Notes Toward An Understanding of Our Technologically Enchanted World, 2

An entry in a series. The following excerpts are taken from the Introduction to Peter Dews 1995 collection of essays, The Limits of Disenchantment: Essays on Contemporary European Philosophy (Verso). 

Dews opens with a passage from Niezsche critiquing Wagner for his Hegelianism, for “inventing a style charged with ‘infinite meaning'” and rendering music as “idea.”

Nietzsche’s virtuoso attack on Wagner’s music for its portentous depths and sham reconciliations … marks the emergence of a distinctly modernist sensibility. For this new outlook, philosophical and aesthetic attempts to restore meaning to a disenchanted universe are in deep collusion with what they seem to oppose.

And:

Astutely, Nietzsche suggests that “transposed into hugeness, Wagner does not seem to have been interested in any problems except those which now occupy the little decadents in Paris. Always five steps from the hospital. All of them entirely modern, entirely metropolitan problems.”

Dews here describes trauma of disenchantment and its shock waves:

Since the time of Nietzsche’s polemics, this suspicion of depth and meaning–of any mode of significance which cannot be relativized to a specific practice, framework or perspective–has recurred throughout twentieth-century art and philosophy. One might have thought that the disenchantment of the world classically described by Max Weber, the collapse of belief in a cosmic order whose immanent meaning guides human endeavor, would constitute a cultural trauma of such magnitude that philosophy could do little other than struggle to come to terms with it–indeed, the shock waves of this collapse have reverberated throughout nineteenth- and twentieth-century thinking.

Further:

Other recent thinkers have been intolerant of even this residual soft-heartedness [speaking of Rorty’s assumption that we can “take seriously meanings which we know we have created”]. They have considered it their job to track down and eradicate those last traces of meaning which adhere to the human world, to dissolve any supposedly intrinsic significance of lived experience into an effect of impersonal structures and forces. The impulse here is still Promethean: for meaning, as Adorno emphasized, implies givenness–it is something we encounter and experience, not something we can arbitrarily posit, as Rorty and others too quickly assume. And this very givenness seems often to be regarded as an affront to human powers of self-assertion.”

This last point is worth considering at length. It speaks to the relationship between a distinctly modern understanding of the self–Promethean, autonomous, unbounded–and its relationship to disenchantment. As I’ve suggested elsewhere, technology, that is our tools of Promethean self-assertion, have more recently begun to appear as threats to the modern conception of the self as autonomous and unbounded, yielding a technologically induced post-modern condition.

2 thoughts on “Notes Toward An Understanding of Our Technologically Enchanted World, 2

  1. Good stuff! I’m not sure I know enough philosophy to contribute too deeply here. That said…

    I have noted in your writing and in my own experience the tendency in people to venerate technology in a pseudo-religious or actually, unconsciously religious fashion. A view of machines as better than people and a view of perfection where human beings should aspire to be ever more like and more absorbed by machine technology. This has felt to me like a need to create god so that god can create meaning again, as opposed to the hard work of creating meaning ourselves. I see evidence for that mainly in claims about big data “knowing us better than we know ourselves” which is traditionally one of god’s qualities, and also in the fascination with poetry and prose generated by randomly combing words and phrases, hoping meaning eventually falls out in a brute force attempt to make 1000 monkeys on typewriters recreate Shakespeare. Further, in the fascination with the psychedelic imagery of Deep Dream, trying to find meaning in something not created by a mind. Essentially, the conviction that we will create A.I. and they will be better people than us, with broader perspective and the ability to perceive meaning where we cannot, essentially creating it for us.

    But what still sticks for me is “meaning” and “meaningfulness.” Meaningful as used in philosophical discussions of what is important in life seems to me more like an emotional state than an intellectual deduction. There is certainly such a thing as meaningful information relevant to a deductive intellectual process, but the meaningfulness of life is felt, not deduced. It is rationalized and intellectualized after the fact. For instance, we love our children and find meaning in that because that is how we feel about it, not because intellectually we know it is good for the community and the species to find raising children meaningful. Gods traditionally have been an attempt to frame and make some sense of our feelings and what feels meaningful, and now that we’ve killed those, we’ve been banging our heads on technology, rationality and scientific deduction in an attempt to ground meaningful feelings in the very human endeavors that require as little feeling as possible to be useful. This to me is like drying to draw water from a stone. Which is to say meaning as is commonly understood is inherently irrational, and trying to draw it from rational processes is futile. Hence, using rational processes to create machines that create art and such that has the same impression of irrationality, hoping meaning somehow pops out of that.

    I don’t know, I’m in over my head here. There’s a broader point I want to make about the utility of gods in finding meaning, but it’s a much longer argument I’m not prepared to make. Also I may be wrong about most of the above. But I feel like the modern mistake is expecting rationality and science to destroy the authority of feelings and qualia while somehow still generating a felt sense of meaning. I would argue rather that irrationality and irrationality combined are the twinned double-helix DNA of human consciousness, and we can’t pick one over the other and expect to live a life that feels fully human, meaning and all. We need to somehow develop a world view that doesn’t place science and technology on too high a pedestal and acknowledging the value of accepting, integrating and nurturing the irrational self. All of this on the assumption that a healthy and conscious emotional life assists greatly in identifying/searching for/generating a sense of meaning.

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