Transformation as an Ontological Imperative: The [Human] Future According to Bernard Stiegler By Stephen Barker

From the Journal Transformations that devoted an entire issue to Bernard Stiegler

Issue No. 17 2009 — Bernard Stiegler and the Question of Technics

Transformation as an Ontological Imperative: The [Human] Future According to Bernard Stiegler
By Stephen Barker

Today, we need to understand the process of technical evolution given that we are experiencing the deep opacity of contemporary technics; we do not immediately understand what is being played out in technics, nor what is being profoundly transformed therein, even though we unceasingly have to make decisions regarding technics, the consequences of which are felt to escape us more and more. And in day-to-day technical reality, we cannot spontaneously distinguish the long-term processes of transformation from spectacular but fleeting technical innovations.
— Bernard Stiegler, Technics and Time 1 [1]

I. Disenchantment/Re-enchantment Bernard Stiegler’s resonant introduction to the theme of technics and transformation, from the second paragraph of Technics and Time 1, provides a good frame for the response Stiegler makes to both the confused obfuscation and the positive drive of technics and transformation, as central concepts underlying all of his thought and writing, from Technics and Time 1 (1994/1998) through his most recent analyses of education, “telecracy,” democracy, industry, etc., whether he is addressing the question of technics directly or tangentially. What is being “profoundly transformed,” according to Stiegler, is nothing less that the nature of the human itself, by which Stiegler does not mean some traditional notion of “human nature”: since for Stiegler technics and technology are temporally prior to “the human” (and obviously, therefore, to any “humanism” [2]) our need to attempt to “understand the process of technical evolution” is a vitally important ontological (and existential) imperative, an “anthropological technics” that transforms both customary human/animal anthropology and “man the tool-maker” as well. Stiegler erases the magical thinking of a non-technical pre-human, thus transforming the nature of what is “proper to the human” [3] (the technical) and demonstrating a new sense of the “non-anthropologic” (Barthélémy). The following will range across a number of Stiegler’s works and concepts in order both to help focus them and to suggest their truly radical – transformative – nature.

How, then, are the two central “gifts” of the human, as laid out by Descartes – understanding and will – treated in Stiegler’s transformative discourse? The chimerical layering of senses through which we understand (if we do) both the volition implied in proper decision-making, and simultaneously the fact that such volition (based on an X factor that Stiegler says we feel or sense without knowing it) is increasingly escaping us, structures the groundwork for our potential collective lack of understanding of the différance [4] insinuated into the interstices between “long-term processes of transformation,” what Stiegler has more recently called the “long circuits of attention,” borrowing and dramatically up-dating from Kant, through which humans have the opportunity to reach the transindividuation [5] through which we/they become “responsible,” and the “spectacular innovations” technics and its processes continuously emit, dazzling us even while they race further and further ahead of our abilities to understand, much less to respond adequately; such innovations are “fleeting” in a variety of senses. This is the critical dilemma of our time, Stiegler says, in both sense of the phrase – its ontological imperative: the growing gap between long-circuit maturation and short-circuited attention defines a transformed relationship between technics/technology and its product, the human. It is no longer a question, as it was in the 1950’s, of the computing machine’s “danger” or “threat” to the human, since the human is and has always been, according to Stiegler, machinic in just the way a Descartes or Heidegger would be most unhappy to hear.

With this metalepsis at the center of his critique, Stiegler proceeds to analyze the “battle for intelligence” [6] that, though it has always been a part of the human/technics interface, has now become more central than ever. Stiegler’s effort is and has always been, as he says above, to help us understand the transformations we undergo in both the short and the long term, always within the context of technics. In so doing Stiegler focuses on thresholds and transformation; this has become increasingly clear through his most recently-published works, which provide echoes of both earlier and current themes [7] that have galvanized Stiegler’s interrogations of the current state of Western culture, education, and (more broadly) culture in general. Never shying away from the most fundamental questions addressed by contemporary cultural change in a wide variety of disciplines, Stiegler (and his group in Paris, Ars Industrialis [8]) ranges across disciplines from sociology and anthropology to philosophy, linguistics, politics, and history in order to help us grasp the depth and breadth of the crisis he says we face at the beginning of the 21st century. In Technics and Time 2, Stiegler focuses on a very specific sense of disorientation, which emerges as a fundamental theme pervading his thought. Disorientation in Stiegler’s sense has to do with co-ordinates, that is, with location and dislocation, within the re-conceived world of the technical. Since Stiegler is working through a critical ontological moment, this dis/location is not physical nor geographical but appears as phenomenological, relating to one’s, and our, locatedness in our psychic world, a world of experience and things; properly understood, however, this seemingly phenomenological network covers a “deeper” ontological predicament. Since for Stiegler “the human” is itself technics, he works through the various ways in which the discovery of this seemingly counter-intuitive – and certainly counter-humanist – interpretation of the human amounts to a dis-enchantment (what he calls in La Technique et le temps 3 [9] a “malaise”), but which has much wider implications. Stiegler’s case is that our multiple misunderstandings of technics and of ourselves as technical beings in an increasingly hyper-technological world compounded by hyper-consumption (made possible by hyper-technology) can or could result not in the so-called end of history, a steady state of human achievement, but rather the opposite, the end of the human, not as a “reversion” to the bestial or animalistic but to a condition to which other animals have no access, which Stiegler calls the “unhuman”; human being is, then, the “not-unhuman.” The human, as we are conditioned to consider it, is an “enchantment”; thus alienation, anomie, attention disorders, and the loss of “independent thought” all transform into a radical dis-enchantment.

But are these the only choices for us: enchantment or dis-enchantment? Stiegler’s work stands as a potential corrective to such a choice, and to what would be its inevitable result: dis-enchantment. Stiegler’s effort is massive, and takes place on two planes: that of philosophy itself (e.g. the Technics and Time series) and that of less abstract social theory (e.g. Taking Care and other recent works dealing directly with global technological and political conditions needing close, immediate attention). Stiegler juxtaposes these two levels of discourse in order to show how the disenchantment/reenchantment diad is at work in both popular and academic culture. He is virtually unique in doing so, as Robert Maggiori points out, operating in both the academic and the directly political spheres, the two arenas proper to the discussion of this orientation. Disorientation can be re-oriented, can re-gain its bearings, Stiegler declares, as calendarity and a proper orthography, through awareness, attention, and action. Stiegler turns for his starting point for his most recent work to the manifestly political, the 2005 MEDEF (Mouvement des entreprises de France) convention, whose central theme was “Le réenchantement du monde [The Reenchantment of the World],” and whose immediate goal was the re-direction of European Union funding toward research and development “in the domain of cognitive technologies.” [10] The MEDEF’s desire was to re-focus energies and finances on the future of society and culture, but more specifically on the future of (hyper-)capitalism itself, envisioning what Stiegler calls “a reversal of the value of the mind against industrial populism” (13), the latter understood as an attempt at the reification of mass-culture and the creation of universal markets “creating the conditions of an industrial production of consciousness without mind . . . of brain without consciousness.” Stiegler’s critique of the “programming industries,” [11] whose interest is not merely mind-control in the Foucauldian sense (les sociétés de contrôle) but mind-destruction, is the case he takes up in Taking Care, taking the MEDEF’s word, enchantment, and paying attention not to a current dis-enchantment but to a possible re-enchantment: making the world safe for, and through, (true) democracy. [12] However, such a re-enchantment is not possible without a clear understanding of (the technics of) consciousness, and the ways in which consciousness is “captured,” controlled, and debased by the programming industries. Stiegler clarifies this in the very first footnote in Taking Care:

What I call “consciousness” here is not a vaporous adjunct to the brain like a saint’s halo or an aura – a supplement to the mind having fallen from who knows where. . . . “Consciousness,” [is] the part accessible to understanding of the projections that construct psychic machinery through intermediation by the organism we call the brain. . . . [Yet] the brain is but one apparatus in a circuit of apparatuses through which the psychic connects with the social. (Taking Care 10-11)

Consciousness is thus a network of inter-connected and multi-layered circuitry, ranging from the unconscious to the history – the memory – of “culture itself” (what Stiegler calls “tertiary retentions”). But consciousness in this sense is not only dynamic but fundamentally transformative: as circuitry (and Stiegler does not mean this as a metaphor) consciousness “is what inscribes the psychic in the social through technics, it is also . . . how psychic life is immediately seized in a process of sublimation (of trans-formation)” (13). Note the order of things here: consciousness as technics “inscribes” the psychic in the social using the tools of technics, in so doing privileging not the psychic but the technical and its “retentional means”; technics transforms “psychic life” through the sublimation – a process of forgetting – of the fact that what is forgotten is precisely this transformation. Indeed, the leitmotif of Stiegler’s work is this possibility of, this chance for, trans-formation: the forming and re-forming of consciousness, as an endless process only certain results of which can properly be called human.
This is not just a new kind of sociology, it is indeed a new kind of ontology, embedded within a new kind of phenomenology, a transformation of the phenomenological tradition from Descartes to Derrida. More specitifically, having worked through a critique of Husserl and Heidegger in Technics and Time 1 and 2, and then focusing on the aspect of Kantian Enlightenment thinking that defines knowledge as critique through reading and writing in Technics and Time 3, Stiegler has proceeded to work through the elements of his ontological imperative that stand in stark contrast to the Phenomenological Reduction and the epistemological problems it “solves.” For Stiegler, epistemology is not related to the kind of “astonishment”-experience on which the Phenomenological Reduction relies (particularly in Husserl but in Heidegger as well); further, Stiegler’s idea of “enchantment” is equally distant from that concept, however much they seem to overlap, since along with the primacy of technics comes the dilemma of interiority: for Stiegler the problematic of being is that to experience being is to have learned it, and that this can only be done through a process of exteriorization. [13] Thus, the experience of being is a function not only of memory but of “mnemotechnics,” the “technical prostheses” through which memory is recorded and transmitted across generations, never limited to – by definition never capable of being limited to – individual minds; this is an entirely différant sense of memory without which, Stiegler claims, the human, “written” through technics, is simply not and never would have been possible. The common notion of “memory,” as deposits of “individual experience” stored in the individual brain as images and impressions, and more specifically of memory expansion, is in Stiegler’s view of it actually folded into a didactic, historical process that only begins (i.e. has already always begun) in memory’s exteriorization, not in the “taking in” or “recording” of experience in the mind. This exteriorization Stiegler calls “tertiary retention,” not just the recording of inner process and sensory/experiential memory, but “long-term” memory stretching across generations. Manifestations of tertiary memory include such things as libraries (and archives of all kinds), oral lore, and the various technological means of recording memory, making it available “outside” of any individual. Such “transindividual” information, the realm of technics, occurs through what Stiegler calls “grammatization” (as opposed to grammatology), through which – by any technical means – memory is “out-sourced,” recorded (retained “artificially” [14] in some form other than its prior one (e.g. music or vocal CD’s, video recordings, books, etc.). Though this may seem at first to be (and indeed is) a reversal of received ideas of memory, it is a reversal that is generally misunderstood or strategically evaded, according to Stiegler; even cognitive science continues to interpret the cognitive mechanics as a metaphor, and artificial intelligence as “mimetic substitutions for human traits” (TT2 78), when in fact the opposite is far more accurate: it is human cognition that must be re-conceived as a function of technics, in “a total transformation” that is in itself neutral.

This transformative process has been interpreted in numerous ways and has produced a number of results, ranging from Stiegler’s (Enlightenment) notion of “maturity” and responsibility on the one hand to André Leroi-Gourhan’s ominous “a-human becoming” (echoed, equally ominously, in Stiegler) devolving from an ever-increasing “discrepancy between technological speed and physiological slowness,” on the other. But no matter the outcome, as Hubert Guillaud shows, “the advanced rational technologies constituting numeric social systems transform the social networks that came before them” (emphasis added), [15] specifically as a result of Stiegler’s sense of a catalytic technics and its independent temporal modes of operation which, though they may constitute the human, do not run parallel with it but rather ahead of it. These binaries were never and are now less than ever matters of (human) choice, let alone of volition: the newest forms of grammatization, ascription of knowledge to digital and numeric media, as Leroi-Gourhan adumbrated in 1965, leads to a chimerical sense of “objective” knowledge as the artifice of memory – or else to the establishment of perpetually shifting cultural archivization (and its archives) whose work it is not only to expand but to establish knowledge; in either case, Stiegler’s conception of technics redefines the relationship between mind and world, and therefore not only of consciousness but of what might be called “experience in general” in the wider, gestalt, sense, and by extension the radical, endless expansion of both memory and consciousness beyond “the human.”

Stiegler frames the struggle between these two potential outcomes of technics as sets of tactics within strategies of the construction of the human, historically and currently, as “the battle for intelligence.” Since technics grounds and pervades the very nature of the human, we as humans can employ it (and/)or be employed by it; to re-enchant the world, then, is to come to terms with technics. Stiegler works through the anthropology of this grammatical notion before transforming his case into the non- or post-anthropological, pointing out that organological but inorganic “mental instruments” [16] (Réenchanter le monde 20), starting with worked stone and proceeding over millennia to the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, the internet, and now beyond, are the technical/technological equivalent of Foucault’s “writing of the self,” all transformers of consciousness into instruments, “mental instruments,” whose instrumentalization then translates into power (or its lack) or volition (or its lack), instruments always in a condition of grammatized cultural negotiation. As such, all of the instruments which not only shape but create the mind are pharmaka, serving as both poison and remedy for the mind’s growth and efficacy. Stiegler here capitalizes on the role of the pharmakon in Derrida’s “Plato’s Pharmacy,” concentrating on its inherent dynamic tension and undecidability. [17] Taking them further, however, again echoing Nietzsche’s irresolvable Dionysian/Apollonian and Freud’s id/ego struggle, Stiegler focuses on the meta-struggle not of contesting forces but of contest “itself.” Another way to say this, within the context of Stiegler’s technics (and of contemporary techniques and technologies), is that such a meta-struggle is relational, consisting of “R technologies” [18] that can focus and expand the mind or operate as what Foucault calls “control technologies” within – to use a phrase both Stiegler and Deleuze borrow from William Burroughs – “societies of control,” which work diligently to prevent such (“mental”) instruments from having any other result than mind-control (Réenchanter le monde 28). Disenchantment and re-enchantment, then, though they present themselves dialectically as subsets of “enchantment” are in fact much more complex than “two sides of a coin”: they are more like a Janus-faced continuum or the tightrope in the Preface to Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. The negation of enchantment, then, transcends both disenchantment and re-enchantment: it consists of nothing less than the destruction of the human itself and is therefore as a question ontologically crucial.


see rest of article at Transformations

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2 thoughts on “Transformation as an Ontological Imperative: The [Human] Future According to Bernard Stiegler By Stephen Barker

  1. […] already posted here. In particular however, it fits well with the articles concerning the work of Bernard Steigler who also raises the specter of Foucauldian inner technologies of self-care as relevant for […]

  2. […] detail the implication of attention dispersion in Information Societies especially, in relation to Bernard Stiegler’s Technics and Time, we present three articles that address the controversial subject, in context of the evolution of […]

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