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A THOUSAND
COSMOTECHNICS

Giovanni Menegalle Could you start by outlining your


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

Yuk Hui I first studied computer engineering in Hong Kong with


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

It is in the same spirit that I want to


conduct a new dialogue between European

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and Chinese philosophy through the


question of technology, since I am
convinced that we will have to develop a
new concept of world history and
cosmopolitanism after hundreds of years of
modernisation, as a response to the
Anthropocene.

GM Does technological change expose philosophy to the


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

YH I interpret your question as what would be the condition of


doing philosophy? And especially what is the condition of doing
it today?

GM I mean that philosophy is by definition oriented towards the


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

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longer regard itself as “preceding” science and technology, but


must instead open itself up to them. What I’m wondering is
whether, both in its encounter with technology and via a
dialogue across different traditions, philosophy in the 21st
century must go further and confront the technicity of its own
concepts, as schemas of infinite repetition that can be combined,
transformed, reassembled...

YH You said that “philosophy is by definition oriented towards


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

For sure, one can always do historical studies on how


philosophical thoughts migrate, transfer, contaminate – that is
very important. But, to philosophise has another meaning.
Heidegger, in his Letter on “Humanism” (1947), says that “people
don’t think anymore, they occupy themselves with philosophy”.
What Heidegger means here by thinking is the attempt to think
according to new historical conditions. I think we will have to
recognise the fact that, firstly, technological development has
reached such a stage that it produces a technological
consciousness, in contrast to the technological unconsciousness
of the modern. This technological consciousness is named in

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different ways, for example posthuman, transhuman et cetera,


though these terms are very different from one another.
Secondly, philosophy, which owes its root to the Greek language,
becomes global today, but what does it mean to become global?
Such becoming-global has been possible only because of
technological globalisation.

I have the impression that if non-European philosophies have


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

Back to these two conditions, they are not separated if we follow


Heidegger here: since technology is for him the product of
Western metaphysics, it indicates the end or fulfilment of
metaphysics. Heidegger didn’t think of technology in terms of
support – even though he had the concept of facticity – in the way
Derrida and Stiegler have argued and what you have just
formulated. And Heidegger doesn’t think with science and
technology; as you pointed out, he says “science does not think”,
since science involves a reduction to calculability, while thinking
and poetry search for the unknown or Unbekannte, the
incalculable. And you are right that technology, and primarily
writing, constitutes the traces and conditions of dialogues
between philosophical systems. However, we should be careful
not to jump too quickly to any conclusion that technology is
operationally universal, since we still have to ask: is the relation
between technology and philosophy the same in the West and in
China? What Heidegger says in his “black notebooks”, that
technology is not universal but international, is very intriguing.
It is true that there is a certain “universality” in the definition of
technology, for example, when André Leroi-Gourhan says that
the process of hominisation entails exteriorisation of memory
and liberation of organ functions, or as you said, with laws of
nature or mathematical axioms, but this is not yet sufficient. For
this question, we can put forward a Kantian antinomy: 1)
technology is anthropologically universal, insofar as it is
understood as exteriorisation of memory and liberation of organ
functions, as Leroi-Gourhan defines it; 2) technology is not
anthropologically universal, because it is conditioned and
constrained by particular cosmologies. The spirit of the Kantian

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antinomy is to relativise the absoluteness of a thesis, not


denouncing it as false but showing it as insufficient. My last
book, The Question Concerning Technology in China, develops
this antinomy through a historical study of technological
thought in China. In it I propose that it is possible to follow the
historical dynamic of the relation between qi (meaning utensil)
and dao, so as to conceive of a Chinese cosmotechnics which
cannot be explained by either the Greek notion of technē or
modern technology.

GM In the same book you argue that the Anthropocene heralds a


collapse of the distinction between geological time and human
time. How does the notion of a plural cosmotechnics intervene
within this conjuncture?

YH I understand the Anthropocene as an intensive


synchronisation and amplification brought about by
industrialisation and its technological globalisation, which
underlies such a process of modernisation. The Anthropocene
appears, and is described by many authors, as a closure, a crisis
of modernity, an ecological mutation for Bruno Latour and the
Entropocene for Bernard Stiegler. Latour and his colleagues
have been talking about “resetting modernity” and intend to
extend such a project outside of Europe to other cultures. He is

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right that it is not possible to resolve such a crisis without


profound dialogues with non-European thought. By modernity I
understand a methodological and epistemological rupture that
took place in the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe. This form of
knowledge was globalised as a consequence of colonisation and
later by “globalisation”. If we want to redirect this process of
modernisation, we will have to suspend this “tendency” enforced
by the process of universalisation of epistemology inherited
from modernity, which is described by the Portuguese
sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos as an “epistemicide”.
Anthropologists such as Philippe Descola, Eduardo Viveiros de
Castro and others have been talking about multinaturalism by
reaffirming the multiple cosmologies and variant natures in non-
European cultures, and if for Kant, nature is the “guarantee of
perpetual peace”, the concept of multinaturalism suggests a new
cosmopolitics. However, returning to nature is not sufficient. It
seems to be a fashion now that to be a leftist intellectual, you
have to subscribe to an indigenous ontology. But it is also risky
if not dangerous, since it is the germen of proto-nationalism and
proto-fascism. For me the “rediscovery” of cosmotechnics is not
a gesture of “homecoming” – not at all – it is the suggestion that
every culture needs to develop its history of cosmotechnics. The
Question Concerning Technology in China is such an exercise.

To give cultures new life in order to


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

GM The titles of your two books reference Gilbert Simondon’s


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

YH I think that we should read these texts by contextualising


them historically. Both Simondon and Heidegger witnessed the
rapid development of new telecommunication technologies.
Heidegger often talks of radio, television, telegraphy, atomic
bombs, et cetera, and Simondon’s supplementary thesis on
technical objects is full of examples of electronic devices used in
communication, for example, diode, triode, tetrode, pentode and

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transductor. Heidegger and Simondon both want to give a new


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

GM Is there a danger that by focussing on the digital, the form


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

YH I don’t think that one should oppose subjectivity to techno-


logos, but rather it is necessary to understand that the techno-
logos is at the same time the condition of struggle and something

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to be overcome. The opposition between subjectivity and the


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

Hypertext is not sufficient to describe the “asignifying


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

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drawing academic
objects and non-specialist
becomes a true audiences
philosophical debate, and not only a
from Berlin to Hangzhou. His two recent books, On
question regarding classification as many science and
the Existence of Digital Objects and The Question
technology
Concerning Technology researchers have
in China, both seek waysclaimed.
to
recover technology’s meaning and potential,
whether in the seemingly depersonalised milieu of
I hope that the relational analysis of the digital object will be
computer code or through a cosmological
able to open
understanding us toacross
of technology a new the analysis
Chinese of collective individuation.
andCollective
European traditions. The question of how
individuation can only be achieved by working with
humans can a!ect such a recovery within a bio-
technical environment semiotics”
“asignifying to fight
that is global in scale yet against the dominant industrial
models.
fragmented in itsThis was
cultural a project
contents and that I did with the computer scientist
representations is central to his concept of
Harry Halpin within Bernard Stiegler’s Institute for Research and
“cosmotechnics”. In this interview, Yuk discusses his
Innovation
background, work and between 2012
ideas, laying and
multiple 2013.(1) There we proposed an
trails
for a planetary politics of the future.
alternative model of a social network based on the notion of

group,
Interview whichMenegalle
by Giovanni I include as a closing example in my book on
Photography
digital by Hudson Hayden
objects. The term “collective individuation” is from
Simondon, and for him, individuation is always at the same time
psychic and collective. What Paolo Virno says in A Grammar of
the Multitude, that collective individuation is a “second degree
of individuation”, is a rather problematic thesis.(2) If Simondon
has to emphasise that individuation is at the same time psychic
and collective, it is because he wants to refuse that there is a first
degree of individuation – the individual – passing to a second
degree, the collective. Simondon’s concept of individuation was
very much inspired by the “group dynamics” developed by Kurt
Lewin, as well as sociometry founded by Jacob Moreno, and here
we must recognise that Moreno’s sociometry is the foundation of
today’s social networks, of which Facebook is exemplary. They
are fundamentally based on the idea that individuals are social
atoms – first degree – and a collective is a collection of such
atoms, or second degree.

It is possible to reject these industrial


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

In recent years, I’ve continued to work with some computer


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

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