Heidegger and Tolkien on Technology

I’ve been posting of late on the Ring’s symbolism of the domination of reality through “the Machine,” a discussion that invites comparison with the most influential philosophical essay on the subject, Martin Heidegger’s “The Question Concerning Technology.” (For a more general comparison of Tolkien and Heidegger, see Simon Malpas’s article, “Home”.) In his essay Heidegger calls into question the adequacy of the instrumental definition of technology in terms of a system of means and ends, of causes and effects (note, for example, Tolkien’s characterization of the Machine as an instrument for “making the will more effective”). The problem with the instrumental, means-and-ends, cause-and-effect analysis of technology, according to Heidegger, is that the system of causality is already part of the technological perspective and problem, and thus altogether fails to get at technology’s true essence. The instrumental definition of technology, in other words, defines technology technologically, which is to say, in the only terms it knows how.

Included in Heidegger’s critique of the insufficiency of the instrumental definition of technology is any attempt (such as Tolkien’s, I would argue) to understand technology theologically or metaphysically. Heidegger’s challenge, for example, to Tolkien’s view of technology primarily as a means of domination, and domination (as I have been interpreting it) in turn as ultimately a desire for God’s own power of creation, is that this views God himself in terms of “causality and making, without ever considering the essential origin of this causality,” and so loses “all that is exalted and holy, the mysteriousness of [God’s] distance” (The Question Concerning Technology, 26). In representing Ilúvatar as the wielder of the “Secret Fire”–by which he makes his and the wills of others “effective” in the world–Heidegger might ask whether Tolkien’s fictional theology doesn’t already problematically presuppose a proto-industrial view, not only of man and the world, but of the Creator himself. And if so, is it any wonder that Melkor, the greatest of Ilúvatar’s creatures and therefore the one most presumably like him, should, in evident imitation of his maker, venture into the Void looking for the “technology” of the “Imperishable Flame” whereby he “bring into Being things of his own”?

Tolkien, of course, would see things quite differently, arguing perhaps that it is precisely in its lust for the Creator’s own power of creation that domination, manifesting itself in technology, denies the exaltedness, holiness, and mysteriousness of divine distance. It’s interesting that even Heidegger, his critique notwithstanding, largely resigns himself to the inevitability of technology and defends it as a valid even if limited mode in which being “reveals” itself to human beings, a mode in which things present themselves in terms of an orderable or controllable “standing-reserve” for human use, as energy that can be extracted and stored, unlocked and transformed, regulated and secured, ready-at-hand to be called on when needed (14-17). The real problem, in Heidegger’s view, arises when this inevitable mode of revealing comes to exclude other modes of revealing. As in Tolkien’s discussion of the effects of the domination motive, for Heidegger the revealing of technology is one in which “the object disappears into the objectlessness of standing-reserve” (19). Heidegger points out, however, that this becomes even more problematic when “man in the midst of objectlessness” becomes “nothing but the orderer” of a now objectless, standing-reserve, and so “comes to the very brink of a precipitous fall; that is, he comes to the point where he himself will have to be taken as standing-reserve” (27).

Despite his reservations, Heidegger may even be seen to approach the kind of theological critique implicit in Tolkien when he writes that, “Meanwhile man, precisely as the one so threatened, exalts himself to the posture of lord of the earth…. This illusion gives rise in turn to one final delusion: It seems as though man everywhere and always encounters only himself” (27). What, then, is the solution for Heidegger? Part of the answer is that, because of its inevitability, rather than demonizing it, technology is a reality we must resign ourselves to and whose essence we must simply seek to understand.

For Tolkien, by contrast, technology, if not exactly an evil per se (since nothing, insofar as it has being, is in itself evil), much of the motivation behind it, especially in modernity, is not just figuratively but literally, in Heidegger’s words, the “work of the devil” (that’s what Sauron is, after all). The second part of Heidegger’s solution, however, is to re-cultivate a “more primally granted revealing that could bring the saving power into its first shining forth in the midst of the danger,” and Heidegger finds this saving power in what the Greeks called poiesis and techne, or art, whereby they “brought the presence of the gods, brought the dialogue of divine and human destinings, to radiance” (34). What we need, then, is a “decisive confrontation” between technology and “a realm that is, on the one hand, akin to the essence of technology and, on the other, fundamentally different from it. Such a realm is art” (35).

For Tolkien, too, the relevant opposition is between art and the Machine, between Magic understood as “enchantment” and Magic understood as power and control, though he certainly draws the line of kinship between these two differently than Heidegger does. For Heidegger, art and technology are two species belonging to the same genus of poiesis; for Tolkien, the Machine is most often the result of the corruption of the artistic impulse, the desire not to bring creation to its God-ordained fulfillment, but to divert its natural use by imposing upon it one’s own, alien or heteronomous purposes and will. As to the particular task Heidegger suggests that art must assume, namely reinvigorating the world with a sense of divine “presence,” Tolkien I think would agree, as this is what his own art sets forth to do. Finally, even if Tolkien is less sanguine than Heidegger is as to the intrinsic validity or worth of technology, he could also agree with Heidegger’s conclusion to his essay, even if giving it a different interpretation than Heidegger himself intended, namely that “the more questioningly we ponder the essence of technology, the more mysterious the essence of art becomes” (35). As Tolkien might prefer to put it, it is in contrast to the darkness (and evil) of technology that the light (and goodness) of true art is made all the more manifest.


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