Epiphylogenesis: On Becoming Machine

Epiphylogenesis: Bernard Stiegler – Memory and Prosthesis

Once you realize the human body was a migration ploy, a stop gap in a long process of migration technics using memory technology in a process of self-exteriorization, then you realize that becoming artificial and technological (robotic or AI) was immanent to the strange thing we are. Becoming robot are merging with our technologies isn’t really that far fetched after all, and that what we’ve been doing so for thousands if not millions of years is evolving new prosthesis step by step by step. This is at least part of what Bernard Stiegler admits to in his thesis of originary technicity or his theory of lack and supplement (ala Derrida): the supplement of technics is our way of exploiting this lack within the human condition. The human is a placeholder in a process in-between, a transition. The body we take for granted as the foundation of our humanity was never an end point, a static object at the end of some teleological assembly line, but was rather a project and program in an ongoing experimental process that has no foreseeable goal or end point, no design or designer. It can change form. We are not bound to this form, only temporary denizens in transition.

As is well-known, Bernard Stiegler articulates three different forms of memory: genetic memory (which is programmed into our DNA); epigenetic memory (which we acquire during our lifetime and is stored in the central nervous system) and, finally, epiphylogenetic memory (which is embodied in technical systems or artefacts). For Stiegler, then, epiphylogenesis represents a quasi-Lamarckian theory of “artificial selection” where successive epigenetic experiences are stored, accumulated and transmitted from generation to generation in the form of technical objects. In this sense, as we will see in a moment, Stiegler argues that the birth of man represents an absolute break with biological life because it is the moment in the history of life where zoē begins to map itself epiphylogenetically onto technē: what we call the human is “a living being characterised in its forms of life by the non-living.”

In this scenario we’ve been exteriorizing ourselves all along through this tri-fold process of memory works; or, as he terms it: epiphylogenesis. For Stiegler, this account of the origin of man contains a crucial insight into the status of the human that will form the basis for his own philosophy: humanity is constituted by an originary lack of defining qualities— what he calls a “default” of origin [le défaut d’origine]— that must be supplemented from outside by technics. What Stiegler calls technics is in the Deleuze/Guattarian index the “machinic”. For Deleuze and Guattari, every machine is a machine connected to another machine. Every machine functions as a break in the flow in relation to the machine to which it is connected, but is at the same time also a flow itself, or the production of a flow. What we term libido is the “labor” of desiring production. It is pure multiplicity, and for Deleuze and Guattari, it is anoedipal. The flow is non-personal, although investments by desiring machines produce subjectivity alongside its components. (Guattari, “Machinic Heterogenesis”)

Some accuse Stiegler of remaining within an anthropocentric horizon, saying that his thought risks re-anthropologising technics even in the very act of insisting upon the originary technicity of the human: what expropriates the anthropos once again becomes “proper” to it as its defining mode of being. If Stiegler would undoubtedly reject this line of critique— the moral of the story of Epimetheus is clearly that nothing is proper to the human— his enduring focus on hominisation as the unique moment when the living begins to articulate itself through the non-living means that his philosophy arguably still remains within what we might call the penumbra of human self-constitution. The supposedly self-identical human being is put into a relation only in order for the relation itself to be ontologised as an exclusively “human” one: we are the only being that relates.1

In many ways we need to do away with the term “human” which has so many associations that it has become a term indefinable going forward. We’ve tried using terms like “post-human” to obviate this fact, speaking of transitional states. And, yet, much of the discourse surrounding this still deals with the cultural matrix of humanity itself while leaving out the non-human others among us that many now know have recourse to externalization technics as well. The point is that humans are not part of an exception, we are part of the life of this planet. One among other possible life-forms and trajectories taking place in complex of ecologies simultaneously.

David Roden in his excellent book Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human addresses just this telling us that what we need is a “theory of human– posthuman difference” (Roden: 105).2 As he surmises the posthuman difference is not one between kinds but emerges diachronically between individuals, we cannot specify its nature a priori but only a posteriori – after the emergence of actual posthumans. The ethical implications of this are somewhat paradoxical. (Roden: 106) Catherine Hayles once argued in How We Became Posthuman that one of the key characteristics of the posthuman is that the body is treated as the “original prosthesis,” a prosthetic which contains the informatic pattern of posthuman subjects, but which is not integral to them.3 For Stiegler, this is only possible through a process of exteriorisation.  Our experience of being is therefore not merely a product of memory but is achieved through the processes of mnemotechnics: the ‘technical prostheses’ through which memory is recorded and transmitted across generations, and which is never limited to individual minds.  Without this sense of memory, Stiegler argues, the human would not be possible. The point here is that our bodies might be the last sacrosanct thing we will have to relinquish in this long road from animal to the post-human. For if Stiegler is correct it is our cultural memories and these technics of exteriorization that have for millennia become the project to which the human organic systems were moving, a process that has through the invention of computational machines and the rise of AI and Robotics only accelerated this process of self-exteriorization.

With this notion comes the transition from the terms of technics and machines to that of assemblages. As David Roden in his work will iterate:

The concept of assemblage was developed by the poststructuralist philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (1988). Its clearest expression, though, is in the work of the Deleuzean philosopher of science Manuel DeLanda. For DeLanda, an assemblage is an emergent but decomposable whole and belongs to the conceptual armory of the particularist “flat” ontology I will propose for SP in § 5.4. Assemblages are emergent wholes in that they exhibit powers and properties not attributable to their parts but which depend (or “supervene”) on those powers. Assemblages are also decomposable insofar as all the relations between their components are “external”: each part can be detached from the whole to exist independently (assemblages are thus opposed to “totalities” in an idealist or holist sense). This is the case even where the part is functionally necessary for the continuation of the whole (DeLanda 2006: 184; see § 6.5).(Roden: 111)

Is the future of the human-in-migration this becoming assemblage? As Roden continues biological humans are currently “obligatory” components of modern technical assemblages. Technical systems like air-carrier groups, cities or financial markets have powers that cannot be attributed to narrow humans but depend on them for their operation and maintenance much as an animal depends on the continued existence of its vital organs. Technological systems are thus intimately coupled with biology and have been over successive technological revolutions. (Roden: 111)

This sense that we are already so coupled with our exterior memory systems that what we’re seeing in our time is a veritable hyperacceleration and migration out of the organic and into the artificial systems we’ve been so eagerly immersed in. As futurist Luciano Floridi reminds us we are witnessing an epochal, unprecedented migration of humanity from its Newtonian, physical space to the infosphere itself as its Umwelt, not least because the latter is absorbing the former. As a result, humans will be inforgs among other (possibly artificial) inforgs and agents operating in an environment that is friendlier to informational creatures. And as digital immigrants like us are replaced by digital natives like our children, the latter will come to appreciate that there is no ontological difference between infosphere and physical world, only a difference in levels of abstraction. When the migration is complete, we shall increasingly feel deprived, excluded, handicapped, or impoverished to the point of paralysis and psychological trauma whenever we are disconnected from the infosphere, like fish out of water. One day, being an inforg will be so natural that any disruption in our normal flow of information will make us sick.4

Most of us hang onto that last bastion of the human, our body. For many the whole notion that we are not bound to this organic husk that has been the natural evolutionary experiment of millions of years seems utter tripe, and yet what if we are about to migrate into a new platform, an assemblage of plasticity and formlessness? What if the whole notion that we are stuck in this dying ember of organicist nature is just a myth, a myth that is keeping us from breaking through the barrier of becoming posthuman? What if the chains that tie us to this dead world of organic being is our religious, philosophical, and political prejudices, our exceptionalisms, our anthropologicisms? What if merging with our software and platforms is not only feasible but the motion and very movement we’ve been performing through this process of self-exteriorization all along? What if this is our way forward? What then?

One day we will quaintly look back upon organic life and the human body with a fondness that is only a memory, while we become pluralistic denizens of a million prismatic forms yet to be shaped by technics into the vast assemblages of the unbound universe. The question to ask yourself is: Will you see this as a worthy task or as a horror? If the former then you are already in migration into the assemblage, if the latter then you have become a problem for yourself and every other living thing on this planet.


  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 1749-1757). Litteraria Pragensia. Kindle Edition.
  2. Roden, David. Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human (p. 105). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
  3. Hayles, N. Katherine.  How We Became Posthuman. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1999.
  4. Floridi, Luciano. The Ethics of Information (pp. 16-17). Oxford University Press, USA. Kindle Edition.

 

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