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Date Published: 5/9/2012
Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, Editors


From Biopower to Psychopower

Bernard Stiegler's Pharmacology of Mnemotechnologies

Nathan Van Camp


During a seminar at the University of Vermont in 1982,[1] merely two years before his untimely death, Michel Foucault indicated that he may have insisted too much on the technologies of domination in the course of his work and in the same breath announced that he planned to correct this theoretical weakness by connecting his earlier analyses of power relations to a historico-conceptual analysis of what he tentatively called "technologies of the self."[2] Unfortunately, his early death, but possibly also some limitations inherent to his theoretical framework, kept him from elaborating this project in a more systematic way. However, despite Foucault's pronounced intention to shift the focus of his research to technologies of self-formation that would enable subjects to regain a certain amount of autonomy in the face of modern power mechanisms, this aspect of his work has been largely neglected in recent radical political theory. Although it is now widely recognized among critical theorists that Foucault's work needs serious revisions for relevance in today's context, few have yet taken serious interest in the conclusions that should have to be drawn from his announcement at the Vermont seminar. On the contrary, many of those who claim to be still working in a Foucauldian spirit simply assume that it is his famous concept of biopower that requires renewed attention.[3]

I argue that such an exclusive focus on Foucault's concepts of biopower and biopolitics has been detrimental to an appropriate understanding of the workings of power in today's Western societies The work of the French theorist of technology, Bernard Stiegler, reveals that contemporary power technologies no longer mainly aim at disciplining bodies or regulating life-processes, but at controlling and modulating consciousness. Such a substitution of psychopower for biopower, Stiegler suggests, is closely connected to the substitution of consumer capitalism for production capitalism. Subsequently, I will show that in his late work, Foucault ventured to analyze how psychotechnologies could be transformed into emancipation technologies, but that his own persistent focus on biopolitical issues kept him from elaborating a proper psychopolitical perspective on the most salient technologies of domination of his own time. To conclude, I propose that Stiegler's pharmacological notion of power technologies provides a more practicable alternative to the theologico-political models that seem to inspire the work of many of those who have taken up Foucault's legacy.


During the past fifteen years the French philosopher Bernard Stiegler has been elaborating a highly original philosophy of technology from which he has recently started drawing critical political conclusions.[4] Influenced by the writings of Leroi-Gourhan, Husserl, Heidegger, Derrida and Simondon, Stiegler argues that anthropogenesis runs parallel to technogenesis in the sense that human beings and technical artifacts are always involved in a mutually constitutive relationship. As the subtitle of his first volume of Technics and Time suggests,[5] Stiegler draws heavily on the famous Greek myth of the brothers Epimetheus and Prometheus to substantiate this provocative claim. In Protagoras' version of this story as narrated by Plato, Epimetheus is granted the task of distributing qualities or powers (dynameis) among living creatures. The Titan performs his task by giving each creature one specific quality in order to promote equilibrium between the various species. But when it was time for the humans (non-aloga) to receive their due, Epimetheus, who was not particularly bright, suddenly realized that he had already handed out all available qualities. When Prometheus arrives at the scene to inspect Epimetheus' work, he is surprised to find out that the humans are still naked and without means of defense. Because he is worried that their premature constitution could lead to the total destruction of the human race, Prometheus attempts to make up for Epimetheus' fault and decides to steal the skills in the arts and fire (tekhnai) from the gods to compensate humans for their original lack of qualities.

What Stiegler aims to spotlight in his reading of this myth is the fundamental undefinability of the human or what he calls the human's "default of origin." Hence, technics is not a positive attribute of the human either, but merely an artificial prosthesis that is only adopted afterwards, by default, to compensate for a constitutive lack of origin. The figure of Prometheus, who traditionally stands for man's technical hubris, therefore only makes sense in connection to the figure of his idiotic brother Epimetheus. The fact that the latter's role in the story is usually forgotten by the tradition is just as remarkable as it is understandable, given that Epimetheus is himself essentially a figure of forgetting. Humans are forgetful creatures. They suffer from "retentional finitude," as Stiegler repeatedly suggests, and therefore need technical prostheses to supplement their limited capacity for memorization.

The meaning of this mythical narrative can also be explained in bio-anthropological terms. According to Stiegler, memory can be articulated on three different levels. First, there is genetic memory. This kind of memory is common to all living beings and remains strictly internal to the organism. Second, there is epigenetic memory, individually acquired experiences which are stored in the central nervous system of the living organism. In contrast to genetic memory, epigenetic memory gives the individual living being a certain amount of freedom from genetic constraints, which explains, for example, why certain species of animals can be conditioned to behave in certain ways. In contrast to genetic memory, which is automatically transferred from one generation to the other, epigenetic memory is forever lost with its carrier's death. In other words, these two levels of memory do not communicate with each other. The genetic program cannot receive lessons from experience. Finally, however, with the birth of the human there emerged a third kind of memory, which Stiegler calls epiphylogenetic or tertiary memory. The human is the living being that finds its conditions of existence in non-living matter in the sense that it is capable of exteriorizing its epigenetic memory onto material supports (from flint tools and wax tablets to combustion engines and the TCP/IP protocol) that can then be passed on to the next generation.[6]

Although Stiegler first introduced the concept of tertiary retention in the last section of The Fault of Epimetheus,[7] it is only elaborated in more detail in the next two volumes of Technics and Time when he takes up a reading of what Husserl, in On the Phenomenology of the Internal Consciousness of Time,[8] calls temporal objects. A temporal object is an object whose flux coincides with the flux of consciousness. Husserl privileges temporal objects in his analysis of time consciousness because he thinks that by analyzing the structure of a temporal object, one can gain access to the constitutive structure of consciousness as such. The key example of a temporal object for Husserl is the melody. When one listens to a melody, one does not merely hear a string of sounds, but a succession of notes. But what makes a note a note and not just a noise is the fact that each note retains in itself the preceding note, the latter retaining the one before, etc. This means that in the now-moment of perception, a just-having-been is being retained and hence that the recent past is intrinsic to the present moment of perception. Husserl calls this phenomenon primary retention and argues that it should be distinguished from secondary retention or recollection. While primary retention belongs to perception, secondary retention -- a melody that I heard yesterday for example -- is produced by the imagination and therefore belongs to the past of my consciousness. This distinction is essential for Husserl because he thinks it was Franz Brentano's mistake to argue that primary retention belongs to the order of the past and thus that it is added to perception by the faculty of imagination. In that case, however, Husserl argues, one can no longer distinguish between perception and imagination or between reality and fiction.

The problem for Stiegler, however, is not that Husserl insists on making a clear distinction between perception and imagination, but that he goes as far as opposing these two modes of consciousness, going even as far as saying that primary retention owes nothing whatsoever to secondary retention. This is obviously not true, Stiegler objects, because "primary retention is already selection according to criteria established in the course of previous associations, 'selections' in the carto-graphic sense, that is, a reduction of what passes into the past, retaining only what the criteria of secondarity already inhabiting the process of primary retention permit to retain."[9] When I listen to the same melody twice, the second hearing will be different from the first. The same temporal object produces two different aural experiences. The reason for this is that my consciousness is always actively selecting among possible retentions on the basis of which it projects protentions or expectations. My secondary retentions or, in other words, my past experiences, play a selective role and thus determine which primary retentions I will retain in my current aural experience. According to Stiegler this is true in general, but it only became obvious with the invention of the gramophone. At that moment it became clear that even in cases when one experiences an exact repetition of a temporal object which one heard earlier, the primary retentions of a first hearing, having become secondary in a second hearing, play a selective role in the primary retentions of the latter. More importantly, this implies that tertiary retentions, as Stiegler calls these materialized temporal objects (film, radio, television, texts, etc.), are themselves constitutive of new primary retentions (perceptions) and new secondary retentions (memories). Husserl himself already suggested as much by stressing the importance of objects of image-consciousness such as paintings or busts; however, since the origin of these objects do not pertain to the perception of the person who looks at these objects and not even to this person's past stream of consciousness, Husserl thought that tertiary retentions have no effect whatsoever on the temporality of lived experience. Stiegler, in contrast, argues that tertiary retentions are a constitutive element of our perceptual apparatus. Crucially, Stiegler does not pursue this discussion with Husserl to reanimate the latter's project of founding phenomenology as a "rigorous science," but to show that the interplay of the different modes of retention grounds the process of psychic and collective individuation. It is here that Stiegler's philosophy of technology acquires a political dimension.

For Stiegler, the self or what he calls the "I" is not an individual, but a dynamic process of psychic individuation. Tending to become in-dividual, the "I" never reaches this mode of being because that would mean that the process has come to a definite end.[10] Moreover, an "I" always belongs to a "we," to a process of collective individuation with which the "I" forms a metastable equilibrium. Psychic individuation is nothing but a process of making selections among the temporal flux that incessantly presents itself to the "I"'s consciousness in the sense that primary retentions constitute the diachrony of its consciousness. This implies that even when exactly the same event is experienced by different persons, they do not all experience it in the same way because in the course of time they have accumulated different primary retentions and, having become secondary, they play a selective role in the primary retentions that adhere to the perception of the event that they are currently experiencing.

Just as important for the individuation process of the "I" are the secondary retentions of experiences that the "I" has not lived herself, but which she has adopted.[11] Collective secondary retentions are memories which the "I" has inherited from previous generations through education in the broad sense of the word. It has often been suggested that the unity of a social group is generated quasi-automatically by the fact that its members share a common past. According to Stiegler, however, such a concept of communality is nothing but a fiction or a phantasmatic construct. Since such a common past is not a past which the members of the social group have lived themselves, it can only become "their" past through an active, yet structurally false process of adoption. The unity of a social group is the product of their projection of a common future, a desired communal unity which is always still to come, but which nevertheless structurally depends on the adoption of a fictional common past. The condition of such a process of adoption, Stiegler argues, is rooted "in the possibility, opened up by epiphylogenesis, that is by technical memory, of having access to a past that has neither been lived by the one whose past this is, nor by his biological ancestors."[12] This explains why Stiegler thinks tertiary retentions or mnemotechnical prostheses play a crucial role in the process of psychic and collective individuation. Tertiary retentions provide the modes of access to the pre-individual ground and therefore constitute the condition of possibility of psychic and collective individuation as such. Today, however, Stiegler argues, the mnemotechnical system is being systematically exploited by cultural capitalism, a destructive process which could only lead to psychic and collective de-individuation on a global scale.


Inspired by the French historian of technology Bertrand Gille,[13] Stiegler argues that the evolution of the technical system is structurally in advance of the evolution of the various social systems such as law, politics, religion, economics, education, etc. Major transformations in the technical system then periodically traverse society, thereby destabilizing social relations and generating general disorientation. Usually, these periods of crisis are only temporary. The various social systems always first tend to resist the radical changes that follow transformations in the technical system and attempt to deal with the problems engendered by these ruptures with categories of thought that have their origin in historical periods that were dominated by a meanwhile outdated technical system. Such crises usually come to an end when society finally appropriates the possibilities that lay dormant in the new technical system. With the emergence of the industrial revolution, however, the speed of technical evolution has increased to such an extent that it leaves the other systems almost no time to adopt the changes imposed by the technical system. This situation has provoked the well-known grand narratives of technics that can only announce the decline of civilization and a massive uprooting of man. It is precisely the power mechanisms underpinning such an early stage of industrial society that Foucault tried to lay bare in his writings on biopower.

To understand the workings of power today, however, one should take into account that while the 19th century witnessed the industrialization of production techniques, the 20th century became the scene of a steady industrialization of what Stiegler calls "mnemotechnics." This term indexes the material artifacts that are capable of durably registering living memory, from writing and printing over analog memory supports (radio, television, photography, etc.) to the latter's digital counterparts (cd's, personal computers, internet, etc.). The industrialization of the mnemotechnical system constitutes a major break in history, the consequences of which we are only beginning to fathom. While the technical system of production has been evolving incessantly since prehistorical times, the mnemotechnical system has been more or less stable for over 25 centuries and has always been independent from the former. The invention and industrialization of new analogue and digital mnemotechnical devices facilitated, however, the integration of the mnemotechnical system in the production system and brought it under the control of the global techno-industrial system. This means that the producers of material goods have also become the most important producers of symbols and that they have started to exploit the mnemotechnical system in order to capture and control the psyche's attention to make people adopt ever more commodities and services.

For Stiegler there is consequently an urgent need to develop a new paradigm of power. The theory of biopower focuses exclusively on power technologies that transform the population into a machine for production. In the current hyper-industrial age, however, it has become necessary to address the various forms of psychopower that turn the population into markets for consumption.[14] In other words, we have to shift the focus of attention from the disciplinary and regulating technologies deployed by the programming institutions of the nation-state to the mnemotechnologies that are currently being put into service by the programming industries of global capitalism. Contemporary power mechanisms no longer mainly aim at disciplining the body or regulating life, but at conditioning the psyche to stimulate consumption. For an economic system that thrives on mass-consumption, the audio-visual media have become indispensable for the creation of the large scale markets required for the return on investment in research and development and industrial production. They provide access to a meta-market of millions of minds whose attention can be captured and conditioned to adopt new consumption goods. However, it is certainly not the case that capturing the psyche's attention through mnemotechnics is a power strategy invented by the 20th century advertizing industry. Attention focusing techniques have always governed processes of psychic and collective individuation. Hence, on the one hand, mnemotechnics constitutes nothing less than the condition of possibility of tradition and collective memorization as such, but on the other, the industrial exploitation of the mnemotechnical system which we are currently experiencing tends toward the destruction of both psychic and collective individuation processes.

Human consciousness is diachronic in the sense that it functions through an incessant interplay between singular primary and secondary retentions. But this diachronic consciousness can only individuate itself because it is at the same time always already embedded in a process of collective individuation that tends toward a synchronization of the "I"'s of which it is composed. Every social collective has its proper techniques for organizing the synchronization of "I"'s without which no process of collective individuation would be possible. The majority of these techniques operate through what Stiegler calls systems of "calendarity" and "cardinality."[15] Religious and profane holidays, rituals of all sorts, and public manifestations being the most common examples. These practices direct the multitude of "I"'s toward exceptional events -- the revelation of a God, the foundation of a state, etc. -- which they are invited to adopt as collective secondary retentions, that is to say, as shared memories of events that were never part of the lived experience of any of the "I"'s, but the remembrance of which allows for a synchronization of the selection criteria in their primary retentions. As mentioned above, this process of psychic and collective individuation is also conditioned by tertiary retentions. Up until the 20th century, orthographic writing has been the most important technique for the synchronization of "I"'s. The religions of the book, law, literature, philosophy and science would all be impossible without the invention of a system of writing that is capable of conserving a flux of thought that was once present and which subsequently, through reading, can enter the consciousness of new generations. This does not mean that this synchronizing effect exerted by tertiary retentions necessarily poses a threat to the diachronicity of the "I". On the contrary, Stiegler argues, "the principle of individuation (...) can operate all the more vigorously (...) the more the literal and public establishment of such a text, the most unequivocal determination possible of its identity, enables each of its readers (all of whom will thus have read the same text in the same form, written in an identical way) to read it differently, in relation to his or her own indetermination."[16] Synchronization and diachronization are not opposite forces, but dynamic tendencies which compose with each other. This play of tendencies establishes difference in repetition. However, the fragile equilibrium between these tendencies can be distorted when cardinal systems, calendar systems and tertiary retentions are systematically exploited in order to instill a single set of selection criteria.

The invention of the mnemotechnology of cinema and, a few decades later, of television were crucial events for the emergence of contemporary forms of psychopower. Television and film's singular persuasive force for the temporal flux of the "I"'s consciousness consists of the fact that, in contrast to their direct ancestor, photography, they operate through a temporal flux of images. This implies that when someone watches a movie or a broadcast, his or her consciousness passes into the flux of this temporal object. The result is that the temporality of cinematic images will be adopted by the temporality of consciousness. The effect of thousands or even millions of "I"'s watching the same broadcast is that they synchronize themselves for the duration of the broadcast. This does not mean that they perceive this temporal object in an identical way. Endowed with different secondary retentions, the selection criteria for what will be retained from this broadcast will be unique for every "I". But if they watch the same broadcast every day, they will in the course of time share ever more secondary retentions and consequently also more selection criteria. This inevitably leads to a hyper-synchronization of "I"'s or, what amounts to the same thing, to a hyper-diachronization of "I"'s. The structural loss of diachronicity announces the emergence of an atomized society in which the "I" and the we will be dissolved into what Heidegger called an amorphous they. Taken to its limits, Stiegler warns us, this exploitation could even lead to the destruction of existence as such, in the sense that in a world dominated by a constant synchronization of mass-experience, my existence is no longer different from your existence. Moreover, it could also lead to the destruction of authority or, in other words, to the destruction of the capacity to transmit inheritance across generations.

This does not mean that Stiegler is just another technophobe who thinks that the introduction of new technologies automatically leads to the decline of civilization. For Stiegler, technology is not an evil that will alienate modern humanity. Again, the capturing and forming of attention through mnemotechnics is an essential task of any culture. Following Jacques Derrida's suggestion, Stiegler characterizes the mnemotechnical system as a pharmakon in the sense that it is capable of both poisoning and curing the psychic apparatus.[17] It can support the emancipation and edification of the mind, but it can also be used to control the mind and keep it in a state of docility. According to Stiegler, there is no reason to reject the mnemotechnical system in its entirety, but it is nonetheless urgently necessary to appropriate the potentials of the present mnemotechnical system in such a way that it can ground new forms of individual and collective intelligence. To gain a better understanding of the pharmacological nature of mnemotechnics Stiegler suggests that we ought to revisit Foucault's late writings on the "technologies of the self."


At the beginning of the 1980s, Foucault embarked on a critical re-examination of the origins of biopower. Biopower, he argued, is actually a particular historic configuration of an ancient practice which in the Greek and Hellenistic period was called epimēleia or "care." However, in the ancient world this notion did not refer to processes of regulating the body or the population through technologies of domination, but to "the care of the self" (epimelēsthai sautou). In his Vermont seminar, Foucault explains how the ancients practiced this latter form of care by means of what he called "technologies of the self," which he tentatively defined as "the operations on their own bodies and souls, conduct, and way of being," through which people transform themselves to reach "a state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality."[18] Foucault suggested that a re-appropriation of this ancient tradition could lead to the emergence of new forms of self-constitution which would enable the subject to resist the technologies of domination prevalent in modern society.

However, as this tradition has been virtually eradicated from Western culture, he deemed the chances for a revival of a culture of care very slim. One of the decisive factors determining its decline was the propensity of the Western philosophical tradition to overemphasize the Delphic principle "Know yourself" (gnothis sauton) at the expense of the initially much more important precept "to take care of yourself."[19] For Foucault, Plato's dialogue Alcibiades is exemplary in this respect. It is only by taking care of his soul through self-examination, Socrates argues, that the young Alcibiades will discover the principles of just political action. According to Stiegler, however, this subjugation of care to knowledge can only be properly understood if one also takes into consideration Plato's lifelong dispute with the sophists over the principles that should inspire educational practices in the Greek polis. Plato insisted on the importance of dialectics and anamnēsis as methods of fixing his interlocutors' attention on the ideal content of propositions not only because he wanted to offer an alternative to the sophists' tendency to relieve the citizens of their moral duty to think for themselves by letting them pay for their rhetorical services, but also because he was very critical of the sophists' use of writing as a memory aid. Stiegler has repeatedly argued that this repudiation of writing and tekhnē in general is one of the founding gestures of metaphysics from which philosophy should disentangle itself.[20]

Foucault made a similar argument in 'Writing the Self,'[21] an essay which he published one year after the Vermont seminar. In this text he argues that the revalorization of the mnemotechnique of writing in late Antiquity inaugurated a new culture of self-care, but that the Christian pursuit of self-renunciation definitely put an end to this ethos by yet again prioritizing the Delphic principle. Surprisingly, however, Stiegler notes, Foucault did not further elaborate on the role of mnemotechnics in the constitution of the modern subject in his interpretation of Immanuel Kant's foundational text of modernity 'What is Enlightenment?,'[22] published one year after 'Writing the Self.' What Foucault did not seem to have noticed is that the Graeco-Hellenistic tradition of self-care did not end with the decline of Antiquity, but that the Enlightenment saw the birth of a new configuration of this ethos. In his seminal essay, Kant famously argued that the project of Enlightenment -- "the emergence of man from his self-imposed immaturity" -- requires that citizens are able to make public use of reason, in the sense that they should acquire the ability to read and write. When Kant writes in a letter to Friedrich Nicolaï that "the writing of books is not an insignificant profession in a society that is already very advanced in matters of civilization, and in which the ability to read has become a nearly irrepressible and universal need,"[23] he suggests that it is by reading, writing, and being read that a state of "maturity" can be reached.

If we accept Stiegler's interpretation of Kant's foundational text and assume that the emergence of man from a state of immaturity into a state of maturity requires a critical appropriation of the mnemotechnical system -- in Kant's particular historical context a technical system that mainly consists of books, letters and reviews -- , then we are to conclude that, today, the project of Enlightenment has gone seriously astray. The exploitation of the current mnemotechnical system by cultural capitalism prevents this system from turning into a support for the transformation of attention into a critical faculty, but instead aims at controlling attention and keeping it in a state of docility. According to Stiegler, this regressive tendency elicits nothing less than the emergence of a new Enlightenment. If Plato opposed the sophists because they kept the Athenian civilians from thinking for themselves by selling written copies of their speeches and Kant was critical of the church leaders because their dogmatic adherence to the written letter of the Bible detained Prussian citizens from attaining maturity, then the task of the Aufklärer of our hyper-industrial consumer society should be that of analyzing and criticizing the attention capturing technologies of the global cultural industries which aim at reducing the civilians of contemporary late-democratic societies to gregarious consumers. One of the most important tasks with which critical theory is faced today is therefore to develop an affirmative psychopolitics which could reconstitute the mnemotechnical system in the face of the psychotechnologies of globalized psychopower.

Foucault's writings are only partially helpful to gain a better understanding of the technologies of domination with which democratic societies are confronted today. Because he believes that power is always exercised over bodies or the life-process, he not only overlooked the emergence of psychopower, but he also misunderstood the essential critical role of institutions that take care of the socialization of psychotechnologies. He could, for example, only regard education as a disciplinary technology through which docile bodies are produced and not also as a psychotechnique through which minors could be taught how to deal critically with texts and images.[24] If, despite his late interest in writing as self-technology par excellence, Foucault did not succeed in correcting his exclusive focus on biopower, it is mainly because he did not grasp the pharmacological nature of power technologies. Most of the radical political thinkers who have taken up Foucault's legacy suffer from the same deficiency. Given their utterly pessimistic diagnosis of the state of the contemporary world, many of them lapse into forms of religious anarchism to oppose the prevailing power mechanisms.[25]

Nowhere is this strategy more openly pursued than in Agamben's analysis of what he, loosely following Foucault, calls an "apparatus" (dispositif). While for the late Foucault an apparatus could also support processes of individuation, Agamben only seems to focus on its capacity to produce processes of de-individuation: "What defines the apparatuses that we have to deal with in the current phase of capitalism is that they no longer act as much through the production of a subject, as through the processes of what van be called desubjectivation"[26]. And he adds: "We could say that today there is not even a single instant in which the life of individuals is not modeled, contaminated, or controlled by some apparatus."[27] At first sight, such a bleak assessment of the current state of affairs has much in common with the processes of psychic and collective de-individuation Stiegler attempts to analyze. However, the problem with Agamben's discussion of what he calls the oikonomia of apparatuses is not only that it focuses exclusively on its potential to control biological life and hence almost completely ignores its potential to control and modulate the mind, but also that for Agamben this oikonomia is nothing but "a factual state with no alternative"[28]. Hence, as Stiegler argues, Agamben "leaves this poison without a remedy."[29] For Agamben, the pharmakon is a poison pure and simple, never a remedy. Furthermore, since Agamben thinks of apparatuses as the totalizing version of ancient religious rituals which establish a separation between the sacred and the profane, it should come as no surprise that his only alternative to the oikonomia of apparatuses is yet again a religious gesture, albeit a more radical one. What is required today, Agamben argues, is nothing less than a counterapparatus that is capable of restoring "to common use what sacrifice had separated and divided."[30] Readers of Agamben's work are probably familiar with this gesture, although it never really becomes clear how it actually works. Simplifying a bit, it basically consists in performing "the cut of Apelles," as Agamben calls it The Time that Remains, or a "divide of the division" elsewhere, which would bring about an enigmatic messianic time in which man would be finally redeemed from the domination of sovereign power (the "real state of emergency"). From the perspective of Stiegler's thought, however, such a gesture is, as I have attempted to show above, nothing but a denial of the originary technicity of temporality. No experience of time is possible without mnemotechnics; opposing oneself to a homogeneous chronological time is nothing but a metaphysical gesture.

Hence, if industrial democracy is to have a future, we should first recognize that it makes no sense rejecting the mnemotechnical system as such. Given its pharmacological nature, the only way to confront contemporary psychopower is by re-inventing this same mnemotechnical system in such a way that it enables the emergence of a new culture of care. Any critical response to the current mnemotechnical system must arise from within its own possibilities. The most promising aspect of today's digital devices, as Stiegler argued in his essay 'The Discrete Image,'[31] is that its users are no longer destined to remain passive receivers of real time imagery. The danger of the current mnemotechnical system is that it threatens to collapse the gap between primary retention and secondary retention and that it consequently could obtain a monopoly over what to retain and what not to retain in perception. The new digital mnemotechnical devices, however, give their users the power to 'discretize' the continuous flow of imagery that presents itself to the psychic apparatus in the sense that users can disrupt their reality effect and regain a critical distance. By rewinding, replaying and even re-assembling the given imagery, we can regain the power to actively select and organize the tertiary and secondary retentions which otherwise would remain completely under the control of the programming industries. There is, however, no reason to be utterly optimistic about the prospects of the emergence of a new mature technological culture. Although we have recently witnessed a number of revolutionary events and the rise of new civil movements in which new digital mnemotechnical devices have played decisive roles, it is also clear that these potentially emancipatory technologies could -- as Adorno and Horkheimer already knew -- just as easily be recuperated by the programming industries to reach ever more passive consumers. Moreover, whether such a strategy to slow down the temporalization of time in the digital era does not actually betray an attempt to reclaim a position which the psychic apparatus occupied before the analog and digital revolution occurred, remains a vexed question. It is nonetheless clear, however, that if the 20th century was the age of biopolitics, the 21st century will be the age of psychopolitics.



[1] Michel Foucault, Technologies of the Self, ed. Luther H. Martin, Huck Gutman and Patrick H. Hutton (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988), 19.

[2] Foucault, Technologies of the Self, 9.

[3] For example, if Giorgio Agamben criticizes Foucault's central thesis that the decisive shift in modern power politics consists in a substitution of a juridico-institutional model of power by a biopolitical model of power, he does not venture such a critique with the intention to shift attention to technologies of the self, but rather to correct Foucault's analysis of biopower by arguing that in modernity the production of the biopolitical body has come to depend on the sovereign decision on the exception. See: Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer. Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), 11. A similar strategy of rethinking the Foucauldian biopolitical model seems to inform the thought of Roberto Esposito who attempts to correct the above mentioned weakness in Foucault's work by elaborating a paradigm of immunization. See: Roberto Esposito, Bíos. Biopolitics and Philosophy, trans. and intro. Timothy Campell (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 45.

[4] Stiegler's strictly philosophical works are collected in the multi-volume project Technics and Time, which thus far consists of three volumes with two more to appear in the near future. The first three volumes have already been translated into English. He has also written a number of politically committed works: De la Misère Symbolique (two volumes), Mécréance et Discrédit (three volumes), Constituer l'Europe (two volumes) and Prendre Soin (one volume, one more to appear shortly).

[5] Bernard Stiegler, Technics and Time 1. The Fault of Epimetheus, trans. Richard Beardsworth & George Collins (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998).

[6] Coined originally by the French paleontologist André Leroi-Gourhan, exteriorization refers to the evolutionary process that occurred when the first humanoids achieved erect posture. The freeing of the hand from its locomotive function implied at the same time the freeing of the mouth from its grasping function, making possible both tool-making and speech. In this sense technics and language are twin poles of the same apparatus. Stiegler heavily relies upon Leroi-Gourhan's argument that between the Zinjanthropian and the Neanthropian the evolution of the cortex goes hand in hand with the evolution of tool fabrication. He disagrees, however, with Leroi-Gourhan's conclusion that cortexicalization was the determining element in this process. Stiegler argues that in order to retain the advances made by the exteriorization thesis, it would be better to argue that there was codetermination. Stiegler speaks about an "instrumental maieutics" or a "mirror proto-stage" "in the course of which the differentiation of the cortex is determined by the tool just as much as the tool by the cortex." (Stiegler, The Fault of Epimetheus, 158).

[7] Stiegler, The Fault of Epimetheus, 245-248.

[8] Edmund Husserl, On the Phenomenology of the Internal Consciousness of Time, trans. John Barnett Brough (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1980).

[9] Bernard Stiegler, Technics and Time 2: Disorientation, trans. Stephen Barker (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009), 224-225.

[10] Stiegler is much indebted to both Heidegger and Simondon for the elaboration of his concept of individuation. For his own appreciation of these two authors, see for example: Bernard Stiegler, 'The theatre of individuation: phase-shift and resolution in Simondon and Heidegger,' in: Parrhesia Vol. 7 (2009), 46-57.

[11] For a detailed discussion of Stiegler's use of the concept of adoption, see: Bernard Stiegler, La Technique et le Temps 3: Le Temps du Cinéma et la Question du Mal-être (Paris: Galilée, 2001).138-146.

[12] Stiegler, Le Temps du Cinéma, 142.

[13] Bertrand Gille, The History of Techniques. Volumes 1 & 2 (New York: Gordon and Breach, 1986).

[14] Bernard Stiegler, Taking Care of Youth and the Generations, transl. Stephen Barker (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010), 128.

[15] See for example: Bernard Stiegler, Acting Out, trans. David Barison, Daniel Ross and Patrick Crogan (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009), 45-47.

[16] Bernard Stiegler, 'Technics of Decision,' in: Angelaki, Vol.8 (2) (2003): 151-168. Here: 159.

[17] See Jacques Derrida, 'Plato's Pharmacy,' in: Dissemination, transl. Barbara Johnson (London/New York: Continuum, 2004), 67-186.

[18] Foucault, Technologies of the Self, 18.

[19] Ibid., 19.

[20] See for example: Stiegler, Technics and Time 1, 95-102 and Bernard Stiegler, 'Technics of Decision,' 154-155.

[21] Michel Foucault, 'Writing the Self,' in Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: New Press, 1997).

[22] Michel Foucault, 'What is Enlightenment?' in: The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984).

[23] Immanuel Kant, 'On Turning Out Books. Two Letters to Mr. Friedrich Nicolai from Immanuel Kant,' in: Immanuel Kant, Practical Philosophy, ed. Mary J. Gregor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 623-627.

[24] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (London: Penguin Books, 1991), 297-299.

[25] See for example: Giorgio Agamben, The Time that Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans, transl. Patricia Dailey (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005) and Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000), especially 413.

[26] Giorgio Agamben, What is an Apparatus? trans. David Kishik & Stefan Pedatella (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009), 20.

[27] Ibid., 14.

[28] Stiegler, Taking Care, 161.

[29] Ibid., 163.

[30] Agamben, What is an Apparatus? 19.

[31] Bernard Stiegler, 'The Discrete Image,' in: Bernard Stiegler & Jacques Derrida, Echographies of Television, trans. Jennifer Bajorek (Cambridge: Polity, 2002), 145-163.


Nathan Van Camp is a fellow of the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO) and is currently affiliated with the Institute of Jewish Studies (IJS) and the Department of Philosophy, both at the University of Antwerp (Belgium). His main research interests include continental philosophy of technology, critical theory, bioethics and key issues in Jewish thought.

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