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.

The Theology of Sauron’s Ring

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 39

As to the “physical force and mechanism” whereby the will to domination makes itself “objective,” Tolkien explains that what he means by this is

all use of external plans or devices (apparatus) instead of development of the inherent inner powers or talents—or even the use of these talents with the corrupted motive of dominating: bulldozing the real world, or coercing other wills. The Machine is our more obvious modern form though more closely related to Magic than is usually recognized. (Letters 145-6)

The difference between true art and the tyranny of domination is that the one seeks to shepherd things as they are, cultivating and adorning those properties already inherent in them by virtue of their createdness, whereas the other imposes upon things one’s own godlike order and purposes. This is where the necessity of Magic or the Machine comes in, for by their instrumentality the natural limitations of both agent and things may be transcended: “enhanc[ing] the natural powers of a possessor” (152) and thus “making the will more quickly effective” in the world (145), Magic and Machines, by reducing “to a minimum (or vanishing point) of the gap between the idea or desire and the result or effect” (200), help the creature approximate the kind of absolute power and efficacy of will possessed by the Creator.

This, I submit, is the relevant mythological, theological, and metaphysical context for Tolkien’s whole polemic against modern industrialization: its lust for “devices” and “apparatuses” for the more efficient control of nature is nothing less than a continuation of what for both Tolkien and St. Thomas was the primeval and diabolical quest for the creational power of God whereby one might “bring into Being things of his own.” As Tolkien puts it in another letter, in contrast to “art which is content to create a new secondary world in the mind,” the Machine “attempts to actualize desire, and so to create power in this World; and that cannot really be done with any real satisfaction” (88). This theological subtext to Sauron’s Ring, which is in its own turn a symbol of all forms of tyrannous technology, also helps make further sense of Tolkien’s claim that the central conflict in The Lord of the Rings, a book that never mentions the Creator, is nevertheless “about God, and His sole right to divine honour” (243). The question posed by the Ring, in essence, is the question of who among creatures has the right to “play God,” to which the entire quest of the Fellowship to destroy the Ring is the implicit answer that only God has the right to play God.

Revisions in the character of Gollum and the Ring in “The Hobbit”

*** Christensen, Bonniejean. “Gollum’s Character Transformation in The Hobbit.” In A Tolkien Compass, ed. Jared Lobdell. Open Court, 2003. Originally published in 1975 (along with the other articles in this volume), this piece undertakes a side-by-side passage comparison of the first and second editions of The Hobbit, noting the changes that Tolkien’s work on The Lord of the Rings exerted retroactively on the character of Gollum and the Ring in The Hobbit. As Christensen summarizes her findings, “Tolkien’s chief alterations in ‘Riddles in the Dark’ change the stakes in the riddle-game, introduce the Ring as a ring of power—sentient, malevolent, addictive, and independent—define the opposing forces in the universe and convert Gollum from a simply lost creature to a totally depraved one…. The alterations clearly increase Gollum’s role and remove the story from the realm of the nursery tale… [T]he transformation of character indicate[s] that Tolkien attaches great importance to Gollum—more than is necessary or even suitable for his function in The Hobbit. But his prominence is appropriate to his expanded role in The Lord of the Rings.

A few (minor) criticisms. While Christensen does a good job of documenting the fact of the influence of The Lord of the Rings on The Hobbit, some further reflection on the significance of this influence, either for the works themselves, or for Tolkien’s craft as a writer, would be appreciated. Related to this, I was surprised Christiansen didn’t mention one item I would think pertinent to her discussion, namely the way Tolkien, in the preface to The Lord of the Rings, ingeniously faults Bilbo’s own initial dishonesty about how he came to acquire the Ring as the reason why there are two significantly differing versions of The Hobbit (clever when an author can blame his own characters for inconsistencies in his work). Finally, I found myself bristling a little at her claim that the imagery of Bilbo’s “leap in the dark” over Gollum’s head is an allusion “so explicitly Christian and so commonplace in theological discussion that again one is tempted to assume that Tolkien has employed common expressions without thought…. Faith: the leap in the dark that a man takes. Bilbo, a hobbit, takes it. The anticlimactic conclusion reinforces the Christian interpretation: man is a weak and insignificant creature who through faith and God’s help overcomes insurmountable obstacles.” Amen to the sentiment about man, but as an interpretation of the passage or its imagery, it seems to assume far too much affinity between Tolkien and Kierkegaardian Christian existentialism than is probably warranted (though to be perfectly fair to Kierkegaard, not even he described faith as a “leap in the dark,” a myth based on the mistaken assumption that the “author” of Fear and Trembling, one “Johannes de Silentio,” is a mere pseudonym for Kierkegaard himself and not the name of a character of his own invention).  These quibbles aside, a valid and worthwhile study of some important changes in The Hobbit.