It begins with the idea of scale. In English, the word scale designates a succession of levels of various sizes, often related within a set of homothetic transformations. A scale can also be a hard membrane, a form of fishy skin.
In my research, I have been interested in scales, from the individual to the cosmic. I agree with Nancy Abrams and Joel Primack, who argue in their book The New Universe and the Human Future that we have forgotten our relationship with the over-terrestrial cosmos, and that we lack a shared cosmology. We lack a global scale of belief or communion, one that would be non-anthropocentric.
The origin of my philosophical journey, which is not necessarily to be found at the chronological beginning of my efforts, is the concept of Creal. Creal, or Créel in French, or Kreell for my Swedish friends, is the name I have given to the Real with a capital R, except that I write it by adding a capital C, the initial of Creation, not primarily to indicate that there is an individual creator, but rather that the absolute Real is not a thing (res in Latin), but rather a creative flow of — perhaps infinite — virtual possibilities, some of them being actualised into a form of reality, some of them remaining un-actualised, or actualised in parallel universes, if any. The word Creal is new but not the idea, which can be found in several traditions, the Chinese Daoism, the Greek Chaos or Becoming, as in Heraclitus, and more recently in the philosophies of Whitehead, Bergson, or Deleuze, which have been called ‘process philosophies’. I proposed to call Creal the creative metamorphic multiplicity that is the ground of being — as Whitehead put it in his Process and Reality, ‘creativity is the universal of universals characterizing the ultimate matter of fact.’
I have proposed elsewhere, for example in my book L’Être et le néon (to be published in English translation in 2019), a slightly more detailed cosmology, and will not develop it again here. I simply wanted to present you with my primum mobile. I believe that even the apparently most sceptical and empirical researcher relies on an implicit absolute axiom, if not several. I try to keep the Creal intuition in mind (in body) — creation is an emotion, as Bergson put it — at the centre of my semantics or system-to-be, which I call crealectics.
Let’s now return to the idea of homothetic scales of being. We have at least two extreme limits, the infinitesimally small and the infinitely large: both, I would propose, are the same Creal. If the universe is coherent, the smallest microcosm and the largest macrocosm are of the same nature. This idea is not uncommon for us at least since the rediscovery of the tablets of Hermes Trismegistus which were so important for European Renaissance. The Emerald tablet was translated as follows by Isaac Newton in his alchemical papers: ‘That which is below is like that which is above, and that which is above is like that which is below, to do the miracles of one only thing.’ In short, ‘as above, so below’. This idea was familiar to alchemists, but is to be found since Newton and Leibniz in modern science, all the way to quantum physics and quantum cosmology. Newton’s translation continues thus: ‘And as all things have been and arose from one by the mediation of one: so all things have their birth from this one thing by adaptation. […] So was the world created.’
Micro-Creal and Macro-Creal: in between these two noumenal extremes, we observe different scales of actualization or materialisation — worlds. And this is where we meet the idea of cosmos with its Greek meaning: not only a world, but an order, a structure, a collective skin or, if we wish to use the terminology of Jakob von Uexküll: an umwelt. At the two asymptotic limits of the infinitesimally small and the infinitely large, we posit a pure becoming, a pure multiplicity, virtuality, possibility — and the logically connected idea of One, because we cannot speak of the multiple without suggesting the idea of its opposite, as already intuited by Plotinus in his henology (the science of cosmic unity). In between the two homothetic limit-scales, we observe the emergence of more or less ephemeral spaces of order, structure, and relative integrity. It is my purpose here to describe how these structures can emerge: I have written about it in L’être et le néon, albeit insufficiently, of course, as this is probably the hardest question of all.
My PhD is about one of these spaces of order, at the level of organised human groups, societies, institutions, social bodies. More precisely, it is about the kind of attraction that maintains these social and human structures in synchronised cohesion, a quality which in French and English is called esprit de corps. Between 2014 and 2017, I conducted a thorough examination of discourses relating to the phenomenon of esprit de corps since the birth of the expression in the eighteenth century until today. My monograph on esprit de corps will be published around 2019.
Esprit de corps designates the capacity of a human ensemble to remain strongly united, focused towards a common goal, and to keep its spiritual integrity or ethos over time. Its individual members, often working collaborators, are strongly dedicated to the maintenance of the group’s coherence, power, and existence. We find in French, English and American intellectual history, since Montesquieu, Diderot and d’Alembert, both laudative and depreciative evaluations of the phenomenon of esprit de corps. It has been compared to groupthink, a cognitive corset which undermines the capacity of the individual to think autonomously. But thinkers like Durkheim or Tocqueville thought that esprit de corps was — paradoxically perhaps for us postmodern individualists — how the individual could individuate herself, by belonging to a group that was constantly stimulating her need for intersubjective growth and maturation. A healthy esprit de corps is an ethos in which the more experienced members help the newcomers, and the stronger help the weaker against the corruption and attacks of the outer world. Academia, for example, is a structure where esprit de corps could be a virtuous one. Universities can be a space of epistemic solidarity. Yet, the individual members of a corps are not always brave enough to remain united in the face of the kind of atomised competition imposed by capitalism. My study of the history of esprit de corps shows how capitalism tends, since the seventeenth and eighteenth century, either to destroy esprit de corps solidarities, or to transform them into a standard bellicose form of group control. Because esprit de corps can also degenerate into groupthink, ideology, a form of cognitive sectarianism, or bureaucracy, it was the ruse of neo-liberal history to destroy certain spaces of solidarity in the name of freedom and equality. Tocqueville’s visionary descriptions of democracy in America are still very useful to understand the paradoxes of equality and liberty, and how these values can be the Trojan horses of capitalism. The ideology of humanism has developed an abstract version of fraternity in which the difference between human rights and client rights tends to be blurred. It is worth remembering that the Latin etymology of the word client means to serve and obey. A client was bound, attached, tied to a protector.
Speaking of obedience, if not slavery, the study of esprit de corps has led me to consider another neologism: anthrobot. I proposed to extend the meaning of this term, which was coined by a roboticist, Mark Rosheim, to describe cybernetic technologies such as robotic arms or exoskeletons. In the paper I wrote with Ramamoorthy and Rovatos in 2016 (‘We Anthrobot: Learning From Human Forms of Interaction and Esprit de Corps to Develop More Plural Social Robotics’), anthrobot is the recognition, in the spirit of Lewis Mumford and his Myth of The Machine, that humans, when they create organised spaces, do develop mechanical procedures and algorithmic protocols that partly automatize the spirit or the body of each member, and the social bodies of which they are a part. We are an anthrobotic species because of our capacity to and need for orders, protocols, algorithms, social machines, esprit de corps, but also because our minds and bodies, at the individual or social scale, tend to perform operations that are not conscious and yet are effective. Social and individual life is partly robotic.
Now, we are also daughters of the Creal, of poietic lines of flight, as I have described in my short monograph on Deleuze, Is a New Life Possible? We are constantly attracted by lines of play, novelty, rule-breaking, improvising, contemplating, creation in all its forms, including its explosive and apparently destructive aspects.
Let’s now look at an example of anthrobot in more detail. This is what I call the Shizuoka Case. In the 1980s, the first collaborative robots were introduced in Japanese factories. In his book Inside the Robot Kingdom: Japan, Mechatronics and the Coming Robotopia, Frederik Schodt mentioned in 1988 a story on ‘technostress’ published by the Nikkei Sangyo newspaper, entitled ‘The Isolation Syndrome of Automation’:
‘A state-of-the-art factory run by Star Micronics in Shizuoka Prefecture used […] robotized machining centres that ran unmanned during the night — a source of great pride to the older workers. But several of the younger, new employees began to complain that they “felt like robots” as they operated and programmed the automated machinery during the day; one local parent complained that all his son did all day long was push a button. As it turned out, there was a major perception gap between the old and new employees. The former, who had worked with the engineers to design the system, had a vested interest in it and a basic knowledge of its operation; they knew that pressing a specific button would operate the system in a specific way. But to the new employees, a button was merely a button to be pushed, and the total system was a technological black box that merely worked in unfathomable ways.’
We can distinguish here at least two groups, a group of belonging and well-being, let’s call it the well-belonging group, and a group of isolation and existential distress. The group of well-belonging is the anthrobotic system made of older workers and the collaborating robots. These can be called cobots, or collaborative robots, not only because they are part of the work process but also because the work or labour relationship with them is perceived in terms of a gratifying ‘vested interest’. The group of isolation or ill-belonging is the anthrobotic system made of younger workers and machines. The robots, whilst being the same machines we previously called cobots, are this time not perceived as collaborators, but as antagonists.
In this case, perhaps the machines could be qualified as the ‘dominant species’, since they are described as body snatchers: the young workers ‘felt like robots’. This is an example of mental and physical colonisation or alienation. For Sandra Silverman, a psychotherapist who works on the socio-politics of clinical work, ‘the colonized are not just invaded but occupied. […] Colonization is about destroying space, about crowding an other’s mind with the unprocessed contents of one’s own mind, about restricting the freedom to think. To colonize is to invade, inhabit, and alter.’
How can there be, on the one hand, anthrobotic systems of wellbeing and well-belonging, and on the other hand anthrobotic systems of isolation and de-humanisation? According to Schodt’s description of the Shizuoka case, an anthrobotic system of well-belonging would be a system that has been co-designed by its users, who have a ‘vested interest’ in its functioning, possess a ‘basic knowledge’ of how it works and how each part has a specific role. And they feel proud about it. Wellbeing and well-belonging in an anthrobotic system seems to be dependent on at least these four factors:
A) The workers did co-design the system: this is the praxical factor.
B) They are engaged in its success: we can call it the reciprocative factor.
C) They believe they understand more or less how it works: this is the epistemic factor.
D) They are attached to it, with good rather than bad feelings: this is the emotional factor.
The sum of these four characteristics constitutes a good esprit de corps, the workers’ cohesive and pro-active attachment to a system of production or community of labour that expands their agency, common sense, and self-respect.
I have distinguished four dimensions of systemic well-belonging: praxical (co-design, co-creation), reciprocative (vested interest), epistemic (knowledge of the system), and emotional (pride). The young worker’s feeling of ´being like robots’ is nothing like that. It is rather reminiscent of the phenomenology of automated labour that originated with Marx and his analysis of the ‘objectification’, ‘alienation’, or ‘estrangement’, in the Manuscripts of 1844. Let’s recall this techno-social equation, proposed by Marx in the following terms: ‘The devaluation of the world of men is in direct proportion to the increasing value of the world of things.’ The world of things is, literally, the synonym of reality. Work is a means of self-actualization by which a human being actualises his or her essence, which is the virtuality of the Creal. The capitalist mode of production tends to transform everything into reality. This is why effective anti-capitalist politics needs a concept of creality or Creal, as I have advocated in a published chapter entitled ‘On the Concept of Creal: The Politico-Ethical Horizon of a Creative Absolute.’
So a good anthrobot, a virtuous techno-social system, is one where each member has a sense of authorship and co-creation. Equally, a good anthrocosmic system is an anthrobot in which members and colloborators don’t forget that we are a part of the cosmic Creal. One of the questions behind my crealectics programme of investigation is: how are our actualisations and social articulations more or less alienated from our cosmological belonging? Such a question might seem esoteric, because science and capitalist individualism at least since Kant and the French Revolution have developed a narrative of analytic separation rather than synthetic belonging. I would like now to propose a thought experiment that will show, rather practically, how the anthrobotic question is entangled with the cosmological question.
Let’s assume that our species will colonize extra-terrestrial land, such as the planet Mars or a more distant planet, such as Kepler 186f. Science-fiction often describes this colonisation as a physical journey, in the model of the former colonisation of the United-States for example: we would build (space)ships that would allow us to travel physically out of the earth into space. This is not the scenario I find more likely to happen.
The scenario I find more likely is one that is already happening: we will probably explore interplanetary space not so much physically but more often than not through robotic avatars. Our human bodies will remain on Earth, perhaps, like in the movie Matrix, confined in technological bathtubs. A combination of virtual reality and robotics will take us out there in the cosmos. This anthrobotic scenario is already happening on Mars, on the surface of which the rovers Spirit and Opportunity for example were (in the case of Spirit) or still are (in the case of Opportunity) moving and acting, piloted by human drivers that remain physically on Earth (for example Julie Townsend, Scott Maxwell, Vandi Verma, or Paolo Bellutta). These drivers are the first cosmic anthrobots, developing more or less consciously a phenomenology of the robonautic future of our species.
We already are cosmic anthrobots or creal robonauts. And this is where the idea of a shared cosmology comes into play. Abrams and Primack wrote in The New Universe and the Human Future: ‘Astronomy appears to have little relevance. People think of astronomical discoveries as inspiration for kids or a great topic for five minutes of clever dinner party banter, but there’s no widely understood connection between what’s happening in distant space and us, right here. The truth is, however, that there is a profound connection between our lack of a shared cosmology and our increasing global problems. Without a coherent, meaningful context, humans around the world cannot begin to solve global problems together. If we had a transnationally shared, believable picture of the cosmos, including a mythic-quality story of its origins and our origins — a picture recognized as equally true for everyone on this planet — we humans would see our problems in an entirely new light.’
In fact we need a global social contract, as I have argued with Lacan, Deleuze and Guattari in ‘On the Concept of Creal: The Politico-Ethical Horizon of a Creative Absolute’. Lacan has shown how any discourse, any web of belief, revolves around a more or less invisible absolute signifier. To be sustainable, a structure, an order, a discourse, a tribe, need to rely on a totemic value or set of values sometimes virtualised by the chain of signifiers, sometimes expressed in god-like — or ghost-like — concepts. The universal or set of universals around which such-and-such social reality is constructed maintains the cohesion of the ensemble by playing the role of a slippery axis mundi, a master signifier. To avoid the ongoing modern naturalisation of war and conflict, and other forms of totalitarianism, I propose that communities and nations agree — through a Earth-scale social contract — on a positive absolute, one that cannot logically become the fetish of a form of totalitarianism: the Creal as an affirmative and generous politico-ethical value that constantly self-destroys and constantly re-emerges again, as is logically implied by the idea of ongoing creation. The Creal hypothesis suggests that reality never expresses all there is, and that it never will. Reality is over-rated, and this overrating is always dangerous. Reality is a bad master. And only the Creal can destroy its imperialism.
Our collaboration with reality-machines should always be viewed alongside our co-participation in the cosmic creative flow. Machines and protocols are unifying processes of objectification. The Creal is the Other of the machine. It is the Anti-Robot.
Yet, between the Creal and the One, between the multiple and the structured, I do not think there is a war, but a love story, a complex story of desire and admiration, a narrative of asymptotic union. Ancient cosmologies were in part mythical discourses of love; I do think we need today a new global myth of love and faith, one compatible with technology and science yet not reductionist, neither anthropocentric. How such a myth can create hospitable and plural worlds is the perspective of crealectics, which is the study of the actualisations of the Creal, an interdisciplinary perspective that I invite you to help me develop.
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