By Nestor Bailly
Abbreviations for Heidegger and other works cited:
QT – The Question Concerning Technology
Ister – Hölderlin’s Hymn “The Ister”
WAPF – What Are Poets For?
SR – Science and Reflection
OWA – The Origin of the Work of Art
PLT – Hofstadter’s Introduction to Poetry, Language, Thought
Zimmerman – Michael Zimmerman’s Heidegger’s Confrontation with Modernity
Ferry and Renaut – Heidegger and Modernity trans. Franklin Philip
Here the question of the saving power potential of art against technology’s worlding as the standing-reserve will be addressed. Section I will provide a grounding analysis of Heidegger’s notions of technology and art and their danger and saving potential, respectively. For the sake of brevity and to avoid pedantry, familiarity with the concepts of technology and art will be assumed allowing focus on technology’s danger, art’s saving power, and Heidegger’s expectations. Section II demonstrates that art cannot play the role of the saving power, primarily due to technology being inescapable as the culmination of western metaphysics and its progress in mastering the world over the past 50 years. The thesis, if you will, posited here is that the conceiving of art as the saving power would be the ultimate victory of technology, having formed humans into thinking of art as a mere means. Section III, following and expanding upon Michael Zimmerman’s work, concludes by tentatively allowing for a ‘way out’ of the metaphysical age through technology ‘taking lessons’ from art to set techne as the primary mode of production-revealing, a unison of production and art.
Why any of this is important might come to mind, and to this I respond that it is absolutely essential to ensure that art is not used as a means. It is our highest dignity, to use Heidegger’s phrase in The Question Concerning Technology, to watch over the unconcealed and pay attention to technology’s revealing. To lose art and poetry to technology would be the final forgetting of Being and our complete transformation into will-to-power automatons, unaware of any world or Being other than the technological ‘one-ness’ we believe we control but are enslaved to. This will be discussed further throughout the following.
I. Technology is not a set of tools. It is not a mere means to further human ends for human benefit. Thinking of technology and science in this way, as a neutral mode of producing, only makes one blind to the essence of technology and its existential effect on us and our worlding (QT 4). Technology is a revealing of the world, humans, and things in the world; it is a mode of truth. However, it is not a revealing of ‘bringing-forth’ from concealment into presence, the process of aletheia as truth, the poiesis that is characteristic of art, techne, and anything that allows entities to reveal themselves on their own terms as one possibility of their being. No, technology is a revealing that orders, challenges, and gathers entities into a specific, exclusive mode of being Heidegger calls the standing-reserve (QT 17). As such, technology takes hold of things and nature in a specific way: As ordered to be ready for use at any time, as energy to be unlocked, stored, and utilized for further extraction and manipulation. This is accomplished through man, by setting-upon him this task of ordering. Thus man is compelled by the essence of technology to view nature and things in it as what technology reveals them to be, namely as resources to be extracted and things as equally substitutable. This whole process is the Ge-stell, the enframing, which calls man forth to order and assemble nature as ready-at-hand in a very restricted sense (QT 19). Enframing is the essence of technology and a useful word for thinking about how technology forms our worlding: It places upon us a framework of ordering-as-revealing that claims to contain within it all that is, and all that will ever be. Such is characteristic of technology, making it a revealing ‘one’ that reveals all Being in its own terms, unconcealing everything the world has to offer as standing-reserve, as truth. This is a very powerful and compelling kind of revealing, which explains why technology has gained so much power over the world, and why people eagerly adopt Ge-stell in their attempts to ease life and their anxiety in the face of the flight of the gods.
It begins to be clear in The Question Concerning Technology that Heidegger has a strong distaste for technology, especially in the passage regarding the technological renaming of the Rhine from its poetic name to one concerned merely with the production of hydro-electrical power. Even earlier in his thought this theme emerges, where in der Ister lectures technology is characterized not as a means but purely as a domineering, conquering kind of unfolding (revealing) that determines the possibilities of human comportment and the actuality of what is and what can be (Ister 53). Strongly influenced by past and contemporary anti-modern romantics such as his famous and controversial friend Ernst Jünger, Heidegger after the rectorship displayed consistent and penetrating insights into the ills of modernity and the problems of technology. The reasons for his disgust of the modern and the technological are manifold and complex.
Technology distorts man, his world, and presents the supreme danger. The Ge-stell of technology, rephrased but with the same meaning in many of Heidegger’s works, poses a great danger to man in that by viewing the world and entities as standing-reserve ready to be ordered, it is but a small and easy step to view man himself in this way; man as standing-reserve, as material, as a function of objectification, as a slave, losing his essence and fundamental relation to Being while encroaching upon nature a disrespectful ‘securedness’ (QT 27; WAPF 113, 115; SR 168; Zimmerman 199). Perhaps even worse than the transformation of the possible authentic man into the necessary inauthentic technological man is this transfiguration’s self-concealment and hiddenness. Heidegger’s discussions are threaded through by technology’s characteristic self-ignorance, a being-concealed of its method and workings that it is not aware of. This is one of the major problems of technology, that it claims to reveal everything but is unaware and passes over its own concealing/revealing, a lack of the understanding of the duality of concealing/revealing paradox that art has a grasp of (as we will see later). So not only does technology cover over the misery it causes, it is unaware of it’s doing so and of the basic Heideggarian notion that whenever something is revealed, something other is necessarily concealed (Ister 44). Closely related to this is another ‘monstrous’ characteristic of technology and science (which are mutually dependent), that of blocking all possibility except the one they reveal as truth. As mentioned above, the technological mode of revealing is extremely exclusive. All other ways of revealing, of aletheia, are dismissed as ‘pointless’, ‘useless’, or ‘without worth’, each accusation being imbedded in the sphere of technological-type revealing. By Ge-stell’s setting the standard for all that can be in terms of the standing-reserve, any other possibility of being is blocked and precluded from truth: Specifically, enframing conceals poiesis-revealing, blocking the ‘shine and hold’ of primordial, original truth and the possibility of its uncovering (QT 26, 28). This is perhaps an even greater danger than the misunderstanding of man himself mentioned above, for it would disfigure all things in nature, not just man. Not only is technology an (in Husserl’s words) ‘empty passing-though’ entities, but also is a doing violence to the very possibility of possibility, entities’ being and presencing.
As if this were not enough to make anyone an anti-technology romantic, let alone the man who thought it up, these aspects of technology’s hold over the world result in what Heidegger names in What Are Poets For? the ‘darkening of the world’ (PLT xv; Zimmerman 26). Having been transfigured into the technological, man loses authentic being and completes the forgetfulness of Being. The earth is destroyed in man’s quest for self-fulfilling power, the gods take flight and God dies as everything sacred (including life itself) loses meaning. Anxiety and unheimlichkeit become the predominant moods of humanity torn from its origins, and the spirit of the West declines as men become a mass fearful of the free and creative (there seem to be strong Nietzschean undertones here). This is modernity; this is the destitute time of the world that Heidegger so clearly despises. A change towards an authentic world must come from art, from poetry, that which still says what is in an appropriate, respectful way (WAPF 92). Clearly, the world is in a crisis from the domination of technology, and the only way out seems through art, poetry.
The world now in its deepest night, the night of destitution and ontological darkness, abandoned by the gods and wanting of poiesis, needs ‘saving’. It needs to be brought to the morning again, when the sun comes to bring light to entities in their own being. In the time of the destitution of the world, the ‘Now’ of the first line of der Ister calls for the time of poets to poetize, to tell something new and begin a new time, the post-technological poetical era (Ister 8). Thus Heidegger places poetry, and art more generally, as that which will bring the world back to the light, out of the night of the global domination of technology and productionist metaphysics. This is something he arrives at repeatedly in his writings, with different argumentation but the same conclusion. Most explicitly seen at the end of The Question Concerning Technology when he famously finds the ‘saving power’ to grow out of the greatest danger of technology, Heidegger clearly calls for poetry and the arts to confront technology and bring poiesis and aletheia back as the primal modes of revealing (QT 29, 35). Because it cannot grow out of nothing, the saving power does exist in a minimal form during the destitute time. Even with the night at its darkest, remnants of the holy stay behind the fleeing gods. The poet is he who attends to these remnants, giving them room to reveal themselves and caring for them against the darkness. This is what poets ‘are for’; the recognition of the traces of the flight of the gods, tracking and attending to them without doing violence, allowing the holy, the sacred, all that which has been covered over by technology, to show us the path out of the night towards the dawn (WAPF 92).
Anyone who reads Heidegger’s later works will appreciate his romanticism, his desire to escape the alien world of modernity to a world defined by art and the letting-be of entities to reveal themselves freely and poetically. This is manifest even in his own physical comportment, as he adopted whenever possible the rural lifestyle, dress, and parlance of the Black Forest folk. His translators and interpreters take this romanticism to town, making it abundantly clear that the saving power is meant to be art, the poetry that attunes man to the curse of technology and opens up the possibility of authentic revealing, aletheia (PLT xv; Zimmerman xx, 77, 93). However clear this might be, we would do well to briefly compare the revealing of art and poetry with the restricted and concealing revealing of technology discussed above to fully show why Heidegger is such a romantic.
The way of revealing of the work of art is well typified by the Greek temple in The Origin of the Work of Art. As opposed to technological revealing which forces upon all things the requirements of the standing-reserve and usefulness, the temple reveals entities in an open and respectful manner. By gathering around and in it the different aspects that make up human experience and life, it gives a relation and context to entities around it by interacting with them, on their own terms, so that they are allowed a space in the context of and in relation to the temple in which they can emerge and appear in themselves as they are (OWA 41). This kind of artistic revealing has one major advantage over technological revealing, other than the fact that it does not exclude other modes besides itself: The understanding of the revealing/concealing duality. As is recurring in Heidegger’s thought, the nature of revealing necessarily entails concealment of something other. One cannot cast light upon something without throwing something else into shadow. Technology does not understand this, so when it casts light and reveals everything as standing-reserve, it ends up concealing itself and its own workings. Art, on the other hand, is ‘aware’ of the paradox of revealing/concealing because its kind of revealing contains within it and reveals both earth and world. It is not necessary to go over all the dynamics of earth and world and their interaction with each other in the rift, for what is important here is that earth is the dimension of concealment, while world is the disclosing openness (OWA 47; Zimmerman 121). Because the revealing of art consists in the duality of earth and world, of concealing and revealing, it has an understanding of its own revealing that technology completely lacks. This is what allows art to ‘let things be’ to reveal themselves self-emergently, the essence of aletheia as truth ‘happening’ in a work of art that refers what the work is ‘about’ in a contextual wholeness that gives it a great breadth of meaning and significance (OWA 54). The ‘letting-be’ and aletheia of art’s revealing is in direct opposition to the kind of revealing of technology, and this is what makes it so attractive to Heidegger, especially since art-revealing is oppositional in the exact ways (open and respectful revealing, awareness of own revealing/concealing) that make technology dangerous, as seen above.
It should be clear by now how and why Heidegger despised technology so, and why art as poetry was his answer to the ills of modernity. He was so strongly invested in his own blend of romanticism and anti-modernism that he was reported to become physically ill when approaching a big city, disturbed by the social displacement and pollution modernity had wrought (Zimmerman, 210). This raises the question of whether his distaste of the modern was a real result of his phenomenology into the essence of technology and art, or whether these were motivated by his own thrownness, his own personal tastes and being-in post-industrial Germany saturated by war, political strife, economic hardship, social unrest and displacement, and all the other problems that rapid, late industrialization brings. This would explain a lot, and would give an explanation for his romanticism and association with conservatives such as Jünger and the early National Socialist movement.
II. Be that as it may, Heidegger clearly posits art and poetry as the saving power against the domination of technology. But this cannot be so. Art cannot ‘play the role’ of the saving power; the reasons why come from Heidegger’s own philosophy of technology and art. First, technology is absolutely global and inescapable, a necessary part of our existential being and how we put the world before ourselves. Secondly, as the culmination of western productionist metaphysics, the essence of technology is an inevitable result of history, one that requires history to be ‘started over’ if we are to escape it. Thirdly and perhaps most powerfully demonstrating technology’s hold over us is that as a kind of revealing, no matter what kind, technology is truth, truth as aletheia, uncovering. All around us and throughout the history of the 20th century we see the gradual strengthening of technology, its rapid ascension to global domination, which combined with the preceding aspects totally forms humanity in to technological beings. Because we have been distorted so, art cannot be the saving power; for we, as Heidegger does with his nostalgic romanticism, would invoke it as such, as a saving power, which in our technological age and mindset would amount to using it as a mere means for the romantic goal of turning-past technology.
Here it is accepted as established that willing, as a futurally oriented projection of personal plans and projects upon the world (thus constituting the world, ‘worlding’), is a primordial and defining characteristic of man. Willing in the modern age is the will to power, the willing of a pure will over and against the world that is taken to exist for the will’s purposes. The essence of technology is inherent in our average everyday being towards the world, in das Man, in all existentiality except authenticity, which technology has basically excluded the possibility of. Both deriving from and necessarily containing the technological attitude, human willing is the objectification of that which is before us, forcing it under our control and into our supposed dominion; willing, in an act of will, has always already put forward and assumed the world as a realm of producible and manipulable objects (WAPF 108). This kind of attitude is basically inauthentic being-towards the ready-to-hand, which having been man’s predominant mindset was taken by western metaphysics as the ultimate way of being human, most powerfully exemplified by Nietzsche’s will to power.
Heidegger takes Nietzsche, with the will to power, to complete western metaphysics begun by the Greeks (WAPF 111). Technology, as the manifestation of this metaphysics, determines the way we interpret the world. Beginning with the Greeks, metaphysics has gradually identified what is with what is produced. In their conception of truth from whence we get aletheia and their ‘producing’ that freed and released entities, the underlying assumption was that these processes, however closer to Being they are compared to ours, were ultimately something useful for human ends: Plato’s idea of forms was based on blueprints and plans of physical, produced things. (Zimmerman xv, 157). When they looked at things in the world, in their more respectful ‘letting-be’ of entities, the Greeks nonetheless projected a framework upon nature. As this is just the way humans encounter and put themselves in the world, they can hardly be blamed. The thesis-experiencing of the Greeks was a fixing-into-place of entities, making them understandable and approachable, is the origin of the Ge-stell of technology as the founding mode of perception that Plato and Aristotle used in their metaphysics (OWA 83). From there, due to a lack of insight for millennia until Heidegger came along, philosophers built off this productionist metaphysics to gradually, continuously, and more compellingly see all the things in the world and nature itself as ordered and produced for consumption. In Roman and Medieval philosophy the things of the world were seen as ‘objects’ for a ‘subject’, conforming to a principle of rationality that brought them under the control of and existing for a will, epitomized by Kant’s ‘will to will’ (Ferry and Renaut 58-9). This will is concerned only with itself and the categories it ultimately creates (however a priori Kant thinks them to be) that it throws upon the world, supposedly making any experience possible, setting the stage for a fully technological interpretation of the world. Finally Nietzsche comes along and nails the Ge-stell into place with the will to power. Just this phrase ‘the will to power’ alone gives one the sense of the intensely utilitarian, dominating, conquering attitude that Nietzsche elevated to the highest of human virtues, the human telos even, that would inevitably lead to viewing the world as a mere means and material for meeting selfish ends and further propagating power. As this slowly got ingrained into popular and philosophical consciousness, western productionist metaphysics and its embodiment as the essence of technology was completed, as was the Cartesian project of the ownership and control of nature (Ferry and Renaut 59). As the end of metaphysics, technology becomes an inescapable withdrawal from Being that in itself is Being: For Being itself is self-concealing, constantly withdrawing when it reveals beings. Technology is just an ‘artificial’, extreme way of the forgetting of Being over beings. Technology is Being for modern man, the unavoidable consequence of our history, the ultimate framework pulled over our eyes by millennia of intellectual tradition gone awry. Thus technology is inescapable, even with art’s proper revealing on our side, for we always fall back into technological Being: Such is our Being.
There is no thwarting of or rebellion against technology. Because it is the result of completed productionist metaphysics and is the natural way of Being for modern man as a result of this frame of thought, technology is truth. Simply put, technology as a revealing (although in a certain restricted way) has the same characteristics of revealing that aletheia as revealing-truth does. Hence, in its own restricted way, technology is truth. Because technology is the primary mode of Being for man, it is the primary, and sole in our age, mode of truth. When it determines the essence of everything as standing-reserve, technology acts as truth, and when there is no alternative it is truth. Furthermore, man has no control over the unconcealment of technology (QT 18). It is the result of processes wholly outside of mankind’s control: The inevitability of productionist metaphysical history and our own way of being-in-the-world. Unfortunately, decades after Heidegger wrote on technology, we see his worst fears have been realized. Inattentiveness to the unconcealed and the lack of artistic, primal revealing have led to a world where technology dictates the coming of total truth (QT 35). Americanism and the annihilation of the foreign as the way to arrive authentically at oneself have secured the global domination of technology.
Given during the height of the Second World War, Heidegger in der Ister lectures somewhat randomly mentions the entrance of America into the war as the ultimate ‘ahistorical’ act as the intended destruction of Europe, the commencement of western culture and its ‘foreign’ (Ister 54-5). America is presented, perhaps for political and personal security purposes, as the ultimate evil, that which seeks to destroy all roots and origins. However radical this may sound, Americanism is only the reflection of the culmination of European metaphysics in the will to power (WAPF 111). Following the destruction of Germany, the best chance for an authentic artistic era to arise, America was free to spread its ideology and its worship of technology across the globe. The communism of the U.S.S.R., being on an ideological level metaphysically the same as capitalism, did the same in its own geopolitical sphere of influence. Having destroyed Germany, the two technological giants were free to grapple for the technological domination of the earth (Zimmerman 91). Little did they realize that technology was dominating them, turning us into slaves of production and utilitarianism. Today, the specifically American brand of Ge-stell has won out and been cemented by globalization, the final tearing down of all boundaries, traditions, originality and dissent before technology and leveled-down ‘culture’.
Heidegger’s worst nightmare has come true, exemplified by a campus newspaper Macbook advertisement I saw while researching this paper. I was immediately seized by the desire for power (albeit in a limited, cyber sense) it claimed to offer, using the language of the will to power to coax me into a lust for the heightened abilities and capabilities it would give me. Why bother interpreting a poem, or gazing upon a painting, or taking a walk in the woods (whatever ‘nature’ is left in the world) when you can access all the world’s art works and natural locales via a screen connected to millions of other screens across the earth? In our day, with the advent of the internet (which my grammar checker demands be capitalized!), technology has truly become global and dominant, framing our every thought and general being. Because of this art can no longer, if it could have anyway, be the saving power: Our thinking on art will inherently be technologized, we will conceive of it as a means.
A means that might very well serve to deliver us out from technology, but that will only be a superficial freedom. The underlying metaphysical attitude will hold even stronger, only fooling and bringing us further away from Being. The above has shown that people these days are completely technologized, with perhaps a select few (the good folk in our conference, at least) barely poking out of the cloudy mass of Ge-stell, the majority of their being still submerged. Subsumed into the essence of technology, the notion of art as the saving power would collapse in our average everyday understanding, how we normally exist, to just a means by which we can achieve our desire for a more artistic, respectful, primal world. Thus technology achieves its ultimate triumph; the domination of art, the transformation of the poetic from the open letting-happen of truth to a mere method by which people can serve their interests be it self-expression or supposed liberation from modernity. This is clear from modern art, the abstract nonsense Heidegger abhorred, in its celebration of subjectivism and servitude to commercialism (Zimmerman 237). At best, we seem to be doomed to an existence of vicious self-willing and doing-violence, ending in the eventual destruction of the earth some decades from now.
III. Humanity has become irreversibly disfigured as the result of technology. However this does not mean we cannot hope for a better world. While technology’s global domination is for all practical purposes permanent, we can change our attitudes towards it, shielding our essence and dignity from technological revealing. The best we could hope for is that said revealing ‘takes lessons’ from artistic revealing, learning its own limits and respecting (as much as it can) the coming-to-presence of entities.
As a revealing, technology is truth, aletheia. Aletheia is the unconcealing act of bringing that which is concealed into the light, into appearance. The problem with technology is that the being, the appearance, that it brings things into is constrained and disrespectful; the standing-reserve. Originally, with the Greeks, all human creating be it art or craft was called techne. Techne was not just a mode of creation or production, but it was a way of knowing; an episteme that consisted in aletheia, an open revealing of the concealedness of entities (OWA 57). Here the respectful ‘letting-happen’ of revealing by allowing a space for beings to reveal themselves as themselves of art was combined with the power of technology, and here we must return. Modern technology wholly lacks the ‘knowing’ of aletheia aspect of techne, only containing the power and usefulness aspect. What technology as a bringing-forth needs to learn from art is the aletheia-knowledge: The knowing of the concealing/revealing dichotomy, the ability to set entities free into their own presencing (QT 9). So while art itself is not the saving power, it can help us light the way to the combination of production and art. It can allow us the distance and perspective necessary to ‘step back’ from technology to realize its meaninglessness and arbitrariness (perhaps a connection between ‘arbeit’ and ‘arbitrary’ is not so unfathomable), its being as just another historical world that is fundamentally unjustified (Zimmerman 235-6). Indeed, techne is the saving power if there is to be one at all; the fusion of art and production is best for it combines allowance for entities’ own coming-to-presence with truthful disclosure of ourselves, ‘letting ourselves be’ as the necessarily technological and inauthentic beings we are. Here Zimmerman and I are in complete agreement, although he places less stress on our total and permanent domination under technology.
Although I do not see the coming of a ‘post-metaphysical’ artistic age that Heidegger called forth and Zimmerman thinks as possible unless we can convince every person on earth to radically change their metaphysical attitudes or travel back in time to correct every major philosopher with a copy of The Question Concerning Technology, nonetheless great works of art such as Hölderlin’s poetry can still allow us a certain critical distance from technology. Hopefully, while not the saving power itself, art and poetry can allow us the chance to save ourselves from the nihilism of the now near-eternal technological age.
Some personal concluding remarks on Heidegger and technology seem appropriate. While I see where he is coming from and its appeal to the displaced and unassimilated among us, one cannot help but feel an elitist, almost übermensch, mentality behind Heidegger’s romanticism. The desire for a poetic post-metaphysical age marked by the poiesis of art is intimately connected to the rejection of the popular and the easy, technological way of life the majority of us lead. Such rejection of the mass of humanity was clear enough in Being and Time when Heidegger explains and criticizes das Man. This is a major point of contention I have with Heidegger’s philosophy; that it is not really universalizable, and offers ‘salvation’ to only a few. Of these few I have met, many often carry a smug attitude. Furthermore, as Heidegger himself taught us (as well as Fichte’s ‘no I without ‘thou’ critical philosophy), Dasein is never without mit Sein, the self is never without the other. Das Man is an existential and unavoidable mode of being for man. So Heidegger himself was not completely outside his ‘others’, the romantic anti-modernists such as Jünger and poets like Hölderlin that his thought follows closely from. It is important to take philosophies with a grain of salt when their thinkers do not fully apply it to themselves and subscribe to the ‘sometimes a cigar is just a cigar’ attitude.
Nestor Bailly (’09) is a Philosophy major at McGill University.