A Short Piece on Justin Murphy and Johannes Niederhauser
How Do We Escape?
Technology, Enframing, Being, and Beauty
Justin Murphy and Johannes Niederhauser are starting a class on Heidegger and Deleuze, and I really enjoyed their conversation. I think today Heidegger would be especially horrified by how we can’t take a walk in the woods anymore without thinking about potential tweets or posts we could make about our walk. Our “towardness” to the world has changed: everything is a potential commodity for our online lives. This by extension controls our horizons and ways of life in ways that even captures and “fences in” our imaginations: we live in societies of control in many ways.
Because we want material for social media, in one sense, that means we might notice stuff better, but it’s like us noticing a broken doorknob: the fact stuff comes to our attention is a sign there is something broken. We are not immersed in being; instead, being has to prove itself worth being commoditized. Additionally, because everything could be a potential post, we often ask ourselves “Why don’t I make a post about this?” Since we can call our friends anytime, we have to wonder “Why don’t I call my friends?” and furthermore wonder what this means about us and if our friends our upset, etc. All of this makes it harder to be present and can increase existential anxiety (due to an increase of choices, as Barry Schwartz and Eric Fromm discuss).
Walker Percy wrote about how it’s impossible now to fully experience the Grand Canyon because we’ve seen pictures of it ahead of time: the power of the Grand Canyon has been reduced. Additionally, when we see something beautiful, we say “that’s as pretty as a picture,” suggesting that our standards of beauty are representations of beauty, a strange paradox. It reminds me of how we confuse being(s) with Being, alluding to Heidegger.
As Johannes Niederhauser puts it, everything today is “pre-formed,” and considering Walter Benjamin, perhaps what follows is that the world has lost its aura (not just art). It’s hard now to experience anything “in its origin,” and from this follows a kind of enslavement. “Being captured” entails being stuck seeing the world a certain way, which makes us like a cow in a fenced pasture: we have “free-range,” but not freedom. Escape requires learning to see things “for what they really are,” but how do we do that?
I think Baudrillard might be important to note here, because once we are “entrapped” or “captured” by technology, there can be a “death of the real” that can make it hard to even see things for themselves to escape entrapment. If we cannot say for sure that the real is in fact real, then “captured-ness” becomes ontologically integrated into us, and the Heideggerian solution might prove particularly difficult to exercise. That leaves the Deleuzian option for escape, and certainly, art and creativity seem to play a key role, but can we go too far and erase all “givens,” which sociologists like Philip Rieff warn could be a dire mistake? That question will have to wait and be discussed in Belonging Again.
“Enframing” is what we’re trapped in today: technological, sociological, economic, academic political, and so on. Arguably, nearly everything is in the business of trying “enframe” us, countless means of socialization (as Jordan Peterson discusses), which again, might not be all bad if sociologists like Peter Berger are correct. And it’s not just elites or “rulers” who engineer our “capture”: we do it to ourselves. When my friends have cellphones and know I have one too, they can expect me to always be on call, and if I’m not, the friendship can be hurt (similar situations arise with work and laptops, etc.). Thus, I’m pressured to live with technology in a way that will shape my orientation to the world: “enframing” proves emergent and socially reinforced. If I want to be part of the solution then, part of the answer a least is that I free my friends, family, and coworkers from expectations that force them to be constantly plugged-in.
From each “enframing,” different rationalities spring which only worsen the ways in which we are “captured.” To escape our rationalities, which are shaped by our “truths,” as I argue elsewhere, we need to learn how to move between truths and axioms without being nihilistic relativists. Indeed, like Murphy and Niederhauser, I think creativity and play are secrets to this program. At the same time, I think we can stay balanced by not losing sight of a “common life,” as described by David Hume, which is also key to avoiding “autonomous rationalities” in which “enframing” is especially likely and problematic.
I agree with Hans Balthasar that beauty is primary in the formation of our lives and wonder if changes in our “towardness” due to technology impacts our capacity to be moved by the beautiful. If Gadamer is correct that aesthetics are important for overcoming “the hermeneutical circle” (which has ontological significance), this could prove to be a problem. I wonder if there is an inverse relationship between the presence of beauty and the presence of technology, but I also don’t deny that technology unlocks new artistic possibilities. I tend to side with Neil Postman: technology is always a Faustian bargain. I think today we are too far on the side of just accepting technology without any skepticism.
For more, I recorded a short blurb about this on Youtube called “Representing Beauty.” Thanks again to Murphy and Niederhauser for this great work! You can find their discussion here.