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Bernard Stiegler: In Memoriam

By Matt Bluemink.

“Human beings disappear; their histories remain.”
(TT3, 131)

On Thursday the 6th of August 2020 we lost one of the most unique and important philosophers of the last thirty years. To me, Bernard Stiegler was a constant source of knowledge and inspiration. He was a philosopher of technology who had answered Heidegger’s ‘Question Concerning Technology’ in a way that, in my view, perfectly diagnosed the essential dual nature of technology. To Stiegler, technics was a pharmakon. It was both the poison that affected contemporary society, and the cure through which it could be saved. It was both the external form into which we pass our knowledge, and the internal condition which makes us human. Yet what made Stiegler unique was that his work reached far beyond the limits of what might normally be considered as the ‘philosophy of technology.’ He traversed a variety of disciplines ranging from anthropology and palaeontology, to media and film theory; from cybernetics and digital communication, to political philosophy and epistemology. However, it was not just his ideas that made Stiegler so important, but his life as a whole.

Stiegler was a thinker who defied the typical categorisations of what makes a philosopher, and his philosophical life and education were anything but normal. His early adult life was full of roadblocks, hurdles, and accidents, each of which eventually led him down the philosopher’s path. At various points he had worked as an office worker and a manual labourer, he worked in agriculture where he managed a farm in Lot-et-Garonne, and he was the owner of a jazz club. As he stated: “My life will have been a succession of lives, as if I have had several lives, a multiplicity of stories and roles” (AO, 35). Stiegler believed in the importance of philosophising through acting, but until the age of twenty-six he had not philosophised at all; he did not even finish high school. Yet it was exactly through acting, or rather Acting Out (the title of his 2009 book), that Stiegler’s accidental philosophising initially occurred. In 1976 he was arrested for the armed robbery of a bank in Toulouse—his fourth bank robbery—and was eventually sentenced to five years in prison. It was during this period, from 1978 to 1983, that he found philosophy.

My incarceration in Saint Michel Prison, result of a passage to the act, will have been the suspension of my acts and interruption of my actions: such is the function of prison. But interruption and suspension, which are also the beginning of philosophy (Socrates’ daimon is one who interrupts), were for myself the occasion of a reflection on what the passage to the act is in general —and a recollection of all the acts that brought me there (AO, 12).

Stiegler claimed that this period of interruption and suspension had given him one crucial thing which he had previously lacked: the gift of time. His increased awareness of temporality (along with the well-stocked prison libraries of France in the late seventies and early eighties) allowed him to devote himself to a rigorous schedule of phenomenological education and experimentation through readings of Husserl and Heidegger among others. Yet even before his philosophical explorations he would read Mallarme and Proust who became extremely influential to him and would eventually lead to the reflections which marked the beginning of one of his most crucial insights. As he states in The Age of Disruption (2019): “reading [is] an interpretation by the reader of his or her own memory through the interpretation of the text that he or she had read.” This insight led to a lifelong fascination with the idea of memory and of technics, which to Stiegler were inherently connected, and were at the core of all philosophical thinking.

Following his release from prison Stiegler devoted his life to philosophy. He became a master’s student of Jean-Francois Lyotard, and PhD student of Jacques Derrida with whom he would publish Ecographies of Television in 1996. Yet it was his first book, Technics and Time 1: The Fault of Epimetheus (1994) that really solidified his role as one of the most important philosophers of recent years. Stiegler’s central thesis was focused on the idea that we cannot separate man from technics. Insofar as we can consider ourselves human beings, we must understand that we are defined by our inherent technicity which arises simultaneously with our becoming human through a process of exteriorisation which he calls epiphylogenesis.  Epiphylogenesis can essentially be understood as the exteriorisation of consciousness into tools, art, and other forms of technics.

In The Age of Disruption Stiegler highlights how his time spent in prison led to these insights which would later form the foundation of his philosophy. He saw himself, an inmate, as being locked away with his own memories (secondary retentions) which essentially constituted the imaginary remains of a past that was moving further and further away; a past that, at the time of his incarceration, had lasted twenty-six years. Through the reading of philosophy and literature, his own secondary retentions had become mobilised and reformed through the words on the page. As he reread the philosophical texts and poured over his notes, he found that his present interpretation was not identical to the one he had presented previously, or the one he remembered. He came to realise that what he had read the previous day had modified his memories. In other words, the exteriorisations of consciousness (tertiary retentions) that were laid out on the page in the form of letters and words had fundamentally changed his perception and interpretation of those memories. This led him to demonstrate that our memory is never static—it is constantly being changed by the technical objects outside of ourselves. It was precisely this insight that eventually led to his critique of traditional phenomenology. Whereas Heidegger believed philosophy had forgotten the question of Being, Stiegler claimed that it had forgotten the question of techne as the origination of the human itself. Husserlian primary retention was therefore no longer the source of experience as it could be affected by the technical object which exists outside of us. As he writes in For a New Critique of Political Economy (2013):

A newborn child arrives into a world in which tertiary retention both precedes and awaits it, and which, precisely, constitutes this world as world. And as the spatialization of individual time becoming thereby collective time, tertiary retention is an original exteriorization of the mind [esprit] (CPE, 9).

As his work developed, he became increasingly interested in how these tertiary retentions, these technical apparatuses, were being utilised by the industries of capitalism to serve their own ends. He saw how the radio-televisual industries of the twentieth century had developed in order to capture the desire and attention of the consumer. Through the capturing and redirection of desire, these industries had begun to facilitate an unsustainable need for consumption which had led to the creation of a ‘universal proletariat’ class. No longer were the Marxist definitions of proletariat and bourgeoise sufficient to describe our current predicament since the technical systems themselves had disoriented the population and removed their knowledge of both how to do (savoir faire) and how to live (savoir vivre). Nevertheless, Stiegler was not inherently against industry. He set up a number of institutions, most notably the cultural-political organisation Ars Industrialis, which sought to counter the short-termist thinking of contemporary consumerist industry in order to promote what he called ‘long circuits of individuation’ which would effectively bring back the knowledge that had been lost through consumerism.

As I mentioned briefly at the beginning of this article, one of the most important ideas in Stiegler’s oeuvre was that of pharmacology. The idea that technics can lead to both ‘short-circuits’ of short-termist thinking, and ‘long-circuits’ of individuation which promote sustained attention is inherently pharmacological in nature. Building on Derrida’s essay ‘Plato’s Pharmacy’ he deconstructs Plato’s Phaedrus to move away from the common interpretation of Plato’s rejection of writing as a ‘fabricator of illusion’ in favour of an interpretation which denotes the dual potential of writing, and therefore technics in general, as a pharmakon: “it is impossible to oppose living memory to the dead memory of the hypomnematon … This impossibility opens the pharmacological question, according to which the hypomnesic is a pharmakon: at once poison and remedy” (CPE, 29). In other words, Stiegler always saw the duality of the living and the technical, of the interior and the exterior, as somewhat of a false dichotomy. They are only opposed in the sense that they are two sides of the same coin. When considering the nature of the human we cannot have one without the other.

The technical, for Stiegler, is represented by the Promethean fire which is stolen from Olympus and given to man as his defining quality. Whereas the other creatures have qualities that are specific to their ability to survive, humans instead receive the symbolic power of a god. This fire can therefore be seen as metaphor for the first technics insofar as it represents our ability to craft and utilise tools that exist outside of ourselves. This paradoxical nature of the human as a being that lacks essence and thus relies on technical exteriorisations means that the human is therefore a being that lives in an eternal state of transformation; we are constantly adapting and progressing through our inherent technicity. Yet now, as the fire that once lit Bernard Stiegler’s life is extinguished, this metaphor becomes more important than ever. He has shown us that technological progression should not leave us without hope. For every negative development in the history of politics and technology there is a pharmacological antithesis embedded within it. The pharmakon shows us that each poison creates its own cure.

In Acting Out, Stiegler wrote that “The question of philosophy is first of all that of action. … [A] philosophical life ought to be exemplary: the philosophy of a philosopher only makes sense when it is illustrated through his way of life—that is, of dying” (AO, 7). This insight struck a much more sober chord with me when thinking about Stiegler than it ever would have with Nietzsche or Heidegger. Bernard Stiegler was above all a man who lived his life in such a way that was exemplary. Through trials and tribulations, he presented a philosophy of authenticity and lived authentically according to it. For those of us who read him and were inspired by him, his passing is a great loss, not just for philosophy but for us personally. However, in death we can look back with admiration at the life of a man whose words, and perhaps more importantly, whose actions, defined an important moment in the history of philosophy. Through the tertiary retentions he left behind, the philosopher of memory will not be forgotten.

Although he is gone, his history remains.

AO – Acting Out
CPE – For a New Critique of Political Economy
TT1 – Technics and Time 1: The Fault of Epimetheus
TT3 – Technics and Time 3: Cinematic Time and the Question of Malaise

Matt Bluemink is a philosopher and writer from London. His main interests are the connections between philosophy, literature, technology and culture. He is the founder and editor of bluelabyrinths.com.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, August 11th, 2020.