The abyssal question of priority between the human and the machine | Introducing Devin Wangert’s contribution for rs548049170_1_69869_TT (The Other Shapes of Me)

In theorizing the relationship between automata and living organisms, Georges Canguilhem notes that the “mechanical explanation of the functions of life historically presupposes…the construction of automations”: it would be “tautological” to explain living organisms by way of mechanisms themselves still dependent on human motive force.[1] Canguilhem understood that anachronism and misrecognition are endemic to the human-machine relation which we have, from 1947 onwards, called “automation.” If on the surface he makes a straightforward historical argument about machine motion being untethered from human motive force, there is something strange about the gesture that ensues: because the two are untethered, humans can now be understood in terms of automata. From this point on, that relation is characterized twice over by anachronism—there is now an abyssal question of priority between the human and the machine, indexed by which is said to explain the other—and misrecognition—one is now read according to the properties of the other, which the other appropriates. Likewise, when automation becomes a technical capacity in the Ford plantanother short-circuit occurs, anachronistically superimposing machines over humans—not until one replaces the other but until automation adopts the contours of human labour’s character. Now speaking about machines doing work, we forget the living things underneath.

[1] Georges Canguilhem, “Machine and Organism” in Knowledge of Life (New York: Fordham University Press, 2018), 78.

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