Technologies of the Human: Modern Figures of Thought

March 19, 2016

The workshop “Technologies of the Human: Modern Figures of Thought” on March 19, 2016, was organized by Paul Fleming (Cornell University) and Carl Gelderloos (Binghamton University) and sponsored by the Institute for German Cultural Studies and the Department of German Studies at Cornell. It featured presentations by Carl Gelderloos, Jocelyn Holland (UC Santa Barbara), June Hwang (University of Rochester), Jeffrey Kirkwood (Binghamton University), Elisabeth Strowick (Johns Hopkins University), Leif Weatherby (New York University), and Harald Zils (Binghamton University).

In his introductory remarks, Carl Gelderloos cited Joanna Russ’ 1978 text on “SF and Technology as Mystification” and proposed that rather than attempting to define precisely what technology is, one should conceive of technology as an ever-shifting constellation of discourses, tropes, and motifs that are anything but monolithic. Technology, he suggested, functions as a central “Denkfigur” that negotiates the relationship between itself and the human, and between technological progress and cultural change. Departing from this premise, the workshop “Technologies of the Human” aimed to bring together different perspectives on historical and contemporary discourses of technology.

Jocelyn Holland (UC Santa Barbara) presented an overview of German discourses on technology during the Enlightenment. In particular, she discussed Johann Beckmann’s Anleitung zur Technologie oder zur Kenntniß der Handwerke, Fabriken und Manufacturen (1796) and George Friedrich Lamprecht’s Lehrbuch der Technologie oder Anleitung zur Kenntniß der Handwerke, Fabriken und Manufakturen (1787). For the thinkers of the Enlightenment, Holland explained, technology was the “science of the arts,” with “arts” being understood in the broadest sense as all things man-made. Thus, for the 18th-century scholars she discussed, technology was a theoretical enterprise, a body of knowledge, a discourse. During the discussion it was suggested that these writers’ interest in a precise definition of technology was driven by the Enlightenment’s striving for clarity. At the same time, however, the difficulties of agreeing on one specific definition of technology appeared to parallel the discourse surrounding the humanities, which emerged around the same time but remained similarly intangible.

Elizabeth Strowick (Johns Hopkins) spoke about notions of technology in 19th/20th-century literature: in particular, she focused on Adalbert Stifter’s Bergkristall (1845). Arguing that the discourse of technology is related to the discourse on the relationship between the human and its environment, she discussed how literary realism staged perception, and considered the form and organization perception assumes in literary texts. Strowick argued that the literature of realism sees reality as “perceived reality,” with perception functioning as a “medium”: in its engagement with perception, realism thus raises questions about mediality and technology. Stifter’s work, she suggested, breaks with the concept of subjective perception, and instead introduces a notion of perception as a dynamic that is not tied to the individual observer. The subject is no longer the bearer of perception, but rather the “milieu” is. She then introduced the idea of the “aggregate” as a medium of perception, and showed how in Stifter’s Bergkristall, the turbidity of snow, ice, and clouds works as one such aggregate.  In her conclusion, Strowick posed the question whether the aggregate should be thought of as a form of technology.

In the third presentation, Jeffrey Kirkwood (Binghamton University) spoke about verisimilitude in the context of 19th-century technology. He discussed Ernst Mach’s theory of “Gedankenexperimente” in Erkenntnis und Irrtum (1906) in order to ask what conditions allow an object to claim verisimilitude. Kirkwood spoke about photography, which became the standard for mechanical objectivity in the 19th century. The mechanical image-making technology introduced the idea of visual evidence, but was also thought to be able to make invisible things visible. He then drew a connection between the technology of photography and Mach’s notion of “Gedankenexperimente” by pointing out that Mach described the concept of imagination in thought experiments as an “Abbildung von Tatsachen,” that is, as the representation or image-rendering of facts. For Mach, Kirkwood concluded, this apparatus was thought of as more than merely figurative.  (Hannah Mueller)

The afternoon session began with June Hwang (University of Rochester) offering a reading of Helmuth Plessner that focused on his tertiary structure, which allows him to emphasize positionality rather than being. Hwang highlighted the implications of this structure for questions of the human, technology, and modernity. For example, Plessner develops a way of thinking about humans that accounts for both the inability to achieve an unmediated relation to an object, and the need to feel that these relationships are immediate. In the impossibility of achieving an unmediated relationship to an object, technology is an essential and natural part of being human. But even though the human can become aware of this mediation at any point, the need to experience relationships as immediate produces a form of mediated immediacy. Hwang suggested further that, when understood in this way, technology cannot be considered a modern phenomenon. Because humans are defined by their ability to be aware of the mediation of their relationships to objects, they have always needed the artifice of technology. For Plessner, modernity is not a break or fragmentation; instead, it is a promise for a continuation of this artifice. As an example, Hwang described Plessner’s criticism of the fetishization of Gemeinschaft (community) as an apolitical totality. Plessner posits instead that Gesellschaft (society) mediates between different forms of Gemeinschaft, and that forms of Gemeinschaft are constantly in flux through Gesellschaft. This constant fluctuation prevents the possibility of understanding Gemeinschaft as a static whole. Hwang argued that what is at stake for Plessner in the continuity of artifice in modernity is his suspicion of what an appeal to authentic wholeness in society can justify politically.

Carl Gelderloos (Binghamton University) furthered the discussion of Helmuth Plessner by contrasting the idea of the human as a “Mängelwesen” (Gehlen) with Plessner’s argument for the human as naturally artificial. Gelderloos began his reading by focusing on the distinction Plessner makes between plants, animals, and humans. Animals are different from plants in that they operate as a closed (rather than open) form. This means that animals utilize their own bodies to interact with the environment, while plants do not. What distinguishes humans from animals is their ability to recognize their own mediated interactions with the environment. Gelderloos argued that Plessner’s vision of the human sees artifice as the natural outgrowth of the human’s positional possibilities. Technology is thus not limited to humans, but humans have the possibility to recognize it as such. For Plessner, all living things contain an edge that marks the limit of their existence. And both these borders and their transgressions are inherent properties of those living things. The double function of the boundary – both as a spatial separation between inside and outside, and as an inherent property of a living thing – enables the development of positionality. And because humans occupy this positionality on a spectrum with other living beings, the concept of human as “Mängelwesen” is insufficient to distinguish humans from animals.

By focusing on positive images of technology by conservative writers like Ernst Jünger and Martin Heidegger, Harald Zils (Binghamton University) intervened in anthropological debates about the relationship of social institutions to the individual by proposing the concept of the “Mängelinstitution.” Zils began his talk by recalling Heidegger’s description of modern technology as threatening Dasein with enframement. However, Heidegger also offers positive images of technology: for example, a mill that takes power from nature, but doesn’t perform its purpose. In his travel journal, Jünger similarly describes positive technologies during a 1954 trip to Sardinia. In his journey southward from Germany to Italy, Jünger interprets a headstrong donkey as a kind of resistance fighter against instrumentalization. Zils argued that the forms of technology that Jünger favors are those that contain this rebellious element preventing them from being used as a resource. In comparison to modern technologies, Jünger presents these defective “Mängeltechnologien” as almost humane and relatable. Zils argued further that, insofar as social institutions are constructed to relieve individuals of desires and needs, they can be understood as a form of social technology. Like modern technologies, modern institutions engage in an enframing of individuals. Zils ended his talk by proposing a concept of “Mängelinstitution,” which would have built-in glitches that could liberate the individuals that it enframes from an excessive or over-enframement.

Drawing on Gotthard Günther’s work on digital metaphysics, Leif Weatherby (New York University) discussed the implications of this metaphysics for foreign policy decisions and narrative theories of science fiction. He began by highlighting a temporal problem of foreign policy decisions like climate change, which force actors to move between complex systems evaluations and linear actions. As such, Weatherby argued that climate change constitutes “a political problem designed to repel political intervention,” and we need an explicit digital metaphysics in order to tackle the issue. Weatherby then turned to Murray Leinster’s science fiction text “First Contact” as an example of the genre’s engagement with a universal translator that would allow humans to communicate with aliens. Weatherby noted, however, that Leinster’s example remains confined within Aristotelian logic, and that the universal translator depicted here remains insufficient to answer the question: can we encounter a non-human mind? Weatherby invoked Gotthard Günther’s discussion of a mechanical brain that would be able to toggle between an Aristotelian (human) and non-Aristotelian (non-human) logic. He provided the example of a digital clock, which uses a series of affirmation and negation (true/false) to display the time, and an analog clock, which negates the digital clock as a whole. Here we encounter two different kinds of negation: one where true is the opposite of false, and one where what they have in common is negated in favor of a third option. Weatherby argued that, in order to incorporate this ternary logic in an imagined encounter between an Aristotelian and non-Aristotelian minds, science fiction would be required to undertake a radical transformation of narrative technique as such: it would be required to narrate multiple types of negation as formal principles without unifying them narratively.  (Jacy Tackett)