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 (Réel, Reell) with a capital R, except that I write it by adding a capital C, the initial of Creation or Creativity, 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 infinite virtual possibilities, some of them being actualised into a form of reality, some of them perhaps remaining un-actualised, or actualised in parallel universes. 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’. The Creal is the creative metamorphic multiplicity that is the ground of being, or, 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 (soon to be published in English translation), 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 many. I try to keep the Creal 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 big: 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 common for us at least since the rediscovery of the tablets of Hermes Trismegistus which were so important for European Renaissance, and was expressed as follows: ‘That which is Below corresponds to that which is Above, and that which is Above corresponds to that which is below, to accomplish the miracles of One thing.’ In short, ‘as Above, so Below’. This idea was familiar to Alchemists, but is to be found since Leibniz in modern science, all the way to quantum physics and quantum cosmology.
In between these two noumenal extremes, there are different scales of actualization or materialisation. And this is where we meet the idea of cosmos with its Greek meaning: an order, a structure, a world, a collective skin or umwelt. At the two asymptotic limits of the infinitesimally small and the infinitely large, we might posit a pure becoming, pure multiplicity, virtuality, and possibility (and the logically connected idea of One). In between these two identical limit-scales, we observe the emergence of ephemeral spaces of order, structure, and relative integrity. It is not the purpose of these lines to say how these structures emerge: I have written about it in L’être et le néon, and my descriptions are still metaphysical, involving the dialectical tension between the multiple and the one in what is still a sketchy narrative.
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 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 French military until today, where the phrase is used in managerial or nationalist discourse. You can find several examples online on the Esprit de Corps Pointer I have fed between 2014 and 2017.
Esprit de corps designates the capacity of a human ensemble to remain strongly united and keep its integrity over time. Its individual parts are strongly dedicated to the maintenance of the group’s unity and ethos. We find in French, English and American intellectual history, since Montesquieu, Diderot and d’Alembert, both laudative and depreciative evaluations of esprit de corps. It has been compared to groupthink, a form of 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 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 an outer world. Academia, for example, is a structure where potentially esprit de corps could be a virtuous one. Universities could be a space of epistemic solidarity. Individual members of a corps are not always brave enough to remain united in the face of individualist competition. Or when they do, this cohesion can also degenerate into groupthink, ideology, or bureaucracy, a form of cognitive sectarianism.
The study of esprit de corps has led me to consider another neologism: anthrobot. This term, which was coined by a roboticist, Mark Rosheim, in the 1990s in the context of cyborg technologies, is, 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’), a 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 we are a part. We are an anthrobotic species because of our capacity and need for orders, protocols, algorithms, social machines, esprit de corps, and 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 life is partly robotic.
Now, we are also daughters of the Creal, of poietic flows, we are also constantly attracted by play, novelty, rule-breaking, improvising, contemplating, creation in all its forms, including its explosive aspects.
Let’s look at an example of anthrobot. This is what I call the Shizuoka Case, an example from the 1980s, a time where the first collaborative robots where being 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 well-belonging, 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 relationship with them is perceived in terms of a positive ‘vested interest’. The group of isolation and 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. Moreover, the machines could even be qualified here as the ‘dominant species’, since they are described by the young workers as body snatchers: the young workers ‘felt like robots’.
This second group is an example of mental and physical colonisation or alienation. For Sandra Silverman, a clinical social worker, ‘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 anthrobotic systems of wellbeing and well-belonging, as opposed to 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 in an anthrobotic system seems to be dependent on at least these four factors. A) The workers did co-design the system: this is a praxical factor. B) They are engaged in its success: we can call it a reciprocative factor. C) They believe they understand more or less how it works: this is an epistemic factor. D) They are emotionally attached to it, with good rather than bad feelings (emotional factor). The sum of these four characteristics constitutes a good esprit de corps, the workers’ cohesive attachment to a system of production or community of labour that expends their agency and common sense of self-respect.
We 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: ‘The devaluation of the world of men is in direct proportion to the increasing value of the world of things.’ If work is a means of self-actualization by which a human being objectifies his or her essence, then this possibility is often denied in the capitalist mode of production.
So a good anthrobot, a good techno-social system, is one where each member has a sense of authorship and co-creation. Equally, a good anthrocosmic system would be an anthrobot where we don’t forget that we are a part of the cosmic Creal. This is partly what I mean by crealectics: how are our actualisations and social articulations more or less alienated from our cosmological well-belonging? Today such a question might seem esoteric, because science and democratic individualism at least since Kant and the French Revolution have developed a narrative of analytic separation rather than synthetic belonging. But I would like now to propose a thought experiment that will show, very practically rather than metaphysically, 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. 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 to another planet. This is not the scenario that I find more likely. The scenario that I find more likely is one that is already happening now: we will explore interplanetary space not physically but through robotic avatars. We will remain on earth, perhaps like in the movie Matrix, confined in technological bathtubs, and 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 (Spirit) or are still (Opportunity) evolving, piloted by human drivers that remain physically on Earth, for example Julie Townsend, Scott Maxwell, Vandi Verma, or Paolo Bellutta. It would be interesting to interview these drivers, the first cosmic anthrobots, to start elaborating a phenomenology of the robonautic future of our species.
In fact, we are already cosmic anthrobots or crealectic robonauts. This statement comes logically if we accept that we are already anthrobots, and if we accept that we are children of a universal creative flow or Creal. And this is where the idea of a shared cosmology comes into play. Abrams and Primack write: ‘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 or 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.’
I have recently written about this need of a cosmic global social contract in a published chapter entitled ‘On the Concept of Creal: The Politico-Ethical Horizon of a Creative Absolute’, which is partly based on the ideas of Lacan, Deleuze and Guattari. 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 proposed that communities agree — through a global social contract — on a positive absolute, a pure and constant creation of the real and of the unreal: 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 creation.
Our collaboration with machines should always be viewed alongside our co-participation in the cosmic creative flow. Machines and protocols are unifying processes, and as such they tend to eliminate the multiplicity of entropy. 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 sometimes mythical discourses of love; I do think we need today a new global myth of love and faith, one more compatible with technology and science yet not reductivist, neither anthropocentric. This is partly what I propose we achieve with the perspective of crealectics.