Saturday, March 17, 2012

Dual Book Review: Martin Heidegger's "The Question Concerning Technology" and China Miéville's "Kraken."

The title alone makes this one of the most pretentious blogposts I have ever, ever written. Still, there are ideas in my head, and they must come out.  Think of this as a sort of mental colonic.

"Any moment called Now is always full of possibles.  At times of excess might-bes, London sensitives occasionally had to lie down tin the dark.  Some were prone to nausea brought on by a surfeit of apocalypse.  Endsick, they called it, and at moments of planetary conjuncture, calendrical bad luck or mooncalf births, its sufferers would moan and puke, struck down by the side effects of revelations in which they had no faith." --Kraken, Chiana Mieville.

"Technology is not equivalent to the essence of technology.  When we are seeking the essence of 'tree,' we have to become aware that That which pervades every tree, as tree, is not itself a tree that can be encountered among all other trees." -The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays by Martin Heidegger.

I've done the dual reviews before.  And I've even complained about the dual reviews before.  My normal book reviews tend to ramble; in comparison, the dual reviews are bloated, gargantuan monstrosities, full of run-on sentences and run-on ideas.  They are hot messes, and I love them.   It's almost 10, however, and I still want to watch the new Muppet movie tonight, so we will attempt a daring maneuver: the surgical strike dual review.  Three paragraphs on each: one on relevant background, one on the content of the book, and one on my reactions.  Then a paragraph on how they mesh together.

Let's do this thing.

Martin Heidegger was a 20th century German philosopher.  He's a somewhat problematic figure, in that he's contributed to some of the most complex and rewarding investigations of figures such as Hegel, Nietzche, and Kant, but he was also a member of the Nazi Party during World War II, and engaged in some rather shady dealings regarding the dismissal of his former mentor, Husserl.  Unfortunately, "great theorist" doesn't coincide often with "nice person," a fact which takes on greater resonance the longer one attends department meetings.  Heidegger's focus is around Dasein.  I'm not really equipped to give a proper explanation of what that means, but part of it means questioning what it means to have a Being, and what is essential about reality, and people, and ideas.  There was some Heideggerian points in the Derrida stuff I've read, but it wasn't until I read good old Stiegler that he really came to my attention.  He was also a large presence in Giorgio Agamben's The Open: Man and Animal, as Agamben delved rather deeply on what the potential of being was for an animal, and how it differed from the essence of a human, according to Heidegger, at least.  This particular book of Heidegger was added to the New Media reading list this year, and while my comps are behind me, I thought it might prove useful.

As the title suggests, the book is composed of multiple essays.  I'm not going to pretend that I understood the finer points of Heidegger, or even the main thrust of his argument.  Like Stiegler's stuff, it's writing that you need to go over a few times to keep straight, and I really don't have the time for that right now.  I can, at least, give you my impression, and my interpretation.   The titular question concerning technology is "what is the essence of technology?".  As the quotation above suggests, you have to move outside of technology and its paradigms to properly find an answer, and look at what technology does.  What it does, Heidegger argues, is transform things, by turning them into objects with definitive levels of value, even if--or perhaps especially if--that value is kept in reserve.  Everything, under technology, is measurable, and potentially usable.   To offer an example that's wrong in nearly every way, technology and those operating under technological  views, don't see a forest for the trees, they see it for the lumber (or the O2 provisions.  Or the animal sustainment.  But not as trees.).  The other essays in the book touch on similar topics, to varying degrees.  "The Turning" extends the process of technology to Being and danger.  "The Word of Nietzche" comes at the issue from another angle, explaining and defending nihilism as part of the current phase of history.  "The Age of World Picture" connects the ongoing discussion to the subjective wordview (and humanism, though it's not said in so many words).  And the final chapter, "Science and Reflection," offers Heidegger's final thoughts.  Modern science (technology or otherwise) is about subdivision and insular scrutiny.  The solution is not to move out of it, if such a thing was possible, but to keep in it, engaging in reflection and remembering.

What did I think?  Well, I kept catching myself slip into skimming, when I wasn't outright falling asleep.  Parts of this book were, quiet frankly, over my head.  Every time I read I read a big philosophically-based book, I feel as if I've already missed half the conversation, and in this case, I'm missing a lot on Nietzche, Plato, and Descartes.  Another problem is that, unless you know German, you're missing a large part of the conversation--and my German consists entirely from what I learned from Nightcrawler reading X-Man comics.  Even beyond the language difference, though, there is a sense that what Heidegger is trying to do doesn't fit well into any language, because it's trying to describe things that can't be entirely described with words.  Not to be trite, but I think that realization may be the most important thing I've taken from this book: it's a reminder that modern science, and all that carries with it, is a constructed view of how the world works, and how the world really works (in Heidegger's sense of "work," to bring forth into presence) is something that be fully subordinated.

And that brings us to the second half.  Mieville has made a name for himself as a new fantasy star, persona and all.  Especially the persona, in fact: the debate over on Goodreads over Kraken is focused just as much on whether Mieville is hot (I'm sorry, "hawt") or whether "he looks like a rude, low-class French waiter who hasn't bathed and has been relegated to peeling potatoes in the back alley where he can't scare off the customers."  (I'd write my own comments about how someone comes off when they go to such elaborate lengths to insult someone in a book review, but that would be a little too meta, under the circumstance.)  Personally, I'd rather skip past that, noting just that Mieville has made a name for himself in the field of "weird fiction," fiction that eschews traditional fantasy elements.  His New Crobuzon series is probably the best example of this, as it's written wall-to-wall as a collection of insane, inventive ideas, starring creatures and places far beyond the norm.

In contrast, Kraken is much more down to earth.  It takes place in contemporary London, with a starting plot that wouldn't look out of place in a Dan Brown novel.  Billy Harrow is the curator at the Natural History Museum.  The Museum's key piece is a giant, preserved squid, and Billy is quite perplexed  to come to it in the middle of a tour and find it vanished.  He's recruited/interrogated by the police, who tell him that the chief suspect is a cult that worships Krakens.   Shortly after, Billy is attacked by two men who enter his apartment in a package smaller than a breadbox, and is brought before a crime lord who also happens to be a talking tattoo on another man's body.  And that's when things get weird... To make a long story short, magic is real, London is sloshing with it, and there's a kraken-sized magical apocalypse looming in the distance, and everyone knows it.  And for some reason, they all seem to think Billy is the key to solving it all.

In terms of the broad outline, the story reminds me very closely of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, but in a story like this, the plot is rather secondary to the execution.  It's actually a bit more accessible book than many of Mieville's others, though that very accessibility may be a little offputting to his fans, who are used to more wild fare from the start. It is, however, chalk full of ideas, many worked out in the form of the diverse cast of characters: there's the Star Trek fan /wizard who perfected magical teleporting only to receive a very unique type of haunting.  There's Wati, the first slave to rebel in the Egyptian Afterlife, and now the leader of the union of familiars.  There's a man whose magical ability is to appear like that guy at the office whose name you can never remember.  And there's the perfect villains in the forms of the Chaos Nazis, magical chaos wielders who felt that Hitler had the right idea, but the deathcamps were just too impersonal.  This book has received some poor reviews on the basis of the shallowness of its characters and the seemingly whimsical nature of the rules of magic in the book.  On the one hand, I'll agree that many of the characters are rather superfluous; some like the sassy police officer Collingwood and the on-the-nose-namewise Marginalia could have been merged or dropped without much loss.  But to get bogged down in the characterization and the rules of magic is to miss the point: this is a book of ideas.  Enjoy it or dismiss it on that basis.

So what does a 1949 essay on philosophy and technology have to do with a book on magic in London.  Not much, unless you accept a very general, very basic premise: magic is always, always a metaphor.  (Of course, you don't want to forge too far down that road, or you'll be arguing that all fiction, literature, and communication is a metaphor, and then you're just begging for a slap in the face, which will be both a metaphor and a real, stinging reality.)  It's an imaginary system constructed for the purpose of the text at hand, and, since any fantasy is written in the context of the real world, the imaginary system is, implicitly or not, meant to draw on and contrast the systems of the real world.  Hence, magic in Buffy is often a metaphor for addiction--think Willow's arc in Season 5.  Commonly, it's a metaphor for arcane, forbidden knowledge that corrupts; think Lord of the Rings.  Sometimes, the knowledge metaphor becomes more explicit, such as in the Harry Potter series, where learning magic is equated to the modern education system.  In Kraken, magic is kept pretty vague, because it's sticking with a pretty abstract metaphor: magic is an idea, or a system of ideas.  That's what's reflected in the quotation above: ideas have power.  An idea about the end of the world can hurt, even if that end doesn't happen.  And Heidegger, in his book, is discussing a very specific system of ideas, those of technology and science.  I can't really go any further into the connection between them without spoiling the ending (of Kraken, not Hedeigger's book--generally, it's very hard to spoil a book of philosophy).   So go read Kraken, and Question Concerning Technology.  Try to pace them so you're reading the last twenty pages of east at the same time, as I was.  Then come back, and we'll have an interesting discussion about ideas, magic, and the state of science in the modern world.

Well, this is about 500 words less than the last dual book review, so the surgical method was a success, sort of.  But we're at 11:00 now, which is probably too late for watching the Muppets.  Sigh.  Oh, how I do suffer for my art.

Later Days.

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