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.


Aaron Linderman said...

Although the merger of man and machine that Jünger saw in the First World War and in modern industrial capitalism still continues, it seems to me there's interesting, though limited, push-back.

In ages past, one drank Coke or Pepsi; there were no other choices. Now one can drink locally-produced organic sodas. Likewise, one can listen to obscure indie bands, a practice which, if not quite hearkening back to pre-radio local music, at least permits a certain degree of individual escape from the mass culture enabled by technology.

That having been said, where does one buy such organic soda, and listen to indie music? Probably at Whole Foods and on iTunes, respectively. Thus, one could argue that even these bits of individual identity are constrained by mass technoculture; but alternatively, one could argue that technology is permitting the individual to carve out a space against the very culture the technology permitted in the first place.

Stephen said...

I remember having a very similar discussion with a friend from high school about precisely this topic, about capitalism's ability to coopt opposition. After all, we owe the craft beer movement to this characteristic of capitalism, even though it is an attempt to overcome the bad beer of earliest stages of capitalism. (I sound like a drunk Marxist.) I do wonder, though, how far technology will allow us to undo the bad effects of earlier technology. It's an interesting question to which I have no answer.

Stephen said...

For anyone still interested in this discussion, here are some excerpts from Klaus Vondung's book The Apocalypse in Germany dealing with Jünger's Der Arbeiter:

Part 1

Part 2