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.

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