A few free-floating observations on Heidegger

 

1) Heidegger does not seem interested in praxis. He is primarily concerned with poeisis as an activity which brings forth truth. As such he does not spend much time on social relations or ethics. How is this translated into a politics? An ethics? I realize Heidegger was a low-down nazi prick. But how does that intersect with the rejection of praxis?

2) Is the critique of rational, instrumental thinking politically indeterminate? It’s a theme that is raised by a range of thinkers identifying with disparate forms of politics. Is it always nostalgic?

My main issue, and I must confess it’s a bit of a deal-breaker for me, with Heidegger’s piece on technology, is that it posits Man as an undifferentiated subject in relation to technology. Technology and physics develops the way they do because they follow an internal dynamic. The impact of social structure on the development and implementation of technology is ignored completely.

Aside from the fact that I find the whole idea of Man untenable, I think this oversight genuinely weakens the piece. Within the idealistic framework he posits, Heidegger is incapable of exploring how this enframing came to be hegemonic in terms of Man’s relationship to the world. He mentions the development of modern science and the development of modern technology, and completely skirts the development of political economy, an engagement with which I think would do wonders for his argument as I understand it.

Scientific thought is not insulated from its wider social infrastructure. Industrialization, enclosure, and Anglo-American political economy cast a long shadow over Darwin’s theory of evolution. The development of physics and technology, in the specific forms which Heidegger, in my opinion, describes fairly succinctly, coincide pretty neatly with the consolidation of capitalism. The omission of any discussion of exploitation of labor and developments like Taylorism is also strange, given that he assigns poesis and craft such a central role in our species-being.The passages on enframing read like a shamanic take on political economy. Rather than historicizing the drive to reduce the world to standing-reserve, Heidegger seems to posit it as immanent to the human experience.

I’m not getting on Heidegger’s case for not being an economist or a social historian. I do feel, however, that ignoring the social and historical dimension as completely as he does impoverishes the piece. To avoid reductive materialism and engage with the text on its own terms, I would formulate my critique as follows; Heidegger fails to account for the role that praxis plays in determining the morphology of bringing-forth.

Cheers to Matthew de Kersaint Giraudeau for the picture (http://dekersaint.blogspot.co.uk/2008/11/martin-heidegger-looking-surprised.html)

Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology (1953) Part One

Summary

In this lecture, Heidegger is concerned with uncovering the essence of modern technology, which he argues is distinct from previous technologies. Furthermore, the essence which he aims to uncover is not technological, and not accesible through a technological mode of thought.

Technology, quoth Heidegger, is colloquially understood as instrumental (a means to an end) and anthropological, as a specifically human activity. This definition, concedes Heidegger, is correct, but it does not follow from this that it says anything about technology’s essence, correctness cannot be understood as synonymous with truth. A simply instrumental understanding of technology as a means to an ends obfuscates the essence of technology, since an end is always also a cause. Instrumentality is not a sufficient explanation.

Poeisis

Drawing on Aristotle, Heidegger posits four forms of causality, understood as four senses in which something can be responsible for something else;

1) Causa materialis; the material which is to constitute the thing in question

2) Causa formalis; The shape which the thing in question is to assume

3) Causa finalis; the ultimate use to which the thing in question is to be put.

4) Causa efficiens; that which engages in the act of manufacture, ie a craftsman.

These four causes are moments in the process of bringing forth, or bringing something into presence, poesis;

“Every occasion for whatever passes beyond the nonpresent, and goes forward into presencing is poeisis, bringing forth” (Plato, Symposium, 205b)

This bringing forth can be further distinguished as self sufficient (en heautoi), such as the blossoming of a flower, or supervening on human agency (en alloi). In any case, bringing forth is a process of unconcealment. The Greek word alethia is translated to Latin as veritas and thus truth; poeisis is an uncovering of truth, it is truth-revealing activity. This is the essence of technology, as witness by its origin in Greek techne, a term covering crafts as well as the arts and philosophy. Techne is a mode of aletheuin, it reveals what does not reveal itself, whatever’s presence is contingent (Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Book VI, chapters 3 & 4).

“Whoever builds a house or ship, or forges a sacrificial chalice, reveals what is to be brought forth, according to the terms of the four modes of occasioning. This revealing gathers together [my emphasis] in advance the aspect and the matter of the ship or house, with a view to the finished tjing envisaged as completed, and from this gathering determines the manner of construction” (Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology, pg 319)

What is significant about techne (and thus technology), then, is not primarily the act of manufacture, it is the co-ordinating of the four modes of occasioning to bring something forth.This seems a reasonable account of traditional crafts, but is less intuitive when applied to modern technology. The occasioning is in practice differentiated.

Enframing

The key distinction between techne and modern technology, however, is for Heidegger tha fact that the bringing forth of modern technology is formulated as a demand, a challenge. Modern technology challenges nature to give up energy to be stored. The difference between a traditional windmill and, say, a nuclear power plant, is that the latter takes energy out of nature and stores it. This, for Heidegger, invasively alters nature’s character; the river dammed is a storehouse of energy, and can no longer be conceived otherwise. Modern technology relates to nature aggresively, through challenge and appropriation;” the revealing that rules throughout modern technology has the character of setting-upon” (ibid 321)

“such challenging happens in that the energy concealed in nature is unlocked, what is unlocked is transformed, what is transformed is s stored up, and what is stored up is in turn distributed, and what is distributed is switched about ever anew” (ibid, 322)

This is also a revealing, but it is a revealing without end. Not chaotic, mind, it is a revealing which is regulating and securing. Everything must be on standby, ready to be put to use, it becomes what Heidegger terms Standing-reserve. That which is occasioned by modern technology is not really an object, in that it lacks autonomy entirely and only makes sense as part of the wider order of things.

Man is not really the instigator of this challenging, Man too is subject to it. Man is not quite subsumed into standing reserve however, being somehow primary in the process of challening. Man drives technology forwards, he is compelled to unconceal; “He has already been claimed by a way of revealing that challenges him to approach nature as an object of research” (ibid, 324). The overall challenge which brings man into the activity of revealing the actual as standing reserve, Heidegger terms “enframing”. Enframing is not technological; bits of technology and their assembly are a response to the challenge of enframing, not its constituent parts.

Physics

Man is compelled by enframing to to reveal nature as a storehouse of energy. The correlate and predicate of this form of technology is the science of physics. Physics, being experimental, is as much predicated on modern technology as vice versa. Modern physics also partakes of the essence of modern technology, in that it understands the world as a calculable coherence of forces. This assumption is the starting point for physics, all subsequent experimentation is about how the world is instantiated in this way. The essence of modern technology is thus present in physics too, the drive towards ordering.

Heidegger argues that while physics preceedes modern technology chronologically, the essence of modern technology, enframing, is historically primary, as it is a prerequisite for physics itself. Heidegger is unclear as to how physics, as an attempt to conceive of the world as an ordered system of information, comes from.

Destining

As mentioned above, Man is not the initiator of enframing; it is imposed on him in a process which Heidegger terms destining;  “The destiny of revealing holds complete sway over man”.

There is a danger in the particular form of uncovering which is the essence of modern technology, as it threatens other forms of revealing, tending to displace or subsume them. Furthermore, it conceals from man its own essence, namely bringing forth/uncovering, behind the awe of technology itself and the preoccupation with instrumentality. The revealing of the calculable complex drowns the true in the correct.

This precludes Man relating to his own essence, which is the destiny to reveal and bring forth. It is thus enframing, as particular mode of this destiny, which is the essence of modern technology.

Saving Power

“But where danger is, grows

the saving power also”

Holderlin, Patmos

Since Heidegger situates the danger of modern technology in its essence, saving power, the possibility of fetching something home to its essence, grows in the essence of modern technology too. Growing of course, impliers that it is not necesarilly immeadeatly visible, but is rather potential and emergent. To find it, we must engage with said essence.

Enframing is the essence of modern technology in the sense that it is what endures, over and beyond various transient and apparent forms of technology. If we set aside naive wonder at technology itself and the notion of instrumentality, and begin to engage with enframing as such, we can see modern technology as an activity which binds us to the act of bringing forth, albeit in a specific and potentialy pernicious form.

Conclusion

1) The essenc of technology is ambigious, as truth tends to be.

2) Enframing compels us to reveal by way of ordering, which obfuscates the act of revealing and thus our relationship to truth

3) Enframing, if properly engaged with, could grant us a better understanding of Man as fundamentally engaged in the workd of revealing and safekeeping emergent truths. In this lies the saving power

4)The tensions between ordering and truth is embodied in enframing.

Seeing the latent possibility of saving power does not bring it about though. Heidegger sees in the classical notion of Techne, art, and poetry, as a form of engagment with enframing which can bring out this saving power, provided it is able to track the enframing and not lose focus.

March, shmarch.

I was at the NUS march yesterday. There was a brief moment of hope when people drowned out the stewards and managed to get a crowd around Westminster for a while, but everyone ended up crossing the bridge of defeat to the borough of irrelevance (no disrespect to Lambeth itself). All in all, not so inspiring. And it rained.

But i did want to share a few of the best placards with you. I didn’t have a camera, so the text will have to do.

Number 3

“Happy birthday Bjoerk!”

Number 2

“I guess these cuts gettin’ beaten” accompanied by a picture of Azealia Banks.
Image

Number 1

The future is SHIT, this march is SHIT, all I want is REVENGE

Draft; Nihilist Communism and the Desires of the Other (part one)

I’ve been reading this recently. I think I finished it on the train this morning, but since I’ve been reading it in fits and starts I’ll probably never know. This is a collection of texts by a group of two fellers who go by the name Monsieur Dupont. Their articles and musings caused quite a stir, largely because they argued that the best thing for communists to do was nothing. Their categorical refusal to conform to the literary parameters and social norms of the pro-revolutionary milieu (their term, not mine) made them relatively unpopular, though some of their terminology and critiques seem to have been gradually adopted. I enjoyed reading it immensely. A lot of radical writing suffers from piety, self-righteousness, bombast, and awkward language which is to be understood by some mythical Ordinary Folks. This book is an exploration of the lived experience of a distinct literary voice. Maybe it’s an elaborate prank, but I found it profoundly moving.

The core idea is as follows (though I’m hardly doing justice to their lilting prose); the activities of all hitherto existing groups of revolutionaries is predicated on the instilling of consciousness into the wider working class, by means fair and foul. When the working class is conscious of its position within capitalism, and its immanent power to destroy it, the revolution breaks out.

The problem with this formulation, according to Monsieur Dupont, is that it is fundamentally incorrect, even pernicious. Consciousness, they argue, is only ever the result of material circumstances, which revolutionary groups are entirely incapable of influencing.

Workers in industries central to capitalism are capable of shutting it down, or creating new forms of production, depending on the objective circumstances forced on them by the development of capitalism. Workers peripheral to capital, such as those who fill the ranks of revolutionary organizations, can not do so. When (if) it is shut down, new forms of consciousness may emerge. In other words, a communist consciousness may follow, but is not a prerequisite for, a radical shift in material conditions. The propaganda of self-declared revolutionaries is more or less irrelevant to this process.

This is not to say that they do nothing, on the contrary. Groups of revolutionaries have made heroic efforts to destroy or derail such developments. For all intents and purposes, revolutionary groups do not do what they think they do. They do not provide a leadership of ideas. They do not force communism into existence by acts of will.

An honest appraisal of the history and current state of the self-declared communist movement would seem to support this conclusion. I think that there is a tendency amongst revolutionary groups to confuse one’s own subjective experience of the world with an ontological consciousness. It’s most clear in the absurd hubris of Leninists who believe their group is the most advanced elements of the proletariat, who have no interests but those of the class as a whole (and vice versa), but its equally present, albeit in a subdued and (in my opinion) considerably less odious form in anarchist conceptions of “the leadership of ideas” (http://anarchistplatform.wordpress.com)

Nevertheless, being the relentlessly optimistic revolutionary activist that I am, I feel compelled to formulate a kind of response.

First off, I think Monsieur Dupont are a little reductive in their appraisal of the role of revolutionary groups. While I remain sympathetic to their fundamental point, the precise configuration of the relationship between class and revolutionary minority is obviously contingent on specific historical circumstance (Mr. Dupont does allow for a role for the pro-revolutionary group during a crisis in capitalism, mind you, it just can’t make one by raising consciousness). I won’t presume to give an exhaustive account of these relationships, but they do vary, this much is apparent. Given this fact, I am not prepared to write off the whole tradition as at best a waste of time and at worst recuperative middle-class shenanigans.

To adress the question of social makeup first; in my experience the majority of those involved in anarchist, syndicalist, or communist groups (broadly understood) are workers of one kind or another. Unlike the leadership of the parliamentary left (and in contrast to prevalent stereotypes), these groups do not primarily recruit from social elites.

Rather, the historical and contemporary makeup of such groups seem to follow a similar pattern; it comprises workers who are relatively peripheral to capital. Hence the watchmakers of Jura, the migrant cleaners, publishing co-ops, and sandwich technicians of the revived IWW, hence the marxist academic and the zapatista peasant. There are exceptions to this pattern; one also finds anarchist princes and stalinist miners. I lack the immediate empirical material to prove the general truth of this claim, but it strikes me as intuitively true and, since this is a blog post and not a scholarly paper, that will have to do for now.

The formation of pro-revolutionary groups dedicated to raising to consciousness the laboring masses is as endemic to working class history as economic exploitation. The workers uprisings of the 1830’s had their Saint-Simonians, the Paris Commune it’s Jacobins and Proudhonists, the German worker’s councils had their Spartacists and syndicalists. It does not seem correct to imagine these groups as a force alien to the class, neither in light of the multifaceted and at times contradictory relationships they develop to the wider class, nor in terms of the social makeup of the groups themselves. There is a clear correlation between mass working class action, crises of capital, and the formation and growth of revolutionary groups. The nature of this correlation, and the question of causality, remains unclear to me.

If the hypothesis that these groups are incapable of creating potentially revolutionary crises is correct, and that the presence or absence of consciousness is irrelevant (which I remain inclined to believe is the case), but the growth of such groups is both endemic to the class and a constant in its history, as well as having a far from equivocally pernicious influence on its struggles, how are we to understand them?

If we accept the idea that capitalists are constantly creating the conditions of their own destruction by creating a class with interests diametrically opposed to theirs, but only those with their hands on the switch, so to speak, have the power to effectuate this destruction, what are workers outside of this relation to do? Their antagonism is equally real, their grievances equally valid. What distinguishes them is their impotence. I would make the case that the revolutionary activist group is the manifestation of their class antagonism, and the farther different sections of the proletariat find themselves from the ideal type of capitalist relations, the more differentiated their forms of organization. The more difficult it becomes to sharply delineate productive and non-productive labor, the greater the likelihood of a coalescence of these different antagonisms.

The idea that heaven can be stormed by a coalescence of differentiated antagonistic identities from across the spectrum of exploitation, rather than the response of productive workers to objective conditions, probably developed in the 1960’s, but it’s been most explicitly expressed in Hardt and Negri’s Multitude. The conscious activist, whether metropolitan anarchist or indigenist peasant militant, moves centre stage.

Movements, spaces, and situations based on this ethos have been capable of drawing in a wider range of people than is generally acknowledged. The experiences of the last decades of alter-globalization struggle are a case in point, as are the victories of the 1960’s in terms of gender liberation and decolonization projects (Dupont denies that these things have anything to do with communism. I disagree)

Perhaps these movements and grouplets, in all their contradictions, exhilaration, impotence, and absurdity, are the expression of the class antagonism of workers peripheral to capital. In that case their existence as such is to be applauded and encouraged. The problem lies then, in their confusion of their sectional interests and specific activities with the formulation and spreading of a universal (or at least pan-proletarian) revolutionary consciousness.

How this relates to Lacanian psychoanalysis will have to wait till next post, I need to go eat.

for the full text of Nihilist Communism, the reading of which I heartily recommend; http://nihilistcommunism.blogspot.co.uk/