Books

States of Shock by Bernard Stiegler

Peter Benson recovers from States of Shock.

The French bank-robber turned philosopher Bernard Stiegler concluded his 2010 book on What Makes Life Worth Living with these words:

“The only thing that, at bottom, is worth being lived – in this life that must constantly be critiqued in order for it to be, in fact, worth living – is the struggle against stupidity.”

If we are to wage such a struggle effectively we will need to understand the nature of stupidity, its sources and causes, and how to nullify its baleful power. In his new book States of Shock: Stupidity and Knowledge in the 21st Century Stiegler sets out to answer these questions.

As the title suggests, knowledge counteracts stupidity. But knowledge needs to be distinguished from mere information. In the Twenty-First Century we are confronted by an overwhelming glut of information. The most significant new technologies of our time are ‘Information Technologies’ – a term embracing computation, communications media, and databases. Information is available in abundance, but by itself it can be used to support and spread stupidity, rather than to counter it. One need only look at the bulk of the material shared each day over the internet. Most of it displays immense stupidity and is a pitiful representation of the human race. One can only hope that no aliens are dutifully recording it. Our access to information has not made us more intelligent.

Stiegler uses the example of mathematics to explain the difference between information and knowledge. Take Pythagoras’s Theorem. One might simply tell someone that the sides of any right-angled triangle are always related by the formula a2+b2=h2. This is useful information, and could be applied to calculations during building work, but it is not knowledge. Knowledge is acquired when people are shown the proof of Pythagoras’s Theorem and come to understand why it is always true, rather than just taking this fact on trust. If they have properly learnt the proof – not by rote-learning like a parrot, but by reconstructing the linked steps of the reasoning – they should be able to repeat it themselves. The point of learning geometry is not merely to acquire information, but to train our capacity for reasoning. In this way, we become less stupid.

This distinction between knowledge and information is far from new. Indeed, it underlies the very beginnings of Western philosophy. “Socrates,” writes Stiegler, “opposes the sophist precisely by referring to ‘thinking for oneself’” (p.170). The philosophical culture of classical Greece paid attention not just to particular facts, but to also to “Logos [reason], which is not merely an intellectual faculty but a psychosocial order… [creating] civil peace in the agora [public area] of the polis [city] through which it is civilized, [and] weapons are replaced…. [by] dialogue” (p.168). So education, as the training of our reasoning powers, is a necessary condition for any sustained state of peace, in which discussion replaces violence in the resolving of disputes. So a great deal is at stake in these issues. Stiegler fears that, in the modern world, reason is being eroded by a new flowering of stupidity.

The first half of Stiegler’s book is a retrospective consideration of post-structuralist thought. Looking back on the works of Derrida, Lyotard, and Deleuze, Stiegler ponders whether they remain salient to our current situation. Were these writers active preservers of thought during the post-structuralist era, or did they inadvertently contribute to the corrosion of reason? A flamboyant anti-Enlightenment stance became fashionable and regrettably popular in certain quarters as a result of their influence. Although this was largely a misrepresentation of these major thinkers, a thorough re-reading is necessary if their works are to become permanent sources of insight.

These chapters will be difficult reading for anyone not already familiar with the writers under discussion. Stiegler himself suggests reading the second half of his book first, to grasp the weight of the issues at stake. Nevertheless, studying earlier philosophers is a crucial activity, since reading with care is itself a skill with which to combat stupidity’s deadly reign.

The Reign of Stupidity
The Reign of Stupidity by Peter Pullen
© Peter Pullen 2015 Please visit www.peterpullen.com

Stupidity Abounds

One significant source of nourishment for stupidity is the market economy. It is not the existence of a market system per se which has this effect, but rather its elevation as the court of last appeal for all decisions – the final justification of all human actions. In this way, it has usurped the place of reason in our society, resulting in a situation of generalized stupidity. “It is in this context,” writes Stiegler, “that, having totally abandoned the task of making Europe a scholarly society, the European Commission has committed itself exclusively to constituting the European market and to submitting academic life solely to efficient causality, thereby confusing knowledge and information” (p.218). Governments are turning places of learning into mere businesses. In this way “it is thought itself that will have been destroyed, a destruction that brings with it generalized proletarianization and systematic stupidity” (p.219).

The only cure for this situation is to restore the superior claims of reason. Because of this, a particular responsibility devolves upon schools and universities not to collaborate in reason’s dethronement. Sadly, faced with this challenge, academics have repeatedly failed to defend themselves, and have increasingly become mere servants of financial interests. Hence Stiegler’s plea in the final part of this book for a renewal of critical reasoning within universities – hoping that it might then spread to all levels of the educational system.

I admit to being unconvinced by this possibility. Just as the first Academy – established by Plato – took the hectic discussions that Socrates held in the public square and moved them into a more exclusive private space, so we are now living in a time when in order to survive as itself and not as a servant of financial power, philosophy must re-enter the agora – the public and (relatively) unpoliced spaces of our society. These undoubtedly now include the internet, a profuse breeding ground for ideas, even if most of them are weak and ephemeral growths, temporary viral infections. This move out of the Academy and into the agora is also exemplified by this very magazine, which is free from interference from university hierarchies and the various interests they are obliged to placate.

Stiegler is surely right to assert that the critical study of digital media should be a central concern for intellectual enquiry today. We need to ask how these media can support thinking, rather than corrode it into fragmented, bite-sized flashes. Stupidity is increased by the barrage of momentary sensations and satisfactions channelled through the cluttered spaces of our computer screens – attention-demanding words and images keeping the hungering brain avid and unsatisfied. New uses of our modern modes of interconnection are needed to silence twittering trivialities with more connected and continuous thinking. Once people have popped enough brightly-coloured sweets into their mouths, one might hope that a craving for a nutritious meal might eventually arise. And understanding the mechanisms of advertising and marketing is our best protection against their debilitating effects. We might then become conscious of the numbing stupidity into which we are sinking, and, with a sharp snap of attention, wake up.

© Peter Benson 2015

Peter Benson has the opportunity to study stupidity on a daily basis in his employment with a London borough council.

States of Shock: Stupidity and Knowledge in the 21st Century by Bernard Stiegler, trans. Daniel Ross, Polity, 2015, pb £16.99, ISBN 978-0-7456-6494

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