Friday, May 21, 2021

3506. Cosmotechnics and Ontological Turn in the Age of the Anthropocene

By Pieter Lemmens,  Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities, August 2020

Heidegger’s 1949 Bremen lecture on “The Question Concerning Technology” has been enormously influential in its conceptualization of the ontological essence of modern technology as being less that of the originary classical Greek notion of technē, understood as a bringing-forth of beings, than of what Heidegger called “enframing” [Gestell], understood as a mode of revealing of beings that provokes or challenges them forth exclusively as standing reserves [Bestand]. Under enframing, “nature” is being reduced to a gigantic reservoir of energy and material resources for economic and technological exploitation. While this image and critique of modern technology has been widely if critically accepted in the West, what has often been missed in those criticisms of its detail or trajectory is its applicability when extended to non-Western technological developments, both historically and projectively, for if these are not reducible to either technē or enframing in the Western sense, how can we articulate their unfolding and what could this question of technology prior to the Heideggerian formulation contribute to the current debate on the Anthropocene and the profound ecological and geological mutations it entails?

One current way forward in this context of the Anthropocene is a reappraisal of the idea of nature. For example, some representatives of the so-called “ontological turn” in contemporary anthropology such as Philippe Descola (Beyond Nature) and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro (Cannibal Metaphysics and Relative Native) have proposed an unravelling of the concept of nature to show that nature as it is experienced in non-European cultures cannot be equated to naturalism, which is a product of modernity, characterized by an opposition between nature and culture, in which nature is conceived as a universal ground that is common to all particular cultures arising from it while each having a different view or conception of that nature, which is adequately conceived though only by Western science. This naturalist framework of one universal nature – mono-naturalism – and many particular cultures – multiculturalism – is being confronted by these anthropologists with an alternative framework, principally derived from Amerindian animism, of a commonly shared culture – mono-culturalism – giving rise to many different natures – multi-naturalism – as well as with other ontologies, to wit totemism and analogism, that each understand the relation between nature and culture in yet other ways.

This mobilization of the non-modern can be seen as an attempt to reconceptualize the relation between the human and the non-human, and hence to go beyond the nature–culture dichotomy that restricts all visions to a parochial Western worldview. It is in the same spirit, but as a more pragmatically realist and political gesture, that this special issue of Angelaki addresses a parallel question for technology, which is whether it is also possible to conceive of multiple technologies, understood specifically in the sense of multiple cosmotechnics and if so what form this may take? It is our belief that it is not only the notion of “nature” that has to be challenged as the anthropologists did, but also the efficacy of any “return to nature” should be questioned, and that it is rather more urgent today to rethink the question of technology and of its possibilities for humanity’s future existence and coexistence with non-human inhabitants on the planet.

Although the critique of modernism and Western naturalism from the viewpoint of non-modern and non-Western ontologies – such as practiced today by Descola and Viveiros de Castro but also others such as Tim Ingold, Eduardo Kohn and Robin Wall Kimmerer – is certainly worthwhile and fruitful for fostering the ontological imagination in our search for other, less destructive and less alienating modes of (co-)existence (cf. Weber), we share Clive Hamilton’s reservations about the ultimate value of what he aptly calls “‘going native’ ontologically” for confronting the problems of the Anthropocene (106). The fact of the matter is that non-Western cultures are just as overwhelmed and disoriented by the Anthropocene as Western culture itself, although it may very well be the case that the Earth’s indigenous populations are in some sense much better prepared for the impending breakdown of the capitalist world system than the well-pampered yet for the most part overly distressed, precarized and proletarianized inhabitants of the so-called “affluent societies” (Danowski and Viveiros de Castro 95–96), if only because they have already experienced the collapse of their cosmos (104). And the recent COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated how fragile and arguably broken the global capitalist arrangement already is, with very dire prospects on the horizon.

More importantly still, the great majority of non-Western cultures have since long been enframed themselves by Western technology through colonization and imposed modernization such that the global technological condition has also become their destiny. Any “return” to native ontologies or conceptions of nature seems rather futile in this regard. All over the planet, a “second nature” that has been thoroughly affected by technology has come to replace the allegedly pristine “first nature” of yore. This is precisely the condition of the Anthropocene, where the technosphere – as the material condition of what Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Vladimir Vernadsky have dubbed the noosphere in the 1920s – has come to overrule the biosphere. It is this development that is hardly if at all taken into account by the representatives of current anthropology’s ontological turn, who generally fail to appreciate the decisive role of technology in anthropogenesis as well as in cosmogenesis, such as it has been emphasized in the work of the French paleoanthropologist André Leroi-Gourhan and more recently by the French philosopher and social critic Bernard Stiegler (Technics and Time 1). The ideas of these two authors have been particularly important for Hui in the development of his project of cosmotechnics.

Just as the ontological turn wants to do away with the opposition between nature and culture, the concept of cosmotechnics is designed to overcome modernity’s opposition between nature and technology. Far from recommending a rehabilitation of pre-modern or non-modern ontologies or cosmologies though, the cosmotechnics project explicitly looks at the future and aims to be an imaginative and inventive discipline in search for new cosmotechnics, and that is to say a plurality of cosmotechnics for the age of the Anthropocene, in which the different cultural spheres that exist across the globe are not called to retreat into their ancient cosmological structures – or what Peter Sloterdijk calls their traditional symbolic “immuno-spheres” (Sloterdijk and Heinrichs) – but to imagine and invent new practices of technological world-formation, taking inspiration from the ideas behind these structures, not in the least the moral or ethical ideas. It may indeed be “too late to exhume the corpse of Confucius” as Hamilton argues (107), but that does not mean it makes no sense at all to consult the Confucianist tradition – and by extension other traditions of thought beyond those of the West – for cues of how to think differently about “the unification between the moral order and the cosmic order through technical activities,” as Hui’s preliminary definition of cosmotechnics has it. A further objective of the cosmotechnics project, which it shares with Gilbert Simondon’s genetic philosophy of technology, is to work towards a reconciliation of nature and technology.

When an anthropologist such as Descola develops an “anthropology of nature” (Die Ökologie der Anderen), it should also be possible to conceive of something like an “anthropology of technics,” and if there are indeed multiple natures then it should also be possible to think of multiple technics that are different from each other, and not just functionally and aesthetically different – say at the level of technical artefacts – but different at the ontological and onto-historical level in the Heideggerian sense, or as Hui prefers: at the level of cosmology or histories thereof.

The concept of cosmotechnics was initially introduced in Hui’s treatise The Question Concerning Technology in China. An Essay in Cosmotechnics, which understood itself first of all as a response to Heidegger’s original question concerning technology but aiming to expand this question beyond Heidegger’s still Eurocentric horizon and opening it up towards other, non-European cultures, such as Chinese culture which Hui, being Chinese himself, has taken as an example in his book. The concern that Hui shares with Heidegger is the fact that the Western technological trajectory has come to dominate nearly all other cultural spheres around the globe and has indeed become a planetary force – the gigantic, monolithic force foremost responsible for the arrival of the Anthropocene as the age of generalized psychic, social, cultural, economic and ecological deterioration or “entropization,” as Bernard Stiegler has put it, characterizing the Anthropocene as the Entropocene (Automatic Society).

According to cosmotechnics all technics are fundamentally cosmological and all cosmologies are fundamentally technical, and what it underlines is that technology is not a universal, transcultural category but essentially dependent in its unfolding on a non-technical cosmological factor that is culture-specific. As such it aims to rethink and re-orient the question concerning technology in terms of the question concerning technodiversity. Its emphasis on multiple cosmotechnics has to be distinguished from so-called multiculturalism, which is fundamentally a reactionary politics of cultural identity. The multiplicity of cosmotechnics implies multiple epistemologies and epistemes which can contribute to reflection on the development of technologies, opening up a discourse on technodiversity for overcoming the current homogenization and planetarization of enframing actualized in the Anthropocene. Hui, again, uses China as an example to demonstrate that it is not only possible but also necessary to elaborate on culture-specific histories of cosmotechnics, and to see how these different understandings can be reconsidered and reevaluated so as to re-orient and re-imagine current technological globalization with its nearly complete obliteration of technodiversity from a cosmotechnical perspective.

The ultimate concern of the cosmotechnics project, which is further developed by Hui in Recursivity and Contingency and in Art and Cosmotechnics (forthcoming in 2020), is to show the necessity of overcoming the current global dominance of Western or promethean technology, re-interpreted as one particular form of cosmotechnics (i.e., that of capitalism). Its ultimate objective is to encourage another, non-Eurocentric way of thinking about technology in order to bring about what Hui calls a bifurcation or rather fragmentation of World History such that it may open the future toward a plurality of heterogeneous technological trajectories, each driven by a different cosmotechnical imaginary. As such it projects a profound “reframing” of the current planetary enframing so as to “recosmicize the Earth” (Augustin Berque) and doing so in a variety of locally specific ways.

In this special issue, ten authors explore various dimensions of the cosmotechnics proposal, some in closer dialogue with Hui’s work, others by relating to it more tangentially and taking it into other, sometimes very different, directions. I have to confine myself here to an extremely concise exposition of the authors’ contributions.

Pieter Lemmens interprets Hui’s cosmotechnics in terms of a “critical synthesis” of Heidegger’s and Stiegler’s views of technology which updates them for the emerging post-Eurocentric epoch. Marco Pavanini situates cosmotechnics within an anthropotechnological and culture-historical perspective and shows that it, as an inevitably comparative discipline, requires reflexive awareness of the various “cultural techniques” that condition any culture’s self-understanding so as to guard itself against ethnocentrism, suggesting the cultural techniques approach developed among others by Thomas Macho to be the proper “organon” of cosmotechnics. Andrés Vaccari emphasizes the affinity of Hui’s cosmotechnics with that of Gilbert Simondon and then mobilizes both to offer a scathing critique of the hegemonic cosmotechnics of today’s hypercapitalist conjuncture, that of transhumanism/singularitarianism, interpreted as a corporate, neosubstantivist ideology serving the agenda of a rabid neoliberalism intent on totally controlling and colonizing the planet. Yuk Hui for his part argues that cosmotechnics can help to overcome the totalizing tendency of the currently dominant cybernetic paradigm structuring the relation between nature and technology, or between ecology and machines, by offering a more pluralistic, historical and regional understanding of this relation, enabling what he calls a genuine “political ecology of machines.” Bernard Stiegler, in an article that relates Hui’s concept of technodiversity to his own notion of noodiversity, argues for the necessity to develop an entirely new theoretical computer science with a view to countering the entropic tendencies inherent in the global digital milieus of contemporary “platform capitalism” so as to rethink the relation between the nervous and the logical and resurrect a new space for the exercise of reason, which is now in the process of being dissolved in a digitally automated understanding, itself completely reduced to calculation. Jason Tuckwell takes Hui’s idea of cosmotechnics as starting point for a critique of technicity conceived as a uniquely human characteristic, a viewpoint derived from Aristotle, arguing instead that technically mediated agency is constitutive for all species and showing that this articulates nicely with the non-universalist conception of technics embraced by Hui and allows for the possibility of non-humans also having a cosmotechnics. Sjoerd van Tuinen, in a historically informed reflection on the possible future(s) of artificial intelligence, more or less presents Leibniz as a cosmotechnic thinker of technological and noetic diversity avant la lettre, contrasting his proto-cybernetic idea of reason as distributive composition and unnatural common sense with Hegel’s collectivization of an artificial yet self-naturalizing good sense. Clive Hamilton argues that exploring ancient cosmological frameworks for conceiving new future cosmotechnics in the plural may be wrongheaded since they all originate from the definitively past epoch of the Holocene, whilst the development of what he calls a “fifth ontology” beyond those four currently held by humans on the planet (as distinguished by Philippe Descola) will necessarily originate from our progressive interactions with the entirely unprecedented Anthropocene Earth. Frédéric Neyrat responds to the cosmotechnics proposal affirmatively yet critically, from his own quite unique “Alienocene” perspective, by presenting “Afrofuturism” as an alternative, non-imperialist, non-colonialist and non-exploitative cosmotechnics countering the violent, acosmic cosmotechnics of capitalism. In this Afrofuturist cosmotechnics, the cosmos is not limited to our terrestrial abode though but designates the entire universe as a trajectory extending all the way to its an-archic origin in the so-called Big Bang, reminding us of the ultimate futility of any technological will-to-power. Peter Skafish finally relates to the cosmotechnics proposal by reflecting, from a more anthropologically or rather anthropotechnologically informed approach and in dialogue with anthropology’s contemporary ontological turn, on the body and on “techniques of the body” (a term coined by Marcel Mauss) from a pluri-ontological and “polyrealist” perspective, showing how the body and its technicity manifest in very different ways according to its ontological as well as cosmological embedding, illustrating this in particular with reference to Amerindian shamanism and – most extensively – traditional Chinese medicine.

It will be obvious from this all too brief preview that cosmotechnics is a concept that opens up many possible avenues for philosophical reflection, offering a fresh perspective for rethinking the human–nature–technology nexus in multiple ways. We hope that this special issue marks the beginning of the development of cosmotechnical thinking as a new direction for the philosophy of technology, that also allows for an enriched dialogue with other disciplines such as ethnology, anthropology, cultural history, social and political science, and not in the least also the arts. We thus hope that it may inspire future critical thinking about the human condition in the context of the Anthropocene and may support imagining a new technological modus vivendi on this planet or rather a multiplicity thereof, and we also hope, finally, that the cosmotechnics project will be taken up by different cultures and different localities on the planet.


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