DIGITAL DIALECTIC  -  Tuesday November 3rd, 2009

It was eerily silent at Oxford Circus last night. It had been on Sunday night too. I waited in front of the Tube exit for my father while a constant stream of empty buses rolled past, flicking up wakes in the gutters. The pavements were deserted. Then I suddenly had the irrational sensation that London was concealing itself in preparation for some imminent event and only I remained unwarned.


Fukuyama famously announced the Death of History a couple of years after my birth (I don’t believe the two were connected). The Death of History? The end of all history? His basis for this statement was a worldview he had extrapolated from Hegelian thinking. Hegel basically saw the spirit of any epoch (zeitgeist) as being defined by the struggle between two principal opposing entities. The neutralisation of this great struggle signals the end of the age.

The first epoch is supposedly the human struggle for mutual acknowledgement; to be recognised and recognisable to ourselves and by each other. Perhaps less opaquely, the late 19th century might be seen as the struggle between worker and master – the resolution of which signalled the end of the Industrial Revolution. The mid to late 20th century might be seen as the struggle between Communism and Capitalism.

Fukuyama’s argument is that when the USSR packed up it ended the Communist/Capitalist struggle, allowing for global free-market Capitalism. The idea of the opposing entities is that they are fundamental. Capitalism is a fundamental organisation of society, as is Communism. The vacuum of the struggle, the absence of a dialectic, apparently signals the end of all history, since no major struggle replaced it.

Fukuyama’s basic problem was that he was considering the ‘spirit of the times’ from a strictly economic standpoint. I find his dramatism about the end of history pretty absurd. Although it is true that the collapse of the USSR did signal the end of the Communism/Capitalism struggle – and Capitalism, having no opposition to keep it in check, ran out of control. The ’07 crash (which we are apparently climbing out of) signalled the actual end of this mighty struggle. Which is part of my argument for why we are only now at the beginning of a new decade, new century and a new millennium, people.

To define the new age, to find the spirit of the times, in Hegelian terms is a lot easier than it sounds. It only requires the defining of the two opposing entities. Some people would say that the principal struggle of our times is technology versus nature. I’m not going to get into it too much (perhaps in another post) but this is a false division. If you look at the root of technology – tekne – it means simply ‘to assemble’. Technology is an assemblage. Nature, however, is also an assemblage. That is, nature is technological. When we talk about nature and technology as opposites we are really talking about the differences in the manner of assembly. Nature assembles itself, while human assembly is always mediated. Our technology has to be assembled by our own hands.

The nature versus technology struggle can be excluded. For me, the strongest alternative is the struggle between the real and the digital. This is for several reasons – firstly, it would seem to be a logical historical progression: we have moved from the manual revolution (industrial) to the digital revolution. But a digital revolution cannot be without purpose, it has to have something to revolt against. And that subject is the real.

More to come on the subject…

6 Responses to “DIGITAL DIALECTIC”
  1. James Merricks says:

    [quote]If you look at the root of technology – tekne – it means simply 'to assemble'. Technology is an assemblage. Nature, however, is also an assemblage. That is, nature is technological. When we talk about nature and technology as opposites we are really talking about the differences in the manner of assembly.[/quote]

    I'm not entirely convinced that the etymological root of [i]technology[/i] qualifies as a rational basis for the deconstruction of a technology/nature dialectic. [i]Nature[/i] is one of the most (ab)used words in the human language; everyone has a different conception of it and thinks of different things when it is introduced into an argument. To brush it off so easily is a little callous.

    In my mind, you are too quick indeed in doing away with this relationship.

    In its way the nature/technology dialectic has precipitated our (so-called) climate crisis. Technology – driven, in part, by market competition and increasing expansion – has historically shown scant regard for the natural world and her resources.

    That is not to say that technology can't get us out of the climate crisis, only that in order for it to do so, we first need to reconfigure the platform which drives its assemblage: the economy.

    And so we see our opposing entities.

    (I do believe that the dialogue between the real and the digital – as it is currently unfolding – will form an important part our future, particularly in our interaction with the built environment. Perhaps more political however will be the dialectical space created is the wake of an unequal transhumanist wave (

  2. Jack Self says:

    Its a good point, and I brushed over this dialectic knowing that I will post a more thorough explanation of what I mean later on.

    'Nature' (whatever that might mean) tends to be portrayed as atechnological. But while you're right in thinking our motivation for solving climate change will stem from economic re-structuring, the solutions themselves will almost certainly expose technology and nature as being one and the same thing.

    Well, in any case, since this answer is fairly vague, I'll make a point to get the tech/nature post up soon.

  3. Kevin Clement says:

    I think your point underscores the problem with Hegelian "logic." The choice of "antithesis" usually (must?) end up being pretty subjective. I'm not sure that dialectics are required to come up with convincing historical narratives. I mean, Thucydides put together a pretty convincing historical argument a couple millennia ago without any help from Hegel.
    I think the main problem with this type of thinking is the broad generalizations that end up occurring. We all know that Capitalism and Communism aren't monolithic ideologies that necessarily have to oppose one another. Within these ideas themselves we find different strands of zeitgeist that already conflate the two in a way that's less dialectic and more pragmatic (the Swedish or Chinese models, for instance).
    And also, on a more nitpicky note, I feel like there's an implication here that Hegel himself brought up the whole worker / master idea. I would put this more at the feet of Marx. Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit does contain that famous passage about "Lordship & Bondage" but the struggle that takes place is idealistic (in ye olde German tradition) as opposed to the materialism of Marx's worker / master speal.
    And one thing to think about, must every human consciousness struggle to dominate others, or can we frame human interactions in a different light? One can argue that this was precisely Hegel's point and that true self-consciousness would only be realized when we understood the other as an equal (i.e. Fukuyama's end of history). But then isn't that supposed to be a transcendent moment? For Fukuyama, it is (somewhat). But economic liberalism doesn't seem to mesh well, at least in the Absolute sense, with Hegel's original effort at synthesis.
    I guess my problem with dialectics is that, even at its onset with Hegel, you're taking a fairly subjective and personal "logic" of consciousness and applying it to the whole of human history. Doesn't that seem like a bit of a stretch?

  4. Drone Module says:

    I'm not entirely sure why the digital is being considered as outside/against the real. Surely the digital is a threat to materiality and embodiment rather than to the real as such. Especially if we consider, in relation to your post immediately following this one, the digital as an information assemblage. In that way wouldn't the digital be immanent with nature in the same way any other technology would be?

  5. Jack Self says:

    nice comment kevin.

    drone: i am referring more specifically to the types of hyperreality baudrillard wrote about in simulacrum and simulation – whereby the unreal (which is digital) precedes the real, and eventually becomes completely detached from it.

  6. Drone Module says:

    I see. It does just seem feel as though here 'nature' become 'the real' and technology become 'the unreal'.

    Surely the idea of assemblages as such requires that we view reality itself as a process in which all entities, occasions and events are emergent objects or properties. I'm not entirely sure why simulations cannot be seen as emergent reality. If the real is emergent then isn't it in a sense always simulating itself?

    Apologies if this all seems ludicrously simple minded.