Bernard Stiegler’s Automatic Politics, a talk by Dr. Martin Crowley (Cambridge)

Screening Room
50 George Square
University of Edinburgh
5.15 pm

Dr. Martin Crowley (Cambridge)
“Bernard Stiegler’s Automatic Politics”
Chair Luis de Miranda


In the first volume of his La Société automatique (2015), Bernard Stiegler considers the social and philosophical implications of the predicted imminent increase in the proportion of labour undertaken by automata. The aim of this paper is to provide an account of Stiegler’s analyses, to situate these in the context of his philosophy more broadly, and to draw out their implications for an understanding of politics in what a widespread shorthand likes to refer to as the age of the machines.

For Stiegler, the interpenetration of human and machine existence is nothing new. Indeed, the core claim of his earliest work is that the human is by definition a technical form of life. Building on the work of paleoanthropologist André Leroi-Gourhan, Stiegler argues that the specifically human is invented not only through tool use, but crucially, through the intergenerational transmission of the memory embodied in technical forms. If Stiegler’s proposition that this invention constitutes a rupture in the history of life has been subject to various critiques, its interest for an understanding of the relation between humans and automata remains intact. For in Stiegler’s account, this relation must be considered in terms not of metaphysical categories (the anthropos versus the machine), but rather of co-individuation. Developing here the work of Gilbert Simondon, Stiegler sees human and technical forms of life as coming into existence through transductive processes of mutual constitution. The social and political questions posed by particular technologies are consequently to be understood as questions of adoption: the human beings of a given era are formed in relation to their technical objects, but can subsequently shape this relation by adopting these objects as either beneficial or harmful.

It is in these terms that La Société automatique analyses the predicted explosion of automation. For Stiegler, the social stakes of this development concern the definition of work and the link between work and remuneration; the political challenge is accordingly to foster the adoption of emergent technical forms in such a way as to provide a beneficial solution to these social questions. The politics of automation at work here has a further dimension, however, which Stiegler does not elaborate, but which this paper will seek to specify: namely, a reconceptualization of effective political agency as distributed across the transductive relations between humans and technical forms.

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