Maryanne Wolf in her Proust and the Squid (2007) posits reading as a human invention, and elaborates the human brain’s plastic ability in relation to the act of reading: “Underlying the brain’s ability to learn reading lies its protean capacity to make new connections among structures and circuits originally devoted to other more basic brain processes that have enjoyed a longer existence in human evolution, such as vision and spoken language. We now know that groups of neurons create new connections and pathways among every time we acquire a new skill” (5). Wolf’s understanding of the brain’s “plastic design” to “make new connections among structures and circuits” is based upon the process of recollection which is activated in the reading brain in milli-second. The human reading brain, designed to store and retrieve words, can “elicit an entire history of myriad connections, associations, and long-stored emotions” in human evolution such as vision and spoken language. Wolf claims that the two dimensions of the reading brain’s development and evolution are the intellectual and the biological, using French novelist Marcel Proust as metaphor for the intellectual and the squid as analogy for the biological. Proust saw reading as “a kind of intellectual sanctuary” where human beings could provoke their intelligence and desires to experience the Real out of their transformed imagination. Scientists in the 1950s used the squid to illustrate “how neurons fire and transmit to each other, and in some cases to see how neurons repair and compensate when something goes awry” (6).

The fact that the biological and cognitive function of the human brain in connecting and integrating at rapid-fire speeds without a single moment of consciousness brings the question of the automation. The “unconscious” autonomy of the human agent is now confronted with the automation which loses its human autonomy and transforms itself into the system of automatism, and the matter is sublimated into the digital. Wolf’s models of Proust and the Squid in terms of the intellectual and the biological is closely related to the linguistic and the neurocognitive aspects of the Artificial Intelligence. The complementary examples of human brain’s reading processes have analogically elaborated how various neuro-cognitive processes will work algorithmically in the data-processing of the AI. Both cases of reading by Wolf refer to human intelligence’s information processing in terms of the human brain’s automatic learning, reminding us of machine learning and deep learning algorithms.

The development of the AI in tandem with that of human intelligence may be the last great challenge of humanism and the first great endeavor of posthumanism. Cognitive neuroscience and artificial intelligence have undergone revolutionary changes in the past decades, and they foreground the embodied and environmentally embedded nature of intelligent action. The augmentation and absorption of human agents by the digital now seems inevitable, leaving the question of man and technology initiated by Heidegger still incomplete. What is at stake is the ethical articulation of intelligence (both human and artificial) in this “second machine age.” One may recall Heidegger’s essay, “The Questioning Concerning the Technology,” in which two possible directions for ethical articulation concerning technology are presented. On the one hand, Enframing (Gestell) challenges forth into the frenziedness of ordering that blocks every view into the propriative event of revealing and so radically endangers the relation to the essence of truth. On the other hand, Enframing (Gestell) propriates for its part in the granting that lets man endure--as yet inexperienced, but perhaps more experienced in the future--that he may be. the one who is needed and used for the safekeeping of the essence of truth. Thus, the rising of the saving power appears (314). Whichever route they may choose, humans are struggling with the “existential threats” of facing posthumanism which initiates the retreat of the human agent into the background of a larger eco-technological environment. What is at stake is the ethical articulation of intelligence (both human and artificial), tools, machines, and forms of life in this “second machine age,” described by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. If we turn to the other side of the coin, the new environment of the unlimited possibilities of hyper-connectivity and convergence in this age of what Klaus Schwab called “The Fourth Wave of the Industrial Revolution” emerges, revealing “emerging technology breakthroughs” across the physical, digital, and biological worlds: neural network structured artificial intelligence research, big data driven social media, the rapid adoption of 5G small screen device computer technology, reality augmenting software, and what not.

In this context of posthumanism and second machine age, we are confronting the epochal crisis. When we zoom out from the global scene of the pandemic coronavirus, human beings seem to be confronting an imagined threatening geological Anthropocene in the biosphere. When the globe is zoomed in among humans even down to the cells, genes and chromosomes of the human body, we can reach the challenging disruptive transformation of our everyday lives, covering our inner lives, work, education, social activities. How to balance between zooming-in and zooming-out properly is what is at stake in our daily lives. The small touch screen of the multiple electronic devices we use in time will provide the platforms for us to find, read, think, feel, care, and even survive.

This talk will attempt a poetics of scale in world literature in terms of the perspective, method, and logic in dealing with the database of the world literature.