Peyman Vahabzadeh & Gregor Noll, ‘THIN(G)KING Heidegger BEYOND PHILOSOPHY’

thingking heidegger

As outlined in the notice for the seminar, these discussions aimed to look at Heidegger’s “fraught” relationship to the discipline of philosophy: “This fraying can be traced through two of his most provocative concepts: the idea that THINKING as an activity is concealed in the present age and that THINGS are made to retreat in the face of mere stuff. Bringing THINGS and THINKING back from their forced exile is one way of working on Heidegger’s legacy.”

Berndt Clavier opened the seminar by describing an ongoing momentum in Heidegger studies that has seen his work being increasingly picked up on by disciplines nominally outside of philosophy. How much of the most interesting writing on Heidegger is currently happening in these non-philosophical spaces. Heidegger’s “thing thinking” is bound to take one outside of philosophy. Indeed, the very question of being that took Heidegger into philosophy was what eventually took him out of it as a result of his emphasis on practices of being. Clavier pointed to Heidegger’s ‘Origin of the work of art’ essay as a key point of reference for the seminar, with its highlighting of the predicative disposition of language that constructs a seeing subject and passive object, and all of the subsequent entailments of such an arrangement in which every thing is made to substantiate the subject, as can be seen in the array of conventional representational apparatuses and their theatre of anthropormorphisms. Clavier then opened the floor to Vahabzadeh, pointing out that the social sciences carry a memory of these objectifications as they occur and thus are more well-placed than philosophy to use Heideggerian thought.

Peyman Vahabzadeh, ‘Ontology, or in other words, sociology of facticity’
Peyman Vahabzadeh (professor of sociology at the University of Victoria, Canada) presented his paper on how Heidegger’s “thinking” might become productive of a “sociology of possibilities”. Vahabzadeh’s abstract for the seminar was as follows,

This paper engages with the sociological tradition to argue the relationship between the discipline and modernity as an age that is running its course to a possible epochal destitution. As philosophy and sociology increasingly lose their sway to found and maintain unshakable grounds for thinking and acting, and thus for shared and collective human and nonhuman life, the task of a thinking attuned to our age of irreducible diversity becomes increasingly sociological. The paper makes some preliminary observations regarding the way in which things in their myriad appearances call thinking to the fore. Sociology of facticity is therefore always already sociology of possibilities.

Vahabzadeh began by outlining some of the ways in which sociology can be seen to create modernity. Beginning as a discipline of study in the aftermath of the French revolution, sociology’s ambition was utopian from the beginning, aiming as it did to recreate society in a functional way. Such a conception of social structures is abstract and only works when placed within a certain theoretical construct – and yet sociology deems to explain all that is happening in society. A key point in this manoeuvre of abstraction is that it enables sociology to abstract any empirical data that it perceives in its encounters. In doing so, sociologists are able to enact normative readings based on these abstractions, readily mystifying social causes in the very process of abstraction. At the heart of this process is the creation of sociological methods that are framed as establishing a solid disciplinary grounding (reference to Heidegger on “hypokeimenon”) and it is with such methods that the discipline is able to “pin the tail on the donkey.”

The result is the creation of compelling facts, in which facts stand outside of us, e.g. the fact is nothing but a privileged signifier. The most readily produced result in such a discourse is a “transparent society” (David Brin), a society that becomes knowable and as such is able to create normative notions of stability. Society is the invention of the sociologist, and for Vahabzadeh, when working in such a framework, “sociology is a metaphysical vocation, removing phenomena from their context.” Sociological thinking, “when confronted with effects, looks through the glass floor and sees an array of explanatory causes.” In such a mode sociology is the kind of regressive knowledge that reduces and limits things, such as Heidegger has described. But if we question the stability of things, their stable ground, the task of sociology becomes more interpretive. For instance, one might draw from Zygmunt Bauman’s description of society as sociality, as a process always in formation and in which we participate.

Referring to Heidegger’s lecture ‘Ontology, or the hermeneutics of facticity,’ Vahabzadeh described the need to switch our thinking on facticity. Facts reveal themselves to us in different ways. Of course facticity goes very well with policy makers whereas a mode of continual interpretation is inevitably portrayed as more challenging. Heidegger on facticity in Being and Time: only two facts in this world, we are born and we die, everything else open to interpretation. We are thrown into this world, this “thrown-ness” is part of the very “motility of being” (Heidegger) and it is with such a motility in mind that one should resist singular constructions of society. Working through a knowledge of society that reveals the matters of thinking behind such facticities. Adopting a “sociological impressionism” (David Frisby) or a “sociology of possibilities” (Vahabzadeh). Always seeing in one thing more than one thing.

Gregor Noll, ‘Neurotechnological weaponry and Heideggerean technicity’
Gregor Noll (professor and chair of International Law at the Faculty of Law, Lund University) then presented on how Heidegger might help in understanding current developments in neurotechnological weaponry. Noll’s abstract was as follows,

As drones fly more hours, and carry more sensors, advanced militaries experience an overload of information that they cannot tackle by an increase in personell. Neurotechnology seems to offer a way out by drawing on unconscious human recognition and the power of algorithms so as to faster identify targets. Neurotechnological targeting systems are merely at the experimental stage. I think, however, that it is urgent to reflect on the question whether such systems can be used in compliance with existing laws or war. This brings me to reflections on the reductive moves that they presuppose in the ontological domain. Heidegger’s texts on tools, technology and language proved to be useful to answer why a loss of cognitive unity and language might undermine the preconditions for applying the laws of war.

Noll began with a cautionary preface to his talk, in which he brought up recent debates in Germany and elsewhere around the release of Heidegger’s “black notebooks,” which have opened the doors to a renewed discussion of Heidegger’s anti-semitism. Noll proposed that any study on Heidegger’s take on technology might be difficult to consider without an understanding of his private views, such as the statement in the notebooks that “Jews are marked by a pronounced gift of calculation.” The possibly deeply entangled nature of Heidegger’s politics and thinking. At the same time, one might still be able to turn Heidegger’s methodology against himself, which could be one way of highlighting its strengths.

Noll moved on to discuss ongoing development in armaments and the seemingly deterministic push of the “first finders race.” Exponential increases in the amount of data seen as relevant to the ever expanding theatre of war has lead to the need for “driverless” systems of evaluation, for which neurotechnology offers one such tool. These are still in early stages but are beginning to move down the road of deployment. Examples include detecting sleepiness in sentinels by sending signals capable of detecting such neurological states; carrying out “silent talk” through EEG (Electroencephalography) for operating in either noisy environments or special forces missions; cognitive warning binoculars that make one aware of the fact that one’s brain is making a conscious reflection of something, etc.

For the field of international law, particularly in relation to its application to the battleground, an important question would be that of whether these neurotechnological weapons can really be treated as simply very sophisticated forms of gun sites or whether one needs to treat them as new forms of war and weaponry that require new laws and regulations. The use of these neuronal technologies can be understood as constituting a reduction in the hierarchy of importance between conscious and unconscious processing. What does it mean that these neurotechnological processes are presupposed in weapons systems but uncoupled from processes of conscious, pronounced and overt forms of both external and internal dialogue? Language importantly allows for pronounced dialogue and forms of knowledge production that allow for complexity, but do these new neurotechnological appplicatoins do so to an even remotely similar and, importantly, overtly prounounced degree? What happens when the burden of such dialogue is transferred over to software, software that was not programmed by the users of these new tools and whose decision dialogues are sealed within a technological black box? The ongoing problem of the way in which international law brings a normative system of rules to the battleground only to find itself overruled by greater systems of normativity, such as militarised forms of science and/or governments’ emphasis on the time-sensitive nature of war.

Noll then raised Heidegger’s writing on ‘The Question Concerning Technology,’ highlighting Heidegger’s emphasis on the way in which modern technological modes of revealing have a tendency towards “provoking” rather than revealing truth. A relationship of exploitation, of making truth useful. In order to further elucidate the notion of conscious versus unconscious use of the neurotechnological site of the tool, Noll invoked Heidegger’s distinction between “presence-at-hand” (Vorhandenheit), a tool-being that is present in our consciousness, and that of “readiness-at-hand” (Zuhandenheit), the presence of tools that we might use but without expending consciousness on their use. The way in which we add particular forms of normativity to the tools we use. When we encounter an entity in a normative fashion we encounter it as being for a specific task, when a solider encounters a gun he or she encounters it as being for winning the war. For Noll a key danger is the possible decoupling of such conscious encounters that developments in neurotechnological weaponry (as well as other forms of contemporary technological warfare) might entail. Finally, one should not simply take the stated scientific facticities of neurotechnology for granted, particularly when such science is being applied on the field of war.

Questioner: Issue of ontology and epistemology as a joint twin. Things like subjectivity/objectivity, etc. create dissonances that can in fact be productive.
Noll: Slow to agree that we are talking about an alternative to scientific viewpoint. Heidegger’s ontology can be flattened out in a way that denies a privileged point of view. But doing so challenges the possibility of communication. The need in Heidegger for a “god,” allowed through the backdoor, to which reference can be made by all.
Vahabzadeh: Own first introduction to phenomenology was a Zen Buddhist story about learning what mountains and rivers are. We still live in what Heidegger would call a time of destitution and modes of enframing. Auguste Comte on mind not being separated from society.

Q: Have you looked at the history of image processing?
Noll: Short answer is no. Interested in what kinds of ideas of regulation and normatively are built into systems like these. Examples such as using standard civilian technology like the World of Warcraft computer game to test some of these technologies. The image of a target in some of these simulations is very outdated (i.e. a uniformed soldier holding an AK-47).
Q: Latour’s book We Have Never Been Modern. Latour on how we have in fact been modern in the sense that we want to purify ourselves, purification of images of societies, purification of categories, etc. A general tendency and movement towards removing interpretation. Administrative systems that will ensure a delivery of knowledge untainted by the interpreter of knowledge. We want images to automatically materialise. Peter Galison on objectivity: objectivity dislikes human interference.

Q: How much of our critical/phenomenological activity is part of the calculation of these “world pictures”?
Noll: In programming software, it is no longer the case that a programmer sits down and writes code, you now have the possibility to breed code by genetic algorithms. It is precisely these disciplinary sub-cultures that often prove most useful to these advances in technological warfare. They are the really post-modern, post-structuralist authors.
Q: There is a lot of phenomenological thinking going on in these fields. Computer programmers are doing a lot of phenomenological thinking. As a researcher you are becoming part of the Gestell.
Vahabzadeh: This is the vain of the critique by Derrida of Heidegger. By exposing Being, you allow for it to be retained. This is the way that metaphysics reveals itself to us at its closure.
Noll: Thinking differently in a context which is still calculatory is difficult. Worrying theological element in Heideggerian thought. Hans Blumenberg’s writing on technology, the godlike role of the technician, eternally restaging that moment in regards to the genetic algorithm.

Q: The value of positivism. One way of getting out of eschatological view of contemporary reality is to do slow anthropology, slow eating, slow sociology. You begin to take positivism seriously again.
Vahabzadeh: Positivism is a way of revealing the world to us and making it liveable.
Q: Latour more has a Foucauldian positivism in mind. A carefulness in regards to things. A carefulness in the description in things.
Q: Quantified self movement. Mood and emotion tracking. This is happening now. “Measure your pleasure.” Getting to know yourself as an object detached from yourself.

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