Week 2 / Week 3 – Theories of Technical Evolution pt.1

We discussed the introduction to the first part of the book and the first half of ‘Theories of Technical Evolution’, in a really interesting discussion that lasted over two hours. This part of the book is essentially a literature review but one which, the group felt, aimed to deal with the role of agency in innovation against the determinism of technical systems. The key references at this point are Heidegger, Marx, Gille, and Leroi-Gourhan; Stiegler’s trying to think them together with the express intention of drawing out those elements of each which problematise the relation of the subject to the technical object. Hence the passage in Capital that talks of technology’s ability to ‘reveal’ the relation of man to nature and ‘lay bare’ the process of the production of social relations. At this point, Stiegler seems to be giving the structuring properties of technical system primacy over the individual genius, particularly when he emphasises, following Gille, the ‘play of chance and necessity’, or else ‘a play of constraints’, as the dynamic of technical progress, with individuals restrained to ‘follow quasi-obligatory paths’. Yet, at the same time, if the inventor is deposed as the efficient cause of production (speaking with Heidegger), there is nonetheless a logic that propels technical progress: following Leroi-Gourhan, he speaks of a ‘universal technical tendency’ and of ‘technical reason’. Stiegler seems to identify, give ontological autonomy to, and want to investigate phenomenologically, this innate productive drive towards innovation. We’ll see how this develops next week I think.

It is easy to recognise here the point, in Marx, at which human nature, or species-being (Gattungswesen), becomes labour-power (Arbeitsvermögen); where Stiegler seems to move beyond Marx is where he allies this force, not just with production, but with innovation. This is situated against an accelerating neoliberal logic of deregulation and massive financial speculation in which ‘the inventor has less importance than the entrepreneur’. Over the course of the twentieth century, according to Gille, the latency between scientific progress and technical progress has shortened to the extent that, instead of scientific discovery driving innovation, now ‘the desire for innovation incites invention’. Perhaps, we mused, this is what was meant last week by Stiegler’s suggestion that we might break the ‘speed-barrier’. The way in which we relate to each other, to technical, financial, political systems, and so forth, relies on a particular differential of relative speeds, which are now beginning to break apart – whether this manifests in the mediated experience of cinema, television, internet, etc, or in the split-second decisions required by the globalised information-exchanges of the stock market. Stiegler’s argument is that technics is entirely constitutive of time – though exactly how this manifests may not become entirely clear for a while.

We wondered, without resolution, what, given Stiegler’s invocation of Weberian ‘rationalisation’, was meant by Gille’s phrase ‘the future must be organised’. We also queried Stiegler’s use of Heidegger to think through questions of nature when the latter’s conception of it seems to be so naive and pastoral (thinking of the windmill as non-destructive, in preference to the coal mine for instance), and when Marx’s use of the concept might potentially be better thought through.

We ended on a complaint: that, though Stiegler’s vocabulary and syntax is entirely concomitant with a certain strand of continental thought, it was often unnecessarily complicated and, in any case, if, as with Derrida, it is intended as a deliberate tactic, of drawing attention to the fragility of linguistic construction, it was difficult here to divine the relevance to this particular project. Derrida is of course a major influence on Stiegler and it was countered that he has inherited (as he writes in the preface) the former’s suspicion of authority – the intention, by making very deliberate and intricate linguistic constructions, is perhaps to put the onus on the reader to do the work, to ‘pay attention’, to use a very Stieglerian phrase, and to engage in what he calls elsewhere ‘long-circuits of transindividuation’ – see this article for more on both of these and Chris has pointed us to some passages in Taking Care of Youth and the Generations which might be similarly helpful here. In arguing for a new understanding of technics that does not rely on the technical object, he is actively seeking to alter the synaptic structures of the brain itself. However, we could also point to issues in the translation and we thought it was a good idea to get hold of a copy of the French text to make comparisons. In any case, this points towards a need to be careful with the language used in the book, as well with our own, particularly given the interdisciplinarity which inspires the book, and to which it speaks.

Please do use the space here to discuss these issues, or indeed to correct my memory, and to bring up anything I may have forgotten. I’ve emailed the next section of the reading to those on the list – questions for discussion in advance will be welcome.

Also, I raised the possibility of viewing the entirety of The Ister at some point in the next couple of months – if there is a groundswell of interest in doing so then I will organise this.

Week 1 Summary / Week 2 Preparation – Preface and General Introduction

Thanks to everyone who came last night. I think it was a productive, if somewhat messy, first grapple with the text. We discussed some of the central claims of the general introduction to try and get at what Stiegler thinks his book is trying to do, to navigate the dizzying network of influences that are invoked, and to grasp the import of the ontological claim he is making regarding ‘technical being’.

Next week we start on the book proper, with the first section of the first chapter (please note that I’ve adjusted the page numbers for weeks 2 and 3 slightly to even out the balance). New members should always feel welcome to join!

Reading Strategy
We discussed strategies for organising our approach. I think there is often a sense in which the lone reader goes the deepest and I feel like Stiegler is quite rewarding in that sense; however, we each have our own specialisms, gaps, and sets of concerns that we can take advantage of in the group setting. Consequently, I think it was agreed that we would approach the rest of the text in a fairly linear fashion (despite the fact that Stiegler is perhaps not strictly linear in his thinking) and try to work through the argument a little more methodically – but also to use the online space to comment on or ask questions about the reading in advance of the session, so that we can try and orient our approach accordingly once we get there. So please do post these below over the course of the week.

The reading schedule is on the site – this is open to adjustment if we think we’re going too fast; I think the pacing should be OK and I’m keen to finish by the end of the summer but I do also want to make sure everyone has the time to absorb it as far as possible.

Secondary literature
The question of how much time to devote to some of the referenced or secondary literature came up. There are both benefits and dangers in attending to these (see this post for some reflection on this) and the best approach will probably always involve a dialectical method of departure from and return to the main text. It was agreed that some of the main reference points probably do require closer attention and we thought this week we should also read Heidegger’s ‘The Question Concerning Technology’ (it’s a short-ish essay that is easily Googlable). We all have different time constraints so I should stress that reading this, and other secondary texts that may come up further down the line, is entirely optional (unlike the Stiegler!).

How to deal with these within the group is still very much up for discussion however: I think the general consensus was that, as the time we have available on Tuesday evenings is quite limited, we should probably devote it to the body of T&T itself and that the online space or mailing list might be a better forum for discussing these peripheral concerns – I say ‘peripheral’ on the understanding that they are also in many ways central. At any rate, the point of looking at other texts is to inform our interpretation of Stiegler and so these readings will probably emerge in the main sessions anyway. The possibility of having another breakaway session in the week to look at these was considered; I think we should play this by ear but please don’t let me dictate!

I also want to draw your attention again to the Resources page. Much of the background mentioned last night is linked to there; I might place particular emphasis on the Ars Industrialis glossary of terms (in French but Google Translate fills in some gaps) – this should also be an expanding list, so I’m happy to take recommendations.

Online discussion
I will email the people who turned up last night separately to start a smaller private discussion list. Those who could not attend are welcome to ask to be included on this. I’ve also set up a separate page on the site where we should be able to form a conversation in the comments. If the whim takes any of us, we can also use this space to post up any longer comments or musings that we may have and I may be able to grant admin rights to others for this. I guess we’ll come to a natural consensus over what the best medium is, whether or not we want it to be public or not, and so on.

–     The room was a bit weird with awful acoustics and we were struggling to find a balance between fresh air and wind/noise, so apologies for that. If the weather keeps up then we might consider going outside but let’s stick with it for now.
–     The question of recording the sessions came up. I’d made no plans to do so and don’t really have suitable equipment anyway; I’m happy for individuals to make their own recordings though, as long as the other participants are. Perhaps we can share these as well.
–     My limited budget allowed for a small amount of drinks and snacks last night but I don’t have the institutional support to do this every week unfortunately. Please do bring supplies with you – I think this makes for a more convivial atmosphere.

That’s it for now – looking forward to seeing you all again next week!

Week 1 Reminder / Skype

Just a reminder that the first session for the Reading Technics group is this coming Tuesday. I’ve had no objections to the timeslot so we’ll start at 6.30 and finish around 8. For further instructions on getting there see here: https://readingtechnics.wordpress.com/2013/06/24/week-1-information/

A couple of extra points:
– I hope you’ve made good progress with the reading. For those without the book, I’ll continue to send through the relevant sections weekly. If you don’t have access to the reading then please let me know.

– I’ve had a couple of people mention joining via Skype. It would seem a particularly appropriate method of participation given our reading matter so I’m happy to give it a go. Prior experience suggests that these things never quite go according to plan but hopefully we can muddle through with minimal disruption. If you do want to participate in this way please email me to let me know your Skype details and so I can make the necessary technical preparations.

That’s all for now, see you in a few days…