It’s only a film: Bernard Stiegler’s techno-theological cinematic faith

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In this article the broad argument of Bernard Stiegler’s main third book, volume three of his Technics and Time-trilogy (1994, 1998, 2001), translated into English as Cinematic time and the question of malaise, is analysed.

In section 1 I recount Stiegler’s formalist argument as to why and how cinema and television came to displace the printed word as the dominant mnemotechnology. I begin with the Husserlian part of Stiegler’s formalist argument according to which the film mechanically reproduces the cinematic nature of consciousness as we see it in the ongoing selection made in the “live filming” of lived experience in the primary retention, as well as in the “editing” into a coherent film from the “footage” of memory during the secondary retention. Moreover, both the primary and secondary retentions depend on the selection (“filming” and “editing”) criteria supplied by the tertiary retention, that is, by the memories that have been transmitted to and adopted by me – my past that I have not lived.

Then I move on to the Kantian part of Stiegler’s formalist argument according to which the cinema mechanically reproduces the cinematic nature of consciousness, both with regard to consciousness’s desire for (true) stories, and to the way consciousness “contracts” its lived experiences and “edits” them into a coherent whole. If this process is successful, what Kant called the unity of consciousness is achieved, albeit always only provisionally due to the incompleteness of consciousness and its dependence on tertiary retentions as the basis from which to project its unity. The current cultural and programme industries threaten to “take over” the schematisation that Kant ascribed to reason, so that the “schema” that we have of reality tends to diverge from the one informed by our own cultural traditions.

In section 2 I recount Stiegler’s political-economic argument as to why and how cinema and television came to displace the printed word as the dominant mnemotechnology. I show that for Stiegler the calculating empiricism that the early waves of British emigrants brought to the US were determining in the USA’s contribution to industrial technical development. The destruction of indigenous tertiary retentions during colonisation left the American colonists with little from which to construct an American nation. This became an acute problem for American stability towards the end of the 19th century with the challenge of the national integration of black slave descendants and new immigrants. Cinema proved to be the solution to this challenge. After World War II the USA had such mastery over these mnemotechnologies that they could use them to project American tertiary retentions globally, thus facilitating the global adoption of “the American way of life” and a consumptive lifestyle in which other American products were also globally adopted.

I also show that for Stiegler, the American politics of adoption has become the blueprint of a global economy of memory and consumption. It diverts from the normal constitution of individuals and groups, and from normal adoption, because it threatens singularity and the exception. It strives for a total synchronisation of time and the selection criteria of perception and memory. It also diverts from the rule of the synchronisation of individuals in a rare moment of the same thought and emotion, and tries to make this formerly exceptional state the general state of affairs. This is tentatively achieved by taking production and participation in the social order away from consumers, and it engenders a state of disbelief in the face of betrayed promises and non-credible fictions. The world threatens to become a mass audience of a bad film that can only end in total spiritual destruction.

In section 3 I discuss Stiegler’s proposed cure for his diagnosis of the ills of Western modernity. I show that Stiegler contends that we are in the midst of a new spiritual world war for the control of tertiary retentions and the selection criteria of these retentions, in which the school and the broader educational system is a key terrain. The crisis in education today is a result of the fragmentation of knowledge that stems from a renewed lack of distinction between knowledge and non-knowledge in our techno-scientific era, leading to systemic doubt. What distinguishes this era, above all, is that it has brought about a decisive and permanent ontological reversal whereby the possible is no longer determined by the real, as the “metaphysical” tradition from Aristotle to Kant saw it, but where the real now becomes a modality of the possible. Hence the key question that now arises, especially for politics, is what possibilities must be selected, which, in turn, is the question concerning the selection criteria. Stiegler proposes that the possibilities that must be realised are those that can strengthen the We and the difference that must be made, that is, the maintenance of indeterminacy.

In section 4 I further develop my two critical arguments against Stiegler according to which his philosophy is, firstly, historically problematical and, secondly, a techno-theology based on a reworking of (Christian) theological motifs. I begin by arguing that the first problem with his historical account of the USA is the assumption that the native Americans were a unified people in the modern Western sense of the nation-state, which they were not. And if they were not a unified people in that sense, their sense of territory could also not serve as a tertiary retention from which to construct American national identity. Moreover, I argue that Stiegler neglects the tertiary retentions that the early white colonists brought with them from Britain, and which did in fact become the basis for the American political system. I also argue against Stiegler that the American national identity was not the result of the USA’s adoption of audiovisual technology, but the product of state formation and war efforts, and that audiovisual technologies were not the cause but the extension of that identity.

Moving on to the European part of Stiegler’s historical analysis I argue that the first striking problem of his account is the apparent contradiction between, on the one hand, crediting it with the “democratic, industrial We” while, on the other hand, making much of the proletarisation that accompanied the industrialisation of the European nation-states. I also point out that a further question is whether Stiegler’s positive appraisal of these states for the way in which they successfully pursued individuation is correct. These states did what any colonial power would do: they used what was at their disposal to pursue their interests and impose their views. In their coercion of their citizens, education was a major tool, even more so in a context where education had to fill the vacuum in social formation left by the subjection of the church and the destruction of its liturgical life, particularly in Protestant countries. I argue that this liturgical vacuum has more explanatory power about why the USA was so keen to adopt cinema and television and its accompanying rhythms of daily life.

In the final part of section 4 I further develop my theological-philosophical argument against Stiegler by beginning to argue that Stiegler is using the Christian motif of adoption in a rather ironic way: instead of giving it its due as the original model of Western adoption, he relativises it, but still claims the universality of the need for adoption. Then, on the basis of this universal claim, he argues for the need for a new organising of adoption – without granting that adoption became a problem in the first instance due to the modern territorial state’s disruption of Western adoption as practised in the Christian Middle Ages. Next, in discussing Stiegler’s post-Kantian theology, I argue that Stiegler makes blind faith the precondition of reason, of the unity of the individual consciousness and the cohesion of the We, as well as of the stability of the social order. As far as Stiegler’s preference for the possible over the real is concerned, I argue that the first problem with Stiegler’s ontological choice for the possible over the real is that he does not base it on a realistic account of what is actually taking place today: it is more correct to say that the threat of techno-science today stems precisely from its unrealistic claims and expectations. Accepting the “triumph” of the possible over the real comes down to further legitimation of that which Stiegler is polemicising against, and to continue Western modernity’s disorientation. The second problem with Stiegler’s ontological position is the political cul-de-sac to which it leads: if the realisation of the possible is no longer teleological, then any possibility counts for just as much as any other possibility. By arguing that whatever is realised must maintain the possibility of indeterminacy, one is simply echoing the gesture of the consumer-state and techno-science, whose version of indeterminacy is called freedom of choice. I argue that Stiegler’s distinction between indeterminacy and indifference does not solve the problem, for what is the difference between a philosophical appeal for goallessness itself as the goal, and the market’s appeal for freedom of choice? As far as Stiegler’s notion of community is concerned, I argue that by hinting that the community in question must become universal, he is not only repeating the same appeal as that of the market and the vague liberal notion of the international community, but, like the market and liberalism, he is in fact parodying the premodern philosophical and religious traditions, which, after all, invented the notion of a universal community (the Kingdom of God, the sangha, the umma, etc.).

Keywords: adoption; American politics of adoption; Bernard Stiegler; cinematic nature of consciousness; Edmund Husserl; film; Immanuel Kant; modernity; performativity beyond all consciousness; techno-theology; television; theological-philosophical critique; Western modernity

Lees die artikel in Afrikaans: Dis net ’n film: Bernard Stiegler se tegnoteologiese, rolprentmatige geloof

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