In the latest in the HKRB Interview series with philosophers, Jordan Skinner asks internationally renowned technology theorist Yuk Hui about modernity, AI, the future and the digital objects we live with today.
Jordan Skinner: I wanted to begin my first question by considering the title of your first book, On the Existence of Digital Objects, which I understand came from your PhD dissertation with Bernard Stiegler and Matt Fuller at Goldsmiths University. Can you begin by exposing some of the philosophical influences behind this book?
Yuk Hui: When I started doing my research a decade ago, there was little discussion on digital objects, while there was a lot of discussion on object-oriented philosophy culminating in 2007 after the Speculative Realism conference in Goldsmiths. Graham Harman’s reading of Heidegger’s ready-to-hand was fascinating for me at that time, partly because I have been reading Heidegger since I studied Artificial Intelligence during my undergraduate years, and the ready-to-hand was a watershed between the weak (classical Cartesian) AI and the strong AI in the sense explained by Hubert Dreyfus.
But later, I started finding it problematic: firstly regarding everything as tool-being is an ontological statement and it ignores the technical-historical question, which makes OOO unable to answer the challenge of Heidegger in his 1953 lecture “The Question Concerning Technology”; secondly I developed an opposite reading of Heidegger from Harman, since he has to deny the relations of the Zuhandene in favour of his concept of withdraw, while for me it was the moment where a multiplicity of relation manifests and it was evident to me when we read Heidegger’s first division of Being and Time carefully and taking his project as a whole. Therefore, I would like to emphasize on the “existence” of digital objects, whose technical-historical question has been buried in the fascination with the general concept of objects, which are always only about chair, table, billiard or so. What I call digital objects are essentially data formalized by computational ontologies, and here the term ontology becomes intriguing again, so I wanted to reintroduce the concept of ontology into the understanding of digital objects in light of this coincidence.
JS: The title, it seems, is indicative not only of the book’s aim but also of your philosophical lineage and influences. It reveals your general philosophical modus operandi which is to reach into the past and revisit, reevaluate, and at times refuse philosophy’s history in order to “find the possibility of a transformation through the reevaluation of the associated milieux in both philosophical and technical terms”. Thus, the title of your book seems to immediately recall one of your influences: Gilbert Simondon’s On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects. My second question relates to this title but it also responds to a quote that you use from Gaston Bachelard: “that which we can neglect, we should neglect.” My question, therefore, is why do you neglect this phrase “mode of existence” in Simondon’s title for simply “existence” in your own? You briefly discuss it in the introduction to your book but I wonder whether it is more substantial choice then you let on.
YH: The title of book, as you have rightly pointed out, pays homage to Simondon’s On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects, which is a book very dear to me. And I have been translating it into Chinese. You may see that I was no longer in the same program as Simondon, and I didn’t intend to write a book to introduce the thought of Simondon or to do something like Simondon studies. This is the main reason why I decided not to include, instead of neglecting, the word “mode” in the title. I have briefly explained in the book why I didn’t want to use the word “mode”. It is a long story indeed. There are two ways that the word “mode” from Simondon is received. The first way, as I have explained in the introduction, is considered to be an influence from Étienne Souriau, whose The different modes of existence, was published in 1943. Jean-Hugues Barthélemy said in a personal correspondence that Simondon probably has read the book. The second interpretation is from Anne Sauvagnargues who considered the word “mode” is an inspiration from Spinoza.
On the contrary to this interpretation, I am not sure if it really has anything to do with Spinoza, since in Du mode d’existence des objets techniques there is NO mention of Spinoza; in L’Individuation à la lumière des notions de forme et d’information, Simondon invoked Spinoza but never to any depth. In MEOT, Simondon used this term “mode” in many different occasions, sometimes rather casual, for example: “mode pratique”, “modes de pensée”, “mode déterminé de pensée”, “mode non-modal” (art), etc. It is true that sometimes it resembles mode from Spinoza and Souriau, but it is just because the term mode of Spinoza has very broad meaning—it means “affection” of substance, which manifests as quality, predicates, etc. (“that which exists in and through another; or that which is an affection (modification) of a substance” (1d5, Ethics)).
I tend to think that the word mode – for Simondon – doesn’t bear too much philosophical weight here since it means the status of development of technical objects; for example, element, individual and ensemble, which have their own epoch. Technical ensemble for him is the actual mode of existence of technical objects, and it is also the reason for which Simondon sees in the actual technological development a possibility of convergence which situates well in his theory of technical genesis. The second meaning of the word “mode” comes out of his distinction between two modes of relation between man and technics in Part II of MEOT, one is the major mode (adult) and minor mode (child); the former corresponds to the technical knowledge of technical objects characterized by the encyclopedism of the 18th century, the latter habitual and daily use without much awareness. These two modes seem to Simondon to pose a perpetual historical problem, therefore, and his MEOT has a task to overcome this “inequality” by proposing the use of information machines in the technical education of children. These two aspects were no longer my question in On the Existence of Digital Objects. This doesn’t mean that Simondon’s questions are no longer important, in the contrary, they have to be continued with more rigors, but I didn’t pretend to do so. I agree with Simondon that each epoch has to discover the unique source of technological alienation in order to reinvent a technological humanism (but let’s put this term aside first because citing this term of Simondon brought me an attack of being a humanist). So it was my task to identify the question of digital objects as my own inquiry.
JS: When considering the digital object, you examine its multifarious dimensions: the logical components, its material and symbolic ordering, and its temporal regime, among others. I would like to hone in on the temporal dimension. In the text you determine that the digital object is historically conditioned, and much of your work shows the historical formation of the digital object. In reference to the present, you turn to what Husserl called the “historically primary in itself”. When it comes to talking about the future, however, you seem to offer “tertiary protention”, or the anticipation of the next moment, as the digital object’s futural dimension. This future is a horizon of probability which in turn orients the present, or as you say it “situates future as present”. Can you unpack this in order to see the stakes of thinking the future in your work? Is this the future of the digital object, or rather a mode of its futurity?
YH: The concept of tertiary protention was intended to be supplement to the system of retention and protention that Stiegler has developed, partly through his reading of Husserl and Derrida’s reading of Husserl. For Derrida, the play of retention and protention is the source of the deconstruction of the ‘metaphysics of presence’, since every consciousness of the ‘now’ demands a delay [retardment, Nachträglichkeit]— for example the Now B is constituted by the retention of Now A and the protention of Now C. There is indeed a play of ‘non-presence’ conditioned by ‘archi-writing’, which can never be reduced to any word or any concept such as retention or protention. The irreducibility of archi-writing, which involves proto-traces, lies in the fact of différance.
If in his lectures on time-consciousness, Husserl has distinguished on the first level primary retention and protention, and on the second level recollection and anticipation, which Stiegler will later call secondary retention and protention, then Derrida refused to grant the absoluteness of any such distinction, on the grounds that the differences between protentions and retentions are only differences of degree. Derrida has good reason for refusing this distinction, since Husserl’s phenomenology of time-consciousness has always contained a threat of an infinite regress, an infinite presupposition either of protention or retention. For example, if there is a secondary retention, and it presupposes a primary retention, then does the primary retention presuppose another retention of a lower order? Husserl himself often talks about a primal or original stream [Urstrom], primal presentation [Urpräsentation], primal data [Urdaten], primal process [Urprozess], and so on, and sometimes, following Brentano, an “unconscious consciousness”, all in order to avoid such a danger. Derrida’s archi-writing becomes the default by refusing the orders of retention and protention, on the one hand, by parrying the danger of infinite regress, while, on the other hand, seeming to provide an ontological ‘ground’ for the completion of a phenomenology of time consciousness.
For his part, Bernard Stiegler is strongly influenced by Husserl’s phenomenology of time consciousness, but he adds to it what Derrida calls the ‘supplement’ and what he himself calls ‘tertiary retention’, arguing that Husserl’s model of time consciousness largely excluded the role of tertiary retention. My point of departure was to reconsider the relation between retention and protention— can protention be reducible to retention? In the Bernauer Manuscript, Husserl affirms the difference between the roles of protention and retention; he says that even when both protention and retention are empty representations, an immeasurable [gewaltig] difference must still remain between them: firstly, retention lacks directedness, since it does nothing but push back to the past, whereas protention continuously directs attention [Gewahren]; secondly, Husserl reproaches Brentano for seeing the lawful connection between retention and impression as an original association. Husserl proposing instead that association only takes place in protention. If the question of tertiary protention is valid, it is because the time consciousness that Husserl wants to elaborate cannot be understood without reading it together with the technological medium of each epoch, like grammophone, radio, television and now digital technology, where different learning algorithms which are speculating on the future, like recommendations, suggestions.
JS: So you suggest that digital technologies are temporal objects which function through the algorithmic prediction of futurity? This must function, it seems, at speeds beyond previous technological capacity and even beyond human comprehension. If so, is time consciousness now overcome by digital temporalities? And if this is the case, what does this mean for our previous notion of the future as completely contingent and utterly unpredictable?
YH: This is the current stage of development of digital technologies, if we consider big data, machine learning, artificial intelligence, etc., they are dealing largely with the question of pattern discovery, predictions, in which we find what is called algorithmic opacity, or black box. This is nothing surprising, since now we are at the stage where technology is in the process of outstripping biology and such process will be much more accelerated when human enhancement will become a core business of the 21st century, as you can probably imagine with the film Ghost in the Shell. But let us go back to your question, what does it mean by saying that future being contingent and unpredictable? Isn’t the future always already contingent if we follow Meillassoux, who has brilliantly demonstrated the necessity of absolute contingency? The ontologisation of contingency leads us to ignore contingency as a historical and material category, and therefore also a political category. In the contrary, future is never completely contingent and utterly unpredictable, but it is our struggle here to keep it as open as possible—and, if you like, you can read Heidegger’s work along the same lines.
We can illustrate this with an example from Aristotle’s Physics, where we find the two words for chance, automaton and tyche; the former usually translated as automatic refers to probabilities and the latter translated as chance refers to something beyond the mere calculation. If you toss a coin, and when it falls back to your palm, whether it is head or tail, it is the question of automaton; but if you go to the agora, and find your debtor who just have the money to pay you back, it is the question of tyche. This unpredictability of the event as destiny constitutes the core element of the Greek tragedy; Oedipus, the intelligent man who has solved the problem of the sphinx, even though told by the sage about his own destiny, wasn’t able to escape it. The undermining of tyche, if we follow Martha Nussbaum and Nietzsche here, was accompanied by the Socratic rationality, and led to the decline of Greek tragedy. I think that this struggle of automaton against tyche is mise en scène today in a new context through the development of automation. This has been a question that I am working on since 2013 and I published an article in Parrhesia titled ‘Algorithmic Catastrophe’ in 2015 which outlines some of the basic metaphysical problems that I continue working in my research.
JS: Relation functions as a central concept for you both in the way you read the history of philosophy and the way you consider digital materialities. I saw a rather interesting pronouncement in your book On the Existence of Digital Objects where you write that you hope to “establish a solid link between the phenomenological inquiries of the twentieth century and the philosophy of computation that has already been associated with analytic philosophy.” In this way, you seem to be seeking relations between continental philosophy and computation, between analytic philosophy and phenomenology, between Chinese philosophy and European philosophy and between the historical tradition and recent developments in digital technology. Can you say a few words about your activity as a philosopher of relations?
YH: Indeed, I am very much interested in the question of relations, as I said in the book on digital objects, that I would like to move away from the constant desire to substantialize. It doesn’t mean that we cannot pose the question of ontology, but rather to answer the question in a non-substantializing way. Relation seems to be an effective means to desubstantialize along with other concepts, such as intensity that Deleuze employed in his Differece and Repetition. This is the philosophical motivation of Simondon as well, but Simondon has shifted it to the question of information since he sees the possibility to provide a new framework by reworking on the concept of information firstly raised by the cyberneticians such as Fisher, Wiener and Shannon, etc.
For me the question of relation is not only an ontological question which resists against substantialism and hylomorphism, but also a question concerning method. It is problematic when disciplines and cultures are separated to the extent that, as Norbert Wiener said in Cybernetics, colleagues in the same corridor cannot converse with each other about their subjects of interest, as if each person is in his or her own reality and these different realities share nothing in common. This is present in different domains: for example the domain of engineering and the domain of the users (which Simondon calls status of majority and status of minority), European philosophy and Chinese philosophy, etc. A synthetic thinking is that which aims for a convergence—for new rationality and for creativities—which are able to give us new ways to understand the actual problems and contemplate upon possible solutions. However, it is by no means a simply bridging, since such “bridging” risks falling prey to a superficial comparative reading; it is the individuation of thinking itself, since such synthesis is also a overcoming of existing incompatibility, that is to say an invention qua individuation. In On the Existence of Digital Objects, I confined myself to an analysis of the concept of relation within technical objects and technical systems, and in The Question Concerning Technology in China, I attempted to go further by stretching to the relation between the moral and the cosmos via technical activities, demonstrated by the case in China.
JS: I wanted to dwell briefly on something you just mentioned which cuts to the heart of your critical project. You said that your ontology of relations resists both “substantialism” and “hylomorphism”. In the introduction to On the Existence of Digital Objects you ask “does a digital object have substance (or is it possible to talk about it in this way)?” You then go on to show that after Aristotle triumphed this concept of “substance”, and its was held in high esteem throughout Late Antiquity and the medieval period, there arose a number of thinkers who have rejected substance for its conceptual incapacity: Hume, Bergson, Whitehead, Heidegger, Simondon, Dewey, and Deleuze, to name a few. Taking the stance against substance, therefore, you embrace the concept of the object of relations. However, Etienne Gilson and some medievalists of the 20th century might push back and claim that by eliminating substance whilst retaining relations there is a false dichotomy drawn—a false dichotomy perpetrated first by Descartes—between substance and relations. According to these Thomists, at the heart of the concept of substance, and being itself, is Substance-in-Relation. Thus, I will ask your question back to you: “does a digital object have substance (or is it possible to talk about it in this way)?”
YH: I reject substance in order to free relation from being a mere accident described by Aristotle in the ‘Categories,’ since I am convinced that existence is relational instead of substantial. Substance is referred to something non-accidental; unlike accidents whose arrival and disappearance don’t affect the identity of being, substance is that which persists as identity of being. If I have to reject substance it is because it seems to me that the substance fetishism (in the words of Peter Sloterdijk) not only fails to explain—but also becomes an obstacle to understand—the process of individuation as well as existence. The question that I posed was, if one gives up the concept of substance, will it give us a new way to understand the question of being, and if so how?
As you have mentioned, many philosophers abandoned the concept of relation. Bachelard was very sceptical of it and says that the concept of substance is dangerous due to its lack of explanatory power in the microphysical world. Simondon has also stated that both hylomorphism and substantialism cannot explain individuation but rather they have to be explained by individuation. It is true that some Thomists argued against Whitehead’s charge that the Aristotelian and Thomist concept of substance is nothing inert and static, but rather it is revealed through accidents, that is to say it is always in becoming, like the Thomist philosopher Rev. Norris Clarke claims that “existing in itself, naturally flows over into being as relational, as turned towards others by its self-communicating action. To be fully is to be substance in relation.” But what is really this mysterious substance being revealed, if not the temporal and spatial entanglement of relations themselves? I engaged with the debate in medieval philosophy in my book, and I elaborate on what I call discursive relations and existential relations based on the two concepts known in medieval philosophy as relationes secundum dici and relationes secundum esse: the reason that I didn’t adopt them is precisely because they still presuppose the concept of substance. If you want to argue that there is substance in digital object, then you will have to demonstrate it, even if you can claim to talk about the substance of a Facebook status update, then what really is this substance? The binary code, the electronic signals, or chemical activities in the electronics? Hume posed the same rejection by asking: does one have impression of substance, and because one doesn’t have such an impression so it is purely fictive or it is only of psychological need. Through the rejection of substance and elaboration on relations, Hume, as claims Deleuze, gives us a new way of understanding being. In fact, Hume and Simondon supplement to each other on the ontology of relations, and their thoughts were instrumental to my own investigation. It was my aim to demonstrate how such an ontology of relations can be useful to understand both individualization and individuation of digital objects—further to Hume’s discursive relations, we need to develop also the concept of existential relations and the dynamics of these two relations in the technological progress.
YH: Every retrieval, or Wiederholung, is a repetition, and every repetition is necessarily different. There is the necessity of retrieval, while it is also necessary that such retrieval implies differences. When Simondon referred back to the fact that once the artisans were able to create an associated milieu among tools, assimilating the status of a technical individual, for him the future of the human and machine relation could not be a mere repetition of the preindustrial age. It is important to pay attention to the question of the associated milieu but there is no way to go back to the artisanal mode of operation, since the artisan, like in glass making, was once provider of both information and energy. The situation has greatly changed when mechanical pumps and now automatic intelligent machines have been introduced into the atelier. When I say it is not sufficient to go back to “traditional ontologies”, I didn’t mean that traditions are not important; in the contrary, the whole book is a reflection on tradition and its possibility. For those who are familiar with sinology will find my approach atypical, because I was trying to construct a technological thought in China consisting of several episodes which was obscured by other concerns in history writings. It is not sufficient just to go back to the ancient Greek or the ancient Chinese, since such repetition is not compatible with our actual technological condition and therefore they appear to be powerless; and such powerlessness is a fundamental source of fascist tendencies. I hope to draw forces from tradition without falling prey to a “home coming” of philosophy that finally becomes a trap for itself.
JS: In positing the question concerning technology in China, you attempt to think of new ways of overcoming modernity. In so doing, you avoid asserting the symmetry of concepts between European modernity and Chinese philosophy—for example, there is no equivalents of techne and physis in Chinese thought. Instead, your project affirms an asymmetric relation between the two, while interweaving their differences in your theory of cosmotechnics. How, then, do you theorize the relation between these different form of thought? Philosophers have long sought ways of moving between differences by using analogical reasoning. How do you theorize this in your own work? How does this relate to what you call “transduction”?
YH: Modernisation is a synchronisation, a synchronisation of rhythms through machines, a synchronisation of thinking through translations. In such a process of synchronisation, people were eager to look for equivalences, and even all the comparisons on technological developments or thoughts unconsciously presuppose a certain equivalence. Some historians may say that paper making was far more advanced in ancient China than in Europe; other historians may respond that it is more justified if we look into a technical system instead of a single technique, while doing so, one cannot say that the Chinese were more advanced than the European on this respect. I don’t think that these comparisons will lead too far. I appreciate what François Jullien has been doing, and we can find it also in Marcel Granet and Victor Segalen, when they assert an absolute difference between the Chinese and European thinking. However, my concern was not only about the exoticism of thinking, but also the question of world history which has to be radically different from the Hegelian one.
I believe that only by opening the question of cosmotechnics, are we be able to conceive another world history and to escape the synchronisation in our current stage of globalisation, which is more and less identifiable with the Anthropocene age. Then again, simply retrieving a technological thought in China is not enough, it has to be rethought in face of the actual crisis that we are facing. So towards the end of the book, I propose to move from translation to transduction, from traduction to transduction, a word used by Simondon to describe a transformation in which another structure is acquired. Moreover, a transductor is a device that neither consumes nor stocks energy; it transforms one form of energy to another. If in the past hundreds of years of modernisation we have been constantly looking for translations, it seems to me that for the next stage, if it is going to possible at all, we will have to move from translation to a transduction of thinking, which will be exhibited in the effort of a re-appropriation of modern technology.
Jordan Skinner is trained in contemporary philosophy and its conceptual history at the Kingston University’s Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy and at Central European University’s Medieval Studies Department.
ChinHsin Esther Kao is the featured illustrator on this post. She is an undergraduate at Wheaton College (IL) and double majors in English and Philosophy. She was the Critical Essay Editor for the college’s independent magazine The Pub and the Art Editor for Kodon. Esther also writes for the online publication The Odyssey and is interning for Inheritance magazine under Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, California.
Jeremy Simmons is a writer, artist and game designer who keeps very late hours. His writing explores dreams (and nightmares), time and the inexplicable nature of the human condition. His work has appeared in Best Modern Voices, ShortVine and The News Record, among others. He is also the editor of the Cincinnati Book Review.
The HKRB Interviews series specializes in new books in philosophy and critical theory. Interviews have included Simon Critchley, Jodi Dean, Agon Hamza, Frank Ruda and Srecko Horvat. Coming soon: Joan Copjec and Rosi Braidotti.