Misreading Derrida: Stiegler, originary technicity, and the différance of différance

Epiphylogenesis, Stiegler writes in the first volume of Technics and Time (1994), is the “conservation, accumulation, and sedimentation of successive epigeneses, mutually articulated” (I:140). In other words, epiphylogenesis is the transmission of the “already-there” beyond the lifespan of an individual being. In this, argues Stiegler, it constitutes a break with “pure life” insofar as it is a denaturalisation or, rather, an exteriorisation by way of hypomnemata, that is, by way of artefactual memory aids. As such, he continues, epiphylogenetic beings are always already technical beings. For Stiegler, however, epiphylogenesis is reserved for the human alone. It designates, he suggests, the technicity that is the différance of and from the différance which already structures the “pure life” of every other living being insofar as these latter do not conserve epigeneses, and who can thus only react but never respond. Moreover, this “différance of différance” is, according to Stiegler, and here he cites Derrida, precisely the “emergence of the grammē as such” (I:137).

In reaching this conclusion, however, Stiegler in fact conflates this emergence of the grammē as such to the appearing of consciousness: an articulation that is produced within, and from out of, différance as the history of life in general. Hence, the différance of différance is the production of consciousness understood as the emergence of the grammē as such (I:137-8). As a result, for Stiegler there can be neither nonhuman consciousness nor nonhuman technics. All other animals therefore, insofar as they lack co-constitutive technicity, are paradoxically reduced yet again to mere Cartesian machines.

Returning to Derrida, however, we find that, in the passage from Of Grammatology cited by Stiegler, there is no suggestion whatsoever that the “emergence that makes the grammē appear as such” is the emergence of consciousness (84). In fact, the opposite is the case. Rather, for Derrida, it is the originary movement of différance—“the trace as the unity of the double movement of protention and retention”—which always “goes far beyond the possibilities of ‘intentional consciousness’” (84). It is, he makes clear, this movement, this “new structure of nonpresence” that is the emergence of the living (from the amoeba to homo sapiens), which “makes the grammē appear as such” and at the same time “makes possible the emergence of the systems of writing in the narrow sense” (84). There is, therefore, no suggestion that it is the emergence of consciousness which makes the grammē appear as such, but rather that its emergence is already the emergence of différance. It is the trace, in other words, which constitutes the “new” program in the sense of the mark of the living on the nonliving that is the emergence of life itself.

Whereas for Stiegler exteriorisation constitutes the break with “pure life,” for Derrida it is the denaturalising movement of life, that is, the originary technicity of living being. Indeed, this could not be clearer: “from the elementary structures of so-called ‘instinctive’ behaviour up to the constitution of electronic card-indexes and reading machines … it at once and in the same movement constitutes and effaces so-called conscious subjectivity” (84, emphasis added). Being “alive” is, in short, already an exteriorisation in which the living being is no longer a simple body but is already a technical bodying, which is another way of saying the “already” of the “already-there.” It is always the case, in other words, that “life has freed itself from life” (Derrida Demeure 89). While I am by no means suggesting that human technical evolution does not have its own distinctive character, nonetheless there is clearly no “double rupture” in the history of life, as Stiegler claims, no “two coups received by différance in general from a specific différance” (Technics and Time I:138).

In fact, Stiegler simply assumes the conflation of consciousness with the appearing of the grammē as such. This allows him to then move on directly to the task of specifying this “stage,” that is, the “stage of différance out of which emerges the possibility of making the grammē as such, that is, ‘consciousness,’ appear” (I:138; emphasis added). This stage, he argues, is the emergence of time in the anticipation that is human “technical consciousness” (I:151) or simply that of human consciousness (I:137).

For Stiegler then, the human-animal discontinuity is a distinction in relation to the what, and thus, via exteriorisation, to time, insofar as the evolution of the technical “what” returns to effect the “who.” It is the co-determination of cortex and tool, in other words, which differentiates “the human” differently in its relation to the nonliving, and thus to death (I:154). However, following Derrida, it is the trace which “is” temporalisation, that is, the technicity of the constitution of living being in and as language. It is this, moreover, which in turn permits epiphylogenesis, and which is therefore not the proper of the human (as seen, for example, with the transgenerational transmission of the Addo elephants[1]). This is not, however, to efface the specificity of co-determining technical relations. Rather, it simply marks the impossibility of a difference (or différance) of kind. Instead, it is a question only of speed: a question of differing (and deferring) temporalities and of the unimaginably, unbearably ancient.

[1] In 1919, farmers attempted to murder 140 elephants from the South African park of Addo, of which between sixteen and thirty survived. Even today, recounts Barbara Noske, the Addo elephant group is “mainly nocturnal and responds extremely aggressively to any human presence … they obviously have transmitted information about our species even to calves of the third and fourth generation, none of whom can ever have been attacked by humans” (Beyond Boundaries 111-2). These elephants are thus “the cultural heirs of the fear and hatred among their ancestors for our species” (155). This also, in reference to Derrida’s point regarding the necessary link between transgenerational transmission, law, and therefore crime and peccability, appears to mark an elephant social taboo.

About Richard Iveson

Postdoctoral Research Fellow I have a PhD from Goldsmiths College, University of London; my teaching and research interests include animal studies; Continental philosophy; posthumanism; cultural studies; biotechnology and cyberculture; post-Marxism. Books; Being and Not Being: On Posthuman Temporarily (London & Washington: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2016), forthcoming. Zoogenesis: Thinking Encounter with Animals ( London: Pavement Books, 2014). View all posts by Richard Iveson

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