Technics, Rhetoric, and Digitality: In Memory of Bernard Stiegler, 1952-2020 -- Damien Smith Pfister
Bernard Stiegler died on August 6, 2020. Stiegler’s prolific work on the philosophy of technology ambitiously rethinks the role of technics from European antiquity through the continental tradition. Synthesizing insights from his teacher Derrida with Foucault, Deleuze, and Simondon, Stiegler developed a novel vocabulary and approach to technics in the history of philosophy and, more recently, to the manifold problems of digital technics enframed in a consumerist-capitalist framework. It seems only appropriate, given Stiegler’s central preoccupation with technics and memory, that we remember his contributions through the practice of material inscription, extending the circuit of his thought ever longer. Stiegler’s work has been instrumental in my own thinking about rhetoric and digitality, so this post functions not only as a memorial but as a modest introduction to the relevance of Stiegler’s ideas for rhetorical studies.
Stiegler’s primary thesis, explicated most thoroughly in the Technics and Time series, is that the history of (Western) “philosophy has repressed technics as an object of thought” (Technics and Time, Vol. 1, ix.) In a narrative that should be remarkably familiar to rhetoricians, Stiegler argues “At the beginning of its history philosophy separates tekhnē from ēpistēmē, a distinction that had not yet been made in Homeric times. The separation is determined by a political context, one in which the philosopher accuses the Sophist of instrumentalizing logos as rhetoric and logography, that is, as both an instrument of power and a renunciation of knowledge” (Technics and Time, Vol. 1, 1). In between the inorganic beings of the physical sciences and the organic beings of the biological ones are “‘inorganic organized beings,’ or technical objects” (Technics and Time, Vol.1, 17). Stiegler aims to re-read the philosophical tradition that emerges from Greek antiquity in a way that centers technicity rather than subsume it under epistemics or ignore it altogether. This interpretive strategy produces a radical rethinking of the philosophical traditions that emerged in the wake of Plato.
Since rhetoric is a “technics-forward” tradition (well, mostly), Stiegler’s development of technics intersects with the work of rhetoric in a number of ways. Indeed, Stiegler’s work is most obviously useful in terms of the ontological turn in rhetorical theory, given his central interest in how technogenesis makes anthropogenesis possible—in other words, technics are conditions of possibility for human being, not just inert “things” invented by hyperagentic humans. Drawing from the anthropologist André Leroi-Gourhan, Stiegler’s work explores the co-constitution of humans and the inorganic, organized beings that surround us. One thread of this work explores how technics exteriorize memory. Riffing off Husserlian phenomenology, Stiegler adds the concept of “tertiary retention” to the more familiar categories of primary retention (understood by Stiegler as the body’s registration of sensation, affect, and memory) and secondary retention (referring to a body’s recollection of a primary retention, which is inevitably colored by language and culture). Tertiary retention refers to the inscription of memory into durable objects. Writing is the obvious example of tertiary retention, but Stiegler’s work widens the purview of inscription to consider non-chirographic technics as well. Moreover, Stiegler endeavored to prove—successfully, in my estimation—that tertiary retentions fundamentally shape primary and secondary retentions. Scholars of rhetoric and public memory would find a number of entry points into Stiegler’s work by considering how tertiary retentions (like, say, Confederate statuary) continue to structure public conversation.
In re-reading media history as the history of different inscription technologies, Stiegler, like his mentor Derrida, focuses on the account of writing given by Plato in Phaedrus as a way to show how the cultural disruptions that occupied 4th century Athens offer a way of understanding ongoing disruptions driven by digital technics today. Central to this inquiry is Stiegler’s development of the idea of grammatization, or the process by which technics turn the continuous into the discrete. The classic example of grammatization is the invention of alphabetic literacy, which turned the continuous flow of speech into discrete sound-letter combinations that could be learned, inscribed, and circulated. John Tinnell’s essay “Grammatization: Bernard Stiegler’s Theory of Writing and Technology” is still the best explication of this central Stieglerian term coming out of rhetorical studies, situating its development in conversation with Derrida’s grammatology and Ulmer’s electracy. Stiegler’s foundational work on grammatization gives us better purchase on how digital technics are shaping contemporary subjectivities and cultures. Put simply, digital technics grammatize the world in novel ways, posing threats to dignity and freedom through their automation, industrialization, and ubiquity. Consider a seemingly banal example of this kind of digital grammatization: Facebook reaction emojis. While embodied reactions to Facebook posts theoretically run the gamut of human expression, landing on different emotional gradients at different times and over times, reaction emojis “grammatize” these reactions by offering six seven discrete emojis to signify a response (like, love, haha, wow, sad, angry, and most recently, care.) On the one hand, these grammatizations feel largely superior to Facebook’s prior grammar, which offered “like” or nothing at all. The flip side of this, of course, is that reaction emojis give Facebook a much more granular sense of user reactions, which can in turn be industrialized—churned into the algorithmic stew that is dedicated to the relentless pursuit of “engagement” (defined by another set of grammatizations involving likes and comments, click rates, time on page, etc.) and money (a “universal” form of grammatization, Kenneth Burke might say).
Any act of grammatization has to be understood, for Stiegler, pharmacologically. Again drawing from Plato’s well-spring (and Derrida’s drinking from said spring), Stiegler emphasizes technics as simultaneously poison and cure. An axe can cure being cold by chopping wood, but it can also murder. Facebook can connect old friends, but it can also use those connections to fuel ethnic cleansing. As far as I know, Stiegler never grapples with the O.P. (that’s the Original Pharmakon) of rhetoric as a pharmacological technic, which is somewhat surprising given the source material he engages (most obviously in Plato’s Phaedrus, but also in Plato’s Protogoras, which inspires the Promethean-Epimethean tension in his work). Here, then, is another potent intersection between Stiegler and rhetorical theory: Stiegler argues that we have to develop therapeutics (think Foucault’s care of the self but like version 3.0) to manage the pharmacological excesses of new technologies, to bend them toward their more curative rather than poisonous properties. If rhetoric is a technic that constitutes culture, then any therapeutics sufficient to the task of taming the pharmakon requires rhetoric’s considerable repertoire. In other words, there can be no transformation of how digital technics grammatize without rhetorical theory at the core (an argument I hope to make good on in my current book project).
Stiegler’s recent work engages disruption. In The Negenthropocene, Automatic Society, and The Age of Disruption: Technology and Madness in Computational Capitalism, Stiegler engages (among other things) climate change, automation, and the return of fascistic barbarism. Ironically, I had started The Age of Disruption right as the COVID-19 pandemic was triggering quarantine conditions in the United States. “Disruption,” Stiegler writes, “destroys all social bonds, that is, it destroys what Aristotle calls philia, which alone contains madness,” where madness is understood as the usurpation of collective deliberation by the short-term thinking of computational capitalism (Age of Disruption, 39). Reading The Age of Disruption alongside the bumblings of the “Great Disruptor” during an anemic and ultimately failed national response to the pandemic was sobering but, like much of Stiegler’s work, also clarifying in projecting forth the possibility of another world grounded in imagining and dreaming.
In addition to perhaps the most robust explication of the centrality of technics in a certain tradition of philosophy, Stiegler’s work abounds with unique conceptual phrases often derived from radicalizing or extending others’ work: proletarianization, hyper-control society, political economy of the spirit, nootechniques, programmatologies, negenthropocene, among many, many more. There is a risk of being overwhelmed with a new vocabulary when reading Stiegler, though as the concepts become more familiar, they also become more recognizable as a repressed vocabulary that has lurked beneath and around philosophy and rhetoric for millenia (and, indeed, a rhetorical sensibility attunes one to these potent overlaps). Although the tendency in many U.S. academic circles is to reverently receive French practitioners of continental philosophy, I make no bones about the bones I have to pick with Stiegler (to which, I understand based on the numerous reflections of others, he would have been graciously receptive.) If unfamiliar with the philosophical foundations of his work, Stiegler’s writing on digitality and attention sometimes can be read as a more sophisticated version of Is Google Making Us Stupid?, though his prose sings when he centers questions of political economy and stupidity (bêtise) in the new attention economy. Stiegler’s sense of culture could be enriched by the critical/cultural studies tradition in contemporary rhetorical studies—especially regarding issues of race, gender, class, and sexuality, which are infrequent topoi in his work. Yuk Hui, a student of Stiegler’s, has shown in The Question Concerning Technology in China: An Essay in Cosmotechnics how Stiegler’s work can be productively put in conversation with different cultural and cosmological traditions. (Hui’s more personal reflection on Stiegler’s death can be found here.)
Finally, Stiegler’s engagement with rhetorical traditions—either the same Greco-Roman tradition that funds Stiegler’s own work or any other global rhetorical tradition—is minimal (again, in keeping with the tradition of continental philosophy he is a part of, though the conclusion of this interview is an exception). I’ve tried to address this lacunae in my own work, in a conference presentation on Stiegler’s reception of the sophists and, more recently, in “Rhetoric, Digitality, and Protocological Fascism; or, Fascist Ants, Democratic Cicadas,” which takes up Stiegler’s “Allegory of the Anthill” from Symbolic Misery. Jon Carter’s recent essay in Rhetoric Society Quarterly, “Transindividuating Nodes: Rhetoric as the Architechnical Organizer of Networks,” similarly reads rhetoric into Stiegler’s work productively. Carter takes Stiegler’s development of technics and individuation as a corrective to Latour’s arhetorical actor-network theory, centralizing a role for rhetoric when he writes, “rhetoric—in providing the force of translation that allows different actants to engage with one another, circulating and shaping externalized memories—is foundational to networked modes of relation. Rhetoric organizes networks, establishing the conditions whereby actants transindividuate in relation.”
Reading Stiegler does require some commitment (in that way, Stiegler’s writings perform that which he theorizes—it requires noetic effort on the part of the reader). I typically recommend that people start with The Reenchantment of the World, which offers a more specific political program alongside a very readable account of much of Stiegler’s thought up to that point. Curious readers might then jump to What Makes Life Worth Living?, a book that mostly lives up to an ambitious title. Readers may feel confident enough to tackle the Technics and Time trilogy after these two books, though I would recommend brushing up on Husserl and Heidegger before tackling it. The Symbolic Misery series (vol. 1 and 2) is particularly useful for rhetoricians, especially the contrast between symbols and diabols. The Disbelief and Discredit series will especially appeal to theorists of affect and critics of neoliberalism. Many of these series remain unfinished; the Technics and Time series alone was projected to be 7 volumes! No doubt, some version of these works will emerge in the near future, pieced together by translators and comrades. While we no longer will have Stiegler’s unique and prolific voice, we have traces of Stiegler exteriorized in and through technics to help guide digital culture in a different way, and it is our task to crystallize his thinking and build on it.