Technical and Political Memory
As I outlined in Stiegler’s Memory,1: The Problem With Husserl, Bernard Stiegler argues that Husserl’s traditional phenomenology is focused on showing the way in which the temporal distinctions of past, present and future are formed through the relation between primary and secondary retention and protention. Stiegler’s argument, on the other hand, is that although external memory supports are empirical derivatives of human memory (hence why they are tertiary retentions), 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 form tertiary technical memory that exists a priori. The 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:
‘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’ (CPE, 9)
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 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’ (TT3, 1).
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. I aim to show how 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’ (Beardsworth in Howells and Moore, 2013, 210-211).
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’ (CPE, 8).
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 (the We) that exists beyond the realm of the individual (the I). 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.’ (TT3, 4)
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’ (TT3, 93). 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’ (TT3, 93).
In fact this unification has been reached through a process of epiphylogenetic adoption, one that peaked in the 20th and 21st 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’ (TT3, 91) 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 We. Stiegler wants to demonstrate how and why the question of the We (as a process of collective individuation), and thus the question 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’ (CPE, 8). For Stiegler, this process of politicisation is first and foremost a process of grammatisation, a term borrowed from Derrida, which I discuss in Stiegler and Derrida: The Technical History of Memory which you can find here.
Part 1: The Problem With Husserl
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.
Stiegler, B, (2013), For a New Critique of Political Economy. tr. Daniel Ross. Cambridge: Polity
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