The Transformation of National Revolutionary
Figures in the Technological Era
It is clear we are living in an inescapably technological era. No facet of our lives is untouched by it. Our day begins with a machine sounding the alarm; we take a shower with water provided by a vast network of pipes maintained by a multitude of technicians; we board a vehicle and travel along mass transit networks to a job where necessarily modern tools are used to bolster the extant technological system through labor; we return home using our vehicles, perhaps cooking ourselves dinner using a microwave or stove connected to the electrical grid; maybe using the computer or television for amusement, before setting our alarm and going to bed (and many in this day and age will only get to sleep with the aid of high-tech pharmaceuticals, unfortunately). Technology has even intruded into the most intimate spheres of our lives – we can find potential mates using computerized dating systems; we can even learn to attract women in an algorithmic fashion by utilizing certain neuro-linguistic programming techniques. Indeed, in an age of meaningless hookups, we can even say the act of sex itself takes on the character of mechanical parts hammering together. Not a single aspect of our life is outside the empire of technology. Even if we consider isolated “primitive” tribes in the jungles of the Amazon, they only remain untouched from the encroachments of miners, farmers, and ranchers by the strict surveillance and force of arms of modern technological states. Thus, even Amazonian hunter-gatherers exist within this world of technology.
The character that rules over the technological system today is bourgeois, global, capitalism. However, in no way are the two equivalent. We can point to the growth of the technological system under the two defunct political theories of the modern age, fascism and Communism. The Nazis gave us the highway system, and made great strides in the development of the jet engine and rocket technology. The Soviets pioneered satellites and space flight, and of course gave us that icon of revolutionary technology, the AK-47 rifle. The dominant position of global capitalism is more a coincidence of the failure of the other two political theories, rather than capitalism’s skill at utilizing the forces of technology. Certainly, in the fields of consumer technology, capitalism has innovated far more than any other. It has given the common man quite complex ways to satisfy his desires. There is a very practical reason that bourgeois liberal capitalism focuses so much on consumer technology. By giving man the ability to satisfy his desires through consumption, this technology masks the profound threat technology poses to the very basis of liberal civilization. What are liberty, human rights, the individual right to life, equality, democracy, or even humanity itself to a machine? Technology corrodes the fundamentals of liberal humanism even in the most banal ways. The sanctity of life, the Kantian primacy of the individual as a means in himself, are denied every day in mass transit. We board a metal machine with a more than negligible chance of fatal failure. The train derails, the car crashes, the plane falls from the sky. Such events are written off as the unfortunate necessities of a technological society. Individual life is reduced to a resource of the transit system, and death a byproduct. Eventually, technological disregard for individual life will invade every corner of society, and burn the values of liberalism as a machine burns fuel. Only by seizing the essence of technology and directing it against the capitalist rulers of the system will the system collapse. However, the new system will exist within the interior of the inescapable universe of technology. The anti-humanist force of technology is also necessarily anti-liberal. The technological revolution we are witnessing is bound to destroy the old world of liberal values, which exists as a thin veneer over the inescapably anti-humanist rule of machines. The epoch in which ideological priority is being given to individual human life is drawing to a close as the new, cold, automated world disregards all humanity. The end of liberalism will not come from some idyllic return to a primitive utopia, but by a painful passage through an era of total mechanization.
This view of the human essence as a mere reserve of resources for technology was addressed by the great German philosopher Martin Heidegger in a lecture published under the title “The Question Concerning Technology.”1 Technology is a challenge to nature, “which puts to nature the unreasonable demand that it supply energy that can be extracted and stored as such.” Nature becomes a “standing-reserve,” a pool of energy to be utilized by technology, an object of technology, rather than an autonomous subject. Yet even in the most quotidian contexts we see that man is just another natural resource, as much as coal or iron. We pass through a “human resources” department upon our entry into the job market. While it is human forces that guide the technological system, which prevents man from becoming part of the standing reserve entirely, we become objects within the technological system, as Heidegger notes:
The current talk about human resources, about the supply of patients for a clinic, gives evidence of this. The forester who, in the wood, measures the felled timber and to all appearances walks the same forest path in the same way as did his grandfather is today commanded by profit-making in the lumber industry, whether he knows it or not. He is made subordinate to the orderability of cellulose, which for its part is challenged forth by the need for paper, which is then delivered to newspapers and illustrated magazines. The latter, in their turn, set public opinion to swallowing what is printed, so that a set configuration of opinion becomes available on demand. Yet precisely because man is challenged more originally than are the energies of nature, i.e., into the process of ordering, he never is transformed into mere standing-reserve. Since man drives technology forward, he takes part in ordering as a way of revealing. But the unconcealment itself, within which ordering unfolds, is never a human handiwork, any more than is the realm through which man is already passing every time he as a subject relates to an object.
In the context of the technological system, there emerges an “Enframing,” termed Gestell in German by Heidegger, which is the essence of modern technology. It is the revelation of the world as a “standing-reserve.” It is not a means to an end, nor is it reducible to some metaphysical or religious goal, as Heidegger states:
In Enframing, that unconcealment comes to pass in conformity with which the work of modern technology reveals the real as standing-reserve. This work is therefore neither only a human activity nor a mere means within such activity. The merely instrumental, merely anthropological definition of technology is therefore in principle untenable. And it cannot be rounded out by being referred back to some metaphysical or religious explanation that undergirds it.
Heidegger recognized danger in this Enframing. It is possible that man himself entirely becomes a “standing-reserve” when he starts to see everything as “standing-reserve” and his proper role as its manager:
This danger attests itself to us in two ways. As soon as what is unconcealed no longer concerns man even as object, but does so, rather, exclusively as standing-reserve, and man in the midst of objectlessness is nothing but the orderer of the standing-reserve, then he comes to the very brink of a precipitous fall; that is, he comes to the point where he himself will have to be taken as standing-reserve.
Moreover, he can no longer encounter his own essence independently of the Enframing caused by technology. He loses his originality and authenticity. Technology is not only a physical threat to the world, but a threat to what it truly means to be human. As Heidegger summarizes, “The essence of technology, as a destining of revealing, is the danger.”
However, what does danger or mere humanity mean to a revolutionary? Heidegger’s friend and correspondent Ernst Jünger saw technology, as did Heidegger, as a force of destruction, opening the door to vast, mechanized forms of pain and danger, reducing man to an object before itself. However, unlike Heidegger, he did not view the advent of the technological with trepidation. Rather, he embraced it as a battering ram against the decadence of bourgeois, liberal, humanist society. In his seminal work, The Worker,2 he writes:
In technology we recognize the most effective, the most incontestable means of total revolution. We know that the sphere of destruction possesses a secret centre from which the apparently chaotic process of subjugation of old powers takes place. This act is revealed when those who are subjugated accept, either willingly or unwillingly, the new language.
We observe that a new kind of humanity moves towards this decisive centre. The phase of destruction is replaced by a real and visible order when that race accedes to dominion that knows how to speak the new language, and not in terms of mere intellect, of progress, of utility, or of convenience, but as an elemental language. This will be the case to the same extent to which the face of the worker discloses its heroic features. (p.114)
The prime figure of this technological revolt against the liberal world will be the figure of the worker. By the figure of the worker, often translated as “form of the worker,” we do not mean something reminiscent of the Marxists’ economic conception of the proletarian. It is not to be understood within the framework of bourgeois economics, upon which Marxism is dependent. Rather, it is the archetype of an age that imprints itself on the world. As Jünger notes in The Worker:
In “form” rests the whole which is more than the sum of its parts and which was inaccessible to an age used to thinking in anatomical terms. It is the hallmark of an age to come that man will once again see, feel, and act under the spell of forms. The degree to which they can perceive the influence of forms will determine the rank of an intellect, the worth of an eye … From the moment when form shapes one’s experience, everything becomes “form.” Form is thus not a new dimension to be discovered in addition to those already known; rather to a new gaze the world appears as a theatre of forms and their interrelations. To point out an error typical for the period of transition, it is not a question of the “individual” disappearing and only being able to derive meaning from corporations, communities, or ideas, as higher-order units. Form is also represented at the individual level: every finger nail, every atom in him is “form.” (p. 21)
To be continued
- Heidegger, Martin, The Question Concerning Technology, and Other Essays, translated by William Levitt (New York: Harper & Row, 1977).
- Jünger, Ernst, The Worker, translated by Bogdan Costea and Laurence P. Hemming (unpublished manuscript, forthcoming from Northwestern University Press).