The cinematic condition of the politico-philosophical future
Politics depends on the possibility of collective intelligence, that is, on the possibility that collectives composed of different individuals will be motivated to undertake, and will be capable of performing, the work of thinking required to adopt a future, rather than merely adapting themselves to whatever accidents befall them. Now thinking, it turns out, has conditions, which means it also has a history. Adorno and Horkheimer were the first to try to analyse the industrialisation of these conditions, through their concept of the “culture industry.” But tied to a Kantian schema, they were unable to think through the material history of these conditions. Heidegger, not limited by such a schema, was able to diagnose the consequences for thought of the overwhelming power of modern technology. But unable to think the difference between technologisation and industrialisation, Heidegger lacked the means of understanding the technological conditions of thought itself. Paralysed by these flawed alternatives, philosophy has in the 20th century contributed little to the future possibility of politics. Into this situation, however, Bernard Stiegler has deposited a philosophy of technology capable of thinking the technologies of philosophy, and thus capable of guiding us to an understanding of what it is about recent technological developments that threatens thinking, and what it is that offers promise.
If we understand by the word “cinema” not just what is projected onto the screen in the interior of a movie theatre, but rather as including television and all the manufactured forms of image sequences made possible by digital technology—that is, if we understand by the word “cinema” every kind of audiovisual industrial temporal object, where “temporal object” is meant in Husserl’s sense as something that exists as the flux of its passing into inexistence (such as a melody, which is Husserl’s paradigm case)—then, grasped in this most ample sense, cinema cannot be divorced from what future possibilities there are for philosophy, and we can even say that this twinned future for philosophy and cinema, a future in which both of these terms must necessarily remain open, contains the question of the future of politics, that is, of the future as such.
On what grounds might it be concluded that so recent a gadget as cinema bears fundamentally on the future of philosophy, let alone on the future of politics, which, like philosophy, has a 2500-year history, if we date its origin from, say, Solon’s compromise between oligarchic and democratic tendencies (a compromise expressed by the fact that Solon both codified class division and yet ensured the universal accessibility of this code by having it inscribed on revolving pillars)?
This coincidence of dates suggests that something at the origin of philosophy and politics ties them together. This is less the fact that they are written, although the alphabetisation of speech two centuries or so before Solon is without doubt critical; more directly relevant is that both politics and philosophy are techniques and forms of exteriorisation secreted at the time writing becomes a public phenomenon—what matters is not only the genesis of writing but of publication. And it is this development which Plato then suspects, for two reasons: publication, as an artifice of memory, threatens the memory-work of the individual; as a collective phenomenon, this is spelled as the threat of publicity (Stiegler 1998: 205).
We have now had forty years to adjust to a thought placing writing at the heart of the question of philosophy. How can writing occupy such a central location within philosophy?
The short answer to this question comes, via Bernard Stiegler, from a reflection on some otherwise unduly neglected pages of Of Grammatology (Derrida 1998: 83–85). Derrida explicitly relates his own project to that of palaeontologist André Leroi-Gourhan, and explicitly states that différance is a name for the history of life. Life is différance because it is that which is different from non-life, and because it is a delay of the entropic processes of the becoming of the physical universe (Stiegler 2003c: 155). Life is nothing other than the struggle against entropy, an organisation of matter opening a space in which entropy is delayed.
Life is différance because it is the emergence of the gramme. But Derrida’s way of formulating this understanding of différance as life emphasises the continuity of this emergence, and understands the “human adventure” in terms of this continuity, extending from amoebae to “electronic card indexes” (Derrida 1998: 84). This is immediately, therefore, a critique of anthropocentrism, since the gramme can be found on both sides of the division between animal and human. It is on this basis that the term “writing,” as engrammability and programmability, is able to stand for this great expanse of the history of life, along the continuum of which the human adventure would constitute one epoch.
But if the human adventure is an epoch, it is also an epokhe, a dis-continuity within the overall continuity of life. In short, with the human adventure something else begins, another negentropic process within and outside the already negentropic history of life, the history of the exteriorisation of memory in artefacts, tools, language and writing. It is the advent of technics, which before all else is the advent of a third memory, different from those preceding it (genetic memory and the memory of the individual nervous system; Stiegler 2003c: 158–159). Technics, says Stiegler, is the pursuit of life by means other than life (Stiegler 1998: 17). “Technical memory” is potentially immortal, a memory of that which I have not lived but upon which I can draw, and upon which I can project my and our future, a possibility which does not cease to transform existence, existence which, as spirit, is nothing other than the power of transformation (as Paul Valéry said [Valéry 1962: 187]). This is the foundation of Stiegler’s philosophy, according to which the human is invented by technics as much as the converse. Stiegler refers to “what is commonly called ‘man’” (Stiegler 2004: 76) as, rather (mobilising here the philosophy of Gilbert Simondon; cf., Simondon 1992), the epoch of the process of psychic and collective individuation, beginning, after all, not from Homo sapiens but from Homo erectus, and extending who knows where.
Stiegler, then, notices a Derridean “indecision,” expressed in the difficulty of deciding whether différance is the name for the history of life as such, or for the specific difference in which human life consists, that is, the name for all those differences from physis constituting human existence, whether they are spelled as tekhne, nomos, thesis, society, freedom, history, or spirit (Stiegler 1998: 139). This indecision is the consequence of failing adequately to grasp that something happens at the origin of the human, an event which, while part of the history of life, is also the discontinuous beginning of another history, a technical history. When Derrida deconstructs phonocentrism, his argument is that language, as the exteriorisation of thought, is also the possibility and emergence of thought, and thus as exteriorisation thought is always already inscription, that is, “writing.” Stiegler’s argument is that this exteriorisation is not simply a question of language but of the artefact, and that the technical materialisation of existence in the form of the artefact is the true primary moment in that history of exteriorisation constituting the human adventure.
Writing is one epoch within the grand history of exteriorisation, inaugurating a particular epoch of the process of individuation. Stiegler argues for the need not merely for a grammatology—that is, a logic of the supplement and of the trace—so much as a history of grammatisation, that is, of all those techniques which fix existence in exterior forms, and which do so through systems of discrete elements (Stiegler 2001a: 248). Cinema is one epoch and one system within this history, entailing the need for, and engendering, a specific form of thought and a specific form of aesthetics—and thus a specific form of politics.
Before anything else, what links philosophy and cinema is that both are temporal occupations or preoccupations, occupying or preoccupying time. Philosophy has always understood itself as a knowledge-practice dependent on having time free of necessity, free of the needs of subsistence—it re-quires time for in-quiry. For this it is sometimes judged an aristocratic preoccupation, hence undemocratic. But even though philosophical contemplation requires free time, as a practice it is a technique and a form of work, thus it is Socrates’ work if not his employment; and it is a political occupation, in that it is the work he does for the polis, even though the city punishes him for it with his life.
Cinema, too, is a way of occupying time, the time one has as remainder after the occupations of necessity; one attends the movies after work. The explosion of the time devoted to cinema and then television in the lives of the citizens of the 20th century might be thought to constitute, then, an element of “leisure” in so-called “leisure society.” Cinema would be one of those pursuits made possible by so-called post-industrial society, that is, a society in which the time we have is aristocratically liberated ever more from necessity, in which each is increasingly freer to pursue what Michel Foucault would call his or her “subjectivation,” according to the practices of one’s own aesthetics of existence, one’s own sensibility.
Such an understanding of cinema would be dead wrong (and a misreading of Foucault). As Stiegler has made abundantly clear, far from being post-industrial, the societies we inhabit are increasingly hyper-industrial (Stiegler 2004: 142). Whereas in its early days capitalism reinforced the distinction between work time and free time, reducing this distinction to an opposition, what capitalists gradually realised, and what cinema made especially possible, was that the idle time of the worker could again become useful, as time when consciousness could be made available—attracted, distracted, solicited, incited to consume, and sold as merchandise.
This is the foundation of cultural capitalism, which is hyper-industrial to the degree that production is driven by consumption, rather than the other way around. Thus there is a sense in which both philosophy and cinema have been institutions or practices, occupations or preoccupations, which confound the distinction between work time and free time, or which demonstrate that the apparent opposition between labour and leisure masks their more profound composition. But it is through a reflection on the different ways in which they expose this composition that they must be understood, and through which it may be possible to see how the opposition between philosophy and cinema itself may be deconstructed, that is, re-composed.
According to Foucault, Socratic philosophy is Delphic: it is a practice of the self taking the form of knowing the self (Foucault 2005). Foucault is clear that practices (of the self) means technologies (of the self), and that among these writing is not the least important, even though it is what Plato condemns as the ruination of memory and parasitic upon thought. Law, for instance, is according to Foucault but one epoch in the more encompassing history of human technique (yet Foucault fails to credit the role of writing in the origin of law, enabling Cleisthenes to disassemble the socio-ethnic program maintaining the Greek tribes and replace it with the socio-juridical program defining the demes—this is the foundation upon which the thought of democracy will be erected and projected, which will then be questioned by Platonic philosophy on the precise grounds that democracy is not aristocratic, that is, it is a power of something other than the best).
But if classical philosophy is a practice and a technique, for Foucault this philosophy, devoted to (self-)contemplation, may be the foundation of a subjectivation, but as contemplation it is in some way a limitation of practice that he treats as more or less limiting in turn the form of politics, politics being curtailed by a philosophy which does not grasp that care for the self could mean something other than self-knowledge. Reading the Platonic dialogue Alcibiades, Foucault notes that Socrates seems to be saying that a practice of self-knowledge is a requirement along the way to becoming a good ruler. But for later writers it is the permanent practice of care for the self that constitutes the very art of living, and the condition upon which governance is possible at all.
Practices and techniques of the care of the self not limited by the Delphic and Socratic injunction arise, according to Foucault, in the first centuries of the Roman empire, as the practices of Epicurean and Stoic philosophy. On the basis of a brilliant reading of these texts Foucault speaks of the development of a “culture of the self” (Foucault 2005: 179–180). What Foucault calls the “self,” or “subjectivation,” is another name for what Stiegler calls psychic individuation. As care and culture of the self, as psychic individuation, philosophical practice is something about which care must be taken, something to be cultivated—and, insofar as it implies sacrifice and cost, the object of a cult. As technique, this process of psychic individuation is one that can only concretise itself socially, that is, through a process of collective individuation, and vice versa. Philosophy is a technique emerging at the time of the becoming-public of writing—at the origin of publication—making use of so-called free time in order to cultivate the care required for psychic individuation, itself always also and immediately social.
Foucault’s point is that the classical knowledge of the self must be distinguished from the Hellenistic conception of care of the self, even though the latter emerges from the former. But his point is also to distinguish these Hellenistic techniques—which amount to a form of asceticism (as does all philosophy)—from the ascetic practices arising later as Christian practice, monastic practice. This difference consists for Foucault in the fact that, whereas the Epicurean and Stoic practices are constitutive of the self, that is, facilitate and promote psychic individuation, the monastic practices of Christianity tend to renounce the self, on the grounds that the self is essentially that which, in the world, is tempted by sin.
But monastic practice, as self-renunciation, also renounces the world, that is, worldly concerns, temporal concerns. It is the attempt to make free time, time insofar as it is not yoked to worldly necessities, into the whole of one’s time. This is achieved by making the whole of one’s time into a practice, into the work of religious practice.
Monastic practice is the vocational devotion of the whole of one’s time to practices which, as religious, escape necessity, even if the inhabitants of the monastery must themselves also find ways to subsist. And while these monastic values are considered universal, they become the exclusive privilege of a few, a few defined by the fact that, liberated from work, they spend all of their time cultivating the practices embodying them.
This is what Martin Luther condemns.
As a form of exclusivity and privilege, monastic practice is, in Luther’s estimation, less than Christian, achieving its exclusivity by a misplaced flight from the worldly and the temporal. How is this exclusivity and privilege assaulted? Essentially, the means are technical, the invention of the printing press making possible the development of private techniques of worship, that is, making it possible for the Bible to enter into each worshipper’s home (Stiegler 2004: 106–7). And if we can call this the means of Protestantism, it is just as much this technical fact, the invention of the printing press, which makes possible, if not inevitable, the invention of Protestantism itself.
Now, Protestantism, and more particularly the extremification of Lutheranism called Calvinism, have been the subject of a famous account by Max Weber, according to which this spirit is the foundation of capitalism. Weber intended thereby to counter Marx—for whom the industrial revolution was the critical catalyst of capitalist development, that is, of the division of capital and labour—but insofar as this spirit described by Weber was itself enabled by the printing press it remains a technical phenomenon (which is not at all to speak of technological determinism). And what is this link between Protestantism and capitalism, a link drawn by Weber through the “sermons” of Benjamin Franklin? It is the injunction, utterly to the contrary of monastic practice, to make worldly practice, the practice of subsistence and of the accumulation of money, into the whole of one’s time, an injunction founded in the trust and confidence that the true vocation of life is business, that is, negotiation, negotium.
Negotium is the activity of need, of subsistence; thus otium, free time liberated from necessity, refers to all those activities which are not negotium, as the différance of negotium (Stiegler 2004: 139)—its supplement and its delay—the time of human existence insofar as it is not subsistence, thus, according to Epictetus, the time which one must have spare, time one can devote to the cultivation of the disciplines and the techniques through which philosophy and the art of living may be acquired and maintained. The vocation for business, for negotium, which for Weber defines the spirit of capitalism, is adopted from the Calvinist deformation of Protestantism, itself the refutation of monastic practice, monastic practice which, according to Foucault, is a deformation of the technique and practice of otium characterising Hellenistic philosophy.
The secularisation of the Protestant spirit is the basis upon which the techniques and practices of capitalism could be founded and universalised, in particular, the techniques “rationalising” labour and accounting (Stiegler 2004: 94). This process of rationalisation both fostered and was fostered by emergent industrialisation, which contributed to it by stripping the worker of the tool which he possessed the knowledge to use, replacing this with the machine, the machine then becoming itself the bearer of the tool. Whereas the manual worker had to master techniques, through which he could pursue his or her own individuation, the worker attached to the machine need only be instructed in its use, tending to be reduced to an element in the individuation of the technical system. This is nothing other than the formalisation and standardisation of the gestures of the tool bearer: by analysing the human gestures of weaving, forging, etc., they could be broken into discrete elements and these elements inscribed in the programs of machines. By externalising human gestures and turning them into precise, discrete elements, the industrial revolution pursued and achieved a new form of grammatisation, the grammatisation of gesture.
This is the process of the invention of the proletariat, and its consequence, more than anything else, is a tendential loss of knowledge by the worker, a loss of savoir-faire, resulting in the separation and opposition of capital and labour, the latter becoming ever more dependent on the former. Stiegler following Simondon refers to this as the process of proletarianisation, the point being that the proletariat and the worker are not at all the same figure (Stiegler 2004: 92). And given that this proletariat is precisely a worker stripped of knowledge, that is, of tekhne, of the techniques and practices to which he could devote himself, and the tendential destruction of work as vocation, to be replaced by machines and instructions for using machines, both constantly renewed at a pace greater than generational transmission—all this is the basis of the opposition of work time (henceforth nothing but the occupation of time insofar as it is necessary for subsistence), to the “free time” of idleness (defined precisely as other than the time of work, but a free time which is henceforth a new kind of necessity, the need to escape from the subsistence activity of labour to which the proletariat is henceforth yoked).
It is in this context that cinema is invented.
But it is during the Great Depression—when the “contradictions” of capitalism first express themselves in all their fury—that cinema really takes off. And it does so precisely because—due to the massive unemployment of the proletariat, of those deprived of labour as well as of savoir-faire—film production companies recognised that this massive unoccupied time held by those without possibility of projecting a future for themselves, that is, without the possibility of believing in any future, could be exploited by attracting and distracting their attention from this lack of work and lack of future and toward the spectacles projected for them in the cinema palaces springing up in every industrialised city throughout the world.
In other words, and as previously mentioned, the success of cinema depended on the recognition by industrialists and producers that idle time, condemned by Benjamin Franklin as equivalent to money lost, could in fact become useful time for the manufacturer and the producer, as a channel through which it is possible to make money. The basis of this potential is twofold:
The fact that “tertiary retention”—that is, artefacts of all kinds and especially mnemo-technical artefacts such as writing or the cinema—conditions secondary retention and therefore the selection involved in primary retention, is the irreducible human fact. Thus the problem is not that cinema is the technicisation of perception, because perception (like thought) was always technical, that is, a question of practice—it is, rather, the industrialisation of perception accomplished by cultural capitalism through the cinematic technologies which represents a decisive transformation of the conditions of human existence and becomes an aesthetico-political problem.
Coinciding with the discovery that profits can be made by selling fantasies of an impossible future is the invention by Edward Bernays, nephew of Freud, of “public relations,” the science and technology of capturing attention, modifying desire, and inducing mass behaviour, specifically, consumer behaviour. With the arrival of commercial television, it is not the program itself that is being sold by the broadcaster, but access to the minds of its audience. Television programs are a means of attracting the attention of audiences, in order to direct them toward advertisements designed through carefully calculated techniques to induce consumption (Stiegler 2003a: 37). What Foucault did not make explicit is that this—marketing—is the premier form of biopower, but a biopower premised on the voluntary submission of one’s time to program industries and cinematic technologies (Stiegler 2004: 144). The terminus of this submission was what Gilles Deleuze called “control society” (Deleuze 1990).
Freud failed to see this, precisely at the moment he was thinking the dangers to politics represented by the hyper-synchronisation of the mass, that is, the totalitarian dangers of the herd society. In 1930, in “Civilisation and Its Discontents,” Freud thinks the unhappiness of civilisation in terms of the cost to the ego of sublimation and superegoisation, which is the civilising condition (Freud 1958). Freud thus thinks that the progress of society inevitably includes the risk of increasing the ration of unhappiness and guilt as the superego strengthens.
Now, what is called the superego is essentially the temporalisation of the ego, the alteration and delay of the egoistic instincts through the internalisation of authority, an authority which both prohibits and authorises behaviour. But Freud could not think the emerging tendency toward the de-temporalisation of existence and thus toward the diminution of superegoisation (but this de-temporalisation also includes among its consequences a kind of pathological hyper-superegoisation, that is, an absolute renunciation of the temporal world, for example absolute martyrs of all kinds, such as suicide bombers [Stiegler 2006b: 141]). What Freud lacked the means to think is the unhappiness of de-temporalisation, of disindividuation, of entropic tendencies. Rather than a ration of unhappiness as the yield of civilisation, at stake here are all the miseries and furies which are the outcome of de-civilising processes.
Far from being free, the “leisure time” of the consumer is increasingly controlled, utterly unfree, and overwhelmingly miserable. What these techniques and technologies produce is what Stiegler calls the proletarianisation of the consumer, that is, the loss not of savoir-faire but of savoir-vivre. Far from heading toward a leisure society, or to the abolition of the proletariat in favour of a generalised middle class, what is in fact playing out is a generalised proletarianisation, where the loss of knowledge of the worker is doubled by the loss of knowledge of the consumer, a tendency which, as a loss of information, is necessarily entropic, and thus counter to the negentropic and différantial process in which life and human life consists. As Stiegler writes:
[T]he submission of existence to standardised behavioural models of consumption follows the process of proletarianisation which had begun in the 19th century with the standardisation of modes of production. The consumer is the new figure of proletarianisation, and the proletariat, very far from disappearing, is a condition from which it becomes nearly impossible to escape (Stiegler 2004: 60).
Generalised proletarianisation, an entropic process, amounts to a tendency toward disindividuation, the attempt to establish, in the wake of the disciplinary society described by Foucault, what Deleuze instead calls control society, in which desire is rendered precisely calculable and controllable, that is, grammatisable.
But what fails to be taken into account by the calculators and controllers of desire is that the unconscious is the definition of that which, in us, is irreducibly un-controllable, and thus the attempted control of which inevitably has unintended consequences (Stiegler 2006c: 1). Thus the “rationalisation” process described by Weber at the origin of capitalism ends up undermining its own reason, that is, becoming irrational, and the spirit of capitalism ends up being self-destructive or, as Derrida might say, auto-immune. The spirit of capitalism undermines itself, and capitalist reason becomes irrational (Stiegler 2006d: 1).
About this we must be clear: it is not news that the techniques of consumerism and cultural capitalism tend to reduce the political to marketing, that is, to eliminate it; what is news is that this is also the elimination of my and our economic self, that is, the destruction of myself as a desiring being, as a motivated being. It is not a question of reducing political desire to the economic logic of marketing, but rather of the destruction of desire and motivation itself, which is the foundation of all economy. And, with this destruction of desire, what is thereby also destroyed is my knowledge of others as desiring beings, which is my knowledge of them as such, and thus what is destroyed in turn is the trust and confidence which determine the spirit without which society cannot advance itself any credit, nor any future.
Now, as Stiegler points out, although every instrument is a means, this does not mean that an instrument is reducible to a means (Stiegler 1998: 205–6). But if an instrument cannot be reduced to a means, this is because every instrument, from the flint axe to the digital camera, also opens a world, makes a world, transforms the world. And thus if cinema (taken in the broad sense indicated at the beginning) is the technological means by which capitalism founds itself on consumption, and is the means by which capitalism thereby tends to undermine its own existence, this is not all that the cinematic instrument is.
What else is it then?
When my father, who grew up in the 1920s and 1930s in an ethnic ghetto in Philadelphia, went to the cinema, it was to those palaces, which were more like temples, attended ritually, habitually and collectively. For my father, formative among his experiences was that of watching two figures: William Powell and Fred Astaire. Who were these figures? They were, precisely, masters of the technique of living, possessors of savoir-vivre: judging from their on-screen roles, they knew how to live, and from them, if one had dedication and devotion, it was possible to learn technique—if not how to dance like Fred Astaire, at least ways of living which were other than those observable in one’s immediate milieu, ways other than one’s intimate socio-ethnic programming, but techniques which were, nevertheless, potentially viable, that is, successfully liveable.
If Top Hat and The Thin Man were commodities designed to exploit the free time of the unemployed masses and their children, they were also an example of the process of de-territorialisation in which culture consists (at the same time as always constituting a process of territorialisation), making possible techniques of the practice of the self otherwise utterly unavailable, representations of authoritative figures enabling the authorisation of one’s own life. We should not underestimate the degree to which this formed the basis of the devotion these cinema palaces attracted. Whether the future promised was attainable or impossible, such films facilitated and projected the belief in a future which, if largely non-existent, nevertheless appeared consistent, hence another form of life toward which one could cultivate another art of living, about which one could care.
And the Depression did in fact come to an end, and Depression-era children grew up to lead lives different from those of their parents, in part to the degree they learned the lessons and techniques of their childhood cinematic experience. Astaire and Powell functioned as masters, the techniques of whom were to be emulated, learned, and transformed; these figures were bearers of knowledge and of mysteries, specifically of the knowledge and mysteries of savoir-vivre; hence the cult of the movie-star.
What can be learned in this way has, perhaps, its limits, and can always engender faults and mistakes in the practise of life. But all practices of the self have these limits, which is why the history of these practices, that is, the history of philosophy and its others, is the history of mistakes, which is what Heidegger said. Despite these mistakes, then, what is played out on the screen in a way resembles the culture of the self described by Foucault in his description of the techniques of Stoicism.
Thus what cannot be said is that philosophy is a practice of otium, while cinema is simply a distraction and a business, an instrument of negotium. Insofar as cinema presents masterful figures, it presents to consciousness the possibility of raising oneself above oneself; in general, however, the hegemonic tendency of the program industries is not toward the elevation of audiences but toward their levelling, their equalisation, through which their desire can be solicited en masse.
What masters of the techniques of living can the youth of today find represented for them cinematically or televisually? Have they anywhere to turn, or has the generalised proletarianisation of production and consumption resulted in a net loss of meaning, information, knowledge, and technique, such that there is no longer anywhere one can find the reasons for living, that is, the will to live, replaced everywhere by idiocy and stupefaction, engendering passivity, misery, immiseration, and fury? The movement from the fictional characters portrayed by William Powell to the “reality” programming of Big Brother may, paradoxically, constitute a net loss of reality, its impoverishment. The performativity of William Powell, we might say, is in withdrawal, becoming spectral, just as the film stock on which his image was recorded dissolves. What remains of these images may be digitalised—that is, de- and re-materialised—but even this risks being nothing more than an archivisation, that is, risks discovering that there is no longer an audience capable of watching, or with the will to do so.
Understanding the cinematic tendencies demotivating individuation requires understanding the relation between the aesthetic and the political. For this, the thought of Leroi-Gourhan remains indispensable.
Leroi-Gourhan is justly known for the thought that anthropogenesis and technogenesis are two names for a single process. But he argues not only that this is at the same time the process of the genesis of language, but also that it is the genesis of aesthetics, that is, of sensibility, of a sociability of desire. These three—language, technics, aesthetics—each co-implicated with the others at their origin, are the three modes through which the human adventure gets underway as an adventure of intra-species differentiation, that is, the three modes of the idiomatic, or what Leroi-Gourhan calls the ethnic, what makes of the human adventure a process of psychic and collective individuation.
Language, technics, and aesthetics are the three intertwined aspects of socio-ethnic programming, of “culture.” Because the human being can transmit and adopt memories and expectations not genetically their own, individual and group differences can proliferate within a single species—thus language, technics and aesthetics are the three modes of différance insofar as it is specific to what is commonly called “man.” Aesthetics is that which assures the integration of the ethnic group, the means and the instrument by which collective individuation tends toward synchrony. If I have my own, individual taste, I do so in relation to yours, precisely insofar as we tend to belong to a group, that is, to form a we.
The inextricability of this tripartite process constituting the ethnic is illustrated in what Leroi-Gourhan calls “multidimensional pictograms,” pre-linearised forms of writing. Such pictograms, according to Leroi-Gourhan, contain an irreducible aesthetic aspect, an essential appeal to sensibility and imagination, while nevertheless partaking in the technicity of all writing (Leroi-Gourhan 1993: 195–196).
This multidimensionality implies that reading pictograms is an art both in the sense of the technics of reading, and, in an essential way, a technique, requiring interpretation. This is why the pictogram, requiring hermeneutics, coincides with the cult, which is the practice of interpretation—that is, culture as the necessity of taking care—of interpreting the chances of the best and the worst. But if this is the virtue of the pictogram, it is also why it is technically inefficient, leading to the more precise and literal forms of writing stemming from linearisation and alphabetisation, which in their turn have aesthetic costs and benefits.
The inseparability of technics and technique, of the intellectual and imaginative elements of grammatised forms, whether pictograms, writing, or cinema, is spelled by Stiegler as the irreducible composition of the analytic and the synthetic, that is, the inextricable relation between (1) the fact that every grammatised form is composed of discrete and precise elements which are therefore immediately and necessarily susceptible to analysis, and (2) the tendency to apprehend these elements as a unity, a synthesis of elements (Stiegler 2002). Yet the history of the partition of writing and illustration shows that this irreducible composition may nevertheless decompose, which in fact describes the history of human existence until now. Stiegler suggests that, just as Derrida pointed out that there is no sign in general, there is also no image in general, but only the history of the image. More than that, there is not even any mental image in general, since the capacity to form images in my mind is itself a form of exteriorisation, an exteriorisation in the interior of thought, but one nevertheless overdetermined by the history of material exteriorisation constituted by image-making and technics in general. And therefore this history of the decomposition of the pictogram, the separation of the written from the illustrated, then from the photographic and finally the cinematic image, while never achieving the decomposition of the analytic and the synthetic, does nothing but magnify the distance between them, a distance not only “on the outside,” in the material world of writing and image-making, but in the interior of thought itself.
It is this distance which gives cinema such manipulative power. The audience tends to apprehend the cinematic flux synthetically, as a continuous synthesis—this is the goal of the producer (the artist). Otherwise put, the analytical aspects of cinema tend to be solely in the hands of the producer, who manipulates and edits, post-produces, all the elements of the cinematic artefact, a division of labour which assists the producer to make the discontinuous appear continuous. This is not the destruction of thought, but the systematic elimination of one of its instruments—analysis. Thus we can say: the Platonic suspicion of writing is even more applicable to the case of the image, of the future of the image.
But then we must also say: the critique of the Platonic suspicion of writing is even more applicable to the case of the image, of the future of the image. The transformation of audiovisual technology currently underway—the “digital revolution”—is the achievement of what Stiegler calls “the grammatisation of the visible,” that is, the fact that digital and compression technologies make possible the reduction of all images and sequences into discrete elements, themselves then susceptible to being compared, stored, indexed, searched, interpreted, etc. (Stiegler 2002: 149). The potential emerging from this grammatisation of the visible is that of exposing the essential discontinuity of the image and of the sequence, not only for the producer but for the consumer, who may thereby become something other than a consumer, which may also mean a transformation of the producer.
At the beginning I pointed out that what Stiegler makes clear about Derrida’s grammatology is that différance means life. But by reading—that is, interpreting—Derrida’s ambiguity about the sense of this association, Stiegler is able to comprehend the philosophical stakes it entails: we do not only need a logic of the gramme, leading to Derrida’s quasi-transcendental politics, but rather a history of grammatisation which will always also be a history of the image. On this basis Stiegler adds to Derrida the following: that life, anima, is, within a process of psychic and collective individuation at least, always already cinema, that is, that at the heart of the existence of what is commonly called “man,” whether by “existence” we mean his perception or his imagination, is editing (Stiegler 2002: 162). Editing: the fact that perception always involves selection. From which emerges the realisation that the question of the future of human being is a matter of those tendencies influencing the selective process of individual and collective experience. The philosophical stakes of this account are immediately political: the outcome of this line of thinking is not a quasi-transcendental politics, but a material and spiritual politics—a politics of the struggle of tendencies.
Politics is the name we give to the fact that for human beings living together is always a matter of technique. The latitudes of behaviour enabled by the fact that the human being possesses a third kind of memory are latitudes that make collective existence into a problem, hence a matter of technique and practice, of collective individuation, which can go poorly or well. But technique is always also a question of adoption, of adopting a past I have not lived myself, but in adopting the past I transform it. As such, politics is always projective and protentive, the projection and expectation of a future that is not only the conservation of this past, but the transformation of the future.
Otherwise put, politics is always performative, containing an irreducibly fictive element. Derrida analysed the performativity of the American “Declaration of Independence,” the fact that the Declaration projected the American people as the subject of the Declaration, and did so by performatively adopting a common past, the American past (Derrida 2002). The very same performativity is apparent in the reforms of Cleisthenes, through which the demos, constituted by Solon but eristically wracked by ethnic division, performatively adopted the transformation of this situation and the constitution of the (artificial, fictive) demes (Stiegler 2004: 45).
Politics attempts to maintain and project a more or less peaceful equilibrium; it is less the continuation of war by other means than the sublimation of war. Tribal discord, civil war, general unsociability, are sublimated or diverted into the instruments of superegoisation, that is, of sociability. In the past, a fundamental means of this adoption was the elaboration of political visions, toward which individuals and collectives devoted themselves. Such visions have become opaque, and an encompassing vision of a new society cannot presently form the foundation for politics, in a world which has become one economico-technological process, which we call globalisation. We live today in a condition of fundamental ignorance about the political future, in the sense that it is no longer possible to envisage how the global technical system could be transformed, or in what direction one would wish to do so. In such circumstances, fighting for a political future means struggling not for a vision but to revive and increase the chances of individuation, in the hope that a spirit will be forged worthy of adoption.
Now, politics is not the only adoptive process. Consumer society, for example, is itself nothing other than a process of adoption utilising the instruments of audiovisual technology. And, in so doing, and in extending its territory and colonising and inventing new markets (that is, inventing new desires, artificial and fictive), one consequence is the colonisation of politics by consumerism, the deployment by political operatives of consumerist techniques. Thus there is more than one kind of performativity: cultural capitalism tends toward a form of performativity in which the demos of democracy is increasingly reduced to audiences targeted by what passes for the political process, a performativity reducing policies and promises to the means of capturing the desire of audiences. This is the tendential removal of the power of the demos and its accumulation in the hands of the producers of all the industrial temporal objects through which the electoral behaviour of political audiences is calculated and controlled. Yet all this is undertaken while forgetting that the unconscious can never be completely bridled, and thus, as we said before, that it is not only the political but the economic self that is eliminated—what results is less the motivation of political audiences than the demotivation of the demos in general, that is, the destruction of democracy. In short, what results is political apathy and disgust.
Democracy cannot survive submission to a performativity applied to audiences rather than of the demos; transforming the performativity of politics depends on re-composing, on the side of the consumer, analysis and synthesis, on the advent of populations discovering, cultivating and acquiring new possibilities, technical possibilities. These must be new possibilities for gaining knowledge and techniques—that is, power—with which to manipulate and interpret the gramme, possibilities requiring the belief, the will, and the effort to do so. The conditions for this will be technical, and cinematic. As such, they will also entail re-composing work time and free time, otium and negotium. Only such a re-composition will mean that democracy, or even politics, has a future, that is, an in-determinate future, as opposed to the determination currently reducing all future to calculation, however hopelessly. These possibilities, if there are any, if they can be invented, will inevitably depend on the wilful deployment and operation of new cinematic instruments—this is the challenge that philosophy, that is, politics, must adopt, that is, it is that for which it must struggle.
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