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!

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