Who’s in Control?

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being / control / energy / essence / flux / function / ground / heidegger / machine / order / power / revolution / technology


Who’s in Control?

Heidegger and Technology

We have for a very long time presumed to be in control of machines. We have claimed to be the masters, and pretended to “govern” technology. So Heidegger is more poignant than usual when he reminds us (in the 1969 Der Spiegel interview) that we do not even control that within us which drives us towards technicity. We are not masters of the secret desire which compels us to encircle more and more of the world within our productive networks.

For better or for worse, Heidegger is one of the first to honestly assess the strangeness of this phenomena — the machinic turn in our relationship to the earth and to being. In the ’69 interview, he was asked what the problem with technology was — after all, aren’t we better off than ever? Heidegger declared it was precisely the pure functionality of the machine which terrified him. The machine is problematic as such; but even more so is the static regime of inhuman operativity which the development of modern technology inaugurates.

In this absolute functioning of the machine we discover a surprising, pure and uncanny kind of nothingness. Heidegger reminds us of this in order to pose a challenge about our relation to the earth. Is it possibility that behind the beneficent face of advanced technology is the same noise and turbulence revealed and concealed at once by the ancients as pure ideas — a nonsensical self-annihilation co-extensive with an absolute determination of beings — a “reality” where all life, all possibility, all energy is merely (or finally) standing-reserve for “our” use? But who are we?

We do not master the machine by our own power. It has taken us a long time to realize that a machine is like a science. It functions in a certain way, and there is nothing else. Functioning propels everything towards further functioning; technology dislodges man, uproots us from an authentic relation to the earth. But what is this noise, this nothing else which keeps interrupting us…?

As ever it is the parasite which interrupts the relation, and in doing so, founds “relationality” itself. Machines conduct existence, they drive life — both into and away from itself. We can no longer “be” here, we are no longer masters even of our imaginations, of our desires. (Parts of us are disappearing all the time.) Machines dig into the earth, rivening it, transforming it and everything related to it — maybe even seeding, in a way, the entire cosmos, for new and alien revolutions.

What is the machine? A corporeal and an incorporeal transformation, welded together. In terms of the form of the machine itself, or its function, it may not make much sense anymore to ask: who is in control? A machine functions and nothing else. But what is this ‘nothing’?

Control is thus the object of the most urgent critical question — posed here as an opening question — pointing towards (and possibly beyond) the deterritorialization of the planet, and the un-worlding of the world by the machine. Face to face with the machine — the day is likely not far off. Is Heidegger’s horror justifiable? Are we witnessing the beginning of a departure of Being from the earth — or on the contrary an opening onto multiplicity?

In “The Question Concerning Technology,” Heidegger writes:

“Modern technology, as a revealing that orders, is thus no mere human doing. Therefore we must take the challenging that sets upon man to order the actual as standing-reserve in accordance with the way it shows itself. That challenging gathers man into ordering. This gathering concentrates man upon ordering the actual as standing-reserve… We can now name the challenging claim that gathers man with a view to ordering the self-revealing as standing-serve: enframing.”

Technology is alienating at its core, a gathering which challenges us in return to order the actual in accordance to itself. The machine reveals an inhuman order — we are always discovering machines encircling noisy abysses of pure energy — so in some way technology mediates, supplants and erases “eidos,” the outward aspect of sensibility, the essence which is presented through flux — so the essence of technology is not human, or even  technological. The machine is inhuman speed, “pure” operation — an acceleration of the essence of beings — un-grounding that which in everything and in each thing is present enduringly.

Heidegger admits his usage of “enframing” [Ge-stell] here will thoroughly unfamiliar. It will be even stranger for English readers; it is helpful that Ge-stell can also be used to refer, as he notes, any kind of ‘apparatus’ generally (a bookshelf, for example.) But the usage Heidegger requires is uncommon, and seems eerie even to him — “Can anything be more strange” than the meaning of this way of revealing the uncanny stability in the essence of technicity? (Enframing [Ge-stellen] is a “challenging,” but is closely related to “production” and “presentation” [Her-stellen and Dar-stellen].)

Finally, enframing relates in an essential and uncanny way to poesis itself. We find an enframing in all revealing, even in that which first allows presences to come forth into unconcealmeant, the “originary” production that brings forth… Heidegger writes:

“In enframing, the unconcealment propriates in conformity with which the work of modern technology reveals the actual as standing-reserve. This work is therefore neither only a human activity nor a mere means within such activity. The merely instrumental, merely anthropological definition of technology is therefore in principle untenable…. [But] it remains true nonetheless that man in the technological age is, in a particularly striking way, challenged forth into revealing. Such revealing concerns nature…”

Despite our material prosperity, is an uncanny horror slowly but surely awakening around us, through the multifaceted vector of biotechnology? Or are we just suddenly and surprisingly aware that, rising from beneath the earth, an even larger ungrounding was already always occurring — one which opens onto a smooth space, a “world” without horizons (a cosmos…) ?

Is this difference, this distance (only) philosophical? But our world is already made up of these distances or differences, and we are just scratching the surface. The essence questioning us in technology relates to the meaning of being, that is, to life, to reality, to the world, to possibilities — to unspoken potentials which can be activated through questioning. So we will let the question stand as unanswered (and perhaps unanswerable): who is in control?

The Author

mostly noise and glare


  1. I’m always struck by how “control” is mobilized and often fetishized in articulations of technology. Per Lyotard and Wendy Chun’s recent work, I’m curious here: When you use the word, “control,” in this entry, how does it differ from “freedom”?

    Thanks for the post.

  2. Jentery,

    Your point is well taken; I could protest that the idea here is also to deconstruct the idea of “control” (in a way perhaps not so distant from the thinking of Lyotard,) but I might also suggest that even in those kinds of discussions, we still find traces of a ‘catastrophism’ not unlike Heideggers’ “terror” at the pure functioning of machines. Cybernetics indicates even in its structure an urgent crisis of knowledge, which is here hypostasized for pedagogical purposes as the “problem of control.” But in this sense the question of control points towards the issue of self-control or attunement — to put it bluntly, the reason we can’t control the destructive technological “epoch” we discover ourselves within is that we can’t control our desire to preserve and expand our systems of control. Cybernetics, the science of control, asks a very peculiar question to the human sciences here: who is in control? In many way this calls us to certain cultural revelations; at the very least, it provides us an oppourtunity to think. Which is not to say I think there is a clear answer to this question; I would question any solution to the problem of control.

    So why is freedom not a problem in the same way? Well, clearly in some sense they are two sides of the same coin: you are free to the extent which your action is uncontrolled. But there are also two sides to the uncontrolled: certain things are (or can be) controlled in terms of their content and structure, while others cannot be controlled at all, or only in the way they become expressed. The distinction between these is more obscure than we would like to think: control and freedom interpenetrate and are deeply entangled within one another, precisely because an explanation of freedom requires a descent into the underworld of unconscious desires.

    Briefly, there is a relationship of mutual becoming between freedom and control which is irreducible to any theoretical synthesis — there is always a hard kernel which escapes any method of control or system of interpretation. The controller must be uncontrolled, or the control and freedom are merely relative — the point being that without infinite regress, control and freedom are relative terms in any system. They describe approximately certain differential relations between elements in a structure — freedom relates to molecular multiplicities, and control to molar formations… But there is an abstract machine which underlies and in a sense “controls” both through the unceasing production of new variations, new operations…

    I hope this begins to answer your question, which is an excellent one… By the way, Chun’s book looks interesting, I’ll definitely take a look at it!


  3. Thanks for your thoughtful response, Joe. Re: Chun’s work, her crucial point is that — online/on the web — control is often conflated with freedom and problematically so when we consider the actual power dynamics of fiber optics and internet protocols. When you read it, let me know what you think. I’m curious. Alex Galloway’s Protocol is relevant, too.

    Chun and Galloway aside, your reading of molecular freedom and molar control appears to map rather nicely onto Deleuze’s reading of Nietzschean chance and necessity, difference and repetition — affirming every throw of the dice as distinct in a series of throws. If my reading of your comment is accurate, then perhaps the emphasis on the “problem of control” emerges from a fear of vulnerability (e.g., I might lose or I might not roll snake eyes), as well as the assumption that — to return to Chun — freedom and control (and technology) are not value-laden and never actually felt (e.g., to borrow from Galloway, feeling control through speed bumps as opposed to seeing discipline in a stop sign)?

    All of which is to ultimately ask you: What are the implications (political, social, juridical or otherwise) of making freedom and control relative in any system, particularly when we consider human agency? In the throw of the dice, is control relative? Even if chancy, I only have but so many possible numerical combinations, and the dice must fall. I think your “hard kernel” that escapes is potential — the desire to throw again. That said, I’m not sure that potential or desire makes control (or necessity) relative.

    Then again, I wouldn’t say that control (or necessity) are ever determinant, either.

    In our affirmations of becoming and critiques of negative dialectics, we appear to agree here. Somewhere, in this series of exchanges, difference is emerging. As such, thanks again for your thoughts. Much obliged.

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