“The Age of Disruption: Technology and Madness in Computational Capitalism”

A book by Bernard Stiegler

Why is political hope becoming defunct in so many young people today? This is the question Bernard Stiegler poses in his new book, “The Age of Disruption: Technology and Madness in Computational Capitalism.” Early on, he quotes the words of a teenager whose nihilistic outlook, he claims, is representative of the zeitgeist of contemporary youth:

When I talk to young people of my generation […] they all say the same thing: we no longer have the dream of starting a family, of having children, or a trade, or ideals. […] All that is over and done with, because we’re sure that we will be the last generation, or one of the last, before the end.

These despairing words serve as a leitmotif to Stiegler’s fervent deconstruction of economic, political, and spiritual malaise. He dauntingly refers to the present’s “absence of epoch” — i.e., today’s lack of any significant political ethos. This “absence of epoch,” during a time of critical ecological changes, is why so many have been left disaffected, fast becoming (in Stiegler’s heavily italicized prose) “mad with sadness, mad with grief, mad with rage.”

Stiegler’s voice is by turns imperious, inveighing, confessional, and compassionate. His philosophical analysis — when the rhetorical wind in its sails slackens a bit — is intricate and brilliant, although grasping it requires some knowledge of the rhizomatic conceptual network that supports his argument, its tendrils often recognizable precisely by their italicization.

Stiegler’s origins as a philosopher perhaps explain his sense of urgency. In 1976, he tried to hold up a bank in Toulouse — his fourth bank robbery — only to be arrested, tried, and (thanks to a good lawyer) given a five­-year prison sentence. It was during this incarceration that the erstwhile-jazz-café-owner-turned-bank-robber discovered philosophy, subjecting himself to a strict daily regimen of reading and writing (some of his notes from that period continue to feed into his books to this day). Following his release from prison, Stiegler, with the support of Jacques Derrida, began to teach philosophy. Thus was launched the improbable career of one of the most influential European philosophers of the 21st century.

Stiegler recounted his prison experience in his 2009 book “Acting Out,” and in “Age of Disruption” he extensively revisits this conversion narrative: an upward climb from physical and intellectual imprisonment toward liberation. Quoting a beautiful phrase from a letter by Malcolm X (who had a similar conversion experience), Stiegler observes that prison gave him the “gift of Time.” He describes a typical day of study in his cell: “In the morning I read, after a poem by Mallarmé, Husserl’s ‘Logical Investigations,’ and, in the evening, Proust’s ‘In Search of Lost Time.’” The following morning, “after a cup of Ricoré chicory coffee and a Gauloises cigarette,” he would “prepare a synthesis” of what he’d read the day before. It was this monastic, autodidactic program that enabled Stiegler to reach perhaps his most crucial insight — the discovery that “reading [is] an interpretation by the reader of his or her own memory through the interpretation of the text that he or she had read.”

That’s a simple enough idea on the surface, but it conceals depths of implications. To understand why, we need to consider Stiegler’s theorization of technics. In his ongoing project “Technics and Time” (1994–), Stiegler lays the foundations for all the philosophical books he has produced. He posits that technics (technology conceived in the broadest terms, encompassing writing, art, clothing, tools, and machines) is co-originary with Homo sapiens: what distinguishes our species from other life forms is our reliance on constructed prostheses for survival. Drawing on the work of paleoanthropologist André Leroi-Gourhan and historian of technology Bertrand Gille, Stiegler argues that tools are the material embodiments of past experience. Building on this insight, and incorporating the perspectives of Martin Heidegger and Jacques Derrida, as well as the views of influential but little-known French philosopher Gilbert Simondon, Stiegler claims that technics plays a constitutive role in the formation of subjectivity, opening up — and, if badly used, also closing down — horizons of possibility for individual and collective realization.

The role of technics in human life is cemented by what Stiegler calls “tertiary” memory. Here we return to the intimate kinship between the interpretation of a text and an interpretation of one’s own memory, Stiegler’s major insight from his time in prison. Technics, which makes these forms of interpretation possible in the first place, acts as a “third” memory for human beings because it encodes the past experience of others, and thus always remains external to the subject. Nonhuman life-forms have access to two kinds of memories: “primary memory,” or genetic information inscribed in the DNA code, and “secondary memory,” which is the acquired memory of an organism with a sufficiently complex nervous system. While secondary memory accumulates over an organism’s lifespan, it disappears with the death of the individual. Human beings, uniquely among higher life-forms, are prosthetic organisms that pass on their accumulated experience by means of exosomatic or “tertiary” memory, in the form of tools (especially written language).

So how does all of this relate to our present politico-economic malaise? Stiegler believes that digital technology, in the hands of technocrats whom he calls “the new barbarians,” now threatens to dominate our tertiary memory, leading to a historically unprecedented “proletarianization” of the human mind. For Stiegler, the stakes today are much higher than they were for Marx, from whom this term is derived: proletarianization is no longer a threat posed to physical labor but to the human spirit itself. This threat is realized as a collective loss of hope.

A key text for Stiegler is, predictably, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s “Dialectic of Enlightenment” (1944), which has long remained the flagship of critical theory. Adorno and Horkheimer anticipated a rise in cultural “barbarism,” spearheaded by Hollywood cinema and the so-called “culture industry.” Today, billions of people are reliant on information technology that reduces culture to bite-sized chunks (the thought-span of a Tweet), and which is used primarily for marketing purposes by a monopoly of tech giants. Stiegler believes that such a situation threatens to dissolve the social bonds that embed individuals in collective forms of life. Most worrying of all, social networks are becoming the main source of cultural memory for many people today; Facebook’s “Post a Memory” feature, for instance, is one superficial manifestation of the deeper long-term impact on subjectivity and identity.

“The Age of Disruption” attempts to unearth the historical and philosophical roots of the current politico-economic sickness. Drawing on Peter Sloterdijk’s “In the World Interior of Capital (2013), Stiegler argues that the risk-taking ethos of modern capitalism has created a generalized spirit of “disinhibition” that is a threat to law, morality, and governance. It is, in essence, a secular nihilism that Sloterdijk found powerfully expressed in the “rational madness” of Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” who is willing to sacrifice others in the pursuit of his own greatness. Closer to home, we can glimpse the same overweening sociopathy in the likes of Bernie Madoff, Jordan Belfort, and the crews of speculators who gave us the 2008 global market meltdown. This nihilistic disinhibition is exacerbated by a second form of secular madness Stiegler traces: the conviction that rationality essentially consists of mathematical calculation. Ever since Descartes and Leibniz, European civilization has been driven by a dream of a mathesis universalis, the achievement of a hypothetical system of thought and language modeled solely on mathematics. If this dream sounds like ripe material for dystopian fiction, it is, for Stiegler, our very own present.

The above summary cannot do full justice to Stiegler’s painstaking deconstruction of the roots of “computational capitalism” — a phrase he uses to join these two interrelated forms of rationalized madness. Stiegler firmly believes that a distinction must always be upheld between “authentic thinking” and “computational cognitivism” and that today’s crisis lies in confusing the latter for the former: we have entrusted our rationality to computational technologies that now dominate everyday life, which is increasingly dependent on glowing screens driven by algorithmic anticipations of their users’ preferences and even writing habits (e.g., the repugnantly named “predictive text” feature that awaits typed-in characters to regurgitate stock phrases). Stiegler insists, however, that authentic thinking and calculative thinking are not mutually exclusive; indeed, mathematical rationality is one of our major prosthetic extensions. But the catastrophe of the digital age is that the global economy, powered by computational “reason” and driven by profit, is foreclosing the horizon of independent reflection for the majority of our species, in so far as we remain unaware that our thinking is so often being constricted by lines of code intended to anticipate, and actively shape, consciousness itself. As Stiegler’s translator, the philosopher and filmmaker Daniel Ross, puts it, our so-called post-truth age is one “where calculation becomes so hegemonic as to threaten the possibility of thinking itself.” [1]

One should not be misled into thinking that Stiegler is a philosophical Luddite who seeks to do away with digital technology. Far from it: the digital, like any technology, is double-edged, and is useful so long as it remains merely a tool. While his book does not propose practical solutions (Stiegler promises to address some of these in a future work), it does seek to inspire a collective realization of the extent to which future memory is currently being shaped by algorithmically determined and profit-driven information flow. Stiegler asks us to consider how much of our lives we wish to delegate to market-tailored computational rationality.

Atypically for a writer of contemporary philosophy, Stiegler does not shirk from sharing his personal struggles: obsessions with death, suicidal impulses, fears of madness. In this regard, his style closely resembles the heavily italicized prose of Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard. The following passage is from the opening of Bernhard’s 1982 novel, “Wittgenstein’s Nephew” (trans. David McLintock):

In 1967, one of the indefatigable nursing sisters in the Hermann Pavilion on the Baumgartnerhöhe placed on my bed a copy of my newly published book “Gargoyles” […] but I had not the strength to pick it up, having just come round from a general anesthesia lasting several hours, during which the doctors had cut open my neck and removed a fist-sized tumor from my thorax. […] I developed a moonlike face, just as the doctors had intended. During the ward round they would comment on my moon face in their witty fashion, which made even me laugh, although they had told me themselves that I had only weeks, or at best months, to live.

And the following is one of several confessional admissions grafted onto the rhizomatic network of Stiegler’s philosophical argument:

At the beginning of August [2014], finding myself increasingly obsessed by death, that is, by what I projected as being my death, and by the latter as my deliverance, waking up every night haunted by this suicidal urge, I called, somewhat at random, this clinic where I had received treatment. I asked for urgent help, seeming, so I thought, to be suffering from some kind of early dementia …

Although the Bernhard passage comes from a novel, albeit an autobiographical one, the comparison is suggestive. Stiegler confesses to having tried and failed to write fiction during the first months of his incarceration, producing “countless pages now lost, to tell a story that never took any form other than the same fruitless effort to write.” A sentence like this would be right at home in a Bernhard novel, and had Stiegler been successful as a novelist, he might well have written the sort of tortured monologue of obsessive phrases and motifs at which Bernhard excelled. Indeed, Stiegler is drawn toward this kind of frantic repetitiveness even in his philosophical exposition: the Arabic invocation, “Inshallah,” is used several times, and words and phrases such as “absence of epoch,” “madness,” “barbarians,” et cetera, recur almost like chants. But this comparison also signals a key difference in intention: while both writers often turn to thoughts of death and endings, Stiegler, despite his proclivity for portentous clauses in italics, remains committed to emerging out of (in his words) “the mortiferous energy of despair that we are accumulating everywhere.” The same cannot be said of Bernhard, whose outlook was willfully mortiferous, as he might have put it.

Despite his urgent talk of apocalypse, chaos, and epochal endings, despite the rampant italics of philosophical admonishment, his arguments are enunciated by a humane and compassionate voice. As he confesses, he often dictates his thoughts while cycling in the countryside, and his wife, Caroline Stiegler, subsequently transcribes the recordings (I can only assume all those italics are audible). Stiegler’s traversal of the philosophical genealogies of Western rationality and madness, and his urge to rethink their metastable composition in an all-too-rational digital world devoted to the algorithmic reduction of all aspects of existence, allows the presently unhoped-for to at least become thinkable. What Stiegler hopes for most of all is to get his readers to “dream again” — to become politically hopeful (without the scare quotes). The last words may be left to Heraclitus: “One who does not hope for the un-hoped for will not find it: it is undiscoverable so long as it is inaccessible.”

This review originally appeared on the Los Angeles Review of Books.


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