Memory programmes, paper delivered at Conditions of Mediation

The Conditions of Mediation conference held at Birkbeck on the 17th of June 2013 was an excellent, if very condensed, occasion for a variety of people interested in media theory, philosophies of/for media and in particular phenomenological understandings of mediation.

There was a series of interesting, and rather diverse, keynotes, including Graham Harman, Sean Moores and Lisa Parks and two slots of parallel paper sessions. I was pleased to be able to give a paper as part of this really interesting event, in the ‘Technics, Interface and Infrastructure’ paper session.

I spoke in the same session as James Ash, who presented a great paper synthesising a reading of Graham Harman’s Object-Oriented Ontology, Jean-Luc Nancy’s vocabulary derived from music, and understandings of optics to interrogate understandings of ‘interface’. I was also hoping to speak alongside my former colleague Patrick Crogan, who spoke on a similar theme to my own paper. Patrick and I both addressed Bernard Stiegler’s reading of Husserl in relation to understandings of the perception of time and the processes of memory. Patrick has posted his excellent paper on the technophilia blog.

For those interested, I have provided a slightly cleaned up, and referenced(!), version of my paper below.

Memory Programmes

In this paper I want to explore how, in software, we have created quasi-autonomous systems of memory that influence how we think about and experience life as such. To do this I will addresses the role of mediated memory in collective life as a (post)phenomenological concern through the lens of ‘programmes’. I suggest, for the purposes of this presentation that programming can mean two things: ordering, and so making things discrete; and scheduling, and so making actions routine. I want to think about how programming mediates the experience of memory via networked technologies. In particular I want to address this as a kind of industrialisation of memory, following the philosopher Bernard Stiegler.

Materially recording knowledge, as Stiegler argues in a critical engagement with Husserl, even as electronic data, renders thought mentally and spatially discrete. This kind of materialisation of memory demands systems to order it. Recorded knowledge also enables the ordering of temporal experience as forms of history, which facilitates the sharing of culture. Such systems of ordering temporal experience also operate as the means of planning for futures.

In the contemporary global North we increasingly retain information about ourselves and others using digital media. Furthermore we also volunteer yet more information that is recorded by internet and media service providers, search engines and social media. Thus many aspects of our lives are gathered and retained in databases. This constitutes a growing system of memory of parts of life that might be otherwise forgotten or unthought. It also facilitates a kind of perpetual operation on memory, iteratively reterratorialising what is understood about our lives. The software programmes that drive digital media thus have significant agency in the various ways that we collectively communicate and remember.

This paper is structured in two parts. First, I want to discuss memory as constitutive of our understanding of ourselves, one another, and our understanding of the world around us. In particular, I will address the prosthesis of technology as a means of exteriorising memory as a key element in this phenomenological understanding of the world, by drawing upon the work of Bernard Stiegler. Secondly, I want to discuss how the technological prosthesis in the guise of computing technologies has taken on a particular kind of quasi-autonomy in the ordering and recording of our experience.

We must, arguably, begin with an understanding of technics as the means by which we come to recognise being as such. For Steigler, it is through the exteriorisation of thought, through language and gesture, that we understand our internal conscious processes and this exteriorisation is achieved through technologies of language and writing. There is accordingly an irresolvable contradiction or absence of origin of the human in this relationship of exteriorisation, the human does not come before the technical and vice versa, they are co-constituted, and continue to be. Stiegler argues in Technics and Time 2 that

‘What is exteriorized is constituted in its very exteriorization and is preceded by no interiority: this is the logic of the supplement’ (p. 4).

This is a logic preceding an opposition of form and matter. If sexual being is defined by the genetic as germinal memory, the epigenetic as neurological memory, exteriorization, according to Stiegler, is a rupture in the history of life constituting a third, tertiary, memory that he calls epiphylogenetic. Thus, as Stiegler argues in the Preface to Technics and Time 1: ‘technics is the horizon of all possibility’. We can see that technics is therefore the compositional relation through which temporality is apprehended.

A mental reality, or a ‘technical mentality’ following Gilbert Simondon, can thereby be ‘projected onto a support that is neither cerebral nor psychical but rather technical’, which Stiegler calls the process of ‘mnemotechnics’. Technics accordingly is the constitution of the experience of temporality as the relation between the body, technology and the environment. Stiegler suggests these forms of ‘retention’ precede us and yet they are a part of us, there are forms of retention that were created long before the birth of an individual and yet that person can access them as a form of ‘cultural memory’ (see: Stiegler, Technics and Time 1, Part 1).

The materialisation of thought, exterior to the mind and body, is named ‘tertiary memory’ by Stiegler. Here he draws upon Husserl’s account of the consciousness of temporality constituted by retention and protention. In this model, retention is considered in two parts: primary and secondary retention. Primary retention is the fixing of experience in the immediate conscious, the ‘present’ which passes is constituted by the ‘immediate and primordial retention of its own passing’ (Stiegler, For a New Critique of Political Economy: pp. 8-9). Secondary retention is the weaving together of the various memorial contents that make up what we call memory. Together with these forms of retention as a part of ongoing conscious experience, we project forward and anticipate, forming ‘protentions’. In a departure from Husserl, Stiegler includes ‘tertiary retention’ as the mnemotechnical exteriorization of secondary retentions. However, following the anthropologist André Leroi-Gourhan, from the beginning of the hominization process, all technical objects constitute an inter-generational memory support that overdetermines learning. Thus, ‘tertiary retention always already precedes the constitution of primary and secondary retention’ (Stiegler, For a New Critique of Political Economy: p. 9).

With the exteriorisation of thought, comes its spatialisation, as it is rendered material. Exteriorisation also involves an anticipation of its further use, folding into process of protention. The ongoing development of the human is thus always and already in relation to the technical, and what Stiegler calls the ‘organised inorganic matter’ of tertiary retention. The mnemotechnical has be transformed, deepened and rendered more complex with our ongoing development. Primary and secondary retention are increasingly of experiences of mnemotechnical forms, especially media. Thus, Stiegler’s supplement of ‘tertiary retention’ to Husserl’s understanding of retention is of significant importance for thinking the phenomenality of a gamut of phenomena in their technical conditions of collective mediation.

I want to turn now to the idea of programmes to think through the ways in which the increasingly pervasive mnemotechnical layer has constituted what Stiegler has addressed in the second volume of Technics and Time as an industrialisation of memory. This is largely concerned with what he identifies as an epochal shift away from a historical culture which has been rooted in the linearity of writing and in which

‘the retention of the past and collective apprehension of the present and of historical time passes through the technical system of the written word’ (Ian James, The New French Philosophy: p. 68).

Stiegler differentiates this historical culture from a currently emerging epoch ‘in which the retention of the past passes primarily through the technical systems of analogical”¦ and digital communications media and other technically mediated preceptions’ (ibid).

If our experience of historical time is fundamentally rooted in technics, through the mnemotechnical, then, Stiegler argues, the flow of history itself is constituted by a process in which dominant technical systems develop and are accompanied by new cultural forms which are programmed by those systems. This programming is not only the mnemotechnical ordering of discretised information, historically as writing and perhaps more recently in the form of databases. Such a programming is also concerned with the routenisation of activity, of constituting rhythms by which activities are organised and compreheneded.

We increasingly retain information about ourselves and others using digital media. Furthermore we also volunteer yet more information that is recorded by internet and media service providers, search engines and social media. Thus many aspects of our lives are gathered and retained in databases. It facilitates a kind of perpetual operation on memory, iteratively retemporalising, (re)historicising and (re)spacing (hence de- and re-terratorialising) what is understood about our collective lives.

These media increasingly operate in the process of ‘eventalisation’, arguably intervening in our ongoing experience of temporality and clearly reshaping the processes of retention. There is a conjoining of the effect of presence by contemporary digital media, in which event and input of the event coincide in time, such that equally and simultaneously digital technologies, in the process of capturing, ordering and distribution, inaugurate a new collective as well as individual experience of time as a departure from historicity (you can look at some of James Ash’s interesting work for illustrations).

Social software programmes attempt to ‘produce time’ by selecting what merits the identification as an ‘event’. Information has value as the heirarchisation of ‘what happens’: By selecting what merits the name of ‘event’ the programmes, and the commercial interests they represent, co-produce, access to ‘what happens’ by attributing the status of event. The Facebook ‘news feed’ is just such a quasi-automated system of selection of events. Of course, this is not new. That contemporary media co-produce what happens, and in this sense anticipate what is going to happen merely reflects the sense in which memory traverses primary and secondary retentions: all of ‘the actions, decisions, facts and events through which one got here’ do not remain behind the present’s past but always already preceded it – without determining it (Stiegler, Technics and Time 2: p. 116).

What is novel is that the widespread industrial systems of retention, in particular in the forms of social media predetermine events in their encoded conditions and rules of functionality. When the conditions of memorisation, what Stiegler calls the criteria of effacement, of selection, forgetting, retention-protention and anticipation, are all concentrated in one techno-industrial system, that system determines a law of participation and hence conditions retentional activities. This systemic intervention into the transduction of retention-protention takes place at the speed of the network, a temporality Stiegler has named, because of fibre optics, ‘light time’, and is multiplied across the plethora of services, servers, and the extraordinary number of  programmes and algorithms. Software, such as the apps for Facebook, Foursquare, Google Plus, facilitate the apparently easy recording of activities and events. However, such software can predetermine the nature of such events. Users, or ‘actors’, ‘anticipate the conditions of their acts’ recordability and act according to the constraints of this industrial façade of time’ (Stiegler, Technics and Time 2: p. 116).

Furthermore, the passive collection of data through the integrated systems of the application programming interfaces of social networking systems like Facebook’s Social Graph begin to ask questions about the scheme of retentional capture as outlined through Stiegler’s reading of Husserl (in particular in the third volume of Technics and Time). If activities are discretised at the very moment of action, without the need for somatic retention by the embodied user (what is ordinarily called ‘memory’), the selection process from secondary to tertiary retention becomes short-circuited. The increasing passive recording, logging and sorting of mediated activities therefore prompts interesting questions about the protentional force of the industrial fabrication of time. Such systems arguably suspend the possibility of distinguishing between “an ‘event’ from its ‘input’ (the discrete phenomena that constitute a phenomenality) or its ‘input’ from its ‘reception’ or reading’. Indeed, Stiegler argues that in such cases: ‘these three moments coincide in a single spatiotemporal reality such that all delay, all distance, between them is eliminated’ (Technics and Time 2: p. 116).

Following Stiegler then, and by way of a conclusion, we might begin to question how the shift towards the primacy of the digital as the means and mechanism of recording and mediating our individual and collective histories is affecting our ways of understanding the past and anticipating a future. Further, we might ask, with Stiegler (following Ian James), if such processes have begun to ‘inaugurate a different experience of time, [and] a new and different mode of temporalisation’ (Ian James, The New French Philosophy: p. 69).


James, Ian, 2012 The New French Philosophy, Polity, Cambridge.

Stiegler, Bernard 1998 Technics and Time, 1: The Fault of Epimetheus. trans. Beardsworth, R., Collins, G., Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA.

Stiegler, Bernard, 2009 Technics and Time, 2: Disorientation. trans. Barker, S., Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA.

Stiegler, Bernard, 2010 For a New Critique of Political Economy. trans. Ross, D., Polity, Cambridge.

Stiegler, Bernard, 2010 Technics and Time, 3: Cinematic Time and the Question of Malaise. trans. Barker, S., Stanford University Press, Stanford.

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4 Replies to “Memory programmes, paper delivered at Conditions of Mediation”

  1. I reposted this on the technophilia blog, through which Patrick Crogan and I have explored some themes in the philosophy of technology. Patrick wrote a very kind response:

    Thanks Sam for the post and access to your paper which is an excellent overview of the ‘big picture’ Stiegler paints of digital transformation through his approach to technics as retentional supports co-constitutive of human spatiotemporal orientation. Getting a handle on this ‘technicity’ of experience, event-making, history, etc as the prosthetic condition of situatedness, embodiment, etc was what was missing in my view from the rather ‘static’, ontological, set of keynotes taken together as an ‘orientation’ to the conference. We needed a more dis-orienting orientation, or a better orientation to the de-stabilizing of orientation that has become endemic in the short-circuiting of experience-to-event you examine in your paper.

  2. Hi Sam,

    thanks for this fascinating and as always, very clear outlining of Stiegler’s ideas. Just one point I wanted to ask you about. You say

    ‘These media increasingly operate in the process of ‘eventalisation’, arguably intervening in our ongoing experience of temporality and clearly reshaping the processes of retention. There is a conjoining of the effect of presence by contemporary digital media, in which event and input of the event coincide in time, such that equally and simultaneously digital technologies, in the process of capturing, ordering and distribution, inaugurate a new collective as well as individual experience of time as a departure from historicity’

    If the eventalisations that are enacted by digital media are a collective and individual experience of time that depart from historicity, what constitutes the time and historicity that it is departing from? Are you suggesting that was some kind of normative historicity different from the (I suppose) chimera of presence/ event in digital culture, or does that not create a qualitatively different form of historicity and time itself to say, an experience of time that is text or analogical based?

    I agree that digital media are reshaping time & retention, but I don’t see it as a departure from historicity. Quite the contrary in fact, I would argue that emergent historicities as different kinds of historical time are enabled by digital culture through the circulation of archival presences – whether or not algorithmic conditioning regulates / over determines encounters with different historical times I am not sure…need to think about this more. But is there not the risk in emphasising too much the agency of algorithms so that it becomes like the old fashioned ‘mass media controlling our minds’ theory??

    Anyway – would be pleased to hear your thoughts on this issue. I appreciate its a very short paper so not every concept can be explained and you would perhaps explain it more in an article. Thanks!

  3. Thanks Debi for your interesting response and question, it gives me pause for thought whilst thinking through the article-length version I am frantically working on right now(!). I agree with you that ‘eventalisation’ (or in Stiegler’s terminology in Technics and Time – ‘event-isation’) is a form of transindividuation such that there are always already ‘others’ co-producing themselves and one another and hence in some way negotiating an experience of temporality. In that sense, historicity as the performative production and reception of narratives of events is what is at stake and perhaps needs to be clarified…

    The paragraph you quote is a, very brief, reading of the ‘event-isation’ subsection of chapter three (‘The industrialisation of memory’) of T&T2 and the key difference for me here is between what we can mean by ‘temporality’ and ‘historicity’. In all too brief terms, factical temporality as the experience of time is technics, in so far as technics is the ‘horizon of possibility’ (Preface of T&T 1) and the (de-fault) originary relation from which we derive that experience of time. Historicity (not history as the ‘story line’) is the process of translating the event, its entering as data and the reception or reading. In T&T 2 Stiegler argues that this historicity is a process of deferral (gaps of varying degrees between those steps), the advent of network technologies that capture and transmit and facilitate reception with only an infinitesimal delay between them (the speed of light) engage a different process of selection routines for the retention and reception of ‘events’. So, following Stiegler:

    Conjoining the effect of presence in image capture, in which event and input of event coincide in time, with the real-time or the live aspect of transmission, in which captured event and recreption… coincide equally and simultaneously, analogic and numeric technologies inaugurate a new collective as well as individual experience of time as a departure from historicity, if it is true that historicity relies on an idea of time that is essentially deferred; that is on a constitutive opposition posited in principle (illusorily–but this illusion has very real effects) between a story line and what it reports. [T&T2, p. 115]

    If retention is always already paired with protention in our common temporal experience, that is memory is always linked to a sense of anticipating what comes next (because we process the present in its passing and in that passing is revealed the possibility of a future), then we need to pay attention to the systems that become dominant in shaping those selection routines for what constitutes ‘event’ as we collectively negotiate, share etc. in processes of tertiary retention. So, its a ‘departure from historicity’ only in so far as it is a departure from one system of selection for another. The important difference here is ‘real-time’. Real-time-ness shot-circuits the ‘work of time’ of the translation between the ’emission, transmission and reception’ of an event. As Stiegler goes on to argue:

    Today “the present” is lived through us “as if charged with the sense that it is already ‘historical'”. It comes to us already “produced” [in the juridical sense – like the ‘production of a contract’], fabricated, constructed, operated or written… Consequently, because it is always already “historical”, “the present in our times” is no longer actually historical: what has been occluded, telescoped, short-circuited is the work of time [T&T 2, p. 120].

    This is a ‘pharmacological’ process, it is neither normatively positive or negative, and needs to be worked through (by those of us studying and trying to intervene etc.) in the specific ensembles in which it occurs. In this way you can get a little bit dystopian, as Stiegler seems to (but you do need to bear in mind the pharmakon) and its where I might depart from how his argument comes across sometimes. However, the real-time-ness of social media etc. (which Stiegler goes on to critique as ‘psychotechnologies’ in Taking Care) begin to operate in a blurred domain between secondary and tertiary retention, which is what Stiegler is gesturing towards in that last quote. This is sort of where I’m going in the final three paragraphs of the paper.

    So may be ‘departure’ from historicity is not quite right. It is a ‘departure’ from the normative understanding of the process of historicity as you rightly critique, but perhaps another word like ‘reconfiguration’ or ‘transduction’ might be necessary…

    Anyway, thanks for making me think! I’ll try and clarify this a bit more in other writings and share them in due course.

  4. Hi Sam,

    yes, I definitely think its a refiguring / reconstitution, different kinds of historicities emerge through digital technologies in my opinion. I would also argue that the form of deferred historicity that was previously hegemonic should be investigated for how it binds or creates specific orientations to time – namely, the performative enactment of pastness itself that confines historicity to a specific temporal domain – that of the past (thus finished or over). In such an arrangement, mediated by the linear processes of language, it is only possible to access ‘history’ as something which falls behind us.

    Digital technologies, which are crucially not confined to events that appear to happen immediately but also include the circulation of archival presences as media objects from different temporal domains, create other conditions for the access to/with historical events. These effectively destroy notions of past, present and future because these different objects circulate simultaneously in the now, so that such terms are effectively redundant.

    I think I differ from Stiegler as I understand the circulation of archival presences as expressions of different temporalities, rather than a kind of homogenisation wrought by the erasure of deferral.
    For me, there needs to be greater inventiveness and care applied to the descriptions/ reconfigurations of the temporality, historicity and memory put in motion by digital technologies.

    I understand that protention and retention are co-present/ simultaneous, if this is so, why fall back onto the language of anticipation / futurity, which casually relies upon the temporal structure of historicity (i.e., that is is a time we can call with certainty ‘the past’, ‘the present’ or ‘the future’) that we are claimed to have departed from? But the key point is we have not departed entirely, as linear/ narrative history has not disappeared, it is no no longer the exclusive condition for containing historical experience in the digital age.

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