Tuesday, January 17, 2012

What Things Do? A Postphenomenological Material Hermeneutic/Aesthetic

This is truly a remarkable book for its very close and careful argumentation and clear distinctions when dealing with really opaque texts. Verbeek navigates Heidegger, Jaspers, and Latour with an analytic skill that almost makes them seem systematic. As opposed to many philosophers who locate themselves within the phenomenological tradition, even as critics, Verbeek does not rely on language play and poetic insight to extend and critique this tradition. Rather, Verbeek tries to work both inside and outside these thinkers’ work by what I can only call a “translation” into his postphenomenological vocabulary, which he derives from Don Ihde’s work. Although he will make clear oppositions (classical phenomenology and postphenomenology, hermeneutic and existential) he supports these claims with careful attention to several texts of Heidegger, Jaspers, and Latour. 

Before getting into Verbeek’s critiques and extensions of these thinkers, I have to address the elephant in the room: yes, this book is a bit ontologically anthropocentric. The category “human” does not undergo a radical change and Verbeek even claims a distinction between subject and object. To illustrate this point, we can look at a passage from the Latour chapter: 

“[Postphenomenology] is interesting not so much in the networks of relations on the basis of which the mediating artifacts and experiencing humans are present, but in the nature of the relations that human beings—thanks to these artifacts—can have to other humans and things [. . .] Phenomenology and postphenomenology bridge the gap rather than denying it, by bringing to light the mutual engagements that constitute subject and object. (166)

This allows Verbeek to argue that Heidegger has something to offer Latour in terms of his categories of present-at-hand and ready-to-hand because they relate the material objects to the person that uses them. Indeed, Verbeek is explicitly interested in human and object—not animal and object, not animal and human, not human to human. He is primarily interested in things we use. Now, rather than fault him from this, we should recognize that the whole book leads up to a chapter on industrial design, which is usually considered a human institution. Within its own limits, Verbeek’s analysis and especially the vocabulary he creates in part two, is useful, powerful, and an achievement in its own right. 

Thus, we can read Verbeek’s analysis as an attempt to isolate particular relation and relegating other relations to, perhaps, Latour. Verbeek clearly states that the black boxes of an object’s “creation” can remain black boxes for postphenomenology—he does not care about the production aspect of the thing. In this sense, he brackets the issues explored in “I, Pencil” and moves closer to the issue explored in “The telephone.”

So why does Verbeek bracket production? Because this “backward” thinking (take that as you will) is what Heidegger and Jaspers will do and he wants to think the object “forward.” Verbeek makes the argument that at least the late Heidegger (and Jaspers) only considers the “conditions for the possibility” of technology, which does not take into account the way concrete technologies coshape human beings and the world.
Let’s deal with Jaspers first, who will eventually argue that technology is “neutral,” that it follows “no particular direction” and that “[only] human beings can give it direction” (39). This is clearly not true, as the example of any technology shows. Technology, claims Verbeek (following Ihde) “invites” certain ways of revealing the world—it amplifies and reduces, invites and discourages particular modes of being. The telephone in the story changes the organization of the community. Jaspers thus does not take into account the way technology can affect human organization, believing naively that technology is basically under human control and we must decide. Furthermore, Jaspers still maintains the idea that technology creates mass existence, which leads to alienation and inauthentic existence rather than an authentic existence. In other words, we cannot let our technology “get too close”—thus, NO CYBORGS! This is the “releasement,” a “letting be” of beings that Heidegger will advocate. 

Heidegger’s late work also reflects the “no cyborgs” approach, when he argues that we have to keep technology at a distance from us (see previous post). But Heidegger’s work is harder to dismiss and Verbeek does not simply dismiss Heidegger (or Jaspers for that matter, but I’m not sure how important he is to Verbeek’s point/contribution). 

For Heidegger, we are not in control of technology; instead, technology/Gestell (Enframing) is a destining. Technology for Heidegger constitutes one way of revealing being which he contrasts with “poesis.” Rather than trying to “save” the late Heidegger’s point with reinterpretation, Verbeek points out Heidegger’s inconsistencies and double-standards. 

For the late Heidegger, “technology thus does not itself create [. . .] a specifying form of world-disclosure, but is instead a manifestation of one” (Verbeek 62). This is problematic because Heidegger applies two different interpretations of technology, one “historical” and the other “ahistorical” rhetorically/ontologically privileging earlier technologies even though “the traditional technologies he champions turn out to exhibit a dimension of domination and control as well as the modern ones, while the modern technologies he derides also exhibit a degree of ‘letting things be’” (68). 

Heidegger’s mills (older, more ‘authentic’ technologies) reveal “being itself” whereas something modern, like the hydroelectric plant, is only a “consequence of a historical epoch in the history of being” (75). As Verbeek (following Ihde) asks, “Why can’t modern technologies reveal the fourfold too?” 

Verbeek shows that even though Heidegger seems to pay more attention to the “thing” in his later work, he actually withdraws from things through a close reading of several of the moments of Heidegger’s text. Rather than rehearse this history of Heidegger here, I’ll move to the conclusion, which also suggests an answer to the question above about why Verbeek is less concerned with how a technology is made: Heidegger approaches technology (in “Question,” for instance) in terms of making/producting rather than “in terms of objects” (93). Verbeek, then, wants to distance himself from Heidegger’s focus on production in favor of action. He finds this in the early Heidegger of Being and Time

But I would argue in order to think through the issues of technology, this cannot just remain a black box, even if it is not the domain of postphenomenology (which is a contestable claim), because it addresses the question of who is “responsible for” an object. Rather than an individual human being that “gathers” together the other “causes” (see “Question”) many actants are associated to produce an object that no one has individual know-how to make. 

But in Verbeek’s discussion of industrial design, he argues that products that we can feel “attached to” (rather than emotionally invested in) have to be “transparent” so we understand “how they work.” Does this not require an investigation into how a product is produced? Is this not also another way to say that the person who acquires a product/object should be “responsible for” (in Heidegger’s sense) that object or “care for that object” more than for what it does? Do we not continually (re)produce that object as we fix it and repair it? 

Technology and Writing

Incidentally, or perhaps not so incidentally, many of the examples of “technology” in What Things Do involve writing or communication technologies: telephone, word processors (115), ballpoint pens (115), PDAs. Indeed, Verbeek (and Latour’s) language even suggests writing—“inscription,” “program,” “translation.” I like how Verbeek via Latour articulates the way technologies mediate through delegation (both human à nonhuman and non-human à human). The example of the speed bump is great: 

“Drivers now go slowly not because they have read a traffic sign or because they fear a policeman, but because of a lump of matter. Engineers have “inscribed” the program of action they desire (to make drivers slow down on campus) in concrete as it were. Latour deliberately uses the word ‘inscribe’ rather than ‘objectify’” (159-160). 

This is the language of “code” and “program” –computer language, if you will. Human beings can be “programmed” by their objects as well, since a “script” is “the program of action or behavior than an artifact invites, expressed in words similar to the series of instructions of a program language” (160). Perhaps this is an entry into the “posthumanist writing” aspects of Verbeek’s book. Posthumanist writing as a material hermeneutic? Verbeek’s language gets somewhat close to Derrida’s concept of ‘trace’ and notions of presence/absence: “Delegation makes possible a curious combination of presence and absence: an absent agent can have an effect no human behavior in the here and now” (160). 

Is this not the structure of all writing?

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