Interview with Theory,Culture and Society on Digital Objects


Interview with the Theory, Culture and Society editor Simon Dawes

Simon Dawes: Your early background is in computer engineering, and as well as studying under Bernard Stiegler, Scott Lash, Matt Fuller and Robert Zimmer at Goldsmith’s College (University of London), you continue to work in an engineering capacity on technological projects. Could you say a little about how you moved away from a focus on the technical aspects of computing, to a philosophical engagement with digital technology; and could you tell us about the link between the two in your current research?

Yuk Hui: When you go to a conference or a talk on humanities and technology, you always hear people quoting C.P. Snow’s thesis that in modern society there has been a breakdown of the communication between humanities and sciences. This gap between two cultures seems to be fully legitimated as common sense: in humanities, people are glad to admit that they don’t know technology, as if it is such a natural thing; and in the field of technology, people tend to think philosophy is too far away their lives, and they tend to read pop sociology books like ‘Tipping Point’. But in fact, there are no two cultures, but only one, which is the gap itself. It is just because we didn’t experience the same gap. When I was working as a computer scientist, I was sometimes astonished by how fast we have been moving, especially when you listened to the grant rhetorics of the technology evangelists, and you will feel and fear how behind you are. It is a kind of hyper-ecstasy which celebrates speed but at the same time is haunted by the anxiety of not being there, not being able to situate itself within those narratives. So I wondered what would happen to those who are not working in the field, and I started to read some writings on philosophy and sociology, and I was surprised to find that not only are they full of misunderstandings, but also that the sociologists or philosophers wrote as if they were addressing a culture of which he or she is an outsider. A few years after, I realized that I came to what Gilbert Simondon understands as technical reality, something we always miss when we separate culture and technology as two different entities. This is something really tricky; let me give you an example. Hubert Dreyfus criticized the presupposition of AI from the very beginning as totally wrong, because it is too Cartesian and it is what Martin Heidegger criticizes in Being and Time. Drefyus was right, but it is also dangerous, because by insisting that it is untrue, we may already miss the technical reality since we are all living in such an untrue or inauthentic ‘reality’. Then from the side of computer science, it is no less philosophical, for example we can trace Leibniz’s lingua characteristica down to Turing’s universal machine. Then if we look at the Turing machine, we find there were different presuppositions of how the mind works, and hence what is human (that also answers Kant’s four questions); for example Kurt Gödel was in disagreement with Alan Turing precisely on this view. I believe that Deleuze deeply felt so, and I always read A Thousand Plateau as a treaty on cybernetic-inspired philosophy.

In my current research, I am working on what I call digital objects, which are data and metadata. When I worked merely as a computer scientist, data is data, and metadata is metadata; no surprise, everything is technical. Yet so many things are missed; for example, I am trying to understand the relation between data and object. And if I am allowed to say so it is the first time that data themselves materialized as objects. The materialization itself is also the process of de-symoblization. For example, in Husserl’s phenomenology, a number is an object but it is only conceptually and cognitively so, but now it is material and subsumed to control. By understanding data in this way, we are also giving a sort of vitality to digital entities, also more possibilities to play with them. In another project called ‘ Culture Mining’ where we developed a prototype for the video archive of Tate, I tried to understand a new modal of logic and interaction based on Husserl’s understanding of inner and outer horizons, and how these horizons interact with each other, which helped to annotate the videos.

SD: How important is it for someone writing about these issues and concepts to also have an in-depth understanding of how the technologies actually work? And is there a great difference among those who write about new media, between those who do and those who don’t have a working knowledge of the relevant technologies?

YH: I think we probably have different perspectives, and that may open up more thoughts and make things more interesting. I think we are too much used to the distinction between expertise and amateur, but it doesn’t follow that experts may have better understanding. Indeed we all miss something outside our focus. For those who have a working knowledge of the relevant technologies, the technical objects are more transparent to them, since they know how they work. And most probably, they are able to develop theories which are more grounded on machines or technical realities. For example, without understanding the working principles of a diode and a triode, Simondon wouldn’t have been able to develop his theory on the technical lineage and their absolute origin. But when you get used to the principle, there is hardly any surprise, and you may not be able to think about the strangeness and significance of the technical objects themselves. Those who don’t acquire the working knowledge may focus on the functionality and cultural history of the technical objects; these all contribute to the field. Sometimes I do find researchers working in new media tend to make some groundless conceptualizations, for example conceptualising everything according to Deleuze’s terminologies, consider how much Deleuze himself was inspired by cybernetics. For example, people tried to celebrate the Internet by referring to what Deleuze called rhizome. But in fact, if we look at it historically, Deleuze was contesting the popular understanding of hierarchy and organization structure pioneered by the AI people like Noam Chomsky and Herbert Simon etc in the 60s and early 70s. But now almost 40 years have passed, and we are in the age of the rhizome, and network has almost become a buzz word; didn’t we see the technical reality and shouldn’t we develop a new critique of the rhizome itself?

SD: Mark Hansen (in TCS 26.2-3, March-May 2009) has written about digital art objects (such as Song Dong’s water writings) that don’t rely on digital technology at all, and about a difference between a digital aesthetic of time and a narrower technicist conception. How do you see the relation between digital technology and digital objects?

YH: I have enjoyed reading Hansen’s works. In this specific article you mention, I find some resonances when he tried to explore the new possibilities of quantifiable time, but it also seems to me that Hansen may not really grasp the question of time of the current technical system. I don’t want to analyse the article in detail, but allow me to address several points, which I find it difficult to engage with. The first concerns his interpretation of Bernard Stiegler’s understanding of the relation between technics and time, since Hansen claims that Stiegler is primarily Husserlian, who favours the individual consciousness. This is not the case to my understanding. Since Stiegler’s critique of Husserl is exactly because Husserl didn’t take technics into account in his lectures on the phenomenology of time-consiousness. This ambiguity of Husserl is already turned upside down by Jacques Derrida in his Introduction to the Origin of Geometry, where Husserl proposes that the origin of geometry—that is a genuine experience of geometry through measurement, polishing, etc—can only be passed through writing. The phenomenological subject cannot experience the origin of geometry without such knowledge being passed from generation to generation. On the other hand, when travelling through time, is it really an origin or an origin always already with its supplement? Stiegler’s critique centres on the fact that Husserl himself didn’t realize this in his 1904/5 lectures on time-consciousness until this 1936 article. Technics, like the role of writing and drawing, constitutes the tertiary retention. The tertiary retention has different meanings for Stiegler; on one hand it is what Martin Heidegger calls the already there; on the other hand, it is also the technical object which conditions the secondary and primary retention of the human subject. In this sense the tertiary retention explores the limit of the subject, which he calls retentional finitude. Stiegler is by no means “neo-Frankfurt School”, indeed there was never such a thing as the original man, but only epiphylogenesis of human being. That is to say, the human is unthinkable without the technical supplement. That is why technology plays such an important role in his understanding of subjectivity, because subjectivity is also technical. This is obviously so when Stiegler proposes a technical individuation in addition to Simondon’s psychic-collective individuation. This technical dimension is not merely negative or positive, it is rather what he proposes as pharmacological, that is good and bad at the same time. Stiegler didn’t favour the authentic time of the phenomenological subject, as Heidegger did when he criticized the synchronization of the clock-time. Instead clock time or chronicle time opens up a new experience of time, by which he spoke against Paul Vilirio and called it chronically diachronic time. Let’s take it literally: the global TV industry, a technology based on time, is not only a time-object, but is also broadcasted according to a specific time standard, e.g. GMT or UTC; everyone on the earth is watching the same football world cup at the same time. Can this synchronization open up a diachronic time or singular experience supported by the tertiary retention? Or this synchronization itself only produces synchronization without difference under the exploitation of advertising and marketing industry? It is precisely because time is now itself quantifiable data, that subsumes it to calculation and control—not only itself, but also the subjects that rely on them. Apparently this is something missing in Hansen’s discussion of the art works.

Now lets go back to Song Dong’s water writing and what Hansen calls the ‘digital gift of time’. The digital gift of time is the fact that time can be almost infinitely divided but with a delay, which is indeed what Zeno of Elia proposed in his arrow paradox. Hansen’s use of Song Dong to demonstrate this non-technological aspect of time is very interesting, and in fact it seems to me that he problematized his own argument by going back to an authentic time which is only experienced by the artist. In fact, it is an interesting example for me. Since from an unwealthy Chinese family, like other kids of the same background, I had to learn calligraphy by writing on bricks with water and brush. When you write a stroke on the brick with the brush, it may disappear soon, so you have to force yourself to complete the whole character as soon as possible, sometimes when the whole character is done, the first few strokes almost evaporate. In this specific form of writing, we are experiencing the passing of the ‘now’, which is not only cognitively but also indicated by writing on the bricks—which is also a technical ensemble of technical objects: the brush, the bricks, etc. On the other hand, when the character disappears, we lost its trace, my impression of what I have practised resides in my own memory, that is my primary and secondary retention. I am the subject who divides time according to the texture of the brick and the room temperature that eases the evaporation—that is also to say, a kind of craftsmanship or artisanship. So the example of Song Dong is very interesting but also ambiguous to fully demonstrate Hansen’s thesis. My reading of Song Dong’s work is the passing away of time in different rhythms; that is also different scales and intensities of time. For the TV broadcasting, the ‘now’ passes away like in the speed of the frames, the water writing passes in the now which is denser and slower, controlled under the brush of the artist. There is also a historical time of the handover of Hong Kong, an even thicker ‘now’, which is the presence of the historical event (and in fact, it is necessary to differentiate ‘now’ from ‘present’). But this divisibility of time, according to different thickness or delay, is only possible with the support of technical objects, which is also what Stiegler calls the tertiary retention.

SD: Finally, you’re now working as a researcher for the TCS Website. Could you give us a taste of the sorts of material we can expect to see from you on the blog over the coming months?

YH: I will work with you and decide on topics that will be interesting to TCS readers. I am very interested in cultural theories and continental philosophy in general, so I am interested in doing some interviews and coverage on these issues. There are other things I am interested in besides new media and philosophy of technology; for example, issues concerning the consequences of globalization, especially some discourses happening now in the East, and issues concerning space and urban life, etc. For example, in the coming months, you will see interviews with Pheng Cheah on cosmopolitanism, Jeffrey Shaw on new media art, Renate Holub on Gramsci and information capitalism, Beatriz Colomina on multi-screen architecture and Walater Benjamin, and Alberto Toscano on Jacques Rancière and anti-sociology…

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