We publish our new translation of the article “Apocalypse, Now! Peter Sloterdijk and Bernard Stiegler on the Anthropocene” written by Pieter Lemmens and Yuk Hui in our Chinese site. This article originally published in Boundary2, you can find this article at here: http://t.cn/R3qGNOO For the Chinese translation of the article, please go to our Chinese site for more information.
The Chinese translation of Benjamin H. Bratton’s article “Black Stack” is now available in our Chinese site. This article originally published at e-flux journal in 2014. You can find this article in e-flux: http://www.e-flux.com/journal/53/59883/the-black-stack/
originally published at e-flux: http://www.e-flux.com/architecture/superhumanity/179224/on-automation-and-free-time/
1. Dialectics of Living and Dead Labor
In “Fragment on Machines,” Marx made the case that with investment in automated technology, which he called fixed capital, capitalism is able to reduce necessary labor time and increase both surplus labor and value . Marx then speaks of the possibility of sublating surplus labor to free time, which he understood as “both idle time and time for higher activity.” This speculation, in which the type of labor corresponding to a capitalist mode of production disappears, is predicated on new technological developments. Within the concept of free time, Marx envisions a communist emancipation of the subject, since free time “[transforms] its possessor into a different subject, [who] then enters into the direct production process as this different subject.” This idea resonates with Marx and Engels’s famous lines in The German Ideology in which they state that within a communist society, it is “possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.” With this utopian image in mind, however, we should not, as Marx himself emphasized, confuse “free time” with “play” in the sense of Charles Fourier. Instead, free time needs to be understood as productive, as for allowing individual interests and desires to be developed while contributing to societal and scientific progress at large. The will for free time requires its organization against constant valorization, which is to say, alienation. One hundred and sixty years after the Grundrisse was written, Marx’s question of how to effectively sublate surplus labor and reduce necessary labor time has yet to be fully resolved. Yet in the recent past, there have been three main responses, which can be summarized as follows:
1) Seize the means of production, such as in various socialist collective projects.
2) Transform surplus labor into a form of resistance and the general intellect into a multitude, as outlined in the work of thinkers like Toni Negri, Paolo Virno, and others.
3) Accelerate towards full automation, implement universal income and an ethic of “working less,” as in the Situationists and, more recently, accelerationists.
The strength, and weakness, of each of these proposals for imagining and realizing a post-labor condition—which are, in all fairness, caricatures of their political nuance—is based on the idea that machines are both utilities and economic categories, or in other words, fixed capital as Marx categorized them. Yet fixed capital is always double: it is both capital for capitalists and tools for workers. As capital, it works with what is in circulation to extract surplus value, and as a tool, it establishes direct psychosomatic relations with and between workers. In order to better grasp what is at stake in the idea of a post-labor condition, we need to inquire into the question of free time again without following Marxian dogma or succumbing to postcapitalist excitation. In other words, the question is not whether full automation will negate capitalism and dialectically result in a postcapitalist society. If we raise the question of post-labor as such, we will fail to take into account the social history of industrialization and will mistakenly consider automation as something that happens only in factories, like Marx’s fixed capital. Instead, we should recognize, as Gilbert Simondon already did nearly sixty years ago, how contemporary capitalist developments make Marx’s original analysis of alienation debatable, and search for new ways forward.
2. The Displacement of Fixed Capital
Fixed capital has left the factory and moved into smartphones, homes, and cities. The environmentalization of fixed capital in the name of smartification characterizes an algorithmic governmentality that effectively modulates transindividual relations and valorizes them through quantification, data analysis, and predictive algorithms, all the while establishing and institutionalizing new regimes of truth. Those who “play” on Facebook or its equivalent as if they have plenty of time are not enjoying free time as such but rather entering into a constant process of valorization in which time and experience are exteriorized as data and immediately analyzed to further seduce users into consumption. One could even argue that this social condition of feedback, and the fact that Marx’s dialectical overcoming of surplus labor and necessary labor time is incomplete, is one of the most fundamental characteristics of post-Fordist society. By questioning the notion of fixed capital, we are obliged to enter into a historical analysis of labor and the category of the worker according to the evolution of technology, from “working machines” to steam engines and contemporary cybernetic machines.  It is only through such an analysis that we will not only be able to shed new light onto the seemingly dead-end dialectics that Marx put forward in “Fragment on Machines,” but also to identify the source of alienation in the digital epoch.
Marx already pointed out that the development of fixed capital will determine to what degree general social knowledge can become a direct force of production. However, we should notice that although machines are considered a historical category, they are nevertheless only analyzed as an economic one. It is exactly on this point that Simondon criticized Marx: “Under this juridical and economic relation there is a more profound and more essential relation, which is the continuity between human individual and technical individual, or the discontinuity between these two beings.” By “technical individual,” Simondon means technical objects which have attained a certain level of autonomy based on recurrent causality or feedback.  Besides the psychosocial necessities of being human, there is also, according to Simondon, a psychosocial character to technical objects, which is not so much an animism as it is a reciprocal and collaborative relation between human and machine. Before the Industrial Revolution, artisans were capable of creating an associated milieu when working with tools in their ateliers, in the sense that they themselves had the status of technical individuals. In the condition of labor Marx describes, artisans and peasants are forced to leave their ateliers and work in the factory. These workers—which Simondon calls “laborers of elements”—don’t understand machines as technical individuals, as they are used to the artisanal way of working with tools, that is, taming them. Changing the gestures they developed in their previous experiences demands also a change in mentality, since now machines instead of the workers are technical individuals. When these artisans work with machines, they are merely users, repeating their gestures according to the predefined operational procedures and the rhythms of the machine, which gives rise to an existential malaise. At the same time, capital sees technical objects as mere means to improve production efficiency and increase profits, without paying attention to the sociopsychological relation between human and machine.
Simondon claims that labor is only a phase of technicity, and not vice versa. If artisanal labor is conditioned by the technicality of the tools, then new, industrial technologies produce a new form of labor. As Simondon pointed out, in the transition from artisanal labor to industrial labor, there was no change in the polarity of technical knowledge, namely the division between technicians who are conscious of technology and reflect upon it (like adults) and ordinary people concerned only with use (like children). In other words, there are technicians who are responsible for repairing machines, while workers, as just ordinary users, do not necessarily have the technical knowledge to take care of machines, to extend the lives of machines beyond the moments of their creation and production and use them in support of the laborer’s own individuation. Individuation here, to risk simplifying it, means the worker’s capacity to benefit from their work beyond economic means in sublimated form, namely either as repression or elevation, conscious or unconscious. For Simondon, the inability of the worker to adopt machines as a condition of work, in the sense of œuvrer, and not simply labor, leads to a double alienation: of both machines and workers, where machines are treated as slaves and humans are turned into alienated labor. In a course titled “Social Psychology of Technicity” that Simondon gave between 1960–61, he further pointed out that alienation is intensified with consumerism, since technical objects now become mere commercial products, like slaves in Roman times, waiting on the market for their future owners to pick them up.
Simondon considers alienation to originate from a more fundamental level than Marx’s economic analysis: not in the ownership of the means of production but in the misunderstanding and ignorance of technology itself. Simondon understands technical knowledge to be an autonomous, or at least only contingently related, epistemological category to that of capital and labor, and suggests its development to resolve the problem of alienation. What Simondon proposes is that it is necessary to understand the schema within technical objects—the way they are organized—in order to revitalize relations between humans and machines and their evolution, and to situate such evolution within a broader reality. This idea serves as the point of departure for Simondon’s critique in his supplementary doctoral thesis, On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects, that philosophy should work to resolve the problem of alienation by taking the mode of existence of technical objects seriously. In comparison, today, the general public is less concerned with working conditions in factories (except, perhaps, in factories like Foxconn) than with the possibility that automatons will replace humans and that full automation will lead to full unemployment. Yet, does this understanding of what a post-labor condition might look like really mean that we can separate the machine world, in which automatons work 24/7, and the human world, in which humans are progressively detaching themselves from labor processes? Or is there a “base” (e.g., the human-machine relation) that is more fundamental than the “superstructure” (capital-labor relation), and which has to be further questioned?
3. The Transindividuality of Machines
If we follow Simondon’s idea that labor is a phase of the genesis of technicity (and not the other way around) and that the category of “technical activities” extends far beyond the category of labor, we should understand post-labor to be a new technological condition, which suggests a new form of labor taking shape. To understand the post-labor condition and respond to such a new industrial program thus demands a systemic study of the question of technical knowledge today. In other words, inquiring into the formation and distribution of technical knowledge (savoir technique) would work to update Simondon’s theory of double alienation as we move towards a post-labor condition. Yet the technical knowledge and activities we are talking about here cannot be reduced to engineering principles or simply knowing how to repair machines. We must avoid the misunderstanding that everyone has to become an engineer or hacker in order to deal with the problems produced by capitalism. Instead, we should think in terms of the means to reappropriate technology beyond industrial, consumerist applications. Marx hints at this when he comments on the weaving machine in Das Kapital: “This machine … only in some determined conditions … becomes capital.” But this comment demands a deeper interpretation. Reappropriation has to be distinguished from repurposing. Facebook can be repurposed to initiate an anti-Facebook movement, but by doing so, we still commit ourselves to the ontological and epistemological presuppositions of Facebook—for example, how it defines an individual and social relations. How else do we know what social relations are, or can be? Facebook is an application of internet technology, but Facebook is itself not technology per se, which consists of network protocols, programming languages, API libraries, etc. To reappropriate this would mean to create alternatives based on different ontologies and epistemologies, which is far beyond the scope of libertarian hackers.
Bernard Stiegler, interpreting the work of Gilbert Simondon, proposes to politicize the question of individuation against the backdrop of industrialization and consumerism. However, in contrast to Simondon’s Jungian reading of the concept of individuation, Stiegler uses Freud’s theory of desire to understand individuation as a constant libidinal investment, and to interrogate the conditions under which such individuation can take place. Simondon uses the metaphor of crystallization to characterize the proto-process of individuation, in which a supersaturated liquid starts crystalizing when certain material, energetic, and informational conditions are met. In Stiegler’s model, consumerism has short-circuited the mechanisms of individuation, replacing libido with drive and investment with addiction, which leads to a “disindividuation.” Libidinal investment thus becomes the motivation for individuation qua crystallization. In Simondon’s theory of psychic and collective individuation, the role of technology is almost invisible, while for Stiegler, it is necessary to take into account the role of technology in the process of individuation and as a means to bridge Simondon’s two doctoral theses, one on individuation and the other on the individualization of technical objects. If we follow this logic, it means that we need to develop a new understanding of fixed capital in relation to individuation, which will lead us to a new interpretation of Simondon’s critique of Marx.
An understanding of fixed capital can thus be extended beyond that of a substantial being and towards sets of transindividual relations organized according to specific operational schemes. This proposal gestures towards a rejection of hylomorphic thinking—the determination of form over matter, or ideology over power—and suggests that we should think of individuation as a process that takes place both through and with machines. Étienne Balibar first employed Simondon’s term “transindividual” in his Philosophy of Marx to describe the human as an ensemble of relations rather than as closed in on itself like a monad. Yet far richer than Balibar’s very brief discussion of the term, Simondon sees transindividual relations as the very condition for the individuation of psychic and social beings. The psychic being is always already transindividual, therefore it is not possible to separate the psychic from the collective as two substances, which is often the mistake of pure psychology or sociology. Simondon takes Nietzsche’s Zarathustra as an example to illustrate this, and to show that transindividualism can occur even in solitude. Simondon says that “the test (épreuve) of transindividuality starts” when Zarathustra alone carries on his shoulders the cadaver of the loop dancer abandoned by the crowd to bury it.
Simondon’s notion of transindividual relations is not limited to psychical beings, but extends to technical objects. As he writes: “The technical object understood according to its essence, that is to say the technical object insofar as it is invented, thought, and wanted, assumed by a human subject, becomes the support and the symbol of this relation that we would name transindividual.” Simondon therefore endows technical objects with the role of facilitating the process of individuation: “Through the intermediary of technical objects an interhuman relation is created. This is the model of transindividuality.”
The relation to technical objects cannot become adequate individual by individual, except in some very rare and isolated cases; [the relation] can only be instituted under the condition that it succeeds in bringing this collective inter-individual reality into existence, which we call transindividual, because it creates a coupling between the inventive and organizing capacities of multiple subjects.
If we follow what Simondon has said concerning transindividual relations, it opens a new investigation into the role of machines in psychic and collective individuation. This is also a proposal to go beyond the typical Marxian analysis of machines—to reconceptualize them beyond being considered as fixed capital and utility. Transindividual relations are embedded in technical objects and modulated according to their operational and organizational schemes. The evolution of technical objects thus constantly shifts the theater of individuation by reconstructing the stage with new forms of transindividual relations and new dynamics. With its notion of feedback and information, cybernetics introduced a new cognitive scheme, and consequently a new organization of human-machine relations and sociality at large. Simondon relates his interpretation of technical lineage, from “elements” to “individuals” and “ensembles,” to specific historical epochs. He explains that technical elements represent the optimism of the eighteenth century, which longed for infinite progress and the constant amelioration of human life; technical individuals, which appeared in the nineteenth century as automated machines in factories, displaced human beings from the center of production; and in the twentieth century, Simondon saw technical ensembles, with the emergence of information machines and cybernetics, as a new, historically incomplete project of organizing transindividual relations. While Simondon’s discourse on technical ensembles has to be critically evaluated in regard to network culture, which only began to develop after the philosopher’s death in 1989, Simondon’s insistence on understanding machines beyond an economic category (i.e., fixed capital) remains invaluable and perhaps even more urgent today than ever.
4. “Google as General Intellect”
With the advent of social media, the internet of things, and all sorts of smartification supported by various forms of networks, we are witnessing the emergence and concretization of new organizational forms of transindividual relations. The post-labor condition is not the end of labor, but rather a new technological condition within which the notion of work, technical knowledge, and transindividual relations have to be rethought and reevaluated. While we are far from providing a solution to the gigantic problems we face today, it is essential to understand post-labor not simply in terms of a redistribution of resources (e.g., universal income)—which is how Saint Simonians once understood socialism—but rather as a historically situated relation between technology and labor. It is only then that we may be able to overcome new forms of valorization and alienation brought about by such a technological condition.
To understand the problems we face today, it is necessary to analyze the transindividual relations that are embedded within technological developments of cognitive valorization, such as social media, and go beyond an economic or humanist critique to one grounded on the critique of individuation. However, it is important to develop such a critique according to a historical and materialist analysis of categories such as labor, knowledge, social relations. Therefore one must also be cautious when using words such as “immaterial” to characterize the post-labor mode of production. In his A Grammar of the Multitude, Italian theorist Paolo Virno plausibly suggests that we understand the general intellect as a “dematerialized” mode of exploitation. According to Virno, if money is considered to be a “real abstraction,” it is because the material existence of money is realized as the “universal equivalent,” while the general intellect—which consists of cognitive activities such as language, communication, and self-reflection—does not need to go through the process of real abstraction. Virno successfully demonstrates that if, in the capitalist mode of production described by Marx in the Grundrisse, workers were the intermediary between nature and machine, in the current mode of production the general intellect has become directly subsumed. As Virno puts it: “With the term general intellect Marx indicates the stage in which certain realities (for instance, a coin) no longer have the value and validity of a thought, but rather it is our thoughts, as such, that immediately acquire the value of material facts.”
The general intellect for Virno could be understood as the “common,” but also as Simondon’s “pre-individual” reality, or more precisely what Anaximander calls apeiron. As both Stiegler and Jason Read have emphasized, one shouldn’t confuse the pre-individual with mere nature, but rather understand it as part and product of culture and history. Calling it immaterial or returning to “mere nature” risks missing an important step in understanding our contemporary, or post-labor, condition to come. If the general intellect is exploitable, it is only because the environmentalization of machines equipped with the capacity to collect, parse, and analyze data creates a feedback loop that integrates the individual into technological systems. We can thus understand the double meaning of the German word for “general intellect,” allgemeiner Verstand, that Marx first used: on the one hand, it is the understanding (Verstand), the analytic faculty responsible for cognition and recognition  ; on the other, it is a generalized or transcendental schema which forces itself onto the whole of society, like how Google has made machine categories indispensable for comprehending the contemporary. In other words, the immaterial is the new material.
Virno seems to furthermore separate psychic and collective individuation into two stages, with the “collective of the multitude, seen as ulterior or second degree.” However, as we have seen before, there is no separation between the psychic and the collective in Simondon’s theory of individuation, and indeed they are inseparable. The separation between the two allows Virno to advance an opposition between the individual and the multitude, but he fails to account for how the dynamic of individual and collective individuation is mediated by technical objects. Virno’s move could be understood in the same way that he criticized Marx for “completely [identifying] the general intellect (or, knowledge as the principle productive force) with fixed capital, thus neglecting the instance when that same general intellect manifests itself on the contrary as living labor.” But if Virno’s politics of the multitude can be found in the exploited general intellect, its potential for resistance does not rely solely on “living labor” or a theory of “subjectivity,” but rather demands historically recontextualizing technical objects and repositioning them in an understanding of the process of psychic and collective individuation.
To briefly conclude, if we assume that there is a merging of work and free time in the biopolitics of post-Fordist capitalism, it is impossible to bypass the question of machines, since the operational and organizational schemes of platforms largely determine transindividual relations today. The post-labor condition should be understood not simply from a dialectical point of view, but rather from the point of view of a close examination of technical knowledge and technical activities upon which its new form of labor is built. It is not as if resistance is or will be no longer needed; but we should understand resistance differently, as the transformation of transindividual relations as they are materialized through machines. While this might deviate from what Simondon originally means by the term, we can formulate this as the urgency of “technical knowledge.” Cathy O’Neil, a data scientist and author of Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, recently urged disciplines such as philosophy, the humanities, and the social sciences to leave their “ivory towers” and engage with algorithms. Although O’Neil ignorantly dismisses disciplines such as media studies, science and technology studies, digital humanities, and philosophy of technology, which have dedicated themselves to these questions for decades, she is right to point out the fact that in the midst of tremendous technological development (and sixty years after Simondon’s analysis), the polarity between experts and users seems to have only enlarged, while technical knowledge largely continues to be treated as antithetical to other, more “pure” forms of knowledge. We need a new conceptualization and politics of the becoming of technical knowledge. It is clear that “technical knowledge” is no longer that of engineering or of highly technical skills (though their importance cannot be ignored). Technical knowledge must transcend fickle epistemic divides and be reinvented beyond dated oppositions between engineering and the humanities, efficiency and reflexivity, positivism and hermeneutics, or even dead and living labor  . Only then will we be able to further interpret what Marx originally called “free time.”
The distinction between circulating capital and fixed capital can be traced to the French physiocrat François Quesnay, adopted by Adam Smith and David Ricardo. In Capital II (Part II, chapter 10 and 11), Marx reproached Smith and Ricardo for confusing fixed capital and circulating capital with constant and variable capital. In Capital I (Part III, chapter 8), Marx used constant capital and variable capital to analyze the production of surplus value in terms of means of production and labor power. Fixed capital and circulating capital are two differentiated concepts which concern turnover time, i.e., the time taken for one complete circuit or circular movement of capital; fixed capital is durable investment like automatized machines whose value will not be fully consumed in the process of production; circulating capital is defined as materials of labor and wage. Ricardo’s confusion of the two leads to the weakness of his analysis: “The capital-value invested in materials of labor (raw and auxiliary materials) does not appear on either side. It disappears entirely. For it does not agree with the side of fixed capital, because its mode of circulation coincides entirely with that of the capital-value invested in labor-power. And on the other hand, it must not be placed on the side of circulating capital, because in that case the identification of the distinction between fixed and circulating capital with that of constant and variable capital, which had been carried over from Adam Smith and tacitly perpetuated, would abolish itself” (Capital II.XI.6). For a more detailed analysis, please see Ferdinado Meacci, “Different divisions of capital in Smith, Ricardo, and Marx,” Atlantic Economic Journal 17, no. 4 (December 1989), 13–21.
Marx, Grundrisse (London: Penguin, 1993), 712.
Marx and Engels, The German Ideology, Part I (New York: International Publishers, 2004), 53.
Fourier elaborated on the concept of “play” when devising the phalanstère, a social and political system which is a sort of cooperative hotel that can accommodate four hundred families.
See Yuk Hui, “Modulation after Control,” New Formations 84–85, Special Issue on Societies of Control (Winter 2014–Summer 2015), 74–91; as well as Erich Hörl, “A Thousand Ecologies: The Process of Cyberneticization and General Ecology,” trans. Jeffrey Kirkwood, James Burton, and Maria Vlotides, in The Whole Earth: California and the Disappearance of the Outside, eds. Diedrich Diederichsen and Anselm Franke (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2013), 121–30.
“Working machine” is a term used by Marx himself, meaning tools; see “all fully developed machinery consists of three essentially different parts, the motor mechanism, the transmitting mechanism, and finally the tool or working machine.” Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe, II, 9, 235, cited by A. Wendling, Karl Marx on Technology and Alienation (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 137.
Marx, Grundrisse, 706: “They are organs of the human brain, created by the human hand; the power of knowledge, objectified. The development of fixed capital indicates to what degree general social knowledge has become a direct force of production, and to what degree, hence, the conditions of the process of social life itself have come under the control of the general intellect and been transformed in accordance with it. To what degree the powers of social production have been produced, not only in the form of knowledge, but also as immediate organs of social practice, of the real life process.”
Marx himself even clearly pronounced this in The Poverties of Philosophy. Cited by Donald MacKenzie,“Marx and the Machine,” Technology and Culture 5, no. 3 (1984): 473: “The hand-mill gives you society with feudal lord, the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist.”
Gilbert Simondon, Du mode d’existence des objets technique (Paris: Aubier, 2012), 165.
Simondon further characterizes technical individuals as beings who possess an “associated milieu,” meaning that an exterior environment has become integrated to the extent that stability can be reinstated after disturbances.
The failure of sublimation leads to its opposite: desublimation, or more precisely, disindividuation. On this point we will encounter the differentiated understanding of the term “sublimation” in Freud, Jung, and Lacan.
In the sense that Hannah Arendt distinguishes “labor” from “work” in The Human Condition.
Gilbert Simondon, Sur la technique (Paris: PUF, 2013), 54.
Simondon, Du mode d’existence des objets technique, 342.
I refer to this as “cosmic reality” in contrast to “technical reality.”
The principle thesis is L’individuation à la lumière des notions de forme et d’information (Grenoble: Million, 1995).
Cited by Vincent Bontems, “Esclaves et machines, même combat,” Cahiers Simondon 5 (2013): 11.
For concrete examples of alternative models of social networks, see Yuk Hui, “Le concept de groupe dans les réseaux sociaux – éléments pour une mécanologie de la participation,” in La toile que nous voulons, ed. Bernard Stiegler (Paris: FYP Éditions, 2017), 167–87; as well as Yuk Hui and Harry Halpin, “Collective Individuation: The Future of the Social Web,” in Unlike Us Reader, ed. Geert Lovink (Amsterdam: INC, 2013), 103–16.
See Bernard Stiegler, For a New Critique of Political Economy (London: Polity, 2009).
For Simondon, the term “disindividuation” doesn’t carry a negative meaning. It simply designates destructuralization as a necessary phase in the process of individuation.
Étienne Balibar, The Philosophy of Marx (London: Verso, 2007), 32: “We have, in fact, to think of humanity as a transindividual reality and, ultimately, to think transindividuality as such.”
Simondon, L’individuation à la lumière des notions de forme et d’information, 273.
Simondon, Du mode d’existence des objets technique, 335. The French original: “L’objet technique pris selon son essence, c’est-à-dire l’objet technique en tant qu’il a été inventé, pensé et voulu, assumé par un sujet humain, devient le support et le symbole de cette relation que nous voudrions nommer transindividuelle.”
This is the starting point of my own work, On the Existence of Digital Objects (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016).
See P. Musso, “Aux origines du concept moderne: corps et réseau dans la philosophie de Saint Simon,” Quaderni 3 (Winter 1987–88): 11–29.
Paolo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2004), 64.
In L’individuation à la lumière des notions de forme et d’information, Simondon proposes that “we can call this pre-individual reality nature.” Jason Read, The Politics of Transindividuality (Leiden: Brill, 2015), 116.
This is demonstrative of the Kantian analytic, and in contradistinction to the synthetic of reason (Vernunft). For an elaboration of the relation between automation and the analytic faculty, see Bernard Stiegler, La société automatique (Paris: Fayard, 2015), 56.
A recent newspaper article suggested that Google should be regarded as the general intellect: Timo Daum, “Arbeiter, Automaten, Algorithmen,” Neues Deutschland, April 29, 2017.
This notion was also analyzed by Jean-François Lyotard, who named a 1985 museum exhibition he organized “Les Immatériaux” (“The Immaterials”).
Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude, 79.
Cathy O’Neil, “The Ivory Tower Can’t Keep Ignoring Tech,” New York Times, November 14, 2017.
We must mention that Jean-François Lyotard was very sharp and powerful in criticizing these oppositions in his The Postmodern Condition (1979), which is precisely a treatise on knowledge. He asserted that such “oppositional thinking … is no longer relevant for the societies with which we are concerned” and “is out of step with the most vital modes of postmodern knowledge.” Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 14–15.
I would like to further distinguish knowledge from capacity here. If by “capacity” we mean technical know-how such as setting up machines and repairing them, I envisage “knowledge” as an integrated understanding of engineering and the humanities that allows a wider participation in technological activities.
The author would like to thank Axel Andersson and Nick Axel for their comments on a draft of this article.
Superhumanity: Post-Labor, Psychopathology, Plasticity is a collaboration between the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea and e-flux Architecture.
Yuk Hui is currently researcher of the project Techno-ecologies of participation at the Leuphana University Lüneburg, where he also teaches at the Institute for Philosophy. He is visiting professor at the China Academy of Art and member of the International Center of Simondon Studies (MSH, Paris Nord).
The article “Technological Condition” written by one of our academic committee members, Erich Hörl, was translated into Chinese. The translation was published in Literature and Culture Studies under School of Literature Nankai University in 2015 (issue no.4). The Chinese translation and the English translation (originally published in Parrhesia journal) is now uploaded in the following links. Abstract of the article is also enclosed as the following.
[德] 埃里希·霍尔 著
依托技术条件发展⽽生的控制论挑战了了传统的阐释学范畴, 标志着⼈类进⼊技术状态的新领域。人类体验世界的方式与建构感知文化的过程也在发⽣生转型。感知是这⼀领域的本质机制, 且感知⽂文化依赖于对特定技术的解读。因此, 重新对技术世界进⾏本质意义上的哲学描绘显得尤为重要。技术条件的变革引发了人类感知文化的转型, 它包括了感知的技术移置和⼀般⽣生态学层面的重议两⽅面。感知的技术移置是技术条件下传统感知⽂化发⽣生错位和毁灭的结果。⽽一般⽣生态学层⾯的重议则注重技术基础上主体与客观世界关系的转型。 两个层面相结合的技术感知问题将成为人类未来关注的重要范畴。
Download the Chinese and English version of the article here:
The end of unilateral globalization and the arrival of the Anthropocene force us to talk about cosmopolitics. These two factors correlate with one another and correspond to two different senses of the word “cosmopolitics”: cosmopolitics as a commercial regime, and cosmopolitics as a politics of nature.
First, we are witnessing the end of unilateral globalization. Until now, so-called globalization has been a largely one-sided process, entailing the universalization of particular epistemologies and the elevation, through techno-economic means, of a regional worldview to a putatively global metaphysics. We know that this unilateral globalization has reached its end because of how the 9/11 attacks were misread as an attack on the Occident by an Other. In fact, 9/11 was an “autoimmune” event, internal to the Atlantic bloc, wherein its own anti-communist cells, lingering after the Cold War, turned against their hosts.
Still, the spectacular image of the event provided a kind of Rorschach test, onto which the representatives of unilateral globalization could project their growing insecurities about being stranded between the old configuration and the new—exemplifying what Hegel called “the unhappy consciousness.”
This is clear in an article entitled “The Straussian Moment” by one of the leading financiers of American neoreaction, Peter Thiel:
The modern West has lost faith in itself. In the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment period, this loss of faith liberated enormous commercial and creative forces. At the same time, this loss has rendered the West vulnerable. Is there a way to fortify the modern West without destroying it altogether, a way of not throwing the baby out with the bathwater?
Thiel’s unhappy consciousness recalls a past age of commercial glory renounced by the end of unilateral globalization, and aspires to a transhumanist futurism based on technological acceleration on all cosmic scales. This leads to a redefinition of the sovereign nation-state as a result of global technological competition (as the Russian president Vladimir Putin recently claimed, “whoever leads in AI will rule the world”). It is necessary to start imagining a new politics which is no longer a continuation of this same sort of geopolitics with a slightly different power configuration, that is, with the role of the leading power now played by China or Russia instead of the US. We need a new language of cosmopolitics to elaborate this new world order that goes beyond a single hegemon.
Second, the human species on earth is confronting the crisis of the Anthropocene. The earth and the cosmos have been transformed into a gigantic technological system, the culmination of the epistemological and methodological rupture which we call modernity. The loss of the cosmos is the end of metaphysics in the sense that we no longer perceive anything behind or beyond the perfection of science and technology.
When historians like Rémi Brague and Alexandre Koyré write about end of the cosmos in seventeen- and eighteenth-century Europe, this should be read in our present Anthropocene context as an invitation to develop a cosmo–politics, not only in the sense of cosmopolitanism but also in the sense of a politics of the cosmos.
In response to this invitation, I would like to suggest that in order to develop such a cosmopolitics it is necessary to elucidate the question of cosmotechnics. I have been developing this concept of cosmotechnics in order to reopen the question of technology by undoing certain translations that were driven by the search for equivalence during modernization. This problematization can be presented in terms of a Kantian antinomy:
Thesis: Technology is an anthropological universal, understood as an exteriorization of memory and the liberation of organs, as some anthropologists and philosophers of technology have formulated it;
Antithesis: Technology is not anthropologically universal; it is enabled and constrained by particular cosmologies, which go beyond mere functionality or utility. Therefore, there is no one single technology, but rather multiple cosmotechnics.
In order to elaborate the relation between cosmotechnics and cosmopolitics, I will divide this article into three parts. First, I will demonstrate how the Kantian concept of cosmopolitics is rooted in Kant’s concept of nature. In the second part, I situate the “multi-naturalism” proposed by the “ontological turn” in anthropology as a different cosmopolitics, one which, in contrast to Kant’s pursuit of the universal, suggests a certain relativism as the condition of possibility for coexistence. In the third part, I will try to show why it is necessary to move from cosmology to cosmotechnics as a politics to come.
§1. Cosmopolitanism: Between Nature and Technology
The main difficulty of all cosmopolitics is the reconciliation between the universal and the particular. The universal tends to contemplate the particulars from above, as in the way that Kant regarded the French Revolution, like a spectator considering a violent piece of theater from the mezzanine. Universality is the view of a spectator, never that of an actor. Kant writes, in his “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Aim”:
There is no other way out for the philosopher—who, regarding human beings and their play in the large, cannot at all presuppose any rational aim of theirs—than to try whether he can discover an aim of nature in this nonsensical course of things human; from which aim a history in accordance with a determinate plan of nature might nevertheless be possible even of creatures who do not behave in accordance with their own plan … [Nature] did produce a Kepler, who subjected the eccentric paths of the planets in an unexpected way to determinate laws, and a Newton, who explained these laws from a universal natural cause.
Throughout his political writings, Kant maintains that this relation between nature and cosmopolitics is necessary.
If Kant sees the republican constitution and perpetual peace as political forms that may be able to bring forward a universal history of the human species, it is because he understands that such progress is also a progress of reason, the telos of nature. This progress toward an end goal—namely, universal history and a “perfect state constitution”—is the “completion of a hidden plan of nature” (Vollziehung eines verborgenen Plans der Natur). What does it mean for nature to have a hidden plan? And why is the realization of cosmopolitics the teleology of nature?
Authors such as Hannah Arendt and Eckart Förster, among others, suggest that Kant’s political philosophy centers on his concept of nature.
Arendt proposes a juxtaposition concerning Kant’s perpetual peace: on the one hand, Besuchsrecht, the right to visit foreign countries and the right to hospitality; and on the other, nature, “the great artist, as the eventual ‘guarantee of perpetual peace.’”
If after the 1789 revolution Kant is even more consistent in his affirmation of cosmopolitics as the teleology of nature, it is because he has developed the concept of self-organization, which plays a central role in the second book of his Critique of Judgment, and which affirms the two important categories of relation, namely community (Gemeinschaft) and reciprocity (Wechselwirkung).
Consider Kant’s example of the tree from §64 of the Critique of Judgment. First, the tree reproduces itself according to its genus, meaning that it reproduces another tree. Second, the tree produces itself as an individual; it absorbs energy from the environment and turns it into nutrients that sustain its life. Third, different parts of the tree establish reciprocal relations with one another and thus constitute the whole; as Kant writes, the “preservation of one part is reciprocally dependent on the preservation of the other parts.”
In such a totality, a part is always constrained by the whole, and this is true of Kant’s understanding of cosmopolitical wholeness as well: “All states … are in danger of acting injuriously upon one another.” Nature is not something that can be judged from a particular point of view, just as the French Revolution cannot be judged according to its actors. Rather, nature can only be comprehended as a complex whole, and the human species, as one part of it, will ultimately progress towards a universal history that coincides with the teleology of nature.Here we only want to show that as Kant develops his thinking towards universalism, his conceptualization of the relation between cosmopolitics and the purposiveness of nature is situated within a peculiar moment in history: the simultaneous enchantment and disenchantment of nature. On the one hand, Kant recognizes the importance of the concept of the organic for philosophy; discoveries in the natural sciences allowed him to connect the cosmos to the moral, as indicated by his famous analogy near the end of Critique of Practical Reason: “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing wonder and awe, the more often and constantly reflection concerns itself with them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” Howard Caygill makes an even stronger claim, arguing that this analogy points to a “Kantian physiology of the soul and the cosmos” that unites the “within me” (freedom) and the “above me.”
On the other hand, as we saw in Kant’s citation of Kepler and Newton in “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Aim,” the affirmation of “universal history” and advancements in science and technology led in the eighteenth century to what Rémi Brague calls the “death of the cosmos”:
The new astronomy, following Copernicus and his successors, had consequences for the modern view of the world … Ancient and medieval thinkers presented a synchronic schema of the structure of the physical world, which erased the traces of its own genesis; the Moderns, on the other hand, remembered the past and in addition provided a diachronic view of astronomy—as if the evolution of ideas about the cosmos was even more important than the truth about it … Can we still speak of cosmology? It seems that the West ceased to have a cosmology with the end of the world of Aristotle and Ptolemy, an end due to Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton. The “world” then no longer formed a whole.
New discoveries in the natural sciences thanks to the invention of the telescope and the microscope exposed human beings to magnitudes they could not previously comprehend, leading us to a new relation with the “entire span of nature” (in dem ganzen Umfang der Natur). The Kantian scholar Diane Morgan suggests that through the “worlds beyond worlds” revealed by technology, nature ceases to be anthropomorphic, for the relation between humans and nature is thus reversed, with humans now standing before the “unsurveyable magnitude” (Unabsehlich-Groß) of the universe.
However, as we indicated above, there is a double moment that deserves our attention: both the enchantment and disenchantment of nature via the natural sciences, leading to a total secularization of the cosmos.
In addition to the revelation of nature and its teleology through technical instruments, technology also plays a decisive role in Kant’s political philosophy, when he asserts that communication is the condition of the realization of the organicist whole. Arendt made explicit the role of the sensus communis in Kant’s philosophy, as both the question of community and consensus.
But such a sensus communis is achieved only through particular technologies, and it is on this ground that we should problematize any naive discourse on the common as something already given or preceding technology. The age of Enlightenment, as noted by Arendt (as well as Bernard Stiegler), is the age of “the public use of one’s reason,” and this exercise of reason is expressed in the freedom of speaking and publishing, which necessarily involves the technology of printing. On an international level, in “Toward Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch” Kant writes that “it was trade that first brought them into peaceful relations with one another and thereby into relationships based on mutual consent, community, and peaceful interactions even with remote peoples,” later adding, “it is the spirit of trade, which cannot coexist with war, which will, sooner or later, take hold of every people.”
§2. “Ontological Turn” as Cosmopolitics
This reiteration of Kantian cosmopolitanism is an attempt to demonstrate the role of nature in Kant’s political philosophy. Kant somehow assumes one single nature, which reason compels us to recognize as rational; the rationality corresponds to the organicist teleological universality ostensibly realized in the constitution of both morality and the state. This enchantment of nature is accompanied by a disenchantment of nature, driven by the mechanization enforced by the Industrial Revolution. Brague’s “death of the cosmos” brought about by European modernity and its globalization of modern technology necessarily forms one of the conditions for us to reflect on cosmopolitics today, insofar as it illustrates the inefficacy of a biological metaphor for cosmopolitanism. If we start with Kant rather than with more recent discussions on cosmopolitanism—such as Martha Nussbaum’s rootless cosmopolitanism, Habermas’s constitutional patriotism, or Anthony Appiah’s cosmopolitan patriotism
—it is because we want to reconsider cosmopolitanism by examining its relation to nature and technology. In fact, Appiah’s rooted cosmopolitanism is relevant to our discussion below. He holds the view that cosmopolitanism denies the importance of affiliations and particular loyalties; this means that it is necessary to consider cosmopolitics from the point of view of locality. This crucial point is the reason I would like to engage with the idea of “multi-naturalism” recently proposed by anthropologists associated with attempts to present a new way of thinking cosmopolitanism.
The “ontological turn” in anthropology is a movement associated with anthropologists such as Philippe Descola, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Bruno Latour, and Tim Ingold, and earlier, Roy Wagner and Marilyn Strathern, among others.
This ontological turn is an explicit response to the crisis of modernity that expresses itself largely in terms of ecological crisis, which is now closely associated with the Anthropocene. The ontological-turn movement is an effort to take seriously different ontologies in different cultures (we have to bear in mind that knowing there are different ontologies and taking them seriously are two different things). Descola has convincingly outlined four major ontologies, namely naturalism, animism, totemism, and analogism.
The modern is characterized by what he calls “naturalism,” meaning an opposition between culture and nature, and the former’s mastery over the latter. Descola suggests that we must go beyond such an opposition and recognize that nature is no longer opposed or inferior to culture. Rather, in the different ontologies, we can see the different roles that nature plays; for example, in animism the role of nature is based on the continuity of spirituality, despite the discontinuity of physicality.
In Beyond Culture and Nature, Descola has proposed an ontological pluralism that is irreducible to social constructivism. He suggests that recognizing these ontological differences can serve as an antidote to the dominance of naturalism since the advent of European modernity. But does this focus on nature (or the cosmos, we might say) in the interest of opposing European naturalism actually revive the enchantment of nature, this time in the name of indigenous knowledge? This seems to be a hidden problem with the ontological-turn movement: many anthropologists associated with the ontological turn have focused on the question of nature and the politics of the nonhuman (largely animals, plants, minerals, spirits, and the dead). This is evident when we recall that Descola proposes to call his discipline an “anthropology of nature.” Furthermore, this tendency also suggests that the question of technics is not sufficiently addressed in the ontological-turn movement. For example, Descola talks often of practice, which may indicate his (laudable) desire to avoid an opposition between nature and technics; but by doing so, he also obscures the question of technology. Descola shows that analogism, rather than naturalism, was a significant presence in Europe during the Renaissance; if this is the case, the “turn” that took place during European modernity seems to have resulted in a completely different ontology and epistemology. If naturalism has succeeded in dominating modern thought, it is because such a peculiar cosmological imagination is compatible with its techno-logical development: nature should be mastered for the good of man, and it can indeed be mastered according to the laws of nature. Or put another way: nature is regarded as the source of contingency due to its “weakness of concept,” and therefore it has to be overcome by logic.
These oppositions between nature and technics, mythology and reason, give rise to various illusions that belong to one of two extremes. On the one hand, there are rationalists or “progressivists” who hysterically struggle to maintain their monotheism after having murdered god, wishfully believing that the world process will stamp out differences and diversities and lead to a “theodicy.” On the other hand, there are left intellectuals who feel the need to extol indigenous ontology or biology as a way out of modernity. A French revolutionary thinker recently described this situation thus:
A funny thing to see these days is how all these absurd modern leftists, all unable to see anything, all lost in themselves, all feeling so bad, all desperately trying to exist and to find their existence in the eyes of the Other—how all these people are jumping on the “savage,” the “indigenous,” the “traditional” in order to escape and not face themselves. I am not speaking of being critical towards one’s “whiteness,” towards one’s “modernism.” I am talking of the ability to peer inside [transpercer] oneself.
My refusal of the above two extremes does not come out of any postcolonial “political correctness,” but rather out of an attempt to go beyond postcolonialism’s critique. (Indeed, I have elsewhere reproached postcolonialism for its failure to tackle the question of technology.
) I hold the thesis that an ontological pluralism can only be realized by reflecting on the question of technology and a politics of technology. Kant was aware of the importance of technology in his comment on trading as communication; however, he didn’t pay much attention to the technological difference that finally led to planetary modernization, and now planetary computation, since what was at stake for him was the question of the whole that absorbs all differences. Kant criticized the impolite guests, the greedy colonizers who brought with them “oppression of the native inhabitants, the incitement of the different states involved to expansive wars, famine, unrest, faithlessness, and the whole litany of evils that weigh upon the human species.”
Commenting on the defense strategies of China and Japan, Kant said that both countries have
wisely, limited such interaction. Whereas the former has allowed contact with, but not entrance to its territories, the latter has allowed this contact to only one European people, the Dutch, yet while doing so it excludes them, as if they were prisoners, from associating with the native inhabitants.
When Kant wrote this in 1795, it was too early for him to anticipate the modernization and colonization that would take place in Japan and China. If this phase of globalization was able to take place, it was because of the technological advancement of the West, which allowed it to defeat the Japanese, the Chinese, and other Asian civilizations. Nature, the guarantee of perpetual peace, didn’t really lead us to perpetual peace but rather to wars and more wars. To appeal for a cosmopolitanism today, I think we must reread Kant’s cosmopolitanism according to the process of modernization and revisit the question of nature and technology anew. The arrival of modern technology in non-European countries in recent centuries has created a transformation unthinkable to European observers. The restoration of “indigenous natures” itself has to first be questioned, not because it doesn’t exist but because it is situated in a new epoch and is transformed to the extent that there is hardly any way to go back and restore it.Let’s review what has been said above regarding the ontological turn. Central to the anthropologists’ concept of “nature” and “ontology” is cosmology, since such “nature” is defined according to different “ecologies of relations” in which we observe different constellations of relations, e.g., the parental relation between females and vegetables, or brotherhood between hunters and animals. These multi-ontologies are expressed as multi-natures; for example, Descola’s four above-named ontologies correspond to different cosmological views. I believe that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to overcome modernity without directly confronting the question of technology, which has become increasingly urgent after the end of unilateral globalization. Therefore, it is necessary to reformulate the question of cosmopolitics in relation to cosmotechnics.
§3. Cosmotechnics as Cosmopolitics
I propose to go beyond the notion of cosmology; instead, it would be more productive to address what I call cosmotechnics. Let me give you a preliminary definition of cosmotechnics: it is the unification of the cosmos and the moral through technical activities, whether craft-making or art-making. There hasn’t been one or two technics, but many cosmotechnics. What kind of morality, which and whose cosmos, and how to unite them vary from one culture to another according to different dynamics. I am convinced that in order to confront the crisis that is before us—namely, the Anthropocene, or the intrusion of Gaia (Latour and Stengers), or the “entropocene” (Stiegler), all presented as the inevitable future of humanity—it is necessary to reopen the question of technology, in order to envisage the bifurcation of technological futures by conceiving different cosmotechnics. I tried to demonstrate such a possibility in my recent book The Question Concerning Technology in China: An Essay in Cosmotechnics. As one can gather from the title, it is an attempt to respond to Heidegger’s famous 1949 lecture “The Question Concerning Technology.” I propose that in order to rethink the project of overcoming modernity, we must undo and redo the translations of technē, physis, and metaphysika (not as merely independent concepts but also concepts within systems); only by recognizing this difference can we arrive at the possibility of a common task of philosophy.
Why, then, do I think it’s necessary to turn to cosmotechnics? For a long time now we have operated with a very narrow—in fact, far too narrow—concept of technics. By following Heidegger’s essay, we can distinguish two notions of technics. First, we have the Greek notion of technē, which Heidegger develops through his reading of the ancient Greeks, notably the Pre-Socratics—more precisely, the three “inceptual” (anfängliche) thinkers, Parmenides, Heraclitus, and Anaximander.
In the 1949 lecture, Heidegger proposes to distinguish the essence of Greek technē from modern technology (moderne Technik).
If the essence of technē is poiesis, or bringing forth (Hervorbringen), then modern technology, a product of European modernity, no longer possesses the same essence as technē but is rather an “enframing” (Gestell) apparatus, in the sense that all beings become standing reserves (Bestand) for it. Heidegger doesn’t totalize these two essences of technics, but nor does he give space to other technics, as if there is only a single homogenous Machenschaft after the Greek technē, one that is calculable, international, even planetary. It is astonishing that in Heidegger’s so-called Black Notebooks (Schwarze Hefte)—of which four volumes have been published so far—we find this note: “If communism in China should come to rule, one can assume that only in this way will China become ‘free’ for technology. What is this process?”
Heidegger hints at two things here: first, that technology is international (not universal); and second, that the Chinese were completely unable to resist technology after communism seized power in the country. This verdict anticipates technological globalization as a form of neocolonization that imposes its rationality through instrumentality, like what we observe in transhumanist, neoreactionary politics.
My effort to go beyond Heidegger’s discourse on technology is largely based on two motivations: 1) a desire to respond to the ontological turn in anthropology, which aims to tackle the problem of modernity by proposing an ontological pluralism; and 2) a desire to update the insufficient discourse on technology that is largely associated with Heidegger’s critique of technology. I have proposed that we reopen the question of technics, to show that one must consider technics as a variety of cosmotechnics instead of either technē or modern technology. In my book, I used China as a testing ground for my thesis and tried to reconstruct a lineage of technological thought in China. However, this task is not limited to China, since the central idea is that every non-European culture must systematize its own cosmotechnics and the history of such a cosmotechnics. Chinese cosmotechnical thought consists of a long history of intellectual discourse on the unity and relation between Qi and Dao. The unification of Qi and Dao is also the unification of the moral and the cosmic, since Chinese metaphysics is fundamentally a moral cosmology or a moral metaphysics, as the New Confucian philosopher Mou Zongsan has demonstrated. Mou suggests that if in Kant we find a metaphysics of the moral, it is at most a metaphysical exploration of the moral but not a moral metaphysics, since a moral metaphysics can only start with the moral. Mou’s demarcation between Chinese and Western philosophy situates his conviction that Chinese philosophy recognizes and cultivates the intellectual intuition that Kant associated with knowing the noumenon, even as Kant dismissed the possibility that human beings could possess such an intuition. For Mou, the moral arises out of the experience of the infinity of the cosmos, which necessitates infinitization as the condition of possibility for Dasein’s finitude.
Dao is not a thing. It is not a concept. It is not the différance. In the Cixi of YiZhuan (易傳‧繫辭), Dao is simply said to be “above forms,” while Qi is what is “below forms.”
We should notice here that xin er shang xue (the study of what is above forms) is the word used to translate “metaphysics” (one of the equivalences that must be undone). Qi is something that takes space, as we can see from the character and also read in an etymological dictionary—it has four mouths or containers and in the middle there is a dog guarding the utensils. There are multiple meanings of Qi in different doctrines; for example, in classic Confucianism there is Li Qi (禮器), in which Qi is crucial for Li (a rite), which is not merely a ceremony but rather a search for unification between the heavens and the human. For our purposes, it will suffice to simply say that Dao belongs to the noumenon according to the Kantian distinction, while Qi belongs to the phenomenon. But it is possible to infinitize Qi so as to infinitize the self and enter into the noumenon—this is the question of art.
In order to better understand what I mean by this, we can refer here to the story of the butcher Pao Ding, as told in the Zhuangzi. However, we will have to remind ourselves that this is only an example from antiquity, and a much larger historical view is necessary to comprehend it.
Pao Ding is excellent at butchering cows. He claims that the key to being a good butcher doesn’t lie in mastering certain skills, but rather in comprehending the Dao. Replying to a question from Duke Wen Huei about the Dao of butchering cows, Pao Ding points out that having a good knife is not necessarily enough; it is more important to understand the Dao in the cow, so that one does not use the blade to cut through the bones and tendons, but rather to pass alongside them in order to enter into the gaps between them. Here, the literal meaning of “Dao”—“way” or “path”—meshes with its metaphysical sense:
What I love is Dao, which is much more splendid than my skill. When I first began to carve a bullock, I saw nothing but the whole bullock. Three years later, I no longer saw the bullock as a whole but in parts. Now I work on it by intuition and do not look at it with my eyes. My visual organs stop functioning while my intuition goes its own way. In accordance with the principle of heaven (nature), I cleave along the main seams and thrust the knife into the big cavities. Following the natural structure of the bullock, I never touch veins or tendons, much less the big bones!
Hence, Pao Ding concludes that a good butcher doesn’t rely on the technical objects at his disposal, but rather on Dao, since Dao is more fundamental than Qi (the tool). Pao Ding adds that a good butcher has to change his knife once a year because he cuts through tendons, while a bad butcher has to change his knife every month because he cuts through bones. Pao Ding, on the other hand—an excellent butcher—has not changed his knife in nineteen years, and it looks as if it has just been sharpened with a whetstone. Whenever Pao Ding encounters any difficulty, he slows down the knife and gropes for the right place to move further.
Duke Wen Huei, who had posed the question, replies that “having heard from Pao Ding, now I know how to live”; and indeed, this story is included in a section titled “Master of Living.” It is thus the question of “living,” rather than that of technics, that is at the center of the story. If there is a concept of “technics” here, it is one that is detached from the technical object: although the technical object is not without importance, one cannot seek the perfection of technics through the perfection of a tool or a skill, since perfection can only be accomplished by Dao. Pao Ding’s knife never cuts tendons or bones; instead, it seeks the void and enters it with ease. In so doing, the knife accomplishes the task of butchering the cow without endangering itself—i.e., without becoming blunt and needing to be replaced. It thus fully realizes itself as a knife.
What I have said above is not sufficient to be formulated into a program, since it is only an explanation for the motivation behind the much larger project that I tried to initiate in The Question Concerning Technology in China. Also, we must pay attention to the historical development of the relationship between Qi and Dao. Specifically, the search for unity between Qi and Dao has gone through different phases in Chinese history in response to historical crises (the decline of the Zhou Dynasty, the proliferation of Buddhism, modernization, etc.); it was widely discussed after the Opium Wars of the mid-nineteenth century, but such a unification was not resolved due to a very limited understanding of technology at the time and an eagerness to look for equivalences between China and the West. I have attempted to reread the history of Chinese philosophy not only as intellectual history, but also through the lens of the Qi-Dao episteme, with the aim of reconstructing a tradition of technological thought in China. As I have emphasized elsewhere, this question is by no means only a Chinese affair.
Rather, every culture must reflect on the question of cosmotechnics for a new cosmopolitics to come, since I believe that to overcome modernity without falling back into war and fascism, it is necessary to reappropriate modern technology through the renewed framework of a cosmotechnics consisting of different epistemologies and epistemes. Therefore, my project is not one of substantializing tradition, as in the case of traditionalists like René Guénon or Aleksandr Dugin; it doesn’t refuse modern technology, but rather looks into the possibility of different technological futures. The Anthropocene is the planetarization of standing reserves, and Heidegger’s critique of technology is more significant today than ever before. The unilateral globalization that has come to an end is being succeeded by the competition of technological acceleration and the allures of war, technological singularity, and transhumanist (pipe) dreams. The Anthropocene is a global axis of time and synchronization that is sustained by this view of technological progress towards the singularity. To reopen the question of technology is to refuse this homogeneous technological future that is presented to us as the only option.
“When I hear modern people complain of being lonely then I know what has happened. They have lost the cosmos.”
D.H. Lawrence, Apocalypse
“The whole question is this: is the passage possible, will it be possible with, or allowed by, the new mode of inscription and memoration that characterizes the new technologies? Do they not impose syntheses, and syntheses conceived still more intimately in the soul than any earlier technology has done?”
J-F. Lyotard, “Logos and Techne, or Telegraphy”
Colonial history unfolds itself according to the necessity of survival and the contingency of events. It is a history of compromise and a history of afterwardness (Nachträglichkeit) in the Freudian sense. For the moderns, historical consciousness always arrives too late because of their technological unconsciousness. The lithograph Road Surveying Interrupted in Singapore, showing a tiger-attack during the colonial period in Singapore, which in a way has become the symbol of the exhibition 2 or 3 Tigers, is the medium through which a historical anamnesis is called upon its viewers. The Chinese coolies, Malay and archipelagic Southeast Asian peasants, and Indian convict laborers, due to poverty and self-protection, actively engaged in the deforestation and killing of tigers.  It is the relation between symbols and anamnesis that this essay interrogates. At around the same time the number of tigers began to decline, the big cat was represented as a symbol of the romantic past and of national identity, and later on, as a trademark on numerous consumer goods.  As the world of symbols has rapidly transformed and symbols have ceased to be what they were, the relations of the world embedded in them have undergone non-qualitative changes. It is through different media, within new modes of inscription, that this history is preserved and a collective memory is produced, which conceals a hauntology of tigers, belonging to a past in which we no longer live.
It was the desire to preserve and retain these memories that gave us museums, collections, ethnography, and provided more and more digital tools for this same purpose. This desire comes out of the melancholia of modernity: witnessing the rapid disintegration of the symbolic world and the destruction of cosmologies which were imaginary systems of order. If in ancient times eschatology meant the new cosmogony, and such an eschatology offered a new beginning, so modernization can be seen as the destruction without the new cosmogony, a constant adaptation to the orders of the modern world; a metaphysics without finality. Claude Lévi-Strauss, for this reason, in his Tristes Tropiques suggests calling his own discipline of anthropology entropology, as it is “the name of the discipline concerned with the study of the highest manifestations of this process of disintegration.” The modern world is one that is becoming entropic due to disintegration of the symbolic, and we may want to call the current Anthropocene an Entropocene.
The disappearance of symbols is a significant phenomenon that we experience in the process of modernization. The history of the tiger in 2 or 3 Tigers demonstrates this process and the melancholia that accompanied it. Consumerism causes the diminution of symbolic exchange; while in the technical system, signs replace symbols for the purposes of efficiency and autonomy; digital technology allows the integration of the two through the analysis of user behavior, predictive algorithms, etc. In this essay, I would like to reflect on the material support of the “tiger media,” in order to offer another polemic and an alternative reading of the transition between the digital and the symbolic. As the title of my essay indicates, I would like to reverse the order of the question, namely the preservation of the symbolic through the digital, as has been done in the name of digital heritage, and to look beyond the melancholia of modernity, to take in the view of the limits of the current globalization.  First let us clarify this relation: What is inside the transition from the symbolic to the digital? Are symbols reducible to the digital? Under what condition can we pass from the digital to the symbolic? In order to elaborate on this questioning, I would like first to present the relation between symbolization and technology as a contradiction.
Contradiction, Supplement, and Desymbolization
What is meant by contradiction here? Technology is the support of memories, as cave painting, paper, notebook, computer, or what the philosophers, Jacques Derrida calls supplement or Bernard Stiegler calls tertiary retention. These traces allow us to access a past, one where I have never lived but nevertheless that belong to me. However, we must recognize that the development of technology is the very condition of the disappearance of symbols; for example, the formalization of written language leads to the obsolescence of other symbolic systems; institutionalization of religion leads to the abolition of rituals. The French philosopher and sociologist Jacques Ellul has proposed that technological development is correlate to the process of desymbolization, because for him the faculty of symbolizing can only function in relation to nature, while technological systems are based on the control of signals and signs, which is more efficient than symbolic mediations, and this leads to a misery of the symbolic.
One of modern man’s greatest losses is the faculty of symbolizing. This faculty did and could function only in relation to the natural environment. Symbolization, which helped man to survive in a hostile world, has become inadequate for the technological environment, in which it has no use.
A few words are necessary about the etymology of symbol before moving on to further elaborate on desymbolization. The Greek word for symbol, symbolos, means encounter, the junction, sym– means together, and the verb ballô means to throw; symbolos is related to diabolos. Diabolos is from dia-ballô, to divide. Diabolos is diable, the devil. Therefore, one unites and the other separates. The snake in the Garden of Eden is the diable that separates. However, the symbol is by no means opposed to the diable, simply because unification is only possible when there is separation.  The Symbol tends to unite what is separated, while this separation is not simply a separation in distance, but rather between the visible and the invisible, the sacred and the profane. Symbolization is a process that creates association between humans and nature, gods, or spirits, through artificial objects, totems, figurines, and such. As Ellul illustrated, in certain civilizations it was forbidden to work on the ground with iron tools since nature was conceived as mother and iron tools were considered harmful to the mother. The symbol of the Earth as a mother figure is transcended when a technological system is adapted due to different cultural factors, such as war and famine. Symbols that were once mediated between different powers and were included in ritual practices are eliminated in the process of technological development. Desymbolization is thus a process of short-circuiting which brings forth an efficient and automatic technological system in exchange for the traditional values and forms of life.
Ellul’s critique of desymbolization needs further explanation according to his development of the concept of the technical system, which was developed as a continuation of Gilbert Simondon’s analysis of the evolution of technical objects from elements to individuals and then to ensembles in his 1958 Du mode d’existence des objets techniques. Unlike Simondon who tries to develop a new ontology of machines in light of the notion of information, Ellul proposes to understand the formation of the technical system through the new technologies of data processing.  I continue the analysis of Simondon and Ellul in my book On the Existence of Digital Objects , and propose that technological progress could be understood as a general process of development and materialization of interobjective relations: from the abstract, meditative, and individual to the concrete, material, and systemic. Digital objects are simply data and schemes that define its media type (e.g. 3D objects or images) and modes of presentation. The materiality that we know as digital allows a finer order of magnitude to describe relations that were not possible to inscribe into analogue technologies. These objects are also logical statements and the technical system that we experience today: computers and all other devices constitute a world whose foundation is formal and logical, another type of symbol that Gottfried Leibniz named characteristica unviersalis.
Ellul’s critique of desymbolization is foremost against the totalization of technical systems which we are witnessing today with digital technologies, big data analysis, smart cities, social media, etc. The symbols of rituals and the cosmos are replaced by new types of symbols in consumerist society. We see the same destiny with myths, as the Romanian historian and philosopher of religion Mircea Eliade claims, where myths were replaced by heroes such as Superman both in the mass media and in popular culture.  The contradiction that I have tried to present above is that the technological inscription of memory is born out of its own very act of destruction.  This is one source of the melancholia of the moderns. We will have to recognize that collective memory is a modern invention in face of the loss of the symbolic in everyday life. The acceleration of technological development intensifies this melancholia, and the completion of the technical system leads to an “artificial symbolization” without nature. We may want to pay attention to the opposition between nature and technics on which Ellul is relying to explain the process of desymobolization, and we will come back to this point a bit later. In Ellul’s inquiry, nature and technics stand as two poles, leaning toward one pole means distancing from the other:
On the one hand, man’s inherent power of symbolizing is excluded; on the other hand, all consumption is symbolic. The technological system is a real universe, which constitutes itself as a symbolic system. With respect to nature, the symbolic universe was an imaginary universe, a superordinated reflection, entirely instituted by man in relation to this natural world. It enabled him to distanciate himself and differentiate himself from that reality, and at the same time to master reality through the mediation of the symbolic, which attributed an otherwise undifferentiated meaning to the world. 
Now, to further clarify this contradiction: technology’s support of symbols, while in the process of evolution into technical systems, gradually desymbolizes and forms its own efficiency and dynamics. The more effective and more precise the technological anamnesis is, the faster desymbolization is produced. This means that in this process, we can only talk about the transition from the symbolic to the digital, a process that constantly tries to preserve the traces of nature and the cosmos that are constantly escaping. For Ellul, the human being’s capacity of symbolization is rendered useless and consequently they are forced to escape symbolization through media like modern art and artificial symbolization.
Modern man is torn apart: Symbolization remains so profoundly inscribed in him after millennia that it cannot be annulled. But all in all, it has been rendered gratuitous, ineffective. It is even blocked because the environment of man today is utterly unsusceptible to the necessity of that process. The results are: escape symbolization, as in modern art; artificial symbolization (bearing upon technology but perfectly useless and meaningless, as we shall see later on). 
As I have mentioned above, the critique of Ellul operates very much on the opposition between nature and technics. For my part, I have been trying to develop a new conceptualization of technics in order to overcome the opposition between nature and technics, which I call cosmotechnics. Let me give the preliminary definition of cosmotechnics, it means the unification of cosmic order and moral order through technical activities. If by modernity, we mean an epistemological and methodological rupture was produced, which leads to a reconceptualization of the relation between human and nonhuman, subject‒object, culture‒nature, and of geometrization, of all beings, as we can see in the work of the great modern thinkers such as Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, Isaac Newton, etc., then the notion of cosmotechnics hopes to negate this dualism by preserving and bringing back unity of figure and ground. It also aims to reopen the question concerning technology by going beyond the current discourse on technology which is either limited to the Greek notion of technē or modern technology (whose essence is no longer poiesis or bringing-forth, but enframing [Gestell] according to Heidegger). However, cosmotechnics is not an obsolescent or nostalgic one; namely, it is not an effort to return to some original indigenous knowledge or cosmology, but rather a way of thinking that attempts to bridge the modern and tradition by providing a new framework. For my own part, I have tried to analyze cosmotechnical thinking characterized by the relation between Qi and Dao in Chinese philosophy in my recent book The Question Concerning Technology in China,  which I cannot elaborate here, but I would like to give an example from Simondon in one of his interviews, where the philosopher invokes a co-naturality between the cosmo-geographical milieu and the technological milieu, which seems to me will be a good example of the contemporary cosmotechnics:
Look at this TV antenna of television as it is […] it is rigid but it is oriented; we see that it looks into the distance, and that it can receive (signals) from a transmitter far away. For me, it appears to be more than a symbol; it seems to represent a gesture of sorts, an almost magical power of intentionality, a contemporary form of magic. In this encounter between the highest place and the nodal point, which is the point of transmission of hyper-frequencies, there is a sort of ‘co-naturality’ between the human network and the natural geography of the region. It has a poetic dimension, as well as a dimension having to do with signification and the encounter between significations.
It is probably not necessary to go into Simondon’s speculative genesis of technicity, which starts with a magic phase, and continues with constant bifurcation into practice and theory. It suffices here to mention that for Simondon, philosophical thinking should intervene to introduce a convergence which reattaches the figure to the ground, understood in the sense of Gestalt psychology. Desymbolization in this case means detachment of technological activities from the cosmos, the figure from the ground. Co-naturality is the moment when such a convergence or a unity of the ground-figure is realized.
Anamnesis, Sensibility, and Sensibilization
Let us return to the opening statement, and the question that I raised concerning the reversal of this process. Allow me to present the question in this way: In what way is digitalization able to be reactive to these symbols instead of being reduced to mere nostalgia? Or in other words, can we imagine a technological anamnesis which allows us to go beyond memorization and into a new constellation? I feel somewhat intimidated in attempting to answer the question, but I can only repeat that my questioning represents a constant attempt to work through it. In fact, I must remind the reader that this question had already been raised by Jean-François Lyotard thirty years ago; but speculative as it is, the question rests in the shadow of the postmodern. I refer here to a talk titled “Logos and Technē or Telegraphy,” which Lyotard presented to a workshop organized by Stiegler in 1986 at the IRCAM of the Centre Pompidou, a year after Lyotard’s exhibition Les Immatériaux, and published later, in 1988, in a volume The Inhuman: Reflections on Time.  In this text, Lyotard addresses the relation of technology and memory in terms of habit, memory, and anamnesis. He presents a key concept of Sigmund Freud, namely Durcharbeiten, to characterize this third mode. Durcharbeiten is usually translated as working through in English or perlaboration in French, but here Lyotard translates it with another word passage, which in turn is translated into English as passing; so I retain the word passing here. The term durcharbeiten is used by Freud to describe a clinical practice that, unlike hypnosis, which aims to recover previous memory, helps the patient to pass into acting and to resist. Lyotard’s central argument is to elaborate on a rather speculative question: Will new technology, instead of imposing a stronger synthesis than earlier technology, allow such a passing?
The whole question is this: is the passage possible, will it be possible with, or allowed by, the new mode of inscription and memoration that characterizes the new technologies? Do they not impose syntheses, and syntheses conceived still more intimately in the soul than any earlier technology has done? 
Lyotard was uncertain of a definitive answer, if not even the question itself. He concludes his text by saying: “I’ll stop on this vague hope, which is too dialectical to take seriously. All this remains to be thought out, tried out.” Let me try to suggest another reading in order to make intelligible Lyotard’s question and its relation to our own inquiry. Lyotard is questioning if the new technologies, lets say digital technologies of our day, provide excellent tools and mediums for retaining traces and archiving, will they be able to give us another historical sensibility, and hence allow us to sensibilize. The postmodern for Lyotard presents a new sensibility, which was the theme of his 1979 Postmodern Condition and the main discourse of his 1985 exhibition Les Immatériaux; the role of art, and here this exhibition in particular, is the means of sensibilization. This sensibilization is not only to make felt a passing but also to hint at one. How can we make sense of this passing? Where does it pass to? It is worth paying attention to an extremely intriguing passage in the same place, in which Lyotard invokes the Japanese monk Dōgen Zenji (1200‒1253), and which has troubled me for many years, in order to go beyond the mere exoticism. Lyotard attempted to compare what he means by anamnesis with what Dōgen calls “a clear mirror” in Shōbōgenzō, the classic of Zen Buddhism. I will quote at length the comment from Lyotard, in order to make clear why Lyotard sees in it a new form of anamnesis other than memorization:
It makes sense to try to recall something (let’s call it something) which has not been inscribed if the inscription of this something broke the support of the writing or the memory. I am borrowing this metaphor of the mirror from one of the treatises of Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō, the Zenki, there can be a presence that the mirror cannot reflect, but that breaks it into smithereens. A foreigner or a Chinese can come before the mirror and their image appears in it. But if what Dōgen calls ‘a clear mirror’ faces the mirror, then ‘everything will break into smithereens’. And Dōgen goes on to make this clear: ‘Do not imagine that there is first the time in which the breaking has not yet happened, nor that there is then the time in which everything breaks. There is just the breaking.’ So there is a breaking presence which is never inscribed nor memorable. It does not appear. It is not a forgotten inscription, it doesn’t have its place and time on the support of inscriptions, in the reflecting mirror. 
Why mention Dōgen, a thirteenth-century Japanese Monk here? This passage, from memory to “clear mirror,” for Lyotard, is a challenge to modern technology, but at the same time a hope that the new technical system will allow an anamnesis which is fragmented and open, instead of being closed, totalized, and submitted to synthesis. How can technology produce a rupture through the negation of itself? It is for this reason that Lyotard thought the question was too “dialectical.” But will it be possible to reread Lyotard’s question without following a Hegelian dialectic? Is it possible to see Lyotard’s reference to Eastern thinking as a non-dialectical passing? Lyotard hopes to find a passing demonstrated by Eastern thinking that will allow a move beyond the limit of modernity and the means of inscription and synthesis, but what happens in this passing? Lyotard wrote “I am not sure that the West—the philosophical West— has succeeded in thinking this, by the very fact of its technological vocation. Plato, perhaps, when he tries to think agathon beyond essence. Freud perhaps when he tries to think primary repression. But both always threatening to fall back into the technologos.” Lyotard is not strictly speaking an expert in Eastern thinking, but if the East wants to respond to the limit of modernity and postmodernity, in what way can we reaccess its tradition under the digital condition?
Lyotard’s speculative question will remain obscure if we restrict it to either an interpretation of Zen Buddhism or Freudian psychoanalysis, since it will inevitably return us to the question of the “I” or the “non-I.”  I propose to reformulate in a way that such a passing is only possible when an outside of the techno-logos is admitted and allows the symbolic to re-emerge from the new constellation. This outside is the cosmos. The question of cosmology re-entered contemporary theory through the so called “ontological turn” in Anthropology, in which anthropologists such as Philippe Descola, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, among others demonstrate and propose a plurality of cosmologies and natures, and a move from a multiculturalism to a multinaturalism. The return to cosmology and nature seems to be searching for the outside of the techno-logos, for a new mode of existence. However, a mere admission is powerless, for it has to be willed according to its own historical necessity. In The Question Concerning Technology in China, I tried to show that it is necessary but not sufficient to retrieve this force from traditional metaphysics and ontologies; instead, one will have to reinvent tradition and to reappropriate modern technology, initially by introducing a plurality of epistemologies and constituting a new episteme in the sense of Foucault. This passing is a returning to itself in order to move beyond itself.  This re-constitution of the episteme is what I understand as the discovery of “sensibility” and the project of “sensibilization.” I tend to believe that Lyotard wanted to demonstrate an epochal sensibility and therefore to sensibilize the postmodern through the medium of art and new technologies; such sensibility, seems to Lyotard, to be able to give a new framework to techno-logos, to illuminate the possibilities opened up by the new technological epochē in the sense of phenomenology. This means that technics should become cosmotechnics again. I would like to suggest that it is only through such a reinvention of cosmotechnical thinking that we can attempt to pass from the digital to the symbolic, as well as to redirect the current Entropocene.
1. See Miles Alexander Powell, “People in Peril, Environments at Risk: Coolies, Tigers, and Colonial Singapore’s Ecology of Poverty,” Environment and History, vol. 22, no. 3 (2016), pp. 455‒82.
2. Miles Alexander Powell, “People in Peril, Environments at Risk: Coolies, Tigers, and Colonial Singapore’s Ecology of Poverty,” Environment and History, vol. 22, no. 3 (2016), p. 480.
3. Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, trans. John Weightman and Doreen Weightman. New York: Penguin Books, 1992, p. 414.
4. See Yuk Hui, “On the Unhappy Consciousness of Neoreactionaries,” e-flux journal, no. 81 (April 2017) [online].
5. Jacques Ellul, The Technological system, trans. Joachim Neugroschel. London: Continuum, 1980, p. 40.
6. See Bernard Stiegler, Philosopher par accident: Entretiens avec Élie During. Paris: Galilée, 2004, chapter 3; the English translation by Benoît Dillet will be published by Edinburgh University Press in 2017.
7. For an analysis of the relationship between Ellul and Simondon, please see Yuk Hui, “Technological System and the Problem of Desymbolization,” in Helena Mateus Jerónimo et al. (eds), Jacques Ellul and the Technological Society in the 21st Century. Dordrecht, et al.: Springer, 2013, pp. 73‒82.
8. Yuk Hui, On the Existence of Digital Objects. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2016.
9. Mircea Eliade, Aspects du mythe. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1963, pp. 226‒35.
10. A similar paradox is presented in Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus, in which Socrates retells the conversation between the Egyptian God Theuth, inventor of writing and the King, Thamus. Thamus reproached Theuth’s avocation that writing can assist anamnesis; on the contrary, according to Thamus, writing is what conditions forgetting, since with writing, we no longer have any need to remember by heart. Technics as a means of anamnesis or mnemotechnics is also the source of hypomnesis. Jacques Derrida and Bernard Stiegler’s pharmacology attempts to bypass the duality of anamnesis and hypomnesis, Stiegler for his part aims for a passing which is a psychic and collective individuation in the sense of Simondon, whereas I attempt to develop an interpretation of Part III of Simondon’s On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects concerning the relation between the cosmos and technicity, which is another type of passing, or passage.
11. Jacques Ellul, The Technological system, trans. Joachim Neugroschel. London: Continuum, 1980, p. 177.
12. Jacques Ellul, The Technological system, trans. Joachim Neugroschel. London: Continuum, 1980, p. 40.
13. Yuk Hui, The Question Concerning Technology in China: An Essay in Cosmotechnics. Falmouth: Urbanomic, 2016, pp. 203‒8.
14. In this volume I attempted to trace technological thought in Chinese philosophy according to the dynamics of the relation between Qi (meaning tools or utensils) and Dao, situating it in three periods, pre-Qin philosophy, Song-Ming Neo-Confucianism, and modernization following the two Opium Wars.
15. Gilbert Simondon, “Entretien sur la méchanologie,” Revue de synthèse, vol. 130/6, no. 1 (2009), pp. 103–32, here p. 111.
16. See Gilbert Simondon, “The Genesis of Technicity,” e-flux journal, no. 82 (May 2017) [online].
17. Jean-François Lyotard, “Logos and Techne, or Telegraphy,” in The Inhuman: Reflections on Time, trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1992, pp. 47‒57.
18. The collection appeared in 1988 published by Édition Galilée; the English translation was published by Stanford University Press in 1992.
19. Jean-François Lyotard, “Logos and Techne, or Telegraphy,” in The Inhuman: Reflections on Time, trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1992, p. 57.
20. Jean-François Lyotard, “Logos and Techne, or Telegraphy,” in The Inhuman: Reflections on Time, trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1992, p. 55.
21. Jean-François Lyotard, “Logos and Techne, or Telegraphy,” in The Inhuman: Reflections on Time, trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1992, p. 55.
22. However, this return to the “I” or the “We” is still very important and it allows us to conceive a new program of psychic and collective individuation, which Stiegler himself has systematically demonstrated through his reading of Freud and Simondon. See Bernard Stiegler, For a New Critique of Political Economy, trans. Daniel Ross. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010.
23. There is no space here to elaborate on this point since it is very delicate. However, it is by no means a proposal to substantialize tradition or to return to any cultural purity or authenticity—which according to me was the mistake of the Kyoto School and its fanaticism—but rather to abstract from traditional thinking the essential element to think beyond the opposition between the modern and the traditional, without which we will be unable to develop a new world history, which still relies on an intuitive linearity of the pre-modern—modern (plural or multiple modernity)—postmodern. This proposal for a new world history is the objective of Part II of my The Question Concerning Technology in China.
1. Decline of the Occident … Again?
In his contribution to the 2004 conference “Politics and Apocalypse,” dedicated to the French theorist and anthropologist Réne Girard, Peter Thiel wrote that 9/11 marked the failure of the Enlightenment heritage. The West needed a new political theory to save itself from a new world configuration open to a “global terrorism” that “operated outside of all the norms of the liberal West.”1 Granting in advance that the West had embodied the doctrines and values of democracy and equality, Thiel moved immediately to argue that these had made the West vulnerable.
Such assertions of the Enlightenment’s obsolescence characterize the principal attitude of neoreaction, of which Mencius Moldbug—the pen name of Silicon Valley computer scientist and startup entrepreneur Curtis Yarvin—and the British philosopher Nick Land are the primary representatives. If Thiel is the king, then they are his knights, defending certain communities surrounding Reddit and 4Chan. Nor are the three unrelated. Over the past decade Moldbug’s blog, Unqualified Reservations, has inspired Land’s writing, and his startup company Tlon is supported by Thiel, a well-known venture capitalist, founder of PayPal and Palantir, and member of Donald Trump’s transition team. Tlon’s primary product, Urbit, proposes a new protocol different from the centralized client-server structure that currently dominates contemporary networks, allowing decentralization based on personal cloud computing—a so-called post-singularity operating system. The task of neoreaction seems to be sufficiently summarized in the question raised by Thiel towards the end of his paper:
The modern West has lost faith in itself. In the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment period, this loss of faith liberated enormous commercial and creative forces. At the same time, this loss has rendered the West vulnerable. Is there a way to fortify the modern West without destroying it altogether, a way of not throwing the baby out with the bathwater?2
I think Thiel’s question exemplifies a condition Hegel once diagnosed as “the unhappy consciousness”; understanding this concept is helpful for understanding neoreaction.3 Since history is, for Hegel, a long chain of necessary movements of the Spirit on the way to absolute self-consciousness, there are many stops or stations along the way—for example from Judaism to Christianity, and so on. The unhappy consciousness is the tragic moment when consciousness recognizes a contradiction at the heart of its previously blithe, even comedic nature. What self-consciousness had thought was complete and whole is revealed as fractured and unfinished. It recognizes the self’s other as a contradiction while at the same time not knowing how to sublate it. Hegel writes:
This Unhappy Consciousness constitutes the counterpart and the completion of the comic consciousness that is perfectly happy within itself … The Unhappy Consciousness … is, conversely, the tragic fate of the certainty of self that aims to be absolute. It is the consciousness of the loss of all essential being in this certainty of itself, and of the loss even of this knowledge about itself … It is the grief which expresses itself in the hard saying that “God is dead.”4
Hegel’s recourse to the affective language of grief is not accidental, for the unhappy consciousness, as the name implies, is dominated, even overwhelmed, by feelings it cannot escape. In Judaism, claims Hegel, a duality of extremes develops in which essence is beyond existence and God outside man, leaving man stranded in the inessential. In Christianity, a unity between the immutable and the specific is called forth through the figure of Christ as God incarnate; however, such unity remains a feeling without thought.5 The unhappy consciousness feels without understanding the participation of the universal in the particular, leaving this contradictory duality insurmountable, since it is still only a feeling, not a concept. As Jean Hyppolite explains:
The object of unhappy consciousness … is the unity of the immutable and the specific. But unhappy consciousness does not relate to its essence through thought, it is the feeling of this unity and not yet its concept. For this reason, its essence remains alien to it … The feeling of the divine which this consciousness has is a shattered feeling, precisely because it is only a feeling.6
For the neoreactionaries, the Enlightenment in general—and democracy in particular—appears as an alienated other of the self. It is both remedy and poison, or more precisely a pharmakon in the Greek sense. However, the consciousness of contradiction remains a feeling, and the attempts to escape this feeling open a pathological path towards a deeper melancholia or an illusory abyss of the schwärmerei of speculative thinking. Thiel refers to Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the Occident to describe this contradictory self, and to frame 9/11 as a decisive warning of it. In Years of Decision, Spengler himself connected this restless sentiment to the “Prussian Spirit” which he saw as “the salvation of the white race”:
The Celtic-German “race” has the strongest will-power that the world has ever seen. But this “I will,” “I will!” … awakens consciousness of the total isolation of the Self in infinite space. Will and loneliness are at bottom the same … If anything in the world is individualism, it is this defiance of the individual towards the whole world, his knowledge of his own indestructible will, the pleasure he takes in irreversible decisions, and the love of fate … To submit out of free will is Prussian.7
Certainly it is easy to see the neoreactionaries’ embrace of the purported decline of the Occident as a repetition of these familiar historical moments: in particular, the attack against the radical Enlightenment towards the end of the eighteenth century and the emergence of reactionary modernism in Germany between the First and Second World Wars, which married Romanticism with technology and finally merged with National Socialism. It is important to keep this repetition in mind to understand the tactics and the rhetoric which the neoreactionaries use—with or without awareness of these histories—if only to understand what, for them, constitutes the decline of the West today and why the Enlightenment appears to them to be the source of such unhappiness.8 If the neoreactionaries reject the Enlightenment, it is a rejection of a strange and specific kind.
2. Quarrels of the Enlightenment
After 9/11, Thiel predicted an increase in security at US airports and greater scrutiny of immigrants. These policies reached a new level of intensity in the travel ban imposed by the administration of Donald Trump—the product of “American democracy” which has stunned even Francis Fukuyama, who recently remarked, like a true Hegelian, that “twenty years ago, I didn’t have a sense or a theory about how democracies can go backward.”9 However, the question goes far beyond American democracy: “state of exception,” a term used to describe emergency measures such as travel bans, becomes utterly banal when Trump exercises what is no longer an exception at all, but rather the routine power of the sovereign, in ways reminiscent of the absolutist monarchs of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. The return to monarchy embraced by the neoreactionaries orients itself as an assault against the Enlightenment values of democracy and equality, which they understand as, respectively, degenerative and limiting. In a series of blog posts entitled “The Dark Enlightenment”—which have since become something of a neoreactionary classic—the British philosopher Nick Land praised the lords Moldbug and Thiel for honestly declaring these gods to be dead. In their place we find the god of freedom, whose own patrimony is not without shades of light.
Land cites Thiel’s 2009 essay “The Education of a Libertarian,” which famously pronounced: “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.”10 But what does it mean for democracy and freedom to be incompatible? Thiel claimed that libertarians have been mistaken in thinking that freedom can be achieved through politics (democracy), when the only way to realize the libertarian project is through capitalism outstripping politics via an extensive exploration of cyberspace, outer space, and the oceans. Democracy is what prevents the realization of freedom, writes Land, suggesting that democracy is merely an Enlightenment myth:
In European classical antiquity, democracy was recognized as a familiar phase of cyclical political development, fundamentally decadent in nature, and preliminary to a slide into tyranny. Today this classical understanding is thoroughly lost, and replaced by a global democratic ideology, entirely lacking in critical self-reflection, that is asserted not as a credible social-scientific thesis, or even as a spontaneous popular aspiration, but rather as a religious creed, of a specific, historically identifiable kind.11
Land and Moldbug also raise the question of alternatives, which, in the spirit of Thiel, requires “recovering from democracy, much as Eastern Europe sees itself as recovering from Communism.” In “An Open Letter to Open-Minded Progressives,” Moldbug related his own trajectory from a progressive to a Jacobite.12 He rejected the political correctness and politeness of progressives by proposing to instrumentalize Hitler and the reactionary thought of fascism. This is a form of ideology critique descended from radical left thinking about what happens when ideas and practices are institutionalized. It is only in the “cathedral” that ethics and dogma overlap. But while for the non-academic left, this dogma is ineffective and benign, for the neoreactionaries it is an existential threat; political correctness becomes a toxic threat to Western Civilization.
This quarrel over the Enlightenment resonates with a debate that raged during the European Enlightenment. On one side were radical thinkers such as Diderot, d’Holbach, Paine, Jefferson, and Priestley—philosophers and Unitarians who attacked the Church and the monarchy and saw the progress of reason as the realization of universalism. On the other side were more moderate Enlightenment thinkers such as Ferguson, Hume, and Burke, who championed the monarchical-aristocratic order of society.13 The Enlightenment, it would seem, has no original commitment to democracy. On the contrary, the issue was contested from the start.
Moldbug’s frequent references to the cameralism of Fredrick the Great further dramatize this quarrel, exemplifying the confused feelings of the unhappy consciousness. One the one hand, Moldbug calls himself a Jacobite, defends the divine right of kings, and proposes a new cameralism that sees the state as a business—a vision that has apparently appealed to the Trump Administration. On the other hand, he avoids the fact that the Enlightenment was practically Old Fritz’s personal brand—not only did Fredrick reject the divine right of kings in favor of social contract theory, he also wrote famous essays on “enlightened monarchy” and said that “my principal occupation is to combat ignorance and prejudice … to enlighten minds, cultivate morality, and to make people as happy as it suits human nature, and as the means at my disposal permit.” He even sheltered Voltaire when the latter got himself into trouble with the church. And sure enough, it is clear that the neoreactionaries see themselves as so many contemporary Voltaires battling the contemporary church of political correctness—what Moldbug calls “the Cathedral.” Hence the unhappy consciousness stranded between an awareness of the contradictions of the Enlightenment and their transcendence: for the neoreactionaries, the Enlightenment giveth and the Enlightenment taketh away. The expressed symptom of this disease is a relentless irony, as Land observes:
Without a taste for irony, Mencius Moldbug is all but unendurable, and certainly unintelligible. Vast structures of historical irony shape his writings, at times even engulfing them. How otherwise could a proponent of traditional configurations of social order—a self-proclaimed Jacobite—compose a body of work that is stubbornly dedicated to subversion?
But this contradiction is precisely what makes the neoreactionary consciousness so unhappy, insofar as Land and Moldbug allow their feelings of grief and loss to take precedence over the difficult protocols of reason they nevertheless cite with a compulsion worthy of Freud. Moldbug wants the authoritarianism of the Jacobites alongside the political economy of the Whigs, and if this makes no sense, then too bad because someone is probably getting bullied by the Cathedral on the internet someplace. Land, at least, good veteran of the academy that he is, knows enough to avoid getting bogged down by tiresome questions of historical accuracy, and as The Dark Enlightenment goes on, one can almost feel him slinking away from Moldbug. After parroting some boilerplate libertarian catechism, Land moves quickly towards his real aim: exposing the contradictory consciousness of contemporary progressive bloggers, a target-rich environment to be sure, albeit one far below his weight class as a thinker. Here it is significant that Land has reversed the order: reusing the radical philosophers’ criticism of the monarchist Enlightenment thinkers against themselves, cunningly accusing the radical Enlightenment—played again, following Moldbug, by the purported universalism of radical Protestantism—of hypocrisy and contradiction, following its own gesture and script:
Under this examination, what counts as Universal reason, determining the direction and meaning of modernity, is revealed as the minutely determined branch or sub-species of a cultic tradition, descended from “ranters,” “levelers,” and closely related variants of dissident, ultra-protestant fanaticism, and owing vanishingly little to the conclusions of logicians.
This attack on social-democratic politics as the consequence of Enlightenment institutionalization is in fact a return to the conservative thinkers of the Enlightenment itself: a negation of the negation. Land embodies the return of the repressed even as he warns against it:
The basic theme has been mind control, or thought-suppression, as demonstrated by the Media-Academic complex that dominates contemporary Western societies, and which Mencius Moldbug names the Cathedral. When things are squashed they rarely disappear. Instead, they are displaced, fleeing into sheltering shadows, and sometimes turning into monsters. Today, as the suppressive orthodoxy of the Cathedral comes unstrung, in various ways, and numerous senses, a time of monsters is approaching.
Such complexities are part of the reason why it is too simple to just denounce the neoreactionaries as racists—though probably most of them are. Their rejection of the Enlightenment comes out of a “self-consciousness” that has not yet grasped a unified concept of its contradiction. Rather than confront the difficult fact that their God never existed, the neo-reactionaries set about trying to kill Him by sabotaging the Cathedral and pursing absolute deterritorialization. The will towards such radical change leaves them with the illusion of a beautiful story on the other side of the world, and with elaborate speculations about a superintelligence that will save human beings from politics. For example, Land’s celebration of Asian cities such as Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Singapore is simply a detached observation of these places that projects onto them a common will to sacrifice politics for productivity. Political fatigue often causes the West to be drawn to East Asia’s promises of depoliticized techno-commercial utopia; sinofuturism becomes the model for radical change. By “sinofuturism” we mean the idea that China has been able to import Western science and technology without resistance, while in the West, the fantasy goes, any significant technological invention or scientific discovery will always be limited and decelerated by the political correctness of the Cathedral. It is not surprising that Milton Friedman, who regarded Hong Kong as a neoliberal economic experiment envisioned by himself and the Scotsman John Cowperthwaite (the financial secretary of Hong Kong in the 1960s), had the same observation, writing in his essay “Hong Kong Experiment” that the economy of Hong Kong outstripped that of the US thanks to its ability to function without any “vagaries of politics.”14
This desire for productivity is consistent with the neoliberal premise that a techno-commercial depoliticization is necessary to save the West. But from what? I tend to believe that the rise of the neoreactionaries reveals the failure of a universalization qua globalization since the Enlightenment, but due to a far more nuanced reason. For the neoreactionaries, the equality, democracy, and liberty proposed by the Enlightenment and their universalization led to an unproductive politics characterized by political correctness. One therefore needs to “take the red pill” to renounce these causes in order to seek another configuration, whether political in disguise or apolitical in essence. Neoreactionary thinking as unhappy consciousness is an outcry in the face of a dialectical transformation of globalization.
3. The Neoreactionary Unhappy Consciousness
Regardless of which Christian sect we ascribe it to, universalism remains a Western intellectual product. In reality there has been no universalism (at least not yet), only universalization (or synchronization)—a modernization process rendered possible by globalization and colonization. This creates problems for the right as well as the left, making it extremely difficult to reduce politics to the traditional dichotomy. The reflexive modernization described by prominent sociologists in the twentieth century as a shift from the early modernity of the nation-state to a second modernity characterized by reflexivity seems to be questionable from the outset. Reflexivity, resting on a “heightened awareness that mastery is impossible,” instead of being a constant negotiation for differences, appears to be only a means of universalization through methods other than war.15 This doesn’t prevent the return of nation-states, nor monarchies for that matter, which anyway never left—witness the Kingdom of Saud, whose support for the 9/11 hijackers is well known.
The universalization process functions according to power differences: the technologically stronger powers export knowledge and values to the weaker ones, and consequently destroy their interiority. The French paleontologist André Leroi-Gourhan illustrates this process beautifully in his 1945 book Milieu et Techniques. He defines a “technical milieu” as a membrane separating the interiority and the exteriority of different ethnic groups. The differences in technological development define, to a large extent, the boundary of culture and power differences. Of course, today it is no longer a question of ancient ethnic groups but rather nation-states and ethnonationalism that define the boundary of cultures. In the process of modernization, the dynamic described by Leroi-Gourhan has to be largely updated, because such a milieu virtually doesn’t exist, since all non-Western countries have been forced to adapt themselves to constant technological development and innovation. Take China as an example: the defeat of China during the two Opium Wars led to a rampant modernization in which such a technical membrane became virtually unsustainable due to fundamental differences in technological thought and development (the most significant existing membrane is probably the Great Firewall of China, but its construction is only possible thanks to Silicon Valley).
The universalization process has been a largely unilateral one, reducing non-Western thinking to an amusement. Even for Leibniz, who took Chinese thinking seriously in the eighteenth century, Chinese writing is only an inspiration for him to construct a characteristica universalis; in other words, Chinese thought is only a passage to the universal. The modernization following the Opium Wars was intensified during the Cultural Revolution, since tradition—for example, Confucianism—was naively judged as a return to feudalism, which goes against the Marxist view of historical progress. The economic reforms that started in the 1980s, directed by the world’s greatest accelerationist, Deng Xiaoping, further accelerated this modernization process. Today, military-industrial technologies in the global south are catching up with the West, reversing the unilateral universalization of Western modernity since the turn of the last century. The Hegelian consciousness has to recognize that the “climax and terminus of the world process” is far beyond Hegel’s “own existence in Berlin.”16 The last scene of such a joyful Hegelian consciousness was when American and European expats were practicing yoga in India, climbing the Great Wall in China, and enjoying the exotic delights of nature outside of their country. Today, when Shanghai is no cheaper than New York and when Trump accuses China of stealing jobs and destroying the US economy, the story is over.
The story of globalization continues, but happy consciousness is outstripped by material conditions. And not only in the US. When I visited Barcelona last summer, I was struck by the fact that so many Spanish restaurants and shops are run by Chinese people. An anthropologist friend studying the suburbs of Barcelona told me that the situation is even more astonishing there, where most local bars are now owned and operated by Chinese families. He remarked that something significant will take place in the coming decades due to demographic changes, let alone the issue of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa. We must remind ourselves that the limit of globalization is not established by the lie of the Enlightenment, as the neoreactionaries claim, but rather that it is only a historical zeitgeist in which colonization, industrialization, and the birth of economics overlap. The new configuration of globalization now reveals its other—which was already present at the beginning, yet remained unthought.
Fundamentally, the neoreactionary movement and the “alt-right” are expressions of an anxiety over the fact that the West is incapable of overcoming the current phase of globalization and maintaining the privilege it has enjoyed for the past few hundred years. Nick Land already admitted as much twenty years ago, in a text entitled “Meltdown”:
The sino-pacific boom and automatized global economic integration crashes the neocolonial world system … resulting in Euro-American neo-mercantilist panic reactions, welfare state deterioration, cancerizing enclaves of domestic underdevelopment, political collapse, and the release of cultural toxins that speed-up the process of disintegration in a vicious circle.17
The neoreactionary critique exposes the limit of the Enlightenment and its project, but surprisingly, it may only show that the Enlightenment has never really been implemented, or rather that its history is one of compromise and distortion.18 Clarifying the emergence of neofascist politics on a global scale demands admitting at least this much: in the same way that Hitler’s love for the master race in no way imperiled his alliance with the Empire of Japan—indeed, it was the British commander of Singapore who left the landward side of the island undefended because he did not think the Japanese could see out of their slanty eyes well enough to attack from land—so too does contemporary ultranationalism constitute a truly international phenomenon. The neofascist movement extends far beyond Europe and America, with different ways of orienting the “global” and the “local.” Take, for example, the Russian political theorist and self-proclaimed Heideggerian Aleksandr Dugin and his “fourth political theory.” Like Land, Dugin is not someone easily discredited or denounced. Yes he has to be understood as a true reactionary. His fourth political theory claims to go beyond the failure of the three previous political theories: liberalism, communism, and fascism.19 If the subjects of the previous three political theories were, respectively, the individual, the class, and the nation-state or race, then the subject of the fourth political theory is the Heideggerian Dasein.20 Dasein resists the deracination of the postmodern, the midnight “when Nothingness (nihilism) begins to seep from all the cracks.”21 The fourth political theory is indeed a reactionary theory, which finds its roots in the conservative revolution and fascist movements (Arthur Moeller van den Bruck in Germany, Julius Evola in Italy), traditionalism (René Guénon), and the new right (Alain de Benoist). For Dugin, the global is the modern world and the local is Russian tradition.
In Asian cities such as Hong Kong a similar movement has appeared in recent years, initiated by folklore scholar Wan Chin, who completed a PhD in ethnology in Göttingen in the 1990s. His theory of “Hong Kong as a city-state” is based on an awkward neoracism against Mainland Chinese, replacing the “global” with China and the “local” with a mixture of colonial history and Chinese culture dating back to the Song Dynasty. I am personally not a traditionalist, though I appreciate tradition and still believe that the failure of all communist revolutions is due to a failure to respect tradition or draw from its forces, instead posing matter against spirit. The opposition between matter and spirit leads to a nihilism which pushes modernization to its extreme. The question today is not whether to give up tradition or to defend tradition, but rather how to de-substantialize tradition and appropriate the modern world from the standpoint of a de-substantialized tradition in terms of episteme and epistemology, as I have tried to propose in my recent book.22 I emphasize both episteme and epistemology, since an epistemological shift still remains within a trajectory of European thought, and serves the diversification and perfection of the homogenizing technical system; the question of episteme goes further, since it also concerns the question of forms of life. This means that it will be necessary to transform tradition itself in order to reappropriate technological modernization and reconstitute a new episteme. These are the nuances that we must make, and make carefully, instead of subsuming discourse to clear oppositional and exclusive categories of right and left.
Critics have frequently pointed out that globalization is another name for global capitalism. Distinctions between capitalist globalization and alternative globalization notwithstanding, the silence of the antiglobalization movement since the end of the millennium has led some authors to suggest that coming to terms with a certain sterility should cause revolutionaries to break away from the constraints of leftist politics that keep “the Gulliver of revolution attached to the ground.”23 A radical politics is called for by both revolutionaries and neoreactionaries, though radical in two completely different directions.
4. Thinking After Meltdown
How then is the West going to save itself, to sublate the contradiction of the unhappy consciousness? Reaction, like fascism, doesn’t tell the truth, but only allows people to express themselves. Trump’s victory is more or less a victory of reactionary and right-wing thinking, which do not provide a worthier analysis of the situation but rather appeal to the emotions, as Ernst Bloch once said about the situation in Germany.24 Commentators have tried to suggest, based on the relation between Thiel and Girard, that Trump and tech entrepreneurs are comparable to scapegoats25; like the pharmakos in ancient Greece or the King described by Sir James Frazer in The Golden Bough, their sacrifice puts an end to social and political crisis. However, the figure of the scapegoat is analogous to the “red pill”: it is only a rhetorical tactic that justifies its reactionary tendency as a covert truth. The sacrifice of the scapegoat is a redefinition of friend and enemy, which is rather clear in Trump’s position on China-US-Russia relations. To maintain an uneven globalization and avoid the expense of war, real scapegoats are going to be sacrificed, since they are the vessels for hiding the truth in favor of populist movements. In other words, how can the West maintain unilateral globalization to preserve its privilege and supremacy? This question is not asked by Land, who simply mobilizes the neoreactionaries as a means of advancing his own bionic agenda. However, no matter how unwilling one is, we cannot deny the fact that today’s world can no longer maintain the old order; the military modernization of the past century makes this impossible.
Bloch was right, but emotion is not enough. The reactionary modernists also provided something substantial. They wanted to overcome the opposition between natur and technik, and therefore to reconcile technik and kultur (kultur was considered to be opposed to zivilisation) within the interiority (innerlichkeit) of European culture. This is also why, after publishing The Decline of the West (1922), Spengler followed with Man and Technics: Contribution to a Philosophy of Life (Der Mensch und die Technik. Beitrag zu einer Philosophie des Lebens, 1931) to reassert his pro-technology credentials.26 Today we can observe how technology returns to provide a futurist vision of the technological singularity as a solution to any politics, with the added nuance that the innerlichkeit is no longer of central concern. Thiel is a venture capitalist who has funded major tech companies such as Facebook, Google, and PayPal. Technology, as he wrote in Zero to One, means complementarity, and “strong AI is like a cosmic lottery ticket: if we win, we get utopia; if we lose, Skynet substitutes us out of existence.” Moldbug is the developer of the operating system Urbit, which runs on libertarian principles. Nick Land is interested in technological singularity and the “intelligence explosion” since the 1990s. He has also praised Bitcoin, as have other neoreactionaries such as Eliezer Yudkowsky, who is a well-known AI researcher. In Thiel’s view, it is only through an invasive technological intervention that the West can recover from democracy. Land’s accelerationism is the most sophisticated of the various accelerationisms, and far more philosophical than the leftist version, which relies on a rather shallow understanding of technology. His transhumanist position, however, is another kind of “universalism,” one in which all cultural relativity is subsumed to an intelligent cybernetic machine, producing a “meltdown”—an absolute deterritorialization and an intelligence explosion that captures the creative force of intellectual intuition in the Kantian sense. Land seeks a remythologization of the world through Lovecraftian weird realism. “The endless [that] ends in itself,” a poetic sentence from Land’s fictional work Phyl-Undhu, gestures toward an idealist recursive genesis.
The competition to realize the technological singularity has become a major battlefield, and the threat of war has never been so imminent. Thiel once wrote that “competition is for losers,” since it is monopoly that “produces at the quantity and price combination that maximizes its profits.”27 The irony is that the nonpolitics Thiel supports careens towards such an undesirable fate. We must avoid this war at all costs. This doesn’t mean that we should completely reject the possibility of a superintelligence. But we should resist surrendering to a destiny predefined by technological development. We urgently need to imagine a new world order and seize the opportunity provided by the meltdown to develop a strategy that opposes the relentless depoliticization and proletarianization driven by the transhumanist fantasy of superintelligence.
This meltdown doesn’t have to mean the end of the world. In can also be approached as a pivotal political and philosophical moment, when restructuring on both a global and local scale is possible because the old structures have been dissolved by new technologies. In the words of Bernard Stiegler, we can describe our moment as a “digital epoché,” in which old institutional forms are not only conceptually but also materially suspended. For example, Finland is considering using new digital technology to abandon the traditional way of teaching according to subject and to develop a curriculum that involves more collaboration among teachers. This is a moment when new forms of educational institutions can be created, when a “destitution” (in Agamben’s sense) can be carried out to break down a synchronization that so far has only served the interests of globalization. This destitution can lead to the emergence of epistemes that diverge from the hegemonic synchronization internal to the technological singularity. It is an opportunity to develop new thinking and new constitutions that go beyond current debates focused on universal basic income and robot taxis. We must not wait for the technocrats to implement this thinking via lengthy reports from the “Cathedral.”
Let us conclude by going back to the Enlightenment and its world process. Philosophy is fundamental to revolutions, affirmed Condorcet, since it changes at a single stroke the basic principles of politics, society, morality, education, religion, international relations, and legislation.28 Such a notion of philosophy has to be turned towards the question of thinking for a new world history. Maybe we should grant to thinking a task opposite the one given to it by Enlightenment philosophy: to fragment the world according to difference instead of universalizing through the same; to induce the same through difference, instead of deducing difference from the same. A new world-historical thinking has to emerge in the face of the meltdown of the world.
This article takes up Heidegger’s commentary on Rimbaud’s Lettres du voyant as the starting point for an exploration of the question of rhythm in Heidegger’s thought, and an attempt to situate it within his understanding of technics and Being. Besides pursuing a historical study of the concept of rhythm in Heidegger’s work, this article proposes to understand rhythm through the concept of individuation. It responds to the French philosopher Jacques Garelli’s critique of Heidegger that the latter ignores the question of individuation and always starts with beings that are already individuated. On the contrary, this article attempts to sketch a theory of individuation of rhythm in Heidegger’s proper thinking through a re-interpretation of the Fug—a word he used to translate the Greek word δίκη and words derived from it: joint (Fuge), structure (Gefüge), submission (sich fugen), etc.
More information can be found here: http://booksandjournals.brillonline.com/content/journals/10.1163/15691640-12341356