On Yuk Hui and Cosmotechnics

Hong Kong. Source: simplethrill. https://flic.kr/p/21HxJzS. CC BY-NC.ND 2.0.

This text was presented at the seminar Decolonial and Universal: Crossed Perspectives, coordinated by Elara Bertho and Michel Cahen and proposed by Les Afriques dans le monde (2022-2023). The session was about: “Reading Yuk Hui, a philosopher of technique and its reception in Brazil” (“Lecture de Yuk Hui, un philosophe de la technique et sa réception au Brésil”), with papers by Pedro Telles da Silveira (below) and Natalia Guerellus. The session took place on February 23, 2023.

Yuk Hui is a young although very prolific philosopher hailing from Hong Kong. This seems crucial to me, as Hui comes from a place whose history is linked to British imperialism and global flows of capital, at the same time that it diverges from the social and political processes that shaped mainland Chinese recent history. Not unlike his Indian peers in a diverse set of intellectual traditions, such as Subaltern Studies, this places him simultaneously at the center and at the margins of a series of cultural and philosophical traditions—namely, Western and Chinese. It is this mediation between centrality and marginalization, as well as belonging and estrangement, that sets the tone for his ample philosophical readings, which draw both from European and Chinese philosophical traditions.

Even so, it is worth mentioning that he first studied computer engineering in Hong Kong before embarking to London to obtain a PhD at Goldsmiths University with French philosopher Bernard Stiegler, who still represents, at least to me, Yuk Hui’s major philosophical affiliation. At Goldsmiths, Hui completed his thesis, which was published in 2016 under the name On the Mode of Existence of Digital Objects; this title is, I could say, a pun on Gilbert Simondon’s On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects. Also in 2016, he published another monograph, titled The Question Concerning Technology in China, which I think is his most read and more consequential work, because it is in it that he developed the concept of “cosmotechnics,” which we will soon deal with. In 2019, he published a third book, titled Recursivity and Contingence, and, in 2021, a fourth monograph, titled Art and Cosmotechnics.

Besides this, after his PhD, he pursued his habilitation in Philosophy at Leuphana University, at Lüneburg, Germany, as well as he has held a teaching post at City University of Hong Kong; he has also, it is worth mentioning, published a varied set of texts both on academic and non-academic forums, his thinking being specially well-received in the art milieu, as today’s text shows. To conclude this overview of his work, it is also necessary to point that he has traveled extensively in the last years, not only though Asia and Europe, but also to Brazil, which he visited in 2019.

To better understand his thinking and, especially, the concept of “cosmotechnics,” I think it would be useful to mention some of his academic and philosophical affiliations, both to understand where he came from and in which ways he diverges from the philosophical tradition in which he is inserted. Hui continues, first and foremost, that which could be called a “philosophy of technics,” which, in the iteration to which he belongs, has a double origin, Martin Heidegger’s seminal “The Question Concerning Technology,” published in post-War Germany, and the work of Gilbert Simondon, especially the aforementioned On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects. I mention this as a double origin because, even if this strand of philosophical thinking places itself under one broad question—how to establish a meaningful relationship to technics and to technology that doesn’t alienate is progress and its development from that which is considered to be “human”—, Heidegger’s and Simondon’s thoughts differ significantly.

For Heidegger, the “question” concerning technology is the need to combat the course it has taken in modernity, in which nature, the world, and humankind itself has been seen as resources to be exploited—this is what he famously called “Gestell.” To contradict Gestell, Heidegger searches for a different genealogy to technics, one that situates it as an activity that is proper, and not improper, to the place human beings, as subjects, occupy in the world. He does this resorting to technics as poetics; this etymological solution is also a philosophical one. Needless to say, this doesn’t exhausts Heidegger’s thinking on technics and technology, which is dispersed in a series of different contributions, such as “The Age of World Picture” and other texts, but it points to a fundamental ambiguity held by Heidegger considering technics: it is both part of the human endeavor and, ultimately, something that may negate it. Heidegger never resolved this problem.

Simondon’s thinking, on the other hand, is more straightforward, but not necessarily more simple. His main goal is to bridge the gap between technics and culture, which leads to the alienation of culture regarding technical progress. This alienation is both in understanding technological process—for instance, what humanists think and how they use and relate to technology—as well as of the impact that technology has on culture—when we consider the role played by social media in contemporary politics, for instance, we are dealing with the problem. Nonetheless, instead of strengthening what would be considered to be properly and uniquely human in this equation in order to contradict the advances made by technics and technology, a movement that other thinkers, such as Gunther Anders, have made, Simondon’s thinking is firmly based upon the recognition that human’s alienation towards technology result from another, primary alienation, that of the technical object itself. For him, the relationship we establish with technical objects, such as machines, is one of domination and this relationship prefigures a series of dominations that occur on the social fabric. Therefore, when Hui, on “What Begins After the Enlightenment?,” says that it is necessary not to reinforce what is supposedly human regarding technological progress, but instead to establish a renewed relationship towards technics, he is moving in Simondon’s territory.

Both currents of the philosophy of technics come together in the works of Hui’s dissertation adviser, Bernard Stiegler. For Stiegler, technics is an anthropological feature, not only in the sense that humans use tools—and, because of this, he draws extensively on the work of archaeologist André Leroi-Gourhan -, but, especially, because it is from technics and from its series of “prosthesis” that humans establish a common, shared world. However, in contemporary world, technological progress has created a series of deterritorializations that result in a sense of profound disorientation, that which Hui’s calls nihilism on his text. Thus, Stiegler both keeps Simondon’s tenet of the fundamental character of technics, as well as he tries to answer Heidegger’s questioning regarding the relationship between modern technology and human agency.

This philosophical background, I think, helps us to understand what is the major thrust of Hui’s “cosmotechnics.” It is “a general strategy to reappropriate technology” by reaffirming the existence of a “multiplicity of technicity.” Hui’s goal with the concept of “cosmotechnics” is to bring together technics and different worldviews which are made astray because of the worldwide progress and adoption of Western technics. In this sense, technics constitute a major axis of “synchronization” of world history and it is also for this reason, because we don’t have different technics, that he says that we need to deal with technics to go beyond a colonial situation. For Hui, if we don’t try to devise different relationships to technics, different histories of it, then we will end reproducing the Western path and, more especifically, European history, even if Europeans are absent from this history.

To conclude this section of my presentation, I would like to note that “cosmotechnics” is a concept created to relate technicity and different, specific worldviews. Because of this, it is constantly moving from universal to particular. It understands, on one hand, that technicity is an anthropological constant and, therefore, universal, but, on the other hand, it tries to disengage from considering current technics, technics as it is today, as the teleological focal point of technical progress. This is a major and beneficial move, as it implies that different societies, disregarding their technological achievements, are not necessarily “behind” regarding technology, but it is also a problematic one, I think, because it easily slips to a mere consideration of diverse and, in a sense, parochial technicities. If technics is different from place to place, then how they relate? It is necessary to make them relate to one another? How not to constitute technics as a feature of a closed worldview, especially if technics, both modern and ancient, brings together different subjects, different communities, and different histories? I think we should not forget that Hui is making an assessment of world history with his concept of “cosmotechnics,” and not only reaffirming the virtues of the particular, something that he is suspicious because of how easy it is to reaffirm, for instance, different nationalisms as responses to technological progress. The major bet on “cosmotechnics,” therefore, is if it points to a technodiversity or merely to a multitechnologism.

In Brazil, keeping with the worldwide reception of Hui’s thinking, it has been mostly non-, para-academic forums that have related to his oeuvre. In these courses and texts, the reception is centered upon the concept of “cosmotechnics,” with a particular bent towards an anthropological reading of his work. This reading highlights the usage of technology in particular situations, such as indigenous and traditional communities, and how these use of technology is related to their worldviews. In this sense, its reception in Brazil favors an approximation between Hui’s thinking and the discussions on perspectivism brought forth by Eduardo Viveiros and Castro, among others.

Yuk Hui, during History and Theory of New Media 2017 Symposium — Between the Digital and the Political: New Ecologies of Mind, Berkeley Center for New Media.
Source: Berkeley Center for New Media. https://www.flickr.com/photos/calnewmedia/24036679708/. CC-BY.SA 2.0.


Heidegger, Martin. 1977. The Question Concerning Technology, and Other Essays. New York: Garland Pub. https://monoskop.org/images/4/44/Heidegger_Martin_The_Question_Concerning_Technology_and_Other_Essays.pdf [archive].[1]
New edition: 2013. The Question Concerning Technology, and Other Essays. Harper Perennial Modern Thought. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Heidegger, Martin. 1997. « The Age of the World Picture ». In Science and the Quest for Reality, édité par Alfred I. Tauber, 70‑88. Main Trends of the Modern World. London: Palgrave Macmillan UK. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-349-25249-7_3.

Heidegger, Martin. 2017. Essais et conférences. Collection Tel. Paris: Gallimard.

Hui, Yuk. 2012. On the Existence of Digital Objects. PhD Dissertation. Goldsmiths College (University of London). http://eprints.gold.ac.uk/6492/.

Hui, Yuk. 2016. On the Existence of Digital Objects. Electronic Mediations. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Hui, Yuk. 2019. Recursivity and Contingency. Media Philosophy. London, Lanham.

Hui, Yuk. 2021. Art and Cosmotechnics. E-Flux Journal (Series). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Hui, Yuk. 2021b. La question de la technique en Chine. Montréal, Québec: Rue Dorion.

Hui, Yuk. 2022. The Question Concerning Technology in China: An Essay in Cosmotechnics. 3rd corrected edition. Mono. Falmouth: Urbanomic.

Simondon, Gilbert. 2017. On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects. Traduit par Cécile Malaspina et John Rogove. First edition. Minneapolis, MN: Univocal Publishing.

Simondon, Gilbert, et Nathalie Simondon. 2012. Du mode d’existence des objets techniques. New revised edition. Aubier philosophie. Paris: Aubier.


[1] In French : https://monoskop.org/images/3/31/Heidegger_Martin_1958_La_question_de_la_technique.pdf.

Citer ce billet
Pedro Telles da Silveira (2023, 24 mars). On Yuk Hui and Cosmotechnics. Esquisses. Consulté le 16 juin 2024, à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/o5cz

Pedro Telles da Silveira

Pedro Telles da Silveira is a Postdoctoral researcher at the Center of Digital Humanities (CHD) of the Institute of Philosophy and Human Sciences (IFCH) of the State University of Campinas (Unicamp) (Centro de Humanidades Digitais IFCH-Unicamp (CHD) ), Brazil.

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Pedro Telles da Silveira

Pedro Telles da Silveira is a Postdoctoral researcher at the Center of Digital Humanities (CHD) of the Institute of Philosophy and Human Sciences (IFCH) of the State University of Campinas (Unicamp) (Centro de Humanidades Digitais IFCH-Unicamp (CHD) ), Brazil.

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