Machines and democracy


The solution to the problem of political economy, of capitalist alienation, and of cybernetics, was supposed to be found in the invention of a new kind of relationship with machines, a “technological culture” that up to now had been lacking in western modernity.  Such a doctrine justified, thirty years later, the massive development of “citizen” teaching in science and technology. Because living beings, contrary to the cybernetic hypothesis’ idea, are essentially different from machines, mankind would thus have the responsibility to represent technological objects: “mankind, as the witness of the machines,” wrote Simondon, “is responsible for their relationship; the individual machine represents man, but man represents the ensemble of machines, since there is no one machine for all the machines, whereas there can be a kind of thinking that would cover them all.” In its present utopian form, seen in the writings of Guattari at the end of his life, or today in the writings of Bruno Latour, this school claimed to “make objects speak”, and to represent their norms in the public arena through a “parliament of Things.”  […]  What the utopians pretended not to know was that the integration of technological thinking by everybody would in no way undermine the existing power relations. The acknowledgement of the man-machines hybridity in social arrangements would certainly do no more than extend the struggle for recognition and the tyranny of transparency to the inanimate world. In this renovated political ecology, socialism and cybernetics would attain to their point of optimal convergence: the project of a green republic, a technological democracy — “a renovation of democracy could have as its objective a pluralistic management of the whole of the machinic constituents,” wrote Guattari in the last text he ever published — the lethal vision of a definitive civil peace between humans and non-humans.

I agree with this. Earlier this year I read many of Guattari’s late ecological pieces, and I was struck by the ways in which his ecology, like his machines, were envisioned both as a safe harbor from post-’68 political disappointments and as a new ground on which humans could recompose themselves and regain control over things. Man’s dominion over things and all that. Instead of employing escape and anarchy, Guattari’s ecology was informed by fantasy and sovereignty, an attempt to solve social antagonism by displacing it.

Similarly, I think speculative realists are repeating the cybernetics mistakes that Tiqqun correctly diagnoses: a failure to discuss or even acknowledge the problem of representation, which they attempt to elide by a thorough depoliticization of ontology. (Claiming that objects are “withdrawn” is a symptom of the problem, not a solution to it.) Appropriately enough, this gets called the “democracy of objects.” But objects have a way of not caring, and of biting back.


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