Questions Concerning Heidegger and Technology

I’ve been at a conference for the last one and a half days. It was all focused on Heidegger and Technology (there’s a Routledge edition coming out and it was connected to that). It kind of changed my whole perspective on the stuff I’m currently writing and the stuff I’m interested in making my thesis about (at the moment, anyway).

This isn’t really a proper post, but more a way of preparing to write some proper actual academic words (yes, those ones) on Heidegger in the coming days. To that end, here are things that occurred to me/common themes/questions that were either asked explicitly by the papers themselves or came out of thinking about some of the papers:

  • Is it easy to justify Heidegger’s relevance to contemporary discussion around technology and the relation of human society to the technological? Is it just common sense? Or, do we need to feel the influence of Heidegger but extend his thought for a tangibly new technological age?
  • Heidegger died 40 years ago. This is ancient in terms of technological advance and like-yesterday in terms of philosophy.
  • How do we trace Heidegger’s influence today, and do perspectives which oppose or reject Heidegger (or from quite a superficial standpoint) proliferate more than those which thoroughly engage with his work?
  • Is “calculative thinking” still the main component of Gestell (enframement of all life by technology modes of knowing) or are we in a tangibly different technological epoch, one which maintains a slightly different sense of what might be meant by Gestell?
  • If Heidegger says that learning to think is one way of realizing the extent of Gestell  then what form does that thinking take? Is it teachable? And is it possible that there are specific modes of thinking which are able to work outside of, or in contrast to, Gestell?
  • Could the literary text be a way of thinking outside of technological enframement? A form of the “releasement” that Heidegger talks about? A form of austere thinking as put forward by one paper. There were three or four discrete references to literary texts as a way of explicating a particular argument of the speaker or as a way of exemplifying Heidegger’s own claims. You can hear Martha Nussbaum in every philosophical-literary reference.
  • Are we able to effectively politicize the late Heidegger on technology? Or will it naturally end up as a caricature of nostalgia, a conservative politics? Can a radical application of Heidegger’s views on technology be an emancipating thing?
  • Should we in fact just replace what Heidegger conceives as “technology” with  “capital” in the twenty-first century?
  • How does Levinas differ in his conception of the technological compared to Heidegger?
  • Is it possible to establish a clear lineage from Heidegger through to present day thinkers, or does it make more sense to see the influence of Heidegger in multiple different forms and arguments of current technological thinking?

Answers on a long and complex postcard.

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Reading with Levinas #3: The Face – and the Literary Work

Today I’ve been reading Jill Robbins on Levinas and literature in her work “Altered Reading” (1999). It’s helping me to think through the way Levinasian philosophy links to literary criticism, and focuses in part on a concept which I’m going to briefly outline here, one that is central to Levinas’s philosophy: the face.

For Levinas, the face is what “calls to us”. Its an ethical event, an epiphany, which shapes anything beyond ourselves (it is central to Levinas’s idea of transcendence). The face – a nudity, a thing that doesn’t signify in the same way a sign does – establishes the first point of humanity, our responsibility for the other. The description of this might be called preontological. It just happens. If infinity is exterior to totality, then, in Levinas’s word “this “outside totality” opens with the transcendence of the face.”

This takes us back to the concept of infinity, and the face is the site of this infinity, this exteriority – infinity because it is not within the bounds of a dialectic or an opposition (the other is not merely the other because of its difference from the same). The face is where we find the foundational ethical impulse – the one that says we should not murder:

This infinity, stronger than murder, already resists us in his face, is his face, is the primordial expression, is the first word: “you shall not commit murder.”

Robbins describes the face as the ultimate “disturbance”, a “shaking up of the mundane”, “an active surplus over the plastic image that would enclose it”. It is not just a form, but something that is constantly “overflowing”. As such, we cannot ignore it – it is already and essentially there, and thus we have a responsibility to it. “[B]ecause of presence before the face of the Other,” Levinas states, clarifying the relation between the self and Other “man does not permit himself to be deceived by his glorious triumph as a living being”. That is, we are not left merely to the “enjoyment” of our own selves, our own consumption of things; our urges for “possession” and “power” are essentially and necessarily brought into question by the presence of the other in the face.

Levinas constantly redescribes and restates a lot of his ideas, and the notion of the face is no different. There are problems with whether this just refers to a physical face in reality, or whether this is a metaphor for a form of vulnerability Levinas is trying to get at. One point of interesting clarification we are given is about the face being necessarily “alive”. The face of the person who is dead becomes a form, an image, a mask, lacking the epiphanic quality of the alive face:

In this epiphany the face is not resplendent as a form clothing a content, as an image, but as the nudity of the principle, behind which there is nothing further. The dead face becomes a form, a mortuary mask; it is shown instead of letting see – but precisely thus no longer appears as a face.

To continue questioning what Levinas really means by face, we can return to Robbins. Robbins raises the question about whether the face is actually made a metaphorical concept at points in Levinas’s work, referencing Totality and Infinity:

But what is Levinas’s reader to make of the obvious metaphoricity of “The face is a hand, an open hand,” or, “The whole body – a hand or a curve of the shoulder – can express as a face” (TI, 212), which even suggest a transfer between synecdochic figures for the human?

This is part of Robbins’s larger line of questioning around whether the rhetorical figure (i.e. that which we find in the literary text) can be a face. Is our encounter with a literary work like that of our encounter with the other? Is the literary work a ‘face’ in a Levinasian sense? Ultimately, she suggests that applying Levinasian philosophy to literary texts directly is not the way to go, because Levinas’s discussion of literature doesn’t really allow it:

There is an incommensurability between the more originary level of Levinas’s ethical discourse and the discourse of literary criticism. This means that an extrinsic approach to the topic will lead nowhere, for it is not a matter in any case of applying Levinas’s philosophy to the interpretation of literary texts.

The “incommensurability” comes mainly from the fact that Levinas takes a rather Platonic view of the literary text – saying it’s rhetorical, and thus deceptive, and not indicative of the other. This is in spite of the fact that an engagement with literary texts as demonstrative or descriptive of ethical concepts is spread throughout his work.

If the literary text doesn’t quite fit with the “originary level” of Levinasian thought, then, it surely must fit at some level. The literary text has always been cited as a source of alterity, of access to otherness – it’s a form of exteriority, of seeing things other. I don’t fully accept Robbins’s declaration that we can’t apply Levinasian philosophy to a literary text, although I do agree that it’s certainly not straightforward, and that Levinas’s relationship with literature is ambiguous at best.

When we talk about terms such as “responsibility”, “gift”, “alterity”, they are all terms which are readily applied to the literary work anyway. Furthermore, the works that we call literary are those which are most other – they are challenging, make us question our conception of the self, provoke us to consider our responsibilities. And they do this, perhaps not in an automatic way, such as the face, but they do so through the mediation of the reading process. This undeveloped perspective may well be doing violence to the complex metaphysics of Levinas’s relation between the same and the other, but there has to be some way of accounting for the literary work within a Levinasian ethical framework. Otherwise, how do we understand the fact that Levinas himself was led to philosophy by his encounters with Dostoevsky? That the Russian writer was his “preparation for philosophy”?

 

Work Cited:

Emmanuel Levinas – Totality and Infinity trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1985)

Jill Robbins – Altered Reading: Levinas and Literature (Chicago: CUP, 1999)

The Ethical Environment – technology as ‘threat’?

I’ve started the project by reading some basic Ethics in the last few weeks. Simon Blackburn and Alasdair MacIntyre have been my main ways in, as well as looking at Aristotle’s Ethics. A common idea has been that a particular ethical environment or historical context is always seen to influence the first principles of an ethical system. It sound a bit like saying “well, it’s all relativism then” but the notion is more nuanced than this. These philosophers seem to be saying that to understand ethics we must first understand that ethical rules are themselves partly constitutive of the societies they appear to define.

If we accept this as a feasible way of beginning an analysis of a particular society or ethical situation, then to understand contemporary culture we must first define the ethical environment. There are ethical questions being asked in ways that they were not asked before. I would suggest that a central concern of a twenty-first century ethics, alongside happiness and social justice, is something like humanness or human connection. This is engendered by the post-industrial Internet-conditioned mode of developed living, because human beings now have many new ways of acting with regard to themselves and others in society. This opening of ethical dimensions has occurred through technological leaps and the ubiquity of personal technological apparatus, as well as through the ability to transfer information instantaneously – the overall liquidity of existence, as Baumann describes it. MacIntyre confirms this idea, that ethical standpoints cannot be divorced from the mechanisms through which they are enacted, that “[m]oral concepts are embodied in and are partially constitutive forms of social life.”

So how does technological interaction make up part of our social life?  Evidence that this is a central question in 2015 isn’t hard to come by. The comments section of any broadsheet science piece reporting on social networking will usually contain the following popular arguments: we’re losing something by talking online too much; we isolate ourselves through interaction via computer screens; we’re losing the art of conversation; we don’t talk to each other anymore. Just as easily we can provide rejoinders to these ambiguous arguments: we’re gaining something through the ability to communicate online; we are able to connect with others we wouldn’t normally be able to connect; we can communicate in ways which allow us more control and make us more comfortable and confident.

Obviously there is a concern in contemporary culture defined by the notion of connection and the way we choose to connect to other human beings, but too often it falls into a kind of unfounded disquiet, part nostalgia and part hysteria. Some major commentators have looked in detail at the negative impacts of this alteration of connection. Sherry Turkle is probably the most well known, and her latest book – Reclaiming Conversation – is one example of how our ethical environment is being defined. 

 

How do we understand this environment objectively if we’re ‘in it’ all the time?

In investigating the nature of computer-mediated interaction in the twenty-first century, we need to examine techno-ethical situation as explored by fiction writers, for fiction provides us with a way of imagining and exploring the difficult-to-define notion of humanness, of connectivity. To understands what we might be losing, or gaining, through the development of connective behaviours, we must examine the documents which provide us with visions of Others. The ethical environment demonstrates that we are keenly conscious of our ever-connected state, and concerned about the effect it might have on our ability to maintain genuine, valuable connection with other human beings. David Foster Wallace said that “Fiction is one of the few experiences where loneliness can be both confronted and relieved.” If we are worried about the further development of our own loneliness, then we must confront it through understanding the fiction which articulates it. 

 

Bibliography

1 Alasdair C. MacIntyre, A Short History of Ethics : A History of Moral Philosophy from the Homeric Age to the Twentieth Century. 2nd ed. edn (London: Routledge Classics, 2002).

2 Simon Blackburn, and Inc NetLibrary, Ethics : A Very Short Introduction, Very Short Introductions 80 (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).

3. David Foster Wallace, in interview