The techno-anthropological virtual

Over on our technophilia blog I recently posted this short introduction and translation of Christian Fauré’s recent commentary on the concept of the virtual:

Last week Christian Fauré, of Ars Industrialis, posted a new blog post concerning what he has called the techno-anthropological virtual. The main substance of his argument, I suggest, is that the conceptualisation of the virtual that we can understand through the work of scholars such as Bergson, Deleuze and Stiegler is founded on technics, as a default of origin for the human. We must therefore understand the virtual in relation to the human as a techno-anthropological issue – it is realised through processes of exteriorisation, as mnemotechnics, and thus intimately bound up with the ways in which human development (becoming) has extended beyond the body-environment relationship and is tied to the creation of organised inorganic matter. The techno-anthoropological virtual is the potentialities that emerge in the associated milieu of trans-individuation, the becoming of assemblages of bodies, technologies and environments, and is concretised in the recording of traces, as language. For humans, then, ‘the virtual’ is the means by which ‘the real’ is articulated and enunciated.

I have created a rough translation of Christian’s post that I hope may be of interest, particularly in light of my recent comments on Digital Studies & virtuality and Patrick’s translation of Stiegler’s articulation of the ‘immaterial’ and ‘hypermaterial’, please find it below.

I have written my own clarifications or queries of terminology in square brackets.

The techno-anthropological virtual

There are different regimes of the virtual: the cosmic virtual (the acorn is potentially an oak), the physical virtual (stone is potentially a statue) and the metaphysical virtual (being, the real, the possible). However, to understand the virtual through current affairs requires another scheme of the virtual, one that we can call techno-anthropological.

This techno-anthropological perspective is part of a French tradition of thought that goes from [Andre] Leroi-Gourhan to Bernard Stiegler, through [Gilbert] Simondon and Gilles Deleuze.

At the heart of this current of thought, is the postulate that what is called ‘human’ is absolutely not something stable, once and for all, and that this is central to its ‘identity’. This approach is anthropological in the sense that the question of what is human can be learned from the processes of hominisation [becoming human or constituting the human].

However, this process of hominisation is itself learned from what Leroi-Gourhan has called the ‘processes of exteriorisation’. Actually, the term ‘externalisation‘ is perhaps a misnomer in that it implies some form of pre-existing interiority, as such, in the human mind, before becoming properly externalised – projected into the exterior – which can be seen in the first tool and in the cave paintings in Lascaux.

The process of externalisation can be understood through the analogy of the cinematographic process in which the intimacy of [internal] conscious thought is projected on to the canvas of the exterior. In other words, the partition between interior and exterior is not played out a priori, it establishes itself through the process of externalisation.

By the same token, the writing process does not simply consist of writing down words and phrases that are already in the brain: it is only in writing that we can understand our capacities and ‘internalise’ in turn what has been ‘externalised’. The externalisation process in turn leads to a process of internalisation, which we have both inherited and produced in digital technologies, [and so] we must now ask ourselves what digitally virtual technologies we want in return. This is the issue of Digital Studies.

Technics is what accompanies and concretises (in language, in writing, in the system of technical objects) through the process of externalisation that gives to us all prostheses that are – as Bernard Stiegler likes to remind us – a ‘necessary default’ [of being, ‘having yet to begin being’ Technics  and Time 1 p. 114]. The human is in default, a default of any quality necessary to be in the world [‘a flaw in being’ Technics and Time 1 p. 193], yet it is from this default that the technical nature of the hominisation process is manifested with all its technical necessity.

If I am insistant on this kind of exteriorisation process – which is a technical process and vested in technology today – it is because it is that which produces the techno-anthropological virtual, which principally interests us here. This virtual, as noted by Deleuze, is absolutely not opposed to the real, it constitutes a filter or developer (in the chemical sense of the term [the chemical catalyst that allows film to develop]) through which we are granted an ‘augmented’ vision of the real. To go further, the virtual is what we retain, that which guides us and which we interpret as the real. The real is always overdetermined by our technics of virtualisation, the foremost forms of language within contemporary means of writing the digital.

As Westerners, we would not survive more than a few days in the Amazon jungle, unlike the peoples that we call ‘primitive’. The reason is that we do not have the same kind of virtual filter: where we cannot distinguish anything amongst the abundant vegetation, they can see the opportunities and the dangers, and ‘read’ the jungle (in the same way that we say that the Inuit have a richer vocabulary for snow in all its forms). However, the reverse is also true, a ‘primitive’ in Paris probably will not survive in our urban jungle, with its codes and signs (a situation exploited in a number of comedy films, such as ‘An Indian in Paris’ or ‘Mr Pignon in the Amazon’).

In this sense, the virtual is that which gives proper meaning to reality; which allows us to interpret it and sets it within the order of signification. The virtual condition of the representation of things gives us calendarities [the institution of calendar temporalities] cardinalities [the ways in which we orientate ourselves according to specific axes such as compass points] that allow us to guide ourselves, and, in this way, religions are cultures are entirely consistent with a history of virtualisation techniques [perhaps the technics of virtualisation].

Language is thus a virtualisation technique. The virtual is always that which speaks and enunciates the real. This speech and this enunciation is of the order of the technics of writing which are at the same time mnemotechnics, the technics of memory.

There was a virtual graphics within the Lascaux caves, a virtual hieroglyphics with the Egyptians, cuneiform with the Mesopotamians, the alphabet with the Greeks, the printing press with Gutenberg, then analogue photography, audio and video [recording] of the 19th and particularly the 20th centuries. In the present there is a digitally encoded virtual, in Silicon, and which is the subject of what we, in Ars Industrialis, call ‘Digital Studies’, and these studies are attached to a particular stage of evolution of technical systems in a ‘general organology’.

However, why is there not an industrial politics of virtual technologies in Europe and particularly in France? There is certainly a cross section of causes, but if a form of virtual autonomy has been gained by delineating the possible (cf. Bergson), our recent times have tended to dilute this in what we, in Ars Industrialis, have called the fable of the immaterial; a fable which has introduced the digital as being an ‘immaterial virtual’, that is, that is has no reality. One hundred years of work and of research show this to be rubbish, even before we come to Bergson. Thus, by using the word ‘immaterial’, we can only place the virtual in opposition to the real, and we have already seen that the virtual is not only composed with the real but it is also over-determined, in the sense that it is through the virtual that the real is enunciated and spoken.

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