First step was touching the Moon…
Posted on: Dec 16, 2022
The recent de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture annual conference at Notre Dame took its theme from Genesis: “And it was very good – (on Creation)”. The keynote lecture by Robert Pogue Harrison entitled “The Thin Blue Line” was a tour de force in cosmic proportionality placing our earthly home within the images beamed back to us of the edges of the universe from orbiting telescopes. Cynthia Haven reported on “The Book Haven” blog about this lecture. I encourage you to follow the link and read Ms. Haven’s comments and if you have time to view the YouTube link to Professor Harrison’s talk. Here is how he began:
“One month after NASA’s Lunar Orbiter 1 took the first photos of Earth from the moon’s orbit on August 23, 1966, Martin Heidegger sat down with two journalists from the German magazine Der Spiegel to answer some pointed questions about his thought and his involvement with the Nazi regime in the 1930s. Late in the interview, which was published after his death in 1976, Heidegger decried modern technology’s deracinating effects on humanity, claiming that technology is not a tool and that humankind ‘has not yet found a way to respond to the essence of technicity.’ That essence, as Heidegger understood it, consists in an unmastered will to master nature by rendering all things orderable, fungible, and reproducible through objectification and manipulation. Somewhat perplexed, the interviewers declared: ‘But someone might object very naively: what must be mastered? Everything is functioning. More and more electric power companies are being built. Production is up. In highly technologized parts of the earth, people are well cared for. We are living in a state of prosperity. What really is lacking to us?’ A perfectly reasonable query, to which Heidegger responded as follows:
Everything is functioning. That is precisely what is uncanny, that everything functions, that the functioning propels everything more and more toward further functioning, and that technicity increasingly dislodges man and uproots him from the earth. I don’t know if you were shocked, but [certainly] I was shocked when a short time ago I saw the pictures of the earth taken from the moon. We do not need atomic bombs at all [to uproot us]—the uprooting of man is already here. All our relationships have become merely technical ones. It is no longer upon an earth that man lives today. (Heidegger: The Man and the Thinker, 1981).
“Whereas the popular imagination at the time saw in those photos a wondrous revelation of our mother planet and cosmic home, Heidegger saw in them stark evidence of modern technology’s deterrestrialization of the human species – its increasing alienation from, and loss of essential relations with, the earth.”
This story of Martin Heidegger’s reaction to the picture from the lunar orbiter brought to mind the Bob Dylan song License to Kill from his 1983 album Infidels which begins:
The song ends with the refrain:
Now, there’s a woman on my block
She just sit there as the night grows still
She say who gonna take away his license to kill?
The refrain which repeats with variations pictures a woman sitting and asking, ‘who is gonna take away his license to kill?’ I’ve often thought of this ‘woman’ as the Church or a manifestation of the Gospel. The license mentioned gives sanction to death dealing violence of the kind René Girard theorized had, throughout human history, led to the sacralized ritual immolation of victims (scapegoats) and brought a temporary communal solidarity to a people suffering from internal rivalries or conflicts.
The sacramental geocentrism which Professor Harrison proposes towards the end of his lecture falls short of fully expressing the message of Christ’s salvific work, but it surely is a corrective to “modern technology’s deracinating effects on humanity”. Given the freedom granted by God to our species, Dylan’s questioning woman has no coercive power to constrain the evils of human violence, but perhaps the question itself is enough to spur the conscience.