The Uberfication of the University (Open access Forerunners series version available here; as of April 4 2017 an interactive Manifold series version is available here.)

Públicos Fantasma - La Naturaleza Política Del Libro - La Red (Mexico: Taller de Ediciones Económicas, 2016) - new book, co-authored with Andrew Murphie, Janneke Adema and Alessandro Ludovico. 

'Posthumanities: The Dark Side of "The Dark Side of the Digital"' (with Janneke Adema), in Janneke Adema and Gary Hall, eds, Disrupting the Humanities: Towards Posthumanities, Journal of Electronic PublishingVol. 9, No.2, Winter, 2016.

'Pirate Philosophy And Post-Capitalism: A Conversation With Gary Hall', by Mark Carrigan, The Sociological Imagination, December 8, 2016.

Open Access

Most of Gary's work is freely available to read and download either here in Media Gifts or in Coventry University's online repository CURVE here 

performative project Janneke Adema has put together, based on our ‘The Political Nature of the Book: On Artists’ Books and Radical Open Access’ article for New Formations, Number 78, Summer, 2013. 

'What Does's Success Mean for Open Access: The Data-Driven World of Search Engines and Social Networking', Ctrl-Z: New Media Philosophy, no.5, 2015.

Radical Open Access network

« Culture machine live | Main | Losing their buzz: are Routledge and Sage the next Starbucks? »

#MySubjectivation II: The philosophical impossibility of unliking media technologies in the mind of someone living

Building on the philosophy of Jacques Derrida, Bernard Stiegler argues that the relation of the human to technology is one of originary technicity. What this means is that, contrary to the classical Aristotelian view, technology (i.e. that which is organised but inorganic, manufactured, artificial) is not added to the human from the outside and only after the latter’s birth, as an external tool or instrument used to bring about certain ends. The human is rather born out of its relation to technology.

Now, as far as Derrida is concerned, the association of time with the technology of writing means that this originary relation between technology, time and the human can be understood as a form of writing, or arche-writing (i.e. writing in general, which is ‘invoked by the themes of “the arbitrariness of the sign” and of difference’, as he puts it in Of Grammatology - as opposed to any actual historical system of writing, including that of speech). As Stiegler asserts in an early text, ‘Derrida and Technology’, all media for Derrida, ‘beginning with the most primal traces… and extending as far as the Web and all forms of technical archiving and high-fidelity recording, including those of the biotechnologies… are figures, in their singularity, of the originary default of origin that arche-writing constitutes’. For Stiegler himself, however, such an understanding universalizes arche-writing and underplays the specificity of different media technologies and their relation to time. Instead, he emphasizes the historical and contingent nature of this relation. Put simply, because the human is born out of a relation to technology, and because time is only possible and can only be accessed and experienced as a result of its prior inscription in concrete, technical forms, the nature of subjectivity and consciousness changes over time as media technologies themselves change. Drawing on the argument of the palaeontologist André Leroi-Gourhan, to the effect that the emergence of the human species coincided with the use of tools, Stiegler presents this process as having begun in the Upper Palaeolithic period, its most recent stage being the Web. In ‘The Discrete Image’, another early essay, in this case on the epistemology of digital photography,  Stiegler thus stresses that we must distinguish between:

- the reproducibility of the letter, first handwritten and then printed;
- analog reproducibility (i.e. photographic and cinematographic), which [Walter] Benjamin studied extensively;
- digital reproducibility.

(Bernard Stiegler, ‘The Discrete Image’, in Jacques Derrida and Bernard Stiegler, Echographies of Television, Cambridge: Polity, 2002, p. 155)

It is ‘these three great types of reproducibility’, Stiegler insists, that ‘have constituted and overdetermined the great epochs of memory’ in the West, producing eras in which subjects are created with different forms of the awareness of time.  

At this point a similar criticism can be made of Stiegler - and by implication of those theorists of new media who have followed him in this respect, such as Mark Hansen and N. Katherine Hayles, whose positions build upon Stiegler’s related use of the concept of technogenesis - as he makes of Derrida.  (Hansen writes, for example, that: ‘What the massive acceleration of the evolution of technics makes overwhelmingly clear is that human evolution is necessarily, and has always been, co-evolution with technics. Human evolution is “technogenesis” in the sense that humans have always evolved in recursive correlation with the evolution of technics’.) Just as Derrida, in Stiegler’s reading, sees all media as figures of origin constituted by arche-writing, Stiegler himself argues ‘for a generalised technicity – especially as a condition of temporality’.  From a more strictly Derridean viewpoint, then, Stiegler does not do enough ‘to preserve the ontological difference between the technical synthesis of time and différance as the quasi-transcendental condition of possibility for time’.  Nevertheless, despite this (and in a sense precisely because of it), Stiegler’s work can still be extremely helpful when it comes to thinking through the role the changing technical environment, and with it the emergence of social media, plays in the production of human subjectivity. This can be demonstrated by turning to his understanding of the cultural industries.

To simplify his argument for the sake of economy, Stiegler presents the cultural industries as subordinating the subject’s consciousness and experience of time to the pre-programmed, standardized, reproducible and controllable patterns of their ‘industrial temporal objects’. The cultural industries, and particularly the program (radio and television) industries within them, achieve this by connecting people and their attention to the same daily radio programmes, live TV broadcasts and so forth on a mass basis. Accordingly, there is too little scope for the event, for singularity - for the ‘welcoming of the new and opening of the undetermined to the improbable’, to play on his ‘idea of value defined as knowledge’ from Technics and Time, 2.  Newspapers, for example, are described here as being machines ‘for the production of ready-made ideas, for “clichés”’, motivated by the demands of short-term profit, whose ‘criteria of selection are aspects of marketability’.  As a consequence, the cultural and program industries interfere with the ability of each subject to singularly appropriate and transform what Stiegler, following Gilbert Simondon, calls the pre-individual fund, which is the process that results in the psychic individuation of each individual. So much so that in a recent essay Stiegler is able to show how they function to suffocate desire and destroy the individual:

As heritage of the accumulated experience of previous generations, this pre-individual fund exists only to the extent that it is singularly appropriated and thus transformed through the participation of psychic individuals who share this fund in common. However, it is only shared inasmuch as it is each time individuated, and it is individuated to the extent that it is singularised. The social group is constituted as composition of a synchrony inasmuch as it is recognised in a common heritage, and as a diachrony inasmuch as it makes possible and legitimises the singular appropriation of the pre-individual fund by each member of the group.

The program industries tend on the contrary to oppose synchrony and diachrony in order to bring about a hyper-synchronisation constituted by the programs, which makes the singular appropriation of the pre-individual fund impossible. The program schedule replaces that which André Leroi-Gourhan called socio-ethnic programs: the schedule is conceived so that my lived past tends to become the same as that of my neighbours, and that our behaviour becomes herd-like.

(Bernard Stiegler, ‘Suffocated Desire, or How the Cultural Industry Destroys the Individual: Contribution to a Theory of Mass Consumption’, parrehsia, Number 13, 2011, pp. 52-61)

One of the most important things we learn from Stiegler is that the way to respond responsibly to this ‘industrialization of memory’ and the threat it poses to the intellectual, affective and aesthetic capacities of millions of people today, is not by trying to somehow escape or elude media technologies, or become otherwise autonomous from them. Originary technicity means there is no human without technology, as the ‘who is nothing without the what, since they are in a transductive relation during the process of exteriorization that characterizes life’.  Any such response itself therefore needs to involve such technologies. But, by the same token, neither can we proceed in the hope that the mass media of the cultural and program industries are eventually going to disappear or be abolished; or that we can replace them and the alienating affects of their one-to-many broadcasting model with the apparently more personal, participatory, many-to-many (as well as many-to-one, and one-to-one) model associated with the dominant social media. Hence the way a small number of extremely large corporations, including Amazon, Facebook and Google, are currently in the process of supplementing, if not entirely superseding, the ‘old’ cultural and program industries with regard to the subordination of consciousness and attention to pre-programmed patterns of information conceived as merchandise. They are doing so by exposing users to cultural and cognitive persuasion and manipulation (usually but not always in the form of advertising) based on the tracking and aggregation of their freely provided labour, content and public and personal data (age, education, home town, friends, likes). This process is aimed at targeting individual users on a fine-grained, personalised and, with mobile media, even location-sensitive basis.

Stiegler presents such technologies as hypomnémata: i.e. forms of mnemonics (cultural memory), which Plato described as pharmaka, or substances that function, undecidably, as neither simply poisons nor cures. Rather than reject or critique them outright, he suggests we need to explore how some of the tendencies of which our current economy of the pharmakon is composed can be deployed to give these technologies new and different inflections. As he posits in a 2009 book arguing for the development of a new critique of political economy as ‘the task par excellence for philosophy’ today, this ‘economy of the pharmaka is a therapeutic that does not result in a hypostasis opposing poison and remedy: the economy of the pharmakon is a composition of tendencies, and not a dialectical struggle between opposites.’  
Of course, variations on the idea that media, including corporate (i.e. privately-owned) social media such as Tumblr and Twitter, are neither simply ‘good or bad, productive or distracting, enabling or dangerous’, have been put forward more than once.  Some critics thus propose radically unliking private, closed and semi-closed systems, including those represented by Apple’s single-purpose apps, iDevices and iCloud computing. They advocate time and attention be given instead to those tendencies within our current economy which encourage physical infrastructure and networks that are less centralised and more open to being continually updated, interrupted, reappropriated, transformed and reimagined. The emphasis here is on infrastructure and networks that make it easier for users to understand how such media and networks are made, ‘in order to restart the contract on different terms’ and give users ‘the right of response, right of selection, right of interception, right of intervention’, to draw on Stiegler’s televised conversation with Derrida.  The latter tendencies manifest themselves in the phenomena of much so-called internet piracy, the ‘hacktivism’ associated with 4chan and Anonymous,  as well as in ‘alternative free and open source software that can be locally installed’ by a range of different groups dedicated to working together to get things done, thus generating a ‘multitude of decentralized social networks… that aspire to facilitate users with greater power to define for themselves with whom [to] share their data’.  Numerous such collaborative ‘alternatives’ to the dominant social media monopolies are available, although for obvious reasons they are less well-known than their corporate counter-parts. FreedomBox, for instance, is ‘a community project to develop, design and promote personal servers running free software for distributed social networking, email and audio/video communications’; while unCloud is an art project come software ‘application that enables anyone with a laptop to create an open wireless network and distribute their own information’.   

Yet when it comes to considering the relation between social media and our ways of living, working and thinking as philosophers and theorists, a more intriguing question, I want to suggest, is one that often remains overlooked or otherwise ignored in academic discussions of Instagram, LinkedIn, YouTube et al. This question concerns the very medium Stiegler himself most frequently deploys to analyze and critique the specific changes in media technology that are helping to shape subjectivity in the era of digital reproducibility (i.e. that of the grammatological, linearly organised, bound and printed codex text). To what extent is it appropriate for Stiegler to do so as if he himself were in the main living and working in the epoch of writing and the printed letter? Is Stiegler - like Derrida before him, on his account - not in his own way privileging writing, and the associated forms and techniques of presentation, debate, critical attention, observation and intervention, as a means of understanding the specificity of networked digital media technologies and their relation to cultural memory, time and the production of human subjectivity?  

Stiegler’s notion of originary technicity, for example, should undermine any Romantic conception of the self as separate from those objects and technologies that provide it with a means of expression: writing, the book, film, photography, the Web, smart phone, tablet and so forth. Yet from the very first volume of Technics and Time (originally published in French in 1994) through to 2011’s Decadence of Industrial Democracies, 1, and beyond, Stiegler to all intents and purposes continues to act as if he genuinely subscribes to the notion of the author as individual creative genius associated with the cultural tradition of European Romanticism. (The ‘construct’ known as ‘Stephen Hawking’ is perhaps the most obvious contemporary example of how this romantic conception of the subject works to separate the author from those objects and technologies that provide it with a means of expression.) Stiegler persists in publishing books, including a number of multi-volume monographs, devoted to the building of long-form ‘arguments that are intended to be decisive, comprehensive, monumental, definitive’ and, above all, his. So in Acting Out - composed of two relatively short books on how he became a philosopher and narcissism respectively - Stiegler repeatedly uses phrases such as this is what ‘I call’ ‘primordial narcissism…. the “becoming-diabolical”…. a tertiary retention….  hypersynchronization’.  Indeed, at least in their compulsive repetition of the traditional, pre-programmed, ready-made methods of composition, accreditation, publication and dissemination, his books very much endeavour to remain the original creation of a stable, centered, indivisible and individualized, humanist, proprietarial subject.

(It is interesting to compare this attitude to that of Hélène Cixous, toward her early texts especially:

I’m speaking here about those first texts that were demoniacal, that I had great trouble bringing myself to sign, of which I said that ‘It wasn’t me who wrote them.’ Even this was a sentence I couldn’t use because I couldn’t say ‘me’, it was much too complicated. They were texts written through me, unrecognizable to me, that were illegal, clandestine, not to say mad. And then that thing, that feeling of absolute non-legitimacy, got decanted. I no longer feel this almost shame at robbing myself in my absence – literally this was what I would think when I was writing my first texts: I’m robbing myself.

(Hélène Cixous, in Hélène Cixous and Frédéric-Yves Jeannet, Encounters: Conversations on Life and Writing, Cambridge: Polity, 2012, p. 11) )

It is not only Stiegler who acts out what it means to be a radical philosopher or critical theorist by writing and publishing in this fashion, of course. Much the same can be said of Virilio, Rancière, Žižek, Laruelle, Malabou, Meillassoux – in fact most thinkers of contemporary society, culture and media today. This point even applies to those theorists of digital media who know how to produce code and experimental e-literature, such as Wendy H. K. Chun, Alexander R. Galloway and N. Katherine Hayles. How can it be otherwise when academics in the humanities often need at least one monograph published with a reputable print press to secure that all important first position, promotion, tenure (and that’s after having produced a 60,000-80,000 word PhD thesis consisting of ‘original’ work, of which they have to officially declare themselves the sole ‘author’)? Don’t we all acquire much of our authority as scholars by acting romantically as if we were still living in the epoch of writing and print? (Anyone who doubts the power with which such discourses are enforced should listen to ‘On Tenterhooks, On the Tenure Track'.) Would we have heard of Stiegler or attach quite the importance to his work we do, would we even consider him to be a serious thinker and philosopher, if he had not (single-) authored so many print books and operated instead merely as part of the Ars Industrialis association of cultural activists he formed in 2005  (or any of those other centres and institutions he has worked at and with, such as the INA, IRCAM and IRI [Innovation and Research Institute] at the Georges Pompidou Center)?

In an interview at the 2012 International World Wide Web conference Stiegler acknowledges that:

the new dynamics of knowledge needs henceforth that Web issues be questioned, practiced, theorized and critically problematized (I here take the word ‘critical’ as Immanuel Kant used it). … [A]s with the Bologna University during the 11th century, then with the Renaissance era, then with the Enlightment and Kant’s question in Le conflit des facultés, we are living a significant organological change – knowledge instruments are changing and these instruments are not just means but rather shape an epistemic environment, an episteme, as Michel Foucault used to say.

(Bernard Stiegler, ‘Bernard Stiegler, director of IRI (Innovation and Research Institute) at the Georges Pompidou Center, and www2012 keynote speaker’, 21st International World Wide Web Conference, Lyon, France, April 16-20, 2012)

But what if Stiegler is right, and with the web and digital reproducibility we are now living in an era in which subjects are created with a different form of the awareness of time: a ‘radically new stage of the life of the mind, whereby the whole question of knowledge is raised anew’?.  Does this not raise an issue of fundamental importance concerning the extent to which this episteme and the associated changes in the media ecology that are shaping our memories and consciousness can be understood, analysed, rethought and reinflected by subjectivities that, by and large, continue to live, work and think on the basis of knowledge instruments originating in a very different epistemic environment?

('#MySubjectivation' I is below here)


Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>