Platform Politics

A new, theme issue of Culture Machine edited by Joss Hands, Greg Elmer and Ganaele Langlois has launched today. Neal Thomas‘ contribution ‘Social Computing as a Platform for Memory’ looks an interesting read. He uses Stiegler’s mnemotechnics conceptualization as a framework for understanding, what he calls, ‘industrial social computing’.

Memory and Space


Over the last week or so I’ve returned to reading some Stiegler, after a break of maybe 6 months, as a result of editing a book chapter. I’ve used him as a key reference point to talk about human access to and cognition of an event. I’ve argued that social media works to construct the nature of a protest event – and have claimed that differently bundled accounts of an event bring individualizing conclusions. For example, that each account of an incident brings a different ‘spin’, which when brought together on a media platform moulds unique perceptions of the event. The nuances in language between accounts is telling of this ‘spin’ – some are detailed, some are satirical, some are instructive, some are rote.

I’ve also said that social media has brought a new orientation to events too. I’ve played on the spatial dynamic of Stiegler’s use of the term and more explicitly suggested social media plays a navigational role in the construction of events. For example, messages containing some kind of spatial coordination literally enable people to orientate towards that location – however it is put (lat/longs, ref. points, road names etc.). Some even explicitly command people to head to that location, but nevertheless, by presenting a happening as such (X is happening at Y) it enforces a particular (spatial) orientation.

I’ve further argued that there is a tactile dimension to these developments. Here I’ve split with Stiegler and took on a more phenomenological approach to suggest that the age of distanced vision is beyond us – and that the tactile manipulation of worlds is upon us. This is evident in the way that we have become dependent upon touchscreen phones and tablets that demand bodily interaction. The egocentric nature of contemporary mapping platforms – the “me” map – is wrapped up in this development. See the way in which Google wants to present the individualized and tailored map, for example.

As part of this research I’ve picked up where I left off with Stiegler, namely the third chapter in Technics and Time 2 (2009). ‘The Industrialization of Memory’ is a winding discussion of the effects of the digital world on human memory. It is a surprisingly lucid chapter. He’s forced to abandon some (but not all!) of his more complex terminology to deal with both the history of informatics and of telematics, as a building block for a further discussion on their transformational nature. He also makes reference to the Chappe Brothers and their telegraph system – the Semaphore Line – and its role in infamously manipulating property values in Bordeaux during the early 19th century. As Stiegler (2009: 102) writes:

This “affair”, which led to lawsuits and might be seen as one of the initiatory aspects of the monopolization of telecommunications, shows us that information is information only insofar as everyone does not possess it, that it can itself become a commercial object, and that its value to the correlates with the time and place of its diffusion: it is of value to the degree that it is diffused.

Stiegler saw this as an early example of the control of information circulation – something to which he is keen to advance an understanding of, supplementing this discussion with a reading of Simon Nora and Alain Minc’s The Computerization of Society (1981) in a later section.

But the main point I wanted to explore comes in a sub-chapter entitled ‘Event-ization’. In it Stiegler is concerned with the conceptualization of an event. Namely, what constitutes an event, how it is created, and critically, with what effect does the materialization of memory have on the nature of an event. One of his main points centres on how the media, generally put, are not simply satisfied with ‘co-producing’ news events, which they indeed do, but also:

 …actually integrally produc[ing] them, in a veritable inversion by which the media recount daily life so forcefully that their “life story” seems not only to anticipate but ineluctably to precede – to determine – life itself. (2009: 116)

This is an argument Stiegler repeatedly makes throughout Technics and Time 2: that media technologies prescribe ‘life itself’. He then continues to make a point not too dissimilar from discussion over the collapse between the production and consumption of digital maps. Of course, they are similar arguments because both concern the speeding up of technological evolution, such that the distance between the inputs and outputs of a technological-societal process (news-making / map-making) become blurry.

But this discussion gets even more interesting when Stiegler starts to talk of ‘locality’, ‘physical space’ [territoire] and maps themselves (pp. 116-117). He suggests that if there is a temporal collapse between the input (production) and output (consumption) of events, there must also be a flattening of spatial dynamics too as in this account:

When memory is produced at a speed near that of light it is no longer possible, either in law or in fact, to distinguish an “event” from its “input” or its “input” from its “reception” or reading: these three moments coincide in a single spatiotemporal reality such that all delay, all distance, between them, is eliminated – but so is all locality, since locality is constructed from differentiation, like calendarity and spatiality, and differentiation is therefore, from the outset, what happens there. But if what happens there seems to tend to be the same everywhere, “locality” tends to become universally identical, that is, to disappear… (p.116)

This is a classic reading of capitalism akin to David Harvey’s notion of ‘time-space compression’, made in The Condition of Postmodernity (1989). In ‘The time and space of the Enlightenment project’ chapter he makes the case that:

 …the history of capitalism has been characterized by speed-up in the pace of life, while so overcoming spatial barriers that the world sometimes seems to collapse inwards upon us. (p. 240)

So in this sense Stiegler is merely restating an oft-presented argument that capitalism has both sped life up and collapsed spatial barriers. Although I have reservations of such a claim – has space really collapsed? – it is nonetheless a provocation that leads succinctly into the next paragraph, where through reference to Jorge Luis Borges, Stiegler discusses the nature of a 1:1 map in relation to memory.

He makes the point that ‘[r]etentional finitude requires a law, as criterion and criteriology, permitting the establishment of differences, hierarchies, and priorities’ (117). In other words that human memory is fundamentally constrained by its own capacity to retain information (‘retentional finitude’). By extension this means that the human mind requires a supplement, an extension or a tool of sorts with which to store and retrieve further information it is incapable of storing itself. But as a requirement of this, there must be some sort of procedure for differentiating, ordering and prioritizing such information so as to render this process viable. This is where Stiegler makes the link to space as he suggests that:

Just as territory only exists when it is crossed, memory exists only when it is recalled. One must find one’s orientation in and to the already-there of memory just as one must find it in and to territory. And just as a map can never coincide with physical space “point by point” as its equivalent, its identical reproduction, just as “this Expanded Map [would be] useless” (Borges 1965, 198), bringing nothing more to an orientation, memory must reduce the memorizable in order for it to be memorable: in order to be oriented in the already-there of memory it is necessary to forget (it). (p.117)

He draws on Borges’ short story On Exactitude in Science (1965) in which a Cartographers Guild create a 1:1 Map of the Empire, which ‘point for point’ coincides with the Empire itself. Such is its size, however, it is rendered useless – there is simply an overabundance of information that renders calculation, deduction and interpretation utterly impossible. Memory, says Stiegler, is the same. It cannot be everything that has occurred, for ‘in order to be oriented in the already-there of memory it is necessary to forget’. Only then can information be stored and retrieved successfully – in the same way spatial phenomena can be only recovered from the map if it is partial, subjective, relative and abstract.

Although this is perhaps a passing note by Stiegler, it is suggestive of a more general consideration of both time and space – and gives me further reason to believe that his use of the term orientation can be made functional in the full spatial sense of the term. It also gives me further impetus to draw on the temporal as a dynamic not just in protest events, which is more than obvious, but also within a map itself, seeing as they not only fix in space but also in time, serving as frozen artifacts of material relations. I’ve yet to go on to further sections of The Industrialization of Memory, but reference to Paul Virilio’s Speed and Politics (1986) and further discussion of ‘real time’ and politics suggests an even greater discussion on time and space that will undoubtedly be relevant.

Traces = Tracks = Lines = Mappings

There is this question of the traces that we produce. When I called you earlier today, I produced traces; every time I do a search on Google, I produce traces. But I do not believe anything that consists in saying we must prevent the development of trace-ability. We are now in an industrial society that rests on the recording of traces. And it is not worthwhile trying to make us believe that we should prevent it—it’s just wrong. That’s what I personally believe. The question is not how to prevent the recording of traces; the question is to create a consciousness of the recording of traces, a politics of the recording of traces. (467-468)

The emphasis was added by myself. This is from the same Stiegler interview as quoted from in the last post. Interesting for thinking through how one might re-act to the tracing/tracking of human bodies (that, is with GPS).

Stiegler interviewed by O’Gorman

In Configurations 18 (3) Fall (2010). There’s a mention of Latour within:

Latour is a high-ranking philosophy professor [agrégé de philosophie], a philosopher, but he is in a state of philosophical denial [une dénégation philosophique]. For example, he will not put up with phenomenology, he will not bear transcendental questions, etcetera. He asserts an empiricism, an associationism, which is certainly something very efficient and very fruitful. But at the same time, I always have the impression, because of this denial, that there is a certain blindness, a certain naïveté even, in Latour’s reasoning process, a certain cynicism. (463-464)

Stiegler finds interest in Latour’s focus on the ‘banal “thingness” of the thing’ (464) that he thinks philosophy has had a tendency to pass by. Ultimately though it seems he’s a little put off by Latour’s distaste for phenomenology and transcendentalism that I think Stiegler still sees as being the experiential seeds of life (albeit an already technical one). Latour believes this is a narrowing of the world to mere human experience (whether or not this is a technical one). Presumably, then, Latour and Stiegler are going to contest whether the ‘thingness’ of the thing is separate from our conception of it – or whether the human subject’s access to the thing is thus the only way to conceive of the thing. Latour doesn’t think so; Stiegler does (?).

In another passage he discusses Simondon and his theory of individuation:

He shows that psychic individuation is never purely psychic; it is always already social. I believe that if psychic individuation is always already collective, it is because it is also a technical individuation. I have tried to show, drawing on Simondon, that psychic individuation attains social individuation by means of technical individuation, and by interiorizing technical individuation. And this is what I call the phenomenon of transindividuation—it’s a phenomenon of selection. (466)

It’s this psychic as collective that’s so important to Stiegler’s (political) project. Moreover, it’s that the psychic individuation as already collective individuation is courtesy of/via technical individuation that enables Stiegler to focus on the technicity of human life and it’s wiring through technical objects. Again though I think Stiegler has a tendency to not only downplay the autonomy of technical objects but also to assume a uni-directional role (technology writing/scripting/defining humans). His enduring aim is to re-evaluate the constitution of humanity through technology, and that as memory aids, technical objects structure human life from within that life (or, ‘stabilizes a repetition’ – 462).

Latour’s (1996 – Aramis) notion of ‘quasi-objects’ moves two degrees beyond Stiegler, I think. Not just that this is a bi-directional process (technology writing/scripting/defining humans and humans w/s/d technology) like a game of table tennis, but that this is an already human-technical collective/assemblage (albeit with kernels of human and object withdrawn – like Graham Harman might suggest). Thus I think Stiegler doesn’t pay enough attention to the ‘event’. That is, the instances, moments or situations in which this techno-human life is played out, when one can maybe pull apart, interrogate, unravel etc. the human and non-human – however difficult this may prove. Rather, he too quickly assumes a generalized ‘we have always been technical’ thesis.

I’m going to read another interview with Stiegler in Theory, Culture & Society tomorrow and will go through ‘Relational Ecology and the Digital Pharmakon’ (2012) at Culture Machine too.  I’ll post if anything sparks my interest.