Retentional Economy

Bernard Steigler, ‘Retentional Economy’, pp.8-13, in:
Stiegler, B., Ross, D., 2010. For a new critique of political economy. Polity, Cambridge.

In 2001 I argued […] for a new critique: for a critique addressing the question of tertiary retention, that is, the question of mnemotechnics – and in more general terms addressing the question of technics which, qua materialization of experience, always constitutes a spatialization of the time of consciousness beyond consciousness and. therefore, constitutes an unconsciousness, if not the unconscious.

Conscious time is woven with what Husserl calls retentions and protentions.


Primary retention is that which is formed in the very passage o f time, as the course of this time, such that, as a present which passes, it is constituted by the immediate and primordial retention (the “primary retention”) of its own passing. Becoming past, this passage of the present is then constituted as secondary retention, that is, as all those memorial contents [souvenirs] which together form the woven threads of our memory [mémoire).


Tertiary retention is a mnemotechnical exteriorization of secondary retentions which are themselves engendered by primary retentions.

But from the beginning of that process of hominization that Andre Leroi-Gourhan describes as a process of exteriorization, all technical objects constitute an intergenerational support of memory which, as material culture, overdetermines learning [apprentissages] and mnesic activities.

To this extent, therefore, tertiary retention always already precedes the constitution of primary and secondary retention.

A newborn child arrives into a world in which tertiary retention both precedes and awaits it, and which, precisely, constitutes this world as world. And as the spatialization of individual time becoming thereby collective time, tertiary retention is an original exteriorization of the mind [esprit].

In the course of human history, however, the mnemotechnical retentional layer is transformed, increasing in both complexity and density.


It leads in particular. from the advent of Neolithic sedentarization, to the formation of tertiary retention systems which constitute increasingly analytical recordings of primary and secondary retentional flows or fluxes (flux) – such as systems of writing and numeration.


It is in this way that logos is constituted: as the discretization of the continuous flow of language which, spatialized, can then be considered analytically, which then enters into its diacritical era, and this is the point from which, fundamentally and specifically, logic proceeds.

But this discretization of flows also affects gestures. The discretization of gesture was given concrete expression with the application of Jacques de Vaucanson’s automation technology to the Jacquard loom, and became generalized in the form of the industrial revolution.

Gesture must here be considered (like speech) as a retentional flow, that is, as a continuous chain [enchainement] of gestures, and the learning [apprentissage] of a craft consists in producing gestural secondary retentions, whereas the discretization and the spatialized reproduction of the time of gestures constitutes technical automation, but where it is no longer the logos of the soul but rather the gestures of the body that become analytically reproducible as tertiary retention. This reproducibility results in retentional grains that one can call grammes.


In the course of the nineteenth century, technologies for grammatizing audiovisual perception appear, through which the flows of the sensory organs are discretized. All noetic, psychomotor and aesthetic functions then find themselves transformed by grammatization processes.

Considered in terms of political economy, this amounts to the fact that it is the functions of conception, production and consumption which are grammatized – and which are thereby incorporated into an apparatus devoted to the production of tertiary retentions controlled by retentional systems.


This short book proposes a brief exposition of the considerations which constitute me basis of such a new critique of political economy, focused around several questions, in order to open a debate with Marx, and on the question of labor and work today – given that labor, which first appears with sedentarization, is always overdetermined by the state of grammatization which is current at the time, and given that grammatization is, at present, undergoing new and literally revolutionary developments.