Thursday, April 28, 2011

Book Review: Technics and Time vol. 3 by Bernard Stiegler

"How not to shudder before such a psychotic, at the catastrophe that has unfolded when we see Blanche taken away forever from her 'sanctary' with Stella and Stanley? How not to feel insane ourselves, carried along by this exemplar of the great, mad American destiny--that never fails at the same time to sell us through making us laugh and cry in the face of our own fate, the American Way of Life? America, America!"--Bernard Stiegler, Technics and Time vol. 3: Cinematic Time and the Question of Malaise.

New civilizations have risen, and old empires have crumbled. Millions have fallen in love, millions more loved and lost. Mountains have crumbled into valleys, and then the valleys were, I don't know, thrown into then ocean or something.

My point is, I've been reading Volume 3 of Technics and Time (subtitled Cinematic Time and the Question of Malaise) for a ridiculously long time. Here's a note to aspiring scholars: if it takes you a month to read a 224 paged book, you're doing it wrong. Admittedly, I'm doing better time than I did on volume two, so that's something, at least.
For those whose memories don't span back a month, I did a review of Book 2 here. And because I still had more to say, I continued the epic trek here. I'm hoping this post won't be quite as long, so if you need a refresher on what Stiegler is discussing in this series, refer back to the previous posts.

This book is a notable shift from the first two volumes. This may be a temporal issue--as Stiegler says in the Notice, the original draft of this volume was finished in 1992, along with the other two volumes, but over the following decade, Stiegler kept revising it until it emerged a much different beast. (Side note: between the publication of the French edition in 2001 and now, Stiegler has written 23 books. The man clearly doesn't sleep.) If nothing else, I noticed a sharp reduction in the use of the term "qua." But the difference goes much deeper than that. In volume two, he discussed how new technology has reshaped technics and humanity through simultaneous transmission and changes in that vein, but in volume three, the discussion takes on a more alarmist tone: he truly believes that we are facing a current crisis--a general malaise, to refer back to his subtitle--and that much of this crisis can be traced to the most dominant force in the technoscience stage, the US of A.

But I'm getting ahead of myself a bit. Let's take a more leisurely overview. The book can be broadly divided into two parts. The first three chapters describe the consequences of cinematic time, and the last three discuss the general state of malaise, as it relates to education and technology. The division's not quite as neat as that, but it's a useful enough distinction. Chapter 1, "Cinematic Time," unites the technics of the cinema with the three types of memory (primary retention, secondary retention, tertiary retention) that Stiegler laid out near the end of volume 2. A movie functions in a way similar to memory: the director takes a huge amount of footage (the primary retention, if you will), and edits it, cuts it, compresses it to form an abbreviated, supposedly unified end product. The catch is, in Stiegler's view, what's important is not that we've developed this technology that mimicks the way memory works--it's that our consciousness has always been cinematic. The mind automatically creates a continuity between disparate images (the Kuleshov effect). Cinema is thus a particularly powerful tool because it utilizes the same method we are using all the time. It comes back to Stiegler's previous contention that consciousness is not a unified ego, but a constant flux, and the flux of moving images can align itself to this flux--or coerce the flux of consciousness to align itself with cinema--relatively easily.

This view of consciousness depends on the three types of retention being able to affect each other, and Stiegler quickly recaps how previous philosophers--prime example being Husserl--couldn't accept that, as they weren't willing to give full credit to tertiary memory. For movie buffs, he goes into two films in depth to make his point about mixing fluxes. Fellini's Intervista, particularly the scene where an actress from another Fellini film watches footage of herself acting a scene from that film, demonstrates how cinema and consciousness can coincide in a number of reinforcing manners, and Hitchcock's short film "Four O'Clock" demonstrates how the viewer constructs their own interpretation of time in line with the cinematic version played before them.

Stiegler ends the chapter with a quick discussion of television. If we think of photography as the technology that foregrounds the realness of the past, cinema is its extension with the added element of the flux between image and consciousness. Television is then film's extension, adding the elements of real-time viewing, which changes the nature of the event it beholds (think Heisenberg x 10), and mass broadcast, which allows for widespread synchronicity.

Chapter 2, "Cinematic Consciousness," shifts the focus from cinema to consciousness, with Kant's Critique of Pure Reason serving as the main text. He's dealing with two basic strands of theorists here: Adorno and Horkheimer, symbolizing those that decry television for its negative effects on society at large; and Kant and those who try to form a transcendental consciousness without giving tertiary memory its proper dues. A & H (my clever abbreviation) argue that cinema paralyzes imagination, but Stiegler counters that imagination--and by extension, consciousness--has always been cinematic. A & H use Kant's discussion of memory to bolster their arguments, which gives Stiegler an excellent segue into Kant's Critique.

The complicated part of the Critique is that it had two editions, in 1781 and 1787, and the two versions don't always fit well together. In the first, Kant argues that consciousness is a synthesis of apprehension, reproduction, and recognition--apprehension, in that it perceives what's in front of it; reproduction, in that it can mentally reconstruct that event later; and recognition, in that it can apply general structures and recognize them as similar to other encountered structures. Stiegler maps these loosely onto primary, secondary, and tertiary memory, respectively, though he somewhat confusingly refers to technics as a fourth element of the synthesis in a later chapter. The second edition eschews the synthesis in favor of a description of mental figures. Stiegler objects to both versions--the figure version doesn't take into account the tertiary grounding of consciousness, and the three syntheses version doesn't account for the flux of consciousness.

In an almost Derridean analysis of the form of Kant's Critique, Stiegler ends the chapter by bringing it back to A & H. Kant's Critique is a linear, booked model of Kant's own consciousness. It shows interaction with technics, in the way it is inscribed on paper. It shows the process of revision in the two editions. And it shows how consciousness fluctuates with the consciousness of others, in that Kant created the revision as a response to how the original was received by his reading peers. In contrast, the massive tertiary industries of programming technologies, such as television, run the risk of synthesizing all consciousness, thus eliminating the perception of difference and time, and deadening desire, as A & H contend. The problem with their analysis, though, is that they fail to acknowledge how we have always been technically determined.

That brings us to chapter 3, "I and We: The American Politics of Adoption." This chapter brings in the issue of adoption that looms large in the rest of the work, and describes how the synthesis of the consciousness flux works with a larger flux designating a group. It starts by introducing another of the book's deconstructing binaries, practice and theory. Bourdieu's book on television, he argues, is typical of the European theory focus--it treats its subject in a vacuum, and thus misses the point of how it affects individuation. A human being, he argues, is always in a state of flux in terms of their own identity (the I) and the groups they affiliate with (the We). The latter especially is determined by a process of adoption, in which a group has a projection of their joint identity into the future that is fused through its (usually mythical/fictional) past. The I and the We work together--the I functions in the We through the idea of difference, or exception. Without this exception, the We is directionless, creating a mass synthesis of a group that functions without direction. As an immigrant nation, America is the exemplar version of the need for adoption, and the first victim of its failure under the risk of global synchronization. He ends with further segues into the general failing of the education system under this mass industrialization.

The next chapter, "The Malaise of Our Education Institutions," continues on this track. It begins with a distinction between technics in general, and mnemotechnics, tools that act primarily as memory supports. He argues that mnenmotechnics remained rather static--through written word, and the book--and separate from the evolution of the other technics. But now, the two have been fused together. This fusion especially damages the education system, which depended on stable mnemotechnics. And this brings us to another pair of terms: cardinality, which indicates ways of measuring space, and calendarity, ways of measuring time. The education system, he claims, was in many ways a system for interiorizing the technics of both. It was a system for contracting existing knowledge and providing an orientation through it. And now, our relation to them is changing so rapidly, instability has become the new common state, resulting in a general malaise. A proper critique of the education system and this malaise, then, requires a critique of these retentional devices, and a more general examination of how Kant and Heidegger regarded orientation.

And that's the subject of chapter 5, "Making the Difference." This chapter goes back to Kant and Heidegger in a big way. What I knew about Kant and Heidegger before this point can be summed up by an issue of Action Philosophers, so take everything I say about this chapter with a grain of salt. Heidegger criticized Kant for failing to recognize how object and subject interact (in Heidegger's case, he felt they interacted through Dasein, I think), but Stiegler says that Heidegger is guilty of the same for his own failure to give proper credit to technics. The philosophers' respective views on orientation relate back to their views on differentiation, on what basis reason can differentiate. Kant felt that there were real objects, and subjectivity was overlayed on it. Heidegger felt that the real was always filtered through Daisen, or some version of subjectivity. For Kant, reason exists because consciousness needs it to exist, because it required the ability to practically differentiate. In other words, reason is second to practicality. But, as the final chapter describes, the theory/practice split has also been erased.

And that brings us, philosophically kicking and screaming, to chapter six, "Technoscience and Reproduction." To refer back to a previous argument, going back to Aristotle, there's been a history of a split between practice and theory. Science is theory, and refers to the way reality works, the elements that couldn't be thought of as anything other than the way they are. Technology is all about the contingent--changing something to make it better suit the present moment. Technics has always disrupted this relation, but the current state of technoscience has merged them very thoroughly. Science has been subordinated as a sort of machine that creates new venues for industry. Americans are the "least metaphysical people," whatever that means, but they are also the best set up industrially for being at the source of the current situation.

Stiegler then launches into his final example of the new state of retention: reproduction. Cinema and technics have always had an element of reproduction to them--any recording is in a way a reproduction. And by the same token, any reproduction is also a transformation. But the hyper-reproduction we have now is both a combination of the reproductive powers of the digital (copy without degeneration) and the effects of mass production. We can now make reproductions without ever actually having an original product. This new definition of reproduction affects the biological and the technological. And it doesn't help that malaise thing, you know? Stiegler ends the book with an indication that the next topic will be an examination of subjectivity and printing, but considering that he went on to write 23 other books instead of volume 4, I don't think we can expect that next topic any time soon.

As to the first part of the book, it's hard to shake the feeling that Stiegler is being a little anachronistic, if nothing else, by saying our mode of consciousness has always been cinematic. He mitigates the problem slightly by framing it in terms of story--it might be a little hard to accept that consciousness has always been governed by cinematic principles, but I think it's easier to accept that it has always been governed by overlying narratives. I can't help but wonder if he's also succumbing a little to what he complained about the computer scientists in volume 2. He said that when they argued that the human mind is like a computer, the establishing of the parallel blinded them to how the human mind is affected by the computer, and vice versa. I wonder if there's something similar happening if we say our consciousness functions like cinema.

In regards to the second half, it does feel a little turn-of-the-century alarmist. More to the point, it feels like an alarm without its own "projection to the future." Again and again, Stiegler says the first step is to perform a critique of the present system, a critique that acknowledges technics' proper role, but he doesn't really go any further as to what that critique would consist of--just that it needs to happen. I suspect it's an issue that arises in other books he's written, but there's no real solution, or even a hint of a solution, provided here. And despite its rather large swerve from the previous volumes, the book often feels rather repetitive. Time and again, it turns out that the major failure of Kant, or Husserl, or Heidegger, or someone else, is there failure to recognize the significance of technics.

That said, there was a lot I liked about the book. I thought the discussion of cinematic time was very interesting, and that his comparison between Kant's consciousness and his writing touched on something very significant in a very subtle manner. I wish that he touched more directly on video games--there is a grand total of one mention in the entirety of the three volumes, and that's to state that the video games are potentially what Horkheimer and Adorno mean when they refer to cinema's ability to disrupt its spectator's sense of reality and fiction. I really feel like there's more to discuss on that subject--I don't suppose anyone knows if Stiegler returns to it later? Maybe in one of the other 23 books?

Sigh. Well, time to teach myself to read French, then.

Later Days.

1 comment:

Matt Ossias said...

thanks a lot for this summary! I agree with your conclusion that Stiegler seems to lack one.. I'm going to go looking for answers in further texts