Martin Heidegger and Günther Anders on Technology: On Ray Kurzweil, Fritz Lang, and Transhumanism

This piece was originally published in Volume 1 of HA: The Journal of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities at Bard College.

All mere chasing after the future so as to work out a picture of it through calculation in order to extend what is present and half thought into what, now veiled, is yet to come, itself still moves within the prevailing attitude belonging to technological calculating representation.

- Martin Heidegger, The Turning

When I first heard Ray Kurzweil speak on the technological singularity at Bard College at a conference Roger Berkowitz organized there, I was immediately put in mind of an old science cartoon (which I just as immediately popped into my PowerPoint for my own talk). The cartoon may be the most famous of Stanley Harris’ many science cartoons, and it stars two scientists, an old one and a vaguely younger one who has written a row of numbers and figures across a blackboard, with the phrase THEN A MIRACLE OCCURS, followed by more equations. The older guy has the punch line (today the older one would never be a know-it-all, you need a ten year old for that, thus speaketh Hollywood): “I think you should be more explicit here in step two.”

Fig 1. © Stanley Harris. With the permission of Stanley Harris.

I used the cartoon in place of a commentary on Kurzweil’s “Technological Singularity,”[1] just to counter his sales pitch. I thought it needed some recognition — given all the debate — given Kurzweil’s cavalier, blissful, even gleeful underestimation of the scientific, technological problems involved with his “fantastic voyage”[2] vision of the ‘Singularity’ as he and his investors and his consumer base expects it to arrive any day now.[3] Of course, this is the same sales pitch for “basic” science, as Vanevar Bush pioneered this pitch to ensure continued federal support for the war project that was the Manhattan Project in 1945, that is, after its work was putatively done and in which Bush outlines little other than some of the machines that made Kurzweil famous and Steve Jobs a household name and latterly, a technological saint. But it has also been debunked for some time, as Ivan Illich argued regarding medicine’s claims to have extended life expectancy (and to have contributed to the battle against epidemics) in his 1974 Medical Nemesis, an argument made with reference to nothing but the facts, that would be the history of disease, epidemiology, which argument Richard Lewontin would reprise in the pages of the New York Review of Books in response to the then-hype of the Genome Project (in the decade since, we have moved on to other hopes) and his book Biology as Ideology.

My rhetorical point was an “easy” one, with ironic emphasis on the ease with which we forget the same point once it is made, and I emphasized both the triviality (glasses, contact lenses) and the inherent complexity of “becoming” cyborg, posthuman, a human-machine hybrid when one gets much beyond the technology for contact lenses, given the difficulties of making an actually functional hi-tech artificial limb.[4] The reason this point is easy is because it is true, the reason this point is easy to forget is because it is not a problem by definition for most theorists of the transhuman, posthuman. One starts by simply defining what we are now, what we have now as cyborg, posthuman, transhuman being. In this the lessons of postmodernism appear to have been learned. The opponents of the postmodern reacted to the post attached to the modern.

If the modern was the mode, the latest thing, then the postmodern could only come after that, in retrospect but then it would be, by then, already modern. The referent, if it was meant to be a referent to the current era seemed to make no sense. And indeed the only sphere in which the postmodern enjoyed a more or less calm application (that is without commentators foaming at the mouth about the very idea of the word as such or per se) was in art or architecture where “modern” refers to a very definite style. But posthumanism no longer means any such thing. The posthuman, which we also call the transhuman and some sociological entrepreneurs have revised in the fashion of product updates, here I refer to Steve Fuller’s Humanity 2.0, takes over the point initially intended by the original postmodernists and appends it to the human, however vaguely defined. Technologically stipulated in this way and with a clear reference to the marketing strategies of technological products at all levels, the so-called transhuman is thus the human on the way to the ‘more than human,’ the posthuman, where the assumption is that the means to achieve post- or transhumanity are at hand (this would be college level course on Enhancements 101, perhaps already on offer at the Singularity University) and rightly confident that the market for the product is already there.

In this way, Nick Bostrom is able to make a plea for (after adding appropriate ethical cautions) and to define transhumanism as renaissance humanism, now ‘enhanced’ by the resources of today’s science and technology in very Oxford crafted terms (where what counts is less the academic claim to fame than the industry-oriented and business outreach that characterizes UK academe, hence Bostrom’s own text outlines less an academic’s reflective caution, though it must be said that he is theoretically quite precise, than a ready to be submitted for a business proposal) as the intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally improving the human condition through applied reason, especially by using technology to eliminate aging and greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities.[5]

For Bostrom the ideal of transhumanism can be aggressively marketed as a humanism, and to this end he cites Julian Huxley’s traditional (1927) terminology:

The human species can, if it wishes, transcend itself — not just sporadically, an individual here in one way, an individual there in another way — but in its entirety, as humanity. We need a name for this new belief. Perhaps transhumanism will serve: man remaining man, but transcending himself, by realizing new possibilities of and for his human nature.[6]

For Bostrom as for Kurzweil and others in the transhumanist movement, what is most important is to embrace the ideal of the transhuman and at the same time to distinguish it from some of the pitfalls associated with the eugenics of the past, particularly that associated with the very pro-technology and equally pro-transhuman ideology of national socialism. The ambitions of transhumanism are thus all about persuading society of the value of such technology and thus the value of the research that might make it possible and the market for the same.

But, and this the point I meant to make by adding Harris’ cartoon of science and the need to sweat minor details, beyond the ethical problems the transhumanist movement perceives as its greatest obstacle, there are ordinary, ontic problems. Unlike marketing strategies, or a pitch, ordinary things in ordinary contexts turn out not to be simple; rather, they are, as Nietzsche liked to emphasize, unsagbar complicirt, unspeakably complicated. On the human level, the biochemical and medical theorist Erwin Chargaff would dedicate a lifetime of his popular (as opposed to his scientific) writings to arguing for the need to persuade people to think about this same complexity.

It ought to, but does not go without saying that considerations of this complexity apply to the “end-aging!” brigade, particularly the mechanical motif I name call the roto-rooter phantasm animating the theories of those who suggest that we (simply) send nanobots sailing into cells to clean up metabolic debris, make repairs, work magic or what amounts to the techno-scientific same.[7] The objection has something in part to do with the difficulty of nanotech and its challenges but still more to do (and that is why I recommend reading Chargaff) with the still-as-yet incompletely understood life of the cell, that would be: the cell as such, including the balance of the same in terms of the organism as a whole[8] — and without even considering the question of side-effects (empirically speaking, inevitably, these can be discovered only in the wake of the deployment of any new technology).

At the Bard conference the guiding question set to the participants in my section asked if machines would “ever” realize their potential as the masters of humanity. The presupposition was that machines have such a potential. As we know, machines, so the question frames its own reply, have already begun to realize their “potential” as the masters of the human race, adding qualifiers to taste: “not as much” as some fear, “not in the fashion” once anticipated by enthusiasts of the so-called future, and so on. So specified, it may be argued that machines have claimed hegemony over human beings, both physically and ideologically but rather than triumphant accession the ascendancy turns out to be more rather than less of let down.

At the same time, and this is the value of a leading question, one can just as well refuse the claim, replying that machines have made no such incursions, using the same points and the many of the same authors to do so. But, like question and answer, refusals also incorporate, repeating what is opposed as Martin Heidegger, here following Nietzsche, reminds us. Heidegger who spent his life reflecting on this question via the notion of humanism also suggested that on the one hand the threat of technology is precisely in the realization of its potential mastery and on the other hand the ultimate threat posed by technology resides in our desire to ‘master’ that mastery.

Fig 2. Lynn Randolph’s Cover Image for Donna Haraway’s 1991 Simians, Cyborgs and Women. Reprinted with permission of the artist.

Machines “project” as the phenomenologists say or as the techno-theorists put it, they “extend” human senses or capacities or consciousness. Using this same phenomenological reading of technology, trans- and post-humanists speak of human “enhancement.” But a phenomenological analysis reminds us that the augmentation in question is more attuned to the machine than it is (or can be and this is in spite of the detours that Bruno Latour and associated actor-network theorists rightly emphasize) cut to human measure. It is a reflection of this very attunement that, to speak as the ethnographers and sociologists who study this phenomenon, we are “machine-obedient.” Nor are we as mechanically tractable or responsive as we are because we wish to be — because we love our machines, erotically, affectively, as Latour suggests that we do[9] or else as Donna Haraway has also argued in another way,[10] but and quite simply inasmuch as we have to be machine-obedient simply to use our machines in the first and last place. This is true from our autos to our computers and cell phones and cameras, indeed and even Facebook and so on. And here there is a network-actor loop (or loophole) at work: for it turns out that the greater our obedience, the “better” the machine obeys, as it we suppose it does, our every whim.

Thus when people like to quote the science fiction writer, Arthur C. Clark’s musing that, assuming a sufficient level of technological advancement, technology is indistinguishable from magic, they usually forget the other half of the observation as it presupposes a lack of familiarity with that same technology on the part of the observer of the magic in question.

Indeed: you may not think about the things you need to do to log on to Facebook (and you may likely have allowed your computer to “remember” for you so that you really need never think about it, until you are, say, on the road) but just those things need to be done, exactly as they need to be done, or you cannot log in. Little magic there one might say. Same deal with a plane. You may like to think it magical to fly. But I need only remind you of what you already know well enough, think of the mind-control ministrations of the TSA in the United States and their equivalents elsewhere, complete with George Orwell like loudspeaker-driven public announcements, or the more salient fact when it comes to the miracle of flight that you, qua passenger, are effectively in a large, relatively windowless, certainly airless bus for the greater part of the duration of your journey, and, here quite apart from the security mindset, I leave out the necessity of negotiating airports (take off and landing on either part of everything you need to forget to pretend to yourself that you have an experience that comes anywhere near that of the man of steel or Daedalus (or Icarus, but as technology and not magic was involved here, we recall that things turned out badly for him when he flew too near the sun, confronting the limits of his father’s ingenious feather and wax design for his son’s mechanical wings).

Indeed the claims for technological whiz-bits are always rather like playing World of Warcraft or having a Second Life avatar or just using an iPhone app. The more you believe in the awkwardly drawn characters (dependent upon the limitations of computer graphics and the limitations of your hardware) and the more invested you are in the (relatively awkwardly configured) 3-D representation of the world inhabited by those characters, the better your “experience” will be.

In her Bard lecture, Sherry Turkle[11] invoked psychological and ethnographic studies to remind us of the little kick we get, the reward we get for the achievement that it is to send a message and — wait for this — to receive a reply.

You’ve got mail.

And machines do indeed use little bings and chimes, just like psych labs do — and this is no accident — to signal precisely that mini-reward. And we do wait for it. This is not just an acoustic it is also a visual signal: that’s why we look at the apple icon when our iPhones start up and turn off, that why we notice Windows Vista or the Windows 7 and its little spinning wheel, etc. In the same way, and without anything so tedious as a trademark, Facebook makes addicts of its users who post in the hope of eliciting a response or for folks who seek to acquire “followers” on Twitter or more pointlessly, because derivatively, those who work to expand their Google “circles.”

Martin Kusch and Harry Collins argue that it is the phenomenon of machine obedience, mechanically repeated, that explains why infantry men on the ground, at the front, i.e., the same soldiers with the best reasons in the world to flee do not in fact “run from fire” as one might anticipate. After a detailed chapter on “Machine Behaviour and Human Action,” after a careful, historical analysis of military drill and its variations, Kusch and Collins interrupt themselves to ask this particular question:

But why, over the centuries, has the musketman and his equivalent not run from fire? Consider the musketman’s job. He must keep his place, ignoring the screams of the wounded and terrorized, stand, load, kneel, aim, fire, stand, load, kneel, aim, fire, over and over again, amid the whine and thwack of missiles splitting the air and felling his comrades.[12]

Kusch and Collins, who by the time they get to this point in their own text had already spent more than one chapter of their book detailing several types of behaviour (and distinguishing between polymorphic and mimeomorphic as they name these types), do not answer their own question by fitting it into any of their well-crafted schemata. Much rather, so the authors argue, it turns out to be the function of military drill to engender a mechanism composed “of humans who had turned themselves into entities as mechanical as the muskets themselves.”[13] Hence, psychologically speaking, the reason musketmen hold their ground and the reason the infantry as such does not run away turns out to be a very literal matter of their training. Drilling soldiers effectively engender effects of habit, habituation, a second nature or nature natured. Drones may make this very literally automatic but the mechanism as deployed in human soldiers has been perfected for centuries.

Given their different background formations in analytic history of philosophy (Kusch) and sociology of science (Collins), both authors perhaps not surprisingly seem to lack awareness of Nietzsche’s relevant reflections on what he called the virtues of “mechanical activity [machinale Thätigkeit]”, which Nietzsche also characterizes very ironically in terms of what Western culture, with all its Auschwitz-resonances names “‘the blessing of work.” The “blessing” [Segen] of mechanized activity consists for Nietzsche in the numbing virtues of the fact “that a doing and nothing but a doing continuously intrudes into consciousness.” This repetitive and constant pre-occupation functions to deaden awareness “because,” as Nietzsche says (and let this be a word of warning to all multi-taskers out there): “the chamber of human consciousness is small!” (GM III: 18.)

In other words, as military psychologists well know — and as Seneca already argued in On the Brevity of Life — one can only (really) do one thing at a time. If the Stoic ideal is one of consummate mindfulness, the same mechanism that can be developed for the sake of higher spirituality and for meditation works at lower levels as well. If sufficiently drilled or trained, soldiers will be too pre-occupied, too identified with the mechanical process of loading ammunition and firing, quasi-machines serving real machines, too much of an appendage of their own artillery to be able to pay any real attention to the shells exploding around them.[14] Action heroes — and war movies — depend on this mechanism.

As Kusch and Collins reflect “As one military sociologist observed: ‘Ritualization is in part a defense against anxiety.”[15] And as they continue the point, well-qualified in good-social-scientific terms, current training procedures emphasize the automatic-as-such even absent a competent leader, calling this “independent” operation. Thus Kusch and Collins cite the U.S. Army Training Support Center in 1991 as writing:

Every soldier must be trained to take initiatives and be rewarded for doing so. …real American-style combat teams — composed of independent, confident, thinking individuals — can get the job done even when the boss is ‘out to lunch’.[16]

It is because of the inherently intentional dimensionality of consciousness that we are able to become our machines, that we can become, as a military unit does, to use a familiar and very military metaphor, like a well-oiled machine because we project ourselves into our machines: our machines, our selves.

Heidegger’s Machenschaft, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and Titanic Technology

Thus Heidegger focuses on Machenschaft, mechanization, a can-do-ability along with gigantization in his Contributions to Philosophy, including his reflections on the last god, including his fugues, all very much in the sense that Ernst Jünger would speak of Titan-Technik, that is to say, literally titanic technology.

Metonymically and historically speaking there is in this an association with the infamously “unsinkable” Titanic, a ship so named in just this connection, as this ship with its fateful maiden voyage, also inspired both Heidegger and Jünger. James Cameron’s film of the same name re-immortalized this already told and retold story of the ship’s disastrous collision with destiny and the presumption of engineers. Here, the film is worth noting for its imagery of the technological imaginary, beginning with a positive representation of the triumphalist technological cult of the machine, complete with a high tech flashback technique beginning with computer graphics and cutting edge bathysphere-cum-submarines. The key imagery however is the vision of classically futurist machine technology of the turn of the last century, that is the ship itself, the Titanic at the outset of the story within the film’s storytelling, with all its promise still intact, showcasing the mighty batteries of the ship’s steam engines, juxtaposed with the muscular and dirty and sweating workers who shovel coal in the belly of the ship at the command of the captain above and the call for “more steam!” In addition to the collector’s appeal of 19th century technology, in addition to the beauty of crafted wood well-fitted to beautifully stylized or bespoke brass dials on the captain’s and first mate’s console on the bridge, Cameron’s Titanic spotlights the chiaroscuro dynamism of the machine, all Herb Ritts’ coy photographic eroticism transposed to film: the fake antique of straining human muscle serving the dark machine power of fire-spitting steam engines. And this image that may well be the most pornographic image in the film — rather more than Leonardo di Caprio’s whimsical nude painting of the discretely posed Kate Winslet.

With the dissonant eros of technology, that is the erotic allure of the dynamo, we have the “imaginary” of the machine in modernity, starting of course as we always start whether we are conscious of it or not with Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 film, Modern Times, and this is so even if we have not seen the movie.

And however familiar it may be to Anglophone audiences, Chaplin’s film for its own part is only a remake of the kind we know so well between German films and American re-interpretations, re-envisioning Fritz Lang’s still more classic if certainly egregiously somber vision of modernity, Metropolis which premiered in 1927, the same year Heidegger published Sein und Zeit.

Lang’s Metropolis is the mechanized city of the future as metaphor for the political life of modernity. And just as the polis has served as a metaphor for political reflection since Plato, this mechanical vision is the subject of the film’s social commentary. Lang’s titanic Moloch is thus a machine polis which demands the sacrifice of the humanity of its citizens. This is the mechanical vision of the city in its verticality, its organization: with the leaders above, with creative work and dreams and time on their hands, and the workers in the dark below, with their anomie, and their quasi-life, oppressed by spirit-shattering labor. Remarkable here is the concinnity (my favorite musical term) of Lang’s political fable, featuring the Maria robot, with the consummation of the “Technological Singularity” as Kurzweil sees our destiny. As director, and by way of the well-known “magic” of the cinema, Lang accomplishes this transformation before our eyes in a perfectly Leibnizian spirit: this becomes a difference that, all-too maliciously apparently, or seemingly makes no difference. This seeming is perfectly fatal for Maria qua noxiously troublesome living being (rather like many women — from a male point of view), who becomes Maria the vastly more tractable, because programmable robot. Thus the robotic transformation doesn’t just render the human redundant it requires as the process works in Metropolis the death of the original.

Like Kurzweil’s rapturously singularized human beings-cum-computer software programs or digital resonances, the original Maria pays for this enforced “enhancement” with her all-too-human life.

As it turns out, the erotic perfection of the robot is not so much that it comes to life but that it improves on life and in so many ways. Maria is beautiful, fine and good: if only, her head were not filled with ideas about the workers, if only she kept her mind on sex and poetry, and then after marrying, on caring for her husband’s white shirts and catering to her children’s happiness (and keeping them quietly out of earshot: children, like women, should be seen and not heard).

Fig. 3. Metropolis (1927 Germany), directed by Fritz Lang. The Robot/Brigitte Helm / Credit: UFA/Photofest copyright UFA

In this way, the graphic detail of the Bard conference icon featured the iron maiden or female Golem prototype of the Maria robot before her rapturous, “singularizing” perfection which transformation gives us the Maria-Robot indistinguishable from the Maria-Mensch or human being.

Lang’s cinematic perfection gives us not any cheaply, ontic technological achievement (a tool that works or “is” everything it appears to be; rather, it offers a “user-friendly” “experience” that we “take” to be the technological achievement of a human machine as such — assuming, that is, that the programming of this illusion also functions and assuming in addition that we, the users, go along with the programming.) The tractable going-along-with on the side of the user just happens to be (and this should be emphasized) the other half of the programming achievement. The point is, as Jaron Lanier writes in You Are Not a Gadget, that it matters less that machines actually are human than that we humans come to see them as human and treat them so. This works, Turing enthusiasts are advised to take note, in both directions.

Of course and at the same time it is relevant that Fritz Lang’s Maria-Robot (Maria enhanced or perfected) turns out to be a filmic simulacrum: not the film technology of filming a robot in accord with the iconic iron maiden phantasm of the movie poster itself. Instead the mechanized robot becomes or is transformed into Maria by way of the theatrical transformation that I above recalled as movie magic. Like the Patty Duke cousin-twins in the American TV series of the sixties, the actress, in this case that would be Birgitte Helm, who plays Maria; the human girl is the same actress who plays the “robot” who looks like a girl because she is one in fact. We are charmed by this movie convention or suspension of belief just as we have learned to love not only Data but Seven of Nine the Borg bot, as we impolitely call her, the Star Trek android, who wears face-jewelry as a fetish signifier of the machine that we “know” her to be.

Thus we get the perfectly archetypal female, and here is a question I would pose to this archetypical notion, so ardently sought by cyborg theorists: would a lady who was and was not a human being (being mechanical, or to employ up-date out terms here: being electronic or simply being a digital representation) but who otherwise fulfilled your every (male) desire, would you (could you?) care less?[17] Internet sex turns out to be just as fulfilling as actual sexual encounters and no awkward after consummation-moments (no discussions, no underwear to find, no Playboy magazine strategies for jettisoning the lady, no having to call or having not to call). Sex with robots would be even better. And who doubts this?

Anders on the Technological Prometheus and the Shame of Having Been Born

We have already mentioned Günther Anders who was Hannah Arendt’s first husband and who was Walter Benjamin’s cousin and to continue the resonance of inbred familiarity, was part of the original circle of young scholars associated with Theodor Adorno and the Frankfurt School in addition to having been a student of Husserl’s and of Heidegger’s. Anders made the question of technological mastery or excess along with the correspondent notion of human obsolescence the center of his life’s work. Anders kept his observant powers throughout his long life, in this not unlike Kant’s late-life productivity, and here we note as variously, disparately gifted human beings, that such a capacity is anything but a given. Nor did Heidegger himself quite achieve this (as Arendt tells us and as Gadamer also attests). But what is still more significant, Anders kept his powers sharply attuned to the changing technological times.

Not that this mattered in terms of his lack of influence on the academy which then as now pays attention only to “important” names (and these are usually names we already know). And notwithstanding Anders’ sustained philosophical focus, even philosophers of technology such as Don Ihde and including techno-science and social theorists such as C. Fred Alford do not even mention let alone engage Anders, even Bruno Latour does not do so although Anders is more received in French technoscience than even in German or Anglophone technocience. Surprisingly, even the activist scholar Stanley Aronowitz, himself very like Anders, and whose work is indispensable for a social and political theory of technology, does not refer to Anders, just as those interested in discussing crimes against humanity similarly manage to skip any reference to Anders.

There may be good reasons for this in addition to the perennial scholarly desire to reinvent, all by oneself, whatever it is that one wishes to claim to be the first to talk about or to mention. Or perhaps this was because Anders, like Jacob Taubes, was a pain, difficult to deal with, a bit like Ivan Illich his fellow Viennese, who was however, being a priest, the kinder sort of heretic (Anders, who hailed from Breslau — where Hans-Georg Gadamer grew up, Gadamer, who was born into a German family of scientists and scholars, was born in Marburg — made Vienna his adopted home town with his second wife, Elisabeth Freundlich). If, as can be thought, Anders exemplified such an excessive character it also rendered him well-equipped to deal with similar characters for his own part.

Accordingly, Anders had little trouble dealing with Adorno, a notoriously “difficult” personality. Like Adorno too, it could be observed that Anders was a teaser whose teasing was unbearable for Americans because it pointed out how much he knew and therefore could not but come off as mockery. Unlike the kind of “critical thinking” that involves thinking just and only what status quo science tells you to think, critical theory requires considerable breadth just to be critical. And Anders knew an enormous amount about the Greeks, as he also knew about music, as knew about art, about Hegel and Marx, about Kant, and as he also knew about Husserl and Heidegger. Like Nietzsche and like Illich, the social critic of education, medical science, and technology, Anders was also and this is perhaps the most rare of all, an authentic or real heretic, that is: the sort of critical thinker who meant what he said and who acted on it at the expense of his career- and he did this from the start- and who suffered for this in terms of his reputation (he was for a long time not even mentioned) and his livelihood. Thus, Anders did what most social critics do not do and sometimes even suppose cannot be done: throughout his life Anders walked the talk.

What is more, the views Anders opted to champion were out of kilter, unpopular. Indeed, like Ivan Illich’s political views, Anders’s views were anti-popular. Thus and instead of talking about the Holocaust as a Jew and as he might well have done (though he did this too, he did all kinds of things, including music and literary theory to boot), Anders made Americans (that would be the good guys in World War II from his perspective, and he should have been more grateful…) uncomfortable by talking as incessantly as he did about Hiroshima. And even people who insist on mentioning Hiroshima do not go on, as Anders insisted on going on to talk about Nagasaki and to count off, almost kabbalistically, the dates of Hiroshima, the bomb detonated, as it mattered to him, on August 6, 1945, where just two days later the legal rubric for defining crimes against humanity would be spelled out in Nuremberg on August 8, 1945, the next day Nagasaki, August 9, 1945.

Like Heisenberg, and like Einstein, Anders seemed to think that the problem of evil was the bomb. And like Heidegger he also insisted that the evolution of that same problem had to do with what, unlike Heidegger, he had seen from the start as the problem of humanity itself as standing reserve in Heidegger’s terms, a resource that however would need, desperately need, improving.

This Anders called the shame of being born. This is the shame of a navel. For the mark of creation, as a creation at the hand of god, which is (and here Anders concurs with Sartre) the perfected dream of modernity, is that we as human beings do not merely manage to be the ones who, as Nietzsche’s madman tells us, have “killed” God — “And we have killed him.” (The Gay Science §125) — and with our own hands, so that the sacred as Nietzsche puts it, bleeds to death as we watch (but then, what about the blood, and Nietzsche goes in for excessive realism: what about the stench? Gods, too, so he tells us, decompose!).

Much more than merely murdering God — this, after all, would be a piece of cake for Anders as a Jew, a secular Jew no less — we want to take his place. But that’s the kicker.

The problem for us is that we are born and not made. Above all, we are born, this is the Heideggerian point, as we are born, thrown as we are thrown and we are not designed in accord, this is the anti-Cartesian impetus, with our preferences as we might have specified them (had anyone asked).

Anders’ most dissonant insight — vying with anything Levinas argues about the face as it also vies with anything Heidegger argues about death and thrownness, and with everything (and in the case of Anders this is not by accident) that Arendt writes about natality — is that the whole of our problem with modernity begins and ends with our awful shame at having been born (oh gosh and now we begin to remember all the Theweleit anxieties about war, about Jews and others as very patent anxieties about women). What we and much rather want to be instead, and there is always an instead, is the machine. Anders articulates the modern human fantasy today, the ‘dream’ as he calls it, “was naturally to be like our gods, the apparatus, better said, to belong to these (mechanical) gods completely, to be to an extent co-substantial with these gods: homologoumenōs zēn.”[18] Our desire is to be the machine, or as in the current era, and to speak with Kurzweil, to become one with the digital realm.

Thus and ultimately for Anders, our desire is to be manufactured, to be fabricated, to be a product, maybe one with serial numbers, perhaps an ISBN, just so that we can market and upgrade ourselves: the point here would be interchangeable parts.[19] If something breaks: fix it; when something wears out: replace it.

Thus towards the end of his life, Anders would recollect his own collision with the spirit of the times after World War I. No kind of poetic experience “on horseback,” this was a direct confrontation with changes made by medical technology coupled with modern transport. The result of these technological transformations of human life at the very limit of everydayness, here conceived as a Heideggerian everydayness, shattered that everydayness for him. Beyond anything so theoretically to the point of the ready-to-hand quotidian, more than a misplaced / broken hammer, Anders recalled the dissonance of this vision, at the age of fifteen, as he was on his way home after the first World War, spent as a too-young soldier in France.

On my way back, at a train station, maybe it was in Liege, I saw a line of men, who strangely seemed as if they began at the hip. These were soldiers who had been set on the platform on their stumps, leaning them against the wall. Thus they waited for the train that would take them home.[20]

These are transhumans. No one will ever need to tell them that their canes, their wheel chairs, their prosthetic limbs, are their extended selves. This they know.

With this in mind, we quote the little hymn Anders’ gives us for musically-montone Molossians:

But if we ever succeed
in throwing off our burden
and stand as [iron] bars
fitted into [iron] bars

As prosthesis to prosthesis
in intimate conjoining,
and the flaw was what had been
and shame was yet unknown — [21]

For Anders, our shame is our genitalia.

Like Arendt and like Heidegger and Jonas (and so on), we recall that Anders had a classically German classical education, which include both Athens and Jerusalem: thus Anders speaks of aidos. We are, as he says “no product” but and rather than being god — think of Sartre’s very Cartesian, existential articulation of this dream — we are just and merely creatures, with every “creaturely inadequacy.”[22]

Finite and limited, we are merely human. If only we were as gods: if only we could be manufactured to precision standards at the consummate height of the technological engineering we are so sure is coming our way — just you wait.

In the future, everything will be better.

It is Anders’ figural analogy, God = Product, that I find the most compelling or thought-worthy, as Heidegger would say. The product is God. Hence as Anders goes on at this point:

The attempt to prove his “thing piety,” endeavoring an imitatio instrumentorum, one has no choice but to undertake a self-reformation: at the very least and in the smallest degree to undertake effort to “improve” [today advertizing agencies and apologists for transhumanism prefer to say ‘enhance’] himself, rectifying the ‘sabotage’ suffered owing to original sin: the legacy nolens volens of birth, now for once reduced to the smallest conceivable degree.[23]

For Anders, we want to correct the mistakes in our make-up: the errors that cause us to become ill, to suffer, to die. An imperfect, rather than a well-made product, as René Descartes had already pointed out as part of his philosopher’s proof of the existence of god (the Parisian theologians did not a miss a beat with this one), a proof that just also happened to be a condemnation of God’s manufacturing specs: had he, Descartes, fabricated himself, he would have done it better.

For Anders, we have already at the time of his writing in the mid 1950’s begun to undertake this same rational and Cartesian enterprise which we call and it is instructive for those who believe like Kurzweil in the logarithmically accelerating evolutionary trajectory of technoscientific engineering and design that we use rather the same terms that Anders emphasizes in 1956, and formulated in English as “Human Engineering”.

As a corollary, so Anders reminds us, the human being is manifestly a “defective design,”[24] especially when regarded from the perspective of technical devices (error tends, as we know, to be “human error” rather than a result of a deficiency in the machine, whatever the machine might be).

In this way, Anders’ first chapter “Concerning Promethean Shame” in the first volume of his The Obsolescence of Humanity: On the Soul in the Age of the Second Industrial Revolution prefigures — albeit in a darker modality — Kurzweil’s brighter enthusiasm for the “natural history,” as it were, of humanity towards an evolutionary culmination in a literally technological rapture. Nor is the word “rapture” an overstatement: we are talking about replacement, consummation, salvation, transfiguration — and like the technical problem attendant upon the theological (or Disneyesque) problem of the resurrection of the body, what do you do with the old phone iPhone when the new one arrives? An already present and growing problem for iPhone owners all over the world in just a few months to the soon to be 5G (ah, the devil take the bees) singularity, some of whom already have two or three earlier phones in a drawer somewhere).

For Anders, Descartes’ musing that God had created him with deficiencies (this would be the true maker’s mark, this would be the Promethean shame), can rightly be kicked up a notch. Here we see that like Arendt, Anders too is Heidegger’s good student, and thus he moves from Descartes to Kant. Thus we move, as Anders argues, “into the obligatory.” Or and in “other words,” as Anders explains, “the moral imperative is now transferred from the human being to the gadget.”[25]

What ought to be, what should be is now the tool, the device, and the gadget. We want technology, the more of it the better, and as we ourselves become our own technology, so much the better. This then is Kurzweil’s dream: let there be not merely the human but high technology, and let us not forget, as we reflect on this, that Kurzweil is in the business of selling technology: let there be stuff to buy.

For his own part, Anders is merely repeating the maxim that Heidegger had already identified in his Contributions to Philosophy as the maxim of fascist techno-science (whatever is technically possible should be actualized as quickly as possible) which as Heidegger had anticipated and Anders could not but corroborate, applied with fairly dispassionate equal measure to Soviet and capitalist aka American science alike:

What can be done counts now as what ought to be done. The maxim: ‘become the one you are’ is today perceived as the maxim of the gadget. … Gadgets are the gifted the ‘whiz-kids’ [English in original] of today [26]

But and for all the claims that are made on his behalf (claims Anders happily echoed for his own part) to the effect that Anders opposes Heidegger, just as he similarly opposes Adorno, Anders also takes over (as Adorno also charged) and radicalizes Heidegger’s critique.

Hence Anders begins his 1956 Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen [The Obsolescence of Humanity] with a reflection on nothing other than the very impossibility, as it were, of criticizing technology, that is to say of “refusing” or distancing oneself from technology: an impossibility that found expression for Heidegger himself in his Gelassenheit — and a critical impossibility that has hardly been ameliorated, let us be careful to underscore this, in the interim:

As I articulated this thought at a cultural conference, I was met with the counterclaim, in the end one always has the freedom to turn off one’s technological devices, indeed one even has the freedom to decline to buy any such, and dedicate oneself to the “real world” and just and only this world.

Which I disputed. And indeed just because the one who strikes is at much as the disposition of technology as is the consumer: whether we play along with it or not, we play along, because we are played. What ever we do or fail to do — that we increasingly live a humanity for whom there is no longer ‚world’ or world experience but phantom of world and a phantom of consumption, no part of this is altered by our private strike: this humanity is today the factical with-world, which we must take into account, to strike against this is not possible.[27]

As this citation makes plain, Anders follows Heidegger in the case of technology where to follow Heidegger always means, just as Michael Theunissen once reminded us, to be set in contest with him, that means to question as Heidegger questions. In this sense what Anders does is to think Heidegger’s critique as Nietzsche would recommend thinking critique in his own reflections on Kant: through to its furthest consequences.

Thus we recall Heidegger’s allusion to Rousseau at the start of Heidegger’s own The Question Concerning Technology, “Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology, whether we passionately affirm or deny it.”[28] Hence when Anders reflects in his The Obsolescence of Humanity on the ultimate impossibility of denying or refusing technology, simply and only because we are human beings in a world with others, he repeats a point Heidegger had underlined early in his Being and Time, writing that “Dasein’s Being in the world is essentially constituted by being with” and underscoring that this remains even when Dasein is alone, “even when factically no Other is present-at-hand or perceived. Even Dasein’s being-alone is being-with in the world.”[29]

But as Heidegger articulates this problem in “The Turn,” one of the original lectures he presented in 1949 in Bremen, warning in perfectly apocalyptic tones attuned to the cybernetic technology of the day and which effects continue on the internet that is the current form of that same broadcast technology: “we do not yet hear, we whose hearing and seeing are perishing through radio and film under the rule of technology. ”[30]

In an age where the Geräte of which Anders speaks, that is, again, the gadgets, the “technologies” as we increasingly speak of them, remain more indispensable than ever they were for Anders writing in what may have been the most optimistic age of technology, that is the postwar era. And this indispensability is not nothing, as Heidegger says. And it is in advance of Baudrillard but very much after Heidegger and in strikingly Heideggerian terms that Anders writes as he does.

As Anders reminds us, no matter what we do, and in this he handily includes every imaginable luddite expedient, we remain constitutionally incapable of renouncing their use:

What holds true of these devices holds, mutatis mutandis, for everything. … To maintain regarding this system of devices, of this macro-device, that is a “means,” that is to say that it is at our free disposal to be set to whatever purpose, would be completely senseless. The system of devices, the apparatus, is our world. And world is something otherwise than means. Something categorically otherwise — .”[31]

In addition to his Heideggerian anticipation of Latour’s claim, as we cited it earlier, that it is difficult to draw the line between us and things, between ourselves and our tools, our technologies, entailing that for Anders we simply “are” the technological things of our lives, Anders ultimate point is a critical one. Thus Anders highlights the already given and determinate character of the modern consumer, determined as we are by our modern advertising. Thus, as we like to say, here making it all-too plain that we speak from the perspective of the advertisers, we live in and on the terms of and as a consumer society. This point is at the same time the very heart of Heidegger’s analysis of Gestell as Anders continues to analyze it, here without reference to the term per se.

For, taken in all precision these are not just so many “preliminary decisions” but the preliminary decision instead. Yes. The. In the determinate singular. For an individual device does not exist — what is at stake in reality is the whole. Every individual device is consequently nothing more than part of a device, merely a screw, merely one piece in a system of devices, a piece partially directed to the requirements of other devices, its existence in part exigent upon other devices which turn compel the necessity for new equipment. [32]

More than Heidegger, although describing Heidegger’s fate as a thinker and critic (heaven forfend!) of technology and indeed (heaven help us still more!) of science, Anders analyses the reasons for our silence as intellectuals in the face of technology and its effects as indebted to nothing more effective and egregious or tragic than simple socialization: in order not to be supposed a reactionary.”[33] Nor has this fear of being thought reactionary (or technologically backward) changed in the interim. Hence Anders’ observation is truer than ever. And his further reflection thus also bears repeated consideration:

that a critique of technology has already become a question of moral courage today is, as a consequence, unsurprising. In the last analysis (so thinks the critic) I can’t afford to permit anyone to say of me… that I was the only one to fall through the cracks of world history, the one and only obsolete human being, and far and wide, the sole reactionary. And thus he keeps his mouth shut.[34]

For just this reason, Anders could not but be a reactionary. Being so got him little for his pains: his work was not read; he was treated with disregard by his peers (and those who were rather less than his peers) in his lifetime. But what he did do was to speak truth to power. And speaking truth to power, even if we never manage to do this for own part, is always something we are always called to do — even on pain of being “far and wide, the only reactionary.”[35]

Anders took this further than it took Heidegger but it also took him further than Adorno with whom Anders remained in contact, however bristly contact. Thus to illustrate my conclusion to follow, Anders reminisced, recalling a phone call he made to Adorno to ask Adorno if might stand in his place in a protest action Anders could not attend. Adorno predictably responded by refusing, somewhat indignantly: You know I don’t follow any banner. Anders reply was point-counterpoint: Then run ahead of it.

Adorno hung up. There was, because there could be, no reply to that.


When it comes to technology, to machines and the question of (human) mastery, I maintain the Andersesque hope that and unlike Adorno who simply heard Anders’ suggestion as an insult,[36] that we might yet find ourselves willing to take up the charge, and may be even, as Anders suggested, to take the lead in a moment of human freedom.

As we recall from Heidegger’s The Question Concerning Technology, “Everywhere we remain powerlessly chained to technology, whether we passionately affirm or negate it.”[37] Heidegger’s language includes the term “unfrei,” with all of its Rousseauian overtones. The very same point recurs on the first page of Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man and for his part, Anders himself reflects in 1956 in the Obsolescence of Humanity that it is impossible simply to renounce technology for the very early Heideggerian reason that we are human beings in a with-world, Mit-Welt, with others, Mit-dasein.

The problem that remains is the particularly Marxist and critical challenge of action. And Anders, more than either Heidegger or Adorno, was a scholar who acted on his politics, as radically conceived as they were, in the real world, the life of human action. And what often goes by the title of political agency, be it reading the paper, voting in a two party system, everyday politics of whatever given public sphere, should be contrasted with Anders’ activism as this last involved the kind of life action that would seem to have been technologically eclipsed until the events sponsored, aided and abetted by technology, that would be the role, however short-lived in the end, in the Arab spring or the still ongoing American Fall into Winter, OWS. For the most part however, for most of us, especially we academics, we think ourselves “activists” if we click on an email link and hit return.

As Heidegger never tired of reminding us, down to a last letter that was also the last academic reflection he would write, to a circle of American Heidegger scholars: we still need to question in the wake of modern technology.

Babette Babich, professor of Philosophy at Fordham University


[1] Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (New York: Viking, 2005).

[2] This reference to the 1966 film Fantastic Voyage, is more than apt: the earlier instauration of Kurzweil’s contributions on this theme is the health oriented (and there is nothing wrong with being health oriented) book he co-authored with a physician: Kurzweil and Terry Grossman, Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever (Emmaus, PA: Rodale Books, 2004).

[3] Vernor Vinge, “The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era,” lecture presented to the VISION-21 Symposium, NASA Lewis Research Center and the Ohio Aerospace Institute, Mar. 30–31, 1993.

[4] This is the frustrating conclusion Michael Chorost reaches in his March 20, 2012 contribution to the very pro-technology, very popular magazine, Wired: A True Bionic Limb Remains Far Out of Reach.”

[5] Nicklas Bostrom, 1999. “The Transhumanist FAQ.”

[6] Julian Huxley, Religion Without Revelation (London: E. Benn, 1927). Cited in Bostrom’s “A History of Transhumanist Thought,” Journal of Evolution and Technology, Vol. 14, Issue 1 (April 2005): 1–25.

[7] A seemingly tailor-made sci-fi tale in David Simpson’s self-rendered e-novel Post-Human (Bloomington: iUniverse, 2009), composed in the bad-future genre style that we know from films like Bladerunner, or Roadrunner, or Robo Cop, begins by depicting everyday life in the ultra-longevity lifestyle paradise created by nanotechnology, which the author to show his harmless familiarity with this technology speaks of as so many fairy beings called “nans,” a paradise which is then undone by nans, whereby in the predictable (I-hope-the-screenplay-version-gets-made-as-a- movie before this book disappears from kindle radar) course of events, the devastation is revealed to be the fault of the usual caricature evil-doer only to end with a new world made by nans, good ones this time. See Fred Glass, “The ‘’New Bad Future’: Robocop and 1980s’ sci-fi films,” Science as Culture, 5 (1989): 6–49 and, further, Glass, “Totally Recalling Arnold: Sex and Violence in the New Bad Future,” Film Quarterly, Vol. 44, №1 (Autumn, 1990): 2–13.

[8] For an excellent and by no means inherently antipathic discussion of these technical difficulties see Richard Jones’ “Rupturing the Nanotech Rapture,” IEEE Spectrum (June 2008): 64–67 and his book: Soft Machines: Nanotechnology and Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

[9] Latour, Aramis or the Love of Technology (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996).

[10] Donna Haraway, Modest Witness@Second Millennium: Female_Man©_Meets_OncomouseTM (London & New York, Routledge 1997).

[11] See for some of this research, Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2011).

[12] Martin Kusch and Harry Collins, The Shape of Actions, What Humans and Machines Can Do (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998), p. 161.

[13] Kusch and Collins, The Shape of Actions, Ibid.

[14] Kusch and Collins, The Shape of Actions, pp. 153ff.

[15] Ibid., p. 155.

[16] As cited, ibid.

[17] Reporting on what can seem an extreme instantiation of this trend, see the August 31 2010 issue of the Wall Street Journal for an account of the online game Love Plus, “a product of Konami Corp. played on Nintendo Co.’s DS videogame system.” According to the Wall Street Journal, the game Love Plus is for men who play with a virtual girlfriend, and in this case, manage to accrue enough points to be able to go on vacation “with” this same virtual girlfriend in a real life resort town, Atami, Japan — paying real money for the privilege, including real dinners — for two — and hotel rooms — also for two. Thanks to my students Carlo DaVia and Chris Hromas for this example.

[18] Anders, Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen, Vol. 1, p. 36.

[19] Ibid., p. 39.

[20] Mathias Greffrath, „Lob der Sturheit,“ Die Zeit, „Zeitläufte,“ 28/2002..

[21]“Aber wenn’s uns doch gelange, / abzuwerfen unsre Last, / und wir stunden, als Gestänge / in Gestänge eingepaßt, // als Prothesen mit Prothesen / in vertrautestem Verband, / und der Makel war gewesen, / und die Scham schon unbekannt — „ Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen, Vol. 1, p. 39.

[22] Ibid., p. 36.

[23] Ibid., pp. 36–37

[24] Ibid., p. 32

[25] Anders, Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen, Vol. 1, p. 40.

[26] Ibid., p. 40.

[27] Ibid., p. 1.

[28] Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology, p. 4.

[29] Heidegger, Being and Time, 156/120.

[30] Heidegger, Die Frage nach der Technik in: ders. Vorträge und Aufsätze (Pfullingen: Neske, 1954)

[31] Anders, Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen, Vol. 1, S. 2.

[32] Anders, Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen, Vol. 1, S. 2.

[33] Ibid., p. 3

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] For Adorno’s theoretical part, see Robert Hullot-Kentor’s essay, „Adorno Without Quotations“ in his Things Beyond Resemblance: Collected Essays on Theodor W. Adorno (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006).

[37] Heidegger, Die Frage nach der Technik in: ders. Vorträge und Aufsätze (Pfullingen: Neske, 1954), S.1.

Amor Mundi

A Selection from The Hannah Arendt Center’s Weekly…

The Hannah Arendt Center

Written by

The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities at Bard College is an expansive home for thinking about and in the spirit of Hannah Arendt.

Amor Mundi

A Selection from The Hannah Arendt Center’s Weekly Newsletter

The Hannah Arendt Center

Written by

The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities at Bard College is an expansive home for thinking about and in the spirit of Hannah Arendt.

Amor Mundi

A Selection from The Hannah Arendt Center’s Weekly Newsletter

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