Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Question Concerning Technology and Writing

There are so many things to talk about in these few short texts we are supposed to explore for next week, but today's class has given me a more specific focus: what is technology and is this even a legitimate question; that is, taking a cue from Derrida and others, should we ask after the ontology of technology--its "is," its "whatness."

In "Question," Heidegger maintains that technology cannot be thought of as a tool in the sense that it is something we can control or master. He writes, "So long as we represent technology as an instrument we remain transfixed in the will to master it" (Heidegger 337). In other words, we see ourselves as the agents and subjects that determine being or truth. We see ourselves, to put it in Descartes terms, as the "masters and possessors of nature," who will be able to use technology to further our own ends. Let us take the example of writing (which, initially, we will treat as "a" technology rather than the basis for technological being), particularly in relation to the teaching of writing. As teachers/instructors/institutions, we maintain that we can "teach" writing. To be more specific, we maintain that we can teach our students to "use" writing instrumentally as a means to an end. But writing in its very structure resists this plan, which is, I would argue, why it is so difficult to write. Writing is not merely a tool just as technology is not merely a tool, but rather, according to Heidegger, a mode of revealing. Heidegger will call this "enframing" and he contrasts this with a "poetic" way of revealing. However, as with his analysis in Being and Time concerning "idle talk" or "inauthentic existence" enframing is still a mode of revealing just as "idle talk" is still a mode of being in the world. Heidegger writes that "As the one who is challenged forth in this way, man stands within the essential realm of enframing" (329). The danger here, Heidegger claims, is that enframing as a mode of revealing will hide a more "original" mode of revealing which he will call poiesis. 

For Heidegger, human beings do not have the power to fully control or direct technology, just as any writer is limited by the language he or she speaks and even further by the materiality and, to draw on Derrida, trace-structure of language: "Does such revealing happen somewhere beyond all human doing? No. But neither does it happen exclusively in man, or definitively through man" (329). We should neither blindly follow through with technology unthinkingly nor should we (nor can we) "rebel helplessly against it and curse it as the work of the devil" (330). Thus, despite Heidegger's rhetoric of a loss of "rootedness," soil, homeland, grounding, in "Memorial Address" Heidegger is not suggesting some Luddite position.

Rather, it seems that Heidegger wants us, perhaps, to think of other modes of revealing. That is, to realize that enframing, the realm of the "calculable" and ordering, is not the only way of revealing being. But again, it seems as though we cannot simply rid ourselves of enframing. Nor should we see enframing as categorically, to be simple, "bad," but simply that it is a "danger." But as the poet (for Heidegger, Holderilin) says, "where the danger is, grows the saving power also" (340). It is important to emphasize once again, and Heidegger is clear about this in "Question," that "What is dangerous is not technology. Technology is not demonic; but its essence is mysterious" (333).

Another way Heidegger puts this "mysterious" aspect of technology is that it is ambiguous: "the essence of technology is in a lofty sense ambiguous. Such ambiguity points to the mystery of all revealing" (338). Heidegger wants to maintain a kind of distance from technology; in other words, he does not want us to become merely fascinated with it because that leads us to think that the essence of technology is somehow a "genus" into which we can fit specific technologies. We need to understand the profound impact technology can have as a mode of revealing--something hinted at in "The Telephone."

So if we as human beings cannot master technology and nor can we simply reject it in favor of some sort of anachronistic return to Nature (although Heidegger's tropes suggest otherwise: soil, homeland, ground, foundation, growth), what can we do?

In "Question," his answer is that we need to "safekeep truth," a "piety of thought" ("questioning is the piety of thought" 341) that retains a kind of "mysteriousness" and "distance" from our technology. To not let our technology integrate into ourselves such that we do not reflect on it. In a way, is not this class taking up this project? We will (and Sid has before) raised questions like: What about people with glasses? Are not glasses a technology that makes us a kind of cyborg or posthuman? Or, as he said in class today, what about pills for indigestion? At his best, this is what Heidegger suggests we need to continue doing--asking after the boundaries of our terms.

In "Memorial Address," Heidegger suggests something similar: "I call the comportment which enables us to keep open to the meaning hidden in technology, openness to the mystery" (Heidegger 55). In this way, says Heidegger, we can find a new grounding/foundation/autochthony.

Openness to the mystery of technology and its ambiguity, to me, sounds like a good idea, but then we get statements from Heidegger like this:
Still we can act otherwise. We can use technical devices, and yet with proper use also keep ourselves so free of them, that we may let go of them any time. we can use technical devices as they ought to be used, and also let them alone as something which does not affect our inner and real core. We can affirm the unavoidable use of technical devices, and also deny them the right to dominate us, and so to warp, confuse, and lay waste our nature. (54)
A couple things regarding this passage. First, this passage seems to be discussing the "concrete" technologies rather than in "Question" the "essence" of technology. Second, we see Heidegger here advocating a separation of us as "human being" and technology. We want our prosthetic phalluses to be detachable--to be "let free." Let us consider this a moment. Heidegger's rhetoric in his later work suggests a "letting be" or a "freeing" but this also suggests that we not incorporate too much technology into ourselves so that our nature transforms, even though this seems to contradict his claim in "Question" that technologies are not tools or things, but a mode of revealing. For instance, in "Question," although Heidegger asserts that man could never become a mere standing reserve, this very possibility is his nightmare:
As soon as what is unconcealed no longer concerns man even as object, but exclusively as standing reserve and man in the midst of objectlessness is nothing but the orderer of standing reserve, then he comes to the very brink of a precipitous fall; tha tis, he comes to the point where he himself will have to taken as standing reserve (332)
 This is an interesting passage for me, because it seems that here Heidegger is saying that we need things to face us as "objects" in their mysteriousness--not yet having been "enframed." I'm not sure what to make of this, but its something I'd like to explore further.

Interestingly enough, the above lengthy quotation from the "Memorial Address" resonates with a logic of "purity" or the "unscathed," something that Derrida brilliantly puts into question in "Faith and Knowledge" (Acts of Religion). But I digress (although this may be a useful avenue to pursue at another time)

I'd like to move on to the essay "I, Pencil," in which the pencil calls itself a "miracle" and a "mystery," citing G.K. Chesterton's assertion that "We are perishing for want of wonder, not for want of wonders." Here, it is not the "essence" of technology that is mysterious, but a particular technology that is mysterious precisely because no one person knows how to make it. To return briefly to "Faith and Knowledge," Derrida claims
Because this evil is to be domesticated and because one increasingly uses artifacts and prostheses of which one is totally ignorant, in a growing disproportion between knowledge and know how, the space of such technical experience tends to become more animistic, magical, mystical. (Derrida 91)
Admittedly, this quotation from Derrida applies to the divorce between the technologies we use and the technologies we understand "how they work." In some sense, we all know how a pencil "works" but we do not know how to make the pencil, so that the pencil in a way becomes something we use but we do not know how it came into being. Perhaps a microwave or a DVD is harder to explain how it "works," but if we are to take Heidegger (at least as I have read him these past few days) and the author of "I, Pencil" seriously, we should acknowledge, with a kind of attitude of 'wonder' the miracle of such simple things.

"I, Pencil" traces the genealogy of a pencil's development, showing that a lot of different "intellectual technologies" (I think is how Sid put it) were required to make this "tool." I am astounded at the similarities (which I first thought were radical differences) between Heidegger's "Question" and "I, Pencil." In "Question," Heidegger maintains that "there is no such thing as a man who exists singly and solely on his own" and that "the essential unfolding of technology gives man entry into something which, of himself, he can neither invent nor in any way make" (Heidegger 337). Similarly, the pencil writes that, "Man can no more direct these millions of know-hows to bring me into being than he can put molecules together to create a tree."

That is, in both Heidegger and "I, Pencil" there is a limitation to the mastery of the human being. Even though Heidegger sets up the "chalice" example in a re-reading of Aristotle, he uses the language of "giving thanks to" and "being responsible for" rather than "making" or "inventing" or "efficient causes" for the silversmith. Rather the silversmith "gathers together the aforementioned ways of being responsible and indebted" (315). These three ways "owe thanks to the pondering of the silversmith for the 'that' of the 'how' of their coming into appearance" (316).

But is this the case in "I, Pencil"? That is, is there a "gatherer" of the pencil, a "pondering" mind that brings together the other causes? No, rather there are "millions of tiny know-hows configuring naturally and spontaneously in respnse to human necessity and desire and in the absense of any human master-mind."

To end these rambling reflections, I want to think about the status of "freedom" in both Heidegger and "I, Pencil." For Heidegger, freedom is a kind of "letting be," but this letting be lets be what is. "I, Pencil," in contrast, seems to be about possibility--free creative energies roaming free such that something is made or created through a gathering (although not necessarily by a particular human subject). "I, Pencil" ends with,
The lesson I have to teach is this: Leave all creative energies uninhibited [. . .] Let society's legal apparatus remove all obstacles the best it can. Permit these creative know-hows freely to flow. Have faith that free men and women will respond to the Invisible Hand 
The Invisible Hand? Are we really in the realm of Adam Smith economic theories here? Does this reveal something about Heidegger's particular mode of "letting be" so that destining is set on its way? Questions worth pondering. . .and writing about.


No comments:

Post a Comment