In mythology, autochthones (from Ancient Greek αὐτός “self,” and χθών “soil”; i.e. “people sprung from earth itself”) are those mortals who have sprung from the soil, rocks and trees. They are rooted and belong to the land eternally.
In his work titled “Deromanticizing Heidegger”, Don Ihde attempts to denounce some arbitrary stances in Heidegger’s thought in order to propose a philosophy of technology purged of what he deems the philosopher’s romantic (Nazi) preferences. Ihde begins:
“A century after his birth, two very contrary statements can be made concerning Martin Heidegger: First, in a significant sense, he is surely one of the most important founders of the philosophy of technology… Second, we all also know that he joined the National Socialist German Workers’ Party and remained with it through the war… My question is this: Is there something at the very heart of Heidegger’s thought that makes both of these contraries possible?”[i].
In the present work, I’ll essay an answer to Ihde’s question following my reading of Heidegger’s public speech titled Memorial Address (Gelassenheit)[ii]. If we look at the rest of Heidegger’s works in the light of this speech, we will be able to reach a systematic perspective of the relationships that exist between art, technology and truth in Heidegger’s thought. In turn, this will allow us to appreciate what aspects of Heidegger’s philosophy lead him to his so-called romanticism and the consequent error of subscribing to the Nazi party. Finally, we will also be able to properly understand how, in the words uttered ten years after the end of the war, Heidegger himself already offers an alternative other than fascism to confront the threats of modern technology.
Such works as “The Origin of the Work of Art” or “The Question Concerning Technology” are filled with what we may call a romanticization of German country life that is hard not to relate to Heidegger’s involvement with Nazism. However, this supposed romanticization is not the result of a mere ideological preference: I’ll argue that it has its grounds in the concept of homeland (Heimat) or home ground (heimatlicher Boden) that Heidegger employs in “Gelassenheit” and which approximately correspond to what in “The Origin of the Work of Art” is called the earth. As a result of the phenomenology of the work of art that is offered in that text, Heidegger concludes that the essence of the work is the strife between earth and world: “What thus happens in the strife: the inauguration of the open in the struggle between the unconcealed and the concealed, the coming-out of hiding and deception – this self-contained event is the happening of what we call truth.”[iii] The earth is that which is properly produced in the making of a work of art such as sound in music, the word in literature or color in the visual arts. However, we must not reduce the earth to such concepts as matter or the sensuous since Heidegger conceives it as the opaque aspect of beings which resists being brought to the clear of what is intelligible for us. In opposition to the earth, the world is that which is opened by the work. Earth and world then describe two different dimensions of intelligibility: the opaque, that which resists interpretation (concealment), and the world as “revealing” or the transparent aspect of entities. Art as “the becoming and happening of truth” is then the disclosure in which earth, as that which closes itself, is brought to the open of the world in the strife instigated by the work, that is, in the tensional relationship that is established between what is already there and the elusive aspect of the receding earth.
Despite the alleged ontological complexity in the concept of earth, Heidegger can claim:
“We notice that a work of art has flowered in the ground of our homeland. As we hold this simple fact in mind, we cannot help remembering at once that during the last two centuries great poets and thinkers have been brought forth from the Swabian land. Thinking about it further makes clear at once that Central Germany is likewise such a land, and so are East Prussia, Silesia, and Bohemia.”[iv]
Given these statements, it seems like we should concede to Ihde that Heidegger’s romantic tastes represent a great obstacle not only for the philosophy of technology but also that Heidegger’s aesthetics, including his concept of truth, are intrinsically linked to his nationalist ideology. However, I’ll attempt to show how this represents a hurried dismissal of Heidegger’s thought that can be corrected if we approach his critique of modern technology from the horizon of the rest of his work.
As I said earlier, Heidegger claims that the essence of the work of art is the strife in which the happening of truth as unconcealment takes place. In “The Question Concerning Technology”, the essence of technology as enframing (Gestell) is characterized as the hegemonic mode of unconcealing in our times. In this way, art and technology are revealed as diametrically opposed modes of unconcealment or truth. As Ihde points out, Heidegger has the tendency to oppose a “good” technology to a “bad” one. What characterizes the good technology is its artistic dimension that results from art not being yet distinguished in its particularity from the rest of technology as is the case in Greek philosophy where the concept of techné is understood as encompassing the poiesis of fine arts, the artist not being distinguished from the artisan. Yet, Ihde understands that Heidegger’s distinction has its grounds in subjective preferences, in particular a nostalgia for traditional modes of production and an ecological awareness that rejects those technologies which “provoke” (herausfordern) nature. In “Gelassenheit”, Heidegger claims that in order to face the threats that modern technology poses “We can use technical devices as they ought to be used…”[v]. The method of phenomenology precludes this type of normative claims, being fundamentally descriptive. Should we conclude that in this speech Heidegger betrays his arbitrariness by uttering explicitly normative claims? I believe that there are sufficient arguments to give a negative answer to this question. First, I will expound Heidegger’s characterization of the provocative mode of unconcealing as derived from a more original one. Secondly, I will offer an interpretation of Heidegger’s project in “Gelassenheit” that emphasizes the non-normative grounds of his statements. In both cases, the original/derived distinction grounds Heidegger’s preferences. These must be understood as stemming from a purely phenomenological basis that does not allow itself to be tainted by subjective tastes or a normativity incompatible with the phenomenological method.
In the “Question Concerning Technology”, after a detour through the traditional conception of technology as a means to an end and a reinterpretation of Aristotle’s concept of causality, Heidegger formulates the essence of technology as the Gestell or “enframing”. The Gestell marks one of the epochs in Heidegger’s depiction of the history of western metaphysics. Just as the Idea was for Plato, the Gestell is the way in which being announces itself to us in our times. What characterizes our epoch is that the Gestell interpellates us to unconceal the totality of beings as “stock” (Bestand) in the manner of a provocative order or solicitation (herausfondernde Bestellen). Discerning what exactly Heidegger considers to be the particular characteristics and limits that enable us to distinguish the provocative mode of unconcealment from non-provocative ones represents a tough exegetic challenge. Why exactly does the hydroelectrical dam on the Rhine provoke Nature whereas the temple doesn’t?
In regard to this, Ihde opposes Heidegger’s description of the Greek temple in the “Origin of the Work of Art” to that which J. Donald Hughes offers in “Ecology in ancient civilizations”. The difference between them is that, while Heidegger offers a highly romanticized depiction of the temple, Hughes emphasizes the environmental impact that one can see around the Acropolis. Hughes also mentions how already Plato witnessed this concerning ecological transformations when he visited temples devoted to the guardian spirits of streams that had dried out by his time. However, these counterexamples suffer from two defects. First, the contrast between the examples is a result of Heidegger’s stance that we must understand the work of art in the context of the world that is opened by it. It is then justified to offer a romanticized depiction of the temple since only in this way can we offer an account of its original situation in which the temple properly functions as a work of art. The two examples offered by Hughes depict works whose world has already closed. Secondly, we must concede to Ihde that Hughes’ examples show how the damage done to nature isn’t something exclusive to modern technology. However, this does not imply that Greek technology provoked nature in Heidegger’s sense. What concerns Heidegger is the total hegemony of a certain way of approaching beings which threatens to take over all other possible modes of unconcealment. We must take into account that, even if the Greeks could be said to have done the same damage to nature as did the English in the times of Francis Bacon, the difference that Heidegger is interested in is how from a certain historical horizon nature can be seen as something to be dominated and this is clearly incompatible with the Greek conception of physis.
The ultimate danger that the Gestell represents is that all modes of unconcealment would be redirected to that of provocation. This would signify the end of meditative thinking and the total hegemony of what Heidegger deems the calculative mode of thought. Heidegger claims that the Gestell, which becomes pervasively evident in our times with the advent of such technologies as the nuclear bomb, has been operating and developing itself from long ago, being itself the root of modern science’s instrumental character and its understanding of nature in terms of measurable extension. In this way, Heidegger worries that the only possibility that would remain for man would be
“…of pursuing and pushing forward nothing but what is revealed in ordering (Bestellen), and of deriving all his standards on this basis. Through this the other possibility is blocked, that man might be admitted more and sooner and ever more primally to the essence of that which is unconcealed and to its unconcealment, in order that he might experience as his essence his needed belonging to revealing.”[vi].
In the language of Being and Time, this is to say that man would fall into an improper mode of existence in which he would stop understanding himself from himself and thus remain oblivious to his essence as a consequence of understanding not only nature but also himself in terms of stock (Bestand). Ihde admits that “… Heidegger does not simply outright condemn modern technology – its essence, enframing, is simultaneously a revealing of the world and an openness…”. In spite of this, Ihde then dismisses the danger that Heidegger warms us of by introducing this question: “In short, all of nature, including the human being, will be seen as reduced to a vast resource well (Bestand) – but the question then is: for who, or for what end?”[vii]. However, if we properly understand Heidegger’s stance that the Gestell grounds an epoch of our understanding of beings, then we know that it doesn’t result from any human will or in favor of any human interests. In this regard, Heidegger’s stance regarding the hegemony of the Gestell can be compared to the description of power relations by Michel Foucault. Instead of the traditional models of power which seek the source of authority in an individual figure or in a particular group, the microphysics of power do not respond to any such central source; instead, oppressed individuals themselves reproduce the structures of power. The following quote from Heidegger’s “Gelassenheit” is thus very relevant: “…these forces, since man has not made them, have moved long since beyond his will and have outgrown his capacity for decision.”[viii].
Another aspect of Heidegger’s romanticism is his nationalism in the form of the concept of home ground which is especially present in “Gelassenheit”. In relation to art, Heidegger asks “…does not the flourishing of any genuine work depend upon its roots in a native soil? …does man still dwell calmly between heaven and earth? … is there still a life-giving home-land in whose ground man may stand rooted, that is, be autochthonic?”[ix]. These concepts lend themselves easily to an interpretation that relates Heidegger’s thought immediately back to his involvement with Nazism. However, my stance is that the issue is more complex. The concept of earth is the result of a phenomenology of the work of art and, as is the case for the phenomenology of “equipment” in the beginning of Being and Time which focuses on the artisanal mode of production, Heidegger’s phenomenology takes the thematic entity under description from the perspective of a primitive experience of it. In this way, we can say that Heidegger’s phenomenology of art, although it seeks to arrive at the essence of art as such, focuses on a model of art in which the production of beautiful objects has not yet been distinguished in its particularity from the rest of technological production. In this manner, there seems to be a radical difference between the Greek temple as studied in the “Origin of the Work of Art” and the example of Van Gogh’s painting that is offered in the same text. While the essence of the work of art as strife must be descriptive of all forms of art, it seems the Greek temple is limited to founding the world of the Greeks while Van Gogh’s painting is what properly reveals to Heidegger the essence of art as such. Iain Thomson claims that “… in Van Gogh’s painting—the strange space which surrounds these shoes like an underlying and yet also enveloping atmosphere—one can notice that inchoate forms begin to emerge from the background but never quite take a firm shape; in fact, these shapes tend to disappear when one tries to pin them down.”[x] In this manner, Van Gogh’s painting can be said to reflect the structure of the strife that Heidegger deems the essence of the work of art.
Meyer Schapiro famously objected that Heidegger’s interpretation of Van Gogh’s painting is nothing but a subjective projection of his romantic preferences since the shoes that the painting depicted were Van Gogh’s own, a city man’s, and not at all a countrywoman’s. Most Heideggerians would claim that Schapiro misses the important aspects of Heidegger’s example, namely, the ontological depth that the phenomenological description of the work seeks. While I partially agree, I believe that the fact that Van Gogh painted his own shoes is of utmost importance precisely because it means that we are facing an ontological work in the sense that it reflects on its own being. My stance is that this represents a transcendental art[xi] that reflects upon itself and reveals the conditions of its own possibility. This kind of art is altogether different to what I deem pre-transcendental art such as the Greek temple or any other work of art previous to the revolution that Cervantes put forth in his highly reflexive work Don Quixote and which is comparable to that started in philosophy twenty years later by Descartes in his Rules for the Direction of the Mind (we could also mention here another exponent of the Spanish renaissance: the painter Velazquez, known for his self-portrait Las Meninas and his extensive depiction of mirrors). We can say, without departing too much from Heidegger, that a work of pre-transcendental art is a sensible manifestation of the spirit of a community or, in less Hegelian terms, that it consolidates its ethno-political identity by providing a tangible foundation for its political organization. However, we can only claim that this is art’s function because of Heidegger’s radical claim that the temple founds the Greek world in the sense of a cosmovision, opening the historical horizon of intelligibility for their understanding of beings. As Heidegger says, “Standing there, the temple first gives to things their look, and to men their outlook on themselves.”[xii]. While the temple’s essence is the strife in which the earth is brought to the clear of human intelligibility, Van Gogh’s painting reflects the strife itself as his broad brushstrokes abandon the defined lines of realism and evoke the elusive and receding aspect of the earth. In this way, we can appreciate the link that there exists between Heidegger’s aesthetics and nationalism since, as long as there isn’t an explicit distinction between transcendental and pre-transcendental art, the concept of Earth remains tied to that of home ground and autochthony. However, in what follows I’ll show how Heidegger’s “Gelassenheit” is precisely an exhortation to think a new autochthony that would allow us to dwell properly in the midst of the irreversible changes that modern technology brings about.
Releasement (Gellasenheit) is the attitude that Heidegger proposes as that which we need to assume in order to face the threats of modern technology. In “The experience of technology: Human-machine relations”, Ihde states that “…there is a ‘technosphere’ within which we do a good deal of our living, surrounding us in part the way technological artifacts do literally for astronauts and deep sea investigators.”[xiii]. Despite his romanticism, Heidegger similarly observes, “For all of us, the arrangements, devices, and machinery of technology are to a greater or lesser extent indispensable. It would be foolish to attack technology blindly. It would be shortsighted to condemn it as the work of the devil. We depend on technical devices.”[xiv] Given that we depend on the world of technology or technosphere, to be released is to say “yes” to modern technology. However, the essence of modern technology, in so far as it compels us to understand nature merely as a quantitatively measurable reserve of resources (including what we deem the “human resources”), threatens to redirect all modes of unconcealment to that of provocation. Since this would signify a fall into an improper mode of existence as we stop reflecting upon ourselves to understand humanity merely in terms of stock, releasement simultaneously has to say “no” to the pervasiveness of the Gestell: “We can affirm the unavoidable use of technical devices, and also deny them the right to dominate us, and so to warp, confuse, and lay waste our nature.”[xv]. This saying yes to the unavoidable character of technology acknowledges that “…a profound change is taking place in man’s relation to nature and to the world. But the meaning that reigns in this change remains obscure.”[xvi].
Given this opacity in modern technology’s essence, the other part of Heidegger’s solution is what he calls the openness to mystery. With this openness, Heidegger is simultaneously recognizing the imperative to accept the inevitable while humbly admitting that his limitations as a man of a past generation preclude him from imagining how man can dwell properly in the time of the Gestell. In so far as “mystery” is defined by Heidegger as that which shows itself at the same time as it conceals itself, the openness to mystery is the way in which we maintain meditative or self-reflexive thought alive by staying in realm of truth as unconcealment. It’s worth noting how this mystery to which we are to be open evokes the concept of earth. One of Heidegger’s main contributions to philosophy is his stance that humans first and foremost understand the world through the manipulation of tools and the production of works. Thus, thought as openness to mystery and art are identified as in Nietzsche’s stance that art is the properly metaphysical activity of man and Danto’s claim that the defining trait of 20th century art is its philosophical character as it explicitly poses the question “What is art?”. Releasement and openness to mystery “…grant us the possibility of dwelling in the world in a totally different way. They promise us a new ground and foundation upon which we can stand and endure in the world of technology without being imperiled by it. Releasement toward things and openness to the mystery give us a vision of a new autochthony which someday even might be fit to recapture the old and now rapidly disappearing autochthony in a changed form.”[xvii]. The lost rooting that Heidegger denounces is not simply the subordination of meditative thinking to calculative thought: the hegemony of modern technology brings about the shortening of all distances in space and time, the erasing of all localisms as a result of globalization. As Ihde claims “The dramatic space shots of Earth from the moon or a satellite are very un-Heideggerian precisely because they place Earth at a distance from Earth-as-ground. But they are also irreversibly part of the postmodern view of Earth-as-globe, with a very different sense of what constitutes our ‘home’.”[xviii]. However, as I attempted to show, Heidegger recognizes this irreversible aspect of the profound changes in humanity’s relation to nature and the world and exhorts us to think so that we can build a “home” in the technical world. In this regard, Heidegger’s thought is closer than ever to the spirit of Kant’s philosophy: not only does he offer a critique of the illegitimate claims of the science of his time that threatens to warp and destroy human freedom, he also exhorts us to understand our dwelling in the world in cosmopolitan terms.
[i] Ihde, D. Heidegger’s technologies: postphenomenological perspectives, (New York, Fordham University Press, 2010), 74.
[ii] Heidegger, M. Discourse on thinking.: a gr. of Gelassenheit, (New York, Harper & Row, 1959)
[iii] Heidegger, Martin. “Vom Ursprung des Kunstwerks: Erste Ausarbeitung” Heidegger Studies Vol. 5 (1989): 5-22
The original text reads: “Was so in der Bestreitung geschieht: die Eröffnung der Offenheit des Widerstreits von Unverborgenem und Verborgenem, das Herauskommen von Verdeckung und Verstellung, — dieses in sich gefügte Geschehen ist das Geschehen dessen, was wir Wahrheit nennen.”
[iv] Heidegger, M. Discourse on thinking.: a gr. of Gelassenheit, (New York, Harper & Row, 1959), 47
[v] Heidegger, M. Discourse on thinking.: a gr. of Gelassenheit, (New York, Harper & Row, 1959), 54
[vi] Heidegger, M. The question concerning technology, and other essays, (New York, Harper Perennial, 2013): 26
[vii] Ihde, D. Heidegger’s technologies: postphenomenological perspectives. (New York, Fordham University Press, 2010), 81
[viii] Heidegger, M. Discourse on thinking.: a gr. of Gelassenheit, (New York, Harper & Row, 1959), 51
[ix] Heidegger, M. Discourse on thinking.: a gr. of Gelassenheit, (New York, Harper & Row, 1959), 47-48
[x] Thomson, Iain, “Heidegger’s Aesthetics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2019/entries/heidegger-aesthetics/>.
[xi] There is much to develop and further enquire in regard to this concept since the reflexive character of modern art is an extensive phenomenon. For a case study of some films that can be deemed transcendental see my essay “Transcendetal cinema: When the camera turns upon itself”. I also recently came upon a book by literary critic Robert Alter named “Partial Magic: The Novel as a Self-conscious Genre” which sees in the Quixote not only the birth of the novel but the archetype that cointains all the self-reflexive excercises that later novelists will eplore and exploit (with the exception of those who subscribe to literary realism). Furthermore, an interesting dialogue can be opened with Danto’s philosophy of art since his periodization of the history of art responds to the degree of self-consciousness evidenced by artists. Danto distinguishes between pre-art and Art, the latter corresponding to the epoch in which artists as the makers of beautiful objects are distinguished from artisans. The infamous claim of the end of art precisely refers to the epoch in history, the 20th century, where art itself becomes philosophical as it explicitly poses the question “What is art?”
[xii] Heidegger, M. Off the Beaten Track, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002), 21
[xiii] Ihde, D. Technics and praxis, (Dordrecht, D. Reidel Pub. Co., 1979), 14
[xiv] Heidegger, M. Discourse on thinking.: a gr. of Gelassenheit, (New York, Harper & Row, 1959), 53
[xv] Heidegger, M. Discourse on thinking.: a gr. of Gelassenheit, (New York, Harper & Row, 1959), 54
[xvi] Heidegger, M. Discourse on thinking.: a gr. of Gelassenheit. (New York: Harper & Row, 1959), 55
[xvii] Heidegger, M. Discourse on thinking.: a gr. of Gelassenheit. (New York: Harper & Row, 1959), 55
[xviii] Ihde, D. Heidegger’s technologies: postphenomenological perspectives, (New York, Fordham University Press, 2010), 85