International Forum for U.S. Studies

Fellow Interview

An Interview with Dr. Marek Wojtaszek, University of Lodz

Challenge Technology! Challenge Yourself! Solitude and the Digital World

Dr. Wojtaszek is Assistant Professor at the Faculty of International and Political Studies at the University of Lodz, Poland; currently affiliated with the Department of Transatlantic and Media Studies and Women’s Studies Centre. He serves as an expert on Gender, Science, Technology and Environment, 2012 - 2016, European Commission Directorate General for Research and Innovation. He teaches in an international didactic program Joint European Master’s Degree in Women’s and Gender Studies (GEMMA). He is a regular lecturer at the Universidad de Granada (Spain) and Universidade de Aveiro (Portugal). Dr. Wojtaszek was a visiting Research Fellow at the International Forum for U.S. Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign from September 2014 through February of 2015.

Dr. Marek Wojtaszek

Dr. David Schrag for IFUSS: In a recent article [In Quest of (Posthuman) Togetherness. Digital Communications and Affective Disconnection] you begin by stating digital communication media, particularly the Internet, “appears to be amid the few technologies ever built by humans that they do not really comprehend.” You then go on to discuss how digital technology has rapidly expanded to insinuate itself in “practically every domain of civilizational activity,” and you talk about a kind of dialectic of “life-enhancing” and “life-degrading” qualities of technology. Before we turn to more specific aspects of your argument, could you speak in general terms about these enhancing/degrading qualities? Do you see one side as outweighing the other, or is this even an appropriate way to pose the question?

Dr. Marek Wojtaszek: The conception of technê as we have inherited it from ancient Greek culture conveys the meaning of “craft or art,” generally, a doing or performance (from Latin: perficere means to accomplish, to act, to complete). In Western intellectual tradition inherent is a duality of technê and episteme, whereby the latter stands for knowledge or theory. Rather than separate them, I think of them as inextricably intertwined and—ontologically—co-expressive, which I consider an adequate manner to comprehend and ethically relate to the process of an intensive and thoroughgoing transformation which our contemporary world is undergoing by virtue of technologies of various kinds, most crucially, the digital ones. As a mode of human relationality (capacity to relate), that is the way humans make their connections to the surrounding world, technê always expresses a potential of generating a sustainable, gratifying encounter or a toxic and eventually destructive bond. These extreme points, however, should not be viewed as the only possible scenarios, as an “either-or” solution; rather there is an immanent ongoing process of negotiation, of experimenting with and contextually changing viewpoints and circumstances, an inexorable and dynamic assemblage of available options, choices, and positions – that which works effectively for someone in one environment may prove harmful or damaging for another in a different set. This cannot be established for good a priori once and for all. In lieu of such a moralistic, Manichean, thinking of technology, I prefer and propose an ecological ethic of relationality which can be developed solely in doing, through action. This brings me back to the original rendering of technology as, may I say, creation, as this is how living beings come to construct their life, whereby adaptation—to repeat after Henri Bergson—always proceeds by creation. All in all, technology’s essence for me dwells in perfection understood not as an ideal to aspire to but an everyday dealing with/doing one’s life, thus immanently, techno-logically building one’s reality.

IFUSS: You have written about “The Challenge of Solitude.” Do I understand you correctly in saying, to put it perhaps, simplistically for the moment, that there are good and bad types of solitude? Namely a difference between a kind of “technologically enforced solitude,” and some other kind of solitude? Along with solitude, could you speak a bit to other related concepts you present, such as loneliness, or connected isolation? For you, do these concepts replace or exist in tension with other, more traditionally humanist, concepts such as aesthetics, alienation, individualism, authenticity, and privacy?

MW: I do want to conceptually distinguish here between “solitude” and “loneliness.” Whereas the latter carries a humanistic, anthropocentric and anthropomorphic legacy, the former offers a potential and productive exit from this trenchant formula. Put otherwise, being sole for me is qualitatively different from being solitary. As per their ontological constitution, humans are born and remain conspicuously lone throughout their life. From this perspective, civilization or culture can well be seen as an attempt to respond to this conspicuously human condition. For instance, the digital communication or the enterprise of building a transcendent artificial (collective) intelligence connecting everyone and everything constitutes one possible way these days. I introduce and make use of the concept of “solitude” precisely in the context of human relations with machines, which evidently is becoming more and more intimate—technologies profusely insinuating into our psycho-somatic being, extending or amending our capacities. Instead of mourning the loss of something we have not been able to properly define for centuries, some alleged authenticity or essence, and lament over our desolate and alienated being, which I find little successful in working out a much needed, ethical relation with technology, I applaud and promote an affirmative shift, or a turn to affirmation. Humanist traditions maintain a substantial dichotomy between the human and the technical, which echoes the Cartesian dualism of a subtle reason and mechanical body, justifying the former’s control over the latter. In my view, these traditions have not been able to devise a sustainable relation with technê, other than through negative images of agonistic rivalry, dread, and alienating exploitation and expropriation. Importantly, the techno-enthusiastic or messianic variation, which sits on the other end, does not offer a livable alternative, either. Hailing the march of robo-sapiens, it all too hastily and, may I say, mindlessly, abdicates the uniquely human capacities as potential sources of a joyful existence. Acknowledging the liminal status of technology, my humble intention is to work in the in-between space and work out a conceptual framework in which to think the ethical changes and challenges that technologies permanently generate. Rediscovering and affirming the capacity of being sole in our body, which the concept of solitude expresses is, I believe, the first step on the path to understating that our material being and the reality it co-constitutes is immanently machinic through and through, which bypasses the bourgeois specter of alienation by making us techno-ecologically accountable to ourselves, others and the world we all inhabit.

IFUSS: Your work obviously departs from traditional humanist and functionalist ways of understanding relation and ways of being together to look at relation in terms of interface, the in-between, liminality, and the fold. Along with Deleuze, what other theorists, and theoretical approaches, have influenced your thinking?

MW: Admittedly, the thought of Gilles Deleuze and his collaborative intellectual project with Félix Guattari have been for me an entry point to the philosophical world of technology, granting me at times the vertiginous vistas on its metaphysics, history, and the scope of the cultural issues it ignites, thus inspiring my own reflection and research. I have grown to appreciate the radically monist image of reality and its ontological expressivity, which allows me to think of technology as one of multiple modes of how this (human) world creates itself—rather than follow the binary scripts of either man-produced and –dominated, or as rebelling against and relinquishing humanity. In no way does affirming technology mean endorsing its powers; it involves a meticulous analysis of its potentials and a continuously negotiated respons(e)-ability to them. In other words, the affirmation of technology expresses an immediate ethical relation to the world, other beings and ourselves. Martin Heidegger’s and Walter Benjamin’s writings are, I believe, absolutely indispensable for thinking technology and its mechanisms and effects in modernity. I have been enchanted by the works of Gilbert Simondon, especially his “L'individu et sa genèse physico-biologique.” Feminist critiques of technologies have been immensely instructive in understanding their complexity and perverse social filiations as well as nuanced political alliances with various forms of exploitation and oppression. Given the impalpable and ephemeral being of virtual communication on the one hand and the quasi-religious formations it motivates on individual and social levels on the other, the more visionary, techno-mystical, works of, amid others, Ray Kurzweil and Kevin Warwick, have been most appealing to me and my work.

IFUSS: Your work is not only descriptive, but, can I say, normative? Or perhaps it would be better to say your work is about ethics? For example, you say that digital culture is a culture “saturated with so much talking and so little authentic conversation.” And you argue that solitude is needed for a thoughtfulness that would prepare individuals for democratic political action. To this end, you state that it is “our aesthetic and ecological responsibility to… teach next generations how to be alone,” and exercise the potential of solitude in a “mutually resonant and productive manner with (human and technological) others.” The danger of not doing this is that future generations will only learn, as you have put it, “how to feel and be lonely.” Is this already the current condition—with the genie already out of the bottle? So to ask a perhaps unfair question, what is your prognosis for a future digital democracy, or what do you think such a democracy might look like?

MW: I agree with Emmanuel Levinas that ethics is first philosophy in the sense that it is about all kinds of material linkages, connections or relations: ontological, mental, social, political, environmental. They immanently come together and conspire, thus making our life (feel) real. This is also where ethics’ virtually normative power lies; it immanently creates our nomos, that is our habitually devised principles of conduct. Ours is a culture still very much organized and managed by rationally established, ideal moral values and litanies of commandments how to attain, or at least approximate, them. The feeling of loneliness has been a major symptom of our digital culture, which clearly demonstrates that our hitherto constructed ties are being dismantled. Modernity led to alienation; postmodern digital culture atomizes us even further, increasing our sense of insularity. Paradoxically enough, this can well be taken as a stimulus to rethink our habituated, normativized, sets of relations on a singular level. For this to happen, I believe, we need a pedagogy—not in the formal sense of education but as a cultural and collective enterprise that involves a reconsideration of the potentials of digital communication. This would, first and foremost, require a critical revision of its functionalist and pragmatist definitional frames. We are living in a (digitally augmented) culture whose primary moral imperative stipulates that no one be left unconnected, for this will in the end do us all good. But this goes against the grain, or kernel, of our being as singular and unique; solitude is, I think, gradually becoming a political question. After all, we have “the right” to be alone. A collective-connective intelligence, built upon mathematical algorithms, is inapt to do justice to the complexity of our material being—singular and serendipitous. It always necessarily involves a certain simplification and generalization, eliminating exception(ality) as a systemic error. We need (to rediscover) solitude in order to rethink the digital communication as a democratic channel and its dialogical limits in the era of a profoundly technological restructuring of the public space. With digital communication virtualizing our perception of space and belonging, the social image and political meaning of agora have changed. Sadly, what we have witnessed in Western societies is growing conformism and political inaction, resulting in the greater polarization of the governing elite and the ruled. Twittering, however, will never supplant conversation. For this we first need a sense of self, aware of its being, worth and status in this world, capable of entering into a political communication. Political functionalist incorporation of digital technologies of communication does not appear to be making this happen.

IFUSS: In our ongoing conversations you have brought up your interest in spiders. Tell me about spiders; what can the human species learn from them in terms of posthuman connectedness and solitude?

MW: We need to look beyond the digital box to rediscover (or consciously recreate) our virtual relations with the environment from which we can gain inspiration and learn (about) alternative modes of existing. Above all, we should look outside of the communitarian corset of social adherence as presumably the only (valuable) source of meaning and understanding of ourselves. Already as a child, I was fascinated with the world of (in)actual otherness, watching horror and science-fiction movies and passionately beholding various living ecosystems. I discovered spiders relatively late and only recently have studied them extensively and come to ethically-aesthetically appreciate them. These tiny creatures are indeed very complex and constitute a rich field for exploration and inspiration. Let me briefly mention one of the features which can be related to your question. Except for a group of jumping spiders which by virtue of their complex and ritualistic behavior as well as unique, four pairs of eyes and acute vision, have been (among spiders) disproportionately well-represented in ethological studies, most spiders have simple eyes and exceptionally poorly developed vision. Inapt to register images, to perceive visually and remember anything, they remain entirely reliant on their weaving skills and web to survive. It receives only the slightest vibration at the edge of its web, which insinuates and spreads itself throughout its body as an intensive wave capable of provoking near seismic tremors in its body, which in turn allows the spider to react accordingly and spring. The spider’s web—its bodily extension, self-woven from its own silk glands—is spider, is its body, its home spun in a determinate environment, thus not absolutely free, but contingent and relational. Spider’s involuntary sensibility (tactility), its rigorous and ascetic diligence and dedication express immanent in-tensity as well as its acute susceptibility and determined condition make of it an inspiring virtuoso of relationality, an artist of the inter, a being full of affirmation of how it lives and what it creates. Our digitally network(ed) societies seem to have little to do with this image. On the contrary, establishing connections between points, they pay little attention to the in-between affective complexity, reducing relation to a technical instrument of (tele)connectivity, thus projecting an illusory sense of togetherness. Granted, technologically effectuated, connections are easy to operate and manage. And yet they will never do justice to the manner humans make connections. Making us forget about the interpretive work and material effort we put into any relation to make it work, and consequently making us unlearn how to do it, digital technologies inevitably leave us in a paradoxical situation—socially connected and equally disconnected from ourselves, which results in the feeling of loneliness and puts one at the mercy of others. Spiders remind us that connection involves prehension, a necessary and ongoing labor and activity. In addition, their ecosystem teaches us that human beings are also contingent and dependent on otherness. In sum, they can be inspirational for us how to develop an ethic of relationality, how to adequately do justice to its existentially founding role so that we can accountably cohabit with technological and human others in a mutually enriching way.

Dr. David Schrag is Program Coordinator for the International Forum for U.S. Studies (IFUSS) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.