Bernard Steigler’s Technics and Time 1: The Fault of Epimetheus

Bernard Steigler is someone I continuously come back to in my work, so this isn’t anywhere near an exhaustive summary of Technics and Time 1 – these are just important things that I gleaned from my reading, as well as a compilation of other notes and explanations that I’ve come across. It’s massively important to the field of postmodernity, so if you’re researching anything to do with memory, cognition, or the human relationship to technology/technics, this is where I would start.


Technics: first used by Mumford, defined as the human tendency to control and direct forces of nature. Stiegler uses it to describe a process of the exteriorization of the human through extensions such as prosthesis. The exteriorization of memory has to do with technologies of information and the industrialization of memory.

Technology as a matter exteriorization: the human recording internal thoughts on the outside, is a matter of archiving, as Derrida describes. Something created outside the human becomes a record or archive of memories, which makes them artificial. This artificial “artifact,” then, is deposited in the present and in some external object that needs to have a location. There is a separation between “tekhne” and “episteme” (technical and empirical knowledge).

Technics as Time: Stiegler asks: Can’t the technical system be thought of as an object in itself, with its own process? With contemporary technics, as in the evolution of technics, the process evolves beyond human anticipation and humans are alienated from the destiny of technology. Stiegler is interested in technics as time, not just “in” time. He returns to Leroi-Gourhan to look at evolution of the human being which is always already technical. Stiegler explores the paradox of technics being human power as well as the power for humanity to destroy itself.

Part 1 – The Invention of the Human

Steigler looks at the interrelation between technics and time, by analyzing technics “in” time, or the theories of the technical evolution. Humans were once the bearers of tools, and technical individuals, but today machines are the tool-bearers and humans are no longer the technical individuals. Heidegger has also explained that it is now technics, rather than humanity, which commands nature, as the human is reduced to the assistant of the machine.

Citing Bertrand Gille, technics has entered into a state of permanent innovation, since there is no even rhythm between cultural and technical evolution. Today, technics evolves quicker than culture; technical objects are inorganic beings and are irreducible to physics or biology, so there must be a new consideration of technicity.

So, if life is all about mobility now, then technics, as a process of exteriorization, is living life by means other than “life.” For Stiegler, this chapter is about the ways in which the human can be distinguished from the pre-human, the animal, the machine. There is no easy way to demarcate humanity from technics, as conventional understanding sees humans as the “who” who does the inventing, and technics as the “what” is invented. Stiegler destabilizes this by stating that the who or the what (human or technics) is not the subject or object of invention, but that there is a co-constitution, and the human is invented as it invents.

Historically, the human has been looked at in relation to death, and the fact that it is “born” which maintains a sense of unchanging boundaries that dictate what it is and what it is not. Conversely, a humanity that is “invented” is not the same, and the shift from the human of biological genesis to technically produced links humanity to technics as its origin. Just because the human is invented does not mean there is an inventor, or a master. Humans are not invented by machines.

Furthermore, the “end” of the human or posthumanity is not clearly defined and is not a doomsday scenario. It could indicate that the idea of “pure” humanity is meaningless, since humanity is in being with technics. Stiegler wants to know if the human invents the technology, or if its the other way around. If technics invents the human, he believes technics could be the “who” instead of the “what.” This is what Stiegler means when he says technics can be the pursuit of life by means other than life.

Differance: to set writing and speech up as opposites is just like opposing the human and the animal, which could also oppose the human and the technical. Stiegler says that differance is complicated by the fact that Derrida sees it as the supplements to life (God, man as center of universe), while also the deferral of human life. For Stiegler, this challenges the origin of existence in the Heideggerian sense. Heidegger’s “anticipation” is the already there, the past we have not actually lived but is in the past.

Part 2: Exteriorization and Epiphylogenesis

The history of technics in humanity is the pursuit of evolution by living by other means.

Exteriorization: Leroi-Gourhan’s term, which describes the human use of technics: when the human takes up the tool, it expands the boundaries of its body and goes outside itself, incorporating what is outside into its own domain of being. This is not like Rousseau’s idea of “the fall” (man is contained in his own interior, no need to reach outside himself until technology comes along. Exteriorization describes the situation where there is no interior or exterior; there is no defined boundary, and never a “pure” human that exists outside technology, or outside technics for that matter:

“The paradox is to have to speak of an exterior without a preceding interior” when in fact, “the interior is constituted in exteriorization”

Exteriorization itself is a passage from inside to outside, but this passage is “a mirage” in the sense that its something that appears true but isn’t, since “passage” implies a temporal and spatial progression from one fixed area to another, separated by a real boundary, which in this case is not even present. It is also a mirage in the sense of a reflection, as human actions are reflected in the world of technical objects, signifying a mutual process of development

The fault of Epimetheus: Stiegler argues that the fact that we tend to view man and his tools as a succession, rather than as a simultaneous development, is due to “originary forgetting,” the tendency to forget,the lack in the human that has always made technics a very necessary component of human operation.

Epimetheus: the figure of forgetfulness. Prometheus (foresight, fore-thinker of technical invention) is doubled by Epimetheus (hindsight, afterthinker), who forgets and then realizes it too late. While Prometheus’ task was to decide mankind’s attribute as creators of tools after he stole fire, Epimetheus was supposed to give man a positive trait after he did so for the other animals. Yet, he lacked foresight and there were none left, and his is forgetfulness shows that out knowledge of being in the world comes from something outside ourselves, a prosthesis that is supplementary. In order to make up for Epimetheus, Prometheus gives humans the ‘present’ instead of the hindsight and they are able to put themselves outside of themselves (through exteriorization).

Memory: the primary domain of this exteriorization

Leroi-Gourhan’s 3 Constitutive Layers of Humanity, as reworked by Stiegler: (these form the mnemonic groundwork for human/ technical partnership)

  • genetic (embedded in the genome, species related)
  • experiential memory, epigenetic (collective social programming)
  • epiphylogenetic memory (individual, constituted by technics, externalizing the internal)

The capacity of human memory has always been limited by its biological constraints, but humans can free themselves from this. Thus, the memories of an individual can be preserved in technics, and can have influence beyond just that individual and effect humanity on the whole, preserve the memories beyond that individual’s death. Conversely, in nonhuman animal life, epigenetic events are lost when the individual who supports them is lost.

Epiphylogenesis: designates a new relation between the organism and the environment, mediated by the tool for preserving memory. The difference between this and hereditary evolution is that hereditary evolution records itself biologically, so using the brain, whereas artificial genetic evolution relies on both cortical and technical supports

Part 3: Gramme, Differance, Anticipation

Derrida: differance is both differentiation and deferral, spacing of time and temporalization of space. For Stiegler, differance matters insofar as how it challenges the border between animal and human. He uses the concept to establish the fact that humanity is never denied, but is also doesn’t occupy a central, main place.

Graphie: associated with alphabetical writing and exclusively human

Gramme: broader inscription that structures many levels of life, including but not limited to human. Gramme is “the pursuit of life by means other than life” such as inscription, writing, and programmable machines. Each of these is a form of recording, encoding. Gramme is always part of the process of exteriorization, of putting some experience of life in a technical object. The shift between graphie to gramme challenges divide between human/animal and nature/culture, and is also a transformation of question of human origins, and the passage from “the genetic into the nongenetic.”

Anticipation: for Stiegler, this is part of a new understanding of intention, of the realization of a possibility that is not determined by biology or by creative consciousness. Instead, Stiegler brings up a “technical consciousness”: not driven by creative intention or even biology. Every act of exteriorization is affected with “anticipation”, and there can be no technics without time and no time without technics.

For Stiegler, the spatial and temporal dimension of the prosthesis is “not a mere extension of the human body; it is the constitution of that body”

Prosthesis: indicates both a spatial and temporal setting that is already there and is anticipated, meaning that technics is both the result and the preceding condition for anticipation.

Part 4: Leroi-Gourhan’s Anthropology

Leroi-Gourhan’s work looks at human origin and the emergence of the human. He critiques Rousseau’s argument that originally man was without technics, and that technics came with the “fall.” For Rousseau, there are two origins: the natural man, naked and empty handed; the technical man, clothed and using tools. LG argues the opposite: that technology is present from the beginning.

Two stages of human development: Zinjanthrope (small brained, zoological); and Neanthrope (large brained, technical). LG sees the Zinjanthrope and Neanthrope as kind of opposites and sets them as Homo faber (tool maker) and Homo sapien (intelligent)

LG seems to look at the brain as a larger piece with the body and tools attached to it, and his definition of the human doesn’t rest on brain capacity but on technics. He says that humans are functionally indeterminate from the start, and compared to animals they have more mobility and more possible ways of existing in the world (which makes them seem to have superior intelligence). What this necessitates is a prostheticity, a necessary putting outside the self where the nonspecialized human needs to make use of things outside, since it is not genetically determined. As such, technical and biological evolution need to be seen as intertwined.

Stiegler sees LG putting “spiritual” in opposition to “technical,” as a non-artificial intelligence that doesn’t rely on technology and emerges from one’s creative interior. Stiegler can’t see a symbolic intelligence without technics, so symbolic (proper human) and technical (artificial) must be inseparable and simultaneous. Ultimately, LG sets up conventional oppositions (human/animal, artificial/organic).

Technical Maieutics: the paradox of the mutual existence of interior and exterior, human and technics. Argues that tools do not derive from a creation, humans are not masters and inventors of technological tools. Rather, both humans and tech objects are part of a larger process.

This maieutics operates on the fact that the tool itself constitutes a non-genetic memory. The memory of an already-there, a past that is ours but we have not lived, exists because of technical supports that have always been there.

Stiegler’s theory of originary technicity: humans are inseparable from technics

Following Derrida’s supplement, Stiegler argues that time, memory, the human brain are constituted in conjunction with technical evolution or organized inorganic matter. Human becoming is accidental, as “being” is dependent on conditions made possible by technicity.

Grammatization: history is defined as the “history of the supplement” where each period becomes defined by its processes of grammatization. This involves the “breaking into discrete elements of flux” (i.e. alphabets break down the flux of speech). Overall, grammatization sees technology as a prosthetic extension of human capabilities

Prosthesis: “in front of” or in anticipation of, and the afterthought of memory establishes that temporality, or time is constituted through this technic

Dasein: Heidegger’s term; it exists in the temporal and lies between what was and what will be (knowing the past allows anticipating the future)

This book is full of terms that can get confusing, especially since Derrida and Heidegger seem to be really into making up words to explain really obscure theories that are almost identical to already existing ones. Either way, a useful read. I’ll write notes on Technics and Time 2 once I read it.


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