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Translator's introduction to Bernard Stiegler's 'pharmacology of desire: drive-based capitalism and libidinal dis-economy'.

There is a long history of trying to marry psychoanalytic theory with economic theory, consisting in all those philosophical attempts throughout the twentieth century to unify the work of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud. This history is not without resemblance to the attempt in physics to unify the standard model of the strong, weak, and electromagnetic forces (described by quantum chromodynamics) with gravitational force (described by general relativity). If there is any significance to be found in this resemblance, then this depends firstly on how we judge what it means to say that in both cases this fundamentally concerns the question of energy, and secondly how we judge what it means to say that in both cases it is a question of energetic systems, which also means, lawful systems, though where this notion of 'law' more names a problem than a guide to a solution. Nevertheless, just as physics strives to complete the standard model by incorporating gravity in order to create what is called a unified field theory, so too Bernard Stiegler strives to compose various orders of knowledge and understanding into what he calls 'general organology,' the central ornament of which is a modified form of Gilbert Simondon's 'theory of individuation'. If this is to compare two theoretical projects indubitably operating in very different registers, then it still serves to indicate the scope and ambition animating Stiegler's intellectual labours.

The appeal if not indeed the theoretical necessity of composing the psychoanalytic and the economic, lies in the fact that both are matters of 'need', or, alternatively, of 'desire'. But this alternative immediately brings to the fore the question of the relation of these two terms--need and desire. Within psychoanalysis we already find these terms distinguished through Freud's account of the difference between desire and drive; and within that economic system we call capitalism we find a set of paradoxes consisting in the fact that a production system, allegedly and traditionally, is governed by the needs of those whom it is intended to serve, but that today this system seems founded (and to founder) on stimulating a form of consumer behaviour that appears utterly detached from any way in which 'needs' were hitherto understood. Just as the historicity of desire in psychoanalytic theory demands explanation in relation to the apparent atemporality of what Freud calls the drives, so too the extreme historicity if not the industrialisation of the desires animating consumer behaviour seems to confront the weak theoretical edifice underpinning economic theory insofar as such theory rests on the notion of timeless needs. And this would be a weakness detectable even in Marx's economics, in spite of his account of commodity fetishism, an account that was perhaps the emblem heralding for later Marxists and others the need for an encounter with psychoanalysis.

What also underpins the persistence of these attempts is the fact that the psychoanalytic and the economic have already been married, not merely in theory but in practice, a fact the genealogy of which takes us back to the marriage of Freud's sister to Freud's wife's brother. The offspring of this marriage was none other than Edward Bernays, who was, thus, Freud's double nephew, and who saw in Freud's theories an opportunity for application, which he undertook in the United States, and which eventually led to what we now call marketing and to the consumerism of what continues to be referred to as the American way of life. (1) If it was not awareness of this genealogy and its significance that led to most of these attempts to marry psychoanalysis with economics in theory, it is nevertheless the case that among the effects of this practical composition was the decoupling of the production system from needs as conventionally understood, accompanying the recognition by producers that gains in productivity (or perhaps, overall, a temporary reversal or brake on the systemic tendency of such gains to decline) could be garnered by manipulating minds and spirits to consume what they had never before thought they needed, that is, all the products that spring from an ever-accelerating system of permanent innovation.

That Marx's account of production did not take sufficient theoretical account of this potential of inciting minds to want newly-invented needs can be forgiven, given that his work predates the technological advances capable of most successfully exploiting this potential, specifically those technologies of sound and image able to operate simultaneously on thousands if not millions of minds. The effect of these technologies was to turn these minds into audiences, that is, into a commodity sold by the owners of radio and television networks to advertisers, that is, to producers. It is perhaps more surprising that Freud, unlike his nephew, seemingly failed to perceive the relation of need and desire to these kinds of technological advances, despite his late interest in the crowds herded together in Germany in the 1930s, something that could be achieved in no small part because the National Socialists recognised that these technologies could be exploited for political or perhaps anti-political ends. To some extent Freud's overlooking this connection may be attributable to the insufficiently phenomenological character of his account of memory, that is, to the insufficiently temporal character of his account of perception and sensibility, that is, also, of significance.

This deficiency is revealed by the theoretical difficulties of Freud's account of trauma, and it is something that Stiegler tries to correct by composing Freud's account of desire and drive with Edmund Husserl's account (itself corrected by Stiegler) of the relation between primary retention (that is, what we ordinarily think of as immediate perception), secondary retention (that is, what we ordinarily think of as memory), and tertiary retention (that is, what we ordinarily think of as the technical supports against the perishability of memory, such as a book or a recording, among many others). (2) The point is less the way in which perception becomes memory than the converse: the fact that so-called 'immediate' perception is already an interpretation, an interpretation based on a selection (for example, we listen to a symphony and 'hear' the strings rather than the brass, so that on each occasion that a listener hears an identical sound recording, it in fact constitutes a different experience, experienced differently). And the criteria forming the basis for this selection amounts to the perceiver's singular stock of prior experience, that is, their secondary retentions, memories that are then themselves reinterpreted on the basis of new experience. What results is Stiegler's general account of the process of adoption, that is, of the fact that, for human beings, the drives must always be sublimated into desires that we adopt, whether as those desires we adopt from our ascendants through that process of care and cultivation we call childhood learning, the desires we adopt politically as citizens of a community, or the desires we adopt as consumers.

In other words, Stiegler re-ties the question of knowledge to the question of desire, which of course immediately sends us back to Plato. For Socrates, the search for knowledge is not the search for what one does not know, but for what was once known but has been forgotten, and this search is thus, we could say, a process of motivated recollection. But as such, for Plato, the object of this search cannot then be anything that merely exists already in our perception and thus easily within our perceptual grasp, but rather for what he calls the ideas. The status of the ideas then becomes a problem, the Platonic solution for which is the thought that these have more reality than mere appearances, as demonstrated by the allegory of the cave. This solution has proven troublesome, and one way in which the subsequent history of philosophy can be understood is as the history of responses to this trouble, one aspect of which is that back-and-forth disputation revolving around an axis with poles labelled 'idealism' and 'materialism'. Stiegler's response is to recompose the opposition of the material and the ideal, and to do so via the distinction (not opposition) he makes between what exists and what merely consists, and secondly the distinction he makes between subsistence and existence. (3)

What exists are all those appearances that we perceive sensorily. But the ideas, whether the idea of a triangle, of a bee, of the number three, of God, of justice, etc., none of these things appear, and as such do not exist, yet they consist, in the sense that they hang together, or we make them hang together, or we refuse to give them up however improbable they may seem (for instance the idea of justice). The inexistence of what consists, that is, of any and all objects of knowledge, means that they can never be known 'completely' but only through a process of individuation that is both the individuation of ourselves as learners and, at times, the individuation of knowledge itself. This is the source of the infinity of all objects of knowledge, as well as of the irreducible element of faith, trust or belief required of all the ideas, if not indeed an element of fiction understood as an active process: the ideas are in a sense always fashioned.

Subsistence, living merely according to needs, means dwelling in the finite world of the calculable, of hungers that we labour to satisfy out of necessity. Existence, that is, living beyond subsistence, beyond ourselves as subsistent beings, thus as ek-sistent beings, means aiming toward consistencies, toward what consists without existing, striving for what exceeds the finitude of calculation, to elaborate my taste rather than satisfy my hunger, and only this kind of existence, as opposed to mere subsistence, genuinely aims at the singularisation of my being. But all those things that consist, that hang together insofar as we make them hang together, find their consistence only as the fruit of that long-term process of care and cultivation, of sublimating the drives and diverting them toward desires, that Stiegler calls the creation of long circuits of individuation, that is, intergenerational circuits. Stiegler's crucial observation, however, is that for the first time in human history, there is a systemic and systematic attempt to disrupt and short-circuit the operation of the production of such long circuits of individuation, to interfere with the translation of the drives into desires, to replace the intergenerational structure of the process of adoption with ever-shorter cycles of need-creation-and-satisfaction, all thoroughly calculated and finitised. This disruption and interference has the structure of addiction, that is, a process that undoes the work of desire, reverts to the finite satisfactions of the drives, and yet results in a spiral of diminishing returns.

The question is the degree to which such a tendency results in productive and libidinal economies that are thereby self-destructive, that is, dis-economies, and secondly what might conceivably counter such a tendency. If such a thing as philosophy continues to have a task today, then a not insignificant part of that task must be answering these two questions, and not only in theory.

DOI: 10.3898/NEWF.72.11.2011

(1.) See the Adam Curtis documentary series, The Century of the Self, 2002.

(2.) See Daniel Ross, 'Politics, Terror, and Traumatypical Imagery', in Matthew Sharpe, Murray Noonan and Jason Freddi (eds), Trauma, Historicity, Philosophy, Cambridge, Cambridge Scholars Press, 2007, pp200-14.

(3.) See especially Bernard Stiegler, Mecreance et Discredit: 1. La decadence des democraties industrielles, Paris, Galilee, 2004, [section] 25; forthcoming in English translation from Polity Press.
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Author:Ross, Daniel
Publication:New Formations
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2011
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