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Dasein, Objects, and Myth: Heidegger’s Unconscious Accelerationism

By Virgilio A. Rivas.

9780061319693

Besides being the singular initiator of fundamental ontology, Martin Heidegger can be described as a probing poet of technology but also a thinker of destiny which in his later works has come to mean more as a kind of “fate that never compels” (The Question Concerning Technology). Heideggerians are well familiar with this notion; in German Ereignis, translated as appropriation, or destining (‘The Origin of the Work of Art’). Any which way one chooses to put it, Ereignis is a simple assertion that the future is an incalculable destiny. It does not assert, however, that the future by virtue of its being incalculable cannot be transmuted into a calculable event. The future becomes an event in the act of appropriation.

Heidegger prefers a poetic appropriative attitude toward the future consistent with his notion of Being as swaying, a play, an echo; all in all, that which deflects an understanding of Being in the cogitational sense. This understanding takes place when, according to Heidegger in his second major work (Contributions to Philosophy), “philosophy has recognized that mindfulness […] includes the transformation of the cogitating attitude into a thinking comportment.” The transformation of philosophy into non-philosophy, such as befits a poetic kind of contemplation, does not eliminate philosophy itself. Rather the change occurs within philosophy that must at this point sustain its inner tensions in the form of self-mastery.

But also along the same line Heidegger suggests that, until the transformation of animal rationale (Man) to Dasein has already taken place, a cogitational approach toward history would not suffice to contain the inevitable progress of nihilism provoked by modern instrumental reason. In fact, this is Nietzsche’s radical interpretation but certainly not the first to project a critical prognosis of the future that the term nihilism calls to mind. In hindsight, Nietzsche faulted Socrates (the theoretical or scientific Socrates) for initiating the technical pursuit of reason. But Nietzsche also introduced the music-making Socrates which at the same time raised a challenge to the advances of instrumental rationality (The Birth of Tragedy). The figure of Socrates would be overshadowed by Richard Wagner but would be re-introduced in a kind of love-hate relationship through to his later writings. It may be well to emphasize at this point that in Nietzsche’s early works, the ambivalent figure of Socrates is also conflated with the equally ambivalent figures of Apollo and Dionysus.

Heidegger, for his part, was more inclined to emancipate this rather ‘late’ figure from its delirious treatment in Nietzsche at about the time of his mental collapse. Heidegger, as we all know, introduced the concept of Dasein, which, apropos his intensive reading of Nietzsche, may be considered as an outgrowth of both impulses—theoretic rationality and the madness of creativity. As a necessary transformation from a highly developed form of animal rationale since its organic sense departed from Aristotelian definition, Dasein is Heidegger’s response to the nihilism of his time. ‘Being-in-the-world’ thus serves as a sticking point to technical reason drawing its metaphysical strength from its source in the robustness of human autonomy. Perhaps also as a necessary change from the human animal today that has evolved into highly abstract, computational Man, Heidegger has sought earlier to celebrate the silent actuality of in-dwelling, a meditative mode of being-in-the-world. This mode of existence proper to Dasein is set against a rapidly evolving computational society in the techno-deterministic form that it has increasingly assumed today. In contemporary terms, this progress has assumed the character of an accelerating trend toward collapse, compounded by the exploitation of labor by capital on a global scale and the imminent threat of climate crisis on a planetary scale.

Dasein’s Ambivalent Role

At the risk of being counter-intuitive, Graham Harman, writing in Tool-Being and the Metaphysics of Objects, argues that Dasein, in a controversial reinterpretation of one of Heidegger’s key concepts, still preserves, though respectful of alterity with regard to things, the functional metaphysical importance of human autonomy. Despite Heidegger’s fluent analysis of objects and his critique of humanism that correlates with his tool-analysis, Harman argues that Heidegger’s fundamental ontology still lacks a more critical and deeper orientation toward things. Things are poor in world, so to speak (Supplements from the Earliest Essays to Being and Time and Beyond). They lie outside of the ambit of human signification, but also, as a consequence, can be made of service to an interventionist kind of human appropriation. An innocent tool-analysis may thus end up endorsing technical manipulation in the end. This notion of the inert nature of things does not lose its critical purchase in Dasein; in fact, it would appear to be an essential precondition for it. With Dasein at the core of understanding the world, it may be well to emphasize that, apropos this renewed interest in things left unexplored by Heidegger, Dasein is somehow instrumental in distorting our understanding of the true nature of objects. As Harman argues, things not only “withdraw from all perceptual or causal relations” but also “even from the brute relational system of nature” (Guerrilla Metaphysics). But here, we want to take a step further by arguing that in fact Heidegger’s tool-analysis takes this distortion to a more radical level concerning the task of philosophy in relation to its mythical or non-philosophical past. In Being and Time, Heidegger declares:

If we are to understand the problem of Being, our first philosophical step consists in not … ‘telling a story’—that is to say, in not defining entities as entities by tracing them back in their origin to some other entities, as if Being had the character of some possible entity. Hence Being, as that which is asked about, must be exhibited in a way of its own, essentially different from the way in which entities are discovered.

Heidegger made it abundantly clear that the storytelling approach of the myths must be rejected in favor of a more fundamental engagement with the proper question, in fact for Heidegger, the only question worthy of philosophy to pursue, namely, Being (Seinsfrage). Continuing his critique of the narrative form compared with the inquiring approach of fundamental ontology, Heidegger argues that “Dasein has already understood itself, however mythological or magical the interpretation which it gives may be.” To which he adds: “For otherwise, Dasein would never ‘live’ in a myth and would never be concerned with magic in ritual and cult.” Heidegger asserts that Dasein is always already within the ontological “no matter how far removed from an ontological concept the distinction between existence and Reality may be” (Being and Time). Where it needs to be emphasized, the storytelling approach of the myth is replaced by the inquiring approach of Dasein. In short, the pre-philosophic is replaced by the philosophic by virtue of Dasein in whom alone, in its hermeneutic, existential and phenomenological attunement to Being, the question of Being can be made transparent to itself, that is, as the inquirer of Being.

Here, at an angle oblique to his own position, we want to argue that Heidegger slipped his tongue by inadvertently defending a vision of history devoid of the illusions of the past (not without a counterweighing acknowledgement of the improbability of this ever occurring in the near future; the ‘fail safe’ argument of any philosophy risking a claim to the not-yet). This vision of history is typical of the ideal of Enlightenment of which Heidegger nonetheless is openly critical. By some indications with regard to the disenchantment of the past, Heidegger could become, oddly enough, an ally of today’s left accelerationism in its attempt to revive the project of Enlightenment via a curious distortion of the past.

The Conflation of Myth and Logos

Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek, authors of #Accelerate: Manifesto for Left Accelerationist Politics, have argued most strongly for the revival of one of the most robust figures of Western mythology, Prometheus. As refigured in the manifesto, Prometheus is elevated into a figure of political intervention signifying “maximal mastery” over human and nonhuman ecologies, society and environment. This redacted form of Promethean rationality falls under the interventionist metaphysic that Heidegger earlier faulted for intensifying nihilism. We want to argue here that the interventionism that Promethean reason introduces in critical theory today (broadly defined to include global resistance to capital and the environmental catastrophe it radicalizes to a level approaching an insurmountable apocalypse, among others), in fact, sustains two types of distortions: 1) the status of myths in relation to philosophical logos, and 2) the unnecessary extension of the kind of intelligence present in myth to present-day accelerationist distortion of an ancient form of intelligence. In a separate essay, Srnicek argues for this very conflation of reason and myth, comparing the potential of Promethean rationality to the lost metic potential of ancient wisdom, or metis for the Greeks.

Incidentally, in Untimely Meditations, Nietzsche spoke about ‘distortion’ when, for instance, in “a monumental mode of regarding history,” it is likely the past will suffer ‘harm’ in the sense that “whole segments of it are forgotten.” Almost a similar warning blares out in On the uses and disadvantages of history for life when he spoke about ‘bad mythology’ aimed at the Enlightenment idea of history premised on “the presupposition that if a unity of plan does not already reside in things it must be implanted into them.” This is the early sign of nihilism that Nietzsche witnessed in his time.

Today the content of this form, the ongoing nihilism of reason, is ‘technological acceleration’ which in present-day accelerationism stands to be repurposed to mobilize a more robust, computational, planned ordering of society; all in all, in pursuit of “common ends” (#Accelerate). Simply put, nihilism has to be retrofitted toward the direction of planned centralized existence. But the catch is, to add further to the complication it has already bred, this repurposing is being done on the most advanced level of capital accumulation through finance algorithms, a version of centralized planning on the level of artificial intelligence. Compared to its rival in the left, capitalism is infinitely more advanced in terms of repurposing capital. The left’s vision of accelerationism is therefore by now already primitive. It came late. The question is how we can untangle the present from a kind of nihilistic repurposing that is already achieved by capitalism itself, unrivalled in foresight and speed. The issue is therefore whether to imitate capitalism or not.

Curiously, in an apparent return to Heidegger, Ray Brassier, writing in response to Williams and Srnicek, criticizes the brashness of the manifesto for embracing a kind of techno-determinism rejected by Heidegger (#Accelerate#Accelerationist Reader). But by failing to address the fundamental conflation of myth and logos in Heidegger’s more ambivalent position (‘What Calls for Thinking?’), his critique falls short of its mark. In a reversal of its function in Heidegger, left accelerationism conflates logos and mythos seemingly in favor of the vital potential of the myth, thereby adding to the distortion. There the pre-philosophical figure of Prometheus, refigured as intellectually robust in present-day accelerationist thought, is pitted against the conservative philosophic figure of Dasein.

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Heidegger’s Unconscious Accelerationism

One promising theoretical interpolation in the midst of this accelerating trend would be a re-examination of Dasein’s role in understanding the world in the sphere of labor and language, work and speech, praxis and theoria. In speech and work, logos and praxis, the world is strategically established as a collaborative project in which the circularity of speech and work where one implies the other is ideally sustained. That way, as Ricoeur once put it, “All labor [becomes] collaboration, that is, work which is not only shared but communicated to others” (“Work and the Word,” in History and Truth). But this critical function of circularity in the fundamental articulation of the labor of human history will be interrupted by the most intensive kind of human hubris. The anthropocentrism that has been all along interrupting this nexus of speech and work has now acutely transformed into the ultimate expressivism of self-will, the nihilism of anthropic autonomy arrogating the circularity to its own end, at the same time repurposing it to continue serving its functionality for Man (an elegant term otherwise for a ‘select few’) through modern techno-logical manipulation.

In a timely response to the inadequacy of the concept of Dasein, Graham Harman’s basic position that ‘objects withdraw’—they not only withdraw from human signification but also from each other (Tool-Being and the Metaphysics of Objects)—raises a challenge to a kind of unnecessary regression to the original stimulus behind the nihilistic course of history which unfortunately the left adaptation of accelerationist ideas risks reigniting to a fault. Re-examining Dasein’s role in the midst of this accelerating trend toward more advanced transmutation of the world, or the intensive objectification of the world into technical values, would demand, apropos the fundamental articulation of human culture threatened by the techno-determinism of the present, that a restoration of the fundamental nexus between speech and work, language and labor should be taken up beyond the simple academism of retrofitting concepts according to the spirit of the time. In essence this restoration would amount to a return to a tradition of philosophizing that is more akin to a type of doing philosophy before its appropriation in ancient modernity beginning with Aristotle.

Harman may not be an open advocate of Nietzsche but it was Nietzsche who described this period before ancient modernity more fittingly as a republic. As a ‘republic of geniuses’, pre-ancient modernity is the prototype of a vital nexus between speech and work, nourished and supported at the base by a vibrant and enactive interaction of humans and things consistent with the democratic aims of object-oriented ontology vis-à-vis the monism of human privilege. It is important to point out however that Harman favors Aristotle on many occasions who he thinks is the “best counter-tradition to overmining and undermining of objects” (‘Road to Objects’), two methods of reduction of objects or entities in the world that he described to be the most representative forms of defending the illusion of human privilege. It is not the scope of this essay to expand this particular aspect of Harman’s object-oriented ontology but it may suffice to say that these methods of reducing objects to either 1) the function of the mind, or 2) singular or molecular entities affecting other entities have greatly contributed to the exacerbation of our false understanding of the world and the entities in it. Either method privileges human autonomy.

But what escapes Harman in relation to the pre-modern ancients is crucial to understanding the place of Nietzsche in the context of affirming a philosophy closer to the object-oriented approach. Nietzsche pioneered a kind of philosophizing more akin to a celebration of enactivist and interactive function of metic intelligence which, as one study suggests, “takes the form of the ability to deal with whatever comes up” (Detienne and Vernant, Cunning Intelligence in Greek Culture and Society), further suggesting a more respectful attunement toward the occurent mode of things. Heidegger realized this concept in terms of his notion of “releasement toward things” or “openness to mystery” (‘Memorial Address’) yet still dependent on the metaphysical importance of Dasein.

Where it needs to be emphasized, Heidegger foresees Dasein as transforming itself into a post-cogitational Man. Cognizant of the irreversible consequences of the exercise of self-willing that privileges human autonomy, Heidegger proposed the concept of Dasein to give way to a new mode of appropriation. As post-cogitational it must be presumed that Dasein is already divested of the ‘metaphysic’ of animal rationale that has recently evolved into a highly abstract computational entity. It is in this sense that the power of appropriation of things or objects no longer rests in Man (cogitative) but in Dasein, at the same time that the mode of ‘appropriation shifts from signifying to asignifying, cogitational to post-cogitational, a changed condition of existence sufficient for, yet still untried, poetic kind of appropriation.
In present-day form of nihilism this poetic kind of appropriation is rather invested with the character of resolute transmutation with regard to objects and things yet oblivious of its historical derivation as technical appropriation in terms of conflating the logos and mythos that must first be established as a hermeneutic interpretive norm. Left accelerationism conflates the mythical use of Prometheus with the logical use of the mythos. Heidegger for his part distorts the mythos in favor of the logos that alone can ‘poeticize’ (an enhanced category in place of the supposed unthinking poeticism of the myths) the logical kernel of mythology. Nietzsche’s critique of ‘distortion’ comes around: the conflation of logos and mythos will make the present suffer ‘harm’, that is, the harm of forgetfulness. In the case of Heidegger, the present suffers from voiding its mythological roots through the self-mastering act of philosophy vis-à-vis the hermeneutical tensions of existence. In the case of left accelerationism, it suffers from voiding the truth of the myths in repurposing their functions to the ends of the techno-logical.

The real yet unstated accelerationism of the left accelerationist manifesto, which Heidegger may almost entirely agree with, lies in this kind of conflation. Incidentally, this has also been the trademark of philosophical abstraction since its departure from the mythos.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Virgilio A. Rivas teaches philosophy, and occasionally literary studies, at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines in Manila. He finished higher degree in philosophy though his research interests are a strange brew of philosophy and non-philosophy (poetry, literary studies, cultural studies, and bit of urban ecology). His pet theorists, or thinkers, if you will, have been dead for quite some time – Kant, Hegel, Schelling, Marx, Heidegger, Deleuze and Guattari. If he is not bleeding with coffee, he occasionally blogs which for no apparent reason he gave the title ‘Kafka’s Ruminations.’

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, October 10th, 2015.