Stiegler on culture, cults and training

Just read this in a book of interviews Stiegler did with Phillip Petit and Vincent Bontems. It struck me as a rather provocative challenge to (some) cultural studies work to think again about what culture is, in keeping with the activist critical stance Stiegler pursues.

This is a rough translation from a brief but powerful description of culture that Stiegler offers in response to the commodification of culture (and implicitly, its acceptance by a certain mode of cultural criticism and analysis):

pp 51-52 from Economie de l’hypermatériel et psychopourvoir: Entretiens avec Phillippe Petit et Vincent Bontems (Paris: Mille et une nuits, 2008)


P.P. [Phillippe Petit]:

We are living in an epoch of terrible doubt, about works of art, scientific discoveries, religious feelings… These doubts are expressed across a cultural recycling that is so swollen that its precise form escapes us. Cults and disciplines of all kind seem to spread out in a terrible indistinction.


B.S. [Bernard Stiegler]:

You could also talk here about political and economic workings. It is happening like this because belief must make an object of a care or service, a cult (religious or secular), of a culture and of a training in the sense that the Greeks spoke of gumnasia (of which the German teaching institutions have preserved this usage). There isn’t any religion without rituals because religious belief must be trained, just like all forms of belief. But this is true of all forms of otium and of all the knowledges of the forms of otium.* Personally, I read and write every morning, and I practice this like a cult—and as a battle against myself, against what is a kind of ‘minority’ within me, caused by what Kant would call my laziness and passivity.** Today we dare not call this culture, identifying it with what Moses Mendelssohn has taught us belongs (as Kultur) to Bildung [education], that is, to a formation of the mind/spirit [l’esprit], and in this sense, to a cult. We dare not speak of it in this way anymore because the word ‘culture’ has been so folded into the consumerist and behavioural modes through which it is constituted in the culture industry—what Michel Deguy rightly calls ‘the cultural’—that in the end we have forgotten this necessity.


* otium is an Ancient Greek word that Stiegler takes up, following Foucault’s analysis of ‘care’ and the techniques of the self (of self-development and improvement) that are opposed to the necessary activities of working to survive—negotium—as what what can be done to make life more ‘existing’ than merely ‘subsisting’. See eg. Stiegler, Taking Care.


** The reference here is to Kant’s ‘What is Enlightenment?’ essay, and the opposition of minority (immaturity, dependence, passivity) to majority (maturity, independence, responsibility and agency).


2 thoughts on “Stiegler on culture, cults and training

  1. OK, I’ll bite…. Is otium only evident in the cultural activities and training of scholars then (if not, where else)? Is the realm of popular culture (with all its everyday knowledges and expertise, training and discernment) absolutely folded into and exhausted by consumerism? In what ways does this differ from reactionary snobbery apart from its astute recognition that the othering of ordinary people’s cultural pleasures is bound up in the elitist’s own self-loathing of their own tendencies towards passivity and laziness?

  2. Ha! Beautiful. Yes this is the anxious terrain for us media and cultural studies types after 20-30 odd years of abreaction to the condemnatory dimension of Kulturcritik. Always a risk grabbing a bit of a larger discussion (sorry I couldn’t translate the whole chapter….), but to venture a response/defense:

    In a radio interview I heard on France Inter about the prison system he said he had seen lots of guys who had developed incredible skills and talents (mostly physical) while inside, using their time (like he was in his reading and writing otium) to move beyond subsisting in jail. He wasn’t using those terms there but the gist was similar to here. In jail laziness and passivity are thrust upon you as you are ‘minoritized,’ left with little scope for independent action, all crucial decisions/acts are organised for you. There it is a real struggle to develop your otium. Instead the ‘system’ wants you to submit to the routine, consume the (traditional, non-interactive) media of tv, radio, and survive till you get out .

    So, no I don’t read this is an elitist condemnation of activties not sufficiently erudite. Eg. Stiegler’s IRI outfit developed this film viewing/annotating/re-editing software and released it as an encouragement to people to read and analyse films, contribute their own observations, etc. ie. to develop some skills and expertise in understanding films (and discussing them collaboratively) beyond the routine adoptions conditioned by mainstream reviewing etc. It is also to intervene in the explosion of creation of media by people to assist in ‘raising’ the level of reproduction of mainstream forms (I see the sense of this in looking at my own daughter’s prolific, imaginative, but ultimately limited and programmatic repetition of music video aesthetics).

    At the same time it is I think a provocation to not be too naive about the ‘skills’ one develops consuming media and pop cultural production in the routine ways (and let’s not forget the constant dynamic of recuperation that capital runs to re-capture attention and re-channel it in monetizing ways); to me a really good eg of that is Henry Jenkins.

    The big thing for Stiegler here is belief/credit; he sees capitalism in its hyperconsumerist phase of trying to regulate all aspects of people’s lives, capture all their attention at all times, etc. as destroying culture, society, and therefore itself (not to mention the environment) because it cannot provide credit/belief any more. It isn’t something that promises a horizon of becoming, of ‘singularity’ for individuals (he says a bit before this that ‘social unity’ is built on a shared sense of such a horizon for indivdual individuation, and needs a ‘sublimation machine’ to keep it running which would be such a believable cultural milieu). Advertising/marketing’s promise to satisfy your desires and make you happy is obviously fake, everyone knows it at one level or another. But at the same time consumer society’s design for living has de-skilled people and limited their ability to make otium. This is a recipe for nihilism. This is why Stiegler is so big on the idea of training/rituals/practices that are not immediately subsumable to consumerist redesign and appropriation. Criticality and a kind of ‘elitism’ of expertise, complexity is definitely part of what opposes subsumption; it opens up that scope for that collectivity of shared beliefs in a horizon of becoming.

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