Friday, August 07, 2020

The Interruption of Individuation: Some Tertiary Retentions in Memory of Bernard Stiegler

In memory of Bernard Stiegler I thought that I would post the following excerpt from The Politics of Transindividuality.  As an introduction I will return to the idea of interruption that I wrote about in my first response to Stiegler.  

According to Stiegler, as much as Marx interrupted Hegel, positing proletarianization as that which interrupts the passage from slave to master, he never fully grasped the full implications of proletarianization. Which is to say Marx never grasped the extension of proletarianization from the hidden abode of production to consumption. Marx primarily examined consumption as a necessary endpoint and part of the economic process, but not as a transindividual individuation, a process of the production of subjectivity. The consumption of use values is predominantly left outside of the examination. While this is the dominant tendency, Marx’s writings do suggest that consumption needs to be historicized as the transformation of the mode of production, a transformation that includes its effects on social relations, but such remarks are marginal for reasons that are both historical and philosophical. Consumption at the time of Marx’s writing was only formally subsumed, as capital produced and circulated the commodities of food, clothing, and shelter that existed in previous economic conditions, hence the coats, coal, and linen that illustrate Capital. Which is not to say that Marx does not sometimes historicize consumption. Stiegler cites Marx’s statement in the Grundrisse that, ‘Hunger is hunger, but the hunger gratified by cooked meat eaten with a knife and fork is a different hunger from that which bolts down raw meat with the aid of hand, nail and tooth,’ as an oblique reference to the constitutive role of consumption.[1] However, such isolated remarks do not constitute anything like a theory of the mode of consumption, in which consumption is considered alongside production as a specific transindividual individuation.[2] While Stiegler’s comments would seem to contradict Marx’s theorization of the sphere of circulation as the production of “freedom, equality, and Bentham,” it is important to differentiate exchange, which produces individuals isolated and separated from each other and productive relations, and consumption, which demands a disindividuation that exceeds isolation. 

Given that Stiegler argues that consumption is something that Marx could not describe, it is striking that he uses the concept of ‘proletarianization’ to articulate the constitution of consumer society. At first glance the use of the term proletarianization to describe the transindividuation of the consumer would seem to be an analogy with the transformation of the labour process: if proletarianization is the loss of skills, talents, and knowledge until the worker becomes simply interchangeable labour power, then the broader proletarianization of daily life is the loss of skills, knowledge, and memory until the individual becomes simply purchasing power.[3] Stiegler’s use of proletarianization is thus simultaneously broader and more restricted than Marx, broader in that it is extended beyond production to encompass relations of consumption and thus all of life, but more restricted in that it is primarily considered with respect to the question of knowledge. The transfer of knowledge from the worker to the machine is the primary case of proletarianization for Stiegler becoming the basis for understanding the transfer of knowledge of cooking to microwaveable meals and the knowledge of play from the child to the videogame.[4] Stiegler does not include other dimensions of Marx’s account of proletarianization, specifically the loss of place, of stability, with its corollary affective dimension of insecurity and precariousness. On this point it would be difficult to draw a strict parallel between worker and consumer, as the instability of the former is often compensated for by the desires and satisfactions of the latter. Consumption often functions as a compensation for the loss of security, stability, and satisfaction of work, which is not to say that it is not without its own insecurities especially as they are cultivated by advertising.[5]

This generalized proletarianization remains at the centre of Stiegler’s thought, and is central to both his critique of Marx, and his development of a ‘new critique of political economy.’ Stiegler’s emphasis on consumption is not without its precursors in Marxist thought: generalized proletarianization is Stiegler’s rereading of the history of Twentieth Century Marxism, starting with Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s work on the culture industry. Stiegler’s use of this term is less a linear influence than a shared problem, a problem grasped in the terminology itself, namely the industrialization of culture. Stiegler is primarily interested in the political, cultural, and psychic effects of the industrialization of culture; what happens when culture, understood as the process of transindividuation and its materialization in various forms of inscription, is subordinated to the techniques and goals of industrial production. Stiegler draws from the Frankfurt School not just in his use of the term, and analysis, of the ‘culture industry’ but also in his engagement with Herbert Marcuse’s reading of Freud in Mécréance et Discrédit. Moreover, his entire project could be defined along the lines of Max Horkheimer inaugural statement of the Institute for Social Research. As Horkheimer states, ‘In both sociological and philosophical discussion about society, a single question has begun to stand out: the question of the connection between the economic life of society, the psychic development of the individual. and changes in the cultural sphere.’[6] For Stiegler the intersection of economy, psyche or individuation, and culture is the question of transindividuation. For Stiegler the chapter on the ‘culture industry’ becomes the centre of the Frankfurt School’s project, since their central project, that of the dialectic of enlightenment, the reversal of reason into its opposite—the irrationality that defines the twentieth century—is best understood as an effect of psyche when culture, the tertiary retentions, is subordinated to economics.

First, at the level of technology, there is the development of new cultural technologies, film, radio, and eventually television and the Internet. All of these technical transformations, despite their different histories, are part of a general transformation of the nature of tertiary retentions from analogue to digital, a transformation that affects their entire relation with individuation, with the temporality of memory. Written texts are always read in time; this reading is always framed by retentions, memory of past words are necessary to making sense, and protentions, anticipation of what comes next guides and orients the reading. However, the object itself does not program the time of reading, by its own particular relationship to time. Writing is a spatial object.[7] In the case of a book, I can book the down, pick it up, read it fast or slow, and even inscribe on the margins. These differentials of intervention, of reading and reinscription, are the conditions of different transindividual individuations, different ways in which the same book is traversed by different individuations, different singularities. They are read differently by different individuals, and even differently by the same individual, constituting a history of individuation. Modern technologies, film, television, and streaming video function differently: they are not just read or consumed in time, but consume time. Movies, television, and even YouTube videos are themselves temporal, not just in that they can be measured according to their running time, but that they structure time. ‘Cinema weaves itself into our time; it becomes the temporal fabric of those ninety or fifty-two minutes of unconscious consciousness that is characteristic of being, a film view, strangely immobilized by motion.’[8] If we remember Stiegler’s fundamental point that what we perceive and anticipate is shaped by past experiences, by secondary and tertiary retentions, then the more an audience experiences the same things, sees the same movies and programs, the more it will experience future things in the same way.[9] Synchronization makes possible the programming of consciousness. For Stiegler the most important passage of Horkheimer and Adorno’s critique is their invocation of Kantian schematise: 

The active contribution which Kantian schematism still expected of subjects—that they should, from the first, relate sensuous multiplicity to fundamental concepts—is denied to the subject by industry. It purveys schematism as its first service to the customer…For the consumer there is nothing left to classify, since the classification has already been pre-empted by the schematism of production.[10]

Stiegler is concerned less with the content of the culture industry, its clichés and figures, than with its fundamental relation with the temporal synthesis, the ability of the new industry to program consciousness.[11] This ability to program consciousness, to synchronize the memories of millions, is further complicated by the emergence of ‘real time’ transmission. ‘Real time,’ the immediate transmission (or constitution) of an event to millions of screens, synchronizes the thoughts and ideas of millions of individuals. Real time is the destruction of temporality, of the time of difference of the retentions and anticipations, which defines the transindividuation of memory.[12]

Stiegler primarily considers the culture industry through its effects on the temporality of individuation, the constitution of primary, secondary, and tertiary retentions, overlooking the way in which Horkheimer and Adorno develop a fundamentally different critique of the individual. Mass culture, with its emphasis on stock characters and standard responses, reveals the extent to which the individualism of capitalist society is itself a fiction. As Horkheimer and Adorno write,

Mass culture thereby reveals the fictitious quality which has characterized the individual throughout the bourgeois era and is wrong only in priding itself on this murky harmony between universal and particular. The principle of individuality was contradictory from the outset. First no individuation was every really achieved. The class determined form of self-preservation maintained everyone at the level of mere species being. Every bourgeois character expressed the same thing, even and especially when deviating from it: the harshness of competitive society.[13]

Competition, long considered the zenith of individualism by bourgeois philosophers since Hobbes and Smith, is in actuality the nadir of the individual. Individuals compelled to compete to struggle against each other realize nothing but an animalistic instinct for survival, what Horkheimer and Adorno refer to as ‘species-being,’ in a strange shift of Marx’s terminology. Individualism is annulled by competition itself. The culture industry merely completes this negation with its idealization of ‘girl next door’ looks and everyday people: its ability to turn anyone into a star merely reflects the power of the industry over individual destiny. For Stiegler the loss of individuation is not to be found in the predominance of stock characters and stereotypes, nor in the way in which economic necessity itself necessarily imposes a particular uniformity of action—competition as a deindividualized atomism--but in the synchronization of consciousness that destroys the basis for individuation.

Stiegler’s emphasis is on the technological transformation, but such transformations have to be situated against the political and economic transformations of the last century. Stiegler identifies two recent shifts in the history of this politics of grammatization. The first is situated against the backdrop of the general political problem of adoption. The preponderance of tertiary retentions, of grammatizations, means that human beings are fundamentally ‘adoptive’ creatures, adopting memories and cultures that have been inherited. Adoption, however, presupposes literacy, a capacity to interpret and make sense of the signs and memories that have been handed down. Stiegler argues that the United States was in a unique political and historical situation at the dawn of the previous century: it had to deal with the influx of a mass of immigrants and peoples who did not share the same culture, or the same capacity for making sense of cultural inheritance. It was partly for these reasons that US became identified with cinema, with Hollywood. Hollywood is nothing other than the attempt to fabricate a shared memory and a shared sense of belonging for disparate people.[14]

The United States created the image of modernity through Chaplin, Gone with the Wind, and Mickey just as much as through high technology and Wall Street skyscrapers. American history is the history of appropropriation of mnemotechnology and the mastery of industrial systems of retention, but just as much of technologies of the imaginary, and of calculation and logistics. And it is also, more recently, that of the long industrial, systematic, and rationalized organization of their convergence into a singular technical system, integrally digital. This politics of technology is indissociable from the politics of adoption, which is then the basis for a politics of invention and artistic creation.[15]

While this defines the initial identification of the movies with Hollywood, Stiegler argues that the real political dimension of this third wave of grammatization, following writing and the industrial revolution, is found in the decision of the US to control ‘hearts and minds,’ the recognition that the control over the radio waves and bandwidths was as integral to the political power in the twentieth century as control over the seas was to the nineteenth.[16]

The rise of the consumer as a figure for disindividuation, for the dissolution of the conditions for transindividuation, underscores the fact that as much as the rise of the new technologies of grammatization could be identified with the politics of Americanization, both internally, defining a politics of adoption for a nation of disparate ethnicities and languages, and externally, in terms of the global dominance of the American way of life, they exceed it. Stiegler argues that the technologies of the culture industry, or what he calls hypercapitalism, technologies that shape memory and experience far exceed any political project. A political project, whether it be one of the citizen or the ‘American Century,’ is always aimed at the constitution of a ‘we,’ a collective, capitalism, or the market, are driven by other imperatives, imperatives that are at odds with political transindividuation.[17] These imperatives can be grasped through Marx’s theory of capital, as much as they point to its basic limitations. Capitalism in the twentieth century has been confronted with the tendency of the rate of the profit to fall, a tendency as Marx argued had to do with the changes in the composition of capital from labour to machines.[18] This change in the organic composition of capital, the displacement of labour power by machines and technology, decreases the rate of exploitation and profit. Labour becomes more productive, producing more use values in a given amount of time, but this overall productivity appears as a decrease of the rate of surplus value, labour power, variable capital, constitutes less and less of the production process. The rate of profit declines as the overall volume of profit increases. This tendency not only demonstrates how capital constitutes ‘the moving contradiction’ undoing its basis on the exploitation of labour power, but it ultimately undermines the viability of capital, lower rates of profit undermine the very idea of investing to receive a return on capital. What Marx did not grasp according to Stiegler is how this tendency could be counteracted by the expansion of consumption, which maintains profit by expanding markets and forestalls crisis by integrating desires into consumption.

The proletarianization of consumers is what made it possible—by opening up mass markets enabling resistance against the tendential fall of the rate of profit—to confer buying power upon consumers, to accord them more than simply the renewal of their labour power, and to fundamentally and practically weaken the Marxist theory of class struggle.[19]

In the nineteenth century capitalism confronts the limits of its own productivity. Investments in technology and machinery make it possible to produce more goods than can be realized to the market. Add to this a shrinking working class as technology displaces workers, and capitalism is confronted with a crisis. Despite Stiegler’s use of the terminology of the ‘rate of profit’ to express this crisis, its central constituent dimensions, overproduction and unemployment, are more akin to what Marx called the problem of ‘realization,’ as the vast number of commodities produced exceed the limited buying power of a dwindling working class.[20] Overproduction is a problem of excess, not of capital, of money that cannot be productively invested, but of commodities. Moreover, Stiegler’s emphasis on overproduction as the central contradiction can be traced back to Hegel’s understanding of the contradiction of civil society. Like Hegel, Stiegler is primarily concerned with the subjective dimension of this crisis, its effects and solution must be found on the side of the constitution of subjectivity; unlike Hegel, however, Stiegler argues that the solution to this crisis was not to be found through the state, either through the displacement of contradictions to the colonies or the constitution of a universal subjectivity, but through capitalism itself. Capitalism solves overproduction by transforming consumption. Proletarianization in the expanded sense becomes the solution to proletarianization in the narrow sense: the proletarianization of the labour process is resolved by the proletarianization of daily life through consumption. Stiegler’s ‘proletariat’ (although he writes of the process, not the class) is not a class with nothing to lose but its chains, rather it is a class that has always already lost its fundamental knowledge, activity, and individuation. The reconciliation of one contradiction, that of overproduction through the consumer, only displaces it, as consumption short circuits the very conditions for individuation.[21] The consumer resolves the problem of overconsumption by quickly and obsessively adopting new technologies, new needs, new objects, but in doing so it produces a crisis of subjectivity, a breakdown of individuation and responsibility that is incapable of constituting itself in relation to a future.

Ultimately, Stiegler’s central concern is not the relation between consumer and producer, or really the economics of this transformation, but the way in which the individuation, or disindividuation, of the consumer breaks with the transindividuation of the citizen. The citizen as a transindividual individuation was situated in term of not only the particular grammatization of writing in the form of laws, narratives, and texts, but also in terms of the particular temporality, the particular memory, they produced. This temporality is framed between the specific instantiation of the law, its determinate meaning and interpretation, and a broader horizon, the destiny of the nation, between the materiality of the letter and the ideality of the spirit. Transindividual individuation is situated between a past, materialized in texts, tools, and signs, and a future, idealized as a project. Consumption and marketing fundamentally short-circuit this relation between historical memory and desire for the future.[22] Marketing is concerned neither with the retention of historical memory nor the projection of a future; in fact it actively destroys both, producing a constant now, a constant novelty without history. In contrast with the citizen, caught between the inheritance of a law and the ideal of justice, the consumer is caught in the perpetual present of this product, this program, this need, or this drive.[23] Moreover, the standardization of memory makes the individuation, the constitution of an ‘I,’ fundamentally difficult. If the citizen is caught in the struggle between ‘I’ and ‘We’ finding its place, and its individuality, in the tension between the two, and the proletariat is a loss of individuation, then the consumer is more akin to the proletariat, situated in an expanding loss of the conditions for individuation.[24] The loss of knowledge, of a knowledge that can be practiced, is the loss of individuation.

Consumption destroys singularization, the unique combination of primary and secondary retentions that defines and distinguishes my experience and interpretation; it replaces singularity with synchronization. It also destroys the capacity to act. Stiegler’s history of the different forms of grammatization, of tertiary retentions, is not just a history that charts the transformation from diachrony, as every new reading is caught between a past and a future, to synchrony, through the production of temporal objects, but is also a history that moves from activity to passivity. As Stiegler stresses repeatedly, to learn to read is to learn to write; the same exchangeability from passivity to activity defines the history of such aesthetic practices such as music and art, where learning to passively receive was always a matter of learning to produce, to create.[25] This reversibility is broken, short-circuited, by the technologies of the culture industry for which consumption, passivity, is separated from production, activity. Watching movies, television, listening to music, is no longer premised on the ability to create, or produce new movies, music, etc. A reader necessarily writes, even if this writing only takes the form of inscriptions and notations, but a viewer of films does not necessarily know how to create films, nor does a listener of recorded music make music. The destruction of singularization and loss of participation are two aspects of the contemporary destruction of individuation.

All of these factors, the temporal foreshortening of past and future into an eternal present, the loss of knowledge, culminate in the loss of transindividuation itself. Consumption does not constitute a collective, a ‘we’, nor does it constitute individuation, an ‘I.’ The first might be easy to grasp, after all despite brand loyalties it is difficult to think of consumption constituting a collective in any meaningful sense of the word. The groups of people who buy the same thing, wear the same brands, are not a ‘we,’ but a statistical multiplicity, a ‘billions served.’ The second is perhaps more difficult to grasp, are we not in an age that is increasingly described as individualistic, as dominated by competitive self-interest. Stiegler contests this,

To say we live in an individualistic society is a patent lie, an extraordinary false delusion, and, moreover, extraordinary because no one seem conscious of it, as if the efficacy of the lie was proportional to its enormity, and as if the lie was nobody’s responsibility. We live in a herd-society, as comprehended and anticipated by Nietzsche. Some think this society individualistic because, at the very highest levels of public and private responsibility, but also in the smallest details of those processes of adoption stamped by marketing and the organization of consumption, egotism has been elevated to the pinnacle of life. But individualism has no relation to this egotism. Individualism wants the flourishing of the individual, the being always and indissociably a we and I, an I in a we or a we composed of Is., incarnated by Is. To oppose the individual and the collective is to transform individuation into social atomization, producing a herd.[26]

Stiegler is thus close to Horkheimer and Adorno than it first appeared; modern society is not an individualistic society but a herd society. However, this “herd” is not the remnant of brutal animalist survival and species identity in competition, but the end result of the destruction of the conditions of individuation. The conventional opposition between individual and collective completely obscures the real processes of individuation, and their destruction in the age of contemporary consumer capitalism, what Stiegler calls hyperindustrial capitalism.[27] It obscures the synchronization of isolated consciousness tuned to the same programs and affixed to the same screens. These audiences are not collectives, they are not the basis for a ‘We,’ but are hyper masses, collectives that exist only in relation to their statistical enumeration.[28] A consumer society is only made up of they, of others that exist only as simple numbers of quantitative comparison. Even less are these audiences made up of individuals, individuals require a ‘We,’ a collective to individuate themselves in relation to, even if this relation is one of opposition and transgression, as in the case of Antigone. Individuation is framed by the non-identity of memory and history. The synchronization of memory and experience, a synchronization that has as its central goal marketing, the creation of new needs and desires, destroys the temporal basis for singularization, the constitution of new individuations. [29] Consumption destroys the temporal and subjective basis for politics, for any politics other than the combination of marketing and repressive control.


[1] Marx 1973, p. 230.

[2] Stiegler 2010b, p. 27

[3] Stiegler 2010b, p. 27. Stiegler’s critique reiterates much of the critique of ‘consumer society’ and the commodification of daily life as it has been developed by Debord, Lefebvre, and Baudrillard, specifically the idea that the exploitation of ‘buying power’ is the corollary of the exploitation of labor power finds its expression in the early works of Baudrillard. Baudrillard, like Stiegler, understands the formation of the consumer to be analogous to the constitution of the proletariat. As Baudrillard writes, ‘It is difficult to grasp the extent to which the current training in systematic, organized consumption is the equivalent and extension, in the twentieth century, of the great nineteenth-century long process of the training of rural populations for industrial work.’ [Baudrillard 1998, p. 81]

[4] Stuart Ewen’s influentional study of the history of consumerism argues that there is a historical connection between the deskilling of work in the Fordist production process and the deskilling of consumption, as the mass produced goods of an industrial economy no longer allowed for tinkering [Ewen 2001, p. 106].

[5] Edward Bernays, Freud’s nephew and a pioneer of public relations, is a central figure for Stiegler’s understanding of consumerism. Which is why for Stiegler consumer society is nothing less than a disindividuation, a loss of the subject into so many drives. [Stiegler 2010b, pg. 28]

[6] Cited in Rolf Wiggershaus 1994, p. 38.

[7] Stiegler 2010 c, p. 84.

[8] Stiegler 2011b, p. 11.

[9] Stiegler 2009, p. 55.

[10] Horkheimer and Adorno 2007, p. 98.

[11] Steigler 2011b, p. 33.

[12] Stiegler 2011b, p. 125.

[13] Horkheimer and Adorno 2007, p. 125.

[14] Stiegler 2011b, p. 105.Stiegler perhaps overstates the role of the US in this use of cinema. Stiegler does acknowledge the role of Russian thinkers in the formation of early concepts of montage, paying special attention to the ‘Kuleshov Effect’ as a demonstration of the shaping of primary retentions, experience, by memory [Stiegler 2011b p. 15] The idea of constructing a memory, and engineering the attention and psyche was also a part of Soviet cinema. As Sergei Eisenstein wrote, ‘In our conception a work of art is first and foremost a tractor ploughing over the audience’s psyche in a particular class context’[Eisenstein 1988, p. 62]. Susan Buck-Morss has argued that Hollywood and Soviet Cinema constitute two different constructions of mass consciousness, one focused on the star as a mass object, the other on the masses as a subject. As Buck-Morss writes, ‘If the Soviet screen provided a prosthetic experience of collective power, the Hollywood screen provided a prosthetic experience of collective desire.’ [Buck-Morss 2000, p. 148] In contrast to this Jonathan Beller has argued that far from constituting two radically different projects, American cinema has incorporated Einsenstein’s concept of montage in order to produce an economics and politics of attention. [Beller 2006, p. 119]

[15] Stiegler 2011, p. 117.

[16] Stiegler 2011, p. 127. Stiegler’s rough periodization of grammatization in terms of three epochs, the first defined by the long period of the citizen predicated on the extension of writing, the second by the industrial revolution, and the third on hypermateriality roughly models the periodization which Maurizio Lazzarato adopts from Michel Foucault. This periodization is divided between the epoch of sovereignty, focused on state power to subtract or destroy; the epoch of discipline, focused on the spatial control of bodies; and the epoch of control, focused on action at a distance on a disperse public. Like Stiegler, Lazzarato gives central importance to the technological elements of this transition, identifying control with technologies such as newspapers, radio, and television that act directly on memory and minds [Lazzarato 2004, p. 85].

Steigler 2010c, p. 129.

[18] Marx 1981, p. 319

[19] Stiegler 2010b, p. 40.

[20] Marx 1981, p. 352. Stiegler’s discussions of the ‘rate of profit’ are generally framed in terms of the crisis of overproduction. However, he also uses the same concept from Marx to make sense of ‘financialization.’ The decrease of the rate of profit undermines any long-term investment in factories, tools, and machinery. In its place we get an emphasis on short term investment, on investment oriented towards speculation and fictive capital [Stiegler 2010a, p. 159]. For Stiegler both consumption and financial speculation are defined by an emphasis on the short term, on immediate realization and profit.

[21] Stiegler 2010a, p. 139

[22] Stiegler 2006c, p. 124

[23] Stiegler 2010b, p. 83.

[24] Stiegler 2008b, p. 45.

[25] Stiegler 2005, p. 72.

[26] Stiegler 2009, p. 48.

[27] Stiegler2008b, p. 37.

[28] Stiegler 2008d, p.83.

[29] Leroi-Gourhan predicted a demise of the arts with rise of these tertiary retentions. ‘Ten generations from now a writer selected to produce social fiction will probably be sent on a ‘renaturation’ course in a park a corner of which he or she will have to till a plough copied from a museum exhibit and pulled by a horse borrowed from a zoo. He or she will cook and eat the family meal at the family table, organize neighborhood visits, enact a wedding, sell cabbages from a market stall…and learn anew how to relate to the ancient writings of Gustave Flaubert to the meagerly reconstituted reality, after which this person will no doubt be capable of submitting a batch of freshened up emotions to the broadcasting authorities.’[Leroi-Gourhan 1993, p. 361.]

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