Technique as a Pure Means. On Walter Benjamin’s non-instrumental concept of technique between his early metaphysical and later anthropological materialist writings
In this paper I will outline a central aspect of Walter Benjamin’s concept of technique throughout his work, namely its non-instrumental character. In order to do this, I will look at a shift that occured in Benjamin’s thinking around the mid 1920s – the shift that Benjamin himself called a political turning point in his work – and which separates as well as connects his early metaphysical-theological and his later materialist writings. Here we can see a continuity as well as a discontinuity in Benjamin’s notion of technique. In order to point this out I will first sketch out Benjamin’s earlier concept of technique in the context of his unfinished project on politics and his reading of the writer Paul Scheerbart. Then I will relate this to a central philosophical concept of mediation from Benjamin’s earlier works, which, in reference to his Critique of Violence, can be called ‘pure means’. And thirdly I will contrast this with a concept of technique that Benjamin develops in his first materialist text One Way Street or, to be more precise, its last chapter called To the Planetarium and another text from 1930 Theories of German Fascism. I want to show how Benjamin’s argumentation changes while the core of his understanding of technique as a non-instrumental medium remains.
The concept of technique in Benjamin’s early political theory
Some of Benjamin’s first explicit reflections on technique can be found in the context of his large project on politics on which he worked between 1918 and 1921/22. Uwe Steiner argues that starting from the framework of Benjamin’s early metaphysics of a collective body (‘Leib’) the concept of technique is one of the central elements of Benjamin’s thoughts on politics, alongside his definition of the collective as political subject as well as his thinking of the Messianic in distinguishing the political from religion, law and morals.
As Benjamin writes in the Theological-Political Fragment from 1920/21, true politics is limited to the order of the profane. A mediated or intended identity of worldly history and divine kingdom can and should not be pursued, like it is done by theocracy. “The order of the profane should be erected on the idea of happiness.” (SW 3, 305, translation modified) This profane striving towards a worldly happiness is free from any intention to redemption. As a movement it has no end outside itself. Politics for Benjamin should exclusively concentrate itself on the organization of worldly happiness. The political subject of this striving is the free human community which organizes itself in a ‘Leib’. Historically the life of this collective body entails its transformation through the inclusion of nature. In his text Schemata on the psycho-physical Problem Benjamin’s notion of the fabric of politics, happiness and ‘Leib’ in relation to technique converges in the following paragraph: “In addition to the totality of all its living members, humanity is able partly to draw nature, the nonliving, plant and animal, into this life of the body of mankind, and thereby into this annihilation and fulfilment. It can do this by virtue of technique in which the unity of its life is formed. Ultimately, everything that subserves humanity’s happiness may be counted part of its life, its limbs”. (SW I, 395) Technique plays itself out as a function of the connection between the quest for happiness and the life of the ‘Leib’. With technique mankind has a means to organise its relations to the world in a way through which it integrates worldly things on behalf of its quest for happiness. But technique and happiness do not relate to each other as means and ends. In another fragment Benjamin defines his politics as the “fulfilment of the unincreased humanity” (in: GS VI, 99, translation of the author). According to this, technique is not a means to achieve a cybernetically enhanced superhuman humanity. Benjamin radically opposes Nietzsche’s image of an ‘Übermensch’ just like any belief in a teleological progress, may it be worldly or religious.
Benjamin’s reflections on technique in the context of his early political theory are to a great part inspired by Paul Scheerbart’s novel Lesabéndio which he read around 1917/ 1918. Lesabéndio takes place on the planet Pallas. The work of the Pallasians consists in the continual designing of their planet. Benjamin particularly emphasizes this aspect: “one works artistically on Pallas: but there only exist big architectural arts, structuring, building, decorating, and their object is always the planet Pallas itself”. (in: Paul Scheerbart: Lesabéndio, GS II.2, 618, translation of the author) One day, Lesabéndio, the hero of the novel, has the idea to erect a giant tower on the northern hemisphere of the planet. With diplomatic skill he convinces all other Pallasians of his plan and the entire Pallasian labour force, all individual arts and crafts are reorganized and aligned in support of the now common plan to build the tower. It is the first collective project of all Pallasians. But it is only during the construction of the tower, and this is of importance for Benjamin, that the Pallasians become aware of its actual purpose. The tower will help to reunite the planet Pallas with a part of which the Pallasians assume that it is hidden behind the mysterious cloud above the planet. Lesabéndio will be shot from the top of the tower into the cloud in order to disintegrate into it and revive the whole planet. As a result, life on Pallas changes in a profound and unpredictable manner.
A comment on Lesabéndio, as Benjamin was planning it, would have been a fitting conclusion to his unfinished work on politics in as much as the novel envisions a productive, harmonious interplay between man and nature via technique. Benjamin calls it an “utopia of the ‘Leib'” (in: Zu Scheerbart. »Münchhausen und Clarissa«, GS VI, 148, translation of the author) which envisions the intermingling of mankind and nature in one body through technical artistic design. True politics is represented by Lesabéndio, the hero of Scheerbart’s novel. At the end Lesabéndio sacrifies himself and initiates the bodily unity between the planet Pallas and its inhabitants by means of a gigantic technical construction. The old life, that of the planet, of its inhabitants as well as Lesabéndio’s comes to an end and a new, unforseeable and higher life begins. For Benjamin Scheerbart’s novel demands that man should abandon the idea after which he is destined to master and exploit the forces of nature. Instead he should convince himself that technique has the potential to liberate him, together with nature.
In Experience and Poverty Benjamin describes the language of Scheerbart’s creatures as arbitrary and constructive (see SW II.2, 733). One could argue that this applies just as much to their use of technique. From the perspective of a correlation between language and technique Scheerbart’s novel can be seen as a modern version of the biblical story of the tower of Babel. All idiosyncratic artistic designing on the planet Pallas is abandoned in favour of one collective gigantic construction. Out of the state of Babylonian confusion the Pallasians unexpectedly find a common language that unites all individual practices which were isolated from one another before. Here technique is presented as a linguistic medium the use of which surpasses the means-end-relationship.
Even later, in 1926/27 during his visit in Russia, in an interview with Russian art theorists, Benjamin highlights the “pathos of technique”, the “pathos of the machine” (in: Nachtrag zu den Anmerkungen zum Moskauer Tagebuch, GS VII.2, 880, translation of the author) of Scheerbart’s novels. Scheerbart presents technique not as a means to economic ends, “but as evidence for certain ideal truths”. To Benjamin Scheerbart’s people are “makers of machines and creators of an ideal technique” (ibid.). Benjamin’s friend Asja Lacis refers him to the actuality of this in post-revolutionary Russia. What “was in act taking place [there, is] […] the conversion of revolutionary effort into technological effort. Now it is made clear to every communist that at this hour revolutionary work does not signify conflict or civil war, but rather electrification, canal construction, creation of factories.” (in: Moskauer Tagebuch, GS VI, 368, translation of the author) And Benjamin replies, “no other author had so clearly emphasized the revolutionary character of technological achievement” (ibid.) as Scheerbart did.
Technique as a pure means
I the following I will try to situate technique in Benjamin’s early theoretical set of tools. In the metaphysical framework he was working with until the middle of the 1920s, human, worldly practice has a central mediating function. Here we can name a number of important Benjaminian concepts which have a similar systematically significant role in his early writings on language, knowledge, history and politics. Some of the most important are the philosophical inquiry in knowledge, the name that man gives to things, the translation, the search for happiness, the critique of works of art and the de-posing of law through the proletarian strike. I want to argue that technique numbers among these.
If we have a close look, Benjamin is surprisingly consequent in his early works. The basic structure of his thinking consists of medial spheres which constitute themselves in the tension between two opposed poles. One is the realm of the profane, the determined, the empirical, historical or mythical. As singular phenomenon, articulation, happening or coherent subject area this is the philological material of Benjamin’s investigations. The other pole can be characterized as the undetermined, the ahistorical or the divine. But here the divine does not consist in some kind of authority, it’s no acting entity, no subject of an event. It’s the pure mediality (‘Mittelbarkeit’) of the entire medial sphere. The two poles don’t oppose each other unrelatedly and they don’t become identical in a third instance. Rather they constitute a relation of tension which is immanent in all worldly phenomena. This tension is defined by what Benjamin himself in The Task of the Translator calls “concepts of relation” (SW I, 254, translation modified). These are Benjamin’s ‘-abilities’: communicatability, translatability, impartability. They are transcendental and a priori features of every determined as determined, every historical as historical, of every language as language. That means they formulate a demand which is not bound to the abilities (in the common sense of the word) of some subject. Rather every language as language was, is and will always be translatable. On this tension between these two poles another elementary component of Benjamin’s metaphysical framework is founded. This is the human, profane, worldly practice that was mentioned before. This practice constitutes a third sphere in this framework. It consists of the singular, intensive realization in history of that which lies hidden in the worldly phenomena and points to something beyond history, to the relaxation of the tension between the two poles, the absolute and pure mediality of this sphere. In the mode of an over-and-over-again the human worldly practice initiates a historical dynamic which can be defined as an eternal becoming of all final things, a “teleology without end” (in: Briefe I, 247, translation of the author) as Benjamin calls it.
If we take into account this abstract and rough summary of Benjamin’s metaphysical framework, it becomes obvious what important role he gives to worldly practice insofar as it mediates between the profane and the divine. But this mediation is not one based on concepts or orientated towards some set ends. The mediating worldly practice is not a medium in the instrumental meaning of the word. It’s not something through which but something in which the two poles relate to each other immediately.
With a concept from Benjamin’s Critique of Violence this mediating practice can be defined as a pure means. Neither is it a means to an end, nor identical with its end. It’s rather a pure means, without any relation to an end outside itself. ‘Pure’ does not designate a substance. “The pureness of every (final) being does not depend on itself” (in: Briefe I, 206, translation of the author). Pureness cannot be an attribute of something in and for itself. Rather it defines the mode of a relation. Something is pure in relation to something else. A pure means mediates immediately, which means ‘unmittelbar’, not as a means to an end outside itself, but in aptness to the mediality of the medial sphere it is part of. This immediate mediation does not rely on something which lies outside the relation itself. It’s proper to the medial logic of the sphere, its ‘Mittelbarkeit’ as Benjamin says, which can hardly be translated. Therefore Benjamin’s theory of a pure means does not formulate an ontology. Here Benjamin is entirely a Kantian and thinks in relations, albeit off course not relations in the transcendental subject.
Now, although it is a pure means it nonetheless possesses a purposefulness, with Kant one could say a purposefulness without purpose. The singular enactment of a practice as a pure means is purposeful for the absolute relation of the two opposed poles, of determined and undetermined, of profane and divine, of final and eternal. It’s over and over again the fragmentary realization of an absolute relation in the historical realm.
If Benjamin’s early non-instrumental stance against any kind of instrumantal notion of thinking, speaking and acting culminates in the concept of a pure means, then we should view Benjamin’s early concept of technique in light of this theoretical framework. Technique is not a means to any economic as well as any other rationally posited end, but the pure means of a relation. Referring to Benjamin’s Theological-Political Fragment it can be defined as the pure means of the human worldly search for happiness. And with reference to the Schemata on the psycho-physical Problem we can specify that technique as a pure means mediates between man and nature in history. As a pure means it serves the intensive and fragmentary realization of the bodily intermingling of nature and man. Benjamin holds on to this non-instrumentalistic notion of technique until the end, even though, as I want to show in the following, it becomes problematic with Benjamin’s materialist turn.
Benjamin’s later concept of technique between cosmic experience and modern warfare
Starting from 1924/25 Benjamin’s early reflections on the relation between man, technique and nature take a critical turn which puts more emphasis on the destructive powers of modern technique. In One-Way Street Benjamin radically faces up to the reactionary and alienated lifestyle of the German bourgeoisie and the “general failure” (SW I, 453) of Weimar Germany. After the preceding critical commentaries, dream protocols and aphorisms, in the last aphorism titled To the Planetarium Benjamin throws a glimpse into the stars, projecting a conceptual trajectory from ancient times to his own present. For the first time Benjamin here develops an anthropological, historical argument concerning modern technique.
Whereas in antiquity man communicated with nature through intoxication and collective rituals, the historical development till modernity is characterized by a loss of this cosmic experience. What seems to be preserved only by modern science watching the stars through its telescopes, ancient man practiced ecstatically and collectively. Indeed, today cosmic experience is deemed irrelevant. But according to Benjamin this is no evidence of its final decay. Similar to how Benjamin will later argue in regard of the mimetic faculty, it has rather transformed. For Benjamin cosmic experience by no means vanishes irretrievably. And the historical event in which it manifested itself for the first time in a new form is the first world war. Benjamin calls it “an attempt at a new and unprecedented commingling with the cosmic powers.” (SW I, 486) And he goes on, “this immense wooing of the cosmos was enacted for the first time on a planetary scale, that is, in the spirit of technology.” (SW I, 486-7)
I want to draw attention to three aspects in this paragraph. Firstly, for Benjamin this cosmic experience preserves itself in modernity, albeit in a different form. Secondly, in modernity it organizes itself in a new medium which is modern technique. Like the mimetic faculty passes over into language the cosmic experience transitions into modern technique. Thirdly, war is not the necessary result of the development of modern technique. Benjamin’s approach to technique is much more ambivalent and complex.
The development of modern techniques since the beginning of the nineteenth century, the transport system, techniques of reproducibility, telecommunication technologies etc. – all this lead to the attempt of a “commingling with the cosmic powers” (SW I, 486) that for the first time in the history of mankind took place on a world scale. But why do the potentials of modern technique manifest themselves in war? Benjamin’s answer is, “but because the lust for profit of the ruling class sought satisfaction through it, technology betrayed man and turned the bridal bed into a bloodbath.” (SW I, 487) This problem of a technique that takes revenge is also one of the central aspects of Theories of German Fascism. “Any future war will also be a slave revolt om the part of technology.” (SW II, 312) It abdicates from a “harmonious interplay” because it is denied its “right of determination in the social order”. (SW II, 312)
With the manifestation of the potentials of modern technique in war a problem is revealed which Benjamin’s earlier notion of technique does not take into account. In To the Planetarium and Theories of German Fascism Benjamin presents this problem as the negative relation between potentiality and actuality of technical means. According to him technique demands justification. But the prevention of its emancipatory use lapses into imperialistic war. Hence the emancipatory potential of technique turns into its very opposite. Adhering to the main intention of the Communist Manifesto Benjamin views the task of the proletariat in cutting off the lighted fuse “before the spark reaches the dynamite” (SW I, 470) – which is tantamount to a transformation of technique into an organ that masters the elementary forces of society.
In Theories of German Fascism Benjamin argues that war is always evidence “that social reality was not ready to make technology its own organ, and that technology was not strong enough to master the elemental forces of society.” (SW II, 312) Benjamin here takes up Marx’s theory of the development of the productive forces. According to Marx, on an advanced stage of the development of the means of production the relations of production are not anymore adequate to the productive forces. The property relations obstruct production instead of fostering it; and inversely the productive forces do not forward the relations of production. The latter are rather an obstacle which the productive forces strive to overcome. Benjamin modifies this nexus by giving technique a fundamentally different purposefulness than the progression of the development of the productive forces. For Marx the revolution of the relations of production is the condition for the unfolding of the productive forces on an higher level. Benjamin doesn’t share this idea of progress. According to him technique demands a revolution of the social property relations because it aims at a fundamentally different relation between man and nature. “Technology is the mastery of not nature but of the relation between nature and man.” (SW I, 487) But the capitalist relations of production and the merely instrumantal use of technique by bourgeois society prevent this. The missed chance of a revolution, of taking hold of this potential takes revenge in war. As means of mythic power relations between man and nature technique justifies itself in war and destruction.
Technique, according to Benjamin, “gave shape to the apocalyptic face of nature and reduced nature to silence – even though this technology had the power to give nature its voice.” (SW II, 319) With this conjunction of technique, language and nature Benjamin draws on his reading of Paul Scheebart as well as his early philosophy of language. Already in On Language as such and on the Language of Man Benjamin speculates that there is “a language of technology that is not the specialized language of technicians.” (SW I, 62) A central aspect of this earlier text is the difference between the immediacy (‘Unmittelbarkeit’) of a medium and a means to an end. Insofar as language is im-mediate, it is not a means. No language exhausts itself in being a mere medium for the transmission of information. Benjamin criticizes any instrumental understanding of language as bourgeois insofar it declares “man is communicating factual subject matter to other men, for that does happen through the word by which he denotes a thing”. (SW I, 65) This passage echoes in Benjamin’s later critique of the capitalist, instrumental usage of technique by bourgeois society. According to its economic nature it “cannot help insulating everything technological as much as possible from the so-called spiritual [Geistigen], and it cannot help resolutely excluding technology’s right of determination in the social order.“ (SW II, 312) Technique here is ever only a means to an end. But if technique contains, like Benjamin argues, the power to give nature a voice, then it becomes, as a medium of translation, a central moment in a different design of the world. For Benjamin, man possesses in technique “not a fetish of doom but a key to happiness.” (SW II, 321)
So, what happens in Benjamin’s turn to materialist thinking? What continuities and discontinuities can we observe? Firstly, Benjamin holds on to his definition of technique as a non-instrumental medium of the relation between man and nature – a relation which is not one of domination but a harmonious interplay in the medium of technique. It’s about a mediation which is not determined by set ends, but which rather is a form of translation. In Benjamin’s later writings this ideal is problematized. It is confronted with the problem of technique becoming a means to an end, the usage of technique for the purpose of the domination and exploitation of nature in capitalism. The relation between these two modes of technique as pure means and as means to an end constitutes a tension. For Benjamin the degradation of technique as a means to an end, respectively the capitalist mode of production, prevents its unfolding as a pure means. But for Benjamin this does not annihilate the emancipatory potentials of technique. Rather every moment contains the possibility of a correction. Even the most horrible manifestation of this potential, like war, gives evidence of a power to the better.
At this point, Benjamin’s argument is not anymore a metaphysical one like in the earlier works. No sphere beyond history constitutes the mediality between man and nature. Benjamin argues anthropologically-materialistically and historicizes the potentials of modern technique beyond modernity to ground them in ancient ritual practices. He holds on to a thinking in relations between two poles but, one could say, now he historicises them. With Benjamin’s materialistic turn that what we called a pole beyond history, an undetermined, a divine, is now relocated in the realm of history as an unfinished past, as an unrealised historical potential. As such Benjamin’s notion of technique is marked by continuities and discontinuities across his intellectual development in the 1920s. His theoretical apparatus transforms, but he holds on to one important thought: technique is a pure means of a relation between man and nature, not means of the domination of nature by man, but a pure means of the domination of this relation itself.