On “Žižek and Heidegger: The Question Concerning Techno-Capitalism”, by Thomas Brockelman

While Brockelman raises a number of interesting questions regarding Žižek in particular, I was somewhat disappointed that he didn’t manage a reverse reading of the two. In the first section he raises the question of The Question Concerning Technology and notes that despite Žižek’s insistence that it is not the question, not the fundamental question, in fact he circles around the question in precisely the fashion that drive is described as circling around what it cannot directly reach. Rather than turning the tables and questioning Žižek via Heidegger’s question concerning technology, Brockelman appears to have a very limited understanding of that work and Heidegger’s work overall. He follows in the footsteps of many who have not sufficiently dwelled in an author’s work to see what is at play in the work, in many ways duplicating a number of failed critiques of Žižek that Brockelman notes are of limited use and validity, since they don’t properly take up the thinking involved in the work they are attempting to critique.

Brockelman appears to accept the common notion that the later Heidegger was some sort of romantic mystic longing for the days without technology. This notion appears to have arisen out of a combination of many commentators having not actually read Heidegger with any care, along with the performative nature of Heidegger’s work. While he has spent sufficient time with Žižek’s work to notice and appreciate that a work’s ostensible content and performative content may not be identical, and the difference may be both intentional and crucial, it is precisely this that he fails to see in Heidegger’s work. Whether Žižek makes the same mistake, though for different reasons, in his own assessment of and confrontation with Heidegger, or whether the appearance of making that mistake is part of the performative nature of Žižek’s work is a question that remains open. Brockelman accuses Heidegger (and others) of missing something that Kant saw in Descartes. But Heidegger, in his confrontation with Descartes, specifically calls attention to what Kant noted, that the nature of the ego and the content of the cogito are left unquestioned. Since the content of the cogito in the meditations is for Descartes the ego, Heidegger’s differentiation between them implies a difference between the ego that thinks, the cogito, and the “I” which is the subject of thought, or the content of the cogito in Heidegger’s formulation.

Brockelman writes:

.. a second set of concerns must collect in the background: “technology” may be a mere symptom , a fundamentally mistaken direction in Heidegger’s thought, but it also haunts Žižek, taking an increasingly important role in his recent writing. Indeed, Žižek seems to be spooked by Heidegger on technology, structuring whole sections of recent books as implicit critiques of “The Question Concerning Technology” – and this despite (or perhaps because) he has never developed an extended and careful reading of any of Heidegger’s technology writings.

Brockelman, Thomas (2011-11-03). Žižek and Heidegger: The Question Concerning Techno-Capitalism (Continuum Studies in Continental Philosophy) (pp. 22-23). Continuum UK. Kindle Edition.

Which leads one to expect a critique of Žižek’s critique, a reverse reading, however not much later on we find

it is Heidegger above all who, in his technology writings of the 1940s and 1950s, traces back the project of modern technology to the transformation wrought when all of being is conceived as res extensa for a representing res cogitans. 1 From such an anti-Cartesian position, the Heidegger of “The Question Concerning Technology,” (1951) can project the development of modernity as a project of domination based upon the prior transformation of nature into an appendage of human representation. Of course, as we’ve seen, something else – namely, a radical insight about human freedom – could actually be found in the “finitist” Heidegger of the late 1920s and 1930s; however, it’s easy enough to understand how Heidegger himself could allow this other insight to disappear behind the façade of a thoroughgoing anti-modernism. It’s easy enough to believe that, when, after the “turn” in his thought, Heidegger develops his argument concerning “modern technology,” he does so simply to prevent the “thinking” he apparently advocates.

Brockelman, Thomas (2011-11-03). Žižek and Heidegger: The Question Concerning Techno-Capitalism (Continuum Studies in Continental Philosophy) (p. 24). Continuum UK. Kindle Edition.

Firstly, Brockelman, in making such a statement, appears to not only not have “developed an extended and careful reading of any of Heidegger’s technology writings” himself, he fails to question what finite might mean for Heidegger. Finitude for Heidegger is not a human condition, as much of the time it appears to be for Žižek, who seems closer to Hegel than to Heidegger. What we think of as human finitude Heidegger specifically differentiates as mortality. A mortal is not only finite, he is always aware of this finitude. The same is not the case for Heidegger in terms of the finitude of other things, such as animals, who are not mortals since they do not die, they expire. Heidegger wrote that the question of being was “his one and only question” a number of times; what is properly finite for Heidegger is precisely this: Being itself. As finite, Being cannot be an invariant that determines something throughout its finite or infinite extantness, but is precisely event, Ereignis, an event of change that for a time gifts something as what it is, as appropriation. The notion of Abground confirms this reading, since abground only determines what irrupts from it for a time and then withdraws. The retreat that Brockelman thinks he sees in Heidegger is part of the performative nature of the work, where going a step beyond Nietzsche, who puts Zarathustra into the work as the teacher of the philosophy, Heidegger puts the thinker of the thinking in the work as performative, as thinking itself and its play, and thus the very thoughts at play irrupt from and recede into the abground, only to re-irrupt later transformed, as a song might fade into the background while something else catches one’s attention, and when the song re-irrupts from the background it is the same in that it is still a song, but not the song that had faded. That song is long gone and another song has been playing in the meantime.

Accusing Heidegger of some sort of romantic anti-modernism in his writings on technology is inexcusable for anyone who claims to have paid the least attention to those writings. Heidegger is rather blunt concerning anti-modernism in the very first of his writings on technology, the one that explicitly makes technology the primary theme, and the one the title of Brockelman’s own book plays off:

“When we consider the essence of technology, then we experience Enframing as a destining of revealing. In this way we are already sojourning within the open space of destining, a destining that in no way confines us to a stultified compulsion to push on blindly with technology or, what comes to the same thing, to rebel helplessly against it and curse it as the work of the devil. Quite to the contrary, when we once open ourselves expressly to the essence of technology, we find ourselves unexpectedly taken into a freeing claim.”

“The destining of revealing is as such, in every one of its modes, and therefore necessarily, danger. In whatever way the destining of revealing may hold sway, the unconcealment in which everything that is shows itself at any given time harbors the danger that man may quail at the unconcealed and may misinterpret it.”

Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology

Not only is the saving power where the danger is, the danger is not even specifically in technology’s mode, but in revealing itself “in every one of its modes”.

The danger is in that man may “quail” i.e. lose resolve and misinterpret the revealing.

The resolve, or resoluteness that man can decide for in Being and Time is itself changed, as Dasein is no longer simply a mode of man but a potential of the transformation of man, Da-sein. But the transformations at the end of metaphysics are not isomorphic as are the transformations from one metaphysical epoch to another. There is no invariant in the transform, in the mathematical sense, which would allow it to be isomorphic and thus reversible. In the epochal transformations what changes is only that which allows everything to remain fundamentally as it was.

The performative aspect of the writings on technology can be seen in both the use of Gestell and the explication of that use. Gestell, Apparatus/Enframing, commonly means something that in many cases is a technological item, such as its usage in quantum mechanics as the technical term for what cannot be part of the observation, simultaneously the setup and the observer. Even in common usage it is experienced as a ‘technical’ term in the sense that it is precise, not ‘common’ in the common sense. Heidegger is insistent that the essence of technology named by Gestell is nothing technological. Yet in his use of the word and even more so in the extended explication of that use Heidegger is extremely technical. Technically speaking, using the word in a specifically technical manner that opposes its common usage as something referring to something technological is an aspect of the techne of thinking itself, hence Heidegger’s comparison with Plato’s use of Eidos to name precisely what is not and can never become visible. Heidegger claims his inversion is “almost innocent” in comparison. Almost, but not. How are we to take this extended play on a word chosen specifically to name what it both does and does not name? How are we supposed to interpret Heidegger’s insistence on substituting a technological word for the essence of technology, something he simultaneously insists is in no way itself technological? The standing-reserve is not simply a set of resources, but interchangeable resources, exchangeable resources, any for any. The aufhebung of Hegel no longer confers nobility on what is extracted and transformed, or manufactured; it is no less operative than in Hegel, but transformed, exchanged for another aufhebung. This aufhebung, as what confers exchangeability, is itself an exchangeable resource from the standing-reserve of philosophical terms at Heidegger’s disposal, as are all the other philosophical terms in the text, such as essence, existence and Gestell itself. As such they are also interminably exchangeable. The essence of technology, Apparatus/Enframing, is nothing
technological, yet it can be both nothing and technological. Heidegger’s comment on the principle of reason is appropriate to remember – if one changes the intonation of “Nothing is without reason” the meaning changes from what first appears both obvious and forgettable, and becomes question worthy in the sense that a summa of metaphysics should be. His writings on technology are themselves part of Gestell, and thus are, technically, technological writings.

If I think on the e-book I copied the quotes from and what differentiates it from a paper book, it is precisely always available, interminably reproducible, yet what it lacks from the metaphysical perspective still expressed in Hegel are precisely what determine a thing as real for metaphysics as some “thing”: it is not embodied; it lacks extension, location, durability. It can stand-in for its essence but even more, it can mimic the lack of existence of essence. As Heidegger pointed out in A Letter on Humanism, in the phrase “Existence precedes essence.” Sartre merely reverses a metaphysical statement, which remains therefore a metaphysical statement. The statement by Heidegger that most closely corresponds to it “The essence of human being is existence.”, though, is no longer a metaphysical statement, because all of the key words in the sentence have been transformed and no longer mean what they did for metaphysics. Another beginning must echo the lack of invariance of the first beginning, itself a transformation of something already transformed, and so only first in that it was first written as thought. The record of the change is the first such record that remains as a trace of the change. Correlating it to Heidegger’s extended treatment of mood in the works after Being and Time leading to the kehre, mood is only insofar as it changes, it becomes a history only insofar as the change in our state is registered and recorded in ourselves as changed. The lack of invariance is put into play in Plato’s oppositional (perhaps even defiantly oppositional) use of the term Eidos to name precisely what it did not name. Heidegger’s use of Gestell echoes this act of metamorphosis.

That Heidegger considers philosophy, like both art and technology, as a work should also be kept in mind. The exchangeability of Gestell is always itself at work in the later writings precisely because they are technological writings, whether technology is explicitly a theme or not. After the kehre, or turn, what addresses itself to the thinker remains, but remains only insofar as it is transformed. Retaining the history of thinking requires an improvisation of that thinking as a rethinking. This doesn’t mean simply that the essence of things changes, but the being of essence and the essence of being also change, are exchanged. Thinking itself is transformed and can only be accomplished as a rethinking as and through transformation. The essence of truth is no longer what it was under metaphysics, but the truth of essence is also changed and the former cannot be understood except through the latter. The meaning or sense of being is transformed sufficiently that the word itself largely disappears from the later Heidegger, replaced in a certain sense by Ereignis. But Ereignis has no constant sense, only the sense that a given appropriating event gifts. Even the determinations of things in their essence becomes only a sway that sways for a time and recedes, substituted for another, metamorphosed. The ontological difference raised in the early Heidegger does not disappear but is transformed such that being can substitute for a being and vice-versa. While the difference remains, in that a being is in a sense the same as another being simply by both being beings but being is neither a being nor the beingness of a being, the differentiated terms are constantly transformed such that a being can stand-in, improvise for being, and vice versa.

Returning, finally, to the Cartesian subject and subjectivity, which for Žižek is a spectre haunting post-modernist thinking including Heidegger’s. It’s not the case that Heidegger misses the distinction between the self and the insubstantial subject, in fact he is insistent on the difference. However the difference is not simply the difference between a substantial self and subjectivity proper, but between an insubstantial self and a different insubstantial subject. Not only is the subject without subjectivity, the self is also insubstantial and thus non-subjective, yet still different. The insubstantial subject is itself a form of Gestell, an apparatus that makes a representation possible, not Da-sein, which does not primarily represent or experience representation but experiences the irruption of presentation. Žižek’s investment in the revolutionary potential of subjectivity appears to cause him to miss the revolution itself. His insistence that technology is not the question, while constantly returning to it, is the recurring symptom of this mistaken investment and direction in Žižek’s thought. Gestell performs another function here, recalling Hegel’s ‘geist’, much as apparatus recalls the English ‘apparition’, and the apparition of Apparatus, or the geist of Gestell, is the spectre that appears as the ghost that haunts Žižek’s work.

The end of metaphysics is simultaneously a metamorphosis of metaphysics, a new metaphysics, which is synchronous to and interdependent with the metamorphosis of physics as quantum mechanics. The use of the term ‘mechanics’ is oppositional in the same way as Gestell, registering the lack of an invariant between ‘modern’ classical physics and ‘post-modern’ quantum mechanics, where it is mechanism itself that disappears as embodied in the materiality of matter and physicality of direct causation. The de-materialization of matter is also the de-physicalization of physics and the de-mechanization of mechanics, the end of physics as the correlate of the end of metaphysics, and the birth of a new physics where nothing is retained as invariant from classical physics. In this transformation the history of physics has to be reconstituted, improvised as a deconstructed history. Part of this improvisation is the return to the already changed earlier notion of matter, that of mattering-to, and the return to an already changed earlier notion of motion, as change itself. Perhaps the notion that a new metaphysics is necessarily entangled with a new physics is so obvious that it is rarely mentioned, or perhaps the lack of understanding of quantum mechanics by Heidegger scholars, and the reciprocal lack of understanding of Heidegger by quantum mechanists, is the reason the entanglement goes unnoticed, or at least uncommented on.

“What is needed is a diffraction apparatus to study these entanglements. One way to begin to build the needed apparatus is to use the following approach: to rethink the nature of nature based on our best scientific theories, while rethinking the nature of scientific practices in terms of our best understanding of the nature of nature and our best social theories, while rethinking our best social theories in terms of our best understanding of the nature of nature and the nature of scientific theories. A diffractive methodology provides a way of attending to entanglements in reading important insights and approaches through one another.” – Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway

I would argue that the thinking of Ereignis, with its lack of invariants, is precisely such a diffractive and always exchangeable apparatus.

“Theorizing, like experimenting, is
a material practice.” – Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway

“Thinking acts insofar as it thinks.” – Martin Heidegger, What is Called Thinking?


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