Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Piety at the Heart of Technology: Conversations along a Cyberpath


Not long ago, over at the excellent KTL, an attempt to stoke the ashy embers of a fire that hasn't "even yet been kindled" regarding the Technikfrage began with the following question:
"How are we to decide whether the claim a work of art makes on us is one which it is pious to obey? If it is impious to ask such a question, how are we to become initiated into the correlative of piety? Or if it is a matter of returning to an original piety from the impiety of our questioning the claim a work of art has made on us, how are we ever to extricate ourselves from idolatrous claims?"
It is this train of inquiry that recalls that famous, oracular pronouncement which concluded a consideration of the historically-founding power of art --a consideration which itself served to conclude a hitherto unattempted inquiry into just what we are to think the essence of technology is. This pronouncement famously runs: Questioning is the piety of thought. With such a pronouncement, Heidegger consummates his consideration of what has been called art in ancient Greece, and no doubt refers most of all to the third of that cryptic triptych of questions cited above. For here, Heidegger is referring to the calm heroism not of asking a question or a collection of questions, but of raising and upholding a line of questioning, i.e., of following through on such questioning in such a way that an entire passage of questioning surprisingly unfolds as the very way one is to question, a way which the questioner must go. This questioning attains its essential necessity by undermining itself, i.e. by eventually putting into question the presupposition of the intial question it in the first place raises. In this manner of a continual stream of interrogative retractationes, it moves according to a strict necessity, as opposed to whim; what such questioning presupposes beforehand is what it asks after. In the case of piety, the above commentator seems to recognize this necessity of questioning to be inherent in the very precondition of locating the 'correlate of piety', when he asks: "if it is impious to ask such a question, [then] how are we [ever] to become initiated into the correlative of piety?" Here --in this very question --the necessity of such questioning is confirmed even as it is questioned.

But the question that is begged from this confirmation is "Why?". Put another way, if it is true that the piety of the ancient Greek experience of the overwhelming yet uncertain presence of divinity ensured in advance that one would never, at least so long as that presence remained, raise so much as a single interrogative syllable towards such divinity, then on the strength of the very same principle it is just as true that we, lateborn as we are, must question. For ancient man did not win the piety which characterizes his essence by way of a preliminary series of deliberations or interrogative exercises: the divine ALREADY came to presence before his eyes. Indeed, even before he opened his eyes the appearance of the divinities rested on the tip of his tongue, in the telling word of μύθος which he had inherited. But let it be stated with the assurance of a principle: the manner in which what is divine is given is also the manner in which it is missed; such is the peculiar essence of what can properly be called divine. Therefore, according to the very same divine essence whereby ancient man could not help but begin in a certain unsolicited and undiscovered piety, so too must the attempts of today, i.e. in the age whose essence lies in technology, begin in an unsolicited and undiscovered impiety. To sustain a line of questioning which not only arises from but goes after its starting point, i.e, the starting point inherited by an age thoroughly ruled by the essence of technology, is to bring the origin of impiety into question even as such a questioning springs from this its origin. Through such an effort, it may happen that impiety thus for the first time faces itself. What does such impiety look like and why has it taken so long to even be glimpsed? Is it possible that this very impiety hid in the piety of the ancients? Is it possible that the ancient piety hides in the impiety of man's existence today?

Several highly important distinctions must be observed here:

1.) First, it must be admitted that we do not ever decide to be involved in that dimension in which the divine brilliantly flashes. If the Greek gods were by no means the stupendous, ex nihilo inventions of the poets, still less were they the fruits of a some sort of consensus among the people. Ancient man was pre-committed to hierophany. The failure to recognize this pre-commitment to such a hierophantic realm is what in part characterizes the essential presumption of modern impiety. Ancient piety, understood in terms of this characterization, is not --at least in the first place --a personal decision, since it could only be something fit for the scales of phronetic deliberation if it if it has beforehand lost all of its gravitas as a compelling, commanding hierophany, i.e. as something quite other than either a fact or a contrivance. Homer himself offers his testimony in this respect:"Far-darting Apollo descended upon the Achaian camp as the night." This is neither contestable nor incontestable. It occurs in a realm whose stillness and purity lies before any possibility of contention. From out of the overwhelming brilliance of such a realm, men find themselves pouring libations and sacrificing in holocausts in accord with a need which they have not yet understood ---a need which has all the same been given for them to attempt to fulfill. Such need, such necessity understood as ἀναγκὴ, is the pulse of the tragic essence of the Greeks, which means of course the Greek essence of tragedy, namely τραγοιδία as the scape-goat's song of sacrifice.

2.) Second, on the basis of this aforementioned pre-commitment, a clearer idea of modern impiety comes to light: it too is not the result of a deliberation. Thinking that the gods --or a god --lie in the hands of men, to be believed or not believed, is a thought which does not precede but is rather precisely made possible by this impiety. In the words of Beitrage, the "decision regarding the flight or arrival of gods" is not some personal decision of an individual 'ego' that preliminarily confronts the 'possibility of religion'. It is an historical decision; it is not a decision about one's preferred 'world-view', but about whether one will have recalled his prior state of pre-commitment.

3.)Thirdly and most relevant to the above quotation, however, is the following line of inquiry: in which domain is the proper response/responsibility to the mysterious hierophany of historical divinity bounded? The answer can be pointed to by reflecting on a few superficial observations:

A.) The Ethical Hierophany of the Ancients.
In the throes of ancient piety, an ethical dimension was inextricable from hierophany. In other words, the divinities were not a landscape which some diviners had the luxury to gaze upon. Nor were they in some perhaps more mysterious way removed from their witnesses. They were rather the homeland itself, in the sense that they arose from and coyly inhabited the habitual haunts, the familiar ways and by-ways of the people, the ἤθος. Such an inhabiting made itself known in and as the ἤθος; the gods flashed in the sense of demanding prayer, sacrifice, and even housing (whether housing in myth under the roof of the mouth, or in the sacred precinct under the roof of the temple). In this way the pre-commitment of ancient piety necessarily entailed an ethical obedience which was itself entirely pre-reflective and unamenable to later conceptual elucidation. It was obeyed without being decided on or 'cognitively' known. It is important to recognize that on account of this ethical intimacy, even a man who was 'impious' was not a man who denied the pre-givenness of the gods, but a man who wished to supercede or resist their interventions or aims.

B.)The Ethical Blasphemy of Modernity.
Modern impiety shares precisely the same mode of pre-givenness as ancient piety. One is from the outset ethically un-committed. He must decide what and who he will believe ---or so he has been given to believe, and this is the point. Thus the realm of divinity to which historical humanity had been committed does not, in modernity, get erased or even put up for decision ---any more than its premodern, and indeed, Greek origin is effaced or confronted -- rather, it simply grows so obscure as to be a vaccuum of unacknowledged pre-commitment. It is in this hidden indebtedness that Modernity achieves its innermost identity.

C.) The Non-Ethical Hierophany of the Technological Age.
By way of contrast, the questioning that arises in and by virtue of the age of technology does not find the divinity pre-given in an inevitable hierophany, nor does it find it as an object of man's consent or deliberation or disbelief. Instead, the questioning that genuinely arises in the present age finds the very pre-givenness as something itself not yet understood and therefore questionable. In such a posture of questioning, what has happened to the aforementioned ethical intimacy? When one questions in this fashion, has he committed hastily to an unknown master? Or has he undertaken for the first time to prepare for the arrival of what ancient man only experienced the fading after-glow of? Can one defer and wait for what he has pre-committed to since time immemorial?

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