Bernard Stiegler: Digital Democracy and Re-Individuation


Bernard Stiegler tells us the Sophists of ancient Athens implemented a practice of writing that no longer aimed to increase the individual and collective critical capacity of that social group known as the polis, but, on the contrary, short-circuited this critical activity, and enabled the Sophists to manipulate thinking—that is, to prevent thinking. Because to think is always to think  for oneself, whereas Sophistic writing consisted in spreading received ideas, commonplaces (topoi) that were all the more dangerous in that they granted the illusion of thinking to those of whom they took hold, at the very moment that they in fact prevented them from thinking. This engenders what can then be called stupidity.

We live in such a time when the doxa of opinion polls permeates the minds of democratic electoral. People no longer think for themselves, but rather accept the opinions of quacks and sophists, talking heads and mediatainment morons for their daily quota of meagre thought. Can we even call it thought? Rather we should term is manufactured stupidity, for that’s the actual truth one gets out of media blip culture. What Stiegler will term the media culture, or Zizek the symbolic order are machines of false memories and thoughts; ideological mirrors for fabricated knowledge scripted behind the scenes to manipulate and twist the minds of their viewers, persuade them with the validity of their products; in this case, the Candidate as Product of Capitalist Media-Buzz.

Media bring both remedy and poison, as we begin to depend on our digital devices more and more, we grow passive, externalizing our memories, our thoughts, our lives. As Stiegler will say: “This technical exteriorization of my memory can lead to its weakening, to its atrophy, and eventually to the destruction of this  psychic  memory that is the foundation of the capacity to think for oneself—that is, of the capacity to think full stop.”

Most of the people in my own country do not read books, newspapers, etc., they do not, for the most part, have the capacity to think much less think-for-themselves about issues beyond the immediate pay check or survival from month to month for themselves and their families. Most of my fellow countrymen exist in a bubble of false memory and culture, manipulated by systems and technics that have entrapped them in a world of fictions and beliefs that have replaced real community and life, and given them instead death and economic hell. But because they are so dependent on this system of desire that promises them the moon and delivers them a hollowed out world of bare subsistence they no longer no where to turn.

Most of these people despise academics, see the intellectual as an enemy rather than a possible way out of their hell holes. These are people that have been taught that the Left is some kind of socialist nightmare from which monstrous tyranny brews harsh worlds of holocaust or Siberian death-camps. Yes, these people go to Sunday school, live down the street from you, mind their own business, go to the bar nightly, have fights, love whores, kick the shit out of their kids, and generally have a hollow sense that life left them behind. These are the one’s Nietzsche described as bound deeply within the realm of resentiment and anger, and anger that’s been festering for years in the racist backwaters of white power imbeciles. Biding its time for one such as Trump to come along, one they could believe in, one they could count on to do their bidding, open a door, make a crack in the cultural monopoly systems.

Many on the Left laugh at it eerily, as if it were all a joke, a nihilist shtick, a sick and festering open wound of a populace that doesn’t have a chance in hell to take the country. Sadly, its that kind of overconfidence that has allowed this to happen to begin with. Instead of building a country of educated citizens, we’ve allowed neo-liberal regimes calling themselves by the term Democrat and Republican – for, to tell the truth, it is a minor difference between the two on the economic and political scene, only the minor blemish of rhetoric’s and a few enactments separates the real power of these regimes. Both support the actual power of Banks, Wall-Street, and the corruption of lobbying, etc. Both parties have sold their souls to moneyed regimes. The game is a sordid one without any sign of ending. And we still think it can change… maybe, I’m too much the pessimist anymore, but I do not think Hilary, even if she wins is going to change things for the better. I think she will bring more and more of the type of corruption she has been known for.

As for Trump. Not much to say: an extreme socio-pathic narcissist. A man whose only care is himself, everything else follows from there.

Stiegler speaks of André Leroi-Gourhan who showed that it was through the exteriorization of their memories that human beings were able to accumulate individual experiences transmissible from generation to generation, thereby forming that collective memory we call culture: this memory is technics. This is Mnemotechnics, or memory technologies, which in our age pervade the digital divide, and act as a two-edged sword that can bring a potential emancipation and what Gilbert Simondon spoke of as ‘individuation’ to the collective general intelligence of humans, or it can be used to circumvent that and dis-individuate and trap humans in a short-circuited world of simulacrum and false semblances rather than knowledge and truth, etc.

As Stiegler tells it:

“All this proceeds from the pharmakon that, always and irreducibly,  both individuates (produces individuation, increases of the potential to act) and dis-individuates (produces dis-individuation, deprivations of the potential to act). In this regard, we, men and women of the twenty-first century, find ourselves in a very particular situation, of which I shall here draw attention, essentially, to two aspects.(46)

Most of the people you talk to everyday of your life are no longer individuals in the old liberal sense, people have been de-individualized to the point that they are mere simulacrum of humans. Our consumerist society is so manipulated that the ubiquity of our dependency on external systems goes unnoticed and unregistered on the radar of most thinkers. We take people at face value, thinking they are human, that they have thoughts of their own, but we’ve become lazy, we’ve become so used to the mutation that has been going on for a century that we accept it. And, must I add, that we, too, should look in the mirror and ask the question: “Are my thoughts my own? Am I able to think for myself?”

Yet, with the rise of the digital economies, and the world of financialization the consumerist era is coming to an end as we’ve known it according to Stiegler. As he suggests digital society “is the bearer of a social organization no longer founded on Fordist consumerism, but instead on the economy of contribution”. And, yet, we must he believes introduce a new general organalogy if we are to re-individuate humans and once again create a viable democratic society. As he states it a general organology is a method of making scientific disciplines work together in relation to three spheres of individuation:

  1. psychosomatic individuals (a psychic individual always has a body, and its “psychism” is inseparable from the organs of its body, the brain, heart, kidneys,
    etc., the neuro-vegetative system, perceptual organs, and so on);
  2. technical individuals (a technical system links together artificial organs each one of which is dependent on the others—a technical object never functions on its own, just as, for example, a brain cannot function without the heart, since it needs to be irrigated by blood, whereas a smartphone needs to be fed either by an
    electrical network or by a photovoltaic battery—these artificial organs equipping psychosomatic organs: a pair of glasses equips a pair of eyes, a bicycle equips
    the moving body, writing equips memory, and the sharpened flint characterizes the first hominid);
  3. collective individuals, which form social organizations (social systems that have as a goal to make compatible and efficient the connections between physiological
    organology and technological organology). (48-48)

For Stiegler it is through the implementation of this dual approach (pharmacological and organological) that reticular society, network society, will be able to confront the
collapse of the consumerist model and implement an economy of contribution that is also an economy of the reconstitution of knowledge, that is, of the struggle against the processes of proletarianization that the pharmakon tends to spread to “all levels of society.” (49)

I’m not sure I buy into his optimistic take on the new digital and financialization of society. Reading Bratton’s The Stack and other works of late I tend toward the notion that the powers of Big Data, Surveillance capitalism, and the nefarious cooption of technics and technology under neoliberal regimes will continue unabated within the digital just as they have in our consumerist societies. Only time will tell…

  1. Stiegler, Bernard. Digital Bearer of Another Society. Digital Transformation Review (July, 2011)



3 thoughts on “Bernard Stiegler: Digital Democracy and Re-Individuation

  1. Great post. Thank you. Perhaps cathartic to reader and writer.

    Another interesting article below (for me) around Socratic “pharmakon teleotaton” – the living word of knowledge that is “graven in the soul.” Swapping out one letter produces variant “pharmakos” (“scapegoat”).

    To me, thematic red pill reality versus blue pill simulacrum produces ambivalence. The writer or the heroic protagonist achieves individuation and saves both red and blue pill members from the machine. However humans created the machine, and they knew simulacrum was coming. They created it, wrote books and movies about it. Their holy books prophesied it. Therefore it already happened. There was no way of preventing it from happening again even though they were warned. Eternal return.

    If evolution is real, pre-humans were eating each other alive. Rome reinforced the vague memory of transubstantiation through communal ritual and state violence. Tragedy is the song of the goat man.

    If evolution is real, then the dominant world government with its all-pervasive technological advance has earned the right through might to rule Team Blue Pill. Apex predators may have a need to feed psychologically – may feed off of negative energy. Tyranny must satisfy a need just like heroic rebellion, two halves of the same whole.

    Organisms emerge, grow, peak, decay, perhaps reproduce and evolve if there is no extinction event. Nietzsche: “all higher values must devalue themselves” (decay). Pessimistically we are probably witnessing sociological decay, however most would disagree. Optimistically we are building an altruistic new world order.

    The machine is either half empty or half full.

    “Derrida’s “Pharmakon”

    “In Plato’s Phaedrus, the Egyptian god of writing—Theuth or Thoth—offers King Thamus writing as a “remedy” (“pharmakon”) that can help memory. Thamus refuses the gift on the grounds that it will only create forgetfulness: for him, it is not a remedy for memory itself, but merely a way of reminding. Writing is thus a “poison” (“pharmakon”). In his reading of the Phaedrus, Derrida focuses on the “pharmakon”—which can also mean philtre, drug, recipe, charm, medicine, substance, spell, artificial colour, and paint—as that which produces a flickering and disorienting play in conceptual/ philosophical oppositions: remedy/ poison, good/ bad, true/ false, positive/ negative, interior/ exterior. According to Derrida, the pharmakon of writing itself cannot be reduced to the series of oppositional concepts that it precedes and produces (see Dissemination 103).”

    “The pharmakon is thus particularly useful for thinking about writing as something that is essentially ambivalent and irreducible to simple conceptual/ philosophical binary oppositions: ironically, having dismissed writing as a mere image, Socrates in the Phaedrus tries to counteract the pharmakon of “writing” with his most effective medicine (pharmakon teleotaton)—the living word of knowledge that is “graven in the soul.” Socrates can counteract pharmakon with pharmakon, says Derrida, only because of the essential ambivalence of the pharmakon of writing which already bears its own “opposite” within itself (since it is already both poison and cure): “The ‘essence’ of the pharmakon lies in the way in which, having no stable essence, no ‘proper’ characteristics, it is not, in any sense (metaphysical, physical, chemical, alchemical) of the word, a substance…It is rather the prior medium in which differentiation in general is produced” (Dissemination, 125-6).”

    “If the pharmakon is ‘ambivalent,’ it is because it constitutes the medium in which opposites are opposed, the movement and the play that links them among themselves, reverses them or makes one side cross over into the other (soul/ body, good/ evil, inside/ outside, memory/ forgetfulness, speech/ writing, etc.).…The pharmakon is the movement, the locus, and the play: (the production of) difference. It is the différance of difference. It holds in reserve, in its undecided shadow and vigil, the opposites and the differends that the process of discrimination will come to carve out. Contradictions and pairs of opposites are lifted from the bottom of this diacritical, differing, deferring, reserve. Already inhabited by différance, this reserve, even though it ‘precedes’ the opposition between different effects, even though it preexists differences as effects, does not have the punctual simplicity of a coincidentia oppositorum. It is from this fund that dialectics draws its reserves” (Dissemination 127).”

    “The translation of the pharmakon as “remedy” is not simply “incorrect”: it is always going to be partial, missing the mark: “Such an interpretative translation is thus as violent as it is impotent: it destroys the pharmakon but at the same time forbids itself access to it, leaving it untouched in its reserve. The translation by remedy can thus be neither accepted nor simply rejected” (Dissemination 99).

    Girard connects the pharmakon to the arbitrary and generative violence that is turned on the scapegoat (“pharmakos”) in order to establish or create an ordered community: “

    “Philosophy, like tragedy, can at certain levels serve as an attempt at expulsion, an attempt perpetually renewed because never wholly successful. This point, I think, has been brilliantly demonstrated by Jacques Derrida in his essay “La Pharmacie de Platon.” He sets out to analyze Plato’s use of the pharmakon. The Platonic pharmakon functions like the human pharmakos and leads to similar results.…All difference in doctrines and attitudes is dissolved in violent reciprocity, is secretly undermined by the…somewhat naïve use of pharmakon. This use polarizes the maleficent violence on a double, who is arbitrarily expelled from the philosophical community.…Derrida’s analysis demonstrates in striking fashion a certain arbitrary violence of the philosophic process as it occurs in Plato, through the mediation of a word that is indeed appropriate since it really designates an earlier, more brutal variant of the same arbitrary violence.” (VS 296).”

    “Jacques Derrida. “Plato’s Pharmacy,” Dissemination (trans. Barbara Johnson. London: The Athlone Press, 1981), 61-172.:

    “René Girard. Violence and the Sacred (trans. Patrick Gregory. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977).”

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