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:
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:
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?
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
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].
[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