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

Kevin Hamilton kham at uiuc.edu
Wed Dec 24 16:07:20 EST 2008

Hey Brian - Atlanta, huh? You'll have to wrap Stone Mountain GA  
(contemporary theme park and ur-site of the Klan's 20th c. revival)   
and Turner Broadcasting into this thread!

I'm always behind on your essays until they pop up in an exchange like  
this one and I force time for reading it. Then I read them and see how  
REALLY behind I am. Great stuff!

First, on a broad level, even though I'm new to the pharmakon as a  
Platonic/Derridian tool, I can tell already that we have to be careful  
to distinguish between the pharmakon and the more run-of-the-mill  
modernist paradox. The modernities I know seem to run on paradoxes the  
way Homer Simpson runs on donuts. I won't go into a string of examples  
here - Marshall Berman's "All That is Solid Melts into Air" is one  
good catalog - but I could at least point to the central paradox  
driving the liturgical rhythm of the moment here in America,  
Christmas. In the ads, the traditional stories and images of  
post-1950's Christmas in America, celebrants of the ritual are meant  
to sway back and forth from a lament over lost simplicity to a frenzy  
of consumption. The rhythm itself, the moral palpitations over the  
"commercialization" of the holiday, is the dynamo driving the thing.

But as the pharmakon is taking shape in this conversation anyway,  
there's something more specific at work. Particularly in your closing  
example of Stiegler's Pharmakon, the dual nature of the thing is  
almost a rhetorical strategy. If the pharmakon is dual in its nature  
here, it is so on purpose, and TOWARD some end, rather then simply for  
the sake of duality.

Or maybe the distinction I'm making here is one of perspective.  
Perhaps many to most of the things that appear to both poison and heal  
are so split on purpose. Certainly plenty of modernism's quandaries  
and paradoxes can be seen from another perspective as means to a  
particular end of control or domination.

In the moral quandary of a "commercialized" Christmas, for example,  
the end product of the annual fret-fest is, in addition to spending  
and debt, a calendar writ deep, an annual rhythm of individual paradox  
("I wish Christmas felt real again, but I know just the thing to get  
for so-and-so, and what about that new ____.") that produces a  
collective inability to change.

Some of what it sounds like Stiegler is addressing reminds me of Ong  
or McLuhan. They might have also observed how that which preserves our  
conversation and enables us to build collective ideas also breaks time  
down into discreet and transferable units and renders us solitary.   
However, in their case the analysis of inscriptive technology's role  
in the definition of the individual and collective takes place within  
a more progress-oriented (or progress-lamented) linear narrative. They  
might not have asked who benefits from such a paradox, for whom that  
pharmakon might have been devised.

I have to be brief right now, but I'm game to pursue Brian's  
suggestion of relating this all to contemporary ecology. Based on this  
conversation so far, I'm keen to look for celebrated or lamented  
examples of paradox in our life within interconnected ecosystems, and  
to search there for whom such paradoxes might be pharmakons toward the  
end of disabling collective discussion and action of value.

Thanks Brian,


On Dec 23, 2008, at 3:36 PM, brian wrote:

> 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:
> (snip)
> [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
> individuation.”
> 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
> Iraq.
> 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
> capitalism.
> 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.
> (snip)
> 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:
> http://brianholmes.wordpress.com/2007/02/26/the-absent-rival
> 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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> empyre at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au
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