Bernard Stiegler: Pharmacology of Attention and Relational Ecology

In our sixth session philosopher Bernard Stiegler addresses the sense in which ‘attention’ has a significance at once psychological and social, and one does not work without the other. For Steigler, this is intimately tied to what Simondon calls trans-individuation. It is because collective memory is always exteriorised in education, the passing on of heritage between generations, that forms of attention consist.  Collective experience comes from what were once individual experiences, rendered collective through a process of trans-individuation. However, given this, Stiegler argues that what we must retain from the Platonic critique of the pharmakon is the thought that all exteriorisation leads to the possibility, not only for knowledge but for power, to take control of these processes of transindividuation by mastering the development of categorisation. In particular, since the formation of the Greek logos, what is key here is taking control of meta-categorisation, the production of a metalanguage, as all rational disciplines in our societies, and more generally all forms of deep attention, rest on these metalanguages.

As a means of forming attention, education is the modality through which the social being that is always already a psychic individual individuates itself at once psychically and collectively. Stiegler reviews Gilbert Simondon’s theorisation of individuation as:

  1. A psychic individual is neither a stable state nor an identity but a phase in a process through which she never ceases to transform herself.
  2. This process of psychic individuation is only truly accomplished to the extent that it is inscribed in a process of collective or social individuation.

It is in and through education that the link between these two inseparable dimensions of individuation is formed and concretised via what Stiegler identifies as ‘attentional forms’. The acquisition of these forms begins with the first moments of life, and, for Stiegler, according to Winnicott, it is built on the attention the mother gives to her child as the basis of all attention. They permit the individual to have her own experience, that is, to learn something by herself in her constant confrontation with the real.

Education is the result of multiple generations experience. Stiegler suggests that education develops a patina over time, something like the pebbles rolling in the current along the riverbed that they themselves help to create. Education is the transindividuation of individual memories engendered by individual experiences, ones which have resulted in a collective memory constituted by the attentional forms of knowledge, which Stiegler identifies as ‘knowhow’, ‘life skills’, and cognitive and theoretical knowledges. Only a being that is educated can develop these faculties, which are both psychic and social that become the shared attentional forms of knowledge of how to live, to do things, as well as cognitive and theoretical knowledge.

The individual faculties develop and open an educated being to knowledges that connect them to other beings educated in a similar manner. These faculties form and accomplish the process of processual collective individuation. Every society is a type of psychic and collective individuation. All of these types or socieities are characterised by forms or knowledge of attention that are also types of concern, systems of care, of techniques for care of the self and of others, together constituting ways of life that characterise cultures and civilisations.

The technique of the spatialisation of memory is what allows the transformation of individual time into this social space where a society is constituted and individuated. Social space, the support of social time, is ceaselessly re-run, re-commenced, reformed, deformed and transformed by the individuals who re-temporalise it. The spatialisation of memory is the consequence of the technicisation of life. In humankind, individual memory, forged by experience, is not lost to the species when the individual that lived that memory disappears. The experience has been technically exteriorised in the form of the technical object. It constitutes something like a primordial support in the sense that Presocratic philosophers used this term in relation to physis (nature). Culture is the intergenerational transmission of attentional forms invented through individual experience, which becomes collective because psychosocial memories are technically exteriorised and supported.

Through en-scription, inter-generational transmission crosses a threshold where humanity passes from prehistory to protohistory when the first techniques allowing the transmission of temporal contents appeared. Accordingly, Stiegler argues that the elements of what Katherine Hayles calls ‘deep attention’ came together, an attentional form allowing for its own replacement by another form, which she calls ‘hyper-attention’ produced by the digital technologies of attention capture. If we want to analyse and understand the stakes of this transformation, we must analyse a process of ‘grammatisation’, that leads us from the appearance of the writing of grammata up to the digital apparatuses and the new attentional forms that they constitute.

Stiegler suggests that in his talk today we only have time to examine the questions concerning the principles of a genealogy of attentional forms in order to get to the essential issue for our time which resides in the question of the new forms of metadata and the original process of transindividuation that they allow us to envisage. The always diverse collection of literal techniques for the formation of attention that amounts to the deep attention is what the Greeks named logos. These attentional forms generate the circuits of transindividuation that weave together the process of collective individuation. Plato, however, condemned writing, that is, this exteriorisation of attention. It provoked, he said, short-circuits: it deceives those who believe they know something.

This affirmation of the poisonous character of writing as remedy, understood as the Greek pharmakon, whose side effects appear to be much worse than the finitude of memory, does not mean that Plato condemns outright the practice of writing or of reading. Stiegler argues that Plato himself writes ceaselessly, and because he continually notes that Socrates does not write, we have evidence that Socrates was very well read.

In opposing what through writing could lead to a psychic disindividuation, Plato opposed the Sophists whom he accused of misusing writing. In the hands of the Sophists, Plato argues that writing became extremely poisonous because it permitted them to short circuit the psychic individuation. . The literal attentional technique became with them a detouring of attention, and a deformation of it, through which collective individuation itself was threatened.

Stiegler argues that a process of psychic and collective individuation, apprehended in the midst of its unfolding, presents itself as a series of parallel processes of trans-individuation. Each of these operates across the progressive convergence of phenomena of co-individuation. Thus, in the anamnesis which constitutes a Socratic dialogue each interlocutor is individuated on one side while being co-individuated with the other.

Stiegler notes that at the same time as the moment of the delivery of his talk, in this conference, we co-individuate ourselves around this question of attention. But at the same time other people – in Sweden, in Europe, and the rest of the world also work on this question. Trans-individuation is the transformation in through which psychic individuals enter into a resonance with others who seem to be individuating themselves. What we call ‘truth’ is the privileged modality of a transindividution that is ideal – if not perfect, since it is always re-commencing.

Stiegler suggests that if we take the Freudian theory of the psychic apparatus seriously, we have to say that the psychic individuation that produces an attentional energy or libido can only be formed to the extent that it goes through a process of ‘idealisation’. This process of idealisation concerns the libidinal economy of the psyche, and it assumes a process of identification. First, primary identification with the parents then secondary identifications with objects of desire and then, through lots of other instances, as identification with objects of sublimation through authority of some kind is established. I.e. the superego, index, author, institution, etc. It is only through these processes of identification and idealisation that a psychic individuation is projected, by and as a collective individuation.

In passing through idealisation and identification, the formation of the psychic apparatus makes the psychic individual pass through the circuits of transindividuation that weave and metastabilise collective individuation.

Language is a primordial attentional form. Husserl characterised it as a process of spontaneous ‘ideation’, that is, of generalisation through categorisation. Language prepares all the attentional forms that are post-transitional object and overdetermines them as a process of categorisation. The grammatisation of language also makes possible a liguistic activity of meta-categorisation forming what we call a meta-language.

The neurological system and the brain form a surface of inscription of the processes of trans-individuation. In the course of this inscription, however, transformations of these processes are produced. The singular memory of each individual makes different selections from the singularity of their experience, which is never totally transindividuated and absorbed by collective individuation.

Even if experience is preceded by trans-individuated attentional forms each of us has in each occasion of experience a singular experience. This is because the singular memory of each individual makes different selections from the singularity of their experience, which is never totally trans-individuated and absorbed by collective individuation. Each of us lives the same event differently. Stiegler gives the example that, at the moment in which we are listening to him, each of us hears something specific because we each interpret his words from our own experience. This individual experience is derived from each of our own memories. This is the case even though we can understand each other because we share ‘trans-individual’ significations.

A discipline tends to constitute a process of trans-individuation which comes to ‘meta-stabilise’ the collective rules across which the inter-individual variability is not eliminated. Even so, the discipline finds itself submitted to the conditions of evolution shared by all. However, Stiegler argues that what we must retain from the Platonic critique of the pharmakon is the thought that all exteriorisation leads to the possibility to take control of processes of transindividuation by mastering the development of categorisation. In particular, since the formation of the Greek logos, what Stiegler suggests is key is taking control of meta-categorisation, the production of a meta-language. This is significant because all of the rational disciplines in our societies, and more generally all forms of deep attention, rest on these metalanguages.

While scientific and academic disciplines are communities of peers, insofar as all the scholars belonging to them are in principal equals, in reality, they are not equal. In fact, Stiegler argues that some of them individuate themselves more intensely than others, and in doing so contribute more than others to the collective individuation which is meta-categorisation. Stiegler suggests that this means there is no knowledge which does not establish power, in the form of institutions.

If this is true of academic institutions which claim as their first principle the equality of all their members, the ascendancy of the authorities, through which a body of knowledge is sometimes reduced to the power of influence, is much greater in other social spheres that also host processes of individuation. The criteria produced in these social spheres are translated into norms, laws, theorems, rules, models and prescriptions of many types. These institutional controls and the criteria that produce them all derive from something equivalent to what in the current terminology of relational and attention technologies we call ‘metadata’.

In moving toward a conclusion Stiegler says that a crucial issue emerges from these analyses. As Stiegler has recently tried to demonstrate, metadata first appeared in Mesopotamia and the production of metadata has been the principal activity of those in power from the time of the proto-historical empires right up to today. To generate metadata is also, of course, to ‘grammatise’ and vice versa, since each is to meta-categorise. Stiegler argues that the production of metadata happens in all the fields of grammatised transindividuation. The powers that attempt to take control of the mechanisms of trans-individuation do so through the hegemonic production of this metadata.

The problem Stiegler identifies is that the exploitation of collaborative metadata is not itself collaborative in any way. It is never made the object of a critical scrutiny through which collaboratively trans-individuated knowledges would become precisely critical knowledges. They are not connected with the processes of psychosocial individuation through which ‘deep attention’ is produced.

Stiegler argues that the entire ‘organology’ of the contemporary social web is constructed to smooth out the derivations and singularities of psychic individuals in order to agregate them through relational technologies. The aim of which is to unilaterally control the fruits of the collaborative production of metadata. But this situation is absolutely contingent. It can and indeed must be transformed by an organological invention that puts into motion critical collaborative instruments. In particular, these should permit the formation of collaborative spaces of discussion which produce conflicts and critical debates that are made formally explicit in and through trans-individuation.

The principal objective of the Institute for Research and Innovation is to contribute to the conception of psycho-social techniques capable of supporting digital processes of critical transindividuation. The project of a pharmacological critique governs Ars Industrialis’ program of activities, and more particularly the school of the philosophy of the web that are currently developing, which has the name pharmakon.fr.