The Terror of Being Human: Technicity and the Inhuman

For Bernard Stiegler the philosopher has from the beginning been a self-divided being at odds with himself and his time, a creature of crime and havoc, remedy and poison. The Sophist would stake her claim in the black holes of linguistic turpitude, relishing the intricacies of illusion as the art of life. The Sophist was an admirer of what we now term the social construction of reality, a magician of language constructing the fictions by which society blesses and curses itself. While the philosopher or ‘lover of wisdom’ – or as Aristotle was want to say, philia: the lover of togetherness otherwise known as politics, the bringing together the brotherly love of the other in communicity, or a gathering of solitudes. In Stiegler the truth is that the philosopher sought to hide himself from himself, to repress the truth of his lack and inhumanity. The truth that culture is a machine, a power, a technics that humans do not so much construct as are constructed. This dialectical reversal, the oscillating between interior / exterior was hidden rather than revealed. As Stiegler puts it:

“I do not consider myself as a “philosopher of technics”, but rather as a philosopher who tries to contribute, along with some others, to establishing that the philosophical question is, and is throughout, the endurance of a condition which I call techno-logical: at the same time technics and logic, from the beginning forged on the cross which language and the tool form, that is, which allow the human its exteriorization. In my work I try to show that, since its origin, philosophy has endured this technological condition, but as repression and denial and that is the entire difficulty of my undertaking—to show that philosophy begins with the repression of its proper question.”1

But then again what is philosophy’s proper (distinct/intrinsic) question? As Freud taught us and Lacan embellished repression is a defense system, a mechanism to hide from ourselves the terror of our own condition as (in)humans. A large part of Stiegler’s published work is dedicated to exploring how the ‘technological condition’, as he puts it above, is repressed in the work of philosophers such as Rousseau, Kant, Husserl and Heidegger.

Stiegler’s reversal of the usual interpretive strategy in which Prometheus is championed and Epimetheus, his brother is barely remembered speaks to us of that very truth: forgetfulness. Humans are an accident, a mistake, a creature who is already artificial and naked, exposed. In the myth of the two brothers it is Epimetheus’s forgetfulness of the humans in his charge that sets the world adrift. Epimetheus has been entrusted by his bother with the task of portioning out the powers (dispositions) of the natural order to all the plants and animals of the world. Epimetheus in his aggressive and almost mindless cunning becomes so involved in his work that at the end of it he has distributed all the natural powers in his charge with one slight exception, he has forgotten to give the humans anything at all. Humans lack the natural power in themselves to enter into the world’s activities. Astounded by this Epimetheus is fearful and anxious, and when his brother discovers the error or mistake he tries to come to the aid of his sibling.

Prometheus will steal from Hephaestus and Athena the skills (powers/technics) in the way of art and fire and give this to the humans who lack within themselves any powers at all. Humans who lack, goes the myth, must have something added to this lack, a prosthetic body, technics and intellect.  What is important, then, is that the human is the result of an accident, a deviation from the usual path which leaves it lacking an essence:

Before the deviation, there is nothing. Then the accidental event happens, the fault of Epimetheus: to have forgotten humans. Humans are the forgotten ones. Humans only occur through their being forgotten; they only appear in disappearing. (Stiegler)

Humans, unlike animals, are originally nothing: they are constituted by a lack. The crucial figure  here for Stiegler is not Prometheus, but Epimetheus, who through forgetting the human constitutes, this original fault or default. This Epimethean reading of the myth therefore discloses the way in which Stiegler sees technics as accidentality.  Technics is what supplements a lack of origin or essence  (following a logic of supplementarity which is clearly Derridean). The point is not to replace humanism with technological determinism but rather that the human, lacking an essence, is constituted  contingently through technics as becoming:

Mortals, having no qualities except by default, prosthetically, are on the contrary, animals condemned to seek ceaselessly their quality, that is, their destiny, that is, their time […] Humans are only by default. That means, they are only in as much as they become. (Stiegler)

Humans are in-between rather than fixed, measured, known or knowable. Humans have no human nature, no essence, no substantive kernel or mode of being. Humans are lack – purposeless and without foundation. And, yet this creature that is always in transition – a mere tendency set adrift in a cosmos that has already been defined in apposition to the human is determined not by lack but by fullness. The universe is at one with itself and its natural proclivities oblivious of this exception, this distinction. For Stiegler, paradoxically, it is because of the exteriorisation of the human into technics, artifacts or inorganic organized matter that culture and society constitute themselves contingently. This is because such technical supports constitute a form of ‘epiphylogenetic’ memory that allows the human to break with its biological program.

Technics for Stiegler constitutes the tertiary memory, which he takes from Husserl. This third memory, which is different from the notion of German [memory of species] and soma[memory of individual] by Weissman, it is what Stiegler calls epiphylogenetic memory which is constituted by techne. In Heideggerean Technics constitute the “already there”, a term used by Heidegger in Sein und Zeit, but I think the “already there” for Heidegger is broader, since the already there is not only technical, it is the setting of Dasein’s falleness. But there is side of technics, plays a major part in the “already there”. The Platonic idea of hypomnesis plays an important part in Stiegler’s theory, the necessity to remember the truth which ever lost in the reincarnations, as Plato shows in Socrates’s dialogue with Meno, is also the necessity of production of differance, as a process of deferral, of temporality, as well as death in Heidegger’s thoughts.

As said before Culture is a Machine, a technics – the exteriorization of the human in its own arts:

Man is a cultural being to the extent that he is also essentially a technical being: it is because he is surrounded by this tertiary technical memory that he can accumulate the intergenerational experience that is often called culture — that is why it is absurd to oppose technics to culture. Technics is the condition of culture in as much as it permits transmission. On the other hand, there is an epoch of technics, called technology, and this is our epoch, when culture is in crisis, precisely because it has become industrial and as such finds itself submitted to the imperatives of market calculation. (Stiegler)

Stiegler’s approach to modern techincs is that it has changed drastically, that during the modern industrial era a transformation in a specific form of technics that Stiegler calls
‘mnemotechnics’ or tertiary memory has taken precedence. Technical objects all support a type of cultural, non-genetic or ‘epiphylogenetic’, memory, but there is a subset that ‘one must call mnemotechnics, to speak properly’, a type of technics that is specifically ‘made for keeping memory’. The point here is the network society we see around us constructed out of externalization of memory and art, vision and intellect are taking on an existence of  their own, a separate realm of technics that is disturbing the old modes of human sense and sensibility.  Stiegler also calls mnemotechnics ‘tertiary memory’, a term that he derives from Husserl’s discussion of memory. Husserl distinguishes between primary retention or memory and secondary retention or memory. Primary retention is the kind of memory that is necessary to perceive a temporal object such as a melody: in effect the melody will not exist as an object of perception unless the listener retains or remembers the notes that precede the one that is currently heard. Secondary retention is, as it were, the more traditional understanding of memory where, for example, I remember a melody I heard last week. There is also a third kind of memory, which Husserl calls ‘image consciousness’ and Stiegler calls ‘tertiary memory’ where an external object, such as a picture or photograph, reactivates a memory. Now for Husserl primary memory can be rigorously distinguished from secondary or tertiary memory because it belongs to the act of perception itself, whereas secondary or tertiary memory involve acts of imaginative selection. Secondary and tertiary memory are thus derivative from primary memory. For Stiegler, however, something like the reverse is true: tertiary memory, the exteriorization of memory into technical objects—mnemotechnics—is constitutive of primary memory, secondary memory or our perception of the temporal object.1

In our mass re-production era of audio-visual media where not only writing (grammatization), but the moving images of sound and sight are recorded and in return modulate (Deleuze) the feed-back loops of the worker, artist, composer, programmer, engineer, scientist, etc. the human is de-individuated while at the same time our machines take on a specificity and personalism that singularizes technology at the expense of the human. We are losing our humanity to the externalized memory systems that for so long helped and supplemented our lack. Set adrift from the human the machinic systems are evolving without us, becoming other on their own terms and becoming other.  The concept of individuation is central to Gilbert Simondon’s work which has influenced Stiegler and is at the heart of Stiegler’s own understanding of technics and technicity. Simondon stresses the need, ‘to understand the individual from the perspective of the process of individuation rather than the process of individuation by means of the individual’.

Simondon argues that the rise of the machine tool removes the ability of the skilled worker to differentiate their labor from that of other workers: a ‘a loss of individuation’ which Stiegler sees reproduced at the level of consciousness by the new teletechnologies and their industrialisation of memory. He adds to Simondon’s analysis the idea that the process of industrialisation is also a grammatisation, that is to say a process, analogous to that of the development of writing, by which idiomatic actions (for example, those of the weaver) are standardised, discretised and materialized. As he puts it, ‘[t]he current loss of individuation is a stage of grammatisation where three individuations, psychic, collective and techno-machinic, generalise the formalisation by calculation’.2 However he also makes a break with Simondon, arguing that the latter failed to connect his twin theses about technical individuation, on the one hand, and psychic or collective individuation on the other. For Stiegler, psychosocial individuation depends on a preindividual that is essentially constituted through organised, inorganic objects or technics. Technical individuation is thus inseparable from psychic and collective individuation and new forms of mnemotechnics represent challenges to this process of transindividuation.

In our time the older humanist discourse and narratives, the religious traditions of millennia, and the fabrications of external memory systems are now in fragments and ruins. No one can put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Technology in our time for better or worse has taken on something new and is in turn re-modulating the human in turn. As Stiegler tells it;

The society of industrial temporal objects thus transforms our existences into a prefabricated series of clichés that we string together without perceiving very much. The coincidence of the time of the industrial temporal objects’ flow with our consciousnesses has the consequence that, in making them our objects of consciousness, that is, of attention, we embrace and adopt their time: we adhere to them in such great intimacy that they come to substitute themselves for the proper temporalities of our consciousnesses. Such is the catastrophic utilization, by cultural industries, of the power of temporal objects, which results in a ecological catastrophe in the milieu of spirit that is epiphylogenesis.2

The mobile phones we carry around with us, that many are connected too 24/7 and have become so transparent in our lives are incarnations of this tertiary memory system and prosthesis or supplement that we are servants too and are shaping us even as we find ourselves incapable of disconnecting or unplugging from. We are the plugin generation of machinic beings supplemented by time machines of lightspeed memory and technics. Acceleration of light, time, and memory in the palm of one’s hand.

For Stiegler, unlike the Frankfurt School of Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, etc., it is never a question of a technical dehumanization—in Stiegler the ‘human’ is always already technics. The issue for Stiegler is rather understanding a shift within technical individuation (Simondon) that allows for the ‘industrialization’ of memory (In other words, our computer systems that house the vast storage systems of culture and memory). In many ways Stiegler is hopeful seeing in his revitalization of the Platonic conception of pharmakon a two-edged sword of remedy and poison. He also sees the arts as something we need to re-center in our cultural praxis, saying in a recent interview “an artist is capable of affecting, in and of themselves, a line of transmission from Paleolithic art through to contemporary art, and this transmission is a relationship to time, to human—I don’t like the word “human,” so perhaps we could say “mortal”—experience. These lines are within the artist, not made manifest by him or her, nor are they structures of representation, and they are put into effect through their practice, through the contact with them”.

In that same article he’ll describe the linkages across long spans of time of these external memory systems of cultural orthography. I’m almost tempted to see it as a hyperobject in Timothy Morton’s sense of that term as the concept in which — “things that are massively distributed in time and space relative to humans” (p. 1) and “genuine nonhuman objects that are not simply the products of a human gaze” (p. 199)—is meant to address such large-scale configurations.3 Stiegler describing culture and its transmission in the external memory systems seems close to Morton’s sense of this time-lengthened entity within which humans from generation to generation plug into or link into:

Today, the problem of education at the level of the family is the short-circuiting of the relationship between generations through the operations of the media. What is created between generations are in fact long circuits. What Freud or Groddeck call the “id” is an unconscious space of long circuits. These unconscious spaces link generations along very, very long spans of time.

 Of course Stiegler divides up this transmission process into three stages of family, academy, and culture. We are continuously immersed in technics, in the machinic exteriors that shape our minds and bodies through transmission and linkage to this millennia old entity. He describes the shift in the mid-Twentieth century that took place in this age old transmission process.

My own grandfather who died in 1935 was a worker who drove locomotives, but he was capable of reading music. But in my generation, our generation, reading music is exceptional, it’s not common knowledge, so in fact I think that in the twentieth century you had an extremely important, instrumental shift, a transformation in education in which suddenly the skills of the “savoir faire”—of playing instruments and reading scores—were short-circuited, and suddenly the relationship between artworks and their publics was completely changed. It was a long process, but one that was greatly heightened with the coming of television, and I think that this evolution created a change—a very deep change in society and was creating what I call a short-circuiting of the possessive transindividuation.

He’ll describe his use of transindividuation telling us he was much influenced by the philosophy of Gilbert Simondon, who was an important thinker of individuation. Simondon says that if you want to understand the individual, you need to inscribe the individual in a process of which he is only a phase. As such, the individual has no interests. The individual is only an aspect, or phase of a process, but the process is what is important. “So what is this process? It is the process of individuation, that is of transformation, and for Simondon, everything is a caught up in and brought into a process of individuation. For example, the passages of life are a process of individuation, but “technics” are also processes of individuations.” (ibid.) In simple terms the age of the Book gave way to a new technology of memory and time. In the old culture when you read a book, you individuated yourself by reading this book because reading a book is to be transformed by the book. If you are not transformed by the book, you are not reading the book—you believe that you are reading. You may believe that you are, but you are not. (ibid.)

In our age of mass-media mass: television, cinema, radio, now digital technology and networks as well—the development of a new organology was forged, which in turn creates a new organization of the circulation of the symbolic. Within this new mode of organization, suddenly the production of the symbolic becomes industrial, subject to industrial processes. “Here you encounter the production of symbols on the one hand, and the consuming of such symbols on the other—an aporia because it is impossible to consume a symbol. The symbol is not an object of consumption; it is an object of exchange, of circulation, or of the creation of circuits of trans-individuation. So this situation suddenly produced what I call short-circuiting—of trans-individuation. And it is a very long story, it is not framed by a short historical period, but extends over a long time.” (ibid.)

One last tidbit from that interview speaking of the anthropologist André Leroi-Gourhan who says you need to participate at the level of feeling, of emotion, in order to exit something—not reject something, but engage with it emotionally. “Why did he say something like that? He was a reader of Bergson, just like Simondon, and you know the problem for Bergson is what is called the “loop stimulus”—it is not a stimulus response, but is like Marcel Mauss, with the exchange of gifts. You can receive if you can give. If you can engage, you are also able to exit. If you are able to engage critically, then a process takes place that would otherwise remain static.” (ibid.)

I sometimes wish Stiegler would have taken a piece of his own advice. He is obtuse, opaque, and almost obscure to any general reader. His work is for an elite and specialized reader, which is sad in that he wants to speak to change. His thought engages many of the same links in our post-Western discourses and yet, being a student of Derrida he never overthrew Derrida’s elitism and sheer verbal pyrotechnics and affinity to etymological derivatives. Both are scholar’s scholars that one spends a great deal of time and energy unpacking their long dry asides into the fine points of etymological conveyance. Sad, that. For in many ways Stiegler is caught in the isolation cell of his own difficult prose, couched in abstruse learning he will always be less appreciated until some epigone of his tempers his thought into more pliable and plastic form for the general intelligent reader.

Peter Gratton in a review of a book by Christina Howells and Gerald Moore on Stiegler would provide a critical take, saying,

…his prose is needlessly verbose and makes great claims for its import, yet no one would think it all that radical, for example, to argue that humanity as such broke off from evolution with the invention of technology, or that kids these days should read more, or that “cognitive capitalism” attempts “to control the Id,”1 that is, that advertisers want you to want their products; (b) his political call for resuscitating 19th century republican institutions misses the patriarchal and colonialist enterprises that were intrinsic to those institutions; (c) he writes expansively on topics from political economy to ancient Greek philosophy to the history of letters to evolutionary theory (sometimes in the same sentence), but his choice of sources are often dated and his explanations are at times sloppy concerning contemporary debates that he clearly neglects2; (d) his readings of his philosophical predecessors can at times be less than rudimentary — for example, saying Foucault hadn’t touched on economics, when he had, or that Kant is a democrat — and his criticisms of them are repetitions that he treats as original, but which have long been debated about these figures, such as his claim that Deleuze’s notion of deterritorialization risks a nihilism in which all structures are washed away, leading only to the affirmation of the destruction of all.

Yet, all critical eyes aside there is something alive in Stiegler’s work that attracts my intellect and imagination, something that each philosopher if he is to be a philosopher must encompass and that is a unique vision onto the world. Stiegler’s work has been a long slow and methodical installation in series after series of a critique of society and the human condition based on the pharmakon as both remedy and poison. We are our technics and this is both a gift and a curse. Taking the old myth of Epimetheus’s forgetfulness and his brother Prometheus’s theft to heart Stiegler has given us a critique of capitalism and its legacy from Greece. The dimensions of this hyperobject of external tertiary memory and our machinic supplementary as generation after generation was molded by the external systems of memory and transmission which in our time have been industrialized, trivialized, and led into an false infinity of this hypertrophy of late capitalism. We are pure acceleration in a void, actors not on a stage, but minions in a cliché ridden world of mazes where our very individuation has given way to the entrapments of greed and power. In their bid to control the world and civilization our oligarchs have unknowingly led us into an age of utter oblivion of memory and technics; or, what my friend R. Scott Bakker terms the era of the ‘Crash Space’.

  1.  See Bernard Stiegler, La Technique Et Le Temps: 2. La Désorientation, Paris, Galilée, 1996, pp67–73. Also: Roberts, B., 2012. Technics, Individuation and Tertiary Memory: Bernard Stiegler’s Challenge to Media Theory. New Formations 77, 8–20.
  2. Stiegler, Philosopher Par Accident, op. cit., p85–6
  3. Timothy Morton. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.

4 thoughts on “The Terror of Being Human: Technicity and the Inhuman

  1. Reblogged this on Jacob Russell's Magic Names and commented:

    A lucid review of what must be a difficult book, indeed… unless you like mud-wresting with language for its own sake. Had I youth and time, I would, based on this review alone, jump in and read it… having neither (the one condition foreshortening the other), I really appreciate this.
    Of the several passages that gave me pleasure, and got my mind buzzing (as an artist, you can see why… ) –I’ll leave this. ” He also sees the arts as something we need to re-center in our cultural praxis, saying in a recent interview “an artist is capable of affecting, in and of themselves, a line of transmission from Paleolithic art through to contemporary art, and this transmission is a relationship to time, to human—I don’t like the word “human,” so perhaps we could say “mortal”—experience. These lines are within the artist, not made manifest by him or her, nor are they structures of representation, and they are put into effect through their practice, through the contact with them”.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. A lucid review of what must be a difficult book, indeed… unless you like mud-wresting with language for its own sake. Had I youth and time, I would, based on this review alone, jump in and read it… having neither (the one condition foreshortening the other), I really appreciate this.
    Of the several passages that gave me pleasure, and got my mind buzzing (as an artist, you can see why… ) –I’ll leave this. ” He also sees the arts as something we need to re-center in our cultural praxis, saying in a recent interview “an artist is capable of affecting, in and of themselves, a line of transmission from Paleolithic art through to contemporary art, and this transmission is a relationship to time, to human—I don’t like the word “human,” so perhaps we could say “mortal”—experience. These lines are within the artist, not made manifest by him or her, nor are they structures of representation, and they are put into effect through their practice, through the contact with them”.


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