Reviewed by John Hutnyk. Must note that this is a partial/impartial review. Sadly, but perhaps sensibly, my section on Animals in Bernard Stiegler’s work had to be ruthlessly cut back for lack of space in the journal it was destined for (New Formations). The rest of the article will be available later in the year (its on Marx and Steigler, a critique of Stiegler’s use of ‘proletarianization’) but you can write me to get a draft. Here is the bit that was just cut out, with a new – perhaps too frivolous – first line… even if the rest is a bit frivvy too…
Animals Graze (a family drama) with Bernard Stiegler.
Let us go to the zoo with philosophy – favourite places for family outings – and look at the animals. There are a huge number of creatures to see – owls, eagles, lions, even a mole in Marx (well grubbed). The animal of choice, for Stiegler, is the stag that, both vigilant and grazing, can protect its young as it nibbles away at the undergrowth.
‘A grazing animal, for example, a stag (a forest herbivore …) is vigilant at the same time that it grazes, first with regard to the possible proximity of predators; it can, moreover, even while grazing and protecting itself, also protect its young, as well as its grazing mate, who is herself protecting her young.[i]
This is Bambi in the bourgeois family but not the only animal example Stiegler offers (not surprising given Derrida’s fascination with beasts[ii]). In his autobiographical-theoretical book Acting Out, Stiegler refers to a flying fish to describe his experience of incarceration in prison. This entailed a separation from the world that allowed him to contemplate his milieu ‘as does a flying fish, above his element’.[iii] Certainly not your average jail-bird, Stiegler then plunged into philosophy. The animal metaphors are further consolidated when he writes of the radio, television, internet and audiovisual electronic technologies that engender repetitive behaviour like that of a ‘herd’ in Nietzsche’s sense.[iv] And of course the privileged animal in Stiegler’s work is the eagle picking away at Prometheus’ liver, the poor old partisan of recurrent time and order barely thanked.[v]
These animals become interesting when Stiegler calls for a new political economy and reviews several ways of overcoming tendential decline of profit rate, leading to a discussion of bears: In the nineteenth century the rate of profit was maintained by secularisation of belief via calculable science and technique, the new social projects of schooling, nationalism, health etc., progressively exported globally (on the back of astonishing violence); then in the twentieth century, by means of consumerism and capture of protentions through channelling of attention by way of new media, ‘psychotechnologies’ and service industry-entertainment industry expansion. To this would need to be added colonial markets, imperialism, war and the mining, metals, industrial agriculture, war and the arms trade, plus financial services.
Indeed, it is with reference to the last of these that Stiegler suggests the recent crisis is a collapse of the older moves to avoid the rate of profit’s decline, a collapse that occurs through short termism, time of knowledge and of investment erased, proletarianization of retention as loss of knowledge extensive. There is a contradiction that cannot be bridged – the rate of profit falls again. But the question to ask here might be if this is still to have understood, in Marxist terms, the tendency for the rate of profit to fall as a crisis of credit and an exhaustion of the fundamental expansion which had previously been the bulwark against credit problems? Looking to Stiegler’s characterisation of capitalism as system of protentions, should this not rather be understood in a larger geo-political continuum? For the nineteenth century the key strategy is colonial expansion and its economic plunder, for the twentieth century war and global militarism, for the emergent twenty-first century terror and control?
The tendential fall in the rate of profit is described curiously by Stiegler as something Marx posits in a particular way, but that Marxists, and ‘probably Marx’ did not understand it this way; that is: capitalism as ‘a dynamic system threatened by a limit that would be reached if the bearish tendency to which the very functioning of the profit rate gives rise were to achieve completion’.[vi] I am particularly interested in this bear. An animal that Marx does not reason with, according to Stiegler, even if this strange beast does not invalidate Marx’s identification of the tendency.
First of all, is it a bear? Does Stiegler get what Marx has in mind here?