As a result of my encounter with Nathan Brown last week and some projects I’m working on with Mel, I find myself returning once again to the first volume of Stiegler’s Technics and Time. This time around, in light of object-oriented ontology and Morton’s concept of “hyperobjects”, the book reads very differently. Here I’m not particularly interested in what Stiegler has to teach us about technology– which is a great deal –but what he has to teach us about the nature of objects and hyperobjects. To my thinking, Stiegler’s concept of “technical systems” are a perfect example of Morton’s hyperobjects. Hyperobjects have four characteristics that we’ve discovered so far: 1) they are viscous, 2) they are massively distributed in time and space, 3) they are independent of the smaller scale objects out of which they are nonetheless produced, and 4) they are withdrawn from their local manifestations. To this I think we can add that hyperobjects, like all objects, are internally differentiated or structured while remaining a unity (a point that Graham addresses in his discussions of Zubiri). This point is important because it sheds light on the evolution of objects through endogenous and exogenous causes.
In part Stiegler is seeking a non-anthropological account of the technological that no longer conceives technology in terms of means-end rationality or as tools for human use. As a consequence, technology will become an autonomous domain in its own right. As Stiegler writes in the introduction,
I shall show in the first part of this work how various contributions to a theory of technical evolution permit the hypothesis that between the inorganic beings of the physical sciences and the organized beings of biology, there does indeed exist a third genre of “being”: “inorganic organized beings,” or technical objects. These nonorganic organizations of matter have their own dynamic when compared with that of either physical or biological beings, a dynamic, moreover, that cannot be reduced to the “aggregarte” or “product” of these beings. (17)
What we get here are the beginnings of a step away from correlationist conceptions of technology to a techno-field that exists in its own right. Henceforth, technologies will no longer be conceived as taking their valence for the ends that humans project upon them, but rather will have their own internal organization that exists apart from the human. This essence of technology will be something revealed progressively since the beginning of the industrial revolution, where humans no longer use machines, but rather are used by machines. As Stiegler writes in relation to Simondon,
hitherto, the human was a bearer of tools and was itself a technical individual. Today, machines are the tool bearers, and the human is no longer a technical individual; the human becomes either the machines servant or its assembler: the human’s relationb to the technical object proves to have profoundly changed. (23).
It is no longer humans that are defining the telos of tools.
Yet why does any of this suggest that the technological is a hyperobject? Aren’t we still dealing with discrete machines that do not themselves form a “meta” or “hyper” object? A moment later, Stiegler suggests that the technological field forms a system.
Technics constitute a system to the extent that it cannot be understood as a means– as in Saussure the evolution of language, which forms a system of extreme complexity, escapes the will of those who speak it. (24)
Following the work of the technological theorist Bertrand Gille, Stiegler goes on to remark that,
…a system is constituted as a stabilization of technical evolution around previous acquisitions and structural tendencies determined by a play of interdependencies and inventions complementing one another… (29)
It is these interdependencies that constitute what we might call the “technosphere” as a hyperobject. Following Graham’s criteria as I recently outlined them in my post “When is an Object?”, the technosphere counts as in object insofar as it has formed a genuine assemblage rather than a mere aggregate. This assemblage, of course, is something that emerges in history.
The following passage illustrates just what Stiegler has in mind by a technical ensemble or hyperobject. Stiegler writes,
Technical structures, ensembles, and channels are static combinations in which phenomena of retroaction appear: by using the steam engine, the steel industry produces better steel, allowing in turn for the production of more efficient machines. Here, then, the necessity of a concept of technical system becomes urgent. The various levels of combination are statically and dynamically interdependent, and imply laws of operation and processes of transformation. Each level is integrated into a sueprior level dependent upon it, right up to the global coherence that the system forms. (31)
Stiegler goes on to remark that, “A technical system constitutes a technical unity. It is a stabilization of technical evolution around a point of equilibrium concretized by a particular technology…” (Ibid.). Stiegler here refers to what I call the endo-relations and endo-structure of an object, and what Graham refers to as domestic relations. Endo-structure refers to those interdependent relations within an object that define its endo-consistency or being as an object. This field constitutes the endogenous or internal field of the object.
Here I think we get the beginnings of a response to Michael Austen’s recent calls for an internal principle of change within objects. The domestic or endo-relations constituting an object can exist in a state of tension or disiquilibrium with one another, leading to a development or evolution of the object… A becoming of the object. Returning to Stiegler’s example of that hyperobject constituted around the technosphere of the steam engine as an attractor for the techno-field, demands for more efficient steam engines led to advances in steel technology (lighter and stronger steel) that in turn led to more efficient steam engines. In those objects that aren’t dormant, therefore, the endo-structure of the object is not a static field of relations or a static structure, but is a field fraught with tensions that leads to a development or unfolding. This is why endo-structures must be thought topological or dynamically rather than in terms of static Euclidean geometry. At any rate, what we encounter here is a production of local manifestations that is non-relational insofar as it doesn’t arise from relations to anything beyond itself. We can refer to it as the internal unrest of objects.
Nonetheless, there are exonomous influences in the development of hyperobjects as well. These would be relational local manifestations. As Stiegler writes,
…it is obvious that links exist between technical and economic systems: there is no work without technics, no economic theory that is not a theory of work, of surplus profit, by means of production and investment. (31)
Here Stiegler is referring, in my language, to exo-relations or exogenous relations between hyperobjects producing relational local manifestations. Stiegler gives the following examples:
The economy may constitute a brake on the expansion of the technical system. Thus, the practice of preserving outlived techniques for economic reasons is commonplace– and only one example of the problem of adequacy between the evolutional tendencies of technics and economico-political constraints. The aim of state interventionism is the regulation of their relation– for example, through a system of customs regulations, or through public investment.
The transformation of the technical system regularly bring in their wake upheavals of the social system, which can completely destabilize it when “the new technical system leads to the substitution of a dominant activity for an out-dated activity of a totally different nature: (Gille 1978, 26). Hence the very general question of technology transfer arises. What is of interest to us here is the ever-present necessity of solving this problem in the twentienth century, which is characterized as we shall see by economic activity based on ever more rapid technological innovation. The relation between the technical and social systems is thus treated as a problem of consumption, in which the economic system is the third component: the development of consumerism, accompanyhing constant innovation, aims at greater flexibility in consumer attitudes, which adapt and must adapt ever more quickly, at a pace obviously not without effect on the cultural sphere. (32)
To the economic, social, and technological system, we can also add climate. Just as the poor mouse was dependent on an external milieu to locally manifest itself as alive, these relations among hyperobjects play a role in how each of these hyperobjects locally manifests itself. Here we encounter relational local manifestations among objects or the manner in which one object summons events in the form of local manifestations in another object. I refer to these sorts of becomings and local manifestations as resulting from regimes of attraction which are exo-relations between objects playing a role in how they manifest themselves. For example, local pressure is a regime of attraction for a styrofoam cup. Submerge that cup a few hundred feet in the ocean and it becomes much smaller than it was. This is a function of the object’s exo-relations.
Clearly, then, there are two forms of exo-qualities in the order of time: the reversible and the irreversible. The color of my coffee cup is a exo-quality insofar as its local manifestations are dependent on the local lighting conditions (it is one shade of blue in sunlight, another in candlelight). However, this exo-quality is reversible— at least for a time –in that it can shift back and forth with different lighting conditions. By contrast, there are also irreversible exo-qualities where qualities that an object could previously locally manifest it can no longer locally manifest. The size of the styrofoam cup seems to be an exo-quality of this sort. Once it has been subjected to intense water pressure it is unable to snap back to its previous size. As we look at the exo-relations that obtain in the interactions of the economic, technological, and climatological hyperobjects we worry that there might be irreversibilities of local manifestation where local manifestation is concerned as a result of the way in which technology works on climate.
Stiegler seems to focus on the exo-relations that emerge between hyperobjects such as economy, climate, society, and technology. However, we should also note that there are exo-relational local manifestations that occur in the relation between a hyperobject and its parts as well. These sorts of exo-relations are what Bogost and I have referred to as problems of engineering. Remember, that according to objectological mereology that the parts of a larger scale object are themselves independent objects in their own right. This entails that they are withdrawn from the larger scale object to which they belong. In Harman’s terminology, larger scale objects only ever encounter smaller scale objects that compose them obtusely. For example, a corporation only encounters its workers obtusely in terms of blanket categories pertaining to productivity and lack thereof. Other powers of the workers are entirely invisible for the corporation. Likewise, the education system tends to only grasp students in terms of grades and attendence.
It is this phenomenon of obtuse causation with respect to part-whole relations that the problems of engineering arise. Engineering, as opposed to Science, grapples directly with objects in attempting to construct something. Where Science gives us a formal theory of quantitative relations in formula (a scientific theory, following Bogost, is a diagram of relational local manifestations or what would occur in x if we do y), engineering exposes itself directly to the opacity of objects or their withdrawn nature. The engineer exposes herself to the fourth methodological protocol described by Harman under the title of the “accidental method”.
Grappling directly with devious objects, the engineer discovers the limits of obtuseness or theory. Things never quite work out as you expect. BP discovered this the hard way with their deep offshore oil drilling. Their equipment and materials did not behave in the expected (obtuse) way under those water pressures. Likewise, we’re never quite sure what we’re going to get when we submit steel to these temperatures or mix it with these materials. Educators perpetually encounter the limits of their obtuseness when they discover unexpected student responses to new materials or techniques. Likewise, artists are perpetually encountering the disintegration of their obtuseness by being surprised by the responses of those that consume their art. Massively paraphrasing Deleuze’s and Guattari’s distinction between nomad and royal science, as well as Latour’s distinction between sciences and Science, Science is always the trace of engineering. It is a formalization of past exogenous local manifestations of objects portraying itself as exhaustive of the being of the object. Of course, as withdrawn objects can never be exhausted. It is for this reason, contra Bogost, that engineers talk about the “behavior” of their programs. “Behavior” has connotations of surprise and autonomy. To talk of a computer program as “behaving” is to suggest that while it was programmed and designed by the engineer, the engineer isn’t entirely sure what it will do once it’s unleashed in the world.
Contrary to popular belief, engineering is not restricted to the human world. Engineering is the general way in which entities, animate and inanimate, encounter the world around them. Every entity obtusely relates to the world, reducing it to a series of “formulae” where other entities can be interchanged indiscriminately so long as they are within the vector of the sign-structure predelineated by the object’s umwelt (von Uexkull’s analysis of animal worlds), yet each entity perpetually encounters the failure of its obtuseness. It is this dialectic between the obtuse and the tuche that, in part, accounts for the originality of local manifestations. The tree in my back yard wanted to grow straight up, perhaps, it “expected” to be a sovereign in its own environment, yet it encountered the fierce wind of north Texas. As a result, it became petrified wind, growing at a slight tilt marking the trace of the battle between its obtuseness and the aleatory tuche of the wind. This was and is its engineering problem that led to an original solution or a poetry writ large in the fibers of cellulose.
Insofar as each object is a multiplicity it thus contains its own internal noise arising from the withdrawn objects that it contains within itself. The steel of the technosphere is never just a node in a system, nor is the steam engine ever just a moment of a technosphere. They are entities in their own right that exist in tension with the larger scale objects to which they belong. As a consequence, they introduce further disequilibriums in systems, they introduce noise, that become creative vectors for the development of larger scale objects.