“Only a God Can Save Us”: Heidegger on Technology
What does technology become when we stop thinking about it as a means to an end? Heidegger thought that the answer to this question — which, put another way, asks what technology is when we stop thinking about it technologically — explains the essence of technology. Non-technological thinking is at least as important for Heidegger as actually understanding what the essence of technology is.
Heidegger theorized in parts of his work — most explicitly stated in a series of lectures, including “The Question Concerning Technology” — that technology is not just a category that describes certain trains of scientific thought, or types of devices. Technology is also not the exclusive province of modernity. Rather, Heidegger proposed that technology is a “mode of revealing”, a framework in which things reveal themselves in their capacity as instrumental objects — as resources. This process of revealing, for Heidegger, is just as important for twentieth-century technology as it was for the simplest tools from early human history.
There is, however, a significant difference between ancient and modern technology for Heidegger. While the windmill “brings forth” energy from natural phenomena, it is essentially at the mercy of those phenomena: it allows them to reveal their own instrumental potential. By contrast, and here we see the source of Heidegger’s prominence in contemporary ecological thought, Heidegger sees modern technology as challenging nature: demanding “that it supply energy that can be extracted and stored as such”. For Heidegger, the defining behavior of modern technology is extraction, its tendency to challenge the land to reveal itself as a particular kind of useful resource. In Heidegger’s parlance, technology is a mode of revealing things that “sets upon” nature and restructures it according to human demands for resources.
Heidegger and Technology
The Heidegger Museum in Meßkirch, via bodensee.eu
Although extraction is certainly a human-directed form of progress, Heidegger is keen to stress that our apparent mastery over technology should not be confused with an escape from an increasingly ubiquitous technological mode of being. Indeed, the very defense which says that technology is only a tool — an instrument for predicting things, for shaping the planet, or for other, pre-existing human purposes — misunderstands the nature of technology. When we speak of instrumentality, of achieving our ends, or of using something to do so, we are already speaking technologically. The difficulty of getting out of this way of speaking is, for Heidegger, indicative of the essentially technological plight of modernity: the impossibility of conceiving of the world apart from as a tool, resource, and energy store.
For Heidegger, poetry is also a mode of revealing. Unlike many other writers on aesthetics, Heidegger conceived of art and poetry as means by which objects divulge things about themselves. Heidegger calls on us to consider the Rhine River in two very different capacities. On the one hand, there is the Rhine of Hölderlin’s hymn Der Rhein, “noblest of all rivers/The free-born Rhine” with its “jubilant” voice. On the other, there is the Rhine which drives the turbines of its hydroelectric plant. The hydroelectric Rhine is only now a site of energetic potential; a potential that can be harnessed, stored, and distributed. To the imaginary objector who says that the landscape-feature Hölderlin was marveling at still flows, Heidegger retorts: “But how? In no other way than as an object on call for inspection by a tour group ordered there by the vacation industry.” (The Question Concerning Technology)
The hydroelectric dam on the Rhine, photo by Maarten Sepp, via Wikimedia Commons
This latter Rhine is not the same river, for Heidegger, as the one that goes “thirstily winding” and “plunges away”. That river — Hölderlin’s river — is a casualty of technology, insofar as technology obscures all that the Rhine might be beyond its capacity to supply energy. The poetic, and perhaps more generally aesthetic, reverie is a mode of revealing at once effaced by technology and potentially able to uncover technology’s essence.
The river’s being is, perhaps unsurprisingly, essential to Heidegger’s account of technology and what it occludes. Heidegger understands technology as a mode of revealing in which we cannot see things as they are — that is, as objects in the truest sense. Giving the example of a plane waiting on a runway, Heidegger suggests that technology reveals things only as a “standing reserve”: a useful action awaiting manifestation. Sure, Heidegger concedes, the plane on the runway is hypothetically an object simply being in a place, but this is not what the plane is for us. “Revealed, it stands on the taxi strip only as standing-reserve, inasmuch as it is ordered to ensure the possibility of transportation.” (The Question Concerning Technology). Technology lets us see things only as these standing reserves — the river as a store of electrical energy or guided tours, the plane as only the possibility of useful transport — but never as things in themselves.
Heidegger and Ecology
View of the Rhine at Reineck, by Herman Saftleven, 1654, oil on canvas, via the Rijksmuseum
Heidegger’s suggestion that humans should begin to reconsider their instrumental attitudes towards objects, and his criticism of the extractive practices which follow from these attitudes, have made him popular among contemporary ecological thinkers. In particular, Heidegger’s interest in inanimate objects and non-human organisms as beings with the capacity to reveal themselves in ways other than those that are purely instrumental has prompted his uptake among proponents of “deep ecology”, a school of thought that argues for the value of non-human organisms, and even objects, as separate from their use-value to humans. Heidegger presents a critique of anthropocentric thinking, a critique that focuses not so much on the specific environmental harm caused by human technology but on the near-ubiquitous structures of thought which robs natural objects of their existential autonomy.
It should be noted that Heidegger does not straightforwardly blame humanity for transforming objects into standing reserves. The origin of this kind of “unconcealment” is more mystical for Heidegger than for most contemporary ecological theorists. Though Heidegger is unambiguous in recommending that we strive against the rapid ascendancy of the technological, human agency is — as in many other parts of Heidegger’s philosophy — called into question as the instigator of instrumental thinking. This gesture, too, serves as a rejection of dominant anthropocentrism: it throws off the presumed primacy of the human will and human power in favor of a world-picture of complex joint agency between people and things. Though humans certainly manufacture tools, mine the earth, and build hydroelectric plants, Heidegger identifies this process with an extra-human temptation, a revelation of the stuff of the world as the means by which to build the world.
Primitivism and Eco-Fascism
Plane in Fiji, photograph by John Todd, 1963, the plane on the runway is Heidegger clearest example of how the standing reserve transforms objects, via the British Museum
Heidegger’s legacy today is a fraught one, and not only due to his famous connections to, and advocacy for, Nazism. Mark Blitz’s extensive article on Heidegger and technology unpicks the ways in which — contrary to some strident defenders of the disjunction between Heidegger’s philosophy and his political affiliations — Heidegger’s writing on technology, nature, and “dwelling” dovetail with fascist rhetoric, both historical and contemporary. Blitz notes, for instance, that Nazi ideology’s emphasis on the mystical intermingling of “blood and soil” finds theoretical backing in Heidegger’s thinking, while disavowals of modernity in contrast with a traditional ideal always curry favor among reactionary political movements.
To ask the question, “what useful suggestions can we glean from Heidegger’s writings on technology and nature?” is perhaps to fall into the trap of technological thinking which he warns us of. Nonetheless, Heidegger’s thought contains suggestions for how we should begin to relate to natural resources non-technologically. Understanding these suggestions is difficult in part because of Heidegger’s dense and winding texts, laden with etymologies and looping diversions, but it is also difficult because we are so used to arguments which present themselves instrumentally — that only make suggestions as a means to an end. The problem, in the face of serious environmental problems demanding urgent solutions, is that it is difficult to suspend our disbelief in the idea that anything will get better if we simply stop thinking about the river as a source of electrical energy, or the ore-deposit as a reserve of construction materials.
Photograph of Heidegger, by Digne Meller Marcovicz, 1968, via frieze.com
At best, we can perhaps get on board with the primitivist’s call to renegotiate our relationship with the ease and speed of technological life. There are, however, good reasons to be suspicious of this call, not least because anthropogenic climate change presents us with problems that will not be solved or dissolved by suddenly stopping large-scale extractive practices. The human cost of primitivism is necessarily vast, and with the exception of those who are truly uninvested in their own, and humanity’s general, prospects of survival, few proponents of it imagine that the cost shall be felt by them — that they will starve, or be killed, or fall ill. It is for this reason that the kind of ecological primitivism with which Heidegger has been aligned has also overlapped substantially with fascist thought. There is the disquieting prospect that, lurking behind the imperative to let natural things be, is a belief in naturally justified hierarchies.
Only a God Can Save Us
The English translation of Heidegger’s Der Spiegel interview, published a few days after the philosopher’s death, via pdcnet.org
We can, perhaps, envision alternative ways in which to heed Heidegger’s critique of technological thinking, at least as individuals. Questions of policy are necessarily bound up in ideas of means and ends, desirable outcomes, and the expenditure of resources, but as solitary agents, we can opt to escape from the hegemony of the standing reserve. We should, Heidegger seems to suggest, become more like the poet and less like the physicist in our interactions with objects in the world, allowing things to reveal themselves to us according to their essence rather than their place in a rigidly ordered system of forces and potential energies. In the final passages of “The Question Concerning Technology” Heidegger writes the curious declaration: “the essence of technology is nothing technological”. Meaningful reflections upon the essence of technology occur, Heidegger says, in the realm of art.
Heidegger was not, however, optimistic about modernity or the possibility of extricating ourselves as humans from the constrictive structures and blinding technologies we have come to rely on. Speaking of the atom bomb, Heidegger argued that rather than presenting us with a new development which we have the opportunity to direct for good or ill, the atom bomb is merely the culmination of centuries of scientific thought. Indeed, nuclear power affects the most literal manifestation of technology’s tendency to re-order objects as energy; the atomic bomb fractures matter into its potential as an act of destruction.
Model of the ‘Fat Man’ atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki in 1945, via the National Museum of the United States Airforce
Humanity also risks confounding itself by using technology to an ever greater extent to solve problems that are themselves exacerbated by instrumental thinking. Heidegger’s famous proclamation that “all distances in time and space are shrinking” refers to the ways in which transport and communication technologies facilitate easier access to images, places, people, objects, cultural artifacts, and so on. “Yet the frantic abolition of all distances brings no nearness; for nearness does not consist in shortness of distance.” (Heidegger, The Thing). What we ignore in the frenzied effort to attain nearness through technological means is that those technological means have obscured things in themselves; they have distanced us further from objects revealed as they are. Being, Heidegger proposes, is overlooked in all its semi-mystical wonder, despite its immediate nearness to us.
In a remark which has been taken both as a plea for forgiveness over his Nazism, and a lamentation of the trap which humanity finds itself entangled in, Heidegger once remarked in an interview — one he gave on the condition it would not be published until after his death — that “only a god can save us”. Divergences in the use of technology are of little concern in Heidegger’s writing — the nuclear bomb and the hydroelectric plant commit the same obfuscation of being. Only a god can save us, but only stripping away the mask of means and ends will allow God to appear.