Utopia Inverted: Günther Anders, Technology and the Social
Issue 153 , August 2019
Christopher John Müller, David Mellor
Günther Anders (born Günther Stern, 1902–92) liked to characterise himself as an untimely thinker. ‘Those who are too early’, as Anders noted late in life, ‘are not on time either’ (cited in Liessmann, 1988: 12). This verdict gives a first indication of the pioneering nature of Anders’s thought, which led to the publication of close to 30 books during his lifetime, including the two-volume work Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen (The Obsolescence of Human Beings, Vol. 1, 1956; Vol. 2, 1980). The comment also signals the close proximity of his work to the critical projects of his contemporaries to which it is often compared. These include Hannah Arendt (to whom Anders was married from 1929 to 1937), Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer (fellow émigrés, and in the case of Adorno, former colleague at the University of Frankfurt), Walter Benjamin (Anders’s second cousin), Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger (Anders’s teachers at the University of Freiburg; Husserl supervised his doctorate), Hans Jonas (a lifelong friend), and Herbert Marcuse (who put Anders up during his exile in California), not to mention authors such as Bertolt Brecht (Anders’s chess partner in California), Alfred Döblin, and the Mann brothers, who had a profound impact on Anders’s work.
Christopher John Müller
This essay traces the complex constellation of ideas that informs Anders’s turn to the generalizing expression ‘the human’ in his postwar work. It mobilizes the properties of radioactive material and digital data, which are both curiously imperceptible to our senses, to discuss Anders’s insistence on the universalizing pronoun `we’ and assess its significance in the contemporary world. To do so, it aligns Anders’s work with current debates about the Anthropocene and critiques of the use of the term ‘the human’ in postcolonial settings.
Part 1: Scholarly Perspectives
This essay focuses on Günther Anders’s engagement with (political) poetry. I draw on published material and unpublished source texts from the Anders Nachlass to track how Anders arrives at his own writing style and mode of address through his sustained engagement with poetry. Anders’s philosophical prose and exoteric use of language is shaped by multifaceted reflections on (political) poetry and by the tension between ‘political poetry’ and ‘lyrical action’. I first elaborate on Anders’s reading of Brecht in the early 1930s, and then turn to the poetry and reflections on poetics that were written during his long exile in the US (1936–50). It is from this basis that I consider Anders’s categorical and programmatic turn away from poetry from the mid-1940s onwards. What emerges from my discussion is that engagements with literature, and with poetry in particular, were not a marginal activity for Anders but reflect a broad, life-long interest in (predominantly) classical and contemporary poetry, resulting in reflections on poetics and his own extensive poetic praxis.
This article examines why Günther Anders, one of the 20th century’s most formidable critics of technology, deemed a critique of technology necessary at all. I argue that the radical philosophy of industrialism in Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen (The Obsolescence of Human Beings) and related texts is a response to what Anders’s work presents as inadequacies of traditional Marxism, with its focus on class struggle and property relations. In effect, his critique of technology, which is more attentive to forms of domination emergent with mechanization, would come to supplant classical Marxist thought. The piece concludes with some thoughts about how Anders’s ‘post-Marxist’ perspective provides insights for contemporary Marxism and, in turn, how the latter can throw light on problems in Anders’s philosophy of the machine.
Günther Anders offers one of the first phenomenological analyses of broadcast radio (in 1930) and its transformation of the contemporary experience of music. Anders also develops a reflection on its political consequences as he continues his reflection in a discussion of radio and newsreel, film and television in his 1956 ‘The World as Phantom and Matrix’. A reflection on the consequences of this transformation brings in Friedrich Kittler’s reflection on radio and precision bombing. A further reflection on Jean Baudrillard’s notion of ‘speech without response’ permits a review of digital culture and the self-creation of the digital consumer absorbed in what Anders named a schizo-topia, that is, today, an autistic culture of distraction, displacement, and self-driven surveillance.
Part 2: Interventions in the Present
The obsolescence of politics: Rereading Günther Anders’s critique of cybernetic governance and integral power in the digital age (Open Access)
Anna-Verena Nosthoff, Felix Maschewski
Following media-theoretical studies that have characterized digitization as a process of all-encompassing cybernetization, this paper will examine the timely and critical potential of Günther Anders’s oeuvre vis-à-vis the ever-increasing power of cybernetic devices and networks. Anders has witnessed and negotiated the process of cybernetization from its very beginning, having criticized its tendency to automate and expand, as well as its circular logic and ‘integral power’, including disruptive consequences for the constitution of the political and the social. In this vein, Anders’s works, particularly his magnum opus Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen [The Obsolescence of Man], sheds new light on the technologically organized milieus of the contemporary digital regime and also highlights a new form of cybernetic ‘conformism’. The goal of the essay is therefore, not only to emphasize the contemporary nature of Anders’s thought but also to use it to frame a critique of current neo-technocratic and, ultimately, post-political concepts, such as ‘algorithmic regulation’, ‘smart states’, ‘direct technocracy’, and ‘government as platform’. This essay argues that cybernetic capitalism is causing what Anders terms ‘Unfestgelegtheit’ to disappear; that is, we are losing the originary possibility of technologically (re-)structuring our world in alternative ways, particularly given the determinist character of current technologies.
Artificial Intelligence as a buzzword and a technological development is presently cast as the ultimate ‘game changer’ for economy and society; a technology of which we cannot be the master, but which nonetheless will have a pervasive influence on human life. The fast pace with which the multi-billion dollar AI industry advances toward the creation of human-level intelligence is accompanied by an increasingly exaggerated chorus of the ‘incredible miracle’, or the ‘incredible horror’, intelligent machines will constitute for humanity, as the human is gradually replaced by a technologically superior proxy, destined to be configured as a functional (data) component at best, a relic at worst. More than half a century ago, Günther Anders sketched out this path toward technological obsolescence, and his work on ‘Promethean shame’ and ‘Promethean discrepancy’ provides an invaluable means with which to recognise and understand the relationship of the modern human to his/her technological products. In this article, I draw on Anders’s writings to unpack and unsettle contemporary narratives of our relation to AI, with a view toward refocusing attention on the responsibilities we bear in producing such immersive technologies. With Anders, I suggest that we must exercise and develop moral imagination so that the human capacity for moral responsibility does not atrophy in our technologically mediated future.
Cyborg agency: The technological self-production of the (post-)human and the anti-hermeneutic trajectory (Open Access)
This paper situates Günther Anders’s diagnosis of a shift in the modes of human self-production from hermeneutic and educational practices to techno-scientific interventions in the broader context of observations concerning posthumanism and biopolitics (e.g. Peter Sloterdijk, Giorgio Agamben). It proposes to reframe the problem of human self-production within the philosophy of media and traces a common anti-hermeneutic trajectory to which both technoscientific transhumanism and certain strands of posthumanism belong, insofar as they are based on an ontology that exclusively considers causally effective agency. With Anders and Martin Heidegger it is argued that such a focus on agency neglects the dimension of meaning that irreducibly guides technoscientific interventions. The paper claims that, with regard to the escalating dynamics both of human enhancement and of the Anthropocene, neither a truly critical theoretical stance nor a practical subversion is possible without taking the horizons of meaning into account that drive these dynamics. The last section sketches an outline of the complex interrelations of humans, technologies and meaning that cannot be mapped in terms of causally effective agency.
Günther Anders in his Own Words:
Günther Anders, Translated by Christopher John Müller
‘Language and End Time’ is a translation of Sections I, IV and V of ‘Sprache und Endzeit’, a substantial essay by Günther Anders that was published in eight instalments in the Austrian journal FORVM from 1989 to 1991 (the full essay consists of 38 sections). The original essay was planned for inclusion in the third (unrealised) volume of The Obsolescence of Human Beings. ‘Language and End Time’ builds on the diagnosis of ‘our blindness toward the apocalypse’ that was advanced in the first volume of The Obsolescence in 1956. The essay asks if there is a language that is capable of making us fully comprehend the looming ‘man-made apocalypse’. In response to this, it offers a critique of philosophical jargon and of the putatively ‘objective’ language of (nuclear) science, which are both dismissed as unsuitable. Sections I, IV and V introduce this core problematic. The selection of this text for inclusion in this special journal issue responds to present-day realities that inscribe Anders’s reflections on nuclear science and the nuclear situation into new contexts. The critique that ‘Language and End Time’ advances resonates with the way in which the (undemocratic) decisions of a few companies and individuals are shaping the future of life on earth. At the same time, the wider stakes of Anders’s turn against the language employed by (weapons) scientists are newly laid bare by the realities and politics of climate change and fake news. In this new context, the language of science is all too readily dismissed as if it were a mere idiom that can be ignored without consequence. It is against the backdrop of a future that is, if anything, more uncertain than at the time of Anders’s writing, that the essay’s reflections on popularisation, the limits of language and the nature of truth gain added significance.
Anne I. Harrington