On August 7th (2020) news came through that Bernard Stiegler had died. In what may prove to have been his final collaborative work he questions the current model of “development” which determines contemporary politics and culture and which he argues condemns us to some form of death: “this destructive model of development is reaching its ultimate limits, and its ever greater manifest and multidimensional toxicity (health, environmental, mental, epistemological, economic), is brought about above all by the fact that the current industrial economy, is in all its sectors based on an outdated physical model.” In order to transform our societies and to fight against entropy – the forces of destruction of biodiversity, the climate, psyche—it is necessary to reconsider their foundations. Although not a person of faith according to any conventional interpretations, his ideas draw upon the contributions that religious practices can make to this process of reform and reconfiguration. As such political theology needs to be aware of his work and to draw upon his ideas.
In a major series of books Stiegler develops the idea of the pharmakon with specific reference to digital technology. To summarize the concerns which will emerge: a task is to work out which values are already embedded and assumed in specific applications of the technology in order to identify matters of concern, and then to establish if alternative values need to be introduced in order to construct systems that are more conducive to (human and non-human) wellbeing and therefore “life enhancing” rather than “life denying”. The pharmakon itself is neither necessarily remedy nor poison, but rather a context or space within which these various possibilities are played out through the assemblages which are formed. Stiegler argues that there is no first origin of human beings that predates the employment of tools, rather we become human through our relationships with those tools as we develop them and as they interactively shape and develop us in turn. From the beginning then technology is pharmacological, and recent developments are, on one level, a further stage in that continuing process. There are however significant differences between those earlier stages and the ways in which technology is now developing, and it is these which are the focus of interest. What are the factors that have determined this shift?
Stiegler argues that capitalism has now reached its limits and that the future of the planet in what he calls ‘control societies’ echoing Deleuze is open to question. It is the capture of human attention through the technologies of TV, radio and of course the digital, that has created this new context. The growth of problems such as attention deficit disorder he sees as symptoms of the current fragility of human capacity to engage appropriately and to develop the degree of care required to protect the planet.
One of the main problems with the speed at which the digital functions is that it short circuits our ability or energy to engage in critical thought and action: everything happens so quickly that those who can harness that speed to their own advantage do well out of this, at the same time discouraging others from taking the time to think, dwell and consider. Through control of elements of the Internet and the algorithms deployed by the Tech companies, and then the influence of social networks such as Facebook, people are trapped into responses and reactions before there is time to stand back and reflect. The concept of the pharmakon offers theology a means to analyse the individual instances of digital deployment and assess their impact accordingly.
A major value of Stiegler’s thought for theology is that it makes it clear that digital technology is so much more than just another set of technical additions to normal human functioning but that it is already an intrinsic component of contemporary existence. Rather than being an external set of mechanisms that allow for a greater flexibility and control, it has now become fundamental to many aspects of life. What humans have already become and are in the process of developing further is so intimately bound up with these technologies that the human itself has been reconfigured. To ignore technics is to be blind to the realities of normal existence. In which case the challenge is to understand how the technologies function, who controls them—invariably this is the major tech companies such as Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple and Facebook—and to establish some form of critical engagement. A very particular version of capitalism is largely in control whether or not we are even aware of this. This is damaging to desire, the freedom to imagine and dream, and indeed to knowledge itself. Stiegler suggests that knowledge that is not internalised risks being information rather than knowledge. He is concerned when any form of calculation or infidelity assumes dominance, which would indeed be a form of control. An alternative is knowledge which is both derived from, and contributes to, genuine participation.
Digital technology as employed by consumer culture and commercial interest risks short-circuiting the processes of reflection and critical thought. But the times and spaces provided by religion could provide an antidote to this. Stiegler talks about the dreams and intermittances which escape external control and enable the opportunity for alternative thoughts and experiences. The latter may be better placed to acknowledge difference as over against the standardisations which result from the uncritical use of digital technology. There needs to be a collective investment in the alternative means of savoir-vivre—knowing how to do, live and think—so that digital technology can serve dis-autonomisation.
The worst impacts of digital technology are the destruction of desire and the libidinal economy, thus leading to a loss of care and attention. Yet, religion can offer an alternative. He draws upon the ancient Roman distinction between otium and negotium. The former being those times and spaces for rest and reflection as contrasted with the activity and business of conflict or its contemporary equivalents in the commercial world. Religious versions may be found in the concepts of sacrifice, vocation or the slow work of time; differently paced engagements with those others to whom one should be connected, both human and non-human.
Stiegler helps us to recognise that digital technology is having an inescapable and profound impact upon human culture and the ways in which we develop as humans in our relationships with each other and the technology itself. We are in constant process ourselves and there are big questions about our own future which our religious beliefs and practices need to address in a realistic and grounded manner. But, as we have seen, there are also interpretations of religion which can offer a critical perspective on what is happening. If religion is about making connections, drawing together and assembling the different strands of our lives and societies and if we are also engaged in living out what might be called “forms of life” then knowledge cannot be reduced to information but involves knowing how to live more ethically and responsibly. If there is also that strand of our traditions that holds onto those experiences of God that remain beyond articulation and therefore cannot be reduced to the commercial to be exploited, then theology has things to offer. Shaping, formation, sacrifice, vocation and discipline are part of theological discourse and self-understanding and depend upon a different concept of time that could be an antidote to that being presented by the commercialised aspects of digital culture. Religion, like technology, is a pharmakon, but the challenge is to identify and live out those dimensions of it that offer remedies rather than poison.
A further concern that Stiegler draws to our attention is the need to construct a new public. What does political theology look like in the digital era when so much of what is disseminated and absorbed is the result of the rapid responses of Twitter and Facebook, and issues of truth and credibility come to the fore? Rather than encouraging people to try to discern truth from fiction, the objective seems to be to undermine the very notion of truth itself. Nothing is to be believed or trusted, so, whatever politicians say, or the media report, is of no consequence beyond its capacity to stir up emotions and shape public opinion and action. How then might religion restore faith in the future or provide resources to heal the epistemic breach through which political life has become impervious to reasoned debate?
Perhaps by deploying the interpretations of hospitality and fidelity to establish criteria by which to determine which assemblages are to be welcomed or critiqued. Digital as pharmakon has to acknowledge both the positive and negative impacts and the dangers of simply adopting the latest technology uncritically without understanding its full impacts. Care, fidelity, the slow work of time, the need for critical distance are each essential for an approach which welcomes the stranger or the “other” rather than reducing the human, political and cultural to a puppet of the Tech Companies and their political masters and allies.