Mapping territory, tracing history: towards a Stieglerian social method?

Thanks to a hyper-reference from Terence Blake, this blog gained quite a few new followers over the Christmas period which has encouraged me to do a little more with it. The site emerged as an adjunct to a reading group tackling the first volume of Bernard Stiegler’s Technics & Time; it was originally envisioned as a place for continuing discussions online as well as enabling group contributions. In the event, outside of a few email exchanges, our conversations tended to be limited to the classroom and tentative plans for expanding the reading group were foiled by the real-life commitments of both myself and others. So I’ve decided to ‘own’ the blog a bit more, relating it to my own research, and continuing to build up some of the resources which many tell me have so far found to be of use when negotiating the Stieglerian universe. I intend to tidy it up a bit, add some more content, and potentially move towards some more reading group activity if the interest is there (it is on my part) – to this end I would welcome comments and communication from like minds!

But first some ground clearing. I have no strict philosophical training: my academic history paints me as a musician seduced down the path of cultural studies and critical theory, although equally formative was a professional career in a major record label (where, were it not for my research funding, I would most likely still be). I currently find myself in a university department ostensibly characterised as a confluence of disparate social sciences but somewhat uncomfortably housed within a classically-oriented school of arts and humanities. Which is finally, I suppose, a reasonably good metaphor for my interests: innately recoiling from the idea of being a ‘scientist’, I’m interested in humans, processes, and creative capacities. This plays out in the empirical focus of my doctoral research on individuals working in the music industry after the ‘digital revolution’.

So, I’ve found that Stiegler’s interests and theoretical framework help with a lot of the hard work of drawing all this together – but I am a relative autodidact and philosophical naïf when it comes to deploying them rigorously. This site is inevitably a demonstration of my attempts to work through the problems I encounter in doing so. These are interpretive problems but they are also onto-epistemological and historico-contextual. Hence, the commentary that I’m building up is in some cases thematic but in others I will be trying to follow up some of the influences in Stiegler’s thought as well as exploring commonalities and dissonances with other contemporary lines of argument.

Some of this important work is helpfully being furthered by Terence Blake himself who, far more capably than I am able to, has spent a lot of time recently mapping the convergences and fault lines between such contemporary thinkers as Stiegler, Latour, Laruelle, Badiou and Harman – for example here. In different ways, some of the recent readers, guides, and syntheses (e.g. those by Alex Galloway, Ian James, Attridge/Elliot, Adrian Johnston, and to an extent, the Speculative Turn) also help us fill in some gaps, without being purely hagiographical about it. However, as far as I’m aware, there has been little real adoption or adaptation of Stieglerian thought by (English-language) sociological theory, the faddishness of which meaning that, at least from where I’m sitting, the dominance of Bourdieu and Giddens seems to have been only recently – but almost entirely – upended by critical realists à la Bhaskar or Archer and actor-network theorists following Latour and Law, leaving little room for much else (even if Habermas and Foucault still get a look in, while Hardt and Negri exert some influence on the peripheries). The few studies I know of that do tread this path (e.g. Adrian Mackenzie; Mitchell and Elwood; Sam Kinsley; James Ash – and I’m indebted to the latter two for pointers here) tend to view existing research through a Stieglerian prism of pharmacology and epiphylogenesis, rather than beginning from first ontological and epistemological principles and building empirical work from there. Stiegler himself has applied his perspective to such topics as the French political situation, social media, the care of the self, and particularly the problem of attention and education – but offers very little in the way of systematic method for doing so. This is a stumbling block for my purposes – but also potentially for the conceptual system as a whole if, to be scientifically crude, it remains untested.

But Stiegler does make a foundational ontological claim regarding the technical tendency (which is Leroi-Gourhan’s claim but Stiegler generalises it and applies it), one which has the potential to destabilise classical sociological models of structure and agency. A model for approaching this method based on such a claim might be the work of Latour which has translated its inhuman ontology quite productively into the empirical domain – but I would like to think that Stiegler’s reach might require a little more than merely Latour plus a bit of Winnicott (even if it will surely be depicted as such in times to come). In the linked post above, Blake complains of Latour’s insistence on obscuring his influences so that lines of confluence must be methodically traced rather than being pre-indicated. On the other hand, Stiegler’s tendency is quite the opposite, wearing his sources on his sleeve and often explicitly ventrioloquising himself through a choir of others’ voices – something which can be equally difficult to parse, as we found out in the reading group (in this sense Stiegler is clearly a ‘stronger poet’ if we use Harold Bloom’s language).

Meanwhile, engagements with his contemporaries are few and far between. On Latour, we have a few lines about not working through the thingness of Things (i.e. das Ding) in locating the Real and that’s about it. Similarly, as far as I can see, he has little to say on post-operaist lines of thought, beyond some mild comments on the end of work. I have only found comment on Friedrich Kittler in recorded conversation. A potential fellow-traveller who has seemingly been entirely ignored might even be Žižek (though the feeling is clearly mutual), particularly the Žižek  of Sublime Object and The Parallax View – although part of this might be down to Stiegler’s own uncertainty about Lacan. I would also like to see more commentary on Marx – particularly some clarity of exactly where Stiegler moves beyond the latter, as his quite fundamental indebtedness is not always obvious even when it is acknowledged.

Perhaps we will see more of this type of thing as more of Stiegler’s works get translated: we have Disbelief and Discredit vol. 3 and Re-Enchantment of the World to come in the next few months, the first of which seems to be a direct reply to Boltanski and Chiapello’s (sociologically incredibly influential) New Spirit of Capitalism. Talking about the latter, Stiegler says ‘I detest philosophers who talk about sociology without having read sociologists. But I also don’t like sociologists who talk about philosophy without having read philosophers. It’s very annoying’. Perhaps we can go some way towards a mutual corrective here.

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One thought on “Mapping territory, tracing history: towards a Stieglerian social method?

  1. Pingback: “You can’t have a non-political sociology”: Stiegler on practical pharmacology | Reading Technics & Time

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