Review article by Richard Iveson (forthcoming in Parallax as “Rewiring the Brain, Or, Why our Children are not Human”)
Bernard Stiegler Taking Care of Youth and the Generations trans. Stephen Barker (Stanford University Press, 2010)
A hugely prolific writer, for more than fifteen years philosopher Bernard Stiegler has been seeking both to articulate existence itself, and to ameliorate its contemporary woes. In what is a vast undertaking, Stiegler moves from the originary emergence of humanity to the safeguarding of its future by way of multi-volume analyses that range widely between and across technology, political economy, art, palaeontology, television, democracy, and industrial and hyperindustrial societies.1 Focussing on education and the changing role of the school in contemporary Western societies, Taking Care of Youth and the Generations continues this project, while at the same time going some way to explain the sense of urgency, which characterizes much of Stiegler’s previous writing.
According to Stiegler, we are forever engaged in a ‘battle of intelligence for maturity’, a battle ‘concomitant with the history of humanity’ (p.29). Today, however, this battle has been transformed into the life or death struggle of humanity itself. Unless things change rapidly, Stiegler insists, humanity as we know it will be destroyed, displaced by a dystopian posthuman future whose inhabitants would be incapable not only of heeding Stiegler’s warning, but of even reading it. Proclaiming himself thus a prophet of and from potentially the last generation of mature adults, Stiegler seeks to hastily recall us to rational critique before the new media has its way and irretrievably restructures the connections which constitute intelligence so as to render such constitution impossible (p.33).
To instaurate critique, however, is no easy matter. It is not simply a question of education reform, but of a revolution that impacts upon every level of society and beyond, intervening ceaselessly even at the neurological level. Moreover, a revolution by its very nature offers no guarantees. As Stiegler admits, the remedy he prescribes might also turn out to be the worst kind of poison. Indeed, one can all too easily envisage the appropriation of his discourse in the service of a right-wing defence of ‘family values’, and even in a renewed eugenicist discourse which (by way of A Clockwork Orange) deems synaptic rewiring a remedy for ‘delinquency’ within a regime of enforced ‘care’.
Throughout, Stiegler draws on three main philosophical supports in order to establish his notion of ‘rational critique as noopower’. First and foremost is Plato’s theory of anamnesis. A theory, which, according to Stiegler, constitutes ‘the basis of all instruction as the dialectic transmission of apodictic or formal knowledge’ insofar as it ‘requires a kind of attention the learner forms itself as a knowledge […] by individuating it’ (p.172). Secondly, rational critique requires the establishment of a ‘republic of letters’ such as formulated during the Aufklärung and by Kant in particular. Finally, Stiegler offers a sustained engagement with Michel Foucault, extending the latter’s notion of the ‘writing of the self’ while at the same time disputing Foucault’s earlier claim that the school is ‘only’ a prison of surveillance and control. Instead, through Plato, through Kant, Stiegler argues that the school in its broadest sense in fact constitutes the primary pharmacological site of the battle for intelligence. It is the school, in other words, which has the potential to produce both the curative individuation of rational critique (noopower) and the poisonous disindividuation of psychotechnologies in thrall to the market.
To understand this, however, it is first of all necessary to understand the specifically pharmacological nature of what Stiegler calls ‘tertiary retentions’, a nature, which makes of them always both poison and remedy at once (pharmaka). Social or cultural memories that have subsequently become materialized as memory supports (the book being the privileged example), tertiary retentions are for Stiegler the building blocks of the human world. During the process of instruction, these tertiary retentions must be re-internalized in order for knowledge to be individuated, as we saw with the Platonic dialectic. Such circulating intelligence is thus already collective at every level, forming an ‘organological milieu linking minors and adults, parents and children, ancestors and descendants’ (p.34). It is this which constitutes the ‘organological history’ of humanity. These same material supports, however, are also what allow for the destruction of intelligence. Thus it comes to pass that this history of humanity now finds itself increasingly under threat from the emergence of what Stiegler calls ‘grammatized media’, television and new media being his primary examples. These new symbolic media, he writes, constitute ‘a network of pharmaka that have become extremely toxic’ (p.85).
Stiegler, however, is by no means offering a simplistic rant against technology, nor a reactionary call to return to some mythic bygone era. While grammatized media – and their toxicity – are indeed unprecedented, they are, he insists, nevertheless the only ‘first-aid kit’ we possess with which to remedy the poison of their carelessness. In other words, insofar as they are necessarily pharmaka, the new grammatized media must therefore also constitute the condition for a new maturity, a new critique. It is here, Stiegler writes, that the contemporary battle for intelligence must begin, with a re-forming of ‘psychosocial attention in the face of these psychotechnologies of globalized psychopower’ (p.35). Such reformulations are what he calls nootechniques aimed at producing transindividual knowledge, as opposed to its short-circuiting in the fulfilment of base human drives under control of psychotechnologies…
continue reading this review: NXRB Stiegler by Iveson