Monday, November 26, 2012

Ernst Jünger on Technology (2)

In The Worker Jünger makes three key points about technology. Before going any further, however, I should add that while I disagree with Jünger’s positive evaluation of technology, I do agree in many respects with his analysis of technology.

The first point is the key to understanding Jünger’s analysis of technology: technology is “not a neutral power” (keine neutrale Macht). In most discussions of technology today, however, the key premise is exactly the opposite: technology is neutral, and everything depends on what use one makes of it. Indeed, this common starting-point makes some intuitive sense. Most people tacitly define technology as a machine or tool that gives us a method for doing X in the quickest, most effective way. Technology is simply a means to an end. Everybody wants to achieve their own ends, and they want to do so as soon as possible. If the same technology can be used to achieve two opposed ends, then the technology itself is neutral. By this view, the two opposing armies in a war have distinct ends, but both armies use guns. The guns themselves are neutral. It is the goodness, or evil, of the goal of the war which makes the guns either good or evil.

The best way to understand why technology is not neutral is through an analogy. On at least one occasion Jünger compares self-identification with technology to “mastering the language of the worker.” The idea is that technology pervades and shapes how we view the world, just as language does. This was certainly the case in Nazi Germany. Both Eric Voegelin and Josef Pieper laid great emphasis on the fact of the Nazis’ perversion of everyday language in the Third Reich. The importance of language should be obvious to any American who observes how PC language has penetrated into politics and academia in this country. Certain words that were in common use fifty years ago are now banned from polite conversation and neologisms deployed to change public opinion. When, for instance, was the last time a prominent politician or academic characterized sex acts between two members of the same sex as “sodomy”? Removing that term from the public vocabulary normalizes same-sex sex acts, as well as eliminates one more vestige of Christianity in our culture. (The exception proves the rule: One summer, while working on petitions for the involuntary commitment of sexually violent persons, I was struck by the number of times I came across the term “deviate sex” in the psychological reports.)

This does not mean that if technology is bad, then every discrete act that employs technology is necessarily bad. To take the analogy of language one step further, even if a language has become corrupted it is not evil to use that language at times. Or, to use a different analogy, even if a government has been thoroughly corrupted, not every action it takes is necessarily bad, though a government has tremendous power to shape its citizens’ worldviews and to implicate them in its crimes. And that is the important point for Jünger: technology is not neutral because it has a worldview of its own and shapes worldviews.

Second, technology has the power to shape worldviews because, as Jünger says, it has a “seductive logic” of its own, which is not a “pure” logic (keine Logik an sich)but one which leads to specific ends. The logic of technology alters our relationship to the world and to ourselves. For Jünger, the purpose of technology is to “mobilize matter.” (Note the similarity to Descartes’ desire to use science to make men “masters and possessors of nature.”) Matter becomes something that is to be put at the service of man or, for Jünger, the new man, the worker, so that the worker can attain power. The technological worldview demands submission of nature to man. The process of submitting nature to the worker’s rule does not end until the distinction between technology and nature is eliminated, until technology becomes our second nature. Technology must become something that seems obvious (a Selbstverständlichkeit) for the ordinary man. Indeed, Jünger goes one step further and says that the logic of technology will ultimately lead to the merger of man and machine.

This merger of man and machine no longer sounds as fantastic as it did when Jünger wrote The Worker. The manipulation of genes, the implantation of computer chips into the nervous system, the cloning of entire human beings—all of these may very possibly be realized within our lifetimes. And yet technology’s seductive logic has been at work among us for much longer with technologies that are much more familiar and that seem innocuous in comparison to modern biotechnology. For instance, mechanical clocks have been around for centuries. They were used in the Middle Ages primarily to help monks say the canonical hours at the correct time. However, clocks have ceased to be a tool which we use to measure time and are now machines that shape how we experience time in ways that are contrary to nature, such as standardized time zones and daylight savings time. Another example of the power of technology to make men conform to their machines is urban planning in the wake of the automobile. Most cities in the 20th century were laid out on the assumption that its inhabitants would be driving, rather than walking, through their streets. For those who live in big cities with rush hour traffic jams, the conception of how much time it will take to go somewhere depends on what hour one is leaving one’s house—the “distance” to one’s destination is further at rush hour.

Third, for Jünger technology is anti-Christian because it possesses its own “cultic origin” (kultischer Ursprung). Before dismissing this as mere hyperbole, one should at least consider an example of the cult of technology: Apple products. Apple’s laptops and phones are immediately identifiable because of their minimalistic, futuristic aesthetic. These devices have become objects of devotion among the masses of loyal Apple customers, much of whose success is due to the fact that they keep the modern worker connected to his job at all times. Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, was practically canonized after his early death from cancer. (Part of this is due to the cult of the entrepreneur in America.)

But, even if it is true that technology has acquired certain cultic features in contemporary America, the question still remains: What exactly does it mean to say that technology has a “cultic origin”? The answer lies in the essence of religion. If technology has a “seductive logic,” and is a system capable of changing our relation to nature and to ourselves, it has a totalizing worldview. Just as Marxism is often characterized as a religion despite its atheism, so too the “technological way of thinking” can be called a religion because it subsumes widely varied areas of human activity under a general worldview.

If technology is a new cult, it necessarily sets itself at odds with Christianity. Jünger says that the orthodox Christian views technology as the “dominion of Satan.” And Jünger’s statement, while extreme, is defensible when we keep in mind that technology tries to eliminate nature or reconfigure it so that it changes in its very essence. When viewed this way, technology is another form of Gnosticism (as used in a broader way by Eric Voegelin): a deep-rooted dissatisfaction with creation that leads to the hubristic attempt to refashion the world.

Jünger in The Worker got many things wrong, and was in favor of many things a Christian should oppose. But, in some instances—and technology was one of them—his analysis should force us to consider some of our basic presuppositions about the modern world.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Ernst Jünger on Technology (1)

It is impossible to discuss the life and thought of Ernst Jünger briefly. Nearly 103 years old when he died in 1998, Jünger led an eventful life: he served with distinction as an officer in the German army in both world wars. He became known as a writer after World War I when he published his journals, In Storms of Steel. In the 1920’s he studied zoology, and in later life become an avid entomologist. He earned his living as a journalist until World War II, when he spent much of his time stationed in Paris. After the war, he moved to Wilflingen, but also continued to travel, often to Africa and Asia. Throughout his life he wrote about his varied experiences. Besides his wartime journals, Jünger also published an account of his early experiments with LSD, as well as a series of futuristic novels, most notably Eumeswil.

Jünger is a controversial figure because of his political views (as well as the delight he often takes in describing violence). Always a man of the right, he was a staunch opponent of the Weimar Republic. Today he is often grouped among the leaders of that amorphous movement in interwar German called the “Conservative Revolution,” who opposed the new democratic ethos and parliamentary system of government. One of his more ardent admirers in the 1920’s was Hitler, but after 1933 Jünger found polite ways to decline the dictator’s advances. The novel he published in 1939, On the Marble Cliffs, is usually interpreted as a disguised call to resistance against the Nazis. After World War II, he refused to fill out the British occupation authorities’ questionnaires about his political activities under Nazi rule and was therefore forbidden to publish. He moved to Wilflingen, in the French zone, to escape the British censors. After the war, he continued to oppose democracy. In his 1951 essay, Der Waldgang, Jünger develops a theory of resistance, implying that the Federal Republic of Germany needed to be resisted, just as the Nazis should have been resisted.

For most of his life Jünger elaborated his positions from a secular viewpoint. It was simply assumed that Christianity was dead and was merely of historical interest; any resistance to democracy must come from elsewhere. (This changed only late in his life—he converted to Catholicism when he was 101.) Jünger’s “conservative revolution” was essentially an anti-Christian conservatism, which he tried to elaborate in a few books, particularly The Worker, published in 1932.

The Worker is a difficult book to summarize because of its vagueness. (A decent summary of the main idea, though, can be found here.) Jünger sometimes explicitly refuses to give concrete examples of the social phenomena he is describing, instead giving tautological definitions and telling his readers that they must be blind not to see what he is pointing out. Of course, things which may have been clear to a German in 1932 are not necessarily clear to an American in 2012, especially when it requires plowing through pages of dense German prose. Essentially, Jünger is trying to give an outline of the new social form (Gestalt), the new type of man, he saw rising to predominance. The worker he describes is not a member of Marx’s proletariat or simply even a working man. Rather, he is a man for whom work is his form of existence, who lives in a “total work world.” (Incidentally, some of the phrases which Jünger employs in a positive sense are later used in a pejorative sense by Josef Pieper in Leisure the Basis of Culture.) Most importantly for this post, this new man, the worker, identifies with technology. For a significant portion of the book (§§ 44-57), then, Jünger tries to define technology as the way in which this new man realizes himself in history. What will follow soon are a few reflections on what Jünger had to say about technology, or rather reflections on technology occasioned by a reading of The Worker, since I make no guarantee that I have understood this book perfectly.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The New Look

For those of you who read the Guild Review via Google Reader or another RSS mechanism, you may not have realized that the blog has a new look. The notion behind the change is simple enough: we can't post all the time, because, well, because life happens. Just last week, for example, my wife gave birth to a son. But even when we are not busy writing blog posts, lots of other folks, many of them cleverer than we, are writing. So the new layout gives greater prominence to some of the blogs we read. We do not agree with everything that all of them write, but they are generally thought-provoking, and we think our readers might enjoy them. If you have a suggestion for a blog or link which is not currently featured on the Guild Review, but ought to be, leave us a comment!

Monday, November 5, 2012

St. Clement's Prayer for Election Day

From the First Letter of St. Clement of Rome to the Corinthians, 60-61:

Make straight our steps in holiness and righteousness and singleness of heart, that we may so walk and do such things as are right and well pleasing before thee, and before our rulers. Yea, Lord, cause thy face to appear to us in peace to our good, that we may be sheltered by thy mighty hand, and preserved from all sin by thy lofty arm, and deliver us from those that hate us unjustly. Give unity and peace both to us and to all that dwell upon the earth, as thou gavest to our fathers when they called upon thee with faith and truth, so that we should become obedient to thy all-powerful and most excellent name, and to those who rule and govern us upon the earth.

Thou, Lord, hast given the authority of the kingdom to them through thy almighty and unspeakable power, so that we, knowing the estimation and honour given to them by thee, might submit ourselves to them, in no way opposing thy will; to whom give, O Lord, health, peace, concord, stability, so that they may discharge the rule given unto them by thee without offence; for thou, heavenly Lord, everlasting King, givest to the sons of men glory and honour and authority over the things that are upon the earth. Do thou, Lord, direct their counsel according to what is good and pleasing before thee, that, fulfilling with peace and meekness and piety the authority given unto them by thee, they may obtain mercy from thee. Thou who alone art able to do these and greater good things among us, to thee do we give thanks through the high priest and protector of our souls, Jesus Christ, through whom to thee be the glory and majesty, now and to all generations, world without end. Amen.

This translation, by Charles H. Hoole (1885), comes from I first encountered this prayer in Hugo Rahner's Church and State in Early Christianity, pp. 22-23, which we read in Richard Dougherty's course in Catholic Political Thought.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

On Shared Experience

In ages past, most people enjoyed shared experiences with their neighbors. Many lived in small towns or villages. They often worked the same occupation (agriculture), or at least encountered one another's occupation on a regular basis (e.g. the farmer visiting the blacksmith). Many countries enjoyed a common religion, (and some still do). A great many people were of the same racial and linguistic background as those around them. For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, men shared the experience of obligatory national military service.

As a result of shared experiences, people could implicitly understand one another; they shared common terminology, values, and ways of viewing the world. Except within small towns, most Americans no longer enjoy a shared set of experiences. Christianity occupies a shrinking share of America's religious pie, and that Christian chunk is less homogeneous than it once was, due to both the increased proportion of Catholics as well as the ongoing fractures within Protestantism. Men of various backgrounds are no longer drafted together. It is no longer a safe assumption that the folks next door speak English. And Americans are increasingly expected to interact with foreigners abroad.

None of these are bad things, but all of them chip away at our shared experiences. What do we all have in common? Reference to elements of popular culture such as Facebook might be your best bet for a common experience. ("It's like when you discover that someone has inexplicably unfriended you...") The problem here is that most such elements, although they put us in touch with our neighbor, leave us cut off from the past. Grandpa's diary, devoid of references to Facebook, will remain foreign, even if Facebook users in Japan no longer are.

What are the consequences of having lost our shared experiences? One of the most obvious are the ways in which different groups completely misunderstand each other with regard to politics (a problem further complicated by the enthymemic nature of discourse). Try placing a professor of performance studies from a major coastal university in a small town in the Deep South and see how well he or she can discuss politics with the locals...

How then are we to understand one another?

It seems to me there are two clear solutions: (1) Increase our shared experiences or (2) Increase our capacity for working across diverse experiences.

The latter is the option most often embraced. But while society has gone to great lengths to affirm that one who views the world different is not ipso facto in moral error, I worry that we have done far less to help people actually view the world in different ways. This is, essentially, an intellectual problem, one requiring intellectual dexterity. Can one employ multiple frameworks with regard to the same set of data? Can one recognize that different terms may have the same meaning, or that the same term may have multiple meanings? Some of this falls into the realm of contemporary "diversity" training (to use that very baggage-laden term). But much of this does not, since intellectual dexterity is not the same thing as tolerance. The intellectually dexterous may recognize that the person who uses the name Yahweh and the person who uses the name Allah may be referring to the same thing, God. This is the tolerant or integrative understanding of difference. But the intellectually dexterous might also recognize that when two people use the term God they may actually be referring to two very different things. This is the intolerant or divisive understanding of difference. Some differences are superficial, while others are profound; alas, so far as I can see society writ large simply tells itself that they are all acceptable, and in so doing does little to really help ourselves navigate a world of people with whom we have little in common.

Alternatively, we may increase those shared experiences. This can be done in a plethora of ways. Exchange programs of various sorts do just that. But I would like to consider another avenue, that of engaging with the great cultural icons of our various civilizations. Reading classic works of literature - or, for that matter, viewing famous art and architecture, listening to major works of music, or watching great films or performances of well-known drama - provides a set of reference points which one may share with people of distant lands, or distant ages.

The appeal I make here is not exactly for more Great Books curricula. In the first instance, schooling only occupies a small portion of most people's lives, so merely appealing to schools to teach from "the canon" (whatever that might be) is only a start. Going further, our everyday lives should be imbued with the culture of our fellow man, placing us in dialogue with a broader community. In a further departure from the typical arguments for the Great Books, I do not here contend that historically well-known works are inherently more true or virtue-forming than obscure or contemporary works. (Indeed, the Great Books, in their diversity, can give rise to relativism.) But if we are imperfect, finite thinkers, a degree of humility is required in our search for truth, and that humility demands that consider the insights of others, that we look for giants on whose shoulders we may stand. Participation in a wide-ranging cultural milieu is no guarantee one will find worthy guides to the truth, but I think it is a first step. Finally, while most apologists for the Great Books limit themselves to the writings of Western civilization, I would advocate the inclusion of the cultural highlights of all the world's major civilizations, with one caution. Cultural eclecticism, the phenomenon of taking bits and pieces of various cultures and stitching them together in a way which has no real integrity, poses a real danger to shared experience in that various cultural items, stripped from their larger context, lose their value as connectors. The films of Akira Kurosawa, for example, are best understood not by themselves, but in conjunction with the plays of Shakespeare, the history of Japan, the world of psychology, and that very American genre of film, the Western.

So go crack open that Bible, watch some Shakespeare - his plays are all over Netflix Instant - or simply light a bonfire. You wouldn't be the first person to take up such practices. And you just might find that, in so doing, you have a little more in common with your fellow man.