Stengers on pharmakon, anticapitalist struggle and creation in the face of the ecological crisis

The following is a passage I just translated from Stengers’ Au temps des catastrophes: Résister à la barbarie qui vient. Looking back over the last few years, since I have been engaged in some more serious explorations of philosophy and politics, this is a book that I have returned to again and again in those times where my energy is low, my work-life seems to have taken over and I’m struggling to make time for the theoretical, practical and praxical engagements that matter to me. I’m honestly not into hero worship, but Stengers seems to offer such militant wisdom that it’s hard not to feel a certain sense of admiration. In this passage, Stengers brings up the question of the pharmakon and its relation with both struggle and creation in the face of the ecological crisis, which she invokes through her own twist on the figure of Gaia. Systematically anti-capitalist, I feel she speaks to the need of the hour with a lucidity that begs us to slow down and think and create even as we intensify and proliferate our struggles. What more can I say. There is so much work to be done!


Pages 129 – 137, Isabelle Stengers. Au Temps des Catastrophes: Résister à la Barbarie qui Vient. Les Empecheurs de penser en rond, Éditions La Découverte, Paris, 2009


I uphold that the question of the commoners needs – crucially – a particular version of the art of ‘paying attention’. In particular, the art that the Greeks called pharmakon, which can be translated as ‘drug’. What characterises the pharmakon is at the same time its efficacity and its lack of identity: depending on the dose and the use, it can just as well be a remedy or poison. It is thus for the attention that can be called forth by the movements of usagers (users who also have an active/creative engagement with what they use): the type of attention that their ‘milieu’ lends them is capable of either nourishing or poisoning them. And the same pharmacological incertitude applies to what these movements can themselves produce. That they ‘can be dangerous’ goes without saying – all pharmakon can be dangerous. Rather, it is a matter of putting in suspense, by referring to the instability of the pharmakon, remedy or poison, the objection implicit in this utterance.

When a ‘responsable’ cries (and it is by this cry that we can recognise that he thinks himself ‘responsable’) “but that could be dangerous!”, he inherits with this “but” a history in which the instability of the pharmakon has ceaselessly been used to condemn it. A history that has ceaselessly privileged that which presents, or seems to present, the guarantees of a stable identity, making it possible to do away with the question of the appropriate attention, of learning the doses and the manner of preparation. A history in which the question of the pharmakon‘s efficacity has endlessly been subjugated, reduced to the question of causes believed to explain their effects.

The hate of pharmakon goes back a long way. One can, if one wants, bring it back to Plato, who defined philosophy by the requirement of such a stability against his rivals, the sophists, capable of the best and the worst. Or else to Christian monotheism, the invention of an intrinsically good God. Or else to the question of the power of judgement, which needs to abstract from its circumstances. Or again, to the passion to recognise the true contender from the imposters, a passion which nourishes a certain hunger for the truth. Our history is, in the end, saturated by multiple versions of the same obsession: that of doing away with pharmakon to the benefit of that which offers the guarantee of escaping from its hateable ambiguity. And isn’t such an offer the very seduction of that which, invoking the imprudence of use without restraint, would have the efficacity of a poison?

Let us return, from this vantage point, to the contrast between the response that the (open source) computer scientists (informaticiens) knew how to give to the operation of enclosure that threatened them, and the passive ressentiment of the majority of those, among the scientists, who have not already embraced the cause of the knowledge economy. This contrast is all the more intriguing because the cooperative character of scientific research served as a reference for the software developers. Why did the computer scientists succeed not only to defend their capacity to cooperate but also to think and invent links with users, like me, who count – from now on – on the possibility of freely downloading a program that responds to their needs? Why did the scientists preferentially link themselves with the State and industry, and why did they define the rest in terms of a lack (of knowledge and rationality), in such a manner, that at the moment where their allies began to make servants of them, they found themselves incapable of imagining a possibility of resisting?

Thinking in pharmacological terms, here, is to ask the question – not of the identity of the sciences – but of the difference of the ‘milieus‘ of these two practices, milieus which are not only ‘external’ but include the manner in which the practitioner evaluates his relations with them. The event which constituted the “birth of the modern sciences” is, from this point of view, significant. Today, we still find authors, although often interesting, who repeat this nonsense: if Europe was able to carve out a difference, notably from China, it’s because she discovered the power of scientific rationality and was thereby able to identify the laws obeyed by nature. The success of the propaganda operation initiated by Galileo, which continues to infect the imagination of both scientists and non-scientists, could well hold to the notion that the propaganda is virtually without designer. The practical novelty effectively associated with experimental proof would have found a ready-made milieu, capable of giving it this kind of echo. As rare as the so-called ‘experimental’ facts are (capable of bearing witness to the manner in which they must be interpreted), this capacity would have reactivated the old hate of pharmakon, of unstable opinion, of undecidable interpretations. A finally rational relation to the world had been created!

The constitution of this event would then have been less the novelty of the experimental success than the satisfaction of a much more ancient requirement, the requirement that a truth impose itself, which is to say that it be capable of manifesting its difference from its rivals. No surprise then that the “it hasn’t been proven” came so easily to coincide with “it’s not worthy of consideration”, and that the suspicion of irrationality came to weigh on those who took an interest in “that which has not been proven.”

In contrast, one could say that the practice of software developers was marked, from the outset, by the knowledge that what they were producing could be remedy or poison, notably by a possible future ruled by Big Brother. And this contrast has as its correlate the singular innovations of the computer science. It is a matter of a rare case where the technical, cultural, social and political enjeux (stakes) were intimately knotted. An all the more remarkable case given that its history is anchored in a military development. It should not be forgotten that software is linked with war and that today, more than ever, it is an instrument of control, repression and exploitation. But that it is not only this, we owe it perhaps to the particularity of the practitioners who never considered their technology as innocent, who never handed over the responsibility of the choice of whether to make a good or bad use to politicians (consider the well-known argument used ritualistically by scientists: is it the fualt of the person who invented the axe that it was used for killing?).

The pharmacological approach does not permit the posing of the question “whose fault is it?”, to proceed with the distribution of guilt and innocence. The software developers who knew how to resist are not ‘better’ than the scientists who couldn’t. Rather, it requires thinking “by the milieu”. And the case of the scientists shows that a milieu that is obsessed with establishing a stable distinction between remedy and poison, is a milieu that poisons, which destroys. How many attempts were disqualified because they could not offer guarantees that none should have been able to offer?! How many brutal judgements were passed against that which, fragile and precarious, was asking to be nourished and protected!

In all cases, the time of guarantees is over, this is the first sense conferred by the intrusion of Gaia. Which does not signify that everything has the same value, resigned sigh or horrified cry expressing again and always the search for a value endowed with the power to denounce rivals who would be mere imposters. Which signifies that, that which has value must first be defined as vulnerable, and that the dynamics of creation of knowledges, struggles and experiences that can respond to this intrusion are by definition vulnerable – each insufficient in its own right but important in terms of its possible repercussions, because it can incite other creations.

An answer is not reducible to a simple expression of conviction. It is fabricated. Successful or failed. No manner of responding can just proclaim a legitimacy that transcends the circumstances, which demands recognition by all, that dreams or requires that all will accept it as definitive But neither can any be condemned because it is vulnerable to a dangerous (mis?)use. The art of pharmakon proposes, on the contrary to those who pose the diagnosis “it could be dangerous” to recognise that the objection engages them, makes them an integral party to the process of fabrication. If they were to ignore that they are an integral party, they would nonetheless be so, as judges, and would contribute to a hostile or ironic milieu. But they can also be so as allies, by posing questions such as: “How can we contribute to avoid this danger?”; “How to cooperate against that which will lend itself to confirming our diagnosis?”; “How can we ‘create milieu’ on a mode that would help that which risks itself in existence?”

There exists only one certitude – that the process of creation of possibles must protect itself like the plague from a utopian mode, which appeals to the surpassing of conflicts, which proposes a remedy whose interest should, finally, be respected by all. The only generality that holds is that all creation must incorporate the knowledge that it does not risk itself in a friendly world, but in an unhealthy milieu, that it will have to deal with protagonists – the State, capitalism, professionals – who will exploit all weaknesses, and which will activate all processes capable of poisoning it (“recuperating” it). And doing so, for example, by recognising the usagers in a mode that transforms them into stakeholders, by creating situations which divide those who are seeking cooperation, by demanding inappropriate guarantees, or by creating infernal alternatives which dismember that which seeks to create its own position.

I have already emphasised that the intrusion of Gaia throws temporalities into disorder. The pharmacological art is required because the time of struggle cannot be deferred for ‘afterwards’ (when there will be no more danger), the time of creation; the time when humans could deploy – life, thought and joy – their creative capacities and combine their efforts for the benefit of all. But it is also required because those who seek to create cannot do so innocently, accusing those who struggle of wanting to “take power” while they themselves would have turned their back on such an ambition. The time of struggle and of creation must learn to conjugate themselves without confusion, by a form of relay, prolonging and reciprocal learning of the art of paying attention, under pain of mutually poisoning each other and leaving the terrain free for the coming barbarity.


About intrabeing

collaborative explorer-activist working for inter-subjective improvement in the quality of life on planet earth
This entry was posted in philosophy, politics and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Stengers on pharmakon, anticapitalist struggle and creation in the face of the ecological crisis

  1. terenceblake says:

    Hello André, very nice quote and good translation. I have only a few suggestions to make. In the first paragraph I read a singular: every pharmakon can be dangerous (this fits with the singular form pharmakon, the plural is pharmaka). I think “objectional” is wrong here. The statement “this is dangerous” is true, and thus not objectional (something that we can object to), for Stengers. It is true, but we must suspend its status as an objection. Perhaps you are aware of another usage?

    Para 2: “Faire l’économie de” means to avoid, or to dispense with, “ramenée à” is perhaps better expressed as referred back to, or even reduced to.

    3: I propose “obsession: that of avoiding (or doing away with) the question of the pharmakon”, “faire abstraction de” disregard (not take into account), susciter – “provoking” is perhaps clearer, last line “would” should be “will”.

    4: librement means “freely”.

    5: “creuser la différence” means to “widen” the gap I propose: “The success of the propaganda operation initiated by Galileo, which continues to infect the imagination of both scientists and non-scientists, could well hold to the fact that the propaganda is virtually without any designer. The practical novelty effectively associated with experimental proof would have found a milieu already prepared to give it this kind of echo”, “témoigner de” means rather to bear witness to, or to testify to.

    These are very tentative suggestions for improving what is already a good translation. Feel free to delete this comment and to use whatever suggestions seem appropriate. More to come!

  2. terenceblake says:

    6: The constitution of “this” event. “voire que” or even that.

    7: I would prefer “marked notably by a possible future ruled by Big Brother”. Better: ” the singular practical innovations of computer science”. enjeux” are stakes, rather than factors. I think “technique” here is “technology” rather than technique. “politique” here is masculine and so means “politicians” rather than politics. “que de” in an exclamation means here “How many attempts…How many brutal judgements” “à l’encontre de” means “against”.

    8: “tout se vaut” “everything has the same value” (to resonate with the talk about value and vulnerability just after). “éventuelles” means “possible”, not eventual. “susciter” provoke, produce (not just “make possible).

    9: “Answer” is perhaps better. “Successful or failed” (adjectives qualifying the fabricated answer). Perhaps “definitive” or “decisive” is clearer than “determining”? “dérive” here is close to misuse rather than excess. “supporting” – maybe “confirming” is slightly clearer?

    10: “avoid like the plague” seems ok to me. “displaced guarantees” better “inappropriate (uncalled for) guarantees”.

    11: “renvoyer” “put off”. “poisoning each other”.

    I hope that this will be of use. Friendly regards!

  3. terenceblake says:

    Reblogged this on AGENT SWARM and commented:
    Translation of a very interesting text by Isabelle Stengers.

  4. dmf says:

    she’s a lovely writer/thinker only wish she offered us more of a direction in terms of what to do in the ways that say Annemarie Mol does but inspiration isn’t nothing. thanks for the translation to share, d.

  5. Nae 2Real says:

    Hello –
    I too have a favorite French philosopher who I turn to during my down times (down not meaning when I have nothing to do, but rather when I’m in a lower mood than normal). His name is Jacques Derrida. He has many books, but my favorite is Of Grammatology. I have actually dedicated my blog to his theory of deconstruction! If you look at my blog now, you will see two series of posts; one series dealing with rap, and the other with race. I just started blogging, and my purpose in introducing myself using these series was just that, to introduce myself to the blogosphere. I thought that just jumping right into Derrida and deconstruction would have been putting the cart before the horse, because I would have come out of nowhere proclaiming to be this studious pupil of this famous French thinker, which may or may not actually be true, because while I have admiration for Derrida’s thoughts, I know I am not an expert on him by any means.

    So, I decided to introduce myself by what I used to think and write about before my interest in Derrida developed. At a few different points on my blog, I try to explain this to the reader, that with my rap and race series, I am only introducing myself to the community and these are not the only topics I write about, let alone what I am going to be focusing on in future posts to my blog.

    Derrida too has an essay related to the pharmakon, but I haven’t read it in years. I have the essay in my one of my Norton Anthologies, the one on Literary Theory and Criticism. I have a bad memory, and I should’ve re-read it before I posted here, but suffice to say I understood the whole concept of medicine vs. poison as it relates to the pharmakon. Stengers is thoughtful and insightful about the pharmakon. I think this is why I gravitate towards French thinkers; they have this aptitude to philosophize about concepts that can be generally applied anywhere. In addition to Derrida, I have also become fond of Michel Foucault and Jean-Francois Lyotard. I guess it boils down to my own infatuation with literary criticism and its place in our postmodern society.

    Thanks for the post. Now I have a new French thinker to read about!

  6. andreling says:

    Hi Terrence, Thanks for the kind words and constructive translation suggestions. Some quick responses:

    1: I puzzled over objectional for a while. I knew I didn’t want to say ‘objectionable‘ and when I looked up objectional saw one meaning as ‘pertaining to objection’ and thought ‘that sort of works’… But i agree it sounds awkward. ‘objecting’ would probably just do the trick.

    2: Agreed on ‘economiser’. Your translation is pretty much how I explained it to a friend when I frenglished the translation verbally to them. I guess I just really wanted to hold on to the element which links this dispensing, or ‘doing away with’, to the notion of an economic mode of thinking. ‘ramenée à’ – agreed.

    3: Yes, there comes my frenglish again.

    4: Free as in free beer? Perhaps as an open source software user I got too excited about not needing to pay.

    5: Creuser la différence I agree… but with the second part I’m not sure that I agree with the idea that ‘the propaganda is virtually without any designer’ constitutes a ‘fact’. Perhaps ‘notion’ would work – but the French of course uses neither fact nor notion ‘tenir à ce que…’ … ‘témoigner de’… yes

    6. Yes…. I think ‘voire que’ could also just become ‘and’ here

    7. Yes (possible future ruled…). Yes (Enjeux). Yes (technique –> technology). Yes (politique –> politicians). Yes (Que de). Yes (l’encontre –> against)

    8. oops. Yes. Yes. Yes – what about incite?

    9. Yes…Yes. Wondered about excess… It is essentially a point about the offshoots that can go bad… I thought ‘derivatives’… Yes

    10. Yes

    11. Yes. What about deferred? Yes.

    This really has been very useful. Thank you for taking the time to go through this so meticulously! I have incorporated the corrections

  7. Pingback: La irrupción de la incertidumbre* – El Caminero

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s