Towards the end of “The Question Concerning Technology,” Martin Heidegger turns to Friedrich Hölderlin’s lines: “But where danger is, grows/ The saving power also.” The lines are cited in the context of Heidegger’s discussion of “the essence of modern technology,” which he calls “Enframing” (“Gestell”). Taking the concrete example of the Rhine, Heidegger deplores the monstrosity of the fact that this river appears to us as mere “standing-reserve”: it derives its meaning only from the power station for which it provides energy. Heidegger much prefers the Rhine as it appears in Hölderlin’s poetry. However, it is in the midst of this monstrous situation that “the saving power … also grows.” In short, “the darkest hour is just before the dawn.”
It seems that there is something naïve and politically blind about the turning point or crisis (from the Greek krisis, which means turning point) in Heidegger’s essay; think, in this context, of the criticisms that a similar turning point in the work of Karl Marx—who wrote that “capitalist production begets, with the inexorability of a natural process, its own negation”—has received. But I am thinking also of figures such as Jason Bourne from the popular Bourne-trilogy: in an obvious way, the trilogy is critical of the torturing techniques that are used not just in the CIA facilities where Bourne was trained but also in detainee camps such as Guantánamo Bay. However, the trilogy also relishes these techniques, because it admires the figure they have created: the form of its political resistance is thus entirely determined by the very same forces that this resistance is mobilizing against. Bourne’s political actions are merely political reactions.
Something similar is found in the graphic novel V for Vendetta, in which V applies the same torturing techniques to which he was subjected to Evey Hammond, in order to vacate her from fear and introduce her to an anarchist experience of freedom (a vacation, so to speak). In this case also, salvation seems to come from exactly the same techniques that represent the greatest danger: that which is condemned as the torture that traumatized V is also the technique that enables Evey to become free. Biopower turns into biopolitics (to work within Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s distinction between the two terms); loosely borrowing from Michel Foucault, one might see a shift here from his work on biopolitics to that on the care of the self. What appears to be torture in one light, appears to be a work on the self in another…
The problem is that such a work on the self does not constitute a political action; it is merely a political reaction that reproduces the very forces it resists. I am not calling for the political “outside” that is condemned in the opening pages of Hardt and Negri’s Commonwealth. Just resisting the heroization of those figures—Bourne, V—that exist only thanks to the extraordinary violations they decry.
References: Heidegger, Martin. The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. Trans. William Lovitt. New York: Harper, 1977; Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Vol. 1. Trans. Ben Fowkes. London: Penguin, 1990; The Bourne Trilogy, dir. Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass (Universal, 2002, 2004, 2007); Moore, Alan and David Lloyd. V for Vendetta. New York: DC Comics, New York, 2005; Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri. Commonwealth. Cambridge: Harvard (Belknap), 2009. Image: Dan Davis, Hiding in the Light, 55 cm x 46 cm, acrylic, ink, and spray paint on linen, 2010.