Greeking the Other…

In his contribution to The Ister (2005), Bernard Stiegler haing outlined his techno-mythpoetics of Epi/Pro-methues , he observes with an infectious certitude (Indeed, the entirety of Stiegler’s disquisition can be seen on youtube, the comments that will exercise us occur in part 3 : 24-36) of the constitutive techno-cultural inheritance that makes up the ‘already-there’ of the subjects and cultures:

‘It is Greek

Because all the past is Greek…even for a Japanese, an Australian, an African…Because Technics is Greek ...’

This declaration is not in itself unprecedented, at the beginning of his lifelong enterprise Needham noted the existence of a ‘an abundant literature’ that works ‘backward from modern science and technology, tracing [their] evolution…to the experiences and achievements of Mediterranean antiquity’, and in asserting ‘all the past’ including that of Africa and Asia etc to ‘be Greek’ by virtue of the putative ‘Greek’ origins of technics, Stiegler would appear to perpetuate this vision. Certainly the notion that technics, or more accuratley science, is by birth Greek and by upbringing European is well established, and is not without merit, at least with respect of science when separated from technics. But Stiegler concern is rarely experimental science, indeed whether or not he has explicited advocated a diremption of these terms (technics and science) it is evident from his concerns that the occasion of his enquiry is technics as a material ‘supplement’, which accompanies ‘man’ through the vicissitudes of ‘his’ historical becoming. Thus in its meditations upon Simondon, Leroi-Gourhan et al, the first volume of Technics and Time, figures technics as variously a heteronomous organizing principle, an originary transductive relation that configures and transcendeds in putative terms , even a universal tendency that is diffracted and modified as it traverses mulitiple ethnic milieus. Indeed, there would appear to be a distinction between technics and techno-logy, the latter being a late expression of the aboriginal ‘anticipation’ that characterizes an unfolding originary technicity.

If not entirely restricted, then, to material techniques, these undoubtedly lie close to the ‘origin’ of Stiegler’s problematic. Since this takes the form of constitutive prostheticity, what are we to make of the coalescene of ‘Greek’ and ‘technics’? In what sense can technics―as defined by T&T:1―be defined as Greek. Given that the claim occurs in the context of an adumbration of (anti) foundational myth of Stieglerian techno-ontology, we might consider J-P. Vernant’s (the key reference in Stiegler’s deployment of epimetheus) own reflections on Greek (material) technics-offered in the same chapters that Stiegler locates his mytheme:

In point of fact, the Greeks, who invented philosophy, science, ethics, … were not technological innovators. Their tools and technical knowledge were borrowed from the East at a very early date and were not fundamentally modified by new discoveries …The stagnation of technology and the persistence of a pre-mechanical mentality…are all the more surprising given that the Greeks appear to have possessed the intellectual equipment which should have made it possible for them to make decisive progress in the field

Vernant goes on to note the ‘divergence’ between conceptual innovation and ‘application’, has most often been attributed (at least in those willing to countenance its existence) to the economic and social structures of Greece ‘in particular the existence of abundant slave labour and …the lack of any internal outlet for commercial production’

Nevertheless, according to Stiegler,the history of all Others is Greek, because technics is Greek. Technics, it would appear, has its birth in a society indifferent to its operation, whose contribution to its (in the restricted sense of material technologies) is minimal, and whose artefacts, and techniques are borrowed from the East (sic).

It would appear that half a century of scholary labour in the comparative history and sociology of technology has passed Stiegler by. One name might be profitably invoked to stand for this body of knoweledge: Joseph Needham; whose monuemental multi-volume Science and Civilisation in China irrefutably demonstrates that at the level of material technologies (until at the earliest the Renaissance) China was an engine of pure innovation . Moreover, as even the most hostile or ignorant commentators acknowledge, its innovations played a crucial role in the formation of what might be called European techno-scientific modernity. Consider Francis Bacon’s famous observation of that trinity of technologies

‘which were unknown to the ancients, and of which the origin, though recent, is obscure and inglorious: namely, printing, gunpowder, and the compass. For these three have changed the whole face of the world, the first in literature, the second in warfare, the third in navigation; whence have followed innumerable changes; insomuch that no empire, no sect, no star, seems to have exerted greater power and influence in human affairs than these mechanical discoveries’

Likewise, we might refer to debate regarding the ‘medieval industrial revolution’–the emergence of a technical system based around the introduction of the stirrup, harness and a modified plough design—whose consequences are thought to include feudalism, technologies that are thought to have diffused from ‘the East’.

However, according to the pre-eminent philosopher of technology this history of adoption , suppression, and the (re)invention of origins (which while ‘obscure’ are nonetheless ‘recent’ and assuredly ‘inglorious’) to obscure to origins of inventions, is not the past—of either ethnicities or technics, since that as we know is, and can be nothing but, Greek.

Of course we may be guilty of subreption, or simple misunderstanding. After all it can be assumed that a thinker to be praised for his provision of a sorely needed material genealogy of the supplement/ machine would be more than acquainted with the multi-volume of labours of Needham et al, the anfractous diffusion of technics, and thus alert to the dangers of restricting technics to a culture that contributed little to their evolution.Nevertheless, the past of China, Africa, Australia is Greek, because technics is Greek. ..

Perhaps then, the error of such objections resides in an elementary confusion: the Greek technics that is the past of all, is nothing so crude or banusic as material technology. No, what Greece bequeaths all peoples is the problem or question of technology, a question that finds its clearest formulation in pro/epi-methean complex. And since all peoples, either by choice, or the logic of unintended consequences, must encounter this prosthetic bind, the debt incurred by the originary de-fault, they are assumed into the universal history of Greek technics. As in Heidegger we learn that the essence of technology is nothing technological, it is rather Greek.

This essence is a curious thing to be sure, it manifests in a milieu of indifference to its essendi. While in a milieu that for the best part of millennia exhibits an unbroken tradition of technics, fails to atttain this principle, and so remains ignorant of the putative essence of technics, We might concluded that technics can evidently flourish in the absence of ‘its’ problematic, and that Stiegler’s logic, will only discover it when it encounters the technologies of the self-appointed heirs of those charged with discovery of said ‘essence’ .

Following Vernant, this Greek discovery of technics (qua problemata) is all the more remarkable for a culture that had little or no conceptual understanding of technology, in which the latter did not enjoy the diginity of the concept.

But what of Technics and Time 1 appeals to the quasi-autonomy of technology’s becoming–Sourced in the genetic theories of Simondon, and Leroi-Gourhan? Is this not of the essence, or is it a ultimately a Greek affair? The latter even by the information provided by Stiegler appears untenable : Leroi-Gourhan, who following Bergson, talks of a universal technical tendency; or Simondon who sees technogenesis as a instance of a generalised individuation (occluded by the hylomorphic prejudices of Greece and its slave economy).

If ‘the past is Greek because technics is Greek’ is not to be understood as the unthinking replication by technics’ great thinker of the deliberate obreption of the histories of technics – a Eurocentric narrative expressly formulated to replicate within the history of technology that of the destiny of the West with its innate aptitude and predisposition to the act (to which the quietist, inertial cultures of the East and South offer a pitiable contrast) it would appear that it must be understood in the sense of this problematic. A problematic that is nothing technological, but of sufficient moment to render technics and all who encounter it for the next two millennia Greek. A formidable problematic then…

Some of these difficulties can be resolved by an alternative candidate for this Greek essence of technics, one which is certainly far easier to uphold. Namely, that technics is Greek, because its development rests upon the foundation of mathematical science laid down in Ancient Greece. But if we accept that what is Greek is not technics but rather mathesis , the invention of a mathemetical ideality, a ‘subtractive’ organon that will facillitate the apprehension of nature behind nature, and that when coupled with the preterite dross of material technologies will negate ‘nature’ and ‘culture’, then technics may indeed be Greek, allowing the latter to become the past of everyman. In this scenario technics has no autonomy, it is science that is triumphant. Technics must be subordinated to the logos of science, its materiality secondary, overdetermined, in order that it may convicingly remain Greek. Here Stiegler would find himself in good company, Badiou for instance insists on the reduction of technology to science in its Greek and stellar purity (although leading him to dismiss technology as unworthy of philosophical import), indeed even Needham appears to subscribe to the ‘Greek’ thesis that technology is science’s poor relative, the artisinal pursuit of ‘sooty empiricks’ in contrast to the regal ideality of science (hence the anxiety in establishing the per-conditions of the latter in China, and the suggestion by some that one possible resolution to the ‘Needham question’ resides in a reconsideration of the traditional hierarchy between these terms). But while the credo that modern science is Greek in origin, and so the past of everyperson (since all absorb its consequences) is not untenable – although a genealogical filter would dispose one to focus not on origins but rather on the use of certain historical elements, their deployment in a singular conjunction—does this legitimate an extension to technics tout court. Especially if the later has been defined in terms of meta-cultural dynamics of becoming, as the occasion of a scene of originary supplementation that precedes and subtends any local formulation of the ‘human’

Understood in empirical terms the assertion that technics is Greek makes little sense, it entails a subordination of material history of techniques to cultural ideals, and thus must be judged as a late expression of an European ideology that posits an unbroken historico-cultural continuum linking Classical Antiquity to Western Modernity, as exemplified in these fifty yr + qoutes:

‘ Our civilisation has produced not merely a high intellectual grasp of science but also a high technology. By this is meant something distinct from the background noise of the low technology that all civilisations and societies have evolved as part of their daily life…the various crafts of primitive metallurgists, agriculturalists etc …’

‘…the answer lies in Greece…the Egyptians, it is true, developed surveying techniques and conducted surgical operations.The Babylonians disposed of numerical devices of great ingenuity for predicting the patterns of the planets. But no Oriental civilisation graduated beyond technique to curiosity about things in general’

In the assertion that Technics is Greek, Stiegler appears to betray two dimensions of his own project, firstly, that of the materiality of the supplement—subsumed under the ideality of the question. And secondly that of the genealogy of the trace: although Nietzsche is not a frequent reference in Stiegler, it can be assumed that to the extent that Stiegler turns to Heidegger and Derrida (both of whom take up the fissile legacy of a Nietzschean genealogy) he also inherits the challenge of a genealogical enquiry. But where in the conflation of Greece and technics and the past of all Others do we find that genealogy whose pursuit ‘is to maintain passing events in their proper diversion; it is to identify the accidents, the minute deviations—or conversely, the complete reversal—the errors, the false appraisals, and faulty calculations…it is discover that truth or being does not lie at the root of what we know…but the exteriority of accidents’ .

Given the heterogeneous intersection of fields involved in such debate, resolution is impossible– and even a refinement of these questions would involve deep thought and research, none of which can be here undertaken. In in-conclusion then we would have to agree with Stiegler when he states ‘that the question of hypomnesis is a political question and the object of/in a struggle…for the politics of memory’ but suggest that in such a struggle Stiegler’s thought is both a tool for emancipation and an agent of repression: the equation of Greece and technics is a mnemopolitical statement, and one that a emancipatory politics of (technical) memory must rigorously combat.

UPDATE: As I’ve just discovered (doh!), the at last translated Technics and Time 2 treats the specificity of Stiegler’s claim with respect to writing, science and Greece. This material may well adjust what is written here (the dangers of blogging into the void), but I’ll leave it stand for now

MORE STUFF: A new collection of essays on Stiegler: Transformations


September 2009
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