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137. Duration (III)

Heidegger is often seen as being anti-technology, but this is not so: Heidegger sought to reconcile poetry with technology, to bring out the latent potential within technology through appraising it in a poetic way. Poetry is a form of construction: “poesis” finds its etymological roots in the Ancient Greek for “the activity in which a person brings something into being that did not exist before”; it is, therefore, the absolute act of creation. We can surmise that when, in the beginning, there was the word, that “the word” was a poetic word; to create ex nihilo is the poetic act—it is not merely a reproduction, it is a bringing forth.

This all sounds very well, but what does it have to do with cars and aeroplanes and dams—with the things we regard as technology? Well, technology is, in essence, action at a distance. In the 7th century only my village could hear my voice; in the 19th century I could write or telegram my voice—now, with Twitter, I can throw my voice to Australia. Missiles are spears refined to a very great degree: the basic principle, the extension of my arm to kill my enemies, is the same. In the Stone Age, my ancestors extended their arms with flint spears, now our nuclear missiles—our nuclear arms—extend our reach across the globe. Technology is the art of the creation of action at a distance, but it is an art that has been reduced to the analytical level: what has been lost is the bringing forth of creation.

The craftsman, when making a cabinet, will make sure the work is correct all the way through, even the parts that the owner will never see. He calls forth, poetically, the material. When we look at a piece of furniture made by a craftsman, we say: “He really brought out the oak.” This sensibility, in a mass-production society, is absent, even in high quality products, such as the iPhone. It is the outlook of the German Mittelstand; the network of middle-sized, primarily family-owned, businesses that underpin Germany’s manufacturing prowess. German quality can probably be attributed to genetic factors—intelligence and conscientiousness—but it also relies on this sensibility; it is not work, it is a duty and a ceremony.

This returns us to the notion of a vocation. Today, people have jobs or careers instead; there is no “beyond” to these concepts and no necessity to them, except a necessity to put things in the body and then put your thing in another body to make more bodies. A vocation is literally a calling, “voca-“—to vocalise, to speak and call out. A person’s vocation calls out to them, rather like Lorelei, or, at a less sinister level, God. The notion of “karma” is related to “carmen”—a song or poem. The karmic action calls out to us in a rhythmic way; and this is what Nietzsche meant by the gay science—the gay science being the poetic tradition of the French troubadours.

I recently watched a Russian video comparing axes; the axeman tapped his old axes with a tuning hammer and they sang out in harmony, but his new mass-produced axe just went “tink”. This is what Nietzsche meant by “philosophising with a hammer”, a tuning hammer; the work of the craftsman is in harmony with the cosmos, the rhythmic order of karma—the mass-produced axe is not. The old axes were the product of a vocation, and they called out with every strike at the tree trunk. Today, I see the word “artisanal” everywhere—“artisanal” coffee or even programming—and yet the artisan has never been more absent, and what lies behind “artisanal coffee” is, more often than not, a cheap, though sweet, sales pitch.

A vocation is a person’s dharma—their function in the social world—and the true meaning of “just being yourself”: fulfil your dharmic function. Thus Heidegger demands dharmic creation in the realm of technology, the karma of technology.


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