Technics of Memory and Life: Bernard Stiegler in Memoriam

Bernard Stiegler
Bernard Stiegler (Image credit: Ars Industrialis)

Scott Lash

I first met Bernard at Theory Culture & Society’s Ubiquitous Media: Asian Transformations conference in Tokyo, summer 2007. With Prof Ishida I think I helped engineer his invite. Friedrich Kittler, Katherine Hayles were there too. My memory is of Bernard’s informal interventions on one of the plenary panels, which was even better than his formal lecture. This was confirmed by my first visit to Bernard at Centre Pompidou, where he was founder-director of the Institut de recherche et d’innovation. We met with one of the panels/research groups, and Bernard above all listened and then sort of aggregated and thematised the contributions of the various young philosophers and computer scientists in the group. He was a guy who engaged with others and could think on his feet. I’d heard of him of course. One of my PhD students, previously from Oxford, had worked on Technics and Time, this very major work, which we need to put alongside The Order of Things or Mille Plateaux in its importance. Technics and Time which I really engaged with only subsequently is for me a sort of philosophical anthropology, in the best sense. In which only man among all animals is born with an Instinktarmut, and this poverty of instincts is filled by technics. Not language, not Peter Berger’s sacred canopy of the church, but technics. Man’s Instinktarmut is less just leaving a lack, a void, – angst in Kierkegaard’s sense – than the space for a technics.

But you wonder if there also was a void and angst in Stiegler’s thinking and in Bernard himself, and at the same time a sense of incredible possibility, two sides of the same coin, that underlay the bank robberies, the Toulouse jazz club, his emotionally rich, yet broken marriages, his curated show, Mémoires du futur at Centre Pompidou (1987), in the wake of Jean-François Lyotard’s (1985) Les Immatériaux show at Beaubourg; his scenario writing for the French Pavilion at the World Expo Seville in 1992; his Directorship of IRCAM from 2002-06, the Pierre Boulez-founded Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique. Bernard’s generation of French thinkers – Descola, François Julien, Latour, 15-years-older Badiou were straight academics. Bernard was not a straight academic. This of course created insecurity, but led to an intense excitement in his life and thought. In some ways more like an artist. There was a price to pay. But it burnt an unforgettable light.

Technics and Time was subtitled The Fault of Epimetheus. What fills the lack, the emptiness that the fault of Epimetheus led to? What were its consequences? The gods gave us humans fire, before dogs, the first human domestication. Fire, the first technology, was also what Bernard consistently taught in its use and consequences was a pharmakon. But the lack, the void, the absence were, and are what makes us human, all too human. For Stiegler the worst of consumer capitalism (Mécréance et Discrédit) fills this void with ‘drive’, which has led to a decaying of our desiring faculty, that Bernard’s directeur de thèse, Derrida alluded to in, for example, The Truth in Painting. Desire was at the heart of Bernard’s thought. Technics itself was ‘organised inorganic matter’, yet it filled the very immaterial gap left empty by Epimetheus’s error. It is in this gap that Stiegler’s technical phenomenology could take form. In contrast to desire, ‘drive’ was part of a crude materialism that Bernard never subscribed to, old or new. Desire was part of what he called not a biopolitics but a psycho-politics. The reduction of desire to drive is part and parcel of industrial and informational capitalism’s ‘misère symbolique’. Desire is also central to Bernard’s very late thinking about ‘life’, linked with Alan Turing’s theoretical biology and hence with still technics but a very different technics than Turing’s discrete machines. Was the life drive always more important than the death drive for Bernard?

Bernard profoundly engaged with the Greeks, and in particular with Plato. Technology for Stiegler was inseparable from memory. Bernard is the philosopher of memory, as Heidegger is the philosopher of anticipation. Bernard’s phenomenology, like Gadamer’s was more about memory. Gadamer was a Platonist, and so profoundly was Stiegler. Unlike me whose instincts are a posteriori and Aristotelian. In Technics and Time Epimethean myth is taken from Plato’s Protagoras. Protagoras the most senior of the Sophists, a generation older than even Socrates. In the Protagoras, Socrates faced off with Protagoras. Protagoras who had argued not just that man was the measure of all things and who had refuted the geometers. Plato’s Epimetheus appears in this Protagoras v Socrates dispute about whether civic virtue could be taught. To start with, Socrates argued that technical skills can be taught but civic virtue and wisdom cannot. Protagoras responds with the Epimetheus story. The context was the gods making the animals including man, and assigning Epimetheus and titan-brother Prometheus to represent mankind. Prometheus (meaning foresight) gave to Epimetheus, meaning hindsight, the task of giving traits to each animal: traits that worked for the survival of each. Epimetheus handed out traits to each, but the foolish and negligent titan did not manage to give to mankind any traits. Prometheus then frantically searched for human survival traits. These traits were already, for Stiegler, technologies. Prometheus obtained fire from Hephaestus and practical wisdom from Athena. He was searching for civic wisdom, but this was closely guarded in Zeus’s palace. So, fire appears as the original technics at the same time as man. This technics, looking forward with Prometheus and backward with his brother, is already about time and memory. This coincidence of anthropogenesis and technogenesis, Stiegler observed, Heidegger had completely forgotten.

Plato also figures again in the perhaps driving technology that Stiegler addresses throughout his work and this is memory or mnemotechnics. Derridian writing is such a mnemotechnics and arguably so is the mystic writing pad of Freud’s unconscious mind; it also is memory. Stiegler here is also Platonic in his engagement with anamnesis or unforgetting. In the Meno, where Socrates discourses on the immortality of the soul. Here knowledge is in the soul from eternity, yet each time a soul is incarnated this knowledge is forgotten in birth trauma. Socrates and Plato are less teachers than helpers in the retrieval of this knowledge, in its unforgetting.

Derridian writing is of course technics. Coming thousands and thousands of years after Promethean fire. Writing was just homo sapiens. But the whole of genus homo domesticated fire. Humans fill their Epimethean void with memory. This is also a context for Bernard’s teaching on Husserl’s retention, Husserlian temporality. Where we encounter phenomena in the present and with an immediate past and future in the moment of encounter, there is ‘primary retention’. Secondary retention is from memory, including by implication Freudian memories of childhood. Husserl, William James and Freud will converge in this. Tertiary retention and this is Stiegler and not Husserl, is externalized, in writing, in dwellings and cooking, in bronze and pottery artefacts. In hard drives and random-access memory, in of course archives.

Bernard, to repeat, was very much a phenomenologist. Thus, the importance of meaning, of intentionality: of consciousness rather than the subject. Phenomenological consciousness, unlike the (positivist) ‘subject’, is driven by desire. Desire as Bernard and Derrida were well aware made its debut not in Kant’s mechanical first critique, where the subject like the object are like mechanism, very much caused, determined and instrumental. If the First Critique is about the subject, the Third Critique (which bequeathed Hegel and Schelling) is, like phenomenology, about consciousness, driven by desire. Hegel’s dialectic in his Phenomenology is also one between consciousness and the subject. It starts with the singular consciousness, but ends with the universality of reason, and hence the subject. Husserls’ and Stiegler’s phenomenology feature of course consciousness. Though for Stiegler this is at the same time technics. The subject is mechanical, not intentional; intentionality is born with consciousness. Intentionality, also in John Searle’s philosophy of mind, and in the Chinese Room, presupposes consciousness as well as a certain semantics, that is meaning. For Frege’s (logical) positivism meaning was a question of the truth-value of a predication. Frege was the father of analytic philosophy, much like Husserl was progenitor of Continental philosophy. For phenomenology, meaning is very different. It is not objective but subjective. It is inseparable from intentionality. This was meaning also in the arts, in life, in William James’ and James Joyce’s stream of consciousness; it is Freud’s unconscious. It is meaning not as predication but in terms of forms of life. Bernard’s late theory of the neganthropocene was about both life and forms of life: it was like his earlier work about desire.

Stiegler’s technics, originating in Epimetheus’s traits that preserved and enhance life, was never reducible to mechanism. This is not unrelated to his move, with Giuseppe Longo, from Turing’s discrete machines to Turing’s later theoretical biology. This does not at all entail that machines may not one day become intentional, become a lot more like life. Unlike Heidegger, Stiegler was not opposed to cybernetics. He spent considerable time studying Niklas Luhmann. He could see this coming together, I think, in Yuk Hui’s work.

Bernard and I had many intense and long discussions over these 13 years: I had brought him to Goldsmiths Centre for Cultural studies as part time professor from 2008-13. When I saw Bernard at the 2019 TCS-APL-AAU conference in Klagenfurt, Austria, he was engaging with Turing’s theoretical biology. Here for Bernard the life drive trumps the death drive. Hence the negentropy of the Stiegler’s ‘neganthropocene’, trumps the entropic Anthropocene. And at the same time nature, as biological trumps mechanical nature. Physical entropy is trumped by biological negentropy. All these are assumed by a phenomenology which take us back to Kant’s Third Critique. Lyotard in his understood the Third Critique (Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime) a when nature becomes a finality. First critique nature is from physics and physical, hence the object, because cause and end or purpose (Zweck) are external to it. This is true even of uncertainty (Heisenberg), incompleteness (Gödel) and statistical mechanics (Born). At stake is still physical matter. In Gödel and in Heisenberg. But only in biology, in life, is nature purpose. This also is meaning. There are perhaps two types of meaning, which do not exactly map onto Frege’s Sinn and Bedeutung. One is meaning as predication, the other is meaning as intentionality. This is the bifurcation that separated analytic from continental philosophy. Fregean meaning was predication and about true and false statements. It was a predicating subject, a subject of logical positivism and positivism right through the social sciences, including neoclassical economics. For Husserl meaning was intentionality. As above, the subject predicates, consciousness is intentional. In first critique ‘physical reason’, both the object and subject are mechanically caused. In biological reason there is purposiveness, desire, intentionality and meaning, a dimension for Stiegler of the spiritual, the psychological. Biological reason tgus informs Stiegler’s notion of life. Thus, also the neganthropocene and negentropic. When I saw Bernard for the last time in Klagenfurt, I said to him that death or the death drive comprises life and the life drive. He said, to the contrary, that life and its drive, that is desire, encompasses death. He was right.

This biological reason or life is of course Kant’s Zweckmäßigkeit ohne Zweck, finality without end, which in The Truth in Painting Derrida understood as desire. What Lyotard meant was that in the First Critique classical mechanics nature had external ends, external causes. Phenomenology itself, whose intentionality is another name for Zwedkmäßigkeit ohne Zweck is not mechanical but biological, driven by meaning, intention purposiveness, desire. This is technics of the conscious and unconscious mind, that is part and parcel of all biological beings, including viruses. Technics, biology and desire come together in this phenomenology which is Bernard’s legacy.

Bernard was a dear friend. After meeting him at the TCS conference in Tokyo, I was able to appoint him for a six-year part time professorship at Goldsmiths, thanks to the generosity of the then VC Geoffrey Crossick. Bernard was a gracious host too, inviting me to Centre Pompidou, to Collège Internationale de Philosophie, to the Lille Culture Centre. I knew Bernard with Caroline, and was invited to a lovely dinner with them and their children and Sam Weber and his wife after the Centre Pompidou event at their flat, which stood on the square of Centre Pompidou. I was so fortunate as to be able to bring Bernard together in seminars and conversations with Wang Hui and Jiang Jun from China, with Phil Mirowski. I, Theory Culture & Society, and the students he engaged with at Goldsmiths will sorely miss him. Ever the Heideggerian, Bernard was optimistic about thought. He rightly recognised the genius of Being and Time, a work on the level of Hegel’s Phenomenology, yet also of analytic genius, of as distinct from Heidegger after the Kehre. Stiegler here meant the first half of Being and Time. Much less so of the second half addressing Dasein’s finitude in the face of death. Ever the Platonist of anamnesia, for Bernard thought always was. His late engagement with biological being and life, which is still technical being, is also about the infinity of the future of both life and thought. Bernard lived life to the greatest possibility that few of us have managed. The other side of this was suffering, especially at the end. Yet both desire and thought, his thought, live on.

Bernard Stiegler, philosopher, born April 1, 1952; died August 6, 2020


Further reading

These articles are free to read until December 31, 2020.

Articles

Technics, Media, Teleology: Interview with Bernard Stiegler
Couze Venn, Roy Boyne, John Phillips, Ryan Bishop
Theory, Culture & Society, vol. 24, 7-8: pp. 334-341. First Published Dec 1, 2007.

Teleologics of the Snail: The Errant Self Wired to a WiMax Network
Bernard Stiegler
Theory, Culture & Society, vol. 26, 2-3: pp. 33-45. First Published Mar 1, 2009. This article is from the Special Issue on Ubiquitous Media.

The Politics of Spirit in Stiegler’s Techno-Pharmacology
Ross Abbinnett
Theory, Culture & Society, vol. 32, 4: pp. 65-80. First Published June 27, 2014.

Bernard Stiegler on Transgenerational Memory and the Dual Origin of the Human
Michael Haworth
Theory, Culture & Society, vol. 33, 3: pp. 151-173. First Published December 17, 2015.

Sex and the (Anthropocene) City
Claire Mary Colebrook
Theory, Culture & Society, vol. 34, 2-3: pp. 39-60. First Published July 26, 2016.

‘We Have to Become the Quasi-cause of Nothing – of Nihil’: An Interview with Bernard Stiegler
Judith Wambacq Daniel Ross Bart Buseyne
Theory, Culture & Society, vol. 35, 2: pp. 137-156. First Published July 26, 2016.

Living After Auschwitz: Memory, Culture and Biopolitics in the Work of Bernard Stiegler and Giorgio Agamben
Ross Abbinnett
Theory, Culture & Society. First Published 6 Aug 2018.

Videos

From the TCS-APL-AAU 2019 Conference: ‘Truth, Fiction, Illusion: Worlds & Experience’, held in Klagenfurt, Austria.

Plenary session: Bernard Stiegler on the post-truth era
Dialogue: Bernard Stiegler and Achille Mbembe

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

three × one =

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.