Technics and Time, 3: Cinematic Time and the Question of Malaise, Bernard Stiegler

Bernard Stiegler,
Technics and Time, 3: Cinematic Time and the Question of Malaise
Stanford University Press, 2010
ISBN: 9 780 804761 680
US$27.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Stanford University Press)

Some thirty thousand or so years ago, prehistoric human beings painted and drew on the walls of what is now known as the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave, located in the south of what has slightly more recently become known as France. Even though these images may be the earliest known examples of what we now call cave art, and thus we tend to think of Chauvet (like Lascaux) as an event or an historic date, we also know that these could not actually have been the first cave paintings ever produced. We know this for two reasons. Firstly, because to produce such imagery required tools and instruments, materials, that required invention and development over a period of time to reach the point where they could be utilised as successfully as they are in Chauvet. And secondly, because the production of such imagery requires not only instruments but the ability to use them, the co-ordination of hand and eye, and the ability to examine one’s own stock of remembered images in order then to produce aesthetic images, that is, transform them from memories and into objects projected and deposited on a cave wall, thereby spatialising those memories, or, in other words, temporalising these walls themselves. And just as the development of the technical implements of artistry must have had a prior history, so too the theoretico-practical knowledge required to employ these tools aesthetically must have been acquired over a long duration.

In 1994, the year the Chauvet Cave was discovered (that is, re-discovered), that is, the year that the investment that these deposits represented was able to provide for human history a return that could never have been anticipated by the producers of these artworks, the French philosopher Bernard Stiegler published the first volume of his monumental Technics and Time series. In it he made a convincing case that human life is technical life, that is, that it is not the case that the human (the who) invented the technical (the what) but on the contrary that they are co-originary, that the human and the technical are two tendencies that compose together within a single process. The technical, in Stiegler’s definition, can be described as the organisation of the inorganic, that is, as a negentropic process of the transformation of inorganic matter. As organised matter, that is, the persistence of an ordering of matter, technics amounts to a “third” memory, in addition to the two biological memories that are the genetic code and the memory of the nervous system. Thus it is that every technical object is a form of memory, an exteriorisation of the consciousness that fashioned it, capable of being re-examined by that consciousness, or examined by his or her descendants, both intergenerationally and archaeologically. In this sense, every technical object, every tool or artefact, is a mirror, or a screen. Stiegler’s argument in Technics and Time, 1, is that not only are the human and the technical co-originary, but also that human history can be divided into ages that are in fact the epochs of what he describes as the “technical system,” in which all of the technical apparatus that makes up each of these epochs is linked together as metastable elements of a dynamic process, and that within this technical system (in which every artefact is a form of memory), there is also a subset of instruments specifically designed to record and exteriorise memory, that he calls the “mnemo-technical system,” and which has its own epochal history. Stiegler’s argument is that the disruption produced by a shift from one epoch of the technical system to another requires adjustment, that is, negotiation, the upheaval and transformation of the “other systems” of human life, which means, also, of ways of living and behaving, and thus that the mnemo-technical system is not only a part of the technical system but a key element of the process through which the adjustment takes place, an adjustment amounting to the adoption of the new technical system, that is, the invention of new ways of life and new forms of knowledge.

In 2010 Werner Herzog released a documentary feature film about the Chauvet Cave entitled Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Canada/USA/France/Germany/UK). I have not yet had the opportunity to see this movie, but I imagine (that is, I anticipate and project) that it will tell the story that what I see on the screen, and which was recorded by Herzog’s camera, is the same thing that was seen by the eye of the early human being whose hand actually created the image, thereby joining this human being to myself some thirty thousand years later, a link that is made not only through the apparatus of painting and filming, but through the light that passes from image to eye, and from image to camera and from projector to screen, and from screen to my own spectatorial eye. In this sense, this chain of connections means that these images are part of a very large “now” (and an immense We), “contained” in the present just as the past note of a melody is contained in the note I am hearing right now (failing which it is not a melody). But I further imagine that Herzog will allude to the mysteriousness of these images, to their obscurity as much as their clarity, to the fact that we can barely imagine what animated these awfully old artists, or in other words that what these images make it possible for us to remember is that the desires or dreams of these artists are to a large extent irrevocably forgotten. Although we have these mysteriously maintained images, we have no idea of the myths or rituals—that is, the forms of knowledge and ways of life—that may have been woven around them. And as such they are also signs pointing to the possibility of a perhaps terrifyingly distant future in which we can imagine ourselves being both remembered and forgotten.

The third volume of the Technics and Time series opens with the following claim:

The propensity to believe in stories and fables, the passion for fairy tales, just as satisfying in the old as in the very young, is perpetuated from generation to generation because it forges the link between the generations. Insatiable, they hold out the promise, to generations to come, of the writing of new episodes of future life, yet to be invented, to be fictionalized. (p.8)

With this opening Stiegler announces that the third volume will be concerned less with the technical system itself than with the mnemo-technical, and specifically with the way in which we “take up” the mnemo-technical (as the artist or the poet takes up his or her brush or pen), the way it facilitates not only generational transmission but generational connection, but such that this is less a matter of reproducing the past than of inventing the future. It will turn out that cinema is a very special case of a mnemo-technical instrument, and thus it is feasible to examine this work within a cinema studies context, but only if it is also made clear that the cinema, or even the age of cinema, can never truly be thought in isolation, either from what precedes it (from Chauvet to Daguerre) or from what conjoins to it (television) or from that system into which it is currently being inserted (digital convergence). The brief metastable moment that will have been the century of cinema is now perhaps passing, even if movies and cinemas remain (the latter mainly in large shopping complexes), and thus any philosophical story that purports to be concerned with the cinema must, if it is to be meaningful, be concerned with what comes after cinema. Only in this context can the selection or the condensation required to delimit this work within the cinema studies frame make any sense, a condensation which is, after all, a part of every story (as for instance the story that begins with the Chauvet caves and ends with Cave of Forgotten Dreams), just as every movie involves temporal condensation—24 Hour Psycho (United Kingdom, 1993) notwithstanding.

If the need and the tendency to believe in fictions is an essential part of human life, that is, technical life, then this suggests that humans are those beings for whom life is more than mere life, who need more than just to subsist. This “more than” is already evident in the decision of the Chauvet painters to paint, and Stiegler paints this in negentropic terms when he observes that we go to the cinema in order to be revived—the fact that a good movie gives us back the energy that we need to live (and that can be drained by a bad movie…or by television) prompts the philosophical question: “What is a life that is in need of being constantly resuscitated?” (p. 16). Technics and Time, 3: Cinematic Time and the Question of Malaise is concerned in the first place with the uniqueness of cinema in terms of this need to believe, and with why it is that the cinematic as such, taken in its most ample sense, is to a great extent the battleground around which is being played-out, and must be played-out, a struggle produced and necessitated by the rapid and profound “disadjustment” of the technical system.

Stiegler extracts two fundamental cinematic principles: the fact that it shares with photography the “coincidence” of what it records with the recording itself (they are joined by a “chain of photons”), thus making it possible to bring this past into the present, resulting in the spontaneous tendency to believe that what one sees has in fact been (analysed via Roland Barthes in Technics and Time, 2); and secondly, the fact that, like phonographic recording, cinema is a type (an “industrial” type) of what Edmund Husserl called a “temporal object,” that is, an object that exists as it’s flowing through time, thus that the flow of the film “coincides” with the flow of the consciousness that watches the film. Between these two coincidences lies the unique power of the cinematic object as an object of the production of belief (as well as an object of the production of a belief in life and death, that is, a mirror to our mortality, something Stiegler demonstrates through a reading of the scene in Federico Fellini’s Intervista [Italy, 1987] in which Anita Ekberg and Marcello Mastroianni watch La Dolce vita [Italy, 1960], and thus see themselves, on film, acting, thirty years younger).

In fact, Stiegler goes so far as to postulate an “essentially cinemato-graphic structure for consciousness in general” (p. 13), but to understand what he means by this requires further consideration of Husserl’s temporal object. For Husserl, the significance of the temporal object is as a tool for thinking temporal passage. Taking the melody as an example, Husserl demonstrates that what we ordinarily think of as the “present” of perception is in fact a matter of primary retention, that is, that in order to hear a sequence of sounds as a melody, the previous note must somehow be retained in my hearing of the present note, and must also protentionally anticipate the note to come. Husserl’s innovation in his account of the phenomenology of time-consciousness is to radically distinguish this primary retention from the secondary retention that we ordinarily refer to as memory, such as our recollection of a melody we heard yesterday. Husserl’s limitation, according to Stiegler, is that he saw no significance in what Husserl called the image-object, or what Stiegler himself calls tertiary retention, that is, the memory constituted by artefacts and the mnemo-technical system in general. But with the advent of sound recording, what became possible for the first time in human history was to undergo an identical auditory experience twice, and what this made clear is that the identity of the stimulus in fact results in two different experiences (and this is perhaps what made possible Husserl’s discovery of primary retention in the first place, but without him drawing any positive conclusions about the place of tertiary retention itself).

All perception, then, involves some kind of selection in relation to the totality of “raw material” available in any particular perceptual experience. This selection is different each time, something demonstrated in the first place by the fact that my second “audition” of a sound recording is affected by the memory I retain of the first audition, implying that this “selection” must operate according to certain criteria, criteria that must have changed at some point between the two auditions. This is nothing other, as Stiegler points out, than a restatement of the Kuleshov effect. It means, furthermore, that each perception that I have, in moving from primary retention to secondary retention, may involve a re-ordering of my memories (depending on the degree to which any particular perception is stereotypical or on the contrary unexpected), and thus a re-configuring of the criteria via which future selections in primary retention will occur. When Stiegler states that life is always already cinema, or that the structure of consciousness is essentially cinemato-graphic, he is drawing attention to the fact that if perception necessarily involves selection, then “reality” is in fact a montage of temporal objects, subject to post-production:

“Consciousness” would then be this post-production center, this control room assembling the montage, the staging, the realization, and the direction, of the flow in primary, secondary, and tertiary retentions, of which the unconscious, full of protentional possibilities (including the speculative), would be the producer. (p. 28)

That perception is a selection based on criteria founded in memory and the unconscious implies that to influence memory and the unconscious is to influence these criteria, and thus perception itself, and thus behaviour itself. For Stiegler, unless this process is analysed and understood, all critiques of the “Hollywood dream factory” will be impotent. It may be the case that, as Adorno and Horkheimer argue, the culture industry is the externalisation of the hidden schematism that orders our perception, and thus this involves some kind of alienating and paralyzing loss of autonomy, but to understand this as a “de-naturing” of perception is to fail to grasp the technicity of all perception, that is, the fact that primary and secondary retention were always over-determined by tertiary retention, beginning with the Chauvet image through which prehistoric humans exteriorised their own mental imagery (that is, affected if not indeed effected their own mental imagery, the “mental” being itself an invention of exteriorisation, that is, of the what). The issue raised by Hollywood and the culture industry is not that of a technicisation of memory that determines consciousness, so much as of an industrialisation of memory that conditions consciousness: “an industrial, and thus systematic, implementation of new, technological tertiary retentions and through them, criteria of selection of a new kind—which are, as it happens, totally subjected to the logic of the marketplace, and thus to shareholders” (p. 39).

Stiegler then demonstrates through a brilliant reading of Critique of Pure Reason that Kant, like Husserl, obscures the overdetermining place of tertiary retention in primary retention (not least by obscuring the place that the first edition of the Critique, as exteriorisation and mirror of Kant’s own consciousness, held in the production of the second edition), but, unlike Husserl, confuses rather than distinguishes primary and secondary retention. The consequence of this reading is that the point is not to denounce the technicisation of the schematism, but rather to understand that if the culture industries manipulate and synchronise consciousnesses according to market imperatives, then this can only be because consciousness functions “just like cinema,” and thus any critique capable of thinking this process must be a “new and different” critique of consciousness itself (p. 77).

Perception can only involve selection because it is “inadequate,” that is, because there is a gap between what “exists” and our apprehension of it, a gap that we ordinarily edit out in the synthesis of “reality.” This inadequation at the heart of our perception, that is, at the heart of our existence, is the potential for the re-ordering of our understandings, the re-adjustment of our selection criteria, the potential for what Stiegler calls “diachronisation” at the heart of what, following Simondon, he calls my “individuation.” But this inadequation is also what means that my individuation can never be sufficient to itself, that it must be connected to another individuation process, or processes, the individuation of a collective, but a collective that, composed of individually individuating individuals, is itself inadequate—or in other words, promised. The question of cinema is also the question of that collective individuation process we think of as “America,” in a context in which already in 1917 Upton Sinclair could write (as Stiegler cites), “with cinema the world has been unified; that is, Americanized” (p. 87). If we all know and understand that there is a sense in which Hollywood has become the capital of the world, the question is to know how and why this was able to occur, and where it is taking us, and if it will still be true tomorrow, or should be true tomorrow.

Stiegler argues that it was not because of American industrial power that the American film industry was able to dominate globally, but on the contrary that the former is premised on the latter, and that it was in America that cinematic power was fully realised because it was in America that there existed the greatest need to produce effective stories—to invent America itself. Although we tend to imagine that the unification of a collective such as a nation depends on “sharing a common past,” this is always in fact “literally phantasmagorical,” whereas actually groups are held together (to the extent that they are held together) only through projecting the desire for a common future. The adoption of a fantasised common past may be necessary, but only to the extent that this fantasy is in fact the projection of a collective individuation process with a future, that is, that wants a future. The unification or synchronisation of a collective individuation process, therefore, is a process of adoption, a problem that was particularly acute in the American case, needing as it did to invent itself through a constant process of adopting (and being adopted by) immigrants, just as it also needed to stimulate the individuals composing it to adopt the products being continually produced by its process of permanent innovation (beginning with the Model T Ford), thus requiring the constant projection of a model, a model that we now refer to as the “American way of life,” and that amounts today to the consumerist model transmitted globally by means of the globalised mnemo-technical system. In this sense, American cinema is a part of the inventiveness of America as such, already demonstrated in 1776 with the performative and fabulous invention of the American individuation process through the apparatus of Jefferson’s signature (as deconstructed by Jacques Derrida).[1] And thus American cinematic supremacy commences with the blockbuster Birth of a Nation (USA, 1915), which, again, imagines and projects a common past in order to organise a common future of the American adoption process.

It is not a matter of condemning the fact that this organisation of the past is largely imaginary, as though it could simply be corrected. The inadequation of individuation means there is no common past, and yet we need to screen something of that (inadequate) past in order to project a common future, in order to believe in a future. It is thus not a matter of opposing perception and imagination, but rather of recognising that this inadequation means that imagination haunts all perception, and hence that thinking begins when it begins to think the criteria by which reality and imagination can be distinguished without being opposed: “We think philosophically only when we ask the question concerning the establishment of this criteria” (p. 114). Thus, for instance, and in contrast to Birth of a Nation, we might wonder whether Terrence Malick’s The New World (USA, 2005), which surely poses the question of the reality or otherwise of our understanding of that event, that encounter, and that date we call “Virginia,” counts as a properly philosophical film. But if we want to understand the future of the adoption process that is cinematic America in a globalised world afflicted by a malaise of global proportions, we might do better to analyse that investment (an investment that is another re-production of the Pocahontas story, but simplified, crudified, and translated into more conventionally mythological terms, and thus to some extent an avatar of The New World, but one premised upon and designed to exploit the malaise and anxiety of contemporary audiences), an investment bringing back a $2.7 billion return at the box office and given the title Avatar [USA, 2009].

If there is a crisis of the adoption process, then this is a crisis of knowledge, of knowledge as that in which we can believe, in which we can have confidence, knowledge being that which is transmitted intergenerationally and via the mnemo-technical system in its widest sense, including those institutions we call schools. But “only a critique can undo a crisis” (p. 152), and thus in the final chapters Stiegler attempts to think this crisis in the most fundamental terms possible. This is firstly a matter of thinking the changing place of schools, those institutions largely invented in the nineteenth century and through which, democratically, knowledge could be brought to that large collective individuation process we call the nation, thus organising the adoption process for what are called the industrial democracies, an adoption process operating through the mnemo-technical system of that epoch, that is, largely, through the printed word. Today, however, these national programming institutions find themselves competing with increasingly globalised programming industries (industries that are strengthening with the digital convergence of the audiovisual, information, and telecommunications), and the educational system premised on nineteenth century institutions and eighteenth century ideals no longer satisfies the needs of the adoption process, instead (and in desperation) substituting a process of adaptation that is constantly failing to catch up to the disruptions of the technical system, such that the overall tendency is to reduce schools to parks or stables…or even to pigsties (p. 168).

Stiegler finds two fundamental reasons for this change. One is that whereas previously the mnemo-technical system was to some extent separate from and independent of the technical system, in the sense that the institutions of the mnemo-technical system were to a certain extent shielded from disruptions of the technical system, maintaining themselves through the prestige and authority that derived from being bearers of tradition as well as of science, today this is no longer the case. Rather, the mnemo-technical system has been absorbed fully into the technical system, in the sense that the very operation of the consumerist technical system depends more and more on the control and conditioning of perception, that is, of (consumer) behaviour, and thus the mnemo-technical system is the very battleground of what Stiegler refers to as a war of spirits, that is, of minds. [2]

But in fact this is only a part of a deeper transformation, the transformation by which the distinction between science and technology is recomposed as technoscience. Whereas for Kant technology could only ever represent an application of scientific understanding, Stiegler shows that this means Kant is fundamentally incapable of thinking invention, that is, the creation of the new, and thus that he cannot be of any use in understanding technoscience, which subordinates science to technology, and thereby transforms science as that which makes possibilities that are then selected technically and according to the imperatives of investment. Technoscience is the systematic investment in “science” in order to anticipate the future, a future that is made. And this can reach very far, as everyone knows, to the extent that technics can no longer be thought of as the “organization of the inorganic,” as Technics and Time, 1 tended to think it, but must now also be thought of as the “re-organization of the organic” (p. 206), as technoscience learns to exploit its knowledge of that form of memory that is the genetic code. The general consequence of this extension of technoscience to all areas of knowledge, and the subordination of all forms of knowledge to the imperatives of investment, but an investment operating according to ever-decreasing scales of time (thereby degrading to speculation rather than investment [3] ), is a crisis of knowledge itself, an anxiety and a loss of belief in the very idea of knowledge, that knowledge offers us a future.

Stiegler’s point, however, is not merely to condemn. However threatening may be the convergence of the technical and the mnemo-technical systems, and the convergence of technology and science, in truth knowledge has always been performative, in the sense of transforming what it knows, creating a situation that did not previously exist, and the notion of a constative knowledge that “merely describes” was always an illusion. In this sense, technoscientific becoming may be a chance. The problem is that technoscience is not only performative but organised according to the performativity principle, that is, in terms of (calculable) efficiency, that is, in terms of beneficial outcomes, the question being to know what is meant by the bene (the good of a collective individuation process or of profit), and the choice being that between “feasibility” (as calculation of costs and benefits, however they are understood) or of “making a difference that must be made […], that knows nothing of being conditioned by efficiency or profitability since this difference, which is a fiction, can only appeal to a radical improbability and a default of reason” (p. 192).

In a world in which the problems we face seem to be on a scale unprecedented in human history, but in which the “popular” or “media” debate seems rarely to rise much above a choice between Avatar or Transformers (USA, 2007), it is nearly impossible to have faith, to be able to believe in the possibility of knowledge as capable of making the difference that we must make, to believe that knowledge is capable of being revived in order to resuscitate us, such that our becoming might have a future, a future we might adopt, rather than merely adapting to the increasingly inhospitable conditions of this becoming. It is almost impossible to find the will to believe in such a story, in this fictional possibility of making a difference. But, Stiegler asks us, if not that, what?

[1] Jacques Derrida, “Declarations of Independence,” Negotiations: Interventions and Interviews, 1971–2001, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002, pp. 46–54.
[2] See also Stiegler, The Decadence of Industrial Democracies: Disbelief and Discredit, Volume 1, Cambridge: Polity, 2011.
[3] See Stiegler, For a New Critique of Political Economy, Cambridge: Polity, 2010.

About the Author

Daniel Ross

About the Authors

Daniel Ross

Daniel Ross completed his doctorate on Heidegger and the political at Monash University. He is the author of Violent Democracy and co-director of The Ister (2004).View all posts by Daniel Ross →