The Organological Approach: Milieus and the Pharmacological Critique

Injustice governs the universe. All that is made and all that is unmade therein carries the imprint of a corrupt fragility, as if matter were the fruit of an outrage in the womb of nothingness.

—EMILE CIORAN A Short History of Decay

Over and over Bernard Stiegler will mentions his organological approach to milieus and the study or interpretation of the world we live in. For Stiegler the main question is that of arrangements [agencements]. Deleuze and Guattari will use this term or concept in their work on Kafka where they say,

There isn’t a desire for power; it is power itself that is desire. Not a desire-lack, but desire as a plenitude, exercise, and functioning, even in the most subaltern of workers. Being an assemblage [agencement], desire is precisely one with the gears and the components of the machine, one with the power of the machine. And the desire that someone has for power is only his fascination with these gears, his desire to make certain of these gears go into operation, to be himself one of these gears—or, for want of anything better, to be the material treated by these gears, a material that is a gear in its own way. (Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, 1986, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, trans. Dana Polan, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota, 56).

As one author John Phillips puts it the English word assemblage is gaining currency in the humanities and social sciences as a concept of knowledge, but its uses remain disparate and sometimes imprecise. Two factors contribute to the situation. First, the concept is normally understood to be derived from the French word agencement, as used in the works of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (who, furthermore, do not use the French word assemblage in this way). Tracing the concept in its philosophical sense back to their texts, one discovers that it cannot easily be understood except in connection with the development of a complex of such concepts. Agencement implies specific connections with the other concepts. It is, in fact, the arrangement of these connections that gives the concepts their sense. For Deleuze and Guattari, a philosophical concept never operates in isolation but comes to its sense in connection with other senses in specific yet creative and often unpredictable ways. This in connection with already provides something of the sense of agencement, if one accepts that a concept arises in philosophy as the connection between a state of affairs and the statements we can make about it. Agencement designates the priority of neither the state of affairs nor the statement but of their connection, which implies the production of a sense that exceeds them and of which, transformed, they now form parts.

It’s in this sense that Felix Guattari would later develop his notions of machinic unconscious and associate a-signifying systems of enslavement to this system of power (desire). Stiegler will quote the work of Maurizio Lazzarato, who refers to the Guattarian concept of a-signifying semiotics: ‘A-signifying semiotics […] [are a function of] “machinic enslavement” […] causing the affects, perceptions, emotions, etc., to function like component parts, like the elements in a machine.’ That is, they constitute a functional integration in the Simondonian sense, and do so as a kind of human associated milieu: ‘We can all function like the input/output elements in semiotic machines, like simple relays of television or the Internet.’ To deepen Guattari’s observations, and the commentaries by Lazzarato requires a pharmacological approach to associated milieus and to contribution, that is, an organological approach.1

In discussing this organological approach Stiegler will remind us that “it is not possible to remain on the micropolitical plane: a three-dimensional perspective, understood as creating relief (the depth of multiple disparities producing lines of flight), and as the disparation of ‘key-points’, is necessarily also and from the outset macropolitical. It is a question not of moving to the macropolitical, that is, to the One as the dream of a unity and process of unification, but of enacting a pharmacological critique of its always organological realization, and of positing as a starting point that any realization of a dream is pharmacological, that is, it is no longer a dream – unless it becomes a nightmare.” (AS, KL 5379)

To translate this into palatable parlance for the average reader the above is an approach to the human equation in a milieu of technics and technology using both the larger (macropolitical) and smaller (microp0litical) perspectives (i.e., Foucault’s bio-politics deeply influences Stiegler!). For Stiegler like the Gnostics before him most humans are sleepwalking through existence (i.e., they are awake but unconsciously controlled by a multifarious world of a-signifying automatisms that regulate and modulate their lives without them being even aware of such control). Our thinking is bound by the same constraints as are our bodies; it collides against the same barriers and is dragged dawn by the weight of the same contingencies. The majority of ancient Gnostics expressed this dullness of the spirit – inherent in the matter of which we are composed – by a simple and revealing analogy: that of sleep. Sleep is to consciousness what weight is to the body: a state of death, inertia, a petrification of the psychic forces. We sleep. We spend our lives asleep. And only those who are aware of it can hope to break down these walls of mental inertia, to awaken in themselves the spark which, in spite of all, still glows within us, like a tear in the veil of corporeal night.

Stiegler’s notion of becoming associated with the entropic pull of things aligns with this Gnostic notion of weight and the pull or drive toward death in things. Against this he has developed much like the Gnostics as counter life, a Negenthropic politics to counter the natural tendencies of humans to desire their own enslavement and entropy or inertia. Stiegler will tell us this of his Negenthropic or Organological politics,

Such a shared, three-dimensional perspective must project a politics that is always macropolitical. It must feed ‘molecular’ lines of flight, which it must ‘three-dimensionalize’ by problematizing the stakes of the transformation of becoming into future that is always the question of any noesis qua passage from facts to laws, that is: qua projection of existences onto the plane of consistences – consistence trans-forming entropy into neganthropy through the individuation of the potentials and tensions that constitute organologically supported preindividual becoming. (AS, KL 5386)

In other words Sleeper Awaken. We need a politics to fight the systems of control and regulation, the algorithmic governing code and spaces of enslavement that are become ever more pervasive and ubiquitous in our lives.

Have you ever watched someone on a bus or walking, etc. using a mobile phone. They seem so intense, plugged into the input/output device, sending text messages, reading emails, searching Google, talking to a friend, associate, client and doing all this oblivious to the environment surrounding them. I remember a couple years ago watching one of those comic TV shows that had a segment satirizing this dead world of the mobile phone user locked away from reality and oblivious to her surroundings. In it they had people walk by mobile phone users sitting on benches in a park. They had one segment where a woman naked (or at least in a flesh tone body suit ) walk by several times. No reaction. In another they had someone yelling rape and a man accosting a woman. No reaction. In yet another they had someone come up and actually steal the person purse lying on the bench next to them. No reaction. So it goes… they did sever others, but the point is that people attentiveness, their awareness of the environment external to the input-output of their device become opaque and non-essential. They are in a state of total non-awareness and inattention to anything but the world of their communication device. Then in the last segment the crew interfered with the users device by making it malfunction. When a mobile phone suddenly stopped working each of these users reactions was both hostile and upsetting. It was as if to be cut off from one’s technical interface to the world one was being deprived of life. People are becoming so enslaved to their technological wonders that their world is enveloped in an artificial system without any external outlet to the natural world. Oblivious to their natural environment people are become trapped by the very tools they see as extensions of themselves. We are being folded into a machinic existence without even an understanding that our lives as humans are becoming less and less perceivable outside the machine.

As Stiegler remarks,

There is subjectivation in the automatic milieu but it is not reflexive: ‘What is first noticed is the difficulty in producing an algorithmic subject who is self-reflexive or who thinks as such.’ This ‘subjectivation’ is unreflective because what this algorithmic arrangement produces breaks with processes of transindividuation, cutting the servants off from the process they serve at the very moment they believe it is serving them: Our problem […] is not that we are dispossessed of what we consider to be our own […]. It would more fundamentally lie in the fact that our statistical double is too detached from us, that we have no ‘relationship’ with it, even though contemporary normative actions are enough for this statistical double to be effective. To take possession of our double, to reach the point of analysing the dividuation of the self in which it consists, would be to be capable of dis-automatizing, and to create a reflective and specular interface. One can imagine how social engineering could be developed in this direction.

This sense that the world of techno-commercial fantasies that draw and capture our desires by the very processes of our own desiring, and that these technical artifacts and gadgets like our mobile phones seamlessly drive us from our individual to dividual lives as mere tools of an algorithmic governance that is so ubiquitous and invisible in the very code spaces of our software that we are in essence asleep and unaware of the traps we’ve set ourselves. What we believe to be a technological utopia in the making is none other that the ultimate Prison for the human species.

More tomorrow…


  1. Stiegler, Bernard. Automatic Society: The Future of Work (Kindle Locations 5370-5379). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

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