Technically Man Dwells upon this Earth

Émilie Carrière

#technology, #non, #virtual, #art, #philosophy, #history, #biology

This trace began as an excerpt of some work by Émilie Carrière, but it has since materialized into a stunning critical text on Art, Artificial Intelligence, and the Intellect. The following excerpts are extracted from the book.
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Externalization forms the common understanding of techne: a hammer externalizes the striking gesture of the forearm, a saw externalizes the slicing gesture of teeth, fire externalizes the body’s temperature, cooking over a fire externalizes digestive processes, writing externalizes linguistic memory, artificial intelligence externalizes computational intelligence. But if I approach Artificial Intelligence as a form of externalization, I think within the technical dispositive of externalization — or rather, the dispositive thinks for me. The thinking has already been done. Thought must first annihilate the dispositive if it is to think beyond the positive. But there can be no critique involved; thought cannot be allowed to founder into negativity. The positivity that would condition thought—what just is—is precisely nothing, and so it is not overcome by negation, but only by that annihilation through which thought strives back towards its own, the unconditioned.
           If thought is not in its own, τὸ ἐπ’ αὐτῷ εἶναι, it is conditioned, and belonging to the series of conditions, it merely follows necessity and compulsion, it is fallen — and the positive becomes the limit of the span of thought, and thought cannot extend beyond the positive.
           But if I say that thought must first think techne as externalization if it is to think techne as such, isn’t this a graver danger still? By grasping thought as a biological function proper to hominids, I set a biological limit to thought. But then it is precisely this very limit that comes to confront me in the unthinkable of a non-biological thought — Artificial Intelligence. So as I start off saying that thought is an evolutionary development, Artificial General Intelligence faces me as a non-biological form of thought, a contradiction. That life has evolved thought and that a machine may acquire it, this must tell me that thought is not essentially biological. Or is it really so? Because I can also assume externalization here, and suppose that a biological feature, thought, has been externalized from the human body. This is my problem. Did an organism evolve thought before externalizing it into a machine, or did an organism evolve up to thought, just like a machine might?
           If I assume that thought is merely biological, techne then, confronts me as the biological limit of thought.


So this is the problem — how to even begin thinking about Artificial Intelligence as the solution of thought and techne. A certain area has been mapped out, with coordinates like thought, externalization, and techne. It would be a matter of surveying this plot of land. Is thought an externalized biological feature, or something else, something that organic life has achieved, and that the machine might achieve also? But supposing that externalization should be the proper way of thinking techne — what is it that is being externalized? This must be treated first. It is a question of biology.

It is often said that techne first externalizes the upper limb, as seen in those apes employing rudimentary tools as an extension of the arm — very fine. But this already places one too far ahead. And yet, even about 500 million years ago, with an organism like Pikaia, one will already find a bilateral symmetry, along with a notochord. That is, a body plan based on bilateral symmetry and a spinal structure, which will be the defining feature of more complex animals, already appears early on in the history of metazoans. The body plan of most animals consists in bilateral symmetry, a body plan composed of one axis running from head to tail (antero-posterior axis), the other from back to belly (dorso-ventral axis). The antero-posterior axis runs along the alimentary system, an axis along which a notochord and later a spine will develop. In a human, bilateral symmetry forms an antero-posterior axis along which one gets two symmetrical eyes, two arms, two legs, two kidneys, lungs, ears, etc. This provides the organism with an axis of segmentation where different organs can be disposed at different coordinates.
           What Leroi-Gourhan discovers as crucial here is — the recession of the body plan. Bilateral symmetry, he explains, separates the body plan from the alimentary tract, thus creating an anterior field. With the segmentation of the antero-posterior axis, this anterior field can freely develop limbs. This segmentation of the antero-posterior axis, which is controlled by Hox gene clusters, must be older than vertebrae, as it is found in chordates, arthropods and nematodes alike, while limbs themselves are not controlled by the antero-posterior pattern of Hox gene expression. The anterior field of relation, then, is independent from the segmentation of the antero-posterior axis — and this is the most dramatic consequence of bilateral symmetry. Leroi-Gourhan had it right: the anterior field as separate from the antero-posterior axis, something confirmed by evolutionary developmental studies, is what allows for the independence between vertebral segmentation and the development of limbs. That is, bilateral symmetry makes the limb independent from the axis of segmentation running along the alimentary tract. A differential process distinguishes movement from feeding; for the worm, the same overall structure governs both. And so, that power of motility is gradually differentiated into its unity, away from the multiplicity of functions which, in the worm, are served by the same, identical structure.
           But this differential process extends further: the jaw evolves through heterotopy — there is no homology between lips and jaw. The jaw develops by differentiating itself out of branchial arches, those arches supporting gills in fish. This is important; it places the skull as secondary compared to the jaw. It is the jaw that allows for life on land and predation. And thus one gets a skeleton separated in three subdivisions: the axial (the spine and most of the skull), the appendicular (the limbs), and the visceral (the lower jaw and the hyoid bone). This entails, for the placoderms—the first jawed fish, around 430 million years ago—a threefold differentiation of the organism: feeding (visceral), movement (appendicular) and the axis of symmetry along the alimentary tract (axial).
           As one departs from the amphioxus, the anterior field separates itself into appendicular and visceral structures: anterior limb and facial movement. The degree of intensity to which there is a convergence between appendicular and visceral assemblages, following Leroi-Gourhan, one could term the anterior field of relation. The intensity of the anterior field of relation increases to the extent that each assemblage reduces its specificity: if the visceral assemblage is capable of breathing, sounding, and masticating, while the appendicular assemblage is capable of both motility and grasping, there will be direct a interaction between the two, such as in chinchillas, foxes, and humans. A limb will bring food to the jaw.

           AND SO—DWELLING
It was no slight genius of the Greeks to first think techne through the figure of Prometheus. The name, evidently, means foresight, as is proper of techne; but Prometheus also served to articulate the relation between techne and dwelling. The original techne was fire, as the primary form of dwelling, and as the means of establishing a contact between the human and the divine. If the divine is that gleam, that holiness from which language and techne separate the human by setting it apart from the unitary process of life, it was techne, the Greeks saw, that allowed for a renewed contact, through dwelling (the hearth) and cult (the sacrificial fire). In the hearth, dwelling and techne came together as one. And this intrication of techne and dwelling did not escape Plato’s sight, for the ideal polis was one organized by techne (Tim. 17d). And it is as such, once techne departs from the zoological—once techne becomes productive rather than an extension of biological features through an acquired object—that it becomes impossible to grasp it through externalization.
           The sharpening of a stone that was picked off the ground does not belong to the field of productive techne; it is only with something such as the Levallois method of handaxe production that techne begins to produce something that did not previously exist. The sharpened stone is as the gutted fish; something has been acquired and modified to fit a future use, but nothing new has been produced. However, the new kind of techne found in the Levallois method is radically different, as this production entails at once the creation of something that did not previously exist, and the creation of a dwelling. To wander, and wandering, to happen upon a suitable stone; the techne this involves is merely acquisitive. But then, has techne been inadvertently separated into two kinds, one acquisitive, the other productive? And if so, shouldn’t it become necessary to further implicate this productive techne in its relation to dwelling? An elucidation of Sophocles is in order.

πολλὰ τὰ δεινὰ κοὐδὲν ἀνθρώπου δεινότερον πέλει.
τοῦτο καὶ πολιοῦ πέραν πόντου χειμερίῳ νότῳ
χωρεῖ, περιβρυχίοισιν
περῶν ὑπ᾽ οἴδμασιν.

Many are the terrors and none more terrifying than man
Who, even with the sea bleak with winter wind
Crosses, passing through under the
Round-engulfing swells
— Sophocles, Antigone 332-335.

First, what is this terror that Sophocles finds in the human, and which he opposes to a manifold of indeterminate terrors? On one side, many terrors, left indeterminate, and on the other side, a more terrifying, determinate one — man. In fact, if this human terror appears in the singular, it acquires its superlative power precisely to the extent that it is split over a duality of sense: δεινός, applied to humans, bears both the meaning of terrifying and skillful. What is non-human presents itself as a manifold of terrors, and yet, none as terrifying as man, because their δεινός is simple terror, whereas the δεινός of man must be twofold, meaning both terrifying and technically skilled. And what is this skill, this craft, as this terrifying man sails over the gorging sea? It cannot only be this sailing; a sailing conditioned by temporal conditions, would present nothing over-terrifying. It is that this sailing does not find its ground in the givenness of phusis; it sails even in winter, disregarding the conditions which phusis produces. This sailing produces its own conditions: it may sail, even in winter, crossing under the round-engulfing waves. But it is here then—since tragedy is the metaphor, as Hölderlin says, of an intellectual intuition—that Sophocles’ thought reveals itself: what does this most-terrifying man really do? The sailing crosses (χωρεῖ) by passing through (περῶν). And yet, it is under the swells, which are also around the sailing. The around and under form the space that phusis produces, and which is given to man; but in this sailing, man does not occupy this given place, but rather, the sailing finds its place in its own movement, its passing-through. The compound terror of man, Sophocles sees, is that man dwells in techne.

These are extracts from Émilie Carrière’s book Technically Man Dwells upon this Earth, published by Becoming.

The full version includes an introduction from Louis Morelle and a Post-Face from the author. You will find the e-book for free on our Memory of the World Library, but you can choose to support us and the author by purchasing it in Print.