Digital Studies

Or, Ars Industrialis, Bernard Stiegler and the Economy of Contribution

The purpose of this post is to outline an initial reading of ‘digital studies’ in relation to the philosophy of Bernard Stiegler and examine its possible application. On 18th April the Digital Cultures Research Centre hosted a visit by Christian Fauré, a technologist and philosopher, who is a founding member of the Ars Industrialis association. That week also saw Bernard Stiegler, another founding member of Ars Industrialis, deliver a keynote at the World Wide Web international conference, held by the W3C international conference committee, in Lyon (France). In both talks we are introduced to what has been termed “Digital Studies”, by Ars Industrialis in conjunction with the Pompidou Centre’s Institute for Research and Innovation (Institut de Recherche et d’Innovation – IRI) [1].

While Digital Studies sounds normative and fairly anodyne, like so many other ‘digital’ initiatives-not least within the humanities, it has at its basis a rather complicated and politically interesting philosophy, which stems from Bernard Stiegler. Unfortunately, as with many other aspects of Bernard Stiegler’s work, to form an understanding of this philosophical basis requires the explanation of a number of concepts that carry the complex ontological and epistemological underpinnings for what it might mean to conduct digital studies. This post is structured as a discussion of some key concepts that can help us understand ‘digital studies’ and an examination of digital studies as proposed by Stiegler and Ars Industrialis.


We must, arguably, begin with an understanding of technics as the means by which we come to recognise being as such. For Steigler, it is through the exteriorisation of thought, through language and gesture, that we understand our internal conscious processes and this exteriorisation is achieved through technologies of language and writing. There is accordingly an irresolvable contradiction or absence of origin of the human in this relationship of exteriorisation, the human does not come before the technical and vice versa, they are co-constituted, and continue to be. Stiegler argues that this has an anthropological basis [2] in our capacity to externalise thought as language and thus writing. The materialisation of thought, exterior to the mind and body, is ‘tertiary retention’, where ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ retentions are internal to the mind/body. A mental reality can thereby be ‘projected onto a support that is neither cerebral nor psychical but rather technical’ (see: keynote). Technicity accordingly shapes the experience of temporality through its relation between the body, technology and the environment. Stiegler argues in the Preface to ‘Technics and Time, 1‘ that ‘technics is the horizon of all possibility’, it is therefore the compositional relation through which temporality is apprehended.


The expression of thought through language and its external fixing as writing is for Stiegler, following Derrida and the linguist Sylvan Auroux, a process of grammatisation, or as Stiegler suggests, it is ‘all technical processes that enable behavioural fluxes and flows to be made discrete’. This grammatisation, rendering the flow of language discrete, Stiegler suggests (following Derrida in ‘Plato’s Pharmacy‘), is a pharmakon – ‘it can either lead to the destruction of the mind, or to its rebirth’ (see: keynote). Grammatisation is a specific form of materialisation (of thought) within (and at the heart of) a range of materialisations that constitute ‘technical life’, which Stiegler states ‘distinguishes us from other living things’.


The retention of traces of the past is an enabling factor in the ongoing constitution of circuits of collective individuation, the ways in which we come to know the world, across time and within processes between humans and between humans and their environments, what Stiegler calls, following Gilbert Simondon, trans-individuation. If individuation is the ‘becoming’ (as opposed to fixed ‘being’) of all entities, trans-individuation is peculiar to the human because of technics. The conditions of these processes of trans-individuation are, according to Stiegler, over-coded by the forms of tertiary retention peculiar to different epochs. Stiegler contends, through a reading of Foucault, that knowledge is essentially archived: ‘its materiality is not something that comes after the fact… it is the very production of knowledge’. Organised inorganic matter, as a formulation of knowledge, is a form of ‘hypermatter’ (see: keynote).


Stiegler argues that we need to situate the ‘hypermateriality of knowledge’ in a ‘general organology’. To understand the concrete actualities of technicity it is necessary to understand the supports and instruments of knowledge; that is – the co-constitutive milieu of relations between what we understand to be bodies, technologies and environments as the ‘organs’ of technical life. This is organology: the study of the relations between the types of organs that characterise trans-individuation. Stiegler identifies three types of organs ‘characteristic of technical life’: physiological, technical and social organs. These ‘organological spheres’ are inseperable from each other, according to Stiegler, and have co-evolved in the ongoing development of processes of grammatisation.

Digital Studies

So, following the whistle-stop tour of some of the concepts that orient Stiegler’s philosophical project, we arrive at the call for ‘digital studies’. If we attempt to formulate a general organology of the contemporary epoch we are faced with significant changes in the function of grammatisation with and through digital technologies. Ars Industrialis, IRI and Stiegler himself collectively argue that (in Stiegler’s words):

The emergence of digital technologies, of the internet and the web, which is also the age of industrial tertiary retention, is obviously the new page on which is inscribed and read the history of thought – through what must be understood as a new system of publication constituting a new public thing, a new res publica.

So, given this shift of knowledge to a ‘hypermateriality’ and the accompanying refiguring of grammatisation, we are called to engage in ‘digital studies’ by the constellation of organisations in which Stiegler is involved. Digital Studies is therefore the study of hypermateriality that Stiegler recently argued must ‘become the new unifying and transdisciplinary model of every form of academic knowledge’. It is a call to attend to the ‘pharmacological’ nature of the automation that makes ‘digitalisation’ possible: ‘if it immeasurably increases the power of the mind (as rationalisation), it can also destroy the mind’s knowledge (as rationality)’ (see: keynote).

To conduct digital studies is, for Stiegler, to attend to new ‘Enlightenments’. Following Kant’s articulation of ‘Aufklärung’ (enlightenment) as a coming to maturity, Stiegler argues [3], through Foucault [4], that to reach a new maturity in the current epoch requires a renewed attention to how we care for knowledge and thus how we care for one another. The political stakes here are that with ‘light’ always comes ‘shadow’, with new technical ‘promise’ comes new risks, it is therefore imperative to strive towards a new politics that escapes the broken consumerist industrial model (which Stiegler, and many others, have diagnosed as the principal cause for the recent financial crisis). Ars Industrialis in particular place this politics at the heart of their mission, which is ‘to promote political interventions in the development of contemporary digital technoculture’, or in a more literal translation, ‘to promote political interventions in the development of a new industrial spirit’ (spirit as in ‘spirited discussion’ rather than ‘ghost’ – see the Ars Industrialis webpage).

It is interesting to think about the premise of digital studies in relation to Tim Berners-Lee’s declaration that the web is now a form of ‘philosophical engineering’. Stiegler, in his talk at the WWW conference, draws on Berners-Lee’s statement to suggest that the web, as a part of the latest stage in grammatisation, is an apparently stable form of ‘universalised writing’. The web is a digital technical system that could, however, be otherwise (both positively and negatively), as Stiegler’s exploration of the anthropological history of technical evolution might demonstrate. Hence, when campaigners (including Berners-Lee) call for ‘universal access’, they are also calling for a form of stability that not only ensures a conception of the internet, its function and goals, but also ‘the sense of spiritual and social progress that digitalisation in general must constitute’ (see: keynote). Digital Studies is thus oriented towards a ‘general epistemological break’, which IRI identifies as an ‘anthropological break’ insofar as the digital, as hypermaterialisation, is in the process of altering all forms of knowledge.

Ars Industrialis and Activism

The activism in which Ars Industrialis engages in response to the post-industrial ‘epistemological break’ calls for the creation of an economy of contribution, utilising the ‘relational ecology’ of the ‘global and contributory publication and editorialisation’ system of the internet. As Christian Fauré argued in his talk in Bristol, the distinction between consumer and producer has been unsettled by digital networks such that such a clear delineation of those with the means of production and those passively consuming is broken. An economy of contribution would not only be a rethinking of the relationship of exchange but also a rethinking of the ethics of desire and the ways in which ‘industry’ motivates consumption. This points towards the development of a new ‘industrial spirit’.

The basis for the economy of contribution is, fundamentally, the milieu of the internet and its ‘organological’ capacities. It is an objective nestled in the heady mix of concepts (of which there are many) that make up Stiegler’s philosophical project. While those conceptual underpinnings are sound, the discussion of the application of an ‘economy of contribution’ is mixed. On the one hand, there are hints at a fairly radical rethinking of the political economy that attempts to break with industrial capitalism, and on the other there is an account that bears a striking resemblance to the liberal rehabilitation of capitalism arguably proposed by the likes of Yochai Benckler and Lawrence Lessig. Their general thesis is that, by granting greater access to the means of production and a share of the wealth, capitalism can become more egalitarian. Of course, as Zizek has suggested – it is easier to imagine an apocalypse than it is to imagine the end of capitalism, so – such activist activities are not easy. Ars Industrialis have thus turned to an actual state of affairs, in Nantes, as a specific ground for their activist activities.

The Ars Industrialis project in Nantes has attempted to address how the post-industrial redevelopment of a city might apply Stiegler’s thought concerning the political economy. From the account given by Fauré, it has, thus far, been the creation of a research centre that negotiates a conversation between various institutions and constituencies in the city to think through what a new cultural quarter might bring to the city, the kinds of activities it might afford and how this might develop a new municipal economy.

In combination with these activities, prototyping workshops have been convened to explore the production of ‘contributive technologies’, the most developed of these is a video annotation system called ‘ligne de temps’ (‘timeline’). In their 2010 manifesto Ars Industrialis call for some general policies that would orientate the ‘relational ecology’ of ‘digital territories’ [5]. Furthermore, at the end of the manifesto the association details current activities that orient their direction [6]. Nevertheless, it remains unclear, despite the critical agenda described above, how a more general rethinking of the economy might progress.

Whither Digital Studies?

In a 2011 post on the IRI website, the institute argues that, while the idea of a ‘Digital Humanities’ has gained some traction, the

“digital humanities should be understood as a branch of what we [IRI] propose to call digital studies: the digital humanities are indeed neither practicable nor theorisable without first conceptualising an organology of knowledge that unfolds with the digital – and for all forms of knowledge: know-how [savoir-faire], life skills [savoire-vivre], theoretical knowledge [savoir-théoretiques]” (my translation).

So, we are compelled here to understand the digital humanities as perhaps a vanguard but also, significantly, a sub-domain of a more encompassing discourse of digital studies. As Stiegler suggests in his WWWC2012 keynote, digital studies must become ‘the new unifying and transdisciplinary model of every form of academic knowledge’. If you accept Stiegler’s philosophical project of the need for a ‘general organology’, something like digital studies does appear to be a means of addressing pressing economic, social, political and educational concerns. However, it is difficult to see how such a grand project would be realised.

Perhaps more interestingly, the proposition of digital studies invites a more expansive form of studying the contemporary socio-technical milieu in terms of a trans-disciplinary articulation of the many and varied ways in which the digital has become central to our lives. However, it seems crucial, within this, to explicitly address the very material conditions of manufacture and labour that facilitate the ongoing production of the devices, systems and infrastructures that afford ‘the digital’. As an all-too-quick example: there remain pressing concerns about the working conditions of those who manufacture smart phones and the devices themselves contain a range of rare earth metals that are mined in politically troubled regions. Contrary to a focus on the ‘immaterial’, which Stiegler disavows as a concept, materiality is brought back into Digital Studies through the ‘hypermateriality’ of the digital.

For a ‘digital studies’ to succeed then, I would argue that the principal of the development of a ‘general organology’ would need to be taken to its most inclusive and expansive, with due attention paid to the material, as well as the bodily, psychic and technical, bases of the digital. This may well be further explicated in more recent work, for which English-speakers must await translations. Nevertheless, ‘taking care’ would necessarily need to become more ecological and less human-centred.


1. Bernard Stiegler is a founding member of the Ars Industrialis association and the founder and director of the Institut de Recherche et d’Innovation (Institute for Research and Innovation) at the Pompidou Centre.

2. Stiegler argues this through original readings of the work of the anthropologists Bertrand Gilles and Andre Leroi-Gourhan and the philosophers Gilbert Simondon and Martin Heidegger (with the influence of Jacques Derrida) in his series Technics and Time. Technics has an anthropological basis insofar as technical capacities are a part of our evolution. As the hand is freed from locomotion by walking upright, enables tool use, raises the face and opens the potential for language. Therefore, if the hand ‘frees’ speech, technics and language are inextricably linked. With the externalisation of thought, comes its spatialisation, as it is rendered material. Externalisation also involves an anticipation of its further use, and so an appreciation of the passage of time. The ongoing development of the human is thus always and already in relation to the technical, and what Stiegler calls ‘organised inorganic matter’. For Stiegler, technics achieves an ‘epiphylogensis’ – an extension and folding together of organic evolution and the inorganic of technology.

3. Stiegler argues that to pay attention to the formation of knowledge, and indeed the capacity for attention itself, is a form of care, care for the self and for other. This is argued in detail in ‘Taking Care of Youth and the Generations‘.

4. In particular, Stiegler argues this (in Taking Care of Youth and the Generations) through Foucault’s later lectures at the College de France, such as the 1982-1983 and 1983-1984 series collected under the title ‘The Government of Self and Others’.

5. The policy suggestions in the 2010 Ars Industrialis manifesto include, for example:

  • ‘A scientific, technological and industrial policy favouring the coherence of the new digital technical system in the sense of a new industrial model’
  • ‘A cultural policy which makes of culture a social investment… and a permanent construction site for the “capacitation” of individuals and, through them, of territories themselves—culture understood as capacitation being always also the invention of new forms of care, of techniques of the self and of the “we,” that is, of savoir-vivre.’

6. The activities Ars Industrialis cites as representative of a move towards a new industrial politics of spirit are:

  • Developing work groups according to the model already implemented around “techniques of the self”;
  • Implementing contributive technologies with our subscribers—something we have already begun to make a concrete reality thanks to the aid of the Conseil Régional d’Ile de France, and with the Lignes de temps software;
  • Working directly with territories (as we already do with Nantes Métropole and the Conseil Régional du Nord-Pas-de-Calais);
  • Developing research activities according to a model similar to that which the Frankfurt School tried to undertake at the beginning of the 20th century, first in Germany and then in the United States.

6 thoughts on “Digital Studies

  1. Great post Sam. I think the questions concerning practice (or perhaps for Stiegler’s post-marxism, a kind of organological praxis) are certainly pertinent and indeed must be posed to be faithful to Stiegler’s stated position on promoting a more critical engagement with the rollout of the digital technocultural milieu. The ‘what to do’ question shouldn’t I think be used as a stick to beat such critical activism over the head with though; as Zizek and others have sardonically noted, the great success of our audiovisual media-delivered ‘world’ is to be found in the fact that it is almost inconceivable to imagine the end of capitalism (the end of the world is much easier)😉

    Stiegler notes in the long interview compilation book I have blogged about (Hypermaterial Economy and Psychopower, see earlier posts) that in his view, a revolution to overthrow capitalism is unrealistic and not a viable solution right now, but of course the future beyond capitalism is obviously going to be a question of and for the future (if ‘we’ get that far without ceding priority to other biological forms or chemical processes). So his economy of contribution must be some form of a recomposed industrial production and distribution motivated via profit-motive in some form or other. He argues for a kind of negotiation of what priorities and values are important for the collective, and indeed for a negotiation of what and how the collective(s) that define us should be modified or refigured (eg. in the Constitute Europe books). But this negotiation should then result in some kind of project that is then instituted and led from a top-down perspective, ie. some kind of political, legislative and enforceable, regulated policy implementation. This would enact what would be more longer term (less speculative or nihilistic) projects that had credibility and credit from the collective(s).

    Difficult to concretize these with any confidence. Last year I mentioned the fairtrade movement in response to a question along these lines. We see now that the movement was at best a working compromise with the old system of maximal exploitation of primary producers, and that in the U.S now it is rapidly morphing into little more than another marketing strategy (much like the meaningless word ‘organic’ on product labelling) with deals done concerning the minimum proportion of ‘fairly traded’ primary product going into your packet of coffee beans to earn the Fairtrade label. As Steigler said in a recent lecture at Goldsmith’s, it is not as if the battle for criticality, for the renewed enlightenment push should be thought of as ultimately winnable to be worth joining…..

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