How to Win an Aesthetic War: On Bernard Stiegler’s Symbolic Misery

How do we think political conflict that impacts all aspects of social life, from the family to public institutions? What domains of private and public life are affected by a form of conflict which is ubiquitous? The Greek term stasis has been invoked to theorize this form of ever-present conflict by a number of contemporary political philosophers from Giorgio Agamben, to the radical anonymous collective Tiqqun, to Bernard Stiegler.

Aristotle understood stasis as a form of conflict where two domains of social life overlap: family relations and private life (oikeios) with external social conflict (polemos). This dual structure to stasis blurs the line where the conflict originates and where it ends.

In Symbolic Misery: Volume I: The Hyperindustrial Epoch, the French philosopher Bernard Stiegler introduces a theory of stasis based on a deterioration of the aesthetic field first and foremost. The aesthetic is the site of a war, not of bullets or direct violence, but of symbolic violence resulting from the total dominance of the market over human life and consciousness.

Stigler’s thesis is that the stasis of contemporary life is tied to a historical shift in capital and its relation to the development of retentional apparatuses which prevent people form forming meaningful affective attachments to symbols. Picking up on Deleuze’s notion of ‘control society,’ which makes consciousness no longer singular or distinctive, Stiegler argues that we suffer from an inability to form what he calls a ‘distinctive consciousness.’ We remain caught in a retentional apparatus that produces our attention for us. The retentional apparatus is one way to understand what is often called the attention economy, where every segment of our time is commodified and made eligible for the temporary attention we expend towards it. Stiegler’s proposal is that this attention economy is emblematic of a much larger absorption of the economic mode of production into the aesthetic sphere, which is the source of the misery we experience.

Our ‘hyper-industrial era’ has temporalized objects along the time of marketing consumption and this is why we suffer from a new form of alienation and impossibility to identify with objects. While this theory of temporalized consumption objects gives us a new way to understand Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism, Stigler argues that the time of consumption annuls the basis of the I/We relationship. What is left is not a subject, but an empty one – a one of misery of thought – located only at the level of one’s own existence (59).

To think this loss, this empty one at the heat of our social existence, Stiegler turns to the French philosopher Gilbert Simondon, whose theory of individuation presents us with a way to resuscitate collective existence , presenting a way to think the re-merging of the ‘I with the We’ under late capitalism.

How do we move beyond the misery of contemporary life? Stiegler turns to psychoanalysis, particularly post Lacanian and Deleuzian thought. Psychoanalysis shows that the formation of an interior ‘we’ within the self is necessary before the self can form a community with others. This interior movement is what Freud calls primary narcissism, a prerequisite for the self-forming a bond with the community.

With all the talk we have of the rise of narcissism today, Stiegler’s thesis is refreshingly different, he argues that our problem is that we lack the the capacity to develop a primordial narcissism. He thus links our inability to form aesthetic attachments to singularities or singular objects to our inability to form community, with self and others. This inability to form attachments to objects kills the circuit of desire because it can no longer be a gift. As Stiegler notes:

“The liquidation of narcissism resulting from the submission of consciousness to the time of temporal objects affects the I just as much as the We” (61).

 

Dialogue with the New Barbarians: 

The aesthetic war affects us all, but there are some for whom it affects to a greater degree. Those most in misery, the ‘new barbarians’ as Stiegler calls them are not ISIS or al-Qaeda but they are found amongst the followers of the new fascist movements, from Trump to the National Front. Stiegler proposes that the left has lost its way because it fails to understand the affective dimension this misery has wrought on these people.

Prescriptively, Stiegler thinks at the level of dialogue and community to move out of symbolic misery. Fending off the stasis that lies at our gates comes about by re-thinking the formation of community. But he present a theory of community that is apolitical, however, beyond partisan and or ideological lines aimed at bringing philia back to the heart of our civic life. His conception of philia lacks a militant edge and it is difficult to see how we might defeat the new fascism through building some common ground around our shared misery.


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