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Bernard Stiegler (1952-2020)
Matt Bluemink remembers the philosopher of memory.
“Human beings disappear; their histories remain.”
(Bernard Stiegler, Technics and Time 3, p.131)
On Thursday 6th August 2020 we lost one of the most unique and important philosophers of the last thirty years.
Portrait of Bernard Stiegler © Berkeley Centre for New Media 2016
Bernard Stiegler was a constant source of knowledge and inspiration. He was a philosopher of technology who in my view answered Heidegger’s famous question concerning technology, namely ‘What is technology in relation to humanity?’ He did so in a way that perfectly captured the essential dual nature of technology (or in Stiegler’s term, technics, from the Greek tekhnē, to make or to construct, referring both to technology and to the processes of creating it). Stiegler argued that technics was a pharmakon – a Greek word meaning both ‘poison’ and ‘cure’. It was both the poison that affected contemporary society, and also the cure through which it could be saved. It was both an external form into which we pass our knowledge, and an internal condition which makes us human.
Stiegler defied the usual boundaries and classifications of academic philosophy. What made him unique was that his work reached far beyond the limits of what might normally be considered the ‘philosophy of technology’. He traversed disciplines ranging from anthropology and palaeontology to media and film theory; from cybernetics and digital communication to political philosophy and epistemology. However, it was not just his ideas that made Stiegler so interesting, but his life as a whole.
Stiegler’s philosophical education was anything but normal. His early adult life was full of roadblocks, hurdles, and accidents which eventually however led him down the philosopher’s path. He’d worked in an office and as a manual labourer; he managed a farm in Lot-et-Garonne; and he was the owner of a jazz club. As he later wrote: “My life will have been a succession of lives, as if I have had several lives, a multiplicity of stories and roles” (Acting Out, p.35). But until the age of twenty-six he had not philosophised at all: he did not even finish high school. His life took a darker turn and in 1976 he was arrested for the armed robbery of a bank in Toulouse. It was his fourth bank robbery and he was sentenced to five years in prison. It was during this period of incarceration, from 1978-1983, that he found philosophy:
“My incarceration in Saint Michel Prison… will have been the suspension of my acts and interruption of my actions: such is the function of prison. But interruption and suspension, which are also the beginning of philosophy (Socrates’ daimon is one who interrupts), were for myself the occasion of a reflection on what the passage to the act is in general – and a recollection of all the acts that brought me there.”
(Bernard Stiegler, Acting Out, p.12)
Stiegler claimed that this period of ‘interruption and suspension’ had given him the one crucial thing he’d previously lacked: the gift of time. This time – well spent in the well-stocked prison libraries of France in the late Seventies and early Eighties – allowed him to devote himself to a rigorous schedule of education and experimentation through reading, especially the phenomenologists Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger among others. Before his philosophical explorations he read Mallarme and Proust, who also became extremely influential to him and would eventually lead to the reflections which marked the beginning of one of his most crucial insights. As he states in The Age of Disruption (2019): “reading [is] an interpretation by the reader of his or her own memory through the interpretation of the text that he or she had read.” This thought led to a lifelong fascination with the idea of memory and of technics, which to Stiegler were inherently connected, and were at the core of all philosophical thinking.
Following his release from prison, Stiegler devoted his life to philosophy. He became an MA student of Jean-Francois Lyotard, and then a PhD student of Jacques Derrida, with whom he would publish Ecographies of Television in 1996. Yet it was his first solo book, Technics and Time 1: The Fault of Epimetheus (1994) that really solidified his role as one of the most important philosophers of recent years. Stiegler’s book focused on the idea that we cannot separate human beings from technology. As humans, we are defined by our inherent technicity, which arises simultaneously with our becoming human, through a process of exteriorisation which he calls epiphylogenesis. Epiphylogenesis can essentially be understood as extending aspects of our consciousness beyond our bodies into tools, art, writing and technology.
In The Age of Disruption, Stiegler highlights how his time spent in prison led to these insights which would later form the foundation of his philosophy. He saw himself as an inmate as being locked away with his own memories. (He called these ‘secondary retentions’ – the ‘primary retention’ being the brain’s recording of the original experience in the first place). These memories constituted the imaginary remains of a past that was moving further and further away – a past that, at the time of his incarceration, had lasted twenty-six years. Through reading philosophy and literature, his secondary retentions had become mobilised and reformed through the words on the page. As he reread the texts and poured over his notes, he found that his present interpretation was not identical to his previous one, or to the one he remembered. He came to realise that what he had read the previous day had modified his memories. In other words, exteriorisations of consciousness that were laid out on the page in the form of letters and words (‘tertiary retentions’) had fundamentally changed his perception and interpretation of those memories. This led him to the idea that our memory is never static, but is constantly being changed by objects outside of ourselves. As he writes in For a New Critique of Political Economy (2013):
“A newborn child arrives into a world in which tertiary retention both precedes and awaits it, and which, precisely, constitutes this world as world. And as the spatialization of individual time becoming thereby collective time, tertiary retention is an original exteriorization of the mind [esprit].”
This insight eventually led him to a critique of traditional phenomenology – the philosophical study of the raw data of experience. Whereas Heidegger believed that philosophy had forgotten the question of Being, Stiegler claimed that it had forgotten the question of techne (‘making’) as the origination of the human. Husserlian ‘primary retention’ was therefore no longer the pure or unqualified source of experience, as both our experience and our interpretation of our experience can be affected by objects which exists outside of us.
As his work developed, Stiegler became increasingly interested in how these tertiary retentions – these memory traces retained or mediated through technical apparatus, such as writing and other media – were being utilised by the industries of capitalism to serve their own ends. He saw how the radio and televisual industries of the twentieth century had developed in order to capture the desire and attention of the consumer. Through the capturing and redirection of desire, these industries facilitated an unsustainable longing for consumption, which had itself led to the creation of a ‘universal proletariat’ class. The Marxist definitions of ‘proletariat’ and ‘bourgeoisie’ were no longer sufficient to describe our current predicament, since the technical systems themselves had disoriented the population and removed their knowledge of both how to do (savoir faire) and how to live (savoir vivre). Nevertheless, Stiegler was not inherently against industry. He set up a number of institutions – most notably the cultural-political organisation Ars Industrialis – which sought to counter the short-termist consumerist thinking of contemporary industry, in order to promote what he called ‘long circuits of individuation’, which would effectively bring back the knowledge that had been lost through the ascent of consumerism.
The idea that technics can lead to both the ‘short circuits’ of short-termist thinking, and the ‘long circuits’ of individuation which promote sustained attention, is inherently pharmacological in nature. As I mentioned, pharmacology was one of the most important ideas in Stiegler’s oeuvre. Building on Derrida’s 1981 essay ‘Plato’s Pharmacy’, Stiegler deconstructs Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus, moving away from the common interpretation of Plato’s rejection of poetry as a fabricator of illusion, in favour of one which denotes the dual potential of poetry (and therefore of technics in general) as a pharmakon. “It is impossible to oppose living memory to the dead memory of the hypomnematon [an object that stores memory outside the brain]… This impossibility opens the pharmacological question, according to which the hypomnesic is a pharmakon: at once poison and remedy” (For a New Critique of Political Economy, p.29). Stiegler always saw the duality of the living and the technical, of the interior and the exterior, as somewhat of a false dichotomy. They are only opposed in the sense that they are two sides of the same coin. When considering the nature of the human, we cannot have one without the other.
The technical, for Stiegler, is best represented by the fire which Prometheus stole from Olympus and gave to humanity in the Greek myth. Technology is humanity’s defining quality. Whereas other creatures have evolved physical attributes specific to their survival needs, humans instead have received the symbolic power of a god, the ability to invent and to build, to make what we need. The Promethean fire can therefore be seen as metaphor for the first technics insofar as it represents our ability to craft and utilise tools that exist outside of ourselves. This paradoxical vision of humans as beings that lack essence and thus rely on exteriorisations, implies that we live in an eternal state of transformation. We are constantly adapting and progressing through our inherent technicity.
Now, even as the fire that once lit Bernard Stiegler’s life has been extinguished, this Promethean fire metaphor becomes more important than ever. He has shown us that our technological dependence cannot leave us without hope. For every negative development in the history of politics and technology, there is a pharmacological antithesis embedded within it. The pharmakon shows us that each poison creates its own cure.
In Acting Out, Stiegler wrote that “The question of philosophy is first of all that of action… philosophical life ought to be exemplary: the philosophy of a philosopher only makes sense when it is illustrated through his way of life – that is, of dying” (p.7). This insight struck a much more sober chord with me when applied to Stiegler than it ever would have with Nietzsche or Heidegger. Bernard Stiegler was above all a man who lived his life in an exemplary way. Through trials and tribulations he presented a philosophy of authenticity, and lived according to it. For those of us who read him and were inspired by him, his passing is a great loss. However, we can look back with admiration at the life of a man whose words, and perhaps more importantly, whose actions, defined an important moment in the history of philosophy. Through the tertiary retentions he left behind, the philosopher of memory will not be forgotten. Although he is gone, his history remains.
© Matt Bluemink 2020
Matt Bluemink is the founder and editor of bluelabyrinths.com, an online magazine dedicated to philosophy and literature.