In Memoriam: Bernard Stiegler

Caradt is deeply saddened by the unexpected death of the great French philosopher Bernard Stiegler. This eulogy was written by Caradt professor Sebastian Olma in collaboration with the US-American artist/theorist Brian Holmes.

Bernard Stiegler
1 April 1952 – 6 August 2020

credits: Berkeley Center for New Media – 2016

On August 6th the French philosopher Bernard Stiegler took his life. It is by way of fellow philosopher Paul Jorion that we don’t need to speculate about potential reasons for his suicide. According to Jorion’s blog, Stiegler suffered from a serious health condition and knew that the next time it came back, he would not be strong enough to survive. This doesn’t make his death at the mere age of 68 any less tragic. However, his important philosophical and political legacy is left intact. So, until (or if) further and clearer word comes, we will think of him as a calm and determined Stoic who chose the moment of his passing. His philosophical lifework was, among other things, an invitation to reclaim the art of savoir vivre. His death an example of savoir mourir.

We, the authors of this eulogy, come from relatively disparate backgrounds: a Californian who’s lived in Paris for two decades before returning to the US and an East German who moved through New York and London to end up in Amsterdam. Politically and philosophically we used to agree on very little, until the philosophy of Bernard Stiegler turned us into friends and intellectual allies. Only one of us ever met Stiegler, but we both gradually absorbed his ethos and it made us who we are today.

Stiegler gave us a philosophy that approached the human condition from the point of view of technology because he saw humans as essentially technological beings. Using the Greek myth of the Titan brothers Prometheus and Epimetheus as his point of departure, Stiegler argued that it is technology (the Promethean theft of divine fire) that renders the precarity of human existence its ontological strength. It is from such an understanding of humanity and technology as converging (and diverging) lines of historical evolution that Stiegler developed his radical critique of digital political economy. To our minds, his understanding of contemporary technology was second to none. In large part, this was due to the fact that his philosophy transcended academic form. Like all great philosophers before him (and hardly any contemporary philosophers today), Stiegler knew that in order to understand the human condition, one needs to be able to look at the world from different disciplinary perspectives. Consequently, Stiegler was also a sociologist, a psychologist, a political economist, and someone who deeply cared about politics, popular culture, and art. He combined this kind of intellectual scope and agility with a profound philosophical care for the world, and in particular for younger generations. There is a good chance that being a failed bank robber also helped to develop this exceptional blend of intellectual brilliance and deep empathy. Whatever the exact recipe, these were some of the ingredients that made his philosophy so vibrant that the contours of a desirable future became visible through it.

He explored the effects of today’s digital political economy on the social psychology of democratic societies, showing how individuals become the targets of powerful industries. Behind his politics, and behind his pedagogical practice that extended far beyond the university, was the conviction that technology, especially communications technology, could be produced and used in such a way as to open up each participant’s capacity to engage with the ideas of others, transforming them from target to contributor. Stiegler did not advocate total revolt; nor did he give up on the critique of capitalism. Rather he showed that through public participation in philosophical collectives one could restore psychic health, regain autonomy, and offer constructive proposals in the face of whatever is happening at the time. Rather than exalting the resistant individual, he tried to help build up their capacity to co-create social institutions, in order to come to grips with and ultimately transform neoliberal capitalism.

Many of Stiegler’s books will be hard to read in the future because they responded in the moment to whatever new episode of political decay was currently agitating French society. But the question is, will there be a future in which to read those books, if democratic societies are not able to escape the twin traps of stupefying commercial culture and stove-piped disciplinary intellectualism? Whatever Stiegler’s work may have lost in its confrontation with the day-to-day, we all gain through his example of how and why to do it. It’s beautifully evocative that his last published book is about, and addresses the generation surrounding Greta Thunberg.

He was right to say that contemporary state and corporate leaders are incapable of dealing with climate change: they do not have the concepts, even when they recognize they are in the face of a mortal threat. His life’s work was about inventing those concepts—and building them out into both psychic and social realities.

For all of us who care, let’s pursue that pathway.

Brian Holmes, Sebastian Olma