Purple Magazine
— The Cosmos Issue #32

an interview with bernard stiegler

theory BERNARD STIEGLER 

how can philosophy address the limits of growth, an ecological apocalypse, digitization, and cultural decline? the end of the world is in sight. we’re at a breaking point where science, technology, and knowledge need to unite and create new social models

interview by JOHN JEFFERSON SELVE
portrait by JONAS UNGER 

JOHN JEFFERSON SELVE — First of all, can you tell us about your relation to this place? We’re in Épineuil-le-Fleuriel, in the middle of the countryside, a magnificent place in the center of France.
BERNARD STIEGLER — Everything here is beautiful. And the light of the old flour mill, an industrial building put up in the 1950s with big bay windows… It’s now a housing block whose three stories all have views over the trees, the meadows, and the bief — the millstream that once powered the turbine and, before that, the waterwheel. You can see a long way from here — for kilometers from the windows to the Massif Central, which is visible from the southern terrace. To the west is the Creuse region. It was essentially mills and monasteries — Noirlac Abbey is 12.4 miles away — that, in the 11th century, foreshadowed what would later become the Industrial Revolution and the transformation of Western Europe, leading in turn to the transformation of the whole world. For reasons that have to do both with my own life and with highly formal considerations connected with the sciences and philosophy, I attach the greatest importance to questions of place and non- place, of taking place and giving place. And in this very place where we are at this moment, I am now trying to theorize locality.

JOHN JEFFERSON SELVE — What do you mean? In opposition to the global?
BERNARD STIEGLER — The fundamental question is singularity and its future, whether we are talking about biodiversity or what, in the groups I work with, we call neo-diversity. What you call the global is what has liquidated the world. That’s why it’s inappropriate to translate “globalization,” in English, by mondialisation in French. “Globalization” has generated the immonde — the foul, filth. It has destroyed the world that the Greeks called the kosmos.

JOHN JEFFERSON SELVE — Can the local be linked to cosmology?
BERNARD STIEGLER — A cosmology establishes scales and consecrates places. Up until the 16th century, the Western cosmology was Aristotelian. Aristotle posited that the physis [nature] was constituted by an ordering of places, topoi. These places designated the differences between regimes of individuation, between the ordinary (in Aristotle, the sublunar) and the extraordinary (the divine celestial), whereas in shamanic worlds spirits constituted places (spirits of place), and in monotheisms the heavens distinguished the transcendent from the immanent (in continuity with Aristotle’s ontology). For Aristotle, indeed, what is under the moon is subject to contingency, “the place of corruption,” whereas “the fixed sphere” (the stars) embodies the necessary, an object of contemplation (theorein, a verb that is also the root of theos, of theory and of theater). “The fixed sphere” is the place of mathematical beings. For both the Greeks and the Egyptians, mathematics arose from the observation of the sky recorded on the register of the ephemerides. Such is the Greco-Western cosmology. But there are cosmologies in all societies: the Eskimos, American Indians, and Africans have their own cosmologies, as do the Chinese and Indians.

JOHN JEFFERSON SELVE — Where does Western cosmogony stand in relation to the idea of locality?
BERNARD STIEGLER — Modern science — and, with it, modernized (industrial) society — has posited the principle that, from the point of view of truth, itself conceived after the model of mathematical physics, there are no places: place is only a local contingency with no intrinsic value. That’s to say that everything everywhere is equivalent and “universal” in this admittedly very impoverished sense of the word (which is not at all what Aristotle meant by it, for example). That is the Newtonian theory. This physics-based universality in emerging industry translated into the universalization of modes of production, which would also destroy a large part of the diversity of cultures and of ways of living and producing. It would engender what Karl Marx was to call proletarianization. However, in 1971, a Romanian mathematician, Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen — who at the time was working on econometrics with Joseph Schumpeter — posited that the model of “creative destruction” and, more generally, the model of consumer capitalism were false. These models were based on a Newtonian vision of physics, when in fact physics hasn’t been Newtonian since the 19th century: it was transformed by thermodynamics — that is to say, by the theory of entropy. In the 19th century, starting with the work of the French engineer and physicist Nicolas Léonard Sadi Carnot, then with William Thomson, Rudolf Clausius, and Ludwig Boltzmann, thermodynamic theory has posited that the universe is not infinite and that it is headed toward its own “thermal death.” The thermal death of the universe is engendered by the universal and irreversible dissipation of energy. Matter is itself energy becoming dissipated, which means it is bound to become chaotic. And yet today, economics, corporate accounting systems, and states follow the Newtonian model, which does not take entropy into account, and this is extremely serious. That is why the world is in the process of destroying itself. The latest report by United Nations experts on the state of the world is devastating.

JOHN JEFFERSON SELVE — Can you tell us about your idea of negentropy, in opposition to the entropy of the world?
BERNARD STIEGLER — It’s not my idea — it’s the idea of Erwin Schrödinger, formulated in 1944, after astrophysical observation had confirmed the hypothesis of thermal cooling by bringing to light the expansion of the universe. In 1929, Edwin Hubble demonstrated that the universe is a dissipative process and not a stable state, leading to what is known in English as “cooling.” In 1944, Schrödinger showed that living beings on Earth do, however, escape the law of entropy, albeit only temporarily and locally. Temporarily, because they always end up giving in to it: they die, and death is entropy carrying away life. Living beings temporarily and spatially produce negative entropy, or negentropy, which is always local and is given concrete form in a niche that is itself part of a biotope.

JOHN JEFFERSON SELVE — You are saying that the world, le monde, is becoming immonde — disgusting? Pollution aside, how is this manifested?
BERNARD STIEGLER — We have to be clear about this: we are in a very worrying situation. The situation everywhere is bad — 95% of the world’s scientists say that the situation is absolutely catastrophic, if not utterly hopeless. Many people around the world are living in a state of great psychological, emotional, and aesthetic distress, even in so-called rich countries. Richard Durn was a precursor, if I can put it like that. He killed eight people and wounded 19 one day in March 2002 at a meeting of the Nanterre municipal council, just outside Paris, using semiautomatic pistols, then took his own life. At the time, he wrote of his existential despair in a private diary, in which he said he had lost the sensation of existing. That is what an immonde situation is: it’s when you have the feeling that you cannot exist anymore. If you do not recognize yourself as existing, then you do not recognize what is around you. That is wordlessness, l’immonde, for you and I. And it can make you mad, unhappy, suicidal, or criminal. Donald Trump voters suffer from this feeling. And in China, 15% of the population is thought to be depressive. It’s worse, much worse, in Japan.

JOHN JEFFERSON SELVE — Why are we destroying our locality?
BERNARD STIEGLER — In as much as it is based on the economies of scale, the industrial economy strives to purely and simply obliterate the local and to radically realize a perfectly free and computational global market in which everything that remains incalculable or resists global calculability must be eliminated. The result is that localities in all forms are short-circuited, from niches of biodiversity to psychic singularities, via the existential characteristics engendered by constraints of geography, climate, etc. Along with this goes, for example, the possibility for parents of raising their children in a singular way: today, parenthood is massively short-circuited by smartphones. Right now, I’m working on setting up a clinic in a northern suburb of Paris to care for children and families whose psychic apparatuses have been totally destroyed by smartphones — tiny kids who, after two or three years of such a regimen, are declared autistic. The negation of locality can mean wanting to eat tomatoes and French beans in Paris in the month of January, as much as the subjection of local, regional, national, or continental rights to a model that has, for that very reason, become entropic — and anthropic. Anthropy is the term for the combination of thermodynamic, biological, and informational forms of entropy, a combination that is drastically accelerating the toxic development of the Anthropocene era, at a time when information technology has installed what we call disruption.

JOHN JEFFERSON SELVE — You say that this disastrous situation is also linked to the erosion of knowledge.
BERNARD STIEGLER — This is the result of a process described by Adam Smith and later Karl Marx. In 1776, analyzing the industrial division of labor, Smith described a loss of knowledge. Marx and Engels went on to say in 1848 that the know-how of workers was being replaced by the automatism of machines, and that this reality would go on to affect technicians, then engineers, and finally all spheres of society. That is what we are living through today. With automation and artificial intelligence, architects, doctors, lawyers, the police — everyone — are being proletarianized by the progress of automation. That is why Alan Greenspan, then-chairman of the Federal Reserve of the United States, when he was called into question for his role in the subprime mortgage crisis, defended himself by telling the House Committee in Washington on October 23, 2008, that he had lost his economic knowledge and that nobody knew how the system worked any more.

JOHN JEFFERSON SELVE — So, basically, it’s gone crazy?
BERNARD STIEGLER — This is extremely serious because it engenders chaotic phenomena. There’s a risk that the financial crisis of 2008 will be repeated, but worse. It’s a problem of information entropy, as was the crash in 1987 — Catherine Distler has shown that automatic trading was already creating problems of self-referential entropy in financial information systems. But it’s just as true of social media networks. John Pfaltz at the University of Virginia has demonstrated that these are bound to self-destruct because of informational entropy. The industrial society of the 19th century brought about the proletarianization of manual workers. The society of the 20th century has seen the proletarianization of consumers, losing their sense of how to live, not knowing how to eat or dress any more, not knowing how (and not being able) to raise their children — not knowing anything anymore. In the 21st century, doctors, lawyers, architects, and thinkers in general are being pro-letarianized. This is very worrying, especially because this confining entropy is leading to a growth in the death drive.

JOHN JEFFERSON SELVE — And can this death drive go all the way to the desire to get away from Earth? I’m thinking of Elon Musk’s SpaceX program, for example.
BERNARD STIEGLER — We’re told that he’s rather depressive, this Elon Musk. There is something fragile about him, and perhaps that’s what makes him an authentic genius, endowed with an extreme lucidity that drives him to despair. It seems to me that he’s trying to transform his despair into a totally illusory hope — the aim for him is emancipation from Planet Earth. Now, this “dream” of emancipation (which for me is more like a nightmare of renouncing all the things that make life worth living) is a pure illu- sion. A rocket can’t getaway from what at Cape Canaveral and at Kourou they call the “ground segment” — that is, Earth. If these systems projected into interplanetary space are to work, they always need a terrestrial base. That’s why this ideology off light, often combined with transhumanism, is a pure fantasy. I think it was Peter Thiel who was the first person to talk about flight. In those days, it wasn’t space, but an island in the Pacific, 13.7 miles off the coast of San Francisco, just outside the territorial waters, which meant that he could escape both American laws and American taxes, while benefiting, if necessary, from hospitals and, of course, the “gray matter” trained at Berkeley and Stanford. All these people who claim to embody the future are actually trying to runaway.Musk is more likable because in the end it has made him mad, or at least if we are to believe the news, which may or may not be fake — we can’t tell.

JOHN JEFFERSON SELVE — Why are they trying to escape?
BERNARD STIEGLER — They know they’re in the process of destroying the world, that it will soon become uninhabitable. These people are trying to provide the possibility of escaping what they are creating, while engaging in an act of storytelling in order to hide that flight, presenting it as marvelous progress — all this so that they can impose a global marketing strategy that will enable them to get their hands on, say, medical, educational, security, and urban development markets. These people are perfectly irrational ultra-libertarians.

JOHN JEFFERSON SELVE — So, what can we do? We feel utterly powerless.
BERNARD STIEGLER — I don’t give many interviews, and if I wanted to talk with you, it was for a precise reason. I am starting up an initiative with scientists, jurists, economists, math- ematicians, engineers, artists, philosophers, political scientists, and citizens to formulate a very precise response to the speech given a little less than a year ago by the Secretary General of the United Nations, António Guterres, after the latest report by the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panelon Climate Change], which was even more catastrophic than the 2014 one. Because if you look at the appeal issued on November 13, 2017, and signed by 15,384 researchers in 184 countries, if you look at the latest report by the IPCC, if you listen to Guterres’s speech at the UN in September 2018, and then the one in January 2019 at the Davos forum, you will see that all these speeches are saying the same thing: we need to change the economy. There is no other solution. We have decided to answer that appeal by offering to rethink the economy using the resources of science and proposing a method of territorial experiments on a very large scale, with the aim of identifying the conditions for a positive bifurcation of transition, and by practicing what we call contributive research.

JOHN JEFFERSON SELVE — Is practical action possible?
BERNARD STIEGLER — This proposal made at the international level draws on experiments currently under way in northern suburbs of Paris, which I mentioned earlier, with the support of companies like Dassault Systèmes, Orange, Société Générale, the Caisse des Dépôts et Consignations, Danone, the Fondation de France, the AFNIC [French Network Information Centre] foundation, and, most recently, Sodexo. We are trying to develop new economic and industrial models that remain within the capitalist economy, but are based on the systemic valorization of negentropy and the fight against entropy. Negentropy results from the implementation of new knowledge, which needs to be systematically valorized (by ad hoc distribution processes and a new definition of work and of the world of work), whereas the struggle against entropy must lead to its systemic penalization.

JOHN JEFFERSON SELVE — But aren’t these big groups, which by definition are driven by profit, playing a cynical double game?
BERNARD STIEGLER — These businesses are directed by people who are lucid and well informed and who, just like you and me, want the world to continue after them, with their children and grandchildren. And in that sense they are, as we all are, increasingly concerned. The big companies, whether on the stock exchange or not, are run by rational people; otherwise, it wouldn’t work. In a company, there are the producers, the managers, and the shareholders — these are three very different entities that need to be able to work together. It’s always complicated. It is very common for shareholders to want things that the manager finds irresponsible. As things stand, we have to convince the shareholders that if the whole economy collapses, they will come down with it.

JOHN JEFFERSON SELVE — GAFA [Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon] don’t show much sign of this awareness, do they? BERNARD STIEGLER — They’re caught up in a kind of extra rational madness. They live with a feeling of omnipotence, which is a typical sign of madness, although the flak hitting Facebook does suggest that they may now be coming into contact with a bit of reality. Ultra-libertarians are convinced that they can go beyond all the limits, which of course is absolutely impossible, especially as regards entropy — which is the limit of limits, so to speak. Still, I do know players in Silicon Valley who have stopped talking in those terms. In fact, the majority of the people who are really lucid about these questions are in the US. But the whole planet is going to have to wake up, and in particular Europe and France.

JOHN JEFFERSON SELVE — Where does the most recent danger come from, in your view?
BERNARD STIEGLER — Five years ago, in a symposium titled “L’Automatisation Totale et Généralisée” [“Total and Gen- eralized Automation”], which I organized at the Pompidou Center with my research institute and our partners, we described the assimilation of all our instinctual, social, and economic automatisms by algorithms that anticipate and manipulate all human behaviors. That is what the social media platforms do, and Facebook in particular. They use algorithms — that is to say, automatisms that integrate, trace, and manipulate our automatisms. As for industrial production, it is itself increasingly automated. Today, agriculture, too, is automated. We now have driverless tractors followed by satellites. They even carry out automatic analyses of the earth and the dosage of inputs. There’s rental via Airbnb, which is automating the management of property assets. There’s the creation of the autonomous car. And this goes all the way up to the “mother” robot, which offers to look after children in the mother’s place, and which has just been put on the market in France, etc. Add to this automation the humanoid robotization found in companies, and notably in China — where, for example, Foxconn in Shenzhen has 1.5 million employees, but has already sacked 200,000 workers, to be replaced by robots. This is no longer the stuff of science fiction — it is the heart of current reality. We’re seeing a general destruction of work. And prospective studies estimate that the fall in employment over the next 20 years will be from 10% (according to an OECD report from 2018 — the percent- age was revised upward to 14% in 2019) to 50% for the worst-case scenarios of MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] and Oxford. That means that the system is no longer solvent: if people can no longer buy, the market can no longer function. The question we must then ask — and that arose in the United States in 1933 when Franklin D. Roosevelt asked John Maynard Keynes to elaborate a very new macroeconomic vision — is that of the modification of the criteria and categories of value in economics. We imperatively need to change the fields and functions of the redistribution of the new gains in productivity in order to ensure the solvency of the markets.

JOHN JEFFERSON SELVE — And how is negentropy a solution to this — a dynamics of survival?
BERNARD STIEGLER — The most rational way of redistributing is to encourage the beneficiaries of redistri- bution through what we call a contributive revenue to acquire knowledge, enabling them to produce negentropy and thereby valorizing their knowledge through intermittent jobs. Negentropy, in a human being, is above all the fruit of knowledge — knowing how to live, how to do and make things, how to conceive and spiritualize. Everybody can help to increase negentropy, and therefore to diminish entropy. From the young Zinédine Zidane, learning to dribble like no other soccer player and therefore bringing to soccer something that nobody else was able to produce in that world, all the way to the mother who brings up her child while cultivating what is best in the singularity of her child and giving her the love she needs in a singular way — all this, as well as the theory of general relativity, is negentropy. In Seine-Saint- Denis, through the Territoire Apprenant Contributif [Contributive Learning Territory] program, which puts these ideas into practice in a very concrete way, we’re aiming to create 10% of intermittent jobs within 20 years. We are not saying that the whole economy is going to become contributive, but that the fall in employment must be offset by the revival of contributive work outside the workplace, supported by the contributive income that will be attributed, however, only if the person regularly does intermittent jobs. In the current model for France’s intermittents du spectacle [concerning all those employed in the performing arts, television, and cinema], they can receive 70% of their last salary — that is to say, [their pay from] their last intermittent job — providing that they clock up at least 507 hours of intermittent work over 10 months. We think that this model needs to be gradually extended into sectors where we can reintroduce and valorize negentropy. We’re working on such projects in the fields of care, food, construction, recycling, remotorization, and energy. For example, in construction — one of the sectors that consumes the most energy and emits the most carbon dioxide — we are working to use the coming robotization as an opportunity to introduce working with and valorizing clay, which is very abundant in the Paris area and that is currently treated as waste. For that, you need to be capable of working with it. You need to learn to use a certain kind of automation intelligently to increase negentropy and reduce entropy. This is perfectly possible.

JOHN JEFFERSON SELVE — You’re working in every direction!
BERNARD STIEGLER — Not all of them, but in the ones that seem relevant on this territory — negentropy can only be produced locally. We have thus set up a contributive clinic for children who have addiction problems with smartphones. Mothers are increasingly using their smartphones to keep their child quiet… And after three years, these children are showing autistic symptoms or are catalogued as autistic and placed on paths that lead to social failure. We started this approach with the help of Emmanuel Faber, director of Danone, and thanks to his Fondation des Bois. We are also working with him and Sodexo from this starting point that is the contributive clinic to redefine and concretize the conditions for quality urban agriculture and food.

JOHN JEFFERSON SELVE — But, to quote Hegel, doesn’t thought always lag behind our technological evolution and the artificial intel- ligence that is going to govern us?
BERNARD STIEGLER — What algorithms do, when they go four million times faster than we do, is not thought — it’s calculation. And a system that comes round to self-calculating also becomes self-referential and entropic. Let’s be a bit more Kantian here. What constitutes thinking is not just analysis and calculation — it’s the synthesis that is capable of taking a decision that no calculation will ever take. A good doctor, for example, takes decisions that are singular every time because a patient is always singular. Analysis deals with things that are calculable; synthesis, with the incalculable. To put it another way, entropy is calculable; negentropy is incal- culable. The first person to show this was the zoologist and paleontologist Georges Cuvier: however much we may know about the history of a species, we cannot anticipate its future. And, from this viewpoint, thought is faster than the calculations of algorithms (two-thirds of the speed of light) — it is a bifurcation that goes infinitely faster because it cannot be calculated. It’s a matter not of quantification but of qualification.

JOHN JEFFERSON SELVE — You’re an optimist?
BERNARD STIEGLER — I’m neither an optimist nor a pessimist — those are just moods. If you’re fighting on the front line, you don’t ask yourself those kinds of questions. You go for it, and that’s all. We need to do now what is necessary to get ourselves out of this mess as best we can. We have to be rational. That said, you do need courage, and what is going to stiffen that? It’s resolution. Telling yourself that there is no alternative. And, at the same time, it means starting to dress (panser) the wounds — that is to say, to think (penser) in terms of acting, and acting to heal wounds. That is what I set out in my latest book, Qu’Apelle-t- on Panser? [What Is Called Caring?]. The objectives that are being pursued in Seine-Saint-Denis are also being worked on by an international group that on January 10, 2020, will present at the Palace of Nations in Geneva a memorandum of understanding written by a group of scientists, economists, jurists, artists, philosophers, and citizens in response to the speeches given by António Guterres at the UN headquarters and then at Davos over the past year. You will find the general ideas and latest developments on the website internation.world. It puts forward for the whole world a method of transition based on research carried out by the contributive learning territories on varying scales, from village to state, proposing the constitution of what, following the foundation of the League of Nations by President Woodrow Wilson on January 10, 1920, the anthropologist Marcel Mauss called an “internation.”

END

PORTRAIT BY JONAS UNGER JUDY CHICAGO, ZIG ZAG, 1965/2018, ACRYLIC ON CANVAS-COVERED PLYWOOD / PHOTO JOSHUA WHITE COURTESY OF THE ARTIST / SALON 94, NEW YORK / JESSICA SILVERMAN GALLERY, SAN FRANCISCO / JEFFREY DEITCH,<br />LOS ANGELES / COPYRIGHT JUDY CHICAGO / ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK / COPYRIGHT ADAGP, PARIS, 2019 JUDY CHICAGO, BRIDGE ATMOSPHERE, 1970, FIREWORKS PERFORMANCE. PERFORMED AT CAL-STATE FULLERTON CAMPUS, FULLERTON, CALIFORNIA / PHOTO THROUGH THE FLOWER ARCHIVES COURTESY OF THE ARTIST / SALON 94, NEW YORK / JESSICA SILVERMAN GALLERY, SAN FRANCISCO / JEFFREY DEITCH,<br />LOS ANGELES / COPYRIGHT JUDY CHICAGO / ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK / COPYRIGHT ADAGP, PARIS, 2019

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The Cosmos Issue #32

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