For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"The Symmetry Between Bruno Latour and Martin Heidegger: The Technique of Turning a Police Officer into a Speed Bump"

by Riis, Søren (2008)


In spite of Bruno Latour's explicit critique of Martin Heidegger's conception of technology, he and Heidegger implicitly think very similarly. When looked at carefully, Latour's examination of technical mediation stands out as a detailed reflection of Heidegger's studies. In Pandora's Hope, Latour (1999) dedicates a whole essay to exposing Heidegger's misconception of technology. 1 However, at the end of this polemic, Latour in fact unfolds and actualizes Heidegger's argument. What Latour considers fictitious, antiquated and pessimistic in Heidegger's writings on technology comes alive in a different and more accessible way in his own writings. This profound and previously unrevealed relationship between Latour and Heidegger makes it possible to reinterprete the ideas of both in a way that has crucial importance for Science and Technology Studies (STS). In order to carry out this kind of comparative philosophy or `theoretical fieldwork', one has to pay close attention to their basic conceptions and not be led astray by different ways of naming them.

Key Passage

Heidegger’s famous Rhine river illustration becomes significant in light of his concept of revealing through technology, and the three concepts – challenge, standing-reserve and ordering – with which he specifies its meaning. -The hydroelectric plant is set into the current of the Rhine. It sets the Rhine to supplying its hydraulic pressure, which then sets the turbines turning. This turning sets those machines in motion whose thrust sets going the electric current for which the long distance power station and its network of cables are set up to dispatch electricity. In the context of the interlocking processes pertaining to the orderly disposition of electrical energy, even the Rhine itself appears to be something at our command. (Heidegger, 1977a: 321) -Following Heidegger’s argument, the hydroelectric plant reveals the current of the Rhine by challenging it to deliver energy, which in the end can be used to bring even more resources under control. It may take a long time to achieve control of the resources of the Rhine, as the Rhine cannot immediately and without difficulty be transformed into a source of hydroelectric energy, but this is only considered a preliminary ‘problem’ that eventually will be ‘solved’. If this self-reproductive circuit of preparing and using more and more resources continues, the boundaries between technology and nature ultimately are undermined, overridden and torn down. The goal of the process initiated by das Gestell is to mobilize everything to support this circuit and thus to create a complete symmetry between nature and technology. Based on this example, the construction workers building the power plant place demands on the Rhine, but for Heidegger it is more important that when doing so they are themselves challenged by the essence of technology. The construction workers of the hydroelectric power plant are like Latour’s example of the factory workers who combine different technologies into computer chips. In one sense, they are both the real actants of the construction process, but in another sense they are just parts of a larger process that governs their behaviour. In these overarching processes, there are numerous active players or actants, such as the Rhine, the computer business and the construction machines, which all play their specific roles. (p.290)


Heidegger, Latour, Technology


Technology, On Heidegger

Links to Reference



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