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).
Na próxima segunda-feira (23), às 18h30, no Salão Pedro Calmon (FCC/UFRJ – Campus Praia Vermelha), receberemos Yuk Hui (Bauhaus-Universität Weimar – Alemanha), em sua primeira visita à América do Sul, para a conferência “Após o orgânico”. Um dos principais filósofos e teóricos da atualidade, Hui abordará as condições da política pós virada cibernética, contra a ideia do que ele chama de um “naturalismo político”, tema do seu próximo livro. A mediação da conferência será da Prof. Victa de Carvalho (PPGCOM/UFRJ) e do diretor do ITS Rio, Ronaldo Lemos.
O evento é gratuito, para fazer a inscrição é só preencher o formulário: https://forms.rdstation.com.br/apos-o-organico-yuk-hui-ed8077ad597b56acefbe
Conhecido por The Question Concerning Technology in China – An Essay in Cosmotechnics (2016) e outros trabalhos como On the Existence of Digital Objects (2016) e Recursivity and Contingency (2019), Yuk Hui tem dedicado sua pesquisa e reflexão a problemas ontológicos, estéticos, culturais e políticos que envolvem a tecnologia e suas relações no mundo contemporâneo. No Brasil, a n-1 edições publicou o texto “Da consciência infeliz dos neorreacionários”, na Caixa Pandemia de cordéis.
A organização do evento é fruto da parceria entre o MediaLab UFRJ, a Rede Latino-Americana de Estudos em Vigilância, Tecnologia e Sociedade (lavits), o Programa de Pós-graduação em Comunicação e Cultura da UFRJ (ECO-Pós), o Instituto de Tecnologia e Sociedade do Rio de Janeiro (ITS Rio), o Programa de Pós-Graduação em Computação Comunicação e Artes (PPGCCA – UFPB), o Grupo de Estudos em Estética, Técnica e Sociedade (GETS | DCS-UFPB) e o Núcleo de Pesquisa e Extensão em Aplicações de Vídeo Digital (NPE/LAVID – UFPB). E conta, ainda, com o apoio institucional da Coordenação de Aperfeiçoamento de Pessoal de Nível Superior (Capes), do Fórum de Ciência e Cultura da UFRJ, da Fundação de Apoio à Pesquisa do Estado da Paraíba (FAPESQ) e do Governo do Estado da Paraíba.
// arte: Marlus Araújo
許煜最近接受了TANK MAGAZINE的訪問, 談到他的「宇宙技術」(Cosmotechnics)。訪問全文如下。
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.
將本地藝術風格視為西方現代主義在異國樣本的模式，已逐漸被擺脫西方中心主義視角的學界所捨棄，復以多重現代性（mulitiple modernities）或另類現代性的框架來檢視東亞各國藝術的特異性（singularity）。從這些極具特異性的表現出發，當代藝術不僅止於西方觀念或流派在本地的襲仿，反而是可從某些關鍵的一手檔案，反思歷史上本地與東亞各國之間共享的當代性課題，諸如：後殖民情境下的藝術主體性、冷戰格局下的文化抵抗（cultural rebelion）連帶、歷史前衛與左翼運動在二戰前後的變異、新前衛與當代策展空間的實驗等議題。
Julia F. ANDREWS 安雅蘭 │ 美國俄亥俄州立大學藝術史系教授
Po-Shin CHIANG 蔣伯欣 │ 國立臺南藝術大學藝術史學系助理教授
John CLARK 姜苦樂 │ 澳洲雪梨大學藝術史系榮譽教授
Jane DEBEVOISE 杜柏貞 │ 亞洲藝術文獻庫(香港及紐約)董事會主席
FEI Dawei 費大為 │ 上海當代藝術博物館學術委員會輪值主席
Patrick D. FLORES 派崔克・佛洛雷斯 │ 菲律賓大學藝術系教授
Yuk HUI 許煜 │ 德國呂訥堡大學副研究員
INABA (Fujimura) Mai 稻葉(藤村)真以 │ 韓國光雲大學藝術系助理教授
Hee-Young KIM 金嬉英 │ 韓國國民大學美術史系教授
Sunjung KIM 金宣廷 │ 韓國善宰藝術中心總監，韓國光州國立亞洲文化殿堂(ACC)亞
KURODA Raiji 黑田雷児 │ 日本福岡亞洲美術館學藝課長
Yi-ting LEI 雷逸婷 │ 台北市立美術館助理研究員
Lesley MA 馬唯中 │ 香港M+水墨策展人
SENG Yu Jin 辛友仁 │ 新加坡國家美術館資深策展人
Kuiyi SHEN 沈揆一 │ 美國加州大學聖地牙哥分校視覺藝術系教授
Song-Yong SING 孫松榮 │ 國立台南藝術大學動畫藝術與影像美學研究所教授
Simon SOON 孫先勇 │ 國立馬來亞大學視覺藝術系高級講師
SUZUKI Katsuo 鈴木勝雄 │ 東京國立近代美術館學藝員
Clare VEAL 克萊・維爾 │ 新加坡拉薩爾藝術學院講師
WU Mali 吳瑪悧 │ 國立高雄師範大學跨領域藝術研究所副教授
Anthony YUNG 翁子健 │ 香港亞洲藝術文獻庫資深研究員
Catherine Tsai-yun CHAN 詹彩芸 │ 台北市立美術館研究員兼研究組組長
Hsiang-ling LAI 賴香伶 │ 春之文化基金會董事
Dean-E MEI 梅丁衍 │ 國立台灣藝術大學版畫研究所教授