AN INTERVIEW WITH DAVID WILLS

 

(Antwerp, Hotel Industrie, 8 Dec. 1999)

The following interview was conducted by Pat Bruggeman, Bart Buseyne, Paul Cruysberghs and Sofie Messeman, during David Wills’ visit to Antwerp for the Homo Orthopedicus conference organised by Nathalie Roelens and Wanda Strauven. David Wills gave a keynote address entitled « Techneology or the Discourse of Speed ».

 

BB : Friedrich Nietzsche, whom Friedrich Kittler described as the first mechanized philosopher, as he was the first thinker to compose straight on a typewriter, wrote, in fact typed, on the back of a postcard send to Peter Gast, that our writing instruments contribute to our thoughts. The very idea of such a mechanical co-op or cooperation must give thinking, or at least some thinking, the creeps ?

 

DW : That’s the question ? … I think it gives everything the creeps, everything and everybody, every body. I guess Kittler’s reading of Nietzsche draws attention to a relation, that would too simply be described as instrumental, between thinking and something mechanical like the typewriter. One can suggest in the case of Nietzsche, because he is the first philosopher to write on a typewriter, that there is a specifically modern technological aspect to his thinking, although it remains within the realms of instrumentalism. But I would want to insist on the need to conceive of thinking itself, before any possibility of a typewriter, as being mechanical, and as being infected, if you like, by the sense of the mechanical. You know, it’s quite simple, you don’t have to begin with the typewriter. As soon as you pick up a pen you’re in a similarly prosthetic relation, as soon as you begin thinking, I should say, to the extent that you’re involved in language. As soon as you use language you’re in a prosthetic relation to something which is exterior to any pure thinking itself, supposing we could locate such an event. So whereas one can locate, at certain points in history and in certain cases in the history of philosophy and art and so on, specific relations between thinking and the machine, or between the human and the machine, it only makes sense, logically speaking, to conceive of thinking as being always already mechanical and prosthetic, and, yeah, that should give the creeps to thinking in general, or to a certain conception of thinking which would be humanist, which would rely on a notion of an origin, a creative origin and so on, so just as the idea of a prosthetized body gives the creeps to a conception of the body which is based on an organicist model and according to which a wooden leg is something that comes to be attached to the body within the context of a natural order, like when you lose your natural leg, so that it comes only to replace the natural leg, so the idea of a thinking which is either a machine or which is a technology – I prefer to use the word «technology» in general, rather than just reduce it to the sense of the mechanical, because bio-technology, for instance, is as much a prosthetization of the body, it seems to me, genetic engineering is as much a prosthetization of the body as are artificial limbs, prostheses in the normal sense – provides plenty of pretexts for giving one the creeps, yeah.

 

BB : Although hypertext may well be presented as a fulfilment of a metaphysical view of writing, as you indicate, it also allows possibilities for writing which can be germane to deconstruction. What possibilities would you stress in your experiments as a writer ?

 

DW : Well once again, I don’t think you have to wait for hypertext to be involved in hypertextuality, and I think the problem with most analyses of hypertext, at least the few that I dealt with, somewhat summarily, in my discussion and in my work, essentially Landow and people like him who have written on it, I think that the presumption in their work is that hypertextuality is an event which occurs now, at this specific technological moment, and as a result it has certain effects : it opens up writing to certain possibilities, it involves a sort of democratization of writing and so on. I would argue that writing is from the beginning hypertextual and that there is plenty to analyse in the workings of language and writing in general to argue for its hypertextuality before and beyond any notion of a particular technological moment which allows us to create windows and layers of signification and different relations and so on between textual elements, I mean all those things are already there as soon as we begin to use a technology such as language.

 

PC : So your thesis would be that hypertext actually shows what is happening, or has been happening all the time, it’s just showing up..

 

DW : Yes and of course it’s an important historical moment, within that context and within that history, but it’s not an originating moment, or it’s not such a transforming moment, it seems to me, it’s not really, for me, a transformational moment in terms of the notion of writing. If we accept a notion of writing that’s come through Derrida and what he says about displacement, translation, and so on, these effects are always and already in effect, so.. You know, I don’t want to reduce the differences and obviously the appearance of hypertext is a difference that has to be marked, but I don’t think it’s the same difference that Landow claims it is, or others who have written on the matter. And you know it’s very easy for them, because they are not really thinking theoretically enough about the question, very easy for them to lapse into metaphysical discourses about writing and a thinking and a creation that suddenly becomes accessible to everybody, and they forget all sorts of other differentiating factors and facts because they’re concentrating so much on this particular type of difference that they think is so original.

 

PC : Where would you situate the difference then, in your case, what would be its significance ?

 

DW : Well, I would have wanted this [Prosthesis] to function as a type of hypertext, you know, as a piece of writing that was to some extent a challenge to, an experiment with itself, to try and work with a piece of writing that allowed for these hypertextual possibilities on a single level, as it were. As if, while maintaining the fiction of a single surface of writing, to show that you can break the surface of writing and in effect create windows within it, on a "single level", you don’t have to rely on a particular technological instance like the computer with its complicated wordprocessing programs or innovative software.

 

PB : In terms of technology, a new shift’s been announced. In the near future one will no longer even have to type with one’s fingers, but command and address the computer in one’s voice..

 

DW : Once again, it will be a difference, and perhaps a radical difference, one we’ll have to come to terms with in different ways, but I don’t think it will be the difference between non-prosthesis and prosthesis, or between non-technological writing and technological writing, or between non-hypertext and hypertext. You have to find another vocabulary for dealing with these qualitative changes. They’re obviously qualitative changes, there’s no doubt about it. We have to find a vocabulary and we have to construct a vocabulary, to deal with it. But the vocabulary that’s been developped so far by people who have written on hypertext - I have to add that I’m not really au courant in the field, I’ve read a very limited amount, there may be many other people who write much more intelligent things than Landow and company, but that was what was available to me in terms of literature on hypertext at the time I was writing the book, it was limited to those thinkers – doesn’t amount, in my opinion, to a very interesting set of terms for dealing with the question.

 

BB : In an interview with Seulemonde, Geoffrey Bennington noted that the increase in communicability made possible by electronic communication leads to a commensurate increase in contaminability of all sorts, adding that it may be something about information technology that made it possible for Derrida to formulate things about communication and contamination, that turned out to have been around ever since Plato. Would you say that computerized writing, or some aspect of it, made it possible for Prosthesis to engage in the ‘systematized’ contamination it aims to achieve (323)? Or would you say it did not, not structurally…

 

DW : No, for me it didn’t depend either conceptually or structurally on those possibilities, but given that the time I conceived of writing this book was about the same time as I started using the word-processor – I spent some ten years working on it, so I started it in about 1984-5, which was the point at which I was starting to use a word-processor for the first time - I’m sure that led me to think certain things. I was very interested in the notion of treating text, traitement du texte, as text processing, both in terms of the work a literary critic does in processing a text, because my formation was in literary criticism and theory, and in terms of what this mechanized form of text processing, which came along at the same time, could provoke and evoke in terms of similar questions. Yeah, there was an influence there and it provoked a certain thinking on my part around the idea that texts are gonna be processed in certain automatic ways by machines, from now on. Back then it was pretty primitive compared with now, even now it’ still pretty primitive, but we can imagine, for instance, I don’t know however long down the line, we can imagine getting to a point where children don’t have to learn grammar any more, don’t have to learn how to form plurals, don’t have to learn how to conjugate verbs, or maintain the sequence of tenses and so on, all these grammatical rules, you can have a program that can fix that, you know, so that they just start writing and the mechanics of it become automatic. One can imagine an automatization of language that would be much more radical than what we have now, let alone what we had ten years ago, so I was thinking if we have this technological automatization of language, it would be interesting then to see how one could try and react to that with a more adventurous type of textual vis a vis the more traditional text processing of literary criticism or theory or philosophy.

 

BB : Apropos the virus : in the interview you and Peter Brunette did with Derrida, you say that : every time I hear talk of a computer virus and read how more and more programs are written to defend against such attacks, it seems to me we have an example of logocentrism in all its obstinacy being confronted by what we might call the unavoidability of adestination. Would you, attached to your computer, try to give some more welcome to the virus, or be more receptive to the generative spread of its contamination ?

 

DW : This brings us back to the quote that you gave from Bennington about contaminability. It’s a hard question : what does one do with a virus ? One tries to kill it, but one can’t kill a virus in the normal way, because it’s not the same as a microbe, right. One tries to deal with it…, one also, in a perverse way, tries to encourage it, I guess because one’s interested in the effects, so… I think one has to develop a range of strategies that first of all involve a thinking of the virus that therefore becomes some sort of understanding of a viral contamination that is not just an accident, but that is originary, once again, in its conception, just as prosthesis is. I think the sense of prosthesis and the sense of the virus could be transposed, without any problem, I could rewrite the book and call it Virus instead of Prosthesis, it probably wouldn’t change much, I’d have to change my father’s wooden leg into a… something else, but… given that, if we accept the idea that first of all one has to conceive of the virus as originary, that doesn’t mean to say that one has to sit there and be invaded or mutated by the virus and simply become an effect of it. But it means that the relation to the virus cannot be elaborated simply in terms of normal forms of resistance. You cannot just go to war against the virus, you cannot just kill it with an anti-biotic, you have to find ways of understanding the virus and, I guess, of performing some sort of genetic mutation. If I can continue these figures drawn from medicine and science that I’m not competent really to talk about, I have no idea really how viruses work, I’m conjecturing here, but it seems that the virus requires a different type of resistance, a different type of reaction, and a different type of practice so that the normal discourses that we would bring into play and into operation within a more traditional conception of contamination are not sufficient to deal with the virus. So we have therefore to find different forms of contamination and even a different conception of contamination. I guess an experiment like Prosthesis is about trying that as well, it’s about trying to deal with contamination in a different way, for what it’s worth and to the extent that it works, which is a whole other matter. Fortunately I don’t think anybody will die from reading Prosthesis… maybe they’ll cut off their leg, I don’t know…

 

BB : How was the book received, by the way, in the anglophone world, and then in France ?

 

DW : I don’t have much of a sense of how it’s been received in France, I haven’t had much feedback at all. It’s a book that only has a small circulation. In the anglophone world it seems to have been received, very positively, by a small group of people. So the people who’ve read it have connected with what it’s trying to do in there. They have received it very sympathetically and positively. But I think it hasn’t reached a wide audience, so that I can’t have a real sense of how widespread its effect is. I’ve just had lots of positive feedback from individuals who have read it.

 

PB : Did you collaborate closely with the translator  ?

 

DW : I did the translation.

 

PB : You did the translation in French ? We came upon some small ‘interesting’ divergencies between both versions and may quote a few later on...

 

DW : ..it’s more contamination !

 

BB : For instance : from ‘unconscious’ in English to ‘conscient’ in French, I think.

DW : I don’t know what to say about a slip like that ! But I produced the first version of the translation, and then Catherine Malabou kindly worked over it with me so that there wouldn’t be any problems with the French.

 

PB : On p. 22 of La prothèse 1, you write : la prothèse ne veut rien dire sinon placer, déplacer, remplacer… This is to translate : Prosthesis being about nothing if not placement etcetera… There’s a lot in there to make for a whole story, but what about the : ne veut rien dire. La prothèse ne veut rien dire ?  A calculated reference ?

 

DW : Maybe, maybe it was unconscious, maybe it was conscious, I can’t remember.

 

BB : Still : la prothèse ne veut dire ?

 

DW : La prothèse ne veut rien dire, non ? yeah it’s true. It’s better in French… it’s better in translation. I mean, there are certain points where I consciously was aware of changing the English because I thought I had improved my thinking in the interim and I could say it more clearly, also because the French seemed to lead, you know the French has its own rythm and its own locution and phraseology and so on, and I allowed that to work, to have its course in a sense. And.. you know, I had the liberty to do that because it’s my own translation. If I’m translating somebody else, of course I have to be very strict with myself about that, but in translating myself, if I didn’t like the English, I changed it. So if the French started to lead somewhere else or to something more, which may be the case with an expression like ne veut rien dire, you know, I let that happen.

 

BB : One final question concerning information-technology : in Geneva, 1978 you note that : however sophisticated the apparatus for information transfer, it still presumes to mask the naive conception of transfer upon which it is based, discounting the very effects of relay and deferral that constitute it (312). What exactly is to be learned from this fact, as you say ?

 

DW : Well, one thing which is to be learned from it is that you can’t retain the sort of naive conception of communicability that people writing on hypertext seem to have and think that the complexity of textual effects still allows for a simple transfer or transferability of sense and so on. And, I don’t know, another conception of the same question that I’ve been thinking about more recently, and that my talk on Friday is going to relate to, my talk on Friday is going to relate to the 2 books by Bernard Stiegler, La technique et le temps, which, you know, were written in parallel with Prosthesis, we met each other when we were halfway through the projects, we’re obviously both working in parallel but coming from completely different directions, his is much more strictly philosophical, but..  where was I ?

 

BB : Another conception of the same question

 

DW : Right, the conclusion I come to in this line of thinking that I’m developping at the moment, and that amounts to something of a reproach to Stiegler, that offers some sort of critique of what I think in his work… do you know the work ? 

 

PB : …coming to it…

 

DW : …is a fall into, a lapse into a notion of continuity that comes from his emphasis on speed and his reference to real time and the instantaneity of communication. It seems to me he lets drop to some extent the disjunction and the disjunctiveness that has been such an important feature of technology throughout the whole argument, in his work, and that when he comes to talking about Husserl and the temporal object and so on, he gets on to this way of thinking which privileges continuity over and against discontinuity. And I think, you know, that, once again, that is a failure to really continue to think communicability in terms of a structurally indissociable disseminatability. Every communication has necessarily to be a miscommunication or a decommunication or a dissemination, if you like. Similarly, we can say that if we follow through with everything that Derrida says about différance and the trace as not just either writing or speech and not just language either, but every thing we can possibly conceive of as a trace, then I think we have to say that the electrical impulse itself, which seems to obey a simple law of physics, that governs computing for instance, we have to say that the electrical impulse falls within it, structurally speaking, within the possibility of miscommunication. That doesn’t mean that the law of physics is overthrown or neglected, but that at the moment that the electrical impulse is emitted its destination is not assured. If contamination is originary, contamination is originary. If the breakdown is originary, the breakdown is originary, I mean you can’t then go about and say that it becomes an accident. But I don’t think too many computer programmers would agree…

 

BB : There’s some discussion among computer scientists about whether computer viruses can generate spontaneously, if you like, mutate in the very process in which they get rewritten or reproduce. Some argue that that is excluded, others leave open that possibility, at least in theory, to add that such generation is statistically so unlikely that it probably never ever materialized…

 

DW : Yeah, I mean we’re at the point in our thinking where we have to reposition ourselves in terms of a whole set of priorities, that just seem so inevitable, just so ineluctable and so unavoidable, such as the reproduction of the virus, and I am suggesting that we’re at the point where we have to rethink these fundamental priorities of cause and effect. That is to say that we have to think them over again, analyse them, which is not to say there are no more physical laws. Obviously the sun rises, objects fall, an electrical charge occurs. Those are physical laws. But we still may need to think the « event » of such laws anew, to know what the rising of the sun, the « event » of rising means. Another example of that is the notion of artificial intelligence. If we supposedly get to the point where we can, where a program can reproduce the genetic code, if an artificial program can reproduce the genetic program, and so become life, as it were, and reproduce itself precisely, in the same sense as the virus, then the whole notion we have of what comes first is open to serious requestioning, and that was something that.. once again I don’t have the competence to deal with these questions, but if they are suggested, they are suggested by some of the directions I follow in the book.

 

PB : To jack in : Towards the end to Africa, 21st Century, you write : this then is the matrix, the only jacking in is to death, the death in the machine of course, the technological gris-gris, but more than that, the massive consolidation of memory, the exponential compounding of the past, of course, but still more the transit to a foreign place that trades in overwhelming loss, connecting to a landscape that is all mutation, shifting into the otherness of pure invention whose paradigm is death (90). Could you elaborate, perhaps, on this linkage of cyberspace-death-loss-invention ?

 

DW : It’s a difficult passage. I remember when I’ve reread it myself, I’ve tried to think about what I was trying to say or to cram in by means of a series of evocations, and I’m not always sure I can reconstruct the precise logic of it. But with any exteriorization, prosthetization or jacking in, there is a sense of loss, an infraction with respect to what was considered intact, hence there is a relating to death in some form. The relation to the machine, or any machine, any technology, is necessarily a relation to death. And once again this is something that Stiegler will emphasize, from a different perspective, but it’s very strong. So the sense there is that when you jack in, whatever you jack into, in other words, when, if we preserve the distinction between the human and the machine, when the human connects with the machine then the human is necessarily and automatically transformed. And that transformation is necessarily a radical displacement, for which the paradigmatic reference has to be death. It would be the same with any supposedly exterior supplementation… I mention memory for instance, the sort of exteriorization of memory that takes place, with memory itself - memory is an exteriorization, it seems to me, by definition, and a technology, for that same reason - is necessarily inscribed in a relation to death as that which remains exterior to life or experience. To the extent that these exteriorizations remain, in a different form, the archive and the trace and memory and so on are necessarily references to death.

 

BB : And the relation to invention ? shifting into the otherness of pure invention whose paradigm is death ?

 

DW : To the extent that the shift into otherness, this displacement that is involved, necessarily opens the possibility of something, is a necessary structure of the other, it can announce the completely new. Death is an unpredictable inevitability. Perhaps more than anything else, every time it happens, it happens for the first time. Much more so than birth I think. So an opening, the possibility of an event, whatever event it be, and particularly in the cases that I’m talking about here, the event of a relation to an otherness that is technological and mechanical and so on, opens the possibility of invention, and in fact, you know, mechanical invention, technological invention is that process, it is the production of an otherness, often a radical otherness, often a threatening otherness that is also an invention. So it’s not just there, I don’t remember the exact context, but elsewhere also I’m trying to counteract the sort of melancholy and nostalgia that usually comes with the notion of otherness and death, by relating it also to newness and invention, because the two inhabit the same structure, I think, they fall within the same structure. And you know, there’s a lot of nostalgia in the book, there’s a whole play of nostalgia that is very strong in it. So I wanted also to counteract that.

 

PB : You would seem to attribute some deconstructive propensity, as it were, not only to Gibson’s trilogy, but to the fact of cyberspace itself, its explicitation of the constructedness of realities in general and of the prosthetization of the human subject (73) ? Like hypertext having a deconstructive propensity ?

 

DW : I think so, I go along with discussions of hypertext to the extent, that, you know, there’s a certain mise en scène which is different and in many ways might be more…I don’t know what word you’d use, more immediate, more acceptable, more explicit perhaps, just more explicit than other forms, more dramatic perhaps, and more related to changes within our history and our experience which… we could call its deconstructive propensity, yeah, I think I’d agree with that, but, you know, each time you say that then you fall into the trap, the same trap I was talking about before, of making the distinctions which very soon appear not to be the distinctions you thought they were, and that’s something once again I think Stiegler does in terms of his emphasis on consciousness as a type of cinema. I think he privileges one particular technological moment which certainly from another perspective doesn’t have the same importance, and I think I risk doing the same there and so I wouldn’t want to emphasize too much a deconstructive propensity to cyberspace any more than to, say, a wooden leg.

 

PB : As is suggested at one point in Prothèse 1 (143), cette prothèse –the writing or the leg- représente une pratique politique ou sociologique : démystification, résistance, information, affranchissement..

 

DW : That’s definitely something I remember adding in the French, that I changed in the French, and it’s not in the English, as I remember, certainly not in the same terms. So what’s the question, sorry ?

 

BB : Well, what would Prosthesis’ political sense of urgence or intervention be ? How would prosthetization rearticulate or reinvent or renegotiate the political ? It’s certainly not an emphatically political book…

 

DW : You’d have to tell me what an emphatically political book was.

 

PB : Our reference would be Donna Haraway’s Modest Witness.

 

DW : Ah.. no, it’s not like that. However, I think that if you put together all the claims, if you like, or all the analyses or all the suggestions that are put into effect through the book, then I would hope that it amounts to a political statement. It certainly amounts to a political statement within a certain institutional framework, within the institutional framework that it belongs in in the first instance, which is the academic framework, and within the precise academic framework of the institution of literary criticism and theory and maybe philosophy. This represents a definite political intervention with respect to that immediate framework.

 

PB : Mentone, 1888, for instance, would cross institutionally or academically recognizable or accredited readings or interpretations of the painting with a prosthetic reading. And that would be how Prosthesis at every occasion insinuates its effects ?

 

DW : Yes I think in general that, call them traditional academics, traditional philosophers, traditional literary critics and so on, wouldn’t, if they read Prosthesis, like it, because of its défi. I think it mounts a certain number of challenges to the institutional forms they are used to. Mostly by means of contamination, mostly because it contaminates those forms, it contaminates the forms of logic, many of the bases of academic pursuit and analysis. On the other hand, the risk of that sort of contamination is the same risk as the avant-garde in general, that it does not amount to any serious political challenge in the final analysis. So I wouldn’t want to argue for one as against the other, or say that just because I go into an autobiographical drift, and write these lyrical-type pages about my father and my history and so on, that I’m performing any serious political act. But the combination of the two, trying to preserve the rigorous logical and philosophical argument on the one hand, and allowing it to be contaminated, you know, is for me a political intervention. But as I said, I think the principles, all those principles that come up in the discussion, of contamination in a much wider sense, of prosthetization in a much wider sense, of calling into question of cause and effect in terms of the possibility of reversibility and so on and so forth, can make for a serious set of political questions.

 

PC : Does that mean that your notion of the political is rather broad ? Political as an intervention in the sphere of institutions ?

 

DW : To me that is a precise rather than a broad sense of the political – the polis is not just people milling around but the people forming the institution of the city - the political would be first and foremost an intervention in the definition of an institution, or the institution, the operation of institutions in general as well as specific institutional instances.

 

PB : In Mentone, 1888 you focus on the painting or the artist, but also on the spectator, while an academic reading of the painting would only focus on the artist and his work. You focus on the signature, or rather contre-signature, which is forgotten in an art-critical reading. That focus is, for me, a political gesture. And then, you also address the institutions of the work of art, the museum and the history of art…

 

DW : All the while following the example of The Truth in Painting. But art history can be an easy target, you know. I don’t think I gave myself terribly difficult targets, art history in particular…

 

PB : A passage that most impressed me, but left me rather confused : you suggest that it is precisely what you call the prosthetization of the body, its originary and final nonintegrality, that produces the ethical problematic surrounding death, as well as that of life (143). Some questions, as I rephrase them from reading : would prosthesis first open-up the ethical ? What ethics would prosthesis call for, if not an ethics that presumes integrity or integrality ? What becomes of the ethical if ablation or loss of integrality, some expropriation is the law ? These are all questions - would you have some answers ?

 

DW : You’re asking hard questions, I’m allowed to ask some hard questions too ! It doesn’t mean I have the answers. Let me say that the ethical question in terms of prosthesis was not something I was very conscious of as I was working on it, but it was brought to my attention a number of times, in terms of, once again, very local questions such as the relation to the father and my exploitation of somebody else’s infirmity. Things like that started me thinking about the question and I got as far as the formulations you cite, but I don’t know that I got much further. But I think there are already some good questions there. There are already some good questions there, but I would have to try and write something else to develop them. What I try to encourage by means of my questions is a displacement of certain ethical dilemmas From my point of view an ethics that refers back to an inviolability of the human, the body, and so on, leads to certain impasses. So how would that change, I am asking, if we tried to think ethics on the basis of the originary violability that prosthesis represents ? So we need to think originary prosthesis and non-integrality as an ethical question rather than avoid it until it presents itself in the form of a question about something like genetic engineering. If the body were indeed inviolable, constituted as original intactness, then those dilemmas would not be dilemmas, they would be solved already. There would be no question : you don’t touch it because it cannot be touched. Logically speaking it can only be because the body is prosthetic that we can be arguing about the extent to which we can interfere with it. So I say let’s think an ethics based on prostheticity and bring that to bear on current prosthetic possibilities.

 

PB : In my job I’m working on gene-therapy, and the idea there of integrality or integrity is very important..

 

PC : …important to ethics…

 

DW : ..it seems fundamental. 

 

PB : ..important and it is forgotten in ethical questions about gene-therapy..

 

DW : ..that is a very good question, the idea that… it seems to me that, traditionally speaking, you can’t conceive of an ethics without a notion of identity, what I just called « inviolability », although, you know, if we think of ethical philosophers, we think of Levinas and then Derrida’s reading of him, that sort of question is starting to be asked in terms of the relation to the other. If ethics can only be conceived of in terms of a relation to the other, then can’t we call it a prosthetic relation ? isn’t every relation to the other necessarily prosthetic anyway ? and doesn’t it therefore raise questions of non-integrality, if identity can’t be conceived of otherwise, so… I think you should write a book about that, cause that’s your field..

 

BB : We were wondering whether you would have some reservations about the word cyborg. The term crops up only rarely, for instance on p. 2, where some cyborg synthetic ecstacy gets interpreted, beautifully, as the fiction of a science or the science of a fiction and the love of a machine past all fear of rejection. In the French translation, that cyborg disappears, though: l’extase synthétique et cybernétique.

The cyborg, defined as a hybrid of machine and organism, may rely, for its possibility, on some accepted binarism based on stable, knowable identities which are always implied. It may also imply the notion of an originary, single source. Is it that prosthesis may perhaps trouble such notions and identities ?

 

DW : I hope so, yeah I hope so. In reading Haraway, I haven’t read the later Haraway, but in reading the earlier work, such as The Cyborg Manifesto, I was struck by the fact that it didn’t really go very far towards asking the sorts of questions that I wanted to ask and, in fact, it seemed to rely on the sort of distinctions that you just referred to. It still seemed to presume an originary integrity of the body, even though everything it was saying suggested otherwise. And then I was worried about the sort of politics that seemed to be coming out of that which, once again, I thought was more a reactive type of what I’ll call avant-garde politics, for want of a better word, than a theorized politics. So, I was wary of making too much reference to that, because.. I guess I didn’t really want to face the issue head-on, it was a whole other story and it was a whole other issue and, you know, you can’t do everything, you can’t deal with everything and.. you know, even the treatment of hypertext is dealt with in a footnote, it’s a long footnote but.. although these were important things, these were in a sense distractions to what I was trying to do. So I tried not to get too close to the question of the cyborg, so I wouldn’t have to deal with it. I guess that is a simple answer, but I don’t know, you should tell me more how you read Haraway and related work in terms of these questions, maybe I should get back and read some more, or to what extent you think she’s come to a more, shall we say better theorized point of view.

 

 

BB : In her Cyborg Manifesto, Donna Haraway indicates that her practice of cyborg-figuration depends on what she identifies as implosions of subjects and objects, that are evident in late-twentieth-century technoscience. Cyborgs would be the offspring of these recent implosions. So life has become, or is becoming life enterprised- up, and that development makes for a new or original given of our times. Your practise and thematics of prosthesis, although it may also on occasion refer to the prosthetic age, would seem to resist the periodizing drift to narratives that would have humanity evolve into some post-humanity over a phase of trans-humanizing up-gradings ?

 

DW : Absolutely, that’s my major problem with it. The moment you get into that sort of periodization or historicization, then you’re backing away from the originariness of the prosthetic or call it the cyborg or call it what you will. I have the same sorts of questions about the emphasis on modernism that’s in the conference I’m attending here, because.. although I deal with, I make references to a contemporary situation to some extent and I deal with certain historical moments, they’re also to a great extent historical fictions. In the chapter on the entrance of the word « prosthesis » into English, or the discussion of Ambroise Paré and the introduction of prosthesis as a medical possibility, such moments are presented as fictive histories to a great extent. Although historicizations are possible and necessary, the emphasis is always on a modern or the modernist or the first modern and so on, and this sense of an evolution of the human towards the posthuman is certainly something I would want to resist in terms of my argument for an originary prosthetic.

 

PB : Perhaps you would have to put the emphasis on the org in cyborg, precisely for prosthesis to deploy its activity, if you like. In the cyborg-literature there are two camps, the one stressing the silicium- and the other the carbon-side of the matter, the information and the body of the cyb-org. You would have to stress the org, for prosthetization to develop.. well, that’s what I think..

 

DW : That makes sense, yes, I accept that as a reading of my perspective, sure.

 

BB : The space of that originary prosthetic would seem to be particularly spooky : whatever sets itself up as originary in the development of prosthesis –this writing, that wooden leg- has all the consistency of a ghost (10). As a writing in prosthesis, Prosthesis would not merely describe the spectralization it also describes, but partake in it, provoke it, explore it, up an ante here and there ?

 

DW : I hope so. But how do you produce a ghost ? how do you provoke a ghost ? I don’t know, maybe you can, maybe that’s what you do with ghosts, right, you call them, you invoke them, summon them, right, isn’t that what they do in Hamlet ? They summon the ghost to appear. So there’s a sense in which writing Prosthesis is an attempt to be a medium, perhaps, for that sort of ghostly apparition. Whether it’s successful is another story. But there’s an important sense of provocation, sure.

 

BB : Naively conceived of, prosthesis presents as an artificial appendage to natural member (18). Yet you argue that it better be apprehended, not as an addition or replacement, but as an extension of something that is very present, some constitutive loss of integrity. Could you expand on that ?

 

DW : Why repeat myself ? I don’t think I can explain without repeating myself ! In a sense that’s what I’ve been trying to say all along, but extension, extrapolation, originary non-continuation, all these things would have to be conceived of as elements of the conception of prosthesis, and the other thing you can do or the other thing I could point to in terms of the notion of replacement, in order to try and give that another twist and make it function in a different sense, is what I referred to previously in terms of reversibility.

Once you have the idea that an addition destroys the integrity or integrality of that which it is added to, then that which is added to can no longer operate as the origin or as the prior element or as the preceding element, and so you also have stricty speaking the possibility of reversibility, you have the possibility that prosthesis was there before the body came to be added to it. And in terms of the particular historical moment that I was referring to before, of Ambroise Paré, it’s very interesting that he conceives of prosthesis at the same time that he’s medically learning to amputate a limb and to suture the arteries so that it heals properly which will allow it therefore to wear a prosthesis. So that.. it’s as if you could almost suggest that first he invented the prosthesis, then invented the method of amputation so that the prosthesis could be made to work. Even historically you can make that suggestion, but just in terms of the logic of prosthesis, if the logic of addition, supplementarity is such that it destroys the intact integrality of the origin, then there’s nothing to give the now deconstructed origin priority and so you have the possibility of reversibility, I mean that’s the whole conceit of Derrida’s postcard after all, the relation between Plato and Socrates.

 

BB : The only authenticity that you would ascribe to the body, if any, would be the authenticy of some originary mourning (13). This reminded me of a remark by Derrida, in answer to a question posed to him by Peter Brunette, in The Spatial Arts : the body itself is ruptured, or let’s say, riven by nonpresence, by the impossibility of identifying with itself [..] The body is, how should I say, an experience in the most unstable sense of the term ; it is an experience of frames, of dehiscence, of dislocations (15). Would prosthesis be a name for just this lapse, that is somehow originary, of the body out of presence, or selfpresence ?

 

DW : I think so, and now that you’ve reminded me of that quote I regret I had forgotten about it when I was writing the book, for it’s a very good quote, but… exactly : that idea of the body is what I’m trying to put into effect in writing Prosthesis, yeah.

 

BB : According to the logic of the prosthetic, there never was any idea of the human constituted without reference to prosthetic articulations, there is no human pre-prosthetic condition (145). What seem to be the possibilities of subsequent prosthetic attachment are in fact the constituting principles of the human mechanism (71). This ‘originary prosthetization’ would seem to turn what may still be called le propre de l’homme into a possibility that somehow precedes man, and that is inhuman ?

 

DW : I can only return, and now I’m really getting repetitive, probably tired also, to what we were saying just now about reversibility, that necessarily the logic involved is precisely that. You can point even to the historical conception of prosthesis in those terms, even in terms of a history of it, and a particular historical moment which gave rise to a particular explicitation of prosthesis that wouldn’t be possible, it seems to me, unless the human were already conceived of as a prosthesis ; and you can also point to all sorts of very traditional conceptions of the human, starting with Vesalius for instance, in terms of a mechanics of the machine and its articulation and so on, or perhaps a combination of discourses which relate to a type of fluidity and an organicist conception and a mechanicist conception, I think we have the history, the histories of both, and we have examples of both. But there is sufficient evidence of this mechanicist conception throughout history and then strange relations between the organic and the organicist and mechanicist to suggest that the body has been seen for a long long time in many, even in many traditional ways, as a machine.

The last part of your question referred to…

 

BB : …man’s proper as a possibility that precedes man and that is inhuman.

 

DW : Inhuman as preceding the human ? It’s fine by me ! We have to conceive of what precedes the human as inhuman, no ? by definition !

 

PB : At times you would seem to make a differentiation between two types of inhumanity and prosthesis, no ? I wrote a thesis on Lyotard and…

 

DW : ...I didn’t make any reference to…

 

PB : …no no, but I was just wondering whether such a differentiation between types of inhumanity was what was implied and..

 

DW : I’m sorry, you’ve been reading it more recently than me, I can’t think now what the context was, but I know that I don’t make that formulation that you just referred to in terms of the inhuman, the pre-human as the inhuman if you like, I don’t deal with that. By implication I do suggest that prostheticity is less inhuman than the presumed non-prosthetic human, but again those are questions for a whole new book.

 

BB : I’d like to read to you a passage from Bernard Stiegler’s Persephone, Oedipus, Epimetheus 

 

DW : …which is the one thing by him I haven’t read, it’s the only thing I haven’t read.. but never mind, it’s in the same vein.

 

BB : So it goes : Let us accept that man is an originarily prosthetized being, for whom prostheses are vital. Let us further accept that tools, inorganic organs, inert matter that is nevertheless organized, are an organic projection that engender a process of exteriorization as a result of which life, as differentiation, is pursued through means other than life. If so, then one must add that the originary organic projection of the human tool (which places the human in lack of an origin : he has no essence, he is only artifact, without qualities, open to his fate of being a « Promethean god ») is also the constitution of a new memory in the history of living beings. Now, it seems to us that there is an obvious convergence between Prosthesis and La technique et le temps. But there is also a world of difference, which may have to do with the writing. Prosthesis may be demonstrative and thetic, as it undertakes to demonstrate to what extend a supposed natural creation relies on artificial devices of various kinds. Yet, the parameters of that demonstration tend to collapse within the experiment itself, and so Prosthesis becomes more of a prosthesis.

 

DW : I hope so ! I have the utmost respect for Bernard Stiegler’s work and in writing the paper on it that I’m going to present at the conference, and which is still incomplete because I still have a whole other section I wanted to work with, I really had to resist simply repeating what he says. I really felt as though in order to find something to talk about that wouldn’t just be a repetition, in order to produce a reading of his work I had to almost force some sort of difference between my own point of view and his. Now, the difference that you point to in terms of writing practice is certainly an important difference that I would acknowledge, I think that much is obvious, if one reads Prosthesis and if one reads La technique et le temps, you see that they are two different writing practices. But this paper is not going to be like Prosthesis, it’s going to be a much more strictly academic reading, so in order to do that I had to try and force a difference, but I did. And the difference that I found or forced or created or produced comes back down to the question of language, so it is related once again, not necessarily to writing practice, but to the practice of language at least. And it’s an argument which turns around the fact that Stiegler says the most important things or the most « technological » things when he creates effects which are almost plays on words, or poetic language, or call it what you will - I wouldn’t want to characterize it - rather than when he’s developping his rigorous philosophical logic or his rigorous analysis of anthropology and paleontology and so on. There’s a quote in the middle of the first volume of La technique et le temps, where he says : L’homme est cet accident d’automobilité que provoque une panne d’essence. Une panne d’essence, a breakdown and out of gas, but also a breakdown in essence. In French it works, and in English, I don’t know about Flemish : essence doesn’t mean petrol or gasoline ? But in French it does, so my argument is finally that there is a technology of language which Stiegler ignores however much he talks about it, because he does emphasize in all the work on Leroi-Gourhan, for instance, that immediately there is man there is language, immediately there is technological man, man as conceived technologically, immediately he is upright and using tools, he is « speaking », using language. This means that from the beginning language is a technology, that language, corticalisation, the use of tools, temporality and so on, memory, exteriorization and so on, all these things fall within the same structure, which is the structure of technology. But then he goes on to talk about the development of all these other things, and the developping technology of them, but it seems he never talks about the developping technology of language. Now I’m not saying I know how to do that, I’m not sure that.. it’s not an easy question, but what I try to argue is that there is a sense of language which is technological to the extent that it operates at the speed of light. And not only does it operate at the speed of light, but it is capable of operating in two directions at once, at the speed of light. So when you have une panne d’essence, which means two things, then you have language which is failing to respect the laws of physics in a sense, because it goes in two directions at once at the speed of light. And this brings us back to the question we were talking about, of trying to conceive of even the electronic impulse as linguistic in the Derridean sense of dissemination. So if we conceive of language as dissemination and as différance, which Stiegler must and does, then it seems there is a technology, there is a way to start to talk about différance in relation to language and in relation to technology that he doesn’t, that would make for a productive dialogue, I think, between my work and his. Once again, it goes back to, I guess, my emphasis on wanting to develop a writing practice, that comes from a relation to language which is different from his, and comes from a relation to a discipline which is different from his and so on.

 

BB : A question on autobiography, as the end is drawing near : early in Hamilton, 1970, you indicate that the oft-repeated ‘I’ should always be read as a prosthetic ‘I’, no ‘I’ that is not related to an event of writing (19). Prosthesis is involved in an inventive rewriting of autobiography, which it recounts in the mode of the anecdote, introducing a persisent disordering of discourse (316). I would like you to ask how your anecdotal automation reformulates the autobiographical function of writing. Autobiography is commonly considered to be an ordinarily human activity that reduces the life term to a coextension of meaning with history. Your prosthetic indulgence would seem to trouble the value of the human, the relation of being to its end. Instead of being in relation to the end (which may be a fantasm), the value of the human is re-estimated with a view to what is foreign to the end, writing. Writing somehow writes itself, and it is intolerant of finitude : towards the end of one of the chapters a cry is echoed for all this to end and not to end in urgent gentle dilapidation

 

DW : Your questions are frightening in their precision. Yes, that’s at the end of the chapter on Greenaway, in which the autobiography relates less to the father, is more indulgently auto-biographical. Obviously I want to prosthetize autobiography, and I want this very, as you say, ordinary, natural, presumably ordinary, presumably natural practice which presumes that the life, the bios can be written - biography, or autobiography makes the presumption that it can be written in some form of wholeness and continuity and integrity and so on - I wanted very much to resist that and therefore the recourse to anecdote which, it seems to me, first of all has the advantage of not being faithful, of being trivial, as trivial as it can be… anecdotal means of course not accurate, not faithful, not correct, not historical and so on. But also of course, anecdote takes the form of narrative, and the idea of narratives is that they multiply and they self-multiply and they’re viral, if you like. So anecdote for me was a virus that could be introduced, I didn’t say it in these terms, but now I’m saying it, it sounds like I should have. It was the virus that I was trying to introduce into autobiography, to try, in a sense to trivialize it, but also to have it multiply and self-contaminate and proliferate, which is what narratives have always done, and of course narrative is a form of technology that is immediately introduced once language is available. The technological form in the sense of an archive, and in the sense of an exteriorization of language, to take Stiegler’s terms, that comes into effect immediately we have language occurs as the narratives that start to be retold and reworked and transmitted and so on… and inherited and so on. So the anecdote for me was the virus let loose in autobiography to try and write it in a different form, sure. Perhaps I should add that it doesn’t come without some attachment to the bios, in terms of emotional investment and so on, getting back to your emphasis, your suggestion that I was going to emphasize the org in the cyborg, by the same token, in the autobiography the anecdote doesn’t just function as an impersonal machine, if you like, but it’s also a machine of memory, a machine that’s invested in the bios, that’s invested in whatever we say constitutes the bios in terms of affect and history and so…

 

BB : One final question ?

 

DW : Well, how many have we had ? I think we had more than twenty, didn’t we ?

 

PC : …and you passed them all !

 

BB : Derrida’s Envois are amongst the texts you love the most, at least you say so, and you have written on several occasions on the postal. Now, cette putain de la poste has a general autobiography of its own, shameless in sharing its privacy openly. Yet this postal sharing, this general autobiography, and its open pro-statuere, is structural to the movement of the autobiography. Without the postal potential for loss, the distance for meaning could not be generated : there is distancing, the post, what there has to be so that it is legible for another.

So it was all there in the post ? autobiography, distance, prosthesis, prostitution, exhibition…

 

DW : Well the prosthesis is a post : in the chapter on Mentone, there is the idea of the stake – rods, poles and perches - and it comes back in Geneva, I think. The prosthesis is a stake, and it’s a post in that sense. So it’s postal in that sense. It’s postal, definitely, because it deals with the question of adestination ad infinitum, and perhaps deals with nothing else. It’s exhibitionistic, it’s a form of prostitution, some sort of exploitation of the body for some sort of gain, so it’s all those things, yeah… It’s less explicitly postal in terms of its self-explicitation, I mean in those specific instances I’ve just referrred to, it refers to the questions of the postal and questions of adestination, but it’s a fact that in terms of Derrida’s work the notion of the postal is the one that always seemed the most striking for me, so I think necessarily it will all come back to the post in the final analysis, sure.

And now it’s been posted, so it’s your problem.

 

PB : Thank you.

 

DW : Thank you.