Being/Human Festival

The King’s Arts & Humanities Festival this year is titled ‘Being/Human’ and features a number of talks, seminars, and workshops loosely based around boundaries/intersections between the human and its perceived others. It runs from 11th to 25th October and all events are totally free.

There are absolutely loads of events and, needless to say, several overlaps with the themes of this group. Particularly of interest might be the following:

Animals and humans in modern science and medicine – two events: 1 / 2
AS Byatt on the early days of psychoanalysis
‘Prometheus-Empedocles Fragments’ – a multi-media performance-installation
Paul Gilroy on race (not) defining humanity
Digital humanities and digital humans
Biometrics and biopolitics (book launch)
Robots at the Science Museum
Virtual objects and haptic interfaces
Robotics and dance
Modernism and the ‘new’
Human creativity and the utopian impulse (via Bloch)
The human in Plato, Kant, Nietzsche, and modern political theory

Reading Technics – The Future…

At the end of the final session, we talked about potential directions for the reading group. We agreed on taking a well-deserved break of a good month or so but most of us were keen to continue down the path we’ve begun. Several of us were interested in continuing on the Stiegler steamship and ploughing into the next two volumes (to mix transportation-based metaphors). However, the group consensus was to explore some related directions in technology and Stiegler-studies – which is convenient, as it means I can keep the blog going as it is, without changing the name.

No readings have been set just yet, we’re going to use the time to have a think about what has resonated most so far and find something we think suits the group in its new formation (an article, chapter, or other short-ish text or two). I am also open to other media: suggestions for complementary films, music, literature and so on, would be brilliant. We will probably meet once a month and I will continue to administrate. As it will be something different every week, newcomers will always be welcome.

In the meantime, use the rest of the site to get some ideas, particularly the resources section (also check the submenus for related topics and thinkers), which I will continue to update and be happy to receive ideas for.

Thanks to everyone who has turned up so far; looking forward to seeing how the group progresses. Those who want to be involved, or have suggestions, should contact me by October 17th 2013.


Week 10 – The Disengagement of the ‘What’

In this final session, we tried to draw out the concluding sentiments of the book, which (as we noted) is not always easy when Stiegler insists on speaking in multiple voices, quoting at length, and revelling in rhetoric, right up to the last page. Nonetheless there are some important and original insights to be gained, ones which are generally more than the product of their influence, and which not only provide tools for apprehending the problems of technical being but through which we might also gain both the confidence and the framework for their analysis.

The first of these is the distinction between primary, secondary, and tertiary retention, derived from Husserl’s phenomenology. The latter conceives of memory in terms of perception and recollection, through which we not only encounter worldly phenomena but also begin to reflect on them in the moment of their unfolding. In Husserl’s metaphor, we perceive the individual tones and qualities of a melody as they happen (primary retention); these then leave traces on our memory (secondary retentions), like a comet’s tail, that support and inflect our perception of subsequent tones, and which we must recollect in order to construct an arc of melodic progression to which we are able to ascribe meaning. There is a passive/active distinction here, between primary retention as something which happens to us and secondary retention as something we do with or to it. We do not recall every moment of our perception: there is an inevitable deterioriation such that our secondary retentions form an incomplete and ever-fading archive of primary retentions; but it is adequate enough for us to be able to reflect upon and interpret the world in socially-meaningful ways.

What Husserl does not allow is the exteriorisation of this retention. He calls it image-consciousness, which is, for him, of a different order to memory. It is a representation of a representation, at a level of abstraction that removes it from temporality. For Stiegler, unsurprisingly, this last is absolutely central: memory endures in tertiary material supports which we encounter as we enter into the world, and which shape (mediate, obstruct, accelerate, intervene in…) our experience of it (either implicitly or explicitly). Technical being is founded on this system of tertiary retentions that exist outside the body but in relation to it, as prosthetic memory. The distinction between primary and secondary memory is important for the French philosopher but he is also keen to demonstrate how they bleed into each other – and, significantly, how they are both inhabited by tertiary memory.

One of the problems we encountered was whether language, as the first and foremost prosthetic system, counts as an instance of tertiary memory per se. Does tertiary memory always have to be material, or corporeally independent? Language in use would seem to rely on secondary retention (meaning-making built up across a ‘large now’) which we deploy and alter dynamically – but that usage relies on our immersion in a pre-existing (if perpetually unsettled) framework. Stiegler himself speaks specifically of ‘ortho-thetic’ (lit: correctly set in place) technologies – that is, those technologies which record exactly (phonography, photography and so on), distinguished from writing, painting, etc. While this distinction is potentially problematic – particularly when we get to digitisation – it perhaps draws attention to language as an exemplary demonstration of the blurred lines between primary, secondary, and tertiary retention.

We were also concerned to question how Stiegler has superseded Heidegger by the end of the book. As we saw in the previous section, Husserl’s great pupil places great emphasis on the ‘already there’ of Dasein. Technical objects constitute the space of being – but they do so in ways that recede from us. They are things more often seen as present-at-hand rather ready-to-hand. Technology naturalises itself, becoming so intimate that it is in fact distant because it is not explicitly present. Heidegger calls this distancing through closeness ‘de-severance’ [Ent-fernung; French: é-loignement], in a passage that is worth quoting:

Seeing and hearing are distance-senses [Fernsinne] not because they are far reaching, but because it is in them that Dasein as deseverant mainly dwells. When, for instance, a man wears a pair of spectacles which are so close to him distantially that they are “sitting on his nose,” they are environmentally more remote from him than the picture hanging on the opposite wall. Such equipment has so little closeness that often it is proximally quite impossible to find. Equipment for seeing—and likewise for hearing, such as the telephone receiver—has what we have designated as the inconspicuousness of proximally ready-to-hand. So too, for instance, does the street, as equipment for walking. (p.251)

We see through the glasses and we see with the glasses but we do not see the glasses (while we are wearing them); in the same way, we do not just walk through the street, the street opens itself up to us as an environment optimised for walking. We do not reflect on this – perhaps an element of defamiliarisation, or détournement, or strategic alienation will help us to do so.

So my (technical) relationship to the world into which I am flung is constitutive of my being – all well and good. But it is always my relationship: Stiegler regrets that Heidegger does not follow through on the promise of the world-historial already-there  (the implication is perhaps that here lies the basis of a conservatism that will ultimately be his downfall). He is true to his idealist-phenomenological roots (bound by a tradition, perhaps) and insists on the primacy of the ‘who’ (in its being-toward-death) of the thanatalogical subject, entirely disengaged from the technical, or even social, ‘what’:

It is the world-historial having-been, concretized by “remains, monuments, and records that are still present-at-hand” that makes historical thematization possible. But it is the historiality of the historian’s existence [that] is the existential foundation for history as a science, even for its most trivial and ‘mechanical’ [handwerklich] procedures. (p.272)

Stiegler elevates the other – and suggests that it may, in fact, be a machine. For Heidegger, being takes place in a socio-technical world; for Stiegler, there is nothing but socio-technical being, which weaves a temporality that exceeds that of the human, whilst simultaneously constituting and organising it. Human time may be finite but it is so in contradistinction from the ‘what’ which is infinite, not in a theological sense but in the sense in which it is fixed in a moment of its own eternal reproduction.

Stiegler refers to Barthes’ reflections on photography to elucidate this (something he will do again at greater length in the second volume). In Camera Lucida Barthes famously meditates at length on family photographs of his recently deceased mother. In an effort to prioritise primary experience over secondary knowledge, here is a photograph of my mother, with her parents, circa 1949:

bill, mother, eileen,

In the photograph, my grandmother, now in her late eighties, will have been a few years younger than I am now; my grandfather, who died before I was born, a few years older. I do not recognise any of these people, obviously, for I never knew them like this, but here they are, ‘ortho-thetically’ represented before me, and I know that this was them and that, for two of the three, it still is. I am unable to see my mother, new-born and unfamiliar to me, not really – her birth is incomprehensible to me – and yet she is present: in body of course; but also in the face of her own mother, staring at me quizzically, through the eye of a device that she saw seeing her and which now blends with my own eye. The photograph closes the gap between us, in a way – or it wants to close the gap. Through that machine, then through technologies of printing, storage, and finally of digital transfer and archiving, I am now looking at her, through time and in time, from a café in Waterloo – even if she still only sees that initial camera. In her I try to see the face and body of the nan that I know now. But it’s hard – I feel the temporal connection more than I am able to know it; my body recoils at the prospect of crude degradation that age brings with it.

I feel also the duality of present absence and absent presence in my granddad, a man I never knew, and who I know I will never know, who will always look this way to me (even if, in some later examples, his clothes are slightly more filled-out and his head less encumbered with hair). I can reflect on my grandparents’ age then, knowing what I know now, knowing to some extent the life that they will lead, the times that will be less happy, and the events that will eventually lead to my birth, and knowing the certainty of time and the end of time that they now, to me, represent. I ‘know’ this in a manner far more real than if I had heard it told to me: their eyes, and the vague surroundings of suburban London also represented in the picture, accuse me with the actuality of time – of their ‘time’ (their epoch and their everydayness), of the temporal distance that separates us, and the time (moment and process) that I now live.

These orthothetic tertiary retentions continue to live alongside us (they are con-temporary) and they burn themselves into the light of our own time. It is not just a photograph though – it is many, many thousands of photographs, endlessly produced and reproduced, alongside reams of film, sound, and computational information, rendering individual and social phenomenological instances exactly and materially. How can this not intervene and shape us anew every time we encounter it? This is not language, these are not stories – orthothetic representation makes a claim for absolute accuracy, direct and unmediated factual presentation. They naturalise themselves in this claim and we, forgetful Epimetheans, do not always do enough to reflect on it. This is why, according to Stiegler, there is a ‘pressing need for a politics of memory’ – one which of course shall be saved for the volumes to come.

Week 9 – Already There

Stiegler spends much of this section reiterating the previous chapter using a Heideggerian vocabulary, in order to move towards a critique of the latter philosopher (via an unlikely ally in Johnny Rotten). It is a long chapter and we did not make it all the way to the end. I’ve summarised below as much as we did manage.

The ‘originary de-fault of origin’ which Epimetheus represents forms the ground of an ‘already-there’: even if we have a selective relation to this ground (Epimetheia engendering a simultaneous forgetting and reflection in this regard), we nonetheless form an understanding of ourselves through our relation to each other, which itself is constituted through our relation to our past. Dasein is temporal: it is being-in-the-world insofar as it is being-with-each-other; it is through others that we inherit that which is ‘already there’ before us (a social tradition, technologically founded), with and against which we are constituted. The question, as Stiegler asks, is ‘that of addressing the modalities of instrumentality as such’ against this ‘already there’ – modalities which harbour three conditions: ‘the condition of idiomatic instrumentality’; of ‘massive indifferentiation’; and ‘the instrumental condition’ (p.206). That is, it is a question of excising the relations which are specific to particular technical objects and, in each case, of reconciling the determining factors of our inherited past with the potential produced by it, and of clarifying the subject-object relation (between the who and the what).

Stiegler is clear: the problem with Heidegger is not that he has a pejorative opinion of the relationship between humans and technics – contrary to several commentators’ beliefs he does not. Indeed, he gets this exactly right. It is not the philosophical task to choose to ‘oppose’ or ‘promote’ technology (as Hubert Dreyfus writes) but to ‘open oneself to it’, to allow it to ‘reveal’ itself – to reflect on its ‘already there’-ness. We have already heard this in Stiegler’s call for a reinstatement of the Epimetheus’ significance in the Protagorean myth.

Two types of time are distinguished – phenomenological time (the time of the who: Dasein) and technological time (the time of the what: clock-time). To get to grips with the latter is important, considering firstly that we are arguing that it constitutes the former, while secondly, acknowledging that technologies of recording (elaboration, conservation and transmission – that is, of historicity and facticity, of knowledge qua tradition) are undergoing radical change. So it is not time per se that we are investigating, but different ‘times’ (different modes of time). The clock allows us to measure time, to discretise it, in ways that also imply a knowledge of calendrical time, and of seasonal time (based on planetary cycles); we distinguish between the ‘now’ (the discrete moment) and cyclical movement (the endless return – cf. Prometheus’ eternal punishment). This ‘program’ (a technical system of temporality) is taken up by the ‘program industries’ (Stiegler’s take on the culture industry), which similarly play with the capturing of the now (in ‘real time’ broadcasting) and cyclical time (scheduling/programming).

Dasein, for Heidegger, is ‘improbable’ – non-determined, unpredictable, unprogrammable. We are individuals, individuated by our own experience of being-toward-death – that is, of being distinctly aware of both the imminence of death and also of never having the possibility of experiencing our own death. But we cannot live each moment in this knowledge; we retreat from it, putting it off so that we are able to function in life. This is replicated in our uncanny experience of technology, we retreat from the fact that it reminds us of our own Epimethean deficiency – our reliance on technical prostheticity ‘amounts to an immersion in the knowledge of nonknowing’ (219). So this difference (between who and what) is not ontological (subject and object); it is a exactly matter of différance: we are differentiated through this knowledge of death that is always deferred.

The authentic being of Dasein (in its futural anticipation, i.e. its possibility of self-determination) is lost in the (punk) ‘generation of today’s “time”’, who declare there to be ‘no future’, and refer to themselves as the ‘blank generation’ (the generation at the end of history) – Heidegger wondered if this would be the fate of those who live in the ‘real time’ of broadcasting that was just beginning to emerge with radio; Stiegler responds that this possibility is always held within techné, which produces (or constitutes) the phenomenology of time qua différance. The early Heidegger, at least, does not allow that technology might hold this constitutive property (even though he does insist on the human’s thrown-ness into a world already constituted for him); he always privileges the subject, the ‘who’. On the contrary, Stiegler says that mnemo-technologies of recording and transmission (those which create a tradition) ‘fix’ the past for us, even if they do not determine it (Heidegger does not grasp this distinction); they create the possibilities for individuation.

The clock effaces as it measures, as does writing – the latter, in fixing a tradition, being a way of marking time. Something is lost in the discretisation of clock-writing – that which is unrepresentable, or ‘improbable’. Experience being rendered as data, we lose the sense of différance, of lived anticipation and memory, and so become increasingly present-focused. This concretises in the real-time of live broadcast (‘breaking’) news, and election fever, for instance, or the phonographic voice of the Führer: the program industries as failure of tradition to make futurity manifest; that is the triumph of homogeneity over individuation.

The ‘individual’ is thus not the subject: it is a confluence of temporally motivated subject-object relations. It is the citizen within the community, gaining a sense of aido and diké from its socio-technical situatedness. It is a ‘belonging to an isonomy in and through which an autonomy is affirmed’ (230).

[A brief aside: on Saturday I went to London Zoo. If you still struggle with the concept of the fault of Epimetheus, I heartily recommend spending fifteen minutes in the company of a caged gorilla, watching it watch you, noting its immense brute force coupled with its serene incapacity, and feeling the unheimlich combination of fascination and shame well up at the same time that it is reflected back (a reflection that is, of course, a projection). Stay there long enough so that, when it does inevitably approach the glass, you feel your muscles unwillingly contract in preparatory retreat and reflect on the genetic determination that locks us together with the animal, yet allows us to walk free of the enclosure, leaving it to its frozen existence in a technical system it cannot confront. To do so is not to learn the meaning of our originary de-fault but to remember it as it reveals itself experientially, and is, I think, wholly in the spirit of the book.]

Week 8 – Prometheus’ Liver

In this section Stiegler elucidates the myth of Prometheus and Epimetheus in order to draw out the implications of a thesis based on originary technicity. To do so he relates the version of the myth found in Plato’s Protagoras and compares it to the version in Hesiod, as related by Jean-Pierre Vernant; somewhat obliquely, we found, he relies on the difference in the two accounts (a summary of both here). Stiegler’s basic complaint is that, philosophies of technics that do exist (most notably that of Heidegger) invariably invoke the myth of Prometheus – he who stole fire from the Gods, eventually engendering the modern rhetorical trope characterising science as ‘playing God’ – yet do not take account of Epimetheus (ironically himself the God of forgetting) – he who, when handing out differential qualities to all mortal beings so that they may live in equilibrium, forgot man, leaving him naked and inept. Stiegler quite reasonably points out that, if we are going to make use of this myth, then one cannot think the former without taking account of the latter.

Prometheus is important: it is he who delivers man out of animal ignorance, who gifts man with technical skill and knowledge; through him humans gain divine qualities. However, though we gain knowledge of the divine, becoming close to Gods, setting up religious sects and acts of worship (something found in all civilisations but never in the animal kingdom), in doing so we nonetheless make manifest our division from the Godly realm (Gods do not worship each other). Most significantly, this divine approach is only necessary because of Epimetheus’ original error. While the qualities animals make use of in their quest for survival (speed, size, claws, shells, etc) positively constitute them amongst each other, the quality of techne given to humans is compensatory; it makes up for a constituting lack. So techne is not purely a positive quality, not just something which differentiates humans from the animal kingdom, but also one which reminds man of his insufficiency, of his brute kinship. We are caught between the animal and the divine, almost both but not quite either.

This is the true quality of Epimetheus, engendering reflection on life and awareness of death: humility, shame, and fear. But the two brothers must be thought together: consequently we live in a state of elpis, blind hope, whereby, thanks to Prometheus, we have a knowledge of death – with divine foresight we know with certainty that it will one day arrive; but we also know that we cannot know when or how it will occur, or indeed what it involves (this is what Stiegler means when he has described technology as, more properly, a ‘thanatology’ – that is, Heidegger’s being-toward-death). As a result we also gain eris, competitive spirit (a kind of Ancient Greek neoliberalism), which drives us to go beyond our mortal state but can also turn us against each other, to self-destruct. In Hesiod, this is Pandora’s legacy: initially, humans are in a state of constant war; after Zeus intervenes, this becomes discourse and politics.

[A thanatological aside: this pleasingly pre-millennium-style page has much to draw our attention when it comes to thinking about (and escaping) death.]

This almost-but-not-quite-ness manifests also in our uncanny relation to the technical objects we are forced to invent to continue our survival: technology fascinates and frightens in equal amounts. They are reminders of our mortality and so we strategise to make their presence invisible by ‘naturalising’ technology; we work to neutralise the technical pharmakon by forgetting our reliance on prosthesis. We repress rather than work through this uneasy but constitutive relationship between phusis and techne. And so we reify life in artefacts that ‘destroy what gathers in an effective and active being-together’ such that this discomfort that manifests in anxiety is at the root of the political question of the individual and the community: ‘being-together is constantly threatened by its own activity […] Mortals, because they are prosthetic in their very being, are self-destructive’ (198).

Hence, the technical art of politics relies on hermeneia, the interpretive and translational act of interpretation between these sets of constituting relations: technics and nature; divinity and animality; Prometheus and Epimetheus. Hermes is sent to mediate, and make the endowments of aido (modesty, respect, humility) and dike (judgment/justice) which are distributed amongst all men, not just the philosophical elites, in order to counter this destructive binarism, and are as such the founding principles of the community and of civilisation. Prometheus’s punishment (of eternally and repeatedly having his liver eaten by Zeus’ eagle) appropriately enacts (‘mirrors’) the human condition of constantly renewed suffering – of hunger, cold, labour, and so on (the liver also considered as the seat of human emotions). And so it is here, after two hundred pages, that Stiegler has laid the groundwork for a society absolutely predicated on care and suffering; that is, for a politics wedded at birth to technics.

One particular line of questioning that comes out of this chapter for me emerges from a comparison between this myth and the Judaeo-Christian creation myth. There are clear similarities: the administration of the beasts (Adam/Epimetheus); the deception of an omniscient God (YHWH/Zeus); the acquisition of divine knowledge (Eve/Prometheus); man’s subsequent alienation from God; the role of the first woman in spreading discord through curiosity/temptation (Eve/Pandora); the punishment of humans through the replacement of fruitful reproduction with agricultural work and childbirth (the double curse of labour). This particularly brings out the role of women as the sine qua non of the human other (the inhuman) – as Stiegler puts it: ‘the mark of sexual difference’ as the act of Zeus’ vengeance that ‘produces discord, the speaking of many tongues, and inequality’ (195). But there are also differences: Adam names the animals, while Epimetheus gifts them with their survival characteristics; transgression lies with humans in Genesis, rather than with Prometheus the Titan; Eve is a companion, while Pandora is a punishment; the key ‘(de-)fault of origin’ in Genesis is less stupidity and forgetfulness than curiosity and weak-will.

This close-but-not-quite relation between the two stories (both of them pillars of Western civilised thought) is no doubt the result of many centuries of mutual interpretation and redaction – I am not yet aware of a study that monitors this particular relation with scholarly rigour; but it poses the question of how our understanding of techne as constitutive quality might differ when the mythic subtleties alter, and what impact might be had by thinking them together. And what of Egyptian, Babylonian, Australo-aboriginal, Norse, or Vedic (etc.) mythology, or indeed of ancient astronauts? If we are trying to comprehend the ways in which we have understood ourselves and our relation to nature and to technology, then who is the ‘we’ here? Might this over-reliance on one particular (set of) creation myth(s) set up damaging ethnocentric limits on our understanding?