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’.

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