Saturday, May 18, 2013

A Revolting Becoming.

The opposing, disjunctive terms, “technophilia” and “technophobia” are rhetorical terms; they signal the characterization of the other in a rhetorical debate. Romantics are typically labeled “technophobes” and “want to recapture tradition”. There are good reasons to be afraid of Technology. If Technology has taken over a technique, automating or displacing workers, what’s to stop the ongoing lottery? Is it ongoing? Are certain routines exempt from displacement? Are some jobs not routines? It doesn’t seem impossible that the logic of capital, our being in space that we control minimally, if at all, could always dissolve our livelihood, automated or not, forcing one to learn new techniques. I want to define <technique> as a way of doing something, as in “You sure have the technique down pat!”, and Technology as a system of Enframing Oppression in which techniques are rendered automated. The difference that I mean to gesture at here is that there is a felt difference between a technique that is a form of Art, and a technique that has become routine. When one says 'you sure have the technique down pat' I want to insist that one doesn't mean one has nailed repetition, but rather that one has produced the good. Hence, going against Technology, the automated Totality—Technology as a system—could mean gaining autonomy concerning techniques. But I want to qualify this political-aesthetic stance by noting that I do not wish to suggest that only machines are automated, and, furthermore, that Heidegger’s distinction between technology and modern technology, (techniques and automated techniques) is useful to see that machines aren’t essentially automated.
Now while privileging autonomy is presumably a reasonable way to go about finding support in Romantic circles, given that affirming autonomy implies that full-automation is ultimately dystopic and therefore worse than some level of autonomy, still, there is no way to settle on the best form. And it seems to me that this result is perfectly consistent with the meaning of the term <autonomy>, for how can one speak about how autonomous another should be? Doesn’t that necessarily undermine the right for one to be autonomous, to make decisions for oneself? One might find that ones’ ability to be autonomous depends on labor saving automated techniques. One might find that ones’ ability to be autonomous depends on communing with others.
Now, it seems plausible that full autonomy is as impossible as full automation. Therefore, what ‘full automation’ means in the context of saying that one is like a machine is that the machine-like is under the sway of seeing “the better” in civilizing oneself and falling in line, obeying final causes designed for oneself. In this context it seems possible to say that X has chosen to use privilege to their advantage. And while this may be a minimal form of autonomy, it would seem that in this instance one has merely affirmed final causes set in play by the system, rather than made an effort to design techniques for oneself.
However, settling on any level of autonomy, so long as it is not ‘full automation’, is not sufficient to forestall general anxiety concerning automation. Consider the problem of maintaining nuclear reactors. If these get out of control—which is to say, break down or break free from their designed final causes—it may be impossible to regain control, and it may become impossible to live. Don Ihde argues that just as there is an intentional fallacy in thinking that the meaning of a text can be reduced to the authors’ intent, there is a designer fallacy in thinking that technologies, in terms of use, function and effect can be reduced to designed intent.[1] So if we rely on automated techniques to co-constitute our sense of becoming-identity, it is possible that the final causes that we fix for them may not function according to the desired identity. Tying the designer fallacy in with the intentional fallacy is precisely to the point in gesturing at the difficulty in forming a unique identity given ongoing governmentality all around us; however, importantly, the fallacy also entails the view that one cannot be given a fixed identity as a system of automated techniques.
In getting clear on this point, it is helpful to draw on a distinction made by Giorgio Agamben in his recent What is an Apparatus[2]. According to Agamben, the Judeo-Christian theological problem of God’s unity and trinity was negotiated by noting that God’s substance is one, while God’s administration, or oikonomia of the world, was divided into distinct hierarchical roles (9-10). Just as God’s administration through oikonomia produces Christian subjects, the State is interested in producing civilized subjects. For Agamben, “apparatuses must always imply a process of subjectification, that is to say, must produce their subject” (11). But if this follows, if there is a process of subjectification, there is a prior mode of being distinct from those forms of oikonomia “that aim to manage, govern, control, and orient—in a way that purports to be useful—the behaviors, gestures, and thoughts of human beings” (Agamben, 12). Therefore, following a theological formula, the same living substance can be “the place of multiple processes of subjectification” (Agamben, 14). But for Agamben, the process of subjectification, is a process of desubjectification; for this ‘natural’ place, where multiple subjects arise, is a process of “separate[ing] the living being from itself and its immediate relationship with its environment” (16). The example that Agamben uses is Foucault’s docile subject, and the example of coming to see oneself as a sinner requiring confession (20).
For Agamben, being a subject is not just a matter of mere relation to apparatuses; it is also, and perhaps more importantly, a process of resistance to these forms of governmentality (14). What Ihde’s designer fallacy coupled with technophobia can be taken to point out is that one cannot be sure that resistance isn’t already automated, an anticipated feature of governmentality out of our control.
The question that Agamben opens, therefore, is whether it is possible to see an apparatus as true subject affirming, that is to say, whether it is possible to see any apparatus functioning outside of a process of desubjectification. If it is possible, might we then open the way to recapturing ourselves within apparatuses of our own desires?
            Since we are arguing for autonomy over the design process of ourselves, we are not arguing for full-automation. So we can avoid the Romantic’s charge of having a dystopic view. I said above that there are good reasons to be technophobic; but I want to insist that it is possible to creatively resist. The subjectivities that are produced in us are also ready to hand; we can exemplify them or we can idle; they are not fully independent and already co-opted. Therefore, under our control, these designed ways of being-citizen can be readily swerved. We can push back “indeterminately” against the automated techniques that Enframe “us”.[3] It seems to me that the difference between necessary and sufficient causes helps shed light on the difference between automation and autonomy. To be autonomous is to be able to take responsibility for what one has become, saying that one’s decision and design is a necessary cause alongside other necessary causes. Only if we supposed that one were fully autonomous, which is impossible, could we say that our choice is sufficient for what is produced. Why is this impossible? To be able to say, “thus, I willed it”, is to be able to show that nothing else was a necessary cause. Take an example of reaching for a glass of water. Simple enough. But surely the desire to drink water coming from my body cannot be ruled out as contributing to the choice to grab water in the first place. Thus, Hayles claims that there is no a priori way of discerning that one’s choice was sufficient for X. Anything a posteriori here would be a matter of negotiation.
What someone else makes of our artful lives is not peculiar to the machine-apparatuses that might be enlisted for this cause; such is a general problem with interpretations proper to structuralist imposition and the attempt to be unique. If we are automated, and we are, Agamben’s question is whether we are autonomous with the automatons (the apparatuses) or whether we too are automatons. In answering this question I want to trouble the dichotomy by pointing out that machines that may be used to fashion a sense of self, need not be challenged as standing reserve. I want to hold out for the possibility of romantic machines that co-produce a becoming self. This is because a moving target is far more Uncontrollable, the more its parts are Uncontrollable. In other words, the metaphysics of becoming and emergence—what bubbles up in processes of resistance marked by Agamben—is far more liberating than fixed, boring and repeated identities; and if machines can be let be in the register of becoming rather than being-enframed, ones’ actual self is that much more free. If we enframe techniques from the Enframing[4]—an ongoing process without end—perhaps we can break free from the automation of self to be part of the ongoing and resulting romantic picture of autonomous relations with “romantic machines”.
In order to come to this point I want to closely read Minsoo Kang in order to develop the concept of Nature as Machine historically and show its Sentimentalist and Romantic reaction from 1741 onwards. Following that, I want to segue into John Tresch’s text as developing a provocative middle ground captured in his notion of <the romantic machine>. This reading will compound multiple senses of Romanticism in order to undermine the standard association of Romanticism with technophobia, without trivializing this view. With a synthesis between “mechanization” and Romanticism shown in Romanticism’s historical traces, more particularly, between technology in Heidegger’s sense and “the” decentralized subject, I mean to come full circle, gesturing at “subject”-affirming apparatuses as an answer to Agamben’s question.

2. Minsoo Kang notes that a feeling of uneasiness and chaos generated by the Thirty Years War and the civil war in England precipitated the desire for a mechanistic worldview, an ordered polis maintained by the mechanic-sovereign, perhaps reflective of a perfect engineer God who, as first cause, ordered the cosmos (bodies included) according to rational laws.[5] More generally, Kang notes three features characteristic of mainstream mechanistic physiology from 1637-1748 (131; 144). First, metaphysically, humans were dualistic, with an immaterial soul and a material body; second, mechanistic descriptions were limited to bodies; and finally, when they were so analogously described, such was seen as positive given that Nature was created by God. By the middle of the eighteenth century and onwards, however, the automaton lost its ability to be compared to anything autonomous; it took on a derogatory sense in describing the mentally handicapped, the peasant toiling in the field, the conformist and the Absolute tyrant (Kang, 148). These characters were imaged as mere automatons because they lacked the principle of autonomy. But Kang exemplifies careful scholarship in showing that that this shift is not a clean break. Rather, from 1740, there was increasing tension between the positivity and negativity of imaging a human substance as automaton (Kang, 158).
Kang outlines three reasons that contribute to this shift. The first is that imaging the body as a machine, with discrete interworking parts, was beginning to give way to a new holistic picture of the body that presupposed something similar to Aquinas’ principle of activation, or Scotus’ principle of individuation. Buffon, for instance, argued that mechanistic methodology was useless and inappropriate for “the study of the living world” (Kang, 150). The tension mentioned above translates into a questioning about this methodology. Is it totally useless to see human bodies as machines or does the picture simply require supplementation? For if one wanted to replace dualism with hylomorphism, viz., that the body and the mind are not ‘really distinct’ substances, that they are connected harmoniously, if, that is, the mind just is the principle of vitalism in a mechanized body, it is contentious to simply suppose that vitalism is anathema to mechanization (Kang, 152).
So far we have been talking about the mechanization of the body; but it is not impossible to talk about the mechanization of the mind; for within the Cartesian lineage there is a sense of training one’s mind to avoid bodily passions. If the analogy between the soul governing the body and the Monarch governing subjects holds, then in naming the sovereign an automaton-man, one is taking issue with the way the centralized state, and by analogy, the governed humyn substance, is ordered. In the sentimental age, character traits of moderation and order, or centralized authority, started to lose their privilege, opening the way to “passionate and sensitive” nonconformity, intuition and imagination, which made possible the desire for the decentralization of the state (Kang 153-4). Kang explains this general, and increasing tension in Western Europe by pointing to the failures of the centralized sovereigns in the 1740’s, 50’s and 60’s to provide freedom from strife (his second reason) (148; 154-5), and the concomitant growing tendency to accept radical enlightenment ideas (his third) (155-6; 158).
Kang wants us to see that the classical and late enlightenment tension concerning humans as automatons, from this being a permissible characterization to it being a debasement of proper humynity, in the emotional response to automatons. In the classical period, there was a general sense of awe in the presence of Vaucanson’s duck because such mechanical devices signified God’s laws through their creators. Kempelen’s chess player, however, did not generate a feeling of awe because, generally speaking, it could no longer be taken as animate and humyn-like. By the late enlightenment period, as the mechanistic metaphor was continuing to wane, inanimate reason was automatically taken up as an artifact with humyn efficient causality (Kang, 182).
We saw above that the centralized rigidity of the state, once desired for security, gave way to ideas of organic harmony and decentralization in the sentimentalist period. Reason needed to be used holistically. But the hope for sentimental reason, reason embodied in the French Revolution, gave way to “the murderous monstrosity of the Terror”, and finally Napoleon (Kang, 190; 195). In order to explain this tension, that is, that sentimental reason was not the end of history, the German Romantics developed a comforting teleological Metaphysical narrative based upon rupture and dialectical union between Spirit and Matter, set in motion at the birth of the cosmos. The explanation for the Terror, then, was that Spirit and Matter will become One only at the end of Cosmic history. But this way of conceptualizing Matter generated a more extensive picture of redemption than was permissible in sentimentalist late enlightenment. According to the above Metaphysical picture, all things, animate and inanimate were the site (or potential site) of this rupturing and union (Kang, 193).
To be sure, the relationship between Romanticism and sentimentalism was not mutually exclusive; in Romanticism, while the automaton-man was still perceived as debased humynity, a consequence of its metaphysics entailed that an inanimate automaton figure could be an “instrument of the supernatural”, fully alive, uncontrollable (Kang 211). Perhaps fear of this possibility explains the disdain that privileged people have towards revolutionary subjects, perceived as machine-like beings with genuine potential to revolt by way of bodily knowledge. According to Kang, Romanticism included these beings, metaphorical and otherwise, in its eschatological vision.
So the need to find comfort in a Transcendent metaphysics coupled with agreement with the Sentimentalists against mechanization precipitated anxiety and technophobia about automatons because of their possible use in Cosmic History. This Romantic tension about automatons, between the worry of seeing oneself as one and yet at the same time seeing machines as worthy of Spirit, can be given flesh with John Tresch’s concept of the Romantic Machine.[6] Tresch’s narrative, stretching from the 1820’s to the 1850’s in Paris can be taken to be about Romantic thinkers that see the problem with Enframing, just as the sentimentalist turn rejected the outright mechanization of Nature, but without opposing Machines to Nature. According to Tresch’s narrative, the thinkers he discusses wanted to draw closer to Final Cosmic Unity, “a more just, free and harmonious society” and did so by joining themselves with romantic machines (xvi-xvii; 10).
The mechanization of nature as an (En)framing hypothesis, with component primitive parts under the sign of a division of labor, in this period, is replaced by an epistemology that doesn’t start with phenomenal fragmentation, but speculates and ultimately aims to discover through enframing intervention, a unified “noumenal” theory, an approximation towards what could be named Schelling’s world-soul. (Tresch, 31; 45; 53). Unlike research that stipulates theories in advance, “as detached, calculating reason” (Enframing), “this is research that does not seek to confirm or reject hypotheses, but simply to become familiar with a phenomena and its extensions” (Tresch, 57; 39). In this <aesthetic state>, “everything—even the tool which serves…—is a free citizen, having equal rights with the noblest” (Tresch, 75). That is to say, “the observer had to gain the instrument’s assent by entering into a dialog, “playing” with it, becoming familiar with its limits and habits” (emphasis added, Tresch, 80). In this way, instruments became autonomous organs of sense, “autonomous” in the sense that “they were disciplined and interconnected but at the same time, spontaneous, active and free” (Tresch, 111).
Clearly instruments were rendered to serve a purpose, but not in a deterministic way; rather, they were rendered on their own terms to signify Nature, a dynamic, awe-inspiring, unfolding process. The Romantic Scientist enters into the open with the instrument, letting it be in order to exemplify Beauty and Order. But where does this (the aesthetic state) come from? Who designed it? If we are trying to exemplify the end of history, where Mind infuses Matter, why should it correspond to what We, collectively, take it to be? If this has anything to do with Kant’s noumenal realm—if Nature is Noumena—surely the fact that noumena by definition entails the impossibility of knowing it implies an impossibility of saying some theory signifies it.
But obviously it is better to take a stab here, designing a harmonious frame that captures what is good for all, than to presume that All is Well when it clearly never has been; but what seems to me to be much more interesting is not collective Harmony, designed by the priests of Order, but distributed harmonies modified by autonomous desires. In Humboldt’s orchestra, the machines, non-human and human alike, must abide by the rule that they are disciplined to follow; the “law was only a law of freedom if it adjusted to the living particularity of the individual” (Tresch, 80). But what if adjustment here makes the law no longer identical with itself? What are the limits of disciplined-freedom? Conformity? Consumerism? Is that a wild and free Noumenal-Nature, set loose in the dynamics of becoming, or a domesticated Phenomenal-Form to which we must submit? Must our imaginations fit the form, or are we free to imagine forms that we want? The promise of Romanticism, in Kang’s sense, seems to entail the promise of possibility, which cannot be contained by the straightjacket of Spinoza’s Enlightenment Reason.
In other words, what Ought to be can never be reduced to what Is; and even Spinoza’s view of what Ought to be must therefore be insufficient. What is this picture? Spinoza, like Hobbes, takes the city and the sovereign to be sources (and therefore limits) of freedom, outside the gnashing of Nature, in an all too typical view of Enlightenment reason; yet, Marcuse's idea of a qualitative difference strikes me as obviously open to its own negation, even if 'practicality' would go by the boards. Decentralization coupled with imagination (sentimentality) produces a picture that I want to disclose below.

3. Decentralization: The story that we have been unraveling can be put in terms of awe and fear. In the ‘classical enlightenment’ machines were awe-inspiring signifiers of God’s design. But this way of viewing the humyn gave way to Sentimental feelings of fear and confinement, which generated desires to imagine different forms of decentralized government, forms proper to humyns. With the failure of this promise in the actuality of the Terror, we saw Romanticism generate a story about Unfolding Spirit that in turn generated the horrific possibility of automatons coming alive, which, in turn, was tempered by seeing machines as awe-inspiring actants in the realization of Cosmic History, a picture that I want to re-characterize in sentimentalist-autonomist terms as horrific and confining, if not completely boring. We might be able to explain the reason that automated techniques can be simultaneously awe-inspiring and horrific by way of Don Ihde’s designer fallacy, which points automated techniques out of their final causes, permanently destabilizing them, and shoring up the possibility of fixed regiments of bringing-forth. This permits the fearful—because unhinged—and awe-inspiring—because not fixed—figure of Possibility, a figure properly named Imagination, placed within the intersection of Romanticism and Sentimentalism. But the fallacy doesn’t inspire hope, not in the least, because there may only be Imagination and Desire—there may only be Becoming; there may be Nothing to save us.
It seems to me that this does not provide a way of thinking about un-Enframed techniques in the network that is ones’ life without technophobia; but the worry that one can control what one is, strikes me as misplaced, even if one minimizes the number of techniques “utilized” to this end. The best that we can do is swerve the apparatuses we are caught under to the imaginative creation of our autonomous desires. Tresch’s narrative strikes me as complementing Kang’s in that it sketches a way in which we might properly open automated techniques according to our desires, in a way that permits them to live too; but in this living—whatever that may become—we are left in the Open of Possibility, a place truly in opposition to automation, and so, truly in an ongoing ‘place’ of opposition to Technology.
What seems clearest here is that automation can become unhinged from its final causality, not in a way that permits it to be whatever we might make it, but simply not only what it was made to be. Given that one's own final causality is therefore not written, to say that one has automated oneself in this unfolding strikes me as misplaced. What better way to smash the machines.  

[1] Don Ihde. Bodies in Technology. (Minneapolis; Minnesota University Press, 2002), p. 106.
[2] Giorgio Agamben. What is an Apparatus? And Other Essays. (Stanford; Stanford University Press, 2009).
[3] Don Ihde. Ironic Technics. (USA: Automatic Press/VIP, 2008), p. 29.
[4] Martin Heidegger. The Question Concerning technology and Other Essays. Translated by William Lovitt. (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1977), p. 31-2.
[5] Minsoo Kang. Sublime Dreams of Living Machines: The Automaton in the European Imagination. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011). Pps. 112-3.
[6] John Tresch. The Romantic Machine: Utopian Science and Technology after Napoleon. (Chicago; University of Chicago Press, 2012).