The first time I met Bernard Stiegler was at the Paris summer school hosted by the University of Kent in June 2016. There, he gave a seminar on the notion that the works of Marx and Engels could be useful for understanding the “Anthropocene”—the idea that we live in an epoch, in which humans have become a geological force, as with anthropogenic climate change. During these sessions, Stiegler took an understated approach, preferring to tease out opinions from the participants rather than impose them. But in the plenary session, a different thinker emerged. As he effortlessly drew on the works of Plato, Heidegger, and Derrida so as to frame the history of civilization as an attempt to tame the destabilizing effects of technologization, in a lecture that ran considerably beyond its allotted time, it seemed that Stiegler could’ve been a geological force himself. He concluded with a forty-five minute meditation on the meaning of the celebrated Abbas Kiarostami film, Close-Up.
During the summer that followed the seminar, Stiegler and I stayed in touch. At his own summer academy in Épineuil-le-Fleuriel in central France, I got to play the role of the sorcerer’s apprentice: stumbling around, occasionally offering awkward interjections, not fully sure of why I had been afforded this opportunity. Stiegler clearly suffered from no such doubt: in his mind, he had come to stage a two-pronged confrontation with both the Nuit debout protests in France, which he argued were unproductive, and the left Accelerationist intellectual current, which he worried was engaged in a dubious embrace of mass consumer technologies. The strangest thing to occur during the meetings of the academy, for me, was when Gerald Moore informed me that, in an interview with Polity, Stiegler had in fact cited something I had said. Of course, when I was informed of the details, it became obvious that it wasn’t really something I had said. Rather, Stiegler had charitably imputed to me—a 27-year-old doctoral student at the time—a perspective far beyond my philosophical station. Without even knowing it, I’d been ushered into an intellectual world of far greater import than my own.
Ultimately, the rapport established between Stiegler and me proved to be a missed encounter. Perhaps, this was due to him sensing I didn’t fully agree with the positions he was taking. Perhaps, it was something merely random. But, in either case, we seldom communicated between summer 2016 and June 2020, when I interviewed him in English for Zero Books’ YouTube channel. The sense that our relationship hadn’t developed as fully as it could have contributed to the tremendous sense of sadness I felt when I read of his passing on August 5, 2020.
This missed encounter, I stress, was not just between two individuals. In the first half of his career—from the early nineties to 2006, the year when he founded the Institute of Research and Innovation—Stiegler succeeded in theoretically revamping a French philosophical milieu then awash in linguistic idealism and out of touch with the sweeping technological changes that characterized that era. In the second half of his career, from 2006 until his death, he sought to achieve in practice an alternative to the monolithic mode of technological globalization that had taken hold as the Internet had developed. For his philosophical rigor, he accrued considerable philosophic fame and contributed indirectly to the theoretical paradigm shift that took hold in 2007-08, as the global literati came to reject a myopic concern with signification characteristic of the poststructuralist consensus. But, partly due to his own organizational failings, his practical labors—his attempt to forge a new social model capable of overcoming both unchecked consumerism and the fetters of a technological dispensation of feeds emanating from a handful of purblind platforms—remain unfulfilled.
Stiegler’s coming-of-age story is one that’s had global resonance. This is, surely, due to its clear redemptive arc. Born in Villebon-sur-Yvette in Essone on April 1, 1952, Stiegler quit his secondary studies in 1968 in order to join up with activists in Paris during the transformative civil unrest that swept across the country in May and June of that year. This experience inspired him to become a member of the Parti communiste français (PCF)—a formidable political force at the time. While many activists came to reject the PCF soon after the events of May-June ’68 due to the perception that its capitulation to the political status quo had caused the failure of the protests, Stiegler’s loss of faith in the party unfolded over a longer trajectory. Indeed, Stegler remained in the PCF until 1976, when he resigned his membership in protest over the what he saw as the “Stalinist” line adopted by then-leader George Marchais. That same year, he opened a jazz bar in Toulouse, where his interest in philosophy was piqued by a local professor who frequented it, Gérard Granel. When financial hardship put it face-to-face with the threat of closure, however, Stiegler developed an eccentric strategy for “making up his overdraft”: repeatedly robbing local bank branches. Predictably, this backfired, and, during his fourth robbery, he was arrested and eventually sentenced to eight years in prison (though he ultimately served five, from 1978 to 1983).
It’s a testament to the strength of Stiegler’s character that he used imprisonment as an opportunity to thoroughly re-orient his life. Enrolling in a correspondence program in philosophy at the University of Toulouse II with the support of Granel, Stiegler spent much of his half-decade-long incarceration poring over the abundance of texts available to him due to the legal requirement that all French prisons include a library. Of particular import to him at this time were the works of Plato, Aristotle, Heidegger, and Mallarmé, whose work he later claimed he read for thirty minutes after waking up every day, “not so as to learn it by heart but to understand it.”[i] Stiegler’s nascent interest in philosophy and literature eventually led to an interest in more contemporary material, including the oeuvre of Jacques Derrida. Derrida’s Of Grammatology, in particular, Stiegler felt was a “super-human”[ii] text—so much so that at Granel’s urging he took the initiative to write to the book’s author. To Stiegler’s great surprise, Derrida responded immediately and in generous terms, and in October 1982 during, one of Stiegler’s periods out of prison, they met for the first time. From then on, Derrida served as a continuous ballast of support for Stiegler, helping him acquire a stable job at the Collège International de Philosophie (of which Derrida was a co-founder) in 1984, as well as agreeing to supervise his doctorate at the École des Hautes Études (where he studied alongside his then-partner Catherine Malabou, a thinker whose writings place her in the same coveted intellectual class as Stiegler), starting in 1986.
The first four decades of Stiegler’s life had been defined by risky gambits. With his thesis, he took another one. Technics and Time: The Fault of Epimetheus was not, as one would expect given Derrida’s involvement, a conventional thesis content to display its author’s scholarly bona fides. Where it proved genuinely startling was in the way it sought to challenge the subject-oriented (or phenomenological) approach that had informed much of post-World War II French philosophy—including, in a discrete way, deconstruction. In the first half of the text, Stiegler argues that the conventional division between the “inorganic beings of the physical sciences” and the “organized beings of biology” fails to take into consideration a third category: that of “inorganic organized beings,” or technical objects.[iii] A consequence of this is that we tend to see technology as either defining or being defined by humans.
What the narrow grasp of technology fails to acknowledge is the way that humans are co-constituted with the tools they wield. In Gesture and Speech, André Leroi-Gourhan argues that the capacity for foresight emerged when archaic Homo sapiens acquired the ability to use tools to make other tools. But, for Stiegler, this gesture merely begs the question: isn’t foresight, therefore, required to bring about the conditions, in which foresight is said by Leroi-Gourhan to develop? In the second half of The Fault of Epimetheus, Stiegler turns his attention to the work of Martin Heidegger, arguably the most important philosopher of the twentieth century. For Stiegler, where Heidegger errs is in not understanding the way that the question of temporality can only be accessed through technics. Thus, for Heidegger, clocks can show us the present, but not the past or future. The problem with this claim, however, is that it does not adequately take into consideration the way that the notion of past or future presupposes a “now” that is itself dependent upon the clock. And the key to rectifying this error, in Stiegler’s view, lies in recognizing that the relationship between perception and memory is always structured by technical objects (what Stiegler calls “tertiary retention”).
The notion of the future may depend upon the clock. But after the publication of Stiegler’s dissertation in 1994, it seemed as if—at least for the theoretically-minded—the future depended on Stiegler. This wasn’t just hot air. With Technics and Time, Stiegler achieved the remarkable feat of uniting a philosophy of technology with the discourses of phenomenology and deconstruction without vulgarizing either. Indeed, so striking was Technics and Time that even the widespread suspicion felt towards Derrida within French academic circles couldn’t obstruct his elevation to the upper strata of the nation’s intelligentsia. From 1996 to 1999, Stiegler served as the Deputy Director General of the Institut national de l’audiovisuel (INA), before taking on the direction of the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM) in 2002. And, in 2006, he became Director of the Department of Cultural Development at the Centre Georges-Pompidou, where he launched the Institut de recherche et d’innovation (IRI).
Throughout this time, publications followed with the same steady inevitability as professional promotions. While there are too many of these to describe in detail, of particular note are the two successor volumes to Stiegler’s dissertations, Technics and Time 2 and 3, published in 1996 and 2001 respectively, as well as the 2003 work Passer à l’acte (published in English in 2009 as the essay “How I Became a Philosopher” in the volume Acting Out), in which Stiegler recounts his time spent in prison.
While Stiegler started out as a militant and later became a philosopher, the period of his career after he was elevated to a directorial position at Centre Pompidou saw him attempt to synthesize these dispositions. It’s for this reason, perhaps, that the ideas of Marx—a thinker who stressed the unity of theory and practice—acquired renewed significance for him. In For a New Critique of Political Economy (2009), Stiegler makes a forceful argument that Marx could not foresee the way the rise of consumerist economies would cause the production of knowledge to become subordinated to the needs of capital. Consequently, the task of revolutionizing society is characterized by Stiegler as requiring the transformation of the technological apparatuses that pervade it, including, especially, the digital devices that had become ubiquitous by the end of the 2000s.
The call for a reverse-engineering of our social world doubled as a manifesto for the sort of projects Stiegler was pursuing at IRI, where he regularly engaged in consultation with figures in the tech sector. Often, these initiatives yielded tangible results. Yet, at the same time, Stiegler’s credibility when it came to the subject of technology was at times undermined by a parochialism that found him calling for the restoration of “noetic” or “human” forms of knowledge without fully elaborating what these terms might mean. For, if humanity is co-constituted with its tools, how can one situate an evaluative standard, from which this process of co-constitution could be judged? Or, how can one declare, as Stiegler does in For a New Critique of Political Economy, that spellcheckers and the address books of cellular phones are representative of “a vast process of the loss of knowledge,”[iv] in so far as they alleviate the need for memorization?
The mixed reviews sometimes occasioned by Stiegler’s post-2006 publications did little to diminish his prolific writing. Increasingly, Stiegler saw IRI as one of a handful of organizations locked in a global battle against the “entropic” tendencies of late capitalism (to use a metaphorical flourish he was fond of). Some scoffed at the haughtiness of this approach. But few could deny his drive. From 2006 to his death, Stiegler—now an established figure who enjoyed the full backing of the French publishing industry—put out over twenty books. He also spearheaded a succession of projects at IRI intended to push the French government in the direction of sweeping social reform.
Arguably, the most ambitious of such reforms was his effort—starting in the mid-2010s—to research the implementation of a “contributory economy” in the Plaine Commune banlieues of Paris, which had been (and remain) crippled economically due to the exportation of industrial jobs abroad. Stiegler’s plan involved the allocation of a living wage to individuals conditional on their pursuit of re-education programs that would give them the skills needed to reintegrate themselves in the economy. The same plan would help bring the aged infrastructure of Plaine Commune up to speed with overarching technological changes. Due to Stiegler’s mercurial management style, as well as external difficulties, including cuts to his funding imposed by Emmanuel Macron during his stint as Minister of the Economy, this project was never fully realized. But by throwing his cultural cachet behind the abolition of poverty, he did help advance this agenda in France, a nation where the idea of legislating a universal basic income has gained increasing political traction.
With the passing of Bernard Stiegler, the world has lost a great philosopher and militant. As for me, I’ve lost a great mentor and a friend. There is no consolation for the second point. As for the first, we can be grateful that Stiegler’s formidable brilliance, compounded by his formidable prodigality, has insured that he left behind a vast body of work that will continue to warrant study long after his death. As Stiegler writes in his 2003 essay “To Love, To Love Me, To Love Us: From September 11 to April 21″:
Being dead, however, I can become an ancestor who leaves traces, objects, works—where by “works” I do not mean my “complete works” but rather perhaps the library I bought, the garden I cultivated, all sorts of things: those objects in which, or the phrases, acts, or gestures by which, in one way or another, something of my singularity is inscribed.[v]
Stiegler’s works and acts have already enshrined him in our collective memory. As long as we keep reading him and heeding the calls of his activism, his singularity will survive.
[i] Bernard Stiegler, “How I Became a Philosopher.” Acting Out (Stanford University Press, 2009), p. 20.
[ii] Benoît Peeters, Derrida: A Biography (Polity, 2012), p. 373.
[iii] Bernard Stiegler, Technics and Time, 1: The Fault of Epimetheus (Stanford University Press, 1998), p. 17.
[iv] Bernard Stiegler, For a New Critique of Political Economy (Polity, 2010), p 30.
[v] Bernard Stiegler, “To Love, To Love Me, To Love Us: From September 11 to April 21.” Acting Out (Stanford University Press, 2009), p. 77.