Media, Information and Technoculture 2500A/B Lecture Notes - Lecture 4: Jacques Ellul, Gestell, Martin Heidegger

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MIT 2500B: Meaning of Technology
Week 4: Nihilism
Jan 25
“[Modern] technology nullifies what it regards as nothing, of no account.” – Dirk Leach, Technik
Heidegger: unrestricted development of technology has the ability to estrange us from the
world, each other and ourselves
Must understand how and why the experience of modernity is permitted to unfold in this way
If Gestell is a way of being that threatens to estrange us from the world, each other, and
ourselves, because it totally transforms the way in which we engage with everything we
encounter, then what is it specifically about enframing that develops the world in this way? How
does such estrangement actually occur, and how do we experience it?
How does this estranging occur, and how do we experience it?
Our orientation toward technology consistently disturbs our place, what is it about the
development of modern technology that allows it to create these disturbances?
The real danger of technology, for Leach, is this nullifying force made manifest in the world
through a way of being that results in the depletion of meaningful life
With Leach, the development of modern technology and our current orientation to it, nullifies
what is precious to us without even knowing it
All that is regarded is worthless, without value, goes unsupported and undeveloped in the world
we create
The argument goes that not only are we left estranged from the technical world, but also from
all this development overlooks and does not develop
Non-exploitative relationship to nature, and non-instrumental relationships to other people
We are continually losing far more as we continue to go about developing the world
Technology is all about tenderness, we are told
In order to read this process correctly, we must pay close attention to the stuff that isn’t there,
that we see and ignore everyday, because this is where nihilism resides
Look for what’s missing in a world that continually tells us that nothing is missing
“Nihilism was an activity that lies hidden in its work. It was performed but it hid from the
technician himself in vast fields of monotony: parking lots, work days, electrical circuitry—and it
hid in repetition, vibration, and dissymmetry of motion, the physical abuses characteristic of
mechanical labor…Routines such as these dulled the bodies and minds of technical workers and
surrounded them completely, in myriad variations, in the world’s factories and cities.”
oLike Heidegger, Leach is pointing to something totally obvious, yet still incredible
oNihilism can reveal itself through the appearance of plenitude
oHow can nihilism appear most readily in the appearance of abundance, when the world
is associated with nothingness?
Nihilism
Nihilism is negation, insofar as nihilism is what happens when we collectively ignore everything
we mistakenly deem to be valueless, because all that we perceive to be without value goes
unsupported and undeveloped.
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Dirk Leach describes nihilism as the lived experience of Gestell, since nihilism does not erase or
omit everything in the world, but only that which technical thinking “regards as nothing, of no
account.”
oAsk yourself what’s missing, and what is it that you don’t see
oWhat is it that we have forgot to take into account when developing the world in this
way?
If we choose to take nihilism seriously, our perception of the world begins to change
Widens our vision, and allows us to see far more than we would normally be capable of
Gives us a feel for the many things that we usually pass over
If this is true, then it’s fair to say that we see the world in relief, because all the good stuff we
classify mistakenly as worthless or nothing falls back perpetually into obscurity and
forgetfulness.
oOnly some things are emphasized and brought to the forefront, while the rest is ignored
and fall back out of our vision, allowed to disappear
oCertain values, things, ways of doing are privileged above other things
There is nothing natural about this – this work doesn’t occur because it was always meant to
occur
Nihilism happens because we are continually called on to develop the world through technology
in a particular way – developed according to the laws of technique and gestell
This produces a world we tend to experience as both strange and familiar—which is to say,
uncanny.
“It struck [me]…that were certain extremely similar trends in both Soviet and capitalist society.
Beyond the economic transformations and legal reforms, one could find common elements—
particularly the need to increase industry at any price and to develop technical objects.” –
Jacques Ellul, “Understanding Our Age”
“[Technique engenders] the suppression of meaning: the ends of existence gradually seem to be
effaced by the predominance of means. Technique is the extreme development of means...the
ends have practically disappeared. Technique does not develop toward attaining something. It
develops because the world of means has developed, and we are witnessing an extremely rapid
causal growth. At the same time there is a suppression of meaning, the meaning of existence,
the meaning of ‘why I am alive,’ as technique so vastly develops its power.” – Jacques Ellul,
“Understanding Our Age”
oThe ideas expressed are analogous to when Heidegger discusses how the world has
become uncanny, everything functions perfectly, rationally, efficiency
oOur thinking is determined/conditioned by rational and efficient development of
machines
oLosing sight of who we are, what that means, where we’re headed
oDo we not all believe that rapid technological development is required to create newer
and better technologies, and that the pursuing of this development results in the
creation of a utopia?
Any future we produce will not contain what we hope to secure – on the road to realizing the
aspects of our destiny, we will lose everything that can make life bearable in the process
Need to remember that gestell and technique are not the same thing
oTwo distinct theories proposed by Heidegger and Ellul
Gestell, Technique, and Nihilism
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