On Yuk Hui’s “Art and Cosmotechnics”

IN HIS 1964 LECTURE “The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking,” Martin Heidegger proposed that philosophy’s historic function of providing a unified account of the world was growing obsolete. Cybernetics, the postwar scientific research on technical systems, was outperforming philosophy in this traditional role. Influencing everything from art and sociology to computation and neurobiology, this ambitious new discourse envisioned the relationship between a system and its environment as a series of feedback loops determined by communicative exchange. Deemed capable of accounting for everything from a cell’s interaction with its surroundings to the economics of human labor, cybernetics presented a more coherent metaphysical system than Plato or Hegel could have imagined.

While clearly impressed with these advances, Heidegger’s proclamation of the “end of philosophy” comes with a major warning. Though cloaked in the organic language of growth and spontaneity, this new mode of scientific inquiry risks a colonizing attitude toward human beings and the natural world. The technological ethos of postwar scientific advancement, for Heidegger, threatens to reduce even the arts to mere “regulated-regulating instruments of information” wielded for power and profit. For this reason, as Yuk Hui suggests in his new book, Art and Cosmotechnics, Heidegger turns to artists like Cézanne and Paul Klee, seeking to uncover a more ethical relation between human life, art, and nature.

This exchange between art, philosophy, and technology, thematized by Heidegger, provides the linchpin for Hui’s book. Following closely on the heels of Recursivity and Contingency (2019), a masterful treatise on cybernetics and German Idealism, Art and Cosmotechnics attempts to excavate once more the speculative role the arts might play in fostering experimental modes of philosophical and scientific thought. Key to this exploration is the way artistic process, for Hui, suggests a mode of noninstrumental relation between human activity and the natural world that runs counter to prevailing narratives about technology. Rejecting the futurist idea of a triumphalist singularity achieved by advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence, Hui argues that the creative and nonutilitarian view of the world opened up by the arts makes room for an understanding of technology that cannot be reduced to forms of capitalist extraction.

Art and Cosmotechnics, however, spills little ink reflecting on what this sort of artistic process might look like, preferring instead to reconstruct and synthesize Heidegger’s ideas and those of Hui’s other big influence, the sinologist-philosopher François Jullien. While providing a near-exhaustive account of the impact artists like Klee had on Heidegger’s philosophy of technology, and of Jullien’s lifelong work on exchanges between China and Europe, Hui neglects to mention just what kind of art could possibly still function in this emancipatory fashion today. Is it still the modernist artwork and its unapologetic formalism, as Heidegger’s favorite examples might suggest? Or is it perhaps what Hui’s previous collaborator Andreas Broeckmann calls the “machine aesthetics” of artists like Stelarc and Seiko Mikami?

While never engaging with concrete artistic developments, Art and Cosmotechnics does join a chorus of thinkers in recent years urging us to reflect seriously on cultural and technological changes happening around the globe. Perhaps the greatest strength of Art and Cosmotechnics lies in Hui’s insistence that we can no longer ignore the rapidly transforming relations between East and West when considering philosophical approaches to technology. As American hegemony wanes, the power vacuum left behind is at risk of being filled by a new cultural force: sinofuturism. Described by media artist Lawrence Lek as a “science fiction that already exists,” sinofuturism seeks to replace the universalism previously ascribed to Western culture with China’s own brand of hegemonic power. The key to countering such universalizing forms of political aspiration, Hui insists, lies in attending to the ways cultural difference seeps into the stories we tell about technology and its place in the world. This organic mode of thinking, which Hui refers to as cosmotechnics, would ensure the “unification of moral order and cosmic order through technical activities,” while also acknowledging an irreducible affinity between forms of technical activity and their cultural location.

While Art and Cosmotechnics is again sparse in describing what this would precisely entail, readers interested in an example might turn to Hui’s first book, On the Existence of Digital Objects (2016), for illustration. In the first part of that book, Hui relates an anecdote from a W3C workshop where a European programmer suggests ordering all objects according to a family-tree model. Participants from China and Japan quickly point out the difficulties this would present for non-European linguistic systems, with multiple characters for paternal and maternal family members. The absence of further examples in Art and Cosmotechnics, however, makes it difficult to discern just what exactly the project of cosmotechnics is after when it comes to artistic production. Is cosmotechnics supposed to provide grounds for a sort of power-sharing agreement between East and West? If this is so, how does the project unfold without giving way to new forms of cultural essentialism? While failing to provide direct answers to these questions, Art and Cosmotechnics nevertheless highlights what might be the most urgent aspect of Hui’s project: it seeks to provide a noninstrumental attitude toward life capable of carving out an alternative to both cultural universalism and identitarian tribalism.

Art and Cosmotechnics begins with a sweeping introduction that spans Greek tragedy, German Idealism, Chinese landscape painting, and the history of philosophy in China. Hui urges us to take seriously the idea that technical activity might serve a stabilizing role in a world of political and technological upheaval. Key to Hui’s exploration is the emphasis he places on acknowledging a variety of cultural perspectives that might inform our approach to technical activity, an important feature of his response to shifting relations between East and West. Just as “[e]ach culture has its own cosmology, which is a product of its own geography and the imagination of its people,” Hui proposes cosmotechnics as a way of thinking about technology that remains speculative and noninstrumental, as it was for Heidegger. In contrast to Heidegger, though, cosmotechnics would resist both the universalizing tendencies of European tradition and the allure of sinofuturist fantasy. It is at times difficult to overlook, however, the way Hui’s phrasing seems to fall back on an essentializing understanding of identity, rather than providing an alternative to both universalism and essentialism.

Hui’s opening section lays the theoretical groundwork for the rest of the book by outlining two distinct modes of thought regarding technical activity and, by extension, human-nature relations. In Europe, there is a well-established metaphysics of tragedy dating back to the ancient Greeks. Coming to full expression in the work of German Idealists like Schelling and Hegel, this tragic mode is defined by a logic of discontinuity that pervades the European tradition. Whether it be Sophocles’s Creon struggling against fate or Cézanne depicting Mont Saint-Victoire from multiple angles, Western culture is shot through with attempts to assert what Hegel called the “higher right of the Idea against nature.” While running the risk of being reductive in its broad characterizations (Hui even suggests at one point that the US and Europe should be treated as a singular entity where questions of art and philosophy are concerned), the book makes up for such overgeneralizations by highlighting the strengths of a comparative approach to philosophy and art. While Western thinking is defined by a logic of tragic discontinuity, its cultural cosmology structured by narrative tensions, Chinese thought exhibits a logic of oppositional continuity that is identified with the Daoist notion of xuan. This dynamic contains opposition, much like tragic thinking in the West, but it ultimately emphasizes continuity and harmony over discontinuity and historical rupture.

The first chapter, “World and Earth,” discusses in fuller detail the logic of oppositional discontinuity that has come to be associated with Western art and philosophy. In this section, Hui turns again to Heidegger, this time to the argument in his 1954 essay “The Question Concerning Technology” that modern science has forgotten the essence of technical activity, which is fundamentally poetic and noninstrumental. Following Heidegger’s hope of finding a “path […] which leads to a belonging-together of poetry and thought,” Hui argues that we need art now more than ever to overcome what Heidegger called the fundamental strife between earth and world, an opposition constituting the basic discontinuity of Western thinking. It is hard not to notice how vague this all sounds. The loose invocation of “art” in particular may ring hollow for anyone actually invested in the ways artists engage with new technology, not to mention sounding suspect to those familiar with the history of willing collaboration between big business and the avant-garde. For readers interested in philosophical aesthetics, however, Hui does present a masterful reconstruction of the role nature plays in human-technics relations in phenomenology. While insisting, with Heraclitus, that nature loves to hide, Western philosophical and political thought employs technologies of extraction that threaten to chase down and destroy the natural environment. For Heidegger, it was cybernetics research in the mid-20th century that represented this threat most powerfully. For Hui, sinofuturist fantasies and the Promethean ambitions of value extraction have concocted new forms of these colonizing impulses.

Much of the first chapter is spent surveying Heidegger’s thoughts on poetry and art, which Hui proposes we understand as the philosopher’s attempt to sketch what a non-colonizing approach to technical activity and nature might look like. While he provides a masterfully crafted account of Heidegger’s writings on the subject, however, it is often hard to tell where this reconstructive activity ends and Hui’s own intervention begins. For example, Hui summarizes a commemorative essay Heidegger wrote in 1946 commemorating the death of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, which saw the Duino Elegies as illustrating a mode of thought that pushed back against instrumentalization. But what forms of art today are capable of this sort of resistance to technocracy? What poets or artists might fill the role Rilke and Cézanne served for Heidegger? Hui never says.

While Art and Cosmotechnics provides few answers to such questions, it does effectively outline the stakes of technical activity and its relation to cultural identity. While, for Heidegger, the crisis of European philosophy leads away from philosophy and toward a nearly mystical understanding of artistic creation, the dualisms inherent in European philosophy point to a bigger problem for Hui: Europe itself is in crisis, its cultural hegemony on the wane. The need to think beyond the West provides the subject of Hui’s second chapter, “Mountain and Water.” Here he turns to the landscapes of shanshui in order to highlight an alternative to the tragic attitude of Western thought. Summarizing the work of Jullien, who suggests that there is a noticeable absence of the Western hostility between form and matter in Chinese art, Hui argues that Chinese thought may provide an alternative to the intensely oppositional logic of Western metaphysics. Hui draws on commentaries on Laozi by the philosophers Wang Bi and Mou Zongsan, among others, in order to point out the organic, Daoist logic inherent in shanshui, a logic that differs from the oppositional discontinuity of the West. Comparing this logic to Immanuel Kant’s notion of reciprocity (an aesthetic idea explored more fully in Recursivity and Contingency), Hui turns to classic paintings by Guo Xi, Xu Daoning, and others to show how such a logic of oppositional continuity might ultimately help “situate humans and their technological world within a broader cosmic reality.”

The reference to Kant, however, is a real missed opportunity, as Kant’s mode of reciprocity, or Wechselwirkung, has been interpreted by philosophers and art historians as providing the contours of an early aesthetic theory of interaction between artwork and viewer. Instead of taking the opportunity to discuss concrete artistic practices, however, Hui jumps to a consideration of how an oppositional continuity in human relations to the natural world is developed in the Confucian logic of qi. Whereas Daoism and Confucianism are often seen as irreconcilable schools of philosophy, Hui points out that there previously existed a strong history of mutual collaboration between them. As pointed out by Jullien and others, this trend was completely interrupted by the upheaval of European colonization following China’s defeat in the Opium Wars during the 19th century. Reconstructing this history of cooperation between Daoism and Confucianism in China, Hui reminds us that the Confucian qi, understood as a sort of feeling of the cosmic whole, may be likened to what Kant and the German Idealists referred to as intellectual intuition. While Kant only describes this intuitive mode of apprehension in negative terms, using it to demarcate the limits of knowledge, the logic of qi, when explored alongside the organic dynamism of the dao, provides the basis for a new relationship between figure and ground (Hui now drawing from Gestalt theory). Prospective readers should be warned that the rapid pace of Hui’s associative thinking can be rather disorienting.

The third section, “Art and Automation,” turns to the way reflections on the creativity of art can allow us to reconceptualize technology in a fashion that is neither instrumental nor colonizing. To accomplish this task, Hui argues that we must distinguish “[t]he recursivity of the world […] from the recursivity that technology is in the process of mastering.” Reconceptualizing technology, in effect, requires that we learn to think more organically. To this end, Hui returns to the Daoist logic of xuan exhibited by shanshui paintings, which illustrate an alternative view of nature that diverges from the modes of value extraction employed by many contemporary digital tools. This noninstrumental approach, however, does not mean we must become Luddites, unplugging our computers or denying advances made in artificial intelligence. Rather, Hui urges us to adopt what he calls a “generalized recursive thinking” that would seek “to understand and to co-exist with machines.” For readers invested in recent work on computation theory and digital capital, this idea calls to mind work by theorists such as Luciana Parisi, with her concept of the incomputable. In another associative move, Hui turns to Kurt Gödel in order to recover a sense of the contingency inherent in both human life and algorithmic processes. While not mentioning Parisi directly, Hui does deal extensively with a variety of scholarship on artificial intelligence, including work by Brian Cantwell Smith and Hubert Dreyfus. This chapter, however, is another missed opportunity to mention concrete examples of art dealing with these topics, a lacuna that is all the more glaring considering Hui’s prior collaboration with art historian and machine-art afficionado Andreas Broeckmann.

Despite the real promise of Hui’s project, Art and Cosmotechnics ends on a rather abrupt, unsatisfying note. In this final section, Hui turns to Jean-François Lyotard and his writings on the “inhuman,” a pivot familiar to those who recall the conclusion of Recursivity and Contingency or who know Hui’s work on the exhibit Lyotard curated in 1985 at the Centre Pompidou. In Hui’s view, Lyotard provides insight into our present moment through his analysis of the “clear mirror” of the 13th-century Japanese Buddhist Dōgen. While neglecting to outline in detail what he offhandedly refers to as a profound “crisis of aesthetics and therefore of the contemporary arts,” Lyotard’s all-out embrace of the avant-garde in his 1968 talk “Logos and Techne, or Telegraphy” (gathered in his 1988 book The Inhuman: Reflections on Time) appears mystical at best and, in hindsight, uncritically technocratic at worst. Is this warmed-over techie Buddhism all that cosmotechnics ultimately has to offer?

While there is still much work to be done on the relationship between art, technology, and philosophy, Art and Cosmotechnics serves as a crucial reminder of the importance of what, for Hui, seems to matter most: technodiversity. The book provides a fruitful look into the way philosophical investigations of art may benefit from comparative approaches to technology and cultural cosmology. While undeniably dense and challenging, it will reward patient readers with its mapping of a complex history of intellectual and political exchange. While not every node fits harmoniously in the network of links Hui seeks to establish between technology and nature, East and West, Art and Cosmotechnics is nevertheless a bold synthesis, both recursive and organic. It reads a lot, in fact, like cosmotechnics.

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Bryan Norton is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature and Literary Theory at the University of Pennsylvania. He works in media studies, the history of science, and German literature and philosophy.

Anita Shire

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