Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Patrick Lyons reviews Bernard Stiegler’s The Re-enchantment of the World

Bernard Stiegler. The Re-enchantment of the World: The Value of Spirit Against Industrial Populism. Trans. Trever Arthur. London: Bloomsbury, 2014. 136 pp. Paperback $34.95. 

Reviewed by Patrick Lyons

The value of spirit in the Western capitalist world is dwindling, fading, nearly lost. These words of warning echo all throughout Bernard Stiegler’s recently translated The Re-enchantment of the World: The Value of Spirit Against Industrial Populism. The values of intelligence, attention, and a general care for the self and others are being short-circuited by technologies of instant gratification and self-indulgence (social media, television, “communicational technologies”), collectively fostering a darkened, turning era of  “Industrial Populism.” Stiegler’s self-appointed burden is to pinpoint and critique the symptoms of this dwindling, sounding a rallying cry for the reinvestment of time, interest, and value in matters of spirit, stressing their inevitable communal and political impact. The Re-enchantment of the World marks a critical taking-of-stock. What is wrong with our spirit, and what must be done to cure it?

While Stiegler’s work has been rapidly making its way into English translation since the late nineties, The Re-enchantment of the World marks the first appearance of his collective work with the group Ars Industrialis. Founded in 2005, the group includes Stiegler, his partner Caroline, and several of their colleagues, who concern themselves with questions of technology, industry, and spirit. The Re-enchantment of the World opens with their two manifestos (the original dating from 2005, revisited and updated in 2010), followed by two long-form critical diagnoses by Stiegler himself on the Western state of affairs in hyperindustrial neoliberalism, the loss of savoir-vivre, and a “reign of ignorance,” closing with the transcription of a group motion at the Tunis Summit on the crisis of information societies. As with much of Stiegler’s writing, the breadth of subject matter in The Re-enchantment of the World has a tendency to overwhelm. Stiegler’s prose often reads as an associative derive, trusting synapse and spontaneity over tidy legibility and organized flow. However, constant concerns for spirit, care, and community offer grounding foundations around which his more erratic and far-reaching yarns may reliably be spun.

Constituting its most central anxious current, this crisis of spirit stimulates the whole of Stiegler’s text. Drawing on parallel pre-war reflections of Paul Valéry, Stiegler sketches out what he reads as a pernicious decline in the value of mind, intelligence, care, communication—spirit—fostered and aggravated by the ever unfolding dominance of social, communicative, and consumerist technologies which usher in a pervasive manipulation of libidinal economies, supplanting drive for desire, instant gratification for often productive sublimation. In a clear nod to the work of Max Weber, Stiegler points to a new phase of social disenchantment, pushed to a dangerous limit. Whereas Weber set upon the effects of capitalist rationalization, Stiegler gestures towards the irrational, the poisonous enchantment of neo-capitalism, consumption, isolating neoliberal individualism, and a subsequent drop in personal and collective desire for a common future.

Yet given the intensity and detail of its critical diagnoses, Re-enchantment manages to avoid reading as a paranoid text. Stiegler is careful to counter the darkness he unveils with sober considerations for reparation, almost always from within the boundaries of the problem itself, untangling rather than sidestepping. Not content to mourn and wallow, Stiegler’s is a philosophy of hope. The technologies that reduce the value of spirit are dangerous and debilitating on the one hand, but almost always malleable on the other. For instance, social media might be stunting human relations in one sense, but divorced from the industrial logic that guides it, perhaps it could be used to foster meaningful communities of mass participation and intimacy. Technology is read through a double lens, as both poison and remedy, blessing and curse, or as Stiegler draws from Plato, as Pharmakon. Unveiling its ill use is only the first step, and does not suffice on its own. Technologies of the spirit must be reclaimed, rebooted, and embraced.

True to much of Stiegler’s work, however, The Re-enchantment of the World falls prey to a slippery enthusiasm for outward reference and philosophical shorthand. While those familiar with Stiegler’s general (and extensive) corpus should have no trouble reading smoothly, the uninitiated are confronted with myriad breadcrumb trails winding throughout past publications and influences (Simondon, Freud, Marx, among others) leaving some terms unexplained, and some ideas untouchable. As such, it might be said that Stiegler’s philosophical hyperliteracy is a Pharmakon itself, a potentially enlightening or debilitating machine depending on its operator.

Thankfully, translator Trevor Arthur’s preface to the work offers several tools for declawing some of Stiegler’s more opaque moments, in particular through his brief discussion of “spirit” itself. Between the French “esprit” and its direct English equivalent, a key polyvalence is muffled. Without abandoning its more metaphysical, philosophical senses, Stiegler’s “esprit” calls simultaneously upon the interwoven personal and collective processes of individuation and subjective development, memory, and one’s reflective and critical capacities in front of the world. In short, our capacity to be responsible, ethical persons hinges upon the revitalization of spirit.

The Re-enchantment of the World does not, of course, hold many concrete answers. Yet the questions it poses resonate heavily even in the years after its initial publication, across time and sea. Like so many manifestos, Ars Industrialis’ motions stimulate discussion more than they offer solutions, and Stiegler’s essays barely graze the surface of their object. Yet as a point of departure, these texts are collectively invaluable as critical stimulation, wary yet optimistic, calling us to raise our spirits and reach out to the world.