Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Saving Libidinal Capitalism: Bernard Stiegler’s Political Gambit

Bernard Stiegler. What Makes Life Worth Living: On Pharmacology. Trans. Daniel Ross. Cambridge: Polity, 2013. 200 pp. Hardcover $64.95. Paperback $22.95.

For a New Critique of Political Economy. Trans. Daniel Ross. Cambridge: Polity, 2010. 100 pp. Hardcover $54.95. Paperback $14.95.

Reviewed by Mark B. N. Hansen

In his two decade philosophical career, Bernard Stiegler has pursued a course of research and writing that has led him from a high philosophical engagement with technics to a series of topical interventions centered around various events of symbolic destitution. At the core of Stiegler’s program is a sustained commitment to what he calls “pharmacology,” the idea that technical developments simultaneously disable and enable, that they bring new capacities which somehow make up for their destabilizing impact on human forms of life. While he shares this understanding with a host of philosophical forebears, including Plato, Marshall McLuhan, and his own mentor, Jacques Derrida, what Stiegler brings to the table is an energetic and resolute political energy. For him it is not enough to diagnose the pharmacological condition of contemporary media, or even, of contemporary life. What our situation calls for is a holistic reckoning of the simultaneously organismic, social, and technical forms of individuation that produce contemporary modes of living. This “general organology” forms nothing less than the platform for Stiegler’s to date most systemic political analysis of our contemporary situation and for the invention of new forms of political intervention aimed at reversing the destructive tendencies of contemporary capitalism.

It is this political project that forms the core of Stiegler’s proposal for a new critique of political economy, the proximate subject of the two volumes under review here. In the titular essay, “For a New Critique of Political Economy,” no less than in the accompanying essays devoted to various aspects of pharmacology, Stiegler seeks precisely—and precisely 150 years after Marx wrote his own Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy—to build a new political economy on the basis of the pharmacology of consumerist capital. To this end, Stiegler sketches a curious extension of Marx’s analysis of capital rooted in two fundamental claims. The first concerns the history of capitalism: for the Stiegler of For a New Critique, we have entered a new stage of capitalism—the becoming-toxic of consumerist capitalism—centered on a third limit of capital (the exhaustion of mental, libidinal, geophysical, and biological resources) that expresses the truth of the second limit he had analyzed in the Symbolic Misery and Disbelief and Discredit series from the mid-2000s (the destruction of desire, attention, and care, in favor of a short-term economy of the drive).[1] Focusing on what can be done, Stiegler’s second claim seeks to specify the operation of pharmacology in this new epoch of capitalism: taken together, two basic, and seemingly opposed convictions on Stiegler’s part—that the falling rate of profit has led Capital to “proletarianize” the consumer in order to seize her libidinal energy and that libidinal energy can never be used up[2]—yield some source of hope and a recipe of sorts for political action. At the core of this hope and this recipe is a regrounding of desire (libidinal energy) in long-circuits of organological individuation that aim to displace drive-based and object-centered modes of calculative consumption with a quest to “infinitize,” to grasp and act in virtue of the inexhaustibility of desire itself. Put into prosaic language, Stiegler is calling on us consumers (and we are all consumers on his account) to reappropriate the source of our consumptive energy in a resolutely existential act: by repudiating the narrow circuit binding desire to calculable object (commodity), we consumers begin a process of de-proletarianization that will allow us to invest our libidinal energy in long-term circuits of transindividuation that, in line with Stiegler’s analysis of general organology, can tap the potential of digital pharmaka to reenchant the world.

I qualify the political project developed in these volumes as “curious” (I could equally have said “perverse”) precisely because it seeks to expand Marx’s analysis[3] in order to reenchant capitalism itself. While this—along with Stiegler’s rather piecemeal account of Marx—will no doubt put off certain readers, the articulation of a clear and hopeful politics rooted in the pharmacological realities of today’s highly capitalized world comes as a welcome breath of fresh air. One can quibble with Stiegler over the details (something I myself have done elsewhere), but it remains the case that his unwavering effort to find a way out of pessimism provides a much needed source of inspiration for many contemporary media and cultural critics, myself certainly included, who seek, in some sense against all odds, to maintain our own libidinal investment in our object of study.

        [1]See Stiegler What Makes Life Worth Living: On Pharmacology, trans. Daniel Ross, (Cambridge, 2013), p. 88.

        [2] Ibid., p. 91: “Libidinal energy is essentially renewable….”

      See Stiegler, For a New Critique of Political Economy, trans. Daniel Ross (Cambridge, 2010), p. 90.