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.


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