Technologies of Memory: On Reading Stiegler

Bernard Stiegler is an acquired taste, not a pop-artist star like a Slavoj Zizek, Stiegler’s work belongs to a world where philosophy, philology, and technology interpenetrate the human animal. The more I read him the less I know. It’s as if one needs a dictionary of terminology that splices together all the many technical appropriations of terms from Greek, Latin, and other languages that needs to be open beside you to get through some of his thick and opaque texts. Even he seems to understand this at times, as if the teacher in him wakes up and realizes the terminology is no longer conveying meaning, but is rather depleting it, eliminating, and subtracting meaning word by word as he writes it: it’s as if in following his mentor Derrida that his complete oeuvre were “under erasure”. Instead of presence we find the unbound abyss of absence, each word assembled moment by moment with some technical meaning that once used will slip away into the silence never to be heard from again.

I’ve attached a paragraph below which begins:

“Through the industrial expropriation mnemo-technologies, that is, through retentional systems that are the technical supports required by all psychic and collective individuation, the twentieth century optimized the conditions of production and consumption by linking them tightly together.”

Years ago reading Merlin Donald’s Origins of the Human Mind, where he describes a three-stage externalization process of memory involving technics and technology one came across much of the same territory. During the first stage, Merlin reports, our bipedal but still apelike ancestors acquired “mimetic” skill – the ability to represent knowledge through voluntary motor acts – which made Homo erectus successful for over a million years. The second transition – to “mythic” culture – coincided with the development of spoken language. This cognitive advance allowed the large-brained Homo sapiens to evolve a complex preliterate culture that survives in many parts of the world today. In the third transition, when humans constructed elaborate symbolic systems ranging from cuneiforms, hieroglyphics, and ideograms to alphabetic languages and mathematics, human biological memory became an inadequate vehicle for storing and processing our collective knowledge. The modern mind is thus a hybrid structure built from vestiges of earlier biological stages as well as new external symbolic memory devices that have radically altered its organization.

Stiegler does the same but uses his understanding of language, memory, and technics to elaborate a theory of grammatization (Derrida), along with Simondon’s notions of psychic and collective indviduation. What’s most interesting for me is that he treats this whole process as if humanity has been incorporated into this external memory system as part of some ongoing project in which humans are only the servants and helpmates of some larger encompassing technical process. This is where it gets touchy. Is he bound to a telos?

In an essay for Technicity he tells us:

“Human memory is originally exteriorised. Straight away, this means that it is technical. It first takes on the form of a lithic tool two million years ago. As a spontaneously created support for memory, however, the lithic tool is not made in order to store memory: it is not until late Palaeolithic times that mnemotechniques in the true sense of the word will appear. These are the mythograms of a society steeped in magic, a society to which the Australian aboriginal churinga is a recent witness, as are tattoos on the body of a witch-doctor and the knotted cord of native American Indians. The writings at the origin of the first handwritten texts, which only appear after the Neolithic Era, give us the alphabet— which is still responsible today for organising the agenda of the business executive. From here on, this calendary object is an appliance: the Personal Digital Assistant. Thus, we have gone from mnemotechniques to mnemotechnologies.”1

Technicity is defined as this process of human creation of technology, brings with it the reciprocal notion that these very innovations of externalization and prosthesis in turn have shaped humanity into our present form. Yet, what seems to be happening now is that we as humans seem to be losing our knowledge as well: “These cognitive technologies, to which we devote an ever-increasing part of our memory, also make us lose more and more of our knowledge.

Losing knowledge as we externalize memory feeds into that original insight of Nietzsche termed the completion of nihilism, an age not only when all external value systems would finally crumble, but also a time when humans would forget themselves and become Other than what they are… shall we term this the Age of Forgetting

Stiegler would say of it: “We thus have pure cognitive labour power utterly devoid of knowledge: with cognitive technologies, it is the cognitive itself which has been proletarianized. In this consists, then, cognitive capitalism, also known as ‘creative’ or ‘immaterial’ capitalism. And this is concretely expressed in the fact that the cognitive has been reduced to calculability – logos has become, pharmacologically and economically, ratio.”

The point of this is that we’ve become so dependent on our external memory devices (i.e., mobile phones, tablets, computing devices, data centers, etc.) that if we lose or misplace these devices our lives become immersed in loss: we no longer memorize phone numbers, addresses, people’s descriptors, appointments, etc.. As Stiegler states it,

“These cognitive technologies, to which we devote an ever-increasing part of our memory, also make us lose more and more of our knowledge. Mislaying a mobile phone is equivalent to losing track of the numbers of the people one is in contact with and realising that they are no longer in one’s own memory, but in the device itself. And we must here stop and ask ourselves if the industrial and large-scale development of mnemotechnologies does not constitute a structural loss of memory, or, more exactly, a displacement of that memory: a displacement by means of which memory can turn into an object of knowledge control, and form the essentially mnemotechnological base of those societies of control … that Gilles Deleuze started to theorise towards the end of his life.”

The point here is that as we give up our internal memories, become dependent on external sources of memory in our lives we are at the mercy of external systems of control who can allow or disallow access to this data, destroy it, or encode it into technical linguistic signs that become markers that follow and control your virtual/actual behavior and existence. As Stiegler says: “For this knowledge that escapes us seems to induce “human obsolescence,” which finds itself thereby more and more deprived, as if hollowed out from the inside.”

He brings up the slow process of automation that since the rise of assembly lines in early Fordist capitalism, to our current movement to automate driverless cars that will obsolesce cab drivers, to many other technologies that will depend on external databases and logics to control their behavior, the human body is losing its functional capabilities, and along with it the mind itself. Humans are being made obsolete by the very creations and inventions we once hoped for and cherished as modern conveniences. As Stiegler will say of this process,

The more we delegate the assumption of the series of little tasks which make up the framework of our lives to devices and to modern industrial services, the more futile we become: the more we lose not only our know-how, [savoir-faire] but also our savoir-vivre— and with that the little pleasures that make life worth living. We end up only fit to consume indiscriminately, without the pleasures that knowledge alone can provide— as if we were impotent. We become disabled, if not obsolete— if it is true that it is knowledge that gives us the power to be human. (ibid.)

Bernard Stiegler – Anamnēsis and Hypomnēsis: The memories of desire:

The question which is addressed to us today on the subject of a politics of memory is therefore that of a politics of desire, that is to say, of a political economy of the unconscious. The unconscious is what connects bodies to tertiary retentions and hypomnesic supports, constituting the body as a technical power, in other words, as a power of the imagination, as a power of phantasy. To think today about the question of memory— insofar as it is originally exteriorised and allows us at one and the same time to intensify individuation and to produce disindividuation by loss of knowledge and by proletarianisation— is to reformulate a hypomnesic and anamnesic concept of the general economy of knowledge insofar as the latter is a manifestation of the libido.

In our time— such is the eminently strange and disturbing character of contemporary capitalism— we see that knowledge is destroyed, and thereby the libido, by an exteriorisation that enables both the control and the intensification of drives to the detriment of the libidinal economy, in other words, of anamnēsis. The mimetic, gregarious and drive-led nature of consumer capitalism reactivates the technics of the Sophists at an incomparably more powerful and dangerous level, which is that of the veritable grammatisation of desire itself. This constitutes a limit towards which capitalism obviously tends. If nothing comes to alter this state of affairs, capitalism will end in collapse and self-destruction.

From this moment on, we must set up research programmes into the hypomnesic economy of desire that numerical media make possible: such forms of media are carriers of anamnesic as well as hypomnesic possibilities of individuation and transindividuation that are hitherto completely unknown. The task is to think these numerical hypomnēmata and the new forms of otium that can appear within them, and thus to found a new political economy of memory and desire.1

Notes on anamnēsis and hypomnēsis:

In the Meno and other texts, Plato institutes a now infamous opposition between the Socratic “recollection” of the immortal soul, called ἀνάμνησις (anamnēsis), and the artificial or technical supplement to memory, called ὑπόμνησις (hypomnēsis). It is with this entirely unprecedented opposition that western metaphysics and, arguably, western philosophy more generally, comes into existence. To Plato’s way of thinking, thought is nothing other than the act of the immortal soul remembering itself once again. On the one side, then, we have thought, the infinite, the transcendental and something called “philosophy.” On the other, however, we have artifice, finitude, the empirical and something called “technicity.” Yet what happens to the finite world— with all its inherent contingency, variability and fallibility— when the immortal soul recollects itself? If thought is defined as the recollection of immortality, then finitude, contingency and technology are, as Bernard Stiegler has argued, thereby consigned to the darkness of the unthought: true anamnēsis apparently has no need of the sophistical or technical supplement that is hypomnēsis.

Turn the Tables on Techno-Commercialists

I have to admit that for me what Stiegler sees as horror and loss, I see as an opportunity for a greater freedom of knowledge. Let me explain. He goes back to the argument that Socrates makes (Plato) where in the Phaedrus— that the exteriorization of memory is a loss of both memory and knowledge— is what, today, we experience on a daily basis, in all aspects of our existence and more and more often in our feeling of impotence, if not disability.1

But I wonder why we should feel impotent? One of the benefits of externalizing memory is that it allows us to develop other brain processes that up to now have been bound and restricted to memory techniques. Think of all those Art of Memory techniques developed over centuries that culminated in those memory palaces such as Matteo Ricci. He used a the method of loci (loci being Latin for “places”) is a method of memory enhancement which uses visualizations with the use of spatial memory, familiar information about one’s environment, to quickly and efficiently recall information. The method of loci is also known as the memory palace or mind palace technique.

Instead of internalizing all these advanced systems of memory we are now free to explore external sources of memory, which entails a new advance: the need for better forms of discovery and retrieval of data. We hear the term Big Data analytics all the time… and, yes, we seem to be bound to the notion of techno-commercial use of data rather than human learning, we seem caught up on machine learning techniques instead.

But shy not turn these machinic processes to good use, invent a ethics of learning, not morality; but, instead a new educational system based on not acquiring knowledge per se, but rather in solving problems, inventing concepts that can be put to work for us in solving social, economic, political, and environmental problems. We balk at critiquing capitalism so much without ever turning the tables and reappropriating these technologies for emancipatory projects.

Why is that? Why do we spend so much time repeating the same critiques of capitalism over and over again from various perspectives, with new iterations of concepts, etc., but in the end a fruitless task that gets us no closer to actually solving real problems in our societies and singular lives?

Instead we need to turn the tables, retake the cognitive lead, and develop these systems as vehicles of emancipation rather than as systems of control. Maybe in the end the Left needs to put their thought to work rather than critique…

I’ll have to return to this…

  1. Armand, Louis; Bradley, Arthur; Zizek, Slavoj; Stiegler, Bernard; Miller, J. Hillis; Wark, McKenzie; Amerika, Mark; Lucy, Niall; Tofts, Darren; Lovink, Geert. Technicity (Kindle Locations 319-326). Litteraria Pragensia. Kindle Edition.