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Stiegler’s Memory: Tertiary Retention and Temporal Objects

By Matt Bluemink.

To French philosopher of technology Bernard Stiegler, the technical prosetheticity that we possess as something fundamental to our being as humans is also fundamental to how we experience time. In Technics and Time 1, Stiegler defines this process as epiphylogenesis. Stiegler’s central thesis is focused on the idea that we cannot separate man from technics. Insofar as we consider ourselves human beings, we must accept that we are defined by our own technicity. Therefore, for Stiegler, our own consciousness and essence is already technical. We are, in other words, inseparable from technics. Stiegler’s work is thus of a somewhat paleo-anthropological nature, it is concerned with the origin of humanity and of the human itself i.e. it is focused on the past but only in order to understand the present. He argues that to understand the human being we must understand it as a form of exteriorization, a relation between the living and the non-living in which the interior realm of the human being is exteriorised into tools and other forms of ‘organised inorganic matter’, i.e. technics.

Through Stiegler’s reading of paleoanthropologist Andre Leroi-Gourhan, he posits that the use of tools allows for the preservation of a kind of impersonalized, collective memory trace. These traces are thus conservations of past world interactions that are preserved within the tools function; they are the past techniques that are stored externally which provide future generations with the knowledge of the past. The externalization of our memory in tools is, for the human, a ‘third kind’ of memory that is separate from the internal, individually acquired memory of our brain (epigenetic) and the biological evolutionary memory that is inherited from our ancestors (phylogenetic); this Stiegler calls epiphylogenetic memory or epiphylogenesis. We are therefore defined by this process of epiphylogenesis, we are defined by a past that we ourselves, as individuals, have not lived; this past is brought to us through culture which is the amalgamation of the ‘technical objects that embody the knowledge of our ancestors, tools that we adopt to transform our environment’. Indeed, the process of epiphylogenesis is how we, through technics, create time; we invent a future for ourselves that is dependent on the acquired epiphylogenetic memory passed down to us from our ancestors. This idea of time as a creation of epiphylogenetic memory is in opposition to the Husserlian conception of memory.

Stiegler argues that Husserl’s conceptions of primary and secondary retention are not sufficient to describe our technical memory processes. To Husserl, primary retention is part of the temporal object; In Technics and Time 3 Stiegler defines a temporal object as temporal ‘when its flow coincides with the stream of consciousness of which it is the object’. The example used is that of a melody. A melody is an important example of primary retention in the sense that it constitutes a flow in time, as each individual note appears and subsequently disappears, the newest note contains within it (retains) the previous note. A melody can only be melodic when it constitutes itself temporally in relation to its previous notes. This idea of primary retention is contained within the act of perception, hence why it is primary. However, the problem arises for Stiegler when considering the idea of secondary retention.

For Husserl, the act of remembering a melody heard yesterday involves a form of imagination rather than merely perception. Secondary memory is therefore a selective repetition of primary memory; it derives from experience rather than constituting it. However, for Stiegler, this means that Husserl doesn’t just distinguish between primary and secondary retention, he actively opposes them; as Ben Roberts writes, ‘he sets up an absolute difference between them, mirroring the distinction between “perception” and “imagination”’. In Stiegler’s view, primary retention does not include imagination or indeed selection, it retains everything immediately. For selection to be involved in primary retention would imply a utilisation of the imagination, therefore, the primary memory I have of a particular temporal object must be being changed by the secondary memory I heard previously. As Stiegler states, ‘from one audition to the next the ear is not the same, precisely because the ear of the second audition has been affected by the first’. Secondary memory, thus, constitutes experience rather than deriving from it.

The fact that we can experience one temporal object a multitude of times implies that the temporal object is not merely remembered through primary retention; in fact, the very idea of perceiving the exact same temporal object numerous times implies some kind of technical reproduction e.g. a recording device (either analogue or digital). Thus, Stiegler’s main line of argument suggests that as we can experience a melody multiple times, and our experience of that melody changes depending on the multitude of times we experience it, we must therefore have a form of technical retention, or ‘tertiary retention’ in which the repeatability of a temporal object becomes possible. Our primary retention is also therefore dependant on both the secondary and tertiary forms of retention. So, where Husserl’s traditional phenomenology is focused on showing the way in which the temporal distinctions of past, present and future are formed through retention and protention, Stiegler’s argument is that although external memory supports are empirical derivatives of human memory, they constitute, from the first, the way in which we conceive the past, present, and future. In other words, we must accept that we, as humans, from the day we are born, are defined by a tertiary memory that exists a priori. The technical, tertiary form of memory constitutes an imprint of memory that is structurally prior to even our primary retention; it is from this which we temporalise ourselves and the world around us. As Stiegler states in For a New Critique of Political Economy, ‘tertiary retention always already precedes the constitution of primary and secondary retention. A newborn child arrives into a world in which tertiary retention both precedes and awaits it, and which, precisely, constitutes this world as world’.

However, what kind of tertiary retentions do we experience within our modern society and how do they affect us? This tertiary memory is by no means limited to the realm of purely temporal objects; it is also paves the way for ‘industrial temporal objects’ (objects that are run on the attention and desires of both producers and consumers) that are the cause of the capitalist ‘malaise’ that is affecting contemporary society and culture on a large scale. Stiegler recalls the following statement from Technics and Time, 2 in the introduction to Technics and Time, 3:

The programming industries, and more specifically the mediatic industry of radio-televisual information, mass-produce temporal objects heard or seen simultaneously by millions, and sometimes by tens, hundreds, even thousands of millions of ‘consciousnesses’: this massive temporal co-incidence orders the event’s new structure to which new forms of consciousness and collective unconsciousness correspond.

This statement, as bold as it is, provides a key insight into Stiegler’s views on how our attention and our desires, in particular the desires of the consumer, have been influenced by capitalist industry. It is our tertiary retentions that have had a direct effect on leading the world into a new epoch of globalised capitalism; a hyper-industrial consumerist epoch. Indeed, as I highlighted in a previous article, Stiegler’s theoretical addition to Husserl inscribes modern phenomenology in a materialist history which proposes a re-writing of Marxist themes compatible with cognitive capitalism.


The We from the I

Following from his own exposition of Husserl in his earlier work that led him to solidify the formulation of the concept of tertiary memory, Stiegler argues in the introduction to For a New Critique of Political Economy that we need to formulate a new critique:

a critique addressing the question of tertiary retention, that is, the question of mnometechnics – and in more general terms addressing the question of technics which, qua materialization of experience, always constitutes a spatialisation of the time of consciousness beyond consciousness and, therefore, constitutes an unconsciousness, if not the unconscious.

What Stiegler is doing here is outlining the scope of his project; he is providing a summary of his previous work in terms of this new critique. These external memory supports (i.e. exteriorisations of consciousness) provide a new collectivisation of consciousness that exists beyond the realm of the individual. The systematic influence of mnemotechnics on individual human consciousness must therefore be looked at as political in itself; if we are to understand technics, we must understand how the technical milieu of human consciousness affects us collectively, as a ‘we’, thus affecting us politically. However, the negative consequences of this, for Stiegler, are due to the fact that our technical prosthetisation can itself lead to ‘an unconscious’ (if we are to look at an unconscious as the collective memory of a past that we, as individuals, have not lived):

This means that the current prosethetization of consciousness, the systematic industrialization of the entirety of retentional devices, is an obstacle to the very individuation process of which consciousness consists.

In the chapter ‘I and We’ of Technics and Time, 3, Stiegler argues that ‘the unification process of a We is an identification, an organization, and a unification of diverse elements of the community’s past as they project its future’. In order to think politically individuals must collectivise themselves, they must be capable of projecting or desiring a ‘common’ future whilst also becoming aware of the ‘common’ past of their ancestors via tertiary memory supports. However, to Stiegler, this unified commonality that individuals project onto themselves only exists phantasmagorically: ‘it assumes that this past of the We was never actually lived by this or any We, nor by anyone currently living, nor by their ancestors’. In fact, this unification has been reached through a process of epiphylogenetic adoption, one that peaked in the twentieth and twenty-first century with technical media such as radio, television, and indeed modern digital networks, i.e. media that produce temporal objects through which individuals have been industrialised. This industrialisation of individual consciousnesses essentially means that the adoption of the We, although it is phantasmagorical, is a question that cannot be separated from the question of political economy as a whole. Indeed, Stiegler states that: ‘the question of adoption is indissociable from that of commerce, and therefore the market’ and if the market is a fundamental necessity of a capitalist economy the question of adoption is indissociable from political economy itself.

We can see then, from this passage that the goal of For a New Critique of Political Economy (and indeed all of Stiegler’s philosophy that extends to the political realm) is to understand the politicisation of technics, and indeed the politicisation of the human being through technics (in so far as we are referring to technics as the spatial materialisation of experience that exists outside of consciousness) as the technical adoption of a collective We. Stiegler wants to demonstrate how and why the question of the We, and thus of tertiary memory ‘opens up a new perspective on political economy and its critique, and, now more than ever, that it makes a new critique of political economy the essential task of philosophy’.


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: Thursday, January 23rd, 2020.