Reading Bernard Stiegler

I am slowly but surely working my way through Bernard Stiegler’s writings, and really enjoying doing so. These notes are just a way of distilling some the themes I’ve encountered and I haven’t posted anything for a while on this blog.  My understanding of Stiegler’s work, such as it is(!), is in large part thanks to my colleague Patrick Crogan, with whom I have been convening a Stiegler reading group at UWE.  We have a blog at: – which is worth checking out!

The philosopher Bernard Stiegler addresses the problem of being as the need to have learnt the experience of being to recognise it.  For Stiegler, this is only possible through a process of exteriorisation.  Our experience of being is therefore not merely a product of memory but is achieved through the processes of mnemotechnics: the ‘technical prostheses’ through which memory is recorded and transmitted across generations, and which is never limited to individual minds.  Without this sense of memory, Stiegler argues, the human would not be possible.

However, there is something of a ‘chicken and egg’ situation with this ontological position that Adrian Mackenzie identifies as the ‘aporia of origin’: the human, or experience of being human, is not possible without the technical and vice versa.  The interesting resolution of this aporia is that the mental interior is only recognized as such with the advent of the technical exterior. Stiegler explains this aporia of origin thus: ‘The paradox is to have to speak of an exteriorisation without a preceding interior: the interior is constituted in exteriorisation’ (Technics and Time 1).  Thus technicity is a double-bind between being both constitutive and a supplement of ‘the human’.  Therefore, the interior and exterior, and with them the contemporary understanding of the experience of being human and what we understand to be technology, are mutually co-constituted.

The forms of exteriorization Stiegler calls ‘tertiary retention’ are not simply the recording of inner process and sensory/experiential memory, but ‘long-term’ memory, which stretches across generations. Material examples of tertiary retention include things like libraries (and the various ways we may understand archives), oral lore, and the various technological means of recording memory, making it available ‘outside’ of any individual.  This is not only limited to representational mechanisms either.  The acts of manipulating the world, such as working or enclosing land, leaving traces of technically mediated living that can be recognised as such. So, we might contend that wheel tracks carved into a landscape over time are a form of tertiary retention too.

Stiegler argues that to be human (or dasein) is constituted through ongoing processes of individuation. This concept derives from Stiegler’s reading of Simondon, another French philosopher of technology, who posits that the constitution of individuality, and our awareness of being an individual being, is formed by processes of individuation, which are ongoing and never quite complete. Individuation is always and already a process of phenomenological and ‘psychic’ coming to know the world, through the various mental, sensory and physiological means by which we capture the world and it captures us. Individuation, for Stiegler, is pretty much always a trans-individuation between entities.  It is through others (especially people and things) that we understand the world and ourselves. As Stiegler asserted in a talk at Tate Modern in 2004:

“The “I”, as a psychic individual, can only be thought in relationship to a “we”, which is a collective individual: the “I” is constituted in adopting a collective tradition, which it inherits, and in which a plurality of “Is” acknowledge each other’s existence.”

Technologies are crucial in these processes of individuation. From language onward, the human and the technical are co-constituted.  It is only through the exteriorisation of memory as ‘rentention’ that humanity knows itself.  Stiegler understands this as forms of retention. Primary retention is conscious thought, secondary retention is linguistically framed memory and tertiary retention is the inscription of knowledge in the world.  This isn’t just writing, but also any changing of the world around ourselves.  It is through this ‘technical’ understanding of the world that we understand the passage of time.

As James Ash cogently points out in a forthcoming paper: how the ‘now’ is established is contingent upon and relative to the technologies and practices of a specific locality.  There are of course other forms of time consciousness but how the ‘now’ is experienced is shaped through technology and technical knowledge.  These understandings of the ‘specious present’ are made durable through tertiary retentions that are taken up in habits and cultural forms.

The fixity of particular ways of knowing is understood by Stiegler, through an expansion of Derrida’s work, as Grammatisation: the processes of describing and formalizing human behaviour into logos: representations such as letters, pictures, words, writing and code, so that it can be reproduced.

For example, as Matt Wilson and I contended in a recent conference paper: the visual language, terminology, and ways of making people, places and things discrete and codified employed by foursquare is a system of grammatisation. As a brief illustration: ‘recommendations’ are orientated towards activities of consumption; ‘check-in specials’ are similarly oriented; and the categorisation of places that may be identified is also biased towards commercial activity.

Grammatisation processes are, according to Stiegler a form of pharmakon. Following Plato’s dialogues, a pharmakon is both a poison and a cure – a form of recipe, substance or spell.  In Phaedrus, Plato uses the concept of the pharmakon as a play of oppositions: poison-remedy, bad-good etc. For Plato, writing itself is a pharmakon, both a means of recording thought but also a producer of forgetfulness. Any pharmkon therefore is both a ‘poison’ and ‘cure’. So, for example, in the case of the grammatisation effects of foursquare, they too can have both positive and negative effects/connotations.  Novel forms of collectivity may be engendered but the modes of interaction are limited.

However, Stiegler argues in his more activist writings that the rise in media technologies means a form of detrimental effect on our capacity for attention. He argues that we have somewhat moved away from the deep attention of cultural engagement and the positive production of desire, to hyper attention and the stochastic flitting of attention across many media. As my colleague Patrick Crogan has recently argued, Stiegler introduces his account of digital technologies by characterising the contemporary era as one in which the tendency toward the industrialisation of memory approaches. Stiegler argues, not least in his paper at the conference Paying Attention, that our collective experience of how we become individuals, or ‘trans-individuation’:

“has become the object of industrial technology, based on a social engineering, where attention and relational technologies develop via social networks etc. This social engineering has as its goal… the capacity to render [the social relation itself] industrially discretable, reproducible, standardisable, calculable and controllable by automata.”

Whether intended or not, the ‘social engineering’ of the corporatised ‘social web’, in which we are all enrolled as producers of value i.e. attention, is a direct attempt to (re)condition the technics of attention.

In a reworking of the concept of proletarianisation, Stiegler suggests that rather than losing ‘savoir-faire’ (the embodied knowledge of how to make/do) to technical apparatus, as Marx argued of the industrial revolution, the consumer is losing ‘savoir-vivre’ (knowledge of how to live), which is being replaced by apparatus, which are the products of the media industries.

So, processes of proletarianisation in the contemporary ‘knowledge’ economy are, according to Stiegler, causing the loss of faculties of self-critique.  Social media technologies, and those technologies of the ‘programming industries’ that lead to the loss of ‘savoir-vivre’ are, according to Stiegler, ‘psychotechnologies’.  Alexander Galloway describes psychotechnologies as: “games, computers, SMS, etc.; these constitute part of the culture industry; often construed as normatively negative”.

As a result of this line of argument, Stiegler, and colleagues, argue that:

“in our current epoch electronic technologies, monopolized until now by the economic powers emerging from the 20th century as psychotechnologies at the service of behavioural control, must become nootechnologies, that is, technologies of spirit, at the service of de-proletarianization and of the reconstitution of savoir-faire, savoir-vivre and theoretical knowledge.”

Bernard Stiegler’s way of thinking through these themes and his writing addressing not only the metaphysical or ontological conditions of the technicity of being but also the contemporary and urgent political issues around living in a developed (particularly capitalist and technological) society is impressively ambitious and rather inspiring.  It is also worth noting that Stiegler puts his money where his mouth is, he has given up his cushy job as director of the Institute for Research and Innovation at the Georges Pompidou Centre and founded the Ecole de philosophie d’Epineuil-le-Fleuriel (the school of philosophy at Epineuil-le-Fleuriel) in central France, to aid in the education of high school students studying for their Baccalaureat, to deliver a public summer school, and a doctoral seminar, also made available online.  Additionally, Stiegler is a founding member of the Ars Industrialis association, which campaigns to: “reconstitute a political project as bearer of a new affirmation of the role of public power, namely: to make a technical becoming into a social future.”


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