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.

Sauron’s Ring and the metaphysics of invisibility

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 34

Central to Tolkien’s representation of the evil of domination is the eponymous Ring of Sauron itself, about which there are three main points I would like to make in regard to its general symbolism of Tolkien’s metaphysics of domination.

The first point concerns the Ring’s mythic power to render its wearer invisible, a property Robert Eaglestone has analyzed in light of Emmanuel Levinas’s application of the Ring of Gyges from Plato’s Republic to the problem of the modern self. As Eaglestone points out, Levinas sees “in the gesture of seeing without being seen, both the phenomena of evil and one of the defining and unavoidable features of modernity” (Eaglestone, “Invisibility,” 75). For Levinas, Eaglestone explains, “our thought and daily lives are first in a relationship to the others that populate the world. Everything else is built on this fundamental relationship to the other, which ‘happens’ to us before we choose it.” This fundamental, mutual participation in the life of others “involves giving up one’s rights and acknowledging both the rights of the other and one’s own responsibility to them over and above yourself.” In modernity, however, Levinas argues a decidedly new attitude emerged, especially in Descartes’s methodical doubt which posited a radical theoretical distance between the thinking subject and the world , thus rendering the subject “invisible” to it. As Eaglestone summarizes Levinas’s argument, the modern isolation of the subject

creates the illusion that one’s subjectivity is, like Gyges, not derived from one’s relation with others but rather existing independently without society or recognition from others. Levinas continues and argues that the “myth of Gyges is the very myth of the I” which stands alone. “Seeing without being seen” is at the same time an illusion of radical separation and uprootedness from others, and the grounds of the possibility of “inner life”… Invisibility seems to turn the world into a world of spectacle, in which the observer is disengaged and free from bounds or restraint…(76)

As Eaglestone continues, in this illusion of separation at the heart of modernity, “others are turned from people into objects” (81). Like the modern conception of the subject, Sauron’s Ring, in making its wearer invisible to others and thus detaching him from his rootedness and participation in the world, in principle denies the claim that other beings have on him by virtue of their otherness. Invisible to all others while all others remain visible to him, the Ring-wearer assumes a quasi-transcendence in which their being effectively becomes an extension of his own.

In this Sauron’s Ring may be said to reverse the pattern of the Ainur’s Vision, the joyous eucatastrophe of which consists in its giving the appearance of “things other” that do not yet exist, the reality of which is later granted as a divine gift. The tragedy or dyscatastrophe of Sauron’s Ring, by contrast, is that it takes the reality of an already existing thing and belies that reality by denying its appearances. However, because things are what they are on account of their otherness, to deny a thing its appearance and its consequent relationship with those beings to whom it appears, is also to deny its reality, as we see in the case of the Ring-wraiths and all those who possess Sauron’s Ring for too long. As Gandalf explains to Frodo, if one “often uses the Ring to make himself invisible, he fades: he becomes in the end invisible permanently, and walks in the twilight under the eye of the dark power that rules the Rings… Yes, sooner or later… the dark power will devour him” (FOTR 56). Related to this, of course, is Bilbo’s complaint to Gandalf in which he unwitting reveals the effect the Ring has had on him: “I am old Gandalf. I don’t look it, but I am beginning to feel it in my heart of hearts. Well-preserved indeed!’ he snorted. ‘Why, I feel all thing, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread. That can’t be right. I need a change, or something” (41).

The only person over whom the Ring seems to have no power, even to render him invisible, is Tom Bombadil, one of the earthiest characters in Tolkien’s fiction and one whose whole identity is most tied to his love of and devotion to things other.  As Tolkien writes of Tom in one letter, “he is an ‘allegory’, or an exemplar, a particular embodying of pure (real) natural science: the spirit that desires knowledge of other things, their history and nature, because they are ‘other’ and wholly independent of the enquiring mind, a spirit coeval with the rational mind, and entirely unconcerned with ‘doing’ anything with the knowledge” (Letters 192, emphasis original).

From Elvish preservation to Sauronic domination

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 31

I ended the previous post by suggesting that latent within the Elvish motive of preservation is a subliminal, Melkorish desire for the Flame Imperishable by which one the more perfectly bring reality into accord with the thoughts of one’s own intellect. This, of course, is to state matters rather strongly, for however misguided and defective it may be or become, the Elvish and Valaric “will to preservation” is, for Tolkien, not yet necessarily evil in itself, inasmuch as it still has the good of another in view. Their peculiar tendency towards preservationism notwithstanding, Tolkien says in one place that the Elvish race, taken as a whole and in contrast with Men, is “unfallen” (Morgoth’s Ring 334). We begin to see preservation corrode into full-fledged evil when it devolves further into domination, when the plan or program one has for the good of the other ceases to be a means to an end and becomes an end and good in itself, even at the eventual expense of the object the plan was originally intended to benefit. The foremost representative of this next stage of evil is Sauron, “the Enemy” who

in successive forms is always “naturally” concerned with sheer Domination, and so the Lord of magic and machines; but the problem: that this frightful evil can and does arise from an apparently good root, the desire to benefit the world and others—speedily and according to the benefactor’s own plans—is a recurrent motive. (Letters 146)

In another place, Tolkien writes of Sauron’s originally good intentions this way: he had “gone the way of all tyrants: beginning well, at least on the level that while desiring to order all things according to his own wisdom he still at first considered the (economic) well-being of other inhabitants of the Earth. But he went further than human tyrants in pride and the lust for domination, being in origin an immortal (angelic) spirit” (Letters 243). Similar to the Elvish motive of preservation, then, the Sauronic motive of domination has its origin in the desire for an otherwise good end, and like preservation, domination involves the desire to control other beings, to make their being more directly conformable to the desires of one’s own will. In this respect domination emerges as simply a more extreme form of coveting God’s own absolute unity of will and intellect that is his by virtue of his status as Creator.