Video School

Bernard Stiegler: Digital Inquiry Symposium Keynote

Exploring themes that have informed much of his prodigious oeuvre, Bernard Stiegler’s keynote lecture at the UC Berkeley Center for New Media’s Digital Inquiry Symposium focuses on the role of technics in the evolution of the human and what he calls, following both Plato and Derrida, the pharmacological nature of humanity’s relationship to their use. The lecture is dense and wide ranging but is mostly concerned with positing the inextricable link between humanity, technology, and what Stiegler calls, along with Derrida, grammatization, or “the technical history of memory.” Technics, for Stiegler, are the practices and tools that accomplish the originary human need for the exteriorization of thought, which in and of itself constitutes the enhancement of the human. Hence, they are what he calls, following from both Leroi-Gourhan and Husserl, a third layer of memory, beyond the biological memory of the species (the genome) and the physiological memory of experience. The evolution of technics, intertwined with the evolution of society and the human, however, has led to the deepening of a process that Stiegler notes is as old as Socrates, namely, the alienation of memory through its exteriorization, which is indicative of a loss of both “memory and knowledge.” In an aside not in the talk’s transcript, Stiegler points to how the Industrial Revolution revolutionizes grammatization, moving it beyond language and into the sphere of bodies, noting that, with Marx in mind, the articulation of the gestures of producers in machines, or what he calls the “discretizing” of production, is proletarianization, or “the loss of know-how.” That this loss is the result of class struggle is not a part of Stiegler’s analysis, however.

Like his teacher Derrida, Stiegler’s understanding of memory and technics places language as primary and writing as the originary technicity. For Stiegler this is born out of biological necessity first and foremost. The activity of the human mind is ephemeral, the brain retentionally finite. Technics are humankind’s evolutionary step to alter this situation and extend the time of retention. However, thinking with terms and constructs borrowed from physical anthropology and evolutionary biology, Stiegler mostly elides the role of social relations in this technical enhancement process. This leaves unexamined the manner in which the enhancement of human retentional capacity to the “third layer of memory” is structured through the relationship of the human to the technical objects themselves. That is to say, missing is an analysis of the relationship to the means of retention, to the objects through which cognition becomes knowledge. It is especially important in the digital era—what he calls the “last stage of grammatization”—that the vast archive of memory that is added to everyday and is the source of seemingly infinite value for those who control the means of retention and have access to the full archive of traces, that we theorize the power relations of technics. Stiegler argues, with great force, that technics are intertwined with the evolutionary necessities of hominization (the process of becoming human). If we follow, it should be no surprise that in our technologically advanced, digital society, in late-capitalist grammatization, that everyday life, the very process of the reproduction of ourselves, should be grammatized, archived, and commodified. The rest of this Video School program is an attempt to offer us the tools with which to critique that situation.

Bernard Stiegler is a director of IRI at the Georges Pompidou Center in Paris, a Professorial Fellow at the Centre for Cultural
Studies at Goldsmith College in London and a professor at the University of Technology of Compiègne where he teaches philosophy.

Andrew McKinney‘s Video School explores the relationship between technology, human labor, and everyday life in late capitalism.