Bernard Stiegler: "Employment is dead, long live Work!"

Recent updates include a large batch of references to the writings of Bernard Stiegler.

Stiegler is one of the most productive and innovative cultural theorists in France today. Over the last three decades, he has constructed an impressive philosophical edifice in the grand tradition of Continental Philosophy’s master thinkers. Stiegler’s books, written in an increasingly self-referential idiolect replete with neologisms, meaningful etymologies and ingenious word plays, now unfold a complex theoretical narrative that leaves no dimension of human existence untouched, covering vast expanses across the times and spaces of human societies, even of the universe. Depending on readers’ theoretical sensitivities, one will find his analyses enthralling and enlightening, or grandiloquent and unfounded. Whatever one’s evaluation of his philosophical style though, there is no doubt that these analyses capture important trends in the world of work.

At the heart of Stiegler’s “system” is a materialistic uptake of Jacques Derrida’s “grammatology” and his claim that the very act of inscribing meanings into material signs, far from being accidental to their ideal content, in fact is intrinsically involved in their constitution. The marks in which meanings are written are indeed contingent (you can say the same thing in different ways), their materiality exposes meanings to the influences of other material traces and thereby other meanings, and yet these marks are essential to meanings’ very identity.

Derrida always meant his thesis to apply well beyond linguistics. Stiegler’s work builds on and expands Derrida’s vision. He uses references from across the humanities, the history of Western philosophy and the modern sciences, and in recent writings he draws particularly on the work of Georges Canguilhem, to argue that the processes by which meanings are “written down”, in fact describe the functioning of life itself, and in particular human life. Stiegler’s writings explore the many ways in which individual life, the collective lives of human groups, and the life of the species itself, depend on the externalisations in material symbols of their defining features. Humans project and encrypt their desires, intentions, knowledges and values in external marks, in languages and objects, that can then be used, transformed, further developed as symbolic "prostheses”, with which they gain a grasp and control of their own internal lives and of the world around them. Technique, therefore, which is responsible for the invention and realisation of these material carriers of meaning, is not an added dimension of human life, but an intrinsic part of its constitution. Technique conditions not just basic, material survival, but is involved in the very formation of human minds and psyches, and provides the infrastructure of social and cultural creations.

This view of technique as factor of “hominisation” means that Stiegler was bound to focus on work issues, particularly as these become a key aspect of the anthropocenic crisis. Stiegler’s reflections on work are interesting, notably because they marry positions that tend to be held separately and at opposite ends of the spectrum by other theorists.

Stiegler takes a somber view of modern history, based on his radical critique of capitalism. Marx’s metaphorical description of capitalism as a vampire sucking the blood out of modern workers is read by him through the lens of the ambivalent potentialities of technique. The powerful and sophisticated capacities modern technologies present for the “encryption” of human intentionalities have been captured by capitalistic logic and severed from individual and collective control. This has led to an automatisation of exploitation, not just in production (machines and robots) and in value creation (financial algorithms), but all the way into symbolic processes involved in the formation of desires, knowledges and culture. We have been transformed by industrial and consumer capitalism into mindless, spiritless consuming automata.

The diagnosis is directly reminiscent of the most pessimistic writings of first generation Frankfurt School. But Stiegler’s specific lens, focusing on the material media that underpin social and psychological processes, gives new dimensions to these well-known diagnoses. His analysis of the wage-relation for instance, as the linchpin of the capitalist mode of production, rather than emphasising how it is a source of social domination, studies what it does to the workers’ psyche, when they no longer engage in activities with an interest in the outcome, or indeed the skills they develop in bringing it about, but for the sole purpose of drawing an income from it. Considered from this “ergonomic” point of view, all salaried work is “proletarianised”, to the extent namely that this kind of work no longer engages the person as whole, is no longer a route the worker can take to individualise herself and participate in “transindividual” creations with other individualised individuals like her. Modern, capitalistic work “proletarianises” individuals, not just in the social and economic sense, but also in the technical sense of wrenching the means of creative action away from them. This process of expropriation and control is the same that leads to the automated exploitation of drives and desires. Proletarianisation, in other words, spreads from the world of work to the world of consumption, including symbolic consumption.

Furthermore, as Marx anticipated in the famous “fragment on machines” in the Grundrisse, automatisation driven to its ultimate logic ends up destroying salaried work itself. Today, Marx’s prediction seems about to be realised: the death of work at the hands of machines and automation is for Stiegler a fait accompli. We can already observe, he thinks, that “employment is dead”.

Yet, as Derrida insisted, the material “pharmakon”, in which meanings become operative as they are written down, is open to unpredictable transformations. Technique, as the paradigm “pharmakon”, is intrinsically ambivalent. What dies with “employment” is the way capitalistic economies for a few hundred years have used new technological innovation to drive the exploitation of the physical, mental and affective forces of human beings. But this does not exhaust the potentialities of technique. “Work” is not reducible to “employment”. When technical processes and implements are applied to reorganise inorganic matter in a way that allows individual drives, desires, knowledges and values to establish themselves without alienation, and to become aggregated in collective meanings and institutions, new worlds are created, entailing new modes of living, doing and knowing . To the pessimistic vision of the nearing self-destruction of wage-based, “automatic society”, responds the optimistic alternative that the new technologies also make possible new opportunities for individual, social and political development (Automatic Society: The Future of Work, pp. 282-366). And so, “Employment is dead, long live Work!”.

The extract below captures in relatively simple language Stiegler’s vision of the potentials and entrappings of present and future of work. As the passage shows, like some sociologists of work, notably Michel Lallement, or influential technology theorists like Pekka Himanen, Stiegler views the hacker work ethic as emblematic of the new attitude to work that the new technologies entail as one potentiality, beside the nightmarish one of total civilisational collapse:

“work is what allows a form of knowledge, whatever it is, to develop by accomplishing something. Picasso paints, for instance. I work in my garden. It brings something to me. I don’t just garden in order to get carrots, by gardening I also cultivate a knowledge of vegetal life, a knowledge I can share with other gardeners and with botanists, and so on. If I write books, if I contribute to Wikipedia, or if I develop free software, it is not first and foremost in order to receive a salary. I do this in order to get richer in a much richer sense than the famous motto “Get rich”. I might earn or save a little money in the process, but most of all I do this in order to construct myself and flourish in life, as a human being, as this form of life about which Georges Canguilhem has shown that it cannot live with knowledges, - that I can develop only in accordance with my desires and convictions.

Workers who are employees don’t work since work means individuating oneself, which means inventing, creating, thinking, transforming the world. Work is what used to be called in French “l’ouvrage”, the work, as in “handiwork”. In this word “ouvrage”, you can hear the verb “ouvrir”, to open up. “Ouvrer”, "to complete a work”, means to be operative. A worker opens up a world, which might well be a very small world, but a world nonetheless.

The work, “l’ouvrage”, can open the world of a small garden, more or less secret, which constitutes a space that has been singled out, singularised, by someone who produces in it what in scientific language would be called “negentropy”, that is, an increase in diversity–bifurcations, unexpected, improbable, unhoped for features of reality. That’s what work is about, it’s negentropic. Today, employment by contrast has become utterly entropic, it only produces standardisation, machinic and stupid repetition, demotivation. People desire it only because of the threat of unemployment that has become increasingly brutal and anxiety-inducing.

In free software, to take an example, people work. They don’t come to the office to receive their salary. They cooperate with other developers and thereby nourish their knowledges as much as those of their interlocutors. They are spontaneously active, ready to listen, in the expectation of seeing what the model inspires them to do. They thereby carry initiatives without anyone having to require that they do.”

(L’Emploi est mort, vive le Travail ! Mille et Une Nuits, 2015, p. 20)

Image

“A Omni treadmill being used at a VR convention”, tomemrich / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)