Memory programmes: the retention of mediated life

Following on from Patrick’s post, I thought I’d also put up a post concerning the Conditions of Mediation conference held at Birkbeck on the 17th of June 2013. I thought the conference was an excellent, if very condensed, occasion for a variety of people interested in media theory, philosophies of/for media and in particular phenomenological understandings of mediation.

There was a series of interesting, and rather diverse, keynotes, including Graham Harman, Sean Moores and Lisa Parks and two slots of parallel paper sessions. I was pleased to be able to give a paper as part of this really interesting event, in the ‘Technics, Interface and Infrastructure’ paper session.

I spoke in the same session as James Ash, who presented a great paper synthesising a reading of Graham Harman’s Object-Oriented Ontology, optics to interrogate understandings of ‘interface’. I was also hoping to speak alongside Patrick, because our papers compliment one another as a kind of meditation on Bernard Stiegler’s reading of Husserl in relation to understandings of the perception of time and the processes of memory. Patrick has posted his excellent paper here on this blog.

For those interested, I have reposted below, from my own blog, a slightly cleaned up, and referenced(!), version of my paper.

Memory Programmes

Sam Kinsley

In this paper I want to explore how, in software, we have created quasi-autonomous systems of memory that influence how we think about and experience life as such. To do this I will addresses the role of mediated memory in collective life as a (post)phenomenological concern through the lens of ‘programmes’. I suggest, for the purposes of this presentation that programming can mean two things: ordering, and so making things discrete; and scheduling, and so making actions routine. I want to think about how programming mediates the experience of memory via networked technologies. In particular I want to address this as a kind of industrialisation of memory, following the philosopher Bernard Stiegler.

Materially recording knowledge, as Stiegler argues in a critical engagement with Husserl, even as electronic data, renders thought mentally and spatially discrete. This kind of materialisation of memory demands systems to order it. Recorded knowledge also enables the ordering of temporal experience as forms of history, which facilitates the sharing of culture. Such systems of ordering temporal experience also operate as the means of planning for futures.

In the contemporary global North we increasingly retain information about ourselves and others using digital media. Furthermore we also volunteer yet more information that is recorded by internet and media service providers, search engines and social media. Thus many aspects of our lives are gathered and retained in databases. This constitutes a growing system of memory of parts of life that might be otherwise forgotten or unthought. It also facilitates a kind of perpetual operation on memory, iteratively reterratorialising what is understood about our lives. The software programmes that drive digital media thus have significant agency in the various ways that we collectively communicate and remember.

This paper is structured in two parts. First, I want to discuss memory as constitutive of our understanding of ourselves, one another, and our understanding of the world around us. In particular, I will address the prosthesis of technology as a means of exteriorising memory as a key element in this phenomenological understanding of the world, by drawing upon the work of Bernard Stiegler. Secondly, I want to discuss how the technological prosthesis in the guise of computing technologies has taken on a particular kind of quasi-autonomy in the ordering and recording of our experience.

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 in Technics and Time 2 that

‘What is exteriorized is constituted in its very exteriorization and is preceded by no interiority: this is the logic of the supplement’ (p. 4).

This is a logic preceding an opposition of form and matter. If sexual being is defined by the genetic as germinal memory, the epigenetic as neurological memory, exteriorization, according to Stiegler, is a rupture in the history of life constituting a third, tertiary, memory that he calls epiphylogenetic. Thus, as Stiegler argues in the Preface to Technics and Time 1: ‘technics is the horizon of all possibility’. We can see that technics is therefore the compositional relation through which temporality is apprehended.

A mental reality, or a ‘technical mentality’ following Gilbert Simondon, can thereby be ‘projected onto a support that is neither cerebral nor psychical but rather technical’, which Stiegler calls the process of ‘mnemotechnics’. Technics accordingly is the constitution of the experience of temporality as the relation between the body, technology and the environment. Stiegler suggests these forms of ‘retention’ precede us and yet they are a part of us, there are forms of retention that were created long before the birth of an individual and yet that person can access them as a form of ‘cultural memory’ (see: Stiegler, Technics and Time 1, Part 1).

The materialisation of thought, exterior to the mind and body, is named ‘tertiary memory’ by Stiegler. Here he draws upon Husserl’s account of the consciousness of temporality constituted by retention and protention. In this model, retention is considered in two parts: primary and secondary retention. Primary retention is the fixing of experience in the immediate conscious, the ‘present’ which passes is constituted by the ‘immediate and primordial retention of its own passing’ (Stiegler, For a New Critique of Political Economy: pp. 8-9). Secondary retention is the weaving together of the various memorial contents that make up what we call memory. Together with these forms of retention as a part of ongoing conscious experience, we project forward and anticipate, forming ‘protentions’. In a departure from Husserl, Stiegler includes ‘tertiary retention’ as the mnemotechnical exteriorization of secondary retentions. However, following the anthropologist André Leroi-Gourhan, from the beginning of the hominization process, all technical objects constitute an inter-generational memory support that overdetermines learning. Thus, ‘tertiary retention always already precedes the constitution of primary and secondary retention’ (Stiegler, For a New Critique of Political Economy: p. 9).

With the exteriorisation of thought, comes its spatialisation, as it is rendered material. Exteriorisation also involves an anticipation of its further use, folding into process of protention. The ongoing development of the human is thus always and already in relation to the technical, and what Stiegler calls the ‘organised inorganic matter’ of tertiary retention. The mnemotechnical has be transformed, deepened and rendered more complex with our ongoing development. Primary and secondary retention are increasingly of experiences of mnemotechnical forms, especially media. Thus, Stiegler’s supplement of ‘tertiary retention’ to Husserl’s understanding of retention is of significant importance for thinking the phenomenality of a gamut of phenomena in their technical conditions of collective mediation.

I want to turn now to the idea of programmes to think through the ways in which the increasingly pervasive mnemotechnical layer has constituted what Stiegler has addressed in the second volume of Technics and Time as an industrialisation of memory. This is largely concerned with what he identifies as an epochal shift away from a historical culture which has been rooted in the linearity of writing and in which

‘the retention of the past and collective apprehension of the present and of historical time passes through the technical system of the written word’ (Ian James, The New French Philosophy: p. 68).

Stiegler differentiates this historical culture from a currently emerging epoch ‘in which the retention of the past passes primarily through the technical systems of analogical… and digital communications media and other technically mediated preceptions’ (ibid).

If our experience of historical time is fundamentally rooted in technics, through the mnemotechnical, then, Stiegler argues, the flow of history itself is constituted by a process in which dominant technical systems develop and are accompanied by new cultural forms which are programmed by those systems. This programming is not only the mnemotechnical ordering of discretised information, historically as writing and perhaps more recently in the form of databases. Such a programming is also concerned with the routenisation of activity, of constituting rhythms by which activities are organised and compreheneded.

We increasingly retain information about ourselves and others using digital media. Furthermore we also volunteer yet more information that is recorded by internet and media service providers, search engines and social media. Thus many aspects of our lives are gathered and retained in databases. It facilitates a kind of perpetual operation on memory, iteratively retemporalising, (re)historicising and (re)spacing (hence de- and re-terratorialising) what is understood about our collective lives.

These media increasingly operate in the process of ‘eventalisation’, arguably intervening in our ongoing experience of temporality and clearly reshaping the processes of retention. There is a conjoining of the effect of presence by contemporary digital media, in which event and input of the event coincide in time, such that equally and simultaneously digital technologies, in the process of capturing, ordering and distribution, inaugurate a new collective as well as individual experience of time as a departure from historicity.

Social software programmes attempt to ‘produce time’ by selecting what merits the identification as an ‘event’. Information has value as the heirarchisation of ‘what happens’: By selecting what merits the name of ‘event’ the programmes, and the commercial interests they represent, co-produce, access to ‘what happens’ by attributing the status of event. The Facebook ‘news feed’ is just such a quasi-automated system of selection of events. Of course, this is not new. That contemporary media co-produce what happens, and in this sense anticipate what is going to happen merely reflects the sense in which memory traverses primary and secondary retentions: all of ‘the actions, decisions, facts and events through which one got here’ do not remain behind the present’s past but always already preceded it – without determining it (Stiegler, Technics and Time 2: p. 116).

What is novel is that the widespread industrial systems of retention, in particular in the forms of social media predetermine events in their encoded conditions and rules of functionality. When the conditions of memorisation, what Stiegler calls the criteria of effacement, of selection, forgetting, retention-protention and anticipation, are all concentrated in one techno-industrial system, that system determines a law of participation and hence conditions retentional activities. This systemic intervention into the transduction of retention-protention takes place at the speed of the network, a temporality Stiegler has named, because of fibre optics, ‘light time’, and is multiplied across the plethora of services, servers, and the extraordinary number of  programmes and algorithms. Software, such as the apps for Facebook, Foursquare, Google Plus, facilitate the apparently easy recording of activities and events. However, such software can predetermine the nature of such events. Users, or ‘actors’, ‘anticipate the conditions of their acts’ recordability and act according to the constraints of this industrial façade of time’ (Stiegler, Technics and Time 2: p. 116).

Furthermore, the passive collection of data through the integrated systems of the application programming interfaces of social networking systems like Facebook’s Social Graph begin to ask questions about the scheme of retentional capture as outlined through Stiegler’s reading of Husserl (in particular in the third volume of Technics and Time). If activities are discretised at the very moment of action, without the need for somatic retention by the embodied user (what is ordinarily called ‘memory’), the selection process from secondary to tertiary retention becomes short-circuited. The increasing passive recording, logging and sorting of mediated activities therefore prompts interesting questions about the protentional force of the industrial fabrication of time. Such systems arguably suspend the possibility of distinguishing between “an ‘event’ from its ‘input’ (the discrete phenomena that constitute a phenomenality) or its ‘input’ from its ‘reception’ or reading’. Indeed, Stiegler argues that in such cases: ‘these three moments coincide in a single spatiotemporal reality such that all delay, all distance, between them is eliminated’ (Technics and Time 2: p. 116).

Following Stiegler then, and by way of a conclusion, we might begin to question how the shift towards the primacy of the digital as the means and mechanism of recording and mediating our individual and collective histories is affecting our ways of understanding the past and anticipating a future. Further, we might ask, with Stiegler (following Ian James), if such processes have begun to ‘inaugurate a different experience of time, [and] a new and different mode of temporalisation’ (Ian James, The New French Philosophy: p. 69).


James, Ian, 2012 The New French Philosophy, Polity, Cambridge.

Stiegler, Bernard 1998 Technics and Time, 1: The Fault of Epimetheus. trans. Beardsworth, R., Collins, G., Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA.

Stiegler, Bernard, 2009 Technics and Time, 2: Disorientation. trans. Barker, S., Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA.

Stiegler, Bernard, 2010 For a New Critique of Political Economy. trans. Ross, D., Polity, Cambridge.

Stiegler, Bernard, 2010 Technics and Time, 3: Cinematic Time and the Question of Malaise. trans. Barker, S., Stanford University Press, Stanford.

2 thoughts on “Memory programmes: the retention of mediated life

  1. Thanks Sam for the post and access to your paper which is an excellent overview of the ‘big picture’ Stiegler paints of digital transformation through his approach to technics as retentional supports co-constitutive of human spatiotemporal orientation. Getting a handle on this ‘technicity’ of experience, event-making, history, etc as the prosthetic condition of situatedness, embodiment, etc was what was missing in my view from the rather ‘static’, ontological, set of keynotes taken together as an ‘orientation’ to the conference. We needed a more dis-orienting orientation, or a better orientation to the de-stabilizing of orientation that has become endemic in the short-circuiting of experience-to-event you examine in your paper.

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