Saturday, March 26, 2011

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

Last time, I gave a general outline of the Stiegler argument, as it sits at the beginning of Book 2. Admittedly, I left out some of the finer details: the Epimethean/Promethean allegory Stiegler uses for his basis, his long focus on Rosseau's Origin of Language, and a really long discussion of anthropology ala André Leroi-Gourhan. But the essentials are there.

Volume 2 opens with a brief introduction. It summarizes his primary points: human being is a technics-oriented being. We've entered a new stage of industrial activity that has altered our memory and individuation. Heidegger's Tool-Being opens the way for a discussion of technics, but he goes too far on emphasizing present-being over past and future. Then Steigler briefly outlines the book, and the intro ends. (He does skip the last chapter in this outline--it's interesting, because even while I was reading it, the fourth chapter of the book felt like a different discussion than what came before.)

In the first chapter, The Orthographic Age, Steigler sets up the contrast between numeric and analogic devices and the written word, with more of an emphasis on the latter. It starts, however, with a thorough investigation of the nature of photography, as outlined by Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida. Barthes argued that the camera offers a new accessibility to the present moment, to the real of what's going on right now. And a photo viewed in the present is a direct line to the "now" depicted in the photo. For Stiegler, then, the camera and photograph are an exemplary form of the power of technics: it's a tool that directly connects tertiary memory with perception, in a way that alters human experience. He briefly mentions a few other themes--camera's connection to the immediacy of film ala Walter Benjamin, Lacan's mirror stage and orthopedic (right-thinking) self-obsession, the certainty of the photo, and the deferral between the spectator's grasp of a photo and the moment it's taken and transcribed.

Then we're shifting into writing, and it's a whole new ball game. If photos offer a direct line between past and present, writing offers an access that always has a built-in gap--it pretends to be certain of what it speaks of, but there's always an uncertainty because that gap is always there. Our original concept of citizenship comes from writing--when we write what it means to be a citizen into law, we're not just formalizing citizenship that already exists, we're bringing it into existence. The key here is that writing is about a repetition--it preserves knowledge so that it can be repeated. But this repetition is never exact; there's always some break between the meaning that the writer intended and the meaning that the reader interprets. Stiegler uses three theorists to bolster these ideas. Derrida's différance (something that both constitutes a difference and defers exact formulation) explains the slippage between writing and reading. Husserl enters to offer the connection between scientific thinking and writing--Stiegler agrees, but wants a greater emphasis on the role of tertiary memory. That's where Jean Bottéro comes in; Bottéro argues that writing shifts clearly from something that aids memory (in terms of making lists) to becoming memory, but Steigler argues that no such shifting moment can be found. He closes the chapter with a question that segues to the next topic: if we understand writing as a memory that is always delayed from the original event, and we accept that writing forms the backbone of modern civilization, how do new technologies and their emphasis on speed change humanity's technics?

Thus Chapter 2: The Genesis of Disorientation. All that stuff on writing is, essentially, there to demonstrate how different our current age is from what came before. It returns to Stiegler's anthropological focus, somewhat, and relies heavily on Leroi-Gourhan. Dasein, or Being (Dasein doesn't exactly translate into being, but I don't want to get bogged down in an exact definition for the moment) is not about the individualized being, but about the group. For much of human history, an important level of memory was the ethnic memory, the shared memory of a culture. While the technic always played some role in this type of memory, new use of technics threatens ethnic tradition more than ever before. At the same time, it's also altering the individual, in that thanks to industrialization, personal style is more customizable than ever--you can form a locality, but not a territory. In other words, you can mentally orient yourself in an area (the whole "think globally, act locally" slogan comes out of this), but being able to identify yourself as part of an ethnic territorial group isn't an option like it used to be. Essentially, this chapter is what connects Steigler's previous discussion (on how the evolution of human to something that walks upright is an evolution also of technics) to the current moment of industrialization, which is the subject for Chapter 3.

And thus, Chapter 3, The Industrialization of Memory. Weighing in at a whopping 90 pages, it's pretty clearly the main focus of the book. After a brief overview, Steigler starts with Simon Nora and Alain Minc's report on technology, which coined the term "informatics" to describe how modern technology links information with electricity and commerce--Stiegler adds biotech as well, to remind us that these technics are always a part of the human. Controlling force of such technics has slipped from state to industry, and knowledge turns into what can be calculable, into information, and the subsequent rupture with normality makes the future seem monstrous. (His verdict, not necessarily mine.)

Unlike knowledge, information functions on value and speed--once it's not immediate, its value is gone. No one cares about yesterday's news. New media technology has created real-time (see Paul Virilio if you really want a discussion on the subject), by eliminating delay between an event, the input from it, and the reception of that input to the global audience. Historically, writing has always preserved a split between the event and the report between the event; real-time broadcast eliminates that distance, to the point where the event is indistinguishable from the reporting of the event. In fact, the event is defined by its reporting--if no one reports on something, it's like it never happened. Think about how politics has been shaped by an endless focus on how every word a politician says will be received and broadcast. Stiegler doesn't want to focus on the new media/writing split (and in fact probably would never use the phrase "new media" himself), but he does want to focus on the change in humanity that results in the new acceleration.

In terms of the human, new science focuses extend our concept of the human, and Stiegler uses a brief biological shift to bring in cognitive science. Since it's all about explaining human thought via machines, it may seem like a natural fit with phenomenological technics, but Stiegler complains that it's fundamentally flawed. He uses Alan Turing as the example: Turing considered how the process of humans thinking could be explained in terms of the process of computers processing, but such a parallel dismisses how computers have changed the way humans think--because they're thinking about how computers and humans run in parallel, cognitive scientists fail to recognize where humans and computers intersect. Multiple-agent theory works better, as it's based on animal group-minds, but such an analysis fails to account for individual experience. Stiegler closes the chapter with a summary of industrial memory and the program: we've always been programmed by our technics, but now that technics has created a sense of ubiquity and a lack of control. Who and what is being programmed?

The final chapter, Temporal Object and Retentional Finitude, is largely about how we go from perception into the other stages of memory, and vice versa. Stiegler labors greatly to build a segue here from the previous chapter, in comparing Husserl to cognitive science, but really, it's a vastly different subject from what's come previously. The chapter doesn't fit well with the rest of the book, but it does work in terms of the larger discussion of technics. Essentially, what Stiegler wants to do is distinguish Husserl's account of memory--perception, primary memory, and secondary memory, with clearly defined demarcations between them--with his own version, which focuses on their permeability with other, and with technics. His primary theoretical allies for this task is Derrida, who has been known to comment on Husserl in some depth, and Paul Ricœur, another French philosopher who focused on phenomenology and hermeneutics (hermeneutics = interpretation. It doesn't really, but again, it's a useful starting lie).

I've already discussed how these types of memory are distinguished; again, where Stiegler differs from Husserl is that he insists on the permeability between the types, and the involvement of technics. I'll admit, my comprehension here has some large gaps--I simply haven't read the Husserl texts Stiegler is referring to here, and thus lack the understanding to grasp his finer points. In addition to the memory distinction, he also rejects Husserl's description of memory processes in terms of the tone of the melody; his dismissal of the comparison is actually one of the book's more memorable quotations: "To apprehend isolated tones in a melody or phonemes in a language, as an artifact, is just as useless as trying to understand the crackling sound of a fire through the study of wood" (207). He also rejects the spatial metaphor Husserl uses to discuss the limits of temporal retention, for two reasons. First, he prefers to think of the limits of memory (especially secondary memory) in terms not of spatial receding, but of forgetting, so that every repetition of memory is a selection that is not entirely identical to the one before it. And second, the emphasis on spatial limits lends itself to compartmentalization of perception and the individual, both things Stiegler is against. He would rather think of memory--all types, and perception as well--as fluxes that operate within fluxes, with our memory and our perception and our tools constantly changing each other with collections and recollections.

The chapter and book close with a return to industrialization. Steigler repeats that our new speeds encourage simultaneous broadcast and real-time events, resulting in a decontextualization that removes the concept of territory while merging the human further with technics, and memory with perception and image consciousness. End of, as Gene Hunt would say.

That's the book. I do, I admit, have a few problems with it. The frustrating thing is that I think the writing suggests the solutions to said problems, but just doesn't bother to address them. First is the repetition. Not so much in terms of the material (although that gets rather repetitive too), but in terms of word choice. Actually, in terms of the use of just one word. Good God, how many times can one person use "qua" in a book? I'd suggest you do a drinking game wherein you take a shot every time "qua" appears, but most people would be dead by alcohol poisoning before they got half way through. Of course, the repetition solves itself--that is, after all, what technics is all about.

Stiegler's sharp division between humans and animals. It only comes up sporadically in this book, but it was a much bigger element in the first volume. Essentially, Stiegler feels that while animals may use tools, they can't form the memories that allow them to use said tools in such a way that the method is repeatable--not so much on an individual level, but on a species level. They just don't have any way of transmitting the knowledge--no tertiary memory. The annoying thing is that most of the animal/human difference comes out of the Epimetheus myth that Stiegler uses as an allegory in the first book to explain how technics works. So it's a little muddy on how much of this is his own "official" stance and how much is because of the metaphor he wants to use to explain it (a common problem, as we'll see). Part of the animal/human split also comes from how he wants to give some legitimacy to the term epiphylogenesis--how humans evolved via tool use--by contrasting it with regular, run-of-the-mill evolution. But since part of his point in the discussion of human evolution is that you can't point to the moment where human began, the distinction seems to muddle itself.

(I'm also less than fond of his binary between the written and new media, but considering that my own dissertation is kind of big on that split as well, I've decided that the glass-dweller won't be providing projectiles.)

My other big peeve is the way he fully embraces Barthes' original concept of photography--namely, that it offers direct access to the Real. The photographed moment, to me, seems just as perception-based as any other moment. The idea that the real is captured in a photo just seems like a cultural conception of photography that we're just not at any more. (Oh, another problem, one that comes up reasonably often in such broad scope discussions--even acknowledging the argument concerning the effacing of the ethnic, Stiegler fails to properly recognize his tendency towards universalizing in his discussions.) Again, it's hard to tell how much of this is actually Stiegler's stance, though, and how much comes out of the camera's metaphoric use as a contrast with the delayed access to an interpretative past offered by writing.

The other problem here is that, while I have read Barthes' commentary on the image, I haven't read Camera Lucida. So add that along with the works of Heidegger and Husserl that I really need to read if I'm going to follow these arguments to their full length.

These complaints are all very secondary, though. I like Steigler's general theory immensely. And it will be immensely useful in my studies: how video games work as tools, how memories form in video games (which basically function on repetition), how objects in video games work in tools, and how the writing/media distinction applies to video games. It's been enormously helpful in expanding my knowledge into a new area--and, by extension, expanding me into a new area.

Of course, anyone who's been watching my eating habits while reading this book knows how it's been expanding me into new areas.

...Yep, ending on a fat joke. Gotta keep it classy.

Later Days.

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