:: Article

The Exploitation of the Technical

By Matt Bluemink.

The question concerning technology, it seems to me, has always been one riddled with negativity and pessimistic determinism. As a child growing up in the first age of the internet I had seen the way in which technology could have a drastic and fundamental change on the way human beings interact with each other and with society as a whole. As my interest grew deeper I started to wonder how these changes could be explained. Was technology really destroying our interpersonal relationships and our culture?

In the work of Bernard Stiegler, we find a philosopher who argues that it is by no co-incidence that technology is shaping humanity to such a degree, in fact technicity is inherent in what it is to be human. Stiegler shares many of the concerns that the previous critics of technology have possessed, yet at the same time wants to show us that it is not impossible for technical progression to lead an optimistic future if it is directed in the right way.

Grammatisation and Primacy of Writing

One of the key ideas in Stiegler’s work is what he defines in For a New Critique of Political Economy as ‘grammatisation’. Grammatisation can be understood as the ‘technical history of memory, in which hypomnesic memory continually reintroduces the constitution of a tension within anamnesic memory’. He draws this distinction between anamnesic memory and hypomnesic memory from Jacques Derrida’s essay ‘Plato’s Pharmacy’ in which Derrida develops his deconstruction of metaphysics based on his reading of Plato’s Phaedrus.

To Derrida, Plato’s dialogue outlines the distinction between philosophical anamnesis which can be understood as the remembrance of the ‘truth’ of being, and sophistic hypomnesis which is ‘to mnemotechnics, and in particular to writing as a fabricator of illusion and a technique for the manipulation of minds’. He argues that this reading provides an impossibility; it is impossible to oppose the interior (mneme) and the exterior (hypomnesis); we cannot separate our own living memory from the ‘dead’ memory of what Foucault terms the hypomnematon, and what Stiegler calls epiphylogenetic memory.(in that it is a combination of the internal, individually acquired memory of our brain (epigenetic) and the biological evolutionary memory that is inherited from our ancestors (phylogenetic)).

Indeed for Stiegler, the metaphysical theorising through which Plato formulates his theory of Forms is only accessible through the abstract thought process that writing makes possible. In other words, the philosophical anamnesis Socrates advocates in the Phaedrus is in fact reliant on the abstraction of thought that is brought about by hypomnesic externalities (i.e. writing). The impossibility is thus that the ‘remembrance of the truth of being’ is not possible without the mnemotechnical provisions that are considered by Socrates to be the ‘fabricator of illusion’. So, we must not understand the exteriorisation of memory into technics as separate from our own memory. Instead it must be seen as merely memory of a different kind: both are part of our human memory yet they constitute each other in different ways.

Grammatisation, then, is the flow of this process through history, it is ‘the process through which flows and continuities which weave our existences are discretized: writing, as the discretization of the flow of speech, is a stage of grammatisation’. What Stiegler is aiming to show here is that grammatisation is the process of an abstraction or discretization of a continuum. In the course of the transfiguration from speech to writing, speech itself has taken on a new character; it is no longer merely stored in the ever fading biological memory of our internal brains (mneme) but endures through writing as an external memory support. Writing thus constitutes a new stage of grammatisation in which speech loses its evanescent character but gains the power of exact replication; it can provide a dialogue between reader and author that persists and endures throughout time (something that is not possible with communication pre-writing).

The key aspect of grammatisation is therefore not only the individual exteriorisation of memory but the discretization of the flow of memory in general; it is concerned with the repeatable, reproducible nature of mnemotechnics as a whole. Thus, we can begin to see how this process of grammatisation both improves memory through hypomnesis yet can potentially damage the anamnesic memory that Socrates defends in the Phaedrus; it is this dual ability of grammatisation that interests Stiegler. What he proclaims is that this formalisation of human behaviour into repeatable symbols, such as words, writing and most recently computer code, opens up the question of pharmacology, the question of how the hypomnesic or the mnometechical is a pharmakon in that it is: ‘at once poison and remedy’.

But what are the implications of this constant externalisation of human memory through grammatisation? What are the effects of the pharmakon? It’s seemingly indubitable that the industrial revolution of the 19th Century has been one of the most significant economic and cultural developments in human history. The technical advances that were made during this period have laid the groundwork for the capitalist systems that our increasingly globalised societies are run on. However what if there wasn’t just one industrial revolution? What if we are now living through the most significant industrial and cultural revolution the world has seen since 200 years ago?

Dis-Individuation and the Loss of Knowledge

Following from Jean-Francois Lyotard, and to some extent Deleuze, Stiegler argues that desire is itself the fuel on which the contemporary capitalist economy runs; it captures the attention of the consumers to promote an unsustainable need for consumption. When considering his own critique of political economy, Marx, whilst being focused on formulating a theory of the means of production, failed to foresee the importance of the question of consumption, as Stiegler puts it, and the role it would play in modern 20th and 21st century capitalism.

To Stiegler ‘the way in which consumption would be reconfigured in the twentieth century is an essential relation to desire and to its economy’. He posits that through grammatisation, contemporary capitalism has created a new kind of proletariat and a new kind of proletarianisation, one that has led not to an increase in class division, or increased separation between producer and consumer, but to the creation of a universal proletariat class whose only purpose is to serve the capitalist machine. This new critique of political economy is therefore no longer concerned with the question of the working class but with the question of desire in relation to the proletarianisation of labour as a whole.

Drawing on terms from Simondon, Stiegler argues that we must view the proletarian as a dis-individuated worker; he is a labourer who has passed his own knowledge into the machine such that ‘it is no longer the worker who is individuated through bearing tools and putting them into practice’, in other words, understanding their role as an I within society as a whole (the We). Instead it is the worker who is serving the machine-tool and the machine-tool that becomes the technical individual, as it is within the machine, and the system to which it belongs, that individuation is produced. This idea of technical individuation is therefore ‘a process through which the system of industrial objects becomes functionally integrated and thus transformed.’

However it is the proletarianised worker who is excluded from this transformation, he becomes dissociated from it and thus becomes dis-individuated. In other words, the worker loses the understanding of his relationship to the collective. Proletarianisation, for Stiegler, is therefore not only concerned with proletarianisation in the Marxist sense, but with the process that excludes the participation of the producer from the evolution of the conditions of production as a whole. In other words, the worker who was previously the technical individual, as may have been the case when Marx was writing, has become the servant of the machine which takes his place as the technical individual.

Thus, the idea that the exteriorisation of memory equates to a loss of memory (the idea that is described in the Phaedrus) is to Stiegler one that has gone beyond the realm of memory and language and extended to knowledge as a whole: ‘the reality of proletarianization is, more than pauperization, the worker’s loss of knowledge, […] the worker becomes proletarian, which also means that the proletarian ceases to be a worker’, as Stiegler writes in The Decadence of Industrial Democracies. The most influential changes then, from the industrial capitalism of the nineteenth century, to the ‘hyper-industrial capitalism’ of twentieth century, were the new types of mnemotechnologies (memory-technologies) that were being developed and implemented on a large scale, mnemotechnologies that had the ability to affect our culture, through manipulation of desire, as well our economy and society in general.

The Third Industrial Revolution

The nineteenth century industrial revolution that Marx had witnessed (what Stiegler refers to as the ‘first’ industrial revolution) had transformed the pre-industrial economy into an economy based on coal, steel, the steam engine, and the vast network of railways that were used to aid the buying and selling of commodities at a rate never before seen. This economy was revolutionised again during the beginning of the twentieth century into an economy reliant on oil, and a Fordist production that led to the popularisation of the automobile, along with increasingly huge road network systems that were built throughout the western world (Stiegler brands this the ‘second’ industrial revolution).

However, the most important, when looking at the ‘new’ proletarianisation is the ‘third’ industrial revolution, an industrial revolution that leads from industrial capitalism to hyper-industrial capitalism. Stiegler argues that ‘if one can speak of a third industrial revolution, then this must also be a matter of a […] political, social, and cultural revolution’. The third industrial revolution is first and foremost a cultural revolution. It is a revolution that has implemented a new stage of grammatisation and has therefore transformed the capitalism of the early twentieth century into a new age of capitalism, the hyper-industrial epoch, one reliant on the ever increasingly advanced system of mnemo-technologies (that were initially analogical and are now digital) that are facilitating the increase of proletarianisation through the culture and programme industries. This third revolution, Stiegler argues, is how the apparent globalisation of capitalism was completed; it was done through the proletarianisation, not of just the worker, but of the consumer.

Stiegler outlines that this loss of knowledge brought about by the third industrial revolution was enabled through what he calls ‘the extraordinary mnesic power of digital networks’. These digital networks have the capability to make us aware of the apparent infinite recoverability and accessibility of human memory, which in turn leads us more and more to a feeling of powerlessness and obsolescence. The technical process has thus become a process of standardisation and formalisation that subjects everything it formalises to calculability, progressively erasing the incalculable and unforeseeable by infinitely extending the process of technical rationalisation. What this means for Stiegler is that it leads to a vast process of the loss of knowledge, both in terms of savoir faire (‘knowledge of how to do or act’) and savoir vivre (‘knowledge of how to live’).

So, where the previous revolutions have brought about, through mechanisation, the separation of producer and consumer, within the third revolution the consumers have also found themselves dis-individuated: ‘just as workers-become-proletariat find themselves deprived of the capacity to work the world through their work, that is, through their savoir-faire, so too consumers lose their savoir-vivre insofar as this means their singular way of being in the world, that is, of existing’.

A Bleak Outlook?

It might seem that Stiegler’s outlook is a bleak one, yet, as implied by the adoption of the dualistic term pharmakon, the mass exteriorisation of memory that has led to the dis-individuation of the producer and the consumer can also have curative qualities. The pharmakon is always the poison and the cure. The extraordinary mnesic power of digital networks have the potential to bring back savoir-vivre through the interconnectivity brought about by the internet. What the internet provides is the potential for a collective unity of individuals that step beyond the hyper-industrial categories of proletarianised consumers and producers. It is their interconnected desires that have the potential to provide the libidinal energy necessary to counteract the negative tendencies of grammatisation. The savoir-vivre knowledge that was lost through the hyper-industrialisation of culture therefore has the potential to be regained through the connections brought about by socio-digital network innovations. It is these curative qualities that it are imperative for us to work on, failing to do so we risk a severe and systematic loss of knowledge.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Matt Bluemink is a philosophy graduate and English teacher from London. His main interests are the connections between philosophy, literature, technology and culture. In particular the phenomenology of memory and its relevance to contemporary capitalism. He spends too much time talking about Jorge Luis Borges and is the founder and editor of bluelabyrinths.com

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, December 8th, 2015.