We know how it sounds when the voice of those who are absent animate their words as we read them, as if from the inside of the text. How long after a disappearance is a voice activated through a postcard, a note on a piece of paper or a book? I reach for Bernard Stiegler’s books soon after receiving the news of his death in early August. There are many in my shelf, but far from all of the more than thirty that he wrote since the first volume of “La technique et le temps” in 1994. I read and I hear.
We are always out of step with ourselves. To be inscribed into life as an individual is to let oneself, perpetually, be shaped by other individuals and the traces of those that are no longer among us. It is only in death that we catch up. It is in death and in our transition to becoming traces that we reach pure presence, Stiegler writes. There ceases the eternal change.
It was through books, during a five-year long incarceration (1978-83) when the rest of the world was denied him, that Stiegler approached philosophy. He became fascinated with how the discipline through its history had been uninterested in technics. It was technics, encompassing everything from scripture to the production of books, that had made it possible for the traces of philosophy to reach all the way to him: a jazz-club owner and before that peasant who had, in one of the vicissitudes of life, started to rob banks and that now with the help of the philosopher Gérard Granel (previously a regular at Stiegler’s club) studied in his little cell.
It was Granel who pointed Stiegler on the way to Jacques Derrida. A philosopher whose engagement with language as technics had led him to formulate a way to show how also the text was out of step with itself. Stiegler came to study with Derrida as his supervisor. It was the beginning of a brilliant career as a philosopher and a public intellectual for the former convict. Early on he became interested by the new digital technologies and made himself into one of the thinkers who most systematically and persistently analysed and criticised the society that the digital and automatic was giving birth to.
By a culture scared to be questioned, Stiegler was often dismissed as a tiresome Cassandra entertaining a bestiary of hellish predictions. What he feared most of all was that the technological development had taken a tragic turn towards the nightmarish desert of the exhaustive calculation where nothing, not thought and not even dreams, would survive. A catastrophic automation captured by a suicidal capitalism destroying all the necessities of life. The collective knowledge of man had led to a technology that could be used to destroy all knowledge.
In the 2016 book “Dans la disruption” (with the telling subtitle: “how not to go mad?”) Stiegler recounts a scene from 1993. It is Sunday morning after a party that he has been to with his children Barbara and Julien, at the time twenty-three and nineteen. Barbara suddenly asks him why he always is so silent and sombre. He answers that they are now ready to be addressed as adults. He is sombre as prison has taught him the measure and price of things, but also because he has understood that the world was approaching what seemed like a trial that could lead to its dissolution. Yet he promises to never stop studying this trial, to keep on looking for a way in which the worse can be turned to something better and, all this failing, leave traces to inheritors resembling ourselves, with the testimony that there were those that fought and did all in their power to find a way forward.
We are, claimed Stiegler, beings whose need of external technical support is foundational for our existence. But every new technical development is both a poison and a cure, with other words a “pharmakon”. Living together with the necessary technics demands constant care transforming therapeutically that which poisons us, into something capable of curing. Care is knowledge, thinking, investment, something able to create the improbable, a generative madness that leads to new dreams. Knowledge is also the realization that something will also always escape our understanding. Without knowledge we become proletarians forced to adapt ourselves instead of being able to adopt a technical object and make it ours. We risk self-inflicting stupidity and scream for someone to blame (a scapegoat, a “pharmakos”, linked to “pharmakon”) to numb our pain.
His texts are often concerned with the distance between the “I” and the “we”. The two are eternally joined, but hopefully not synonymous. Predatory industrial extraction of our attention through the new digital technologies have for aim to eradicate this difference. It leads to a totalitarian system that reduces us (even our children, those who have not become adult and that we were there to protect) to interchangeable consumers. The development has perverted our infinite desire to finite drives and let short-sighted stupidity take the places of long-term knowledge. Political, media, economic and ecologic system have been undermined by our carelessness.
In 2003 the old left-wing sympathizer Stiegler dedicated a book to the voters or the xenophobic France party Front National. Not because he shared their opinions, far from it, but because he, despite that enormous political distance that was between them and him, felt near their pain. Individuals in a society that has lost faith in itself lack the primary narcissism and desire that facilitates the conversions of an “I” to a “we”. It is in desperation to reach this “we” that the scapegoat is created. It was this that the extreme right had done with the immigrant, and that Stiegler refused to do with the voters of the extreme right.
The path from the poisoned side of the technologized industrial society, that makes both poor and rich miserable, was for Stiegler not less technology. Such a retreat was impossible. He disliked all talk of “resistance”. We had to, though knowledge and care, instead invent new turns. It was a labour taking place in the attempts to create a “we”. For this end he sought to initiate dialogues and collaborations with other researchers than those in philosophy and with those outside of academia: politicians, religious leaders, artists, activists and industrialists – even with the digital enterprises that for short-term gain profited on the decomposition of the social. One large project that was launched in collaboration with a number of disadvantaged municipalities in the north of Paris 2016 had for aim to build a practical laboratory for new ways of living with today’s technology and to create a “contributive economy”.
It is desperately sad that Stiegler died as the world had taken a sharp turn towards the valley of the shadow of death with a depressing combination of climate crisis, pandemic and systemic loss of knowledge. We who feel the shame stand to inherit his thought, but how is thinking inherited? I read and with a sorrow inside I can hear him stress the word “nous” in French (we) and the almost homonymous “nous” (νοῦς), the classic Greek concept for intellect and reasons. How can we find the courage to think a future like ours?
Stiegler readily acknowledged the inheritance from Derrida (and the poisonous inheritance from Martin Heidegger), but clarified: to be faithful an inheritance means to criticize it, explore its boundaries and venture beyond. A trace has to lead to new bifurcations that puts us in front of the unknown. Knowledge cannot be preserved through repetition alone.
To die is to become a trace, something that contains both process and difference. Paradoxically, Stiegler also claimed that to die was to become a pure presence. Read through Derrida (who died in 2004, 74 years old, far too young like the now eternally 68-year old Stiegler) it is an enunciation hung over both sides of the scales of metaphysics. From the impossible perspective of the dead it is possible to be purely present, but then one can no longer exist. And the dead is unable to register how she is part of the constant developments between traces and fellow humans, even though she is still very much part. The thought as care must be extended to encompass and re-negotiate the “I”, the trace and the “we”, by the living through the dead.
Already in his first work Stiegler described the external (and therefor technical) memory as a process where lived history is “inscribed into death”. It lingers contrary to the “law of life”. Memory has, as he would later return to, therefore all the possibilities to continue life by other means than just life. A death that life needs to become new thoughts. Parts of the philosopher of techincs Stiegler, has now become technical objects himself. Even his equally warm as uncompromising voice, saved on thousands of recordings.
In 2009 Stiegler accepted to come and speak for a small and insignificant reading group that I organised together with Tania Espinoza at King’s College in Cambridge. In a somewhat confused time in my life he opened the door to a generous and intensively honest exchange that lasted up until, and beyond, his death. The history of the “I” is in its particulars rarely interesting, but because of its accidental nature there is sometimes no better illustration of the possible birth of the non-totalitarian “we” that Stiegler fought for. Contingency, as in personal meetings and singular circumstances, should not be reduced to “luck”. Through care we are capable of building conditions for that we cannot foresee. In the case of Stiegler, among other things a humane prison system (after his release partly destroyed) that allowed and facilitated his becoming a philosopher.
He who saves the life of one human, saves all of humanity. Thus it is written in both the Talmud and the Quran. As long as there is time, there is time for care. Towards the end Stiegler, himself without religious faith, affirmed that only a miracle could save us – often enunciated with the addition “God willing”: “Inshallah”.
(Swedish original published in Svenska Dagbladet 14 August 2020)