Week 7 – The Invention of the Human (pt. 2)

This week we spent most of our time trying to rearticulate the text as best we could. This is more or less how far we got.

Leroi-Gourhan gets us quite far with his account of hominization through tool-use; but only so far. There is a gap between homo faber and homo sapiens in Leroi-Gourhan which the anthropologist is not able to surmount. When he criticises Rousseau for thinking the distinctly human element of the human (i.e. human spirit, intelligence, etc) as a mere spiritual supplement to the animal ‘state of nature’, the former is unable to show how he is not also guilty of this binarism; he cannot adequately demonstrate a valid passage from the tool-making animal to the intelligent human.

Leroi-Gourhan’s narrative is one of an increasing complexity in the ‘sequence of operations’ of the construction of a tool (e.g. from the use of a rock to smash open a nut, to sharpening that rock with another rock, and finding ways of doing so more effectively, etc, etc), which constitutes different layers of anticipation and of memory. We move from survival-instinct (fight-or-flight mechanism) to reflection (upon what makes a good tool, how it might be used in the future, how it might be improved, how one goes about achieving this with efficiency, and so on); in other words, the human’s relation to the world changes from purely concrete (i.e. animal, determined by genetic programming) to one which incorporates increasing levels of abstraction (i.e. memory and foresight). It slowly emerges into the symbolic domain, acquiring the capacity for language, step by step (and, as Kittler notes, the world of the symbolic is, for Lacan, the world of the machine).

Stiegler points out that how this cannot be so by focusing on language. There can be no wholly concrete language (as Leroi-Gourhan suggests) – there is no way in which each object in the world (or rather, each phenomenological experience) can be attached to a different vocal signifier as this would be meaningless, there could be no possibility of communication (this is basic Saussure: all language is a system of relations, is a kind of differance). All words are, by necessity, already generalisations, or they are not linguistic. One does not emerge into the symbolic in stages; rather the subject and object construct each other in the same gesture.

Stiegler criticises Leroi-Gourhan for a kind of crude materialism that obfuscates his own reasoning. The enlargement of the brain (especially the pre-frontal cortex), motivated by the capacity for tool-use derived from the upright skeleton, drives the acquisition of language and constitutes the origin of the human – but this, for Stiegler, ‘explains nothing’, it is mere description (Rousseau understood this at least). In reality, he says, the brain and technical equipment exist as a structural coupling that de-/re-/co-form each other; a kind of mirror (proto)-stage, whereby consciousness is drawn out as a latent possibility, at the same time that tools develop as an always-possible extension of nature – this is what he calls an ‘instrumental maieutics’, which seems to have much in common with Heidegger’s Gestell; as a revealing of that which was already possible.

For Leroi-Gourhan, the human, having developed technics, is further along a continuum of evolutionary development than the animal; they are different manifestations of the same natural progression. For Stiegler, the human is both animal and technical at the same time as being not (merely) either. This last distinction is important: the human is a technical animal but technicity is not a supplement, it is not ‘added’ to the animal to free it from determination (this would be a restatement of Rousseau). The animal base (as instinct/genetic memory) is absolutely fundamental. Stiegler seems to speak of the human qua animal and of consciousness qua technics. It is only once we establish this that the possibility of agency that is necessary in constituting a human emerges (even as a micro-possibility).

So we end up with three types of memory: genetic (the code of genetic replication that is embodied in psycho-somatic action); epigenetic (lived human memory); and epiphylogenetic (technical exteriorisation). Later in his thought (beginning, I think, in volume two), this will be related (via Husserl) to primary, secondary, and tertiary retention – as immediate, recalled, and stored phenomenological experience. My genetic memory is what gives me two arms and two legs and makes me recoil when faced with danger; it replicates itself across a species. My epigenetic memory gives me a capacity for Russian, or ballroom dancing, is acquired through education and experience, and expires with the human individual; epiphylogenetic memory enables me to store my knowledge of these capacities, in order to compare with others and contribute to their education, even after I am gone. I think we also see here the beginnings of an understanding of ‘general organology’ of individuation (as per Disbelief and Discredit). For Leroi-Gourhan, this process seems to be a linear, telic movement – Stiegler urges us to think them together, in different combinations, with different emphases, but all at once.

A deliberately provocative question: how much of this argument is present in Dawkins’ meme theory? Stiegler deliberately evokes an understanding of technics coupled to biological evolution and Dawkins effectively explores ways in which evolution can continue (in Stiegler’s phrase) ‘by means other than life’, as the proliferation of epiphylogenetics (The Selfish Gene is the classic text but see also The Extended Phenotype on the extension of genetic selection to the domains of species and environment). The professional atheist’s unabashed positivism might be seen as a more extreme, and more typically arrogant, Anglo-empiricist brand of Leroi-Gourhan, and therefore subject to the same criticisms, but I’m not sure that there isn’t a more sympathetic reading to be had – particularly when a bit of Wikipedia-surfing leads to ideas in evolutionary biology like ‘dual inheritance theory’…


The Fall, Temporality, Stupidity, Shame

As has been noted in previous weeks, Stiegler seems to invoke the concept of the fall (qua second origin) as a key moment in the constitution of the human. There seemed to be three falls – the creation myth in Genesis, a developmental-psychological fall into the social-symbolic domain (i.e. the Lacanian mirror-stage, which by the end of Part One has been all but invoked directly), and the fall from the spirit realm into the body in Greek myth, as found in the Phaedrus. These three falls might, respectively, seem to exhibit three different temporalities, or three different relations to the origin: that of human history (where the fall constitutes the founding moment of the human race); that of individual development (the founding of the subject); and finally that of thought (the founding of the human condition as a battle for anamnesis).

The first two are linear developments at different rates (epigenetic and epiphylogenetic) and Stiegler seems to want to conflate them, or at least draw out the parallels – hence the naming of a ‘mirror proto-stage’ in early man. The third, however, seems to be a different type of relationship with the origin, a fall that eternally threatens thought with a return to amnesis; it’s a relationship that produces a distinctly circular temporality, rather than merely being subject to it (technics as time, rather than just technics in time).

I think it is this latter relation that leads Stiegler to his later focus on attention and on stupidity, when formulating an understanding of knowledge that is necessarily pharmacological: the threat of a return to stupidity (i.e. of disindividuation) as the inherent condition for a robust and creative knowledge and for new (and potentially liberating) circuits of transindividuation. He writes elsewhere of ‘that stupidity proper to knowledge, that is the impropriety of knowledge’.

No doubt we will hear more of this when we come to the myth of Prometheus and Epimetheus. But I think this careful attention to the looming potential for hubris (the pride that comes before the fall, perhaps), which might be a shared quality of both revolutionary conservatism and utopian-socialist ‘projects’, also goes some way towards finding a key, not only to Stiegler’s commitment to the apparatus of pedagogy, but also to what we might perceive as his preference for political reform instead of overthrow. Following Deleuze, philosophy (as a productive act – of concepts, of time, as an approach to the limit), for Stiegler, properly emerges out of the experience of shame (as well as being fundamental to the concept of the fall) – and shame, for Marx, as for Deleuze, Derrida, and Foucault after him, is ‘a revolution in itself‘.

Week 6 – Who? What? The Invention of the Human (more to come…)

This week we asked what exactly Stiegler was trying to achieve by invoking evolutionary theory, and by thinking Leroi-Gourhan and Rousseau with and, critically, against each other. Again we wondered exactly where Stiegler’s own voice was here – particularly considering that much of the chapter seems to restate the Derridean project (via the concept of differance but also in its stress on dissolving the animal/human barrier) but not always explicitly. Especially where the science is a bit dodgy (to say the least!), we tried to prise apart the general principles which seemed, nonetheless, to inhere. There will be more to say on some of these questions in the coming week…

Meanwhile, we might also like to look at Derrida’s The Animal That Therefore I Am which has multiple resonances with this section. See Google Books for the full text and this article for just the first (most relevant) section – I have a PDF of this if you do not have access.

Chris writes:

The question of a working definition of Gramme arose. I have “material trace of play of force” written in my notes, but see the section titled “Science and the Name of Man” in Chapter 3, Part 1 of “Of Grammatology” for more on how Derrida develops this term from Leroi-Gourhan.

Central focus of this section seemed to be laying a groundwork for understanding the passage from epigenesis to epiphylogenesis. The latter term describing the technical and therefore necessarily collective individuation (physical and psychical) of subjects… but the definition is going to become more nuanced over pretty much the rest of the book as far as I can tell.

Stiegler’s issues with his pet monkey (or the monkey’s issues with B.S. and his family) [as related in a Goldsmiths lecture, Stiegler once had a pet monkey but had to get rid of it when it ‘fell in love’ with him and became aggressive to the female members of the family] raise questions as to what degree different species can actually engage affectively: at what point does “engagement” become “simulation” due to actual, biophysical differences in development? In this connection see p. 140 of the text particularly.

We tried to find a working definition of “anterior field”. This is a term with definite, but qualified, meanings in anatomy (e.g. anterior heart field; anterior auditory field (neuro-anatomy)), L-G seems to use in a more general and evolutionary sense to mean a function of an evolved mode of physical orientation. See here (particularly page 4):


and maybe: http://voiceimitator.blogspot.co.uk/2009/05/andre-leroi-gourhan-gesture-and-speech.html

Week 5 – Technology and Anthropology pt.2

Stiegler continues to investigate the concept of the ‘origin’; yet, while discerning this origin is not deemed to be a matter of great importance by Stiegler, he is very much interested in asking why it inevitably seems to be so for humanity. Most of this week’s session was spent discussing the idea of the ‘fall’, a ‘second’ origin that recurs in different forms throughout the chapter. In the Phaedrus the spirit ‘falls’ into its fleshly form and, in doing so, undergoes a ‘forgetting’ of the transcendental knowledge that pre-exists humanity and which it is the task of anamnesis to recover. In Genesis, man ‘falls’ from purity into sin as a result of eating the forbidden fruit of knowledge, a state in which it is the task of Christianity’s subjects to open themselves to God and achieve holy (re-)union through redemption and, ultimately, salvation. In both cases there is a movement from a state of naïve unity and equality (what Rousseau calls the ‘state of nature’) into a state of differentiation and social inequality, in which progression (i.e. a transcendence of this state) seems to imply a kind of return, recollection, or rediscovery – the latter idea, by now, strongly recalling the Heideggerian conception of technics as revealing. However, there seems to be a key distinction between the two accounts, whereby the Platonic fall implies a loss of original knowledge while Genesis narrates the story of its acquisition. Stiegler does not seem to mark this differentiation – yet we wondered whether it was an implicit strategy for demonstrating the pharmacological (i.e. duplicitous) relation between technics and epistemology.

At this point we are still talking anthropologically and archaeologically but the question was raised as to whether the fall (into knowledge, into consciousness, into the social) might also be considered from the perspective of developmental psychology. To me at least, Lacan seemed to be a silent voice here, particularly (pp.128-129) when the affective aspects of Rousseau are emphasised: pity, suffering, disgust, empathy and love as the motors of recognition and differentiation amongst the species. Coupled with an invocation of an originary narcissism, the elements of the mirror-stage seem to be present and correct. Stiegler is almost certainly aware of the thesis that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny and, considering his more recent emphasis on neuro- and psycho-power, it does not seem an unlikely connection for him to make, even if it is implicit at this point.

So we asked in what way the fall was a necessary expression of the technical tendency. The tendency was described by one of the group as a will for life to increase in complexity (and we might investigate this definition as we proceed). Using the language of Michel Serres (in Genesis), what is the relation between the disaggregated multiplicity (the many bounded individuals) to the coherent unity (the bound collective)? The tendency would suggest a motion from one to the other. For Serres, the rational mind seeks unitary knowledge but is forced, unwillingly, to think the two together. Stiegler seems to be mapping a method for doing so, perhaps thinking the tendency as ways in which the multiple comes to replace the unit, even as it tries to achieve reconciliation with unity. Local knowledge (i.e. concretisation) merely illustrates and nuances this relation; we are told that it is only transcendental knowledge that can think the human qua tendency.

Hence why Stiegler reaches for Rousseau. Yet this raises a question mark over the degree to which such an analysis can be deployed in the service of a viable political project. To talk of transcendental knowledge, or of human nature (which are closely connected), is to suggest a narrative that is not easily reconciled with a materialist politics (though see Norman Geras on this point of tension or, more controversially, Jon Elster’s rational choice Marxism). We might find further resonance with Serres here, who writes that, ‘to believe that class struggle is the driving force of history is, with exemplary rigour, to remain an Aristotelian’ (Genesis, 84), a designation from which Stiegler is keen to distance himself. This belief, alongside a belief in a particular future formation of human social being (indeed, any anticipation of a human past or future), is understood as a particular kind of second origin; as a constituting component of technical ontology; as a means of reaching outside the boundaries of the self and the now; and hence as inherently pharmacological. But to what extent does this formulation play into liberal-conservative narratives of reform?

Further comments on week 4 / Simondonian clarifications

Below Chris offers some of his reactions to the first part of ‘Technology and Anthropology’, set against critical reflections on Stiegler and the text as a whole. I’ve also added a resource page for Simondon, to which Chris also helpfully adds some pointers on Simondon for those of us less familiar with him as well as several pertinent quotations from Muriel Combes’ (quite explicitly counter-Stieglerian) book that was published recently.

I have to say I found this is a frustrating section of Technics and Time, not because it’s particularly difficult, but because it combines extensive passages where far too little is said about far too much (see 85 – 91) with the pointless (to my mind) setting up of straw targets. Why not extract what is productive from other bodies of work (including their productive mistakes, as Althusser does with Rousseau in his “Materialism of the Encounter…” essay for example) rather than highlight what are pretty obvious inadequacies anyway? Why draw on texts which are both outmoded and shackled by the narrowness of their discipline, when so much other material is available, all of which Stiegler is certainly aware of? Perhaps a willingness to let the dead bury the dead is one difference between the mindset of a critical theorist and that of a philosopher.

Steigler seems particularly keen on setting up false problems in order to solve them at great length. It must surely be a commonplace to any anti-essentialist thinker that there is no opposition between being and becoming other than at the level of representation, so why belabour the point? Similarly, why spend two paragraphs setting forth an absurdly limited definition of technics for the sole purpose of demonstrating the impossibility of doing so? Stiegler seems caught at moments by a residual and of course untenable will-to-objectivity.

One thing that came up in discussion was Stiegler’s conservatism, exemplified – for me – by his recent comments in a lecture series to the effect (I am not quoting directly) that he didn’t care where “the solution” [to particular problems of psycho-power] came from, whether from the left or the right, as long as it came.” Although it can safely be said that Stiegler, with his insistence on understanding all technics as pharmaka, in no way conceives of there actually being “a solution”, the fact that he can even imagine that a project of the political right and its associated economics could offer a positive (i.e. creative rather than merely reproductive) implementation of technics is disturbing. The borderline paranoia of many of the passages in the six pages noted above seems to me consistent with this failure of political awareness. Perhaps it also gives rise to the careless ethnocentrism of certain moments in the text.

Week 4 – Technology and Anthropology pt.1

This week we took on the first half of the second chapter, on technology and anthropology, which sees Stiegler moving, via Plato, towards a discussion of Rousseau as the founder of something like a ‘transcendental anthropology’, i.e. an anthropology that is not limited by empiricism, not a descriptive human science, but rather one that seeks to identify a universal human nature. In other words (considering we are heading for a more in-depth engagement with Leroi-Gourhan in the next chapter), we are seeking a methodology for demonstrating ways in which the technical tendency is concretised in the ethnic domain.

The emphasis here is on the tension between ‘being’ and ‘becoming’ in the human and we focused on two short passages to this effect, pp.89-90 and pp.93-94. The ontic presence of the human is invariably narrated in terms of a relation to its others: organic evolution as a leaving-behind of the animal and technical evolution as a leaving-behind of the human and ultimately the planet (citing Blanchot here, a ‘becoming astral’); a departure from and movement towards an imagined other (c.f. Lyotard’s The Inhuman). So, whatever its biological origin, mankind has a ‘second origin’ as a meaning-making cognitive being, which is history (and its correlate in anticipation). We may or may not realise the distant promise of this forward-driven narrative of progress, which may or may not be ideological; the point is that it has a profound impact on the immediate future, that this second (narrative historical) origin determines, to an extent, the possibilities of the imminent present – whether, in increasing humanity’s capacities, we are not also ever-further dehumanised. One point of contention was whether this second origin is ethnocentric – as ‘a global Western culmination’ – and whether this can be reduced to (or, alternatively, explained in terms of) a certain conception of neoliberalism as a mythology of the entrepreneurial individual within a very conservative formulation of progress.

The second section we struggled over was the section disarmingly titled ‘Technology’, which at first appears as a simple restatement of the Aristotelian distinction between techne qua technical objects and qua poiesis. Yet a closer reading seems to be imply a conceptual movement from the latter to the former in ways which are not entirely clear. Techne is first posited as a ‘productive skill’ which acts on matter: so cooking is technical, whereas elegance is not, and this implies a craftsman as efficient cause. This is then challenged by the idea of ‘spectacle’, which implies performance and thus a production of sorts. But this is not necessarily a performance with or for others, not necessarily carried out in the domain of ‘social commerce’ (where this might sit with Lacan, for whom a performative action is always for another, even if that other is not present, is unclear) – ‘it might simply afford pleasure to its “efficient cause”’. So it seems we now have to contend with (social, communicative) ‘spectacle’ and (individual, affective) ‘pleasure’ as further constitutive aspects of technical production.

Assuming that Stiegler is speaking in a deliberately naïve (non-Lacanian) sense here of production as an end in itself, it is still more unclear how we get from this to the next couple of sentences, where language qua technique is ‘a potentially marketable commodity’ (and presumably ‘social commerce’ is a deliberately ambiguous hinge to enable this manoeuvre?). But we have still not reached the market: the commodity (technical object) is still only a potential, a capacity for concretisation of the skill. Technique is often misunderstood, Stiegler writes, as a ‘particular type of skill that is not indispensable to the humanity of a particular human’, an already-alienated specialisation, and thus a commodity; the idea that technique is a tendency that exists apart from the human is a reading that ‘bespeaks an inadequate understanding’. Do we not here return to the distinction between labour and labour-power, the former as that ‘aggregate of those mental and physical capabilities existing in the physical form, the living personality, of a human being, capabilities which he sets in motion whenever he produces a use-value of any kind’ (Capital: 270)?

So again we turn to human nature, which is why the more metaphysical approaches of Rousseau, Leroi-Gourhan and, briefly, Levi-Strauss are preferred over the sort of empirical anthropology (naming no names of course) that ‘suspends the question of the a priori’. We are looking for the de jure rather than the de facto qualities, and that knowledge that can be ‘revealed’ (pace Heidegger) through anamnesis rather than created anew. We start, therefore, not from ‘an “I think,” but [from] a feeling, an “I feel,” a suffering’.

Week 3 / Week 4 – Theories of Technical Evolution Pt.2

Our third session finished the first chapter of the book, moving from a deployment of Leroi-Gourhan’s paleo-anthropological approach towards an initial presentation of Simondonian thought. We focused on Stiegler’s use of Leroi-Gourhan’s concept of the ‘tendency’ which, we quickly established, was not a shadowy cabal of mind-controlling elites (even if it does feel like it at times) but a means of thinking the historical continuity of technical development in geographically disparate locales. Questions were raised over what extent Stiegler saw the technical tendency as autonomous, to what extent it predates the human individual, and what kind of a teleology was implied. The tendency is universal while its concretisations (in technical objects or systems) are ethnically specific; nonetheless, there can be no tendency without humans, or cultures even, as it emerges out of the interior (or in Simondonian terms, ‘psychic’) milieu: a brick does not move itself up a wall; a crystal’s evolution follows no such tendency. Yet he also insists on the exterior milieu of the material world (which may also include other cultures with alternative interior milieus). Following Leroi-Gourhan’s insight that one cannot plot the development of humanity in the same way as one might for other organic life, technics can be seen as evolution ‘by means other than life’. Stiegler somewhat playfully paints the project as a test to see how far the analogy between technical and organic evolution holds, in terms of selection, mutation, variation, and so on (here we might also refer to the scientifically-questioned but metaphorically-applied relationship between ontogeny and phylogeny which is briefly alluded to in the long footnote 7).

So, although the technical tendency often seems like an entirely autonomous and determining dynamic, allowing no room for human agency – especially once we get to Simondon and the human is no longer the ‘intentional actor’ but merely the ‘operator’ of this dynamic – nonetheless, it seems at this point that the origin of the tendency (from Leroi-Gourhan’s perspective at least) is within the interior milieu. Further, technical innovation also seems to depend on the human capacity for anticipation (future-oriented thinking) which lends technics a meaningful logic and sense of telos. So, reading the two together, it seems that the tendency, at least insofar as it is constituted in history, is a mutually embedded anthropo-technical process; one that requires a separate technical (or, I think, what Simondon would call an ‘associated’) milieu in order to be thought clearly. We asked if this was a dialectical relationship (and suggested that Stiegler would insist that it was not) or whether we could understand the tendency in psychoanalytic terms, as ‘drive’ or desire – particularly as Stiegler seems to have abandoned the concept of the tendency in his later writings (for more recent Stiegler on desire see here and here).

We also spent a good amount of time discussing style. We talked about the patchwork of references and quotations Stiegler deploys in order to advance his argument which, we mused, is not always clear but is nonetheless clearly deliberate and skilfully negotiated; likewise his use of neologism and ‘qua’ to denote specificity through connotation. More disconcerting was the use of clearly marked yet unattributed quotes. All of which draws attention to a need to be aware of the specifics and differences between the theorists that are being mobilised, in order to parse the originality of Stiegler’s own voice. To that effect, I’m going to add some further links to the resources page focusing on Gille, Leroi-Gourhan, and Simondon, for leisurely perusal. Please feel free to contribute.

We read on to page 105 next week, going further into the anthropological perspective. I’m getting a sense so far that the question of time (as a technical property, rather than a narrative method) becomes increasingly important from here on, so I would also encourage us to start thinking that through and will add some links to that effect too.

Thanks all!