The Problem With Husserl
To French philosopher Bernard Stiegler, the outer objects that human beings create can be looked at exteriorisations of consciousness; tools and the techniques we create to use them are both essentially a technical prostheticity that is fundamental to our being as humans. This inherent technicity is also fundamental to how we experience time. Indeed, the process of epiphylogenesis (see bottom 1) 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 in his book Technics and Time 3 utilizes Edmund Husserl’s conceptions of retention, yet argues that Husserl’s conceptions of primary and secondary retention are not sufficient to describe our technical memory processes.
For Husserl, ‘primary retention is part of the very constitution of the temporal object and therefore part of perception in as much as we perceive temporal objects’ (Roberts, 2006, 59) ; Stiegler defines a temporal object as temporal ‘when its flow coincides with the stream of consciousness of which it is the object’ (TT3, 1). The key example of a temporal object in Husserl (and therefore temporal object Stiegler concerns himself with) is the melody. A melody is an important example of primary retention in the sense that it constitutes a flow in time:
A melody is a temporal object in the sense that it constitutes itself only in duration. The phenomenon of this temporal object is a flow … the properly temporal object is not simply in time, it constitutes itself temporally, it weaves itself into the thread of time – as that which appears in passing, as that which passes, as that which manifests itself in disappearing, as a flux vanishing as it is produced. When I listen to a melody, the object is presented to me in a flow. In the course of the flow each of the notes which presents itself now has retained in it the note which preceded it … It is in this way that the unity of the temporal object is constituted. (TT3, 36-37)
So, 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, he sets up an absolute difference between them, mirroring the distinction between ‘perception’ and ‘imagination’’ (Roberts, 2006, 59).
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 which would in turn deny its primacy. Our perception of a temporal object, for Stiegler, is fundamentally altered if we have experienced that temporal object 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’ (Stiegler, 2011, 62).
This difference between auditions can be understood, for Stiegler, only if the primary retention of the melody I am listening to now is somehow modified by the secondary memory of the same melody heard previously. The experience of perceiving the same temporal object, that is, the melody, twice reveals that the temporal object cannot be simply constituted through primary retention. (Roberts, 2009, 60)
In other words, 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):
The theme of technics reasserts itself – the very experience of perceiving the same temporal object twice is possible only by virtue of the prosthetic memory support of digital or analogue recording. It is only with the advent of such technologies that the verbatim repeatability of the temporal object becomes possible. Stiegler calls this technical memory support “tertiary memory” and argues that it is the phonogram qua tertiary memory that originally highlights the fact of the selection of primary retentions by consciousness, and thus the intervention of imagination at the very center of perception. (Roberts, 2009, 60)
Thus, Stiegler locates in the gramophone record an inversion of Husserl’s model of memory. So, for Husserl there is primary retention which belongs to perception and is thus constitutive of consciousness as a temporal phenomenon (meaning without which there would be no temporal object such as a melody); and secondary retention which involves a selective or imaginative reactivation of a previous experience (meaning it is derivative not constitutive of experience).
For Stiegler, on the other hand, both of these forms of retention are distinct from tertiary memory which includes recorded memories such as pictures (which Husserl calls image-consciousness). Stiegler argues tertiary memory is constitutive of primary and secondary memory and not derivative from them. His point is that in the gramophone record, and more generally in the recorded temporal object, it is not perception which makes possible memory and the artefact but the artefact that makes possible both primary and secondary retention: the record allows both the perception of the melody and, crucially, the constant modification of that perception through repeated auditions. This is the key point where Stiegler alters the traditional readings of Husserl.
1 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’ (Howells and Moore, 2013, 3).
Howells, Christina and Moore, Gerald (2013), Stiegler and Technics. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Roberts, Ben, (2006), ‘Cinema as Mnemotechnics: Bernard Stiegler and the Industrialisation of Memory’. Angelaki, (Vol. 11, No.1), pp. 55–63.
Stiegler, Bernard, (2011), Technics and Time, 3: Cinematic Time and the Question of Malaise. tr. Richard Beardsworth and George Collins. Stanford: SUP.