Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Essentially Speaking: Notes on Technology II

To say that X is essential for Y seems to be a difficult task for proof given the underdetermination of causes. How can we locate an essential cause given that there are too many possible candidates? And, more importantly, the impossibility of assigning a cause as individuated from everything else? What if something prior X to the determined cause Y is responsible for Z? This is fairly easy to see. If I steal something from the store, it would seem impossible to say that there is just one reason for my doing so. Therefore this is an issue of free will; for it may not be that I simply chose to steal. I cannot rule out other contributing preceding causes: poverty, having read anarchism, etc., For similar reasons, no set of causes will be sufficient. Distributively, to say that X is necessary for Y is to know, which is merely probable and obviously not certain; collectively, to say that set X is sufficient for Y, is to clearly confuse certainty for probability. For why should we rule out this or that preceding cause, this or that set, or even, this or that effect or this or that set of effects? Why did I do X? Because Y produces Z? The difficulty of necessary and sufficient explanation goes both ways temporally. And such is David Hume’s point against explanation in general; and the tone suggests that sufficient explanation in the least is a joke, or at least dubious upon inspection (Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding; Treatise). What we have instead, having razed this idea to the ground, is likely stories, or better, myth making.

Essences have this explanatory feature; they at once explain what it is that many things have in common, as well as explain that which is being as such. To say that something is essentially X is to say that X is responsible for X being what it is, such that it is (or, modally, can be) no other thing. The latter point is difficult to see short of final causality; and it is this purpose for which X is, that also contributes to an understanding of essence (Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays). Jointly, and in overlapping rough fashion, which is to say these two sets of differences are not ‘really distinct’—that is they always come together—it is ‘formal’ and ‘material’ causes that explain the way that it is, and it is efficient and final causality that explain that it cannot be another thing. 

The rough point I am making can be shown here: The chalice is divined according to the purpose for which it is made by a creative act, according to inessential (accidental) materials—they need not have been silver—and an essential form. Hence, while material causes could have been of other material, its being as such, which is to say essentially, required manifestation. Materiality of some sort is presupposed in the reality of a thing essencing. In other words, the form and the final are tied together necessarily, in most stories of essence, and some efficient cause is necessary, but it need not have been that particular creative act, stemming from that substance, or stemming at that time. We could say my making a chalice for consecration is not necessary in terms of consecration. And in terms of use, only materiality of some sort is necessary. Now, consider the potential rigidity here. Very specific practices and rules govern the creation of a sacrificial chalice. It might have been any authoritative creative act on the matter to be genuine, and it might have been silver of a particular grade, but to be called a chalice requires only form. To be one for a specific use requires a very rigid set of guidelines; specifications that muddle the term essence and fudge the rough distinction I'm making above. Still, the difference is helpful, which is to say, useful, for what I mean to project below.  

When it comes to technology the issue is that those actors participating in it, say, making it go, are formed according to the modes of this technology, its prefigured trajectories, even in the context of making it otherwise than what it is intended for. Yet the trouble goes beyond this or that technology; for we are caught in apparatuses here: even though we are relatively free in relation to this technology, its going or its denial, we are already modified according to the trajectories of the net that is technological civilization which supports the possibility of this technology (Don Ihde, Technology and the Lifeworld). To say that we can distinguish ourselves from anything else is to suppose that sufficient causality isn’t a joke. So, minimally, we have to care for this technology, and shape ourselves according to its materiality to do what “we” want with it; and definitively, we are already caught up in its background technologies if we are even considering the very technology under consideration. The exception is the tool, which is only an exception apropos humyn labor.

Suppose then that we say there are first causes and second causes. First causes are those that are prefigured from original creative time; and second causes are those that contribute to its going at all, whether along original trajectories or otherwise. The question that we are raising concerning essence and technology is whether we can be efficient causes that alter the telos of this technology, its final causality, or even technology in general, if it has a final cause. In order to make the case that this questioning is irrelevant, we would have to argue that nothing is necessary, or more precisely, that the only necessity is accidentality. But nothing in particular comes about this way; we can easily assign necessary causes, even though we cannot be precise in the matter. And it is more probable that there are causes of some kind, however darkly we see the matter, than to suppose that everything comes about by accident. This would be the opposite case than the one suggested above concerning a religious sacrificial vessel, whereby everything must be of a particular kind, given the rules of religion, although only the final, formal, and efficient causes are fixed, in particular, and there is the possibility of difference only within material being. Again, a religious (silver) chalice must be silver, trivially, but need not have been this silver; while its being made must have been done by someone that warrants a particular predicate, and in the end, it must exemplify a form and a function according to the rules. 

It seems clear enough that we can alter the purpose of something, as Scuttle in the Little Mermaid uses a fork as a comb, but this altering isn’t ex nihilo. Clearly the dingelhopper only permits particular possibilities, and in its adoption, we are limiting what we could have done otherwise, say, growing a rat’s nest instead of a lovely head of hair, brushed and conditioned. Of course we could always let this technology go, hallelujah; but any particular technology overcodes this previous desire over time via habit formation. As time goes by the ability to let go becomes less desired, which isn’t to say such is impossible, but rather, impractical for the new purposes that have been put to us, those which we have met and adopted, however consciously.

Now, there is no clear "sufficient" (efficient-final) causality for explaining what technology is going to be. As we saw, it is a thing, and it therefore comes with a form; but what is up for grabs, is that its purpose and its form are tied necessarily. But there are powers that put technologies to us, and sometimes this is a matter even out of their hands. Consider nuclear meltdowns. In general, this issue is a concentrated form of the problem of technology; for there is always an issue in the logic of solutions which create problems that facilitate their own solutions, etc.,. We might be able to come up with a tool based solution, in opposition to a technology based solution; but this is unlikely given technology in general being ready to hand, complete with indeterminate trajectories. If we see sufficient causality as the joke that it is, we must not think that we can claim to know the purpose of technology in general. Yet, we can approximate a satisfactory abductive inference, to be tested, and refuted only if there is a better story that doesn’t trivialize the desire to unhinge any technology from final causality. We must aim to be efficient causes in charge of our own final causes, and we must think real hard about the domestication/background apparatus. 

Technologies definitely shape us according to rational improvement. The form that this will take is indeterminate, but there is a logic that cannot be ignored. How then do we name it? Rational improvement is a matter of privilege, or, contrarily, in decomposition logic, it is a matter of deskilling in relation to natural techne-logos (Anonymous, Attentat). Giving up on privilege means that one will always seem uncivilized, crazy, out of touch with Revolution™. Therefore, while this comes across as Manichean in terms of the Way Things Are™, such is merely a gesture.

If we are to say that we are active in selecting technologies, we are failing to address that technologies presuppose other background technologies, and we are failing to address that it is put to us directly in its materiality. That is to say, we are also failing to see that we are only secondary causes in its material origins that come coded with particular trajectories, and furthermore, that being secondary is not to say completely distinct because there are other indirect origins that are related the very idea of making it otherwise. The ability to say that we can transcend it and make it otherwise even in some cases depends on supposing that we can be sufficient causes. In other words, sufficient causality is never given; it is only projected in an ideological narrative, in our decomposition turn, for instance, above. (A contrary transcendence is shown in Wittgenstein's Tractatus, whereby one climbs up and kicks away the ladder. For us, decomposition is a downgoing). It is the gesture of an abductive inference that explains why Zerzan is too simple. The entirety or Totality (Everything (cf. Anonymous, Hello) must be discussed, but all that we have is the possibility of walking away from this technology and its background to explore natural uncoded whatever flows. In other words, sufficient explanation is never granted; but this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t aim to take control of our lives, even if we cannot be clear that we are doing so.  

Sufficient causality as a joke releases us from the belief that we are being controlled, and that we can control the matter. Form and final causality are only tied necessarily given ideology, which may be useful, or pragmatic, to see something as it appears in our efforts to establish a critique, a ladder to be kicked away, preferably never having ascended. The question isn't whether we can get clear on the matter, because Hume convinces the opposite; rather, the question is whether we can weigh the value of its probable final causes, whether we are in a position to say that we can. It we can, it loses its affect, its necessity, and we are disclosed (alethia) to options. In other words, it is not that this is a question of less or more, that we have more (or less) if we lose technology and reskill; rather it is a matter of 'qualitative' variety and the ability to see value for what we seem to take it to be, rather than how it is too often given. I'm far from invested in other anarchists being intelligent, but I expect them to see domestication for the slavery that it is, or else, to offer a non-trivial refutation of this position, and to provide one that explains without sweeping away its grounding facts. We cannot get anything back, but we can reskill in the present and only then can we see the terrible value of depending on work to survive, to gain "freedom". It's not that knowledge is power, it is that ignorance is failure, a being-joke, folly, and never worthy of life, however it arises.