Issue No. 17 2009 — Bernard Stiegler and the Question of Technics
At the beginning of the first volume of his series on “symbolic misery,” Bernard Stiegler indicates an area of agreement and an area of disagreement with Jacques Rancière. Contra Walter Benjamin, Rancière has written: “There has never been any ‘aestheticisation’ of politics in the modern age because politics is aesthetic in principle” (Rancière 58). Politics is, for Rancière, fundamentally a matter of demonstration, that is, of expression, and aesthetics names the fact that “regimes of expression” determine what is expressible, on the basis of a “partition [or “sharing out”] of the perceptible.” The struggle of politics is thus always an aesthetic struggle for a new partition of the perceptible, for a political aesthetics countering the presentations and representations of what Rancière calls the police order, for a transgressive expression recasting a conservative symbolic order. Rather than the aestheticisation of politics being the phenomenon characteristic of the modern age, what for Rancière actually characterises our time is the creation of art as a separate, autonomous milieu – unlike for example the Greek world, where tragedy was the very definition of the conjunction of the aesthetic and the political (Vernant & Vidal-Naquet 32–33). Today we live in a world where “art” is a separate realm, preoccupied with the division of the perceptible, but separate “from any judgment about the use to which it is put” (Rancière 57).
So where does Stiegler agree and where does he disagree with this analysis? Stiegler completely agrees that, as he himself puts it, “the political question is an aesthetic question” (Stiegler, De la misère symbolique 17). He specifies that aesthetics, here, is to be taken in the widest sense, that is, as sensation in general, not only “perceptibility” but taste, feeling, sensibility. The point here is that perception, sensation, feeling, taste, are not only individual but immediately social phenomena, and thus that the question of living together, of becoming together, of living in common with the other through a process of common becoming, is something which can only occur through an understanding of, and a feeling for, one another, and which can therefore only occur via a medium which makes this possible, that is, an aesthetic medium. Thus, for example, if tragedy is the “therapeutic” conjunction of politics and aesthetics, it is also the “literalisation,” the material making-lettered, of myth and ritual (Stiegler, Pour en finir avec la mécroissance 106). And if, as Aristotle said, philia, the feeling for one another, is the basis of politics (Nicomachean Ethics 1155a21–22), then this feeling, this sensation, is immediately an aesthetic problem, and is, specifically, the problem of the socialisation of desire, a definition we can apply not only to philia but to aesthetics as such.
Stiegler therefore agrees with Rancière that we live today in an epoch in which “art” has become separate from politics, where, as André Leroi-Gourhan puts it, the majority is to a large extent outcast from participation in the aesthetic or the symbolic, where most people have become passive consumers of symbols constructed by a particular class (Stiegler, Acting Out 56–59; Leroi-Gourhan, Gesture and Speech 356, 397). But what Rancière fails to think is that aesthetics, that is, sensibility and feeling, has become the very means by which every aspect of life is calculated and controlled, through the invention of aesthetic and affective technologies configured toward synchronising experience, and therefore desire, and therefore behaviour, to the point of becoming “counter-productive,” that is, to the point of threatening the destruction of desire itself, and therefore politics, if not indeed economics (Stiegler, “Technics, Media, Teleology” 335).
Now desire, as Stiegler makes clear in his work, is immediately both psychic and collective, that is, a matter of my desire insofar as it is different from yours and a matter of our desire insofar as we inhabit an incomplete process of becoming together, our desire insofar as we are a process of the socialisation of desire, and where desire is always an adoptive, artificial and performative process of separation from the drives (since we are always, at the same time, animals). Given this understanding, what Stiegler means – when he states that the calculation and control of desire threatens to become counter-productive – is that in such a situation desire tends to regress to a more drive-based state. This regression from desire to drive engenders what he calls “symbolic misery” (or immiseration), and this liberation of the drives makes possible all manner of socio-pathological behaviours which society is increasingly unable to confront other than through repressive mechanisms, mechanisms which are themselves destined to contribute to this counter-productivity.
The most important means by which desire is influenced and behaviour controlled is the televisual apparatus, the success of which lies in the fact that it is located in the homes of almost all individuals, and in the fact that there is a degree of similarity between the audiovisual temporal objects – that is, programs – emanating from this apparatus and the cinematic constitution of consciousness itself (which Stiegler analyses in his Technics and Time series). What advertisers, that is, producers, learned in the course of the 20th century is that the spectator of this kind of program flux enters into the program, that is, that the program enters into the consciousness of the spectator, that these two fluxes intersect, and that there is therefore a power contained in this kind of technology which consists in the ability to enter consciousness and through this to target the un-conscious, that is, the seat of desire.
But what, then, is the source of the limit of this ability to influence desire and control behaviour, a limit which today means that this tool of production threatens to become counter-productive? Why does aesthetic conditioning amount to the destruction of experience, that is, of existence? There is a psychoanalytic way of answering this question: civilisation is the process of transforming drives into desire, a process which Freud calls sublimation, or which we can also call education, that is, a process of deferring and deflecting the drives through the intervention of those social programs which we refer to collectively as “culture” (an intervention which depends for the individual on the formation of his or her superego). Nevertheless, however, psychoanalysis informs us that the unconscious is also that in us which is never completely controllable, which can otherwise be stated as the fact that we never cease to be susceptible to regressing to a drive-based way of being.
And, secondly, this limit comes from the fact that the difference between desire and drive is that the latter is always finite, in the sense that it is always aimed at the satisfaction of an end which, so to speak, ends with that satisfaction. Thus for example the satisfaction of the animal drive which we call hunger ends with the consumption of food, even if this drive is of course perpetually renewed. In the case of human desire, however, the object of my desire is always something singular, a singular process of individuation, whether that process is another human being, or a kind of knowledge or art, or way of living, and as a process of individuation it is necessarily and inevitably in-complete, and therefore infinite, endless. In the case of eating, this means, for example, the possibility of cultivating a sense of culinary taste, that is, the possibility of educating one’s palette in order to achieve an enlargement of sense. And this implies a different relation to time: whereas the drive of hunger demands quick satisfaction, culinary taste, like all desire, requires time, and taking care of one’s time. Thus: if today the globalised system for conditioning desire and controlling behaviour is threatening to become, or has become, counter-productive, this is as well because, reducing all of life to calculability and particularity, it is destructive of singularity, that is, of all aesthetic experience and all potential objects of desire. And this destruction of desire, which is a destruction of time, amounts to the liberation of the drives, that is, to shamelessness and shameless behaviour.
It is for Stiegler, then, a matter of understanding this regressive tendency of capitalism, a tendency which is irrational insofar as rationality refers to the reasons and the motives of that process of psychic, collective, and technical individuation which we call capitalism. But if this is a tendency which is peculiar to capitalism become hyper-industrial, nevertheless Stiegler is very clear that this regressive possibility is not itself produced by capitalism, that it could not happen if the potential for regression was not already irreducibly inherent in us, was not already an irreducible element of our constitution. He states: “this is not a perversion which would be caused by cultural industries, or what is called cultural capitalism: this is inscribed in the structure of the noetic psyche” (Mécréance et discrédit 179). And with this explanation we are introduced to the fact that one of the most important ways in which Stiegler thinks this susceptibility is by referring to Aristotle’s account of three kinds of soul, and specifically to the intermittent character of the soul, and to the relation between the sensitivity and the noeticity of the human psyche.
Aristotle’s On the Soul postulates, as is well known, the notion that there are three kinds of soul: the vegetative, the sensitive, and the noetic soul. A soul is a kind of being which has its principle of movement contained within itself, and thus souls are found in plants, animals, and people, who are also animals. We are thus talking about (literally) animate beings, beings which are auto-poietic—or, better, auto-mobile, life consisting in the conquest of mobility—or which in still other words are each individual examples of a process of vital individuation (composed in every case, of course, as we have believed since the time of Robert Hooke, of one or billions of cells, each of which are themselves a process of vital individuation, collectively constituting another process of individuation of which we are, each of us, the expression, and each of us being ourselves inserted into a planetary process of vital individuation).
It would be an unforgivable simplification to say that the three kinds of soul – vegetative, sensitive, noetic – correspond to these three great biological categorisations – plant, animal, human – but it is equally impossible not to bear these categorisations in mind when thinking Aristotle’s description of the three kinds of soul, and for good reasons. If we know that plants respond to photonic stimulus, we also know that they do not see light, that this response does not amount to “perception,” and thus that it could only in a limited way be called “sensitivity”; similarly, if we know that there are intellectual latitudes amongst the higher animals, we also know that there is a limit to the ability to refer to this as “thinking,” that is, noeticity. Stiegler, by the way, thinks this limit in terms of tertiary retention, that is, in terms of supplements and artefacts which make possible, for the human animal alone, the possibility of inheriting from those who are not my ascendants. How this relates to the constitution of the noetic soul is something that will hopefully become clear in what follows.
Even what has been said thus far is sufficient to make clear that it is not a matter of opposing the vegetative to the sensitive, nor the sensitive to the noetic. There is nothing easier than reading Aristotle, who loves making distinctions, oppositionally, but Stiegler insists, and this is something he has learned from, among others, Derrida and Heidegger, that Aristotle must be read compositionally (Mécréance et discrédit 180). Heidegger, for example, does just this in his lecture course entitled Plato’s Sophist, but for the Ethics rather than On the Soul (Heidegger, Plato’s Sophist 15–155). And Stiegler’s way of learning this lesson from Derrida is by remembering the thought that differences are always the outcome of a process of differentiation, or, in other words, that understanding a distinction always means understanding that which is older than the distinction (“Derrida and Technology” 249–50). This is the “law” of différance, which includes the way in which “law” is itself always the outcome of such a process, or we may spell it otherwise as the “principle” of individuation, which includes the way in which “principle” is itself always the outcome of such a process.
Thus, thinking compositionally, Stiegler says that the sensitive soul “inherits” the vegetation of the vegetative soul, and that the noetic soul “inherits” the sensitivity of the sensitive soul. But the point here is that this inheritance cannot be grasped in terms of layers of the soul: it is a matter of potential and act. Vegetativity is the sensitive soul’s way of being in potential, and sensitivity is its way of being active; similarly, sensitivity is the noetic soul’s way of being in potential, and noeticity is its way of taking action. In other words, the sensitive soul is that kind of being that may dwell in a vegetative state, but which contains the potential of sensitive action; the noetic soul is that kind of being that may dwell in a merely sensitive state, but which contains the potential to act noetically. We might, therefore, wonder about the relation between the sensitive soul in action and the noetic soul in potential: when the noetic soul, that is, the human being, exists in its potential state, that is, merely sensitively, does this amount to dwelling in the condition of the sensitive soul, the animal, insofar as it acts? In short, when human beings fail to think, are they regressing to animality?
The answer to this question is no, insofar as it is impossible to oppose the noetic and the sensitive. For the noetic soul, the noeticity of that soul is something which pervades it, and thus which characterises even its sensitivity: the sensitivity of the noetic soul is transformed by its being-noetic, and exists as a power of the noetic. In other words, for the noetic soul, aesthesis is always inscribed in noesis, and noesis, thinking, is always inscribed in aesthesis. This thought is not without relation to Heidegger’s thought that Dasein’s way of being in the world is always “attuned” or “in a mood” (Being and Time §29). The human way of being sensitive is thus distinct from, if not opposed to, the animal way of being sensitive, in that this sensitivity is always also a matter of “logic,” where this most certainly does not refer simply to the “rules of logic,” but to the symbolic in its most ample sense, to logos as the most general form of expression, inclusive not only of speech or writing, but music, painting, and all forms of representation, for example, dance, a logos of the body which is a way of being sensitive belonging only to the noetic soul. Similarly, singing is a way of being expressive musically which belongs only to human beings precisely because it is not merely aesthetic but noetic. If we are inclined to hear and understand the acoustic signals produced by animals as somehow musical, what this indicates is not that birds or whales “truly” sing, but that, say, speaking and singing are for human beings not genuinely opposed, on the contrary arising from an older condition in which these were not yet distinguished.
This noeticity of the noetic soul’s sensitivity is why Stiegler distinguishes sensitivity from sensation, why he distinguishes the being-sensitive of the sensitive soul from the being-sensational of the noetic soul. The human being is capable not only of perceiving the fading warmth of the sun, but of experiencing a sunset: this is not a question simply of thinking about a sunset, but of an aesthetic, sensational, singular, experience. But insofar as this experience is inscribed in a logos, in some kind of expression, while remaining nevertheless a matter of sensitivity, it is, as Stiegler puts it, exclamatory:
This becoming-symbolic as logos, which is only in the course of its being ex-pressed, is what I call ex-clamation: the noetic experience of the sensible is exclamatory. It exclaims itself before the sensible insofar as it is sensational, that is, experience of a singularity which is incommensurable, and always in excess. The exclamatory soul, that is, one which is sensational and not merely sensitive, enlarges its sense by exclaiming it symbolically. (Mécréance et discrédit 179)These terms, “sensation” and “exclamation,” are the tools with which Stiegler thinks the composition of the sensitive and the noetic for the noetic soul. And thus the susceptibility of the noetic soul, its tendency to regress from noeticity to sensitivity, its potential to fail to act, thus its potential for im-potentiality, is less a matter of falling from the human to the animal than it is a matter of the potential for exclamation to turn bad, and thus for the sensational to become sensational-ism, the sensationalism, for example, of bad television or tabloid newspapers, or the sensationalism of crowds and panics. Thus if this describes the human potential for beastliness and stupidity, the fact remains that this means something other than “animal behaviour.”
Thus what occurs with hyper-industrial capitalism is not a fall from noeticity to sensitivity, but the reduction of sensation to sensationalism, both irreducibly noetic. It is precisely because of this composition of the aesthetic and the noetic that hyper-industrial capitalism must operate aesthetically, even if this is in the end, today, geared toward the destruction of the possibility of aesthetic experience: the influencing of desire is not a matter of “logical” persuasion but rather of causing noetic souls to adopt what is proposed to them as intellective-sensational souls, that is, symbolically. And the possibility of doing this is something which capitalism does not invent, but upon which it relies: all politics, for example, depends upon precisely this possibility of adoption, on the adoption of an invented common desire. This is the meaning, for example, of the reforms of Cleisthenes (Mécréance et discrédit 22–23, 44–45).
But how, then, does Aristotle make it possible to understand the source of the irreducible susceptibility of the noetic psyche? For Aristotle, even the noetic animate being can only be noetic intermittently, and the reason for this is that only those beings which exceed all processes of becoming – that is, who are eternal, changeless beings, that is, the gods – are able unceasingly to sustain themselves at the noetic level (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1177b26ff.; Heidegger, Plato’s Sophist 92; Stiegler, Mécréance et discrédit 179–80). And, furthermore, even though for Aristotle the soul is what contains within itself the principle of its own movement, nevertheless the source of this animate potential is, at bottom, something external, the “unmoving prime mover.” Metaphysics first teaches us to understand this unmoving prime mover – that is, theos – “theoretically.” Nevertheless, when the history of metaphysics combines with the history of monotheism, we are taught to understand theos “theologically” (or, at least, onto-theologically). But the critical point is that when human beings regress, they lose sight of what moves them, intellectively and sensationally, what puts them in motion, e-motes them; they lose sight, precisely, of the noetic milieu (Acting Out 14).
But the way we must henceforth understand theos is by saying that the potential and the power of psychic and collective individuation derive from the fact that these processes find their very possibility in the human capacity to draw from an intellectual and aesthetic milieu which precedes them, while at the same time this noetic milieu consists in nothing other than the history of its human invention. In other words, Stiegler inherits from Aristotle the thought that the origin of noeticity is in some way external, but this externality is no longer theological but rather technological, consisting in all those artefacts, supplements, and prostheses which together make up the technical milieu which human beings have not only invented but which, one must also say, is the theatre in which the human being is itself invented. The indescribably slow process whereby humans or proto-humans first began to fashion objects technically, for example, not only inaugurated the human capacity to focus attention on objects (that is, speaking psychoanalytically and phenomenologically at the same time, to intend and project objects of desire), but also formed a mirror in which the human being could, so to speak, see itself, that is, reflect upon itself, and thereby intend or project itself. If it is true that the noeticity of the noetic soul has always been intermittent, this corresponds first of all to retentional finitude, to the limits of the power of individual memory, for which human beings have always already tried to compensate through the manufacture of artefacts, every one of which functions in some way at least as a form of memory, and through the manufacture of specific artefacts devoted to memory, which Stiegler calls mnemo-technical systems. What Aristotle was in no position to think, and which the history of philosophy and of the West in general has made very difficult to think (a difficulty which begins prior to Aristotle, that is, with Plato), is that at the origin of the distinction between the noetic and the sensitive, thus what is older than that distinction, is technique, the process of exteriorisation, and one which, composing and inventing the distinction between exterior and interior, can no longer be understood as an externality.
All artefacts are technical, together constituting the “curtain of objects” amounting to a technico-noetic milieu (Leroi-Gourhan, Milieu et techniques 322; Stiegler, Technics and Time 57), but what matters for the composition of the noetic soul in its distinction from the sensitive soul is the unfurling of that part of the process of technical individuation which Stiegler calls “grammatisation.” Grammatisation names the process whereby fluxes are reduced to discrete, formal, symbolic, and reproducible elements (Mécréance et discrédit 65–67). Writing, for example, is the grammatisation of speech, reducing it to letters and words, and thereby transforming language, including speech. But speech itself was already grammatised: speech is the submission of the movement of the jaw, the larynx and the tongue to a process of training, the reduction of these movements to discrete elements which can be controlled and reproduced. The development of speech, therefore, must be understood as a process of sublimation, always immediately both individual and collective. That speech, the essence of logos, is nothing other than this submission of the vocal organs of the body to technique, makes clear the very essence of what Stiegler means when he says that the noetic soul must be understood as the intellective-sensational soul. The nous of the noetic soul is, fundamentally, nothing other than the technical movement of the body (Mécréance et discrédit 202).
If the acquisition of speech by the human species, and by each infant individual member of that species, is always a process of disciplining the vocal organs, and if grammatisation is always a reduction of a continuum to discrete elements, it is nevertheless crucial to grasp that this process of control is also transformational, opening worlds, idiomatic worlds, or in other words, singularities: this is the very process of human history. But the very success of these particular grammatising processes (that is, of speech and writing), the total transformation of human life deriving from the invention of speech and writing, the latter forming for example the conditions of possibility of politics, philosophy and science, have also had as their result that noeticity has been understood in terms of language, in terms of logos grasped logically and linguistically. And thus what it has been exceedingly difficult to think, and which today must be thought first of all, is the way in which other grammatising processes which have unfurled in the last two centuries, or yet others which were just getting underway at the end of the 20th century, are themselves transforming the conditions of the noetic soul.
This is not only a matter of cinema and television. Industrialisation itself, the rise of industrial production, depended on nothing other, largely, than the grammatisation of human gesture and its inscription in the programs of industrial machines. What previously was a matter of the techniques with which the hand worked with tools, transmitted generationally, became the domain of machines whose techniques it was no longer necessary for workers to know or understand. We can speak of a process of the retreat of the hand, analogous to the retreat of the foot in the hand which characterised the prehistoric process of the conquest of the upright stance. This retreat of the hand is a grammatisation of gesture amounting to the destruction of skill, that is, of forms of knowledge of how to do and make, and it is what Simondon referred to as the proletarianisation of production (the key point here is that Simondon re-writes Marx to make clear that proletarianisation is less the creation of a new class than it is a process of the destruction of knowledge, affecting everybody). Stiegler refers to this as the tendential loss of savoir-faire. But in the 20th century, this process of proletarianisation is extended from production to consumption, a loss of knowledge of the techniques of living, which Stiegler refers to as the tendential loss of savoir-vivre. The mechanism by which this process of generalised proletarianisation is achieved is the process of hyper-industrial capitalism itself, hyper-industrial to the extent that the production process is now premised on the conditioning of desire and therefore of behaviour, a conditioning process operated on the basis, largely, of the televisual apparatus, operating according to a broadcast schedule synchronising the temporality of audiences.
Today we are at the beginning of a new process of grammatisation, which has the potential of being a kind of total grammatisation of existence as such. This process has a long way to go, encompassing not only the realms of the noetic, that is, of consciousness, in the form of the digitisation of word, sound, and image, but even of the corporeal, in the form of biotechnology, which is nothing other than the grammatisation of vital individuation itself. As it stands, these new technical prostheses and these new forms of grammatisation are submitted to a hyper-industrial system which largely turns these into a threat, into a poison more than a gift, to speak pharmacologically. And this threat operates, first of all, through the creation of a systematic attempt to appeal to the susceptibility of the noetic psyche, by luring the psyche with and into sensationalism, into immediate and short-term satisfactions rather than the cultivation of singular and longer term desires. The question, today, is whether this threat, this pharmakon, can also be grasped as a chance.
If it remains a question of grasping, this indicates that it is still a matter of the hand. The retreat of the hand is on the one hand a fact of which we can be certain, but, on the other hand, if the noetic soul is exclamatory, this is because, as Stiegler says, it has hands, embodied in fleshly organs, of which the tongue would be a case, insofar as the tongue, for us, is an organ constituted through a process of exteriorisation (Mécréance et discrédit 202). How do we compose these thoughts of the retreat of the hand and the irreducible handiness of the noetic soul? We do so by admitting that the question of the hand is that of technicity beyond the hand. It is less a matter of negotiating the conjunction of technics and singularity than it is of comprehending not only that grammatisation is the very possibility of singularity, but that, in the face of emergent grammatisations turned toward the destruction of singularities, the grammatising process currently underway must become that possibility anew.
This is the true problematic through which, today, the political question must again be taken up as an aesthetic question. Politics is, as Stiegler puts it, the question which imposes itself on human beings insofar as they must live together, and insofar as, living together, they must make decisions, that is, create fictions (Mécréance et discrédit 195). The decisions which we take, and which we call political, are a matter of the elaboration of fictions insofar as these decisions only are in being taken: they are performative, which is to say not merely logical, even if, hopefully, rational, that is, motivated. Today, most of the fictions which we consume are fed to us televisually, according to another model of performativity, and they are mostly bad fictions, destructive of desire, and hence incapable of motivating a politics. That is why what we require is first of all a “noopolitics,” a politics which takes up the question of the formation of minds, but where it is not forgotten that this means nothing other than the question, for individuals and for society, of movement, including the movement of e-motion – what we require is thus a politics which does not forget that the noetic is inextricably inscribed in the aesthetic, and vice versa. We must take up the question of what new potentials arise from the new processes of grammatisation elaborating themselves today, and ask whether these potentials can be harnessed toward the cultivation of new practices under a new industrial model with the goal of re-aestheticising politics (but in the best sense, such that this is not at the expense of political reason, but rather forms the very motive of reason itself). Only on this condition can we expect to avoid the dire consequences of a world in which, due to the loss of knowledge of how to live, and the conditioning of desire to the point of destroying it, we all today find ourselves, individually and collectively, confronted with grave planetary and human problems which we can agree it is absolutely necessary to struggle against, but about which, nevertheless, all of us, find it increasingly difficult to actually (that is, actively) care.
Daniel Ross is the author of Violent Democracy (Cambridge University Press, 2004), co-director of The Ister (2004), and co-translator of Bernard Stiegler, Acting Out (Stanford University Press, 2009).
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