The End of Work: Human Obsolescence and the Undead

Machinic Involution: Human Exclusion and Obsolescence

In our age non-humans rather than humanity has become the focus of certain trends within philosophy and the sciences. The age of human exceptionalism is at an end some tell us, others that humans were never exceptional to begin with rather they were the creatures who like Baron Munchausen believed their own fictional self-importance to the point that the fictions became truth. Jean Baudrillard in his cynical fashion once spoke of the obsolescence of art:  “Since the nineteenth century,” he writes, “it has been art’s claim that it is useless . . . Extending this principle, it is easy enough to elevate any object to uselessness to turn it into a work of art. This is precisely what the ‘ready-made’ does, when it simply withdraws an object from its function, without changing it in any way, and thereby turns it into a gallery piece.” In an automated society in which humans are being obsolesced and replaced by machininc intelligence and robotics in which humans themselves will become redundant, useless, and excluded will we be elevated to the function of “ready-mades” – artistic artifacts from a previous but now obsolete age of spare parts?

(Note: I’m being ironic for the most part to make a point, so do not literalize the horror below.)

Just like the artist Theaster Gates, who gathers up the outmoded and discarded—thousands of LPs from a defunct record shop, thousands of art and architecture texts from a defunct book shop, thousands of slides from digitizing Art History departments—not your twentieth-century objets trouvés, and not “another fucking ready-made” (to quote Maurizio Cattelan), but whole fucking inventories, archives of obsolescence, preserved for the audience to come, you might say, if it weren’t for the fact that audiences already come . . . to listen to the vinyl or to look at the slides that have themselves now attained a kind of aura.1

Will homo sapiens become part of some Smithsonian diorama of the 21st Century, preserved in their capitalist habitats  and environs with digital films and libraries of books, artifacts, and oddments for the perusal of the sophisticate posthumans of the coming singularity? In the coming age will the “specter of glut” – an empire of decadence be all that remains of the human, the trash culture and detritus of our delirious end games?

Throughout history, the practice of waste management and disposal has been central to the organization and structure of human societies. However, the rapid development of industrialization and consumer culture, particularly as they gain in intensity in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, gives rise to an increased preoccupation with waste, trash and the obsolete.2 As humans are displaced, put out of work, replaced, etc. will they, too, become a part of waste management and disposal systems? This intense preoccupation with the relationship between the thing, its origin and its function is part of a broad attempt to negotiate the underlying anxiety concerning the fate of the human being in our Automatic Society (Stiegler). In particular, thinking through the role of the craftsman or artist and the relationship between discarding and creating has constituted a means of approaching the constant, though ever-shifting and – changing, anxiety in the face of the threatened obsolescence of human beings as productive and creative entities. (Pye)

The recent work of Bernard Stiegler succinctly introduces the obsolescence that becomes ingrained in human subjectivity as we turn to ever more powerful technological objects. In ‘Anamnēsis and Hypomnēsis’, Stiegler elaborates that the more we turn to memory aids, our mobile phone for example, the more we also fail to exercise our own memory. This has been outsourced to the phone, which means that the price we pay for our technologically enhanced memory is the loss of our own. ‘Mislaying a mobile phone’ as Stiegler puts it, ‘is equivalent to losing track of the numbers of the people one is in contact with and realizing that they are no longer in one’s own memory, but in the device itself.’ This ‘knowledge that escapes us’, as Stiegler elaborates,

seems to induce ‘human obsolescence’, which finds itself thereby more and more deprived, as if hollowed out from the inside. Thus, the more cars become perfected – the navigation system that assists the driver today in his driving will replace him completely tomorrow: he will control the vehicle from a distance through a system of automatic driving – the less we know how to drive. […] The more we delegate the assumption of the series of little tasks which make up the framework of our lives to devices and modern industrial services, the more futile we become: the more we lose not only our know-how (savoir-fair) but also our savoir-vivre – and with this the little pleasures that make life worth living. We end up only fit to consume indiscriminately, without the pleasures that knowledge alone can provide – as if we were impotent.3

In such a world the more perfect machines become, the less perfect humans need to be and the more limited they begin to look; the more capable machines are, the more they have the potential to produce incapacitated humans. Put otherwise, the Promethean tendency to combat our limitations also has the tendency to cultivate and arrest us in the impotent, ‘Epimethean’ state of lacking qualities, because captivating technologies relieve us of the effort of acquiring the intangible, immaterial skills of entertaining ourselves, finding composure in social situations and acquiring the ‘life skills’ (savoir-vivre) that Stiegler sees under threat.4

There will come a time when teaching children the tools of knowledge and data gathering, filtering, analyzing, cross-referencing, etc. will be more important than our present educational systems of rote learning and memory storage. Education as practiced now is obsolete since machinic intelligences in many facets already far surpass human neuroanatomy in their ability to think, and collate knowledge; memory and retrieval systems already surpass neuroanatomy at speeds humans can no longer match. We are beginning to rely more and more on external devices to do the work of thinking and decision making for us, while being taught not to rely on our own innate capacities of storing memory and knowledge. Our ability to learn how to learn is being erased and replaced with programmatic stupidity.

Humans will become nothing more than automated servitors of advanced machinic intelligences, programmed to their daily tasks by these mechanical dolls who will use humans as spare parts in a vast assemblage of machinic civilization. Once humans are no longer needed by the machinic powers of the coming age they will be excluded and obsolesced. Human kind will become too expensive to maintain and support, upgrade and train in this absolute world of machinic efficiency, and will at that time slowly be phased out.

The question becomes: Do we turn Luddite and smash the technological age to smithereens? Or, else becoming machinic ourselves through either transhuman upgrades, Cyborgization, or absolute post-human immersion in the virtual kingdoms of AGI and Robotics? Is their a third path in-between? Or, does it all end here?

The increasing potential that technological objects have to make us yield control over our lives by making it easier is the key tension we will face in the coming decades. The emergence of ‘control societies’ (Deleuze) is the symptom of a still more fundamental form of obsolescence: the obsolescence of the faculties and bodily registers that supposedly make us human. What escapes us when we turn to complex machines is not just our savoir vivre, but also our ability to deliberate our acts and our bodily apprehension of their outcome, that is, our joy, fear and shame, but also the hate, malice and selfish desires that we are accustomed to associate with the suffering that humans are capable of inflicting on each other. The challenge in the near future is to see that it is precisely the realm of human feeling and affective relations, and the role it plays in mediating our responsibility and responsiveness towards others that is bypassed, the more we outsource our lives onto machines. (Müller)

J.G. Ballard in his early work Crash diagnosed this loss of affect in social relations. In an interview he’d suggest that in such a cold world of affectless relations, of a pure machinic desire without human emotions:

There’s only sex there. The realm of the affections has been obliterated. That’s what the book is about: the transcendence of affection and the emotions, which is what I see as the main achievement of technology. I think we’re just on the threshold of this, with modern communications systems, microprocessors, computerised memory storage facilities, visual display, and very easy access to it … Modern technology is making possible the emergence of a world where the whole realm of the affections and the emotions will vanish. I think this will happen. A system of values which will be much more strictly moral, in a sense, because it won’t be based on emotions, is beginning to emerge. In Crash I try to show this happening. Admittedly, in Crash it’s a perverse new logic which is generated, but it’s an instance of a new kind of psychic order which no longer requires the intercession of the emotions.5

In his later novels he would suggest that we’d need a new psychopathy or psychopathic therapy that could awaken us form our dead lives – our zombie existence as machines. In Super-Cannes the Doctor as Psychopath initiator into the mysteries of affect, Penrose discusses his therapy:

‘I plan nothing. I’m merely the doctor in charge.’ Penrose’s eyes had almost closed as he contemplated his responsibilities.
‘The patients decide what form their therapy projects will take. Luckily, they show a high degree of creative flair. It’s a sign we’re on the right course. You don’t realize it, Paul, but the health of Eden-Olympia is under constant threat.’
‘And you prescribe the treatment?’
‘Exactly. So far it’s been remarkably effective.’
‘What is the treatment?’
‘In a word? Psychopathy.’
‘You’re a psychiatrist, and you’re prescribing madness as a form of therapy?’
‘Not in the sense you mean.’ Penrose studied his reflection in the mirror. ‘I mean a controlled and supervised madness. Psychopathy is its own most potent cure, and has been throughout history. At times it grips entire nations in a vast therapeutic spasm. No drug has ever been more potent.’
‘In homoeopathic doses? How can they help what’s going on here?’
‘Paul, you miss the point. At Eden-Olympia, madness is the cure, not the cause of the malaise. Our problem is not that too many people are insane, but too few.’
‘And you fill the gap – with robberies, rapes and child sex?’
‘To a limited extent. The cure sounds drastic, but the malaise is far more crippling. An inability to rest the mind, to find time for reflection and recreation. Small doses of insanity are the only solution. Their own psychopathy is all that can rescue these people.’

In a world without affects, a cold world of humans become object-machines – affectless and machinic, the only course is shock therapy – but not in the literal sense, rather in the sense of inversion and insanity, to become sane and human once again one must awaken the undead. In a world where madness is the only cure, not the cause of the malaise we must agree that “Our problem is not that too many people are insane, but too few.”


  1. Babette B. Tischleder, Sarah Wasserman (eds.) Cultures of Obsolescence: History, Materiality, and the Digital Age. Palgrave Macmillan US, 2015
  2. Pye, Gillian. rash culture : objects and obsolescence in cultural perspective.  Internationaler Verlag der Wissenschaften, 2010.
  3. See Bernard Stiegler, ‘Anamnēsis and Hypomnēsis: The Memories of Deisre’, Technicity, ed. Louis Armand and Arthur Bradley, trans. François-Xavier Gleyzon (Prague: Litteraria Pragensia, 2006), 15–41, 17f.
  4. Müller, Christopher John. Prometheanism: Technology, Digital Culture and Human Obsolescence (Critical Perspectives on Theory, Culture and Politics) (Kindle Locations 3180-3185). Rowman & Littlefield International. Kindle Edition.
  5. Ballard, J.G; Sellars, Simon; O’Hara, Dan. Extreme Metaphors (Kindle Locations 3582-3588). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

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