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The Soul Crushed and Twisted by the Mechanical Arts – Plato

Plato’s Prisons of Techne

I repost here the quote from the Republic that in usual Platonic, imagistic language is full of potential truths. Here we find Socrates discrediting primarily the sophists, but really by virtue of a whole class of technically skilled [techne] workers, those whose power and knowledge consists in their experiences, and standing, as workers. In condensed fashion he runs the gambit from prisoners to technicians to mere machine workers. All of these he tells us, wish to gravitate, actually more, leap or fly to the prestige of philosophy:

Just as men out of prisons into holy sanctuaries are fleeing, so these joyous men out from technical arts are leaping into Philosophy, as if those being most intricate would hit upon the little art of themselves. For in comparison with the other arts the honor of philosophy even though abandoned is more magnificent. This is the flight of the many unaccomplished by nature, who from the technical arts and even workmanship, their bodies have been mutilated and their souls envined and even crushed through the mechanical arts.

Plato, Republic [495d]

Leaving the question of the sophists aside and picking up the word-image, we really have something here. There is the interminable sense that our experiences as workers confined to the techniques of our knowing and doing, caught within the demands of an economic and thereby psychic necessity, contort us, alter us. And Plato’s image is quite strong as he evokes the worker or technician (and some editors have thought that he had the military arts in mind, but the image carries through) whose body is maimed by the arts he practices. We see vividly the industry worker, or other friends of the “machine” who has lost fingers or received other bodily harm, even desk workers whose time in the chair have changed their posture. All of these graftings of a machinic upon the human body are rolled up into the image of the prisoner at the beginning of the passage, the one who is confined, shackled by circumstances of every degree. And all of these make for Socrates those who are unqualified to the seat of Philosopher. This is because, as the body is the image of the soul, it is not only bodies that have been exacted upon, it is souls, and here in the end forming a bookend to the prisoner the image is striking. The mechanical arts (by which we are to see mean arts, perhaps those of low craftsmen, even with the association of the weaver who is feminine), actually “envine”, they envelope and slowly twist and choke the soul, even eventually crush or pulverize it. What comes to mind for me is of a gear-working, a rack that out of its unnatural nature incrementally destroys the cognitive powers of the soul. Here “work” in every mechanical gradient becomes the equivalent of torture.

At a certain level we have condensed here all of the reasons why the economic freedoms of others become a high priority for us. For it is not just in political restriction that the voice and soul becomes contorted, but also that the very lived mechanical – and we read mechanical even in the most abstract sense of purposed and productive repetitions – states of workers are binding and cognitively contorting devices. At least that is the rhetorical picture. Aside from Plato’s political aim, the freeing of cognitions from devices remains a kind of halo of a hope, an attractor.

Scholastic Silence: How to Comtemplate

But in this ethical picture stands its opposite, the idea that the Philosopher is he who is not contorted, maimed or crushed. The one whose body and soul stands relatively whole, unpressured, the one who can see clearly, from a distance. It is there that Bourdieu’s critique of the “scholastic point of view” which I brought up in my last post, occurs. The production of the quietude of the Philosopher, the near monastic, let us say scholastic isolation from the contortions of mechanical art pressures, is, Bourdieu wants us to know, artificial. The cocoon and buffer that creates the gap between a world of devices and techniques exacted, and the imagined realm of reasons, has to be built. It has been constructed through labors which themselves are structured. And then it too is structured by internal devices and arts. What Bourdieu wants us to know is that when the philosopher adopts the scholastic point of view, he/she is likely carrying with him/her the vast train of social constructions (literal constructions) which enable that monastic cell of contemplation, and there is both a social and epistemic responsibility towards the excavation of those inherited and largely unconscious relations (an excavation that in some sense is retarded by flat ontologies who know only their surface).

The One Machinist of the 17th Century

In a way it is the Philosopher who knows least the mutilations of his/her body, the envinings of his/her soul, the pulverizations, due to the very quietude of contemplation. And to this great dis-orientation of thinking towards the mere mechanical, my mind turns towards the rise of the philosophy of the mechanical, the Dutch flowering of Cartesian mechanism. It seems here that most, if there was to be a philosophy that embraced the mechanical nature of thinking it would be found here. I wrote some time ago about the “hand of de Beaune” a brilliant mathematician who was working hard in the service of Descartes on the production of a fantastic automated lens-grinding machine :Descartes and Spinoza: Craft and Reason and The Hand of De Beaune. With somewhat of a coincidence de Beaune’s hand was severely cut just as Plato’s technician’s body was maimed. Descartes’ dream though was of producing machines which no hand would touch, pure, abstract machines, concretized maths, in a sense, those which would free the otherwise fettered human mind. Plato’s dichotomy duplicates itself, the machine as enemy to the mind because of the body, as well as its instrumental aid. As I have pointed out in my investigation of Spinoza’s lens-grinding, Spinoza was the only “worker” of the period, and in fact the only craftsman per se. While lens-grinding and machine fascination was an elite hobby among the new scientist riche, Spinoza was actually a worker, and engaged his lens lathe daily as a matter of his economic sustainance. Deep in this machinic age, only Spinoza new the machine in a fashion Plato’s Socrates could not. He knew it with his hands.

In an interesting fashion, Spinoza’s “scholastic point of view” embodies a unique self-reflective awareness that is encapsulated in his worker, machine status, as well as one might admit, his standing as an ostricized Jew. He occupied a position at the border, a stand-point, that made of his quietude a different sort of awareness. Born of the age of the machine, Spinoza understood the human being too as a device, a complex series of ordinations, to which other complex serieses of ordinations are connected, a “spiritual automaton” he called the human being. In this awareness the “worker” takes on a different place: Not that of “prisoner” to stand in dialectical opposition to the unmutilated man, but of machinic degree. Our work becomes an expression of machines, machines of which we never extricate ourselves. It is only that we need to choose our machines (those of which we are made) more carefully, with an eye to liberation. The gaze of leisure is to be questioned.

Blogged Quietism

In this view blogging of course becomes a significant phenomena. Some philosophical bloggers write out of a self-created cocoon to escape the twisting techne of university or college, forming however brief a contemplation of respite, engaging the machinic of the internet. Some blog in order to be able to speculate, to freely exhibit what they might be able to think, if they were allowed to. Yet, as we produce our ideas and disseminate them, to the degree that we do not embrace the machinic, we are fraught with generating the modes that have produced our monk-cell, unconsciously, not recognizing the shapes of our bodies and souls.

Atop this image of the mechanical arts that contort there is the artist, we might say, is also the self-artist. The one that grasps the inherent machinic character of the human, and purposely undergoes specific machinic contortions upon both body and soul, not to perfect, but to express (and to some degree soterologically free themself and others from) the specific techne of the world, as it stands. To take on the machine, in the way that a poet takes on a complex meter.

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