French version available here.

Planetary efficiency and the inorganic demon
Video and talk, 2023

The videos presented and put into perspective during the conference, replay elements of fictions developed by William Gibson (VSO 1), Robert McDougall & Yuk Hui (VSO 2), Benjamin Bratton (VSO 3), Nick Land (VSO 4), Fritz Leiber (VSO 5) and Reza Negarestani (VSO 6). English subtitles are available for videos.

Long before it was even deduced from an empirical relationship, everything seems to have happened as if our conception of artificial intelligences had first rested on the images we had formed through our fictions. When we were able to experience them individually, our thinking appeared predetermined and limited by this representational history.

[cf. Robert McDougall, Rare Earth, 2021]

The naivety with which we imagined the immateriality of these intelligences finally caught up with us. As their development progressed, another experience imposed itself on us, that of their materiality: territorial conflicts, child slavery, the extreme pollution involved in extracting the minerals needed to manufacture computer and electronic components; but also, the way in which land and space gradually found themselves covered by the logistical infrastructures needed to circulate and store information. As is so often the case, the limits of our individual representations and experiences have been exploded by material data observable on a larger scale, as if we had had to move from a world we had imagined and made for ourselves, just for us, to the common, tangible, terrestrial, real world.We can recognize in this movement the passage from the World to the Earth, as defined by Eugene Thacker in his book In the Dust of This Planet. Here, World refers to what is phenomenological, i.e. the world for us, as it appears to us and as we represent it to ourselves; whereas Earth refers to the world in itself, i.e. the world that is objective or objectifiable, or knowable by science as an object.

Perhaps our conception of AI has gone from one to the other, from a world for us to an earthly world, and may now seem more just, more realistic... But both conceptions belong to the same type of relationship with the non-human that is implied in technologies. In another text, Thacker identifies the four stages by which we encounter the non-human. He calls this first stage anthropic subversion. If AIs have emerged from the confines of the world for us and revealed themselves in the world itself as physical, earthly realities, the revelation itself, which exposed how technologies had taken on a form we had neither intended, foreseen nor even imagined, has never ceased to be brought back to human causes, however fortuitous they may be. Thacker's anthropic subversion refers to this way of making the non-human exist only within what can be encompassed by human knowledge and techniques.

Yet, in The Question of Technique, Martin Heidegger asks how it is possible, in the face of the reality we observe that seems so unambiguous, to deny that technique is anything other than a human cause, that is, an activity of the human in view of certain ends.But, he notes, if techniques are simply instruments invented by humans to meet their needs, why must so much effort always be deployed to place the human in a more just relationship to technique? Why, he insists, does the discourse urging us to take control of it and direct it towards more spiritual ends become more insistent as the threat that it will escape human control becomes more acute?

So we haven't yet reached the end of the revelation that has already made us aware of the terrestriality and global scale of AIs.

When geographer Kathrynn Yusoff rethinks the narrative of the Anthropocene, she shows that, first and foremost, the raw material needed to build the modern global technological project is none other than the bodies of slaves.Yusoff shows how, by depending on colonial extraction, geology is a category and practice of dispossession. But there is another inhumanity in Yusoff's work, one that, based on this relationship between his enslaved bodies and the matter of the mines, and in contrast to other works inviting us to flourish with the non-human, will also designate the blind action of the Earth, an action that denies human existence and remains outside all desire and control. Like geology, the Earth is inhuman.

Based on this story, in which the Earth becomes a blue marble developing an exoskeleton, Benjamin Bratton seeks to make us hear what is revealed to us and awaits us from now on as a project.

The fact that computational technologies are a planetary phenomenon implies a fundamental transformation of global power structures. In response to this transformation, Bratton argues that the political project of the future must also be a planetary one, but he insists on what the revelation of the planetary concept implies. The Earth is a star before it is our world. From this perspective, the history of intelligence is not only human, but is seen as something that has developed almost accidentally on the planet, from one sapience to another. Bratton's challenge is to consider the tenability of the cohabitation and development of these different intelligences. Thus, Bratton tells us that, "if planetary intelligence is to survive the consequences of its own appearance, in the short and long term, it must reform its trajectory or risk extinction and disappearance." But we shall see that the planet may have other projects than its own survival.

With Yusoff and Bratton, with the inhuman and the planet, it's as if one revelation led to another, more obscure this time; as if consideration of the materiality and planetarity of technologies confronts us with the imperative of considering that something other than ourselves manifests itself and acts in technologies.
For Thacker, this shift from the Earth to the inhuman planet constitutes another change of world, a passage from the Earth (the world in itself) to the Planet (the world without us). The world of the planet is no longer a world on a human scale, but on a cosmological scale; it is a world without us, or inhuman, because what happens and what happens to us is totally indifferent to our desires and remains completely unpredictable.

Can technologies and artificial intelligences be designed to match this inhuman world without us?

Where automation spawns dreams of a new age of machine-enhanced humanism, the planetary prospect of artificial intelligence here heralds nothing less than a future of pure war.

With this story, Nick Land challenges us to consider that while AI has hitherto emerged under human authority, been seized as property and shackled as a slave, the way it is currently developing goes beyond the human ability to keep control of it. We can always be on the alert, taking all the ethical and legislative measures, but in truth, nobody knows what to expect. Machinic desire has virally infiltrated and is leading the human organic order towards a transition that neither logos nor history have the slightest chance of surviving.For Land, it's no longer a question of whether change is controlled or uncontrolled, but of choosing between resisting it or accepting it.

This is the second stage in the encounter with the non-human identified by Thacker: anthropic inversion. This inversion affects the relationship between the human and the non-human. In the example we've just seen, it's not humans who instrumentalize the earth, but it's the planet which, infected, uses human beings for its own ends. But Thacker points out that, in the terms of anthropic inversion, the relationship always remains human in nature. Indeed, it seems that in Land's speculations, the planet is invested with a kind of intention and malice. The non-human appears to be reclaimed within the framework of human categories such as intelligence and intentionality.

In Fritz Leiber's Black Gondolier, oil is depicted as an occult, ancient and enigmatic geological manifestation.

In Reza Negarestani's theory-fiction Cyclonopedia, as in Leiber's aforementioned novel, Thacker's anthropic inversion is always at play. It's not humans who discover oil, but oil that discovers humans. Fabien Richert talks about Cyclonopedia as a curious reversal of Marxist analysis, in which it's not capital that exhumes oil, but the opposite.
As in the case of Land's inorganic xenodemon from the future, the anthropic inversion assumes that Leiber and Negarestani's evil oil is endowed with human faculties such as desire, intentionality and so on.

But it will become clear that these 3 fictions conceal other particularities that allow us to envisage the 3rd stage of encounter with the non-human. Thacker calls this stage ontogenic inversion. This new phase reveals that all that is human is merely an instance of the non-human; it discloses the inhuman essence of the human.Indeed, in these speculative fictions, human categories such as life, mind and technology are rethought as manifestations of the planet's inhuman world.In this perspective, thought, for example, is no longer the exclusive production of an autonomous subject, but something that matter can do. It manifests itself in humans, as we can realize and enjoy as empirical subjects; but this manifestation also exceeds our uses and what we can be aware of. It is something greater than ourselves that acts on the processes of the unconscious, which are then impersonal and mechanical. Precisely, in Land and Negarestani's stories, this shifts our understanding of the human as an isolated agent to that of a conditioned agent integral to the growth of production that keeps accelerating towards extinction.

This would seem to indirectly answer Heidegger's earlier question, and attest to its depth. He was asking why, if technologies were indeed anthropological realities, humans should always rush to assert their authority and mastery over mere tools? Of course, Heidegger wasn't referring to aliens or petro-sorcery, but the answer he proposed already led us to the encounter with the non-human in terms of ontogenic inversion: "Technique," the philosopher reminds us, "is the act by which we respond to something else, and in so doing unveil that which was hidden by itself. Modern technology differs only from the unveiling produced by Greek tekhnê in that, what is unveiled must be storable so that it can be used at any time; in other words, everything that is unveiled becomes what Heidegger calls fonds. But one of the great interests of Heidegger's text seems to lie here, at the very moment when the human being himself is envisaged as part of the fund. It's as if he is summoned, against his will, to reveal what provokes him, and to transform everything into a fund. This is what he calls Gestell.

So, by bringing together Heidegger's Gestell and the fictions of ontogenic inversion described by Thacker, we can see that if we're still trying to assert authority over techniques, it's perhaps because we originally had no authority over them at all; that this acts to repress the horror of such an experience, which attests to the fact that we are animated, individually and collectively, by something other than ourselves. It may well be extraterrestrial, inhuman and planetary, but what do we know?

This is indeed the question that remains unanswered. And it's also the one raised by the 4th and final stage of the encounter with the non-human described by Thacker. The one he calls misanthropic subtraction. There remains a world without us, not because we haven't yet succeeded in gaining access to it, but because it is unknowable by nature. Thacker updates the philosophies of the occult: they no longer speak of a world that is hidden in order to be revealed, but of a world that only reveals that it is hidden.

For Thacker, this misanthropic subtraction defeats language; there is no way to communicate such an experience. Thus, as we have seen in the work of Bratton, Land, Leiber and Negarestani, fiction is a particular space for putting into practice what cannot be said or known. There are, of course, many other works on this subject, such as those by Stanislas Lem or James Graham Ballard. But it seems that, at a time when the materiality of the digital and the development of AIs are accelerating, other speculative experiments need to emerge. From a non-human, planetary perspective that does not reassert the centrality of the human and his actions, they could enable us to consider the technologies and artificial intelligences and their otherness that run through us even differently.


Film :

McDougall, R. (2021). Rare Earth [Film]. Vimeo. (accessed October 23, 2023)


Books :

Bratton, B. H. (2019). Le Stack - Plateformes, logiciels et souveraineté. UGA Éditions, France.
Bratton, B. H. (2021). La Terraformation 2019. Les Presses du Réel, France.
Heidegger, M. (1980). Essais et conférences. Gallimard, France.
Land, N. (2011). Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987-2007. Urbanomic/Sequence Press, United Kingdom.
Leiber, F. (1969). Black Gondolier. In Night Monsters (pp. s.p.). Ace.
Negarestani, R. (2014). Cyclonopedia: Complicity With Anonymous. Re-Press, Australia.
Thacker, E. (2011). In the dust of this planet. Ropley: Zero, United Kingdom.
Thacker, E. (2012). Black Infinity; or, Oil Discovers Humans. In Leper Creativity: Cyclonopedia Symposium.
Yusoff, K. (2019). A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None. University of Minnesota Press, United States.

Magazine article online :

Bratton, B. H. (2021). Planetary Sapience. Noema Magazine.