Interview: A Thousand Cosmotechnics

Interview: A Thousand Cosmotechnics

Interview by Giovanni Menegalle
Photography by Hudson Hayden
Originally from Tank Magazine Issue 74:

Yuk Hui has emerged as one of the foremost contemporary theorists on digital technology, drawing academic and non-specialist audiences from Berlin to Hangzhou. His two recent books, On the Existence of Digital Objects and The Question Concerning Technology in China, both seek ways to recover technology’s meaning and potential, whether in the seemingly depersonalised milieu of computer code or through a cosmological understanding of technology across the Chinese and European traditions. The question of how humans can affect such a recovery within a bio-technical environment that is global in scale yet fragmented in its cultural contents and representations is central to his concept of “cosmotechnics”. In this interview, Yuk discusses his background, work and ideas, laying multiple trails for a planetary politics of the future.

Giovanni Menegalle Could you start by outlining your intellectual trajectory? I’m thinking in particular of two important axes in your work: the relationship between philosophy and technics; and the relationship between the European and Chinese philosophical traditions. Do you think the most transformative possibilities for thought today lie at the point of intersection of these two axes?

Yuk Hui I first studied computer engineering in Hong Kong with a focus on AI before I went on to study philosophy in Europe. The work of Heidegger, especially what is known as Heideggerian AI, was a key to this transition. At the beginning, I wanted to prepare a thesis on Heidegger, but I changed my plan in 2008 after encountering Bernard Stiegler. He opened a new horizon for me – how to practice philosophy with and through technology. It was also a period of confusion and excitement, since such a practice demands constant creations, searching for convergences and reformulating conceptual schemas. So one is in constant negotiation between the preciseness of concepts and the concreteness of evidence. There aren’t many conventions one can follow, and it turns out to be a method in its own right, a modus operandi.

It is in the same spirit that I want to conduct a new dialogue between European and Chinese philosophy through the question of technology, since I am convinced that we will have to develop a new concept of world history and cosmopolitanism after hundreds of years of modernisation, as a response to the Anthropocene.

GM Does technological change expose philosophy to the impossibility of its own closure, and so help open up different philosophical traditions to one another? There is a kind of reflexive moment, in which the cultural and semantic limits of a particular philosophical tradition could be challenged by a new technological reality. But there could also be a moment of contamination across different philosophical traditions – an exchange in which the very openness of technics comes to be re-articulated in an instance of conceptual transformation or invention. To turn the question around: do you think that what is at stake in these transformational encounters is the very technicity of philosophy, the operational universality
of philosophical concepts one could say?

YH I interpret your question as what would be the condition of doing philosophy? And especially what is the condition of doing it today?

GM I mean that philosophy is by definition oriented towards the idea of universality, and that this is what is at stake in its encounter with technics. As Husserl says, philosophy is a “universal task”, even if this universality remains infinitely deferred – a regulative idea. This is necessary for philosophy, as well as the sciences and technology, all of which, formally speaking, depend on a field of universal intelligibility. In thinking about the relationship between philosophy and technics, as well as that between different philosophical traditions, this seems an absolutely central problem. Take for example Heidegger, who rejects the modern reduction of philosophy to an objective, techno-scientific “world-picture.” He says, “science does not think.” But then, what is thinking and what remains of philosophy for him after that? A mytho-poetic practice of “saying” something that is beyond language and thought, against their technicisation. And all this through a reassertion of the cultural, historical, and semantic specificities of the German or Ancient Greek language. I think this is a trap, and it’s why I’m very interested in how you reconcile this problem in your work. Perhaps the way out is to approach technology as embodying schemas of infinite repetition (logical, mathematical, mechanical, chemical, et cetera), as instances of concretised thought which bring philosophy to reflect on its own universal horizons with and through technics, as you just talked about. Bachelard said that philosophy in the 20th century can no longer regard itself as “preceding” science and technology, but must instead open itself up to them. What I’m wondering is whether, both in its encounter with technology and via a dialogue across different traditions, philosophy in the 21st century must go further and confront the technicity of its own concepts, as schemas of infinite repetition that can be combined, transformed, reassembled…

YH You said that “philosophy is by definition oriented towards the idea of universality” – you are right, but you are talking about the European tradition. François Jullien has shown in his book On the Universal: The Uniform, the Common and Dialogue between Cultures, the necessity of reconsidering the concept of universality and developing a different political plan based on the common. It is true that in Europe the concept of the universal, given a priori, is the guarantee of a political project. In fact, this universality is only guaranteed by the fact that it is a priori. Not to mention the Greeks and the Romans. Just look at Kant, in his “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose”, the inwardly universal history and externally “perfect state constitution” is the “completion of a hidden plan of nature”. The teleology of nature conceals an a priori, which can only be known through an analogy with the reflective judgement, which Kant elaborated in the second book of the Critique of Judgement. However, this universality reveals a certain negativity in the confrontation with non-European cultures. And if you are right in describing the role of technology in the dialogues between different philosophies, you are actually admitting that there is a process of “universalisation” through “universal technology”. If Bachelard is right, as you invoke him here, that philosophy is closely related to phenomenotechnics, since a phenomenon is always produced by a certain apparatus and our knowledge is mediated by such apparatus, then the “universal” is put into question again; here we will also have to recognise that it is also through the apparatus that knowledge can be transmitted and universalised. And it is the question of universalisation that interests me and against which I propose to start with differences in order to arrive at the same – but not to start with the same to conquer the differences.

For sure, one can always do historical studies on how philosophical thoughts migrate, transfer, contaminate – that is very important. But, to philosophise has another meaning. Heidegger, in his Letter on “Humanism” (1947), says that “people don’t think anymore, they occupy themselves with philosophy”. What Heidegger means here by thinking is the attempt to think according to new historical conditions. I think we will have to recognise the fact that, firstly, technological development has reached such a stage that it produces a technological consciousness, in contrast to the technological unconsciousness of the modern. This technological consciousness is named in different ways, for example posthuman, transhuman et cetera, though these terms are very different from one another. Secondly, philosophy, which owes its root to the Greek language, becomes global today, but what does it mean to become global? Such becoming-global has been possible only because of technological globalisation.

I have the impression that if non-European philosophies have become “obsolete”, it is not simply because of imperialism, but more fundamentally because they are not able to deal with the question of technology, therefore one is easily trapped in simple oppositions. Non-European philosophies cannot be reduced to European philosophy, although such a “reduction” or search for equivalence, or maybe we can say universalisation, has been the project of modernity, either consciously or unconsciously among philosophers. For example, towards the end of the 19th century, some Chinese philosophers were looking for an equivalence between the concept of ether and the Confucian notion of benevolence or rén. However, today it is important for us to mobilise this “irreducibility” in order to go much further, if not to create a new philosophical situation.

Back to these two conditions, they are not separated if we follow Heidegger here: since technology is for him the product of Western metaphysics, it indicates the end or fulfilment of metaphysics. Heidegger didn’t think of technology in terms of support – even though he had the concept of facticity – in the way Derrida and Stiegler have argued and what you have just formulated. And Heidegger doesn’t think with science and technology; as you pointed out, he says “science does not think”, since science involves a reduction to calculability, while thinking and poetry search for the unknown or Unbekannte, the incalculable. And you are right that technology, and primarily writing, constitutes the traces and conditions of dialogues between philosophical systems. However, we should be careful not to jump too quickly to any conclusion that technology is operationally universal, since we still have to ask: is the relation between technology and philosophy the same in the West and in China? What Heidegger says in his “black notebooks”, that technology is not universal but international, is very intriguing. It is true that there is a certain “universality” in the definition of technology, for example, when André Leroi-Gourhan says that the process of hominisation entails exteriorisation of memory and liberation of organ functions, or as you said, with laws of nature or mathematical axioms, but this is not yet sufficient. For this question, we can put forward a Kantian antinomy: 1) technology is anthropologically universal, insofar as it is understood as exteriorisation of memory and liberation of organ functions, as Leroi-Gourhan defines it; 2) technology is not anthropologically universal, because it is conditioned and constrained by particular cosmologies. The spirit of the Kantian antinomy is to relativise the absoluteness of a thesis, not denouncing it as false but showing it as insufficient. My last book, The Question Concerning Technology in China, develops this antinomy through a historical study of technological thought in China. In it I propose that it is possible to follow the historical dynamic of the relation between qi (meaning utensil) and dao, so as to conceive of a Chinese cosmotechnics which cannot be explained by either the Greek notion of technē or modern technology.

GM In the same book you argue that the Anthropocene heralds a collapse of the distinction between geological time and human time. How does the notion of a plural cosmotechnics intervene within this conjuncture?

YH I understand the Anthropocene as an intensive synchronisation and amplification brought about by industrialisation and its technological globalisation, which underlies such a process of modernisation. The Anthropocene appears, and is described by many authors, as a closure, a crisis of modernity, an ecological mutation for Bruno Latour and the Entropocene for Bernard Stiegler. Latour and his colleagues have been talking about “resetting modernity” and intend to extend such a project outside of Europe to other cultures. He is right that it is not possible to resolve such a crisis without profound dialogues with non-European thought. By modernity I understand a methodological and epistemological rupture that took place in the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe. This form of knowledge was globalised as a consequence of colonisation and later by “globalisation”. If we want to redirect this process of modernisation, we will have to suspend this “tendency” enforced by the process of universalisation of epistemology inherited from modernity, which is described by the Portuguese sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos as an “epistemicide”. Anthropologists such as Philippe Descola, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro and others have been talking about multinaturalism by reaffirming the multiple cosmologies and variant natures in non-European cultures, and if for Kant, nature is the “guarantee of perpetual peace”, the concept of multinaturalism suggests a new cosmopolitics. However, returning to nature is not sufficient. It seems to be a fashion now that to be a leftist intellectual, you have to subscribe to an indigenous ontology. But it is also risky if not dangerous, since it is the germen of proto-nationalism and proto-fascism. For me the “rediscovery” of cosmotechnics is not a gesture of “homecoming” – not at all – it is the suggestion that every culture needs to develop its history of cosmotechnics. The Question Concerning Technology in China is such an exercise.

To give cultures new life in order to reappropriate modern technology; to redirect the process of modernisation by suspending such an entropic becoming, in Stiegler’s sense. Such a reorientation (in contradistinction to the disorientation of the postmodern) will require several generations to complete, but I am convinced it is something we will have to try.

GM The titles of your two books reference Gilbert Simondon’s 1958 On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects and Heidegger’s 1954 The Question Concerning Technology. Both those texts were responses to a very specific political and ideological context: the Cold War, the rise of cybernetic technologies, post-war European technocracy. How is their thinking developed in your work?

YH I think that we should read these texts by contextualising them historically. Both Simondon and Heidegger witnessed the rapid development of new telecommunication technologies. Heidegger often talks of radio, television, telegraphy, atomic bombs, et cetera, and Simondon’s supplementary thesis on technical objects is full of examples of electronic devices used in communication, for example, diode, triode, tetrode, pentode and transductor. Heidegger and Simondon both want to give a new role to technics. Simondon speaks about reconciling culture and technics, and these new technical objects for him are endowed with philosophical potentials; while for Heidegger, these technical objects claim to reduce distances, but they blind us from seeing what is nearest, so he reconstructs a parallel history between modern technology and metaphysics. Simondon was inspired by cybernetics, and he wanted to develop something even more radical, namely, a universal cybernetics, which would allow him to overcome the culture/technics antagonism. Heidegger, by contrast, was critical of cybernetics, since for him, as he famously claimed, the beginning of cybernetics is the end of metaphysics. This obliges him to propose a new thinking beyond all forms of calculative thought. This confrontation between Simondon and Heidegger is very important for my work, and I try to create a dialogue between them through such confrontations since there are clearly some resonances. We should also read them as transitional figures from the standpoint of our current technological condition, that of the digital, and give new meanings to their work. In my book on digital objects, I extend Simondon’s analysis of technical objects to digital objects and suggest adding a more speculative dimension to it, looking at the individuation of digital and technical objects, which draws very much from Heidegger’s analysis of signs and world. In my book on cosmotechnics, this concept is itself a further development of the third part of On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects, where Simondon talks about the bifurcation of an original magical phase into technics and religion, and beyond that into theoretical and practical phases respectively. I use the concept of cosmotechnics to negotiate with Heidegger’s famous 1949 lecture, later published as The Question Concerning Technology.

GM Is there a danger that by focussing on the digital, the form of technical relation you are trying to describe  becomes reduced to a purely logical relation devoid of subjective mediation? Maurizio Lazzarato, following the work of Félix Guattari, has spoken of “asignifying semiotics” to describe the stratum of non-conscious cybernetic processes which today increasingly constitute the algorithmic and commercial infrastructure of human life. How do we reactivate our technicity, as Simondon demands, in the face of these asignifying processes? What forms of collective individuation can emerge that would avoid reincorporation into the immanent logic of these systems?

YH I don’t think that one should oppose subjectivity to techno-logos, but rather it is necessary to understand that the techno-logos is at the same time the condition of struggle and something to be overcome. The opposition between subjectivity and the “asignifying semiotics” is a symptomatic reading of Marx’s opposition between living labour and dead labour, namely, fixed capital. But this opposition doesn’t lead us too far, precisely because the forms of fixed capital are changing. For example, they are moving away from factories to become “environmental”, manifested in smart cities, smart homes, smart devices, and therefore we need to access them from new perspectives on labour, production, consumption. This will demand a much more elaborated concept than the one of “asignifying semiotics” coined by Guattari. You know that when Guattari was talking about the “asignifying”, he refers precisely to the hypertext. In Chaosmosis, he speaks of “the superlinearity of a-signifying substances of expression, where the signifier loses its despotism. The informational lines of hypertexts can recover a certain dynamic polymorphism and work in direct contact with referent Universes which are in no way linear and, what is more, tend to escape a logic of spatialised sets”. I have the impression that towards the end of the 20th century, theorists were eager to find the transcendental of technology, to defend its ontological dignity and emancipatory potential; while following the digital acceleration of the first decade of the 21st century, people have been overtaken by algorithmic governmentality and conquered by technological pessimism. However, the battlefield has changed and new strategies have to be developed, which can only be revealed when we understand these technologies concretely and historically.

Hypertext is not sufficient to describe the “asignifying semiotics” today. In my book on the existence of digital objects, I analysed this history from GML to HTML, 1.0 to 5.0, to XML/XHTML, and to web ontologies, and how this history corresponds to the concretisation of a technological system as outlined by Jacques Ellul. I also try to analyse the existence of digital objects in terms of both discursive relations and existential relations, with the latter opening the question of the world – in Heidegger’s sense – of digital objects. Maybe we can say logic belongs to discursive relations. Digital objects cannot be reduced to mere discursive relations, but without discursive relations, they are nothing. That is why I have mobilised Husserl against Frege to develop the political consequences by distinguishing between two forms of logic, intentional logic and extensional logic, since if we follow Frege’s formal logic, which is the foundation of first order logic, then it is true that we cannot talk about operation in Simondon’s sense and therefore subjectivity, which is a central concern of Husserl. In his famous Sense and Reference, Frege wrote that because grasping and judging “is a mental (seelisches) event, we do not have to care about it. It is enough that we can grasp thoughts and acknowledge their truth; how this might happen is another question.” We can see here that the formalisation of digital objects becomes a true philosophical debate, and not only a question regarding classification as many science and technology researchers have claimed.

I hope that the relational analysis of the digital object will be able to open us to a new analysis of collective individuation. Collective individuation can only be achieved by working with “asignifying semiotics” to fight against the dominant industrial models. This was a project that I did with the computer scientist Harry Halpin within Bernard Stiegler’s Institute for Research and Innovation between 2012 and 2013.(1) There we proposed an alternative model of a social network based on the notion of group, which I include as a closing example in my book on digital objects. The term “collective individuation” is from Simondon, and for him, individuation is always at the same time psychic and collective. What Paolo Virno says in A Grammar of the Multitude, that collective individuation is a “second degree of individuation”, is a rather problematic thesis.(2) If Simondon has to emphasise that individuation is at the same time psychic and collective, it is because he wants to refuse that there is a first degree of individuation – the individual – passing to a second degree, the collective. Simondon’s concept of individuation was very much inspired by the “group dynamics” developed by Kurt Lewin, as well as sociometry founded by Jacob Moreno, and here we must recognise that Moreno’s sociometry is the foundation of today’s social networks, of which Facebook is exemplary. They are fundamentally based on the idea that individuals are social atoms – first degree – and a collective is a collection of such atoms, or second degree.

It is possible to reject these industrial models with alternatives developed from other epistemologies and ontologies, and this is not repurposing like using Facebook to organise social events, it is what I prefer to call reappropriation of technology. It is in this sense that I want to think about struggle.

In recent years, I’ve continued to work with some computer scientists on conceptual frameworks for social networks based on groups instead of individuals – the recommendation system, for example.(3)We must go beyond this opposition between dead labour and living labour, and also beyond the subsumption of dead labour as a product of living labour, which reduces the question of struggle to humanist critique. Instead, it is necessary, I think, to conceive the struggle with and beyond machines.