Some Notes on Heidegger’s Question Concerning Technology (Criticism = Latour, Haraway, Rorty…)
It is not that Heidegger – the rather pessimistic critic of modern technology – is wholly incorrect, but simply that he is not capable of telling us the whole story. This results in a philosophical position that cannot properly grapple with contemporary conditions and resolves itself to look backwards to a subject whose integration with the world was unpolluted.
I have no qualms with saying that there is a spirit of an age, an ‘essence’ of the self or the subject, or an ‘essence’ of technique, but I do have qualms about regarding one ‘essence’ as truer, or more closer to Being, than another.
In We Have Never been Modern, Bruno Latour attacks thinkers such as Heidegger who believe we have forgotten ‘being’. This allegiance to ‘being’, according to Latour, forecloses our possibilities of engaging with the world. According to Latour, for Heidegger ‘being’ cannot exist in everyday things (except the Black Forest Holzwege), for “the gods cannot reside in technology, that pure enframing of being, that ineluctable fate, that supreme danger”.
Latour reminds us that for Heidegger, who “treats the world with contempt”, the Gods are not to be found either in science (whose essence is that of technology), politics, sociology, psychology, anthropology or history. This error on Heidegger’s part stems from his (and later post-modernist’s) belief that there was a discrete phenomena called ‘modernity’, after which the world became burdened with technologies of enframing and instrumental mastery.
Philosopher of science Don Ihde reminds us to be suspicious of Heidegger’s claim that after modernity our orientation to the world changed radically. From a chronological or historical sense Heidegger’s point that the ‘windmill’ stands as a clearly pre-modern technology is simply false:
“For if the windmill does not store and control energy, the equally ancient and simple technology of the waterwheel does. Although perhaps not systematized, the view that the earth is some vast, unlimited source of energy and material is also very old in the Western tradition. Mining, a very ancient technique with technologies, implicitly views the earth in the same way and with environmental results which were apparent in ancient times. The current environmental crises had plenty of ancient antecedents.” For Ihde, we find ‘modern technology’ before modernity. (Also, in contrast to Heidegger, Lynn White Jr. traces our idea of technology to how the religious sources of the Latin West and the Baconian tradition regarded nature – a mentality that pre-existed modern technology.)
Contra Heidegger, or perhaps correcting him, Latour asserts that scientific objects circulate simultaneously as subjects, objects, and collectives. Latour asks: How could Being loose its difference, its completeness, its mark, the trace of its Being? One only forgets Being who thinks Being has been forgotten. Hunkered down in the Black Forest, keeping the flame of Being safe, it is no coincidence that Heidegger felt a tragic loss. Don Ihde explains: “Heidegger, mistakenly in my view, held to a strong distinction between modern or scientific-industrial technology and traditional technologies. His romantic tendencies create a certain blindness for his insight”.
And Donna Haraway sides with Latour against Heidegger asserting that The Question Concerning Technology, in particular, is dogmatic, narrow, and shuts down creativity. In place of the rather negative critique espoused by thinkers like Heidegger, Haraway (similarly to Latour) advocates focusing on the “semiotically – and materially – rich historical scientific practice”. It is not that Haraway wants to lose Heideggerian tones entirely, but that she wants to complicate them, and put them in contradiction with the “lively, unfixed, and unfixing practices of technoscience”. This approach maintains a genuine openness in Haraway’s work. She explains: “…I think the surprises [of technoscience] might just be good ones and that the established disorder without the hope of surprises can take away our ability to stay epistemologically, emotionally, and politically alive… I am more interested in the unexpected than the always deadly predictable”
Heidegger is like a cold-water bath, one ought to get in and out as quickly as possible. There are, one might contend, no possible new moves available in his philosophy of technology. For instance, for Heidegger the explosion of the atomic bomb is merely an element of something that begun long ago. (Likewise, consider how Baudrillard writes of 9/11 as the annihilation of a thing [the system of generalized exchange] that transpired long ago.) Richard Rorty, discussing Heidegger’s comments on the atomic bomb (Heidegger: ‘Man gazes upon what might come with the explosion of the atomic bomb. Man does not see what already arrived long ago, and which transpires as that which only casts forth the explosion of the atomic bomb as its final eruption […] What does this helpless anxiety still await, when the horrifying thing has already happened?’) explains:
“One incidental and belated product of this failure to grasp das Wesen des Dinges (the essence of the thing) was, according to Heidegger, the probability of nuclear annihilation: ‘Man gazes upon what might come with the explosion of the atomic bomb. Man does not see what already arrived long ago, and which transpires as that which only casts forth the explosion of the atomic bomb as its final eruption […] What does this helpless anxiety still await, when the horrifying thing has already happened?’ The elimination of mortal life between earth and sky, Heidegger thinks, is just the sort of thing you have to expect if you get das Wesen des Dinges wrong. Nuclear catastrophe ‘is only the crudest of all crude confirmations of the annihilation of the thing that already transpired long ago.’ / Passages such as these help to remind us what a self-infatuated blowhard Heidegger was. He is a perfect example of the idiot, the sort of person who has no sense of citizenship and whom you would never want to represent you in parliament. All that nuclear annihilation meant to him was one more bit of evidence for his claim to have understood das Wesen des Dinges better than Plato and Aristotle. The idea that we might gather together in public assemblies and agitate for a reform of the United Nations, one that would enable it to cope with nuclear proliferation, would have struck Heidegger as showing a ludicrous failure to understand the priority of Denken (thinking) over mere politics.”
Likewise, the military photography of Michael Light allows us to see that the atomic bomb transformed mankind and the world, rather than obscuring the true essence of mankind and the world. These photographs demonstrate that objects transform each other. All things are engaged in a constant re-negotiation (or differal) of their ‘essence’. Likewise, upon investigation, a windmill is just as much a disruption as an automatic loom is. Windmills do alienate – in the past they reconstituted what it meant to be a peasant. The windmill alters the ecological landscape: Holland is reclaimed land because of windmills. Upon investigation of windmills, automatic looms and hydroelectric dams, can we truly say which gathers and which enframes?
Against Heidegger’s worry about destroying a ‘face to face’ relation, Latour asserts that one can never find an unmediated thing. There are negotiated networks all the way down. Recent work in Actor Network Theory understanding ‘things’ without recourse to essences. One might see Latour’s Actor Network Theory as a way out of the Heideggarian impasse. His book Aramis (on the ill fated Paris transit system of the same name) is evidence for the possibility of thinking about dwelling in the life-world that is worked out locally and does not require a story about real meaning.
Yet, perhaps methods such as Actor Network Theory are problematic. Now that we’re entirely back in the realm of things and away from general theory, Actor Network Theory may be an utterly vacuous approach. The theory, in other words, does not hang out with what it is investigating for long enough to see how it ‘gathers’ (i.e. how it gathers in a web web/network). This is where Heidegger’s sense of historicized ‘essence’ might be useful to keep around.
Nevertheless, the reaction to Heidegger from science and technology studies, presents us with ways of understanding the world that are not grounded in a raw, unmediated nature, but nature understood as myriad and complex interplay between of actor-networks. This way of thinking keeps us open to new types of encounters as we do not harbor Edenic ideas of loss, and are constantly cautioning ourselves against Heideggerian ‘destiny’ accounts. We might imagine Haraway and Heidegger arguing about a prosthetic leg. While Heidegger might assert that a prosthetic leg is simply a tool for walking, Haraway might respond that it is not simply a ‘tool for walking’, but that it is a beautiful and integral leg. While Heidegger would maintain a separation exists between the user and their prosthetic leg, Haraway would recognize no separation, she would dwell with it, she is it. Such an approach allows us to glean new ways of dwelling; new heterogenous forms of life and spaces of action.