Cybernetics for the Twenty-First Century: An Interview with Philosopher Yuk Hui
In his latest book, Recursivity and Contingency (2019), the Hong Kong philosopher Yuk Hui argues that recursivity is not merely mechanical repetition. He is interested in “irregularity deviating from rules.” He develops what could be called a neovitalist position, which goes beyond the view, dominant in popular culture today, that there is life inside the robot (or soon will be). In the “organology” Hui proposes, a system mimics growth and variation inside its own technical realm. “Recursivity is characterised,” he writes, “by the looping movement of returning to itself in order to determine itself, while every movement is open to contingency, which in turn determines its singularity.”1
Following On the Existence of Digital Objects (2016) and The Question Concerning Technology in China: An Essay in Cosmotechnics (2017), Recursivity and Contingency is Yuk Hui’s third and by far most ambitious book. Divided into five chapters that deal with different eras and thinkers, it starts with Kant’s reflective judgement, which Hui sees as a precursor to recursivity. The book then moves on to Hegel’s reflective logic, which anticipates cybernetics. According to Hui’s organology (and that of Bernard Stiegler), science and technology should be understood as means for returning to life, as paths towards true pluralism, or “multiple cosmotechnics,” to use Hui’s own key concept from his earlier book.
Our understanding of computational possibilities should not be limited to the “disruptive” technologies of Silicon Valley, oriented as they are towards short-term profits. Hui looks beyond this myopic view of technology. His foundational project is to dig into the philosophical foundations of today’s digitality, to examine the episteme that presents itself as a new form of totality (or as a “techno-subconsciousness,” as I have described it elsewhere). How can we think individuation in an age when the online self is surrounded by artificial stupidity and algorithmic exclusion in the name of ruthless profit maximization and state control? Is there a liberated self inside cybernetics?
Geert Lovink: Could you introduce the terms “recursivity” and “contingency”? How do these two terms relate to feedback, which is a central concept in cybernetics? Is it possible to sketch out potential cybernetic technologies that are not based on the principles of the current information revolution?
Yuk Hui: Recursivity is a general term for looping. This is not mere repetition, but rather more like a spiral, where every loop is different as the process moves generally towards an end, whether a closed one or an open one. As a computer science student, I was fascinated by recursion because it is the true spirit of automation: with a few lines of recursive code you can solve a complicated problem that might demand much more code if you tried to solve it in a linear way.
The notion of recursivity represents an epistemological break from the mechanistic worldview that dominated the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, especially Cartesian mechanism. The most well-known treatise on this break is Immanuel Kant’s 1790 Critique of Judgment, which proposes a reflective judgment whose mode of operation is anti-Cartesian, nonlinear, and self-legitimate (i.e., it derives universal rules from the particular instead of being determined by a priori universal laws). Reflective judgment is central to Kant’s understanding of both beauty and nature, which is why the two parts of his book are dedicated to aesthetic judgment and teleological judgment. Departing from Kant, and with a generalized concept of recursivity, I try to analyze the emergence of two lines of thought related to the concept of the organic in the twentieth century: organicism and organology. The former opens towards a philosophy of biology and the latter a philosophy of life. In the book, I attempt to recontextualize organicism and organology within today’s technical reality.
Contingency is central to recursivity. In the mechanical mode of operation, which is built on linear causation, a contingent event may lead to the collapse of the system. For example, machinery may malfunction and cause an industrial catastrophe. But in the recursive mode of operation, contingency is necessary since it enriches the system and allows it to develop. A living organism can absorb contingency and render it valuable. So can today’s machine learning.