The Madness of Information: Stiegler, Pharmakon, Therapeutics?

information-overload

 

Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their
common sense.
……….—Gertrude Stein, “Reflection on the Atomic Bomb” (1946)

It is a very sad thing that nowadays there is so little useless information.
……….—Oscar Wilde, “A Few Maxims for the Instruction of the
Over-Educated” (1894)

F. T. Marinetti in his epochal 1909 “Futurist Manifesto,” (in)famously quipped:
“Time and space died yesterday.” Paul Virilio derided this collapse of the timespace continuum into a virtual world of excessive information, saying,

“There are eyes everywhere. No blind spot left. What shall we dream of when everything becomes visible? We’ll dream of being blind.” (The Vision Machine)

Virilio would also prophesy that the “…reconciliation of nothing and reality and the suspension of time and space by high velocities replace the exoticism of journeys with a vast expanse of emptiness.” (The Information Bomb) Those who index such things tell us that 1 exabyte corresponds a 50,000 year–long  video of DVD quality, and that in our time of Big Data we’ve accumulated over 12 exabytes. Might take a while to watch that movie. One can do the math. Information has exceeded the reach of human capacity to either manage it or master it, now begins the age of those vast systems or machinic intelligences humans are creating to do what we cannot: organize the data of the world, build artificial models that seem ready to replace reality; and, if not replace it, at least supplement it with more information that reality in its sheer indifference and blankness maintains. More data has been created and stored since the turn of millennium than in the entire history of humanity. The metaphors for the phenomenon—flood, torrent, tsunami, overflow, glut, inundation, saturation—are consistently liquid.1

Samuel R. Delaney in a famous science fiction novel Dhalgren once suggested that “more words may not necessarily mean that we will have access to more worlds”. Bernard Steigler tells us that the pervasive blanket of technological and highly sophisticated information and communications systems that ubiquitously cover our planet in a vast and seething multiplicity of networks are making us forgetful, inattentive, and, even – dare we say victims of a modern dis-ease, an anxiety and hyperactive impulsivity that diagnosticians term ADHD (” attention deficit hyperactivity disorder”). People with this disorder seem disorganized, lack focus, messy, inattentive, forget appointments and other daily activities, distracted by almost any noise or event that others never notice. Generally someone with such a disorder is prone to talk a lot, interrupt others, finish other people’s sentences, telegraph information, lose interest quickly, fidget, get up and move around, spend a great deal of time climbing, cycling, swimming, etc.; a life that is the opposite of sedentary. It wasn’t until late in life that I understood that this mirrored exactly my own situation in life. Took me years to realize this. Growing up in the fifties and sixties such medical sciences if known were probably not wide spread.

One of the first observers of this disorder that wouldn’t receive an appellation till 2000  was given by Sir Alexander Crichton in 1798:

The morbid alterations to which attention is subject, may all be reduced under the two following heads:

First. The incapacity of attending with a necessary degree of constancy to any one object.

Second. A total suspension of its effects on the brain.

The incapacity of attending with a necessary degree of constancy to any one object, almost always arises from an unnatural or morbid sensibility of the nerves, by which means this faculty is incessantly withdrawn from one impression to another. It may be either born with a person, or it may be the effect of accidental diseases.

When born with a person it becomes evident at a very early period of life, and has a very bad effect, inasmuch as it renders him incapable of attending with constancy to any one object of education. But it seldom is in so great a degree as totally to impede all instruction; and what is very fortunate, it is generally diminished with age. (Crichton, 1798, reprint p. 203)

In this short description of the first alteration of attention, Crichton gives several indications that he was depicting the same disorder as defined in the current DSM-IV-TR criteria of ADHD. His characterization of the disorder as “the incapacity of attending with a necessary degree of constancy to any one object” is consistent with the second symptom of criterion A1, Inattention: the “difficulty sustaining attention in tasks or play activities” (American Psychiatric Association 2000).

Coming back to Stiegler, he would add that this symptomatology stems from Information Overload, and he would even go so far as to say this destruction of attention is a particular case, and an especially serious  one, of the destruction of libidinal energy whereby the capitalist economy self-destructs. For Stiegler a number of modern and narratives coalesce in this passage: the mass media is envisioned as a predatory organism, and technocratic capitalism is seen as essentially at odds with the genuine acquisition of knowledge and experience. Technology in this model essentially holds out innumerable lures that distract us from our real desires. Stiegler would see this as part of an accelerating world that is rapidly shaping our lives by technology to the point of destruction, that of capitalism’s “creative destruction” (Schumpeter) process is taking a severe toll on individual psyches, as well as exacerbating unequal patterns of information distribution globally.

One aspect of this is that in the first phase of modernism artistic expression went from full figural expression to the point of an ultra anti-representationalism or completed from of abstractionism. We saw this within the sciences, especially in the demise of the classic mode of physics culminating in Einstein’s relativity theory, and its implosion into the simulated worlds of quantum mechanics as abstraction manifest. We saw art explode after Marcel Duchamp’s “ready mades” brought the mundane world of toilets and reality into the frame. After Duchamp art would become media and commercialized in Benjamin’s “age of reproduction” until it would enter its moment of ironic parody in the Campbell Soup paintings era of Andy Warhol. The phases of mediation of humans went from telegraph, radio, tv, …n, till now we’ve ubiquitously partnered with our image making sound and light machines in iPads, iPhones, da da da…, lost within our mazes of google, facebook, blogospheres, tweeter snips, etc.

Next came the postmodern assault of ‘essence’ or the Subject. What of course they meant by that after Nietzsche’s the ‘Death of God’ came the ‘Death of the Subject’ is the notion that the liberal subject as originary, of essence, of pre-existing the body, the mind, the world etc. of the immortal soul, the supreme identity and carrier of meaning -from as Christians would say, “before the creation of the world”. This notion of the Subject as origin is dead, but that did not mean the Subject would vanish and disappear, instead the new subject would become in Simondan’s words the ‘individuatied’ Subject, a construction or as Stiegler is fond of saying, it “consists”.  In order to come into its own requisite consistency and in order to form coherent thought, it must posit for itself a unity and synthesize an identity and a single self-consciousness within the flux of which it consists. Out of this flux, out of the variety of empirical consciousness, consciousness “can and must” search for its unity-to-come, as Stiegler puts it above. So, with the varying tools of montage—re-activating, ordering, manipulating, interpreting—and animated precisely by a sort of existential desire essential to consciousness-as-self, consciousness projects for itself both a past and a future.2 (Hughes)

As Stiegler himself will say, ”

For me, the subject or subjectivation is something that is produced in an originally heteronomous process. But one can very well imagine a critique that relies on a heteronomous origin and really that’s what I’m trying to do. But, from a certain point of view that is what Kant was already saying: that an absolutely free critique is not
possible, or in the way I myself am trying to say it today, specifically not on the basis
of what Derrida calls ‘the supplement’ or what I call ‘tertiary retention’. (ibid., 170)

One aspect of Stiegler’s pharmacological project has been the great transformation underway in the mutation of humanity within digital networks, as he says what is happening is as great as what happened in ancient Greece with the appearance of its writing system. It is a technology of absolutely and radically new processes of collective and psychic individuation, processes with a capacity to absorb all other technologies of individuation: writing is absorbed, cinema is absorbed, absolutely everything is absorbed and reconfigured. As such it is very urgent to elaborate a critique of the political economy in that situation. (ibid., 173) In some ways Stiegler seems to be in alignment with the ancient Greek notion of Paideia or education, and as he suggests one of his goals is to create a federation of universities through which I want to create and develop an international laboratory, not only for students but also for research directors who agree to a networked research programme, as is done separately in universities worldwide, over three, four or five years. …  the goal is really to become a centre of resources on pharmacology, on pharmacological questions. (ibid. 174-175)

Conclusion

A human being takes in far more information than he or she can put out.
“Stupidity” is a process or strategy by which a human, in response to
social denigration of the information she or he puts out, commits him-
or herself to taking in no more information than she or he can put out.
(Not to be confused with ignorance, or lack of data.)

—Samuel Delany, Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand

Stiegler tells us he is neither optimistic nor pessimistic, that neither of these modes of being are viable, that his theory and practice of pharmacological organology describe the fact that the appearance of a new pharmakon at first always creates a negative epokhē, a destruction of all  constituted circuits of transindividuation, of all knowledge of how to live (savoir-vivre); at first this makes people more stupid: the appearance of a new  pharmakon always produces stupidity. In our age it has produced an enormous quantity of stupidity, not just a little stupidity but a colossal amount, but this is structural and normal. The current political battle is to open up a new era which I call the second epokhality of the pharmakon, of the pharmakon itself. (ibid. 180-181)

Pharmakon, in philosophy and critical theory, is a composite of three meanings: remedy, poison, and scapegoat. The first and second senses refer to the everyday meaning of pharmacology (and to its sub-field, toxicology), deriving from the Greek source term φάρμακον (phármakon), denoting any drug, while the third sense refers to the pharmakos ritual of human sacrifice. In recent philosophical work, the term centers on Jacques Derrida’s “Plato’s Pharmacy”, and the notion that writing is a pharmakon. Whereas a straightforward view on Plato’s treatment of writing (in Phaedrus) suggests that writing is to be rejected as strictly poisonous to the ability to think for oneself in dialog with others (i.e. to anamnesis), Bernard Stiegler argues that “the hypomnesic appears as that which constitutes the condition of the anamnesic“—in other words, externalised time-bound communication is necessary for original creative thought, in part because it is the primordial support of culture.

In our time as Stiegler says of Deleuze’s notions of thinking as creative act, “this experience of stupidity, and here Deleuze is very important because he says that ‘only stupidity can make us think (faire penser) or give rise to thinking (donner à penser)’ (ibid., 181)”. For Stiegler this notion of stupidity as engendering thought rather than knowledge is important, because “in this second epoch the battle against stupidity will produce a pharmacological critique that will itself engender a new therapy” (ibid. 181).

Another aspect of his pharmacological organology is his notion that what he’s creating is a therapeutics, a rational philosophy of the miracle. By which he means that against all those reductionary systems that would bind everything to its calculability and probability indexing in knowledge, he seeks the impossible and improbable – the inexistent rather than the existent. Instead he seeks to instill the underlying flows, the quantum effects that come in and out of existence but are not fixed, solid, or calculable:

it really is an elemental structure of libidinal economy; it is an object which doesn’t exist for a very precise reason, which is that in fact all the objects that count are objects of desire; and an object of desire, by its nature, doesn’t exist but is only idealised as a support for idealised projections, such that all the virtues attributed to my children, my wife, my mother and all the people I love infinitely are phantasms, hallucinations. I attribute things that don’t exist to them. But what exists in reality doesn’t exist, but is ‘true’ by virtue of its function in my life, of its enormous effects on existence. And that’s true of all forms of human life. (ibid. 182).

(In this sense he seems to side with a form of libidinal idealism or vitalism of signs. I’ll have to hold off on my critique of this for a future time.)


  1. Stephens, Paul. The Poetics of Information Overload: From Gertrud Stein to Conceptual Writing. (Univ. of Minnesota,  2015)
  2. Hughes, Robert. Bernard Stiegler, Philosophical Amateur, or, Individuation from Eros to Philia. (Robert Hughes is associate professor in the Department of English, Ohio State University. He is author of Ethics, Aesthetics, and the Beyond of Language (SUNY, 2010) and coeditor of After Lacan: Clinical Practice and the Subject of the Unconscious (SUNY, 2002). He is working on two books: one on the uncanny, one on the aesthetics of Alain Badiou. )