Uncanny Thinking

Martin Heidegger is the theorist par excellence of the digital future.

Probably because Heidegger’s was a deeply embittered vision of the ruins of modernity to the extent that he wrote in a spirit of desolation about the “gods having abandoned the earth,” retreating back into an impenetrable shroud of “forgetfulness,” Heidegger was the one thinker who did not shrink from thinking through to its deepest depths the unfolding horizon of a culture of “pure technicity.” While Heidegger began his writing with a deconstruction of conventional ontology in Being and Time, his lasting gift to the tradition of critical metaphysics was to perform in advance an intense, unforgiving and unremitting deconstruction of his own life in The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude. [1] After the latter book, having nowhere to go other than to wander in the shadowland between a reflection on Being that in its retreat into forgetfulness was admittedly impossible to concretely realize and a future driven forward by the “will to technicity,” Heidegger was the one thinker who literally deconstructed his own project to a point of self-nihilation. With nothing to save, no hope to dispense, and no critique that did not fall immediately into the dry ashes of cultural cynicism, Heidegger’s fate was to make of his own life of thought a simulacrum of the will to technology. More than Marx who remained wedded to the biblical dream of proletarian redemption and more so than Nietzsche who countered the nihilism of the “will to power” with the possibilities of reclaimed human subjects as their own “dancing stars,” Heidegger was the one thinker without hope in the dispensations of history.

Not broken by the vicissitudes of history, Heidegger was and is the contemporary historical moment. In his thought, the new century is already “overcome” at the very moment of its inception. Not overcome in the sense of abandonment, but overcome to the extent that Heidegger summons up in his thinking the anxieties, fears, and methods of the will to technicity. A futurist without faith, a metaphysician without the will to believe, a philosopher opposed to reason, Heidegger is the perfect representative of the technological trajectory at the outer edge of its parabolic curvature through the dark spaces of the post-human future.

If it be objected that we should not read Heidegger because of his political complicity with German fascism, I would enter the dissent that Heidegger’s momentary harmony, but harmony nonetheless, with the politics of fascism makes of him a representative guide to the next phase of fascism — virtual fascism. More than liberal critics who fault Heidegger for taking advantage of the fascist upsurge in pre-War Germany to gain a University rectorship as well as to betray his philosophical mentor — Husserl — I would go further, noting that in breaking with National Socialism, Heidegger did not refuse fascism on the grounds of an oppositional political ethics, but because its strictly political determination in the historically specific form of National Socialism in the Germany of the 1930s and 40s was not a sufficiently “pure” type to fully represent the metaphysical possibility that was the German “folk.” [2] For Heidegger, National Socialists were not sufficiently self-conscious metaphysically, too trapped in the particularities of politics, to be capable finally of realizing the ontology of the fascist moment: delivering the metaphysical possibilities of (German) folk-community into concrete historical realization. To the tribal consciousness of fascism, Heidegger remained a metaphysician of dasein. Ironically, his prescience concerning the fading away of second-order (National Socialist) fascism before the coming to be of first-order (virtual) fascism ultimately made of his thought a historical incommensurability: too metaphysically pure for the direct action, “hand to mouth” politics of German fascism; and yet too radically deconstructive of the claims of technological rationality to find its home in liberalism. “Homeless thought.”

An idealist in the tradition of German nationalism, Heidegger’s fate was to be that of the faithless thinker, ultimately disloyal to German fascism because it was not sufficiently metaphysical, yet unable to reconcile himself to western liberalism because it was, in his estimation, the political self-consciousness of technicity. For this reason, Heidegger ended the war digging ditches, having been ousted by German university authorities acting at the behest of state fascism as the University of Freiburg’s “most dispensable Professor.” It is also for this reason that Heidegger in the post-war period was, except for a brief period before retirement, expelled from university teaching. Always a metaphysician, always in transition to the next historical stage of the “will,” always in rebellion against the impurities of compromised philosophical vision, Heidegger’s mind was fully attuned to the restless stirrings of the will as its broke from its twin moorings in ethnic fundamentalism and industrial capitalism and began to project itself into world-history in the pure metaphysical form of the “will to will.” [3] Beyond time and space, breaking through the skin of human culture, respecting no national borders, an “overcoming” that first and foremost overcomes its own nostalgic yearnings for a final appearance in the theatre of representation, the will to will, what Heidegger would come to call the culture of “pure technicity,” was the gleam on the post-human horizon, and Heidegger was its most faithful reporter. In Heidegger’s writings, the main historical trends of the 21st century have their prophet and doomsayer.

Heidegger’s mind lies between past and future.

Technology as a “Danger” and a “Saving Power”

If Heidegger could write so eloquently and think so mystically about that which in the present era is so unmentionable — Being — , if Heidegger could say that Being “comes into presence” in the mode of “enframing,” the animating impulse of technology, if he could speak of Being as containing both a “danger” and a “saving power” and speak evocatively of the “turning” so necessary to transform the danger into the saving power, perhaps that is because Heidegger’s thought is itself a “turning,” a “lightning-flash” which illuminates human beings to themselves, and which does so not by surrendering to calculative thinking or by retreating to spurious forms of idealism, but by looking deeply and meditatively into the danger of technology, by “thinking” technology to its roots in metaphysics.

Hyper-Heidegger, then, a thinker who makes of himself both a “danger” and a “saving-power,” who makes of the effort of reading Heidegger both a form of “unconcealedness” and “openness.” If Heidegger could dismiss as illusory thinking the pretension that “man has mastery of technology,” claiming instead the opposite that human beings are set in place as a condition of possibility for the development of technology, [4] if Heidegger could only speak of the human essence in terms of its deep entanglement with the question of technology, that is because Heidegger’s thought is the “clearing” that he thought he was only prophesying. To read Heidegger is not so much a matter of meditating on the “question of technology,” but the much more dangerous possibility of becoming entangled with the question of Heidegger. Not Heidegger as a historically proximate philosopher with a certain biography as a determinately local German thinker projecting the “pathways” of the Black Forest onto the “world picture”, but Heidegger as that “glancing” taking us immediately into the dangerous mysteries, not of Being, but of hyper-being, into the impossible metaphysical claims of a form of being that only exists in the language of fatal oppositions: calculation versus meditation, world versus earth, ordering versus revealing, business versus art. Refusing the safety of a strictly monistic determination of the question of being, Heidegger was always a hyper-metaphysician, making of being an enigmatic sign, a crossing-over, a “solitude” between the identify of “world” and the difference of “earth.” For him, incommensurability is the essence of technology, and hyper-being the song-line of the deeply conflicting impulses that animate technological destining.

The question of Heidegger necessarily speaks to the human essence. If Heidegger is correct, the discourse, first of capitalism, then of capitalism in its hyper-phase as virtuality, is the story of the presencing of hyper-being, with ourselves as both its active participants and necessary conditions. This is not a story of fatalism or catastrophe, far from it since Heidegger claims that the latter are themselves no more than the “historiographical” representations of technological consciousness, but the story of “destining”, of learning a certain “comportment towards technology” that draws the saving-power out of the danger of technology. In the strange labyrinth of history, could it be that the question of Heidegger is also a “turning,” a way of looking deeply into the danger as the first tentative steps towards the presencing of another destiny of technology. Heidegger went to his death with the constant admonition that we are “uninterpreted signs.” [5] Could it be that interpreting Heidegger is the necessary encryption of the codes of technology, that until now neglected interpretation of the “uninterpreted sign” that is digital being? But, if that is so, if Heidegger is the necessary interpretation of technological destining, then wouldn’t that also make Heidegger’s thought a form of “valuing,” a will to power projecting itself across the world picture in the language of thought? Wouldn’t Heidegger’s destiny, then, be an artistic one: simultaneously fully implicated in the question of technology while different from it, an artist of the “yes and no?”

Out of place in his time, a thinker sensitive to the loss of the autochthonous in the culture of technicity, Heidegger transformed the language of “rootlessness” [6] into a central premise of the strife in modern subjectivity. For him, the challenge and impossibility of the modern technical project was its starting-point in “being held out into the nothing.” Camus’ absurd. The gods have retreated into the shadows. The meaning of technicity lies close at hand, yet remains concealed in the shroud of calculative forgetfulness. No certain past, no actual present, only a future-time split open by the animating energy of the will to technology: cultural “rootlessness” as the central feature of modern technical being. Indeed, if contemporary subjectivity can move with such volatility between the “malice of rage” and the solace of healing, then this would only indicate that strife is the modern language of rootlessness. This, then, is the modern fate: “being held out into the nothing” with no clear way of returning to oneself as an abode or dwelling in proximity to the ancient language of the “holy.” [7] And yet if we cannot think of the self as an abode or dwelling, then what remains is only the desolation of homelessness and its certain result — the “malice of rage”. For Heidegger, as earlier for Nietzsche who in On the Genealogy of Morals, spoke evocatively of modern being rubbing itself raw on the bars of “civilized” culture, the “malice of rage” is the true malignancy of technological culture. That this malignancy can sometimes be distracted, even to the point of forgetfulness, in the form of technological exteriorizations of the human sensorium and, at other times, temporarily appeased in the sacrificial language of ethnic scapegoating, does not dispense with the sense of strife central to technical being. If we are an “uninterpreted sign” projected into the future and concealed from the past, then the malignancy at the core of technicity might itself, if intensified by thinking, be compelled to reveal its essence. Which is, of course, the value of contemplating Heidegger: a thinker so proximate to the contemporary technical condition that his thought is itself a field of strife, motivated from within by a malice of rage directed against his own expulsion from the polity of conventional political opinion and yet, who in the bitterness of this exile and undoubtedly against his own preference for the rootedness of the “German folk”, became a vehicle by which the forgotten language of metaphysics — the homeward-bound language of the pre-Socratics — speaks again to beings held out into the nothing.

In contemplating Heidegger, we also return to ourselves as “uninterpreted signs.” His writing is the future of the past.

Philosophy of Technology

All that is merely technological never arrives at the essence of technology. It cannot even recognize its outer precincts. [8]

Make no mistake. Heidegger does not “think” technology within its own terms. Quite the contrary. Repeatedly he insists that technology cannot be understood technologically because, in opening ourselves up to the question of technology, we are suddenly brought into the presence of that which has always been allowed to lie silent because it is the overshadowing default condition of our technical existence. Heidegger is relentless in making visible that which would prefer to remain in the shadows as the regulating architecture of contemporary existence. For example, Heidegger notes that today, we can only think technology from the midst of the howling center of the technological vortex, that while we can note that the dominant tendency of technology is towards the “objectification of earth” and the “objectification of (technical) consciousness” [9], we can never be confident that in thinking the consequences of technologies of objectification that our thought itself has not already been set in place as a necessary “turning” of the technological spiral. And while Heidegger will note that the key ethical consequence of the relentless objectification of earth and sky and water and flesh is “injurious neglect of the thing,” [10] he always makes the parallel claim that thought itself always has about it a form of neglect, that thought, however critical, always conceals and unconceals, that “injurious neglect of the thing” in the mode of order of willing and doing may also have about it the doubled language of human destining. Thinking Heidegger from the virtual present, from the perspective of the “shadow cast ahead by the advent of this turning,” [11] that he could only intimate who cannot be fully ambivalent on the ultimate meaning of technology as “injurious neglect of the thing.” Who, that is, cannot brush thought against that doubled possibility of injurious neglect, that such injurious neglect may be, in equal parts, a brutalizing consequence of the dynamic language of (technical) ordering and willing and the deepest seduction of technology? In this case, if the price to be paid for the unfolding of (our) technological destiny is “injurious neglect of the thing” to the point of gutting human subjectivity of its silences, its most essential elements of individual reflection, of thoughtfulness, then is it not now manifest that such injurious neglect of oneself is the deepest fascination and most charismatic promotional feature of virtual capitalism? The virtual self, therefore, as a wireless game with accelerated technical consciousness moving at the speed of injurious neglect.

Consequently, Heidegger’s specific contribution to understanding technology consists of a unique, evocative and comprehensive description of technological experience as a single human process originating in the metaphysics of “enframing,” driven forward by the animating energy of the “will to will,” resulting in a culture of “profound boredom,” [12] and possessing art as its possible “turning.” Folding together future and past, Heidegger’s theory of technology assumes the form of a general theory of civilization which, beginning with the basic assumption that technology cannot be understood solely in the language of the technological, traces the genealogy of “planetary technicity” to its ancient roots in a way of being that, expanding from its origins in the mythic legacy of the west, comes to represent human destiny. As human destiny, technology can neither be refused nor simply affirmed because of its inextricably ambivalent nature. Left unquestioned, technological experience reduces life to a “standing-reserve,” in the “unconditional service” of the will to technique. And yet if the “question of technology” cannot be asked without a fundamental inquiry into the mythic roots of technology as destiny, then it must also be said that the (hyper)reality of technology cannot be denied without a fateful loss of that which is fundamental to humans qua humans. For better and for worse, in boredom as well as in anxiety, the question of technology as destiny means that it is only by intensifying technology, by “thinking” technique to its roots in ancient mythology and, thereupon, to its future in the expanding empire of “planetary technicity” that we can hope to elucidate the dangers and possibilities of being human in the dawning age of the post-human. Heidegger’s “question of technology” is also a way of coming home to the neglected question of the meaning of life in the technodrome.

The Politics of the “Standing-Reserve”

Heidegger’s famous essay, “The Question Concerning Technology,” can only be read now in terms of philosophical anthropology. Against its own intentions which were focused on stripping away history from the question of technology and, thereupon, grounding the question of technology in the language of its founding metaphysics, this essay has in the forty years since its authorship been reclaimed by the riddle of history. Reclaimed, that is, not in the sense of obsolescence — a theory of technology now superceded by accelerating developments in the present age of wireless and bio-genetic invention — but reclaimed in the deeply anthropological sense that Heidegger’s analysis of the question of technology is an uncannily accurate diagnosis of the present human situation.

Writing from the perspective of a mid-twentieth century historical period bracketed by the rise to dominance of mechanical technologies of extraction and the overpowering presence of atomic weapons, Heidegger’s view of technology, while focused on mechanical culture, only finds real theoretical and ethical purchase with the advent of electronic and, thereupon, digital culture. In a way that foreshadows contemporary theories of technology, from Virilio’s vision of cybernetic technology as a “war machine” operating in the language of the control of “eyeball culture” and McLuhan’s grim vision of the “externalization” of the central nervous system in electronic culture to Baudrillard’s theorisation of the mass simulation of human desire, Heidegger does that which is most difficult. Almost as a precession of his own theory, his analysis presences technology, drawing out the animating impulses of techno-culture in such a way as to compel the “world picture” of technology to fully reveal itself. Refusing to think technology separately from the question of human destiny, Heidegger’s thought always hovers around two conflicting impulses in the technological world picture: first, the tendency towards “enframing” by which the dominating impulse of contemporary technology pirates the human sensorium on behalf of a globally hegemonic technical apparatus; and, second, the tendency toward “poeisis” by which an art of technology, variously expressed in language, poetry, the visual arts, speed writing, an aesthetics of digital dirt, and new media art could draw out of the world picture of technology as destining a different future for techne, a future in which technology once again has something to say, to “unconceal,” about the relationship between technology and alethia (truth). [13]

Indeed, what is so inspiring about Heidegger’s doubled vision of technology is its uniqueness in simultaneously running parallel to the cutting edge of new digital technologies and doing so in such a way as to plunge the “question concerning technology” back into its classical origins as a essential expression of being itself. While other theorists have “thought” technology within and against the modernist and now, postmodern, epistemes, Heidegger’s special gift to those intent on deciphering the question of technology is a dramatic double refusal: refusing, at first, to think technology within strictly contemporary terms by insisting that the language of technique is derivative from another, more hidden, “presencing” of being that hides itself in the shadows of thought; and refusing to think technology as technology, insisting that technology is at its inception never strictly technological but metaphysical.

Consequently, the curiosity: Heidegger’s “The Question Concerning Technology” makes of the dynamic drive to planetary technicity a probe for unconcealing a more fundamental “mode of being,” a mode of being which, until now, may have purposively retreated into the shadows in the spectral form of “oblivion of being,” but which under the artistic “revealing” that is Heidegger’s method is finally forced to confess its ancient secrets. In Heidegger’s vision of technology, we are always standing midway between the unfolding future of the drive to technological domination and the revelation of the classical genealogy of the question of technology. Both genealogist and futurist — artist and craftsman — Heidegger’s probe of the “world picture of technology” is always enunciated in the doubled language of that which he seeks to expose — the twin words of provocation and revelation, “challenging-forth” and “poeisis.” He is instructive to meditate upon not simply for his dramatic political and cultural conclusions concerning the destiny of technology, but, more decisively, for the deep method of his thought. Always equal to the object of his writing — planetary technicity — ,Heidegger not only claimed that technological experience was, above all, a method, but in his own writing paralleled the world picture of technology as method by making of his own thought a method of technological revelation. In meditating upon Heidegger, we are suddenly brought (technically) close to that which is (metaphysically) distant. His mind splits the atom of technology. His thought sequences the DNA of the question of technology.

In Heidegger’s thought, the twin elements composing the atom of technology in its classical origins and which, until now have wandered the “desolation of the earth” separate and at war, these twin elements of provocation and poeting, calculation and meditation, space and time, are finally reunited in a new experimental moment of fusion. The Heideggerian method solves the riddle that it sought only to reveal and, in doing so, provides an ethics of technology, an ethics that has something fundamental to say about the unfolding future of planetary technicity because the Heideggerian project is technology. Beyond the specific historical details populating each of Heidegger’s writings on technology, from the atomic weaponry of “The Question Concerning Technology” and the theoretical physics of “What is Metaphysics?” to the bio-genetics of The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, Heidegger brings to the project of thinking technology a mode of expression simultaneously ancient and post-human, equally at home in the question of being and not-being. And if at the end of his life, Heidegger abandons the comfortable illusions of existentialism that are the condition of possibility of Being and Time, that is only because faithful to the method of “challenging-forth into the ordering of the standing-reserve” [14] that is the hallmark of the technological surgery upon the human condition, Heidegger does not, in the end, spare his own thought from the bitter lessons of his diagnosis. This is one thinker with the courage to make of his own theory of technology a model of technicity with such intensity and determination that his thought challenges technology to the death. Challenges, that is, the world picture of technology to circle back on itself, to engage the conflicting impulses towards “harvesting” and “poiesis” in their most primary expression of being in Heidegger’s “way of thinking.” Without exaggeration, the alethia — the truth — of Heidegger is, at once, the alethia of technology. Resolving the limits and creative intensities of Heidegger’s vision of technology is much more than another perspective external to technology. To think Heidegger is also to presence the interior limits of a mode of (technical) being that seduces by its radical impossibility: revelation without actualization, calculation by abandoning justice to the oblivion of being.

The question of Heidegger is proximate to understanding the twenty-first century.


[1] Heidegger, The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude. In this text, Heidegger provides the theory of completed nihilism: its fundamental attunement — “profound boredom;” its method — the disciplinary practices of bio-genetics; its dominant cultural sign — terminal drifting towards generalized “indifference.”

[2] See in particular, Heidegger’s reflections on the historical destiny of the German “folk,” in his Die Selbstbehauptung der deutschen Universitat, “Rektoratsrede,” Breslau: W.G. Korn, 1933.

[3] Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology, “The Word of Nietzsche,” p.102. “In the willing of this will, however, there comes upon man the condition that he concomitantly will the conditions, the requirements, of such a willing. That means: to posit values and to ascribe worth to everything in keeping with values. In such a manner does value determine all that is in its Being.”

[4] Martin Heidegger, Nietzsche, “The Will to Power.” p.197. Beyond the question of technology, Heidegger argues that the will to will that is the essence of technological destining always requires that human and non-human nature be reduced to the function of “standing-reserve.” Thus, for example, in Nietzsche, Heidegger describes the essential movement of the will to power as gathering into itself means for the “preservation” of power. “Therefore, enhancement of power is at the same time in itself the preservation of power.” In is in this sense that Heidegger describes the technical condition of human subjectivity as “standing-reserve” in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, p. 23. In his essay, “On the Question of Being,” Heidegger notes: “The reduction that can be ascertained within beings rests on the production of being, namely, on the unfolding of the will to power into the unconditional will to will,” Pathmarks, p. 312.

[5] Martin Heidegger, Basic Writings, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” pp. 140-212. For Heidegger, the importance of art in the technological milieu was precisely to open the question of technology to a different form of interpretation, not only the logic of “calculability” but also the revelation of poetry.

[6] Martin Heidegger, Pathways, p.258. “Homelessness so understood consists in the abandonment of beings by being. Homelessness is the symptom of the oblivion of being. Because of it the truth of being remains unthought.”

[7] Ibid; “What is Metaphysics,” p.93. “Being held out into the nothing — as Dasein is — on the ground of concealed anxiety makes the human being a lieutenant of the nothing.”

[8] Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, p.44.

[9] Ibid., p.100. In “The Word of Nietzsche,” Heidegger draws the conclusion from technological objectification as destiny: “Man, within the subjectness belonging to whatever is, rises up into the subjectivity of his essence. Man enters into insurrection. The world changes into object. In this revolutionary objectifying of everything that is, the earth, that which first of all must be put at the disposal of representing and setting forth, moves into the midst of human positing and analyzing. The earth can show itself only as an object of assault, an assault that, in human willing, establishes itself as unconditional objectification.”

[10] Ibid., p.48.

[11] Martin Heidegger, “The Turning,” in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, p.41.

[12] Martin Heidegger, The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, p.162. “Profound boredom, its being left empty, means being delivered over to beings’ telling refusal of themselves as a whole. It is thus emptiness as a whole.” Intensifying Nietzsche’s admonition that man has grown tired of himself, Heidegger asks: “Has man in the end become boring to himself? — as the question in which we ready ourselves for a fundamental attunement of our Dasein.” (FCM, p. 161.)

[13] Writing of the “grounding-attunement,” Heidegger states: “In the first beginning: deep wonder. In another beginning: deep foreboding.” Martin Heidegger, Contributions to Philosophy (From Enowning), translated by Parvis Emad and Kenneth Maly, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1999. (p.15).

[14] Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” p.20.