention [Gewahren]; secondly, Husserl reproaches Brentano for seeing the lawful connection between retention and impression as an original association. Husserl proposing instead that association only takes place in protention. If the question of tertiary protention is valid, it is because the time consciousness that Husserl wants to elaborate cannot be understood without reading it together with the technological medium of each epoch, like grammophone, radio, television and now digital technology, where different learning algorithms which are speculating on the future, like recommendations, suggestions.
JS: So you suggest that digital technologies are temporal objects which function through the algorithmic prediction of futurity? This must function, it seems, at speeds beyond previous technological capacity and even beyond human comprehension. If so, is time consciousness now overcome by digital temporalities? And if this is the case, what does this mean for our previous notion of the future as completely contingent and utterly unpredictable?
YH: This is the current stage of development of digital technologies, if we consider big data, machine learning, artificial intelligence, etc., they are dealing largely with the question of pattern discovery, predictions, in which we find what is called algorithmic opacity, or black box. This is nothing surprising, since now we are at the stage where technology is in the process of outstripping biology and such process will be much more accelerated when human enhancement will become a core business of the 21st century, as you can probably imagine with the film Ghost in the Shell. But let us go back to your question, what does it mean by saying that future being contingent and unpredictable? Isn’t the future always already contingent if we follow Meillassoux, who has brilliantly demonstrated the necessity of absolute contingency? The ontologisation of contingency leads us to ignore contingency as a historical and material category, and therefore also a political category. In the contrary, future is never completely contingent and utterly unpredictable, but it is our struggle here to keep it as open as possible—and, if you like, you can read Heidegger’s work along the same lines.
We can illustrate this with an example from Aristotle’s Physics, where we find the two words for chance, automaton and tyche; the former usually translated as automatic refers to probabilities and the latter translated as chance refers to something beyond the mere calculation. If you toss a coin, and when it falls back to your palm, whether it is head or tail, it is the question of automaton; but if you go to the agora, and find your debtor who just have the money to pay you back, it is the question of tyche. This unpredictability of the event as destiny constitutes the core element of the Greek tragedy; Oedipus, the intelligent man who has solved the problem of the sphinx, even though told by the sage about his own destiny, wasn’t able to escape it. The undermining of tyche, if we follow Martha Nussbaum and Nietzsche here, was accompanied by the Socratic rationality, and led to the decline of Greek tragedy. I think that this struggle of automaton against tyche is mise en scène today in a new context through the development of automation. This has been a question that I am working on since 2013 and I published an article in Parrhesia titled ‘Algorithmic Catastrophe’ in 2015 which outlines some of the basic metaphysical problems that I continue working in my research.
JS: Relation functions as a central concept for you both in the way you read the history of philosophy and the way you consider digital materialities. I saw a rather interesting pronouncement in your book On the Existence of Digital Objects where you write that you hope to “establish a solid link between the phenomenological inquiries of the twentieth century and the philosophy of computation that has already been associated with analytic philosophy.” In this way, you seem to be seeking relations between continental philosophy and computation, between analytic philosophy and phenomenology, between Chinese philosophy and European philosophy and between the historical tradition and recent developments in digital technology. Can you say a few words about your activity as a philosopher of relations?
YH: Indeed, I am very much interested in the question of relations, as I said in the book on digital objects, that I would like to move away from the constant desire to substantialize. It doesn’t mean that we cannot pose the question of ontology, but rather to answer the question in a non-substantializing way. Relation seems to be an effective means to desubstantialize along with other concepts, such as intensity that Deleuze employed in his Differece and Repetition. This is the philosophical motivation of Simondon as well, but Simondon has shifted it to the question of information since he sees the possibility to provide a new framework by reworking on the concept of information firstly raised by the cyberneticians such as Fisher, Wiener and Shannon, etc.
For me the question of relation is not only an ontological question which resists against substantialism and hylomorphism, but also a question concerning method. It is problematic when disciplines and cultures are separated to the extent that, as Norbert Wiener said in Cybernetics, colleagues in the same corridor cannot converse with each other about their subjects of interest, as if each person is in his or her own reality and these different realities share nothing in common. This is present in different domains: for example the domain of engineering and the domain of the users (which Simondon calls status of majority and status of minority), European philosophy and Chinese philosophy, etc. A synthetic thinking is that which aims for a convergence—for new rationality and for creativities—which are able to give us new ways to understand the actual problems and contemplate upon possible solutions. However, it is by no means a simply bridging, since such “bridging” risks falling prey to a superficial comparative reading; it is the individuation of thinking itself, since such synthesis is also a overcoming of existing incompatibility, that is to say an invention qua individuation. In On the Existence of Digital Objects, I confined myself to an analysis of the concept of relation within technical objects and technical systems, and in The Question Concerning Technology in China, I attempted to go further by stretching to the relation between the moral and the cosmos via technical activities, demonstrated by the case in China.
JS: I wanted to dwell briefly on something you just mentioned which cuts to the heart of your critical project. You said that your ontology of relations resists both “substantialism” and “hylomorphism”. In the introduction to On the Existence of Digital Objects you ask “does a digital object have substance (or is it possible to talk about it in this way)?” You then go on to show that after Aristotle triumphed this concept of “substance”, and its was held in high esteem throughout Late Antiquity and the medieval period, there arose a number of thinkers who have rejected substance for its conceptual incapacity: Hume, Bergson, Whitehead, Heidegger, Simondon, Dewey, and Deleuze, to name a few. Taking the stance against substance, therefore, you embrace the concept of the object of relations. However, Etienne Gilson and some medievalists of the 20th century might push back and claim that by eliminating substance whilst retaining relations there is a false dichotomy drawn—a false dichotomy perpetrated first by Descartes—between substance and relations. According to these Thomists, at the heart of the concept of substance, and being itself, is Substance-in-Relation. Thus, I will ask your question back to you: “does a digital object have substance (or is it possible to talk about it in this way)?”
YH: I reject substance in order to free relation from being a mere accident described by Aristotle in the ‘Categories,’ since I am convinced that existence is relational instead of substantial. Substance is referred to something non-accidental; unlike accidents whose arrival and disappearance don’t affect the identity of being, substance is that which persists as identity of being. If I have to reject substance it is because it seems to me that the substance fetishism (in the words of Peter Sloterdijk) not only fails to explain—but also becomes an obstacle to understand—the process of individuation as well as existence. The question that I posed was, if one gives up the concept of substance, will it give us a new way to understand the question of being, and if so how?
As you have mentioned, many philosophers abandoned the concept of relation. Bachelard was very sceptical of it and says that the concept of substance is dangerous due to its lack of explanatory power in the microphysical world. Simondon has also stated that both hylomorphism and substantialism cannot explain individuation but rather they have to be explained by individuation. It is true that some Thomists argued against Whitehead’s charge that the Aristotelian and Thomist concept of substance is nothing inert and static, but rather it is revealed through accidents, that is to say it is always in becoming, like the Thomist philosopher Rev. Norris Clarke claims that “existing in itself, naturally flows over into being as relational, as turned towards others by its self-communicating action. To be fully is to be substance in relation.” But what is really this mysterious substance being revealed, if not the temporal and spatial entanglement of relations themselves? I engaged with the debate in medieval philosophy in my book, and I elaborate on what I call discursive relations and existential relations based on the two concepts known in medieval philosophy as relationes secundum dici and relationes secundum esse: the reason that I didn’t adopt them is precisely because they still presuppose the concept of substance. If you want to argue that there is substance in digital object, then you will have to demonstrate it, even if you can claim to talk about the substance of a Facebook status update, then what really is this substance? The binary code, the electronic signals, or chemical activities in the electronics? Hume posed the same rejection by asking: does one have impression of substance, and because one doesn’t have such an impression so it is purely fictive or it is only of psychological need. Through the rejection of substance and elaboration on relations, Hume, as claims Deleuze, gives us a new way of understanding being. In fact, Hume and Simondon supplement to each other on the ontology of relations, and their thoughts were instrumental to my own investigation. It was my aim to demonstrate how such an ontology of relations can be useful to understand both individualization and individuation of digital objects—further to Hume’s discursive relations, we need to develop also the concept of existential relations and the dynamics of these two relations in the technological progress.
JS: There seems to be a point of departure here which returns us back to the question of temporality and historicity. You identify that Simondon’s project, like that of Husserl’s, sought to retrieve, restore, and reunite. Simondon sought to restore human beings as technical individuals (in which the human is able to create an associated milieu of its own) while Husserl set out in his Origin of Geometry to restore the foundations of knowledge. Likewise for Heidegger, modernity is characterized by its forgetfulness of fundamental Ontology which must be overcome through a retrieval (Wiederholung). In your book The Question Concerning Technology in China, however, you suggest that “it is not sufficient to go back to ‘traditional ontologies’, but that we must instead reinvent a cosmotechnics for our time.” How, then, is the past considered if not as a repetition, restoration or recoil? Is there a necessity of retention without return? If so, what is the relation between invention and retention?
YH: Every retrieval, or Wiederholung, is a repetition, and every repetition is necessarily different. There is the necessity of retrieval, while it is also necessary that such retrieval implies differences. When Simondon referred back to the fact that once the artisans were able to create an associated milieu among tools, assimilating the status of a technical individual, for him the future of the human and machine relation could not be a mere repetition of the preindustrial age. It is important to pay attention to the question of the associated milieu but there is no way to go back to the artisanal mode of operation, since the artisan, like in glass making, was once provider of both information and energy. The situation has greatly changed when mechanical pumps and now automatic intelligent machines have been introduced into the atelier. When I say it is not sufficient to go back to “traditional ontologies”, I didn’t mean that traditions are not important; in the contrary, the whole book is a reflection on tradition and its possibility. For those who are familiar with sinology will find my approach atypical, because I was trying to construct a technological thought in China consisting of several episodes which was obscured by other concerns in history writings. It is not sufficient just to go back to the ancient Greek or the ancient Chinese, since such repetition is not compatible with our actual technological condition and therefore they appear to be powerless; and such powerlessness is a fundamental source of fascist tendencies. I hope to draw forces from tradition without falling prey to a “home coming” of philosophy that finally becomes a trap for itself.
JS: In positing the question concerning technology in China, you attempt to think of new ways of overcoming modernity. In so doing, you avoid asserting the symmetry of concepts between European modernity and Chinese philosophy—for example, there is no equivalents of techne and physis in Chinese thought. Instead, your project affirms an asymmetric relation between the two, while interweaving their differences in your theory of cosmotechnics. How, then, do you theorize the relation between these different form of thought? Philosophers have long sought ways of moving between differences by using analogical reasoning. How do you theorize this in your own work? How does this relate to what you call “transduction”?
YH: Modernisation is a synchronisation, a synchronisation of rhythms through machines, a synchronisation of thinking through translations. In such a process of synchronisation, people were eager to look for equivalences, and even all the comparisons on technological developments or thoughts unconsciously presuppose a certain equivalence. Some historians may say that paper making was far more advanced in ancient China than in Europe; other historians may respond that it is more justified if we look into a technical system instead of a single technique, while doing so, one cannot say that the Chinese were more advanced than the European on this respect. I don’t think that these comparisons will lead too far. I appreciate what François Jullien has been doing, and we can find it also in Marcel Granet and Victor Segalen, when they assert an absolute difference between the Chinese and European thinking. However, my concern was not only about the exoticism of thinking, but also the question of world history which has to be radically different from the Hegelian one.
I believe that only by opening the question of cosmotechnics, are we be able to conceive another world history and to escape the synchronisation in our current stage of globalisation, which is more and less identifiable with the Anthropocene age. Then again, simply retrieving a technological thought in China is not enough, it has to be rethought in face of the actual crisis that we are facing. So towards the end of the book, I propose to move from translation to transduction, from traduction to transduction, a word used by Simondon to describe a transformation in which another structure is acquired. Moreover, a transductor is a device that neither consumes nor stocks energy; it transforms one form of energy to another. If in the past hundreds of years of modernisation we have been constantly looking for translations, it seems to me that for the next stage, if it is going to possible at all, we will have to move from translation to a transduction of thinking, which will be exhibited in the effort of a re-appropriation of modern technology.
Jordan Skinner is trained in contemporary philosophy and its conceptual history at the Kingston University’s Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy and at Central European University’s Medieval Studies Department.
ChinHsin Esther Kao is the featured illustrator on this post. She is an undergraduate at Wheaton College (IL) and double majors in English and Philosophy. She was the Critical Essay Editor for the college’s independent magazine The Pub and the Art Editor for Kodon. Esther also writes for the online publication The Odyssey and is interning for Inheritance magazine under Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, California.
Jeremy Simmons is a writer, artist and game designer who keeps very late hours. His writing explores dreams (and nightmares), time and the inexplicable nature of the human condition. His work has appeared in Best Modern Voices, ShortVine and The News Record, among others. He is also the editor of the Cincinnati Book Review.
The HKRB Interviews series specializes in new books in philosophy and critical theory. Interviews have included Simon Critchley, Jodi Dean, Agon Hamza, Frank Ruda and Srecko Horvat. Coming soon: Joan Copjec and Rosi Braidotti.
Yuk Hui has dared to pull philosophy into the twenty-first century by asking what a digital object is. Originally from Hong Kong, he has been roaming Europe since 2006. He first did his PhD in London at Goldsmiths College, then relocated to Paris and worked at Bernard Stiegler’s Institute of Research and Innovation before moving, inevitably, to Berlin, where he is a postdoc at Leuphana University (Lüneburg). His first book, On the Existence of Digital Objects, arranges a dialogue between the technophobic metaphysics of Martin Heidegger and the French technology thinker Gilbert Simondon (author of the neglected 1958 classic On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects). In his debut, Yuk Hui elegantly plays with the double meaning of the word “ontologies”: on the one hand, the eternal level of the question of Being 1; on the other, the technical meaning of the word used by computer science to describe the hierarchies inside representations of knowledge such as metadata.2
Ontology in the context of the internet is often associated with the inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, and his term “semantic web,” a set of standards for data formats and exchange protocols. One way to describe On the Existence of Digital Objects is to say that it gives the touching yet superior engineering mindset of Berners-Lee a solid continental European foundation. Programmers do not just hang out on Slashdot, 4Chan, and Reddit; they also read Husserl. Indeed, some hyper humans might … My question is why the geek establishment didn’t foresee the rise of platform capitalism, with monopolies such as Google and Facebook. Information science’s approach to ontology has proven naive, if not shortsighted. The internet as a public realm that the engineering class takes for granted has all but disappeared, leaving no space to implement experimentation on the fundamental (indeed ontological) level. This raises the question of whether ontological adventures such as this one can be successful without a political angle.
According to Yuk Hui, “The idea of the philosopher as a figure who stands outside as mere critic and defends the purity of thought has been washed away in the flux of technological progress.” The nature of technics needs to be taken into account when talking about being. That’s an ambitious starting point. However, the real existing social media dominance puts on the table the question of what role philosophical investigations (such as Hui’s) can play. Should research become more technical (and necessarily more traditional in order to be accepted)? Or should it go against the grain and refuse to build foundations in the service of an insular engineering class that is in dire need of a Žižek-style political provocation? Another approach could be to compare Hui’s surprisingly Deleuze-free style with American programmer-theorists such as Alex Galloway and Wendy Chun, who have never dug as deep into classic philosophy in search of the foundations of our digital existence. Who’s ready to read XML syntax alongside Schelling and turn knowledge of Python and C into action, thereby changing the language of philosophy itself?
At times, On the Existence of Digital Objects falls into the obligatory comparative exercise of explaining how author A is unlike author B—but then it recovers quickly, giving us a sense of things to come. What’s really upsetting about the future of this digital philosophy-in-the-making is the “black box society” (Frank Pasquale), the secretive algorithms that cannot be read, let alone changed. How can philosophy become technical when it, once again, can only speculate about its object?
Let’s praise Yuk Hui for his priceless effort to practice what Friedrich Kittler always proposed, yet towards the end of his life drifted away from, escaping to Ancient Greece. Bernard Stiegler’s preface to Hui’s book is equally appreciative. Next stop for Yuk Hui is a similarly ambitious study on the nature of technology in China, which he has just finished. Let’s now get to the subject: the digital objects that surround us, and steer us, in such virtual, invisible, and intimate ways.
Geert Lovink: Can you sketch the long-term implications of your approach for philosophy at large and how it is taught? Where are we in terms of the debates and experiments to integrate technics into the philosophy curriculum? Networks and philosophy have yet to encounter one another. How do you want to stage this? Some say that the “encounter” is a Christian notion to start with.
Yuk Hui: Like Bernard Stiegler, I am trying to reread philosophy according to the question of technics, not only within European philosophy but also Chinese philosophy—for the latter I am collaborating with some Chinese scholars, for example Professor Gao Shiming from the China Academy of Art. Stiegler is a very good example of this since he bases his reading of the history of philosophy on what he calls the “tertiary retention,” which is artificial memory. Tertiary retention is a supplement to what Edmund Husserl calls “primary retention” (impression) and “secondary retention” (recollection). Stiegler develops his reading in a systematic and rigorous way. However, we still need to do an enormous amount of work to take this further, and necessarily with a “collective” if not a school (and indeed Bernard has a philosophy school in Épineuil-le-Fleuriel), which will firstly have to deeply engage with philosophical texts and the philosophical tradition instead of mere intuition, which is always necessary but not sufficient; secondly, it will have to closely engage with technological development, and in this regard it is necessary to work with engineers; and thirdly, it will have to take the concept of technics beyond Western discourse, which seems to me a very urgent task in the Anthropocene.
You said that networks and philosophy have yet to encounter one another. I would say that such encounters are immanent. We can always see the question of networks in different thinkers, implicitly or explicitly. For example, it’s clearly evident in Saint Simon, Marx, Heidegger, Simondon, Deleuze, etc., not to mention in more contemporary philosophers; however, we need to retrieve and thematize these thinkers—“in the Christian sense,” as you said, like the encounters of Christ in the Gospels—in order to respond to the problems of our epoch. This is exactly the point I have made before.
GL: What went wrong with the corporate discourse around Big Data? What’s so boring and suspicious about it? And why haven’t the “digital humanities” risen up against this monstrosity? Would you be in favor of data being discredited altogether? Or would you rather say: another data is possible? Recently, a “data prevention manifesto” was posted on the nettime list. It argued against protection and the “privacy” paradigm. We would be much better off, it said, preventing the production of data in the first place. Would you say that data has already crushed the reputation of Theory as we know it in the arts and humanities? What do you say to people who accuse you of promoting the Big Enemy of critical thinking?
YH: For me the main stake of Big Data, together with algorithms, is prediction. It is another form of the determination of time, which is probably not the same form of temporizing the past, the present, and the future that we can find in Bergson, Heidegger, Lyotard, Deleuze, etc. This means that we must discover in Big Data a new and powerful synthesis of time, and figure out how to deal with it. This new synthesis of time is what I call “tertiary protention,” which is intended to supplement Stiegler’s concept of tertiary retention. As we have discussed before, for Husserl there is primary and secondary retention, as well as primary and secondary protention (anticipation). In Stiegler’s theory, tertiary retention is the support for other forms of retention and protention; however, we must add that protention cannot be reduced to retention. This is very explicit in Husserl’s later writings on time-consciousness, e.g., the so-called Bernau manuscript (1917–18). Of course, there is ambiguity—for example, debt is an example of tertiary protention as well as tertiary retention, since it anticipates that which we will have to return, and it is recorded as traces. Tertiary protention is amplified due to the increasing ability of machines to predict and to anticipate. We might say that as long as we become part of Big Data, we are actually constantly in debt to certain unknowns.
We know the story of Edward Bernays and we know about the psychology of marketing, which since the twentieth century has been based on a mechanism geared toward the manipulation of psychopower. Now, however, the mechanism is not just concerned with psychopower; rather, personalization and prediction have become even more effective and direct. The predictions of Big Data give us an “average” experience, since Big Data is based on the mean. However, it is not average in the sense that everyone is the same; rather, Big Data shows variations around the mean, which give the impression that everyone is different. These variations are what Deleuze would call “the particular,” meaning that they can be reduced to a mean, to an average. They might also be described as the “differences” that sociologists Scott Lash and Celia Lury pointed out in their book Global Culture Industry. However, these differences are reducible.
Therefore, I would not say that Big Data is boring, but rather that it is truly suspicious, and we will have to transform this practice of Big Data. This is also related to your question of why the digital humanities haven’t risen up against this monstrosity. Many digital humanities projects are part of this paradigm. When you visualize the co-relations between hundreds of thousands of images, you are employing the same logic as the Big Data industry (albeit harmlessly) and you are exhibiting its aesthetics. This kind of digital humanities still has a place for now, but I don’t believe it can continue much longer, since we are reaching the end of a transitional stage. Data is by no means our “Big Enemy.” We should be aware of the history of data, which has been a subject in the humanities for a long time without being thematized. It is now time to enter a new stage by taking the question of data and the organization of data further. It seems to me that this has to be the task of the future “digital humanities.”
GL: You have said that “the digital is the capacity to process data.” Can we dig into that? This “dynamic” approach presumes that there is also a static view, of zeros and ones, in which the digital merely is. Is it an intolerable thought that data can just exist, without any context—data as such?
YH: There are not only two views, static and dynamic. There are different orders of magnitude, and each of these orders of magnitude can be seen as a reality in itself. The methodology of On the Existence of Digital Objects incorporates such an understanding of orders of magnitude, which it is often used in epistemology. Therefore 0 and 1 is one order of magnitude, and data another. If we regard 0 and 1 as the only order of magnitude, we will be easily trapped in a metaphysical impasse. The philosopher Edward Fredkin has proposed what he calls a “digital ontology,” or “digital physics,” since he takes 0 and 1 as the foundation of being, like Thales’s water, Heraclitus’s fire, or Anaximander’s apeiron.
However, when we look at things from a phenomenological point of view, this digital metaphysics doesn’t do much except confirm Heidegger’s critique of technology: its essence is no longer technological but enframing (Gestell), and being is treated as a calculable standing reserve (Bestand). This is why I have proposed that we focus on the question of data as the main question of the digital. I take this insight also partly from Jacques Ellul. In fact, already in the 1970s, in his book Le système technicien3—a work that extended Simondon’s analysis of technical objects—Ellul observed that the totalization of systems was possible only because of the computer’s ability to process data.
You have asked, “Can data just exist, without any context”? I think the answer is yes, even without having to follow Quentin Meillassoux’s critique of correlationism. Firstly, we need to understand the history of the concept of data. Data is what is given, as the etymology of the Latin word datum suggests. At the same time, it is sense data, which is also given—Husserl calls it das Gegebene. The French word for data, donnée, which is also the past participle of the verb “to give” (donner), retains this sense. We can say that in empiricist and transcendental philosophy, there are different ways of organizing data. For Hume, it is based on the rules of association (contiguity, resemblance, causality), and for Kant it is based on certain a priori structures, including intuition and the understanding.
The use of the word “data” to designate computational information is only employed towards the end of the first half of the twentieth century. Essentially, this not only gives a new meaning to the term “data,” it also implies a necessity to rethink its organization. Hence the reason for this book. However, whether what is given is conceivable or not is another debate. When Heidegger talks about Being as es gibt, the word geben is emphasized as sending (schicken), as Geschenk, and what is given presents itself and hides at the same time, as Heraclitus says in his fragments. We might say that there is Datum an sich, like Kant’s Ding an sich, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that data is a black box or that it withdraws, as some speculative realists have said. For Heidegger, only through hiding is revealing possible. And even if we say that data belongs to the noumenal world, most Chinese philosophers would disagree with Kant that humans don’t have intellectual intuition and cannot access the noumenal. This is why I wanted to turn this dead-end question of “withdrawal” and Ding an sich into a question of relations.
GL: In the past, I learned to make a distinction between passive and active digital objects. There were executive files and static files such as documents or database entries. Does it make sense to make a distinction between programs and data? There is also a sociological dimension here: programs are written by geeks, whereas data is produced by clueless, ordinary users. These days, people talk about algorithms and bots. Both of them manipulate data in their own way.
YH: A long time ago, when we played games that came on floppy disks, it was necessary to use an .exe file to execute a .dat file. I guess this is what you mean by active and passive. This is still the case in some computational environments. The web, however, is a different environment, since it is supposed to be running all the time and is programmed in most cases with scripting languages. In general, in the past fifty years the mark-up languages have further developed and evolved—for example, from GML to SGML, from HTML1 to HTML5, from XHTML 1.0 to XHTML 2.0, and now web ontologies as well as formal ontologies. The use of mark-up languages like GML to format data started with IBM in the 1960s, and then in the 1980s there was a lot of work on knowledge representation (KR).4 When we examine these histories, we see that the line between a data object and a program started to blur: not only do these objects carry constraints and functions, they also effectively allow communication between different platforms and applications. Programs and platforms can only communicate when the “ontologies” or “categorizations” are shared. They are becoming more and more “active” in the sense that you just spoke of.
GL: You write that the phenomenological tradition failed to comprehend technical and digital objects. At the same time, it is undisputed that Martin Heidegger is one of the most influential technology philosophers of the twentieth century. How do these two things go together?
YH: Let me be precise about this critique of phenomenology. I hold that the new definition of data seems to have problematized phenomenological investigations, which give an ambiguous role to technical objects in the construction of experiences. It is true that phenomenology has its own history dealing with technical objects in the larger sense of the term. For example, the early Husserl prioritizes expression (Ausdruck) over indication or sign (Anzeichen), since the latter doesn’t express anything—it is passive, like Hume’s association of ideas, while the former always demands an active sense explication. The late Husserl developed a different insight, where he addresses cultural objects, and the lifeworld (Lebenswelt) was primary in his investigation. Heidegger’s analysis of the ready-to-hand—which for me is actually a reversal of Husserl’s distinction between expression and indication—is very important to the understanding of technical objects, and that is why I offer it as a supplement to what Simondon calls the “concretization” of technical objects. I think that Simondon was aware of that, since he made Heidegger his ally in Part III of Du mode d’existence des objets techniques.
When I say that the phenomenological tradition is not sufficient to deal with digital objects, I mean first that the role of the technical object is ambiguous in these investigations, and therefore we must retrieve it through a rereading of Husserl and Heidegger—and here we must thank Jacques Derrida and Bernard Stiegler for their pioneering work (and we must also pay attention to the differences in their readings). Second, there is a reluctance to investigate the constitution of these objects. Husserl left what constitutes so called “pre-predicative experience” largely unexamined, surprisingly enough, considering that Husserl’s slogan was “back to things themselves.”
Phenomenology concerns the question of experience, which is how the subject constitutes itself through intentionality (whether via genesis or embodiment) and how objects are constituted as phenomena in the immanence of consciousness through intentional acts. To be more precise, there is a polar relation between the subject and the object, but what constitutes the object pole is rather limited, or maybe even only phenomenal. For example, phenomenology does not look into the schemes inside a technical object, and for this reason Simondon says that a phenomenological investigation of technical objects is dangerous. The investigation of digital objects is an attempt to rework the object pole and redefine its relation to the subject—that is to say, to experience. We must say that compared to Husserl, Heidegger paid much more attention to objects as well as to the constitution of objects. However, he did so in a different direction. Heidegger wanted to show that the constitution of the object is ontotheological, a tradition that started with Plato and Aristotle—though it is more complicated with the latter, since the early Heidegger’s lectures on Aristotle praised him for being closer to the Pre-Socratics than to Plato on the question of Being. A fiercer critique from Heidegger arrived later, for example in his four volumes on Nietzsche, in which Aristotle is described almost as a reactionary against Plato.
GL: From the very beginning data has had its own metadata. Files have names or a unique string of numbers. They go together. This is also what you say about digital objects: the “ontologies” are not separate from the actual data.
YH: Indeed, ontologies can be simply described as metadata schemes, which define and hence give meaning to data. Beware: the term “ontology” here is different from how it is randomly used in the humanities today. I describe this evolution of metadata schemes as a genesis of digital objects, and we can see that with the ontologies of the semantic web, descriptions of data are more refined, and the objectness of these entities becomes very clear. I remember already in 2010, during a conference on the semantic web, an engineer said that we were no longer dealing with mere data, but things, in the sense that data had become things. And if we pay attention to what this means, we see that it is not simply about how to do categorization—though categorization remains a crucial question and practice. It is also that categorization becomes productive. It produces objects in their own right, like Kant’s concepts, and these objects are both real and material. In this sense we can talk about the onto-genesis of digital objects.
GL: With Simondon, we could say that our efforts in media theory, electronic arts, tactical media, digital design, and net criticism can be described as a movement to reinscribe technics in culture. In most cases, however, they drift apart—not the least in philosophy itself. In today’s philosophy as (media) spectacle, we witness the authentic writer in the live act of deep thinking. Technology might spoil the party. Your genesis of digital objects might not be in high demand. Are you aware of that tension?
YH: I am not sure that what you have described can be called a movement to reinscribe technics in culture in Simondon’s sense, though I must admit that there is much excellent work that I appreciate a lot. According to Simondon, we need to overcome the opposition between culture and technics. This is because on the one hand, technology has been seen as a source of alienation, as what is responsible for the decline of culture; on the other hand, culture denigrates technics as something inferior in the social hierarchy. For example, robots are often seen as slaves—technical objects are only objects of consumption. For this reason Simondon, at the beginning of Du mode d’existence des objets techniques, says that his task is to show that “there is no such thing as a robot … a robot is no more a machine than a statue is a living being”; a robot “is merely a product of the imagination, of man’s fictive powers, a product of the art of illusion.” That is to say, we need a turn: it is not simply about studying technology, but rather turning technology into a support for culture. I’ve seen many researchers working on topics such as the sociality of Facebook or Twitter, but I’ve rarely seen any critical stance on this. As a result, the research becomes an added value to the industry—which also claims that it reinscribes technics in culture, but this is really just the culture industry. In philosophy, decades ago, we saw the tension between ontology and epistemology expressed in the legendary Davos philosophical debate between Heidegger and Ernst Cassirer in 1929. The former read Kant according to his fundamental ontology, while the latter rejected this reading and instead proposed an epistemological one. It is clear today that there is a fundamental tension between ontology and technics. In fact, this was already very clear in Heidegger’s fundamental ontology and in his analysis of modern technology, which for him was a consequence of Western ontotheology. Stiegler’s three-volume Technics and Time is important because it demonstrates this tension and suggests another framework for thinking this tension as not an opposition. However, there is still much work to be done to make this question more visible and to reflect on it in different domains.
GL: Relational technology plays an important role in your book. We could consider it the basis of all social media. Would it make sense to further develop a philosophy of the relational model?
YH: Yes, indeed, that is the principle question of my book. And for myself, the question of being is the question of relation. Over the years I have tried to work this out in a rereading of Heidegger, which I left out of the book so as not to obscure its object or message. We have seen that in recent years, some theorists have proposed certain relational models, but many of them do not specify what a relation is. I am not sure if one has to stroll through Whitehead’s Process and Reality in order to show that an app is relational. In my book, I try to answer the question: What is a relation? And what does it mean when we think of being in terms of relations, especially in the digital condition? The term “relation” has been used in semiosis and perception, but semiosis and perception don’t exhaust the question of relation.
In medieval philosophy, we have relationes secundum esse and relationes secundum dici, one according to being and the other according to speech. In my book I didn’t follow this vocabulary of medieval philosophy, since I wanted to move away from substance and theology, so I redescribed these relations as “existential relations” and “discursive relations.” I wanted to describe a dynamic model in which, firstly, both relations are in reciprocal relation, and secondly, technology can be seen as the process of the discovery (which is mostly the task of science) and materialization of discursive relations (this is the question of logos). As you can see in chapter three of the book, entitled “The Space of Networks,” I wanted to retrieve the concept of relation from Ancient philosophy, and then elaborate on the materialization of discursive relations; and in chapter four, “The Time of Technical Systems,” I reinscribe it in what I call a technical system, in which the discursive relations become inter-objective relations, and existential relations manifest themselves as temporalities. This is the general model that I propose for the analysis of technical systems, and I have used it in multiple practical projects. However, I must admit that it is impossible to exhaust the question of relation, and I will continue elaborating on it in future works.
GL: As an outsider to the main international standards organization for the World Wide Web, the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium), I have witnessed a move away from the semantic web towards a much more political aim of “re-decentralizing” the web, particularly in the post-Snowden period. Tim Berners-Lee was the original inventor of the web, back in 1991. His proposal for a new way to organize knowledge on the web, outlined in his 2001 article “The Semantic Web,” failed because of its inability to understand language (as Bernard Stiegler and others claimed). My interpretation would be that the naive multi-stakeholder approach got stuck in the monopolistic power politics of the stacks—Google, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft—which demonstrated that they were uninterested in the formalistic, scientific rearrangement of protocols. In the end, the scientists were pushed aside.
YH: I was very interested in the semantic web, both its logical questions and philosophical implications. In 2010, along with Harry Halpin and Alexandre Monnin, we launched the program “Philosophy of the Web” in Paris, which consisted of various events. I still think the semantic web is a very important project in the history of the web. The semantic web was intended to be a “world-building” project, and this is the reason Tim Berners-Lee called for “philosophical engineers,” who would not only reflect on the world but build the world—an echo of Marx’s thesis on Feuerbach. The semantic web aims for a world of automation. However, a world is more than automation; it also has politics, which the semantic web doesn’t take into account. I don’t think this is because the semantic web doesn’t understand language—and we have to admit that machines don’t deal with language in the way we do. This is why I suggest that we surrender the opposition between syntax and semantics and instead take up the concept of relation.
Brian Cantwell Smith, in his early and very important work On the Origin of Objects, has a very nice argument against the claim that machines only have syntax and no semantics, since such a distinction is far too anthropocentric. Contrary to what you have said, I am rather sure that Google, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft are all interested in “the formalistic, scientific rearrangement of protocols”; however, they all want their own protocols, and so they are reluctant to all use the same standards. We have to recognize that there is an institutional politics between the W3C and its business members. I think someone who looked more deeply into the history of the W3C would have better insight on this. It is true that since the Snowdon affair, the W3C has launched the Magna Carta project and the campaign “Web We Want.” However, since its launch it doesn’t appear to me that there has been much progress.
The other reason for the “failure” that we have described—and Stiegler has been claiming this for years—is that the semantic web did not allow for a “social web,” since its ultimate aim was the automation and standardization of data schemes. This is a different issue than the “cyber-libertarian” project of Julian Assange. Rather, it is a question of social organization and the organization of the social. To address this question of automation, in my book I attempted to compare Husserl’s intentional logic with extensional logic in order to show that we should reintroduce the question of experience into formal logic. This stands out as a rather strange chapter in the book, since it proposes a reading of Husserl that is closer to Deleuze and Simondon. This requires a long detour through Frege, Hilbert, Kripke, and Putnam. In 2012, I worked with Stiegler and Harry Halpin to reconceptualize the concept of the social by departing from Simondon’s notion of collective individuation in order to develop an alternative to Facebook. Just as Uber is the biggest taxi company without taxis, social networks are the biggest communities without the social. The semantic web only wants to provide an industrial standard so that these industrial players will use it to facilitate the development of the web, to avoid “walled gardens,” as some have said. But advocates of the semantic web have nothing to say about the industry itself. This is the stake of the semantic web, and not its failure to understand language.
GL: Let’s end with your upcoming book on the status of technology in China. Can we see this as a follow-up or logical extension of On the Existence of Digital Objects? Has your decade in Europe made it easier to reflect on China? What do you make of people who travel to Shenzhen to do ethnography there? Can philosophy be the king or queen of the sciences and in this way beat the social sciences?
YH: Indeed, the new book is intended to be a second work on the concept of relation that we discussed earlier. In On the Existence of Digital Objects, I deal with formal relations and objects. In The Question Concerning Technology in China: An Essay in Cosmotechnics (Urbanomic 2016), I deal with the relation between the cosmos and the moral. This book on China is an attempt to elucidate the differences between the way the concept of technics is understood in Chinese philosophy and the way it is understood in Ancient European philosophy. And as the title suggests, the book is an attempt to recontextualize and problematize Heidegger’s famous essay “Die Frage nach der Technik,” in order to revive the concept of a technics of world history, which I call “cosmotechnics.” Picking up what François Jullien says, we can know ourselves by knowing others. His work on Chinese thought allows him to better understand European thought. I profited from years of living and studying in Britain, France, and Germany, reflecting on different systems of thought. A few years ago you joked that I was actually doing ethnography in Europe. With this book, I want to show that there has been a different concept of technics in China. It is neither the Greek technē, nor “technology” in the sense that emerged in European modernity. This difference is not obvious among researchers in China, and it has never been clearly articulated; indeed, this was very embarrassing! I once read an article from a well-known Chinese philosopher of technology who, when addressing the Chinese public, claimed that Prometheus was the origin of all technics (including Chinese technics). That is a complete disorientation, in the double sense of the word. Maybe the Greeks and the Chinese all come from Prometheus, but this is not easy to prove …
I am probably not the best person to comment on the debate between philosophy and the social sciences. I wouldn’t say that there is a king or queen of disciplines. However, we have to acknowledge that in philosophy there is a particular form of questioning and a strong attention to histories of thought and to the precision of concepts. This way of questioning allows us to problematize a lot of dubious definitions that are often taken for granted. I am also interested in the social sciences, and my first degree was in computer engineering with a focus on AI, and I continue to work on practical projects. Any insistence on the superiority of a discipline is in most cases only self-indulgence. Early this year in Berlin I spent thirty minutes listening to Alain Badiou and Jean-Luc Nancy debate the question of whether Marx was a philosopher. I wish I could get those thirty minutes back. I don’t see what more we could get out of Marx if we renounced him as a philosopher. The rigor of a work is not solely determined by institutions or tradition. It depends on historical insights, consistent interrogations, and creativity. There is bad social science just as there is bad philosophy, not to mention bad scientific research.
Apropos of Badiou, recently he criticized Pokémon GO as “the corruption of corruption” and claimed that “the battle against images is a Platonic battle.” It is astonishing that this came out of the mouth of a Maoist, since every French Maoist knows by heart the saying “No investigation, no right to speak.” However, we must also turn the question around: How deeply must one engage with Pokémon GO in order to speak about Pokémon GO? Or more generally, how deeply must one understand technology in order to talk about technology? We easily fall into two extreme orders or two problematic philosophical attitudes: one simply renounces modern technology, since it is intrinsically bad; and the other dogmatically endorses it in order to endow it with a certain “ontological dignity.” We should get out of this Unmündigkeit, as Kant would call it, and overcome these obstinate oppositions. What is denounced may always appear in other forms in those who denounce it.
I hope that my book on China and technics can at least remind researchers who are, in your words, “doing ethnography in Shenzhen,” that in China there is a history of technics and a history of modernization. Some researchers take globalization as a given fact so they can simply study the differences between “technical facts”—in André Leroi-Gourhan’s sense, meaning the specificities of the tools and the different gestures of their users—without looking into the history of technics and modernization in China, into their “form of life,” as if China is no different from an African country, or as if the differences that do exist are only superficial. Ethnographers know very well that one must problematize globalization and modernization. We may want to remind ourselves that after having witnessed the disintegration of nonmodern cultures, Claude Lévi-Strauss addressed his fellow anthropologists in Tristes Tropiques by saying that anthropology should be renamed “entropology.” However, some quasi-critical ethnographic works only nurture such modernization. While we don’t expect everyone to be Joseph Needham and we don’t want to operate on a simple opposition between the global and the local, but do have to recognize “ontological diversities,” as has been proposed by Philippe Descola, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Bruno Latour, and others who are part of the so-called “ontological turn” in anthropology. This is why I believe that, besides the proposal by these anthropologists to recognize multiple natures, we must first of all recognize the diversity of cosmotechnics, without which there is no discourse of nature—diversity not only in the sense of different “technical facts” or “technical systems” (as Leroi-Gourhan and Bertrand Gille have put it) but also in the sense of different ontologies and cosmologies. And once this multiplicity is affirmed, how are we going to imagine the development of technologies and theories in the Anthropocene? This will be the next battle for all of us.
Yuk, thanks for the sympathy and consent to answer our questions!
Thank you for the interview!
Unless I am mistaken, you began the study of philosophy (and computer science) at the University of Hong Kong. I am very interested in the question of what is the modern philosophy in China. Does it have any irreducible specific features? How closely is it related to the modern Western philosophy?
Yes, I had a major in computer engineering and also studied analytic philosophy before I decided to turn to continental philosophy and contemporary theory in my postgraduate studies. The University of Hong Kong is a rather westernized university – considering it was the first university in Hong Kong during the colonial period, its system is very close to the Anglo-Saxon universities like Cambridge and Oxford, so you can imagine that analytic philosophy is a strong subject there. In China, now the philosophy departments are also quite “westernized”, for sure there are courses on ancient Chinese philosophy, but Western philosophy, including analytic philosophy, phenomenology, critical theory, French theory, is probably even much more popular and widely used as critical thinking apparatus.
The presence of the computer engineering background is very strongly felt in your texts. Is it possible to define you as the «philosopher-craftsman» (like the pre-Socratics, for example), philosopher, whose thought is not contemplative, but, on the contrary, is operative?
The study in Computer Engineering sometimes imposes constrains in my thinking, since often I have to ask myself, how am I going to make use of certain new concepts, like an engineer you give solutions to a problem but not only speculations. However the speculative thinking often wants to go beyond these constrains, since that is how philosophy functions, it constantly produces overflows. Therefore the conflict between the two will have to find a resolution that always ends up in another order of magnitude. It is also because of this, I find great affinity with the work of Simondon, who philosophizes like an engineer or like what Anne Sauvagnargues says a handyman (bricoleur). This way of thinking has to exhaust its possibilities by imposing constrains on itself, like a unity of necessity and contingency, which is full of tensions.
Do you create some digital objects as a computer engineer? What are you working on in this direction?
What I mean by digital objects are simply data objects, for sure, we all create digital objects everyday, your Facebook profile, Twitter status, etc. On the technical level, I have been working on metadata and ontologies since many years. Back in 2008, I was in charge of a collaborative project between the Tate Gallery and Goldsmiths College to develop a prototype that allows the public to produce metadata annotations for their growing audio-visual archive. The project was not realized towards the end, but we have succeeded in developing a prototype. I also carried this project further in the Institute of Research and Innovation led by Bernard Stiegler in Paris, where with Harry Halpin from the W3C we developed a prototype based on a new form of social network alternative to Facebook. This network was intended to be a collaborative one, which allows users to form groups and work on annotations and other tasks collectively. Metadata schemes and metadata management are central in these projects. The metadata society claimed by some theorists is probably a bad one, since it is an industrial one and characterizes what Deleuze calls “societies of control.” I am very sympathetic with the proposal of Stiegler that we should try to find other forms to produce and organize metadata.
So, the philosophy of digital objects, the philosophy of the digital milieu. How do you define these concepts today?
To simply put in this way, digital objects are new industrial objects that pervade our everyday life, they are simply data formalized in terms of “objects”, i.e. an unity composing of multiple formal properties, for example a Facebook profile, a Instangram image, etc. The digital milieu is the environment in which these objects function and in which we live, but unlike the “natural environment” whose causalities can be easily materialized and calculated. I believe that we are in a époque where the concept of nature becomes questionable. What we called nature before becomes function of technical apparatus, for example the river for the Guimbal engine, the sea for the Fukushima nuclear power plant, they all function as a cooling agent. We can find many other examples in different infrastructures. In comparison, the digital milieu represents a higher form of integration, since it allows a more radical form of convergence, which is relatively limited in networks that depends on physical contacts, like railways, telephone networks, etc. Leroi-Gourhan when takes about the technical milieu, he was able to situates it between the interior and the exterior milieu (e.g. between two ethnic groups), however this is quite different for a digital one, since one will have to redefine the interior and exterior – if they exist at all. Moreover, the river and the ocean are what Simondon called the associated milieu, meaning that it is not a separated environment, but rather a function which is at the same time exterior to and interior of the object. I am interested in understanding the possible forms of the associated milieu for both digital objects and users in the digital environment.
Yes, you write about it in your «What is a Digital Object?» You’ve contrasted digital objects with natural objects and technical objects. The first distinction is more or less clear, but the difference of a digital object from a technical object remains a mysterious for me. Can you clarify this difference? So how does a digital object differ from a technical object?
Behind this passage from natural objects to technical objects then to digital objects, there is an idea central to my thinking, namely the question of materialization. I believe that technical evolution is based on such concept of materialization: technology always attempts to materialize what is not yet materialized or materializable. What Simondon calls concretization of technical objects is for me the process of the materialization of causalities – meaning that one is able to build on the digital objects a recurrent causality thanks to the discovery of new materials, new milleux (like the river in Guimbal’s engine). It is true that Simondon refused to be a materialist, but it is no less true that those who refused materialism turn out to be true materialists. The technical objects that Simondon demonstrated in Du monde d’existence des objets techniques are electronic devices based on the working principle of quantum mechanics, for example, diode, triode, transistor, etc. With the digital, there is a new form of materiality, which no longer situates on the same order of magnitude as the technical objects described by Simondon. Jean-François Lyotard calls it “les immatériaux”, but we know that for Lytoard the immaterial is the new material, since the immaterial doesn’t exist for a materialist. What is significant in the digital, I will argue here, is not that it is binary and discrete, but rather the concept of data; and the progress of digital technology is the advancement of the management of data. The causality that is embedded in digital objects is now materialized by data instead of electrons and voltage differences, though we must still bear in mind that the physical principles are its foundation. In an article titled “Towards a relational materialism” in 2015, I attempted to sketch this new form of materialization in related to de-substantialisation.
According to Gilbert Simondon, the technical object implies invention. Must digital object be invented?
For Simondon, invention is the moment when a certain incompatibility is overcome, a barrier is surpassed, and something new arrives. This difficulty is what drives invention. In this sense digital objects are surely inventions that involve the resolutions of technical difficulties, for example data scheme compatibility, data scheme incompleteness, etc. Simondon in his course Imagination et invention also talks about invention as a cycle of images, meaning from mental images to symbols and to technical objects – this is particularly interesting when we think of Kant’s first critique where he speaks about the transcendental imagination as the agent of schematization and in the discourse of Simondon he actually considers imagination as part of a cycle of the invention, meaning that it depends on something exteriorized – symbol, technical objects. In On the Existence of Digital Objects, I attempt to show that such schematizations, which are exteriorized as digital objects, are reconstituting the world with a new materiality and according to a specific computational logic, e.g. a new cycle of invention.
You wrote that the theory of digital objects demands a synthesis between Simondonian individualization and the Heideggerian interpretation of ready-to-handness. Would you agree with the thesis according to which «the growth of the saving power» that Heidegger saw in the essence of technology, have germinated in the allagmatic Simondonian thought?
The technical objects of Simondon is, as my friend Jean-Hugues Barthélémy has claimed, non-anthropological, while Heidegger’s understanding of the ready-to-hand is anthropological. This claim may be too rigid, since I think one can find an anthropology of technical objects in the thought of Simondon especially when he talks about the alienation of technical objects, but Jean-Hugues’ claim does indicate the great difference between the two thinkers. Simondon talks about individualization of technical objects, but he never touched on the individuation of technical objects, and the question is how can we think about it? In my book, I consciously avoid re-using the vocabulary of Simondon in L’individuation à la lumière des notions de forme et d’information to describe such process of individuation for example pre-individual, disparation, etc. I tried to develop further the concept of “relation” which is central in Simondon’s book but remains ambiguous. And there, I find Heidegger a “good” accompany of Simondon, since Heidegger though refused to developed further the concept of relation (Bezug), has developed a relational thinking in the first division of Sein und Zeit. Saying so, Heidegger also has another concept of relation, which is Verhältnis, and he has developed it further in his later work, but that is another issue.
Therefore in On the Existence of Digital Objects, I wanted to resolve – in the spirit of Simondon – the difference between Ontology (the ontological) and ontologies (the ontic) by introducing the concept of relation that traverses hierarchies, however at the same time hierarchies are also the source of relations. Therefore it is not an oppositional thinking, but rather a relational one. On this point, my reading of the Zuhandene of Heidegger is almost the opposite of that of Graham Harman, since for him, it is a withdraw without relations, while for me it is a manifestation of relations.
This phrase from Höderlin’s Patmos is a wisdom that deserves our constant reflection upon it. The question is not about the danger, but the awareness of this danger and the decision to be made regarding this danger. However without being aware of it, one cannot get rid of it. I am trying to respond to Heidegger’s essay in a forthcoming book titled The Question Concerning Technology in China, in which I term this unawareness of danger the unconsciousness of modernity. Your question is, can one find in Simondon’s allagmatic thinking the saving power that Heidegger aspires to? This is a very intriguing question, I think it depends on how we interpret both of them. What Heidegger was proposing is a “turn” or a “transformation” of thinking, one that overcomes technology by creating a horizon of meanings which is much broader and more profound, in order to resolve the opposition between culture and technics; while the allagmatic thinking of Simondon (at least for me) is a method that resolves the opposition (or any opposition) and allows a new way of thinking and a new form of being to emerge – it is possibly to be a resolution in so far that it overcomes the Gestell through technology. I cannot say that it is the saving power that Heidegger aspires to, they seem to me to be two solutions, two forms of thinking.
By the way, there is a strange word-combination in some of your texts — the Heideggerian AI. Can we read Heidegger as a theorist of AI?
Heideggerian AI was a term coined by Hubert Dreyfus, the American philosopher who was once very much into AI and he has written a book What computers can’t do (1972) and later an updated version What computers still can’t do (1992). Dreyfus made a very powerful claim that the good old fashioned AI, namely that which is based on frames, on formalizations, is only a Cartesian AI. For example, when a robot comes into a room, how can a robot make decision, should it analyze every object in the room like present-at hand? Or should it analyze the environment as a whole namely the totality of signification, which has to do with ready-to-hand, with embodiment of the environment? The Heideggerian AI is a challenge to the computer scientists in the 70s and 80s, and notably has influenced people like Terry Winograd, the teacher of the two founders of Google. This is the reason for which Harry Halpin and others claim that Google is a project of metaphysics, and I totally agree with it.
I am also concerned about something else: it is the third part of the «On the mode of existence of technical objects», where we read: “toute forme de pensée ou tout mode d’existence engendré par la technicité exigeraient d’être complétés et équilibrés par un autre mode de pensée ou d’existence sortant du mode religieux”. What does it mean? Is there we need of completely new terminology and ways of thinking? Something like technoteology, technosoteriology, technodicy. What does it mean when Simondon said in the last interview (1983): «the technical object must be saved» (apparently, in the religious sense)?
It is great that you mention this remarkable quote from Simondon, if I haven’t mistaken, it is from the last pages of part III. Here the question is about convergence, which has an ideal model in the magical phase from which technics and religion are bifurcated. What does it mean by convergence? I believe that we can understand it in different ways and move beyond Simondon. Firstly it is the unity of matter and spirit, technicity in itself is not a complete reality, meaning that matter is not everything. This is against the naïve materialists who believe in a material and technological determinism. What makes technical thinking complete is “another mode of thinking or existence coming out of the religious mode,” like when it was in the magic phase, in which technics and nature, subject and object are not clearly distinguishable. However, the proposal for a convergence doesn’t necessarily mean that one should return to the magic phase, to an archaic cosmology, precisely because such a cosmology is also affected by technicity. Therefore, we will have to investigate on another mode of convergence, which attempts to reunite objects and subjects. In On the Existence of Digital Objects, I took up this task to ask how can we imagine a convergence in the time when digital networks have virtually brought everything together – internet of things, smart city, etc., in what sense can we still talk about convergence? It means that one should go beyond this mode of convergence to another sense. It is exactly in Part III that Simondon evoked Heidegger on this question – and probably the only occasion in the book that he talked about Heidegger, e.g. to go beyond the separated technical objects. I proposed to tackle the question of convergence in related to digital objects by going back to Husserl’s meaning horizon and Heidegger’s Daseinanalytics, for the former it concerns the phenomenological foundation of logic, which implies in this case that it is possible to understand a digital object as the meaning horizon which is not limited by computational logic; and for the latter it concerns the temporal foundation of the Kantian transcendental imagination, therefore it opens up the question of a computational hermeneutics, where we can address the question of tertiary protention (which I developed on the base of Stiegler’s tertiary retention). I didn’t deal with the question of spirit and religion in On the Existence of Digital Objects, but I come back to it in the book that I mentioned above The Question Concerning Technology in China.
Saving technical objects, means that one will have to understand them, and to save them from alienation. Simondon is probably the only one who talked about the alienation of technical objects. I believe that there is a question of the soul in Simondon’s thinking of technical objects. The soul of technical object is more like what Plato describes in Timaeus, than Aristotle’s De Anima, firstly because the soul is created by the demiurge, and secondly because the Aristotlian soul is based on hylemorphism which Simondon has heavily criticized. A technical object is alienated, when after being produced, it has to wait indefinitely in the market before it is bought and used. It means that it is not properly used, or it is useless in this indefinite time of waiting, like a slave in the market waiting to be bought by its master. This is one example that Simondon gave in his 1961-62 course Sociopsychology of Technicity, a few years after the publication of Du mode d’existence des objets techniques. I agree with you that there is something religious there, that is also the reason for which Simondon could talk about the eschatology of technical objects (a paper that he gave in 1972).
When you define the digital as a new technique to manage data, do you imply a political meaning? How data management is being embedded in a post-modern Empire?
Indeed, the term datum which originally means sensible data given as such, acquired a new meaning in the first half of the 20th century as information processed by computers. I believe that this change in etymology has a significant importance for the understanding of the digital both philosophically and politically. We know that in philosophy, the pair data-given played a central role for example in Kant’s aesthetics both beautiful and sublime, in Husserl’s phenomenology, and also in Heidegger’s thought when we consider existential and theological connotation of the “there is” (es gibt, it gives) and data as the given, this opens the possibility to reconsider the works of these thinkers according to the digital condition.
To illustrate it with example, we know that data constitutes one of the core questions of phenomenology, e.g. the given (das Gegebene). It is only through the given that phenomenology operates. With is significant in the sense that what happens to the subject of phenomenology? And if Heidegger and Simondon’s concept of the technical objects come from a phenomenological (or post-phenomenological understanding), how can this dimension of the digital add to such a cycle or ecology of the given? I tried to response with a critique of phenomenology in my recent book on digital objects.
The understanding of digital as binary is historically interesting, for which we should read Leibniz again and his fascinating ideas about writing; but in terms of politics, it is futile, since it doesn’t really help to understand what is at stake in our time. Data management, as Jacques Ellul already described in the 1970s, is fundamental to what he calls a technological system (noted that Ellul uses the expression le système technicien instead of le système technique or technologique) always looks for a system, in which everything can be easily traced and managed and every action can be predicted. This is a situation that we are witnessing today after Ellul’s description already made 40 years ago, and I think Ellul’s concept of technological system went beyond what Simondon has described in Du mode d’existence des objets techniques, precisely because Ellul was more sensitive to the political and social questions.
I just allude to the common critical opinion on the Networks as an instrument of exploitation, as a way of biopolitical production and so on. Criticism of the «Californian Ideology», Negri and his criticism of the network Empire, etc. In 2012 you yourself were discussing the question of Post-Facebook Social Networks. And also in the Archivist Manifesto digitalization is presented as a kind of field of political clashes. In other words, the question is that if the digitalisation is a battlefield, where is the front line in the digital milieu? for what and by what this struggle is waged?
Digitalisation has created a new form of politics and economy, 20 years ago people didn’t see it clearly, but today this is evident to everyone who has access to Internet. The question is not whether Network is an instrument exploitation or not, but what kinds of network under what conditions become instruments of exploitation. To my impression, there are confusions in the usage of terms like Network, Internet, Cybernetics, Empire, etc., as if they are the same thing. We can talk about network in general, but this only creates more confusion concerning the political and economical reality. In the project on social network as well as my work on digital objects, I constantly insist that we must develop different forms of network in order to reinvent the social and the political. In my book, I brought Husserl and Simondon together to understand what is at stake in the production of digital objects and annotation of them. The question is what kind of network – what kind of organization, and we have to be very precise with it. Saint Simon also wanted to use network to realize socialism, just like Capitalism uses network to consolidate its Empire à la Negri, an abstract concept of network will exhaust our imagination, and in the case the rhizome becomes even more banal than the tree. The recent book of the French activist group The Invisible Committee in their latest book To Our Friends has sharply pointed out that it is futile to wage symmetric wars, since they are doomed to lose. What does it mean by asymmetric war or effective resistance in this sense? It means that one should not stay in the same discourse of network, but rather re-invent the form of the warfare, without employing the same logic of the enemy. If there is a latent aim in this project, it is the effort to provoke a new imagination of network hence new form or even one without image.
I.e. Ellul was right when he said that if Marx were alive today, he would have analyzed the technics, but not the economic structure of society? And the problem of modern criticism of capitalism is that it continues to think in the manner of the XIX century, rather than to do an analysis of technology?
Simondon also hold the same view, which is rather clear in the conclusion of MEOT, where he says that capital is only an amplifying agent, instead of the primary cause of alienation. For sure, we have to bear in mind that the recent emphasize on his “Fragments on Machines” of the Grundrisse is an attempt to reinvent Marx as a thinker of technology. I believe that there is more and more awareness of the importance of technology in the criticism of capitalism, for example, we see that with the British accelerationists, technology is central to their strategy to terminate capitalism. However, I am not sure if, for example with full automation, it will necessarily lead to an optimistic end, e.g. the redistribution of resources. I am skeptical, because in this discourse, everything works mechanically, even capitalism itself functions like a mechanical being, which continues to exhaust itself regardless of the danger ahead. Foxconn, the Taiwanese manufacturer of iPhone has announced that it will use 10,000 robots in 2014, and in the future they will increase 30,000 robots per year. But Foxconn in fact not only failed to implement the 1 million robots army, but also by the end needed more humans. This is an example, which not only shows that full automation is difficult, but also it is probably also not desirable for capitalism.
Is there hierarchy of digital objects or digital objects are in anarchy? For example, viruses — how they fit into a digital milieu and data management policy?
The question of hierarchy is interesting, is a virus higher in the hierarchy as a Facebook picture? Is a robot higher in hierarchy than a virus? I prefer not to repeat the work on categorization like the 17thcentury natural science, but rather the process or the operation of the virus. A computer program is necessarily hierarchical in different senses: main program and functions, functions and routines, routines and commands, the hierarchy between different databases, not to mention the permissions of access, etc. Therefore speaking as an object as you said, there is no anarchic virus.
mean that the virus has to be the object, which undermines any hierarchy… Is this a superficial judgment?
I am not sure if a virus undermines the hierarchy, a virus is like a parasite, it is only dangerous when it is able to exploit the well established hierarchy and therefore to find out the weakness within its organization. Hence a virus cannot do without a hierarchy, in other words hierarchy is essential to a virus. The virus in turn destroys the organization by corrupting it.
The foreword to your On the Existence of Digital Objects was written by Bernard Stiegler to whom you often refer in your works. Repeatedly you participated in the Ars Industrialis conferences. How your project adjoins to Stiegler’s ideas, for example to «économie de la contribution» which develops by participants of Ars Industrialis?
Bernard Stiegler was my teacher as well as a very dear friend. I encountered Bernard in 2008, and since then we have worked together very closely. Bernard has a very significant impact on my thinking and I am very much in debt to many long discussions and exchanges with him. The project on social network was carried out inside his institute in Paris, and we had a lot of discussions on the question of individuation and social networks. My take on the concept of economy of contribution is what Simondon called collective individuation, which becomes an ontological resistance against individualist concept of social networks (e.g. the society is consisted of social atoms as it is proposed by Jacob Moreno). But I also want to take Simondon further, in the sense that I want to realize a metaphysical thinking in material terms, and therefore I want to reconnect Simondon’s principle thesis (l’individuation à la lumière des notions de forme et d’information) which was considered by some philosophers (e.g. Pierre Montebello) as a philosophy of nature, with his supplementary thesis (Du mode d’existence des objets techniques). I believe that Simondon was more much more ambitions than just developing a “philosophy of nature,” and I don’t believe that Simondon has the intention to subordinate technics to nature; instead, he always search for an allagmatic way of thinking that overcomes such opposition, although he refers often to the opposition of culture and technics, but not nature and technics. At the same time, I was also influenced by the works of anthropologists, for example Marcel Mauss David Graeber (especially the idea of gift economy) as well as the work of Tiqqun. With David Graeber, we have also published an article on the Occupy HongKong movement in 2014 in the French newspaper Le Monde. In fact, right before the project on social network, I participated in the Occupy movement in Hong Kong (the one in 2011-2012) and there with the comrades we tried to experiment with gift economy. This experience added a political and anthropological dimension to the project on social networks. The economy that is desired in this new form of social network is not only about “collaboration” but also more fundamentally a critique against the conception that economy originates from barter system and therefore has its foundation in individualism.
In 2013, you wrote the Archivist Manifesto, offering subjectivation in the form of the care for the personal archive (based on Foucault’s The Care of the Self and Heidegger’s Sorge). «One should become archivist instead of users» — is the great formula, but is the archivist of digital objects possible without archaeologist?
I think the role of an archivist is very different from that of an archaeologist, since an archaeologist constructs a history of objects and systems, while an archivist creates a context for himself as well as for others (e.g. visitors, readers), namely orientation in time and space. I wanted to talk about archivists as a form of resistance as well as a way of life (in the sense of the great historian Pierre Hadot) because there is a problem with usage. Digital objects are not used properly, they are exploited just for the industrial interests, of course they do bring certain conveniences (but which innovation doesn’t). We need to find a new way of being with digital objects and technical objects, and this being-with is no longer to “use,” but rather to take care of them in order to take care of ourselves – and in contrary to Marx, Simondon talks about the alienation of technical objects. However what does it mean by take care? It is by no means a patronizing gesture, but rather a technique of subjectivation by reconstructing a new temporal structure (in this sense I understand what Heidegger calls Dasein) through and with the aid of digital objects.
You «had a nice discussion with Nick Land in Shanghai» not so long ago. Can you tell a little more about it?
This is how information is organized today in social networks, the system gives you what is considered to be relevant, and allowed you to discover this on my Facebook! As I said earlier, I am finishing a book The Question Concerning Technology in China. In this book, I closely engage with the work of a Chinese philosopher called Mou Zongsan. I consider him the greatest Chinese philosopher of the 20th century. Unfortunately there is very few translation of his excellent works into English, probably there is a bit more in German. I was lucky enough to have started reading him when I was a teenager, since my high school teacher as well as my calligraphy teacher at the time was his last PhD student, who was working on a thesis on a comparison of the complete teaching in Huayen Buddhism and Tientai Buddhism. I had the privilege to discuss with him regularly about New Confucianism and the thought of Mou Zongsan. Nick is also very interested by Mou’s work as well, so are Reza Negarestani and Robin Mackay. So when I passed by Shanghai in March, we were talking about Mou Zongsan and the communication between western philosophy and Chinese philosophy. Mou Zongsan used the concept of intellectual intuition as a critique of Kant’s metaphysics of limits – since Kant has refused that human beings possess intellectual intuition, therefore the noumena is only a mere object of the understanding. Mou also uses it as a reaffirmation of the value of Chinese philosophy. The intellectual intuition for Mou is the capacity that Chinese philosophy endeavors to cultivate; it also serves as the foundation of a moral metaphysics (I will also say a moral cosmology). Nick is associating it with what he calls intellectual explosion, which is for me very intriguing, and indeed, I think that only a Western philosopher like him can interpret Mou Zongsan in such a non-orthodox way. The discussion with Nick Land was very exciting, I must say, I have the impression that a more profound and also more progressive dialogue between European philosophy and Chinese philosophy will be possible, after hundred years of modernization which didn’t give time for it.
Great! And, apparently, the last question. In what direction you will continue your investigations after «On the Existence of Digital Objects» and “The Question Concerning Technology in China”? What’s plans on the future?
Apart from the book on China that I mentioned above, I am working on the question of technical system, which I have already evoked in On the Existence of Digital Objects, and for which I am going back to Schelling.
Well, I wish you success, Yuk! Thank you very much for your answers!
My pleasure, and thank you for these interesting questions!