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The Dream of Cosmotechnics

Song Yingxing. Tiangong Kaiwu (天工開物), or The Exploitation of the Works of Nature, 1637.
National Library of China

This encyclopedia describes the production and manufacturing processes for different commodities and illustrates mechanical devices that can be applied to agricultural and industrial production.

Yuk Hui is a philosopher from Hong Kong dealing with digital objects and the politics and poetics of technology, a computer engineer working on an alternative architecture for social networks, the author of books and articles on the philosophy of technology, media theory, and cybernetics, and a student of Bernard Stiegler.

The problem of cosmotechnics, to which his 2016 book The Question Concerning Technology in China is devoted, as well as the thematic issue of the Angelaki journal and many texts and interviews by Yuk Hui, lies in the question: can we think of technology not as a universal, but as a multitude? This question requires the use of a utopian technological imagination, a technical dream, that allows one to look into the world beyond both the planetary universalism of “Western” technology and narrow worlds of “national” technologies. In this conversation for EastEast, Eugene Kuchinov spoke to Yuk Hui about technology in regard to that dream.

Eugene Kuchinov:The pathos of your project is revealed on two tracks: one of criticism of technological universalism, which is associated with modernity and the figure of Prometheus, and the other of rediscovering, re-assembling the history and possibilities of multiple cosmotechnics. How far have you come in these two directions? I would even pose the question in a more intemperate manner: if you present your project as a program of actions aimed at a specific goal (to undermine the imperialism of Prometheus, free cosmotechnics), what could serve as a sign of its completion—or at least a sign of a “turning point”?

Yuk Hui: There is no completion of thinking, since completion means its own end. All thought will confront its own end under different historical circumstances, but thinking doesn’t aim at its own death from the beginning. What I have been trying to do is not to formulate a social or political project that has its aim concretely expressed, for example, a socialist state or so. What I am trying to do is to open up questions and research that seem to me fundamental but have been foreclosed in the past. If there is a “turning point,” it will be indicated by an opening that is beyond my own work and my own thinking.

EK:Would it be correct to say that at some point this “turning point” in your own thinking was the cosmotechnics itself? Tell us in a nutshell how you came up with this idea.

YH:Cosmotechnics opens a new way of thinking for myself, but instead of a “turning point” I would rather see it as a necessary step in my own thinking on the question of technology. If Heidegger was right in saying that the history of Western philosophy is tantamount to the history of Western technology, then we may want to ask what is the relation between Eastern thinking and Eastern technology? This relation has never been explicitly explored so therefore it remains silent. This silence is now also a call. If we “enforce” an intimacy between thinking and technology like Heidegger did, then we may be able to open a new way of dialoguing between thoughts through technology as well as welcome new forms of thinking. You will also find this gesture and intention in Recursivity and Contingency, which was recently translated into Russian, and it continues in my forthcoming book (2021) Art and Cosmotechnics.

Song Yingxing. Tiangong Kaiwu (天工開物), or The Exploitation of the Works of Nature, 1637.
National Library of China

EK:

Don't you think that the universalism of Prometheus is somewhat exaggerated—including for ideological reasons, as your debates with Russian philosopher of Neo-Eurasianism Alexander Dugin have shown? I am reminded of Michel Foucault, who in one of his lecture courses—in passing—touched upon the development of technological knowledge in eighteenth-century Europe. He showed that this knowledge was not universal until the state came into play. That is, figuratively speaking, Prometheus did not coincide with himself and was extremely diverse until he became a government official. In other words—and this is my question—does the concept of cosmotechnics allow us to discern a “multi-technicalism” not only on the other side, but also “inside” Prometheus? Let us recall the myth in which he appears chained to a rock: can Prometheus be unchained?

YH:Prometheus is a figure of mythology. However, mythology doesn’t mean mythical or mysterious. Mythology is pre-philosophy, and Greek philosophy emerged when the gods escaped, and that gave rise to the tragic age according to Nietzsche and sowed the seeds of rationality in the philosophy to come. That is the moment when Prometheus was unchained, let’s remember that the giant in both Archyllus’s play and in Goethe’s poem promotes a numerical rationality and prosthetic creativity against Zeus. To what extent this primitive prometheanism led to modern technology is a question that Heidegger was concerned with. Does their epistemological discontinuity have its origin in a historical continuity? And does modern technology as a historical product also exert the strongest power of synchronization, which was vaguely named global capitalism? The reading of prometheanism in parallel to and identified with philosophy is an enterprise of Martin Heidegger, and we can understand it as a provocation to redefine the task of thinking after the end of philosophy (as it is practiced in the academic milieu). Heidegger’s attempt to reflect on the concept of techne, meaning both art and technics, is fundamentally a gesture to quest for a new understanding of technology that differs from both Greek techne and modern technology; this is also the reason I suggest that one may be able to read Heidegger’s return to the presocratic thinkers as a questioning of cosmotechnics. 

I think it was also a task of Heidegger, though implicit, through his re-reading of the pre-Socratic philosophers, and by returning to the intimate relation between Being and technics. You can also see this gesture of Heidegger as an attempt to free Prometheus, in a particular way, that is to say, by doing so, one also maintains a free relation with technology, as he suggests in the opening of Die Frage nach der Technik.

Technodiversity could be misinterpreted as a nationalist project or a technological tribalism, and this would be a nightmare

EK:Perhaps Prometheus appears liberated in the technological imagination, in technical utopias. What is the role of imagination, utopia, dreams in the world of technology and what does it mean for the existence of technical objects? What is the significance of utopia in what you call technodiversity? Can you say that your project is driven by some dream—and if so, what is this dream?

YH:I think we first of all have to distinguish dreams from nightmares, and also recognize that every dream has the tendency to become a nightmare. Technodiversity could be misinterpreted as a nationalist project or a technological tribalism, and this would be a nightmare. If there is anything utopian in the notion of technodiversity, it is precisely an attempt to circumscribe the falling back to a narrow nationalism, which will inevitably lead to wars. I call it epistemological diplomacy, as a way to interrogate the possible contribution of knowledge producers, intellectuals, and universities today as a response to our situation. A utopia is an object of desire, meaning, it implies at the first glance the impossible, but without which there is no meaning in our social, political, and individual pursuit, everything would be in the state of pure becoming. Love is an object of desire, but you will never have it in your hand, like what Louis Aragon said in his poem “il n’y a pas d’amour heureux,” when you embrace it, you crush it. Therefore utopia for me is fundamentally contradictory but necessary. To live with this contradiction means to bear the immense melancholia, like the chained Prometheus, in the words of Lord Byron who like Goethe also dedicated a poem to the titan, to make “death a victory” with his “sad unallied existence.”

Song Yingxing. Tiangong Kaiwu (天工開物), or The Exploitation of the Works of Nature, 1637.
National Library of China

EK:What exactly turns a dream into a nightmare? Misinterpretation? That being said, let's try to focus specifically on the technological dream.

YH:Heidegger’s dream also became national socialism, so the Eurasian project can also become an extreme nationalist politics. Bernard Stiegler’s late worklate workSee for example: Bernard Stiegler, The Age of Disruption: Technology and Madness in Computational Capitalism (Polity, 2019). on the folly and the faculty of dreaming is something one should read, regarding the necessity of the folly and dreaming and the pharmacological dimension of its realization (as externalization). 

EK:AccelerationistsAccelerationistsAccelerationism is the philosophical and political idea that capitalism and technological change should not be stopped but accelerated. Accelerationist theory is divided into left-wing and right-wing variants., with whom you often argue, regularly say that what we lack today is precisely the utopian (and not least technological) imagination. Do you share this sense of lack with them?

YH:As I said earlier, utopia is an object of desire, and in this sense it is necessary. What I argued is not that one should do the opposite, namely to decelerate or to become a Luddist, but rather to suggest a different form of acceleration, that is to say, instead of converging towards a singularity, we should aim for divergence, namely diversities. There is a difference between speed and velocity, acceleration is produced by a change in velocity, but not speed; velocity is a vector, it implies directions. I am sympathetic with the project that the Left should have a technological agenda and a new political economy which is of ultimate importance, only I am not sure if this linear acceleration is the way out, though it is what is going on right now, this is also how the left and right accelerationists converge. Again, I think the late Stiegler’s territorial projectterritorial projectIn the fall of 2016 Bernard Stiegler initiated an experimental project in Seine Saint-Denis for making this community of conurbations a contributive learning territory. This place was supposed to be a laboratory, a school, a place of avant-garde, to appropriate the smart cities in the most revolutionary sense of the word. at the Saint Denis in the north of Paris to reinvent a political economy based on care and contribution is another important reference for thinking about the future of automation, unfortunately Bernard left us too early.

EK:In his 1975 dissertation Technological Utopianism in American culture, historian Howard P. Segal, having analyzed several dozen texts, points out that in technical utopia two elements are necessarily combined: belief in progress, understood as technological progress, and a certain social ideal. The ideal society achieved with the help of technology is the heart of technical utopianism, this is the key technological dream. Is everything okay in this image of a technical utopia?

YH:I am not an expert in Segal’s work, but as we understand that since the 18th century on, especially among the encyclopedists, technological progress is central to the Enlightenment project. There is of course faith in rationality, and reciprocally it is also reaffirmed by the possibilities opened up by technologies, for example the invention and development of machineries. But history is not an Einbahnstraße (one way road), its movement comes out of a dialectical necessity if we want to follow Hegel here. The emergence of factories and large scale autonomous machineries in the 19th century presented a picture of planetary proletarization, which nurtured many utopian revolutionary projects. And even today the more advanced AI technology and data science demonstrate nothing less dystopian, especially during the pandemics, the question is badly posed as a decision on either safety or freedom, authoritarianism or democracy. For sure, we are not saying that technology is bad, this is absolutely not my stance; I think it is necessary to move away from optimism and pessimism, we have a huge problem to resolve.

Today we are confronting the ecological crisis and the negative effects of the anthropocene, which are the culmination of history of colonization and imperialism

EK:What problem are you talking about? 

YH:Today we are confronting the ecological crisis and the negative effects of the anthropocene, which are the culmination of history of colonization and imperialism. We are witnessing a geopolitical shift, as Vladimir Putin made it clear in October that Russia and the USA are no longer the super powers, China and Germany are moving in this direction to take up these roles. What does this shift in geopolitical power mean? Will it be able to transform our current situation, or will it only worsen the situation due to the fiercer competition, namely, accelerating the current modes of production and exploitation? Or are we just waiting for the arrival of wars? 

EK:By the way, what can be said about war in the context of the question of cosmotechnics? 

YH:When technology is limited to a nationalist discourse, then it expresses itself as warfare like what is now happening between the US and China, like what happened in the 20th century between the Soviet Union and the US. Wars are not only about killing each other in the battlefield, we have been witnessing new forms of wars, wars without limit. It is obvious that technology is dictating economical development and military expansion. The cosmopolitics of cosmotechnics is an initiative to conceive different technological programs that are not limited to the dominating mode of technological thinking taking form in the 19th century. However, if we continue to see the world from the point of view of nation states, one would easily refuse the possibility of technodiversity, since intuitively a nation state can only maintain its sovereignty via military competition and armies. We will need a different point of view, what I call planetary thinking, and that I have been developing lately.

Song Yingxing. Tiangong Kaiwu (天工開物), or The Exploitation of the Works of Nature, 1637.
National Library of China

EK:It seems to me that Segal’s concept of technical utopia is weakened by the fact that he works with utopia as a text—while technological utopias exist not only as texts, but also, in fact, as technical objects. In The Question Concerning Technology in China Pao DingPao DingPao Ding is the butcher to whom one of the most popular stories in Zhuangzi is dedicated.’s butcher’s knife appears in this capacity, which never becomes blunt and contributes to the nourishment of life. Do you find any examples today of utopian technical objects—objects that eluded the supervision of Prometheus, but still exist as something that somehow works?

YH:For me, in the example of Pao Ding, what is key is not only knowing the physiology of the cow, for Plato also spoke about similar things in Phaedrus when he explained to Phaedrus about systematic arts; it is rather the question of co-existence, in this case, between the butcher, the technical object, and the natural being (the cow). The art of living is to maintain co-existence so that every being can develop according to their own natures. The utopian dream of technical progress since the 18th century doesn’t have co-existence as its premise, but rather mastery of beings, namely the realization of metaphysics. And it is also since the 18th century on, because of the aggressiveness of industrialism, that one tends to have the image that technology is violating mother earth and is responsible for the ecological crisis today. When we look into the ancient technologies for example, we can still find traces of the premises of coexistence and I am sure that anthropologists have much more to say. There are also contemporary examples in agriculture that are trying to prioritize co-existence while abandoning technology. However, I think a new agenda of technology and co-existence has yet to be further discussed, and this remains a collective task.

Utopia doesn’t come from technical objects alone. Utopia is about co-existence, which in our time, consists of humans, non-humans beings, machines, etc

EK:In turn, I would make the key point of my question about the “strangeness” or “miracle” of Pao Ding’s knife. This knife has no thickness, it does not grow blunt and does not require constant repair—thanks to its use in accordance with the Dao. You can add Lu BanLu BanLu Ban was the Zhou Dynasty structural engineer, inventor, and carpenter.’s arsenal of inventions to such technical objects, right? Or, for example, Daoist alchemical means to achieve immortality, right? If we look at Western Prometheanism, within it we can find such strange objects as Wilhelm ReichWilhelm ReichWilhelm Reich is a psychoanalyst, author of the term sexual revolution, inventor, and one of the most radical figures in the history of psychiatry.’s orgone accumulator and cloudbuster, accumulators and generators of free energy, and so on. Can we speak of these technical objects as utopian?

YH:We have to distinguish Daoism as a philosophy from Daoism as a religion, alchemy belongs to a certain religious practice, and they are not considered philosophical discourse belonging to the school of LaoziLaoziLaozi (literally translated as “The Old Master”) is a semi-legendary figure, who presumably lived between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE. He is conventionally imagined to be the author of Daodejing, or the Laozi, the key text of philosophical Daoism. The earliest excavated version of it dates to about 300 BCE. However, the text is also widely cited in the late 4th and 3rd century BCE corpus, which suggests that the text existed in oral and written forms even earlier than that. and ZhuangziZhuangziZhuang Zhou (ca. 369–286 BCE), also called Zhuangzi, "Master Zhuang," is the author of the eponymous work. "Encountering Zhuangzi opens a window into a world of enlivening confusions, taunting misdirections, surreal grotesqueries, cutting satire, virtuoso reasonings, insouciant despair, mischievous fallacies, morbid exhuberances, impudent jokes, and jolting non-sequiturs, which nonetheless has the most profoundly consequential things to say about the gravest human problems of living, dying, and knowing." (Brook Ziporyn, translator and editor. Zhuangzi. The Complete Writings. Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2020). Pao Ding is a figure in Zhuangzi’s writing, and he embodies a philosophy of life that is central to Daoist thought; and neither Laozi nor Zhuangzi pursued immortality, on the contrary, they have already accepted the finitude of life, and it is also based on this recognition that their philosophy of freedom takes form. Utopia doesn’t come from technical objects alone. Utopia is about co-existence, which in our time consists of humans, non-humans beings, machines, etc. Tools and their defined usages are that which maintain the equilibrium of these relations. For example, the regulation of the size of the mesh of fishing nets is a way to ensure that certain species will not be exhausted due to overfishing. Pao Ding’s use of knife implies a thinking of co-existence, in a way, we can say “taking care.” Today we have more advanced technology but a lot of these technologies are reminiscences of 19th century industrialism, and those new ones are often only in service of consumerism. They are far from any initial thinking of co-existence, therefore, to think together with Pao Ding, is to think of “care” as technologies of co-existence.

EK:In the example of Pao Ding, even if this is an example of coexistence, I nevertheless always felt sorry for the unfortunate cow . . . 

YH:Don’t forget that the food chain is also necessary to maintain the co-existence of multiple species, otherwise overgrowth of population and the lack of food will equally lead to unethical crimes. The biggest ethical problem concerning animals is industrial animal farming; on the other hand, will “new meat” necessarily allow an ethical relation between humans and animals? I am not sure. What counts for the Daoist ethics is to let beings develop according to their own “nature” and not to hinder them from such possibilities. Human beings are only mediators who facilitate this process, but not masters of “nature.”

Contributors
Yuk Hui
Philosopher from Hong Kong dealing with digital objects and the politics and poetics of technology, a computer engineer working on an alternative architecture for social networks, the author of books and articles on the philosophy of technology, media theory, and cybernetics, and a student of Bernard Stigler.
Eugene Kuchinov
Philosopher, historian, translator, editor of the lmnt < elementary [...] data recorder > platform, research assistant at the Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University. Among his interests are ontological and epistemological anarchism, panpsychism, philosophy of technics. He read lectures during a public program to accompany Tomás Saraceno's Moving Atmospheres (Garage Museum, Moscow) and the 5th Ural Industrial Biennial of Contemporary Art (Ekaterinburg). Lives and works in Kaliningrad.