The Art of Hyper-Control: Bildung and the Re-Education of Humanity

An ‘otium of the people’, and of ‘people who are missing’, an otium as experience of the (de)fault of otium, that is, of its intermittent condition, is the condition of any neganthropological knowledge, and it is made possible by reticulated digital tertiary retention.

—Bernard Stiegler, The Automatic Society

For Bernard Stiegler the End of Work is inevitable, but for him it is not work per se that ends but the end of human participation in the employer/employment cycle of wealth creation (i.e., alienated labour in Marx’s terms). The end of Consumerist Economy and the emergence of what he terms a Contributory Economy that replaces it is in the offing. Yet, during the next few decades a massive undertaking by civilizations across the globe will need to take place if humans are to both resist and curtail total entropic decay and apocalypse of knowledge and life practices. As Stiegler comments:

Loisir in French, skholē in Greek and otium in Latin mean freedom as Bildung, and not the absence of work, that is, of necessity. This is what Kant recalls at the end of his life (confronting those he calls mystagogues, priding themselves on being inhabited by genius, itself constituting a clairvoyant gift): ‘[T]he discursive understanding must employ much labor on resolving and again compounding its concepts according to principles, and toil up many steps to make advances in knowledge.’1

Bildung (German: [ˈbɪldʊŋ], “education, formation, etc.”) refers to the German tradition of self-cultivation (as related to the German for: creation, image, shape), wherein philosophy and education are linked in a manner that refers to a process of both personal and cultural maturation. In this sense, the process of harmonization of mind, heart, selfhood and identity is achieved through personal transformation, which presents a challenge to the individual’s accepted beliefs. The term Bildung also corresponds to the Humboldtian model of higher education from the work of Prussian philosopher and educational administrator Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835). Thus, in this context, the concept of education becomes a lifelong process of human development, rather than mere training in gaining certain external knowledge or skills. Such training in skills is known by the German words Erziehung, and Ausbildung. Bildung in contrast is seen as a process wherein an individual’s spiritual and cultural sensibilities as well as life, personal and social skills are in process of continual expansion and growth. Bildung is seen as a way to become more free due to higher self-reflection.

For Stiegler it is more specifically a complete transformation of the human species in many respects as great as the Neolithic Revolution from hunter/gatherer to Agricultural Civilization which emerged across the planet for thousands of years until the recent Industrial Revolution replaced it with the inevitable process of technics and technology through automation. This formidable task of re-educating humans for leisure and free time rather than work and employment in industry or service is and will be a massive undertaking that will entail a generational bildung or what he terms the ‘art of hyper-control’,

Such would be an ‘art of hyper-control’, for which it would be a matter not of ‘addressing a people, which is presupposed already there, but of contributing to the invention of a people’. But this presupposes both:

– a genuine organological revolution, based on the deliberate and theorized supplementary invention of new instruments of knowledge and publication;

– and an epistemic and epistemological revolution that radically trans-forms the status, practices and axioms of knowledge in general (of living, doing, conceiving).

I’m holding off with my critique of Stiegler till a final essay, yet as I’ve been reading him I’ve noticed a quality in his writings that I see in many contemporary pundits, scholars, philosophers, thinkers, etc.: naiveté. He almost believes his own bullshit, as if the real politique of actual existing governments (and, for Stiegler this means above all France, for he like many French thinkers is more concerned with his national world and its transformation than with anything external to it. Insular, elitists, and very much a Francophile promotor, Stiegler seems to see France as a universal culture from which everything else is derivative and subordinate. A typical leftward intellectual he believes his thought and options are superior and must become policy, and for France in particular which is all he seems concerned with in his work of policy advisement. Still promoting the notion of Self and Individual as a rock bottom feature of humanity he continues the Simondon line of transindividuation never referring to the sciences or current neurobiological knowledge at all.).

Almost like a modern Plato he never realizes that this re-education or Bildung would entail a tyrannical enforcement and elitism of this system to be effective. The idea of an organological and epistemic revolution would entail a massive reorganization and transformation of every sector of society and culture on the planet, something – at least, in this work he seems to pass over in silence. Theoretical to the extreme he hardly even begins to touch base with the real world application of such an ‘art of hyper-control’. Like many thinkers of the past he has become a system builder, but in this sense his is concerned with the task of redesigning humans through a process of total cultural transformation.

His Contributory Economy is patterned in many ways after the Open Source software community and its theory and practices:

This scheme should become a model for a law of work in an economy of contribution, just as we believe that free software, inasmuch as it is a challenge to the industrial division of labour, should constitute a model for the organization of work. The widespread generalization of this organization of work requires a contributory organology that remains entirely to be developed36 – in the first place with the free software communities that have been around now for thirty years. (AS)

For Stiegler it is the time of intermittence that organizes and sets the rhythm of all societies, and that it is what fully computational capitalism, operating twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, tends to eliminate: the time of sleep, of dreams and of free time. We also know that intermittence is the very condition of thinking for Socrates and for Aristotle – both of whom quote the same line from Simonides. And we know, finally, that a scheme exists in France whereby those occasional workers in the entertainments industry known as ‘intermittents du spectacle’ are indemnified against unemployment. Stiegler refers to this concept of intermittence in his discussion of algorithmic ill-being as a return of the ancient Tragic sense of life in which the battles between the Olympians and Titans fiercely struggled each other for the future of the world. As he says it we are moving through a transitional period, an intermittence, a time-between-times of no time, a time without time, a blank space or void in which the renewal of civilization constitutes a return to the tragic sources of the West. One leading us to confront what he terms “the irreducibility of the organological and pharmacological condition, to which the sacrificial practices of the Greeks bore witness by celebrating Persephone as the goddess of intermittence: Vernant showed that the mysteries practised by the mystics (which the Greeks are as a whole) primordially refer to the inaugural conflict of every mythic tension, that is, to the tragic tensions arising from the conflict between Zeus the Olympian and Prometheus the Titan.” (AS)

In many ways the battle fought is that of the Rational vs. Irrational forces both in the natural and artificial realms of our socio-cultural worlds. That the instrumentalization of reason through several hundred years of technics and scientific theory and practice in the dimension of both social control and technological transformation during the emergence and maturation of our Industrial Era is apparent to anyone who is versant in the matter. What is important for Stiegler is that we’ve begun to instill intelligence and reason in our machines, giving them reasoning and decisioning powers that once belonged solely to humans. Intelligent machines are the hidden and untold story at the heart of Stiegler’s diagnosis. Every aspect of his work is bounded by this dilemma and how humans can compete and continue in a world where intelligence and knowledge are no longer bound to the human, but have been totally and completely externalized into our digital children. Will they think like us or differently? Will they with their superior computational reasoning powers become the Other against which we form and shape our being (i.e, as Intelligent systems far surpassing human brain power will these machines replace humans at the pinnacle of life in the known universe?).

Stiegler still too much bound to the old humanist discourses never raises such questions. He is concerned solely with trying to salvage humanity the best he can, to guide and transform humans like therapist through this impossible transition, grasping at all the ancient practices available for his pseudo-grammatiziational pharmakon. The complexity of his concepts and the strangeness of his insular approach with its nationalistic mindset leads me to wonder if he truly believes in what he says. Couched in an almost occult conceptuality, a hermetically sealed set of concepts that must be explicated and digested his work is opaque and muddled. He lacks clarity and a style of thought that can be appropriated by the normal or average reader. He is in some ways a bullshit artist extradonaire.  Recondite and scholarly he is like his predecessors in France almost dismissal of other cultures, and especially America. Europeans seem to see American with a slanted perspective and as inferior. Yet, for all that he seems genuinely to care about the future of the human species.

Maybe it is that like many academicians he has lived in the refined air of thought for far too long, and is unable to reach down and simplify his notions for the vast majority of policy oriented officials he would write and speak too. In many ways we’ve lost the notion of an educated public, a public that had a cultural matrix of ideas and values shared and known, so that when writing or speaking to others one almost has to invent one’s audience. Problem for Stiegler is that his invented audience seems to be refined experts in post-structuralist thought which even during Jacques Derrida’s era was elitist and academic. I remember during the late sixties and early seventies much of structuralist and then the post-structuralist thought out of France came to America by way of literary critics: Hartmann, Kermode, Bloom, Jameson, etc. So many journals popped up imitating the scholarship of Barthes and Derrida, etc., all derivative and throwaway academic bullshit for the Doctoral grindfest. I remember thinking then that all this is bunk, and still do. All the intricate and detailed deconstruction of Western metaphysics from Plato to Descartes and beyond in the shadow of Hideggerese seemed a sort of endless one-upmanship in scholarly bric-a-brac going nowhere. And, for the most part on asks the question, who reads this stuff now? What happened to all this thought of the postmoderns? Except for historians and specialists it has vanished. Poof!

Academic scholars, philosophers, sociologists, etc. all live in an echo chamber filled with only a view variations of thought in the contemporary world. They repeat each other or the best of their lot over and over and over. Thought like advertising is a commodity that has its own time variant. A coin that once smoothed out is defaced until the next grand idea comes along for the bottom feeders to scrummage to the nth degree. Of course not being an academic I find this all sport and amusing. Being almost cynical I ponder the great and small contemporary stars and pundits like bit players in a final apocalypse. Sadly most of this circular discourse is taken seriously as if the left thought all their thousands of books might actually produce change and progress toward some great reformation of society and culture. It want. Decadence. That’s the state of our era. Too muchness… a great era of Satire, Satyrs…. a Rabelaisian festive time of renewal turned barbarous and venial.   That human culture and civilization is playing out its end game is something no one can or will accept so that scholars and pundits everywhere are in denial. Denialism is the order of the day. We must survive at all costs, we must reform, we must do that or something else… reeducate, Bildung. hyper-control… Stiegler is like all the rest, imposing a tyrannical scheme for the Salvation of Humanity. Like some bookworm savior he thinks he has the answer. He’s peered into the past and has found a way out, an exit plan. Blinded to his own mythical schemes he locks his thought in a hermetically sealed jar of shadow concepts that only a few can decipher. Lost in a galaxy of hope he seems to believe if humans will only follow his prescription they can overcome the obstacles ahead. He still has hope.

I have none.

More tomorrow…

  1. Stiegler, Bernard. Automatic Society: The Future of Work (Kindle Locations 7353-7358). Wiley. Kindle Edition.