The industrialisation of mimesis: In dialogue with the thought of René Girard and Bernard Stiegler on automatisation

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In this article automatisation as an important aspect of artificial intelligence is analysed with reference to the thought of Bernard Stiegler and René Girard, with specific attention to Stiegler’s book La société automatique 1. L’Avenir du travail (2015; translated into English as Automatic society Volume 1. The future of work, 2016; AS1). The method used is the close reading of a variety of relevant texts.

In section 1, against the background of Girard’s personal expression of interest to Stiegler for a dialogue following on Stiegler’s use of the concept of the scapegoat in his Pharmacologie du Front National (2013; Pharmacology of the National Front, not translated into English), a few brief remarks are offered on common interests of the two thinkers on the basis of which such a dialogue might have been pursued. A brief explanation is given as to why the concept of what I call the industrialisation of mimesis may be one possible outcome of a dialogical comparison between the work of the two thinkers. This is because of the fact that while Girard, on the one hand, made the central importance of mimesis for human cultural evolution clear, Stiegler, on the other hand, in his later work, made clear what risks the industrialisation of mimesis holds today for humanity. Hence, the research question that this article seeks to answer is threefold: What is industrial mimesis, what risks does it hold for humanity, and how may these risks be addressed by humanity?

In order to prepare the ground for the later analysis of industrial mimesis, its risks and how these may be addressed, section 2 consists of a brief discussion of four elements common to the work of Girard and Stiegler: the Catholic influence on their work; each develops a unique theory of human cultural evolution; both were attuned to the role of desire in society, especially in modernity; and both were increasingly apocalyptic in their later work.

While the Catholic influence on Girard was fairly direct and straightforward through his family and his conscious conversion to Catholicism in his mid-thirties, the more indirect Catholic influence on Stiegler through the example of his one pious grandmother and, more importantly, what I argue constitutes a reworking of a number of Catholic motifs in his work, are briefly summarised in section 2.1 on the basis of earlier published work of mine. These motifs include the Fall, faith, hope, the diabolical, community, the Resurrection and liturgy.

In section 2.2, building on work that I published earlier, I argue why I agree with Girard that religion is the key driver in human cultural evolution. In an extension of this I point out that while Stiegler makes a very valuable contribution in arguing for technics as the key driver of human cultural evolution, as a result of his neglect of religion in human cultural evolution he at times tends to veer towards a techno-centrism. This, I argue, can be corrected with the integration of religion into a theory of human cultural evolution without losing any of the penetrating insights that Stiegler offers into the challenges of contemporary technological developments.

In section 2.3 an explanation is offered for why Stiegler may be understood as an exponent of what Girard calls the romantic concept of desire as opposed to Girard’s novelistic concept of desire. The relevance of this reading of Stiegler’s view of desire is developed later in regard to the concept of industrial mimesis.

In section 2.4 a brief allusion is made to the increasingly apocalyptic tone in their later work, with special emphasis on the fact that each had his own reasons to argue that an increasingly apocalyptic time is no reason to give up the struggle for a better world. The relevance of this is made clearer in the final section of the article, where the question of how to address the increasing risks of industrial mimesis is discussed.

In order to make sense of Stiegler’s analysis of automatisation and its concomitant risks it is necessary to understand how this later work in his career builds on concepts that he developed earlier in his career. The three concepts that are respectively discussed in section 3 are his concept of industrialisation; his concept of performativity beyond all consciousness; and his commitment to the Kantian notion of reason and the broader late 18th-century Franco-German project of Enlightenment.

In section 3.1 Stiegler’s analysis of technics as the externalisation of human consciousness and a form of memory is briefly discussed as a point of departure to understand his analysis of industrialisation as the industrialisation of human consciousness and memory, and how industrialisation as the first phase of technical development constituted by mnemotechnologies themselves holds a number of risks for humanity.

In section 3.2 the concept of the performativity beyond all consciousness is discussed as a forerunner to his use of the notion of algorithmic governmentality in his analysis of automation.

In section 3.3 Stiegler’s commitment to the Kantian concept of reason and Enlightenment – albeit it with Stiegler’s own original reading of these – is discussed as what he sees as the most recent example of the successful constitution of an otium through the successful adoption of the mnemotechnologies of the time. It is briefly explained how this lays the groundwork for Stiegler’s longstanding appeal for a new otium of the people through a successful adoption of contemporary mnemotechnologies, and how in his work on automation Stiegler rethinks the new otium of the people in the form of the so-called Neganthropocene.

In section 4 an attempt is made to read Stiegler’s analysis of automatisation from a Girardian perspective in order to develop the concept of what I call industrial mimesis and the risks it holds for humanity. This is done with reference to six concepts: desire, mimesis, algorithmic governmentality, growing undifferentiation, sacrifice, and the new otium of the people.

Section 4.1 deals with desire. After briefly elaborating on why Stiegler’s concept of desire is romantic as opposed to novelistic, the discussion moves on to a consideration of Girard’s remarks as far back as 1961 on how the mass media and advertising stimulate mimetic rivalry, tied to Stiegler’s complementary analysis of the appearance from the 1960s onwards of what he calls the hyperindustrial economy. Brief attention is also paid to how in AS1 Stiegler refines this concept with reference to the marketing technique known as personalisation based on user profiling.

In section 4.2, drawing on Stiegler’s analysis of personalisation and user profiling, it is argued that this constitutes the crossing of a dangerous threshold whereby what Girard calls mimetic behaviour is now industrialised on a massive scale, in the process making mimesis even more immediate than what even Girard described in his analysis of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the underground.

In section 4.3 a key component of the industrialisation of mimesis is discussed, that is, what Stiegler picks up from Berns and Rouvroy and analyses in further detail – the notion of algorithmic governmentality. The risks that algorithmic governmentality holds for individual freedom, the public sphere and democracy and its institutions are briefly discussed.

In section 4.4 a further disconcerting effect of the industrialisation of mimesis is discussed, namely what Girard calls undifferentiation and what Stiegler calls the loss of differences, and which both thinkers agree significantly increases the risks of violence and conflict.

In section 4.5 Girard’s and Stiegler’s ideas on resistance to industrial mimesis and undifferentiation are briefly discussed. Particular attention is paid to a critical discussion from a Girardian perspective of Stiegler’s ideal of resistance, that is, the establishment of a new otium of the people, developed further in AS1 by Stiegler with the notion of the Neganthropocene. In the critical discussion of this Stieglerian concept in this section reference is made to how Stiegler’s notion of sacrifice falls short of the Girardian concept of sacrifice and human culture, how Stiegler’s new otium does not have the same conceptual strength as the Latin-Christian otium, and how Stiegler’s new otium still contains an element of Romanticism which Girard subjected to a thorough critique.

Section 5 concludes the article with four brief comments on the risks posed by industrial mimesis and how to resist these in dialogue with Girard and Stiegler. First, unqualified credit is given to how Stiegler helps us to understand industrial mimesis, which is implicit in Girard’s thought, but not as clearly brought to light as in Stiegler’s thought. Secondly, and building on what I have argued elsewhere, some reservations on the conceptual limitations of the new otium of the people are reiterated. Thirdly, as an attempt to contribute to strengthening the new otium of the people, at least from a Christian philosophical-theological perspective, I draw on the work of another Stiegler-influenced thinker, Johannes Hoff, to argue for the strengthening of liturgical practices as a resource to resist industrial mimesis. Fourthly, and in closing, reservations about even this strategy of resistance are expressed, while the commitment to resistance in these apocalyptic times is nevertheless stressed following Girard in Battling to the end.

Keywords: apocalypse; automatisation; Bernard Stiegler; Johannes Hoff; mimesis; René Girard


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Die industrialisering van mimese: In gesprek met die denke van René Girard en Bernard Stiegler oor outomatisering

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