Saturday, March 26, 2011

Book Review: Technics and Time vol. 2 by Bernard Stiegler (part 1)

"Only God doesn’t forget. But he has nothing to memorize."
--Bernard Stiegler, Technics and Time, 2: Disorientation

It's been a long time since I've done a book review of an explicitly scholarly work. And with no offense meant to Mr. Zielinski, Bernard Stiegler is writing a whole different kind of book. This isn't going to be the usual type review--this isn't about whether the book is well-written or not; rather, my main consideration here is going to be trying to understand what's going on, and what can be profitably extracted for video game analysis in particular. So: I'm going to describe Stiegler's general theory, give a brief overview of the book itself (chapter by chapter), and then discuss what bugged me about his approach, what use I can make of it, and who I should brush up on as a result.

Before we jump in, I do want to do one element of the traditional PoC book review: a brief explanation of my personal connection to the source material. I've chosen the Technics and Time trilogy to be the last set of books I read before jumping full steam into the dissertation. To be honest, they're proving to be a far more difficult read than I've anticipated. Part of the problem is my general unfamiliarity with French theory and philosophy; a much bigger part of my problem is my unfamiliarity with phenomenology. (If you are similarly unaware of phenomenology, the simplest explanation I've come across is that it's the investigation of the difference between your perception of a thing and that actual thing. In truth, phenomenology isn't really anything like that, but it's a useful lie to get started.)

At any rate, it's taken me a month or so to read the first two volumes. And I neared the tail end of the second earlier this week, I was really starting to wonder if there was any point. The style was so dense, the work was so impenetrable that I was really worried I may just be wasting my time. Then two things happened: first, I started reading another phenomenology book (more on that later, perhaps), and realized that I understood and recognized the basic concepts the author was talking about. And second, I had a long talk with some fellow grads on phenomenology, and discovered I could hold my own. In other words, both experiences taught me that I had learned something from these readings, something that I could extrapolate to other work--as long as I could articulate what that something may be.

And thus we have this post.
(I'll mention for the record that this is all my interpretation, and should be taken with a grain of salt. Followed by a salt lick. And probably some more salt.)

While my focus here is book 2, it's book 1 that really sets up Stiegler's argument. In a nutshell, he's taking key elements from phenomenology as outlined by previous phenomenologists Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, as well as hefty amounts of deconstructionism from French philosopher Jacques Derrida. (Here's a picture of him giving his sexy eyes.) This is all in very layman's terms, but Stiegler's basic argument is that humans are defined by our tools, or technics, as he calls it. The irreducible element, the species-distinguishing trait of the human race is the ability to recognize that objects can be used as tools, and that once we use an object in this manner, we can do so again (This repetition factor is hugely important.). And Stiegler's definition of "tool" is pretty broad. A screwdriver is a tool, but so is a television. A book is a tool. Other people are tools. Your body is a tool.

You'd better believe I'm a tool.

But if tool use is the fundamental trait of the human, two facts follow:
1) A human being without tools is not a human being at all.
2) Our lives are shaped by our tools. You change the nature of a tool, then you change the nature of a human.
Once you accept language as a tool, the consequences of 1) don't seem so worrisome. If language is a tool, then words are tools, and if thoughts are composed of words, then thoughts are tools as well--as long as a person can think, they're never without some sort of tools. To Stiegler, any tool that extends a human's reach to affect something more than his immediate being is a prosthesis--in fact, it extends the human's being. Where does the human end and the prosthesis begin? It doesn't, and that's Stiegler's point: we are always our prostheses. (Simple example: say another car hits your vehicle. If you're outside that vehicle, you'll probably say "you hit my car!" But if you're inside it, you'll say "You hit me!" We extend ourselves into our tools.)
The second point, that changing the tool changes the person, gets to Stiegler's main thesis: because of the rapid progression of new media technologies, the nature of the human being has been irreversibly altered to a scale never seen before. A part of this alteration is explained by Stiegler's other main point on technics: we store our memories in our tools. That's where repetition comes in--it's not just that we know how to use tools, but we can remember how to use them, and shape our lives around those memories.

This wasn't an entirely new idea for me. Back way back, Don Norman talked about something very similar in his discussion of design affordance. This is a lot more complicated--in part because it's being applied in a more in-depth manner, in part because it comes out a theoretic tradition that's much more complicated, and in part because Stiegler uses multiple triads of memory. Memory-out-of-tool is always referred to as tertiary memory, but what constitutes the number 1 and number 2 slot slips a little. He takes the original divisions of memory from Husserl, whom we'll see more of later. For current purposes, Husserl distinguished three different types of thought in regards to time: there's immediate perception; there's primary memory, which is short term collections of perceptions; and there is secondary memory, which involves later recollections of the primary stuff. To this list, Stiegler makes a few changes (again, we'll discuss them later), and adds memory stored in tools, or tertiary memory.

The other triad of memory that arises is in terms of types of being: on a level of the single person, you have the individual memory. On the level of the group, you have ethnic memory. And on the level of tools, you have technics or tertiary memory. Stiegler's theory on the current level of industrial synthesis, as he calls it, is that our new ubiquitous tools have eroded ethnic memory into nonexistence, and the individual becomes the transindividual (I'd explain that term, but it doesn't come up much in the second book, and we've still got a lot of other ground to cover.). That we store memory in tools is easy enough to grasp, depending on the tool, at least. Obviously, humanity has been storing memory in writing for centuries; that's essentially what a book is. And now, we store parts of ourselves in media devices all the time: our Ipods have our playlists, our Iphones have our conversations, our credit cards have our banking history. What's a little more shocking to grasp is that we don't just store information about ourselves in tools; we store the information, the use, of the tools in ourselves.

I offer myself as an example. I'm a lifelong student; I have taken dozens of lecture-based classes. And in those classes, I've learned to take notes. The process has been ingrained in me; you sit in the classroom, someone talks in front of you, you write it down, and knowledge is transferred. (Actually, Stiegler distinguishes sharply between knowledge and information, but never mind.) What I've discovered, though, is that saying this method is ingrained in me is not just a fancy figure of speech. The process of note-taking has been repeated on me so many times that if you take away my pencil and paper and force me to just listen, I can't do it. I mean, I can, but if you want my full attention, you'll have to give me some looseleaf. It doesn't even matter if I read what I've written down ever again. Put me in a schoolroom setting, and my secondary and primary memories require a pencil and paper to properly function. My tools determine the way I think.

Now, extrapolate that to a generation of children that have laptops instead of paper. Iphone messaging instead of landlines. Video games instead of books.

Then you begin to see why Stiegler might be of interest to a person researching text and image in video games.

Now, this is just a bare bones view of the theory. In actuality, it's much more complicated, much more nuanced, and generally much more French and phenomenological and dense. But with the overview above, we're ready to get into the actual book.

...Or at least, we're ready to do it tomorrow. My tertiary memory in the form of the automatic disk scan my computer performs at 3:00 am is reminding me it's time to go to sleep.

Later Days.

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