A Heideggerian Perspective: How Infinite Jest Explores Modern Technology’s Corrosive Essence

In our last class I made some confused attempt to say that Hal’s obsession with (or inclination toward) using OED definitions, grammatically correct syntax and specific word usage (when he feels like it, at least) reminded me of something that I’d read before. I inadvertently found a reference to what I meant on page 231 in a clip of conversation overheard by Joelle during the party at Molly Notkin’s apartment:

“This is a technologically constituted space”

I didn’t actually make the connection until the next bit of that conversation is relayed on page 233:

“—more interesting issues from a Heideggerian perspective is a priori, whether space as a concept is enframed by technology as a concept.”

Heidegger wrote The Question Concerning Technology in 1977 (link here). Heidegger understands this question as essentially linked to the question of being.  Technology, he argues, points to something essential about the constitution of our ontology, our way of being-in-the-world.  What compelled him to write on technology lies in his observation that man has become essentially enslaved by technology (sound familiar? The elusive “Entertainment!”). He felt the more technology advanced itself, the less in control of it we were (certainly no one seems in control of The Entertainment, being that it apparently produces a sort of addictive neural meltdown in whoever watches it—even more quickly than the myriad drugs discussed in the book).

Heidegger’s essay functions as philosophy and critique, and it calls our attention to the (ontological and social) crisis brought on by modern technologies new and distorting ways of ordering the world. He believed that technology’s dominance of our collective psyches has reorganized our cognitive perception of reality, skewing and disconnecting our essential relation to being. Heidegger endeavors to uncover a more primary, originary  technological essence that has been lost and forgotten in modernity—and in order for him to communicate with us fully, he relies on a language. (Although, it must be noted, that Heidegger is hellishly confusing, proper word usage or not.)

Heidegger is careful to use and define each (Latin) word he uses, tracing the root of each word back to a specific meaning and grammatical foundation. He was highly concerned with the philosophy of language as necessary for communication. He believed that our over usage of words have destroyed their meaning (this is, of course, also connected to technology, eg: the printing press up to mass communication technologies), and relied on older Latin words with more concrete definitions that haven’t been distorted by modernity.

Heidegger connects techné, poesis and episteme combining the power of making (techné) as primarily a mode of bringing-forth (poiesis), in which what is revealed is truth (episteme). He effectively departs from the prevailing definition of technology as a mere “a means to an end” toward an idea of technology in its original form of truth-revealing—which holds the poetic potential to create worlds by bringing-forth (he refers to this as “worlding”.)

Heidegger reformulates (original) technology (techné) as a mode of revealing (aletheia)—its essence, poetic: a bringing forth. So if I understand Heidegger correctly (that’s a giant IF), the essence of technology is the poetic process of bringing something forth into presence and, as a mode of revealing, “frames” a world that is unfolded or unconcealed in the process.

Now, in its modality as revealing, the essence of technology is what Heidegger calls “enframing”. But, what is important is that the specific, fundamental essence of technology (this enframing potential) for Heidegger is nothing technological, it does not belong to the domain of the machine or the mechanical.  Rather, “enframing” names the fundamental, ontological process of “revealing.” Hence, to enframe is merely the process of opening up such that the real that underlies being/the world can be discovered (it does not do the discovering, but rather just uncovers). Enframing is not a tool or an apparatus, but (and this is the crucial point in Heidegger’s argument) instead it is the condition of possibility for the truth to be poetically revealed.

Modern technology, however, is not poetic and therein lies the inherent danger in our reliance and supreme preoccupation with it. A challenge to the natural world takes place when the revealing done by technology destroys the potential for enframing whereby the world (and the real) remains concealed, unattainable. Modern technology, with its mechanization and industrialization, reveals the world only as a standing reserve of energy, robbing us of obtaining any real truth and reconstituting the natural world as mere aesthetics for our use and entertainment. Technology expedites extraction (the opening up), but the process is always “directed from the beginning toward furthering something else, i.e., toward driving on to the maximum yield at the minimum expense” (Heidegger 7). He offers as an example coal mining, the process of which transforms towns into merely coal mine site, the earth into an extraction site, the stockpiles of coal into standing reserve of energy such that each of these cogs in the industrial process ceases to be values as anything other than energy.

Looking back at the passages from 231-234, it’s clear that DFW wants us to connect the breaking down of communication, the mass preoccupation with TP technology, the mode of film as art (the room is full of film scholars), addiction, human and industrial waste (the Concavity), and the body (projectile vomiting in one of the film’s discussed) to the crisis of post-modernity regarding the real/our inability to access it (among other things, of course, but I’ll stick with this for now.) Many of these things seem to be byproducts of industrialization or they have been challenged, transformed–their essence extracted by it.

I mention art, specifically, because Heidegger also spoke of the essence of art—which he connected with the earliest Greek techné, meaning that it held the essence of poiesis, of bringing forth.

From The Question Concerning Technology Heidegger offers us a bit of hope that as we tunnel further into technologies domain of enframing the world, reflection on art as technology (or technology as art?) can break the cycle :

Because the essence of technology is nothing technological, essential reflection upon technology and decisive confrontation with it must happen in a realm that is, on the one hand, akin to the essence of technology and, on the other, fundamentally different from it.

Such a realm is art. But certainly only if reflection on art, for its part, does not shut its eyes to the constellation of truth after which we are questioning. (19)

What does this mean for our understanding of The Entertainment? Is it addiction in a form so pure that the real is lost altogether–the ultimate departure from the Real? These aren’t questions I’m prepared to answer quite yet, but I’m going to take all this Heidegger headache-inducing stuff with me as I move forward in the novel.

Works Cited:

Heddieger, Martin. “The Question Concerning Technology.” The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1977. 3-35.

Link to the chapter: http://simondon.ocular-witness.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/05/question_concerning_technology.pdf

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3 Responses to A Heideggerian Perspective: How Infinite Jest Explores Modern Technology’s Corrosive Essence

  1. This excellent post that picks out a very important reference to Heidegger provides a great summary of a difficult essay. A couple corrections, however: Heidegger died in 1976, so he couldn’t have written “The Question . . .” at the time (it was originally published in 1954), and all the words you quote Heidegger giving etymologies of are Greek (not Latin).


  2. pmc9122 says:

    I have been struggling with Heidegger myself for another class, so thank you. This helped a lot. I read this essay and started Infinite Jest at the same time, and the thing that struck me is Wallace’s portrayal of people in the world of Infinite Jest as Standing Reserve. The society, engulfed by technology, views individuals as resources, whether it be a means of advertising ( I’m thinking sponsored cars and the tennis companies here) or as a product to sell ( the E.T.A kids selling their lives for a chance at the show, E.T.A selling the kids as proof of concept for the academy). I think this intentional and unintentional reduction of self and others to their potentials is a driving force behind much of the addiction in the novel. Most, if not all, the addicts in the novel are engaged in some form of escapism, whether chemical or psychological, which begs the question of what they are trying to escape from. The constant exposure to technology might not be a bad place to start looking for an answer.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: When Infinite Jest Is Just TOO Interactive; or, Martin Heidegger’s Vorhandenheit | Interactive Literature, Spring 2015

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