Remembering Bernard Stiegler, who died on August 6, 2020, at the age of 68.
How can I believe that Bernard has already left us?
It is true that Bernard has left, but I don’t believe and will not believe.
Since I woke up on the 7th of August and read of his death, I listened to his voice on radio and I felt the presence of Bernard, his generosity, his warm greetings and smiles; I couldn’t stop my tears. I was on the telephone with Bernard a week ago, talking about an event in Arles planned for the end of August, about our future projects. Bernard’s voice was weaker than I remembered it, but he was positive. He complained that his mobile phone didn’t work and that his printer was broken, and he wasn’t able to buy new ones online because he would need a verification code sent to his mobile phone, however, he continued to write. On the 6th of August, I felt unusually weak myself, my belly was aching; this happened to me two years ago when my friend and copyeditor Damian Veal committed suicide; I dragged my body to the post office to send Bernard some Korean ginseng, which I had promised a while ago, but the post office was closed because of COVID-19. After I went home I was planning to send him a message telling him that two journal special issues that I edited and which he contributed to are about to come out. I regret that I didn’t do it, since I no longer have the chance to talk to him anymore.
Bernard deconstructed Heidegger’s Being with the concept of technics, and opened a breach through which to enter Heidegger’s thinking and to reconstruct it from within
I met Bernard in November 2008 in London, though I had seen him already several times during his lectures. I went to St. Pancras Station to pick him up with a colleague. I was young, excited and very nervous. I had read the first volume of Technics and Time, The Fault of Epimetheus, his Echographies of Television with Jacques Derrida, and had watched with admiration The Ister, made by David Barison and Bernard’s long time translator and friend Dan Ross, a film I watched many times with my students. Like anyone else, I was intrigued by his past as a bank robber and how he took up philosophy again during his five years of incarceration. I had already intensively studied Heidegger’s Being and Time and his later work after the Kehre; I thought I had penetrated into some aspects of Heidegger’s thinking on technology. But reading Technics and Time 1 was mind-blowing and revealing. I read it several times, sentence by sentence; every time was an extraordinary experience. Bernard deconstructed Heidegger’s Being with the concept of technics, and opened a breach through which to enter Heidegger’s thinking and to reconstruct it from within. But what was even more impressive was his ambition to deconstruct the history of Western philosophy. For him, the question of technology, which was indeed the first philosophy, is repressed—in Freud’s sense of the term—by the history of philosophy. The first two volumes of Technics and Time were dedicated to the deconstruction of the phenomenology of Heidegger and Husserl; the third volume on cinema is the deconstruction of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and a critique of the critical theory of the Frankfurt School.
The third volume of Technics and Time was also the beginning of Bernard’s politicised writings against the technology industry and capitalism. Bernard published almost one book each year, spanning various subjects including aesthetics, democracy, political economy, automation, etc. Bernard was not against industry per se, but rather the short-termism of the industry and the cynicism of all forms of denial; the current programme of the industry is based on a short-termism of profit making and consumerism, and as such, it no longer has any interest in taking care of the population, especially the younger generation, the generation of Greta Thunberg. This is also the condition under which technology becomes toxic. From the third volume of Technics and Times on, Bernard attempted to systematically find new weapons in his reading of Marx, Freud, Simondon, biology, and economy among others. Ars Industrialis, an association that Bernard created with his friends in 2006, was dedicated to the transformation of the industry; his current project at Sant-Denis, North of Paris, was a collaboration with various industrial partners and banks to develop a new political economy which he called an economy of contribution.
Bernard was warm and generous, he never treated me as a student, he respected me as a friend and was interested in knowing my thoughts
I still remember that it was a rainy day. He wore his black coat and hat, like a typical French intellectual, but still I gave him my umbrella. He refused at first, but then accepted. Bernard was very friendly. He asked me what I was reading; I replied that I was reading his Acting Out and another book by the historian of philosophy Pierre Hadot. He was surprised. I had just recovered from a disease that could have proved fatal, and I was fascinated by the resonance between his philosophy and ancient spiritual practice. He gave a keynote speech at a conference where I also gave a talk; Bernard was very interested in my work on relation and David Hume, and asked me to keep in touch with him. A few months later, during his debate with David Graeber and Yann Moulier Boutang at Goldsmiths College, organised by Scott Lash (where a Russian artist, a self-claimed fan of Georgio Agamben, went to shit in front of the speakers to demonstrate what he understand by resistance), he asked me to give a talk at his seminars in Paris. Later, he agreed to supervise my PhD thesis. Bernard was someone I looked up to, and every time I met him to discuss my thesis, I only felt that I was wasting his time. But Bernard was warm and generous, he never treated me as a student, he respected me as a friend and was interested in knowing my thoughts. I didn’t have the tertiary retention to record these scenes, but so many details are still vivid today. I still remember how, during one of the meetings, Bernard asked me not to read too much Heidegger, since, according to him, very great thinkers only have one or two major works—for Heidegger, it is Being and Time—and once when we were waiting to cross the road, he said, there is someone who you should take seriously later in your life, it is Jacques Derrida. I published my thesis On the Existence of Digital Objects in 2016, and Bernard kindly contributed a preface.
A farm worker, an owner of a Jazz Bar, a former bank robber, he studied philosophy in the prison of Toulouse
I only came to know Bernard more personally after I moved to Paris from London and started working in his Institute of Research and Innovation, an institute that he created with Vincent Puig in 2006 when he quit his post as director of the Department of Cultural Development at the Centre Georges Pompidou. Before his directorship at the Centre Pompidou, under the invitation of the musician and composer Pierre Boulez, he became director of IRCAM (Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics/Music), an institute of the Centre Pompidou. Bernard’s life was legendary, far more than anyone else I met in my life. A farm worker, an owner of a Jazz Bar, a former bank robber, he studied philosophy in the prison of Toulouse with the help of the phenomenologist Gérard Granel, a master’s student of Jean-François Lyotard, a PhD student of Jacques Derrida, subsequently responsible for several projects including one with the National Library of France on digitization in the 1980s, before he became acting director of INA (National Audiovisual Institute), then IRCAM, and retired from IRI in 2018.
Later, I left France for Germany to take up a job, but my relation with Bernard became even closer. He was a visiting professor for a semester at the Leuphana University in Lüneburg where I worked, and later he was a visiting professor at the Humboldt University in Berlin where I live, so we were able to meet each other almost every week during the semester time. I attended his summer school in Epineuil every year since 2012, in the countryside in central France, where Bernard and his family organized week-long seminars with invitees and students. It was a festival of thinking and friendship, which unfortunately ended in 2017. With Bernard’s death, those French summers I enjoyed almost every year since 2010 seem to be so far away.
I went to China for the first time with Bernard and his family in 2015. Bernard always said to everyone that I brought him to China, but I think it was the other way round. At that time I had already lived in Europe for a decade, and in between I only went to Hong Kong once a year for a few days to see my parents, and never passed through Mainland China. The trip to Hangzhou with Bernard was an important event in my life, since I rediscovered China; I was able to do so through the generosity of Gao Shiming, who recently became the dean of the China Academy of Art. From 2015 on, we taught a master class together in Hangzhou; I also had the chance to see Bernard almost every day for lunch and dinner; and during some warm spring nights, we went for a glass of wine on the terrace of an Italian restaurant next to the academy. We had many great conversations. I remember it was 2018, Bernard was smoking, with his glass of wine, and all of a sudden he said to me, do you remember I once asked you not to read Heidegger? I replied, yes, I remember, it was ten years ago, but I didn’t obey you. He smiled and said, I know that you didn’t listen to me, and I now think I was wrong.
In 2016 I published my second monograph The Question Concerning Technology in China: An Essay in Cosmotechnics, a response to and a critique of Heidegger’s 1953 essay ‘The Question Concerning Technology’. In this book, I presented a different reading of Heidegger from Bernard’s, but the second part of the book still relies on his critique of Heidegger’s concept of world history to deconstruct the Kyoto school and New Confucianism. I dedicated this book to Bernard, for without the numerous discussions we had, and without the spirit of rebellion that he affirmed in me, I wouldn’t have been able to take this step. This book, however, posed a problem for Bernard. He disagreed with me—not with my reading of Heidegger, but with my reading of the French palaeontologist André Leroi-Gourhan. We discussed it during a trip to Chengdu in 2018, on our way to see pandas with his son Augustin; and we were supposed to debate it during our seminars in Taipei in 2019, but we never managed to do it; finally, we planned to stage the debate in a special issue of Angelaki dedicated to the concept of cosmotechnics, which just came out on the day of his death. Bernard very generously completed this article during his hospital stay in April 2020, while he was suffering from a great deal of pain. However, he changed the direction of the essay and we never ended up in a confrontational conversation.
He is a thinker of catastrophe, or more precisely, a tragic thinker who never missed a chance to make the contingent event a philosophical necessity
Bernard left us a great deal of original and groundbreaking work on philosophy and technology. Never limiting himself to a single discipline, he was also never satisfied with any superficial interdisciplinary studies; what he tried to do was to invent a new thinking and practice to break down the boundaries and give us vision and hope. He is a thinker of catastrophe, or more precisely, a tragic thinker who never missed a chance to make the contingent event a philosophical necessity. Still, he owes us multiple further volumes of Technics and Time that he promised. Bernard told me several times about his experience with psychedelics in prison. During that experience, he wrote a text which he couldn’t understand at that time. He showed the text to Gérard Granel, who told him ‘this is going to be your philosophy’. This part was included in his PhD thesis, which Jean-Luc Marion, who was on the committee of the defense of his thesis, wanted to publish independently, but Bernard refused. This part was supposed to come out as the 7th volume of Technics and Time, though we are still waiting for the 4th, 5th and 6th. According to Bernard, this mysterious part is about a spiral. I have never read it, but I started to wonder whether it was close to what I wrote in Recursivity and Contingency, the introduction to which is entitled ‘A Psychedelic Becoming’. Bernard read the book, and thought that it was important that I engaged with German Idealism and cybernetics, and recommended it to French publishers. However, we never discussed the relation between recursivity and his concept of the spiral, since I missed the chance last year.
Last year, when we were walking around the lake, I told him that I once got quite drunk with his old friends Ishida Hidetaka and Hiroki Azuma. Bernard was very happy, and said that, after prison, he never really got drunk since he no longer enjoyed the feeling of intoxication, but he would like to make an exception. In the restaurant he ordered a bottle of wine, but I couldn’t drink more than a glass since I was still suffering from the exhaustion of completing Recursivity and Contingency. Bernard had to take half of the bottle back to the hotel room, and I missed the chance to make him drunk. But after all, Bernard is the tragist who doesn’t need intoxication.
Since 2016, Bernard talked often about dreams, and the necessity of dreaming. Industrial capitalism destroys dreams
This year I hoped to meet him again in Hangzhou but the pandemic put an end to everything. The last time I saw Bernard was in November 2019, when we went to Taiwan together to give master classes on the invitation of the Taipei National University of the Arts. I was supposed to go to Paris in December to give a talk in his annual conference, but I was too exhausted to go. Although this year the conference will still take place again in December, Bernard will no longer be there with us. Bernard chose to leave us at a destitute time, when stupidity becomes the norm, when politics is no more than lies. The pandemic accelerated the evil which he had been fighting against in his life. Since 2016, Bernard talked often about dreams, and the necessity of dreaming. Industrial capitalism destroys dreams; it produces only consumerism, through the manipulation of attention. The faculty of dreaming, for him, is the faculty that Kant ignored. Bernard was a dreamer who dreamed the impossible, a fighter who fought against stupidity—as he often said: ‘il faut combattre’. Bernard spoke highly of Hayao Miyazaki’s animation The Wind Rises, which was for him a good example for explicating the faculty of dreaming. All technologies are primarily dreams, but dreams can also become nightmares—meaning pharmacological. After Plato and Derrida, it was Bernard who became the pharmacologist of technology; however, today, most universities of science and technology only work for industry; they may talk about ethics, but they don’t need philosophy any more, they already lost the capacity to dream. ‘The Wind Rises’ is a phrase from his favorite poem of Valéry’s, ‘Le cimetière marin’, which ends with the following verse, words that could have been left by Bernard, the greatest tragist since Nietzsche:
The wind rises! … We must try to live!
The huge air opens and shuts my book: the wave
Dares to explode out of the rocks in reeking
Spray. Fly away, my sun-bewildered pages!
Break, waves! Break up with your rejoicing surges
This quiet roof where sails like doves were pecking.
8 August 2020