Interview with Yuk Hui in Popphilosophy

February 24, 2017

Yuk, thanks for the sympathy and consent to answer our questions!


Thank you for the interview!


Unless I am mistaken, you began the study of philosophy (and computer science) at the University of Hong Kong. I am very interested in the question of what is the modern philosophy in China. Does it have any irreducible specific features? How closely is it related to the modern Western philosophy?


Yes, I had a major in computer engineering and also studied analytic philosophy before I decided to turn to continental philosophy and contemporary theory in my postgraduate studies. The University of Hong Kong is a rather westernized university – considering it was the first university in Hong Kong during the colonial period, its system is very close to the Anglo-Saxon universities like Cambridge and Oxford, so you can imagine that analytic philosophy is a strong subject there. In China, now the philosophy departments are also quite “westernized”, for sure there are courses on ancient Chinese philosophy, but Western philosophy, including analytic philosophy, phenomenology, critical theory, French theory, is probably even much more popular and widely used as critical thinking apparatus.


The presence of the computer engineering background is very strongly felt in your texts. Is it possible to define you as the «philosopher-craftsman» (like the pre-Socratics, for example), philosopher, whose thought is not contemplative, but, on the contrary, is operative?


The study in Computer Engineering sometimes imposes constrains in my thinking, since often I have to ask myself, how am I going to make use of certain new concepts, like an engineer you give solutions to a problem but not only speculations. However the speculative thinking often wants to go beyond these constrains, since that is how philosophy functions, it constantly produces overflows. Therefore the conflict between the two will have to find a resolution that always ends up in another order of magnitude. It is also because of this, I find great affinity with the work of Simondon, who philosophizes like an engineer or like what Anne Sauvagnargues says a handyman (bricoleur). This way of thinking has to exhaust its possibilities by imposing constrains on itself, like a unity of necessity and contingency, which is full of tensions.


Do you create some digital objects as a computer engineer? What are you working on in this direction?


What I mean by digital objects are simply data objects, for sure, we all create digital objects everyday, your Facebook profile, Twitter status, etc. On the technical level, I have been working on metadata and ontologies since many years. Back in 2008, I was in charge of a collaborative project between the Tate Gallery and Goldsmiths College to develop a prototype that allows the public to produce metadata annotations for their growing audio-visual archive. The project was not realized towards the end, but we have succeeded in developing a prototype.  I also carried this project further in the Institute of Research and Innovation led by Bernard Stiegler in Paris, where with Harry Halpin from the W3C we developed a prototype based on a new form of social network alternative to Facebook. This network was intended to be a collaborative one, which allows users to form groups and work on annotations and other tasks collectively. Metadata schemes and metadata management are central in these projects. The metadata society claimed by some theorists is probably a bad one, since it is an industrial one and characterizes what Deleuze calls “societies of control.” I am very sympathetic with the proposal of Stiegler that we should try to find other forms to produce and organize metadata.


So, the philosophy of digital objects, the philosophy of the digital milieu. How do you define these concepts today?


To simply put in this way, digital objects are new industrial objects that pervade our everyday life, they are simply data formalized in terms of “objects”, i.e. an unity composing of multiple formal properties, for example a Facebook profile, a Instangram image, etc. The digital milieu is the environment in which these objects function and in which we live, but unlike the “natural environment” whose causalities can be easily materialized and calculated. I believe that we are in a époque where the concept of nature becomes questionable. What we called nature before becomes function of technical apparatus, for example the river for the Guimbal engine, the sea for the Fukushima nuclear power plant, they all function as a cooling agent. We can find many other examples in different infrastructures. In comparison, the digital milieu represents a higher form of integration, since it allows a more radical form of convergence, which is relatively limited in networks that depends on physical contacts, like railways, telephone networks, etc. Leroi-Gourhan when takes about the technical milieu, he was able to situates it between the interior and the exterior milieu (e.g. between two ethnic groups), however this is quite different for a digital one, since one will have to redefine the interior and exterior – if they exist at all. Moreover, the river and the ocean are what Simondon called the associated milieu, meaning that it is not a separated environment, but rather a function which is at the same time exterior to and interior of the object. I am interested in understanding the possible forms of the associated milieu for both digital objects and users in the digital environment.


Yes, you write about it in your «What is a Digital Object?» You’ve contrasted digital objects with natural objects and technical objects. The first distinction is more or less clear, but the difference of a digital object from a technical object remains a mysterious for me. Can you clarify this difference? So how does a digital object differ from a technical object?


Behind this passage from natural objects to technical objects then to digital objects, there is an idea central to my thinking, namely the question of materialization. I believe that technical evolution is based on such concept of materialization: technology always attempts to materialize what is not yet materialized or materializable. What Simondon calls concretization of technical objects is for me the process of the materialization of causalities – meaning that one is able to build on the digital objects a recurrent causality thanks to the discovery of new materials, new milleux (like the river in Guimbal’s engine). It is true that Simondon refused to be a materialist, but it is no less true that those who refused materialism turn out to be true materialists. The technical objects that Simondon demonstrated in Du monde d’existence des objets techniques are electronic devices based on the working principle of quantum mechanics, for example, diode, triode, transistor, etc. With the digital, there is a new form of materiality, which no longer situates on the same order of magnitude as the technical objects described by Simondon. Jean-François Lyotard calls it “les immatériaux”, but we know that for Lytoard the immaterial is the new material, since the immaterial doesn’t exist for a materialist. What is significant in the digital, I will argue here, is not that it is binary and discrete, but rather the concept of data; and the progress of digital technology is the advancement of the management of data. The causality that is embedded in digital objects is now materialized by data instead of electrons and voltage differences, though we must still bear in mind that the physical principles are its foundation. In an article titled “Towards a relational materialism” in 2015, I attempted to sketch this new form of materialization in related to de-substantialisation.


According to Gilbert Simondon, the technical object implies invention. Must digital object be invented?


For Simondon, invention is the moment when a certain incompatibility is overcome, a barrier is surpassed, and something new arrives. This difficulty is what drives invention. In this sense digital objects are surely inventions that involve the resolutions of technical difficulties, for example data scheme compatibility, data scheme incompleteness, etc. Simondon in his course Imagination et invention also talks about invention as a cycle of images, meaning from mental images to symbols and to technical objects – this is particularly interesting when we think of Kant’s first critique where he speaks about the transcendental imagination as the agent of schematization and in the discourse of Simondon he actually considers imagination as part of a cycle of the invention, meaning that it depends on something exteriorized – symbol, technical objects. In On the Existence of Digital Objects, I attempt to show that such schematizations, which are exteriorized as digital objects, are reconstituting the world with a new materiality and according to a specific computational logic, e.g. a new cycle of invention.


You wrote that the theory of digital objects demands a synthesis between Simondonian individualization and the Heideggerian interpretation of ready-to-handness. Would you agree with the thesis according to which «the growth of the saving power» that Heidegger saw in the essence of technology, have germinated in the allagmatic Simondonian thought?


The technical objects of Simondon is, as my friend Jean-Hugues Barthélémy has claimed, non-anthropological, while Heidegger’s understanding of the ready-to-hand is anthropological. This claim may be too rigid, since I think one can find an anthropology of technical objects in the thought of Simondon especially when he talks about the alienation of technical objects, but Jean-Hugues’ claim does indicate the great difference between the two thinkers. Simondon talks about individualization of technical objects, but he never touched on the individuation of technical objects, and the question is how can we think about it? In my book, I consciously avoid re-using the vocabulary of Simondon in L’individuation à la lumière des notions de forme et d’information to describe such process of individuation for example pre-individual, disparation, etc. I tried to develop further the concept of “relation” which is central in Simondon’s book but remains ambiguous. And there, I find Heidegger a “good” accompany of Simondon, since Heidegger though refused to developed further the concept of relation (Bezug), has developed a relational thinking in the first division of Sein und Zeit. Saying so, Heidegger also has another concept of relation, which is Verhältnis, and he has developed it further in his later work, but that is another issue.


Therefore in On the Existence of Digital Objects, I wanted to resolve – in the spirit of Simondon – the difference between Ontology (the ontological) and ontologies (the ontic) by introducing the concept of relation that traverses hierarchies, however at the same time hierarchies are also the source of relations. Therefore it is not an oppositional thinking, but rather a relational one. On this point, my reading of the Zuhandene of Heidegger is almost the opposite of that of Graham Harman, since for him, it is a withdraw without relations, while for me it is a manifestation of relations.


This phrase from Höderlin’s Patmos is a wisdom that deserves our constant reflection upon it. The question is not about the danger, but the awareness of this danger and the decision to be made regarding this danger. However without being aware of it, one cannot get rid of it. I am trying to respond to Heidegger’s essay in a forthcoming book titled The Question Concerning Technology in China, in which I term this unawareness of danger the unconsciousness of modernity. Your question is, can one find in Simondon’s allagmatic thinking the saving power that Heidegger aspires to? This is a very intriguing question, I think it depends on how we interpret both of them. What Heidegger was proposing is a “turn” or a “transformation” of thinking, one that overcomes technology by creating a horizon of meanings which is much broader and more profound, in order to resolve the opposition between culture and technics; while the allagmatic thinking of Simondon (at least for me) is a method that resolves the opposition (or any opposition) and allows a new way of thinking and a new form of being to emerge – it is possibly to be a resolution in so far that it overcomes the Gestell through technology. I cannot say that it is the saving power that Heidegger aspires to, they seem to me to be two solutions, two forms of thinking.


By the way, there is a strange word-combination in some of your texts — the Heideggerian AI. Can we read Heidegger as a theorist of AI?


Heideggerian AI was a term coined by Hubert Dreyfus, the American philosopher who was once very much into AI and he has written a book What computers can’t do (1972) and later an updated version What computers still can’t do (1992). Dreyfus made a very powerful claim that the good old fashioned AI, namely that which is based on frames, on formalizations, is only a Cartesian AI. For example, when a robot comes into a room, how can a robot make decision, should it analyze every object in the room like present-at hand? Or should it analyze the environment as a whole namely the totality of signification, which has to do with ready-to-hand, with embodiment of the environment? The Heideggerian AI is a challenge to the computer scientists in the 70s and 80s, and notably has influenced people like Terry Winograd, the teacher of the two founders of Google. This is the reason for which Harry Halpin and others claim that Google is a project of metaphysics, and I totally agree with it.


I am also concerned about something else: it is the third part of the «On the mode of existence of technical objects», where we read: “toute forme de pensée ou tout mode d’existence engendré par la technicité exigeraient d’être complétés et équilibrés par un autre mode de pensée ou d’existence sortant du mode religieux”. What does it mean? Is there we need of completely new terminology and ways of thinking? Something like technoteology, technosoteriology, technodicy. What does it mean when Simondon said in the last interview (1983): «the technical object must be saved» (apparently, in the religious sense)?


It is great that you mention this remarkable quote from Simondon, if I haven’t mistaken, it is from the last pages of part III. Here the question is about convergence, which has an ideal model in the magical phase from which technics and religion are bifurcated. What does it mean by convergence? I believe that we can understand it in different ways and move beyond Simondon. Firstly it is the unity of matter and spirit, technicity in itself is not a complete reality, meaning that matter is not everything. This is against the naïve materialists who believe in a material and technological determinism. What makes technical thinking complete is “another mode of thinking or existence coming out of the religious mode,” like when it was in the magic phase, in which technics and nature, subject and object are not clearly distinguishable. However, the proposal for a convergence doesn’t necessarily mean that one should return to the magic phase, to an archaic cosmology, precisely because such a cosmology is also affected by technicity. Therefore, we will have to investigate on another mode of convergence, which attempts to reunite objects and subjects. In On the Existence of Digital Objects, I took up this task to ask how can we imagine a convergence in the time when digital networks have virtually brought everything together – internet of things, smart city, etc., in what sense can we still talk about convergence? It means that one should go beyond this mode of convergence to another sense. It is exactly in Part III that Simondon evoked Heidegger on this question – and probably the only occasion in the book that he talked about Heidegger, e.g. to go beyond the separated technical objects. I proposed to tackle the question of convergence in related to digital objects by going back to Husserl’s meaning horizon and Heidegger’s Daseinanalytics, for the former it concerns the phenomenological foundation of logic, which implies in this case that it is possible to understand a digital object as the meaning horizon which is not limited by computational logic; and for the latter it concerns the temporal foundation of the Kantian transcendental imagination, therefore it opens up the question of a computational hermeneutics, where we can address the question of tertiary protention (which I developed on the base of Stiegler’s tertiary retention). I didn’t deal with the question of spirit and religion in On the Existence of Digital Objects, but I come back to it in the book that I mentioned above The Question Concerning Technology in China.


Saving technical objects, means that one will have to understand them, and to save them from alienation. Simondon is probably the only one who talked about the alienation of technical objects. I believe that there is a question of the soul in Simondon’s thinking of technical objects. The soul of technical object is more like what Plato describes in Timaeus, than Aristotle’s De Anima, firstly because the soul is created by the demiurge, and secondly because the Aristotlian soul is based on hylemorphism which Simondon has heavily criticized. A technical object is alienated, when after being produced, it has to wait indefinitely in the market before it is bought and used. It means that it is not properly used, or it is useless in this indefinite time of waiting, like a slave in the market waiting to be bought by its master. This is one example that Simondon gave in his 1961-62 course Sociopsychology of Technicity, a few years after the publication of Du mode d’existence des objets techniques. I agree with you that there is something religious there, that is also the reason for which Simondon could talk about the eschatology of technical objects (a paper that he gave in 1972).


When you define the digital as a new technique to manage data, do you imply a political meaning? How data management is being embedded in a post-modern Empire?


Indeed, the term datum which originally means sensible data given as such, acquired a new meaning in the first half of the 20th century as information processed by computers. I believe that this change in etymology has a significant importance for the understanding of the digital both philosophically and politically. We know that in philosophy, the pair data-given played a central role for example in Kant’s aesthetics both beautiful and sublime, in Husserl’s phenomenology, and also in Heidegger’s thought when we consider existential and theological connotation of the “there is” (es gibt, it gives) and data as the given, this opens the possibility to reconsider the works of these thinkers according to the digital condition.


To illustrate it with example, we know that data constitutes one of the core questions of phenomenology, e.g. the given (das Gegebene). It is only through the given that phenomenology operates.  With  is significant in the sense that what happens to the subject of phenomenology? And if Heidegger and Simondon’s concept of the technical objects come from a phenomenological (or post-phenomenological understanding), how can this dimension of the digital add to such a cycle or ecology of the given? I tried to response with a critique of phenomenology in my recent book on digital objects.


The understanding of digital as binary is historically interesting, for which we should read Leibniz again and his fascinating ideas about writing; but in terms of politics, it is futile, since it doesn’t really help to understand what is at stake in our time. Data management, as Jacques Ellul already described in the 1970s, is fundamental to what he calls a technological system (noted that Ellul uses the expression le système technicien instead of le système technique or technologique) always looks for a system, in which everything can be easily traced and managed and every action can be predicted. This is a situation that we are witnessing today after Ellul’s description already made 40 years ago, and I think Ellul’s concept of technological system went beyond what Simondon has described in Du mode d’existence des objets techniques, precisely because Ellul was more sensitive to the political and social questions.


I just allude to the common critical opinion on the Networks as an instrument of exploitation, as a way of biopolitical production and so on. Criticism of the «Californian Ideology», Negri and his criticism of the network Empire, etc. In 2012 you yourself were discussing the question of Post-Facebook Social Networks. And also in the Archivist Manifesto digitalization is presented as a kind of field of political clashes. In other words, the question is that if the digitalisation is a battlefield, where is the front line in the digital milieu? for what and by what this struggle is waged?


Digitalisation has created a new form of politics and economy, 20 years ago people didn’t see it clearly, but today this is evident to everyone who has access to Internet. The question is not whether Network is an instrument exploitation or not, but what kinds of network under what conditions become instruments of exploitation. To my impression, there are confusions in the usage of terms like Network, Internet, Cybernetics, Empire, etc., as if they are the same thing. We can talk about network in general, but this only creates more confusion concerning the political and economical reality. In the project on social network as well as my work on digital objects, I constantly insist that we must develop different forms of network in order to reinvent the social and the political. In my book, I brought Husserl and Simondon together to understand what is at stake in the production of digital objects and annotation of them. The question is what kind of network – what kind of organization, and we have to be very precise with it. Saint Simon also wanted to use network to realize socialism, just like Capitalism uses network to consolidate its Empire à la Negri, an abstract concept of network will exhaust our imagination, and in the case the rhizome becomes even more banal than the tree. The recent book of the French activist group The Invisible Committee in their latest book To Our Friends has sharply pointed out that it is futile to wage symmetric wars, since they are doomed to lose. What does it mean by asymmetric war or effective resistance in this sense? It means that one should not stay in the same discourse of network, but rather re-invent the form of the warfare, without employing the same logic of the enemy. If there is a latent aim in this project, it is the effort to provoke a new imagination of network hence new form or even one without image.


I.e. Ellul was right when he said that if Marx were alive today, he would have analyzed the technics, but not the economic structure of society? And the problem of modern criticism of capitalism is that it continues to think in the manner of the XIX century, rather than to do an analysis of technology?


Simondon also hold the same view, which is rather clear in the conclusion of MEOT, where he says that capital is only an amplifying agent, instead of the primary cause of alienation. For sure, we have to bear in mind that the recent emphasize on his “Fragments on Machines” of the Grundrisse is an attempt to reinvent Marx as a thinker of technology. I believe that there is more and more awareness of the importance of technology in the criticism of capitalism, for example, we see that with the British accelerationists, technology is central to their strategy to terminate capitalism. However, I am not sure if, for example with full automation, it will necessarily lead to an optimistic end, e.g. the redistribution of resources. I am skeptical, because in this discourse, everything works mechanically, even capitalism itself functions like a mechanical being, which continues to exhaust itself regardless of the danger ahead. Foxconn, the Taiwanese manufacturer of iPhone has announced that it will use 10,000 robots in 2014, and in the future they will increase 30,000 robots per year. But Foxconn in fact not only failed to implement the 1 million robots army, but also by the end needed more humans. This is an example, which not only shows that full automation is difficult, but also it is probably also not desirable for capitalism.


Is there hierarchy of digital objects or digital objects are in anarchy? For example, viruses — how they fit into a digital milieu and data management policy?


The question of hierarchy is interesting, is a virus higher in the hierarchy as a Facebook picture? Is a robot higher in hierarchy than a virus? I prefer not to repeat the work on categorization like the 17thcentury natural science, but rather the process or the operation of the virus. A computer program is necessarily hierarchical in different senses: main program and functions, functions and routines, routines and commands, the hierarchy between different databases, not to mention the permissions of access, etc. Therefore speaking as an object as you said, there is no anarchic virus.


mean that the virus has to be the object, which undermines any hierarchy… Is this a superficial judgment?


I am not sure if a virus undermines the hierarchy, a virus is like a parasite, it is only dangerous when it is able to exploit the well established hierarchy and therefore to find out the weakness within its organization. Hence a virus cannot do without a hierarchy, in other words hierarchy is essential to a virus. The virus in turn destroys the organization by corrupting it.


The foreword to your On the Existence of Digital Objects was written by Bernard Stiegler to whom you often refer in your works. Repeatedly you participated in the Ars Industrialis conferences. How your project adjoins to Stiegler’s ideas, for example to «économie de la contribution» which develops by participants of Ars Industrialis?


Bernard Stiegler was my teacher as well as a very dear friend. I encountered Bernard in 2008, and since then we have worked together very closely. Bernard has a very significant impact on my thinking and I am very much in debt to many long discussions and exchanges with him. The project on social network was carried out inside his institute in Paris, and we had a lot of discussions on the question of individuation and social networks. My take on the concept of economy of contribution is what Simondon called collective individuation, which becomes an ontological resistance against individualist concept of social networks (e.g. the society is consisted of social atoms as it is proposed by Jacob Moreno). But I also want to take Simondon further, in the sense that I want to realize a metaphysical thinking in material terms, and therefore I want to reconnect Simondon’s principle thesis (l’individuation à la lumière des notions de forme et d’information) which was considered by some philosophers (e.g. Pierre Montebello) as a philosophy of nature, with his supplementary thesis (Du mode d’existence des objets techniques). I believe that Simondon was more much more ambitions than just developing a “philosophy of nature,” and I don’t believe that Simondon has the intention to subordinate technics to nature; instead, he always search for an allagmatic way of thinking that overcomes such opposition, although he refers often to the opposition of culture and technics, but not nature and technics. At the same time, I was also influenced by the works of anthropologists, for example Marcel Mauss  David Graeber (especially the idea of gift economy) as well as the work of Tiqqun. With David Graeber, we have also published an article on the Occupy HongKong movement in 2014 in the French newspaper Le Monde. In fact, right before the project on social network, I participated in the Occupy movement in Hong Kong (the one in 2011-2012) and there with the comrades we tried to experiment with gift economy. This experience added a political and anthropological dimension to the project on social networks. The economy that is desired in this new form of social network is not only about “collaboration” but also more fundamentally a critique against the conception that economy originates from barter system and therefore has its foundation in individualism.


In 2013, you wrote the Archivist Manifesto, offering  subjectivation in the form of the care for the personal archive (based on Foucault’s The Care of the Self and Heidegger’s Sorge). «One should become archivist instead of users» — is the great formula, but is the archivist of digital objects possible without archaeologist?


I think the role of an archivist is very different from that of an archaeologist, since an archaeologist constructs a history of objects and systems, while an archivist creates a context for himself as well as for others (e.g. visitors, readers), namely orientation in time and space. I wanted to talk about archivists as a form of resistance as well as a way of life (in the sense of the great historian Pierre Hadot) because there is a problem with usage. Digital objects are not used properly, they are exploited just for the industrial interests, of course they do bring certain conveniences (but which innovation doesn’t). We need to find a new way of being with digital objects and technical objects, and this being-with is no longer to “use,” but rather to take care of them in order to take care of ourselves – and in contrary to Marx, Simondon talks about the alienation of technical objects. However what does it mean by take care? It is by no means a patronizing gesture, but rather a technique of subjectivation by reconstructing a new temporal structure (in this sense I understand what Heidegger calls Dasein) through and with the aid of digital objects.


You «had a nice discussion with Nick Land in Shanghai» not so long ago. Can you tell a little more about it?


This is how information is organized today in social networks, the system gives you what is considered to be relevant, and allowed you to discover this on my Facebook! As I said earlier, I am finishing a book The Question Concerning Technology in China. In this book, I closely engage with the work of a Chinese philosopher called Mou Zongsan. I consider him the greatest Chinese philosopher of the 20th century. Unfortunately there is very few translation of his excellent works into English, probably there is a bit more in German. I was lucky enough to have started reading him when I was a teenager, since my high school teacher as well as my calligraphy teacher at the time was his last PhD student, who was working on a thesis on a comparison of the complete teaching in Huayen Buddhism and Tientai Buddhism. I had the privilege to discuss with him regularly about New Confucianism and the thought of Mou Zongsan.  Nick is also very interested by Mou’s work as well, so are Reza Negarestani  and Robin Mackay. So when I passed by Shanghai in March, we were talking about Mou Zongsan and the communication between western philosophy and Chinese philosophy. Mou Zongsan used the concept of intellectual intuition as a critique of Kant’s metaphysics of limits – since Kant has refused that human beings possess intellectual intuition, therefore the noumena is only a mere object of the understanding. Mou also uses it as a reaffirmation of the value of Chinese philosophy. The intellectual intuition for Mou is the capacity that Chinese philosophy endeavors to cultivate; it also serves as the foundation of a moral metaphysics (I will also say a moral cosmology). Nick is associating it with what he calls intellectual explosion, which is for me very intriguing, and indeed, I think that only a Western philosopher like him can interpret Mou Zongsan in such a non-orthodox way. The discussion with Nick Land was very exciting, I must say, I have the impression that a more profound and also more progressive dialogue between European philosophy and Chinese philosophy will be possible, after hundred years of modernization which didn’t give time for it.


Great! And, apparently, the last question. In what direction you will continue your investigations after «On the Existence of Digital Objects» and “The Question Concerning Technology in China”? What’s plans on the future?


Apart from the book on China that I mentioned above, I am working on the question of technical system, which I have already evoked in On the Existence of Digital Objects, and for which I am going back to Schelling.


Well, I wish you success, Yuk! Thank you very much for your answers!


My pleasure, and thank you for these interesting questions!

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