Nanjing April 2018
Foucault developed the concepts of biopower and biopolotics during the 1970’s. I tried myself to show that Foucault in these extremely relevant analyses nevertheless neglected marketing and cultural industries as psychopower.
Now, the psychopower controlling the flux and flow of the time of consciousness leads to reticulated neuropower that is just starting – and this year, we will try to introduce general considerations in order to identify what are the main and real questions at stake beyond the story telling and strategic marketing that is called transhumanism.
Before this, let’s remember the theory of retentions and protentions, and the effects of cultural industries on that.
You are listening to me right now, and, as I speak to you, I am trying to make you paying attention to what I say. But to understand this, we must lend and pay attention to what Husserl said in taking up Saint Augustine’s analysis, which led him to distinguish, in the passage of time, two types of retentions : primary retentions and secondary retention.
Retention in general is what is retained. And what is retained contains chains or concatenations of possible potentials, that is, expectations (in french attentes, same radical like attention] contained in what is retained, which Husserl called protentions. The play of retentions and protentions, where the latter are the expectations contained within them, constitutes attention.
In this play of attention, we must distinguish between primary retentions and secondary retentions. Primary retentions are retained in the present and by the present, which presents itself only through these retentions where it is maintained, and which thereby constitute a now (in french maintenant). So, you retain what I have just said in what now presents itself to you as what I am in the course of saying – for otherwise, you could not com-prehend, or main-tain through this com-prehension, what I am saying.
This primary retention, Husserl says, is not something that belongs to the past : it constitutes the present insofar as it passes presently and now, insofar as it is passing. As for the past, it consists of secondary retentions, that is, retentions that once were primary, but which have since gone past, and therefore become secondary. If we now ask ourselves what each of us here in this room, on the basis of my discourse, understands, retains and maintains as the meaning of what I have said, we will undoubtedly discover that not one of us has heard or understood or maintained the same thing as anyone else, in what presented itself to each of you through my discourse.
This is so because each primary retention retained during listening is a primary selection . The latter operates according to the secondary retentions specific to each of the listeners. Secondary retentions in this way function as the criteria of selection, and thus of retention, and what this really means is that everyone hears what I am saying with a different ear. If, however, my discourse is sensible, or even necessary, and so, in one way or another, true, it will probably provoke, in the audience that you constitute through your attention, a common and shared expectation – a commmon protention, to speak with Husserl.
If this is what happens, I will in some way have cultivated within you something necessary, something that we call the social. This culture and this sculpture, however, are possible only in the artificial but hidden conditions that must be reconstituted and brought to the clarity of the circumspect gaze : these conditions are, in addition to hearing us in a language that is not necessarily our own, those of more or less sharing a fund or background of collective retentions and protentions, which has been bequeathed to us through what I call tertiary retentions, that is, through being inscribed in the exosomatic and spatialized fabric that constitutes our space, our time and our common memories.
Those tertiary retentions are things and objects in general. Now, some of them are what I call hypomnesic tertiary retention, this meaning : things made to record and keep the memory, mnemotechnical things, like characters or letters, but also audio recordings or visio recordings, and now computers and smartphones. The play or primary and secondary retentions and protentions can be changed by such hypomnesic tertiairy retentions. This is already the stake of Plato’s Phaedrus , were Socrates says that writing is a pharmakon.
I will not develop this here and today : I did it last year. I just remember you that this pharmakon is that makes possible geometry, for example, or history, or philosophy, or grammar, but also sophistry, and manipulations of the retentions, the protentions and the attention of the souls submitted to these artefacts.
For centuries, tertiary retentions in general and hypomnesic tertiary retentions in particular have been objects of worship and culture, of social sculpture in this sense, for organisms and instruments of power and knowledge attempting to constitute in this way a common will, that is, a society, a social milieu composed of retentions and protentions that are more or less shared, through which what we call culture takes care of what, as the process of exosomatization, requires contingencies and accidents produced by this process turned into necessity and truth.
For the fact is that our psychic, intimate and singular retentions and protentions are founded on and supported by collective, shared retentions and protentions, beginning with the words we speak and listen to, and which were coined before us. All knowledge and all works are such crafts, worships, sculptures and cultures of collective retentions and protentions bequeathed by a common past, more or less anonymous and ancestral, projecting a common future that is always indeterminate, inaccessible and improbable, but which insists and remains open through works.
Now, with cultural industries, the reticulated and massive capturing of attention produces more and more standardized retentions and protentions, placed under the control of marketing. And this modifies deeply the process of trans-individuation that is constitued by the sharing of collective retentions and protentions. This affects and in a way dis-affects (dés-affecter in French means close down) the symbolic milieu in general and in particulier the language.
A symbolic milieu is based on the reciprocity of symbolic exchanges, like for example a dialog. Even when reading a book, the reader is reading from its capacity to write, and, for example, to write his or her reading itself, that is, to interpret what he or she reads. With cultural industries, as they are based on a separation between producers of symboles and consumers of symboles, this exchange is broken. Now, what is broken is the symbolic a such – if it is true that only what is shared is propely speaking sym-bolic, this symbolization being moreover a metabolization of the collective individuation.
For nearly one hundred years, in America, with the introduction of civilian radio, and then, with the advent of television, the advertising industry has had a significant impact on the collective individuation process that is language. This collective individuation process is materialized through processes of transindividuation.
What Simondon called the transindividual, that is conditionned by the existence of objets and things bearing this transindividual is another name for meaning, and it is what results from the co-individuation of psychic individuals who thus form collective individuals, social groups through which social systems metastabilize themselves, the same social system being common to numerous groups – hence, the fact that a language may be spoken differently by different groups.
Metastabilization is a process of stabilization at the limit of instability, that is, the formation of a structure that is in movement but which maintains its form as it deforms – like a vortex or a tornado. It is the same for language, this one having this structure :
Transindividuation is what results from processes of co-individuation, that is, co-ordinated processes of psychic individuation, such as the dialogues of Plato, these dialogical relations causing language to evolve – by giving, for example, a new definition to a word, and therefore a new use.
This new feature – which is at first local, as for instance when two speakers agree on something, for instance Socrates and Meno – can then be disseminated through time and to other speakers along various vectors, such as through books, Plato’s academy, the trial of Socrates, and so on. This dissemination constitutes the process of transindividuation.
Now, it is possible to influence the transindividuation process in a rational and systematic way via vectors such as these, which are always constituted on the basis of tertiary retentions. Through the culture industries, advertising and publicity today draw on every poetic, rhetorical, prosodic, pragmatic effect through which transindividuation processes are reinforced, that is, through which meanings are shared, and do so by exploiting linguistic and semiological forms of knowledge. Thus in order to illustrate what in 1960 he referred to as the poetic function of language, Roman Jakobson took as his example the political slogan ‘I like Ike’, used in Eisenhower’s 1956 presidential campaign.<!--[if !supportFootnotes]--> <!--[endif]-->
It seems to me that linguistics has yet to take full account of what is at stake in the new relation to words inaugurated by advertising. What advertising is doing to language is what Saussure had earlier suggested could notup till then be done because in his view language is too complex:
A language constitutes a system. […] The system is a complex mechanism that can be grasped only through reflection; the very ones who use it daily are ignorant of it. We can conceive of a change only through the intervention of specialists, grammarians, logicians, etc.; but experience shows us that all such meddlings have failed.<!--[if !supportFootnotes]--> <!--[endif]-->
Advertising is clearly incapable of systematically intervening in the totality of the system. It does, however, make it possible to introduce diachronic tendencies and to control their development, and this eventually results in changes at the synchronic level, that is, at the level of the system itself.
As such, advertising amounts to a psychotechnology of control of the linguistic transindividuation process, and more generally of the symbolic transindividuation process – and the process of transindividuation is one of the concepts absent from Saussure’s structural linguistics: this absence will block its development, to the great detriment of generative grammar.
Psychotechnologies change the becoming of language to the extent that language is
a treasure deposited through the practice of speaking in subjects who belong to the same community, a grammatical system that exists virtually in each brain, or more exactly in the brains of a collection of individuals; for language does not exist in complete form in anyone, but exists perfectly only in the whole group.<!--[if !supportFootnotes]--> <!--[endif]-->
This means that language changes to the extent that the brains of speakers themselves change. The advertising and communications psychotechnologies founded on analogue tertiary retention, such as radio and television, are technologies that imprint ‘messages’ in brains, brains that must be made ‘available’. As such, these psychotechnologies constitute technologies of transindividuation.
The critique of psychotechnologies – that is, the analysis of their effects and of their pharmacological potential: of their toxic effects as well as their curative effects – should lead to a new critique of linguistics and of the sciences of the symbol in general, a critique itself based on an organology, that is, on a rational study of the organs of transindividuation.
Transindividuation is in fact made possible by tertiary retention, by those tertiary retentions constituted by artificial organs (technics and mnemotechnics) that, developing in the course of the individuation of the technical system, are the link between psychic individuals and collective individuals – that is, social systems. Social systems are those bodies of rules governing ways of life that are inevitable wherever one finds those artefacts and technics that are pharmaka (in Plato’s sense of this word): a pharmakon is a remedy that always contains a poisonous element, and a poison that always holds a therapeutic virtue.
Social systems are organizations that implement bodies of rules that define therapeutic prescriptions with regard to these pharmaka . The totality of these social systems constitutes society, as the collective and integrated individuation of these social systems themselves, and through them, of the pharmaka implemented by this society. Today, societies are subject to a veritable flood of new pharmacological apparatus that produces countless toxic process – but also genuine therapeutic inventions.
Pharmacology (in the sense I use this term) is the study of the effects (both positive and negative, that is, individuating and disindividuating) resulting from the threefold individuation of: psychosomatic organs; technical, technological and mnemotechnological organs; and social organizations – and where the totality constitutes a transductive relation with three terms. General organology is the study of the innumerable dimensions of this threefold transductive relation.
In other words, the toxicity of this or that technology, and in particular the toxicity of those psychotechnologies implemented by psychopower, is not inherent in the technology on its own, but derives from those social arrangements (or, in this case, anti-social arrangements) brought about by power operating through these technologies (for example, as psychopower). And it is for this very reason that any organology must also be a pharmacology: its task is not merely to describe the toxicity of this organology, but to prescribe other social arrangements that constitute therapies or therapeutics, that is, systems of care, of attentional forms, and of knowledge.
This task becomes all the more urgent once the psychotechnologies of the analogue communications industries, and the economic models of attention (or rather, destroying attention) organized by marketing and founded on advertising, begin to combine linguistic engineering with the automated treatment of natural languages – and it is this combination that lies at the basis of the worldwide success of Google.
Frederic Kaplan has shown that this combination leads to the development of a form of linguistic capitalism through which industrial society passes from an economy of attention to an economy of expression. Google is its worldwide model, and it operates by articulating two kinds of algorithms:
one, which makes it possible to find pages corresponding to certain words, made it popular; the other, which provides these words with a market value, has made it wealthy.
The first algorithm, PageRank, ‘scans’ the state of the transindividuation process as reflected in the relations between the sites of that symbolic milieu that is the web: it is literally equivalent to a vast filing cabinet filled with web pages that calculates, for someone who is navigating it, the level of penetration of such and such a phrase within the framework that constitutes the digital symbolic milieu.
The calculation involved here is that of a Markov chain, that is, a probabilistic process – as a result of this calculation access is granted to pages in order of their ranking, thereby reinforcing these differences of rank: the performativity of search engines thereby tends to lead to the logic of the audimat (that is of what, in the world of television advertising, is called the system of ‘ratings’). It is, however, not quite the same logic: most web pages are not designed specifically in order to receive a top ranking – even if it is true that some pages are designed to increase their ranking, and even if it is possible to take advantage of the system by diverting it to this end. But that is why Google is constantly updating the algorithm in order to try and minimize such possibilities, because this kind of manipulation diminishes the use value to be gained from scanning search-terms and increases the exchange value that accrues to advertisers as a result of such diversion.
The second algorithm is targeted at advertisers, and it works by auctioning words to those wanting to link to them – these are the famous ‘sponsored links’ (or AdWords, the operation of which is performed by a linguistic robot, Mediapartners or Mediabot, in the service of Google’s advertising arm, AdSense) :
In order to choose which advertisements to display for a given request, the algorithm offers a three-stage bidding system:
Bid on a keyword. A company chooses an expression or a word, such as ‘vacations’, and defines the maximum price that it would be willing to pay if a web user came to them through it. To help buyers of words, Google supplies an estimate of the amount to bid in order to have a good chance of appearing on the first page of results. […]
Calculation of the quality score for the advertisement. Google assigns a score, on a scale of one to ten, to each advertisement as a function of its text’s relevance to the user’srequest, the quality of the page put forward (the interest of its content and download speed) and the average number of clicks on the ad. […]
Calculation of the rank. The order in which the advertisements appear is determined by a relatively simple formula: the rank is the bid multiplied by the score. […]
This bidding procedure is recalculated with every search by every user – millions of times per second!
These sponsored connections between words are processes of the industrial creation of circuits of transindividuation, processes that are grafted onto the transindividuation processes produced on the web by navigation, and which are scanned and reinforced by the first algorithm – the entire thing constituting circuits of automatic transindividuation, that is, a planetary system that automates transindividuation processes.
Kaplan shows that this results in a ‘stock exchange of words’. This ‘gives a relatively accurate indication of important world semantic shifts.’ It gives an indication, in other words – but from a very specific perspective, an obviously performative one, that is, that trans-forms what it expresses through the very fact of expressing it – of what we are here calling linguistic transindividuation processes, whereby ‘everything that can be named is an opportunity for a bid.’ In other words:
Google has succeeded in expanding the domain of capitalism to language itself, making words into a commodity and basing an incredibly profitable commercial model on linguistic speculation.
Nevertheless, this system would be unable to function for long if the linguistic and orthographic competence of web users completely collapsed. Certainly, we have all seen that Google itself automatically corrects typographical and spelling errors. But this automatic correction could contribute to such a decline in the attention paid to spelling that it could eventually threaten the viability of the calculations that can only be done on the basis of discrete and unambiguous units:
What do the actors of linguistic capitalism fear? Language that eludes them, that breaks, is ‘misspelled’, that becomes impossible to put into equations. When the search engine corrects on the fly a word that you have spelled incorrectly, it does not do so only to help you: most often, it transforms something without any significant value (a misspelled word) into a directly profitable economic resource.
According to Kaplan, with the advent of Google, capitalism passes from being an economy of attention to an economy of expression:
The discovery of what has been up to now an unknown territory for capitalism opens a new field for economic competition. Google certainly benefits from a significant lead, but rivals, having understood the rules of this new competition, will emerge in the end. The rules are ultimately quite simple: we are leaving behind an economy of attention in order to enter an economy of expression. The stake is no longer so much to capture attention as to mediatize speaking and writing. The winners will be those who can develop close and lasting linguistic relationships with a large number of users in order to model and modify language, create a controlled linguistic market and organize speculation on words. The use of language will henceforth be an object of desire. Undoubtedly, it will only take a short time before language itself is transformed.
The economy of expression that is established with digital tertiary retention (which constitutes the digital stage of writing), however, does not require an economy of attention, which, precisely, it surpasses, but an ecology of this attention, for example of that attention to written language that is orthographic knowledge – that is, a training and formation of attention (and of the expressive capabilities it makes possible) based on a therapeutic practice of orthographic correction that protects the individual knowledge of orthography, failing which automatic spell checkers will no longer work. This constitutes the question of the contemporary organology of elementary knowledge from the perspective of the relation between automatism and autonomy.
Spell-checkers were among the first systems experienced by the public through social practices of electronic language, introducing them into a new international symbolic milieu constituted by automated idioms. This milieu is then massively traversed by automated translation processes, or translations assisted by automated systems. More recently, rapid communication systems such as SMS and Twitter have appeared, which, with their ‘social networking’ aspect, are also amplifiers of transindividuation.
These transformations of the conditions of transindividuation change writing and thereby also change speech and thought. The way we write over-determines the way we speak and think, as Walter Ong explains in relation to the emergence of the alphabet in Antiquity:
Without writing, the literate mind would not and could not think as it does, not only when engaged in writing but normally even when it is composing its thoughts in oral form. More than any other single invention, writing has transformed human consciousness.<!--[if !supportFootnotes]--> <!--[endif]-->
Digital writing nevertheless takes new forms that increasingly pass, at the speed of light, through automatic ‘machine to machine’ writing, deforming and transforming consciousness, that is, that general ensemble of attentional forms that adds up to a human mind.
This deformation brings new forms of consciousness and of the unconscious, that is, of desire and therefore of attention. We pose this not only as a principle but as an obligation and a duty – given that the current system has ruined attention, and therefore amounts to a planetary bomb that must be defused as soon as possible: the current economic crisis, too, is a crisis of attention.
If this shift is not negotiated and supported by a political project – for it is the role of politics or the political to produce projects through which the economy can develop without destroying society, and the economy along with it – it will lead to the worst : it will result in a catastrophe.
For the interests of Google do not coincide with those of society any more than those of any other sector of the language industries, or for that matter of any ‘pharmacy’ whatsoever: without therapists to prescribe and set the rules, pharmacists inevitably turn into ‘dealers’, that is, poisoners – because the shareholders who are their ‘prescribers’ (that is, who influence them) ignore in principle the use value produced by these pharmacists, seeing nothing except exchange value.
A singular question arises here, however, which in a way constitutes the elevation of transindividuation at both a political and economic level in the epoch of digital tertiary retention: to what extent does the symbolic and transindividual milieu created by these technologies that alter (that is, make other) linguistic practices and knowledge deposited not only ‘through the practice of speaking in subjects who belong to the same community’, but also through the practice of digital reading and writing, that is, of the organology produced by the economy of expression of symbolic subjects connected by the same network; to what extent does this milieu, these technologies, these new practices and the forms of knowledge that they create, to what extent does all this enable us to conceive contributive transindividuation technologies that manage to produce a reticular reflexivity and that constitute new therapeutic sources of knowledge and understanding – that is, sources and resources for these new forms of attention about which we have been speaking? Such are the stakes of this lecture series, stakes that extend well beyond the field of linguistics.
A strictly Saussurian perspective is incapable of addressing these questions because, for methodological reasons that were very understandable (and Saussure founded the structuralist perspective firstly through the methodological rigour of his linguistics) but also very unfortunate, the Course in General Linguistics, as Derrida showed in his analysis of its metaphysical twists and turns, poses as an initial principle that ‘language is independent of writing’.<!--[if !supportFootnotes]--> <!--[endif]-->
Such a view is, however, completely illusory . That the image of spoken language given by writing is deformed, if not false, is obvious. And that this de-formation of the image of language is a de-formation of attention and of the attentional form in which this language consists: this is what we are claiming here. But the notion that language and its becoming (and language is only its becoming: it is irreducibly diachronic, as Saussure himself taught so well) are independent of writing is completely false.
Furthermore, the very possibility of linguistics, that is, of a science of language, is conditioned by the existence of writing insofar as it is an ‘intellectual technology’ in Jack Goody’s sense, and by the play of tertiary retentions constituting grammatization in Sylvain Auroux’s sense (who extensively documented these questions in the history of the sciences of language).
This constitutes, precisely, a question of general organology and of negative and positive pharmacology. Language is what writing (and not only writing) grammatizes. This grammatization is, first and foremost, a de-formation. But from this deformation, which is a kind of perpetual teratogenesis, that is, a constant production of ‘monsters’, new linguistic formations emerge, of which the most prominent and individuating are those emerging from literature.
This relation between language and writing is a specific case of the relations between social systems (here, language) and technical systems (here, the mnemotechnics that is writing). The arrangement between the two takes place through speakers through whom are negotiated the turns deforming and forming the future of language and, more generally, every symbolic milieu and social system, which are woven as their motives.
To think the future of language, of the symbolic and of attentional forms, today, that is, the future properly speaking, and in particular, such that it can only properly be brought about by youth, is to return to this a priori illusion of Saussurian linguistics, but to do so in order to re-launch its fundamental achievements on a new basis, and to escape the impasse that is the domination of generative grammar and Chomskyan naturalism spread through cognitivism – at the very moment when the digital stage of writing poses all these questions anew, as shown so well by Kaplan.
In France, the relation to language has seriously deterioriated. I presume that this is equally true in China.
This is a fact in relation to which four attitudes are possible :
one can deny it;
one can denounce it;
one can exploit it, either industrially or politically; or
one can (and if one can, one must) decide to fight it positively, by analysing the pharmacological positivity of new tertiary retentions and, to this end, by reinforcing and organizing new social arrangements.
Digital technologies now effect calculations on transindividuation operating in light-time. In so doing, what is being played out, with industrial reading and the economy of expression as implemented by Google, changes the conditions of linguistic becoming at a planetary level.
Linguistic transindividuation is in general and in itself a process of transformations that operate through correlations that are established between transindividual units that, in the case of language, are words and phrases. The transindividuality of each ‘item’, that is, its shared meaning, is the result of this dynamic process that more or less metastabilizes the relations of each unit with all the others (near or far – Simondon describes the process of collective individuation as the spreading of an ‘internal resonance’) – this metastabilization constitutes what Wittgenstein referred to as ‘use’.
The simplified, abstract description and unified ideal of a metastable state of global uses of a language constitutes what Saussure called its ‘synchrony’. This synchrony is only an ideality: it does not exist. But the tendency towards synchronization, on the contrary, does indeed exist. And the power of linguistics is established by imposing criteria on this tendency towards synchronization, that is, on the establishment of that metastability which is the condition of formation of the transindividual – which is itself a metastable state.
We saw by reading Kaplan that with the technologies of light-time, pre-locutionary correlations (performed on such and such a speech act of such and such a speaker, whether as reading or as expression) operates automatically both by adding up the links made between units by preceding internet users, and by promoting units on the linguistic market, on that market that symbolic exchange on the web has become under the financial auspices of the Google business model. This automation is thus a dual algorithmic organization of metastability, combining and imposing new criteria on the tendency towards synchronization for a metastable linguistic situation: on the one hand ranking the links forged on the web, which produces an extremely refined ratings system; and on the other hand evaluating links on the linguistic market where, sold at auction, they are transformed into exchange value.
Automated pre-locutionary correlations clearly lead to new kinds of diachronic phenomena, since they have an impact on every speech act – which is thus itself an individuation of the speaker, and, through this, an individuation of language, that is, a micro-event within its diachronic evolution. And it may become a macro-event if this discourse is taken up in one way or another, by some sphere of language or another, for example, poetry, politics, science, or advertising, with the result that this psycho-linguistic individuation causes a series of co-individuations that are ultimately consolidated into a new stage of transindividuation.
The power of Google’s two-sided economy, which at the same time cultivates ‘use value’ through the automated operation of ‘page ranking’ and ‘exchange value’ through an automated system that creates a linguistic market, lies in the arrangement that operates automatically and stochastically between the diachronic and synchronic tendencies, guiding and facilitating expression and intra-linguistic reading, and establishing inter-linguistic transindividual correlations through automatic translation.
With the linguistic technologies of light-time, the conditions of linguistic transindividuation processes have substantially changed for about two billion speakers, those who are the most affluent and therefore the most active on Earth: most of the linguistic transindividual units practiced by these speakers now travel in one way or another through circuits of transindividuation that are inscribed in the data centres of cloud computing, in the form of digital tertiary retentions that can be analysed, qualified, quantified, correlated, treated, evaluated, modified, indexed, annotated, channelled, and sold.
Automated correlations thus create massive transindividual relations that directly affect the transindividual as such, that is, meaning, and this new transindividuation process is imposed on the hundreds of languages that constitute our global semantic heritage at a moment when, in addition to and parallel to neuroscience, we are witnessing the development of neuroeconomics and neuromarketing.
Tomorrow, we will begin to examine the discourse of Nicholas Carr on the digital and memory, and we shall begin to work out an outline of neuropower that synthesizes what Foucault called ‘biopower’ and what I am trying to think as ‘psychopower’.
<!--[if !supportFootnotes]--> <!--[endif]--> Roman Jakobson, ‘Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics’, in Thomas A. Sebeok, Style in Language (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1960), p. 357.
<!--[if !supportFootnotes]--> <!--[endif]--> Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics (New York: Philosophical Library, 1959), p. 73.
<!--[if !supportFootnotes]--> <!--[endif]--> Ibid., p. 19, translation modified.
<!--[if !supportFootnotes]--> <!--[endif]--> Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (New York: Routledge, 2002), p. 78.
<!--[if !supportFootnotes]--> <!--[endif]--> Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, p. 24.