Saturday, April 20, 2024

On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects, Part 2 Chapter 1

Summary of Part 2, Chapter 1: The Two Fundamental Modes of Relation Between Man and the Technical Given

Simondon starts out with what looks like a clearly Kantian distinction between “minority” and “majority” relations with technical objects, but then immediately complicates this by having an adult “craftsman” hold the “minority” relation, while the engineer represents the “majority” view. Put simply, the opposition is between traditional artisanal trades, taught from childhood, and thus incorporating a lot of instinctual or habitual knowledge and intuition, versus more academic and abstract learning, what he will call the “encyclopedic spirit.” These two views are what have represented technology culturally, and they clash, leading to popular confusion. The ultimate point of the chapter is to argue for a new, intermediary view established through mechanology.

A distinction between servile and noble trades/sciences is traced back to ancient Greece (104), and other cultures; his point in tracing this history is to “show that human thought must establish an egalitarian relation, without privilege, between technics and man.” [Which seems a sort of odd way to summarize this, because the history he is pointing at is about an unequal class relation between humans and their trades.]

He traces a very idealist history, in which the Renaissance “sheds the light of rationality” on the formerly servile trades [liberated, that is, by end of feudalism, the Black Death, etc.]. Europeans in the Renaissance and Enlightenment period think more about, and of, technics than in the ancient world when it was associated with slave labor. However, this only lasts into the 18th century, after which comes an unfortunate reversal. [Presumably corresponding with colonial slavery, and then with the Industrial Revolution, though he does not make this connection]; ancient noble techniques such as agriculture and animal husbandry thus become “non-cultural,” that is, no longer recognized and valued as “culture.”

Mechanical technics were only truly able to attain majority status by becoming a technics thought by the engineer, rather than remaining the technics of the craftsman; at the artisanal level, the concrete relation between the world and the technical object still exists; but the object thought by the engineer is an abstract technical object, unattached to the natural world. (105)

What is needed is an intermediate position between majority and minority, uniting both perspectives:

The representation of the craftsman is drowned in concreteness, engaged in material manipulation and sensible existence; it is dominated by its object; the representation of the engineer is one of domination; it turns the object into a bundle of measured relations, a product, a set of characteristics.

The prime condition for the incorporation of technical objects into culture would thus be for man to be neither inferior nor superior to technical objects, but rather that he would be capable of approaching and getting to know them through entertaining a relation of equality with them, that is, a reciprocity of exchanges; a social relation of sorts.

[Though it still seems the primary issue is a lack of equality among humans, not just of relations of humans with technical objects.]

He develops this history into, essentially, a bit of a fable of the difference between the two kinds of thinking (and the need for a synthesis or intermediary or new way of thinking). The craftsperson or traditional technician learns from childhood and remains deeply childish in their understanding and mastery; S uses all kinds of naturalizing, primitivizing, etc. terminology: “instinct,” “magician,” etc. This kind of learning is “rigid” because “man cannot become a child again in order to acquire new basic intuitions” (108). He has an interesting discussion of the [ritual] “magic” involved in traditional initiations, in which the learner/apprentice undergoes tests, acts “through which the child becomes a man, by using all his strength pushed to its extreme limit for the first time” to defeat “hostile nature.” The traditional artisan has a sense of the sacred, a bond to the matter they work with, which continues to be expressed in certain bespoke products, and an aversion to commercialism:

The true [minor] technician loves the matter upon which he acts; he is on its side, he is initiated but respects that to which he is initiated; he forms a couple with this matter, after having tamed it, and only delivers it with caution to the profane, because he has a sense of the sacred. (109)

In contrast, the “major” form of technical knowledge is exemplified by the revolutionary moment of Diderot’s Encyclopédie, which ushers in a new world in which anyone can presumably learn anything, without any need for arcane initiation and guild membership; though, as Simondon notes, not everyone could in fact afford the Encyclopédie. [And thus the public library might be a better example of this “encyclopedic spirit;” and S would no doubt have loved the example of today’s internet, which has the similar promise of making everyone an instant expert on any subject.]

Major and minor technics nevertheless share a “common nature,” a central aspect of which is their magical, enchanted nature; like the ritual test of the initiate, “the Encyclopedia also manipulates and transfers forces and powers; it too performs an enchantment and draws a circle like the magic circle” (111), the difference being that this is no longer a test of the initiate’s connection to nature, but of “human society with its forces and obscure powers” to control all of nature; the primitive belief in magic has now become the “unconditional belief in progress” (112). “The Encyclopedia makes initiation universal … Technics becomes an exoteric mystery.”. It does this through its properties as a voult or magic cipher, which is handily explained in a footnote by the translators:

Voult: in English, 1. Poppet, wax or clay image or doll (poppet) of a person used in witchcraft or voodoo to affect him magically; 2. Old word for face, for instance work representing the face of Christ. Generally, in Simondon’s usage, a symbol or analogon of a certain reality, in the form of an object, an image, or a piece of an image in which the part stands for the whole, and by means of which the reality that is symbolized comes into the power of the one who possesses it, as when a spell is cast [envoûtement].

Returning to the Kantian grounding of his minor/major opposition, S discusses three stages in the history of “will to move from minority to majority by way of enlarging the circle of knowledge and liberating the power inherent in knowing,” 1) the Renaissance and Reformation, 2) The Enlightenment and the Enclyclopédie, and 3) “our own era.” In the course of this not-particularly-unpredictable history he goes through a quite interesting discussion of time and space (reminiscent of Innis, though considering these in different senses) in different communications technologies from printing, through the telegraph, to cinema. With the printing of the Encyclopedia, S claims, a bit surprisingly, that the “civilization of the word gives way to that of the image” (114); his argument being that print is a spatial technology, so printing words means translating the temporal flow of language into a spatial arrangement, from which it is then translated back into a temporal order when read. The real innovation of printing, then, is not the spread of text, but of images, which S imagines to be somehow more directly perceived and “universal” than language, which is always particular (i.e., in the form of a particular language, the sense of which must be translated to be understood in other languages, while images do not); when concepts are communicated in text, “the information going from individual to individual makes a detour through the social institution that is language.” Printing is best understood as “a faculty for the diffusion of a spatial schema” (115), and it is through schematic etchings, diagrams, etc., that this potential is best made use of.

In the modern era, the new technologies of telegraph, telephone, and radio, are hampered for scientific purposes by their temporal nature, requiring “the translation of a spatial schema into a temporal series, and subsequently its conversion back into a spatial schema.” Thus, our era “hasn’t yet succeeded in constituting its modes of universal expression.” Cinema is also ill-suited because its “movement … rich in hypnosis and rhythm ... dulls the reflexive faculties of the individual in order to induce a state of aesthetic participation” (116):

Organized according to a temporal series that employs visual terms, cinema is an art and a means of expressing emotions; the image here is a word or a phrase, it is not an object comprising a structure to be analyzed by the activity of the individual being; it rarely becomes an immobile and radiating symbol.

Television is not much better, since it seeks to emulate cinema, and is further burdened by a “waste of information;” he does, presciently, note the potential of screens for communicating more stable images. Such “object-symbols” which communicate the abstract, universal knowledge of the encyclopedic spirit (as opposed to physically learned and always situated, “instinctual” traditional knowledge) make possible a “universal symbolism” which both machines and humans can understand, and which allow them to communicate.

The demands of our current, third stage of enlightenment are distinct from those of the earlier two, so what we need from it is distinct from the liberatory movements of the past, not just a repeat or extension of those:

In the sixteenth century man was enslaved to intellectual stereotypes; in the eighteenth century, he was limited by the hierarchical aspects of social rigidity; in the twen­tieth century, he is enslaved to his dependence on unknown and distant powers that direct him while he can neither know nor react against them; it is isolation that enslaves him, and the lack of homogeneity of information that alienates him. Having become a machine in a mechanized world, he can regain his freedom only by taking on this role and by superseding it through an understanding of technical functions thought from the point of view of their universality. (117)

The solution to this is of course the science of mechanology, which will re-articulate the relation between human and machine so that “nothing human should be foreign to man.” S warns about the phenomenon of “transformation” (devenir), whereby previously liberatory phenomena (Christianity is his example) later become enslaving and limiting, instead. This applies as well to technics, due to the change in scale of contemporary technology and global human society with its “vertiginous, unlimited and moving immensity” (119):

The liberating technics of the eighteenth century is at a human scale because it is of the artisanal type. The tech­nics of the twentieth century is beyond the forces of the individual, and constitutes a compact and resistant, but alienated human reality within the industrial world, completely beyond the grasp of the individual just as it was for the previously hierarchized society.

Because the problem is now this alienating immensity rather than hierarchy, “Man no longer needs a universalizing liberation, but a mediation;” instead of liberating the agency of individuals, this requires “the rationalization of forces that situate man by giving him meaning within a human and natural ensemble.” A fascinating footnote (119n12) ties back to the previous chapter’s discussion of being above or below the machine, with the image of the “deformed tool-bearer,” that is, the human artisan alienated and physically deformed from their relation with their tools; this explains the aversion felt towards craftworkers by gentlemen, Plato, etc.

S characterizes Wiener’s Cybernetics as a new Discourse on Method, enabling a shift from the “technical encyclopedism” of the previous stage to a “technological encyclopedism,” finally getting past the magical relations the previous stages were still mired in:

Cybernetics grants man a new type of majority, one that penetrates the relations of authority by distributing itself across the social body, and discovers the matu­rity of reflection beyond the maturity of reason, thereby giving man, in addition to the freedom to act, the power to create organization by establishing teleology. Consequently both finality and organization, which can now be rationally thought and created since they become a matter of technics, are no longer ulterior, superior reasons, capable of justifying everything: if finality becomes an object of technics, then there is something beyond finality in ethics; Cybernetics, in this sense, frees man from the unconditional prestige of the idea of finality. (120)

S concludes with a call for a “synthesis between the major and minor modes” of technical teaching, through a reform of education (121). The current system of encyclopedic technological education “aims at giving the adult the feeling that he is a fulfilled, entirely realized being, in full possession of his means and his forces, an image of the individual man in his state of real maturity” (122), but remains abstract and lacking in the groundedness of the old artisanal-yet-minor learning. The “autodidact,” (which apparently describes also the abstractly-taught university student?) lacks the craftworking apprentice/journeyman’s path of becoming an adult through a series of stages or tests, and thus has a false, abstract sense of history, which “presents as a fixed state what is merely a stage,” and “neglects the temporal, successive, quantic aspect of the discoveries that have led to the current state;” this leads to the myth of progress as something that happens inevitably or under its own power as some constant trend – S here echoes his own earlier criticisms of the ahistoricity of the cyberneticists, and his argument that invention is serrated, rather than continuous.

He criticizes “non-technological education” for a certain fetishization of culture without knowledge (apparently meaning, the learning of abstractions rather than concretely applied, and situatedly learned, knowledge). His example is the history of technology through a focus on [“Great Men”] who are really misleading abstractions from the actual learning of technology, and of history [cf. discussion of the “voult,” above]:

There is more authentic culture in the gesture of a child who reinvents a technical device, than in a text where Chateaubriand describes the “terrifying genius” of Blaise Pascal. (123)

Simondon has choice words for cultural education in art and literature which express what he calls the “opinions” of social groups of the past; [precisely what Bakhtin finds interesting about the novel, Simondon finds tedious and unimportant]. The bigger problem is a focus on education through “discursive intellectual symbols” (124), which can never be adequate for understanding technical objects, which are above all else synthetic and practical, the result of the “compromise” of various knowledges which can not always be “coordinated intellectually.” An understanding and education that is capable of this is actually only now possible (in the 20th century) because of the birth of information theory, which is “a thinking that acts as mediator between the various technics on the one hand, between the various sciences on the other” (125); in other words mediating between technical education and encyclopedism as “two simultaneous and successive orders of universality,” and ultimately between the manual laborer and the intellectual, and between the city (the order of succession, time, and individuality) and the country (the order of simultaneity, place, and tradition).

No comments:

Post a Comment