Issue #136 The Call of the Unknown in Art and Cosmotechnics

The Call of the Unknown in Art and Cosmotechnics

Yuk Hui and Barry Schwabsky in conversation

Science and Technology Museum in Beijing. © Atelier Federico Raponi.

Issue #136
May 2023

This conversation about Yuk Hui’s book Art and Cosmotechnics (2021) took place at the e-flux Screening Room on March 23, 2023. It has been edited for length and clarity.


Barry Schwabsky: In your book you remind us of the fact that the Greek word technē refers both to what we today consider technique or technology, and to art—that art is included under the same word. And it just makes me wonder: In China, what’s the word for “technology”? What’s the etymology? And does it have the same breadth as the Greek term, or does it have a different compass? How do you even translate the word “technology” into a non-European language?

Yuk Hui: Right, this is a problem. How do you translate? And this is an issue that persists throughout the whole process of modernization. Many terms translated from Western languages—German, Latin, French, English—were first translated by Japanese scholars into kanji and then exported to China. The word “metaphysics,” for example, is translated into Chinese as 形而上學 Xíng’érshàngxué, or “that which is below the form.” This translation was done by Japanese philosophers before it was adopted by the Chinese. It’s a rather complicated process.

Starting in the nineteenth century, when East Asia opened the door to European countries, there was a kind of rush to find the equivalents of European terms. And we still tend to think that there are correspondent or equivalent words for European terms in Chinese or Japanese. So, for example, “technology” or “technic” can be translated as 技術 jìshù in Chinese, or “technology” translated as 科技 kējì. And it’s the same in Japanese, where 技術 gijutsu is used to translate “technic,” and so on. We may have the illusion that there are actual equivalencies between these terms and European terms, but there are not. In terms of modernization, we were so hurried to find equivalence that we actually ignored difference. Today we are left asking: What are these differences, and how can we really account for them? It’s crucial to try to speak to this now.

This was the first question I tried to tackle in The Question Concerning Technology in China (2016). If we cannot directly translate the term “technology” into another equivalent—技術 jìshù or 科技 kējì—what can we do? How can we deal with this? And can we find some other categories that will allow us to identify the nuances that distinguish different modern understandings of technology? So what I try to do is identify two categories in classical Chinese philosophy. One is dao, the “way,” and the other is qi (器, to be distinguished from 氣, liberally “gas,” conventionally translated as “breath” or “energy”). In the I-Ching we read that what is above the form is dao, and what is below the form is qi. And as I said before, “what is above the form” was adopted by Japanese scholars to translate “metaphysics.” This kind of translation has caused a lot of misunderstandings, especially today.

Heidegger is someone I dialog with—and because Heidegger was a Nazi, some people accuse me of being on his side, but this is a kind of sickness or illness of our time. The reason I dialog with Heidegger is that he was trying to understand what technē is for the Greeks, which is not only about technics, cultivating techniques, or making things. For the Greeks, the term technē has a rather different meaning. It has to do with the question of Being. (Of course, a Hellenist could attack Heidegger by saying he doesn’t understand ancient Greek sufficiently, but that’s another question.) So, Heidegger is trying to understand technē in relation to the unconcealment of Being. But he also considers modern technology as something that marks the end of metaphysics. Now, if we translate this into Chinese, does it mean that modern technology means the end of Xíng’érshàngxué 形而上學, the theory of (or the study of) what is above the form? Does it mean the end of dao? When we think in this way, we immediately see that something is not right, that something is incompatible when we understand translation as a search for equivalence.

Whenever you want to explain differences, you can be criticized for essentializing something. You’re accused of essentializing Chinese thought or Western thought, and essentialization always carries a risk of excluding what is not the essence. However, this is not a reason to ignore differences altogether, for the relation between the essential and the accidental is another key question that we cannot ignore. Along with many things I disagree with, Heidegger said something correct that is very significant for us today: if you avoid danger, you will end up with catastrophe. We have to confront the danger. But when we face it, we must know what the danger really is and find a way to cope with it.

In Art and Cosmotechnics (2021) I mention “the individuation of thinking” many times. “Individuation” is a term I took from Simondon, for whom it means a process that starts with an incompatibility. Sometimes there are elements that are not compatible at all—conflicts—or there are a lot of tensions within a system. The incompatibility leads to a restructuring of the system—which will be rendered compatible, or metastable. I think clarifying differences should facilitate an individuation of thinking, not an essentialization of thinking.

For me, this is the only way we can tackle the difficulty of translation while also encouraging new thinking. But first we have to allow incompatibilities to encourage a restructuring. This is also a way to produce diversity, which cannot only be about affirming differences, which is only a beginning. Differences are historical, but understanding differences historically may also produce anti-historical or ahistorical effects when they are understood as unchanging and permanent. This is what we must avoid. Let’s try not to ignore these differences, and let’s try not to avoid the danger. Let’s confront the danger and go one step further.

BS: Your idea of cosmotechnics seems to be in contradiction to the idea of the planetary, if there are simultaneously still distinct cosmoi that people are working in and with.

YH: We have to talk a little bit about what we really mean by “cosmos.” A cosmology, as a system of knowledge, also becomes obsolete over time. My question is, if we can understand or develop different understandings of technology, will that allow us to think differently? Does it allow us to think of a different historical process? Does it therefore allow us to reopen the question of history, the question of the becoming of the earth?

Using the term “cosmos” doesn’t mean returning to antique cosmology or saying we should go back to nature or go back to tradition. This kind of attempt could be risky and problematic. A few years ago I was at the Centre Pompidou in Paris with the decolonial thinker Walter Mignolo, who was giving a talk on cosmology in Latin America. He showed a video of a person from an Indigenous group explaining the ancient cosmology of a particular part of Latin America. This guy was drawing on the blackboard, and suddenly his iPhone started ringing! For me, the question is: What is the relation between the iPhone and this cosmology? If they have no relation, there must be a problem. So for me, instead of going back to antique cosmologies, it’s about thinking and understanding the transformative power of knowledge. How could this knowledge provide us today with a different imagination of technology, and also allow us a different way to situate technology? Cosmos is not something universal, since we always observe it from a particular angle, a particular locality. I try to emphasize that if we can discover the multiplicity of cosmotechnics, we can ask how to go further with it. We can ask how to transform the enframing or the Gestell of modern technology into something unexpected—that is to say, how to turn it from essential to accidental.

Indigenous warriors use GPS technology to collect field data as they travel across woodlands and grass savannahs on foot.

BS: To what extent is an individual tied to a specific cosmotechnics? One can say that it doesn’t come naturally to understand any cultural project—or to become part of it and participate in it—far away from where you were placed at birth and the people you were placed with. It’s something that is learned with great effort. I don’t know if any non-Chinese person has ever reached the highest levels of Chinese painting. From another point of view, it would be absurd to think that being Austrian means you understand Mozart better than Mitsuko Uchida. So it’s clearly in the realm of possibility that all these borders can be crossed, whether it’s happened or not, by someone who devotes themselves in the proper way.

YH: I agree with you. Natality is accidental of course, though it can become essential and in some legal frameworks is treated as essential. However, it doesn’t mean that one possess a talent related to one’s nationality. At most it means that one receives a particular education of sensibility at a young age. Nationality is not determinant for thinking, but the education of sensibility is. There was an Italian painter named Giuseppe Castiglione (1688–1766) who spent half his life in China and became a painter at the royal institute of painting. He was able to integrate both Western and Chinese techniques of painting. For me, this example allows us to talk about the individuation of thinking in art.

I know a Japanese pianist who started learning piano at the age of two and spent a decade of her adolescence in Poland studying Chopin. I wouldn’t say that because she was born and grew up in Japan, she cannot reach the level of a Polish pianist in terms of her mastery of Chopin. And of course, someone could say that Chopin was half French, so neither a French nor a Polish musician could really understand Chopin. This cultural genetics is the opposite of what I want to say—though it’s hard not to think that a Japanese pianist’s interpretation of Chopin would be affected by a different education of sensibility received at an early age. We are individuals and we individuate, and the individuation of thinking also happens in us and through us.

There is something to address here about authorship and value. Most people are familiar with this idea that there is no insistence on authorship in Chinese art—for example, in terms of copying. This was popularized in a small book by Byung-Chul Han called Shanzhai: Deconstruction in Chinese, in which he claims that there’s almost no question of authenticity, which has to do with authorship, in Chinese art. You copy the master’s painting. And he used this to explain how China today copies American or European technologies. This is a rather popular understanding of authorship and authenticity. In fact, there is a question of copying in Chinese discourse, which has more to do with the culture of the amateur. It’s something we also see in the West, for example with aristocrats who would go to the Louvre and copy the paintings. This is what the literati were doing in China.

Giuseppe Castiglione, Picture of Cangshuiqiu (苍水虬), a Chinese greyhound. From Ten Prized Dogs Album. License: Public Domain. 

BS: Let’s go back to your book, which begins with the question concerning tragedy. Can you explain why the question of tragedy is significant today at a time when it seems like tragedy is untimely and devalued?

YH: Before we talk about tragedy, I should go back to the question of Being. This is important if we want to understand Greek thought, especially in Heidegger’s interpretation. Heidegger claims that the essence of Greek technē lies in its poiesis, and in this poiesis is a process of bringing forth something, a product. And in this bringing forth, something is revealed, which is Being. This could be read as a kind of mystification, so we have to ask: What is Being here? In the early twentieth century, the Japanese philosopher and founder of the Kyoto School of philosophy, Kitaro Nishida, made a very interesting claim: if Western philosophy inquires into the question of Being, then Eastern philosophy inquires into the question of nothing. If we take this to be true, and take the origin of Chinese or Japanese technology as Greek, then Chinese or Japanese technics raises the question of Being, assuming Heidegger was right. But if Nishida was right, then Chinese or Japanese technics raises the question nothing. The question should not be about the revelation or unconcealment of Being, but of nothing.

Here we see the contradiction or conflict in universalizing the relation between technics and Being. And this relation cannot be transposed directly onto the cultural context of China or Japan. Yet now we have Being and nothing—what is their relation? Is it an absolute opposition, or not? I’ve been trying to think through this inquiry into the nature of opposition to answer a question you raised, Barry, at a conference in December 2016: Does tragedy in the Greek sense exist in China? You posed this to François Jullien, the French philosopher, Hellenist, and sinologist, who immediately responded that the Chinese invented a way of thinking to avoid tragedy. I remember this by heart because I translated for him during the Q&A. I was really shocked by the answer, because inventing a way of thinking to avoid tragedy means that the Chinese already knew what tragedy was.

Beyond the conventional use of “tragedy” as sadness, Ancient Greek tragedy means firstly that there is an opposition—an absolute opposition that you cannot overcome. For example, in Antigone there is the obligation to follow the law of the state and an obligation to follow the law of the family. Antigone has to choose to either bury her brother, who was killed during the war against the state, or follow the law of the state and leave the brother’s body to be eaten by animals. You can only choose one, and the two choices are in absolute opposition to each other.

BS: About fifteen years ago I was in Seoul, and in one of the musuems there was an extraordinary exhibition on the theme of the void in Korean art, from ancient times until the present. The next day by chance I met one of the living artists included in the exhibition and I said, “Oh, I saw one of your works yesterday in the exhibition on the void in Korean art.” And he replied, “Well, just because I leave part of the canvas unpainted doesn’t mean it’s about the void!” So I wonder at this opposition of the void and Being, or the void and form. I thought there was a very funny echo between Jullien saying that in his view there’s no tragedy in Chinese culture, and you quoting another book of his where he says that Chinese art is not interested in the nude because China is not interested in form. I wonder how those tie together.

YH: The question of the void can be especially confusing when people talk about Eastern thought. Daoist thinking is about wu 無, or “nothing.” And there is also Buddhist thinking from India—adopted in China, Japan, and Korea—and its concern with emptiness (空). But emptiness is not exactly the same as the void. Again, the problem of translation: sometimes all these varying ideas are translated as “the void.”

But for your question about form, let’s go back to what François Jullien said. I did not mean to discredit his work. On the contrary, I have a lot of respect for Jullien’s work, because I think it is really illuminating to contrast Western thought and Chinese thought in order to show a distance, a gap that cannot be reduced to equivalence. And we have to understand this gap—how it is formed and what really causes this difference. The title of Jullien’s book The Great Image Has No Form is a translation of one sentence from the Dao De Jing: “Dà xiàng wúxíng (大象無形),” or “the big image is formless”—you cannot really see the form in the image. Also in chapter 41, Laozi says, “Dà yīn xī sheng (大音希聲),” or “the loudest sound is one you can hardly hear.” There is something too big for you to comprehend by giving it form. Jullien used this to understand the aim of Chinese art, where the masterpieces are those that try to move away from form or the imposition of forms, as in shanshui painting.

The Great Image Has No Form demonstrates a clear difference between the understanding of art in China and in Ancient Greece. For the Greeks, there was already a very elaborated concept of form, as we find in Aristotle’s morphe, or eidos, the ideal form in Plato. Also in Greek art, in sculptures of the human body, there is a desire to reveal the ideality of the form. Jullien asked why we find so many nudes in the West, while there is no nude art in China. We might answer that China’s Confucian morality doesn’t allow you to expose your body in public, but for Jullien this explanation is too easy and unphilosophical. Jullien’s philosophical explanation is that for the Chinese, or at least for Chinese art, the question of form was a minor one. It was not as dominant as it was for Ancient Greek art or for Western art. This contrast is an almost absolute opposition: on the one hand, the pursuit of form as ideality in Greek thought; on the other, the formless, or the pursuit of what is without form, in Chinese art.

But to say form and no-form is too simple. If we look at the blue of Yves Klein or at the black of a large Pierre Soulages painting, you can see the only form is the canvas, which is either black or blue. Shanshui painting, on the other hand, consists of countless oppositions. Even the meaning of the work shanshui—“mountain and water”—is an opposition between yin and yang. Among the many theories of Chinese painting from different dynasties, Guo Xi (in a book written under his name by his son) and Shi Tao (in his Huayu Lu, or “Round of discussions on painting”) had really complete and systematic theories of painting. In every chapter, you find countless oppositions that are precisely what give painting its dynamic. But how do these oppositions work, and can they be said to reveal certain formulas?

When we say dà xiàng wúxíng (大象無形), “the great image has no form,” then the small image must have a form. So what are these small images and how do their oppositions allow the great image to emerge? For the formless to appear, we must use many forms. But what does the use of forms mean, and what kind of dynamics do they manifest? And how does this dynamic lead to formlessness? In Dao De Jing, Laozi says, “Fǎn zhě dào zhī dòng 反者道之動 (Return is the motion of the Way),” but fǎn can mean either “oppositional” or “returning.” So the oppositional or the returning is the dynamic of dao. First the opposition, secondly returning. That’s why elsewhere I’ve identified a recursive movement—which is not what Hegel called dialectics. Many scholars of the Dao De Jing have tried to call it dialectics, but Hegelian dialectics is based, again, on tragedy—the absolute opposition between freedom and fate, the law of family and the law of the state. Whereas dialectics must reconcile an oppositional discontinuity, you don’t find such a reconciliation in Daoist thought. There is a different nature to the opposition, different dynamics in the oppositional movement.

A shot from China’s Van Goghs. Film still courtesy of Century Image Media.

BS: There’s something that I’m curious about, and here I’m speaking particularly as an art critic who would wonder about this. When you refer to artworks, you refer to really canonical works of either European modernism like Cézanne and Klee, or of classical Chinese art. I wonder what the status or quality of artworks has to do with their relevance or suitability for philosophical discourse. Is it implied that a great work of art is one that has philosophical significance, or could mediocre works also allow you to make the same arguments?

YH: I have to admit my ignorance, of course. I was at MoMA this afternoon and told myself that there are so many things I don’t know. Yesterday I was at the Princeton University library and my hands were shaking from a similar thought. How can I finish reading all these classics? And if I can’t, how can I pretend to know anything at all? I admitted in the preface of Art and Cosmotechnics that I’m not a historian of art, and I’m also not an art critic like you. I can think in terms of concepts and logic, yet when we do that we cannot avoid certain generalizations that could be problematic. At the same time, one way to overcome the problem of generalization is by showing really concretely the value of formulating in terms of concepts, in terms of logic, which doesn’t at all mean excluding artworks that I didn’t use in the book. Rather, my aim is to produce new perspectives and generate new questions for thinking about the relation between art and technology.

I use artworks in an effort to problematize, so I engage with Merleau-Ponty’s understanding of Cézanne and how Cézanne influenced Zhou Wou-Ki, the Chinese-French painter, in order to ask whether the phenomenological understanding of modern painting is really similar to the Chinese understanding of painting, as François Jullien suggests. I try to say it isn’t similar, but then I have to explain why these are two completely different methods. These examples should not suggest a certain truth that we should ignore at the expense of other artworks. As examples, I use the artworks to problematize some ideas that have been taken for granted and expose places where difference has been undermined or ignored.

BS: There’s a lot of discussion now about artificial intelligence and its ability or inability to write, to make artworks, and so on. Illustrators are worried that they’re going to be put out of work by an artificial intelligence that can be asked to make an illustration in the style of so-and-so. Or journalists might be out of work because you can ask the AI to summarize the current discussions on a given topic. There was a case a few years ago where two people made a five-thousand-page anthology of poetry generated by computer algorithms and posted it on the internet. And each of the poems was arbitrarily attributed to an author—mostly poets, but some poems were mistakenly attributed to people who weren’t even poets. One of the poets mentioned was me! So I decided that I would accept the work as my own. I made a few little changes to make it better, but then included it in one of my books. And then I wrote an article about it saying that now we have to at least learn to write better than a machine. But how we do that is a major question in the relationship of art and technology today. How can art give us a different perspective away from this planetarization of Western technology that Heidegger warned against?

YH: The question is rather complicated because this fear of being replaced by machines is also the self-fulfilling prophecy of the tech industry, since it’s actively working to replace human labor with automation. But there’s is another question: How could we really change this prophecy and open a new agenda? This may be difficult to approach here because it has to do with the structure of the university, of industry, consumerism, and so forth.

What we can ask is: What is the task of art? In 1949, concerning the question of Being and its relation to technology, Heidegger said that it may be only in the domain of art that we can continue to think about the unconcealment of Being. He wants to relate the question of Being to art—and here it’s the same with shanshui, with the question of nothing, or the question of the greatest or the smallest in Chinese painting. Cybernetic logic, on the other hand, is always about the pursuit of a telos. So if you ask artificial intelligence to write a poem, it is always determined by an end, and this end is calculable. But in what I call tragist logic or shanshui logic we find a similar recursive movement, yet the end is something incalculable. So how can we relate back the question of the incalculable to our discussion of the use of artificial intelligence?

BS: I’m struck by the idea that artificial intelligence can only construct a poem as an end. That makes me realize that an artificial intelligence doesn’t leave any unfinished drafts. It doesn’t have any notes toward something that it never figured out! And that says something about the necessity of the process of thinking, but also of ignorance, to doing anything in the arts.

YH: You can certainly ask artificial intelligence to create something unfinished, but it’s already a goal to be unfinished. It’s already a form of calculation. Maybe my understanding of art is different from yours, but when I talk about nothing and Being, it’s to develop a category of “the unknown,” going back to Heidegger. So what is the unknown? If you can answer that question, you know what it is, so it’s no longer unknown. You can’t know the unknown. Yet this unknown is omnipresent in our everyday life, where we pretend to know what we actually don’t. So much remains unknown.

But in this category called the unknown we find, for example, Being. For Heidegger, Being is unknown because when you say what Being is, it can only be an entity, not Being. When you say what nothing is, it is already something. I can ask someone who believes in God to show me God, but they can’t. The same goes if I ask you to show me a point in geometry. You can draw a point on a piece of paper, but I’ll say this is already a surface, already two-dimensional. A point has zero dimensions, which we can never see in our life; yet without this point and line (one dimension, which we also never encounter), then geometry wouldn’t exist. There are things that exist yet cannot be demonstrated, but that we also cannot refuse the existence of. These remain unknown.

If I can generalize what I think Heidegger thinks about art (especially art’s relation to Being), as well as Chinese shanshui painting’s relation to Dao: I understand it as a process of rationalizing the unknown, which I call the epistemology of the unknown. We immediately encounter a contradiction, of course, but contradiction or opposition is that which sets up a movement. It is also a way to construct a plane of consistence by integrating the unknown in a work of poetry. Heidegger says that there is something unknown in poetry, so it is the poet who calls for the coming of the unknown. The poet cannot say or identify what the unknown is, because then it wouldn’t be poetry. It would be scientific analysis. With artificial intelligence, we need to ask how we can think about the epistemology of the unknown today. Similar to what you find in Heidegger’s reading of non-metaphysical art, Merleau-Ponty’s reading of Cézanne and Paul Klee, Sartre’s reading of Giacometti, and Michel Henry’s reading of Kandinsky, I am attempting to find an epistemology of the unknown in artistic creation.

BS: Although I think I agree with that, there are people who disagree. There’s the famous conclusion of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus where he says that what we can’t speak about, we must pass over in silence. And I think whatever we can’t speak about is related to what you call the unknown. Wittgenstein called it the mystical. But then I always remember how Frank Ramsey, when he heard this, said, “And you can’t whistle it either”—meaning that the thing that is not communicable in language is absolutely incommunicable. It can’t be evoked by nonlinguistic means, or musical means, if whistling is music. It’s also hard to refute that kind of view.

YH: In a commentary on the I-Ching called the Xì cí繫辭, Confucius said that writing cannot exhaust language and language cannot exhaust meaning (書不盡言、言不盡意). A student suggested that if that were the case, then Confucius’s teaching wouldn’t be conveyed. How then can we talk about wisdom that always escapes language itself? One possible answer is that we exhaust something in order to review what cannot be exhausted. So even if we cannot say what it is, we still speak in order to open a space for what cannot be said. The same thing could be said not only about writing, but also other forms of technologies.

Today it is difficult to talk with engineers about the epistemology of the unknown, and indeed, epistemology is not really a concern of engineering. Efficiency and speed are dogmatisms that still dominate the field, and they blind us to epistemological problems. However, I think there is an urgency to talking about such problems—as you know, Art and Cosmotechnics ends with a critique of the institutionalization of knowledge.

By way of conclusion, let me say a few words about the question of difference that we started with.

Every piece of technology contains complex ontological, epistemological, and cosmological assumptions that engineers rarely question. Social networks like Facebook, Twitter, WeChat, and VKontakte in Russia are all based on the same model and the same set of assumptions. The ontological assumption is that society consists of individuals that are like atoms, and you can know the relation between these social atoms by putting a line between two dots, as in graph theory. These assumptions come to dominate our understanding of social relations and social formations, and an engineer would never doubt this or suggest that it’s a fabrication. But from the perspective of anthropology, a society could never emerge from individuals—individuals would already have been eaten by a tiger or a wolf. A society can only begin with groups. It is only with modern individualism that we came to understand society as being composed of atoms. This is only one assumption among many made by the engineers who design our technology.

Only when these assumptions are questioned can we really open up and innovate. Otherwise, it’s only about speed and efficiency. You can develop an algorithm to collect more data from users or deliver more targeted recommendations, but these don’t actually change the technology. With what I call technodiversity, I propose that we need a really systematic method to analyze the technology we use and develop. Otherwise, if people want to resist Facebook there are only two ways. One is to quit Facebook and disengage from a certain reality altogether, and the second is to develop a platform that doesn’t belong to Facebook but works the same as Facebook. Neither way is innovation, nor resistance. I think that for us today, the most profound resistance is epistemic, and that’s what we can contribute to.

Philosophy, Technology
China, Japan, Artificial intelligence, Art History
Return to Issue #136

Yuk Hui obtained his PhD from Goldsmiths College London and his Habilitation in philosophy from Leuphana University Lüneburg. Hui is author of several monographs that have been translated into a dozen languages, including On the Existence of Digital Objects (2016), The Question Concerning Technology in China: An Essay in Cosmotechnics (2016), Recursivity and Contingency (2019), and Art and Cosmotechnics (2021). Hui is the convenor of the Research Network for Philosophy and Technology and sits as a juror of the Berggruen Prize for Philosophy and Culture since 2020. He is currently a professor of philosophy of technology and media at the City University of Hong Kong.

Barry Schwabsky is art critic for The Nation. He also writes regularly for such publications as New Left Review and Artforum. He has taught at Maryland Institute College of Art, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Yale University, and Goldsmiths College (University of London), among others. His recent books include two collections of poetry, Feelings of And (Black Square Editions, 2022) and Water from Another Source (Spuyten Duyvil, 2023). In 2016, Verso published The Perpetual Guest: Art in the Unfinished Present, a selection of Schwabsky’s art criticism from The Nation.


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