“You can’t have a non-political sociology”: Stiegler on practical pharmacology

Below is a transcription of Bernard Stiegler’s response to a question I posed to him on 19th March 2014, prefaced by some of my own comments for context and summary, and reproduced with Professor Stiegler’s permission. I have deliberately transcribed the response (which was conversational and improvised) as accurately as possible but tidied up some of the syntax for clarity. I hope it will be stimulating for others mining a similar seam and welcome comments. 

Stiegler’s final Media Philosophy lecture series at Goldsmiths (his contract has now run out) was titled The Automatic Society and was, in large part, a presentation of his response to Chris Anderson’s claim that big data heralds ‘the end of theory’ – Anderson is here used as a metonym for the increasingly pervasive reliance on information, statistics, algorithms, etc. as a more ‘accurate’ and ‘efficient’ means of accessing truth and delivering answers than hermeneutics. Google’s founding principle – that ours is not to reason why, such that we cannot presume to know what people want to know until they want to know it – gets extended to all domains of investigation. Anderson writes the following:

This is a world where massive amounts of data and applied mathematics replace every other tool that might be brought to bear. Out with every theory of human behavior, from linguistics to sociology. Forget taxonomy, ontology, and psychology. Who knows why people do what they do? The point is they do it, and we can track and measure it with unprecedented fidelity. With enough data, the numbers speak for themselves.

For Stiegler, this represents a third stage of proletarianisation: the final step in the rendering obsolete of knowledge in its entirety. The mechanical repetition and automation of industrial capital that we traditionally call ‘alienation’ obscures practical knowledge – savoir faire; the invasive technologies of the post-industrial era are deleterious to attention and intergenerational understanding – savoir vivre; finally, in the hyper-industrial context, we are relieved of the need for epistemology and the scientific method – savoir théorie (or, more drastically, savoir penser). It is this distanciation from a perceived need for theoretical knowledge that Stiegler finds himself arguing against.

Similar arguments and conversations have taken place within the domain of social theory, by Nick Gane for example, while Savage and Burrows (2007) have taken this further, suggesting that big social data has deep and concerning implications for empirical sociological research – particularly for the tried and tested qual-quant interface techniques of the sample survey and the in-depth interview. In my own case, I am interested in the individuation processes that a workplace deeply associated with the ideals of ‘creativity’ (the music industry) might allow for. Though I may not always use Stiegler’s vocabulary, I am in agreement with him that this requires a commitment, not just to exploring the agency of the individual (as rational choice theorists might suggest), to mapping the social (as constructionists might have it), or adapting to an autonomous techno-logic (as with hard materialists), but in the interpenetrations between the three. In my case, the focus is on work and workers in major record labels: but this should also mean thinking through the relations between 1) artists, consumers, researchers…; 2) companies, political institutions, unions…; and 3) recording technologies, distribution networks, social media… The set of techniques that are required do so is not always clear. Given that my background positions me as already-inside this associated milieu (if awkwardly so), I have tended towards an auto-ethnographic sensibility – and perhaps this speaks a little to what Stiegler describes below as a sociology that is always a psycho-sociology (see also his Acting Out for autobiographical reflections on the philosophical act).

But he also indicates that this might not be enough; that one cannot take for granted the psychic autonomy of the researcher. And so, Stiegler emphasises the pro-active (potentially disruptive) role of the researcher – endorsing a kind of action research – and the need to take advantage of new (‘contributive’) technologies as they evolve. It is very important for him to acknowledge:

1)             That research is always itself a process of individuation: one is always caught inside the sphere that one is researching, such that to research is always an ethical or political act – even, or especially, if one imagines and positions oneself as a disinterested (‘scientific’) observer (a statistician, for example, or management consultant, or policy-maker). To research is always to bind oneself to a potential future: one always researches in the name of something. Latour is particularly criticised for failing to account for this adequately.

2)             That one is always mediated in carrying out one’s research and that one’s research is always mediated in its dissemination. What tools do we use; how do they influence our commitments; what belief do we have in their trustworthiness; in the access they provide to a kind of truth; what kinds of critical reflexivity do they demand? One might particularly criticise Boltanski & Chiapello along these lines for their lack of reflection on their method of corpus construction. But this takes on further resonance in an age where much stock is taken (in the UK at least) by the role of academic ‘impact’ and public engagement, which so often demands an interaction with the media (social or otherwise).


Stiegler appears committed, of recent, to engaging with popular conceptions of contemporary technologies, as expressed by people like Chris Anderson or Nicholas Carr – bastions of the TED-friendly creative class/thought-leadership model that replaces the ivory-clad academic or the public intellectual – and to exploring the impact of global corporations (Apple, Google, Facebook, etc.) on the potentialities of everyday experience. Stiegler’s final lecture was somewhat more practically oriented than the previous four – he talked about the use of MOOCs and POOCs (the latter new to me), as well as his work with the Institut de Recherche et Innovation in Paris, investigating digital humanities and building new tools for learning: note-taking software, social books, and so on – and it was against this context that it seemed appropriate to bring up the question that had concerned me in my earlier post: given Stiegler’s chief contributions regarding technical being (epiphylogenesis) and the simultaneous divergence of technics as curative/poison (pharmacology), alongside his insistence upon always holding together psychic, social, and technical domains (general organology), how might this translate into a coherent empirical method for investigating the world? If his particular brand of critique is gaining traction outside of France and outside the fairly hermetic world of continental philosophy (and it would appear as such), then it seems self-evident that such questions will become increasingly important.


TB: I’ve got a very boring, pragmatic question, which is about the demands the theoretical framework you have developed make on empirical research. I wondered if you had any reflections on that because, as someone researching the music industry – as a hyper-industrial organ, as a workplace, as a ‘desirable’ industry – it’s very difficult to think the relationship between philosophy and sociology, for instance, or between critique and science. The reason I ask is because I’ve read several interviews in which you have criticised Latour, or Boltanski and Chiapello, for failing to really think this through properly: in terms of desire, for instance; or the Thing/das Ding. So I guess the question is, what an organological, or pharmacological – Stieglerian – sociology might look like.


BS: What a question! First I would say that I don’t believe in sociology or in psychology. Not because I believe in philosophy. But I believe that we must overcome the opposition between psychology and sociology. This is the reason for which I believe that we must read Simondon, because the first project of Simondon was to overcome this opposition – between, let’s say, social sciences and human sciences. He said that it was a division of work organised by industry but that it doesn’t work for thought. And I believe that, for example, Latour, even Chiapello and Boltanski, are far too lost in this opposition.

Now, concerning Boltanski, my problem is that his concept of desire is bad. He is completely confused between desire and drive for example. And when he describes, let’s say, a libidinal economy of capitalism – when he says, for example, that, concerning the ‘artistic critique’ used by capitalism for creating new ways of marketing, etc, etc., speaking about ‘authenticity’, ‘genuine’ climates produced by, for example, Chinese restaurants: ‘you will feel China’, etc – it’s absolutely stupid! Their examples are absolutely stupid! It’s clearly exactly the contrary. But he can’t see that it is stupid because his own concept of desire is stupid. He has no concept of desire. Now, I don’t believe that his work is not at all valuable and useful. I used it, personally, and I read it very carefully. I found a lot of things in this work very interesting. But the global, theoretical apparatus, if you want, behind this for me is extremely problematic. [TB: See the newly translated The Lost Spirit of Capitalism for further critique of Boltanski & Chiapello]

I have other problems with Latour – who doesn’t believe in science. And for me, it is a problem. So we can say, “to believe in science is a paralogism: you don’t believe in science”. [But, I would respond that] I don’t believe that you don’t believe in science! I believe that you need a kind of belief for science. And when I say that, it is with Nietzsche. Now, this use of ‘believe’ is not a pejorative use of belief. It is very complicated to understand: what does it mean, belief? When you love somebody, for example, you believe in somebody. And if we agree with Diotima, with the Symposium, that knowledge is necessarily an experience of love of the object of knowledge – because, as Diotima says, the object of knowledge is an object of desire – and if we agree to say that desire is necessarily a kind of belief, then science is a kind of belief.

Now, I said that because you asked me, “what about Latour?” But my other problem is that he doesn’t believe in public politics and in public power – in projection, anticipation, affirmation of alternatives, etc. For him this doesn’t work and I disagree completely with this. I believe precisely that – you asked me what a pharmacological sociology is – ‘pharmacological’ means that sociology is politics. You can’t have a non-political sociology.

When you practice sociology you are incarnating a point of view which is an interpretation of the future. And even a scientific work is an interpretation. In mathematicians, for example, you have, let’s call them, ‘little’ mathematicians – that is, people like engineers, etc – using mathematics but not transforming mathematics. And you have, for example, mathematicians like Whitehead or Lobachevsky – they interpret geometry, they interpret mathematics. It is here that you have science, not in the application of solving an equation, etc, because now you can make this big machine…Science is a process of individuation – a specific type of individuation, with specific rules, etc.

My, let’s say, sociology of this is a psycho-sociology, because I say that psychic individuation is always a social individuation, so it’s not possible to separate the two, they’re both impossible [to keep apart] – you must distinguish the two but you can’t separate [them] – so you can’t do good science with this separation. You’ll only be able to produce a science for capital. That is, for making efficient propositions – but not formally and finally satisfying causes, to speak here also with Whitehead, [in terms of] causality.

So, if I tried – and I do try – to practice a kind of psycho-sociology, which is for me politics, my socio-psychology is a socio-psychology of the processes of creating the conditions for choosing between alternatives, for making society and psychic individuals capable to distinguish these alternative possibilities, and to produce these organological possibilities. When I say ‘to produce’, I refer here to Latour particularly, I think; I don’t believe that it is possible to talk about technics and particularly about industrial technology, to talk in a relevant way about this, without producing them. This is the reason for which personally I develop softwares, I develop platforms, technical platforms; I work with a lot of industrial companies, etc, etc. Because it is impossible to understand what is at stake if you don’t do that. I don’t believe in the ‘outside’ position which would allow you to speak about tendencies of technologies. I don’t believe in this at all.

So it’s an experimental psycho-sociology; experimental in different ways. Also, practicing what I call ‘contributive research’. That is, a practice of action research in the time of contributive technologies that digital is offering us. We can do a lot of things with them. But this is completely different compared to the classical academic activity of research.

2 thoughts on ““You can’t have a non-political sociology”: Stiegler on practical pharmacology

  1. Pingback: Bernard Stiegler’s Automatic Society | ANTHEM

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