Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Why we need a politics of ‘spirit’ not consumption

Most people reading this are probably wondering what a “politics of spirit” could possibly mean. After all, it seems like an oxymoron to juxtapose “politics” and “spirit”. I would agree with that, at first sight anyway. Until you read Bernard Stiegler’s transfixing book, The Re-Enchancement of the World, subtitled: The Value of Spirit against Industrial Populism (London, Bloomsbury, 2014). Then it becomes clear that, far from representing an oxymoron, the phrase “politics of spirit” marks one of the most needed conditions, or movements, in the world today, and that this is precisely what Stiegler (and his associates) are at pains to promote.

It is worth noting at the outset what Stiegler means by “spirit”, which must strike most readers as a hopelessly outdated concept in this age of ultimate consumer materialism. Elaborating on the difference in connotations between the English “spirit” and the French “esprit”, Trevor Arthur explains it beautifully in the Translator’s Preface (2014): “ … in the fullness of its concept, esprit expresses a synthesis of the psychic and social, as well as intellectual and historical life of man [ie humanity], being tied up in the vicissitudes of processes of individuation in which one becomes who he [or she] is, and in processes of transindividuation whereby we become who we are. Hence esprit pertains, too, to the epochal nature of becoming in which memory and intelligence conjoin in the moment of reflection faced with the world, lighting the way forward from out of the depths of its inwardness. It is precisely this capacity of esprit to express vivacious reflection, searching rumination, and the passion of sublimation that renders it so valuable – as such it constitutes perhaps THE essential value of human being.”

This rich blending of Hegel and Nietzsche (resonating with the African concept of Ubuntu) in Arthur’s gloss on spirit/esprit will be baffling to most people immersed in the superficiality of consumer life, where the closest they get to “esprit” is probably looking at a sustained mutual stare into each other’s faces by soapie stars on the television screen.

This is a wide-ranging book, covering themes regarding what Stiegler calls the “hyperindustrial society” of consumerism, which robs people of their knowledge and their desire by tapping into their drives through “spiritual technologies” (ie technologies that manipulate the spirit, reducing it to a pale shadow of its potential). It also dwells on the difference between the “information society” and “societies of knowledge”, the reign of ignorance, “cognitive saturation”, the crisis of education and much more. This is a mouthful, I know, and one cannot cover it all in a mere blog-post. Hence, I shall concentrate on the first of the two manifestoes (both included in the book) of the Association founded by Stiegler and four colleagues in 2005, called “Ars Industrialis” (“industrial art”, broadly speaking; another ostensible oxymoron, which posits their intention of using art and “techné” AGAINST the industrial populism that degrades spirit). In its very concentrated form it instantiates a key to the book as a whole. I shall follow the numbering of the 2005 manifesto, and condense each numbered section.

1. The opening statement (2014, p. 11) reads: “Our epoch is threatened, the world over, by the fact that the ‘life of spirit (the mind),’ to speak in the words of Hannah Arendt, has become entirely subjected to the imperatives of the market economy … ” In other words, because there is no regulation of the market by people, it has been left to its own abstract, inhuman “processual laws” that ultimately serve only one goal, namely profit. Along the way, a mode of living where practices existed that encouraged reading, contemplation, storytelling, discussion groups centred on the meaning of literary, philosophical or scientific works, and so on, has been replaced by one where there is a constant, mad rush for the latest, hyper-addictive techno-gadgets from Apple or Samsung – to check and update your Facebook page, mostly with vacuous information, or to check Whatsapp, and so on. (If you think I exaggerate, consider that a recent study in South Africa, reported on in the news, found – unsurprisingly! – that teenagers are “addicted” to their cell phones/smartphones.)

Conveniently for the corporations, this effectively prevents people from engaging in reflection, and concomitantly, critical practices regarding their lives, which are increasingly devoid of what Stiegler calls “spirit”. It is precisely in “the value of spirit”, he claims, that an antidote to this “industrial populism” (which increasingly results in “the control of the market over the life of the spirit”), is found (p. 11): “We think that this renewal and this rebirth of spirit [which “Ars Industrialis” is working towards] must constitute the motive for what we call an industrial politics of spirit”. Nothing less than a concerted effort at promoting the rediscovery of the indispensable value of “esprit” (as explained by Arthur, above), against the vacuity of a capitalist-induced stupor of tech-savvy, but spirit-less, zombie-ism, will do.

2. The second item states that an industrial politics of spirit must also be “ … an industrial ecology of spirit. The subjection of technologies of spirit solely to market criteria keeps them in the function of technologies of control, in the service of ‘societies of control’ [Burroughs and Deleuze] … ”(p. 11). What Stiegler and his colleagues mean, is that such “technologies of spirit” (like the use of the internet) should not be restricted to the “massification” of addictive behaviour that serves the interest of capital (almost exclusively), but that their use to promote other, divergent social (intellectual, artistic, “spirit-oriented”) practices should be actively encouraged.

3. Technologies “of the body” are being grafted onto the “technologies of consciousness” with the purpose of controlling and fashioning “individual and collective modes of existence” (p. 12). This entails the destruction of the “singularity” of every subject’s mode of existence – which leaves only a “massified” or stereotypical mode of existence according to patterns that the market requires and gratuitously provides. As they note, this was initially done by capitalism harnessing “libidinal energy” (the source of sublimatory creativity) for its own ends. Today, however, this libidinal energy has been exhausted, and all that remains is a set of “conditioned reflexes” activated by the media.

4. When “desire” (in the sense of that which makes one’s life uniquely valuable) and the possibility of sublimation are destroyed by the generalisation of an economic model that “opposes” production and consumption (privileging the latter), all kinds of disturbances are set in motion, including those of an economic, geopolitical, social and psychic nature (that one already witnesses worldwide) (p. 12). Hence the need for an ecology of desire and spirit.

5. Instead of the current industrial fabrication of (pseudo-)desire by information technologies, which reduces the singularity of desire (no two people’s desire is the same) through categorisation (“This is a must-have for teenagers”, ”That is for middle-aged women”, etc), recognition should be given to that which is incalculable in the creations of the spirit or mind, so that awareness of the singular (which constitutes what is valuable about a subject’s life) is intensified (p. 12).

6. The politics of capitalism, which destroys singularity by prioritising fast-return investments over techniques of “writing the self” (Foucault), is ultimately self-destructive, because it erodes the very social base that it presupposes. By contrast, “Ars Industrialis” will contribute to “the invention of practices of technologies of spirit that reconstitute objects of desire and experiences of singularity” (p. 13).

7. The central question to be faced is “that of the revival of desire, and not simply the revival of consumption, as the technocratic … measures implemented in industrial countries frenetically and obstinately persist in doing … ” (p. 13).

8. Ars Industrialis, although located in Paris, France, intends finding interlocutors and partners who share its vision across the globe through international exchanges at all levels – education, the sciences, research, media and culture (p. 13).

9. It will develop, in French cities (and beyond; Stiegler travels to other countries to give workshops and lead discussions), a network of meeting-places and activities.

10 Ars Industrialis will (and already does) therefore lead collective, transdisciplinary reflection on ways to alter the course of contemporary culture and society in the direction of “an industrial politics of spirit” (p. 14). The very survival of a recognisably human, “spirit-oriented” society is at stake.

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    • Maria

      In footnote 1 in chapter 7 of Of Spirit. Heidegger and the Question, Derrida (1989:122) writes: “Where is the worse? That is perhaps the question of spirit.” He reminds us in chapter 5 this book of Heidegger’s early use of quotation marks around the word Geist (the more or less German equivalent for the English word “spirit”) which he then – in a coup de théâtra – suddenly dropped in his Rektorsrede …

      Chapter 9 (Derrida 1989:83) begins:

      “What is spirit?
      Everything suggests that, from as early as 1933, the date at which, lifting at last the quotation marks, he begins to talk OF SPIRIT and in the name OF SPIRIT (my capital letters in the place of Derrida’s italics). Heidegger never stopped interrogating the Being of Geist.
      What is spirit? Final reply in 1953: fire, flame, burning, conflagration.
      TWENTY YEARS LATER, then, and what years!”

      The last two sentences of Of Spirit (Derrida 1989:113) says the following:

      “The spirit which keeps watch in returning [en revenant, as a ghost] will always do the rest. Through flame or ash, but as the entirely other, inevitably.”

      My point: In an effort to get Stiegler’s project regarding The Re-Enchancement of the World (subtitled: The Value of Spirit against Industrial Populism) going – and where I read that re-enchancement (as both risk and opportunity) also as a question of re-enchantment – I am of the opinion that we need to empower all teachers of writing, i.e. from school level to university level, because until we have gained respect and awe for the writing process (selecting and arranging à la Saussure, and of which the implications, as Derrida shows time and again are breathtaking), and that means right down to the smallest details like punctuation (as poets are for example very careful with), we have little hope of getting a grip on this strange economy between a “politics of spirit” and a “politics of consumption”.

      Helping out as English teacher at a school for the first quarter this year I was fortunate enough to find out that high school kids are now (with the new CAPS) writing four batches of essays a year instead of only two batches. I feel dreadfully sorry for all language teachers – they are marking themselves dizzy! – but I am very happy for the kids’ sake.

    • Maria

      In footnote 1 in chapter 7 of Of Spirit. Heidegger and the Question, Derrida (1989:122) writes: “Where is the worse? That is perhaps the question of spirit.” He reminds us in chapter 5 this book of Heidegger’s early use of quotation marks around the word Geist (the more or less German equivalent for the English word “spirit”) which he then – in a coup de théâtra – suddenly dropped in his Rektorsrede …

      Chapter 9 (Derrida 1989:83) begins:

      “What is spirit?

      Everything suggests that, from as early as 1933, the date at which, lifting at last the quotation marks, he begins to talk OF SPIRIT and in the name OF SPIRIT (my capital letters in the place of Derrida’s italics). Heidegger never stopped interrogating the Being of Geist.

      What is spirit? Final reply in 1953: fire, flame, burning, conflagration.

      TWENTY YEARS LATER, then, and what years!”

      The last two sentences of Of Spirit (Derrida 1989:113) says the following:

      “The spirit which keeps watch in returning [en revenant, as a ghost] will always do the rest. Through flame or ash, but as the entirely other, inevitably.”

      My point: In an effort to get Stiegler’s project regarding The Re-Enchancement of the World (subtitled: The Value of Spirit against Industrial Populism) going – and where I read that re-enchancement (as both risk and opportunity) also as a question of re-enchantment – I am of the opinion that we need to empower all teachers of writing, i.e. from school level to university level, because until we have gained respect and awe for the writing process (selecting and arranging à la Saussure, and of which the implications, as Derrida shows time and again are breathtaking), and that means right down to the smallest details like punctuation (as poets are for example very careful with), we have little hope of getting a grip on this strange economy between a “politics of spirit” and a “politics of consumption”.

      Helping out as English teacher at a school for the first quarter this year I was fortunate enough to find out that high school kids are now (with the new CAPS) writing four batches of essays a year instead of only two batches. I feel dreadfully sorry for all language teachers – they are marking themselves dizzy! – but I am very happy for the kids’ sake. Planning, draft, final draft; planning draft, final draft; planning, draft, final draft – drilling the process of writing into the kids’ heads … Maybe there is hope for the future, with the help of more and better educated teachers.

    • Bert Olivier

      Thank you for that thoughtful response, Maria – the tragedy of our situation is that people who understand the requirements for ‘spirit’ to function as the basis of ‘association’ (in Stiegler’s sense) and community, in this time of ‘dis-association’ through the manner that service-capitalism enlists people’s ‘brain-time’ for purposes of profit – which prevents them from engaging in practices of ‘individuation’ and ‘trans-individuation’ (how communities of ‘spirit’, or shared reason, are formed) – such people are so pitifully few that I despair of remedying the situation. Stiegler puts his trust in the instances of an economy ‘of contribution’, which is growing worldwide – such as the open-source movement, which eschews the demands of capitalism – to which you and teachers like you may be added, with your awareness of the role that language cultivation, particularly in learning how to write on the part of schoolkids, can play.

    • Lianne Barnard

      This lazy consumer wants an easy link to the English website of this Ars Industrialis. Hyperlink. Sounds exactly like the kind of church I need.

      I should be doing deep thinking, so a few superficial thoughts:

      The word “spirit” – I would be interested in reading about the choice of this word. I cannot imagine it can be separated from the religious underpinnings.

      “Instead of the current industrial fabrication of (pseudo-)desire by
      information technologies, which reduces the singularity of desire (no
      two people’s desire is the same) through categorisation (“This is a
      must-have for teenagers”, ”That is for middle-aged women”, etc),
      recognition should be given to that which is incalculable in the
      creations of the spirit or mind, so that awareness of the singular
      (which constitutes what is valuable about a subject’s life) is
      intensified (p. 12).”

      Isn’t the paradox of literature not indeed this – that we recognize ourselves in characters? I think of my reaction to Elena Ferrante. Yet we feel more singular, more unique, more valuable.