Bernard Stiegler on disruption & stupidity in education & politics – podcast

Bernard Stiegler being interviewed

Via Museu d’Art Conptemporani de Barcelona.

On the Ràdio Web Macba website there is a podcast interview with philosopher Bernard Stiegler as part of a series to ‘Reimagine Europe’. It covers many of the major themes that have preoccupied Stiegler for the last ten years (if not longer). You can download the pod as an mp3 for free. Please find the blurb below and a link.

In his books and lectures, Stiegler presents a broad philosophical approach in which technology becomes the starting point for thinking about living together and individual fulfilment. All technology has the power to increase entropy in the world, and also to reduce it: it is potentially a poison or cure, depending on our ability to distil beneficial, non-toxic effects through its use. Based on this premise, Stiegler proposes a new model of knowledge and a large-scale contributive economy to coordinate an alliance between social agents such as academia, politics, business, and banks. The goal, he says, is to create a collective intelligence capable of reversing the planet’s self-destructive course, and to develop a plan – within an urgent ten-year time-frame – with solutions to the challenges of the Anthropocene, robotics, and the increasing quantification of life.

In this podcast Bernard Stiegler talks about education and smartphones, translations and linguists, about economic war, climate change, and political stupidity. We also chat about pharmacology and organology, about the erosion of biodiversity, the vital importance of error, and the Neganthropocene as a desirable goal to work towards, ready to be constructed.

Timeline
00:00 Contributory economy: work vs proletarianization
05:21 Our main organs are outside of our body
07:45 Reading and writing compose the republic
12:49 Refounding Knowledge 
15:03 Digital pharmakon 
18:28 Contributory research. Neganthropy, biodiversity and diversification
24:02 The need of an economic peace
27:24 The limits of micropolitics
29:32 Macroeconomics and Neganthropic bifurcation
36:55 Libido is fidelity
42:33 A pharmacological critique of acceleration
46:35 Degrowth is the wrong question

Bernard Stiegler: “Rethinking an industrial policy in the era of the Anthropocene and automation”? [translated]

A young man standing in a cloud of yellow smoke

I recently came across an edited interview with Bernard Stiegler published on the website of Philosophie Magazine (17/12/18) [a] in which Stiegler ties together a very brief reading of the ‘yellow vests’ phenomena with the experiments he has been leading in the creation of an ‘economy of contribution’ – a more-or-less as a ethico-political-economic response to the ‘Anthropocene’. It is important to note here that for Stiegler not only means the current global cultural/environmental/social crisis embodied in a new ‘epoch’ but also significantly means the apparently rapid changes in employment/work largely due to technology. I have translated conversations with Stiegler about this topic before and these might be helpful in fleshing out the argument translated below, especially:

Here, in a similar vein to the discussion of previous periods of civil unrest in France (see in particular the books: The Decadence of Industrial Democracy, Uncontrollable Societies of Disaffected Individuals and The Lost Spirit of Capitalism) Stiegler diagnoses a form of immiseration that comes from a loss of capacities that needs to be addressed through a form of therapeutic response. The ‘yellow vests’ movements are a symptom of a broader cultural-environmental-social ‘entropy’ that is ‘The Anthropocene’ needs to be addressed through a re-imagined industrial policy – to engage in what he terms a form of ‘negentropy’. having said all of this, what is important perhaps about this brief interview is that it locates pragmatic action by talking through what Stiegler and colleagues are doing in the Plaine Commune experiments (for more information follow the links above).

As I have previously observed, I still find it curious that underlying the apparent radicalism of re-thinking industrial strategy, acting together towards (political) therapeutic ends, is a strange sort of unflinching (dare-I-say even conservative) faith in the state and institutions. In particular, the model for the central strategy of ‘contributory income’ is the intermittent entertainment policy of the French government for subsidising freelance and somewhat precarious forms of work in the ‘creative industries’. I’m not criticising this, I think it merits greater discussion – not least because it is being trialed in Seine-Saint-Denis – but there’s something curious about this rather measured scheme being central to the strategy, given the almost apocalyptic and incredibly urgent tone of books like The Neganthropocene and Age of Disruption.

ADD. 24/01/19. I think I probably missed a final step to the thought expressed in the paragraph above: while the scheme for a ‘contributory income’ (based upon the intermittent scheme) currently underway in Plaine Commune is perhaps limited, and while the idea of such an income is, in-itself not especially ‘revolutionary’, perhaps I/we should see this as the beginning of a reorientation – the instigation of a different/new therapeutic ‘tendency’, in Steigler’s terminology – away from a competitive individualised economic rationale towards a collective means of flourishing together, whilst also acknowledging that we need to take some form of collective responsibility. In that vein, as others have pointed out, Stiegler’s ‘activist’ thought/activities take on a particular ethical/moral stance (in this way I have some sympathy with Alexander Galloway calling Stiegler a ‘moral philosopher’).

As usual I have included in square brackets original French, where I’m unsure of the translation, or clarifications. I have also maintained, in the Conversation piece, all of the original francophone hyperlinks unless there is a clear anglophone alternative.

I welcome comments or corrections!

Notes

a. The interview appears in a section entitled Gilets Jaune, et maintenant– something like ‘Yellow vests, now what?’

Bernard Stiegler: “Rethinking an industrial policy in the era of the Anthropocene and automation”

For this thinker of technics, the “yellow vests” movement highlights the desperate need for a new policy that would value work rather than employment. Among his proposals is the widening of the government scheme for irregular workers in the creative sector to everyone.

I was struck by the rapid evolution of the “yellow vests” movement, by the way it was presented and in which it was perceived. In the beginning, occupations of roundabouts [and crossroads] were reminiscent of the Tea Party phenomenon in the United States, which paved the way for Donald Trump’s election, and of Sarah Palin’s astonishing statement: “I like the smell of exhaust emissions!”However, despite the presence of the “ultra-right” which is of course very dangerous, the rise of this movement has evolved positively – and very unexpectedly. Compared with the “protest” scene, well-known in France for decades, the “yellow vests” are obviously a very singular and very interesting event, beyond its extreme ambiguities. Amongst the demands made by these leaderless demonstrators, the proposal to create a deliberative assembly for ecological transition is particularly illustrative of what fundamentally new emerging from this movement. This is confirmed by the encouraging sign, which must be interpreted without being under any illusions: the protest and climate march at a junction, in Bordeaux, on the 8th of December.

When we listen to the “yellow vests”, we hear the voices of people who are a bit lost, often living in unbearable conditions but with the virtue of expressing and highlighting our contemporary society’s limits and immense contradictions. In the face of this, the Macron government seems unable to take the measure of the problems being raised. I fear that the measures announced by the President on the 11th of December resolve nothing and fix in place the movement for the longer term, precisely because it expresses – at least symptomatically – the collective awareness of the contemporary crisis. The political horizon throughout Europe is not at all pleasant: the extreme right will probably draw the electoral benefits of this anger, while failing to answer the questions legitimately posed by “yellow vests” movement. This highlights the lack of a sense of history by President Macron and his ministers, and equally underlines the vanity of those who pretend to embody the left, who are just as incapable of making even the simplest statement at the height of what is the first great social crisis characterised by the Anthropocene. 

For me, a “man of the left”, the important question is what would be a leftist comprehensive industrial policy to take up the challenges of the Anthropocene and automation – which is to say, also addressing “Artificial Intelligence”. To confront this question is to attempt to overcome what is not thought in Marxian criticism, namely: entropy. All of the complex systems, both biologically and socially, are doomed to differential loss – of energy, biodiversity, interpretation of information – that leads to entropic chaos. The concept of negentropy, taken from the works of Erwin Schrödinger, refers to the ability of the living to postpone the loss of energy by differentiating organically, creating islands and niches locally installing a “différance” (as Derrida said) through which the future [l’avenir] is a bifurcation in an entropic becoming [devenir entropique] in which everything is indifferent. 

The fundamental point here is that, while entropy is observed at the macroscopic level, negentropy only occurs locally through energy conversion in all its forms – including libidinal energy. Freud was, with Bergson, the first to understand this radical change in point of view required by entropy. The “nationalist retreat” is a symptomatic expression of the entropic explosion provoked by the globalization [that is the] Anthropocene. This needs to be addressed by a new economic and industrial policy that systematically values negentropy. 

It is in response to such issues that the Institute of Research and Innovation and Ars Industrialis with Patrick Braouezec (President of the Plaine Commune public territorial establishment) are leading an experiment in Seine-Saint-Denis. In this district of 430,000 we are experimenting with putting in place a local economy of contribution, based upon a new macro-economy at the national level. Above all, this scheme values work rather than employment and aims to generalize the system of intermittent entertainment [added emphasis] [1]: The idea is to be able to guarantee people 70% of their most recent salary in the periods when they do not work, provided that within ten months they begin another freelance [intermittent] job. In the case of freelance [intermittent] performers, they must work for 507 hours, after which they have “replenished their right” to a contributory income. We are currently constructing workshops in the areas of child care, quality urban food, construction and urban trades, the conversion of combustion vehicles into clean vehicles, and so on. This experiment is supported by the Fondation de France, Orange, Dassault Systèmes, Caisse des Dépôts et Consignations, Societe Generale, Afnic Foundation and Emmanuel Faber, General Manager of Danone. Every one of which are stakeholders in the search for a new conception of industrial economy fully mobilized in the fight against the Anthropocene and for the restoration of very-long-term economic solvency, based on investment, not speculation. It is by taking bold initiatives of this kind that we will truly respond to the “yellow vests”.

Notes

1. There is no direct translation for ‘intermittent entertainment’/ ‘intermittents du spectacle’ – this refers to state-subsidised freelance workers in the entertainments industry, an arrangement backed by long-standing legislation in France to support their native creative sectors.

Bernard Stiegler on the on the notion of information and its limits

Bernard Stiegler being interviewed

I have only just seen this via the De Montfort Media and Communications Research Centre Twitter feed. The above video is Bernard Stiegler’s ‘key note’ (can’t have been a big conference?) at the University of Kent Centre for Critical Though conference on the politics of Simondon’s Modes of Existence of Technical Objects

In engaging with Simondon’s theory (or in his terms ‘notion’) of information, Stiegler reiterates some of the key elements of his Technics and Time in relation to exosomatisation and tertiary retention being the principal tendency of an originary technics that, in turn, has the character of a pharmakon, that, in more recent work, Stiegler articulates in relation to the contemporary epoch (the anthoropocene) as the (thermodynamic style) tension between entropy and negentropy. Stiegler’s argument is, I think, that Simondon misses this pharmacological character of information. In arguing this out, Stiegler riffs on some of the more recent elements of his project (the trilogy of ‘As’) – the anthropocene, attention and automation – which characterise the contemporary tendency towards proletarianisation, a loss of knowledge and capacities to remake the world.

It is interesting to see this weaving together of various elements of his project over the last twenty(+) years both: in relation to his engagement with Simondon’s work (a current minor trend in ‘big’ theory), and: in relation to what seems to me to be a moral philosophical character to Stiegler’s project, in terms of his diagnosis of the anthropocene and a call for a ‘neganthropocene’.

CFP > Memories of the future, London 2019

the character Doc Brown in the film Back to the Future

Via Temporal Belongings.

Memories of the Future

International conference. Centre for the Study of Cultural Memory, Institute of Modern Languages Research, School of Advanced Study, University of London
Dates: 29-30 March 2019
Confirmed speakers: Stephen Bann (Bristol); Rebecca Coleman (Goldsmiths); Paolo Jedlowski (Calabria); Anna Reading (KCL); Michael Rothberg (UCLA)

Proposals for panels or papers by 31 July 2018 to memories.future@sas.ac.uk.

Call for papers
What does it mean to remember the future? What roles do memory, history, the past play in our consciousness as citizens of the early twenty-first century?

David Lowenthal (2015) reminds us that ‘commands to forget coexist with zeal to commemorate’, which raises the very important yet often overlooked questions of: what to remember and what to forget, who is well positioned to lead on or judge in that process, with whose legacies in mind, and with what consequences for future and past generations. In the 1980s, a significant body of scholarship on cultural memory emerged to protect the past from ‘time’s corrosive energy’, leading to ‘collective future thought’ (J. Assmann, 2011; Szpunar and Szpunar, 2016). Cultural memory acted as a moral imperative, a prerequisite to overcome not merely violent pasts but the violence inherent in linear temporality. As such, cultural memory has been seen as redemptive, enabling a more productive relation between past, present and future.

More recently, ‘thinking forward through the past’ has been central to a number of AHRC-funded projects in the UK examining environmental change, postcolonial disaster, gender and colonialism, heritage futures, ruins and more. Climate change, big data and the crisis of democracy are challenging our future in ways that may suggest a misalignment of temporal scales. One way of responding to this is through what Reinhart Koselleck (2000) called horizons of expectations and spaces of experience, namely, the horizons implicit in our anticipations of the future and the degree to which our experience of these have changed and will change over time. Utopian imaginaries and deploying utopia as a method (Levitas, 2013) invite us to think about hope, empathy, and solidarity, each contributing to create different places from which to imagine a future outside crises, fears and risk.

The past and the future constitute our cultural horizons in ways which are neither neutral nor solely technical, but, as Appadurai (2013) has suggested, ‘shot through with affect and sensation’. One of the key challenges of our time is how to study and create futures we truly care for and which are more social (Adam and Groves 2007; Urry, 2016).

Memories of the Future invites contributions to articulate the future in relation to cultural memory, and interrogate the precise and diverse manners in which the past, the present and the future are intertwined and dialogical, complicating our understanding of temporalities in an age saturated with memory and ‘past futures’.

Suggested themes and areas of inquiry include:

  • The future of memory
  • Temporal multi-directionalities
  • Memories of the future
  • Utopias and dystopias
  • Past, present and future mobilities
  • Smart cities and future/ist metropolises
  • Science-fiction and other subsets of utopia
  • Housing, cohousing and the future of habitation
  • Futurisms, modernisms, afro-futurisms
  • The future in/and the Anthropocene
  • Post-humanism and the non-human
  • Intentions, expectations, anticipations
  • Counterfactuals
  • Trauma, violence and conflict
  • Tangible and intangible heritage

Please submit proposals for panels or papers (max 20 minutes) by 31 July 2018 to memories.future@sas.ac.uk, including a 150-250 words abstract.

“Reconstructing the economy by rediscovering the value of knowledge” an interview with Bernard Stiegler [translation]

Bernard Stiegler being interviewed

In this short interview published inLibérationin March 2017, Bernard Stiegler reprises his argument for a contributory income, as is being trialled in the Plaine-Commune experiment. This is more or less the same argument and ideas presented in previous interviews I’ve translated, such as the Humanité interview, in which Stiegler attempts to provide the answer (albeit rather sweeping) to an incredibly gloomy prognosis of unemployment through full automation and peniary for the majority and with it the ever increasing loss of knowledge. Stiegler’ solution is the economic recognition of the value of work that currently is not captured economically. The device to achieve this is the contributory income, which unlike the Universal Basic Income seems to have a vague set of conditions attached.

The main idea here is Stiegler’s interesting distinction between what you get paid for and what you *do* – your employment [emploi] and your work [travail] – which gets to the heart of a whole host of debates (some that are quite long-running) around what we do that is or is not ‘work’ and how/whether or not it gets economically valued. It also builds on longstanding discussion about knowledge and care as a therapeutic relation [with each other, society, technology and so on] by Stiegler [see, for example, the Disbelief and Discredit series]. I think this may be useful for some of the critical attention to the gig economy and the ways in which people are responding to the current bout of automation anxiety/ ‘rise of the robots’ hand-wringing.

What is interesting to me about this interview is how little it moves on from Stiegler’s past articulations of this argument. There’s some sweeping generalisations about the extent and impact of automation based on questionable and contested sources (which I think does a disservice to Stiegler’s intellectual project). It is curious that the contributory income is still talked about in such vague terms. It is supposedly an active experiment in Plaine-Commune, so surely there’s a little more detail that could be elaborated? It would be interesting to see some more detailed discussion about this [sorry if I’ve missed it somewhere!].

The principle basis of the contributory income seems to be a fairly institutional (and as far as I can tell – peculiarly French) state programme for supporting workers in the creative industries. As in previous written work and interviews, Stiegler uses the idea of the “intermittents” or “intermittents du spectacle” to signify the idea of work that is subsidised through some form of state administered allowance, such as unemployment benefit. In France people working in the performing arts are entitled to claim for social security benefits designed for people without regular employment [as per the definition provided by Larousse online.]

So, here’s a fairly quick translation of the interview. As usual clarifications or queries about terms are in [square brackets]. I welcome comments or corrections!

Bernard Stiegler: “Reconstructing the economy by rediscovering the value of knowledge”

The philosopher Bernard Stiegler determines a difference between employment, which today is largely proletarianised, and work, which transforms the world through knowledge, and thus cultivates wealth.

Philosopher, Director of the Institute of Research and Innovation (IRI) of the Georges-Pompidou centre and founder of the Ars Industrialis association, Bernard Stiegler has for several years concerned himself with the effects of automation and robotisation. He has notably published The Automatic Society 1: The Future of Work (Fayard 2015) and In Disruption: How not to go mad?(Les liens qui libèrent, 2016). Today he is deeply engaged with a project which beings together nine towns in the Plaine-Commune territory, in Seine-Saint-Denis, to develop and experiment with a “contributive income” which would fund activities that go unrecognised but are useful to the community.

Amazon intends to gain a foothold in the groceries sector with cashier-less convenience stores, like in Seattle. Is automation destined to destroy jobs?

For 47% of jobs in the US, the response from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is potentially “yes”. The remaining 53% cannot be automated because they are professional roles. They are not proletarianised: they are valued for their knowledge, which gives a capacity for initiative. What makes a profession is what is not reducible to computation, or rather reducible to the processing of data by algorithms. Not all jobs can therefore be automated. But this does not mean they are entirely removed from the processes of automation: everyone will be integrated into automatisms.

For you “employment” and “work” are not the same thing…

For two hundred and fifty years the model of industrial employment has been proletarianised employment, which has continued to grow. At first it was only manual workers, today it has largely exceeded the tertiary sector and affects nearly every task. More and more functions of supervision and even analysis have been proletarianised, for example by ‘big data’, doctors have been proletarianised – which means they are performing less and less of their profession. Proletarianised employment is sublimated by closed and immovable system. Work, on the contrary, transforms the world. So there is employment that does not produce work in this sense, rather the reverse: there is work outside of employment.

The big question for tomorrow is that of the link between automatisms, work outside of employment, and the new types of employment that enable the valroisation of work. The aim of contributive income is precisely to enable the reorganisation of the wealth produced by work in all its forms and cultivate, using the time freed up by automation, the forms of knowledge that the economy will increasingly demand in the anthropocene, this era in which the human has become a major geological factor. It is a case of surpassing the limits through an economy founded on the deproletarianisation of employment.

Optimistic discussions would like automation to free individuals, by eliminating arduous, alienating jobs. But today, it is mostly perceived as a threat…

It is a threat as long as we do not put in place the macroeconomic evolution required by deproletarianisation. The macroeconomy in which we have lived since the conservative revolution is a surreptitious, hypocritical and contradictory transformation of the Keynesian macroeconomics established in 1933. Contradictory because employment remains the central function of redistribution, whereas its reduction, and that of wages, drives the system as a whole towards insolvency.

Employment can no longer be the model for the redistribution of value. And this can no longer be limited to the relationship between use value and exchange value. Use value has become a value of usury, that is to say a disposable value that “trashes” the world – goods become waste, as do people, societies and cultures. The old American Way of Life no longer works: which is why Trump was elected… However if employment is destroyed it is necessary to redistribute not only purchasing power but also purchasing knowledge by reorganising all alternative employment and work.

In what way?

We must rebuild the economy by restoring value to knowledge. Proletarianised employment will disappear with full automation. We must create new kinds of employment, what we call irregular employment [emplois intermittents]. They will constitute intermittent periods in which instances of work that are not instances of employment are economically valued. The work itself will be remunerated by a contributory income allocated under conditions of intermittent employment, as is already the case in the creative industries.

In Intermittents et précaires [something like ~ Intermittent and precarious workers] Antonella Corsani and Maurizio Lazzarato that irregular workers in the creative industries [intermittents du spectacle] work mostly when they are not employed: employment is foremost a moment of implementing the knowledge that they cultivate outside of employment. We must encourage the winning back of knowledge, in every area [of work]. This implies on the one hand to evolve the relationship between individuals and education systems as well as professional associations lifelong learning and so on.

And, on the other hand, to precisely distinguish between information and knowledge. Automated systems have transformed knowledge into information. But this is only dead knowledge. To overcome the anthropocene we must resuscitate knowledge by inteligently practising information – through alternative periods of work and employment. Only in this way can we re-stabilise the economy, where the problems induced by climate change, for example, are only just beginning, and where vital constraint [contrainte vitale] is going to be exercised more and more as a criterion of value. It is a long term objective… But today, what should we do? Nobody can pull a rabbit out of their hat to solve the problem. We must therefore experiment. This is what we are doing with the Plaine-Commune project in Seine-Saint-Denis, which in particular aims to gradually introduce a contributory income according to the model of irregular work [l’intermittence]. With the support of the Fondation de France, we are working with residents in partnership with the Établissement public territorial [something like a unitary authority area?], Orange, Dassault Systèmes and the Maison des sciences de l’homme Paris-Nord [a local Higher Education Institution]–and through them the universities Paris 8 and Paris 13– in dialogue with small and medium enterprises, associations, cooperatives and mutual associations [les acteurs de l’économie sociale et solidaire], artists, cultural institutions. It’s a ten-year project.

Another new book from Bernard Stiegler – Neganthropocene

Bernard Stiegler being interviewed

Open Humanities has a(nother!) new book from Bernard Stiegler, blurb pasted below. This is an edited version of Stiegler’s public lectures in various places over the last three or so years, hence Dan Ross’ byline. Dan has done some fantastic work of corralling the fast-moving blizzard of Stiegler’s concepts and sometimes flitting engagements with a wide range of other thinkers and I am sure that this book surfaces this work.

It would be interesting to see some critical engagement with this, it seems that Stiegler simply isn’t as trendy as Latour and Sloterdijk or the ‘bromethean‘ object-oriented chaps for those ‘doing’ the ‘anthropocene’ for some reason. I’m not advocating his position especially, I have various misgivings if I’m honest (and maybe one day I’ll write them down) but it is funny that there’s a sort of anglophone intellectually snobbery about some people’s work…

Neganthropocene

by Bernard Stiegler
Edited and translated by Daniel Ross

Forthcoming

As we drift past tipping points that put future biota at risk, while a post-truth regime institutes the denial of ‘climate change’ (as fake news), and as Silicon Valley assistants snatch decision and memory, and as gene-editing and a financially-engineered bifurcation advances over the rising hum of extinction events and the innumerable toxins and conceptual opiates that Anthropocene Talk fascinated itself with–in short, as ‘the Anthropocene’ discloses itself as a dead-end trap–Bernard Stiegler here produces the first counter-strike and moves beyond the entropic vortex and the mnemonically stripped Last Man socius feeding the vortex.

In the essays and lectures here titled Neganthropocene, Stiegler opens an entirely new front moving beyond the dead-end “banality” of the Anthropocene. Stiegler stakes out a battleplan to proceed beyond, indeed shrugging off, the fulfillment of nihilism that the era of climate chaos ushers in. Understood as the reinscription of philosophical, economic, anthropological and political concepts within a renewed thought of entropy and negentropy, Stiegler’s ‘Neganthropocene’ pursues encounters with Alfred North Whitehead, Jacques Derrida, Gilbert Simondon, Peter Sloterdijk, Karl Marx, Benjamin Bratton, and others in its address of a wide array of contemporary technics: cinema, automation, neurotechnology, platform capitalism, digital governance and terrorism. This is a work that will need be digested by all critical laborers who have invoked the Anthropocene in bemused, snarky, or pedagogic terms, only to find themselves having gone for the click-bait of the term itself–since even those who do not risk definition in and by the greater entropy.

Author Bio

Bernard Stiegler is a French philosopher who is director of the Institut de recherche et d’innovation, and a doctor of the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales. He has been a program director at the Collège international de philosophie, senior lecturer at Université de Compiègne, deputy director general of the Institut National de l’Audiovisuel, director of IRCAM, and director of the Cultural Development Department at the Centre Pompidou. He is also president of Ars Industrialis, an association he founded in 2006, as well as a distinguished professor of the Advanced Studies Institute of Nanjing, and visiting professor of the Academy of the Arts of Hangzhou, as well as a member of the French government’s Conseil national du numérique. Stiegler has published more than thirty books, all of which situate the question of technology as the repressed centre of philosophy, and in particular insofar as it constitutes an artificial, exteriorised memory that undergoes numerous transformations in the course of human existence.

Daniel Ross has translated eight books by Bernard Stiegler, including the forthcoming In the Disruption: How Not to Go Mad?(Polity Press). With David Barison, he is the co-director of the award-winning documentary about Martin Heidegger, The Ister, which premiered at the Rotterdam Film Festival and was the recipient of the Prix du Groupement National des Cinémas de Recherche (GNCR) and the Prix de l’AQCC at the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma, Montreal (2004). He is the author of Violent Democracy (Cambridge University Press, 2004) and numerous articles and chapters on the work of Bernard Stiegler.

The articles of faith of contemporary social and cultural geography

This post comes from a sense of dissatisfaction and a hope for finding different ways of (personally) doing geography. [I’ve been writing it for too long, so I’m just hitting “publish” – I welcome thoughts…]

When struggling for sleep and time to do things due to trying to do all of the things I know I should be doing to advance my career but also wanting to be with my family, I find it disheartening to decide to read newly published journal articles or agree to review articles and settle into reading them only to find they repeat familiar arguments, freighting the same rather narrow set of concepts. This post will likely irk (perhaps seriously) some who feel invested in some of the things I criticise, I can only apologise about that.

What I am identifying can’t be new, I’m sure plenty of others have made similar arguments… but it seems to me that we have a fairly set orthodoxy in how social and cultural geography gets done and what it can say. I am of course complicit. I am not seeking to distance myself from any of this, merely ‘confess’ and look for other ways of working.

The articles of faith we seem to have adopted in the REF-driven, short-termist form of research communication we inhabit and propagate concern both methodology and theory.

Methodologically, in spite of careful commentary reflecting upon the “new orthodoxy” of qualitative methods, we seem to have adopted a faith in the “theory–case study” model.

Generalise through theory – In this model one presents, often rather small scale, ethnographically derived empirical material. But rather than acknowledge the limits of scope and avoid attempting to generalise – following the model, this case study is read as an exemplar of a (sometimes muscular) ontological claim. I suggest this creates an epistemological slip, the modest empirical claims are rendered general by virtue of an appeal to theory. In this way, relatively modest empirical findings about a specific case study can be generalised by appealing to ‘big’ theory. This is of course understandable – we’re supposed to be writing four-star (“world leading”) research and using heavyweight theory is the conventional  ‘shortcut’ (in time and resources) to making such a claim. I’ve written papers like this, many have.

Theoretically, the discourses of social and cultural geography have, dare I say it, become rather dogmatic. There is a collective pressure through journals, email lists, social media and events to adopt the jargon and to conform (‘discursive regime’ anyone?). It seems to me there is a rather narrow range of concepts in use.

In part, I wonder whether this is due to an attempt to systematise the easier aspects of big (mostly French) philosophical systems of thought that gained traction in the late 1990s early 2000s, many of us went about formulating ways of ‘doing’ Deleuze for example (maybe I’m only repeating this mistake with Stiegler – I’m really trying not to!). Some have become a universal mechanism of explanation – regardless of the context of study. I worry that we are in danger of getting caught in a theoretical culdesac – everything becomes an example of those concepts we hold to be the truth. I am not suggesting we should not use the concepts I identify here or that they are in some way ‘wrong’. Some people have done careful and nuanced theoretical work that articulates the value of such theory. However, this doesn’t mean we all have to pile in and parrot the concepts to juice up our publications.

Sometimes concepts can be a sort of “sledgehammer to crack a nut”, sometimes they’re just a blinkered implication of causation that amounts to a dogmatic profession of faith – the empirical material demonstrates the concept, no matter what. Again, there are lots of understandable reasons – REF and employment pressures to get publications out, wanting to ‘fit in’ and being short on time so slipping into the ‘orthodoxy’.

I don’t actually buy the theoretical ‘arms race’ argument that has been posited about (mostly younger) researchers searching out the next ‘big’ theorist. I think we’re actually, mostly, more conservative – we’ve developed an orthodoxy that, in some cases, can verge on dogma: hence my provocation of the ‘articles of faith’.

The core concepts outlined here as the grounds of this ‘articles of faith’ are of course contestable and I’m not seeking to be definitive in any way. I suspect they are also all-too-familiar to the handful of people who will read this blog. My argument here is that perhaps we need to reflect a little more explicitly on how and when we use our theoretical blunderbusses…

  • The constitutional agency of Affect (& Atmosphere) – Given the arguments about the use of this concept, this perhaps one of the more difficult ideas to address. I sympathise with a desire to articulate the nonrepresentational and value some of the work done in that vein. Work around how we might understand intensities of relations and how particular places become constituted as much in unspoken sensations as through signification, and indeed how such spatial experience becomes perturbed, seems like a useful contribution to me. However, in some uses of the concept of affect/atmosphere there is an all-too-easy slip into appealing to amorphous (at times quasi-mystical) pre- / trans- subjective forces of affect/being affected to beef-up an argument. We are, I fear, in danger of creating what a colleague called a kind of ‘Phil Collins geography’, where something is literally “In the Air Tonight”.
  • The invocation of the Anthropocene – How can one argue against anthropogenic climate change? and I’m not trying to, but there appears, to me, to be a danger in invoking an all-encompassing rupture in ‘geological time’, in ecological understandings and in the cautious epistemological reflections upon how, as non-scientists, we understand and use ‘Scientific’ (with a big “S”) knowledge. We are in danger of eliding the careful reflections upon understandings and representations of Earth and world within geographical work. It seems to me this has granted license to engage in some peculiar forms of exercise in phenomenological impossibility, seeking to look ‘after the human’, and can perpetuate (globally) Western/ Northern perspectives that elide other ways of coming to terms with climate change. There has, of course, been some great work [e.g.] examining such problems.
  • The hegemony of Neoliberalism – or: the taken-for-granted force of the lumped together bogeymen of left-leaning thinkers along the lines of the ‘evils of capitalism’,  mostly denoting the combined phenomena of deregulation, privatisation and globalisation. An over-arching concept that affords one the opportunity to point to a thing we can be normatively against. There, of course, exists plenty of critique of the use of the idea in geography and suggestions for other terms or ways of engaging with the phenomena apparently denoted/ connoted by the term but it has a life of its own.
  • Witnessing the Non-human – on the one hand a useful means of articulating that the geographies we seek to explore have more than just us, “human” actors/actants/agents, in them. On the other hand, we are in danger of affirming precisely the sorts of (naive) humanism/human-centric ideas we are attempting to escape (via Latour et al.) For example, when is what gets called ‘non-human’ perhaps actually human? Technology is a case for me here and it all depends on the other theoretical assumptions you make about what a ‘technology’ is… Likewise, if we’re seeking to de-naturalise ‘nature’, to demonstrate that we are not and cannot be separate from what we identify as ‘nature’ then creating label for what may be ‘other’ to the human seems a weird way of going about it. Of course, again, there is some really excellent work that takes on board such understandings and I’m fortunate to work with several of the people doing/writing it. Nevertheless, the wider discursive use of ‘non-human’ risks doing the reverse of what one might think one if doing with it.
  • The supremacy of Subjectivity – The basis for understandings of human experience, in relation to which difference, identity, spatiality and many other concepts are conceived in much of geography. Of course, some fantastic work has been done on the idea of a subject, subject positions and subjectivity. I guess the reason I raise the concept here is because there seems an increasingly common slip between the ways we discuss subjective experience and the ways in which we are individualised in different domains (legal, political, technological etc.) to render an equivalence. An example here is an idea of a “digital subjectivity”[1]. On the one-hand we might see this in relation to the various ways one performs different identities through different apps, conforms to or breaks rules/conventions and so on. On the other hand we might see it as the ways we get surveilled, defined, addressed and perhaps conditioned by our data. Weirdly, given the popularity of ‘affect’ theory, we can get caught up in peculiar contradictions between the ‘excessive’ agency of the intersubjective and the repressive agency of subjection/subjectivation. In slipping between the two, we risk falling foul of longstanding arguments around reductive understandings of ‘subjection’ and eliding precisely the epistemological purchase the concept can, potentially, afford, i.e. multiplicity, intersubjectivity and so on.

Alternatives..?  I do not have easy answers, goodness knows I wish I did… However, I can offer some suggestions that I find myself contemplating as ways forward for rethinking how I go about understanding the kinds of knowledge claims I might seek to make in my future writing.

Firstly, maybe we can move beyond what I’ve called the “theory-case study” model? Perhaps it’s ok to return to a grounded theory approach, or to be rigorously empirical and refrain from particular forms of generalisation because that’s not what our ‘data’ grant. Perhaps we can innovate a little more (and perhaps I’m not reading enough to see that this is already happening?!)

Secondly, maybe it’s ok to do theory on it’s own, and we should find the confidence to do geographical theory too. Perhaps the editorial boards of our journals might already be receptive to this. Perhaps also we can collectively decide this is something we can value, so long as appropriate standards are applied.

Thirdly, maybe we should resist the artificial timetables of REF and so on dictating our push to produce work we may not feel entirely comfortable with. Maybe, with growing teaching and admin loads, maybe with increased precarity of work we, as a community of scholars, should say let’s cut ourselves some slack – especially those who are early career and forced into unsustainable habits of work: massive teaching loads for 9-months then a contract ends, all while attempting to get the next one and keep publications ticking over. I have no doubt that the ‘quickness’ with concepts and methods relates to the habits of work to which we are currently conforming. I cannot see how this is sustainable. It certainly isn’t for those of us with families. I admire those who succeed, in spite of all of this, but we cannot all do that and maybe we need to hold out a helping hand to others and say: it’s ok, you don’t need to copy us, you don’t have to do things our way – find your own ways of working, develop your own theory.

These are half-formed thoughts, at the end of term, frazzled by lack of sleep and trying to do too many things. I genuinely do not want to deride other people’s work here, I am merely identifying a dissatisfaction with how I understand my own working practices. I would welcome any thoughts…

Notes

  1. Or of course ‘algorithmic’ power/subjectivity/subjection – ‘algorithm’ might be included in a longer version of this list

Planetary technics? “Technosphere”, HKW

Via: EnemyIndustry

The always interesting HKW and a project relevant to lots of geographers…

Technosphere

Research Project 2015–2018

The twentieth-century celebrated technology as a way to achieve planetary unity and control. Yet today technics, nature, and human activity seem to combine in increasingly disorienting, uncontrolled compositions in which once-reliable distinctions lose their stability. How did we end up in this world of technological vertigo, this Mobius strip of world and planetary technics, wherein cause and effect, local and global factors, human and non-human agency, perpetually confuse and confound one another’s borders? What governs this constitution (or collision) of forces? And what are the contingent, strategic, or historical events and networks that form durable apparatuses among them?

This dilemma of global technology and its identity will be the main theme of Technosphere (2015-18), a research project investigating origins and future itineraries of this technical world within a larger series of international events, performances, seminars, and conferences that will take place at HKW over the next four years.

Scientists and thinkers have introduced the term technosphere to describe the mobilization and hybridization of energy, material, and environments into a planetary system on par with other spheres such as the atmosphere or biosphere. The term emphasizes the leading role of the technological within this global system. At the same time this term encompasses the enclosure of human populations, forests, cities, seas, and other traditionally non-technical entities within systems of technical management and productivity. But where is that ominous technosphere to be found? How does it impact the everyday passions and experiences of humans, animals, a nation, or an ecosphere?

The coining of the term technosphere announces a conceptual innovation as well as a political challenge. As a conceptual innovation, the notion of the technosphere invites us to recognize and confront the reality of technical systems whose unintended consequences and internal dynamics have accumulated into a quasi-autonomous global force in the world today. Moreover, the very naming of these forces constitutes the posing of new political and social challenges that, though already widely felt, remain largely misunderstood. Their description and study will entail inquiries into physical and political science, but also topics as diverse as aesthetics, waste management, international law, social media, financial markets, animal studies, immigration, and colonialism.

From 2015 to 2018 the Technosphere project will host public events and seminars that explore the potential of this concept to coordinate conversations among scientists, artists, and the general public. It will explore the events, structures, and mechanisms by which the twentieth-century dreams of global unity and human hegemony morphed into disorienting compositions of technics and nature, of human and non-human actors. These investigative and experimental exchanges will ask how the technosphere operates today and endeavor to imagine alternative futures. The result will be a tentative vision of communities and understanding equal to the challenges of our world today.

Under the title The Technosphere, Now a daylong series of conversations and presentations that reveal the infrastructures and operations today will inaugurate the project on Friday, 2 October. Interwoven streams will address the infrastructural exploitation of earthly resources, how data monitors technical and social systems, and how the trauma maps out the dynamics of the technosphere on individual human bodies. The event is part of Haus der Kulturen der Welt’s opening weekend of 100 Years of Now, taking place from September 30th to October 4th 2015.

Concept and Realisation: Katrin Klingan, Bernard Geoghegan, Christoph Rosol, and Janek Müller

“Technosphere” takes place as part of the HKW series 100 Years of Now.