To the Zoo with Philosophy – Stiegler, Bears, Marx and Monkeys

Sadly, but perhaps sensibly, my section on Animals in Bernard Stiegler’s work had to be ruthlessly cut back for lack of space in the journal it was destined for (New Formations). The rest of the article will be available in the new year (its on Marx and Steigler, a critique of Stiegler’s use of ‘proletarianization’) but you can write me to get a draft. Here is the bit that was just cut out, with a new – perhaps too frivolous – first line… even if the rest is a bit frivvy too…

Animals Graze (a family drama) with Bernard Stiegler.

Let us go to the zoo with philosophy – favourite places for family outings – and look at the animals. There are a huge number of creatures to see – owls, eagles, lions, even a mole in Marx (well grubbed). The animal of choice, for Stiegler, is the stag that, both vigilant and grazing, can protect its young as it nibbles away at the undergrowth.

‘A grazing animal, for example, a stag (a forest herbivore …) is vigilant at the same time that it grazes, first with regard to the possible proximity of predators; it can, moreover, even while grazing and protecting itself, also protect its young, as well as its grazing mate, who is herself protecting her young.[i]

This is Bambi in the bourgeois family but not the only animal example Stiegler offers (not surprising given Derrida’s fascination with beasts[ii]). In his autobiographical-theoretical book Acting Out, Stiegler refers to a flying fish to describe his experience of incarceration in prison. This entailed a separation from the world that allowed him to contemplate his milieu ‘as does a flying fish, above his element’.[iii] Certainly not your average jail-bird, Stiegler then plunged into philosophy. The animal metaphors are further consolidated when he writes of the radio, television, internet and audiovisual electronic technologies that engender repetitive behaviour like that of a ‘herd’ in Nietzsche’s sense.[iv] And of course the privileged animal in Stiegler’s work is the eagle picking away at Prometheus’ liver, the poor old partisan of recurrent time and order barely thanked.[v]

These animals become interesting when Stiegler calls for a new political economy and reviews several ways of overcoming tendential decline of profit rate, leading to a discussion of bears: In the nineteenth century the rate of profit was maintained by secularisation of belief via calculable science and technique, the new social projects of schooling, nationalism, health etc., progressively exported globally (on the back of astonishing violence); then in the twentieth century, by means of consumerism and capture of protentions through channelling of attention by way of new media, ‘psychotechnologies’ and service industry-entertainment industry expansion. To this would need to be added colonial markets, imperialism, war and the mining, metals, industrial agriculture, war and the arms trade, plus financial services.

Indeed, it is with reference to the last of these that Stiegler suggests the recent crisis is a collapse of the older moves to avoid the rate of profit’s decline, a collapse that occurs through short termism, time of knowledge and of investment erased, proletarianization of retention as loss of knowledge extensive. There is a contradiction that cannot be bridged – the rate of profit falls again. But the question to ask here might be if this is still to have understood, in Marxist terms, the tendency for the rate of profit to fall as a crisis of credit and an exhaustion of the fundamental expansion which had previously been the bulwark against credit problems? Looking to Stiegler’s characterisation of capitalism as system of protentions, should this not rather be understood in a larger geo-political continuum? For the nineteenth century the key strategy is colonial expansion and its economic plunder, for the twentieth century war and global militarism, for the emergent twenty-first century terror and control?

The tendential fall in the rate of profit is described curiously by Stiegler as something Marx posits in a particular way, but that Marxists, and ‘probably Marx’ did not understand it this way; that is: capitalism as ‘a dynamic system threatened by a limit that would be reached if the bearish tendency to which the very functioning of the profit rate gives rise were to achieve completion’.[vi] I am particularly interested in this bear. An animal that Marx does not reason with, according to Stiegler, even if this strange beast does not invalidate Marx’s identification of the tendency.

First of all, is it a bear? Does Stiegler get what Marx has in mind here? Capitals are competing with each other in a circumstance where expansion is necessary to maintain rollover of production at a rate that maintains profits and this cannot be sustained indefinitely without intervention of countervailing tendencies. Political expansion as well as credit. The discussion of speculative finance capital and time is of course relevant, but Marx on credit is, usually, not an unfamiliar topic, and it is just here that the focus on finance possibly misses something crucial both to the character of industrial capitalism, and to the argument about proletarianization. The usurers that Marx lambasts in the early chapters of Capital were not nice guys, and there should be no reason to applaud the activities of the creditors of big capital. These are not bears asleep in caves, but rather rogue traders – metaphorically beastly animals roaming the (financial) woods. But crucially, the analysis here is of mercantile and credit capital, not industry.

For sure, these bears also fight each other and create mayhem. Stiegler’s concern with the self-preservation of capital is not a concern of any individual bear. Capitalists eat each other. Greed is good, Gecko said (another animal). There are of course many rogue bears, even in Stiegler’s commentary, and Bernard Madoff is his prime example. Gecko too comes to a sticky end, and not in a jar of honey. But every time the bear appears Stiegler also tends to tell us about something of which Marx was ‘unaware’[vii] – in this case marketing, but in others it is always a new and unforeseen response of capital in America and so forth. For Stiegler, the proletarianized consumer’s libidinal energy is a new energy that Marx could not anticipate, even where Marx discusses consumption as productive. The bear in the woods however, is that Marx was working on his ‘economic shit’ and although his comments on circulation of commodities are possibly underdeveloped in comparison to his comments on factory production proper, this does not at all mean he ignored the sphere of consumption.

For Stiegler the capitalist system is bearish or fictitiously speculative, and we are told Marx failed to take this ‘fully into account’.[viii] I want to suggest, with respect, that the bear here is too easy to trap. Marx is not talking in the way that Weber of Schumpeter might talk of cultural determinants, or in a way that rests at the level of consumption peculiarly uninterested in what goes on in foreign woods where Goldilocks will not venture. Even at six volumes, the project of the book Capital is an unfolding analysis and incomplete, but there are sufficient hints and suggestions to assure us that credit is not the core of the analysis of industrial capital, but a supplementary tendency to be analyzed in turn.[ix] That this has been obscured is then compounded when we turn to the cultural.

The key to Stiegler’s thinking here is that the rate of profit no longer has to do with a credit crisis, but is rather the consequence of a culture of corruption, where capital becomes ‘Mafia-esque’ and a dominant, and Freud-esque, ‘consumption-drive’ is no longer to be understood in relation to the equation P equals surplus over constant and variable cost of production, that is ‘a profit that no longer bears any relation to the profit rate calculated by…’ Marx.[x] This form of capitalism ‘cannot be thought with Marxist concepts alone’.[xi]

The new economy associates the ‘bearish consequences’ of the present milieu of capitalism and ‘the tendential fall of the rate of profit and it’s consumerist counter tendency’[xii] with a stupidity that is the proletarianization of the nervous system. Though he does not move past the bear enclosure to other pens, this is the mentalist version of the trained gorilla captured in the evocative internet-generation phrase, that I owe to Matt Fuller, of ‘web monkeys’. These web monkeys are best imagined as the hapless operatives of a call centre keying in basic purchase information for a home delivery service, or better, the poor ciders condemned to work at ever more efficient algorithms for estimating consumer preferences from past browser clicks and purchases.

Web monkeys however are not to be thought of as new media start-ups (with funny haircuts and junk food addictions pace Douglas Coupland novels, they are rather the shock troops of short-term industrial and institutional transformation. In my own sector, we employ an ever greater number of these terminal-bound Promethean types, and of course every Professor is turned more and more into a data entry flunky by the administrative imperative. This is global and has happened in a fit of absence of mind (to which of course professors are also very much suspect). It is to his credit that  Stiegler notes the institution of new global universities as an alternative, in the battle for intelligence, to the onset of attention deficit disorder in the United States, but we might also consider that these Global Universities also have an imperious cast, and cautiously and not without concern for the pharmaceutical interests that profit from ADD and its key product Ritilin™, that the escalation and multiplication of attention deficit – ignoring protocols of media attentiveness – is globalism on the march. Though, in the face of this, and again with Coupland’s novels in mind, a willful refusal to attend might also be a basis for resistance and struggle. Another kind of university, learning to live despite mediatisation and real subsumption.

Missing in Steigler’s narrative here is the great critique of industrial capital in these forms – this has also been said of Derrida by Spivak.[xiii] An adequate grasp of industrial processing and specifically, in relation to proletarianization, the way industrial transformations drive deskilling and cooperation, is necessary to understand the present composition of capital. Stiegler’s analysis is often good for mercantile or credit capital – vicious and unacceptable – but it is not yet an analysis of what is at stake in industrial capitalism. This is compounded by a versioning of the tendential decline of the rate of profit that transmuted this ‘law’ into culture and corruption rather than credit as a culture of financial sector corruption-opportunism. We need more than fear of bears here. We need bears in the woods, shitting…

[i] Bernard Stiegler, Taking Care of Youth and the Generations Stanford, Stanford University Press, (2008) 2010, p78.

[ii] See the work of Richard Iveson on animals and Derrida’s Bestiary – PhD dissertation to be submitted to the Centre for Cultural Studies, Goldsmiths in 2011. This is also an opportunity to note that the disturbing picture in The Guardian (29.10.2010) of the baby elephant in a struggle with a crocodile (see pic) had a moral narrative – the herd of elephants together made sufficient noise to fend off the croc. For once, perhaps despite itself, The Guardian offers up something noteworthy. But this is a dog eat dog world, and the animal kingdom is horrific rather than stupid, unlike the human terrain.

[iii] Bernard Stiegler, Acting Out, Stanford, Stanford University Press, (2003) 2009, p15.

[iv] Ibid., p48., my italics.

[v] Bernard Stiegler, Technics and Time 1: The Fault of Epimetheus, Stanford:, Stanford University Press, (1994) 1998, p202.

[vi] Bernard Stiegler, For a New Critique of Political Economy, Cambridge, Polity (2009) 2010, p75, my italic.

[vii] Ibid., p88.

[viii] Ibid., p89.

[ix] See the work of Felton C, Shorthall, The Incomplete Marx, Aldershot, Avebury, 1994.

[x] Stiegler, For a New Critique, p92.

[xi] Ibid., p87.

[xii] Ibid., p126.

[xiii] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ‘Ghostwriting’, Diacritics 25, 2. (1995), pp65-84.


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