The Revelation in Art and Technology

“There was a time when it was not technology alone that bore the name technē… Once there was a time when the bringing-forth of the true into the beautiful was called technē. And the poiesis of the fine arts also was called technē… [t]he arts were not derived from the artistic. Art works were not enjoyed aesthetically. Art was not a sector of cultural activity.

What, then, was art – perhaps only for that brief but magnificent time? Why did art bear the modest name technē? Because it was a revealing that brought forth and hither, and therefore belonged within poiēsis.”[i]

Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology

Heidegger here agrees with our previous suspicions: artworks of whichever aesthetic kind – material or abstract – were recognised at one time as bearing a similarity to technology. That is, following Heidegger’s analysis, they had a revealing power. This revealing power amounts to an ‘inducing to go forward’[i], or to let ‘what is not yet present arrive into presencing’[ii]. Regarding technology, one of his conclusions is that:

“Technology is therefore no mere means. Technology is a way of revealing. If we give heed to this, then another whole realm for the essence of technology will open itself up to us. It is the realm of revealing, i.e. of truth.”[iii]

In this sense, the problem that technology shall face, and the solution it duly provides, are one part of what comes to be revealed: once the problem is brought out of the shadows, the solution will follow as a consequence of combinations of available ways and means. This would elucidate our understanding of

Heidegger’s usage of ‘truth’ in this context, constituting not the correspondence to fact, but rather a degree of appropriateness, of fitness or success, culminating in a kind of knowledge of a way of doing. It regards the effectiveness of the solution, and consequentially in this modern period, the hope for interminable refinement.

Such refinements and reiterative improvements in manufacturing processes for industry are, for the sake of efficiency, intimately tied to the economic. A concrete example, comparatively early in the historical lineage of technological improvement, is at the Crofton Pumping Station in Wiltshire, UK. This building and its two enormous water pumps were once used to pump water into the highest point of the Avon-Kennet canal, to keep it full of water when otherwise it would drain to the lowest points of the system. Inside the pumping house is a historiographical record of the reiterative refinement process, from problem to solution and back again, captured in the material of the mechanism itself.

The building contains two great steam-powered iron water pumps, built in the nineteenth century. While both have been rebuilt and adapted over time, one is decades older, so technological advancement can be seen between them. The newer pump has iron of a thinner construction, is leaner, with less weight, with better bearings and efficiency of movement. The older seems crude, almost Neolithic in comparison. The truths of fitness or success then became sharper to acknowledge with this second beam, as the concepts of what precisely the problem and solution amounted to were continually revealed and refined. Representative in it too are the naive hopes of progress, at which point in technological history the horizon of physical limitations and the apex of useful scientific inquiry appeared quietly distant. All such ‘modern’ technology is a continual revelation of just this possibility of refinement where, once a problem is solved, it immediately renders the difficulties more acute; new solutions must therefore hit a greater degree of accuracy in response, a demand driven ultimately by economic conditions.

In the case of the pumps, there is a healthy refinement story. It begins with a problem: the water drains from the canal, a pump must be built to transfer some from a nearby reservoir. This solution then allows the canal to ultimately be lengthened, but this then requires more water, etc., and the technology must conform to our recent discoveries in solutions, before then presenting to us ever new problems: now the pump must be more efficient, must require a back-up in case of failure, be constructed below a certain cost, and so on.

Such refining solutions have a reactive nature, responsive as they are to the concrete. But there developed, at some point, from the wider industry, a different kind of refinement: that of abstract quantities and measurements. Consider the atomic clock, or the speed of light, or the weight of the kilogram. Every few years, we add to the specificity of these measurements as we reach, using ever more efficient technology and calculation, new degrees of correctness.

The difference between these measurements and the concrete rests on the general character of our postmodern domain, where the solution itself has long since lost sight of its problem; the technology has no subject. In this way, the quest for a greater degree of accuracy is no longer reactive, but a kind of venture capitalism, as scientific research into advancements of technology places its hopes on just the possibility that the research might find usefulness for future problems. This is evident in countless articles on recent scientific ‘breakthroughs’, where the potential problems that the research may solve are vaguely hinted at, and tucked away in the final paragraph. The spectacle of the ‘what can be done’ belies the emptiness of the ‘what it can be done for’.

Such is the condition of a culture of science, where the divestment of problem from solution erodes the kind of knowledge that Heidegger, following the ancients, discovers in the revealing power in technology. Indeed, Heidegger’s conception of modern technology is that it is distinctly different from more primitive tools, where modern technology is concerned with the storing of energy – a repositing of goods under a speculation of their future value:

“The coal that has been hauled out in some mining district has not been supplied in order that it may simply be present somewhere or other. It is stockpiled; that is, it is on call, ready to deliver the sun’s warmth that is stored in it. The sun’s warmth is challenged forth for heat, which in turn is ordered to deliver steam whose pressure turns the wheels that keep a factory running.”[iv]

A thing’s being ‘on call’ in this way marks a difference, a great shift in thinking beyond even technology itself. It is a foundational mark of capitalism that being in the position to have to make efforts to discover a solution to a problem is already a missed opportunity. Why wait for demand, and then attempt to generate supply, when one might outstrip demand from the off by stockpiling supplies and resources, and simply wait for consumers and buyers?

In this sense, Heidegger’s consideration of a resource being ‘on call’ extends our concept of what we might count as a resource at all. Thus the abstract quantities themselves become resources in this way: our more accurate measurements, even our technological patents, become a future supply. In its broadest mode, the entire discipline of science finds its value now in the hopeful possibility of its application. The postmodern technologies required to discover and develop solutions do not stand to problems in the same way they might have in ancient times, or even to its modern progenitor: the kind of problem solved by the pumping house. The capitalist technologies of our time are, by and large, technologies in want of problems beyond the economic problems of the speculative market, itself the rotten wood underpinning the symbolic but technologically-charged notion of societal ‘progress’.

What then does this mean for the artwork, taken as both solution and problem in itself?

In some sense, what is really meant by the problem-solution formula is the possibility of judgement. We judge the success or fitness of a tool, of the hammer to strike effectively or the pumping arm to be efficient; and this is part of the revelation to us. All such solutions then are just one possibility among many, though our propensity to adhere to certain ‘ways of doing things’ remains from before a capitalist time. For while Heidegger speaks of the anxiety in the presence of a suddenly broken tool, there is as much phenomenological interest found in the eerie uncanniness of the unfamiliar, but equally effective, tool of foreign origin: it can be perceived as a slight against our – culturally incorporated – knowledge of a way of doing something, such as woodwork or joinery, when encountering the alien methods of an equally effective immigrant labourer.

In the artwork, however, we do not judge the success of solution so much as we judge the legitimacy of the problem. Indeed we cannot judge the solution, because the work itself is its own problem. I do not mean the fitness of an artistic response to say, a global catastrophe, whereof there may be a great variety of cases for judgement as to the success of this or that work, but rather that the work itself writes, with each brush stroke, poetic word or bar of notes, the possibility of its usefulness and importance to the culture. In this way what is revealed is, initially, the very admissibility of this or that individual artwork; yet ultimately something about artworks in general: what legitimates art?

That we ask this question at all is a modern phenomenon, one that correlates to the aforementioned shift in technology, and it can be surmised that they occurred in tandem. Hence Heidegger’s claim that at one time, “art works were not enjoyed aesthetically. Art was not a sector of cultural activity.”[v] Once the market of capitalism is properly established, and capital places the requirement on technology to find and store for the future, it places such a related demand on art: decide which problems are most relevant, or appealing, or legitimate. And just as the art of the ancients functioned in a way devoid of the process of judgement, so too did technology operate in a manner innocent of what Heidegger calls a ‘setting-upon’ of nature:

“The field that the peasant formerly cultivated and set in order appears differently than it did when to set in order still meant to take care of and to maintain. The work of the peasant does not challenge the soil of the field. In the sowing of the grain it places the seed in the keeping of the forces of growth and watches over its increase. But meanwhile even the cultivation of the field has come under the grip of another kind of setting-in-order, which sets upon nature. It sets upon it in the sense of challenging it. Agriculture is now the mechanized food industry.”[vi]

Both the ancient arts and technologies then solved problems without needing to consider the question: what might become valuable? Or the broader inquiry: what is value? These are considerations that arise only with the ascendancy of capitalism, ensuring art and technology’s change of orbit.

The final consideration on this matter should be locating the equivalent shift in art to that of technology’s postmodern incursion into the speculative value of the abstract. What investment in art can we find analogous to this?

It is surely only the investment in the possibility that some given art might develop a cultural relevance, the possibility that we might eventually judge a problem posed by art to be a true problem. So art too operates awaiting a subject, consisting in the abstract outcome of the experiment, just as science peers unfathomably deep into the cosmos with the pretence that its findings may have some relevance for, say, medical science. Yet the difference between the two reveals a primacy in art that the technological can never approach. Art will always allow the possibility that its problems may be judged true for the culture; for technology and science its margins only ever lessen.

Still, art has its own, unique problem. For in our postmodern time, judging the relevance of the problem posed by art is rendered facile. To whom or to what, in an age of fragmented, diasporic culture, a culture primarily of the self, can art be found to have its subject? Only in the formation of genuinely new cultures of, to use Rieff’s term, ‘commitment’, can such judgements be satisfactorily made. And it would be fitting of the postmodern age that the problem posed by a given art – or more likely, a general aesthetic – might become the starting point for such cultures to emerge, encapsulating an ideal or a politics the judgement of which amounts to a people searching for a problem to call their own. Do we await then, new cultures of commitment founded upon the aesthetic, a reversal in causal direction as it were, where the solution it provides attracts members for whom it poses a genuine problem? Or do we need not wait, are such cultures not already among us, aesthetic centres of gravity, pulling like black holes the now well-psychologised individual for whom the solution in art reveals a problem in the psyche of the self – judging not whether this or that art is relevant to them, but whether they are relevant to it?

Written by Andrew11.

[i] Heidegger, 1977, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, p. 34

[i] Ibid., p. 9

[ii] Ibid., p. 10

[iii] Ibid., p. 12

[iv] Ibid., p. 15

[v] Ibid., p. 34

[vi] Ibid., p. 15

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