Stiegler on ‘immateriality’ and ‘virtual spaces’

Following on from my recent post about two new articles, I thought it apposite to highlight a couple of extended quotes from Bernard Stiegler’s work that I think offer a good critical response to the persistent use of the metaphor of ‘virtual space’ and its apparent immateriality. I am posting this as much as a reminder for myself as because I hope it is of interest to others too. I will leave commentary on these passages for another time…

First, from Technics and Time 3: Cinematic time and the Question of Malaise (pp. 135-137):

Enhancing the points of contact and communication devices between and among human groups means a tendency to reduce their ability to resist the concretising process of technical tendencies, in terms of the adoption of new lifestyles… Enhancing the contact points between various interiors, emphasising the general permeability of the technical tendency of all groups (i.e. entropy) would tend yo fold them into the “exterior milieu” of the market, what Simondon calls the “techno-geographic environment” when it has become mnemotechnical and this, as such, the space of nonpublic market exchanges.

These “points of contact”, which initially consisted of goods and people, then of images, currency, books, telegraphic messages and telephone calls, have become permanent and universal: they are no longer merely points but are now flux… This intensification of contact points, their transformation into flux and the resulting transactions (global commerce in all its forms) require new techniques for assisting in re-orienting products through digital navigation industries that no longer operate in the modes of past experience… but now in real-time informational events produced by hundreds of millions of humans worldwide every second, as they access data in “virtual spaces”.

I put these words in quotation marks because we are now faced with a metaphor that can conceal the real dynamics of the process at work here. “Virtual spaces” are the sum total of retentional data, physically retained on/in digital supports that are inaccessible without the mediation of a representational mechanism for their information, constructing an intuitive image using interfaces to represent and render these unreadable material states manipulable… and this is not in any case a matter of “immateriality”, a concept that is frequently bandied about and that means absolutely nothing.

To the extent that these electronic data spaces can also serve as projection screens for real-time actions on networks and central servers, as represented on computer screens by images that are themselves animated in real-time, we can accurately speak of “virtual space” or “cyberspace” as if these images were in an other space than the real one. But though the phenomenon of digital replication is very important and requires a profound analysis, this dangerously airy discourse… contributes to the general loss of intelligibility of what is actually happening and what is being screened.

Rather than virtual space, we should more accurately speak of a new digital system of retentions affecting the intuiting of both space and time, a system no more or less virtual than all other forms of tertiary retention, of time just as of space… And if time, understood as always hovering on the horizon of a virtual past and a virtual future, is always virtual as well, it is virtual precisely to the degree that a tertiary retention, itself always temporal and spatial, whether electronic or not, is virtual in that it does not participate in an act of selection of secondary and primary retentions within the event horizon of a living consciousness.

“Virtual space,” then, does not exist. The electronic reproducibility of places, countries, and extended geographic areas is, on the other hand, always being deployed and enacted: however underdeveloped, it opens out immense perspectives through the digitsation of territory and inhabitable spaces using “roaming devices” such as cell phones on infrastructures that are universally appropriable… through… which a process of networked re-territorialisation is initiated in networks and by networks, networks that redistribute all of geo-politics through completely unforeseen perspectives on the “information society”.

Second, is a passage taken from the third interview in the book of interviews entitled Économie de l’hypermatériel et psychopouvoir [The Hypermaterial Economy and Psychopower] (as yet untranslated for publication) concerning the ‘hypermaterial’ (pp. 110-112):

As to the “immaterial”, I don’t believe in it: it does not exist. It is a facile word that is used even by people at the highest level, like André Gorz, where it names what are in fact evanescent states of matter which remain, nonetheless, states of matter. There is nothing that is not a state of matter. And, to produce these evanescent states, a great deal of matter is required: lots of apparatuses. Thus we live in an economy and epoch rather of “hypermatter” as well as of the  “hypermaterial”.

I call hypermatter a complex of energy and information where it is no longer possible to distinguish its matter from its form – what first appears with quantum mechanics, necessitating the abandonment of what Simondon called the hylemorphic scheme. This is the manner of thinking according to a pairing of concepts, form (morphè) and matter (hylè), that are thought as opposed to each other. I call hypermaterial a process where information – which is presented as a form – is in reality a sequence of states of matter produced by materials and apparatuses, by techno-logical dispositifs in which the separation of form and matter is also totally devoid of meaning.

In terms of everyday life, we are not a part of a dematerialization at all but rather, quite to the contrary, a hypermaterialisation: everything is transformed into information, which is to say into states of matter by the intermediaries of materials and apparatuses, and it is this which makes everything controllable at the level of the nanometer and the nanosecond. This process leads to a considerable expansion of increasingly accessible states of matter which carry form, which is henceforth able to work in the infinitely small and the infinitely brief. As a result, matter is becoming invisible.

Finally, and further to the second quote concerning the ‘hypermaterial’, in a recent keynote for the W3C international conference Stiegler addressed the theme of ‘Enlightenment in the Age of Philosophical Engineering’ (riffing off Tim Berners-Lee’s suggestion that the web needs a form of ‘philosophical engineering’) and suggested the following:

The archive is material, according to Foucault, and knowledge is essentiallyarchived, which means that its materiality is not something which occurs after the fact, for recording something which would have occurred beforeits materialisation : this is the very production of knowledge. This materialisation doesn’t come after the form that it conserves, and it must be thought beyond the opposition of matter and form : it constitutes a hypermatter.

The hypermateriality of knowledge is that which, in the epoch of the web and of what it produces as new processes of transindividuation, must be studied as the condition of construction of rational forms of knowledge and of knowledge in general. We must situate the study of the hypermateriality of knowledge within the framework of a general organology which studies the supports and instruments of every form of knowledge. And in the contemporary context, this study of hypermateriality must be placed at the heart of digital studies, which must itself become the new unifying and transdisciplinary model of every form of academic knowledge.

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