Planetary Thinking

Philosopher Yuk Hui asks how art can transform technology.

Yuk Hui. Photo: Siu Ding.

In his articles, lectures, and books, Hong Kong-based philosopher Yuk Hui shows how the philosophy of technology, once seen as a narrow and specialised field, opens an enormous, almost all-encompassing, range of topics. In a time marked by dystopian determinism – often cast in variants of transhumanist ideology – Hui calls for a fragmentation of the future in which a multitude of deeply different developments can cross-pollinate: His goal is to help understand and nourish the kind of dynamic openness that tends to get lost in a globalised technological monoculture. Going beyond the mere proliferation of technological gadgets and systems, such diversity involves rediscovering forgotten techniques as well as new ways of dealing with technology based on different purposes and ways of experiencing the world.

Hui’s work draws on both Eastern and Western philosophy, especially twentieth-century philosophers known for their thoughts on technology like Martin Heidegger, Gilbert Simondon, and Bernard Stiegler, as well as his early training as a computer engineer. Recently, his writing has increasingly taken on geopolitical issues. Technology unites the world, but it is also a topic well suited to discuss differences. In The Question Concerning Technology in China (2016), he made East Asia a testing ground for his concepts of technodiversity and cosmotechnics, which are pivotal to his technological approach to cultural difference. In his latest book, Art and Cosmotechnics (2021),Hui expands this project to involve artistic and aesthetic thought. Moving beyond the established premise that new technologies transform artistic practices, Hui envisions another process: transforming technology through art. As he excavates the roots of our cultural history in order to probe the future, he shows us how, in the multifarious landscape of thought, art, and technology, a deeper transformation needs to be brought forth. If our desire to calculate everything has only succeeded in making the end predictable, then in order to regain the future we must nurture our relationship to the unknown.

Yuk Hui, Art and Cosmotechnics (e-flux, 2021).

Art and Cosmotechnics, is a work about aesthetics, but the underlying premise comes not so much from art, but from the deepest interconnections between technology, philosophy, and geopolitics. The appeal of this combination is a strong sense that the future as such is at stake in thinking.

My point of departure is that we are living in the epoch of technology, but also that technology today constitutes an enormous metaphysical force that pushes us to an unknown destination which we are now more and more collectively experiencing as something catastrophic, for example, aggravating climate change, intensive competition of military technologies, and so on.

Yet every country on the planet strives for technological progress and the many new possibilities it offers, not least in Asia. Our desires for tangible improvements prove stronger than our somewhat vague fears or worries over technology. In pre-modern times, the old traditions were systematically valued higher than the new. How did we begin to value the new over the old?

Even if they are everywhere today, it is fair to say that modern technologies originate from Western thought. In the West, modern sciences were applied to technology at the beginning of the industrial revolution, until technoscience began to operate autonomously later on, changing everybody’s lives and becoming a planetary phenomenon. While it is true that technoscience and industrialisation created ruptures throughout Europe in modern times, there was still a certain continuity and a gradual development. This was not the experience in China and Japan, where the technological acceleration has been so much faster. In Asia you find a strong fascination with the modern, which still can be felt today, where technology really is an object of desire.

On the other hand, you have the geopolitical competition which you describe in The Question Concerning Technology in China. Even if fascination and desire help usher in modernisation, you point out that the deeper sources of the rapid change we see in Asia is historically Japan’s competition with the West and China’s efforts to supersede the West after the historical humiliation of the Opium Wars. The revolutionary changes transform everyday life and the social geography, but you explore the deeper cultural effects, a break with the past so drastic that it sometimes is experienced as a cultural breakdown. How does this affect philosophy?

The modernisation we have seen in China, in Japan, in India, and which is now happening in Africa, has completely transformed the landscape of thinking. You could say that it has changed the sensibility towards what is new and what is normal, but also that it makes traditional thought irrelevant. Today, when one asks how you apply the ancient moral philosophy of Confucianism to the question of sex robots, for instance, it might sound ridiculous, not only because they are from two different epochs, but also because firstly, the philosophical tradition didn’t treat technology thematically, and secondly, the technologies it has conceived were so different from Western technologies, epistemologically and ontologically. So, there is an incompatibility between the old and the new, between traditional thought and modern technologies, just as between Eastern and Western modes of thought. But instead of seeing it as an “unhappy consciousness,” I consider this incompatibility as precisely what can give rise to new possibilities: to transform our technologies, our thinking, and our thinking about technology.

Nate 2.0. Photo from

The unhappy consciousness, as Hegel saw it, is a kind of powerless criticism where the freedom of thought, which senses that things could be otherwise, nonetheless comes up against what seems to be unbending realities. To get out of such an impasse, you often bring up the need for what you call “technodiversity.” With the call for diversity you seem to imply that for all the varieties of gadgets and systems, we suffer under a technological monoculture – not just in technologies that are globally ubiquitous and interconnected, but in a certain mindset that underpins them.

Exactly, ever since the modern technological developments began in the 18th century and the industrial revolution, the logic of technology hasn’t changed very much. It revolves around what we – with Weber, Marcuse, or Habermas – would call rationalisation, which involves a calculative and instrumental use of reason to control the surroundings; it is a form of domination. That also resonates with Heidegger’s understanding of modern technology. He drew up a distinction between the ancient Greek techne and modern technology, whose essence he named gestell– meaning that everything is regarded as a resource, or standing reserve, to be exploited. It is also in modern technology that Heidegger sees the end or completion of Western philosophy or Western metaphysics. This end comes about as thinking increasingly becomes a matter of calculation, while at the same time the technoscience which originally sprung forth in Europe becomes planetarised.

In Art and Cosmotechnics, you devote much more attention to the ancient Greeks and to Taoism in the East than to discussions on contemporary art, artificial intelligence, and high-tech. This is perhaps not what people immediately expect when they hear talk about the relationship between art and technology, since in most people’s minds “technology” is squarely identified with new technologies, instruments, and systems.

Today, in almost every university around the world, people want to work on arts and technology, and it happens in departments of engineering just as much as in art schools. Lots of funding is channeled into the emerging new fields of art and technology, exploring things like virtual reality and artificial intelligence. In Asia, in particular, we have seen lot of discourse on arts and technology. Some decades ago, in Europe, we saw what is called new media arts – and the interest in new technologies has been going on intensely for decades. Yet it seems to me that the relation between art and technology is not yet determined.

We could perhaps say that there are two dominant ways of thinking here. The first simply regards technology as a tool and adopts new technologies to do art, such as what we see now with virtual reality, augmented reality, Metaverse, etc. This is the common perspective on art and technology, even for laymen. For artists, new technologies provide new ways of making art more interactive and more means to access the art market, for example the current hype of NFTs (non-fungible tokens).

These NFTs not only use blockchain to guarantee the authenticity of artworks, but can also make buyers shareholders in a work of art, attempting to create communities of shared ownership to empower the artist. At the same time, the speculative side of art is encouraged even further. Adopting a new technology is more than just using a new tool, since the tool tends to radically change the nature of what you are doing.

Such observations give rise to a second approach, which we find exemplified already in Benjamin’s essay The Work of Art in the Age of Technological Reproducibility [1935]. Whereas his colleagues Horkheimer and Adorno worried about art becoming an industrial product – something commercial, seductive, and shallow, cultural commodities for deceiving the mass – Benjamin tried to say something very different. Instead of questioning whether photography or film is art, he suggested asking how photography and cinema transform the concept of art itself. From this materialist point of view, the concept of art has to be renewed constantly. I would say that these two views, technology as an artistic instrument and as a materialist power transforming art, dominate in the common as well as the intellectual understanding of art and technology today. Benjamin’s great text once had a revolutionary potential, since it rejects existing categorisations of art, but now it might have become dogmatic in a way. Maybe it is time we turn the question around. What if we don’t just ask how technology transforms the concept of art, but instead try to do the opposite and ask how art can transform technology? I want to make this question a turning point, to see if it will allow us to peek into a new field of possibilities, to readdress the relationship between art, technology, and thinking.

Beeple, Everydays: The First 5000 Days, 2021. Digital collage.

Does this mean reviving through technology the utopian potential of art that the avant-garde was hoping for: a transformation of our world in a time when it is increasingly dominated by our technologies?

Yes, I think this is precisely how I have been trying to rethink the avant-garde. Technology and art have tended to be seen as separate, but now with the great emphasis on technology and art, and all the energy and talent that go into it, there might be a possibility to make some changes. Otherwise, we’ll just keep on pursuing what is new while following the same logic.

In exploring the relation between art and technology in the East, you go back to some of the most traditional art forms. How can these ancient traditions be brought to life and really make a difference in a modern world?

In the context of East Asia, there have been a lot of efforts to preserve traditional thinking, not just in the philosophy departments, but also, for example, through the popularisation of Chinese classics and so forth. Such preservation is not oriented towards the future, but the past. It is the same in the arts, where there is a lot of emphasis on traditional craftsmanship, also.

Such efforts at reintegrating tradition was also central to the Arts and Crafts movement in Europe – as well as in regional schools of design today.

Similarly, in China today, we have seen a revival of Shanshui painting. The name literally means “mountain and water,” which is the term for traditional Chinese landscape painting. Historically, one way of modernising tradition would be to try to absorb the Western art of the 20th century. Academies sent people to Paris and Berlin to learn painting and tried to integrate realist painting in Chinese traditions. It contributed to the creation of styles and exchange of skills, but not much beyond. In the revival of Shanshui painting today, there is also a desire to live in the mountain and water environment in retreats, seeking a kind of zen spirituality, but this opportunity is often only available to the ultra-rich or burnt-out nihilists. In an effort to integrate technologies, there have even been international competitions to design Shanshui cities – mountain and water urban projects.

Are you implying that all these attempts at integrating past and future, the East and West, remain too superficial?

Their failure testifies to an unelaborated incompatibility. But if traditions are incompatible with modern technologies and modern life, this incompatibility can also generate new thought. The question is how to elaborate it. In China, Shanshui painting was an intellectual art, just as tragedy in the West was always considered intellectual. Ever since Baumgarten declared aesthetics a kind of cognition, but of an inferior kind, it would never be seen as something as clear and distinct as logic; Leibniz famously termed this un-conceptualisable experience “je ne sais quoi.” We can also take note of the fact that Kant defined the beautiful negatively, as purposiveness without purpose, as pleasure without interest. One thing I tried to do in Art and Cosmotechnics is to elevate aesthetics to logic, or, more precisely, recursive logic – the continuation of my previous work Recursivity and Contingency [2019]. For example, in the philosophy of tragedy, a distinct tragic logic has been developed after Aristotle in the West by Schelling, Hegel, and others. For this tradition, I employ the concept tragist. In the same vein, I am searching for a logic of Shanshui painting, or a Daoist logic. Shanshui landscape painting builds on oppositions, like that which falls and that which rises, the visible and the invisible, but they are oppositions which are at the same time continuous and in harmony.

Guo Xi, Early Spring, 1072. Ink and light color on silk, 158.3 x 108.1 cm.

It is also interesting that you point out how Chinese art seeks to evade the strong emotions and sad passions of tragedy, giving a preference to harmony, and to “blandness,” as the French sinologist and philosopher François Jullien has emphasised in his book In Praise of Blandness (1991/2007).

During a symposium in London in 2016, I had a panel discussion with François Jullien. We were asked why there is nothing resembling tragedy in China. Jullien answered that it is because the Chinese have developed a thinking (pensée) to avoid tragedy. The problem with this statement, interesting as it may be, is that the Chinese can hardly try to avoid tragedy, since they didn’t know what it was. The fact is that Chinese culture was no soil to Greek tragedy; this has been discussed by authors such as Jean-Pierre Vernant and George Steiner, among many others.

Some people would misread Jullien’s response and see him as culturalist, or even an orientalist, ascribing an essential mentality to certain regions or peoples. Even my own books have been misread this way, when people refuse to read the book and judge from the title. The fact is that when I speak of Chinese thought, I am trying to find out how one can start out from a locality and, by identifying the incompatibilities, to help a new thinking emerge. This is what I term the individuation of thinking in Art and Cosmotechnics.

How should we understand what you call individuation here?

I use this term in the sense of Gilbert Simondon. He saw it as a process of formation, which can take place even in lifeless nature as in crystals, and evidently there is individuation when a plant or animal takes shape, as well as in the development of psychological humans or social structures. If we look at Simondon’s example of crystals of sodium chloride, that is salt, they take shape in a saturated solution in water. Before this happens there is a moment of instability with a lot of tension, with incompatibilities between positive and negative ions. Then [the solution] reaches a threshold – for instance, if you heat it up – where crystallisation begins. We see a restructuration where crystals germinate and spread, where information is distributed, until the solution has fully crystallised. Simondon insists that this model of tension, threshold, and restructuration can be applied also to living beings, to psychological and social processes. My idea is that the differences or incompatibilities between the old and the new, the tensions between the East and the West, could be appropriated from a height which allows individuation to take place, and also a new vision for art and technology. Indeed, for myself, it is inevitable to be a tragist Daoist or a Daoist tragist.

So, we have to think of a plethora of technologies and arts, each with different roots and corresponding traditions of thought and interpretation, while maintaining that they can be compared as different approaches to the same, or at least similar enough to be brought into a fruitful dialogue?

There are of course millions of technologies in the world, and if you set out to describe them and their differences you become a sociologist or an anthropologist. That is why the philosopher searches for something more essential, like Martin Heidegger claimed at the beginning of his essay The Question Concerning Technology [1954]. In Heidegger’s text on art The Origin of the Work of Art [1935-37/1950], which was written almost at the same time as Benjamin’s essay, he emphasises that for the ancient Greeks, both art and technology are described by the same concept of techne. Art and technology have another concept in common, namely that of poiesis, bringing forth – a process which has a certain telos, a goal. To Heidegger, this means that in techne one experiences the unconcealment of Being. Modern technology, whose essence Heidegger calls Gestell, still has the possibility of unconcealment, albeit in the form of what he calls “challenging” [Herausforderung], namely a confrontation, something overwhelming, even catastrophic. Technology, which is increasingly about making all thought into a form of calculation ends up revealing and provoking the incalculable, for example, in the uncanny and disastrous possibilities like Fukushima and Chernobyl. That is why I see Heidegger as a tragist.

Heinrich Füger, Prometheus Brings Fire to Mankind, 1790. Oil on canvas, 221 x 156 cm.

We have perhaps regarded technology in this way in the Western world ever since the Greeks. They dreamed up the origin of fire, the first technology, in the tragic destiny of the titan Prometheus, who stole it from Zeus and the gods of Olympus. We seem to always suspect technologies as a transgression, something dangerous, that gives mastery, but which might also lead to enslavement. Are we still thinking tragically about technology in the West? And what is the essence of the tragic here?

We see ourselves as rebellious, but we also see ourselves as suffering – as suffering from the fate in which one has no choice. One form of tragist gesture would be that of Goethe’s Prometheus from his poem written between 1772 and 1774, where he has Prometheus say to Zeus that “you can go away as you like, the earth will still go on,” because Prometheus has created humans in his own image. In the tragic world, you cannot stop in front of contradictions, but must rather take your destiny upon yourself; the essential tragic gesture is to go all the way.

That notion is interesting because this is exactly the rhetoric of the new Prometheans – the transhumanists and ecomodernists in California. New technological possibilities have to be explored and implemented because it is our destiny to always advance further, irrespective of the direction. When climate change sets in because of our domination of earth, we need to dominate it even more, use more technology to control the climate and the weather. In one of your essays on technodiversity, you even warn us about the temptation to cast ourselves as tragic heroes in the fight against environmental disasters – a position which leads us not only toward hubris, but also to postures of tragic defeat.

This rhetoric you mentioned is of course problematic, but it is not tragist; it is only tragic. That is why I avoid the word tragic and use tragist instead, which means taking up technologies as necessary things, precisely so that we can change them. This is what Bernard Stiegler wanted to do in his life – and in this sense he was a real tragist. For him, it was crucial that we cannot turn our backs on the knowledge that generated modern technology. Only by seeing it as necessary can we begin the work of transforming it.

In your discussions of Taoist or Shanshui logic, you circle around the concept of the unknown. Can the unknown help us to regain our future as something open, as it should be – rather than something catastrophic?

It is clear to me – and this is no longer a question, it is a postulate – that what Heidegger calls Being is the unknown. The unknown is the incalculable, which is more than incomputable because the incomputable is a mathematical concept opposed to the computable, meaning reducible to an algorithm. In Western philosophy, the unknown is an old topic; it implies immediately the limit of knowing, going back to Socrates, who says that he “knows that he does not know.” In Eastern thought, however, the unknown is really fundamental. In my book, Art and Cosmotechnics, I begin with the words of the Daodejing: “The dao that can be said is not the eternal dao/ The name that can be named is not the eternal name.” However, this is not just mystification, just like Wittgenstein talks about the mystic [das Mystische] without committing to any mystification.

Dao-dejing manuscript found at Mawangdui. Silk, ca. 200 BCE.

With him, as perhaps in the Dao-dejing, it had to do with the limits of knowledge, but also with knowledge about limits, for instance, the limits of language. But it had little to do with withdrawal to tradition, or irrationalism for that matter.

For this reason, I attempted to articulate what I call an epistemology of the unknown, which is a kind of paradoxical concept because the unknown as such remains unknowable, so that no epistemology will be applicable. However, one engages with the unknown even knowing that it is impossible to know it, or one assumes that one will know it one day. But only through the awareness of its existence and contradiction is one able to establish a plane of consistency with the unknown.

For Deleuze, such a “plane of consistency” is a minimal requirement for thought to be possible, or for thinking about something at all. How can it help us approach the unknown, or even the unknowable?

“Undemonstrability” also conditions the consistency of spiritual life. For example, we cannot demonstrate the existence of God, but through religious practice and institutions one is able to create a plane of consistency; one can find in poetry an extraordinary experience of the unknown, through the unconventional use of language, the breaking apart of words, and so on.

If our access to an open and unknown future begins with different potential futures at a local level, where traditions meet modern technologies, it follows that the contradictions and incompatibilities are different in each region. You engage not only with the past and future of China, but also with Latin America, Russia, and also with Indigenous knowledge. How are your ideas about the local connected to what you call “planetary thinking?”

In the very last paragraph of my book on cybernetics, Recursivity and Contingency, I propose a post-European philosophy. And I should repeat what I said there: this is a collective task. When Heidegger says that cybernetics – the triumph of calculation – marks the end of European philosophy, he also means that there will be a post-European philosophy and this post-European philosophy is called “thinking.” So, this is also a moment to think about the landscape of thought, where thinking has always been limited to a region. We are confined in an eighteenth-century concept of culture and nationality; even the most radical thinkers unconsciously label their thinking according to nationalities.

I want to engage with people from different regions to think about this from their perspective and from their locality, but not nationality. When I say a post-European thinking, I’m not saying anything against Europe because I believe that Europe also needs to go beyond this European thinking. A new philosophy for Europe, even within Europe itself, cannot simply import Taoism or Buddhism, but must have the courage to confront incompatibility and see how individuation can take place. This is the first sense of planetary thinking, a thinking based on diversities, namely biodiversity, noodiversity (i.e. diversity of thought), and technodiversity.

To think about the planetary, especially when we talk about that which we found in Hegel or in Carl Schmitt, it is still very much based on the nation state and the necessity of enemies. I think it necessary to think with theorists like Schmitt, but also to think beyond such political realism. If we follow realpolitik to the end, we are going to end up with catastrophes because political realism means relentless military and economic competition.

The term realpolitik was coined by Ludwig von Rochau, a journalist and politician who wrote about political realism in the aftermath of the failed revolutions of 1848. He was worried about his fellow idealists, revolutionaries, and radicals who believed that moral arguments and claims of injustice could really change the political landscape, and felt responsible to remind them that 99 per cent of all politics was determined by the logic of power. And that if you don’t have that in mind, you will not succeed with your 1 per cent of moral persuasion – or an artistic attempt to change people’s sensibilities for that matter. Against the utility and sheer power of technology, art seems to be a weak and feeble force. So, the question is: How is art supposed to influence or change a force of such magnitude?

I appreciate that you mention realpolitik and the relation between it and my own project. When realpolitik is put at the front, there are hardly alternatives available, since even the most basic things for making changes are conditioned by this same realpolitik. On the other hand, this might also equally mean that we still don’t think, or we failed to think. I believe this is probably the reason we still study and teach philosophy today. We should not underestimate or undermine the power of thinking in a time when the real is so poorly understood.

Yuk Hui. Photo: Siu Ding.