Art vs. technology

Some light bedside reading.

Some current light bedside reading.

This past summer I was driving from Rochester to Chautauqua, to spend a few days helping Peter Georgescu put together a new book proposal, which turned out to be productive (and gave me a chance to work with Andrew Terrell, a very young former White House staffer who seems to know everything that’s going to happen in Washington before it actually happens.) On my drive, somewhere in the Southern Tier, using a podcast app on my iPhone, I stumbled onto a program that has since become something I regularly listen to while painting: Entitled Opinions, by Robert Harrison, a professor of French and Italian at Stanford. It’s an intellectual oasis, a golden island of conversation that constantly makes me whisper, yes, exactly to myself while I’m absorbing it. Its archive makes available ten years of programming, a buried treasure. I can’t wait to make my way through it. Harrison’s professorial post doesn’t reflect his depth of learning in a wide variety of fields: either he’s a very quick study or he retains everything he’s investigated from decades of research and reading. Many of his guests also teach at Stanford, or Berkeley, or at another school here or in Europe. He’s not only erudite but persists in thinking along lines that have been abandoned by many philosophers these days. As far as I can tell from my layman’s perch, philosophy these days wants to find a safe harbor in brain research, rather than interrogating the mystery of things in a way that does little more than ponder unanswerable questions. These days thinking about consciousness tends to regard it as just one more phenomenon to be objectified, on the assumption that human nature is yet another biological mechanism to be understood and eventually improved upon through some kind of intervention. In the podcast I listened to in the car, a conversation about Heidegger with Thomas Sheehan, the guest and host mentioned at one point a philosophy convention where all the Heidegger specialists huddled in one corner and talked amongst themselves, with little contact with anyone else at the event, an anecdote that made me laugh with approval. Good for them! That image probably offers a clear picture of how much weight Continental philosophy carries these days in American academia.

The discussion with Sheehan, who has a book on Heidegger coming out shortly, was primarily about Being and Time, Heidegger’s most influential book. I never managed to get through it in college, though I studied Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, which grew out of Heidegger’s work. Ever since then, I’ve dipped into Heidegger’s later writing, with special attention to The Origin of the Work of Art. And since I heard this podcast, I’ve reread that essay a couple times and delved into Heidegger’s essays on technology and other subjects. I also have a small stack of other books by or about him that I plan to read. I’ll add Sheehan’s to the stack, once it’s published.

Even though I happily rely on technology, such as digital photography, to make paintings, I’ve come to think that Heidegger considered the making of art as a way of apprehending the world contrary to our scientific/technological age, which seeks to make everything submit to human understanding and human will, to turn the world into a “standing reserve” of resources to be intellectualized and put to human use. (The great danger, for Heidegger, was that human beings themselves were and are becoming part of that “standing reserve.” How long, for example, will it be before we start picking from a menu of favored genetic code in the children we design?) Art, on the other hand, has no purpose for me other than to make possible an intense awareness of the world as it is–as a world–and, through that awareness, lay the ground for being human in a humble, receptive way that sometimes runs contrary to the notions of empirical truth that largely govern the way we think and live now.

Anyway, I hope eventually to plumb this topic, at greater length, in some other form, but in the meantime—in other words, last weekend—while watching the Buffalo Bills game, I transcribed much of the conversation from yet another episode of Entitled Opinions about Heidegger, a conversation from years ago with a young Stanford professor who knew the German philosopher inside and out. I hope Robert Harrison, the host, will forgive me for reproducing it here, as a way of promoting his podcast.

Harrison begins each podcast with a few words honoring his subject. In this case, he invokes Heidegger himself and then speaks directly to Heidegger:

The growing and unacknowledged anxiety in the face of thinking no longer allows insight into the oblivion of Being which determines the age. Heidegger, 1973, three years before he died. Oh Martin, if you only knew how complete and total the oblivion has become . . . it’s all just bricks in the wall now.

Yes, if only Heidegger could be here with us today. Would he be speechless or would he declare “I saw it all coming, the unearthing of the earth, the unworlding of the world, devastation of the bonds between people, the setting in place of an absolutely . . . biotechnical state that orders and enframes all things, all available energies and resources, putting them on standing reserve for general distribution and consumption. I told you when beings are abandoned by Being they lose their density and their power of resistance, their very thing-ness and fall prey to objectification, exploitation and manipulation. When Being withdraws from the world, the world becomes an unworld, no longer hospitable to habitation.” Heidegger might say something like that . . . but even he would be shocked and incredulous by just how monstrous the phenomenon of planetary technicity has become. The machine is everywhere with nowhere left to rage against it.

So what’s all the fuss about? The fuss is about being at home on the earth. In an interview, Heidegger declared that . . . human beings do not control the inner drive that compels us to amass more and more technical capability and enframe more beings in an ever expanding network of circulation and consumption. Technicity is not something that man masters by his own power. But what must be mastered? Everything is functioning. Production is up. People are well cared for. We are living in a state of prosperity. What really is lacking? He replied that everything is functioning, and that is precisely what is terrifying. Everything is propelled toward more and more functioning, and technicity uproots man from the earth. This uprooting is more or less complete in some places, less in others; but there is not a place on earth that escapes it.

In my humble but nevertheless entitled opinion, Heidegger is the most important philosopher of the modern era. He is controversial. I have both prosecuted and defended him in the past. I like to squabble as much as the next man, but squabble is not the best method for coming to terms with a thinker’s thought.

He introduces Andrew Mitchell, who also teaches at Stanford, who describes how he got into Heidegger.

I came to philosophy from literature. Everything that Grove Press published I would read. This led me to Nietzsche and Rilke. Through further reading I encountered the name Heidegger. I started reading and was quite enamored. When I first read What is Metaphysics?, Heidegger says “science proceeds in a certain way but nothing more, and thinks in a certain manner but nothing else. What is this nothing?” The scales fell from my eyes. I knew I would be reading him for a long time to come.

They talk about Being and Time:

RH: What is the meaning of Being, this word that we use all the time with the word “is” although philosophers have always asked what is the being of beings, what is the essence of what is, Heidegger says that the question of Being is a question that has laid dormant in the entire history of Western philosophy. He wants to reawaken this question of the meaning of being. But then he undertakes a massive analysis of this one specific being. . . us. Dasein is literally “being there” but it is the human being.

AM: Being and Time is an incomplete work. It’s a third of what Heidegger projected in its entirety. He abandons it for philosophical reasons. Being, for him is nothing abstract or general, but always something concrete. It takes place here. If there is a meaning to Being, that meaning is in relation to our existence.

RH: Dasein is the one being whose own being is an issue for it.

AM: Yes.

 They discuss Being and Time at some length, then turn to what’s of more interest to me, Heidegger’s later thinking:

AM: Around the time of his Contributions to Philosophy, I think what becomes more prominent is the role of history. Heidegger says Being and Time lacked a proper sense of history. In these works of the 30s, he develops a Being/Historical thinking. Metaphysics isn’t considered a history of an error or a lie . . . that covers a truth that must be exposed again. He sees this covering of metaphysics as essential to Being itself. Being is no longer thought of apart from concealment. He changes his conception of Being. Being for him comes to be a matter of withdrawal. Withdrawal is actually a way that things exist. They exist partially. They are not whole or discreet things but everything itself is opened into this space into the world.

RH:I like the way you put it. The withdrawal of being is constituent of things themselves in the world. I cannot fully appropriate other things. There is a resistance and opacity.

AM: That same distance is what allows us to relate to the tree, allows the tree to concern us.

RH: Without a distance from them, we cannot know things as they are. I think his Origins of the Work of Art is very difficult for people to read, but . . . for Heidegger artworks remind us that things are not radically available, totally at our disposal. The artwork shows that no matter how much I try to grasp whatever is being painted, or the statue, there is something that draws away from me. The power or the beauty of it is precisely that I can’t hold it in my hands in a tangible way—and it gives itself on the one hand, but partially. Any artwork that doesn’t throw into relief the extent to which things are available to me only . . .

AM:  . . . in this most utilitarian manner possible. That idea is shattered.

RH: (On the other hand) with technology . . . everything is radically available and disposable to us.

AM: He views this as the culmination of metaphysics. It has constantly misunderstood, overlooked this partial character of existence and seen complete presence. Things become . . . objectified into objects that are held to be discreet entities. Technology is the culmination of this transformation in things into sheer presences. Where in technology, everything becomes completely available at our disposal. He talks about it in terms of ordering and availability. The Internet is the perfect example of this. Everything is available, at our disposal. Everything is replaceable.

RH: You know I share your unease at that technicity, especially bio-technicity. I don’t think everyone shares that. I could play devil’s advocate and say what’s wrong with technology that gives us mastery and possession of the earth? What’s wrong with substitutability and the endless availability of things for our own consumption?

AM: This is an age-old response that has to do with the disenchantment of the world we could say. What we find so agreeable about existence is the singularity, uniqueness and specificity of it. It is precisely that specificity that we are able to share with others through communication with others. Technology which Heidegger also thinks is a way of thinking of the world in terms of (interchangeable) value. (One thing can be replaced by other things. Money for objects.) Once something has a value or a price it is replaceable by something else of an equal value. This drains the world of the very distinctions we would like to attribute to it. If we say God is the greatest being we degrade God by making God comparable to other things. Technology makes our existence into a homogenized, pre-packaged existence . . .

RH: He wasn’t a Luddite or the Unabomber. He believed that every major epoch had a certain mode in which things revealed themselves. Technology, the essence of technology, which he called technicity, was an epochal way that things are revealed to us as always at our disposal. The way things reveal themselves are not dependent on us, but on the history of Being, whatever that means. We have to wait for the era to change and somehow things will show a different side of themselves to us.

AM: The technological approach shortchanges ourselves as well. We place ourselves in a position of mastery. Everything is according to our will. In so doing that, we eliminate from our own reality all the wonderful passions and passivities of life . . .

RH: I think of something so much more sinister and diabolical than Heidegger probably could have expected. The way this enframing of all things is not just the world of objects, but now with biotechnology we are going right into the very fabric of life and presuming to be the total masters and play God. That’s how Heidegger understands technology, rendering concrete the power of God in the means of production and doing this with life itself. The moral issues surrounding biotechnology are so primitive compared to the complexity of the phenomena—how are we go to into the very constituency of the biotic and start playing around and recreating the world as if we are the masters? We know we are not. Yet there is a drive there of which we are not in control and for the most part are not even aware. You would have to conjugate it with Freud’s notion of the death drive to maybe do full justice to the demonic element of contemporary technicity.

 AM: . . . as if we are trying to secure ourselves so much from anything different from us, we end up erecting so many mirrors around us . . . we want to be all that there is. There will be nothing outside of us, no others.

Harrison recites the quote he recited during his intro into the conversation.

AM: For him, thinking is letting yourself be exposed to something beyond you in some way. It isn’t conceptualizing or comprehending in the sense of completely grasping something, but instead letting yourself be attuned to the matter of thought and not dominating it, but letting it be. Anyone who is in philosophy faces this anxiety. It is not a matter of calculating or reckoning. It can’t provide results. Any time it does it’s not thinking any longer. Being and Time is a book of thought. All it wants to do is ask the question of what is the meaning of being, and it can’t even get a third of the way there. That’s thinking. Thinking is a failure. It can’t be useful.

This conversation between Harrison and Mitchell is much longer and more involved, but is about as clear and direct as any discussion of Heidegger you’ll find in any medium. It’s well worth the time, as are almost all the episodes from the past decade that can be found at the program’s website. I’m sure I’ll be stealing and sharing parts of them, as long as Harrison doesn’t call me out on it. If it gives him a few more listeners, I’m sure he won’t mind.

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