Comparative Culture, 10: 1-20, 2004

[This article is adapted from a paper presented to the Society for Philosophy and Technology annual conference at Hostra University, Hempstead, New York, June 1995.]

The Saving Power: Aesthetics and

the Technological Worldview

Jerry Greenfield

The philosopher Martin Heidegger’s inquiry into the fundamental nature of technology discovered that in treating everything in the world as a resource to be exploited, technology is a deeply rooted and pervasive worldview that threatens to block out any other way of knowing things, including even ourselves. But Heidegger holds out the hope that reflecting on art as a contrasting way of knowing can rescue us from this danger. Art, while involving technology in its creation, begins with seeing things in a non-technological perspective, The contrast between technology and art as ways of knowing helps to explain the significance of  surrealist art and of ready-mades such as the Fountain by Duchamp. The intersection of the two modes is especially characteristic of photography as exemplified in the work of Ansel Adams and Minor White. Courses that include aesthetics as reflection on art and its relation to technology are needed in the liberal arts curriculum to counterbalance a dominant orientation of the curriculum towards the technological worldview.


In his seminal lecture The Question Concerning Technology, the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1987-1976) argues that the essence of technology is a way of revealing the world of things as a resource well, a standing-reserve in which man, in exalting himself as the orderer of it, is in ultimate danger of taking himself only as standing-reserve. Expressing doubt that the essence of technology, which contains both this gravest danger and the power to save us, will be discovered through reflection on technology directly, Heidegger hopes that “essential reflection upon technology and decisive confrontation with it” can be accomplished instead through reflection on art, and that through such reflection “the essence of technology may come to presence in the coming-to-pass of truth.” [All Heidegger quotations are from Heidegger, Martin. (1977), The Question Concerning Technology, in David F. Krell (ed.) (1977), Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings. New York: Harper & Row, 287-317; revised edition 1993, New York: HarperCollins, 311-41. This translation by William Lovitt is reprinted in Heidegger, Martin (1977), The Question Concerning Technology and other Essays, New York: Harper, 3-35; and with altered slightly translation in Robert C. Scharff and Val Dusek (eds) (2003). Philosophy of Technology: The Technological Condition, Oxford: Balckwell, 252-276.]

It is ironic that this cornerstone of the philosophy of technology was presented at the Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts as part of a 1953 lecture series entitled “The Arts in the Technical Age,” because in the subsequent critique of technology which has been built around it, relatively little attention has been given to the prospective role of the arts; and in spite of the fact that the call to do so was issued in an art school, very little reflection upon the essence of technology has been done within the arts and arts education, nor within the humanities in general. The Science, Technology, and Society movement in American universities, in its mission interpret science and engineering to humanists and humanities to science and engineering, has largely passed by  the arts, while the arts themselves have withdrawn into a bubble which is drifting in the currents of technology.

Heidegger is not read by many artists. In fact, he is a hard read for anyone. His use of language is, to say the least, idiosyncratic and his arguments convoluted. This is unfortunate because, if one has the patience to work through it, he makes a cogent and urgent case not only for teaching artists about the meaning of technology but more importantly also for teaching technologists about the meaning of technology through understanding the meaning of art. Moreover, in showing that we are all technologists in virtue of the fundamental worldview in which our time is gripped, he argues, in effect, for understanding the meaning of art as a necessary part of a liberal education.

Heidegger calls his method questioning, a way of thinking for the purpose of preparing a free relationship to that which we are questioning. In the case of technology, a free relationship is one which “opens our human existence to the essence of technology,” in response to which “we shall be able to experience the technological within its own bounds.” We achieve this opening by peeling back the layers of accrued meaning that have obscured and corrupted original understandings of words we use, or misuse, today. Technology is such a word, art another. Questioning for Heidegger is an etymological search for core meaning. Heidegger gives the name destining to the deep worldview which is the foundation of our thought and consequently shapes the world we know. Destining in the West is most clearly revealed in the time of its emergence in ancient Greece, after which it becomes corrupted and hidden from view. Important ideas and practices, and the words used to refer to them, have lost their original and authentic meanings over time and thus no longer reveal on their face the essential worldview. To recover the original sense, therefore, it is necessary either to find new terms to replace those which have become corrupted, or to restore the meanings of old terms through etymological analysis. Heidegger employs both tactics. The route is winding and at times hidden, as the philosopher circles around the point and epicycles around subpoints, until the obscuring overlays have been disposed of and the objective stands clear. Along the way he uses words in odd ways, or at least in special ways. Some of these have made their way into the parlance of the philosophy of technology, but certainly no one would mistake Heidegger for an Ordinary Language philosopher.

I. The Essence of Technology

Heidegger begins by telling us that technology is not the same as its essence, nor is its essence anything technological. Already something odd is afoot, because customarily no distinction is made between what a thing is and its essence: to inquire into the essence of technology would be simply to ask what it is. A conventional definition, Heidegger acknowledges, would describe technology as a human activity which employs means to achieve ends in a complex of “manufacture and utilization of equipment, tools, and machines, the manufactured and used things themselves, and the needs and ends that they serve.” He grants that such a definition is correct, but “the merely correct is not yet the true. Only the true brings us into a free relationship with that which concerns from out of its essence.” If one is viewing technology through technological glasses, of course it looks technological. “We shall never experience our relationship to the essence of technology so long as we merely conceive and push forward the technological, put up with it or evade it.”

Declaring that “we must seek the true by way of the correct,” Heidegger shifts the query from technology as such to instrumentalism. But to understand instrumentality we must understand causality, and so Heidegger takes us through the Aristotelian doctrine of four causes, which are seen to be four ways of being responsible. These four ways bring something into appearance, letting it come forth into presencing [Anwesen], lying ready before us. The verb “to occasion” is the name for the essence of causality as the Greeks thought it. The four ways of occasioning “let what is not yet present arrive into presencing. Accordingly, they are unifiedly ruled over by a bringing that brings what presences into appearance. This bringing forward into presencing that which was not presencing, this bringing-forth-hither [her-vor-bringen], is what Plato calls poiesis. True to Heidegger’s way with words, the translator contrives an active verb from the English noun presence and uses it in the gerund form as an active noun to convey the active aspect of something’s appearance. Thus poiesis is the agency that results in presencing.

Poiesis is not the same as poetry in the ordinary sense. In an aside, Heidegger points out that physis (the linguistic root of physics) too is poiesis, in fact the highest sense of poiesis, in that what is brought forth in physis is brought forth in itself, whereas what is brought forth by the artisan or artist “has the bursting open belonging to bringing-forth not in itself, but in another.”

Heidegger at last circles in on something that looks like a definition: “Occasioning has to do with the presencing of that which at any given time comes to appearance in bringing-forth. Bringing-forth brings hither out of concealment forth into unconcealment.…This coming rests and moves freely within what we call revealing [das Entbergen]”. This is what the Greeks called aletheia (truth) and the Romans veritas. Now the punch line: “What has the essence of technology to do with revealing? The answer: everything. For every bringing-forth is grounded in revealing.… Technology is no mere means. Technology is a way of revealing.”

But does this understanding also fit today’s technology? It is said that modern technology is different because it is based on modern science. Heidegger stands this distinction on its head when he asks, “Of what essence is modern technology that it happens to think of putting exact science to use?” He will explore this reversal in more detail later in the lecture. What is important to keep in mind is the principle that technology, including modern technology, is a revealing. It is in this regard that a difference can be seen: Modern technology “does not unfold into a bringing-forth in the sense of poiesis.” Rather, “the revealing that rules in modern technology is a challenging [Herausfordern], which puts to nature the unreasonable demand that it supply energy that can be extracted and stored as such.”

Heidegger develops this point by unfolding various senses of the German verb stellen. In cultivating the soil the peasant sets it in order [bestellte]. This setting-in-order was to take care of and maintain, not to challenge, the soil. But in modern agriculture, cultivation has become a setting-upon (stellt) that challenges forth the energies of nature. It is an expediting that unlocks and exposes, directed from the beginning toward furthering something else. It stockpiles, stores in order to deliver on call. “The revealing that rules throughout modern technology has the character of a setting-upon, in the sense of a challenging-forth.… Unlocking, transforming, storing, distributing, and switching about are ways of revealing.” Finally, the revealing reveals self-regulation which is everywhere secured. “Regulating and securing even become the chief characteristics of the challenging revealing.”

So technology is a setting-upon, and modern technology is a setting-upon that challenges and turns everything into a resource: “Everywhere everything is ordered to stand by, to be immediately at hand, indeed to stand there just so that it may be on call for a further ordering. Whatever is ordered about in this way has its own standing. We call it the standing reserve [Bestand].” The standing reserve is the way everything presences as it is revealed in challenging-forth. This way is different from that of objects which stand over against us as autonomous presences in their own right. The standing reserve has no autonomous standing but rather has presence only as part of “the ordering of the orderable.” In plain language, the world revealed by modern technology does not exist for us except as things that can be used.

There is some awkwardness in Heidegger’s description of the difference between traditional and modern technology. For example, his assertion is not quite convincing that the windmill does not extract and store the energy of the wind, or that the reason it does not is that its sails “are left entirely to the wind’s blowing.” It can be shown that (a) the windmill does indeed unlock energy from the air currents, i.e., transforms air pressure into hydraulic energy or electrical energy, indeed must do so in order to be useful and not merely decorative; and (b) in pumping water into a trough or ditch or in powering an appliance which produces some product, the energy extracted by the mill is converted into some form of latent, i.e., stored, energy, in accordance with the law of conservation of energy. Similarly, the action of the peasant in planting seeds in the ground is not obviously different from the action of a mechanical planter with respect to the “forces of nature” which are set upon to bring about the sprouting of the seed and growth of the plant, which presumably do not care whether it was a hand or a machine which put the seed in the soil. In each case, putting the seed in the soil challenges the soil to bring forth the plant. It is not obvious how there are two essentially different kinds of setting-in-order, one setting-upon and the other just setting.

The key to the difference lies in the phrase “appears differently.” The difference is between the meaning which the act of cultivation has for the peasant thinking in the traditional way and that which it has for us moderns. The peasant appears to us to be doing the same thing that the machine does, but we think of it our way, and he his. Heidegger mentions another example, this time explicitly seen through our eyes: “The forester who, in the wood, measures the felled time and to all appearances walks the same forest path in the same way as his grandfather is today commanded by profit-making in the lumber industry, whether he knows it or not.” The difference cannot be discovered by any kind of physical description. It depends on the way we fundamentally see things. Indeed, our interest in seeing the peasant’s or the forester’s action only in physically descriptive terms already looks at the issue through our eyes as distinct from theirs. The tables could be turned: just as we can understand what they are doing in our terms, they could understand what we are doing in their terms, including seeing advantages in the implements we use. Surely, peasants felt pressures to get cultivation tasks done by natural even if indefinite deadlines and welcomed whatever help was available to get it done faster. Surely, the ploughshare was greeted as a welcome advantage in planting, the scythe in harvesting, etc. And the peasant could see such advantages still within the traditional sense of setting-in-order.

“Where and how does this revealing happen if it is no mere handiwork of man?” Heidegger hears us ask. The answer, which Heidegger deftly talks around, is that the source is a given. It is proof that we have become ensnared in the standing-reserve when we treat the world as standing-reserve. There is a kind of determinism here in Heidegger’s reference to a “That” [capitalized] which forces us to see in one way so decisively that we can be man at any given time only by seeing in that way. Nor can man escape by an act of will, since “he merely responds to the call of unconcealment even when he contradicts it.” Therefore we must take it as it shows itself to us.

What is the “That” which challenges man into ordering the real as standing-reserve? “We now name that challenging claim which gathers man thither to order the self-revealing as standing-reserve: ‘Ge-stell’ [enframing].” Having given it a name, Heidegger then repeats a litany of statements he made previously, now substituting “enframing” for “essence of technology,” “challenging revealing,” etc. He briefly rehearses his arguments that enframing and poiesis are related as ways of revealing, and that enframing is “neither only a human activity nor a mere means within such activity,” and then develops at length his earlier observation that enframing appears first in the rise of modern science. This closes the main section of the lecture.

Heidegger still has not answered the question of what enframing is. He dodges the question by saying that as that which precedes everything over which it holds sway, the essence of modern technology itself remains concealed to the last. In the next section, he begins again by asserting that enframing “is the way in which the real reveals itself as standing-reserve.” Little progress. He tries again: “Enframing is the gathering together that belongs to that setting-upon which sets upon man and puts him in position to reveal the real, in the mode of ordering, as standing-reserve.” Same thing, in more words. Finally there is no clear answer. It may be that to avoid objectifying enframing, which in spite of himself language almost forces him to do anyway, Heidegger cannot be clear about what enframing is apart from what it does.

The critique of technology culminates in a description of the danger that is inherent in enframing. He begins by pointing out that any destining of revealing, i.e., being caught in any way of revealing the world, is dangerous. “Yet when destining reigns in the mode of Enframing, it is the supreme danger.” The passage is unusually succinct and, given a basic familiarity with his terminology, clear. It needs to be quoted at length:

This danger attests itself to us in two ways. As soon as what is unconcealed no longer concerns man as object, but does so, rather, exclusively as standing-reserve, and man in the midst of objectlessness is nothing but the orderer of the standing-reserve, then he 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. Meanwhile man, precisely as the one so threatened, exalts himself to the posture of lord of the earth. In this way the impression comes to prevail that everything man encounters exists only insofar as it is his construct. This illusion gives rise in turn to one final delusion: It seems as though man everywhere and always encounters only himself.… In truth, however, precisely nowhere does man today any longer encounter himself, i.e., his essence. Man stands so decisively in attendance on the challenging-forth of Enframing that he does not apprehend Enframing as a claim, that he fails to see himself as the one spoken to, and hence also fails in every way to hear in what respect he ek-sists, from out of his essence…and thus can never encounter only himself.

Thus enframing is a trap:

Where this ordering holds sway, it drives out every other possibility of revealing.… Where Enframing holds sway, regulating and securing of the standing-reserve mark all revealing. They no longer let even their own fundamental characteristic appear, namely this revealing as such.”

“The threat to man does not come in the first instance from the potentially lethal machines and apparatus of technology. The actual threat has already affected man in his essence. The rule of Enframing threatens man with the possibility that it could be denied to him to enter into a more original revealing and hence to experience the call of a more primal truth.

Heidegger looks to enframing itself for a way out of its trap. But as the word destining implies, enframing is not something within our control, even though it causes us to think that everything is within our control. If it is given to us so completely that we do not even realize that we are in its grip, how can we think any other way? Heidegger seems backed into a corner that has caught others before him: “Only what is granted endures. That which endures primally out of the earliest beginning is what grants.” This is as close as we are going to get to an answer to the question of the agency of enframing: It resembles what the philosophers refer to as the First Cause (stripped of the error of causality) or what religion objectifies as God. Insight into the essence of technology casts man into a free relationship to it, but this cannot be brought about by merely thinking it. The insight required is a fundamental reorientation on the level of an Anselmian Credo or Kierkegaardian Leap, if not Augustinian Grace: “Every destining of revealing comes to pass from out of a granting and as such a granting. For it is granting that first conveys to man that share in revealing which the coming-to-pass of revealing needs.” Translation: Every worldview arises as a given and has a givenness. What is given is a way of seeing that is needed in order to see the world at all. Because revealing, including revealing the challenging revealing—modern technology—requires man as part of the given, the saving power which ultimately prevents man from falling into the abyss of the standing reserve is also given. Does this not make for a neat circle?

So how does our questioning into technology rescue us from the danger? “It is precisely in Enframing…that the innermost indestructible belongingness of man within granting may come to light, provided that we, for our part, begin to pay heed to the coming to presence of technology.” Through a reflexive understanding of the way we see the world—acknowledging its givenness for us—we in some way are freed from its grip, have a free relation to it. This seems to be a variation on “Know Thyself” and “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Thus the answer to the question concerning technology is that “through our catching sight of what comes to presence in technology, instead of merely staring at the technological,” we establish a free relation to it, ”we experience this coming to presence as the destining of a revealing”—that is, of a new way of knowing.

It is as though we have emerged from a cloud of words into a clearing. Heidegger now does some mopping up, acknowledging as he does so, in one of the great understatements in the history of philosophy, that “the essence of technology is in a lofty sense ambiguous. Such ambiguity points to the mystery of all revealing, i.e., of truth.” This, of course, he attributes to enframing, which “challenges forth into the frenziedness of ordering that blocks every view into the coming-to-pass of revealing and so radically endangers the relation to the essence of truth.” But it is by looking into the ambiguous essence that we find the intersection of the danger and the saving power, which “draw past each other like the paths of two stars in the course of the heavens” in a “constellation of truth.” This is the lesson from our questioning concerning technology: “We look into the danger and see the growth of the saving power.”

II. Art and Aesthetics

The intersection is art. As the philosophy of technology is the questioning of technology, aesthetics is the questioning of art. Heidegger himself speaks neither of the philosophy of technology nor of aesthetics by name. When he uses the adjective “aesthetic,” it is interchangeable with “artistic” and is parallel to his use of “technological,” which has “nothing to do with” the essence of technology. Unlike his discussion of technology, in which he is at pains to relate modern technology to technology as a destining, when he speaks of art as poiesis, which he makes clear is the only art worthy of the name, he is not concerned with anything modern. If asked about modern painting or photography, he might shrug them aside as merely examples of (modern) technologies of communication. His explicit circle of inclusion in true art is very limited: sculpture, architecture, and, most supremely, poetry. Characteristic of Heidegger, within that circle the only art that really qualifies is that practiced “at the outset of the destining of the West,” i.e., by the Greeks.

Identifying Greek art as the only true art is both a specific critique of modern art and an entailment of Heidegger’s general theory of destining. His critique of modern art is hinted at in the last part of the lecture. “Once there was a time when…” introduces his use of the past tense to refer to the time of the Greeks, when “the arts soared to the supreme height of the revealing granted them.” But art is not the same now, as evidenced by a transformation of art-as-revealing into art-as-affect: “The arts [of the Greeks] were not artistic. Art works were not enjoyed aesthetically. Art was not a sector of cultural experience.” By implication, the so-called arts of our time are all of these things which Greek arts were not. And what has been replaced?

What, then, was art—perhaps only for that brief but magnificent time? Why did art bear the modest name ‘techne?’ Because it was a revealing that brought forth and hither. and therefore belonged within poiesis. It was finally that revealing which holds complete sway in all the fine arts, in poetry, and in everything poetical that obtained poiesis as its proper name.

Heidegger now slips into the present tense, as if to hold out hope for the restoration of art in our time: “The poetical thoroughly pervades every art, every revealing of coming to presence into the beautiful.” He means here every art properly called art.

Heidegger’s parting shot is an uncertain appeal to art. He asks, rhetorically: “But might there not perhaps be a more primally granted revealing that could bring the saving power into its first shining forth in the midst of danger, a revealing that in the technological age rather conceals than shows itself?” The answer, naturally, is yes. That more primally granted revealing is the poiesis of art, which in Greece was also called techne. In those days, Heidegger says, “the arts soared to the supreme height of the revealing granted them. … And art was simply called techne. It was a single, manifold revealing.” The tense is shifting: “It was finally that revealing which holds complete sway in all the fine arts, in poetry, and in everything poetical that obtained poiesis as its proper name.” “It was…” apparently refers to what art was for the Greeks. But does “which holds…” refer only to Greek art, or does it assert that that kind of revealing holds complete sway in all the fine arts, in their essence, even today? There is no problem in the use of past tense in ”obtained,” since Heidegger is speaking here of the etymological history of the term poetry. But then the present is used again unambiguously: “The poetical thoroughly pervades every art, every coming to presence into the beautiful.” The Question Concerning Technology concludes with a question concerning art: “Could it be that the fine arts are called to poetic revealing? Could it be that revealing lays claim to the arts most primally, so that they for their part may expressly foster the growth of the saving power, may awaken and found anew our look into that which grants and our trust in it?”

The suggestion is that art can act as a Trojan Horse in the camp of the enemy, that insight into the essence of technology as a way of revealing might emerge through reflection on the essence of art as a way of revealing. This possibility rests on two premises. One is that the two essences are sufficiently alike for one to throw light on the other. This has been affirmed and explained in the lecture. The other, which is more problematic and which Heidegger skirts, is that it is possible to practice poetic art, to participate in that way of revealing, during an epoch in which the essence of technology holds sway, which as Heidegger has been at pains to make clear is complete sway. On this point Heidegger himself is skeptical: “Whether art may be granted this highest possibility of its essence in the midst of the extreme danger, no one can tell.” As if momentarily disheartened at this prospect, Heidegger looks for another possibility, that in its frenzy to entrench itself everywhere technology may expose its own essence in the coming-to-pass of truth. Evidently not finding good grounds for hope in this line of speculation, Heidegger returns to the prospect of art: “Because the essence of technology is nothing technological [by now an axiom], essential reflection upon technology and decisive confrontation with it must happen in a realm that is, on the one hand, akin to the essence of technology and, on the other, fundamentally different from it.” If technology cannot lead us to enlightenment, what can? “Such a realm is art.” There is a caveat: “But certainly only if reflection on art, for its part, does not shut its eyes to the constellation of truth after which we are questioning.” That is, the saving power of art is not in its artistic practice but in its questioning into its essence as a way of revealing: aesthetics. So, after all, salvation lies not with artists making art but with philosophers thinking about artists’ artmaking, which we can see most clearly not in modern artists’ artmaking but rather (and perhaps not necessarily only?) in that of ancient Greek artists, who, he has pointed out to us, were the first and last to do it really well.

At this point I want to break out of the historical circle Heidegger has drawn around art and to free poiesis from the constraint of art except in its most general sense as a way of revealing that is not the same as anything artistic (as Heidegger might say), ancient or modern. Aesthetic experience is by no means limited to art. Indeed, it may be easier to locate aesthetic experience apart from art than within it. Fortunately, Heidegger’s fears not withstanding, none of us is without some capacity for and history of genuine aesthetic experience. A moment’s reflection is sufficient to recall our response to a vivid sunset, a cozy campfire, the sweet aroma of osmanthus, or the relentless onslaught of ocean waves on the shore. While one might and often does view such occasions scientifically in terms of their place in a causal chain or pragmatically as opportunities for exploitation, thus appropriating them into a technological framework, only the most disciplined of us could not admit at least some slight emotional response which is not scientific, not pragmatic. It occurs to some degree, however practical the circumstances, in our relation not only to nature but also to artifacts in our everyday world. Sometimes the sense of awe or the sublime is so powerful that we are not aware of anything but what evokes it. This is what is meant by the words “spellbound” and “captivating.” At such times issues of utility and analysis are swept aside in the immediacy of the experience. But such times of total absorption are rare. Most relating is neither wholly aesthetic nor wholly technological but an overlap of both. By bracketing technological considerations from occasions that are not wholly technological, we may find in the residue a kernel of aesthetic experience. Art appreciation activities—concerts, museum visits, and art making itself—provide such occasions but not exclusively. Aesthetics as a questioning (as opposed to merely a technical walk-through of a discipline) is the reflection by which the two modes of relating to the world may become conceptually distinct, by which, as Heidegger says, we may develop a free relation to the mode of revealing.

Art brings to the foreground the possibility that things can be seen in more than one way. Minor White (1908-77) used to say that he photographed things not as what they are, but as what else they are. By this he meant that through heightened awareness, he sought to see things not as they are ordinarily seen (he didn’t refer to Heidegger, but I will: as standing reserve) but as what else they might be. Another photographer, Garry Winograd (1928-84), gave even simpler expression to the same idea when he explained that he photographed things to see what they look like photographed. He wasn’t just being cute. It is often noted that one of the characteristics of photography is its ability to decontextualize and thus defamiliarize what is in front of the camera so that it can be seen in another way. For Winograd, that way would be its own way, not one forced on it by the photographer’s preconceptions and demands. Thus looking at his contact sheets was a moment of revelation for him, and more often than not, his photographing ended there. Indeed, he must already have had a sense of what things would look like photographed when he made the shot. He was known to shoot several rolls of film every day, most of which he never reviewed at all—when he died, he left behind thousands of rolls undeveloped.

Decontextualization occurs drastically in the mode of art called surrealism, which may be seen as an attempt to represent things as more real than real, or super-real, by deliberately dislocating the subject from its normal aspect, allowing other aspects to come forward in apparent contradiction, exaggeration, absurdity, or fantasy when tested by common sense, our normal way of seeing things. The common association of surrealism with dream images is explained by the fact that in dreams, things and events may emerge stripped of their technological rationality, appearing instead in novel, unexpected and unexplained relationships. Surrealism thus creates a critical contrast of aesthetic and technological views of things.

Always, of course, any work of art itself must be a product of technology. Without the pigment, a tool to apply it, and a substrate to apply it onto, there would be no painting. Does it matter that the object of aesthetic experience is technological in origin? Certainly not. What qualifies it as an aesthetic occasion is the way it is experienced.

The point is well demonstrated in Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain. Having achieved notoriety for his cubist painting Nude Descending a Staircase exhibited in the 1913 New York Armory Show, where the piece was ridiculed in the press as representing “an explosion in a shingle factory,” Duchamp’s entry in the 1917 Invitational Exhibition was no less controversial. The rules of the show, which Duchamp had helped organize, let invited artists submit work of their own choosing without the usual jury selection. Duchamp had purchased a porcelain men’s urinal from a local hardware store, laid it on its back on a table, painted a false signature and date (“R. Mutt 1917”) on it, and submitted it as a sculpture with the title Fountain. Breaking their own rules, the exhibition committee refused to show it, thus ensuring its place in American art history. The piece was subsequently lost (put into service?), but not before Alfred Stieglitz and others had a chance to photograph it. As a photograph it is represented in the Philadelphia Museum of Art and other art collections. The original reaction of the mainstream art world to Duchamp’s submission was that he was showing disrespect for art, that Fountain was actually anti-art. The conventional interpretation given by later art historians is that Duchamp was challenging the art world to accept as art something that was not produced by an artist’s craft, was not representational (although some have found biomorphic references in it), and was built to serve a function that was not fit for polite conversation, much less for highlighting in a public exhibition. Viewed this way, the incident is an instance of the institutional theory of art: Fountain is art precisely because Duchamp, an artist, insisted it was by signing it (albeit with a pseudonym) and placing it in an art exhibition. That it was rejected from the exhibition reveals simply an initial lack of consensus in the art world about its status as art, subsequently affirmed as evidenced by its now-routine inclusion in art history textbooks.

Another reading of the Fountain incident is that Duchamp was attempting to relocate art from within the enframing of technology altogether by eliminating the issue of manufacture from the work of art as an object in its own right, letting the urinal present itself not as an instance of technology but as a revealing of itself poetically as Fountain. It was rejected as an aesthetic object by fellow artists because the association of that object with its original utilitarian context was too strong to be overridden even by its recontextualization as an entry by a respected artist for inclusion in an art exhibition. That it failed to be seen as art would be taken by Heidegger as evidence of how tightly gripped the Committee of Selection was by the technological way of seeing everything.

Heidegger’s point that poesis as a revealing is independent of the manner of production of the work in which the revealing occurs is demonstrated clearly in photography, which is perhaps the art medium most solidly rooted in technology. As a modern technology photography has developed in tandem with modern science. This is true not only of the improvement and expansion of the materials and equipment used by photography but also in its theoretical underpinning in physics and chemistry, and most recently in electronics. Photography puts science to use as it is itself put to use. In this it shows its technological heritage, which is as alien to poiesis as anything can be. In Heidegger’s terms, photography a prime example of enframing: a setting-upon that challenges forth the resources of the world. It is a form of expediting that appropriates what it finds, that captures what it images by cutting it off from the whole in which it is found, that exposes one possibility at the expense of others. This action treats the world as a property to be appropriated or a means to something else, whether selling a commodity, prompting political action, or stimulating enjoyment. Photography transforms the world into information that can be stockpiled, manipulated, distributed, regulated, and secured. From the fullness that was before the camera a selection is turned into a negative that can be saved, printed, and filed away in an image bank to be on call for future use. The vocabulary of photography reflects its intentions: the picture is taken, the image is fixed and stored away in an archive.

Ironically, the photographer must assert technological control over the technology itself in order to allow poiesis to emerge within it. There have been at least a few photographers who have explicitly understood their work in this way. One of these was Ansel Adams (1902-84), whose “A Personal Credo” (1944, reprinted in Lyons, N. (1966), Photographers on Photography, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 25-31.), articulates the intersection of technology and poiesis. For Adams, the essential photographic act—poesis—is not the recording of light by the equipment. Rather, “’seeing,’ or visualization, is the fundamentally important element.” The rest, the technical process of recording the image, is craft in the service of this seeing. The photographic act requires patience, devotion, appreciation, and sympathy with the world. “Sympathetic interpretation seldom evolves from a predatory attitude; the common term ‘taking a picture’ is more than an idiom; it is a symbol of exploitation.”

Adams expanded on the idea a few years later in the introduction to his Portfolio One (Lyons 31f.):

Some photographers take reality as the sculptors take wood and stone and upon it impose the dominations of their own thought and spirit. Others come before reality more tenderly and a photograph to them is an instrument of love and revelation….Expressions without doctrine, my photographs are presented here as ends in themselves, images of the endless moments of the world.…

Minor White, an early associate of Adams, went further in describing the essential photographic act as a special state of mind which he first called “sensitized sympathy,” later “heightened awareness,” and which formed the core of his teaching as well as his own photographic practice. He described it in a 1952 article, “The Camera Mind and Eye” ( Lyons 163-8):

The state of mind of the photographer while creating is a blank. I might add that this condition exists only at special times, namely when looking for pictures. … For those who would equate “blank” with a kind of static emptiness, I must explain that this is a special kind of blank. It is a very active state of mind really, a very receptive state of mind, ready at an instant to grasp an image, yet with no image pre-formed in it at any time. We should note that the lack of a pre-formed pattern or preconceived idea of how anything ought to look is essential to this blank condition. Such a state of mind is not unlike a sheet of film itself--seemingly inert, yet so sensitive that a fraction of a second’s exposure conceives a life in it. (Not just life, but a life.)

The photographer should ready in this state until something asks to be photographed. White called the image that presents itself to be photographed in this way a “dominant image.” suggesting that the agency behind the photograph lay not with the photographer dominating what is in front of the camera, but rather with the subject that commands the photographer.

Like Adams, White regarded the actual production of the physical image to be a disciplined carrying through of the essential photographic act of seeing. Subsequently he would extend the requirement of heightened awareness to the viewer of the photograph as well, and in later life he devoted a good deal of his energies to training what he called the “creative audience.” The creative audience is one which has learned to recognize the difference between the two modes of knowing and, through conscious preparation, to experience a photograph as the photographer did in making it, as poetry, as poiesis. White hoped that the attitude of heightened awareness would be come a habit affecting  not only looking at photographs but responding to the world in daily life. Thus White’s answer to Heidegger’s question concerning the prospect for art as the saving power is that the power can indeed be discovered in art and more broadly in the world as art, when not only philosophers but the public at large allow themselves to become receptive what else things are apart from their technological affordances.

III. Technology  and Aesthetics in the Liberal Arts Curriculum

Few courses at Miyazaki International College are directly about technology, as might be expected in a liberal arts college. An exception is our pair of courses in Information Technology, where students learn that technology in general is the tools we use and the ways we use them, and  that information technology is the technology we use to create, process, and share information. It is not difficult for students to comprehend these notions, which easily fit their fundamental understanding of the world. This does not mean that students comprehend that the essence of technology and their fundamental view of the world are one and the same or what that means for their ability to see the world any other way. In a philosophy of technology course we would work on that, but in the information technology course our purpose is to teach students how to use the tools effectively, and that occurs within their preexisting worldview that remains not only undisturbed but reinforced by these courses.

In a sense, however, students’ encounter with technological thinking is deeper in other courses that are not ostensibly about technology. As the language specialist in first-year economics courses, for example, I am helping students to develop fluency with basic economics discourse in English and in doing so to refine a mental model not only of the way the world works but also of the way the world is that is essentially technological. Students learn as an axiom that the basic problem in economics is how to allocate limited resources in the face of unlimited human wants. They learn that land is a factor of production that includes all natural resources. Capital is a factor that comprises products converted into resources for more production. Labor is the factor that represents human contributions as a resource for production. The factor called entrepreneurship is a special human contribution that reflects an ability to identify opportunities and exploit resources to solve problems and improve society. A fifth factor of production that is regularly discussed but not identified as such is technology itself. In this field as in other social science disciplines and perhaps in humanities as well, and emphasized when they focus on environmental issues, the human situation is framed essentially by an instrumentalist view, according to which everything is contingent on human purposes, subject to our control and exploitation. In short, the world is revealed as standing reserve which is constantly challenged to give up more of itself for us to use. While this orientation is inherent in the economics paradigm, it is common across the curriculum.

On the ostensibly opposite side of the yard are my courses in aesthetics and North American art, in which I naturally focus on understanding art. In teaching them I regularly talk about technology as what art essentially (a la Heidegger) is not. To some extent this strategy is necessitated by the difficulty of saying more directly what art essentially is. Philosophical attempts to define art by identifying necessary and sufficient features fail. The last definition still standing is one that is basically a cop-out and not really a definition at all. Called the Institutional Theory of Art, It claims that art is whatever the art-world says it is. Its corollaries are that a thing is a work of art if the art-world says it is, and a thing is a good work of art if the art-world says it is. Obviously this is not very satisfactory as a way to explain anything about art that avoids the entanglements and complications of politics, economics, and commoditization, thus placing art within rather against the instrumentalism of a technological worldview. Art history especially runs the risk of presenting its subject instrumentally when it talks about only the means used by the artist to achieve his purposes. The discourse of art history can hardly avoid being concerned with media, techniques, intentions, and output, not to mention appropriation and consumption. But unless art is successfully placed in a theoretical context that contrasts it with technology as a way of knowing,  students habituated to thinking technologically may miss the non-technological essence of art altogether and view art itself as just one more product line in a technologically enframed culture, to be dismissed at the end of the course if not particularly interesting or relevant.

The case for teaching about art in the liberal arts curriculum is based on the need to counterbalance the dominance of the technological worldview in the curriculum. Benefit occurs in two ways. In art courses, students practice aesthetic awareness as they learn about varieties of art and become reflective about their own responses to art. It is not necessary to know much about a work of art in order to appreciate it on some level. As the old saw goes, “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.” But it is less likely that someone will like something he or she doesn’t understand. It is true that simply understanding a work of art is not necessarily to like it. But without some understanding of it and of how we might respond to it, there is not much chance that we will think a work of art worth our notice. Looking at (or listening to) works of art with appropriate contextualization and guidance can develop sensitivity to what is going on both in them and in the beholder during the aesthetic encounter with them. As a teacher, I share Minor White’s hope that such heightened awareness will carry over into heightened aesthetic sensitivity to the student’s everyday world.

It is not my intention to discredit what I (following Heidegger and others) identify as the technological framework of many or most of the disciplines included in the standard liberal arts curriculum. Indeed, the technological relation is embedded essentially in the human use of tools, which is found even in art and is fundamental to human existence. But there is another way of knowing that is the essence of aesthetic experience. The technological way of knowing is almost always present in our relating to the world and only rarely suspended in moments of total absorption in an aesthetic encounter. However, the inverse is not the case, and that is the problem. Not only are periods of total technological absorption common in modern society, they are habit-forming, as effectiveness and productivity bring social and economic rewards and so come to dominate our basic value system. It would be fine if economics, for example, could acknowledge itself as grounded in only one of the overlapping human ways of relating to the world, even if it does not have much to say about the other ways. At the same time, because economics does not have much to say on the subject, aesthetics and art appreciation are needed in the curriculum to inform and reinforce that other way of relating.

For Further Reading

On Martin Heidegger’s Philosophy--

Dreyfus, Hubert L. (1991). Being-in-the-World: A Commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time, Division 1. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Heidegger, Martin (1971). Poetry, Language, Thought. New York: Harper & Row.

Kockelmans, Joseph J. (1985). Heidegger on Art and Art Works. Boston: Martinus Nijhoff.

Mitcham, Carl (1994). Thinking Through Technology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Zimmerman, Michael E. (1990). Heidegger’s Confrontation with Modernity: Technology, Politics, Art. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

On Minor White’s Photography--

Bunnell, Peter C., and Guthrie, Jill (1989). Minor White: The Eye That Shapes. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Art Museum.

White, Minor (1969). Mirrors Messages Manifestations. New York: Aperture.

_____ (1978). Rites & Passages. His Photographs accompanied by Excerpts from his Diaries and Letters. Millerton, NY: Aperture.