Music and the Poiesis of Technology


In “The Question Concerning Technology” Heidegger points to art as another techne, a revealing both akin to yet different from the revealing of technology. At the same time technology is revealed as a possible poiesis. The “danger” in the destining of revealing that we experience as technology is in the first instance a danger inherent to revealing. This danger is not something that is in-itself, but arises in our response to revealing, i.e. we may “quail”, run away from what is revealed insofar as it forces us to rethink the assumptions with which we structure reality itself. The revealing of technology is the “supreme danger” however. If we understand this as something inherently technological, and look therefore at the technological rather than what it reveals, whether we are for or against the technological is essentially the same “quailing” since it keeps our focus on technology itself and allows us to ignore what is revealed. If art as techne is potentially “saving” this cannot mean some kind of abandonment of technology for a pastoral art, rather the very technological sense of art can help to clarify and draw out what is revealed in the way that art has always revealed the essencing of things, via a duplication of the revelation of technology.

One of the primary techniques of art, particularly the art of poetry, which Heidegger sees as foundational in a certain sense, is metaphor. The idea of metaphor as some sort of “decorative” poetic technique, however, fails to see that poetry was the first of the literary arts precisely because metaphor is originary in consciousness itself, and rationality is always predicated on it. The Theory of Primary Metaphors in cognition is described as consisting of:

… Christopher Johnson’s Conflation Theory, Grady’s Primary Metaphor Theory, Narayanan’s Neural Theory of Metaphor and Turner & Fauconnier’s Conceptual Blending Theory.

Some of its fundamental principles are that primary metaphors are inherent to the human being, are universal though not innate, and appear both in language and art, gestures and rituals. Even though the existence of non-verbal metaphor is admitted, research on the matter is only in the initial stages and the field remains largely unexplored.

That understanding is rooted in metaphor can be seen in the simultaneous creation of simile and its collapse into metaphor accomplished already in the act of perception, insofar as the contents of sense-certainty in the Hegelian meaning are transformed into perception via this movement a priori to any understanding of what is perceived. In sense-certainty we experience something of which we can say only “that”. The movement of perception incorporates a second term, separated conceptually by the “as” of simile, thus it might be “that as tree“. Of course we do not, except via a later inference, experience this simile in our experience of perception. It is already collapsed into “that tree”, but this collapse is precisely metaphorical. From a later, rational viewpoint this is the double movement of generalization and abstraction, which although often conflated are functionally different. Generalization can be seen as the act of generating the simile, abstraction involves the determination of what can be determined within the scope of the generalization. The rational concept of understanding is always implicitly predicated on the act of perception as the generation of simile and its collapse into metaphor. That metaphor arises as pre-ontology helps us understand the difficulty of rational ontology itself. Just about anyone with English as their mother tongue can point out a tree without having to think about it, and differentiate such from a plant or bush. Other languages may have different ontological distinctions, but as process it is fundamentally the same. Yet if asked exactly what differentiates the three, most people have a difficult time. From the perspective of consciousness trying to retrace the movement of perception what differentiates a tree and a bush so that, aside from the occasional thing that may “straddle the definitions” we always already see it as one or the other, appears no more intrinsically different than what separates one tree from a tree of another type, or even two instances of the same type. Only in unusual states do we directly experience sense-certainty and perception; outside those states we have difficulty understanding rationally what we have already accomplished metaphorically.

But we have, much as the research mentioned above, remained with metaphor as verbal only. How do we understand non-verbal metaphor as such? Simultaneously, how do we understand through it? Any attempt to “think without words” is, as Hegel says, a magnificently irrational gesture. At the same time the rationality of thinking in words must have a pre-rational and pre-verbal foundation, otherwise reason and language, which always implies the rational thinking in language of a consciousness, would have to somehow be a priori to reality. Avoiding the complex question of how far a developmentalist theory can be taken in accounting for reality as-a-whole, the observation of the development of a single human individual shows that we do not ‘have’ rational consciousness a priori, it is learned and thus must be based on something simpler.

Music, though it may include verbal expression, is never reducible to it. Even in sung poetry the specific changes in pitch, tone and such other attributes as rhythm and melody are intrinsic to the way in which we understand what is verbalized. The use of “instruments” beyond the human voice builds on this means of modification of what it understood, and music that contains no vocalization is still experienced as meaningful, is understood, even though that understanding is perhaps not even verbalizable. If understanding is based fundamentally on metaphor, then this understanding also must be based on non-verbal metaphor.

To give two concrete, simple examples, I will use a song that is explicitly technological in its realization, and secondly not a work of “high art” and thus exhibits what I described above in a way that can be quickly appreciated by someone not well versed in the complexities, say, of western classical composition. The second example, one of a purely instrumental piece, is also explicitly technological in the manner in which it is realized, and also relatively simple in its composition. Fortunately, the standing-reserve of technology makes both pieces easily available on demand via YouTube. The first piece is called “Statues” by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, from their 1981 release titled Organization. A link to the song is below:

Although the song is, as I noted, fairly simple, it is worthwhile listening to it a few times in order to get a good sense of what is in play within it. Since music is temporal, part of the effect of any music lies in the anticipation and recollection that occurs simultaneously to the listening-to of any particular part, and that cannot occur fully on a single hearing of any piece.

After getting a sense of the piece, compare the understanding you have of it, as an understanding that arose from both the words (to the degree that you are adept at hearing words when sung) and the music, with the words by themselves listed below.

The way you moved
I can’t explain
The mood subsides
And grows again
I’ve lived alone
I’ve held a hand
I’ve tried to care
And understand

What is faith
And when belief
And who knows how
These things deceive
I never said
And though I tried
If I could leave
And sleep tonight

I can’t imagine
How this ever came to be
I can’t imagine
How this ever came to be.

© 1981 Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark.


The words, too, are simple and rather incomplete. More is hinted-at than explicitly said, and even what is hinted at can only be made out in outline with the assistance of the title. What I experience in the song and therefore experience as absent in the words alone would include a feeling of wistfulness, not a dire depression, but a mood of loss that was always lost. Heidegger often uses a word translated as ‘attunement’ rather than the more common term translated as mood. In this usage mood itself, that appears to be understood implicitly in the music even though it is by no means explicit in the words, is itself understood firstly via a musical metaphor. If mood or attunement is itself understood as the perception of the state of one’s being, or the mode in which one is being, the ability to understand something with the immediacy of perceptual metaphor is here specifically non-verbal perceptual metaphor, indeed one resistant to verbalization. As well, the mood we are understanding as non-verbal metaphor is not in fact the mood we have, nor is the situation that is verbalized even a possible one that we could “put ourselves in” other than in a metaphorical way. Yet the music, in this case in combination with the words, allows us to experience and understand something of it in a perceptive, pre-rational and pre-conceptual way.

The second piece is fully instrumental. The full piece is relatively long, but an excerpt was originally released that is significantly shorter. If time and patience permits, the full version is more powerful than the shorter version, but especially since I’m asking the reader to listen to it a few times for the reasons noted above with the other piece, which may be difficult to do with the longer version, particularly if the music is not to your taste. The piece is by a group known as New Order, and called Elegia. The short version was included in their 1985 release “Low Life” and the long version included on a compilation of songs release in 2004 entitled “Retro”.

Long version:

Short version:


I chose this piece to partner the other partly because it evokes a similar wistfulness without words or specified situation, and with a similarly simple compositional form. Beyond the overall mood given to the understanding, the piece is punctuated by dire moments and moments of anger, outbursts that at times threaten to go from anger to full rage, only to be reigned back in to the more basic mood in play, and thus experienced precisely as impotent anger and rage. At other times the composition itself threatens to collapse in the sense of helplessness at this impotence, but inevitably returns to the underlying motif. Even the quieter, more peaceful moments fail to last and the tension is restored, leaving one with the feeling that neither anger, rage, helplessness, nor peacefulness and acceptance change the situation in any meaningful way. Peacefulness and acceptance are as fully helpless and impotent as the inverse. That this piece gives more to the understanding than the first piece implies that the non-verbal metaphors in play are both effective and determinate, and that we understand them as fully, if not as explicitly, as we do verbal metaphor, or the combination found in vocal songs. That we do not understand them rationally in the first instance, that even the rational interpretation given above will be unsatisfactory to most listeners, who may hear less, more, or very different things than I do, rather than limiting the effectiveness of the understanding instead makes it more visceral, more immediate than a rational description of the situation and accompanying mood ever could. More effectively than other art forms, music attunes the listener, which always means changes a previous attunement.

I did choose works that were themselves technological in their realization, although not necessarily primarily so. In Heidegger’s question of an art, a techne, which could assist in revealing what is implicitly revealed by technology itself, is there music that might be so fundamentally technological that the essence of technology itself might be laid bare?

Music as technological can be so to various degrees. All music employs some sort of technology as instrument, even purely vocal music, where the voice is technically utilized as an instrument. The instrumental interpretation of technology itself can be seen as a metaphor originating in music.

In a wide sense, technological music in the sense of modern technology can be understood as electronic in the sense that any music recorded via tape is already technological, and the replacement of analog tape with digitization only confirms that music was already technological insofar as it was recorded. However, it’s difficult to imagine that simply recording music that was in the first place not composed or performed for a recording, is technological (as specifically modern technology) in a primordial way. Since the advent of electronic music in the wider sense though, a more intrinsically technological music, one composed not even simply for recording but by recording has come into play. Initially this music used tape technologies, not simply as a recording technology but as a compositional technology. Within a very short period the technology used in composition was expanded to electronic equipment designed for that purpose, and the “instruments” themselves were de-realized into specific arrangements of electronic circuits, using combinations of electronic gates, filters, feedback loops and other means of generating instruments that could never be realized with a ‘real’ instrument in the old physicalist sense, instruments that could be exchanged and recombined at will. As well, the incorporation of recordings not originally meant to be part of a composition, initially as tape loops and bursts and later on as sound sampling and looping, bringing in what is enframed by technology along with the Enframing itself as compositional elements allows for a further exchangeability of the enframed, Enframing, and the movement of metaphor in the work of art itself. In the best of such works, sound irrupts and fades from and into the background in such a way that, ungrounded, these sounds bring the background itself into play while remaining background. The ungrounded origin and destining of these sounds produces a metaphor of abground itself as abyssal, as everywhere and nowhere. As well, the temporal essence of music corresponds to the temporal essence of presencing itself as what irrupts, endures for a time and recedes.

Rather than rationally interpret these works, I will simply end the essay with a set of works I experience as precisely such technological works, as precisely realizing in a metaphorical manner the revelation of what technology reveals. The works listed are in no particular order.

  1. Karlheinz Stockhausen, Stimmung (mood or attunement), 1968.

  2. Iannis Xenakis, Diamorphoses, 1957

  3. Kraftwerk, Electro Kardiogramm, 1991

  4. Cabaret Voltaire, Damage is Done, 1980

  5. Public Enemy, Bring the Noise, 1988

  6. Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy & William S. Burroughs, Advice for Young People, 1992

  7. Aphex Twin, We Are The Music Makers, 1991




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