[-empyre-] the pharmakon in your OS (via Bernard Stiegler)

brian brian.holmes at wanadoo.fr
Wed Dec 24 08:36:57 EST 2008

Hello Kevin, Timothy, everyone -

Greetings. I just noticed this thread with great curiosity. The parallel 
between the image/experience of the Rocky Mountains and the ambiguous 
medicine of the pharmakon poses a real question in these times when so 
many people are again trying to understand the riddles of human ecology. 
Timothy writes:

The wonder of digital culture, in the midst of such complex and
tragic histories, is its abilities to help recast the histories anew,
if only by connecting those artists who have recently worked on the
pharmakon in the mountains with those of us who carry in soul and
memory the traces of ancestral labor,  violence, and, certainly,
willed ignorance of those darker traumas shielded by the healing
powers of the pharmakon.

I do not have any deep experiences of the Rockies to offer so I will not 
directly respond to any of Kevin or Tim's questions. Nor will any of you 
be surprised to learn that my prime theoretical site is still in Paris 
(even when I am presently in Atlanta, Georgia!). The motif of the 
pharmakon has been developed with direct relation to the digital tools 
we use every day, by the contemporary philosopher and friend of Derrida, 
Bernard Stiegler, whose recent work has not been translated into 
English. I find some of his writing extraordinarily interesting, so I 
wrote an essay on the Yes Men,  mail art, free software and the 
Stieglerian pharmakon. In fact the text begins with a case of 
neocolonial violence that would relate to the issues that Kevin raises: 
the case of the Bhopal disaster, the largest industrial accident in 
history. The entire essay can be read at the address given below, but 
here I just want to excerpt the part where I did my best to briefly sum 
up a complex philosophy.

What Stiegler really wants to know is why people are so unable to 
respond to the current crises, whether political, economic or 
ecological; and why our supposedly democratic societies so easily fall 
into media populism, of the kind we have seen so disastrously in America 
with Bush. His starting point is the character of contemporary 
subjectivity, as shaped by industrially produced micro-electronics:

[Stiegler's] first move is to establish an equivalence between the 
technologies of cognitive capitalism and what Foucault calls “the 
writing of the self.” As the ancient Greeks shaped their inner lives 
through the memory-aids of intimate diaries (hypomnemata) to which they 
consigned formative quotations and reflections, so we postmoderns shape 
our own subjectivities through the use of computers, video cameras, mp3 
players and the Internet. The mediation of externalized linguistic 
techniques is fundamental to the process of individuation. The problem 
is that these “technologies of the mind” – or “relationship 
technologies,” in Jeremy Rifkin’s term – now take the form of networked 
devices connecting each singular existence to massive service industries 
operating at a global level. As Stiegler says, “service capitalism makes 
all segments of human existence into the targets of a permanent and 
systematic control of attention and behavior – the targets of 
statistics, formalizations, rationalizations, investments and 
commodifications.” Or in Rifkin’s less abstract way of putting it: “The 
company’s task is to create communities for the purpose of establishing 
long-term commercial relationships and optimizing the lifetime value of 
each customer.”3

Here we see that the fundamental commodification is not that of 
intellectual property. Rather it is the commodification of cognition 
itself, which becomes a calculable quantity (“lifetime value”) to be 
channeled into relational patterns that meet the needs of giant 
corporations. It is we who then perform the service. In Stiegler’s view, 
this “proletarianization” of entire populations acts to destroy 
sublimated desire, leaving people open to the gregariously aggressive 
drives of “industrial populism.” The pandering of bellicose politicians 
on Berlusconi’s or Murdoch’s TVs gives some idea of what he means. TV is 
the classic medium of industrial populism. The question is whether the 
networked technologies will merely confirm the destructive effects of 
television, or whether they can be transformed.

To conceptualize the way that civilizational development shapes the 
thoughts and actions of individuals via the mediation of technology, 
Stiegler introduces the term “grammatization.” It is the process whereby 
the existential flow of human thought and action is analyzed into 
discrete segments, and then reproduced in abstract forms or “grams” – 
the most evident example of this being the writing of language. Indeed, 
all the varieties of hypomnemata or externalized memory can be seen as 
grammatization techniques for patterning the way people think, speak and 
act. This structuralization of behavior is endless, operating through 
various codes and media; its recent manifestations include the analysis 
of human gestures known as Taylorization (the scientific basis for the 
Fordist assembly line). The enforced repetition of specific sequences of 
actions forecloses the existential possibility of becoming oneself, or 
individuation. TV programming, which imposes an identical modulation of 
thought and affect upon millions of viewers at the same time, represents 
a pinnacle of enforced repetition. Similar remarks could be made about 
computer programs like Windows, which imposes the same routines on 
hundreds of millions of people. But the relationship to grammatic 
patterning is not necessarily one of pure imposition. And this ambiguity 
of the “gram” is what makes all the difference.

With an astonishing historical image, Stiegler suggests that ancient 
Egyptian hieroglyphic writing “allowed for the control of floodwaters, 
of flows and stocks of commodities, and of the work of slaves, through 
the intermediary of scribes specialized in the protection of royal or 
Pharaonic power.” Subsequently, however, “these hypomnemata, which for 
centuries had been in the service of an increasingly rigid royal power… 
became in ancient Greece the principle of a new process of 
individuation, that is, of a new relationship between the psychic and 
the collective: the citizen became a new dynamic principle whereby the 
Greeks rapidly transformed the entire Mediterranean basin.” Writing, 
reinterpreted in alphabetic form by the Phoenicians and the Greeks, 
becomes not only a vector for authority, but also an instrument of 
self-government. Yet the whole point is that this very transformation 
opens up the basic problems of democracy, exactly as they appear in 
Plato’s Phaedrus: “Writing is a pharmakon, a remedy whereby the process 
of individuation takes care of itself and struggles against the poison 
that threatens to destroy it at the heart of its own dynamism. But it is 
also a poison that allows the sophists to manipulate public opinion, 
that is, to destroy the dynamism and make it into a dia-bolic force that 
ruins the symbolic: a power of dis-sociation leading to the loss of 

Stiegler points to the need to take care of the role of mental 
technologies in the process of psychic and social individuation. He 
borrows from the epistemologist Gilbert Simondon the idea that each 
technological system gradually transforms over time, becoming 
increasingly distinct as a system through the progressive 
differentiation of all its interdependent devices. He also borrows the 
related idea that each singular pathway of human individuation (the 
process that allows one to say “I”) is inextricably bound up with a 
broader pathway of collective individuation (the process that allows us 
to say “we”). The individuation of each “I” is inscribed in that of the 
“we” from its very outset; but it is only the differentiation of the two 
that allows both processes to continue. And this differentiation is 
multiple: each “I” is intertwined with different “we’s” unfolding at 
different scales (family, town, region, nation, language group, etc.). 
What Stiegler claims to add to Simondon is the realization that the 
twofold process of psychosocial individuation is inseparable from the 
process of technological individuation, to the extent that the former is 
dependent on the specific kinds of externalized memory made possible by 
the latter. In other words: I become who I am, and we become who we are, 
within the range of possibilities offered by the concomitant evolution 
of the recording machines to which I/we have access. And this specific 
and constantly evolving range of technological possibilities can serve 
to further the process of twofold individuation, or to destroy it.

In this new light the industrial development of the Internet appears as 
a potentially dynamic principle of technological writing, offering an 
historical chance to go beyond the stultifying effects of television. 
Stiegler illustrates those effects by quoting Patrick Le Lay, CEO of the 
premier French commercial channel TF1, who infamously declared at a 
corporate strategy session that what he had to sell to Coca-Cola was 
“available human brain time” for their advertisements. Le Lay is the 
epitome of a cultural manager without a gram of conscience. But a 
similar predatory instinct on a much grander scale is behind the 
developments of American-style service capitalism (and it’s surprising 
that Stiegler doesn’t draw a further parallel with Kenneth Lay, former 
CEO of Enron, who practiced the most extreme financial sophistry of the 
entire New Economy4). The Internet as a “global mnemotechnical system” 
is itself threatened by industrial populism, whose massively damaging 
consequences we see all around us – above all in the global warming 
created by the Fordist economy, whose effects became undeniable at the 
very moment when the US and Britain launched the war for oil hegemony in 

A response would have to be imagined at a continental scale, as the 
smallest possible rival to Anglo-American globalization. Only at the 
European scale could one envisage an effective, upward-leading spiral of 
reciprocal emulation, where singularities challenge each another in the 
quest for a better world that lies beyond everyone’s horizon. Stiegler’s 
thinking reaches its peak when he imagines a continental rivalry, which 
is the necessary conclusion of any extensive reflection on 
technopolitics. The challenge is to make one’s ideals of change 
materially real. But this same conclusion provokes the desperate appeal 
to the French corporate elite, whom Stiegler thinks could be convinced 
of the need to spark a European response to really-existing cognitive 

Here we come to the heart of the dilemma. Because the appeal to a 
European corporate elite is at once totally logical and deeply 
unrealistic. Who could possibly believe that the corporate raiders who 
gathered around Patrick Le Lay are now going to band together to save 
capitalism from its own self-destruction? By the same token, who really 
believes that the businessmen who meet in Davos every year are ready to 
rescue the planet from climate change? Or that the new “green 
capitalism” is anywhere near as green as it is capitalist? Maybe the 
better question is whether Stiegler’s elaborately crafted appeal to the 
corporate elite is not a subtle heuristic fiction, stimulating readers 
to imagine all the practical changes required to transform the 
technological basis of what is ultimately a cultural system. His 
pragmatic political text would then become a piece of delirious 
philosophical sophistry, a pharmakon itself, whose real target is the 
formation of public opinion. The key thing it sparks us to realize is 
that epochal change could come from either end of the techno-cultural 
system. For just as the industrial production of better mnemonic devices 
would stimulate a higher level of participatory culture, so the latter 
would itself create a broader demand for more intricate and useful 
machines of self-government. And if we consider the track-record of our 
capitalist elites, then the cultural demand might seem a much more 
likely starting point than the industrial offer.

 From that point the text goes on to discuss various kinds of grassroots 
cultural activism, from Linux to mail art to anti-corporate struggles. 
It's available here:


I hope this is food for thought and maybe encouragement for some to look 
more closely at Stiegler's recent work... And perhaps it is a way of 
adding to the collective reflection on the pharmakon, digital culture 
and the ecology of our existence on this earth.

best, Brian

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