Farewell, phantoms! The world no longer needs you – or me. By giving the names of progress to its own tendency to a fatal precision, the world is seeking to add to the benefits of life the advantages of death. A certain confusion still reigns; but in a little while all will be made clear, and we shall witness at last the miracle of an animal society, the perfect and ultimate anthill.
Paul Valéry, The Crisis of Spirit
1. The Modern
1919, right after World War I, Paul Valéry lamented the crisis of the European spirit in the form of two letters. In view of the devastation of many lives and cities seen at the culmination of the modern epoch, Valéry wrote: ‘Europe in 1914 had perhaps reached the limit of modernism.’01 The modern epoch had turned out to be a Faustian nightmare. Phantoms – symbols of the non-modern – were being expelled from the world as it turned towards mere scientific constructs and technological exploits. These phantoms, however, continue to haunt the modern. Modernity was characterised by a technological unconsciousness willing infinite progress. By a technological unconscious, I mean the supposition that human beings could advance history according to their will and desire while ignoring the apparatus that makes the will possible, and that turns desires into nightmares. Philosopher Gilbert Simondon saw in it a progressivist optimism, which was paradoxically motivated by technology and the desire to lay transparent such technologies, which he identified, for example, among the eighteenth-century French encyclopaedists.02 This optimism confronted its own misery towards the end of the nineteenth century, just as Nietzsche had described decades earlier in aphorism 124 of The Gay Science, titled ‘In the Horizon of the Infinite’:
We have forsaken the land and gone to sea! We have destroyed the bridge behind us – more so, we have demolished the land behind us! Now, little ship, look out! Beside you is the ocean; it is true, it does not always roar, and at times it lies there like silk and gold and dreams of goodness. But there will be hours when you realize that it is infinite and that there is nothing more awesome than infinity. Oh, the poor bird that has felt free and now strikes against the walls of this cage! Woe, when homesickness for the land overcomes you, as if there had been more freedom there – and there is no more ‘land’! 03
Those who believe in infinite progress ultimately realise that the most fearsome thing ever is the infinite. Technologies they believe might assist them towards the realisation of humanity turn out to usher in a process of dehumanisation, or to result in nothing more than the realisation of an anthill. However, modernity didn’t end in 1919. World War II was yet to come, actualising the anxiety of the modern through the outbreak of one of the most miserable disasters in history, from which Europe more than 70 years later has not yet fully recovered. At that same time in East Asia, this anxiety was expressed in the explicit outcry of the Kyoto school philosophers, whose slogan of ‘overcoming modernity’ is now often associated with the philosophers’ engagement with ‘total war’, imperialism, nationalism and fascism.
While it is not possible to exhaust the complexity of the concept of modernity, the episodes above allow us to appreciate a certain discomfort with the term ‘modern’; and it is in this respect that we may understand the title of Bruno Latour’s book We Have Never Been Modern.04 And yet, modernity remains with us. Decades of efforts to disprove the assumption that modernity is a monopoly of the West, there have arisen ideas of a Chinese modernity, a Japanese modernity, an East Asian Modernity and so on. In 2014, the exhibition ‘Modernités plurielles de 1905 à 1970’ at the Centre Pompidou in Paris showed more than a thousand works from almost four hundred artists.05 It was a large-scale attempt to demonstrate that the discourse of modernity should be extended beyond Europe.
But what is meant by modernity? And what does it signify, besides a certain pretention to cultural diversity and equality, to emphasise that there have been plural modernities? Is it not more urgent, in view of global technological acceleration, to consider the non-modern? I understand the non-modern not as that which is not yet, and will become, modern, but rather as that which resists becoming modern, and probably won’t ever be.
The effort of this essay is to demonstrate why I prefer to rearticulate the non-modern instead of, on the one hand, the pursuit of a national or regional modernity, which probably never existed, and in any case risks being parasitical on forms of nationalism, and on the other, the transmodern of Enrique Dussel, which like most of the postcolonial discourses, unconsciously undermines the question of technology.06
How can the non-modern be an exodus from modernity? One might ask if, by opposing the modern and the non-modern, we are not still in a sense falling prey to the modern, such resistance being its verso – its reactionary other? In order to think with and beyond the non-modern we will have to clarify confusions around the term modernity. This is beyond the scope of the present text but to briefly make the attempt: first, modernity must be distinguished from modernism as artistic and literary genres – the poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé, for example, the prose of Charles Baudelaire and the painting of Paul Cézanne; second, it should not be confused with modernisation, which is a process of universalising epistemologies that emerged during and developed since the period of European modernity, and is often equated in vague terms with modern science and technology. The pursuit of the ‘modern’ in non-European countries concretises in the modernisation of agriculture, industry, defence, and science and technology. Modernity in its narrow sense is an epistemological and methodological rupture, which began in sixteenth-century Europe. Modernity, in this sense, concerns the production of knowledge, or rather – to use the language of Kant – the sensible condition under which knowledge is produced. Here we may want to echo Michel Foucault when he says, in What is Enlightenment?:
Thinking back on Kant’s text, I wonder whether we may not envisage modernity rather as an attitude than as a period of history. And by ‘attitude,’ I mean a mode of relating to contemporary reality; a voluntary choice made by certain people; in the end, a way of thinking and feeling; a way, too, of acting and behaving that at one and the same time marks a relation of belonging and presents itself as a task. 07
Modernity, for Foucault, is a particular way of thinking and feeling, or more precisely an episteme, to use the term of his earlier work The Order of Things, in which he characterises three epistemes in Europe since the sixteenth century, namely the Renaissance, the Classical and the Modern.08This is also the reason for which I reinterpret the notion of episteme as the sensible condition under which knowledge is produced. I emphasise the question of sensibility because it is also that which makes the co-existence of different epistemes possible. Modernisation is a process that universalises these forms of thinking and feeling through a process of colonisation by the West, facilitated by navigation and military technologies that propagate this rupture outside of Europe. We can probably say there has been a process of modernisation in China, Japan and Korea, for example, but I am not sure if it is legitimate to claim that there has been a Chinese, Japanese, Korean or even an East-Asian modernity. I do not mean that modernisation without modernity is necessarily bad or vice versa, nor is such a dichotomy necessarily helpful to the question of ‘badness’; I mean only to say that modernisation in Europe was different from modernisation outside of Europe. Outside of Europe, there is little continuity in the nature of the rupture, nor does it take place in dialogue with its past. Indeed, it is only when history and tradition lose their grip on the ever-transforming technological environment that the process of modernisation can accelerate.
2. The Postmodern
I think it is necessary to distinguish modernity as an historical event from modernisation as a world historical process, or more precisely a process of technology’s universalisation of knowledge on a global scale. Modernity renewed an image of the world that, somewhat contrary to the Copernican turn, reaffirmed a certain geo- and anthropo-centrism. The concept of the modern here becomes a pivot on which the articulation of a world history turns, going from the pre-modern, through the modern, to the postmodern. Is the postmodern an overcoming of the modern? It is precisely around this question that Enrique Dussel has cast doubt, and proposes to talk instead of the transmodern:
In effect, beginning with the ‘postmodern’ problematic about the nature of Modernity – which is still, in the final instance, a ‘European’ vision of Modernity – we began to notice that what we ourselves had called ‘postmodern’ was something distinct from that alluded to by the Postmodernists of the 1980s. […] For this reason, we saw need to reconstruct the concept of ‘Modernity’ from an ‘exterior’ perspective, that is to say, a global perspective (not provincial like the European perspective). This was necessary because ‘Modernity,’ in the United States and Europe, had (and continues to have) a clearly Eurocentric connotation, notorious from Jean-François Lyotard or Gianni Vattimo through Jürgen Habermas, and in another, more subtle manner even in Immanuel Wallerstein, which I have called a ‘second Eurocentrism.’ 09
Dussel is right that, seen from its outset, the postmodern is a reflection on and a critique of European modernity. As he continues: ‘Post-modernism is a final stage in modern European/North American culture, the ‘core’ of Modernity. Chinese or Vedic cultures could never be European post-modern, but rather are something very different as a result of their distinct roots.’ 10 It thus becomes intriguing to ask what it means for non-European cultures like China to embrace the postmodern without ever having been modern. Does this discontinuity not suggest the bankruptcy of the idea of a perfect world history structured around modernity? However, contra Dussel’s critique of Lytoard, I would like to argue that the perspective of transmodernity misses one central theme of the postmodern discourse, which I want to call technological consciousness.
I refuse – and I do so with reasons I have discussed elsewhere – to see Lyotard as a merely Eurocentric thinker. 11 In comparison with the technological unconsciousness of the moderns, the postmodern discourse developed by Jean-François Lyotard from 1979 was largely driven by a technological consciousness. What is meant by technological consciousness? Lyotard’s 1979 publication The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge was a response to the rapid technological transformation of society, especially under the influence of information and communication technologies.12 Lyotard sees that a new epochal sensibility is demanded in order to, first of all, understand this transformation and, second (and more importantly) to destabilise the modern way of thinking. If the modern sensibility was characterised by a demand for certainty, order, domination and progress, the postmodern one is characterised by feelings of insecurity, anxiety, uncertainty and sublimity.
In other words, Lyotard sees that new technologies, products of the modern, dialectically destabilise modernity; therefore, instead of seeing these new technologies – from information- to nanotechnologies – as products of or continuations of the modern, he demands that they be understood, via a new sensibility, as means of subverting the modern.13 I would like to emphasise that Lyotard’s concern for technology is as something to be reclaimed – something with a transformative power to render the modern sensibility obsolete. Although Lyotard never calls postmodern sensibility an episteme in Foucault’s sense, it seems right to doubt what else could it be. 14
The discourse of postmodernity that centres on technological consciousness is not a familiar one within discussions of the postmodern, neither in the West nor in Asia. For Fredric Jameson, for instance, the postmodern is the cultural logic of late capitalism – such logic is one aspect of the postmodern episteme, but it doesn’t necessarily capture the spirit of the postmodern itself. A neglect of technological consciousness is present in almost all secondary discourses around the postmodern. The same goes with Dussel’s discourse of the transmodern, in which the central role of technology is nowhere to be found.15 Not to say that Dussell paid no attention to technology, but simply that it never became a thematic in his theory of the transmodern. However, without such a technological consciousness, how can a true liberation be possible? Let’s look at Dussel’s solution:
Modernity will come into its fullness not by passing from its potency to its act, but by itself through a corealization with its once negated alterity and through a process of mutual creative fecundation. The transmodern project achieves with modernity what it could not achieve by itself – a corealization of solidarity, which is analectic, analogic, syncretic, hybrid and mestizo, and which bonds center to periphery, woman to man, race to race, ethnic group to ethnic group, class to class, humanity to earth, and occidental to Third World cultures. This bonding occurs not via negation, but via a subsumption from the viewpoint of alterity […]. 16
What Dussel emphasises here are transversal dialogues between different cultures, creating a solidarity that incorporates their different points of view, including that of European modernity. In other words, non-European cultures can learn from modernity while at the same time developing a critique of it from their own standpoints. However, how such a transversal dialogue is possible when the whole world is transformed by an overpowering technological force remains unclear. For Martin Heidegger, this gigantic technological force is the realisation of a specifically Western metaphysics. Realisation here means at the same time end and accomplishment. The development of technical systems and their constant convergence on a global scale is an expression of this kind of great completion. In 1964, Heidegger writes that: ‘[t]he end of philosophy proves to be the triumph of the manipulable arrangement of a scientific-technological world and of the social order proper to this world. The end of philosophy means: the beginning of the world-civilization based upon Western European thinking.’17 If Heidegger is right, a reopening of world history can only be achieved by starting with this as necessity in order to go beyond it and to render it contingent.18 I am not sure how many transversal dialogues have really been developed in the past decades; to the contrary, what we have been witnessing are wars, wars of every form. The gigantic technological force that is in the process of transforming the Earth cannot be subverted unless this force itself necessarily becomes the subject of interrogation and transformation. Or as Heidegger says in ‘Wozu Dichter?’ (‘What Are Poets For?’), an essay dedicated to the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, ‘[I]t may be that any other salvation than that which comes from where the danger is, is still within the
As an interlude to this section, a comment from Arnold Toynbee seems to us very relevant today, when he tried to explain Asian countries’ naive importation of Western technology in the nineteenth century. Namely, he claimed that Far Easterners in the sixteenth century refused the Europeans because the latter wanted to export both religion and technology, while in the nineteenth century, when the Europeans only exported technology, the Far Eastern countries considered technology a neutral force that could be mastered by their own thought. The result is, as Toynbee rightly observed: ‘this technological splinter […] which did succeed in pushing its way into the life of a Far Eastern society that had previously repulsed an attempt to introduce the Western way of life en bloc – technology and all, including religion.’ 20
3. The Non-modern
Today, decades after the emergence of the transmodern discourse, the term has resurfaced to haunt us, along with the non-modern. What remains of it that can be reaffirmed? And what has yet to be updated? I believe that Dussel’s critique of a perfect history, recounted as the succession of the pre-modern – modern – postmodern, is worth bringing back to the table. It remains problematic to situate non-European countries in a world history based on a European discourse. However, merely deviating from European discourse is not enough, since a true ‘world history’ remains to be opened up. To the prevailing linear history, I would like to add one more milestone: pre-modern – modern – postmodern – apocalypse. The apocalypse captures the sentiment of our epoch: ecological crisis, the Anthropocene, robot revolts, AI governmentality, the colonisation of outer space and the coronavirus pandemic that we are confronting. The Übermensch that we will all become thanks to the promises of human enhancement remains a cowardly longing for an eschatology, in the hope that after catastrophe a new beginning ought to begin.
In recent years, in view of the ecological crisis and the declaration that human beings have entered the era of the Anthropocene – an era that reaffirms a historical anthropocentrism – there has been another wave of thought proposing to overcome modernity by rearticulating the non-modern. The so-called ‘ontological turn’ in anthropology, closely associated with the work of Philippe Descola and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro among many others, is such an attempt to overcome modernity by undoing those categories that are central to the modern project. These thinkers do so by returning to the non-modern. Descola, the successor to Claude Lévi-Strauss at the Collège de France, has proposed to re-examine the concept of nature. Nature as it is understood today in the globalised world refers to the non-man-made environment surrounding us. It is a modern construction based on the opposition between nature and culture that Descola calls ‘Naturalism’. Nature is here considered to be the opposite of culture and at the same time an object to be mastered by culture or the ‘spirit’. However, this naturalism is not a default, but rather a fault. In Beyond Nature and Culture, Descola cites the diary of Henry Michaux, written when the writer returned to Paris in 1928 after having visited a friend in Ecuador.21 The trip required that they canoe alone for a month along the Amazon river. Upon their arrival at Belém do Pará, Michaux describes an amazing scene that problematises the modern concept of nature: ‘A young woman who was on our boat, coming from Manaus, went into town with us this morning. When she came upon the Grand Park (which is undeniably nicely planted) she emitted an easy sigh. “Ah, at last, nature,” she said, but she was coming from the jungle.’22 The role that the non-humans – the jungle, leopards, plants – play for the Amazonians is not that of nature understood today. Indeed, in these Indigenous groups, one finds forms of knowledge irreducible to those based on the division between nature and culture.
It was in the process of globalisation that Naturalism was universalised, at times seeming irreversible. This univer-
salisation of naturalism was exemplified in a song composed for the Science Society of China founded in 1915. The melody was composed by Chao Yuen Ren in 1923, a linguist who later joined the Macy Conference on cybernetics (1946–53) and the lyric was written by Hu Shi, one of the most celebrated Chinese intellectuals of the twentieth century:
Song of the Chinese Science Society
Melody: Chao Yuan Ren; Lyrics: Hu Shi
We do not worship nature. He is a tricky and weird;
We have to beat him, boil him, and tell him to listen
to our assignments.
We want him to push wagons; we want him to deliver
letters for us.
We need to expose his secrets so that he can serve us.
We sing that heavens act perpetually, and that we dare
knowing the truth.
We know that truth is infinite, still feel joyful when
moving every inch forward.23
What we can see in this lyric is the idea that meaning is no longer to be deducted from nature, as was central to ancient Confucian and Daoist thought, but rather that nature is something to be explored and exploited. Can we say that this is an advancement of history in the sense of becoming modern? Or does it rather suggest a need to problematise the knowledge that we today call modern? How can we make sense of any reminiscence of the non-modern besides being haunted by it? Alas, how relevant is Confucian moral philosophy to the autopilot cars and sex robots of the twenty-first century? Could such thoughts realise anything other than a new age of psychotherapy?
By rearticulating the non-modern, anthropologists call for what they term multinaturalism. Let a hundred natures blossom, in order to re-enchant the Anthropocene. But is it sufficient to just go back to multinaturalism? Or, is this return to nature a mere reiteration of what Dussel calls a transversal dialogue, which ignores the technological consciousness on which Lyotard relentlessly insisted?
For my part, I am convinced that in order to reopen world history in the wake of this linear caricature, the task is no longer simply to do with preserving non-modern knowledge forms, which constantly haunt us, but rather with conceiving a future for such knowledge. To have a future means to be active and relevant; to be active means to be able to participate in the life of the mind. We must therefore consider the technological consciousness of postmodern discourse a critique but also a supplement, to the transmodern.
In The Question Concerning Technology in China: An Essay in Cosmotechnics, I propose to reopen the question of technology by asserting a multiple cosmotechnics, as well as multiple histories of cosmotechnics.24 ‘Cosmotechnics’ is a concept I use to redefine the concept of technics as a deviation from its conception in the twentieth century, in which it was typically limited to the Greek technē and modern technology. However, the question of whether Chinese technology or Indian technology can be reduced to the Greek technē remains. Or despite the common role played by technology in the process of hominisation, namely the becoming of human being, shouldn’t we also reassert the existence of a technological diversity within this process, and render it visible for re-examination? How, then, can we articulate a multiple cosmotechnics and to what extent is this articulation useful to imagining a technodiversity in the Anthropocene? Here lies what I call an antinomy of the universality of technology:
Thesis: technology is an anthropological universal, understood as an exteriorisation of memory and the liberation of organs as some anthropologists and philosophers of technology have formulated.
Antithesis: technology is not anthropologically universal, it is enabled and constrained by particular cosmologies, which go beyond mere functionality or utility. Therefore, there is not one single technology, but rather multiple cosmotechnics.
The antithesis is where we can identify and position the non-modern. It is that which refuses to be reduced to a linear historical process and which resists expulsion from the world. In the first volume of his Science and Civilisation in China, the great sinologist Joseph Needham has asserted multiple times that it is not productive to compare Chinese science and technology with that of the West as if they were the same, one being more advanced than the other in different periods of a linear and unique history.25 In the second volume, with the subtitle History of Scientific Thought, Needham continues his assertion that Chinese scientific and technological thought is fundamentally organistic and that unlike the early European moderns, for example, Descartes, it has never been mechanistic.26 Today, as an après-coup, we may want to understand what Needham said as an invitation to look into different scientific and technological regimes of thought.
I have proposed to use China as an example through which to speculate on a possible technological thought, with a specific history, that is centred on the discourse of unity between Dao and Qi. This unity could be analogically understood in terms of the unity of the ground and the figure in the sense of Gestalt psychology.27 I attempt to use these two categories Dao and Qi to develop a line of thought that deviates from the understanding of a universal technics, and to demonstrate that this thought has its own history, indeed demands such a history if it is to have a possible future. Yet, this is only the beginning of a long journey. I think that if we want to go beyond modernity, and if the non-modern is to mean something beyond the modern’s mere reverse, or that which negatively adheres to the modern, then the persistence of the non-modern has to be understood as a transformative power, which allows, or at least serves a starting point, for the reopening of a technodiversity.
Paul Valéry, ‘The Crisis of the Mind’, in The Collected Works of Paul Valéry Vol. 10, History and Politics(trans. Denise Folliot and Jackson Matthews), New York: Bollingen Foundation and Pantheon Books, 1962, p.28.
See Gilbert Simondon, ‘The Two Fundamental Modes of Relation Between Man and the Technical Given’, in On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects (trans. Cecilia Malaspina and John Rogove), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017, pp.103–27.
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (ed. Bernard Williams), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001, p.119.
Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (trans. Catherine Porter), Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.
‘Modernités plurielles de 1905 à 1970’, Centre Pompidou, Paris, 23 October 2013–26 January 2015.
See Enrique Dussel, Filosofias del Sur: Descolonización y Transmodernidad, Mexico: Akal and Inter Pares, 2016.
Michel Foucault, ‘What is Enlightenment?’, in Paul Rabinow (ed.), The Foucault Reader, New York: Pantheon Books, 1984, p.39.
Here, Foucault defines an episteme as follows: ‘In any given culture and at any given moment, there is always only one episteme that defines the conditions of possibility of all knowledge, whether expressed in a theory or silently invested in a practice.’ M. Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, London and New York: Routledge, 2005, p.183.
E. Dussel, ‘Transmodernity and Interculturality: An Interpretation from the Perspective of Philosophy of Liberation’, Transmodernity: Journal of Peripheral Cultural Production of the Luso-Hispanic World, vol.1, no.3, 2012, p.37, available at https://escholarship.org/uc/item/6591j76r (last accessed on 20 January 2021).
Ibid. Emphasis original.
See Yuk Hui, ‘§25, Anamnesis of the Postmodern’, The Question Concerning Technology in China: An Essay in Cosmotechnics, Falmouth, UK: Urbanomic, 2016/2019, pp. 269–82; Y. Hui, ‘The Inhuman that remains’, Recursivity and Contingency, London: Rowman and Littlefield International, 2019, pp.233–78.
See Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984; it is said that the report itself was a response to another report authored by Simon Nora and Alain Minc under the title L’informatisation de la société, a report to then President of France Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, later translated into English as The Computerization of Society, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1981.
See Y. Hui, ‘Towards a Relational Materialism. A Reflection on Language, Relations and the Digital’, Digital Culture & Society, vol.1, no.1, pp.131–47.
The postmodern as episteme was instead elaborated by Jean-Louis Déotte. See J.-L. Déotte, ‘Ce que je dois à Foucault’, Appareil, no.4, 2010, available at http://journals.openedition.org/appareil/913 (last accessed on 22 March 2021).
Here I would like to thank my friend Walter D. Mignolo for confirming my claim.
E. Dussel, The Invention of the Americas: Eclipse of ‘the Other’ and the Myth of Modernity (trans. Michael D. Barber), New York: Continuum, 1995.
Martin Heidegger, ‘The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking’, On Time and Being (trans. Joan Stambaugh), New York, Hagerstown, San Francisco and London: Harper & Row, 1972, p.59.
See Y. Hui, ‘Machine and Ecology’, Angelaki, vol.25, no.4, 2020, pp.54–66.
M. Heidegger, ‘What Are Poets For?’, Poetry, Language, Thought (trans. Albert Hofstadter), New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2001, p.115.
Arnold Toynbee, The World and the West, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1953, p.67.
See Philippe Descola, Beyond Nature and Culture (trans. Janet Lloyd), Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2013.
See Chao Yuan Ren’s library, hosted by the Chinese University of Hong Kong, http://chaoyuenren.lib.cuhk.edu.hk/music01.htm (last accessed on 18 March 2021). Translation the author’s.
See Y. Hui, The Question Concerning Technology in China, op. cit.
Joseph Needham, Science and Civilisation in China. Vol. 1, Introductory Orientations, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1954.
J. Needham, Science and Civilisation in China. Vol. 2, History of Scientific Thought, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1956. However, whether Chinese thought is organismic in the sense Needham gave to it is another question.
This is further elaborated in Y. Hui, Art and Cosmotechnics, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2021.