Revolutionary Technologies: Praxical Time as a Way of Overcoming Reification
Róisín Lally, PhD
This article argues that by recognizing the fundamental relationship between praxical time and dwelling as a matrix of interweaving modes of being, society can subvert the potential reification of humanity by technology. This can only be achieved through a democratic process that involves participatory agents not only at the design level but also in the event of naming future innovations. By looking at the work of Alain Badiou, it is shown how a fusion of Heideggerian-inspired phenomenology and speculative ontology is critical for the advancement of social theory, as revolutionary technologies become increasingly immersive.
Key Words: Heidegger, Feenberg, Badiou, speculative ontology, reification, dwelling, revolutionary technology, praxical time, naming.
Much of the recent pre-occupation with the “IT revolution” is rooted in the drive towards efficiency and control, which, according to Martin Heidegger, is a 20th century phenomenon where time itself is reduced to a calculable value, something not to be wasted. As a consequence humans regard everything, including humanity, as a product of technical reason and action. Symptomatic of this is our total absorption in communication technologies, which has led to an exponential increase in online interactions, commonly referred to as virtual relations. However, the language of modern internet technology points to an ambiguity. This ambiguity can be summarized using Herbert Marcuse’s (1964) understanding of technological consciousness as a twofold structure of practical and representational thinking,1 which he develops from Martin Heidegger’s twofold understanding of technology as crafting and calculating. The former is characteristic of experiential knowledge, the latter epistemological knowledge, which Heidegger later formulates as a distinction between poetic and enframing consciousness. Enframing is intimately related to what Lukács (1971) calls the “reification of consciousness”2 where human beings become subsumed by the predominance of the rational structures that govern modern communication technologies, leading to a distortion of human relations. Given the language of the internet,3 which is dominated by Cartesian ideology with its emphasis on the interior self, the possibility of a thoughtful or contemplative life within a shared community remains closed off. Heidegger argues that thinking in terms of assertion as proof of existence has been inherited historically from the Greeks. However, he also reminds us that latent in the Greek’s notion of truth (al?theia) lies the tension between poi?sis and enframing. Truth, therefore, is not static; it is a building up and working out of a culture. For Heidegger, building means to dwell-in-the-world. In Contributions to Philosophy (From Enowing), (1999), Heidegger refers to dwelling as an event, or the truth of being.4 Events, as opposed to universal truths, are ongoing transformations that endure until their cultural time passes. Because revolutionary technologies are, by their very nature, new, the event of modern internet technologies is ongoing. In other words we are still building up and working out the political and social landscape of these technologies. But do these technologies by their very nature reify humanity?
1 Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man, (Boston: Beacon, 1964), p. 1.
2 Georg Lukács, History of Class Consciousness, trans., Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1971), 93.
3 Language such as “selfies”, “i-phones”, and “i-tunes”.
Thus Section I will begin by outlining Heidegger’s departure from traditional ontology. By extending Heidegger’s dwelling-in-the-world thesis in Section II, Andrew Feenberg develops his secondary instrumentalization theory to overcome the objectification of humanity by technology. Like Heidegger, Feenberg sees our technologies not as a construction or forming of the self but rather as an ongoing process of receiving and transforming. This ongoing process is a time of praxis, or praxical time. The twofold problematic of praxical time concerns (i) the culture are we building and (ii) the naming of these transformative technologies. Therefore, in Section III, we will see that although naming does not signify truth, it nevertheless leads to the reification of things as objects. Therefore, the process of naming is at least as important as the objects we invent. As we invent new technologies that transform notions of the self and our relations to others in virtual space, we must name these technologies with care, so that the social and political are embedded into the technologies prior to production. In this way reification can become a communal and participatory event in which human creativity is engaged in an ongoing relationality rather than a dehumanizing process in which we stand forever as isolated subjects before a frozen and alienated collection of objects.
While the Heidegger of Being and Time (2010) situated the ontological priority of being as temporality, his later philosophy focuses on the sociopolitical context of being’s dwelling. The former was structured as a transcendental hermeneutical-phenomenological analysis of being-in-the-world, the latter as the ontological priority of dwelling-in-the-world. This move towards dwelling is an attempt by Heidegger to address the final questions he poses in Being and Time concerning the “reification of consciousness”, a response to Georg Lukács’ History and Class Consciousness (1971). Heidegger writes in the final lines of his Magnus Opus:
4 Martin Heidegger, Contributions to Philosophy (From Enowing), trans., Parvis Emad and Kenneth Maly (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indianan University Press, 1999), p. 42.
We have long known that ancient ontology deals with “reified concepts” and that the danger exists of “reifying consciousness”. But what does reifying mean? Where does it arise from? Why is being “initially” “conceived” in terms of what is objectively present, and not in terms of things at hand that do, after all, lie still nearer to us? Why does this reification come to dominate again and again? How is the being of “consciousness” positively structured so that reification remains inappropriate to it? Is the “distinction” between “consciousness” and “thing” sufficient at all for a primordial unfolding of the ontological problematic?5
Heidegger’s entire project in Being and Time is the groundwork to restructure the sedimentation of the Cartesian object and subject division. This destabilization of objects as an ongoing process of disclosure as opposed to the objectification of things and people, is what preoccupied Heidegger for the remainder of his career, as he continually sought new ways to talk about human subjects and their relations.
In his essay ‘The Thing’ (1971) Heidegger establishes how each thing “worlds”, or opens up a web of relations. 6 Uncovering the etymology of the term “thing” he finds it to mean das Ding, res, causa, Rosa, chose, words that describe a gathering movement towards “that which bears on or concerns man,” that which is present, “as standing forth-here”.7 In other words, a thing is not a representation or a sign that signifies something, nor is it, first of all, an object. Rather, a thing is a relational gathering that perdures. A thing perdures in the fourfold: earth, air, mortals, and divinities. When a thing is not simply an essence with its own limits, but is in relation with other entities, then it is worldly. For example, a jug gathers a world to itself, a gathering to which the potter merely contributes by shaping the clay. For Heidegger, in opposition to Husserl, the jug is not an object revealing itself with each new aspect, and in opposition to Aristotle the form of the jug is not contained in the mind of the potter, nor much less in the Platonic sense of an outward appearance as idea. Rather the jug emerges from its own void and is only “a thing in so far as it things”.8
Using the old Germanic meaning of the word thing, (gathering) he uncovers the essential nature of the jug as a “poured gift”.9 The outpouring distinguishes it from other objects, say for example a hammer, and makes the jug a jug. The jug is an aggregate vessel which “holds” wine or water, a thing “made” from the earth; it “sits on” the earth, with sides and a bottom, and “holds” substances such as air and atoms which can be replaced by liquids. The world depends on the unity of the four. The worlding is the joining together of each of these separate natures into a “onefold”. The thing (jug) stays, no longer in the process of being made, but in the gathering and uniting the fourfold.
The thing things. In thinging, it stays earth and sky, divinities and mortals. Staying, the thing brings the four, in their remoteness, near to one another. This bringing-near is nearing. Nearing is the presencing of nearness.10
Things exist within a fourfold structure of being. In my interpretation the fourfold indicates both nature and culture.
5 Martin Heidegger, Being and Time: A Translation of Sein und Zeit, trans., Joan Stambaugh, revised by Dennis J. Schmidt (Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 2010), 437. All notes from Being and Time are taken from Joan Stambaugh.
6 GA 79: Bremer and Freiburger Vorträge. Edited by Petra Jaeger, 1994. Parts of this volume were first published in Vorträge und Aufsätze, 1954 (See GA 7.) Bremen and Freiburg Lectures: Insight into That Which Is and Basic Principles of Thinking, transl., Andrew J. Mitchell (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012). [Earlier, from the lecture series “Einblick in das was ist” (1949):] GA 79: 5–21 (= GA 7: 165–87), “Das Ding” = “The Thing.” In Poetry, Language, Thought, trans., Albert Hofstadter, 165–186, (New York: Harper & Row, 1971). Hereafter PLT.
7 PLT, 173, 174.
8 Ibid, 175.
9 Ibid, 170.
10 Ibid, 175. See also, 177, 178, and 180
Earth and sky signify the potentiality for a thing coming into being and the giftedness of actuality. While mortals and divinities are representative of the human ability to understand, and create a cultural context in which to move around and relate. The entire structure of being comes together into a unity (oneness) within the horizon of intelligibility. As such, the thing is not a delimiting object but an unfolding of the fourfold.
Things in this context have inherent meaning and cannot be viewed in isolation. The jug is only a jug insofar as it used for pouring. The form (jug) follows from its function (out pouring). The function of the jug is what makes a jug, a jug. This is not the scientific way of thinking of function as an aggregate of individual causes arising out of the past, nor of the Modern idea of function as the purpose in the mind of the user. Rather the jug is an event of being. As an event (of the fourfold) it brings something to light; it quenches thirst, or is used as libation, but in either case the event occurs within a context of possibilities becoming actualized or presented and others withdrawing from presence. The thing (jug), things (pours). In pouring it gives, but also holds something back. We do not see the well from which the water was drawn, or the ocean as its storehouse from which the rains continually arise. These things are concealed; they remain invisible. The jug can only be truly known when it forms a unity within the manifoldness of being. In other words, the truth of the jug is not alone the material out of which it is made, its shape, or the purpose to which it is put, all which stand out there in appearance. Phenomenologically Heidegger discloses the nature of a thing as an event of being.
To understand truth, then, we appear to be looking within a framework of a complex mode of being, rather than any mere assertion of truth or falsity. Heidegger calls it al?theia, by means of which something is shown and something is, it is necessarily, forgotten. The thing hovers within a rift of oppositions; truth and untruth, being and non-being, revealing and concealing. The jug sets itself into work.11 The work presences as this work, at this time, in this particular way. The essence of the jug as the outpouring, cannot be reduced to form. It is the function of the jug that is essential to the jug’s nature. But we must remember that function is itself irreducible to the subject’s purposes, for our purposes are always responses to the functions made possible by the web of inter-relations of which we are a part.
11 Ibid, 185, 186, 187. This is analogous to the act of founding a state as sacrifice of both a giving and receiving.
In his essay ‘The Question Concerning Technology’ (1993) Heidegger interchanges between wesen (essence) and Anwesen (presencing) to denote the event-like meaning of essence. An-wesen is coming to presence whereas wesen in the traditional sense is the stable condition of an entity. In normal usage there is no hyphen in this word; by using the hyphen Heidegger intends to emphasize the prefix an (to, at, toward) to indicate essence as a “coming to presence”12 as a way of challenging the philosophical tradition that he sees as reifying the notion of essence and thus losing its event-like, historical, and relational nature.
Drawing on the original meaning of the verb form, Heidegger accords to the word wesen a crucial role in his speaking of the happening of being. Moreover, he asserts that wesen is “not whatness, quidditias, but enduring as presence, presencing, and absenting”.13 In 2000 and again in 1982 he associates Wesen [essence] with Aristotle’s expression to ti ?n einai (“what [it] was to be”), which, like Wesen, has to do with the past: meaning what a thing was, or has been, before it is actualized, and what we understand “earlier”, already or a priori about something.14 Essence is also identified as währen, to endure, as Heidegger states: “The noun is derived from the verb wesen and is the same as to last or endure (währen)”.15 It is in the enduring that the being of what-is, as presencing [An-wesen], governs everything that, maintaining itself on-goingly in its own particularity, presents itself by way of time as a temporal duration for the essence is opened out by way of man and lived out by him.16
12 Martin Heidegger, ‘The Question Concerning Technology’ in Basic Writings, ed., David Farrell Krell (London; New York: Routledge, 1993), p.314.
13 Note: this is Heidegger’s translation from Pathmarks on page 208. Also, IM, p. 59.
14 The Basic Problems of Phenomenology, trans., A Hofstadter (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982), p.120. GA 24: Die Grundprobleme der Phänomenologie, ed., Friedrich-Wilhelm von Herrmann, 1975.
15 QCT, 161.
16 Martin Heidegger, ‘Time and Being’, in On Time and Being, trans., Joan Stambaugh (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002); originally New York: Harper & Row, 1972. p. 12.
Heidegger’s creative use of etymologies also links wesen to sein, to be in.17 This then creates resonances with his etymologies in ‘Building, Dwelling, Thinking’ (1993) where he links the bin of the interiority of the Cartesian Ich bin (I am) to the exteriority of ancient bauen (building), and recasts it as buan (dwelling). Thus, as with Plato we must think of essence in terms of the fullness of being, but Heidegger wants us to see being, not as a static, absolute truth separate from the realm of becoming, human involvement, and human experience, but more akin to the sheltering and stable (but not eternal) space for meaning created in a home that fits harmoniously into the rhythms of human life in a particular setting. In a similar vein Heidegger reminds us in that a gathering of the assembly of free people in ancient Germanic societies was called a thing (ding).18 Thus, Heidegger’s answer to the problem of reification is to recast it as the question: Why is being “initially” “conceived” in terms of what is objectively present, and not in terms of things at hand that do, after all, lie still nearer to us? His solution is to remind us that to be a thing (ding) is to have an essential nature but that his nature is tied to living, temporal communities and shared ways of life.
This rejection of things as mere abstractions, separate from content and meaning, is not just a matter of changing one’s thinking; it requires a confrontation with the iron cage of rationality which conceals the immediate character of things as things. In advanced industrial and technological societies, things becomes reified in the form of a rational order, including human consciousness where, as Lukács observes, the fate of the worker is that “this self-objectification, this transformation of human function into a commodity reveals in all its starkness the dehumanized and dehumanizing function of the commodity relation”. 19 The capitalist system subordinates the worker to use-values where nature, culture, and human relations become objects or commodities. Latent in the commodity exchange are relations between people, the objects used, and the labor they produce. Heidegger’s analysis of the metaphysical underpinnings of this process of “enframing,” by which these relations are obscured, is of central importance and has had a profound impact on philosophy around the world since Being and Time was published almost a hundred years ago, producing a vast secondary literature. But in order to overcome reification, we must also engage in a more directly political account of contemporary technologies. So with Heideggerian tools we have gathered, we turn to the more overtly political analysis of technology in the work of Andrew Feenberg, a thinker deeply influenced by both Heidegger and Marx, via his teacher Marcuse.
17 Ibid. Also, Lovitt et al., p.253, IM, p. 59.
18 BW, 355.
19 Lukács, 1971, 92.
Secondary Instrumentalization as Dwelling
Feenberg’s Critical Theory of Technology (1991) projects a general analysis of technology and its relation to culture, with the aim of opening opportunities for democratic development. In his view technology does not have an essential nature but is a socially constructed historical phenomenon. He develops this idea further in Questioning Technology (1999), where he argues that technology does not have an essential nature but exists within a matrix of social and political agents: firstly the technological master actors (technicians and programmers), and secondly the subordinate actors (users of technology) who influence the ongoing evolution of the technological design.20These two types of activity are what make up the technological phenomenon. The first is based on a positivist world view, in which production is central and technology is devoid of meaning. Thinking of technology exclusively in these terms, what Heidegger calls present-at-hand (object-being), eliminates the history of technology and its socio-historical context of use. The second is based on life-experiences, i.e., the ready-to-hand (work-being).
Our understanding of technology needs to encompass this complexity, and Feenberg offers us an enrichment of Heidegger’s concept of dwelling that is more applicable to our increasingly high-tech lives. The modern house is full of meaning and is not merely a device. While a house is the centre of an electrical, communications, heating, plumbing, and mechanised system designed and created by the master actors, a house is more than that. Dwellers live in the house and often romanticize about the house by hiding and concealing devices, in traditional facades, such as gas burners in a faux wood fireplace. Dwelling in the house obscures its technical character. In a paradoxical way, the house has become the “machine for living”. While it belongs to our lifeworld, it is also an efficient device. Its goal is to shelter us from the weather, but the house also belongs to the realm of meaning. The essentialist response to this argument is that the duality of the house of devices is different to the house as a human environment: One belongs to the realm of technology and the analytic domain, the other to the life-world. The distinction is between the electric circuit as technology, and the experience of warmth and light in the space we occupy. However, Feenberg argues persuasively that these two “practices” (dwelling and devises) cannot be separated. The experience of these two dimensions – device and meaning, technical and life-world practise – are intrinsic to each other, as the user is aware of the technical source of warmth in the home and this awareness helps to shape its meaning.21 While I agree with Feenberg’s argument, it is not clear that this is entirely at odds with Heidegger’s encounter with modern technology. In fact it was his work that made us acutely aware of the relation between devices and dwelling. In ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’ Heidegger’s highway bridge is a paradigmatic example. The spatial hyperbola of a bridge defines the river. It “gathers” the earth and sky. It preserves itself as a crossing over a river and at the same time “grants mortals the way”.22 Like the Cathedral square, villages etc., bridges gather the fourfold into what Albert Borgmann calls “focal practices” which function to gather peoples. “The bridge gathers as a passage that crosses.”23 This “Gathering is called ‘thing’”.24 Thus, the bridge is not merely an unknown entity that determines people’s views in an essentialist manner. Because of the bridge’s existence it draws into itself a site, a place that is freed for settlement and lodging with a boundary; a horizon of being. Bridges are constructions that create a hyperbolic space providing a locale in which dwelling can occur, to the extent that people respond to this invitation. As such the technology of bridge building is always rooted in the larger project of being’s dwelling. And while the technological understanding of being can be disassociated from technological devices, it is not necessarily so. Like Feenberg’s example of the house, the highway bridge is not separated from the experience of drawing two communities together by crossing over the bridge, nor from their awareness of the social and political implications of this river crossing.
20 Andrew Feenberg, Questioning Technology (London, New York: Routledge, 1999), p. xii.
21 Andrew Feenberg, Critical Theory of Technology (New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), xii.
22 BW, 354.
23 Ibid, 355.
Highway bridges are not just an aid for human activity, they “reshape” those activities and meanings. Technology has in effect created multifarious worlds. While the foundation for understanding this diversity is laid by Heidegger, he does not develop the political implications of dwelling far enough to make sense of our contemporary situation, nor does he give a detailed account of many of the technologies we use. So to augment Heidegger’s reflection on the bridge, we will turn to Langdon Winner’s analysis of the automobile.25 Drivers and pedestrians use bridges to arrive at their destination. However, both those activities reveal different worlds. Prior to the highway bridge, neighbors would bike or walk. With the development of the highway bridge, the car driver and pedestrian live in their own world, and any attempt to extend a greeting is complicated by the presence of the enclosed technological device that is the car. Communication between neighbours is “shaped by the incompatibility” of two forms of locomotion – one known as walking, the newer one, driving an automobile. Thus, the instrumental/functional knowledge of automobiles is not adequate to develop our understanding of how automobiles affect the “texture” of modern life.”26 Winner writes “[i]ndividual habits, perceptions, concepts of self, ideas of space and time, social relationships, and moral and political boundaries have all been powerfully restructured in the course of technological development”.27 The side effects or “secondary consequences” of these transformations of technology are to repeatedly enter into a series of social contracts, the terms of which are revealed only after the signing of the contract. Winner calls this a state of “technological somnambulism”. He describes this as wilfully sleepwalking through the process by which technological entities reshape and condition our social and moral life.
25 Langdon Winner, The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986).
26 Ibid, 106.
27 Ibid, 107.
Winner suggests that in the continuing activity of material and social production the instruments and processes together with the production of the life world must be accounted for. This leads Winner to investigate the ways modern technology creates new forms of political life. In The Whale and Reactor Winner examines two ways artefacts can embody political implications. The first occurs when human beings specifically make or produce technologies that solve political problems such as Robert Moses’ Long Island parkway overpasses.28 These overpasses were designed to restrict the use of buses and, by implication, access by the urban poor. The second case includes technologies that, independent of any human intention, embody certain inherent political implications.
Feenberg, extending Winner’s secondary consequences, develops the political aspect of technology further by examining in detail how politics is embedded in tools or instruments. In a short essay “Subversive Rationalization”, he offers the example given by Pinch and Bijker of the ways that the technological design of the bicycle has been influenced socially and politically.
The object we take to be a self-evident “black box” actually started out as two very different devices, a sportsman’s racer and a utilitarian transportation vehicle. The high front wheel of the sportsman’s bike was necessary at the time to attain high speeds, but it also caused instability. Equal sized wheels made for a safer but less exciting ride. These two designs meet different needs and were in fact different technologies with many shared elements.29
But once closure is in place, social origins are forgotten. Accordingly closure produces a “black box” effect.30 The artefact that is no longer called into question is taken for granted. The artefact appears purely technical, even inevitable. However, a de-sedimentation of this process by way of a genetic phenomenology, can remind us that the final object may have been arrived at through a democratic and socially participatory process. The rejection of Heidegger’s exclusive emphasis on enframing is apparent here. Instead of thinking of modern technology as a particular state of consciousness determined by a particular metaphysical epoch, technology is often designed and modified as a result of practice and use, socially and politically. This Feenbergian account brings to light even more of the engaged social relations that make a particular technology possible, for unlike Winner who sees the political emerging after the technological invention, Feenberg sees it as embedded in the technology already at the stage of design.
28 Carl Mitcham, Thinking Through Technology The Path between Engineering and Philosophy (London, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1994), 187- 188, and Winner (1986), 22-25.
29 Andrew Feenberg, Subversive Rationalization: Technology, Power and Democracy, Inquiry, 35: 3 – 4, 1992. This paper expands on Chapter 1 of Critical Theory of Technology delivered at the American Philosophical Association, Dec., 28, 1991.
30 Feenberg, 1999, 11.
This affirms the phenomenological account that the essence of the bike is its function and not form. Heidegger’s ontology of technology is directed at the function of the bike. The function is prior to the black-boxed or reified effect. The inner structure or being of the bike is the metaphysical blueprint for a way of engaging the world that allows for the invention of the bike in the first place. How that bike is used, or what gave rise to modifications in the design, are merely superficial attributes. This does not deny variations in the bike, nor does it deny that the bike can be used for good or evil. Rather the bike, as opposed to a horse drawn carriage, has the political and social already embedded into it, for it opens certain ways of engaging the world and closes others, and these ways of engaging the world are productive of our meanings and identity. Another good example of this interweaving of culture, identity, and politics in design is the domestic use of solar energy and the whole complex of meanings that arises from this use. As Feenberg writes: “A solar house that gets its heat from the sun rather than from burning fossil fuels internalizes environmental constraints in its design, making them in some sense part of the “machinery”.
For both Feenberg and Heidegger the world gives itself to be transformed. Humanity does not “form” or construct the world, it receives it as it is given. If that disclosure is rational, then human beings interpret it as such, creating instruments that are rationally constructed (including the bicycle). This is different to an essentialism that suggests that we have always been destined to the current technological era. Instead, humanity’s receptivity is always already a response to the world, together with the metaphysical possibilities it presents. Thus we have seen so far that Feenberg’s work is not a radical break, but an important correction to Heidegger’s understanding of technology as dwelling to more completely reveal the social relations that are often embedded in modern technologies, but easy to forget as those technologies become taken for granted. This gives us some clues to the ways that we can overcome reification by making more apparent, and also inclusive and participatory, these social relations embedded in the design and use of technology particularly for more modern technologies such as the solar panel, that Heidegger never lived to see.
Nonetheless, even Feenberg and Winner’s analysis, attentive to the political as it is, remains underdeveloped for a contemporary understanding of technology. The automobile certainly has political and ontological implications as it changes the way we move, as the solar panel does for the way we heat our houses, but they do not provide the more radical rupture with the past that virtual technologies are bringing about. Virtual reality has the power to bring distant worlds into the same proximity and imaginative worlds into proximity with the real, in radical more powerful ways than can our previous communications technologies such as story-telling, novels, television, letters, and telephones could do. These immersive technologies are no longer merely science fiction; they are with us to stay.
Virtual reality31 is different to the virtual reality world or VR world in so far as in the former where the material gets inverted in the virtual world where relations foreclose on a full-body sensory experience. Thus, we might say as with Deleuze that virtual relations submit to bodies without organs, where language is reduced to machine code and communication is achieved through the development of complex avatars. On the other hand, the VR world is an immersive technology that involves a full-embodied experience. For example, Oculus Rift is an immersive interactive environment within the VR world that became available to the public in March of 2016. It is a wearable headset that goes over the eyes like a clunky pair of scuba goggles. The user is then transported into a 360-degree virtual world. Combined with “Leap Motion,” which is a camera affixed to the Rift, elements of the outside world – including the body – are added to the VR world, eliminating the need for a keyboard or mouse. In this way, users can interact with the environment: They can grab a chair, their partner’s hand, or engage in full-bodied sexual acts. The Oculus Rift is based on an optical illusion, in much the same way as photography, mirrors, and film. But whereas we always turned away from the picture or the film back to “real-life,” the enhancements of virtual-life, in this way, is becoming part of the real-life experience for many people, blurring the distinction between real-life and virtual-life.32
This new technology has the same dual nature of previous technologies. It is a device and a space for dwelling.
As a space for dwelling, humanity will continue to seek to transcend the rational objectification of the rational character of the machine and thus to overcome our tendency to reify the world and ourselves. As shown above, to dwell is to exist within a shared community, a place to build up and work out a culture. However, there is something different about the Oculus Rift and the automobile. The car is an extension of a process that has been with us for generations, namely the Industrial Revolution, a change in technological production to which we have had a long time to adapt, for example by the creation of the welfare state and the rise of labor unions in order to attempt to overcome reification and make our society more participatory. Virtual Reality is part of a new event, the IT revolution. For this revolution, the work still lies ahead of us. Because these spaces are revolutionary, we need to encompass the entire matrix of actors and inventors as Feenberg suggests, where design must incorporate the political and social, the artistic, and the philosophical. As an aid in this daunting process, it will be helpful to be clearer about the nature of a revolution. So in our final section, we turn to the nature of time and its relation to the act of naming as central to understanding our responsibly in creating transformative technologies that give rise to virtual relations in revolutionary new spaces.
31 See for example, Feenberg, 1999, Baudrillard, 1994, Borgmann, 1999, Ihde, 2002, Zimmerman, 1990 for a discussion on virtual reality.
32 Aurora Snow, ‘Welcome to Oculus XXX: In-Your-Face 3D is the Future of Porn’, The Daily Beast. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/05/31/ smart-car-meet-the-smart-city.html. Accessed 7/13/2016
Dwelling in Praxical (Revolutionary) Time
The move to democratize technology has become all the more urgent the more modern information technology pervades the lifeworld. However an aporia arises in the democratic process with regards revolutionary technologies: Revolutionary technologies by their very nature are new, yet the process of naming is retroactive, which necessarily reifies them. Once reified, the technology can no longer be thought of new. Further complications arise from the paradoxical structure of these technologies which is based on purely rational formalism while simultaneously remaining the site of human interactions and relations. To unravel these paradoxes we will need to understand the relation between modern information technology and truth – truth as reason and truth as al?theia. It is the contention of this paper that these dichotomous forces confront each other in immersive technologies where calculative and crafting come together in a new way. Because we are still hypothesizing about the possible effects of such technologies they can be considered revolutionary technologies. But because naming has the potential to reify objects, the question is how do we maintain a space of dwelling without reifying human relations?
Ordinarily we think of the computer technology as a tool for calculation which submits to immanent repetitions. This is because the computer is designed in the language of Boolean logic and set-theory; a language of logical instructions. The infinite set of looping algorithms repeat continuously, devoid of meaning. This language gets translated into the language of higher level programming languages used by Information technology, such as Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), from which all other interface languages have evolved. Truth in this formal system becomes stripped of its “meaning,” i.e. of its content and intuition. The only meaning that exists is the one given by the formal rules of the system, with no reference to either intuitive truth or relation to reality. Truth, here remains wholly mechanistic and algorithmic, for mathematical operations become nothing but a sequence of operations deduced from given axioms, which appeal to nothing beyond themselves.
This notion of truth, so dominant in postmodernism, has been challenged by Badiou. In Being and Event (2005) he masterfully works out the conditions under which the new occurs. He posits that novelty is contingent on truth, by drawing a distinction between truth and knowledge. Truth is first and foremost something new. Knowledge on the other hand is what is transmitted or repeated; he calls this “encyclopedic” knowledge. Truth, on the other hand, is about action, or “intervention”.33 One does not simply know or contemplate a truth, one acts on it as a “subject”. Praxis subsists in the truth procedures of political action amongst others. According to Badiou, truths are made, not as the effect of an order, but by rupturing with the order which supports truth. This is what he calls ‘event’. Thus, truth is newness, and the emergence of truth is strictly incalculable. It is subject to contingency, only named truth after the fact. In fact, the truth may never come to pass, and when it does emerge, it emerges as infinite—but it is made possible by finite subjects. Truth in general (as opposed to ‘veridicity’) is known only through retroaction, a ‘will have been’ that is the structure of an event. So as we can see with both Heidegger and Badiou, events are revolutionary by their very nature, once we hear the ambiguous sense of revolution as both destroying and instituting, and returning and repeating.
Within events, time emerges in and through the orders of doing (praxis) and making (poi?sis or chronos). Doing (praxis) is a process whereby something happens or an event takes place. Praxis is oriented toward a goal, but it is not contained in the future; rather it is the moment between past and future that is the temporal dimension of decision. The ontological structure of sequential time is making. Chronos and its measures are ontologically prior; it constitutes the “between” moments that allow for the praxical situation of revolutionary action.
33 Alain Badiou, Being and Even, trans., Oliver Feltham (London, New York: Continuum, 2005), Part 7, Meditation 31.
Human beings are agents in and through time who disclose the practical constitution of temporality. To elucidate this, Badiou appeals to the Christ Event as a time of revolution34, an example already used by Kant in Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone. There Kant argues that Christianity was not a mere continuation of the old. Instead it was the introduction of a new moral religion in place of the old worship, to which the people were all too well habituated. Christianity arose suddenly, though not unprepared for, from Judaism. Kant adds, this new teaching “effected a thoroughgoing revolution in doctrines of faith”.35 However, while the Romans were provoked and awestruck at the revolution that was taking place, as is made clear by the persecution of the Christians, they failed to mention Christianity in their official public discourse. It was only after a lapse of a century that the Romans instituted inquiries into the nature of the change of faith, and “Christianity” as such is born. As Badiou teaches, the new situation is only named retroactively.
The event constitutes and creates a subjectivity in which, and through which, the event is manifested as a universal singularity. St. Paul is an example of the “faithful subject” to the event, but it should be remembered that Badiou’s subject is not the individual. The subject, for Badiou, it is not egological, psychical, substantial, nor conscious, and to participate in its constitution is an anonymous dispersal into the variations of a procedural beginning.36 The task of St. Paul, as a creative inventor, was to choose fidelity to the situation and accept the consequence of a “judgment” or decision against the continuity of his old life. Christians and followers of Christ were faithful to the Christ Event. The contingency of the Event, means it may not come to pass at all, as in the case of the still-born Spartacus Event, or it may perdure for centuries through the faithfulness of its subjects. The Christ event has lasted for 2,000 years. But this does not have to be the case, and more recently Christianity has been replaced by Secularism. No event lasts forever, and, no matter how long or short, each event participates in an atemporal and universal truth.
34 Badiou, 2005, Part 5, Meditation 21.
35 Immanuel Kant, Religion Within the Limits of Reason. (Illinois: The Open Court House Publishing Company, 1934), 118.
36 Alain Badiou, The Concept of Model: An Introduction to the Materialist Epistemology of Mathematics, eds., and trans., Zachary Luke Fraser and Tzuchien Tho (Melbourne: Re-press, 2007), I.i..
In a similar way, subjects faithful to the new technologies of Boolean logic and consequently information technologies were forged from the logic of set theory, and it is this to which we turn to illustrate Badiou’s fidelity to the Cantor Event. Rebecca Goldstein (2005) summarizes fidelity to the event as the move to an “axiomatic system divested of all appeals to intuition”37. Truth then, in the formal system, becomes stripped of its “meaning,” i.e. of its content. Such a system, devoid of intuitive appeals to truth, remains wholly mechanistic and algorithmic. This is why Badiou thinks that technology is not a real concept, but is merely a journalistic debate. As such it is not a serious question for philosophy. The question of technology should only arise within the truth-procedure of political spheres (or science, art, or love). In other words, politics is a space where truth may emerge. There are no technological problems per se, only techno–political problems. In determining the political, the technological question is exhausted.38
In my view, Badiou’s ontology provides a powerful account of computer technology, with its set-theoretical underpinnings, but cannot, on its own, ever truly escape the status quo of the state of its situation. Although modern technology admits to a community of subjects faithful to the event (for example, using the internet and its supporting interfaces), while we live and remain in the situation (i.e., IT revolution), the very possibility of naming the event is foreclosed. We do not know where the technology will lead. Indeed it is only now that the true potential of the printed word (15th Century) is becoming evident, such that the printed word has morphed into 3D printing. Through the use of 3D printing techniques, designers are developing works of art that are completely immersive. Because we do not yet have the temporal distance for the naming, immersive technologies they are still revolutionary. But this also means that we must think through to the end of these inventions so that in naming them we are also incorporating a political and social truth procedure. This means that we must not leave technology to its purely formal mathematical origins and wait to assign value and make critical judgments until technology is absorbed into the meaning-making activities of science, politics, art, and love. Feenberg is right here to insist on the way technologies have political agency but we also need to extend Feenberg’s democratization of technology to include the naming process of those inventions to subvert the scientific tendency to reify objects we use. For if our technologies are reified, so too are the relations that develop using those technologies. We can destabilize these tendencies when we begin to understand technology in terms of time. Praxical time is a time of building up and working out of a culture. This is not meant as constructing but rather transforming what is already given, and being attuned to the possibilities of what the new world order can offer. This paper points to a speculative approach in the design process, using a truth procedure that requires hypothesizing about the possible ends of technologies before they are created. In a Heideggerian retrieval of attunement to language, this also demands attention to naming such technology.
37 Rebecca Goldstein, Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel (New York: W.W. Norton 2005), 129.
38 Alain Badiou in an Open Lecture On The Truth-Process, August 2002.
This paper has argued that an integration of speculative ontology and hermeneutical phenomenology is essential for the advancement of critical theory, specifically relating to technology as outlined by Feenberg. Modern internet technologies are grounded in a theory of absolute truth. They depend on a rationally ordered system encased within an algorithm of finite instructions. This notion of truth contrasts with Feenberg’s secondary instrumentalization and Heidegger’s dwelling-in-the-world as al?theia, which is always in a process of disclosure. The latter is a tension that arises from the multistability of things ready-to-hand, within the context of the present-at-hand, history, and our involvement in the world as a state of progress and change that is always in conflict, a praxical time. Praxical time (revolutionary time), is what constitutes a genuine active participation in the making of and working out of a culture. Internal to revolutionary time, human beings find a place to dwell, a place that is familiar. The site of familiarity, for much of Western society, constitutes the virtual world of online relations.
In this time of revolution (praxical time), we need to seek ways to think beyond the logic of information technology to include its social and political context. This paper argues that when we anticipate future technologies we can embed the ethical and political prior to production. As has been shown, this can only be understood in light of a serious reflection on the metaphysical consciousness of humanity, and not merely on immediate and discrete technologies. Once we understand technology in its own terms as a movement of consciousness within the prevailing philosophical structures, we can predict with some degree of accuracy the consequences of developing certain technologies. Concurrent with recent innovations, we must also take the naming of our technologies as seriously as the technologies we create. By integrating speculative ontology and hermeneutical phenomenology, critical theory can chart a course that integrates the entire spectrum of actors to build a culture that embraces immersive technologies such that relationships are not forged from the commodity market. This can only happen if this change is not left to the technical team that develop the software, but is open to a democratic process.
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