Chapter 3: From Metaphor to Embodiment: Resisting Technesis
In a response to a review of the book Embodying Technesis, Mark Hansen agrees that he may have given short shrift to systems theory. His discussion of systems theory, which he sees as a “positivation” of the deconstructive moment takes its departure from William Paulsen’s book that explicitly attempts to show how systems theory can help us to understand literature; from this example, Hansen argues that systems theory is still committed to a “relative exteriority” that ultimately leaves materiality out of the distinction of system and environment. The problem is that Hansen chooses one specific application of systems theory that is committed to explaining how it functions within literature (the domain of representation). Hansen argues that “commitment to representationalism” and the collapsing of literary and techno-scientific systems is the major problem he has with cultural studies’ appropriation of poststructualist theory (and some of the poststructuralist theory itself).
Hansen argues that systems theory actually isolates the system from environment, but Cary Wolfe’s reading of Luhmann argues that it is only through the closure of the system that the system can connect to the environment. He writes,
This self-referential closure, however, does not indicate solipsism, idealism, or isolation but is instead crucial to understanding a fundamental principle of what I call ‘openness from closure’ [. . .] in the self-referential mode of operation, closure is a form of broadening possible environmental contacts; closure increases, by constituting elements more capable of being determined, the complexity of the environment that is possible for the system (Wolfe 15).
Furthermore, the system that makes a distinction is not limited to human beings, but every system that can “make distinctions.” For instance, a cell makes a distinction between what is and what is not itself – creating an outside environment that is not the system. In contrast to the systems theory approach, Hansen, appears to argue that complexity arises autonomously from systems. He writes, “technology also functions as a key agent in the macroevolution, or complexification of the material world. Whereas technologies are always results of culturally determined processes, they are also privileged vehicles of the natural process of material complexification” (56). For Hansen, then, the rule is that technology is increasing material complexification and that this complexity is “negantropic.” In other words, it seems to me that for Hansen there is a “natural” negentropic force of technology that complexifies our world, a force having little to do with a “relative” exteriority. So even if Hansen maintains that this movement is “non-teleological” there still seems to be a telos: the elimination of entropy.
The question is – who is “positivizing” the deconstructive moment? Does Wolfe “positivize” Derrida when he claims,
Derrida and Luhmann converge on the same point from opposite directions; while Derrida emphasizes the final undecidability of any signifying instance, Luhmann stresses that even so systems must decide, they must selectively process the differences between information and utterance if they are to achieve adaptive resonance with their environment. Thus underneath this apparent divergence is a shared emphasis—against ‘relativism’ and ‘anything goes’ reflexivity—on the determinate specificity of the signifying or communicative instance that must be negotiated, which is precisely why in Limited Inc. Derrida rejects the term ‘indeterminacy’ because it occludes an understanding of the determinate oscillation between possibilities (for examples, of meaning, but also of acts). (23)
I would argue that, no, he does not. Indeed, it is important to see that Hansen is the one using thermodynamic theories of entropy/negentropy in service of his ontological claim of material complexification that results in negentropic force. Luhmann’s distinctions go further than the second-order cybernetic theories Hansen depends on that simply distinguish between information/noise (another distinction critiqued by Hansen).
Indeed, I think that it is important to note that Hansen’s more recent essay, “Media Theory” uses systems-theoretical terms to describe the media’s function in connect system and environment:
The medium, we might say, is implicated in living as essentially technical, in what I elsewhere call ‘technical life’; it is the operation of mediation—and perhaps also the support for the always concrete mediation—between a living being and the environment. In this sense, the medium perhaps names the very transduction between the organism and the environment that constitutes life as essentially technical; thus it is nothing less than a medium for the exteriorization of the living, and correlatively, for the selective actualization of the environment, a demarcation of a world, of an existential domain, from the unmarked environment as such” (300, italics mine).
Taking this quotation as a departure point and translating it into the language I used a minute ago, we might say that the medium (which is basically any exteriorizing medium – language, but, moreover, writing (Derrida) or communication (Luhmann)) helps to make a distinction, actualizing a different relation between system and environment.
Furthermore, I think we should read Hansen’s argument about “medium” as corresponding to the position he ascribes to Derrida in what Hansen calls Derrida’s ‘machine reduction of technology’: “Functionally, technology is limited to the role of material support for the ‘possibilities of the trace’; like writing in the restricted sense, it is merely the means by which differance exteriorizes and expresses itself” (84).Replace “differance” with the “exteriorization of the living” as a selective actualization of the environment and I think you will see why his position corresponds with Derrida’s, except that Derrida uses the “machine” metaphor and Hansen calls this “medium” (which is also what systems theory would call it if we remember Gumbrecht’s quote).
Hansen argues that Derrida and others who put technology into discourse, reducing technology to a text-machine, is “a defense against the threat posed by the radical material alterity of technology: by safely situating technology as the ‘other’ within thought, as the machinery of language integral to thought’s genesis, technesis neutralizes a more formidable ‘other’ that threatens the wholesale dissolution of the much cherished closure of representation” (87). Here, I would argue that the idea that human ‘thought’ or ‘writing’ as communication is integral to ourselves, to any human being – that we are always already “inhuman” would be much more terrifying. Thus, I think Hansen in a sense is defending against this position, which he partially amends in his essay “Media Theory.” Following Bernard Stiegler, Hansen argues that the break of the human from everything is else is also the invention of technics (299). However, Hansen still maintains that, a bit contrary to his Lyotardian position in Embodying Technesis, that “no matter how cognitively sophisticated these technologies become, they operate only through their coupling with the human” (302). In this way, technology is not an “autonomous,” radically exterior force; rather, technology is only “quasi-autonomous”
The key rhetorical move by which the poststructuralists reduce technology is metalepsis. Hansen defines the term as
a rhetorical figure describing the metonymical substitution of one (figurative) word for another or several others. Most often involving extreme compression and an ensuing obfuscation of the literal sense of the statement, metalepsis also, in certain cases, designates an inversion or conflation of cause and effect (91).
Thus, Hansen argues that metalepsis designates “the triumph of having so stationed technology, in one’s own work, that particular aspects of technology seem to be not preconditions of one’s description, but rather to be caused by one’s own production” (Hansen 92, original italics).
One of the issues with Hansen’s use of the text-machine is that he is reducing the text to an ideal form rather than a material artifact/medium that is one way “writing” happens. He is confusing “text” and “writing” with language, particularly language as representation: “As long as technology is made to derive from language, the postructuralist and constructivist idioms can confidently maintains their enabling conflation of technology’s robust materiality with the relative materiality that it possesses within the theater of representation” (93).
Greek ontology and the Machine Reduction
I hate to sound snotty, but if Derrida has reduced the machine to a textual metaphor, then Hansen has reduced the supplement to only one of its significations. Hansen quotes Aristotle on the meaning of techne, which contains two specific forms of mimesis: that which “carries to its end what physis is incapable of effecting” and the usual sense of “imitation” (Lacou-Labarthe qtd. in Hansen 95). Hansen argues that Derrida’s description of the supplement “could well be a gloss on Aristotle’s passage: “The supplement adds itself, it is a surplus, a plenitude enriching another plenitude, the fullest measure of presence. It is thus that art, techne, image, representation, convention etc. come as supplements to nature and are rich with this entire cumulating function” (Derrida qtd. in Hansen 95). Then Hansen moves on to say that in this form, the supplement, “retains a basic fidelity to Aristotelian techne” (95).
First, we must contextualize the passage that Hansen tears out of Derrida. The passage stems from the section From/Of Blindness to the Supplement, a section that discusses the function of the supplement in the text of Rousseau. Derrida says many times surrounding this passage quoted from Hansen that he is speaking about the supplement “in the text of Rousseau” (although, it might be worth pointing out that in “Typewriter Ribbon,” Derrida says that in de Man, the text of Rousseau becomes “exemplary of the text in general”) It is extremely important to the rest of his argument to read what Hansen did not quote. Directly before the passage, Derrida writes,“For the concept of the supplement—which here determines that of the representative image—harbors within itself two significations whose cohabitation is as strange and as necessary” (144).
So, we already know that Hansen has not quoted the second signification. But even before we get there, directly after the passage Hansen quotes, Derrida writes, “This kind of supplementarity determines in a certain way all the conceptual oppositions which Rousseau inscribes the notion of Nature to the extent that it should be self-sufficient” (145). This part is quoted to show that the type of supplement is articulated within the context of the text of Rousseau specifically regarding nature. But let’s see what the other signification is:
substitute, it is not simply added to the positivity of a presence, it produces no relief, its place is assigned in the structure by the mark of an emptiness. Somewhere something can be filled up of itself, can accomplish itself, only by allowing itself to be filled through sign and proxy” (145). More importantly, the next paragraph states, “this second signification of the supplement cannot be separated from the first [. . .] But their common function is shown in this: whether it adds or substitutes itself, the supplement is exterior, outside of the positivity to which it is super-added, alien to that which, in order to be replaced by it, must be other than it” (145).
Although I am not quite sure what this means, the question is whether or not Hansen can really claim that Derrida’s notion of the supplement is a “gloss” on Aristotle’s concept of “techne” if he erases the context of the passage (Rousseau) and the second signification of the supplement. I think we may find that Derrida does not recuperate the supplement into the domain of thought, as Hansen claims.
Luck and the automatic (pgs 98-101) (some notes and Questions)
Luck—“restricted domain of events, those capable of choosing” (humans)
Automatic—“to animals other than man, objects” etc.
1.) luck ‘former’ “are for something in a sense that could be determined by their agent (i.e. according to the category of thought), while the latter are for something in a sense that cannot be so determined, that remains-in itself-indeterminate.
2.) The final cause of an automatic event is external and thus can only make sense if understood by an intentional agent.
Hansen points out that Aristotle does not hold to the radical exteriority of the automatic and assimilates it into the domain of the mind. The automatic is “para physin in the sense that it cannot be tied down to a purpose immediately graspable by and attributable to an agent of thought or to nature. Its efficiency derives from something purely contingent and external in the subject it qualifies” (100). If we look back to Derrida’s description of the supplement, we see that is much more akin to “the automatic” than to Aristotle’s restricted definition of techne.
Chapter 4: Questioning the Machine Basis of Technology: Heidegger on Techne
In Rutsky’s book, he interprets high-tech as technology that reveals in the mode of poesis; For Heidegger and for Rutsky, poesis, as a revealing that brings-forth, puts us in a positive, “science-fictional” relationship with the future. Rutsky writes at the end of his book,
“These ‘other’ futures cannot be represented through rational analysis and predictions; they can only be imagined through a science-fictional process, an imaginative, aesthetic process that is similar to the bringing-forth that Heidegger saw in the Greek techne” (158).
While Rutsky sees this shift as promising and productive, following Heidegger’s lead, Hansen reads Heidegger’s “Question Concerning Technology” as another symptom of technesis, arguing that “Heidegger’s reduction of technology thus functions to insure the domestication of modern technology within the frame of poiesis” (104).
Hansen first reads technology as an ontic supplement that contributes to our “fallenness” and “inauthentic” existence in idle chat and curiosity. The argument is that basically, technology infiltrates the purity of language: “What cybernetic technologies do is present the being of language as mere words cut off from their connection with a [. . .] ‘context of involvements’. In this sense, what Heidegger says of the typewriter is all the more true of the computer” (109).
Hansen argues that Heidegger only considers technologies which “can be thematized in explicit terms” because these are the only ones that can have a direct impact on our lives. He argues that there are two mediated practices which are left out of this category:
1. Experiences in which there is no breakdown and hence no motivation to cross from the practical to the theoretical domain.
2. Experience in which technology’s impulse (because it is molecular and diffuse) isi n pricinpel not recuperable through thematization.
In terms of “Question Concerning Technology,” it seems like Hansen comes to the opposite conclusion of Rutsky; namely, that far from the mode of poiesis being able to engage with high-tech, it actually cannot extend to the question of high-tech: “Whereas poiesis could coherently be applied to the forms of production known to the Greeks (“handcraft manufacture,” “artistic and poetical bringing into appearance and concrete imagery,” and physis) it simply cannot be extended to cover the category of modern production” (115). Instead, Hansen argues that “as long as it comprises a mode of poiesis or the revealing of Being, modern technology, in other words, can distinguished solely through its negativity—the way it obscures the meaning of Being” (118).
Given what we said about Rutsky’s tracing of the development of technologies back to an artisan, a producer – that such an origin of production is rare these days (see I, Pencil) I think we would be more apt to agree with Hansen’s critique rather than Rutsky’s affirmation of the Heideggerian poiesis.
Chapter 5: The Mechanics of Deconstruction: Derrida on De Man, or Poststructuralism in the Age of Cultural Studies
Hansen claims that Derrida effectively preserves the priority of Heideggerian poiesis, claiming that “privileging the trace as the withdrawl of truth, Derrida retains the very same priority of ontology for which Levinas rebukes Heidegger” (124). And again, on the next page: “by taking the being of what is and making it thoroughly dependent on the metaphysics of the text (and thus on the operation of techne), Derrida simply effaces the very category of radical exteriority and, along with it, all traces of materiality outside the space governed by textuality” (125).
“The functional analogy linking text with machine begins to function ontologically—and hence reductively—from the moment when deconstruction generalizes its claims to technology as such, rather than restricting them to technology in its textual form” (128).
“matter” is reduced to playing “the purely abstract role of that which resists idealization” (129)
We should recall Hansen’s understanding of the supplement, as it is crucial to his argument in this chapter on Derrida as well. Hansen writes, “technology simply supplements thought ith a material basis without which it could not function” and also, on the opposite page, “technology is made wholly coequivalent with the supplement and thus loses its truly radical force as a material obstacle to the onto-phenomenological movement of thought, a threat to thinking itself” (133). I have a hard time thinking how technology isn’t a threat to thinking itself while at the same time being the enabling condition for thought. It’s a threat to the purity of thought or to thought without any mediation – ideal thought.
De Man and Derrida’s ‘materiality’ of the text
Hansen argues that Derrida “ignores de Man’s introduction of the ‘material’—a category, I suggest, holds the relation of radical exteriority with respect to phenomenological thought or consciousness [Erinnerung]” (read pgs 138-`139 for a general summary of Hansen’s argument)
In Psyche: Inventions of the Other 1 Derrida is adamant that de Man’s notion of textual “materiality” is not matter. I will quote a few passages from the essay, “Typewriter Ribbon: Limited Ink (2) (within such limits),” which we would do well to read closely:
The materiality in question—is not a thing; it is not something (sensible or intelligible); it is not even the matter of a body [. . .] this nothing therefore operates, it forces, but as a force of resistance. It resists both beautiful form and matter as substantial and organic totality. This is one of the reasons that de Man never says, it seems to me, matter, but materiality [. . .] I would say that it is a materiality without matter (350)
This force of resistance without material substance derives from the dissociative and inorganic, disorganizing, disarticulating, and even disseminal power that de Man attributes to the letter “ (351)
First of all, the inscription of a textual event—and this will later be one of the traits of the materiality of matter—is a machine like deconstruction of the body proper. This is why I said, using a formulation that is not de Man’s, that materiality becomes a very useful generic name for all that resists appropriation (353).
The materiality of this event as a textual event is what is or makes itself independent of any subject or any desire (357).
On the one hand, we can read these statements as Hansen would – as a reduction of robust materiality into the relative exteriority of the text. However, might we also consider that these passages mean that the world is not a text in the sense that everything is “textualized” (turned into and object for literary hermeneutics). Indeed, in these above formulations, the textual event/world is not appropriable, which means that is not something that is simply “given to thinking.” Or at least, it cannot be subsumed and appropriated by the thinking subject. Let us now look at how Derrida defines the text in his work:
In his essay “But beyond. . .,” Derrida writes that the text is,
always a field of forces: heterogeneous, differential, open, and so on . . .[Deconstructive readings and writings] are not simply analyses of discourses, such as, for example, the one you propose. They are also effective or active (as one says) interventions, in particular political and institutional interventions that transform contexts without limiting themselves to theoretical or constative utterances even though they must produce such utterances (168).
So the text is metaphorically described as a machine in some essays, but it is also described in other ways. Perhaps we can take this as a sign that Derrida finds the machinic metaphor convenient to describe the disarticulation of the text, but does not restrict technology (in the more “robust material” sense to an object (a text) for thinking. Furthermore, it’s not as though Derrida is unaware of the actual effects of material technology on someone, for instance, being filmed (see my last blog post on Echographies of Television).
Ch. 6: Psyche and Metaphor: Derrida’s Freud
“Through his proposed generalization, technology remains, in its essence, a means of archivation, of information storage; only now, in the postFreudian era, it finds itself spread over global dimensions. Stripped of all hints of autonomy, of a proper materiality, technology—as the materialization of the world’s resemblance to memory—is made to fit within a teleological history of the psyche and its ontogenetic production of thought and memory. Integrated into the textually given play of the world, technology comprises nothing more than a support for the Being-in-the-world of the psyche.” (147)
The question here is whether or not there is something wrong with conceiving of technology as forms of memory; specifically, exteriorizations of memory, as Stiegler puts it, tertiary retentions. In Katherine Hayles essay “Tech-TOC,” she argues that Stiegler’s privileging of tertiary retentions is problematic:
the biological capacity for memory (which can be seen as an evolutionary adaptation to carry the past into the present) is exteriorized, creating the possibility, through technics, for a person to experience through complex temporality something that never was experienced as a first-hand event, a possibility that Stiegler calls tertiary retention. This example, which Stiegler develops at length and to which he gives theoretical priority, should not cause us to lose sight of the more general proposition: that all technics imply, instantiate, and evolve through complex temporalities[JR1] .
It seems that in Hansen’s “Media Theory,” he is following Stiegler, arguing that there is an “essential correlation of storage with life” (301). Even though he seems to follow Stiegler, Hansen seems less concerned with tertiary retention and more with secondary retention. Hansen writes,
As Stiegler has shown, the contemporary culture industries strive to exercise and maintain a stranglehold on cultural memory (secondary memory) by offering pre-programmed, media artifactual memory objects (tertiary memories) that, because of their seduction and their ubiquity work to erode the role of personal consciousness and to displace lived experience as the basis for secondary memory (304).
The priority of secondary memory for Hansen is because, continuing his project in Embodying Technesis, he wants to still focus on lived experience. According to Hansen, digital technologies
empower personal secondary memory to reassert some control over the production of presencings [. . .] because they allow personal lived consciousness control over the flux of the media artifact that is its surrogate temporal object, they allow consciousness to live time (at least to some extent) according to its own rhythms. In sum, digital technologies restore some sense of agency that personal lived consciousness has (apparently) lost (304).
Hansen wants to create a “politics of presencing” to…supplement?... Stiegler and Derrida’s “politics of memory,” that both refer to in Echographies of Television.
My next blog post will address the Hansen’s last chapter of Embodying Technesis and the distinction Benjamin makes of different kinds of experience/memory and Stiegler’s reading of tertiary and secondary retentions. Is it plausible to see Stiegler’s tertiary retentions as “voluntary memory”? If so, how would this different from Hansen’s current project of a politics of presencing?