News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: The Machine Just Keeps Breaking Down

Monday, December 04, 2006

The Machine Just Keeps Breaking Down

My car's heater went out. I thought I could get through a few more weeks before I'd have to spend money on getting it fixed. I think the squirrels built their nests in their--like they did the last time this happened--and the heater motor went. This time, it seems to have affected the compressor too--or at least the compressor transmission, something about which I know nothing.

I hate having a sick car. It kind of makes you feel helpless. There's even a rage that wells up when you think about it. I think about my kids and their reactions when I say something like: I had to take the car into the shop. The concern in their voices is very deep. What does it mean that our machinery is such a part of our lives that we develop emotional attachments that include rage and deep concern when they do not work?

I have written in the past about the machine and how it affects the American outlook on life. I am not talking about just some superficial sociological story that extols the blessings of technology blah blah blah. I am talking about this deeply engrained way of thinking aboiut the world that shapes not only how we think about things but also how we think of ourselves and the world. I don't want to get all Heidegger about this, but there's something to his essay on technology that is quite illuminating and profound.

Back to brass tacks: the regular American Joe/Jane thinks in these terms on a deeper level than perhaps others in other cultures realize. Yes, auto racing is the biggest sport in the US. But what does that mean?

As a kid, it meant going off to the racetrack each Saturday and perhaps meeting up with some loose chick. It meant standing around with the guys and looking into a motor and being able to sound tough in talking about horspower, hemis, and MPH.

There are very few writers in the US who understand the relationship that many Americans have with their machines. One of the better writers is Sam Shepherd. I once saw Sam in his souped up muscle car as he cruised the santa Fe plaza. I think he's a genius and laugh at those egghead theatre teachers who think that Sam's too feral for their elitist tastes.

Anyway, while sam understands engines and cars, I am not so sure he understands how borg-like the machinery has invaded our dreams and way of thinking about the world. This means that Americans tend to think of everything in how well oiled it is, how well the gears shift, if the weheels stay on... and so on. Metaphor after metaphor that shows just how much we have become what Heidegger calls "standing reserve", and what my gay friend used to call "fungible resources," meaning me and every other employee in the company he was part owner of.

And you know what's really interesting? Berdyaev had an inkling of all the borg thinking, the robot metaphors, the mechanized society and once asked--this is in the late 20s--whether human life would be able to withstand this mechanization of our lives or whether we'd ultimately become just meat machines.

Is this, perhaps, what any of this war stuff is about?

Postscriptum on Heidegger

I note also the rootlessness that some identify as a main characteristic of Heidegger's thought. Simone Weil's work, The Need for Roots, addresses this question. A religiously-motivated anarcho-sydicalist, Weil says that the loss of culture is tantamount to a kind of genocide.

Some see the situation of those in the secularized world as nomads. I find myself attracted to this concept, since I see that secularization--or levelling, as Kierkegaard calls it--as somehow inevitable, if not indeed something positive.

This might appear at first as some kind of nihilistic religious sentiment a la Pat Robertson, but it differs significantly because it sees that secularization is preparatory to a way of life that will be more religious, more aligned with the universal aspirations of all humanity. Of course, you might recognize this as something Heidegger writes in his essay on the time of the return of the gods (or is it "a" god?).

I am afraid that I am meandering here. I did want to address the issue of Heidegger's notion of "standing reserve." This is the idea that everything is commodifiable, quantifiable and put into a mechanized process. For Heidegger, this is not just relegated to the field of things, but invades the human world as well. We become, as my friend used to say, "fungible resources."

Hubert Dreyfus thinks that the usual interpretation of Heidegger's essay on technology (ie, it's being an anti-technology statement) as a misunderstanding of Heidegger's thought. Instead, Dreyfus says that Heidegger is trying to think the new form of life that this notion of standing reserve will give birth to.

[xposted @

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