Monday, October 24, 2011

Genetic Code and General Equivalents

In Technics and Time 3, Bernard Stiegler argues that we (and for him, this means the university/educational structure) need to take control of our tertiary retentions, a term he adds to Husserl's primary and secondary retentions. Stiegler spends most of his book moving carefully through Husserl, Heidegger, Kant, and Simondon, but toward the end of the book he looks at a shift in the paradigm of science--from Kantian science to Techno-science; From the "real" to the "possible." His paradigmatic example is biotechnology that makes human beings themselves into a "state of possibles at a given moment of evolution" (Stiegler 202).

Stiegler worries about this externalization because of our inability to control these tertiary retentions. Biotechnology is controlled by industry and market standards rather than thinking through the "best" possiblities of becoming human. Stiegler argues that as our genes become tertiary retentions, that is "manipulable," we create a kind of "human industry" (212). In a way, Stiegler seems to worry about the possibility of a transformation of the human, in a way that post-humanist (or unhumanist) texts like Donna Haraway and Thierry Bardini's Junkware do not. 

In fact, it seems that Bardini is "ahead" of Stiegler on his assessment of the current state of technology. Both Stiegler and Bardini affirm that there is something "new" about our state of affairs, but they disagree what this newness is. 

In order to see where they may differ, we can look at both of their understandings of the "general equivalent." For Stiegler, "digital technology is in fact mutlifunctional in the sense that binary code is the new 'general equivalent' [. . .] This general equivalent produces unprecedented integrations: systematic, subject to the same rules of calculation and control ,the same economic, cultural, and social activities" (216). In other words, for Stiegler, the issue is who controls these tertiary retentions and who selects them? Stiegler is horrified at the idea that these tertiary retentions could organize, control, and reproduce on their own and it is a question of gaining control over these tertiary retentions rather than transforming the logic by which we approach them. He writes, 
systematic control of modes of reproduction and inheritance means that thsi logi can potentially be applied to every area of human life and will constitute many of the new markets of techno-industrial development--the 'new economy'--whose basis will obviously increasing knowledges containing reproductive rights. (Stiegler 223)
Again, Stiegler calls for criteria and control. Bardini explicitly argues that "IT IS NOT ABOUT CONTROL; today's Nexus is beyond control" (205). He claims that his analysis goes beyond, but follows the line of flight of D&G's societies of control to what he calls "genetic capitalism" (25). Genetic capitalism acknowledges taht "genes, cells, and organs are becoming the new commodities, but rather than seek a way to control these tertiary retentions, it may be the "junk" of our genes and cells where we might find "redemption." Junk is "the organizing principle of that which cannot be organized," which may challenge Stiegler's own words of "organized inorganic matter."

Bardini uses the phrase "Junk is. . ." a frustrating amount of times, each time attempting to expand the significance of junk, which he says is the "master trope" of our culture. Junk is neither trash (which is stuff we throw away that is completely useless) nor waste or garbage which "refers to an organic and complementary figure of shit; earth, soil" (Bardini 63). The 'saving power' of junkfor Bardini, is that there is "some affect" in junk and that junk may be something we can 'put to use'. By emphasizing the distinctions among junk, waste, garbage, and trash, Bardini distances himself from Heidegger's concept of "standing reserve." Standing-reserve is a challenging forth from Nature, calling man to organize it into a useful store of energy. Junk is something that has already been "organized" and then discarded--with the idea that it no longer has any use, but might have use someday again. Junkware is the kipple of our culture, to use Philip K. Dick's terms, rather than the organization of nature that creates culture/meaning for man.

Junk will be the origin of Bardini's new ubermensch, which, like Nietzsche's, must be understood as a figure rather than as something that has arrived already. He is careful to say that we are the "ante-posthumans, the not yet radically transformed beings" (154). He claims that we are, "to Homo Nexus what Neanderthal was to us: a bad, fleeting, memory, an afterthought. Our e-toys are his transitional objects" (156).

Indeed, in his cultural diagnosis of current culture, he draws from Stiegler ideas about our dis-affection. Following a quotation from Stiegler, he states "the capacity for reaction is exactly what this particular human being is cruelly lacking" (158). But while Bardini argues the need for feeling--a feeling/affect that junk may be able to provide--Stiegler still wants to argue for criteria and selection. More than Stiegler, at least in TT3, Bardini draws on an economy of desire: "one is afraid to lack the support that absence provides, renew desire, make presence more enjoyable" (164). He argues that we do not fear the posthuman because it might fail or become terrible, but rather than "we fear success [. . .] his coming will be our obsolescence" (164). In this sense, perhaps we can see Stiegler's fears as a symptom of what we might become and that our old way(s) of beings may be replaced with a new prosthetic.

If we follow Bardini, we might say that Stiegler is afraid of the posthuman because of a castration anxiety: "In return of course, one might then feel that the human person, at least symbolically, has been severed of this organ; or, in other words, today's disaffection alludes tot he castration anxiety that we feel with respect to Homo nexus" (165). Are not the prostheses of tertiary retentions, our detachable phalluses that we no longer have control of our own history, our own sense of the human?

Bardini is not unaware of the technoscientific/industrial complex that may 'control' our genetics, but it seems as though he thinks that thinking junkware, rather than rejecting it, is the only way to move forward into what he calls Homo Nexus. He offers a thought experiment: if our culture is 'junk', if our DNA is junk in the sense that "junk is always present potentiality of a renewed function," then these are the consequences and this is the world we have to live in--a world beyond control and calculation (213). And certainly beyond individuals: "no individuals, only individuations" (138).

I'm not quite sure, in the end, what Bardini is calling for, but I find it an interesting counterpoint to the more reserved program of Bernard Stiegler.


  1. I'm going to read this in more detail and respond to it as soon as I get through more Junkware...

  2. I'm not sure if its worthwhile. I just knew I needed to write something on these texts.