Einstein’s Nightmare: Essay on Bernard Stiegler by Mark Featherstone


Einstein’s Nightmare paints the device in such a way that encourages us to understand it in terms of closure towards slack-jawed apathy. Here, the mobile phone turns people into idiots. The McLuhanesque gadget lovers who inhabit the meme are caught in a closed loop of narcissistic, or autoerotic, self love. There is no social relation here. Instead, the principle of empty connectivity reigns and life is organised around the dictates of what Marcuse calls the “performance principle.”

– Mark Featherstone, Einstein’s Nightmare

Interesting essay by Mark Featherstone Einstein’s Nightmare: On Bernard Stiegler’s Techno-Dystopia on the work of Bernard Steigler on the futility of our culture of obsolescence in which everything is based on this sense of total isolation bounded by our narcissistic love of mediation rather than each other. Technological desire in a cultural soup of Lacanian lack where our techno-fix that must continually resupply itself with “one more thing” else fall into hyper-depressive apathy. Our fidelity to these technological gadgets becomes a sort of thumb-sucking, a teddy-bear complex that keeps the flesh at bay: our lives mediated by technology 24/7 in such a way that we need never touch each other again accept through our interfaces. Yet, the more we use these technological wonders the more addicted we become to the point that when they break or we become disconnected the nightmare ensues: we realize at last that we’ve become a part of that technological circuitry, a part of the hyper-functional machinic phylum. As he states it: “Essentially, this is what McLuhan means when he writes of the gadget lover’s connection to the object that narcotises him and allows him to escape from the anxiety of abandonment before the technological machine.”

In this universe of plug-n-play humans one wonders if the gadgets are using us instead of the other way round. Are we becoming mere bit players in a machinic economy of desire in which it’s the machines that have all the fun, and we are just the biopower that supplies them with the necessary feedback loops of energia. Are we after all ghosts in a cinematic inversion of The Matrix, slipping our red pills not to each other but to the inevitable blip of our next tweet? Suicide selfies, totem-raves, sling-shots into the light – ronin teens between the faltering byways of childhood and adulthood. Each of us wandering in a void of information that never had meaning to begin with and was always just an anonymous movement toward absorption beyond communication: a nihilistic dime novel only we could have written and enacted. David Cronenberg’s Videodrome come to take us home: a neuropathic relay into the far side of nothingness. Our eyes set with the latest google-implants, a military exegesis interface connecting us to the visual sphere of our final frontiers – the mediascapes of the future cannibalizing our imaginal lives and replacing ego with the impersonal will of capital. Hooked into the desiring semblance of commodity vision we merrily sit in our jetpack speed-suits like masters of the universe, not knowing that this is a one way trip to hell rather than the global paradise of technological desire.

It’s an interesting essay on Bernard Stiegler in which as he tells us Einstein’s Nightmare is largely Stiegler’s nightmare, and that the idea of a technological dystopia is at the center of Stiegler’s vision. Featherstone’s exploration of Steigler’s dystopian vision of an endless present conditioned by banality, poverty, and meaninglessness leads into that prevalent notion in Continental thought at the moment in such writers as Fraco Berardi and others that there is “literally no future, no possibility that anything will ever change or improve through the passage of time”. This notion that global capitalism has closed us all within a sphere of nullity – a ‘World Interior of Capital’ (Sloterdijk), a realm where the global commons is both prison and asylum is at the core of this technological dystopia. Featherstone’s thesis is, therefore, that Stiegler is the key thinker of the contemporary media age by virtue of his techno-dystopian vision of our immersion in mass media — his work throws the banality of our disaffection into relief and opens up a critical space for the reconstruction of valuable, durable objects that may re-enchant our dark world and save us from the horror of Einstein’s Nightmare.

I’m not at all sure anything can save us from our own entrapments anymore, we seem in thrall to both our capitalist desires and our auto-erotic fascination with our gadgets to ever wake up and realize there is even a nightmare from which we should disconnect ourselves. We’ve been captured by our own ancient drives in a circular wonderland of technology that seems self-perpetuating and completely bound for a universe of death. But, hey, who am I to disturb the sleepers?

Either way check it out: Mark Featherstone Einstein’s Nightmare: On Bernard Stiegler’s Techno-Dystopia 

Further notes:

Stiegler according to Featherstone, influenced by Heidegger, Derrida, Leroi-Gorhan, etc. came to the conclusion that humans like Plato suggests lack being, and because of this humanity invents itself by inventing technology. “Here, the human is nowhere until the invention of technology, which is the invention of time and space. At this point Stiegler tells us that we fall into technical time, which is also a thanatology, a being-towards-death, where the end has meaning, rather than being a blank moment where we simply start to cease to exist.” Yet, Featherstone seems to think that Stiegler also has a utopian and a dystopian view of technology and technics seeing in it a pros-thesis that leads “us into the future in ways that oppose blind necessity, determinism, and simple repetition”.

As he tells it the technological complex is based upon securing safety and security: a world organized around “order, organisation, rationalisation, and humanization”. Featherstone says we’ve been colonized by our technologies at the detriment of the human project: “Virilio calls endo-colonisation — the colonisation of the human by technological power in the form of what Foucault called biopolitical and Stiegler calls psychopolitical control”. Stiegler following Heidegger (and I would think the Frankfurt School) believes the rationality behind this is “instrumental reason” which is totally inhuman and blind to human wants and needs: that this is the driving force within technics as the essence of technology.

He seems to present Heidegger as a formalist, who affirms a hylomorphic vision that Deleuze and others will often critique. “Heidegger’s point is that humanity itself becomes part of the “standing reserve” of nature or being that is hammered into shape in the name of instrumental rationality.” This notion that we are “hammered” or molded is something Deleuze and Foucault will both address. Deleuze in his “Societies of Control”, etc. Following this notion of technology as death-drive and the destructive force of instrumental reason at its core in technics Steigler will, he tells us, that this is where the dystopian connection should be located in Steigler’s vision:

a nihilistic, futureless, landscape without real purpose, meaning, or hope. In his later works, which I propose to turn to in the following section of the article, he explains this hopeless situation in terms of the decadent society of the blank generation — the techno-dystopia of late, postmodern, neoliberal capitalism. (Featherstone)

Featherstone does mention Adorno and Horkheimer who explain in their many works that “the reason we consume is to fill out the lack or emotional void left by the sadism of the technological capitalist system that alienates, estranges, and objectifies us”. This sense that technics has entrapped us in a world of pure sadism seems pertinent to the militarization of video games in first-person shooters, and other violent enactments in MMO’s etc. So many of our current games studies in media theory bring this aspect out. I’ve played several MMO’s with nephew’s just to discover what it’s all about. One discovers that, yes, it can become addictive and almost bring one to the point of rage at times. Most of these types of games are hooked up to TeamSpeak of Ventrilo communities where people form “voice communities” that are full of young people and even out-of-work or injured/sick people who “have no lives” other than this. As part of my own work-in-progress I began studying this part of the techno-cultural complex for the past few years. For many of these individuals this is the only human contact of worth they receive is through messaging, voice, and other anonymous systems of communication.

It’s interesting that Stiegler will as Featherstone relates it present a theory in which our economy premised on desire has moved slowly toward a form of economy organised around drives: in “Stiegler’s account, this reign of drives, where there is no spiritual or symbolic meaning, is the limit of capitalism”. Featherstone tells us that Stiegler begins his theoretic by tracking our “progressive overcoming of limits”: first, through our consumer capitalism; and, second, technology and work become regulated by TV time as “work time organised in terms of brain capture”.  In this sense he tells us Steigler’s theory turns on a credit/debt society – one in which “neoliberal capitalism eroded delayed gratification and in doing so destroyed desire itself in a society of credit”, a terminal capitalism. A Terminal capitalism in one in which desire is delayed and canceled: first, “this cancellation of delay in gratification supports the general destruction of the spiritual and symbolic value of the object itself, which had taken hold through the turn to an instrumental rationality that only recognises zeroes and ones”; and, second, “the destruction of desire in drive where we have what we want now effectively cancels the authority of the superego that requires us to wait in the formation of a kind of addictogenic death drive asociety”. A world that Virilio calls “pure war, a society of disenchantment, cynicism, and despair, a wasted, hopeless, psychotic dystopia”.

He’ll follow Lacan telling us the social psychosis  is the “result of the collapse of the master signifier, which in turn leads to the collapse of the symbolic order that situates us in a reality mediated by signs, symbols, and meaningful objects”. Zizek’s many books reiterate this over and over. Against Stiegler’s minor key reading Featherstone will add a darker reading in which late capitalism is a “paranoid, martial spirit committed to violence, destruction, and ultimately suicide. Moreover, this is not directed or motivated violence, but rather the kind of blind rage that has been explored by Zizek, Badiou, and Sloterdijk in recent works”:

I would argue that this blind rage is not necessarily oppositional or transgressive in the context of the capitalist machine, because it is essentially an acting out of neoliberal ideology concerned with competition at all levels of existence. … I think that the new spirit of capitalism is the spirit of sadism, a violent spirit committed to punishing the other in order to secure supremacy, power, and ultimately the salvation of the self under extreme pressure from the posthuman technical system. (Featherstone)

Featherstone sees Stiegler’s vision as forming a totalistic police state globalized against the affectless generation of soulless beings that neoliberalism itself has engineered through its instrumentalism. “Ironically, because the asociety of the drive is the creation of the instrumental rationality of technics, this situation is beyond rationality.” We’ve all become part of a dissociation machine that produces as its ultimate effect a “state of systemic stupidity” – the blip culture of twitter, etc.:

Such individuals are proletarianised because their minds have been captured by the machine. Under condition of attention capture driven by the culture industry, there is no time to think; we become idiots and develop an addictogenic relation to the technical object. (Featherstone)

A new term for me at least is “hikikomori ” – which a friend of my Arran James mentioned recently, and which Featherstone mentions in this essay about these dissociated individuals because of our late capitalism:  “What results is thus an immobile, thoughtless, nihilistic rage, which has been seen in certain cases of hikikomori where isolation tips over into murderous violence.”

In the last section Featherstone relays to us Steigler’s plan of action to turn things around. I always find such reflections humorous only in the sense that the people in power who might implement such reforms are the very defenders of the mechanisms of neoliberalism that have captured us to begin with. Stiegler believes we need an institutional shift because there is “no parental authority in neoliberal capitalism”. Why would we need the Master-Signifier? Why a return to Oedipus? Why some great Super-ego to tyrannize over us? Isn’t the point that this power has moved inside, gone into invisibility, impersonalized itself in the empty Master-Signifier of the Network Society? We’ve moved beyond such external authority, and have internalized it both through our mediatization of control (Baudrillard, McLuhan, Kittler, etc), and also internalized the mechanisms of control through normative praxis (Political Correctness, and internal controls embedded in our thought processes, etc.).

As Featherstone recaps it in Stiegler’s universe of neoliberalism we’re caught in the net of a “suicidal society” with no future, and that we “must struggle to save our openness to change, which is, of course, based in our humanity, which is, in turn, rooted in our fundamental lack — our default”. He tells us that we must “find time and space in life for otium, or studious leisure, which is today absolutely subordinate to negotium, or calculation and necessity”. As Featherstone concludes this “is Stiegler’s utopia, the truly human environment made in meaningful objects, rather than the technological environment that debases humans and things in the creation of a wasteland, a techno-dystopia where nothing really matters”.

My problem with much of this is that many on the Left and Right have the critique of neoliberalism down pat, they all agree on the problems yet they all seem to come up with lukewarm utopian mythologies of peace and plenty if we will only do this or that… yet, the this and that are usually like the above a sort of moral fervor situated in a black hole of wishful thinking. Why? Why are we unable to ever come up with any truly concrete, detailed solutions? Why all this great critique of society but very little actual positive solutions? For Featherstone the final issue we face is that “we must come to terms with our own lack, because this lack, or what Stiegler calls “default,” is also the root of our imagination, creativity, and ability to make a future beyond Einstein’s Nightmare”.

Again, I must ask: are we truly made of emptiness, lack? Do we truly lack being? Is Plato right or do those like Deleuze/Guattari who see this whole tradition of metaphysical lack as itself the problem rather than the solution. Are they on to something after all? Will we be forever bound to this metaphysics of absence, of lack and un-being that forces us to desire more and more and more… a desire that can be captured by capitalism as consumption? Is desire based on lack or production? Are we truly missing something that forces us to desire objects to fill in this empty hold of being? Or do Deleuze/Guattari have a point that this whole “lack” business is what has caused us to be bound to such a merciless system to begin with? That maybe we should rethink “lack” and see that the human doesn’t lack being, but produces it… Most of those current philosophers from Badiou, Zizek, Johnston, Malabou, et. al. follow Lacan in this notion of “lack” as central to both political and social thought. Why? While their enemies seem to be followers of Deleuze: DeLanda, Bradiotti, Bennett, and others who all share a sense of the unconscious as productive, as lacking nothing. Who is right? Why is this becoming an issue? It does seem to be the central issue between the various speculative philosophies of the moment. Why is lack so central to our metaphysics?

It was Epictetus, who once said Cynic is one who lacks a house and property, with the exception of one poor cloak. He sleeps on the ground. He has neither a wife nor children to comfort him. Yet, despite lacking all this, the Cynic will claim to lack nothing: “What do I lack? Am I not quit of pain and fear, am I not free? When has any of you ever seen me failing to get what I will to get, or falling into what I will to avoid?”1 This sense of lacking nothing even in the midst of lacking everything material to support life is this strange positive power of being that lacks nothing.

Dio Chrysostom, a contemporary of Epictetus who has been described as “a Stoic in theory, a Cynic in practice,”17 says that Diogenes viewed himself as a physician for the soul. He would go wherever people had assembled, study their desires and ambitions, and by interacting with them, attempt to heal their corrupt souls. He might, for example, approach people who had come to watch an athletic competition and declare himself to be one of the competitors. When they ridiculed this claim and asked against whom he was competing, he would answer, “The noble man holds his hardships to be his greatest antagonists, and with them he is ever wont to battle day and night.” The hardships in question include hunger, exile, and the loss of reputation, as well as anger, pain, desire, and fear.

The noble man also battles against pleasure, which, Diogenes observed, “uses no open force but deceives and casts a spell with baneful drugs, just as Homer says Circe drugged the comrades of Odysseus.” Pleasure “hatches no single plot but all kinds of plots, and aims to undo men through sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch, with food too, and drink and carnal lust, tempting the waking and the sleeping alike.”  It is pleasure, he warned us, that “with a stroke of her wand . . . cooly drives her victim into a sort of sty and pens him up, and now from that time forth the man goes on living as a pig or a wolf.” Most men lose their battle against pleasure, since “it is impossible to dwell with pleasure or even to dally with her for any length of time without being completely enslaved.” “This,” Diogenes concluded, “is the contest which I steadfastly maintain, and in which I risk my life against pleasure and hardship, yet not a single wretched mortal gives heed to me, but only to the jumpers and runners and dancers” of the nearby competitions.  (Irvine p. 266)

So for Diogenes it is not desire and lack, but pleasure itself that drives humans to commodity fetishism – to see all those things that will give them pleasure. Capitalism drives you toward sensual pleasures that will gratify and titillate your erogenous zones not your desires; and, even if those pleasures become perverse as in sadism and masochism they are still pleasurable pain or – jouissance. Yet, it is not out of lack but out of plenty that we are driven.

Mark Fisher in Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative? would define depressive hedonia this way:

Depression is usually characterized as a state of anhedonia, but the condition I’m referring to is constituted not by an inability to get pleasure so much as it by an inability to do anything else except pursue pleasure. There is a sense that ‘something is missing’ – but no appreciation that this mysterious, missing enjoyment can only be accessed beyond the pleasure principle.2

This sense of a compulsive pleasure-seeking that is incapable of satisfaction, an impulse to always spend, become intoxicated, check emails and social network websites incessantly in order to fend off the insatiable bother of boredom belongs to this late capitalism or Capital realism Fisher describes. But is this because we lack something, or is it like Diogenes said because we are pleasure seeking animals?

Such poets as Wallace Stevens will follow Plato:

The philosopher desires

And not to have is the beginning of desire.
To have what is not is its ancient cycle …

It knows that what it has is what is not
And throws it away like a thing of another time,
As morning throws off stale moonlight and shabby sleep.

(WALLACE STEVENS, “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction”)

Again, this sense that we’re missing something essential in our being that drives us to desire, that allows capitalism to capture our desires and channel them into that “throws it away like a thing of another time” attitude, of always on to the next thing, something better over the hill, another toy, another product, something out there to fill in this emptiness at the heart of my being. But is this so? Or just a fantastic lie we’ve all come to believe? As Diogenes lamented “the contest which I steadfastly maintain, and in which I risk my life against pleasure and hardship, yet not a single wretched mortal gives heed to me, but only to the jumpers and runners and dancers”. Are there other voices in this tradition who go against the wisdom of Plato?

I must find out…. this is important.

1. Irvine, William B. (2005-11-01). On Desire: Why We Want What We Want (pp. 265-266). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
2. Fisher, Mark (2012-08-07). Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative? (Zero Books) (pp. 21-22). NBN_Mobi_Kindle. Kindle Edition.

3 thoughts on “Einstein’s Nightmare: Essay on Bernard Stiegler by Mark Featherstone

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s