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|Subject: Re: Is nature always a friend? Tue Nov 05, 2013 9:06 pm|| |
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- "Spengler’s initial vision of the history of human civilization was overpoweringly pessimistic. The Decline of the West offered a complete historical apologia for the stagnation of Weimar Germany. However, the price of this was an irresistible fatalism, seeing that Spengler offered a diagnosis but no accompanying treatment. If human history and national destiny were in the hands of immutable historical processes, then the only sensible response was fatalism. Those who were consoled by Spengler’s explanation of ￼their current woes were surely not comforted by his further implication that nothing could be done about it. Man and Technics was intended, partly at least, to remedy this sense of helplessness. Here, Spengler sought to move beyond the pessimistic fatalism of Decline of the West by identifying a deeper process underlying historical and cultural change, which process, moreover, could be not only identified but also manipulated.
This ‘‘primordial force’’ was technics. Characteristically for Spengler, technics was not simply the diversifying range of mechanical and electronic devices that had been accumulating since the early nineteenth century. Indeed, Spengler is consistently critical of ‘‘the misleading notion that the fashioning of machines and tools is the aim of technics’’ (9). The pragmatic, utilitarian perception of technology as a set of labour-saving devices is characteristic of ‘‘Materialists,’’ whose highest ideal is ‘‘utility.’’ The ‘‘devastating shallowness’’ of such ‘‘materialism’’ is a consequence of its failure to appreciate the depth of technology; by identifying only the useful and efficient as the ‘‘legitimate element of Culture’’ they could not appreciate the significance and ‘‘essence’’ of technics (7).
No better than the materialists were the ‘‘idealists and ideologues’’ who excluded technics from the realm of culture altogether. Whereas the Materialists at least afforded technics a value, albeit the grossly diluted one of ‘‘utility,’’ the Idealists sought to exclude it altogether as nothing more than machines that could spare humans their time and effort. In both cases, Spengler took issue with the dismissal of technics as something incidental to culture, and indeed as something of no possible value beyond or outside the realm of culture. True to his audacious manner, he asked: ‘‘What is the significance of technics? What meaning within history, what value within life, does it possess, where—socially and metaphysically—does it stand?’’ (6). Not content simply to establish technics as a phenomenon of cultural significance, Spengler pushed further, identifying it as a powerful metaphysical force that was intimately tied to the ‘‘soul of man.’’
Technics is ‘‘immemorially old’’ and ‘‘immensely general’’ and underlies all life and all history. Spengler posited it as a monistic metaphysical force that animated all living beings and drove them to compete and dominate one another. In one particularly vivid passage, he writes: ‘‘It is distinctive of the animal . . . that it is capable of moving freely in space and possesses some measure, great or small, of self-will and independence of Nature as a whole, and that, in possessing these, it is obliged to maintain itself against Nature.’’ But the significance of technics was not simply in its generative capacities. Spengler emphasised that technics did not simply ‘‘create’’ beings, but also endowed them with ‘‘significance, some sort of a content, and some sort of a superiority.’’ Technics did not simply create living beings but also invested them with a meaningful sense of ‘‘life’’ as something ‘‘active, fighting, and charged’’ (10; original emphasis). This triad of technics, life, and significance explains a remark that might otherwise seem strangely opaque: ‘‘If, then, we would attach a significance to technics, we must start from the soul, and that alone’’ (9).
Technics and the soul may seem to be odd bedfellows. Talk of the ‘‘soul’’ surely belongs to pagan philosophy and medieval theology, rather than to discussions of contemporary technology. However, as one might expect by now, Spengler’s account of the ‘‘soul of man’’ is complementary to the ‘‘essence of technics’’ that Man and Technics aims to articulate. In a sense, both the ‘‘soul of man’’ and the ‘‘essence of technics’’ are one and the same: they are both dynamic and agonistic forces, ‘‘active, fighting, and charged,’’ whose singular purpose is to create and transform. This is a double-edged sword.
On the one hand, both man and technics are boundlessly productive: ‘‘every discovery contains the possibility and necessity of new discoveries, every fulfilled wish awakens a thousand more, every triumph over Nature incites to yet others.’’ The soul of man and the essence of technics are ‘‘ever hungry...never satisfied,’’ and with expectable valorisation and typical equivocation, Spengler points to both ‘‘the curse that lies upon this kind of life, but also the grandeur inherent in its destiny’’ (35–36).
This is a typical example of the stark choice Spengler offers: one either falters before the fighting charged imperative of technics, to be swept away in a torrent of activity and commotion, or embraces it and strives to assert oneself in the face of it. Spengler makes it very clear which option he prefers. The valorisation of the dynamic, insatiable, Achilles- like life suggests yet again Spengler’s debt to Nietzsche’s Ubermensch, which is not far removed from Spengler’s technically-enabled ‘‘warrior-soul.’’ His characterisation of technics also echoes Nietzsche’s concept of the will-to-power as a ‘‘perpetually increasing power,’’ under whose force ‘‘everything is also flooding forwards, and towards one goal.’’16 (It’s worth adding that Nietzsche criticised the animistic idea that ‘‘things (nature, tools, properties of all kinds) were also alive and animate,’’ because it maximised our ‘‘feeling of impotence,’’ making us forever in need of asserting ourselves against ‘‘things, just as against men and animals’’17).
Borrowing heavily from Nietzsche, then, Spengler’s description of the man whose ‘‘soul’’ is fully asserted is stirring: ‘‘A will-to-power which laughs at all bounds of time and space, which indeed regards the boundless and endless as its specific target, subjects whole continents to itself, eventually embraces the world in the network of its forms of communication and intercourse, and transforms it by the force of its practical energy and the gigantic power of its technical processes’’ (39; original emphasis).
This passage makes clear Spengler’s final vision of the relationship between Man and Technics. The ‘‘soul of man’’ is dynamic and agonistic and finds its highest satisfaction in dynamic creation and transformation. However, it is not simply in engineering feats, artistic production, or grand state-building that the creative drives of the ‘soul of man’ can be satisfied. Spengler emphasises that it is only in our period of history that ‘‘the struggle between Nature and the Man whose historic destiny has made him pit himself against her is to all intents and purposes ended’’ (39). Never before have human beings developed a technics sufficiently powerful and extensive to challenge Nature itself. It was only with the ‘‘beautiful and destructive capacities of steam, chemistry, and electricity’’ that mankind acquired both the capacity and the motivation to set upon nature and ‘‘transform’’ her.18
The struggle of man and nature is not a simple form of antagonism. Spengler warned of a further double peril: the struggle between man and nature did not result from any decision, but from an inherent antagonism. Since both mankind and the natural world are manifestations of technics, both are ‘‘already, always’’ opposed to one another. Endorsing Hobbes’ merciless vision of a ‘‘war of all against all,’’ Spengler offered two arguments for mankind’s domination of nature. Firstly, man cannot avoid struggling against nature and so ought to engage in it as soon and as aggressively as possible: ‘‘The creature is rising up against its creator.... The lord of the World is becoming the slave of the Machine, which is forcing him—forcing us all, whether we are aware of it or not—to follow its course’’ (46). Secondly, it was only through such struggle that the ‘‘soul of man’’ could be satisfied. Our ‘‘destiny’’ ‘‘dooms us’’ to ‘‘contend in battle with a given world and win through or fail.... This battle is life—life, indeed, in the Nietzschean sense, a grim, pitiless, no-quarter battle of the Will-to-Power’’ (11; original emphasis). It is not that mankind is in any sense ‘‘above’’ nature, nor that he can exploit it for his own ends; both the human will-to-power and nature itself are manifestations of the same technics, the forces of creation and activity, and so theirs is a fight of equals.
These remarks should problematise the suggestion that Man and Technics can be interpreted as anticipating later environmentalist concerns. Spengler is certainly no gleeful technocrat: he rejects the assessment of the value of technology by practical or economic criteria alone since both of these fail to disclose the ‘‘essence of technics.’’ In the final section of the second volume of Decline of the West, he presents an austere vision of a culture enslaved by technology and economics: ‘‘the Machine...insists on being used and directed, and so that end centuples the force of each individual. For the sake of the machine, human life becomes precious . . . . The machine works and forces the man to co-operate.’’19 However, these criticisms are hardly those of conventional environment- alism: what Spengler opposes is not environmental destruction, but the corruption of individuals and cultures by pragmatism and capitalism. So when, as Thomas Parke Hughes says, Spengler criticises humans for ‘‘us[ing] technology to devastate nature and reign as a deity in its human-built replacement,’’ it is not because nature ought to be protected, but because man ought to be protected.20 Spengler is neither a Luddite ‘‘techno-sceptic’’ nor an early environmentalist, but a thoroughgoing anthropocentrist.
It is worth dwelling on these points because Spengler’s alleged environmentalism casts light on his view of the relationship between man and technics. After all, in Man and Technics, it is the natural world that provides both the subject and object of the final conflict between the ‘‘soul of man’’ and the ‘‘essence of technics.’’ There are two points to bear in mind here. Firstly, Spengler has no especial care for the natural world. It does not possess the ‘‘intrinsic value’’ beloved of many environmental ethicists, nor is it something with which one can or should meaningfully commune. He describes humans as having ‘‘stepped outside the bounds of Nature’’ and of becoming ‘‘more and more her enemy’’: the history of the human relationship with the natural world is ‘‘the history of a rebel that grows up to raise his hand against his mother’’ (24). Environmental concern and protection would only smother the ‘‘soul of man’’ in its natural attempt at transformative engagement with nature. Secondly, Spengler’s discussions of technology are essentially anthropomorphic. Man and Technics is concerned with ‘‘man’’: ‘‘It is his life we are studying, and...his destiny, his soul’’ (17n. 1). As long as humans remain ‘‘tied to nature,’’ limited by her seasons and rhythms, they cannot realise their highest potential and emerge as ‘‘beasts of prey.’’ The ‘‘Faustian man,’’ announced Spengler, is he who ‘‘strides forward in an ever-increasing alienation from all Nature’’ (23).
Thus the alienation of mankind from nature represents the final victory of technics. Spengler celebrates this as the emancipation from nature rather than the enslavement to technology.21 Many environmental philosophers would take issue with this, one of the most influential examples of which is Martin Heidegger’s The Question Concerning Technology (1977). Heidegger had read Decline of the West and was intrigued by Spengler’s bold theories, even if he was not fully persuaded by them.22
For Heidegger technology was a particular ‘‘way of revealing’’ the natural world, of ‘‘rendering it manifest’’ as a ‘‘standing resource’’ of physical and biological materials available for human exploitation. In a famous passage, he describes how, under the ‘‘gaze of technology,’’ ‘‘the earth now
reveals itself as a coal-mining district, the soil as a mineral deposit,’’ and the river Rhine as a ‘‘water-power supplier.’’23 I mention this remark in order to contrast it with a strikingly similar remark from Man and Technic where Spengler describes how ‘‘we think only in horsepower now; we cannot look at a waterfall without mentally turning it into electric power; we cannot survey a countryside full of pasturing cattle without thinking of its exploitation as a source of meat-supply’’ (48). In both cases, technology functions as a particular way of ‘experiencing’’ or ‘‘disclosing’’ the natural world, which is transformed into exploitable resources and practical opportunities: rivers to be dammed, forests to be felled, mountains to be mined. In each case, though, it is not malevolence or hubris that motivates these Faustian attitudes to nature. For Heidegger, ‘‘technology’’ is ‘‘destined’’ within the ‘‘history of Being’’ and represents a historical inevitability that cannot be resisted by human beings, who are irresistibly ‘‘swept away’’ by it.24 Spengler is less deterministic, but he too sees technics as an incessant ‘‘metaphysical’’ force. ‘‘We are born into this time,’’ he says, when the final struggle between man and technics will occur, and so we are faced with ‘‘the Choice of Achilles––better a short life, full of deeds and glory, [or] a long life without content’’ (52–53). Spengler obviously urges us to go with Achilles and choose the former.
The imperative of technics to transformation and revaluation must be understood in terms of their aims. Spengler had emphasised that the aim technics was not to be understood in terms of horsepower or mechanical capacity. Its aim was not stronger engines or faster cars. What really matters—pride, discipline, will—cannot be quantified or measured. Indeed, Spengler scorns the enumerating spirit manifested in economics and capitalism, calling for a ‘‘battle of blood and tradition against mind and money.’’26 He sought to revitalise the German spirit by decoupling its anti-capitalism from its suspicion of technology. The bond between the two had been forged by the Romantics who had initiated a ‘‘profound interrogation’’ of capitalism, questioning not ‘‘the statistics of
economic deprivation’’ but ‘‘the spiritual and cultural quality of life under capital,’’ and 400 had found it wanting.27 Spengler thus shared the Romantic scorn for wealth and luxury, seeing little depth or meaning in it, and especially no hope for the cultural transformation he desired. But he held that technology, unlike capitalism, could be reinterpreted as both a contemporary innovation and a continuation of older cultural values. There was, for him, no fundamental contradiction between culture and technics.
405 The culture that Spengler valorised was German Kultur. The Schwarzwald and Harz Mountains had ‘‘forged hard races, with intellects sharpened to the keenest, and the cold fires of an unrestrained passion for fighting, risking, thrusting forward’’ (39). These ‘‘passions’’ could manifest themselves in agrarian pastoralism, martial culture, or mass industrialism, such that the ‘‘German soul would be at home on the farm, on the 410 battlefield, and in the factory.’’28 No matter whether the German soul was embodied in farmers, soldiers, or workers, Spengler’s aim was to provide an account of human nature—at least for the German Volk—that would preserve the depth and heritage of its culture so as to be reconciled with, and so capable of incorporating, the positive—mainly technological—innovations of the time. This explains why Spengler sought to identify 415 ‘‘the soul of man’’ with the ‘‘essence of technics.’’ For him the great Romantic intellects and passions that had produced Goethe, Schelling, and Nietzsche had now taken on a new form in machinery, industrial infrastructure, and restless productivity.
These superabundant technological activities were not of value in themselves, of course. The factories and shipyards could churn out mass-produced vehicles, 420 manufactured goods, and refined materials for all eternity; but this was not the meaning of technics. The significance of technics lay in the designing and realising of grand designs, in ceaseless creative energies: ‘‘Always it is a matter of purposive activity, never of things’’ (9; original emphasis). So long as Faustian man remained productive and creative, his ‘‘active, charged’’ soul realised its ‘‘essence,’’ the ‘‘ever hungry . . . never satisfied’’ nature which 425 was both the ‘‘curse . . . and grandeur’’ of its ‘‘destiny’’ (35–36). Spengler warned that to forget that the true aim of technics was ‘‘activity’’ and not ‘‘things’’ was to commit oneself to inescapable frustration, seeing that all things were doomed to be overcome by the omnipresent strife it generated: ‘‘Faustian civilization and one day will lie in fragments, forgotten—our railways and steamships as dead as the Roman roads and the Chinese wall, 430 our giant cities and skyscrapers in ruins like old Memphis and Babylon’’ (51). Of course, as Stephen R.L. Clark has pointed out, Spengler’s vision of irresistible surrender to the insatiable imperative of technics may be over-demanding. After all, ‘‘‘technology’ need not . . . be thought of as a route towards full mastery,’’ but as ‘‘the making of occasional aids . . . within a fluctuating, changeful universe that we cannot control,’’ such that one 435 need not embrace the ‘‘vision [of] Machines for making more machines.’’29
Technologies, as one writer puts it, are embedded within ‘‘forms of life’’ which simultaneously ‘‘provide structure for human activity’’ and ‘‘reshape’’ it, thereby transforming the meanings of those activities.30 As such, much of our imperative to create and modify technologies derives from other values and interests—practical, epistemic, or 440 whatever—rather than a mere blind urge to produce at all costs. Spengler may be right in emphasising the relentless innovatory character of technics, but he is surely wrong that it can realise itself outside of a culture or form of life which gives it its shape, purpose, and direction.
The cultural atrophy of Spengler’s Germany, then, reflected a lack of cultural energy as well as a failure to realise the ‘‘essence of technics.’’ Initially, he identified these causes in powerful transhistorical processes and a cyclical vision of history as the rise and fall of cultures and civilizations. However, the historical determinism of this ‘‘history of world cultures’’ soon degenerated into a fatalism as paralysing as the cultural crisis it was designed to resolve. In response to these criticisms, Spengler refocused his ideas; the regular historical processes of Decline of the West were abandoned in favour of the violently dynamic ‘‘will-to-power’’ that was the ‘‘essence of technics.’’
The history of human cultures was no longer seen as rhythmic and cyclical but as agonistic and antagonistic. Technics manifests itself in political institutions, economic systems, artistic styles, and increasingly in machinery and engineering; but these are not of value in themselves, since they are only expressions of the ‘‘active, fighting, charged’’ spirit of technics. The ‘‘soul of man’’ only fully realises its potentialities when it meets two conditions. Firstly, man must be engaged in a constant range of creative, transformative activities—in agriculture, war, or industry. This engagement reflected the same energetic spirit that Goethe manifested, a nature that must ‘‘pursue multiple tasks . . . simply in order to live’’ in the fullest sense.31 Commerce, intellectualism, and the vapidities of the ‘‘business of culture’’ are all hallmarks of the ‘‘domestication’’ that marks ‘‘herbivores’’ and so offends ‘‘beasts of prey.’’ Spengler argues that these two options—the herbivore versus the beast of prey— are the two forms human nature can take, the key difference being that ‘‘the former is a destiny that is imposed on one, the latter a destiny that is identical with oneself.’’32
The solution was to recapture the ‘‘beast of prey’’ that ceaselessly prowled in the ‘‘soul of man,’’ the highest and ultimate expression of which was technology. Spengler thus managed to reconcile the German cultural heritage with modern technology; his history of technics traced ‘‘a path...from the primeval warring of extinct beasts to the processes of modern inventors and engineers, and likewise [from] the design of the machines with which today we make war on Nature by outmanoeuvring her’’ (10). Faustian man, fully embracing the ‘‘destiny’’ ordained by technics, is the one who ‘‘embraces the world in the network of its forms of communication and intercourse, and transforms it by the force of its practical energy and the gigantic power of its technical processes’’ (39). Only in this total and triumphant act of creative transformation would the ‘‘soul of man’’ be finally and fully expressed through its total reconciliation with the ‘‘essence of technics.’’ Thus, we should not attribute ‘‘Faustian man’s destruction of nature’’ simply to the ‘‘relentless striving for dominion over nature.’’33 Spengler enjoins us to ‘‘dominate’’ and ‘‘transform’’ nature: it is, he says, only through such furious technological activities that the ‘‘soul of man’’ can be fully expressed.
Spengler thus intended Man and Technics as a philosophical anthropology that married man and machine within a broader historical framework. This was designed both as an antidote to the cultural crisis of Weimar Germany and as a philosophical statement on the proper relationship between humankind, culture, and the environment. Technology, culture, and human nature are conjoined. ‘‘Technics in man’s life is conscious, arbitrary, alterable, personal, inventive. It is learned and improved. Man has 490 become the creator of his tactics of living—that is his grandeur and his doom. And the inner form of this creativeness we call culture’’ (18).
The revitalisation of German culture could only be achieved through stern communion with technics. But, beyond that, Spengler also issued a double warning. In the course of mankind’s struggles with Nature, we have ‘‘wrested from her the privilege of creation’’ but have failed to understand the ‘‘essence of technics.’’ In consequence, ‘‘this petty creator against Nature, this revolutionary in the world of life, has become the slave of his creature. The beast of prey, who made others his domestic animals in order to exploit them, has taken himself captive’’ (35). Today, some eighty years after the publication of Man and Technics, the growing urgency of Spengler’s warnings can no longer be ignored. He had predicted our reality of the beginning of the twenty-first century, with ‘‘cities laid out for ten to twenty million inhabitants, spread over enormous areas of country-side, with buildings that will dwarf the biggest of today’s and notions of traffic and communication that we should regard as fantastic to the point of madness.’’34 This prediction has arguably come true.
At present, when the ‘‘technologisation’’ of food, healthcare, recreation and all else has grown unabated, Spengler’s warning that we will be enslaved by technics—which we still narrowly interpret as practical labour-saving devices rather than as powerful cultural forces—seems all the more prescient. Finally, his treatise on technics underscores the need for the philosophy of technology to assume a more prominent role in our current academic philosophical discourse."
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"ἐδιζησάμην ἐμεωυτόν." [Heraclitus]
"All that exists is just and unjust and equally justified in both." [Aeschylus, Prometheus]
"The history of everyday is constituted by our habits. ... How have you lived today?" [N.]