States of Shock
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States of Shock

Stupidity and Knowledge in the 21st Century

Bernard Stiegler

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eBook - ePub

States of Shock

Stupidity and Knowledge in the 21st Century

Bernard Stiegler

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In 1944 Horkheimer and Adorno warned that industrial society turns reason into rationalization, and Polanyi warned of the dangers of the self-regulating market, but today, argues Stiegler, this regression of reason has led to societies dominated by unreason, stupidity and madness. However, philosophy in the second half of the twentieth century abandoned the critique of political economy, and poststructuralism left its heirs helpless and disarmed in face of the reign of stupidity and an economic crisis of global proportions. New theories and concepts are required today to think through these issues. The thinkers of poststructuralism Lyotard, Deleuze, Derrida must be re-read, as must the sources of their thought, Hegel and Marx. But we must also take account of Naomi Klein's critique of Milton Friedman and the Chicago School and her account of the 'shock doctrine'. In fact, argues Stiegler, a permanent 'state of shock' has prevailed since the beginning of the industrial revolution, intensified by the creative destruction brought about by the consumerist model. The result has been a capitalism that destroys desire and reason and in which every institution is undermined, above all those institutions that are the products par excellence of the Enlightenment the education system and universities. Through a powerful critique of thinkers from Marx to Derrida, Stiegler develops new conceptual weapons to fight this destruction. He argues that schools and universities must themselves be transformed: new educational institutions must be developed both to take account of the dangers of digitization and the internet and to enable us to take advantage of the new opportunities they make available.

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Part I
Pharmacology of Stupidity: Introduction to the Poststructuralist Epoch


Humanity, instead of entering a truly human state, is sinking into a new kind of barbarism.
Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer1

5 ‘A torrent of events is pouring down on mankind’: madness and regression

The impression that humanity has fallen under the domination of unreason or madness [déraison] overwhelms our spirit, confronted as we are with systemic collapses, major technological accidents, medical or pharmaceutical scandals, shocking revelations, the unleashing of the drives, and acts of madness of every kind and in every social milieu – not to mention the extreme misery and poverty that now afflict citizens and neighbours both near and far.
The notion that the rationalization characteristic of industrial societies leads to a regression into unreason is far from new. In 1944, in Dialektik der Aufklärung, translated into French by Éliane Kaufholz under the title La Dialectique de la Raison, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer characterized this inversion of reason as a regression (Rückschritt) ‘which is taking place everywhere today’.2 And they warned their contemporaries that ‘if enlightenment does not undertake work that reflects on this regressive moment, it seals its own fate’.3
If we then read the analyses of Karl Polanyi, also published in 1944, on the effects of the ‘self-regulating market’ and the ‘de-socialization of the economy’4 (which begins in the epoch of the Aufklärung), we are bound to wonder, almost seventy years later, about the degree to which ‘reason-formed-in-the-epoch-of-the-Enlightenment’ (I am attempting here to translate what Adorno and Horkheimer called the Aufklärung) has or has not undertaken this work of reflection:
A self-adjusting market […] could not exist for any length of time without annihilating the human and natural substance of society; it would have physically destroyed man and transformed his surroundings into a wilderness. […] Nothing could seem more inept than […] to argue the inevitable self-destruction of civilization on account of some technical quality of its economic organization. […] Yet it is this we are undertaking. […] As if the forces of change had been pent up for a century, a torrent of events is pouring down on mankind. A social transformation of planetary range is being topped by wars of an entirely new type in which a score of states have crashed.5

6 Still and always acting out: madness, irresponsibility, baseness

The Aufklärung, which the French translator of Dialektik der Auf­klärung chose to translate as ‘la Raison’, dressed up with a magisterial capital letter, this Aufklärung that will fail to undertake this work of reflection (and that will largely ignore the analyses of Polanyi) is not an impersonal power: it is a noetic possibility within each of us, and as such it constitutes, as a potential shared by everyone but one that must be actualized, a responsibility that is always both individual and collective. We are all reason-able in potential – if not in actuality.
The question is that of the passage to the act – reasonable or unreasonable [déraisonnable].
The passage to the noetic act, that is, to the reasonable act, is what the Aufklärung embodied by Kant conceived as an historical conquest: there is a history of reason here firstly in this sense (as passage to the historical act of reason – or of unreason). And this history is a social history – translating Aufklärung as Reason unfortunately effaces this historical and social dimension. It was on the basis of this Enlightenment legacy – of which Kant is the tutelary figure enjoining the reader to take their responsibility by daring to know (sapere aude!) and by passing from minority to majority – that Adorno and Horkheimer authored their Dialektik der Aufklärung.
To pass into the act of reason, which Aristotle called noēsis, is precisely and above all to struggle against that unreason [déraison] that manifests itself in many forms – between stupidity [bêtise] and madness [folie] and prospering on the terrain of ignorance, fantasy and, nowadays, the industrial exploitation of the drives,6 that is, as the planetary-wide extension and universalization of what Gilles Deleuze described as baseness.7
If reason forms itself (in passing through a Bildung), this is also and above all because it de-forms itself. It is a state that, both mental and social, is essentially precarious – and it is perhaps this that we, the latecomers of the twenty-first century, are the ones to have discovered: this ‘conquest’ we make remains always radically to be re-made and defended. What Adorno and Horkheimer added to the Kantian definition of the Aufklärung as conquest is that it must always be defended against itself, since it constantly tends, in becoming rationalization (that is, reification),8 to turn against itself as knowledge becomes stupidity – this dialecticization of the Aufklärung occurring after Weber's discovery that rationalization is characteristic of capitalist becoming.
Presenting itself in this way in the garb of rationalization, reason cannot avoid engendering the temptation of irrationality.
What perhaps we today have also discovered, and what we experience so painfully and anxiously, is that reason presupposes retentional conditions9 for its Bildung (I have described these elsewhere,10 and I will return to them in detail in the following). These conditions form and support individual and collective memory, which depend on hypomnesic techniques (on hypomnēmata) that have today been industrialized, and which, with the development of rationalization, are no longer in the control of any public or noetic powers: they have passed into the hands of what Polanyi called the ‘self-regulating market’.11
Hence what is occurring, on a scale and in conditions that were hitherto inconceivable, is the effect of what Gramsci described as a cultural hegemony that de-forms reason12 – reason understood in Enlightenment terms as that historical and social conquest that now seems to decompose so rapidly into rationalization. Hence the reign of stupidity, baseness (vulgarity) and madness that, disturbing us greatly but preventing us from transforming this inquietude into thinking, instead gives rise to fear, which is a bad counsellor.13
We have perhaps failed to reflect on Adorno and Horkheimer's thinking in relation to what they referred to as the Aufklärung, conceived in the eighteenth century as the conquest of maturity and the struggle against minority. Perhaps this failure has consisted in continuing to ignore the need for an analysis of the hypomnesic conditions of this conquest that is the formation of reason, ...

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