Technical Evolution

Stiegler plays with the relationship between human and technical evolution throughout Technics & Time. This is a relationship he credits Marx with having identified, quoting the following passage from Capital:

A critical history of technology would show how little any of the inventions of the eighteenth century are the work of a single individual. And yet such a book does not exist. Darwin has directed attention to the history of natural technology, that is, the formation of the organs of plants and animals, which serve as the instruments of production for sustaining their life. Does not history of the productive organs of man in society, deserve equal attention?

Darwin’s influence on Marx is well-known. Stiegler goes on to outline how this line of thought was developed, bearing implications for questions of origin and memory:

Since matter receives accidentally the mark of a vital activity, a series of objects that are manufactured over a period of time does nothing but report an evolution: a technical being belongs essentially to mechanics, doing more than conveying the vital behavior of which it is but a thin trace.

Envisaging the possibility of a techno-logy that would constitute theory of the evolution of technics, Marx outlined a new perspective. Engels evoked a dialectic between tool and hand that was to trouble the frontier between the inert and the organic. In the same period, archaeology discovered manufactured objects more ancient than those known before, and after Darwin the origins of humanity became a vexed question. […] At the moment when historians of the Industrial Revolution began to consider the role played by new forms of technics, the discipline of ethnology amassed enough documentation on primitive industries for the question of technical development, irreducible to the disciplines of sociology, anthropology, general history, and psychology, finally to impose its importance.  

Humans are ‘technical beings’, according to Stiegler, ‘lodged between mechanics and biology’, subject to the evolutionary development of both – a process he names ‘epiphylogenesis’. This page has a number of further resources and reflections exploring this relationship.

– More on Marx’s use of Darwin here.

– Stiegler’s history of theories of technical evolution outlined here; his use of the evolution analogy (or is it just an analogy?) critiqued here.

– Accelerations and new phases in human evolution in Wired Magazine: 1 / 2

– Dawkins’ narrow Darwinist eulogism in The Selfish Gene was not beyond exploring ways in which the theory might be extended to the technical supports of human culture by advancing the ‘memetics‘ thematic for which (after his dogmatic anti-theism) he is probably best known – see here for that chapter

– Recapitulation Theory (in which ‘ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny’) is implicitly referred to a couple of times by Stiegler (presumably via Freud/Leroi-Gourhan). This is a thesis that is implicit whenever, for instance, someone refers to the reptilian part of the brian. Perhaps Stiegler’s invocation is problematic – it has been refuted by contemporary science; or perhaps not – it is seemingly still used for some cultural (e.g. musical) analysis. I discussed Stiegler’s use of it here; also worth noting is Adrian Johnston’s extended treatment of ‘phylogenetic time’ with regard to Freud-Lacan and Meillassoux in Prolegomena to Any Future Materialism.

– Parasitic suicide/zombie determinism. Over the course of discussing Stiegler’s treatment of technical determination of agency in the reading group, the example arose of parasites that have evolved to infect other animals, causing the host to sacrifice its life and enabling the parasite to spread (plenty of gruesome examples here). Structuralism (and Marxism) has been criticised by post-structuralists and those of a more libertarian bent for the determining limitations it sets on individuals, reducing agents to ‘zombie’-like actors. If technics (following Heidegger, as Stiegler does) is a particular, productive relation to nature, and (as Stiegler then proposes) inflects a determining influence on individuals and social structures, then how might reflection on ‘natural’ activity of this parasitic kind help us to think this through? Is it (or is it just) a useful metaphor?


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