The Condition of Reading(2) – Bernard Stiegler vs Michel Serres

stiegler vs serres

originally posted at Hybrid Publishing Lab

This summer, the popular french journal Philosophy Magazine published an special issue titled “Why do we no longer learn as before?”. This issue covers essays by Nicolas Carr, Marianne Wolf and others working on the same field, and what is most interesting is a dialogue between two philosophers Bernard Stiegler and Michel Serres. Stiegler has been working on the question of digital publication for many years, back to the 90s he worked on a project with the BnF(Bibliothèque nationale de France) on digital books and softwares to assist reading. Based on his own theory of tertiary retention, and inspired by Carr and Wolf, Stiegler proposed to re-visit the condition of reading and writing today in order to bring forth an industrial program. We remind that we talked about two kinds of memory proposes by Carr, working memory and long term memory, Stiegler showed in his previous books especially the three volumes of La Technique et le temps, how these two memories (equivalent to Husserl’s primary and secondary retentions) are in turn conditioned by the tertiary retentions, that is to say technics. For Stiegler the problem today is the one of amnesis, that is also one of the first questions in occidental philosophy. For Plato, amnesis, losing memory, is the possibility of acquiring knowledge. Since it is at this moment of searching, we have to recollect what was forgotten, then fragments can become coherent. Or all simply, facts gain their power in the process of re-organization (which is at the same time re-cognition) and become the foundation of truth. Amnesis in this sense, is alsoaskisis whichpossess the transformation power of the individual.

Plato’s idea on writing is nevertheless quite indecisive. In the previous note, we have seen the quote of Nicolas Carr, in which he proposes that Socrates/Plato’s attack on poetry in The Republicis at its first place an attack on the oral culture of poetry- the figure of Homer. At centre of such an argument is the pursuit of apodicticity (ἀποδεικτικός), meaning the self-evidence of things, propositions, arguments. Writing compared with speaking has is more apodictic (such as geometrical forms, e.g. a triangle can be demonstrated, and it remains demonstrable), and this constitute the first apodicticity for scientific research. While Plato in Phaedrus poses a great doubt on writing, which for him is dangerous, since now writing reveals the possibility that we will rely too much on these mnemotechnics, and it loses the possibility of self-transformation through re-collection. From the dialogue between Phaedrus and Socrates, we read that when the old God of writing (and many other arts) Theuth came to the King of Egypt at the time Thamus to present his inventions:

[…] when they came to letters, This, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit. Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality1.

Technics, the hypomnemata are tools that interrupt the anamesis, the self-searching and reflection that produces not only knowledge as such, but also knowledge of the self. In brief, we are what we can remember. Tools, cause short-circuiting (this word was also employed by Nicolas Carr in The Shallows) of the brain. We can probably say that Stiegler takes the word knowledge in different senses, firstly knowledge that can be exteriorized in writing, in technical objects, or in general cultural facts (savoir faire); secondly knowledge through which we re-constitute our singularity (savoir vivre). This reading of knowledge re-connect knowledge to living. If we can say so, it is theAskisis present in the spiritual practice of the Helenic and Roman culture, this Askisis is a response to the first philosophical question, as explored by Pierre Hadot and later picked up by Michel Foucault in his writing on how to “take care of the self”. This danger posed by writing is changing constantly according to its technological condition, e.g. different technologies of writing. Stiegler follows the french anthropologist Sylvain Auroux calling it grammatisation2. Auroux argues that it is not logic that creates grammar, but rather grammar re-constitute logic (along a similar line of Piaget and Vygotsky). The question of the digital for Stiegler is the question of writing, and the digital revolution presents a new epistemological foundation of all the disciplines which need to be reviews at our time. Hence Stiegler against the current label of the Digital Humanities and calls this new program: Digital Studies. In a talk given at the WWW conference 2012 in Lyon, titled Die Aufklärung in the Age of Philosophical Engineering, a reminder and warming to Tim Berners-Lee’s proposition of Philosophical Engineering, meaning engineers are taking over the position of philosophers, since they are engineering the society and the world. Berners-Lee’s position resonates with Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach, revolution if it exists at all, belongs to those who transform it materially. Stiegler’s reminder can be read as such: it is very easy for engineers to under-estimate their impact, and over-estimate their knowledge, which is limited by the formal education they have received and the practices in the industry which is in turn limited by market. In contrast to philosophical engineering, Stiegler pointed out that what is happening is no longer a matter of engineering or computer science:

The web constitutes an apparatus of reading and writing founded on automata that enable the production of metadata on the basis of digital metalanguages which change what Michel Foucault called the processes of enunciation and discursive formation. All this can only be thought on the condition of studying in detail the neurophysiological, technological and socio-political conditions of the materialisation of the time of thinking (and not only of thinking, but also of life and of the unthought of what one calls noetic beings, which is also, undoubtedly, of their unconscious, in the Freudian sense)3.

For Stiegler, it is necessary to return to the question of the reading and develop, according to him, a program of pharmacologie. In such a perception, technics are pharmaka (and pharmakon is a kind of technics, or technical knowledge), which is both good and bad at the same time. Now the question, both a political and economical one, is how can we develop the good side and suppress the toxic side of the pharmakon. If we can make a connection between this proposition and Katherine Hayles’s concern on the deep attention and shallow attention (hyper-reading, deep-reading, machine-reading), is how can we bring the next generation from the drive-based use of technologies to one that needs libidinal investment, such as love, friendship, etc. Following Freud, Stiegler based on an opposition between drive and libido, and developed a critique which re-situates technologies at the centre of the psycho-social and cognitive.

Automation makes digitalisation possible, but if it immeasurably increases the power of the mind (as rationalisation), it can also destroy the mind’s knowledge (as rationality). A ‘pharmacological’ thinking of the digital must study the contradictory dimensions of automation in order to counteract its destructive effects on knowledge. The point is not merely to ensure there is a right to access the internet, but of having a right and a duty to know (through education) that there are invisible automatisms which may escape digital brains – and which may manipulate them without teaching them how to handle them.

This question arises in a context in which neuromarketing is today in a position to directly solicit the automatisms of the lower layers of the cerebral organs by short-circuiting or bypassing the networks inscribed through education in the neo-cortex. That the automatisms of the nervous system are in this way combining with technological automatisms is the threat (that is a shadow) against which the new enlightenment must struggle4.


petite poucetteOn the other hand, Michel Serres, another sage and encyclopedic philosopher after Gaston Bachelard, has come to identify the generation from the 80s as la petite poucette(Thumbelina). A name taken from Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale. For Serres, the digital revolution designates the third revolution of writing in human history, the first one was before Christ , orality passed to writing (but according to Serres, literature only born after writing); the second revolution was the emergence of printing at the time of Montaigne, it is also the printing technology that changed the conception of education. Montainge in Of the Eduction of Children gave advices to his friend Madame Diane de Foix how to prepare for the education of her unborn son, he showed his worries, that education is going to stuff children’s head with books rather than knowledge of taste, of living, it is better to have guidance from a tutor who can show them the right way to learn, therefore to have “a well-made than a well-filled head”(avoir une tête bien faite plutôt que bien pleine). This generation of the petite poucette, almost 30 years old, were born in the digital, they are not like their parents who work with computers. They have a totally different sense and perception of computers. Having been asked about the question of dis-concentration brought by online readings, video games, etc, Serres replied:

The dis-concentration comes from television. The advertisements have been impose purposely to make people lose their concentration, in order that they consume, and buy the displayed products. These image pass quickly. It has been calculated that actually, when one poses a question to someone on television, the average duration of response is 10 seconds. As consequence, people don’t remember what I said on television5.

This observation seems to be quite optimistic, but isn’t televisions already de-passed by computers, more and more people watching TV with a computer. But here comes something more optimistic:

Petite Poucette, our daughter– can do three things at the same time. It is a new performance but she can make it. It is a superior intelligence. Don’t confuse “do three things at the same time” with “lost of concentration”. When we watch television, we are like “passengers” slumped on the sofa. In front of the computer, we are like conductors, sit and attentive. The first position is passive, the other active. Don’t confuse medias of papa (even that of grandfather) and the new technologies: Petite Poucette is born “with”, don’t forget. Observe a child of one year old in front of a computer or a mobile phone6.

Serres was impressed by the petite poucette’s ability to gain knowledge, for example his youngest son using a mobile phone to make calls then fix the problem of the engine; patients are now much more aware of their situation by looking online, and doctors no longer acted like decades ago, when patients were sent to have an operation without really understand how serious it is and if an alternative treatment exists. Serres also started from a neural perspective like Stiegler, but Serres almost a came to celebration that sees no politics within this digital transformation. Sometimes he seems to be a Pépé who is likely going to spoil the young girl by defending her from all criticisms. Such defence is true, but also dangerous. The generation of the petite poucette is totally new in terms of the relation with computers, but one also has to remember that it is the generation of their papa or even pépé is making decisions on the technological development. The absolute break is filled with some matters that need to be examined today.

What one knows for sure, is that new technologies don’t activate the same regions of the brain as books do. It evolves, in the same way that I have revealed new capacities when one passed from oral to writing. What make out neurons before the invention of writing? For human being, the cognitive and imaginary faculties are not stable, and this is very interesting. It is in all case my response to old grumblers who accuse Petite Poucette of no longer having memories, nor mind of synthesis. They judge with cognitive faculties which are their owns, without admitting that the brain evolves physically7.

In the conversation with Stiegler, when Stiegler mentioned the program of short-circuiting proposed by Carr and others, that empties the brain, Serres responded: “I am not very Simondonian on this point, I find that philosophers of technologies a bit limited at certain things, therefore objectivation in the cognitive automats are extraordinary liberations”. Serres’ response is extremely interesting, since for him this short-circuiting is actually a liberation rather than a destruction. When the brain is liberated it can deal with many other things, for example the petite poucette can now do three things at the same time. And for Serres, teachers and educators must recognize this condition of reading and learning has totally changed, the generation of petite poucette is not one that we can put within certain framework and educate them in framework of the previous generation8.

The two different interpretations of the digital revolution all admitted the transformation in terms of reading and writing, and especially education that must be addressed as soon as possible in order to respond to the transformation posed by the digital. Both Stiegler and Serres, found from their own experiences, that such a response is still absent in universities in Europe and North America. Their differences also reveal a moment of indecision, that is to say, what is the digital really doing? What is the possibilities brought by it and what is the toxicity which is still latent? Or even, maybe this toxicity is actually the advantage presented by the digital? In one of my interview with the historian of architecture Beatriz Colomina from Princeton University on the question of multi-screens culture, she recalled how Ray and Charles Eames bombarding students with noises and distractions in order to stimulate their creativity and re-focus their attention. It seems like we are at the moment of experiment, and this experiment must go much beyond industrial standards, industrial practices, and dogmatism within industries and universities.

The Condition of Reading(3) – Open Access and Res publica

1Plato, Phaedrus,

2Histoire des idées linguistiques, t. 2 : Le développement de la grammaire occidentale, Liège : Mardaga, 1992

3Stiegler, Die Aufklärung in the Age of Philosophical Engineering,




7Petite Poucette, la génération mutante, 3 septembre 2011,

8Michel Serres, Petite Poucette. Les nouveaux défis de l’éducation, parole publique à l’académie française, le 01 mars 2011,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *