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Technologies of attention (2): between mental and collective

Bernard Stiegler's philosophical reflection on attention (2010; 2014) illustrates how attention is more than just concentration or vigilance. Attention also concerns desire, waiting, active participation, interest.
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Illustration by Rick Guidice of a colony's windows. The Public Domain Review

by Carlo Carnevale

Philosophical reflection by Bernard Stiegler on attention (2010; 2014) illustrates how attention is more than simply concentration or vigilance. Attention also involves desire, anticipation, active participation, and interest. Attention is a result of education, environment, and the formation of the individual as such. Moreover, it is an intergenerational relationship, as we will see. In Stiegler's thought, attention compasses and restores unity to all these phenomena. In this section, we will delve into how this unifying role of attention can be conceived.

Stiegler's perspective is indebted to Husserl's temporal conception of consciousness. In his phenomenological analysis of the inner time of consciousness, Husserl traces the origins of the temporal mode in which objects appear to us. His phenomenological perspective is not simply based on our subjective experience of time but on the laws that govern the experience of an object presenting itself in time. According to Husserl, each momentary phase of perceptual consciousness is a continuum consisting of an awareness of the present moment (present impression) and a number of points representing what has just passed (retentions). The succession of these phases is, in turn, a continuum.

Husserl distinguishes between primary retentions (impressions) and secondary retentions (memories). A primary retention (or impression) is the presentation to consciousness of what has just passed; Husserl gives the famous example of the succession of notes in a melody. According to Stiegler, secondary retentions function as a filter for primary retentions; individual memories, or secondary retentions, selectively determine the primary retentions, the impressions. As such, secondary retentions (of a higher level) determine what appears in the stream of consciousness. In turn, primary retentions influence secondary ones because they precisely determine what constitutes memories. By connecting primary and secondary retentions, consciousness is able to anticipate or project into the future. This forward momentum of consciousness is composed of the so-called protentions.

Stiegler (2010; 2014) emphasizes how attention is the result of the accumulation of primary and secondary retentions, anticipations, and protentions. "The horizons of anticipations (and protentions) are formed precisely as an accumulation of experiences in what I have previously called secondary retentions" (Stiegler, 2014, p.65). In essence, consciousness is a flow of memory and anticipation, and what we pay attention to is rooted in our past experience.

Primary and secondary retentions belong to the domain of the individual and appear and disappear with the subject. Influenced by Jacques Derrida's analysis in On the Origin of Geometry by Husserl, in addition to Husserl's concepts of primary and secondary retention, Stiegler (1998) elaborates the notion of tertiary retention. Given the mortality of humans, the retentive finiteness of memory implies that the capacity to remember is necessarily limited, finite, and temporary. Tertiary retentions surpass this limitation of memory as external memories.

Tertiary retentions are externalized mnemonic traces ranging from stone tools to contemporary technology. They are artificial and technical traces, and through a process of accumulation, over time, they progressively shape the technological environment of humanity. This technological environment, formed by the accumulation of tertiary retentions, precedes the individual and, in turn, becomes constitutive and conditioning for primary and secondary retentions. While impressions and memories belong to the individual and their experience, tertiary retentions not only transcend human subjectivity but also constitute the environmental condition from which primary and secondary retentions arise. They, one could say, belong to the domain of tradition and collective memory.

On an individual level, the selectivity of perception shows that it occurs based on what has already been, in function of memory and secondary retentions. The mnemonic baggage (secondary retentions) is, in turn, overdetermined by the system of tertiary retentions: our memories depend on external memories stored in the technical environment. For Stiegler, this means that the human condition is a technological condition at a very fundamental level.

Tertiary retentions transcend the individual, but in contrast to the genetic information transmitted by genes (phylogenesis), they are described as epiphylogenetic. Tertiary retentions are not transmitted by genes but by generations; they consist of everything that belongs to the human world and transmits knowledge or skills. Tertiary retentions are the collective memory of generations in their succession; they constitute an intergenerational relationship and are a source of new secondary retentions in the conscious experience of subsequent generations: retentions that create protentions (Stiegler, 2010, p.8).

In Stiegler's conception, tertiary retentions are artificial memory or techniques of memory (more broadly, psychotechnics), and they should be acknowledged for their constitutive role in human consciousness and subjectivity. His philosophical project is an increasingly sophisticated elaboration of the thesis that human consciousness is essentially constituted and conditioned by technology, precisely due to the technical nature of these tertiary retentions.

The life of the mind has always been shaped by technology. Until recent times, writing played a central role in the technical environment that defined spiritual life (spiritual in the sense of the French esprit). From the Enlightenment onwards, writing became the technical condition for the emancipation of the citizen and created the public sphere (Stiegler, 2010). Similarly, humans have always employed psychotechnics to control attention; these strategies are not exclusive to our time because the training of attention requires it to be focused or captured. Developing attention, in other words, necessarily requires a technique (such as a book or an article on a web page). Attention is, in short, something that can only exist by virtue of its ability to be captured, directed, or modulated – and this happens based on techniques (Lemmens, 2012). Attention is therefore, for this reason, simultaneously psychic and collective.

Individual life and society are increasingly shaped by digitized information and new communication technologies. It follows that the mental aspect is also increasingly determined by what Stiegler refers to as psychotechnologies, namely those technologies that condition and even constitute psychic life.

Sources & Further Readings:
B. Stiegler, 1998, “Technics and Time, 1. The Fault of Epimetheus”, Stanford: Stanford University Press;
B. Stiegler, 2010, “Taking Care of Youth and the Generations”, Stanford: Standford University Press;
B. Stiegler, 2014, “Symbolic Misery 1: The Hyperindustrial Epoch”
P. Lemmens, 2012, “Reclaiming the Mind”

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