Heidegger and Technology

Heidegger is often characterized as “reactionary”, particularly with regard to his response to technology as a “danger”. What is misapprehended in his response is part of the dissimulation of the very radicality inherent to his thinking, a radicality that appears somewhat obvious in light of his influence on every overtly “radical” thinking since.

In terms of understanding this discrepancy, Heidegger’s response to technology comes after the “Kehre”, or turning-into another perspective from that of metaphysics. The danger Heidegger notes in modern technology is precisely what many technology advocates preach as its goal, that via modern technology the metaphysical stance of man as the centre of beings, as in a position of control and dominion over beings, will be fulfilled. His characterization of the essence of technology as Gestell, “enframing”, is as essence its metaphysical character. The turning-into another perspective (which is simultaneously a twisting-out-of metaphysics) can be expressed succinctly, as Catherine Malabou notes in “The Heidegger Change”, in the transformation of the “essence of truth” as metaphysical idea, substance, reality as mathematical, as what is immutable yet changes in each metaphysical epoch, to the “truth of essence” as what is most mutable, as what predicates every real change. In terms of the truth of essence, technology appears otherwise, which for Heidegger is the “saving power” within it (quoting Holderlin’s “where the danger is, there the saving power grows”.

This “saving power” for Heidegger is what those who are technophobic, reactionary, see as the basic danger of technology: that the very thing, modern technology, that was supposed to ensure man’s control over beings, is itself “out of control”, or properly speaking “out of man’s control”. The constant calls within IT and systems engineering, never mind from ecologists and naturalists, to “get control” of technology “back”, mask the reality that it was never factically under control in the first place.

The radicality of Heidegger’s thought can be understood in relation to Marx. While Marx analyzed the ontic expressions of capitalism, its effect on beings, he remained too idealist and too metaphysical to properly understand the ontological conditions, or the very material conditions under which capitalism became effectual in terms of radically altering the reality of people’s lives, and thus the meaning of human being.  Metaphysics, for Heidegger, is implicitly ontological capitalism, as Catherine Malabou also clearly expresses in her interpretation of Heidegger, which is simultaneously the ontology of capitalism and the capitalization of Ontology itself.  As a result Marxism (and by extension, “really existing socialism” in Zizek’s terms, remain within the bounds of capitalism, the latter, as Zizek notes, largely being a capitalist fantasy: capitalism with its self-contradictions removed. When Heidegger states that technology has “annihilated the essence of human being” he is neither indulging in hyperbole nor bemoaning a loss, but stating a factical situation, and one that is inherently hopeful, though cautious, towards technology and its future.

Although the ontological preconditions of capitalism date from the co-origin of rationality, conceptuality, historiology and accounting in Greek society, and the first culmination of that origin as the conceptualizing of conceptuality itself in Plato, and the historical precondition of modern capitalism, surplus-currency, dates a couple of hundred years prior to the actualization of modern capitalism, modern capitalism as such couldn’t be actualized without modern technology in the form of the factory.

To give Marx his due, the ontological “forgetting of being” as metaphysics also has a material precondition, the forgetting (or intentional obliteration) of the notion that credit, unless zeroed out in a somewhat random and arbitrary fashion, inevitably results in slavery as indentured (indebted) servitude, which was well known to the peoples who invented credit, and who were a large part of the first recorded genocide: that accomplished by Alexander’s armies in ancient Syria.  But contrary to Marx’s posit of modern capitalism arising from feudalism, its actualization arose in an area that was at least partially “excluded” from feudal society, the “part of no part” that still factically took part in feudal society in England. Only in that area was there available labour (since it wasn’t under the governing system for reasons of climate, landscape and local history dating back at least to the Anglo-Saxon period) and had to rely on cottage industry as well as farming to survive), and coincidentally a climate that allowed wool and cotton to be spun without constantly dampening it (because the climate is so wet), that allowed the state of technological development at the time to provide a system, the cotton or wool mill, to be radically more productive than the previous system of individual home based wool spinners, and thus to attract the available labour to the mills. In that area (which consists of three villages just outside Manchester, and as far as population even in 1900 numbered less than 50,000) the first engineering firm was founded in 1783, which went on to invent the factory, the electrically powered factory, numerous cotton and wool spinning machines, the iron frame building and the steel frame building, and was responsible (again as late as 1900) for spinning more cotton than France and Germany combined.

The area in which the industrial revolution began largely escaped the horrors of the industrial revolution as it spread elsewhere, since in arising from an area that lacked the feudal hierarchy, the rigid hierarchical style employed in the newborn industries elsewhere didn’t take root there, and one of the three villages involved was known as the “golden village”, as a result of having the most millionaires per capita in the world from the early 1800’s until the end of the second world war. That lack of feudal hierarchy not only led to better working conditions than common elsewhere and better wages, but also to the invention of the co-op, welfare/unemployment (during the ‘cotton famine’, when the US refused to ship raw cotton to England, the mills continued to pay the workers and cover their health costs while they stayed home so that they wouldn’t lose their workers), and a number of other things we take for granted today but think of as opposed to industrial interests. Marx missed the particular material conditions of the start of the industrial revolution precisely because they occurred “outside” the rest of feudal England in an area which, though completely surrounded by feudal society, was left out of it.  People in the area had a quasi-legal existence (although births and deaths were registered in local churches, since marriage was registered by the country directly there are virtually no marriage records for that area until the late 1800’s. No census records exist for the area either between the census of the Domesday book and the census done in 1873.). Marx recognized that capital itself was essentially surplus-value, which could be reduced to surplus-labour, but failed to recognize either the precondition of surplus-value, surplus-currency that originated via the introduction of vast amounts of new gold from the Americas together with absolute faith in its inherent value, or the precondition for surplus currency to be of any actual value without being put to use in terms of developing the technology and building the actual factories within which the industrial revolution began, and without which capitalism as an existing order had virtually no material impact on everyday life.

Thus the radicality of Heidegger’s thought centres in the notion of technology as both the precondition for the origin of rationality, conceptuality, historiology and accounting, the technology of the touchstone, which substantialized the notion of currency having inherent value, and led to an absolute faith in currency as such, and by extension in accounting, mathematics and rationality, and in historiology as a further extension of accounting, where the “historical record” is analogous to the bookkeeping necessary for accounting), and as the precondition for the fulfillment of metaphysics’ historical projection as ontological capitalism in modern capitalism, via modern technology and the industrial revolution.

Historiology itself, therefore, becomes a back and forth projection of what “has been” from what “will have been”, the initial prophetic projections that determined what were considered relevant “records” to keep in the first place. That the first large scale census was called the Domesday (“Doomsday”) Book is not an accident of language, but an expression of the fact that the census was undertaken because the population was relevant, and the population was relevant insofar as it was part of the prophecies out of which the historiological projection initially arose. Since we continue to define things by what “has been”, that the projection is a two way projection is less effective in changing the initial projection than one might suppose. The madness involved in historiology can be seen in Jaspers’ characterization of the ontological perspective of schizophrenics as a form of “double-bookkeeping”. This historiology is always metaphysical, since it is part of the equiprimordial origins of metaphysics itself, and it is always at root capitalist, since as metaphysics those co-origins are the formulation of ontological capitalism and the foundation for its believability.

The “turning-into” a different ontological understanding that Heidegger speaks of as the “kehre”, and also as “Ereignis’, implying an event that must happen to someone in order for their understanding to effectively change, twists out of metaphysics and thus out of ontological capitalism itself. From this perspective the “danger” in technology is that as metaphysical, as capitalist, it is the culmination of control as capitalist power. The saving-power of technology is that as it uses capitalism it uses up the preconditions, both material and ideal. Technology is out of control, yes, but it has always been out of control. The nearness of anything technological in the modern sense to its essence is both the origin of technology’s progression (the gap can be immediately seen, and thus how to make it better is radically more obvious than in other things) and the origin of the perspective that a being and its own essence are exchangeable and mutable, that in fact its essence is in truth this mutability itself. Simultaneously technology has desubstantialized currency in a manner that makes surplus-currency no longer possible, since the faith in its inherent value is reduced sufficiently that increasing the amount of available currency simply reduces its nominal value. This was already the case as gold was replaced by paper, but is radicalized in the postmodern age by paper being reduced to virtual digits in a computer system. Technology, which is always a revealing, a work in the same sense as any other techne (art, craft), has thus revealed the virtuality of currency itself, and with it not only the unreality of bookkeeping but of its analogues, historiology as what “has been kept” in the historical “record”, and natural-historiology as what “has been kept” in the natural-historical “record”. The irrationality of modern science has its roots in the irrationality of accounting, insofar as it is seen as describing reality completely and adequately. Without this faith the notion of mathematical certainty, which founds modern science and continues to substantiate its self-belief, itself loses currency, and is seen for what it is, a phantasm of theology. Thus the final intertwined thread of metaphysics, that as the ontology of capitalism it is always the ontotheology of capitalism, becomes visible as such.

It’s not the case that after metaphysical closure capitalism remains alive, but that capitalism remains what it has always properly been, undead. But the twisting out of metaphysics remains an event, Ereignis, that has happened only to the few. As the unravelling of the threads continues, though, its likelihood of happening continues to increase, and while it may or may not occur to any given individual, the number to whom it does occur continues to grow. It is this that reconnects technology as techne to what it was originally sundered from, phusis as what self-originates, as what grows.


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