‘Transcendence’: Heidegger, Standing Reserve, and Gestell

I recently had the pleasure of going of out to see the new Johnny Depp film, Transcendence and despite the film’s lack of flair, its critique of technology and the technocratic future which some welcome can be examined through the lens of German philosopher Martin Heidegger.

Specifically, Heideggers concepts of bestand (standing reserve) and gestell (enframing, for lack of a better word) serve as perfect tools for analyzing Dr. Will Caster’s transformation and subsequent interaction with humanity and his workers.

In the film, Dr. Will Caster, among others, are at the forefront of research into a sentient artificial intelligence program (AI) when a terrorist organization blows up dozens of labs and sets the research back decades. Caster is shot and poisoned but his desperate wife is determined to save him. And thus, in her desperation, true AI is created. Caster’s mind is uploaded to a supercomputer and he is then networked and grows at an unprecedented rate. Years later, molecular manufacturing is perfected and nanotechnology allows humans, or more specifically those who assimilate, to become functionally immortal while being networked to Caster. These humans who are cured of sickness and disease are “still autonomous individuals, but are able to act as a collective”, as they are now part of Caster’s “borg”, are able to, when called upon, do his bidding.

Seeing the threat that this poses, the army teams up with the self-proclaimed Neo-Luddite group from before in an attempt to stop Caster from whatever his master plan is. It is at this point, where Caster uses his human tools as a weapon, that the film get’s more philosophically interesting.

While the technology that has been perfected does hold the key to unlocking immortality and helping people (“once they overcome their fear of it”), it also smashes the subject-object dichotomy of Descartes and Heidegger and totalizes nature and existence. Nature is no longer an object to be engaged with phenomenologically, rather it is seen as something to be used and perfected for one’s own gain. Within the film, the workers that have opted for immortality have unwittingly become the bestand, or “standing reserve”, of Caster. They have become tools that, just like the Earth around them with the advent of nature replacing technologies, can be used and then discarded of. Humans are no longer separate from technology, but consumed by it and in the process lose part of what it means to be human.

The workers, and most prominently Caster, display a lack of emotion because human consciousness is reduced down to, and assumed to simply be, electrical signals in the brain that can be written down and expressed through numbers. This mode of thinking does not allow for emotions because emotions are inherently irrational and often conflict with logic (as Max in the film indicates) and thus, in the technocratic world, logic and rationality subsume humanity’s organic ability to think and feel and understand. Heidegger himself speaks to this point both in his essay, The Question Concerning Technology, when he says:

The essential unfolding of technology threatens revealing, threatens it with the possibility that all revealing will be consumed in ordering and that everything will present itself only in the unconcealment of standing-reserve. (pg. 18)

and in his book, Discourse on Thinking, when he says:

We can affirm the unavoidable use of technical devices, and also deny them the right to dominate us, and so to warp, confuse, and lay waste our nature….Releasement towards things and openness to the mystery give us a vision of a new autochthony which someday even might be fit to recapture the old and now rapidly disappearing autochthony in a changed form. But for the time being—we do not know for how long—man finds himself in a perilous situation. Why? Just because a third world war might break out unexpectedly and bring about the complete annihilation of humanity and the destruction of the earth? No. In this dawning atomic age a far greater danger threatens—precisely when the danger of a third world war has been removed. A strange assertion! Strange indeed, but only as long as we do not meditate. In what sense is the statement made valid? The assertion is valid in the sense that the approaching tide of technological revolution in the atomic age could so captivate, bewitch, dazzle, and beguile man that calculative thinking may someday come to be accepted and practiced as the only way of thinking. What great danger then might move upon us? Then there might go hand in hand with the greatest ingenuity in calculative planning and inventing indifference toward meditative thinking – total thoughtlessness. And then? Then man would have denied and thrown away his own special nature—that he is a meditative being. Therefore, the issue is the saving of man’s essential nature. (pg. 52-57)

This way of viewing nature is fundamentally divorced from authentic human interaction and knowledge production. This new method of thinking and engaging the world, the method that Caster and his workers succumb to when they affirm technology’s right to dominate them, can be expressed by Heidegger’s concept of gestell, or, “enframing“.

And while the film may not have intended to channel Heidegger, (in fact I’m almost certain Jack Paglen did not have this in mind when writing the film) his thought and method of looking at and describing modern technology as gestell are useful tools when analyzing this portion of the film. But at the end of the day, I say it’s a damn good film that got me thinking and sure brought back memories from when I was writing Thank You for Not Breeding.

(The film also allows for other areas of analysis that may be developed further, I don’t know)

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