The Question Concerning Technology in China: An Essay in Cosmotechnics

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  • 1 Postdoctoral research fellow, Institute of Ethnology, Academia Sinica, Taipei, Taiwan

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Yuk Hui

The Question Concerning Technology in China: An Essay in Cosmotechnics. Falmouth, uk: Urbanomic, 2016. 328 pp. isbn: 9780995455009. Paper, $22.00.

Yuk Hui’s The Question Concerning Technology in China: An Essay in Cosmotechnics is a challenging book. As is evident from the title, the text is fundamentally Heideggerian in its overarching preoccupations, even though the ‘question concerning technology’ is here reassembled through a well-orchestrated journey along the parallel histories of technics in Western and Chinese thought. While attempting to cover a dauntingly broad range of issues, Hui’s essay is at the same time openly personal. As clearly disclosed in the preface, the topics discussed in this volume harken back to the author’s teenage fascination with astrophysical discoveries and traditional cosmogony, its arguments occupying a clear position at the endpoint of a situated genealogy of thought: on the Hong Kong side of this lineage, the author’s literature and calligraphy teacher Dr. Lai Kwong Pang, whose doctoral supervisor was in turn the New Confucian philosopher Mou Zongsan (1909-1995); on its European side, a variegated gathering of interlocutors looking up to the central figure of Bernard Stiegler (to whom the book is dedicated) and his master’s thesis supervisor Jean-François Lyotard. In terms of both form and content, The Question Concerning Technology in China sits squarely in the discursive domain of contemporary philosophy, but it also seeks to provide a meeting point for science and technology studies, anthropology, area studies, and sinology; Martin Heidegger’s titular question, diffracted through Hui’s cosmotechnical pluralism, sets the speculative mood for the whole text:

If one admits that there are multiple natures, is it possible to think of multiple technics, which are different from each other not simply functionally and aesthetically, but also ontologically and cosmologically? … I propose what I call cosmotechnics as an attempt to open up the question of technology and its history, which for various reasons has been closed down over the last century. (xiii)

The link between Yuk Hui’s cosmotechnical pluralism and China is established through a musing plucked out of Heidegger’s infamous Black Notebooks, which also serves as one of the book’s epigraphs: ‘If communism in China should come to rule, then one can assume that only in this way does China become “free” for technology. What is this process?’ (i). This speculative hunch about the historical confluence of traditional cosmotechnics and communist government recurs in several variations on the same ‘question concerning technology in China’, which Hui rediscovers in the work of various thinkers – the most obvious being Joseph Needham and his notorious ‘Needham question’ (Why didn’t modern technology arise in China?), others including Keiji Nishitani and his unanswered obsession (Why didn’t a strong historical consciousness develop in the East?), and Feng Youlan’s radical interpretation (Why does China have no science?). Hui’s fixation with different iterations of this archetypical ‘Chinese question’ and his struggle with the urgency to provide a comprehensive solution sustain the bulk of this essay, even though the answers he offers vary wildly across the three parts in which the text is divided. The introduction is a condensed overview of the author’s arguments and promises directions for a ontological rapprochement between China and the West under the sign of a pluralist cosmotechnics; Part 1, titled ‘In Search of Technological Thought in China’, momentarily sets the question aside and offers instead an original comparative survey of the role of technics in Chinese and European philosophy; Part 2, ‘Modernity and Technological Consciousness’, reopens the inquiry about ‘the historical-metaphysical questions of modern technology’ (33) in noticeably darker (and, at times, catastrophist) tones.

Yuk Hui’s unraveling of cosmotechnics begins in the Introduction, a gripping fifty-five-page recapitulation of the volume’s contents, which could easily work as a self-contained essay or a solid proposal for a life-long research project. The author starts with the obvious Heideggerian reference points and their reception among Eastern philosophers (3), while also highlighting the problems with an uncritical acceptance of technological essentialism (4). Hui believes it is necessary to develop a philosophy of technology in China that is ‘genuine’ and ‘properly Chinese’ (7) because, as he argues, ‘in China, technics in the sense we understand it today – or at least as it is defined by certain European philosophers – never exists’ (9). A local ontological category of technics must be derived from a detour through cosmology (10) which leads directly to the ‘unification of dao and qi’, a concept that the author embraces as guiding term of comparison for his history of Chinese cosmotechnics. Part 1 thus follows the oscillating relationship between dao (way, ‘supreme order of beings’) and qi (tool, utensil, ‘technical object’) throughout Chinese philosophy, from the Kaogong ji (Record of Trades or Records of Examination of Craftsmen; 770 bce) to the Mao Zedong’s appropriation of Friedrich Engels’s Dialectics of Nature in 1958, covering philosophical schools such as Daoism, Confucianism, and neo-Confucianism and mapping concepts such as ch’i (energy), ziran (nature), and li (ritual) in a sustained dialogue and contraposition with Western thinkers including Aristotle, Henri Bergson, Heidegger, and Needham. The central turning point of this historical survey is ‘the rupture of Qi and Dao after the Opium Wars’ (151), which Hui identifies as the decisive fading away of traditional cosmotechnics, and to which the New Confucian philosopher Mou Zongsan tried to provide a solution. Part 2 injects the problem of time into this discussion, noting how modernity occurred in China only after its confrontation with European technological thought (201). Hui connects the Western concept of technics to time and geometry, and proposes to retread Stiegler’s arguments in search of Chinese cosmotechnics: here the main references are André Leroi-Gourhan, Lyotard, Gilbert Simondon, Jacques Ellul, and Stiegler himself. As the volume draws to a close, the author quickens the pace of his digressions, jumping from Peter Sloterdijk’s polycosmology and Aleksandr Dugin’s reactionary traditionalism to a sinofuturist-tinged anthropocene, and concluding that

The question seems to be no longer about completing a universal reason in the Kantian and/or Hegelian sense, but rather about reconstituting a variety of cosmotechnics able to resist the global time-axis that has been constructed by modernity. (306)

The Question Concerning Technology in China takes Heidegger’s famous formulation, rediscovers it in countless versions about China or East Asia at large, and concludes on the need to reassemble a cosmotechnics capable of resisting the global synchronization brought by capitalist technology. Yuk Hui’s essay on cosmotechnics is a commendable effort, an inspiring and informative alternative history of Chinese philosophical thought on technology and a provocative speculative fugue that raises more questions than conclusive answers. The text also begs a number of critiques. The first critique raises an ironic contradiction: despite his proposition to ‘investigate technological thinking in China without adopting the structuralist anthropological approach fashioned by sinologists such as A.C. Graham and B.I. Schwartz’ (50), Hui’s choice of weaving his historical survey of Chinese philosophy around the dao-qi relation – one of the ‘four analogical pairs’ identified in Wang Bi’s commentary on Laozi1 along with Nothing-Being, Centre-Periphery and Body-Instrument (66-67) – drags him into the very same sort of structuralist analysis: Chinese cosmology, boiled down to an elastic, dyadic ontology, is offered as an antidote for the predicaments of Western modernity. Second, while Hui’s philosophical history is undeniably praiseworthy, he seems to resist any engagement with post-1949 China. Heidegger’s ‘What is this process?’ question about the communist ‘freeing’ of the country for technology is answered with broad sweeps and anecdotal generalizations: the People’s Republic of China as trapped in a ‘rampant technological development’ that also brings ‘a strong sense of loss or disorientation, in which China ceases to be China, and becomes instead capitalism with Chinese characteristics’ (222); the country’s modernization equated with the destruction of ‘the moral cosmology that is expressed in every form of art in China, from tea ceremonies to calligraphy’ (223); home-grown technological development is reduced to choreography for robots and drones included in the 2016 cctv Chinese New Year gala (298). Readers expecting an application of Hui’s arguments to the past two decades of informational and technological development in the country will not find in this book more than a passing mention of copycat apps and smartphones.

The third and last critique is also the most facile: despite his tribute to the ontological openings provided by anthropologists and philosophers of technology, Yuk Hui spends pages upon pages trying to climb on the mirrors of cultural essentialism and methodological ethnonationalism, recognizing the dangers of advocating or defending the purity of any cultural origin, while at the same time sneaking a suspect nostalgia for a Heideggerian volk back into the pages, barely masked as a generalized anti-capitalist pessimism. As it is increasingly clear as the essay progresses, the forgetting of being, the disappearance of a ‘home’, and the destruction of tradition are concerns central to Hui’s antimodern pessimism, and his solution passes through a perplexing reformulation of Michel Foucault’s idea of episteme: ‘for me it is a dispositif which, in the face of modern technology, may be reinvented on the basis of the traditional metaphysical categories in order to reintroduce a form of life and to reactivate a locality’ (31). The author’s proposal looks to the New Confucian experience for inspiration: ‘The only hope for China to avoid the total destruction of its civilisation in the Anthropocene is to invent a new form of thinking and invention, as Mou Zongsan did, but this time in a different way’ (197). Hui’s solution – endowing the reunification of qi and dao with ‘new meanings and forces proper to our epoch’ (312) – could either save Chinese civilization or merely reinscribe it into an ontologically objected Orient.

1

Wang Bi (226-249), also known as Fusi, was a neo-Daoist philosopher who authored influential commentaries on both the Daodejing and Yijing.

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