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.
Yuk Hui will give his talks in Colorado School of Mines on 21 and 23 October. He will talk and discuss about his two major publications (On the Existence of Digital Objects and The Question Concerning Technology in China) in the first event. In the second event, he will give his talk “Technical Knowledge in the Epoch of Digital Automation”.
Hennebach Saturday Seminars: Digital Objects and Technology in China
October 21 @ 10:00 am – 4:30 pm
Fish Bowl Room 266B, Arthur Lakes Library
In each seminar, Yuk Hui will begin with a brief indication of the argument of his books and then we will open to discussion. Anyone who would like a PDF of the introduction to either book, please email Carl Mitcham at email@example.com. A short interview introducing Yuk Hui is available in a recent issue of the Hong Kong Review of Books.
10 a.m.-12:30 p.m.: Discussion of On the Existence of Digital Objects (2016)
2-4:30 p.m.: Discussion of The Question Concerning Technology in China (2016)
Dr. Yuk Hui, who holds degrees in computer science and in philosophy, is currently a research associate in the project on Techno-ecologies of Participation at Leuphana University, Germany, and visiting professor at the China National Academy of Art, Hangzhou. He works closely with Bernard Stiegler, and publishes regularly on philosophy of technology and media. He comes to CSM after giving invited lectures at UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz.
Hennebach Lecture: Technical Knowledge in the Epoch of Digital Automation
October 23 @ 4:00 pm – 5:30 pm
Boettcher Room 219
What constitutes “technological knowledge” in the epoch of industrial automation?In his talk, Yuk Hui questions technological knowledge and the understanding of machines as a form of fixed capital. Instead, as machines move away from factories and into smart phones, smart homes, smart cities, the environmentalization of fixed capital today characterizes new forms of governmentality and capital, as well as new relations between human and machine. In a talk that explores this new understanding of the machine, Hui uses the idea of “transindividuality” to understand human-machine relations.
Dr. Yuk Hui, who holds degrees in computer science and in philosophy, is currently a research associate in the project on “Techno-ecologies of Participation” at Leuphana University, Germany, and visiting professor at the China National Academy of Art, Hangzhou. He works closely with Bernard Stiegler, and publishes regularly on philosophy of technology and media. He comes to CSM after giving invited lectures at UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz. He is the author of On the Existence of Digital Objects (2016) and The Question Concerning Technology in China: An Essay in Cosmotechnics (2016) and co-editor of 30 Years after Les Immatériaux: Art, Science and Theory (2015). He publishes regularly on philosophy of technology and media.
Mitya Lebedev from the Russian cultural platfrom COLTA interviewed Yuk Hui: Юк Хуэй: «Технологии должны стать частью нас, функцией разума», in which Yuk Hui discussed about AI, Social Networks, Modernity and Aleksander Dugin. You can check out the interview at here.
Юк Хуэй: «Технологии должны стать частью нас, функцией разума»
Гонконгский философ о том, как нам подружить технологию и миф, о грядущей борьбе государств за цифровую гегемонию и о соцсетях нового типа
В рамках IV Уральской индустриальной биеннале на прошлой неделе прошел симпозиум, посвященный новой грамотности в эпоху высоких технологий. Митя Лебедев поговорил уже для Кольты с его участниками Гертом Ловинком и Львом Мановичем.
На очереди — Юк Хуэй, гонконгский философ технологии, компьютерный инженер и автор книг «On the Existence of Digital Objects» и «The Question Concerning Technology in China», ученик и последователь знаменитого французского философа техники Бернара Стиглера, вместе с которым Юк работает сейчас над альтернативной архитектурой социальных сетей.
— Ваша работа продолжает философскую традицию XX века, которая пытается преодолеть антагонистическое отношение к технологиям. При этом живем мы в мире, где технологии стали главной культурной доминантой.
— Представление о том, что техника — это деструктивная сила, которая насилует матушку-природу, существует с XVIII века. С другой стороны, мы имеем дело с повсеместно господствующей утилитарной концепцией технологий, в которой технологические объекты всегда определяются исключительно их функционалом. В культуре это выражается, например, в оценке технологий как чего-то рабского: скажем, роботы — это всегда рабы. Сейчас эта мысль постоянно воспроизводится в новейших дискуссиях об автоматизации: вот роботы будут работать за нас 24 часа в сутки, в отличие от людей, ни на что не жалуясь. Но проблема состоит в том, что, когда мы рассматриваем технологии таким образом, мы продолжаем существовать в чужом мире. Именно это Маркс называет отчуждением, от которого мы не в силах избавиться.
— Тексты Кристиана Фукса и Ника Дайер-Уизефорда описывают, как цифровые технологии формируют армию киберпролетариата, чьи когнитивные способности капитализируются сетевой экономикой. Все эти фриланс-программисты, контент-модераторы, клик-фермеры в Китае, занятые производством лайков за гроши, и кто только не.
— Верно. В индустриальную эпоху человек должен был брать сырье, ставить его на конвейер и синхронизироваться потом с производственным процессом. И это описанное Марксом отчуждение не ушло в прошлое: многие высокотехнологичные фабрики в Китае работают по такому же принципу. Рабочие не могут наделить эту деятельность смыслом, а это приводит к росту суицидов.
Если мы — только операторы, если мы знаем, что при загорании зеленой лампочки нам нужно нажать конкретную кнопку, мы отрезаны от процесса изобретения и производства, то есть отчуждены. Еще в индустриальную эпоху рабочим всегда противостояли обладатели технического знания, ученые и инженеры, способные разработать новую машину. Но эта поляризация происходит от неверного понимания, что такое техника. Потому что знание машины — это тоже способ продолжить процесс ее изобретения.
Что касается марксистской критики цифрового труда, то она оправданна, но часто проблематична. Если Маркс смотрит на отчуждение как политэконом, то Жильбер Симондон (французский философ, создатель философии техники. — Ред.) говорит нам, что в корне всего — именно проблема самого понимания техники. Мы не сможем разобраться с фундаментальным вопросом отношений между человеком и машиной до тех пор, пока машина будет редуцирована до экономической категории. Нам нужно думать о значении, о смысле этой деятельности человека.
С приходом цифровых технологий отчасти происходит открытие технического знания «простым пользователям». Например, мы сами изучаем какой-нибудь фотошоп. Но эти инструменты становятся тоже все более абсурдными и консьюмеристскими. Новый айфон устареет за год, в Германии дешевле купить себе новый принтер, чем починить старый. Шумпетер (австро-американский экономист, исследователь капитализма. — Ред.) называл такие процессы «созидательным разрушением», то есть метаболизмом капитализма, которому для собственного выживания всегда необходимо что-то уничтожать.
— Так называемый капитализм платформ, то есть централизация соцсетей вокруг международных гигантов типа Facebook или Twitter, которые автоматически уничтожают более мелкие сетевые возможности, — это новый виток такого созидательного разрушения?
— Да, то, что сегодня называется капитализмом платформ, — это пример такого внутреннего кризиса капитализма, который порождает новые экономические модели и уничтожает старые. Сидя на Фейсбуке, многие из нас в принципе не переходят на другие сайты. Airbnb — крупнейшая отельная сеть без отелей, Uber — крупнейший оператор такси без таксопарка, и обе компании выводят из игры привычные индустрии с целью производства капитала.
А новым двигателем этой модели являются данные. Недавно The Economist вышел с обложкой про то, что главный источник энергии — уже не нефть, а именно данные. И платформы систематично превращают все формы социального в товар. Помимо прочего это приводит к тому, что мы оказываемся внутри того, что Жиль Делез называет «обществом контроля». Каждый индивид — это источник производства данных, что приводит к сочетанию двух как бы противоположных феноменов: ощущения свободы в цифровой системе и глобальной слежки. На Фейсбуке вроде бы можно делать почти что угодно, но эта деятельность всегда находится под контролем.
— При этом глобализация идет отнюдь не плавно. Мы видим, как страны вроде России и Китая продолжают использовать риторику национального суверенитета, когда дело касается технологий. Один из свежих примеров — государственная стратегия развития искусственного интеллекта в Китае и в России.
— Если мы вспомним Карла Шмитта, то у него суверенитет всегда был вопросом территории. Сегодня цифровые технологии меняют эту ситуацию, но сложно сказать — насколько. Великий китайский фаервол был попыткой создать суверенитет внутри глобального киберпространства. Но Китай это сделал просто потому, что без фаервола не было бы AliBaba, WeChat и все использовали бы Facebook вместо Baidoo. Это было сохранением суверенитета как бизнес-инкубатора для китайской индустрии.
Или возьмем Трампа, который утверждает, что хочет вернуть в Америку производство. Единственный способ это сделать — развитие автоматизации. Если Штаты полностью автоматизируют производство, рабочие места в Китай не уйдут, потому что производить товары будет дешевле в Америке, это простая экономическая идея. Так что вопрос национального суверенитета сегодня — это действительно вопрос технологической конкуренции. И в следующую декаду мы увидим масштабную технологическую конкуренцию между национальными государствами. Ее зачатки видны и сегодня: та же упомянутая стратегия развития искусственного интеллекта.
— Ваш учитель — философ Бернар Стиглер постоянно говорит о том, что новая технологическая реальность, несмотря на свой мощнейший потенциал, стала эпохой глупости: потребления и потери культурных смыслов, преемственности. При этом технологический дискурс всегда вертится вокруг понятия smart: «умные» города, «умные» дома, «умные» тостеры.
— В Китае каждый город хочет быть «умным», существует специальная госпрограмма по развитию «умных» городов. В Корее этого еще больше. Там пути в метро отделены от платформы гигантской дверью, которая на деле оказывается гигантским экраном, на котором, пока ты ждешь поезда, ты можешь заказать себе с помощью смартфона еду из супермаркета, которая будет ждать тебя дома. Недавно мы с японским писателем и философом Хироки Адзумой сидели в кафе, где люди заказывают со смартфона себе суши, потом к тебе подъезжает тележка с едой, что упраздняет роль официанта. Под «умом» всегда подразумевается автоматизация сервисной экономики или развитие алгоритмических предсказаний, которые тоже призваны умерить или улучшить потребление. И как раз поэтому «умные» технологии — часть сегодняшней глупости. Их огромный потенциал сводится к консьюмеризму, который понимается как единственный вариант их использования. Ну, и конечно, этот сценарий глубже загоняет нас в общество контроля.
— Давайте поговорим о том, как должно меняться образование. Сегодня крупные корпорации из Силиконовой долины вкладываются в публичное образование гораздо активнее, чем прежде.
— Да, например, Google University, который, по сути, готовит разработчиков для Google, учит использованию API и всевозможных сервисов компании. А альтернативой должны стать программы, в которых сочетаются инженерия и гуманитарные науки. Это было бы обновленным проектом того, что называется liberal arts. Если сегодня вы идете в гуманитарный институт, вы не получаете никакого технического знания, вы изучаете классику, историю, психологию, философию и так далее. С другой стороны, когда я был в инженерной школе, мы изучали только прикладные вопросы: инженерия и законодательство, инженерия и экономика. Но этого недостаточно для развития критического мышления о технологиях. Мы должны предложить гораздо более широкий концепт технического знания и развивать педагогическую парадигму, в которой техническое знание — это не просто знание юзера. Технологическое знание не может быть исключительно рациональным. В противном случае мы продолжим жить в ситуации, когда гуманитарные и технические науки разделены.
— В прошлом году издательство Urbanomic выпустило вашу книгу «The Question Concerning Technology in China», в которой вы развиваете концепцию космотехники. Что это за идея и как технологии связаны с представлениями о космосе?
— Концепция космотехники предполагает, что мы создаем не какой-то однородный тип технологий, а разные культуры присваивают, а потом развивают технологии в соответствии со своим представлением о космосе и человеке. Например, в Китае самобытное развитие техники остановилось в XVI веке, за этим последовали только заимствования европейских технологий. Это говорит о том, что мы имеем дело с двумя разными концептами техники: у нас разные эпистемологии и эпистемы, и я назвал эти эпистемы космотехникой.
Сегодня мы живем в антропоцене, а антропоцен — это реализация смерти космоса как цельной картины мира и места человека в нем. Раньше представления о космосе основывались на мифах, но сегодня картина мира математизирована. Вместо мифа мы имеем дело с калькуляцией, а отношения с космосом заменены желанием его исследовать. Причем это желание объяснить не так просто. Сначала оно работало как технологическое бессознательное, давшее старт колонизации мира, а потом и колонизации космоса, но сейчас оно стало осознанным, рационализированным. Программы исследования космоса сегодня подразумевают, что Земля — это искусственная планета, а космос — это такая гигантская кибернетическая система, механизированная, контролируемая по кибернетическому принципу обратной связи.
В основе этих идей лежит представление о технологии гомогенного характера. Когда я говорил о суверенитете, то уже упомянул, что нас ожидает серьезная технологическая конкуренция между странами. Но вопрос в том, какие технологии будут развиты. Скорее всего, это будет гомогенный тип технологий: искусственный интеллект, освоение космоса и т.д. Мы движемся по направлению к воображаемой технологической сингулярности и таким образом неизбежно оказываемся в деполитизирующей парадигме трансгуманизма. Апологеты технологической акселерации вроде Питера Тиля и Илона Маска ратуют за бесконтрольное развитие технологий и завязанной на них экономики. Для них политика с ее государственными комитетами по этике — это только тормоз для такого развития.
— Российского читателя вашей книги о технологиях в Китае наверняка заинтересует внимание к работам Александра Дугина.
— Дугин интересен тем, что он — хайдеггерианец, но при этом грустный хайдеггерианец. В нем присутствует хайдеггерианский экзистенциальный пессимизм, и в качестве антидота он пытается переизобрести русскую традицию в отрыве от современных технологий. Для Хайдеггера, как мы помним, технологии — это источник «неукорененности» культуры. В своих «Черных тетрадях» он пишет, что европейцы стали туристами. В таком случае весь процесс модернизации — это устранение культурных корней. Дугин же предлагает переизобретение русской традиции как эпистемы. Вообще-то в этой идее есть смысл, но проблема Дугина в том, что он не может примирить современную технологию и традицию и поэтому просто действует в русле обычного реакционного традиционализма. А нам нужно избегать и метафизического фашизма с традиционализмом по типу Дугина, и гомогенного развития технологий в сторону сингулярности. Для этого необходимы новая концепция техники и новая технологическая культурная программа. Проблема в том, что мир стал слишком однородным и мы поэтому не можем создать себе образ будущего.
Вообще я не традиционалист, хотя и ценю множество традиций. Но традиции мы должны освободить от национализма и одного из его следствий — наживающихся на традициях культурных индустрий. В Китае, например, есть деревни со своим традиционным промыслом, но эти регионы превращаются в гомогенные индустриальные зоны, которые производят единственно этот продукт. Десубстанциализация традиций — это превращение их в техническую деятельность в ином режиме, нежели простое использование. У древних технологическая активность — например, рыбалка — всегда была подчинена картине мира с ее символами и связью с природой. Она была формой чувственности, особого отношения к космосу. В XVIII веке эта модель разрушается, и сегодня нам нужно присвоить себе обратно современные технологии, сделать их осмысленной частью более цельной картины мира. Так мы сможем сохранить культурную преемственность без ухода в традиционализм.
— Когда вы говорите о «присвоении» современных технологий, то в каких все-таки терминах мы должны это понимать? Очевидно, что это политическая, но при этом не марксистско-ленинистская программа.
— «Присвоение» я понимаю как принятие современных технологий, чтобы сделать их функцией нас самих и, таким образом, функцией разума. Это проект, отличающийся и от простой негативной критики технологий, и от идеи использования их с новой целью, когда, например, Фейсбук используют для продвижения социальных проектов. Присвоение в данном случае — это оспаривание представления о том, что индустриальные технологии — единственные возможные, а не один из многих способов применения технических знаний.
Скажем, тот же Фейсбук — это только одна модель построения социальных отношений на основе протокола Open Graph и социометрии Якоба Морено, которая рассматривает общество как собрание изолированных индивидов-атомов. Но индивид — это всегда еще часть коллектива. Именно поэтому мы с Бернаром Стиглером и Гарри Гальпином пытаемся создать новую модель социальной сети, которая отражала бы другую структуру социальных отношений. Этот проект организован при парижском Центре Помпиду и спонсируется американским Офисом военно-морского исследования. В отличие от Фейсбука, главной социальной единицей в этой новой модели соцсети выступает не индивидуальный пользователь, а группа. Пользователь получает возможность использовать все функции сети, как только вступает в группу. Но это не похоже на группы в Фейсбуке, последние работают по тем же функциям, что и индивидуальные страницы, это не коллаборативные пространства. Мы стараемся в эти группы нового типа интегрировать такие инструменты, как коллективное письмо (похожее по типу на Hackpad) и коллаборативный тегинг для организации информации, и много других инструментов, которые можно бесконечно развивать в зависимости от области их применения. Такая сеть гораздо лучше Фейсбука подходит для производства нового знания и работы над ним, скажем, для совместного изучения Хайдеггера в университете. Это совсем другая эпистемология. Здесь дизайн и технологии становятся политической программой, они проблематизируют формы социальности; в противном случае они превращаются просто в средства капитализации.
In the latest in the HKRB Interview series with philosophers, Jordan Skinner asks internationally renowned technology theorist Yuk Hui about modernity, AI, the future and the digital objects we live with today.
Jordan Skinner: I wanted to begin my first question by considering the title of your first book, On the Existence of Digital Objects, which I understand came from your PhD dissertation with Bernard Stiegler and Matt Fuller at Goldsmiths University. Can you begin by exposing some of the philosophical influences behind this book?
Yuk Hui: When I started doing my research a decade ago, there was little discussion on digital objects, while there was a lot of discussion on object-oriented philosophy culminating in 2007 after the Speculative Realism conference in Goldsmiths. Graham Harman’s reading of Heidegger’s ready-to-hand was fascinating for me at that time, partly because I have been reading Heidegger since I studied Artificial Intelligence during my undergraduate years, and the ready-to-hand was a watershed between the weak (classical Cartesian) AI and the strong AI in the sense explained by Hubert Dreyfus.
But later, I started finding it problematic: firstly regarding everything as tool-being is an ontological statement and it ignores the technical-historical question, which makes OOO unable to answer the challenge of Heidegger in his 1953 lecture “The Question Concerning Technology”; secondly I developed an opposite reading of Heidegger from Harman, since he has to deny the relations of the Zuhandene in favour of his concept of withdraw, while for me it was the moment where a multiplicity of relation manifests and it was evident to me when we read Heidegger’s first division of Being and Time carefully and taking his project as a whole. Therefore, I would like to emphasize on the “existence” of digital objects, whose technical-historical question has been buried in the fascination with the general concept of objects, which are always only about chair, table, billiard or so. What I call digital objects are essentially data formalized by computational ontologies, and here the term ontology becomes intriguing again, so I wanted to reintroduce the concept of ontology into the understanding of digital objects in light of this coincidence.
JS: The title, it seems, is indicative not only of the book’s aim but also of your philosophical lineage and influences. It reveals your general philosophical modus operandi which is to reach into the past and revisit, reevaluate, and at times refuse philosophy’s history in order to “find the possibility of a transformation through the reevaluation of the associated milieux in both philosophical and technical terms”. Thus, the title of your book seems to immediately recall one of your influences: Gilbert Simondon’s On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects. My second question relates to this title but it also responds to a quote that you use from Gaston Bachelard: “that which we can neglect, we should neglect.” My question, therefore, is why do you neglect this phrase “mode of existence” in Simondon’s title for simply “existence” in your own? You briefly discuss it in the introduction to your book but I wonder whether it is more substantial choice then you let on.
YH: The title of book, as you have rightly pointed out, pays homage to Simondon’s On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects, which is a book very dear to me. And I have been translating it into Chinese. You may see that I was no longer in the same program as Simondon, and I didn’t intend to write a book to introduce the thought of Simondon or to do something like Simondon studies. This is the main reason why I decided not to include, instead of neglecting, the word “mode” in the title. I have briefly explained in the book why I didn’t want to use the word “mode”. It is a long story indeed. There are two ways that the word “mode” from Simondon is received. The first way, as I have explained in the introduction, is considered to be an influence from Étienne Souriau, whose The different modes of existence, was published in 1943. Jean-Hugues Barthélemy said in a personal correspondence that Simondon probably has read the book. The second interpretation is from Anne Sauvagnargues who considered the word “mode” is an inspiration from Spinoza.
On the contrary to this interpretation, I am not sure if it really has anything to do with Spinoza, since in Du mode d’existence des objets techniques there is NO mention of Spinoza; in L’Individuation à la lumière des notions de forme et d’information, Simondon invoked Spinoza but never to any depth. In MEOT, Simondon used this term “mode” in many different occasions, sometimes rather casual, for example: “mode pratique”, “modes de pensée”, “mode déterminé de pensée”, “mode non-modal” (art), etc. It is true that sometimes it resembles mode from Spinoza and Souriau, but it is just because the term mode of Spinoza has very broad meaning—it means “affection” of substance, which manifests as quality, predicates, etc. (“that which exists in and through another; or that which is an affection (modification) of a substance” (1d5, Ethics)).
I tend to think that the word mode – for Simondon – doesn’t bear too much philosophical weight here since it means the status of development of technical objects; for example, element, individual and ensemble, which have their own epoch. Technical ensemble for him is the actual mode of existence of technical objects, and it is also the reason for which Simondon sees in the actual technological development a possibility of convergence which situates well in his theory of technical genesis. The second meaning of the word “mode” comes out of his distinction between two modes of relation between man and technics in Part II of MEOT, one is the major mode (adult) and minor mode (child); the former corresponds to the technical knowledge of technical objects characterized by the encyclopedism of the 18th century, the latter habitual and daily use without much awareness. These two modes seem to Simondon to pose a perpetual historical problem, therefore, and his MEOT has a task to overcome this “inequality” by proposing the use of information machines in the technical education of children. These two aspects were no longer my question in On the Existence of Digital Objects. This doesn’t mean that Simondon’s questions are no longer important, in the contrary, they have to be continued with more rigors, but I didn’t pretend to do so. I agree with Simondon that each epoch has to discover the unique source of technological alienation in order to reinvent a technological humanism (but let’s put this term aside first because citing this term of Simondon brought me an attack of being a humanist). So it was my task to identify the question of digital objects as my own inquiry.
JS: When considering the digital object, you examine its multifarious dimensions: the logical components, its material and symbolic ordering, and its temporal regime, among others. I would like to hone in on the temporal dimension. In the text you determine that the digital object is historically conditioned, and much of your work shows the historical formation of the digital object. In reference to the present, you turn to what Husserl called the “historically primary in itself”. When it comes to talking about the future, however, you seem to offer “tertiary protention”, or the anticipation of the next moment, as the digital object’s futural dimension. This future is a horizon of probability which in turn orients the present, or as you say it “situates future as present”. Can you unpack this in order to see the stakes of thinking the future in your work? Is this the future of the digital object, or rather a mode of its futurity?
YH: The concept of tertiary protention was intended to be supplement to the system of retention and protention that Stiegler has developed, partly through his reading of Husserl and Derrida’s reading of Husserl. For Derrida, the play of retention and protention is the source of the deconstruction of the ‘metaphysics of presence’, since every consciousness of the ‘now’ demands a delay [retardment, Nachträglichkeit]— for example the Now B is constituted by the retention of Now A and the protention of Now C. There is indeed a play of ‘non-presence’ conditioned by ‘archi-writing’, which can never be reduced to any word or any concept such as retention or protention. The irreducibility of archi-writing, which involves proto-traces, lies in the fact of différance.
If in his lectures on time-consciousness, Husserl has distinguished on the first level primary retention and protention, and on the second level recollection and anticipation, which Stiegler will later call secondary retention and protention, then Derrida refused to grant the absoluteness of any such distinction, on the grounds that the differences between protentions and retentions are only differences of degree. Derrida has good reason for refusing this distinction, since Husserl’s phenomenology of time-consciousness has always contained a threat of an infinite regress, an infinite presupposition either of protention or retention. For example, if there is a secondary retention, and it presupposes a primary retention, then does the primary retention presuppose another retention of a lower order? Husserl himself often talks about a primal or original stream [Urstrom], primal presentation [Urpräsentation], primal data [Urdaten], primal process [Urprozess], and so on, and sometimes, following Brentano, an “unconscious consciousness”, all in order to avoid such a danger. Derrida’s archi-writing becomes the default by refusing the orders of retention and protention, on the one hand, by parrying the danger of infinite regress, while, on the other hand, seeming to provide an ontological ‘ground’ for the completion of a phenomenology of time consciousness.
For his part, Bernard Stiegler is strongly influenced by Husserl’s phenomenology of time consciousness, but he adds to it what Derrida calls the ‘supplement’ and what he himself calls ‘tertiary retention’, arguing that Husserl’s model of time consciousness largely excluded the role of tertiary retention. My point of departure was to reconsider the relation between retention and protention— can protention be reducible to retention? In the Bernauer Manuscript, Husserl affirms the difference between the roles of protention and retention; he says that even when both protention and retention are empty representations, an immeasurable [gewaltig] difference must still remain between them: firstly, retention lacks directedness, since it does nothing but push back to the past, whereas protention continuously directs attention [Gewahren]; secondly, Husserl reproaches Brentano for seeing the lawful connection between retention and impression as an original association. Husserl proposing instead that association only takes place in protention. If the question of tertiary protention is valid, it is because the time consciousness that Husserl wants to elaborate cannot be understood without reading it together with the technological medium of each epoch, like grammophone, radio, television and now digital technology, where different learning algorithms which are speculating on the future, like recommendations, suggestions.
JS: So you suggest that digital technologies are temporal objects which function through the algorithmic prediction of futurity? This must function, it seems, at speeds beyond previous technological capacity and even beyond human comprehension. If so, is time consciousness now overcome by digital temporalities? And if this is the case, what does this mean for our previous notion of the future as completely contingent and utterly unpredictable?
YH: This is the current stage of development of digital technologies, if we consider big data, machine learning, artificial intelligence, etc., they are dealing largely with the question of pattern discovery, predictions, in which we find what is called algorithmic opacity, or black box. This is nothing surprising, since now we are at the stage where technology is in the process of outstripping biology and such process will be much more accelerated when human enhancement will become a core business of the 21st century, as you can probably imagine with the film Ghost in the Shell. But let us go back to your question, what does it mean by saying that future being contingent and unpredictable? Isn’t the future always already contingent if we follow Meillassoux, who has brilliantly demonstrated the necessity of absolute contingency? The ontologisation of contingency leads us to ignore contingency as a historical and material category, and therefore also a political category. In the contrary, future is never completely contingent and utterly unpredictable, but it is our struggle here to keep it as open as possible—and, if you like, you can read Heidegger’s work along the same lines.
We can illustrate this with an example from Aristotle’s Physics, where we find the two words for chance, automaton and tyche; the former usually translated as automatic refers to probabilities and the latter translated as chance refers to something beyond the mere calculation. If you toss a coin, and when it falls back to your palm, whether it is head or tail, it is the question of automaton; but if you go to the agora, and find your debtor who just have the money to pay you back, it is the question of tyche. This unpredictability of the event as destiny constitutes the core element of the Greek tragedy; Oedipus, the intelligent man who has solved the problem of the sphinx, even though told by the sage about his own destiny, wasn’t able to escape it. The undermining of tyche, if we follow Martha Nussbaum and Nietzsche here, was accompanied by the Socratic rationality, and led to the decline of Greek tragedy. I think that this struggle of automaton against tyche is mise en scène today in a new context through the development of automation. This has been a question that I am working on since 2013 and I published an article in Parrhesia titled ‘Algorithmic Catastrophe’ in 2015 which outlines some of the basic metaphysical problems that I continue working in my research.
JS: Relation functions as a central concept for you both in the way you read the history of philosophy and the way you consider digital materialities. I saw a rather interesting pronouncement in your book On the Existence of Digital Objects where you write that you hope to “establish a solid link between the phenomenological inquiries of the twentieth century and the philosophy of computation that has already been associated with analytic philosophy.” In this way, you seem to be seeking relations between continental philosophy and computation, between analytic philosophy and phenomenology, between Chinese philosophy and European philosophy and between the historical tradition and recent developments in digital technology. Can you say a few words about your activity as a philosopher of relations?
YH: Indeed, I am very much interested in the question of relations, as I said in the book on digital objects, that I would like to move away from the constant desire to substantialize. It doesn’t mean that we cannot pose the question of ontology, but rather to answer the question in a non-substantializing way. Relation seems to be an effective means to desubstantialize along with other concepts, such as intensity that Deleuze employed in his Differece and Repetition. This is the philosophical motivation of Simondon as well, but Simondon has shifted it to the question of information since he sees the possibility to provide a new framework by reworking on the concept of information firstly raised by the cyberneticians such as Fisher, Wiener and Shannon, etc.
For me the question of relation is not only an ontological question which resists against substantialism and hylomorphism, but also a question concerning method. It is problematic when disciplines and cultures are separated to the extent that, as Norbert Wiener said in Cybernetics, colleagues in the same corridor cannot converse with each other about their subjects of interest, as if each person is in his or her own reality and these different realities share nothing in common. This is present in different domains: for example the domain of engineering and the domain of the users (which Simondon calls status of majority and status of minority), European philosophy and Chinese philosophy, etc. A synthetic thinking is that which aims for a convergence—for new rationality and for creativities—which are able to give us new ways to understand the actual problems and contemplate upon possible solutions. However, it is by no means a simply bridging, since such “bridging” risks falling prey to a superficial comparative reading; it is the individuation of thinking itself, since such synthesis is also a overcoming of existing incompatibility, that is to say an invention qua individuation. In On the Existence of Digital Objects, I confined myself to an analysis of the concept of relation within technical objects and technical systems, and in The Question Concerning Technology in China, I attempted to go further by stretching to the relation between the moral and the cosmos via technical activities, demonstrated by the case in China.
JS: I wanted to dwell briefly on something you just mentioned which cuts to the heart of your critical project. You said that your ontology of relations resists both “substantialism” and “hylomorphism”. In the introduction to On the Existence of Digital Objects you ask “does a digital object have substance (or is it possible to talk about it in this way)?” You then go on to show that after Aristotle triumphed this concept of “substance”, and its was held in high esteem throughout Late Antiquity and the medieval period, there arose a number of thinkers who have rejected substance for its conceptual incapacity: Hume, Bergson, Whitehead, Heidegger, Simondon, Dewey, and Deleuze, to name a few. Taking the stance against substance, therefore, you embrace the concept of the object of relations. However, Etienne Gilson and some medievalists of the 20th century might push back and claim that by eliminating substance whilst retaining relations there is a false dichotomy drawn—a false dichotomy perpetrated first by Descartes—between substance and relations. According to these Thomists, at the heart of the concept of substance, and being itself, is Substance-in-Relation. Thus, I will ask your question back to you: “does a digital object have substance (or is it possible to talk about it in this way)?”
YH: I reject substance in order to free relation from being a mere accident described by Aristotle in the ‘Categories,’ since I am convinced that existence is relational instead of substantial. Substance is referred to something non-accidental; unlike accidents whose arrival and disappearance don’t affect the identity of being, substance is that which persists as identity of being. If I have to reject substance it is because it seems to me that the substance fetishism (in the words of Peter Sloterdijk) not only fails to explain—but also becomes an obstacle to understand—the process of individuation as well as existence. The question that I posed was, if one gives up the concept of substance, will it give us a new way to understand the question of being, and if so how?
As you have mentioned, many philosophers abandoned the concept of relation. Bachelard was very sceptical of it and says that the concept of substance is dangerous due to its lack of explanatory power in the microphysical world. Simondon has also stated that both hylomorphism and substantialism cannot explain individuation but rather they have to be explained by individuation. It is true that some Thomists argued against Whitehead’s charge that the Aristotelian and Thomist concept of substance is nothing inert and static, but rather it is revealed through accidents, that is to say it is always in becoming, like the Thomist philosopher Rev. Norris Clarke claims that “existing in itself, naturally flows over into being as relational, as turned towards others by its self-communicating action. To be fully is to be substance in relation.” But what is really this mysterious substance being revealed, if not the temporal and spatial entanglement of relations themselves? I engaged with the debate in medieval philosophy in my book, and I elaborate on what I call discursive relations and existential relations based on the two concepts known in medieval philosophy as relationes secundum dici and relationes secundum esse: the reason that I didn’t adopt them is precisely because they still presuppose the concept of substance. If you want to argue that there is substance in digital object, then you will have to demonstrate it, even if you can claim to talk about the substance of a Facebook status update, then what really is this substance? The binary code, the electronic signals, or chemical activities in the electronics? Hume posed the same rejection by asking: does one have impression of substance, and because one doesn’t have such an impression so it is purely fictive or it is only of psychological need. Through the rejection of substance and elaboration on relations, Hume, as claims Deleuze, gives us a new way of understanding being. In fact, Hume and Simondon supplement to each other on the ontology of relations, and their thoughts were instrumental to my own investigation. It was my aim to demonstrate how such an ontology of relations can be useful to understand both individualization and individuation of digital objects—further to Hume’s discursive relations, we need to develop also the concept of existential relations and the dynamics of these two relations in the technological progress.
JS: There seems to be a point of departure here which returns us back to the question of temporality and historicity. You identify that Simondon’s project, like that of Husserl’s, sought to retrieve, restore, and reunite. Simondon sought to restore human beings as technical individuals (in which the human is able to create an associated milieu of its own) while Husserl set out in his Origin of Geometry to restore the foundations of knowledge. Likewise for Heidegger, modernity is characterized by its forgetfulness of fundamental Ontology which must be overcome through a retrieval (Wiederholung). In your book The Question Concerning Technology in China, however, you suggest that “it is not sufficient to go back to ‘traditional ontologies’, but that we must instead reinvent a cosmotechnics for our time.” How, then, is the past considered if not as a repetition, restoration or recoil? Is there a necessity of retention without return? If so, what is the relation between invention and retention?
YH: Every retrieval, or Wiederholung, is a repetition, and every repetition is necessarily different. There is the necessity of retrieval, while it is also necessary that such retrieval implies differences. When Simondon referred back to the fact that once the artisans were able to create an associated milieu among tools, assimilating the status of a technical individual, for him the future of the human and machine relation could not be a mere repetition of the preindustrial age. It is important to pay attention to the question of the associated milieu but there is no way to go back to the artisanal mode of operation, since the artisan, like in glass making, was once provider of both information and energy. The situation has greatly changed when mechanical pumps and now automatic intelligent machines have been introduced into the atelier. When I say it is not sufficient to go back to “traditional ontologies”, I didn’t mean that traditions are not important; in the contrary, the whole book is a reflection on tradition and its possibility. For those who are familiar with sinology will find my approach atypical, because I was trying to construct a technological thought in China consisting of several episodes which was obscured by other concerns in history writings. It is not sufficient just to go back to the ancient Greek or the ancient Chinese, since such repetition is not compatible with our actual technological condition and therefore they appear to be powerless; and such powerlessness is a fundamental source of fascist tendencies. I hope to draw forces from tradition without falling prey to a “home coming” of philosophy that finally becomes a trap for itself.
JS: In positing the question concerning technology in China, you attempt to think of new ways of overcoming modernity. In so doing, you avoid asserting the symmetry of concepts between European modernity and Chinese philosophy—for example, there is no equivalents of techne and physis in Chinese thought. Instead, your project affirms an asymmetric relation between the two, while interweaving their differences in your theory of cosmotechnics. How, then, do you theorize the relation between these different form of thought? Philosophers have long sought ways of moving between differences by using analogical reasoning. How do you theorize this in your own work? How does this relate to what you call “transduction”?
YH: Modernisation is a synchronisation, a synchronisation of rhythms through machines, a synchronisation of thinking through translations. In such a process of synchronisation, people were eager to look for equivalences, and even all the comparisons on technological developments or thoughts unconsciously presuppose a certain equivalence. Some historians may say that paper making was far more advanced in ancient China than in Europe; other historians may respond that it is more justified if we look into a technical system instead of a single technique, while doing so, one cannot say that the Chinese were more advanced than the European on this respect. I don’t think that these comparisons will lead too far. I appreciate what François Jullien has been doing, and we can find it also in Marcel Granet and Victor Segalen, when they assert an absolute difference between the Chinese and European thinking. However, my concern was not only about the exoticism of thinking, but also the question of world history which has to be radically different from the Hegelian one.
I believe that only by opening the question of cosmotechnics, are we be able to conceive another world history and to escape the synchronisation in our current stage of globalisation, which is more and less identifiable with the Anthropocene age. Then again, simply retrieving a technological thought in China is not enough, it has to be rethought in face of the actual crisis that we are facing. So towards the end of the book, I propose to move from translation to transduction, from traduction to transduction, a word used by Simondon to describe a transformation in which another structure is acquired. Moreover, a transductor is a device that neither consumes nor stocks energy; it transforms one form of energy to another. If in the past hundreds of years of modernisation we have been constantly looking for translations, it seems to me that for the next stage, if it is going to possible at all, we will have to move from translation to a transduction of thinking, which will be exhibited in the effort of a re-appropriation of modern technology.
Jordan Skinner is trained in contemporary philosophy and its conceptual history at the Kingston University’s Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy and at Central European University’s Medieval Studies Department.
ChinHsin Esther Kao is the featured illustrator on this post. She is an undergraduate at Wheaton College (IL) and double majors in English and Philosophy. She was the Critical Essay Editor for the college’s independent magazine The Pub and the Art Editor for Kodon. Esther also writes for the online publication The Odyssey and is interning for Inheritance magazine under Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, California.
Jeremy Simmons is a writer, artist and game designer who keeps very late hours. His writing explores dreams (and nightmares), time and the inexplicable nature of the human condition. His work has appeared in Best Modern Voices, ShortVine and The News Record, among others. He is also the editor of the Cincinnati Book Review.
The HKRB Interviews series specializes in new books in philosophy and critical theory. Interviews have included Simon Critchley, Jodi Dean, Agon Hamza, Frank Ruda and Srecko Horvat. Coming soon: Joan Copjec and Rosi Braidotti.
“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.
Yuk Hui will give his keynote at the exhibition “Ground. Signal. Code. Notation” at Ostfassade des Humboldt Forums in Berliner Schloss. Here is the information in German:
„Das Grenzenlose (wuji) ist zugleich die letzte Grenze (taiji). Taiji bewegt sich, und yang
entsteht. Wenn die Bewegung den höchsten Punkt erreicht hat, ruht taiji. Taiji ruht und yin
entsteht. Wenn die Ruhe den höchsten Punkt erreicht hat, entsteht wieder
Bewegung“ Zhou Dunyi (1017 – 1073)
Anlässlich der Eröffnung der Asien-Pazifik-Wochen 2017 präsentiert die südkoreanische Künstlerin Chan Sook Choi vom 15. bis 18. Mai täglich von 21.30 bis 5 Uhr ihre neun Minuten lange Videoarbeit „Yin Yang Su Wha“ (Yin und Yang, Wasser und Feuer) an der Ostfassade des Humboldt Forums im Berliner Schloss. Auf Basis der alten chinesischen Lehre yijing über unser Universum forscht Choi in ihrer Arbeit nach den verborgenen Energieströmen des Humboldt Forums und macht die Energie des Yin und Yang und der Fünf Elemente an diesem Ort sichtbar. Ausgang ihrer Arbeit ist die Ostfassade des Berliner Schlosses, auf die das Licht der aufgehenden Sonne zuerst trifft. Sie ist für die Künstlerin der Ort, wo sich das Prinzip des Himmels (kun), das Männliche, und das Prinzip der Erde (kon), das Weibliche, treffen, wo yin und yang miteinander agieren und wo die Fünf Wandlungsphasen (Wasser, Feuer, Holz, Metall und Erde) entstehen. Sie übersetzt ihre Energie (Qi) mit Hilfe der elektromagnetischen Bewegung von 129 600 Lichtteilchen (Photonen) in einen digitalen Algorithmus und projiziert ihn auf die Fassade des Humboldt Forums. Die fließenden Zeichen symbolisieren Werden, Wandel und Vergehen, sie entstehen fortwährend in vertikaler, horizontaler und kreisender Bewegung, verschwinden im nächsten Augenblick und nehmen erneut eine andere Gestalt an: Punkte und Linien, Gitter und Netze, Wolken und Schwärme. Ausgehend von ihrer kosmologischen Spekulation und basierend auf einem wissenschaftlichen Dialog zwischen Taoismus und Quantenphysik beschreibt Choi in ihrer Arbeit das Verhältnis von allumfassender Einheit und dem Wirkprinzip der Zweiheit, yin und yang, von Ruhe und Bewegung: eine Welt, die sich aus sich selbst heraus entfaltet und in der das Grenzlose zugleich die letzte Grenze ist. Choi konfrontiert unser westliches Denken mit einer Sichtweise, die im Materiellen nach dem Immateriellen sucht, und in traditionellen Lehren einen Wert für das Verhältnis von Natur und Kultur, Technik und Kunst, Geschichte und Zukunft entdeckt. „Yin Yang Su Wha“ ist eine daoistische Reflexion über unsere Beziehung zu einem besonderen Ort und seiner wechselvollen Geschichte. Die dynamischen Ströme des Qi und seine ephemeren digitalen Formationen fügen den Interpretationen über das im Bau befindliche Humboldt Forum im Berliner Schloss einen neuen, genuin asiatischen Kommentar hinzu.
Chan Sook Choi, geboren in Seoul, hat Visual Communication (Diplom) und Experimental Media Arts (Master) an der Universität der Künste Berlin studiert und war Meisterschülerin bei Prof. Maria Vedder. 2008 gewann sie den Hauptpreis des International Media Art Award des Bibliates & Berlin Pergamonmuseums, 2009 erhielt sie den Nachwuchsförderpreis des Landes Berlin. 2010 wurde sie als eine der Künstlerinnen der New Artist Trend der Seoul Art Foundation nominiert, 2011 als Artist of Tomorrow des Sungkok Art Museums und 2013 als New-Rising Artist bei der Alternative Space Loop präsentiert. Ihre Werke waren unter anderem im Nationaltheater in Seoul sowie im Queens Museum in New York City und zuletzt in ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum zu sehen. Seit 2015 ist sie als Professorin für Kunst & Technologie an der Hanyang Universität tätig. Chois Kunst bewegt sich zwischen Performance und Installation, Video und Fotografie. In ihrer Arbeit spielt Choi mit unserem Erleben von Raum und Zeit und schafft atmosphärisch aufgeladene Situationen, in denen sie unsere Körper zu wechselnden Versuchsanordnungen choreografiert. Die Künstlerin lebt und arbeitet in Berlin.
Veranstalter: Asien Pazifik Forum Berlin, Botschaft der Republik Korea
Kooperation: Asia Culture Center, Gwangju, Republik Korea
Konzeption & Organisation: Keum Art Projects
Die Eröffnung am 15. Mai 2017 ab 21 Uhr bildet den Auftakt der Asien Pazifik Wochen 2017.
Ort der Eröffnung: Anlegestelle der Reederei „Stern + Kreis“ am Spreeufer vor der Ostfassade
des Humboldt Forums im Berliner Schloss.
Im Rahmen der Vernissage hält der Philosoph Yuk Hui eine Key Note zum Thema „Das digitale Leben aus kosmologischer Perspektive“. Anschließend findet ein Dialog zwischen Yuk Hui und dem Feuilletonredakteur der Frankfurter Allgemeinen Zeitung, Mark Siemons statt. Zur Veranstaltung wird im Juli 2017 die Publikation, „Yin Yang Su Wha“ erscheinen.
Who are the new agents of history? Where do they reside? And finally, in which period of history do they settle themselves?
The Shanghai Project Root Researcher Bruno Latour and his team propose to organize a set of workshops called “Reset Modernity! Shanghai Perspective” from 4-7 May 2017. They will concentrate on a set of issues that modernity encounters at a time of deep ecological mutation, emphasizing a comparative perspective between Europe and China. The four-day program will take place at the Shanghai Himalayas Museum, and use documentations assembled specifically for the discussions, which speak to conceptions of science, our understanding of territory and sovereignty, and handling the role of technology.
The discussion will start by first asking the European party (proposed by Bruno Latour and his team) to present how they go about resetting their view of modernity. Then the workshop will allow the Chinese party to “test” the set of European propositions as extensively as possible. It is already obvious that none of the formulations offered by the European party would make much sense within the Chinese context. It is exactly this complex process of translating and negotiating differences that the team wishes to launch. The Chinese participants are encouraged to bring documents, examples, sites, situations, and concepts to light, thus sharing a different view of what constitutes modernity.
The purpose of these workshops is to embrace the process of reassessment to compare how European and Chinese thinkers, artists, intellectuals, activists, and officials can handle new situations. The goal is not to reopen the tired cliché of an East/West comparison, but to use the formidable trial of ecological mutation to compare how two cultures react and furthermore, how they reassess their own trajectories of modernization. Cooperating with two highly complex civilizations that were initially shocked by various forms of modernizations and then, more recently, endured an enormous counter shock as a result of the new climatic regime, offers an ideal situation for productive encounters.
Beginning with Bruno Latour’s keynote on the evening of 4 May 2017, workshops the following 3 days will consist of an introductory session, roundtable, and group discussions.
Please send RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org to participate in the workshops, stating in the body of the email information including name, contact, language, occupation and briefly describe your field of interest and why you are interested in participating in our workshop.
Reset Modernity! Shanghai Perspective Program
Keynote by Bruno Latour, followed by a discussion with Yuk Hui, Benoit Vermander and Xie Jing.
May 4, 19:00 – 20:30
As an opening event of the Reset Modernity! Shanghai Perspective Workshop series, Bruno Latour will present his new research, dealing with ecological mutation. On this occasion, the motivations for the workshops on the following days will be explained, as well as what is to be understood with the notion of a Modernity “Reset.”
Reservation needed, please scan the QR Code or click here for registration
Find out more about the series’ first workshop “Resetting Our Relationship to Science and Technology,” on May 5 here.
The Bruno Latour Root Researcher team includes Martin Guinard-Terrin, Jamie Allen, òbelo (Claude Marzotto & Maia Sambonet), and Donato Ricci in collaboration with special researcher Christophe Leclercq. The space was conceived by Paolo Patelli.
Symposium: Media Revolutions
20/04/2017, 7:00 PM
21/04/2017, 10:30 AM
22/04/2017, 10:30 AM
HFBK, Aula, except for Listening Session at Kampnagel
The revolutionary impact of technological media is inescapable worldwide. It is not only that they are set to weld the world into a homogenous “globality”. They also bring forth diverse “realities” and non-simultaneities that escalate into ungovernable fragmentation and conflicts. This symposium aims to contribute to formulating artistic and theoretical perspectives on these “revolutions” that give the virtual a new turn. The starting point is always the “in-between” in which the media (Mediale) primarily finds its indefinable “meaning”, but also mislays it. The lectures and presentations will discuss artistic and activist praxis and scientific approaches that seek such “twists” in the media.
On the deviance of the media
Yuk Hui (Lüneburg)
A Revaluation of the Concept of Contingency in Light of Algorithms
Bernhard Dotzler (Regensburg)
Die Revolution der KI. Lemmy Caution gegen Google Brain
Whenever technological media want to get hold of the “in-between” that is the challenge they face, they have to close up against exit lines that evade an instrumental appropriation. Their “deviance” is as potent as an inalienable precondition of media techniques as it is as a factor of their own krísis.
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