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‘To Be To Be Tool’
Arthur Bradley, Originary Technicity: The Theory of Technology from Marx to Derrida, London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, 216pp; £50 hardback

Deceptively reduced to a trajectory ‘from Marx to Derrida’ in its subtitle, Arthur Bradley’s timely study offers a self-styled ‘critical genealogy of Derrida’s theory of originary technicity’ (p3), which he minimally defines as ‘the empirico-transcendental condition of life itself ’ (p14). This first comprehensive reconstruction of a Derrida-inspired notion first given conceptual centre stage in Beardsworth’s 1996 study on Derrida and the Political takes us not only through Marx, Freud and Lacan, Heidegger, and Derrida, but also, in the last two chapters, Stiegler (Derrida’s former pupil) and several trans-, post-, anti-humanist critics and embodiment theorists (Haraway, Hayles, De Landa, Hansen, Meillassoux). The book is divided into seven chapters, which draw a neat arc from ‘Life’ to ‘Death’, taking in such ‘essential’ aspects as labour, the psyche, Being, the Other, and time, each of which is aligned with one major thinker and/or area of thinking (philosophy, psychoanalysis).

From the first, introductory section, on the ‘being-technical of life itself from its pre-human inception millions of years ago, to the final, more tentative scenarios looking beyond human finitude towards species extinction (Meillassoux) and cosmological death (Lyotard), Bradley consistently unfolds ‘the aporia of originary technicity itself ’, by tracking ‘a residual anthropocentrism’ (p19) or humanism even in those theories most driven by a desire to think technology-in-itself.

Two-thousand years of philosophical repression of technics start with the ancient Greek opposition between phusis and tekhnè, between a self-causing (‘auto-matic’) causa efficiens and an inert, instrumental prosthesis, to which may be added the more specifically Platonic distinction between anamnesis (living memory: primary, pure, self-present, technics-free) and hypomnesis (non-living technological supplement: derived, prosthetic, artefactual) which will provide a recurrent touchstone throughout.

The gradual, yet irreversible growth of the machine metaphor, from Descartes through the eighteenth century, leads Bradley to his first major port of call: the dialectic relation between man and the instruments he employs to perform labour in Marx, Derrida’s ‘premier penseur de la technique’ whose historical materialism is the first to propose a radical critique of the Aristotelian understanding of technè and to ontologise technology in his theory of labour (p27). However, in a second movement of the analysis, Marx’s critique of capital is shown to risk ‘re-ontologising the human over and against the technical’ (p28). Marx’s new technological materialism never totally supplants an atavistic humanism glimpsed in his earlier writings, before the introduction of a mutual constitution of the human and the technical through the labour process in Marx’s writings after the Paris manuscripts: man’s enfranchisement from the instruments of production whose deployment by capital has resulted in his alienation or ‘exteriorisation’, is bought at the cost of the subsumption and internalisation of the [End Page 154] machine, when a future communist humanity ‘finally assumes the collective subject position of technological mastery’ (p37), and what once was an ontological condition for technology ‘is reduced to little more than a dialectical moment in the narrative of humanity’s emancipation from technics’ (p38). But at least technics in Marx’s overall itinerary has shifted from a prosthetic (Aristotelian) to an intra-thetic position (p40).

With the fast-paced advent of new technologies and sciences (such as thermodynamics) comes an intensification of the analogy between the organic and the mechanical, begun by Descartes’ body-as-clock in the Meditations, whose logical outcome can be found in Freud’s comparison between the psyche (with its drives) and the machine, and specifically his conception of the psyche as a writing machine from his unfinished Project for a Scientific Psychology onwards. Taking his bearings from a resolutely Derridean problematic, Bradley draws a parallel between Freud’s ‘differential model of the psyche’ and the Saussurean linguistic model and differential nature of the sign (p45). Derrida’s findings in his famous essay on the Mystic Writing Pad, ‘Freud and the Scene of Writing’, allow him to re-visit the Greek distinction between anamnesis and hypomnesis via the deconstruction of memory as a...