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.
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