Stiegler on Automaticity and Autonomy

Gather ’round, Kiddies. It’s French Philosopher Story Time.

This is not really my kind of thing, but it’s good, I think. While pondering the Californian nitwits’ denigration of memorisation, I talked a bit to my brother Dan, who, as a philosopher and security guard, is very knowledgable on Kant and such fellows. I asked Dan if he had any “strong, pithy references on the importance of memory”. Predictably, Dan reached for Bernard Stiegler, a French philosopher who wouldn’t have known pithiness if he had been run over by a B-double stacked with pith.* But, what Dan threw at me is good. It is an excerpt from an interview Stiegler gave in 2015, after the publication of his book, Automatic Society.**

Digital technology, that is, algorithmic technology, produces logic automatisms. An algorithm is an automat, or an element of an automat. Today our everyday life is completely overdetermined by automatization, for example through the smartphone, as you know. Now everybody knows that by producing information on the smartphone, he or she is producing cookies, data, etc. These technologies of social networking are produced by what is called the network effect, which means that you are forced to go on Facebook, for example, because all your friends are on Facebook; it is a very mimetic technology. This technology is integrating several levels of automatic behavior.

But what is automaticity in general? Life is automatic. A biological cell, for example, is a sequence of instructions and this sequence of instructions is automatic. The reproduction of life is automatic. When you have something that is not automatic, it is a mutation, which produces a monster. So automatic repetition is really the basis of life. As living beings, we are based on the automatic behaviors of our cells. All those cells are not machines but devices producing processes of automatic repetition. On this biological base we also have the psychological automatisms: instincts for animals, drives for human beings. Our reflexes, our reactions, are psychologically automatic. Now, you can transform the psychological automatisms. For example, to educate a child is to transform an automatic reaction into a new type of automatism, which is a social automatism. You say hello when you meet somebody, and this is an automatism. In France, and this is probably the case in America, you give your hand when you say hello. But in Japan it is violent, extremely violent. So society is based on specific automatisms which produce a culture. And a culture is also a set of automatisms. If you become a pianist, or a violinist, or if you are a mathematician, you transform your brain into the brain of a mathematician, so that when you hear something, for example, you transform what you hear into a sequence of numbers, or of concepts, or into an equation.

The question is a relation between automaticity and disautomatization. You ask me, what about the self? Auto is the common root of two words which are opposite in the philosophical tradition: automata and autonomy. To be autonomous in ancient Greek philosophy—although it is also still the case with Kant and even later, for example for the Frankfurt School—to be autonomous is the opposite of being in automatic behavior. And I disagree with that. I believe that this point of view, which is a very classical, metaphysical point of view, is completely wrong, because in reality, to become really autonomous you must integrate a lot of automatisms. For example, if you want to become an autonomous pianist you must transform your body into such a thing like the piano. But this is the case for all your knowledge, and knowledge is a set of automatisms incorporated in the body. And now we know very precisely how such training transforms the organization of the brain. The brain is an automatic machine, and it is a machine capable of disautomatizing its own functioning.

*) I’ve never had any luck with reading Stiegler, but Dan is convinced Stiegler is the guy and Dan is very smart. The brave could start with this YouTube interview or this print interview, both with Dan.

*) After reading and liking the interview, I asked Dan if it was worth my reading Stiegler’s book. His response: “You no like”. I ignored Dan and started reading it. I no liked. The introductory chapter is here, and a review is here.

9 Replies to “Stiegler on Automaticity and Autonomy”

  1. Alfred Whitehead: “civilisation advances by increasing the number of operations we can perform without thinking about them”.

  2. As long we discuss a philosophical view that is in contradiction with the ridiculous post-modernistic mutation of the Frankfurt School I am happy to join.
    The process of learning might happen first through memorization and later understanding and vice versa. A child might memorize multiplication board and then later on understand how it actually works and as I said vice versa. Quite often while learning new concepts one might memorize several things and then much later understand them by applying memorized concepts to different contexts. Let’s look at the way a child learns language. At first, a child learns words and then later applies them in different situations and later in different grammatical constructions. Hence denying the role of memorization in the learning process is simply preposterous.

    1. Well expressed! The analogy between learning a language and learning mathematics needs widespread publication.

      1. Tom, I might be onslaught here, but mathematics is a language. It should also be taught as one, at least in schools. Yet again, I might be onslaught for this point of view. Still, mathematics in secondary schools should be example based as much as possible, if not 100%. Only A-Levels or Universities should introduce abstract concepts for those who choose to learn math beyond real-life examples. In the same way as a child learning how to speak when memorizing and mapping labels of different material things, a child can learn and remember quantitative concepts.

          1. Natural numbers and actually any number as such is an abstract concept. However, this abstraction is relatively easily mapped into real-life examples.

              1. Absolutely not; students should learn things that they want and are hopefully capable of learning. However, as a teacher, I might have my methods and ways of teaching. Some of those methods might be good. Some might be bad. Teaching is the learning process, and as long as we, students and teachers, learn, things should be fine.

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