Yuk Hui: From the universality of progress to cosmotechnics

Photograph by Ray Metzger

Among the many incarnations of ecological practice and theory is a view calling for a more “natural” way of life, or more emphatically, a “return to nature” against “civilisation”, in all of its different manifestations: technology, education, society, and so on. It only takes however a moment of thought to realise that this “return” is anything but clear, for it is neither obvious what we are supposed to return to nor how.

The theoretical work of the philosopher Yuk Hui provides an ensemble of concepts – most notably, “cosmotechnics” and “technodiversity” – that may serve as tools to rethink a radical ecology and radical politics more generally.

This post is a much delayed one for us, for we take Hui’s work as a major contribution to understanding the many parallel and overlapping crises of our time. We share below an interview with Yuk Hui for the french magazine, Ballast (09/07/2020).


Yuk Hui: “To produce alternative technologies”

From China to the United States, the methods employed and the anthropological assumptions are more or less the same when it comes to technology: population control, the delusion of totality, exceeding human limits and aspirations for omnipotence. Against this working logic, the Chinese philosopher Yuk Hui proposes to get beyond the opposition between the hasty rejection of technology and blissful progressivism: technologies, he affirms, must be rethought in their diversity and their locality, by becoming aware of what he calls “cosmotechnics”. While in Hong Kong – where he teaches – revolts against the Chinese National Security Law are increasingly repressed, we discuss with him the consequences of the hegemony of the contemporary cybernetic system for culture, ecology and political struggles.

“Change the system”, “fight the system”, “profit from the system”: the space of politics and the media is saturated with this reference – a world order that is never precisely defined but which is assumed to be obvious. In your latest book, Recursivity and Contingency, you conduct a detailed analysis of the philosophical history of this concept. Is this the same “system”?

The term “system” is very often used to denote an ensemble regulated by necessities. As you say, this term is very ambiguous. We speak of a philosophical system, of a state system, of a world system. They are different subjects, but they share the same notion and therefore the genealogy of this notion. To better understand the significance of this term, we must therefore go into its history.

It was between the 17th and 18th centuries that the notion of system acquired the importance it subsequently had in philosophy, but it should be noted that the term bore two meanings at the time. The “mechanical” system, first of all, which can be traced back to Descartes, is built on the foundations of physical science and considers everything from the standpoint of the natural laws that constitute it. For example, all the parts of an orange follow natural and physical laws and are formed in relation to each other in an order of linear causation. With Kant emerges a new notion of system inspired by the discoveries of biology (which was not then considered a scientific discipline). The organism displays another structure than that of the mechanical system: the living being is governed by a non-linear, immanent causality, so that it functions cannot be explained by mechanical laws. The cause of its structure does not come from the outside; it is the whole itself that is its own cause. The structure of a tree, for example, corresponds to an organisation other than that of the mechanistic model: its different parts maintain a relationship of community and reciprocity between themselves which means that all the parts contribute to a whole – which is the tree – and are only intelligible on the basis of this whole. This is the “organic” system. Now, from these two conceptions of the system derive, in parallel, two different conceptions of the state: while the state in Hobbes’s political philosophy is mechanical, it is organic in Hegel’s. If we want to “change the system”, we have to question the epistemology of the system and its relationship to state and capital.

It could be said, from this point of view, that the whole ambition of modern philosophy has been to invent a notion of system which is a tool of analysis (for the objects of science or for society). But it should be understood that when objects are analysed with a certain conception of the system (as a tool, therefore), this same system is at the same time realised and confirmed. Thus, although we have seen develop in philosophy since the eighteenth century an organic notion of system, its classical mechanical meaning has persisted and even culminated at the time of its realisation, in the nineteenth century, in industrialism. It was not until the second half of the twentieth century that the second notion of an organic system materialised, in turn, thanks to the birth of cybernetics.

Cybernetics should therefore be understood as the realization, in machines, of this philosophical concept of “system”?

We can indeed define it like that. In Recursivity and Contingency, I try to show that the philosophical formalisation of artificial systems (or even artificial intelligence, if we understand intelligence as the central element of the mind) reaches its climax in Hegel; for his part, the German philosopher Gotthard Günther shows in his book Das Bewusstsein der Maschinen [The Consciousness of Machines – 1957] that cybernetics corresponds to the actual realisation of Hegelian logic. The notion of system is therefore omnipresent in philosophy and in modern society, but the difference between our time and that of Hegel is that we are confronted with a system materialised through cybernetic machines. The most advanced “organic machine” Hegel had envisioned was the state; transhumanists aspire to the replacement of the state – still too human in their eyes – by artificial intelligences. This is why we cannot simply say that cybernetic machines are organic or mechanical, because they are more and more similar to organisms; rather, they should be considered as an organo-mechanism. In other words, we have gone from the “organised inorganic” (a term of the prehistorian archaeologist André Leroi-Gourhan which designates the invention of the tool) to the “organising inorganic”, which would correspond to what Gilles Deleuze would call “societies of control” – and which we currently see the very clear manifestation of in some countries, through the establishment of state systems aimed at tracking the virus and confining individuals.

How is this understanding of the cybernetic system important from a political point of view?

It must be understood that cybernetics consists of going beyond the two previous models (mechanical and organic) and their duality. Basically, since Descartes, we think of the machine in its opposition to the organic – and we find this dualism in “naive” critiques of cybernetics today, which presuppose that modern machines are only mechanical and not organic. However, the dualism on which this type of criticism is based has in effect been the target of cybernetics. Just as contemporary philosophy strives to go beyond the dualism between subject and object or between human and environment, by highlighting the continuity between the two poles rather than their opposition and by integrating them one into the other, even cybernetic theorists – from mathematician Norbert Wiener to sociologist Niklas Luhmann – have attempted to overcome this dualistic logic that opposes machine and organism. So, I believe that dualistic logic is no longer what is at stake today; what is at stake is rather totalising, unified logic, of which cybernetics is an example.

The realisation of such a logic would imply the disappearance of any possible “outside”, to the benefit of this single system. And yet this is precisely what transhumanists strive to do: behind the pretext of “going beyond the limits of the human” and of achieving what Nietzsche calls the “superman”, there is a metaphysical stake, which rests on this totalising logic of cybernetics. This logic calls for accelerating technological development to one day reach its culmination, what is called “singularity”. In short, according to cyberneticists, the acceleration of technological progress is moving mechanically towards an end, which would be this “singularity” – and which envelops an ambiguous theological meaning, between the Antichrist and the Katechon. In their eyes, human progress depends exclusively on technology. And in this sense, the explosion of machine intelligence that is witnessed today is not simply a technological advancement but a political agenda that aims, in the end, to achieve a super-intelligence that can take charge of state affairs and replace governments. We can see that this totalising and unifying logic of the cybernetic system has direct political consequences.

The question of the strategy to adopt in the face of this “system” divides the left: transform it from within? destroy it? desert it? Which option is favoured by your analysis?

The question is biased: it suggests that there is only one system and that we are confined to it, as in a loop closed in on itself. This is the mistake of the transhumanists, which leads to the futuristic belief that only the fulfilment of the internal logic of the system and therefore technological acceleration can overcome its problems (whatever they may be). Conversely, I think it is necessary to invent a paradigm that allows us to get out of this totality of the “system”. In Du Mode d’existence des objets techniques [The Mode of Existence of Technical Objects – 1958], the philosopher Gilbert Simondon proposed to situate technique in its genesis, thereby showing that there is a vaster reality, which allows for the individuation of technicity itself and its placement in a historical and dynamic relationship with other thought, such as religious, aesthetic and philosophical thought. Simondon’s analysis makes it possible to find a sort of an “outside”, and thus to pose the question of the role of technology in human life in a different way.

For my part, I suggest approaching technique from the idea of ??”fragmentation”: it is a question of seeking the “locality” of technique, against the myth of its universality. The development of a technology like pesticides, for example, is indicative of the totalising logic I was talking about: it is based on the idea that the same product could eliminate all of the insects of the same species because they share the same biochemical structure. But the effects of pesticides depend on air, weather, climate, etc., such that it is in fact impossible to use pesticides in the same way everywhere. This example demonstrates the need to overturn universal logic. This is what I strive to do by seeking the “locality” of technique, which inscribes it in a reality larger than itself.

From your book The Question Concerning Technology in China, you have developed the concept of “cosmotechnics”. Does it allow you to identify technique’s “localities”?

Cosmotechnics, in fact, is always local. A cosmotechnic corresponds to the unification, in technical activities, of the cosmic and moral orders; these orders, however, differ from one society to another – for example, the Chinese did not have the same concept of morality as the Greeks. Cosmotechnics therefore immediately raises the question of locality. It is an investigation of the relationship between technology and locality, that is, a search for places that allow for technology to differentiate itself. Conversely, according to the logic of modern philosophy, we pose a higher and universal (or transcendent) scheme or logic, which it then suffices to impose everywhere indifferently. This modality ignores the issue of locality, or at least treats it as a place that is only geographically different – and not qualitatively different. The now triumphant totalising logic of cybernetics points in the same direction. We must therefore broaden the notion of epistemology and come back to technique, so as not to take it for something neutral. This is what I propose to do thanks to the notion of “fragmentation”: to begin instead from the different fragments of the globe that constitute the localities. This forces us to formulate local problems and local solutions, and at the same time allows us to explore the possible perspectives that this “local” holds. Fragmented epistemology has already been theorised in other fields, and in particular in anthropology, with the work of Philippe Descola or Eduardo Viveiros de Castro. In the latter’s book Metafísicas canibais [Cannibal Metaphysics – 2015], he proposes to speak of “multinaturalism” rather than “multiculturalism”: the term multiculturalism assumes that a single nature is mastered by different cultures; conversely, multinaturalism means that there is a plurality of natures, dominated by one culture – modern Western culture.

Can you give an example of “cosmotechnics”?

We can take that of Chinese medicine. The epistemology of Chinese medicine is very different from that of Western medicine, because it is based on Chinese cosmology, which is itself very different from Western cosmology. In Chinese medicine, we talk about ch’i (energy), yin and yang, the five movements. If a Western doctor asks a Chinese doctor to show ch’i or yin and yang, like what he does in anatomy, any discussion will be impossible. So, if we use Western medicine as a standard, we can discredit the whole of the Chinese medicine knowledge system. But what seems more interesting to me is to see the confrontation between the two ways of thinking and the way in which Chinese medicine has appropriated – or rather has tried to appropriate – modern Western technology since it was confronted with it. I say “tried” because it is an ongoing process of experimentation that has gone on now for more than a century. The error of Chinese intellectuals at the beginning was to separate – against the background of a dualism between soul and body – Chinese thought and Western technologies, thus holding to the belief that it would be possible to integrate modern machines without modifying Chinese thought. There was even a slogan hammering out what seemed obvious at the time: “Western science as a means, Chinese thought as a foundation”. But in truth, Western technologies have gradually marginalised Chinese thought, so much so that the latter no longer knew what its place could be in the process of modernisation. This can be seen in the case of medicine, but also in the case of the educational, social, political, military, etc., system.

It could be said schematically that globalisation, from the 19th century on, was a period of the universalisation of Western technique – after its failed attempt to universalise religion in the sixteenth century, as argued by the British historian Arnold Toynbee. Countries like Japan and China were mistaken in thinking that technique would not affect their traditional thinking; it is this truth that has become manifest over the past century. Generally speaking, technological diversity is disappearing and being homogenised due to cybernetic hegemony. Technological development around the world is no longer anything but a vast process of “translation”: just as with linguistic translation, for each element of the system is sought equivalences between different cultures – but it never really works. However, I believe that today we have entered a new phase of globalisation, and that it is necessary to renew our epistemology to imagine a new geopolitical order. What I invite, against this enterprise of translation – which ultimately tries to fit everything into the same system and to evaluate everything in the light of the same classifications – is to understand that it there is a diversity of technologies and to work in the sense of what I call “technodiversity”. Technodiversity involves thinking about divergences within technological development (such as cultural histories), that is, to produce alternative technologies.

Reflection on technique acquires a particular resonance today, in its articulation with the ecological question. How does the path of technodiversity that you propose seem more relevant to the ecological issue than that of pure and simple criticism of technique?

It seems to me that the dualism that is often repeated in ecological debates between technology on the one hand and nature on the other is based on a “naïve” formulation of the problem, which is based on a concept of technology inherited from Descartes’ mechanism. However, as I said, cybernetics itself has overcome this dualism, so that the contemporary machine with which we are confronted can no longer be simply opposed to nature. We should not therefore reject cybernetic epistemology as a whole, but rather re-appropriate it, because it makes it possible to reformulate and think better about the ecological question. If we look at the history of the notion of ecology, it meant for the German biologist Ernst Haeckel – who invented the word – the articulation of the relationship between the organism and its environment. He shows that there is feedback, or a feedback loop, between the organism and the environment, which cybernetics can analyse as an information operation. This middle-ground term will then be taken up and deepened by biologists and cyberneticists such as Jakob von Uexküll, Gregory Bateson, James Lovelock, etc.

It is from this perspective that the Canadian theorist Marshall McLuhan argued in an interview in 1974 that the launching of the Sputnik satellite in 1957 marked the end of nature and the beginning of ecology. That is, the Earth itself had become, by that time, a technical object. When we talk about ecology, we can no longer base ourselves on a schematic dualism between machine order and natural order. Even the injunction to “protect nature” is, from this point of view, problematic. And the work of anthropologists like Descola, who rightly tried to overcome the dualism between nature and culture, did not go far enough: they contented themselves with “returning to nature” and, in so doing, avoided confronting the question of technology which is at the basis of the ecological problem. The question of preserving “biodiversity” cannot be separated from that of “technodiversity”, because we cannot maintain biodiversity by conserving species as we would in a zoo. The only viable solution is to develop local technologies allowing for coexistence, for programmes of coexistence.

You grew up in Hong Kong and teach there. Does the special status of this region, whose handover to China in 1997 was carried out on the “one country, two systems” principle, make it possible to constitute a point of support for de-centring itself from cybernetic hegemony?

This “one country, two systems” principle, which was established by then Chinese President Deng Xiaoping, could have been a brilliant idea: it opens up the possibility of realising a political system that goes even further with the idea of fragmentation than that of the federation (in Germany or the United States, which are federations, it is always the same system which remains distributed throughout the country, although with nuances). But China has failed in the realisation of this idea: Chinese state thinkers fail to understand the importance of this possibility, so this principle, which was supposed to apply to Hong Kong, is in the process of disappearing. What was supposed to guarantee respect for the specificity of the country becomes, on the contrary, a kind of excuse to impose, by the method of assimilation, a single system of values. By imposing national security laws to pacify protests in Hong Kong, China risks destroying the possibility of a new form of political philosophy, which Hong Kong’s geographic and historical specificity might have provided the opportunity to experiment with.

With the coronavirus pandemic and the ideological war between China and the United States, we find ourselves at a critical juncture. World politics seems to have reverted to a kind of decisionism in the sense of Carl Schmitt: the sovereign is s/he who decides on the exception. However, the protests that have been taking place since 2014 in Hong Kong have become, more and more clearly, a kind of witness to the ideological war between China and the United States, between authoritarianism and liberalism – although this opposition is not enough to understand the complex situation in Hong Kong. This forces us to rethink the kind of globalisation that will rule geopolitics in the 21st century. In his essay, Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch – 1795, Kant aspires to an organic model in which countries must respect each other because each is constrained by the whole. I propose to reread this Kantian project on the basis of the genealogy of the notion of system of which we were speaking, in order to update it while exposing its limits: if we still aim for this ideal of “perpetual peace”, the concepts that we inherited from the 18th century – as is the case of system – must be rethought in a rigorous and radical way. This is also the reason why the Hong Kong issue is not just about Chinese politics as is often believed, but is an experiment that carries meaning for everyone.

Video conference …

The ill will collective has recently published a translation of the introduction by Junius Frey to the french language edition of Yuk Hui’s The Question Concerning Technology in China: An Essay in Cosmotechnics, published by Editions Divergences. The english language edition is available here online.

Various essays by Yuk Hui have been published by e-flux magazine, along with a video recorded lecture.

Other english language interviews can be found at the Los Angeles Review of Books, Noema Magazine and The New Institute.

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