Notes for Jean-Francois Lyotard The Inhuman: Reflections on Time
Key concepts: anamensis, bit, debt to childhood, inhuman, postmodern, rewriting, working through.
Related theorists: Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Hubert Dreyfus, Sigmund Freud, Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl, Immanuel Kant, Alan Kay, Bruno Latour, Lev Manovich, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, Bernard Stiegler.
Preface and Acknowledgments
About the Human
(1) What value is, what sure is, what man is, these questions are taken to be dangerous and shut away again pretty fast. It is said that they open the way to 'anything goes,” 'anything is possible', 'all is worthless'. Look, they add, what happens to the ones who go beyond this limit: Nietzsche taken hostage by fascist mythology, Heidegger a Nazi, and so on . . . .
(2) In 1913, Apollinaire wrote ingenuously: 'More than anything, artists are men who want to become inhuman.' And in 1969, Adorno again, more prudently: 'Art remains loyal to humankind uniquely through its inhumanity in retard to it.'
(2) what if human beings, in humanism's sense, were in the process of, constrained into, becoming inhuman (that's the first part)? And (the second part), what if what is 'proper' to humankind were to be inhabited by the inhuman?
(2) The inhumanity of the system which is currently being consolidated under the name of development (among others) must not be confused with the infinitely secret one of which the soul is hostage.
(3) That children have to be educated is a circumstance which only proceeds from the fact that they are not completely led by nature, not programmed. The institutions which constitute culture supplement this native lack.
(3) The question is only that of knowing whether this dialectic, whatever name we grace it with, leaves no remainder.
(3) There too, it is a matter of traces of an indeterminism, a childhood, persisting up to the age of adulthood.
(4) That it always remains for the adult to free himself or herself from the obscure savageness of childhood by bringing about its promise – that is precisely the condition of humankind.
(4) What it hurries, and crushes, is what after the fact I find I have always tried, under diverse headings – work, figural, heterogeneity, dissensus, event, thing – to reserve: the unharmonizable. . . . As if reason had no doubt that its vocation is to draw on the indeterminate to give it form, and that it cannot fail to succeed in this.
(4) We should first remember that if the name of human can and must oscillate between native indeterminism and instituted or self-instituting reason, it is the same for the name of inhuman.
(5) But the stress thus placed on the conflict of inhumanities is legitimated, nowadays, more than previously, by the fact of a transformation of the nature of the system which I believe is a profound one.
(5) The term postmodern has been used, badly rather than well if I judge by the results, to designate something of this transformation.
Development is present ideology, positivist hypothesis of process of complexification, characterized by its absence of finality besides explosion of the sun.
It will be seen in the pages which follow how one can try to describe
it following the general, positivist hypothesis of a process of
complexification, negative entropy or, put more simply,
(6) I am not making this hypothesis about development my own, because it is a way, the way, for metaphysics, henceforth ruled out for thinking, to re-establish its rights over it. Or to re-establish them not within thinking (if I make an exception of the thinking which still class itself philosophical, which is to say metaphysical), but from the outside of thinking. . . . 'Development' is the ideology of the present time, it realizes the essential of metaphysics, which was a thinking pertaining to forces much more than to the subject.
(6) Mediation does not only imply the alienation of elements as to their relation, it permits the modulation of that relation.
(7) The striking thing about this metaphysics of development is that it needs no finality. . . . It is reproduced by accelerating and extending itself according to its internal dynamic alone. . . . It has no necessity itself other than a cosmological chance.
Survival of complexity is sole objective of the cosmic order; interests of humanity are insignificant.
(7) The anticipated explosion of this star is the only challenge
objectively posed to development. The natural selection of systems is
thus no longer of a biological, but of a cosmic order. . . . The
interest of humans is subordinate in this to that of the survival of
(7) what else remains as 'politics' except resistance to this inhuman? And what else is left to resist with but the debt which each soul has contracted with the miserable and admirable indetermination from which it was born and does not cease to be born? – which is to say, with the other inhuman?
Debt to childhood as other type of inhuman besides cosmic order; calling for creative play by children of all ages, versus interpellation as adults of all ages, as Manovich interprets Kay?
(7) This debt to childhood is one which we never pay off. But it is enough not to forget it in order to resist it and perhaps, not to be unjust. It is the task of writing, thinking, literature, arts, to venture to bear witness to it.
Can Thought go on without a Body?
(9) Thought borrows a horizon and orientation, the limitless limit and the end without end it assumes, from the corporeal, sensory, emotional and cognitive experience of a quite sophisticated but definitely earthly existence – to which it's indebted as well.
(10) Dehumanized still implies human – a dead human, but conceivable: because dead in human terms, still capable of being sublated in thought. But in what remains after the solar explosion, there won't be any humanness, there won't be living creatures, there won't be intelligent, sensitive, sentient earthlings to bear witness to it, since they and their earthly horizon will have been consumed.
(10) Claudel called this a 'co-naissance', and Merleau-Ponty spoke of the chiasmus of the eye and the horizon, a fluid in which mind floats.
(11) Now this event is ineluctable. So either you don't concern yourself with it – and remain in the life of the mind and in earthly phenomenality.
(11) Or else you try to anticipate the disaster and fend it off with means belonging to that category – means that are those of the laws of the transformation of energy.
(12) You know – technology wasn't invented by us humans. Rather the other way around. As anthropologists and biologists admit, even the simplest life forms, infusoria (tiny algae synthesized by light at the edges of tidepools a few million years ago) are already technical devices. Any material system is technological if it filters information useful to its survival, if it memorizes and processes that information and makes inferences based on the regulating effect of behavior, that is, if it intervenes on and impacts its environment so as to assume its perpetuation at least. A human being isn't different in nature from an object of this type. . . . A human, in short, is a living organization that is not only complex but, so to speak, replex.
(13) The body might be considered the hardware of the complex technical device that is human thought. . . . No: the hardware will be consumed in the solar explosion taking philosophical thought with it (along with all other thought) as it goes up in flames.
(13) So the problem of the technological sciences can be stated as: how to provide this software with a hardware that is independent of the conditions of life on earth.
Problem of sustaining thought software via hardware independent of earthly energy sources seems isomorphic to problem of sustaining thought beyond individual embodied human lives.
In both cases then this means learning to manufacture a hardware
capable of nourishing our software or its equivalent, but one
maintained and supported only by sources of energy available in the
(15) Our disappointment in these organs of 'bodiless thought' comes from the fact that they operate on binary logic, one imposed on us by Russell's and Whitehead's mathematical logic, Turing's machine, Muculloch's and Pitts's neuronal model, the cybernetics of Wiener and von Neumann, Boolian algebra and Shannon's information science.
(15) But as [Hubert] Dreyfus argues, human thought doesn't think in a binary mode. It doesn't work with units of information (bits), but with intuitive, hypothetical configurations.
Human thought is reflective, analogical, not determinate, logical, binary, despite imposed computational models, due to debt owed to perceptual experience and embodiment in general.
(15-16) This description of a reflective thought opposed to determinate thought does not hide (in the work of Husserl or Dreyfus) what it owes to perceptual experience. . . . It describes a thought the proceeds analogically and only analogically – not logically. A thought in which therefore procedures of the type – 'just as . . . so likewise . . .' or 'as if . . . then' or again 'as p is to q, so r is to s' are privileged compared to digital procedures of the type 'if . . . then . . .' and 'p is not non-p.' Now these are the paradoxical operations that constitute the experience of a body, of an 'actual' or phenomenological body in its space-time continuum of sensibility and perception.
(16-17) A direct, focused vision is always surrounded by a curved area where visibility is held in reserve yet isn't absent. . . . Perceptual 'recognition' never satisfies the logical demand for complete description.
Thinking, whether natural or artificial, must be in its data as sense organs are in their perceptual fields, so great challenge for AI is its interfaces to earthly milieu, including natural languages.
Real 'analogy' requires a thinking or representing machine to be in
eye is in the visual field or writing is in language (in the broad
sense). It isn't enough for these machines to simulate the results of
vision or of writing fairly well. It's a matter (to use the
attractively appropriate locution) of 'giving body' to the artificial
thought of which they are capable.
(17-18) From this point of view we should indeed have grounds not to give up on techno-science. . . . It's up to you to give it a try. . . . A problem you encounter especially in the area of terminal/user interface. In that interface subsists the contact of your artificial intelligence with the naïve kind of intelligence borne by so-called 'natural' languages and immersed in them.
Thinking machines must designed to suffer in sense of Heidegger letting thought come forward itself, Freudian working through, transcendence in immanence.
If you think you're describing thought when you describe a selecting
and tabulating of data, you're silencing truth. Because data aren't
given, but givable, and selection isn't choice. Thinking, like
writing or painting, is almost no more than letting a givable come
towards you. . . . This soliciting of emptiness, this evacuation –
very much the opposite of overweening, selective, identificatory
activity – doesn't take place without some suffering.
(19) You don't clear the ground to build unobstructed: you make a little clearing where the penumbra of an almost-given will be able to enter and modify its contour. An example of this work is found mutatis mutandis in Freudian Durcharbeitung. In which – though I won't labor the point – the pain and the cost of the work of thought can be seen. This kind of thiking has little to do with combining symbols in accordance with a set of rules.
(19) To sum up – will your thinking-, your representing-machines suffer?
Unthought would have to make machines uncomfortable, memory suffer in order to ever start thinking; compare to Lacanian never ceasing to write itself Kittler likes to invoke.
(20) So: the unthought would have to make your machines uncomfortable, the uninscribed that remains to be inscribed would have to make their memory suffer. Do you see what I mean? Otherwise why would they ever start thinking? We need machines that suffer from the burden of their memory.
Gender is paradigmatic of incompleteness of bodies and minds.
(20-21) Finally, the human body has a gender. It's an accepted
proposition that sexual difference is a paradigm of an incompleteness
of not just bodies, but minds too. . . . Again we're back at
transcendence in immanence. The notion of gender dominant in
contemporary society wants this gap closed, this transcendence
toppled, this powerlessness overcome.
(21) Maybe (because as Freud showed in his description of deferred action, it inscribes effects without the inscription being 'memorize' in the form of recollection) it's the other way around? And this difference is what initially sets up fields of perception and thought as functions of waiting, of equivocations, as I've stated? This quite probably defines suffering in perceiving and conceiving as produced by an impossibility of unifying and completely determining the object seen.
(22) Your thinking machines will have to be nourished not just on radiation but on the irremdediable differend of gender.
Conclusions about real needs of AI and earthly exodus allude to the movie AI.
In granting all this, I concede that it isn't any human desire to
know or transform reality that propels this techno-science, but a
cosmic circumstance. But note that the complexity of that
intelligence exceeds that of the most sophisticated logical systems,
since it's another type of thing entirely. As a material ensemble,
the human body hinders the separability of this intelligence, hinders
its exile and therefore survival. But at the same time the body, our
phenomenological, mortal, perceiving body is the only available
thinking a certain complexity of thought.
(23) Thought is inseparable from the phenomenological body: although gendered body is separated from thought, and launches thought. . . . You have to prepare post-solar thought for the inevitability and complexity of this separation. Or the pilot at the help of spaceship Exodus will still be entropy.
(24) The advantage of 'rewriting modernity' [to postmodernity] depends on two displacements: the transformation of the prefix 'post-' into 're-' from the lexical point of view, and the syntactical application of this modified prefix to the verb 'writing', rather than to the substantive 'modernity'.
(25) Modernity is constitutionally and ceaselessly pregnant with its postmodernity.
(25) Rather than the postmodern, what would be properly opposed to modernity here would be the classical age.
Compare critique of periodization to Latour.
From this same point of view, we can see that historical
periodization belongs to an obsession that is characteristic of
modernity. Periodization is a
way of placing events in a diachrony, and diachrony is ruled by the
principle of revolution.
(26) The ambiguity of the term 'rewriting' is the very same ambiguity that haunts the relation of modernity with time. Rewriting can consist in the gesture I've just mentioned of starting the clock again from zero, wiping the slate clean, the gesture which inaugurates in one go the beginning of the new age and the new periodization.
(26) Essentially linked with writing in this sense, the 're-' in no way signifies a return to the beginning but rather what Freud called a 'working through', Durcharbeitung.
Apply Freud differentiation of repetition, remembering and working through.
(26) In a short but – if I may say so – memorable text bearing on
psychoanalytic 'technique', Freud distinguishes repetition,
remembering and working through.
(27) It is frequently the case that 'rewriting modernity' is understood in this sense, the sense of remembering, as though the point were to identify crimes, sins, calamities engendered by the modern set-up – and in the end to reveal the destiny that an oracle at the beginning of modernity would have prepared and fulfilled in our history.
(28) Basically the same plot weaves an intimacy between silence and sound, criminal and cop, unconscious ad consciousness.
(28) Far from really rewriting it, supposing that to be possible, all one is doing is writing again, and making real, modernity itself.
(28) Let me illustrate this trap with two examples. Marx detects the hidden functioning of capitalism . . . Today we know that the October Revolution only succeeded, under the aegis of Marxism, and that any revolution only does and will succeed, in opening the same wound again.
(28) And now from philosophy.
(29) But at just that point Nietzsche succumbs to the temptation to designate what grounds the perspectivizations, and calls it the will to power.
Challenge to ponder how rewriting could escape repetition of what it rewrites, beyond free association analogy arriving at auratic presence, Kant pleasure in the beautiful, Adorno micrologies, Benjamin passages, invites consideration by Kay of creating new media explained by Manovich, such as metamedia forms of linking.
The fact that Nietzsche's rewriting repeats the same error or fault
in spite of itself is a sign for reflection of what a rewriting could
be that escaped, as far as possible, the repetition of what it
(30-31) Freud calls this attitude 'free association'. All it is is a way of linking one sentence with another without regard for the logical, ethical or aesthetic value of the link.
(31) A fragment of a sentence, a scrap of information, a word, come along. They are immediately linked with another 'unit'. No reasoning, no argument, no mediation. By proceeding in this way, one slowly approaches a scene, the scene of something.
(31) Not present like an object, if an object can ever be present, but present like an aura, a gentle breeze, an allusion.
Adorno micrologies related to Benjamin passages in call to rewrite modernity.
I shall simply point out how close that description of rewriting is
to Kant's analysis of the work of the imagination in taste, in the
pleasure in the beautiful. . . . At the end of Negative
and also in the unfinished Aesthetic
Adorno lets it be understood that indeed we must rewrite modernity,
that modernity is, moreover, its own rewriting, but that one can only
rewrite it in the form of what he calls 'micrologies',
which is not unrelated to Benjamin's 'passages'.
(33) Rewriting, as I mean it here, obviously concerns the anamnesis of the Thing. Not only that Thing that starts off a supposedly 'individual' singularity, but of the Thing that haunts the 'language', the tradition and the material with, against and in which one writes.
(34) Postmodernity is not a new age, but the rewriting of some of the features claimed by modernity, and first of all modernity's claim to ground its legitimacy on the project of liberating humanity as a whole through science and technology. But as I have said, that rewriting has been at work, for a long time now, in modernity itself.
Resisting the bit concept, engineered unit of information; how does this affect Bogost unit operations?
(34-35) The new technologies have given that craft a considerable impetus, since they submit to exact calculation every inscription on whatever support: visual and sound images, speech, musical lines, and finally writing itself. In my view, the noteworthy result of this is not, as Baudrillard thinks, the constitution of an immense network of simulacra. It seems to me that what is really disturbing is much more the importance assumed by the concept of the bit, the unit of information. When we're dealing with bits, there's no longer any question of free forms given here and now to sensibility and the imagination. On the contrary, they are units of information conceived by computer engineering and definable at all linguistic levels – lexical, syntactic, rhetorical and the rest. . . it being admitted that working through is above all the business of free imagination and that it demands the deployment of time between 'not yet', 'no longer' and 'now', what can the use of the new technologies preserve or conserve of that? How can it still withdraw from the law of the concept, of recognition and prediction? For the moment, I shall content myself with the following reply: rewriting means resisting the writing of that supposed postmodernity.
Matter and Time
(36) One of the questions posed is that of the use of the concept of matter in contemporary philosophy.
Logos and Techne, or Telegraphy
Begins with Stiegler hypothesis that all technology is objectification, spatialization of meaning modeled on written inscription.
(47-48) I shall start from the basic hypothesis of [Bernard] Stiegler's work, namely that all technology is an 'objectification' – i.e., a spatialization – of meaning, whose model is writing itself, in the common sense of the word. And that inscription, putting into traces, on the one hand – because it is 'legible' (decodable, if you like) – opens a public space of meaning and generates a community of users-producers, and on the other (?) because it is endowed with persistence by its being marked on a spatial support, conserves the sign of the past event, or rather produces it as available, presentable and reactualizable memory.
How do new technological writings afford anamnesis is a task for future thinking and trying out.
(57) The whole question is this: is the passage possible, will it be possible with, or allowed by, the new mode of inscription and memoration that characterizes the new technologies? Do they not impose syntheses, and syntheses conceived still more intimately in the soul than any earlier technology has done? But by that very fact, do they not also help to refine our anamnesic resistance? I'll stop on this vague hope, which is too dialectical to take seriously. All this remains to be thought out, tried out.
Lyotard, Jean-Francois. The Inhuman: Reflections on Time. Trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1991. Print.