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It is worth noting at the outset what Stiegler means by “spirit”, which must strike most readers as a hopelessly outdated concept in this age of ultimate consumer materialism.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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