“hann tekr sverthit Gram ok leggr i methal thiera bert”[1]

----Epitaph on the back of the tombstone of Borges

“And ne forhtedon ná”[2]

----Epitaph on the front of the tombstone of Borges

YANG Zhenzhong: Labour and Pharmacology

SUN Qidong

In YANG Zhenzhong’s decades-long artistic career, labor is a topic that could be easily neglected. YANG first turned his focus to quasi-industrial assembly lines in 2003. He went to the Siemens factory in Pudong, Shanghai, where some 1,500 workers were busy assembling cellphones for global distributions. YANG broke down Deng Xiaoping's Southern Tour speech[3] into short sentences, and asked each worker to utter the sentence assigned to them. This was the making of the video work regarding the historical, impactful speech, Spring Story. Invited by the Italian company Elica in 2015, he spent two months as the artist-in-residence at the company’s factory in Sheng Zhou, Zhejiang Province. When he was there, he scanned the faces of the factory workers, and 3D-printed a series of masks. Running the camera, YANG had the workers working in the factory as usual but only with the masks on; the documentation of this process was later made into the video artwork Disguise. The increased frame rates of the film give the mechanical labor a theatrical, choreographed aura.

YANG opens an exhibition of new works at the Ren Space in Shanghai in 2020, Exposure. Exhibits include a series of stone carvings of various sizes made in the Chongwu area in Fujian province, and the short film Refreshing also shot in the area of the local craftsmen. The town of Chongwu is known for its stone carvings; there are more than a thousand stone carving workshops in this moderately-sized town. In fact, Chinese people have always been obsessed with stones - especially with, say, jade. Some of the oldest artefacts in Chinese history were jade carvings. The earliest jade carvings to date were discovered in the 8,000 years old ruin of Chahai, and a number of jade beads, tubes and cubes were discovered in the 6,000 to 7,000 years old ruin of Hemudu. 4,300 years ago, in the neolithic age, the most prominent feature of the Liangzhu culture was the use of jade. Wu Hung in his Art of the Yellow Springsmentions that archeological findings since the 1980s “have stimulated lively discussion about the typology, nomenclature, material, technique and symbolism of Liangzhu jades”[4]. Its hardness deems that the time cost of the carving labor far exceeds that of all other labor in a tribe, therefore, only the chief is entitled to use and possess jade artifacts - hence its status as a power symbol. Other stones also play irreplaceable roles. Be it the stone statues fit for religious or ritual spaces, the rock gardens, or the stone objects used by aristocrats and intellectuals - all stone carvings were made by lower-class craftsmen. The right and power to possess determine the role of the ruler, and the higher the time cost of a certain craft, the more it symbolises the strength and power of the ruler.

In the era of capitalism, those who exploit and appropriate others’ crafts were given a name that is more abstract than ever: the bourgeoisie. In the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx tries to warn the proletarian craftsmen that, instead of being human, they belong more intrinsically to nature. That is to say, they are animals that constantly works and breeds: the proletariat becomes a part of nature. Who is, then, human? The bourgeoisies are humans, opposed to a nature that is under control. The possessive bourgeoisies fully demonstrate human subjectivity, and become the representative of Human, with a capital H. To be sure, Marx does not mean to depreciate the proletarians and praise the bourgeoisies; he hopes that the proletarians could, via their alienated labor, transform nature into value, and could gain a critical awareness and complete the project of self de-alienation.

If one could conclude tentatively that Marx has sent the human into nature, then YANG Zhenzhongs project is to give nature back to the human. Marx thinks of the proletariats as animals, upon the premise of a human-nature binary dichotomy, and of the superiority of human. In YANG’s case, the stones carvings are chained and intertwined, not unlike the stone barriers one frequently sees in different natural tourist areas in China. In many natural parks, stone barriers as such mean to protect the hikers while maintaining the aesthetic integrity of the natural scene, of the picture(sque). Different however are YANG’s stone chains: these chains are not add-ons, not decoratives, but are instead essential, inseparable parts from the conception. With professional assistances, YANG turns initial hand-drawn drafts into digital models, then has the stones carved accordingly by a robotic arm system, and lastly has the works polished by hand: a classic industrial application of a digital automation system. It is as if the chains are always already embodied in the minerals, and YANG merely made them visible. Its existence is an uncanny proposal: design could be natural, too. Or, the natural just as well allows the presence of design, always already present.

YANGs gesture of give-back and return announces that the double premises of human-nature binary opposition and human superiority failed. Immediately relevant to the two premises, is, inevitably, the post-human discourse that is popular in recent years. N.Katherine Hayles, in her canonical How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics, tries to paint a picture involving three interlocking facts, the third of which being the eponymous question of “how the human became the posthuman.”[5] Hayles attempts to delineate “a dynamic partnership between humans and intelligent machines,” and to critique another school of post-humanism or “transhumanism”[6] represented by Hans Moravec. To Hayles, transhumanism is a disastrous transplantation of liberal-humanism’s take of subjectivity with technology; the result of which can only be the ever-increasing inequality among humans. In the book, she calls for exactly transcending transhumanism with posthumanism:

In this account, emergence replaces teleology; reflexive epistemology replaces objectivism; distributed cognition replaces autonomous will; embodiment replaces a body seen as a support system for the mind; and a dynamic partnership between humans and intelligent machines replaces the liberal humanist subject's manifest destiny to dominate and control nature.[7]

Hayles finds the disappearance of the body and the bodily experience horrifying. She firmly believes that we should construct defensive structures against the virtualisation of human. Her point of departure is, still, human should try its best to fight and delay a technological revolution that is deemed to go out of control. One can say that the undertone of Hayles’ posthumanism, is the insistence of the superiority of human and related notions (such as the human body). Obviously, Hayles is not the first one to consider the relationship between technology and human body. As early as in 1964, McLuhan famously stated that media are the “extensions of man.” It was Friedrich Kittler who truly breaks away from anthropocentrism: Kittler in his study finds out that technology is “not only completely independent from individual bodies, but is also completely independent from collective bodies.” Its development will eventually have, regarding human beings, “an overwhelming impact on senses and organs.”[8] Based upon a total negation of McLuhan’s statement, Kittler manages to create an investigative path that is truly departing from the technological itself: “The human body is no longer the cause which "decides" technology, but only a result of adapting to the independent development process of technology.”[9]

Technological development is the process in which the technological is endlessly externalised. Regarding this point, Kittler speaks of a first case that is related to his professional background (philosophy), a case that can find its origin in ancient Greek “philosophy.” The theory of tabula rasa in relation to the idea of soul is one that is most celebrated in ancient Greece: the soul is like a wax tablet, on which one can write with stylus and make impressions. Kittler points out that: “under the guise of a metaphor that was not just a metaphor, therefore, the new media technology that gave rise to the soul was eventually seen as the vanishing point of this newly invented soul.”[10] The invention and application of wax tablet guarantees the externalisation of the soul via the theory of tabula rasa, and, in turn, the invention of written language guarantees the externalisation of the convention of tabula rasa, the materialisation of the theory. “All that remained for Socrates and his enthusiastic interlocutors…was to explain what the soul itself was.”[11]

Therefore, an artist’s consideration and use of robotic arms determine whether he is truly separated from anthropocentrism, or is he simply reviving the bankrupt legacy of the myth of the artist with hands that that are not his own. YANG Zhenzhong’s art is not interested in being affiliated to Hayles’ posthumanism. The fact is that, the works that used to belong to the artist and his hands are now passed to the robotic arms, and YANG’s task becomes one of adaptation, of getting-used-to. YANG clarifies and reaffirms the technological undertone of sculpture, disarms the artist’s - understood by Maurice Blanchot as “the sole torchbearer, the sole master of the eternal” - privilege of artistic creation in the digital age. This is what Kittler means by “technological a priori”: the technological comes first; derived from which, are the conceptual, the philosophical and the theoretical.

Socrates, who ponders for long the nature of soul, is however one who also questions technology of writing. He deems writing to be that which short-circuits active critical thinkings, because words harm memories and affect negatively the internalisation and absorption of knowledge. As exactly an externalisation of memory, it loses memory. The transformation of embodied thinkings into externalised knowledge is the foundation of the establishment of knowledge, and is also the process through which thinking itself is distorted and deformed. That is, the process of the destruction of knowledge. Plato in Phaedo records Socrates’ last day. The philtre Socrates takes is at once a poison that ends his life, and also a remedy for “soul” diseases. Technologies - such as the wax tablet and writing aforementioned - is also this pharmarkon: at once a poison and a remedy. One can say that by ending his life as such, Socrates defends speculation, and thus ensures the opening of the age of European idealistic philosophy, starting from Plato.

Marx and Engels accept dialectics, yet modifies it critically with materialism. They understand the nature of dialectics as a technological means for humans self-production / self-renewal.[12] This materialist ideology deems that, although Marx names the bourgeoisies humans, they are only machines that exploit and appropriate generated surplus value. The proletarians are named animals, but they are machines that constantly lose craftsmanship. The bourgeoisies and the proletarians are compared and examined within the framework of industrial productions in mechanical societies, constructed by capitalist production relations. Accordingly, Marx and Engels concluded in the Communist Manifesto that the transference of workers’ craftsmanship to the machines, is the reason for their proletarianisation. They also predict that this process will gradually take place in all classes.[13] It is exactly because that Marx and Engels think that men essentially are machines of craftsmanship, craftsmanship externalised from men is treated as materialised objects that can be homogenously transferred from one to another. Therefore, when the craftsmanship is transferred to the machine that is itself a means of production, men loses it forever. In Marx and Engels, “machine-centrism” - in other words, anthropocentrism in which men are objects, commodities - replaces anthropocentrism per se. “Externalisation” becomes “objectification,” “remedy” “poison”, and dialectics’ teleological goal an ultimate negation of dialectics. On this basis, Marx concludes that the proletarians will eventually awaken, will win the war by class struggle, and are not to be de-proletarianised by regaining knowledge in pharmacological terms.

In reality, proletarian dictatorships have yet ended proletarianisation for good. Marx only understands the technological as means, and proletarianisation as intoxication; he thinks that by overcoming this process, proletarian dictatorships can complete the process of detoxication. The poison is however still at work. It is because that proletarian dictatorships cannot stop or prevent the emergence of new technologies.

YANG Zhenzhong’s drafts and plans, as complicated and intricate as they are, make it difficult for robotic arms to fully and faithfully materialise the works. Handwork are required for a final touch. As robotic and automation technologies develops over time, however, the human labour has to be replaced and become only a horizon against which the artificial intelligence evolves. Digitalisation, represented chiefly by artificial intelligence’s deep learning abilities, is taking giant leaps towards systematic stupefaction. If YANG’s practise were still to be understood upon the basis of treating technologies as tools, then the stone carvings here are death knells for the craftsmen, and for the artist himself. The materialist logic that denies pharmacological solutions deems it that the artist may one day be replaced by artificial intelligence.

Marx’s problem, is that he fails to realise that his therapeutic project should start from reconstructing knowledge, craftsmanship (de-proletarianisation of knowledge), and not merely from establishing a proletarian dictatorship. This is what YANG has been doing, while adapting himself to robotic arm gestures: deriving new concepts. Exactly by re-historicising (from the primitive to the most contemporary) “art” (sensual knowledge) and “labor” (savoir-faire), YANG re-activates the potential in dogmatic artistic practise and Marxist philosophy. It makes possible reinterpretations of forms of labour in the age of digitalised economy, and proposes a new political economics critique, which I shall name the pharmacology of labour. Artistic creations based on the reconstruction of knowledge like YANG’s, is a pharmacological labour. The pharmacology of labour is a critical supplement to Marxist political economy. So we see two kinds of labour in the stone carvings: the first is a labour that goes according to plans and requirements; the second is YANG’s labour as an artist. The first is defined by classic Marxism, non-pharmacological; the second labour is indeed pharmacological, and the two can be seen as each other’s mutual différance. YANG deliberately denies the totally automated creating process: he interrupts the flow, and constantly renders the stone sculptures, instead of purely an object of mechanical systematic labour, the object of his individual artistic knowledge.

The film Refreshing does not stop at realistically documenting the whole creative process, from selecting the materials to finishing the stone carvings. It visualises the artist’s interruption, and just like the Disguise, also shoots the subject at higher-than-normal frame rates. The film opens with a drone shot of a stone pit by the sea. The drone does not offer God view, and does not as the representative of the artist define the visible limits of the film. It simply demonstrates the artist’s curiosity regarding the territory, as if touching with vision all that in sight. The film could have continue as an intruding xeno-gaze, but YANG does not clearly map the geographics in turn, and does not speak of the passage from the stone pit to the workshop. The following scenes portray, via montage, the rhythmic transportation of the stones, and most significantly, the direct confrontation between the camera’s and the craftsmen’s gazes. This is the most frequent interruption in the film: people at work pause, look into the camera, then get back to work.

In fact, interruption as such finds itself well-grounded in reality: masks interrupt and prevent direct contacts. The increased frame rates make us completely unaware of the craftsmen’s specific tasks at hand, and absorb us into the unusual symbolic nature of the masked workers. The cloud-like dust soaring in the factory renders the workers survivors of a disaster, or martyrs in our stead, on site. This is when we leave the artist and enter together into the 2020 pandemic outbreak narrative. The mask is mundane (the nature of stone carving makes it a must); the mask is also iconological (hinting at the pandemic); it is also psychological (stopping others from approaching, cancelling identifiability). The global spreading of COVID-19 interrupts the global flow. At the time of the event, in China, almost all of the population stayed at home. On WeChat, countless mini programs were launched on daily basis, to go with the work-from-home condition; countless assignments from bosses were sent through; countless discussions, debates and arguments appeared as well, demonstrating the public’s deep concern with the situation. Also on WeChat, YANG stayed in close touch with the factory, and was also caught in numerous realities (or alternative truths): when he was making the drafts for the stone carvings, he received the news of doctor Li Wenliang’s death, and read the enormous amount of mournings online… feeding (working) or being fed (with news and alternative truths), all of us, including YANG, have been labouring in the same way, regarding the ruptured, fragmented information: clicking and swiping. Politics is to be realised through imitating labour, and in a time like this, the political wanes and becomes only a footnote to data economy, a toy for future transhumanists, a part of policing in the digital age.

The film Refreshing is definitely not YANG’s self-repetition after Disguise that merely changes the scene, but is the most important work in the exhibition: the film establishes the critical foundation of the exhibition, declaring that it is not to be evaluated on artificial intelligence’s technological terms. This is no longer a question that is purely artistic in nature, but is hinting at a critical path that can truly overcome transhumanism; presently, art is no longer a humanist nostalgia, but is commissioned to know historically, and to reflect upon the contemporary time itself. The tragic root of Sisyphus’ story is often viewed as his awareness of the meaninglessness of his labour, yet he has to accept this godly punishment. Camus insists that Sisyphus should be considered happy, because he gets to know the night, gets to move the boulder and to take control of his own fate. The time we are caught in, is a time in which humans co-exist with the machines. If humans simply set the digitalised technologies free, there will not be a future for the humankind. For his stone, YANG creates chains ex natura. Seemingly, this is as meaningless as Sisyphus’s labour, but he is as well happy, because it concerns a man’s integrity. An artist is not mankind’s master, but can be the master of his own life. Each labourer can be a master as such, as long as he knows the night, and is willing to be engaged. The pharmacology of labour ushers in the dawn, at which labourers are no longer treated as animals.

The present era displays possibilities of its own ending, and possibilities of its extensions. I’d like to finish this piece of writing with those famous opening lines from A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, upside down: it was the worst of time, it was the best of time; it was the age of foolishness, it was the age of wisdom; it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the epoch of belief; it was the season of darkness, it was the season of light; it was the winter of despair, it was the spring of hope; we had nothing before us, we had everything before us; we were all going direct the other way, we were all going direct to heaven.


[1] From The Saga of the Volsungs, written in Icelandic language: “He took his sword, Gram, and placed the naked metal between the two.” It also serves as an epigraph in Borges’story Ulrike.

[2] Old English, which means “and not at all frightened,” from poem The Battle of Maldon:

Then Byrhtnoth began to array men there,

rode and gave counsel, taught warriors

how they must stand and that stead hold,

bade them their round-shields rightly hold

fast with hands, not at all frightened.

When he had fairly arrayed that folk,

he dismounted among them

where it most pleased him,

where he knew his hearth-band most loyal. (17-24)

[3] Deng Xiaoping's Southern Tour took place from January 18 to February 21, 1992, when he had formally bid farewell to the central leadership position and made the canonical speech. In the speech, he put forward the famous statement: "science and technology is the first productive force.”

[4] Wu Hung, The art of the Yellow Springs: understanding Chinese tombs, Reaktion Books, London, 2010; p11.

[5] N.Katherine Hayles, How we became posthuman: virtual bodies in cybernetics, literature, and informatics, University Of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1999, p.291.

[6] Transhumanism is perhaps today better represented by Elon Musk.

[7] N.Katherine Hayles, How we became posthuman: virtual bodies in cybernetics, literature, and informatics, University Of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1999, p.288.

[8] Friedrich Kittler, Optical Media: Berlin lectures 1999, Polity, Cambridge, UK, Malden, MA, 2012, p.30.

[9] Che Zhixin, The Genealogy of Media Technological Discourse——A Study of Friderich Kittler's Thoughts, Peking University Press, Beijing, 2019, p.25.

[10] Ibid. pp.34-35.

[11] Ibid. p.34.

[12] In dialectics, things can be at the same time this and that, true and false. This does not stop thinking from working properly. Dialectics is a discursive means to solve differences. In the ancient Greek world, dialectics was understood as the exchange of different views between two or more persons regarding one common subject, aiming at establishing via this fully reasoned conversation an understanding of the truth of a thing. Hegel understands dialectics as a mediation between the man and the world; passing through the negating phase of such mediation, a thesis can then successfully be re-internalised into the absolute spirit. For Marx and Engels, the world is materialistic is a thesis that is the a priori truth. The mediation function of the dialectics is therefore transformed into an examination function. Those who have faith in Marx and Engels’ dialectical materialism can therefore use this materialist dialectics for self-examinations, for approaching the truth of “the world is materialistic,” and dialectics eventually becomes the apparatus with which the self-instrumentalised subjects carry out self-production, towards the materialist truth.

[13] The original statement in the Communist Manifesto is “entire sections of the ruling class are, by the advance of industry, precipitated into the proletariat”.