Bernard Stiegler (1952-2020): Another Dead Philosopher

by Amélie Berger Soraruff

There is nothing more banal for a philosopher than to be dead.

Doing philosophy often means walking down the aisle of a cemetery with your bouquet of chrysanthemums pressed against your chest, ready to be deposited on the grave of your beloved.

If you are a student, you may even take this for granted, picturing the biggest figures wearing white toga and sandals, walking on the marble floors of Ancient cities, talking about issues that are so remote from your concerns that somehow, you prefer to look at them as if they were dinosaurs wandering around Jurassic Park.

Or perhaps you don’t picture them at all. For you, Plato is a book you needed to read to succeed your final exams. Hegel ? Five-hundred pages of hell. Heidegger, a lot of very complicated German words that are not even used anymore in actual German !

In a way, this is true. Throughout time, philosophers cease to be human beings to become these objects you leave on your shelves.

Plato is a book.

Hegel is a book.

Sartre is a book.

You don’t talk to a philosopher, you turn their pages, you write on their margins and you skip their difficult parts, leaving them for later.

For what survives is the text; a dead thing that keeps a philosopher alive. And finally, it all comes down to memory, as to be alive despite lying six feet under (or seven, or eight, for that matter…) means being remembered.

A lot can be said about the ongoing dynamic between text and thought, writing and speech, matter and the mind, the inorganic and the organic, and on how these articulate memory, its sedimentation, its transmission.

If there was a philosopher for whom this was the primary question, it was with no contest Bernard Stiegler, an inspiring figure who died the 6th of August 2020. He left us with numerous works, including his three-volume masterpiece Technics and Time, but also Symbolic Misery, Acting Out, and many others.

Bernard Stiegler was atypical. So atypical in fact that I always wondered how he would tailor his CV for a job interview.

Of a modest social background, Stiegler grew up in Sarcelles (Paris), quit school to go from one job to another, joined and left the Communist Party. Later on, he ran a jazz club, then robbed banks multiple times before being caught and sent to the prison of Toulouse. After that, his life can be seen as a redemption story worthy of a Stephen King novel. Stiegler started studying philosophy while in jail, developed an evident taste for it, and when out, pursued his Masters degree and then his PhD under the successive supervisions of Jean-François Lyotard and Jacques Derrida.

As if that’s not enough, Stiegler’s maieutic contractions under his mentors gave birth to Technics and Time, his major work, which proposes to revisit Heidegger through the scope of Simondon and Leroi-Gourhan, in a deconstructive tone borrowed from Derrida (yes, that’s quite intimidating!)

Stiegler’s philosophical contributions soon caught the eye of the international scene and his popularity in the English speaking world grew year after year, work after work, conference after conference, to become as massive as it is today. No doubt, it will continue to expand for the next decades, his works now having the responsibility to do the talking for him.

Stiegler intervened on multiple occasions on the radio France Culture, founded Ars Industrialis — a collaborative project which addresses the issues of the technoculture we are living in — and opened his own philosophy school. More productive than the Ford factories assembling a Pinto, Stiegler wrote so many books, did so many things, it was hard to keep up.

Finally, like any celebrity, Stiegler had his followers, his detractors, and a bunch of people who were simply indifferent.

Feel free to pick your side.

For a number of us at the Scottish Center for Continental Philosophy, though, Stiegler was a figure we looked up to; an inspiring thinker we were hoping to one day invite for a conference dedicated to his work.

As you can guess, this won’t happen.

For me, Stiegler was the cornerstone of my research; the flesh and bone of my PhD.

The same way Stiegler came late to philosophy, I came late to Stiegler. Even now, I am still surprised how little attention he gets from French universities.

I always knew I wanted to write a thesis, but I didn’t always know on what. My encounter with Stiegler was an accident. I sat at a café in Edinburgh on a rainy day and complained about new technologies before being told (after a quite long and unproductive rant) : “why don’t you read Stiegler ?”

And so I did.

My rants about new technologies are now just as long as before, but definitely more informed and productive.

To be honest, between me and Stiegler it was not love at first sight (and definitely not at first read). With time, with patience, and sometimes with some wine, I revised my judgment.

It took me four years to achieve my thesis and the same amount of time to finally tell myself “I think I understand what he means now…”.

I read him so many times, talked about him constantly, and imagined how I better act smart the day I get to meet him.

Do you know this meme that says “What would Jesus do?”. Well, for me it was (and still is) “what would Stiegler think?”

What would Stiegler think about the new algorithms set on Facebook and Instagram ?

What would Stiegler think about Disney’s hegemony over the cinema industry?

What would Stiegler think about Greta Thunberg’s commitment to ecology?

What would Stiegler think about the Covid pandemic?

What would Stiegler think about… about…about…

And now he is dead.

Like thousands of philosophers before him, reduced to a book (or in his case, many books) on a shelf. But that does not mean he is like any of these other philosophers.

When I found out about his death, I prayed for it to be hoax, fake news, an alternative fact. And then I thought that like the Jim Morrison of his time, he faked his death to live peacefully somewhere else and perhaps form his own jazz band.

And then I thought: “What about the next volumes of Technics and Time, will they ever come out?”

And then I thought: “What about me?”

As selfish as it sounds, I really thought about me and how much of an orphan I feel now that he has passed away.

And then I thought about his family, those who knew him, spent time with him, had a laugh with him, and perhaps also an argument. I thought about those who shared with Stiegler some meaningless moments (which turn out often to be the most meaningful), talking about the last song they heard on the radio, the weather that has been dull for three days in a row now, or the hassle of going to the supermarket the week before Christmas. Or simply having a smoke with him, or a beer, or both.

I stopped thinking about me.

It is weird to write an obituary about someone you never met. I am not even sure I would have gotten along with Stiegler. But unless we create an app that mimes the structures of his consciousness based on his online interactions, there will be no way for me to find out.

This obituary is a little humorous, as you can see. You may find it’s tone inappropriate. But when I am sad, I laugh. There is more sincerity in my jokes than in my sobs. And what is more appropriate than sincerity on this occasion?

Stiegler was a thinker of technics. The crux of his philosophy is technics. For him, human beings are technical beings, meaning that we only exist in and through technics, in and through our interactions with external objects that make us, from the inside out.

The traces left on dead supports, such as a pile of sand, a chunk of stone, a piece of wood, a scrap of paper, a slate, and now a MacBook, constitute us, Stiegler argues (and he argues that really well!); they tie our individual experience and the collective history together insofar as our collective history is indeed the accumulation of multiple individual histories.

Weirdly enough, I am wondering what Stiegler’s Internet history (provided he did not delete it) looks like, and if there is something from his individual experience that will make it to posterity.

What a silly question; of course there will be. And there is no need to check his Google account for that. The moment he wrote Technics and Time, he made it to posterity.

Some people are alive, some are dead, and some are beyond that.

I guess you know to which category Stiegler belongs.