The following essay takes as a spur a phrase from the Russian philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev’s essay “Man and Machine” (1934): “man” today is possessed of “a planetary feeling of the earth” (208). Well before those famous photos—Earthrise (1968), The Blue Marble (1972), and Pale Blue Dot (1990)—were taken, Berdyaev intuited the holity, touched upon the “feeling,” of planetary existence. Something, in modernity, is different; our comportment to the world has shifted, modulated, perhaps even mutated, from primordial time. Indeed, this transformation in comportment is not, for Berdyaev, a mere matter of behaviour, but of “spirit,” of the “integrity of human nature” (203, 4). The “planetary feeling” impinges upon the “ends of life,” not just its “means” (203). But if, in fact, the “planetary feeling” affects the ends of life, how, then, is the inclination of our being changed, the orientation of our desires and projects altered? What is the shape of this feeling; what is its texture; how is everyday existence coloured by it anew? These questions remain for us today. The “planetary feeling” has not dissipated; if anything, it has grown stronger, and stands today a legitimate structure of our being in the world. Beginning with Berdyaev, this study will attempt a reading of the existential form of the planetary, critically attending to this complex structure of contemporary, everyday life. The planetary cannot be simplistically reduced to a world-view; it is a radical configuration of both our knowing and our being in the world.
To first grasp the claims of Berdyaev’s essay, one need only look to the dichotomy of his title: “Man and Machine.” Berdyaev sees here a distinction, one that has collapsed in the “epoch” of the “technical-mechanical” (204). Spirit—again, the “sphere” of the “ends of life” and the “integrity of human nature”—has expressed itself throughout history by “different relations ... to nature” (203, 4). Berdyaev arranges these relations into “three epochs”: the “natural-organic,” the “cultural,” and the “technical-mechanical” (204). In the first, there is a “diffusion of spirit in nature,” the second, “the emergence of spirit from nature,” and finally, the third, “spirit’s active conquest of nature and domination over it” (204). One can see the difference in the polar structure, or the inclination, of the spirit-nature relation in each epoch (we should be careful, with Berdyaev, not to speak of an epochal transition: “these stages are not to be taken exclusively in a chronological sequence”), moving from a comingling and belonging together of spirit and nature, to a difference between but mutual dependence of spirit and nature on each other, to the supersession and ordering of nature by spirit (204). It is this ordering inclination which will be most distinctive of the current epoch for Berdyaev (and which will be discussed further below). The man/machine dichotomy is therefore presented as a “distinction between organism and organization,” a distinction which marks a transformation of human spirit (and thus the ends and integrity of human existence) between the first two epochs and the third (204).
In the technical-mechanical epoch, “man’s sole strong belief is in the might of technical science and its capacity for infinite development” (203). Having demonstrated such a massive capacity of means, the perfection of “technique”—the term Berdyaev employs for the fusion of technologies and the technological mentality—comes to supplant the perfection of spirit as the ends and good of life. “Technique seeks to attain in everything the greatest results with the minimum expenditure of power”—efficiency becomes the rule; man becomes “homo faber” (203, 4). Where before the organism participated in “the process of generation,” in the cycle of the earth, the organization “is a creation of man’s activity,” an artifice (204, 5). An organism is an “integral” entity, whereas an organization is an “aggregate of parts” (205). An organism “possesses a raison d’être,” intrinsic to it, while the “raison d’être” of an organization is “given it from outside by the organizer” (205). For Berdyaev, the ordering inclination—the rule of efficiency, of homo faber, of organized man—has destroyed this more primordial organic existence. Where before Aristotle and Aquinas believed in an “earth and heaven” that “constituted an immutable hierarchical system, and the very idea of a permanent order of nature was connected with an objective teleological principle,” the technical-mechanical epoch has brought about the total undermining of any “faith in an everlasting order” (205). Telic, intrinsic order is an illusion; the only rule is rule from without, extrinsic control, that dominion of spirit which, in the age of technique, is the dominion of order.
This particular form of spirit cannot simply be attributed to science generally, but rather to one domain of science. For Berdyaev, evolutionary science was at least still grounded in the organism. But the technical-mechanical epoch is “the age of Einstein and not of Darwin,” and thus “an age of physical and not biological sciences” (205). The reduction to the purely physical loses the integrity of the organism so vital to Berdyaev’s understanding. Where once “natural reality” had a coherence given it by the generativity of life, technique and the physical sciences bring about a “disincarnation,” the coherence of life rendered an “organizing process” (205). A “new actuality is inaugurated,” a “superphysical reality,” a “new cosmos,” where the rule is no longer “growth” but “construction” (207, 5). This “superphysical reality,” for Berdyaev, is characterized by the annulment of the categories of “inorganic” and “organic” bodies, united by a “new category of being ... that of organized bodies—the world of machinery” (207). Now, both the organic and inorganic, the biological and the physical, can be explained in terms of mechanical organization, in terms of order. Such is the dominant characteristic of the “technical age” (207).
It remains for Berdyaev to consider the “meaning” of this age: “Does it spell materialization and the destruction of spirit and all spirituality, or may it have some other significance” (207)? Certainly, for Berdyaev, “never has materialism been so strong” (207). No longer do “spirit” and “historical bodies” belong together in “close connection” (207). Once, spirit dwelled in the earth, was birthed of the earth; now, spirit imposes its will upon it, while simultaneously being evacuated of all symbolism, meaning, or significance. The technical spirit is an utter transcendent, akin to a void or god. Thus, for Berdyaev:
The actualism and titanism of technique is in direct opposition to a passive, vegetative, animal existence in the womb of the Magna Mater, it destroys the cosiness and warmth of organic life clinging to the soil. The meaning of the technical age is primarily that it closes the telluric period of human history, when man was determined by the earth not only in the physical but also in the metaphysical sense. Herein lies the religious meaning of technique. It gives man a planetary feeling of the earth, very different from the one he experienced in former ages. (208, Berdyaev’s emphasis)
Humankind has lost the earth. Or rather, technical-mechanical humanity (that dominant mode of existence in the West) has lost the earth. Everything becomes superphysical, which is to say, if the physical can be explained in terms of mechanical processes, and such processes are inclinations to order, then all systems, all entities, all meanings come to be determined, inclined, projected, in the same terms. Technique, as the order and project of the superphysical, has therefore a “cosmological significance,” operating on “a universal scale ... intended to reach mankind as a whole” (208). Simultaneously, earth and sovereign are displaced, no longer holding sway from their formerly central positions: “when the system of Copernicus superseded Ptolemey’s ... the earth was no longer considered as the physical center of the universe”; as the “cosmos of antiquity and of the middle ages ... vanished,” the human species “found a compensation and fulcrum by transferring the center of gravity to himself, his own ego—the subject” (208). The subject as principle and instrument of order—organizer, machinist, mechanic, engineer—comes to express “man’s maturity” (208).
But in the “cosmological significance” and “universal scale” of the subject, do we not see an uncanny return to the comingling and belonging together of “spirit” and “nature”? If everything is physical, does not then the “subject” become simply a term for a new integrity, the integrity of an organizing process, dispersed and diffuse but intrinsic to the actual and titanic real? Is not the image of the willful spirit imposing itself on nature from without one of the last redoubts of a late cultural epoch in which the difference between spirit and nature still reigns, a rule which certainly initiated the technical-mechanical epoch, and yet would come to be unsustainable in that third epoch’s terms? Is not the notion of the subject cosmically diffuse, everywhere and nowhere, distinctive of Einstein’s relativity, the science to which Berdyaev ascribes responsibility for our “superphysical reality”? Perhaps, then, the meaning of this age may in fact have some other significance, as Berdyaev suggested. Just as the shifting of the “subject” to the position of “fulcrum” brought ““the masses” on to the stage of history,” obliterating the old hierarchies, the planetary feeling brings about an analogous democratization of the cosmos; in fact, Berdyaev says as much: the “very principle” of technique—that technical-mechanical paradigm which births the planetary—is “democratic” (208). Another significance indeed: “man becomes a universal creator”; “[h]uman heroism is now connected with cosmic spheres”; “this new actuality will be a part of cosmic life” (210). We have, then, a “return to nature,” what Berdyaev considers a “perennial feature in the history of culture,” but a return in a way that, it seems, Berdyaev himself does not even fully comprehend, though he traces its outline (204). The “cosmological significance” of technique, unifying spirit and nature once more within the domain of organization, flattening the ancient hierarchies into superphysical surface, is a radical new reality, an epoch for which Berdyaev has no description because it as yet approaches him from the future.
Though Berdyaev is definitely cognizant of this radical new “sphere” before him, and is critical of “romantic reaction” as “a defense of more primitive and obsolete forms,” he remains disconcerted by the change (209). Berdyaev is loath to enter into the new reality he gestures toward, and so loath to think through it. The rule of technique, of organization, is “impersonal,” “denying ... the right to a personality,” the “unity and integrity” of organic-spiritual holism (211). The physical sciences “dehumaniz[e]” the human, “lead[ing] man beyond the limits of his familiar world,” and with “Einstein ... beyond the world of space” (213). Indeed, the very terms “man” and “subject” and “person” are similarly transformed, defamiliarized, brought to the point of incomprehensibility:
Christianity liberated man from the bonds of the cosmic infinity that enslaved the ancient world ... made him dependent upon God and not upon nature. But in the science which became accessible when man emancipated himself from nature, on the heights of civilization and technique, he discovers the mysteries of cosmic life formerly hidden from him and the action of energies formerly dormant in the depths of nature. (213)
These mysteries are the incomprehensibility of the “new cosmos,” a cosmos of dispersion and relativity, of uncanny subjects and spooky action, of “awful power” and vertiginous perspective (212). These mysteries remain to be scrutinized, having only been illuminated in fleeting by Berdyaev. The “planetary feeling” has yet to be articulated, to be thought through. Such will be the task of the remainder of this paper.
To broach the task at hand, to take up the mystery with which we are left by Berdyaev, it is necessary for us here to think through the passage from the earthly to the planetary more carefully. Berdyaev’s epochal structure is useful shorthand, but insufficient for a description of our present condition. To this end, this section will turn to Martin Heidegger’s explorations post-Being and Time, and so attempt to elaborate a fuller and more nuanced picture of the two paradigms here set against each other.
In his “Memorial Address,” presented in 1955 and then published as the first part of Discourse on Thinking (1959), Heidegger responds to the work of composer Conradin Kreutzer, asking: “what are we to think and to say at a memorial which is devoted to a composer” (44)? He is concerned with the matter of commemoration, of memorial, of celebration; what do these postures reveal? It is presumed that in remembering the great artist through his art that he “himself is present,” and that indeed “the master’s presence in the work is the only true presence” (44). Why else would one remember in such a way? But this “alone” does not “constitute a memorial celebration” (44). This remembering is “to think back,” to have “memories come alive,” to experience a “relating” that takes us beyond the mere entertainment of such an event—or so Heidegger would have it. Too often, in such circumstances, we fall into a “listening” in which “no thinking at all is needed” (44). The radical occurrence of thinking back is drained of its power. Heidegger wishes to return, truly, to the site of that radical power of thought.
The memorial for Kreutzer is for Heidegger an analogical lever. In Kreutzer he sees a link between the composer’s art and the “Swabian land” from which it was “brought forth,” taking up this link as vital, existential: “does not the flourishing of any genuine work depend upon its roots in a native soil” (47)? For “human work to flourish,” Heidegger writes, “man must be able to mount from the depth of his home ground up into the ether ... the open realm of the spirit” (47-48). But is “there still a life-giving homeland in whose ground man may stand rooted, that is, be autochthonic” (48)? Heidegger is not so concerned with Kreutzer but with the community of beings for whom Kreutzer stands as a metonymic substitute: “man,” the human species. If Kreutzer’s work can be considered autochthonous to Swabia, what is the autochthony of man? What is the self-soil of the human?
For Heidegger, the autochthony of the human is the “capacity to think” (45). As the artist returns to and mounts up from the soil of his homeland, so every human continuously returns to and mounts up from her thought. Though in commemoration the act of thinking can be cheapened, falling into “thoughtlessness,” evacuated of everything but the most superficial of sensibilities, this thoughtless remembrance can never in fact be empty. “Thoughtlessness is an uncanny visitor”; in it, there is something of the same returning to the self, but distorted and other (45). For, “even while we are thoughtless, we do not give up our capacity to think. We rather use this capacity implicitly, though strangely: that is, in thoughtlessness we let it lie fallow” (45). The ground is not annihilated, but rather appears to us uncanny and strange; it is the foreign familiar. The radicality of thought might be inactive, but the “capacity” remains: “only that can lie fallow which in itself is a ground for growth, such as a field. An expressway, where nothing grows, cannot be a fallow field” (45). So, for Heidegger, there is something existential about this human ground, something primordial to our being. But in the strangeness of our meeting with it, something “gnaws” at our “very marrow”: we are “in flight from thinking” (45). The uncanny discomfort of thought is its closeness; it is the ground upon which we stand, it is the marrow of our bones. And so, we flee. But where can we flee from ourselves? Thought can never be abandoned, only reduced to thoughtlessness. True thought, for Heidegger, “meditative thinking,” does “not just happen by itself”; “it requires a greater effort. It demands more practice. It is in need of even more delicate care” (46-57). We fly in the opposite direction, “tak[ing] in everything in the quickest and cheapest way” (45). We are no longer concerned with mounting up into spirit, but only with that mode of “deliberation [that] has its own great usefulness,” that can, with “calculated intention ... serv[e] specific purposes” (46). The meditative is replaced with the “calculative”: “we plan, research, and organize” (46). In calculative thinking we can only “compute,” and “compute ever new,” with ever “more economical possibilities” (46). Everything becomes a matter of means; economy and use replace all other ends. Spirit evaporates. In all of this, the resonance with Berdyaev should be strong.
“Calculative thinking never stops, never collects itself”—in the championing of the “practical,” it claims to be in “touch” (46). And yet, meditative thinking must “be able to bide its time, to await as does the farmer,” to have a sense for the soil, for the earth (47). Only the latter is truly in touch; only the latter is truly grounded. Calculative thought skims along the surface, refusing all “rootedness,” choosing instead “planning” and “organization” (47). We should be careful here, however, not to let the metonymic figure of the address eclipse the ground for which it stands. Heidegger’s use of “ground,” of “roots,” of “soil,” of “earth,” are illustrative, but only lead down dangerous paths if taken literally. Indeed, Heidegger’s dabbling with Nazism after Being and Time and prior to Discourse on Thinking indicates a failing on his own part in this respect. The parochial autochthony of a literal land can all too easily elide that more primordial autochthony of thought that merely finds an expression in Heidegger’s telluric metaphors, but cannot be reduced to them. So, before returning to Heidegger’s thinking on calculation, which is his own formulation of what Berdyaev terms organization, we must take a detour through an earlier work to more thoroughly explicate his notion of ground.
In the first chapter of his Introduction to Metaphysics (a series of lectures given in 1935, and published in 1953), Heidegger poses his famous question: “Why are there beings at all instead of nothing” (1)? This is the “first of all questions,” the “broadest,” the “deepest,” and the “most originary”—it “embraces all that is” (2). This question is so because it “seeks the ground for what is, insofar as it is in being” (3). And it must be asked, because “it is necessarily asked ... along with every question” (7). To ignore it would be to perpetuate our flight, our thoughtlessness. So, then, what is it to ask this question, what is it to think the ground? Heidegger responds:
What is put into question comes into relation with a ground. But because we are questioning, it remains an open question whether the ground is a truly grounding, foundation-effecting, originary ground; whether the ground refuses to provide a foundation, and so is an abyss; or whether the ground is neither one nor the other, but merely offers the perhaps necessary illusion of a foundation and is thus an unground. (3)
This questioning puts us into relation with something far more primordial than any “Swabian land,” more primordial than any identity—cultural, national, personal, or otherwise. In asking the question of beings as such—the question of the Being of beings—we are thus brought into relation with our own ground, and into relation with our own questioning in its seeking after our own ground.
In thoughtlessness, the “process” that “gnaws” at our “very marrow” is our “flight” (Discourse on Thinking 45). But in questioning in this “most originary” way, there is a different process at work, a different movement than flight (Introduction to Metaphysics 2). Rather than a flight away from there occurs a “leap [Sprung]” back to, whereby “this questioning attains its own ground by leaping” (7). It is “a leap that attains itself as ground by leaping an originary leap [Ur-sprung]: an attaining-the-ground-by-leaping” (7). Herein the radical power of thinking back shows itself. To think back is to return to the ground, to leap toward it and attain it, and so to take up the distance of waiting that calculative thought never can. The headlong rush of calculation seeks always the new, never collecting itself, whereas Heidegger’s questioning as “attaining-the-ground-by-leaping” allows thought to stand outside of “direct resonance [Widerklang] in everydayness,” and so “stand in innermost harmony [Einklang]” with “authentic happening” in “history” (9). Only in leaping back can thought gather itself to itself, embracing the uncanny spacing of its being in a meditative waiting. In this way, “essential questioning in philosophy necessarily remains untimely” (9)—it in fact refuses time, in the incessancy of its passing (the vulgar concept of time in Being and Time), and chooses instead a “thoughtful opening” that allows for that “authentic happening” which is temporality (11, 9).
But, as in Discourse on Thinking, this is not an easy task: “philosophy never makes things easier, but only more difficult” (Introduction to Metaphysics 12). In opening to temporality, there occurs a “burdening of historical Dasein” (of the human person), but only in this “burdening” can there be “the arising of everything great” (12). Calculative thought, in seeking ever more efficient means for bringing about desired ends, cannot account for the burdened arising that Heidegger terms “fate,” that mounting up from historical being into spirit. Past and future are transformed by calculation into past and future moments, and temporality loses its integrity. Earth and ground similarly disintegrate, becoming geometric place, grids of coordinates. The weight of that burdening which collects, which gathers, appears as an inefficiency; thoughtlessly, we assent to this appearance. And yet, it is precisely this quality of appearance which is here so key. Even in flight from historical burden, in thoughtlessness, the capacity for the leap is not lost: it is primordial to human being, allowing what is to appear upon a ground, disclosing the ground simultaneously with that which is being questioned. Thus, in the most originary questioning, where the ground of the question and the ground of Being as such are disclosed, thought is disclosed to us, burdened in its historical appearing. It is this historical appearing which allows for the shaping and transformation of the “authentic happening” of thought into calculative thinking, the thinking of technique. Our thought is always already so burdened, and as such, “emphatically interpreted and given an aim” (10). Calculative thinking is the opening of a closure, a questioning of human being that interprets it as and orients it toward the moment, toward planning and organization, toward the ordering in series of the person. Where meditation would be a “thoughtful opening,” calculation is a thoughtless opening, a thoughtless burdening, a thoughtlessness aiming thought in flight from itself. At no point is thought annihilated; if it were so, human being would be annihilated with it—for Heidegger, thought is a necessary existential structure of Dasein. Its power can, however, be annulled.
It remains, then, in this part, to consider the nature of this annulment, and so finally to rejoin our own questioning with that notion of the “planetary feeling” discussed above. As Heidegger argues, in the questioning of the Being of beings, Being as such is disclosed as _____, interpreted and given an aim. Being as such, Being itself, cannot be grasped; it is always articulated, always given as _____. We deal with it as we deal with “Nothing,” because in the question “[a]ll that is not Nothing comes into the question, and in the end even Nothing itself” comes into question, “not, as it were, because it is something, a being, for after all we are talking about it, but because it “is” Nothing” (2). The question of “all that is ... is limited only by what simply is not and never is”—and yet, in our questioning, the disclosure of the limit, this No-thing, discloses to us the opening of Being, the appearing of Being. Heidegger locates this structure of Being first in the Greeks, for whom “beings were called phusis” (14). Though phusis would come to be translated as “natura, which really means “to be born,”” in the Greek there is a far richer meaning to the term. Heidegger “leap[s]” over the “deformation” of phusis to its ancient use, to discover what it “says” (15):
It says what emerges from itself ... blossoming ... the unfolding that opens itself up, the coming-into-appearance in such unfolding, and holding itself and persisting in appearance—in short, the emerging-abiding sway. (15)
This picture of phusis is “Being itself,” the Being of beings, that no-thing articulated in things, Being coming into beings, erupting, emerging, unfolding, upsurging. This “emerging, abiding sway includes both “becoming” as well as “Being””; it is the “event of standing forth, arising from the concealed and thus enabling the concealed to take its stand for the first time” (16). And we, in our questioning, “open up the domain so that beings can break open in such questionworthiness” (32). This is the distinction of thought, for Heidegger, its participating in the emerging-abiding sway of Being that allows Being to presence as beings, and simultaneously disclose “Being in regard to its ground,” which is “Being itself ... in itself a ground and ground enough” (35). The Ur-sprung of the question, its original leaping and attaining of its ground in leaping, is in fact the emergence out of Being of the question, the emergence of Being as a question, an emergence beckoning thought to respond.
“Everything ... is ... and nevertheless—if we want to lay hold of Being it is always as if we are reaching into a void. The Being that we are asking about is almost like Nothing, and yet we are always trying to arm and guard ourselves against the presumption of saying that all beings are not” (38). This is the fundamental question—why are there beings at all instead of nothing? In the appearing of Being in beings, beings appear as questions: ambiguous, uncertain, without fixity. And yet, in their abidingness, there is some intimation of stability to which we cling. Certainly, Heidegger remarks, “whether the question ... is posed or not makes no difference ... The vigor of life flows ... without this question” (5-6). It is not as if, without the question, existence would stop existing. And yet, in our Being, we question, are haunted by nothing, are open to that opening of temporality that allows for the authentic happening of disclosure—the eruption of Being. We cannot abide the sway. Always there remains the temptation to elevate a being to the position of Being, to elevate this soil to the position of ground, to refer everything to an absolute substance. We yearn for a solidity that seems intuitive, but which in fact arises from the ever-present non-presence of Being in its concealment and unconcealment, in its presencing.
Presencing is the uncanny ground of presence and the present. In struggling with it, in our fear of it, we flee, and thoughtlessly taking up our historical being, interpret everything as real, which is to say, as substantial and certain. No blurring or ambiguity or thickness is allowed—“All things s[i]nk to the same level, to a surface resembling a blind mirror ... The prevailing dimension ... of extension and number” (48). Here are further echoes of Berdyaev: the blind mirror is the superphysical real. The superphysical is the flattening of everything that is into the organisable and calculable. Where before spirit was an “originally attuned, knowing resolution to the essence of Being,” spirit now becomes “intelligence,” “reduced to the role of a tool” (49). Cultivation, waiting, and abiding—those postures of meditation, of one in touch with the ground—are supplanted by planning and technique (50). The only goals left us are “showpieces and spectacles,” no more the ends of spirit, of mounting up into the open (52).
In “The Question Concerning Technology” (1962), Heidegger outlines the interpretation of what is as given by this spirit of calculation and organization. He once again takes up the ancient concept of phusis, linking it with the “bringing-forth-hither” of poiēsis (10). Thus, originally, physics “is indeed poiēsis in the highest sense,” concerning with the “bringing-forth” and “bursting open” of Being. And indeed, “everything” in modern technology has “to do with revealing,” with bringing-forth and bursting open (12). As above, in the primordiality of the question of our being in response to the questionworthiness of Being which reveals itself, Being is always disclosed in interpretation, with an aim, and we congruently with it. Technology in its “essence” cannot presume to be separate from this process. But in its particular mode of “bringing-forth,” modern technology brings about a change of interpretation that reflexively covers over the ground of its appearing. This bringing-forth is a “challenging” that “puts to nature the unreasonable demand that it supply energy that can be extracted and stored as such” (14). This challenging is “directed ... toward driving on to the maximum yield at the minimum expense” (15). Rather than wait for the earth to give of itself, to blossom, technology “sets upon” the earth, revealing the “manifold interlocking paths” of the ground by “regulating their course,” organizing, ordering, and calculating them (15). Phusis becomes a “standing-reserve,” a wellspring of energy waiting to be grasped, made so through a “challenging claim,” a claim which Heidegger terms “Enframing” (19).
Finally, we see the epochal structure of Berdyaev’s essay more fully pictured. The “producing that brings forth” and the “challenging ordering” that sets upon the earth are “fundamentally different” interpretations and orientation of the relation between spirit and nature, and yet both “are ways of revealing,” of unconcealment or disclosure (for Heidegger, “alētheia,” truth) (21). These are not causally determined epochs, but historically burdened disclosures of Being. This is the import of Heidegger’s special use of fate in an undeterministic sense, his attempt to express the integrity of temporality. What is strange, here, is that our fate, the new cosmos revealed by Enframing, like the new cosmos revealed by the physical sciences which Berdyaev discusses, similarly takes us beyond the objective paradigm that was its original impetus. The universe of the superphysical in Berdyaev is indistinguishable from the universe of standing-reserve in Heidegger. In that transitional epoch which Berdyaev calls the “cultural,” subjects and objects are sharply distinguished, a schism which allows the physical sciences to presume to realism and construct substantial, independent objects. But this physical science led to Einstein, whose relativity brought about a dispersal of those distinct entities into the cosmic fabric, and even went so far as to dissolve the notion of absolute space in the process. It seems our fate, the “destining” of our being (destining being “the essence of all history” as the burdened taking-up of the ground) (24), is in fact that uncanny return to the commingling and belonging together of spirit and nature presaged in Berdyaev and discussed above. Though the question of Being which seeks a ground is “turned away from all surface and shallowness, striving for depth” (Introduction to Metaphysics 4), we nevertheless find ourselves in the blind mirror as it turns upon itself, endlessly referring, looping, twisting—a möbius surface. So perhaps depth is annulled—and yet, its function is retained, translated or shifted into a different dimension. The superphysical denies all absolute objects, and so denies any attempt to refer beings to an external, ultimate being, a substantial and certain ground. Instead, we discover the ground, Being, what is, to be here—presencing, unfurling, upsurging, always an open question.
Berdyaev wondered after another significance to this planetary feeling which we encounter in the era of modern technology. With Heidegger, we see more fully the decentering of the superphysical as a particular destining or aim of the eruptive disclosure of Being, a bringing-forth which flattens hierarchies into the univocity of standing-reserve. Indeed, the most originary question, the question of Being, inevitably puts into question “beings as such and as a whole” (Introduction to Metaphysics 4). We are fated to continuously take up the authentic happening of our being as historical (that is, as burdened temporality), and so to interpret and reinterpret the bringing-forth of Being in the poetry of the physical, which we question and which puts us into question. What remains for us is to consider how we might authentically, meditatively think this destining today, and not be driven into utter thoughtlessness by its undeniable force.
In Discourse on Thinking, Heidegger worries that our “openness to the mystery,” which is our openness to truth as disclosure, might be completely disabled if we do not actively embrace a “releasement toward things” which refuses to reify presencing into presence and the present (55, 54). Only in openness and releasement is there a “promise” for a “new ground and foundation,” a “new autochthony” (55). He does not advocate a return to a prior way of being, for a pastoral reactionaryism; such can only be inauthentic, because it denies the necessary historicity of our being. Instead, “it is we who think if we know ourselves here and now as the [people] who must find and prepare the way” forward (56). In the passage to the planetary from the earthly, we lose that sense of the integrity of Being upon the soil and under the sun. And yet, the ground of our Being as such is never lost, only forgotten or obscured. Our thought, as the up-springing of the question of Being in our being, can always take upon itself the burden of its condition, if only it allows for the authentic happening of Being in its emerging-abiding sway. How, then, do we do this? How do we authentically take up the question of Being upon the surface of the blind mirror? How do we speak of Being and ground and foundation in this age of dispersal and relativity? Where is our homeland in this new cosmos?
In Discourse on Thinking, Heidegger says that we are confronted with the danger of “total thoughtlessness” (56). In “The Question Concerning Technology,” this danger is nuanced: the “destining of revealing is ... danger” (26). It would seem, then, that total thoughtlessness would be a sort of self-obscuring disclosure (paradoxical, to be sure), a doubly dangerous revealing. Destining is a danger precisely for this reason: “man may quail at the unconcealed,” at what is destined, and may recoil in flight (26). Indeed, the “destining of revealing is ... danger as such,” because it is that which puts Being into question (26). The threat of death is only subsidiary to this primordial danger; it is this side of the question of Being, an echo, as it were, of the no-thing that threatens. But following a line from Hölderlin, Heidegger dwells on the potentiality that “where danger is, grows / The saving power also” (28). If, in our flight, we “exalt” ourselves “to the posture of lord[s],” wielding our Enframing power against the danger that haunts us, we also find in that haunting a saving power (27). “Being itself” is “the danger,” Heidegger writes in “The Turning” (1962), and though it “remains veiled and disguised,” it is precisely this hiddenness which is also its salvific capacity (37). The “coming to presence” of human beings “belongs to the coming to presence of Being” (38). So, the “surmounting of a destining of Being ... each time comes to pass out of the arrival of another destining,” a return to the ground which springs up, once again, in the question, to await the revealing that is to emerge (39). Thus, it is for us who think, for thought as such, to take up this destining in which we find ourselves (the superphysical; standing-reserve), to embrace the danger, and so to think “through it and out of it” (Discourse on Thinking 56).
If we follow Heidegger’s thinking in “The Turning,” we see that “Being, as the essence of technology” (that is, insofar as technology is a specific presencing Being, and therefore an emerging-abiding sway destined as technology) “has adapted itself into Enframing,” but that, in the belonging-together of humans and Being, this “coming to presence of technology cannot be led into the change of its destining without the cooperation of the coming to presence of man” (38-39). Because Being is our dwelling, we must in turn “take up [our] dwelling” if we are to think through its “holding sway” at present as Enframing (40). As Heidegger says later in Discourse on Thinking, in the “Conversation On a Country Path About Thinking,” the “region,” the very openness of Being in its “expanse” and “abiding,” can only be destined into the “abiding of what has freely turned toward itself” (66). Forgetfulness, the “oblivion” of thought and so of the presencing of Being, can only hold sway if the leap back is barred, if the turn within thought is prevented (“The Turning” 41). As I have argued above, the leap back, which takes up the burden of historicity so as to mount up into spirit, is our embracing of the uncanny spacing of our being in a meditative waiting (supra 11). To enter into the turn is thus to enter into the very sway of Being, to become intimate with ambiguity, and thus to welcome the turning which “conceals itself” in destining, and yet which is also the “possibility” wherein “the oblivion belonging to the coming to presence of Being will so turn itself that, with this turning, the truth of the coming to presence of Being will expressly turn in—toward homeward—into whatever is” (41). The saving power is the danger; the danger is the saving power. The blind mirror, turning upon itself, can truly induce blindness in us in our coming to presence with it, or it can lead us to acknowledge the darkness of the cloud upon the mount of prophecy, to enter and accept the unknowing sight in which we are beckoned to wait. “With such in-turning,” Heidegger says, “the oblivion ... is no longer the oblivion of Being; but rather ... it turns about into the safekeeping of Being” (43). This safekeeping is the “favor of the turning about of the oblivion of Being into the truth of Being” (44), that which discloses Being as not quite nothing, but a “flash,” a “mirror play,” wherein “world comes to pass” (45, 43). It is for us, then, to leap back beyond Enframing and to receive the “insight” of the destining of the world as such, and so allow for the openness necessary for oblivion to turn into truth (45).
How do we navigate oblivion? How do we release ourselves in blindness without also falling into blindness of thought, true thoughtlessness? We need only look to the technologies of the planetary, and consider their structural inclinations, to begin to see a way.
Berdyaev remarks that the “destructive power of the weapons of old was very limited and localized ... great human masses nor large towns could be destroyed nor could the very existence of civilization be threatened. All this is now feasible” (210). In 1934, he had yet to witness the devastation of the nuclear bomb, the supreme triumph of physical science and calculative thought and the destining of the world as standing-reserve. With the nuclear, the very atoms of reality are split open, challenged forth, ordered into raw, explosive energy. This is the utmost in-turning of Enframing, wherein the very fabric of Being in its coming to presence erupts from within, unfurling and unraveling. Heidegger explicitly names the “atomic age” as the threat of a “far greater danger,” and it is this age which “we who think” must “find and prepare the way into ... through it and out of it” (56). Not only, then, is the oblivion of thought threatened, but the oblivion of our planet. Here, again, is the significance of the planetary feeling, our capacity for total self-annihilation. Never before has the human species been so universally, cosmically bonded by the threat of destruction.
Jean Baudrillard, in Simulacra and Simulation (1981), is similarly gripped by the nuclear power. In the “precession of simulacra,” that gradual breakdown of the “sovereign difference” between the real and the represented, indeed of the entire “imaginary of representation” (the ideology of mimesis propagated from at least the inception of the myth of the cave, and maybe earlier), simulation arises in the place of a metaphysical realism, “whose operation is nuclear and genetic” (1-2). Baudrillard contends that in the assent of simulation “all of metaphysics ... is lost,” and we might add that this is because the physical, rather than be referred outside itself, is folded upon itself, turning into itself, a möbius surface, a becoming superphysical—or in Baudrillard’s language, “hyperreal” (2). No longer is there a “mirror of being and appearances” (2), because the real is itself a blind mirror, which now we take for the mirror play of the world coming to pass in the in-flashing of the emerging-abiding sway that Heidegger calls phusis. In the hyperreal we experience “a liquidation of all referentials,” and their subsequent “artificial resurrection ... in the system of signs, a material more malleable than meaning” (2). Rather than meaning as a copy of the real, in the system of signs we encounter the “substituting [of] the signs of the real for the real,” what Baudrillard refers to as “an operation of deterring” (2). In this process, the hyperreal is “produced,” a “radiating synthesis of combinatory models in a hyperspace without atmosphere” (2). Where before the symbolism of metaphysics, of representation, inhabited the atmosphere of the imaginary, simulation dwells in the univocity of the model (the frame; Enframing) in its “orbital recurrence”—and the “apotheosis” of this model is the “nuclear” (2-3, 32).
Simulation is “characterized by a precession of the model,” the “circulation” of which is “orbital like that of the bomb,” a movement, a play, which “constitutes the genuine magnetic field of the event” (16). In this orbital, nuclear frame, we discover “facts” to be “born at the intersection of models,” and a radical consequence to follow (16):
This anticipation, this precession, this short circuit, this confusion of the fact with its model ... is what allows each time for all possible interpretations, even the most contradictory—all true, in the sense that their truth is to be exchanged [the signs of the real for the real], in the image of the models from which they derive, in a generalized cycle ... [And] the secret of [this] discourse [this exchange of signs] ... [is] that [it] conveys the impossibility of a determined position of power, the impossibility of a determined discursive position ... [It is a] logic ... [that] traverses all discourses without them wanting it to. (17)
Meaning undergoes an “elusive twisting,” a “torsion” (18)—might we say an in-turning? Everything is “magnetized, circularized, reversibilized ... folded back on its own surface: transfinite?” (18). Even Baudrillard finds himself, here, in the midst of a question. Regardless, the facts of simulation are in no way fixed or localizable, but rather emerge from the folds and meetings and crossings-over of the plurality of models in and through which signs are circulated. And finally, in the last instance, Baudrillard declares that “YOU are the model,” that “YOU are information, you are the social, you are the event, you are involved, you have the word ... it becomes impossible to locate one instance of the model, of power, of the gaze, of the medium itself ... No more subject, no more focal point, no more center or periphery: pure flexion or circular inflexion” (29). All this is captured in the totalizing power of the bomb, the apotheosis of the in-folding of every system, every hierarchy, every body, every perspective.
Where on earth do we find ourselves, then? Precisely not there, not on earth: “We are witnessing the end of perspectival and panoptic space ... the very abolition of the spectacular” (30). The bomb permits no standing over against, no bystanders, no innocents, no rooting in the soil; vision without position. With the bomb, the “medium” itself is “diffracted in the real,” a “blending ... viral, endemic, chronic, alarming presence of the medium” (30). We find ourselves in “suspension,” in a “system of deterrence,” referred from sign to sign, caught up in the play of the “hyperreal” (32). In this totalization of the model, the “whole world is satellized” through an “orbital inscription,” and the “planet earth” itself “becomes a satellite,” the very “terrestrial principle of reality ...becom[ing] eccentric, hyperreal, and insignificant” (35). All is surface, surface without centre. And so,
All energy, all events are absorbed by this eccentric gravitation, everything condenses and implodes toward the only micromodel of control (the orbital satellite), as conversely, in the other, biological dimension, everything converges and implodes on the molecular micromodel of the genetic code. Between the two, in this forking of the nuclear and genetic, in the simultaneous assumption of the two fundamental codes of deterrence, every principle of meaning is absorbed, every deployment of the real is impossible. (35)
So again, we ask: how do we navigate oblivion? How do we release ourselves in blindness without also falling into blindness of thought, true thoughtlessness? Few if any think through the structural inclinations of modern technology, the models of the hyperreal, as capably, and as troublingly, as Baudrillard. But it would seem, following this reading of Simulacra and Simulation, that we are no better off, that oblivion threatens to entirely overcome us. Meaning implodes, in Baudrillard, and we awake after the fact in the “desert of the real itself” (1).
But Baudrillard does not abandon us here; instead, he meticulously traces the “curvature” of this new space in which we dwell, producing a truly potent micrology of this world that has come to pass (2). In the vertiginous rush of vision without perspective, we discover that the univocity of our signifying models allows for a traversal that cuts across power, that refuses power, a traversal that simultaneously allow us to dwell in the fecund space of signification, the passage from sign to sign. But this space is also difficult, requiring substantial effort to navigate the interplay of its tensions. As much as we might seek to meditatively take up our history within the hyperreal, to let the authentic happening of Being come about, to find in the passage the presencing of what is, we are also continuously confronted with those olds powers of domination and control seeking restoration, or learning themselves to navigate this new and complex system. The danger and the saving power are never far from each other. It is thus for we who think to vigilantly and expectantly take up this mystery and this burden, to brave oblivion, to abide in the sway.
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Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. 1981. Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser, The University of Michigan Press, 1994.
Berdyaev, Nicholas. “Man and Machine.” 1934. Philosophy and Technology: Readings in the Philosophical Problems of Technology, edited by Carl Mitcham and Robert Mackey, The Free Press, 1983, pp. 203-213.
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—. Introduction to Metaphysics. 1953. Translated by Gregory Fried and Richard Polt, Yale University Press, 2000.
—. “The Question Concerning Technology.” The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. 1962. Translated by William Lovitt, Garland Publishing, 1977, pp. 3-35.
—. “The Turning.” The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. 1962. Translated by William Lovitt, Garland Publishing, 1977, pp. 36-49.
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