Christopher John Müller on his new book and his English translation of Günther Anders, a contemporary of Adorno, Benjamin, and Arendt
How did you come to discover the work of Günther Anders?
I was alerted to a translated essay from the 1930s called the ‘Pathology of Freedom’, whilst writing my PhD thesis in 2012. I had never heard of its author, Günther Stern, and was captivated by the work, a brilliant existential analysis of the experience of freedom.
When looking up the author, I was surprised to learn that he was connected to canonical authors and thinkers I liked to study – Stern (who assumed the pseudonym Anders) was the first husband of Hannah Arendt, a cousin of Walter Benjamin, a student of Husserl and Heidegger, friends with Ernst Bloch and Herbert Marcuse, and connected to Berthold Brecht, Georg Lukács, Literary Modernists, the Frankfurt School thinkers – the list goes on and on and on.
What I discovered was a compelling and highly diverse body of work spanning 70 years of writing shaped by an extraordinary life marked by anti-Semitism, forced exile, emigration and activism. I also realised that Anders was scarcely known or mentioned in Anglophone scholarship – and that almost none of his work had been translated, despite a vast body of secondary literature in French and German (over 50 books to date, and counting).
Anders opens his pioneering book on Kafka with the words ‘To take an author seriously means to not just talk about him. A significant author is someone who represents things differently and whose work has consequences for other things’. I think these lines apply to Anders himself. They also explain the format of my book. I didn’t want to write ‘about’ Anders. Rather, I try to present the profound consequences his work has, not just for academic research, but also for our lives today. I hope that others will share my sense of discovery and surprise when encountering his thought-provoking and highly accessible work.
The essay you translated for your book belongs to a longer work called The Obsolescence of Human Beings Vol. 1, first published in 1956. What a title! Do you think this work fits with broader discussions about human identity and culture in the aftermath of the Second World War?
Yes, absolutely. The Obsolescence of Human Beings 1, is marked by two seemingly contradictory tendencies that the horror of the Second World War exposed. The absolute devaluation of the human – the Holocaust and the void at the core of humanism it revealed – and the elevation of the human into a seemingly divine realm that happened in parallel through the mastery of the atom. Anders suggests that the atom bomb turned us into a ‘new species’ although we are ‘anatomically unchanged’. To quote him, ‘We are Titans, no longer what until today humans have called “human”’.
Anders evokes this Titanic posthumanity to show that it entails an act of devaluation: ‘Because we are the first Titans, we are also the first dwarfs, or whatever we may call beings such as ourselves who are mortal not only as individuals, but also as a group.’ ‘Obsolescence’, as I read Anders’s term, seeks to capture these two conflicting, simultaneously operative tendencies of hubris and debasement, which were consolidated amidst the rapid rise of a world of consumer culture out of the WW2 ruins and Western humanist ideals.
“The atom bomb is thus the ultimate emblem of an unearthly, unsettling and haunting force channelled by complex technological objects: It illuminates that the more “our” technological power grows, the smaller we become”
The atom bomb is thus the ultimate emblem of an unearthly, unsettling and haunting force channelled by complex technological objects: It illuminates that the more “our” technological power grows, the smaller we become; the more unconditional and unlimited the capability of machines, the more conditional our existence; the more machines connect us by virtue of their very existence, the more we are also singled out as being expendable and inadequate.
So yes, the book reflects the (unresolved) crisis in human identity that was the aftermath of WW2, unresolved, because we are still very much part of this moment.
Do you think Anders’s ideas about technology can be applied to 21st century inventions and innovations? For example, what do you think Anders would make of smartphones or tablets?
Yes, I believe that Anders’s thought is more relevant than ever. In fact, in my book I suggest that the tensions Anders identified are being amplified amidst the increasingly autonomous, “smart” machines that populate our lives. A missing phone signal, slow internet connection or low battery can make us feel lost and disoriented, even give us the impression of having lost a hand or being naked. Such feelings highlight the extent to which machines have become part of our self-image. They also reveal how easily we mistake the agency technological objects lend us for our own, and how many decisions we silently cede to things, because these offer us solutions and seem to make life easier.
“A missing phone signal, slow internet connection or low battery can make us feel lost and disoriented, even give us the impression of having lost a hand or being naked. Such feelings highlight the extent to which machines have become part of our self-image”
For Anders these feelings of loss, limitation and curtailment serve to highlight that complex technological objects aren’t ‘phenomena’ in the traditional sense of the word, for they ‘do not show themselves’: ‘They shelter behind an appearance that has nothing to do with their nature, they appear to be less than they are.’ That is to say, we might be able to look at our smartphones, but we cannot positively see how these devices shape all aspects of our lives and our perception, how they feed us with a curated world and how the data and meta-data we generate whilst interacting with them expose us to corporate interests, state power, automated bots, quantification, persuasive suggestions and a personalised world.
Andres’s perspective highlights that the smoother a process becomes the more natural and ordinary it seems. It is this lack of friction that protects the technological object from scrutiny, and by doing so keeps us tacitly complicit with the ‘supra-liminal’ processes and realities our objects tie us to, realities that we are all involved in actively producing. In the face of this, I do indeed believe that Anders turn to exaggeration reveals something that is otherwise hard to see.
Modern technology has led to an almost utopian level of connection and transparency. We are able to share ideas and information faster and more widely than ever before. But Anders suggests that things are not quite as they might appear. Could you say a little more about that?
Sorry, I am afraid that what I am about to say will be rather apocalyptic. Anders’s work suggests that the democratic ideal that technological progress could bring humanity closer together was perfectly realised with the acquisition and accumulation of nuclear weapons. This created the first absolutely democratic, unconditional and non-exclusive “we”. Everyone is equally affected by nuclear weapons, as life on earth is granted only until someone with the power decides otherwise. So on the one side nuclear weapons are the ultimate “levellers” of humankind, but on the other they give single authorities an unprecedented amount of power.
Anders does not regard an H Bomb as exceptional in this respect, but presents it as the exemplary technological object, that show us the soul of all others. Every complex machine connects us by merely existing, and is democratising in this sense, but the object, say the smartphone, ultimately remains in the control of those who created it or the ‘services’ it can provide. Such democracy is engineered, forced onto the world in the form of an object, which itself comes into the world undemocratically and is jealously guarded.
So the closer we seem to come together by using, say, social media platforms, the more information passes through our networked objects, the more power automatically falls to the ultimate owners of our devices, that is, the service providers, manufacturers, etc. Further, the data we generate can be used to automate complex cognitive abilities, create speaking machines – which are all marvellous, but are inevitably also leading to radical reconfigurations of our way of life, job prospects, and a new form of nakedness toward corporate and state power. But, as I discuss in my book, all of this is just being done, there was never a referendum on artificial intelligence, and neither will there be one, because we don’t seem to see any problem, we merely “see” ordinary gadgets.
All this means, that we are living in what Anders calls an ‘inverted utopia’: our problem is not that we can’t make the better world we can imagine, but that we can no longer imagine the world we have made. For as the atom-bomb reveals: each powerful machine harbours a world it can actualise, a world we cannot know until it is here – but not every such world can be a human world.
The Anders essay you translate in your new book is called ‘On Promethean Shame’. What drew your attention to this essay in particular?
The essay struck me as being particularly relevant today, and it is a great example of Anders’s style of thinking. ‘On Promethean Shame’ introduces us to what Anders calls ‘the humiliatingly high quality of manmade objects’. It uses observations of everyday life to present our growing reliance on machines as a sign that we see ourselves as embarrassingly flawed, clumsy and limited. The phenomena and feelings the essay discusses include: self-quantification and enhancement, our tendency to cover for the inadequacies of machines and make them look more capable than they are; Iconomania: our addiction to images of ourselves, feelings of alienation, obsolescence and solitude that we scarcely acknowledge or even actively conceal, but also, feelings of immersion, empowerment and blissful union.
Anders liked to justify what he called the ‘philosophically exaggerated’ images his writings develop by an analogy to microscopy. In his words, ‘If one were to amplify viruses a million times and screen their devastating workings, would this amplification of the format also co-exaggerate the danger? Or would the danger here rather become visible for the first time.’
“[…] machines embody our hope to escape the lottery of birth, our bodily reality and processes that we can’t directly influence, and the effort we need to invest to be who we are.”
In the light of this explanation, I now dare to introduce the essay’s overarching thesis: It suggests that we fetishize our gadgets because they allow us to see ourselves as machines that can be improved, altered, repaired and made to function with a designated purpose. As such, machines embody our hope to escape the lottery of birth, our bodily reality and processes that we can’t directly influence, and the effort we need to invest to be who we are. Ultimately, Promethean shame is seen as an expression of embarrassment about having been born rather than having been made.
The essay names our active – but painfully unfulfillable – desire to be a thing, a desire that can only arise if things are on some level already acknowledged and experienced as being ‘better’ than us, humans. This constellation of ideas is mobilised in my book to think about digital and bio-technologies and the human self-image amidst ever “smarter” machines.
In addition to being a philosopher, critical theorist and cultural commentator, Anders was also a literary critic, wasn’t he? He wrote thought-provoking pieces on writers like Samuel Beckett and Franz Kafka.
Well in fact, Anders was also a literary author. He published hundreds of poems, several novellas and fables and wrote the substantial anti-fascist novel die molussische Katakombe (The Catacombs of Molussia) in 1932, published posthumously. His book on Franz Kafka was translated into English in 1960. It originated from a 1934 lecture that was written long before Kafka was well known. Anders also wrote on Rilke together with Hannah Arendt, on Brecht and Döblin, as well as on artists such as Georg Grosz and Heartfield, but also on Romanticism and Ruins. His piece on Beckett’s En attendant Godot, ‘Being without Time’, is part of The Obsolescence of Human Beings 1. It doubles as a rebuttal of Heidegger.
‘Homeless Sculpture’, one of my favourite essays on literature and art, was written in English. It is a speech for an exhibition of Rodin’s work in California, but deals broadly with ideas of alienation and the commodification of objects. It is freely accessible online, via the homepage of the International Günther Anders Society. I think ‘Homeless Sculpture’ gives a good impression of Anders’s originality as a literary scholar and the beauty of his prose, even though it is written in his Germanic English.
Literature, art and especially music seem to have been Anders’s principal passions, but his work frequently discusses how he felt a moral obligation to concentrate his efforts on confronting nuclear weapons, ecological destruction and the effects of consumerist culture. Luckily, more and more of his work on literature, art and music is being published posthumously. I am especially looking forward to his highly esteemed early phenomenology of music and listening.
Could you say a little bit about the Anders’s life and the wider intellectual community he belonged to? He was friends and colleagues with a number of notable critical theorists and philosophers, wasn’t he?
Anders was the son of eminent child psychologists Clara and William Stern who coined the notion of an Intelligence Quotient, i.e., an IQ. He was born in 1902 and grew up in Breslau, now the Polish city Wroclaw. In the early 1920’s, he belonged to the famous group of students of Husserl and Heidegger in Freiburg. These included Hans Jonas, Hannah Arendt, to whom Anders was married from 1929-1937. Anders went on to work as an assistant of Max Scheler. So already as a student, he was very much part of a now famous German academic scene.
Hitler’s rise to power changed everything. At the time Anders was living in Berlin (Brecht had helped him find work at a newspaper). Early in 1933, after the arson attack on the Reichstag, when Brecht’s address book was confiscated by the Gestapo, Anders fled into exile in Paris. There he developed his philosophical writings further. ‘The Pathology of Freedom’ stems from this time. It was translated into French in the mid 1930’s by Emanuel Levinas, and Sartre and Deleuze cite it as a significant influence.
In 1936 Anders moved on to California, where he found himself together with Adorno, Horkheimer, the Marcuses, and much of the German cultural elite. He also briefly taught at the New School in New York. He returned to Europe in 1949 and settled in Vienna, having vowed to never live in Germany again.
Although connected to the pre- and post-war ‘intellectual elite’, it is important to note that Anders also resolutely stood apart from it. As a public intellectual and uncompromising political activist, he did not hesitate to voice his dissatisfaction with both the academic institution and jargon and the political engagement of his contemporaries, or rather the perceived lack of it. For instance, he publicly criticised Adorno’s reluctance to be part of anti-nuclear demonstrations. Following a rift in the late 20’s, Heidegger was his lifelong target, and Anders was utterly unforgiving of his former teacher’s involvement in Nazism.
The extensive correspondence by letter Anders entertained throughout his life with his contemporaries contributes to an incredibly rich archive, housed in The Literary Archives of the Austrian National Library in Vienna. The correspondence with Hannah Arendt has just been published.
When we read the work of certain European critical theorists, let’s say Theodor W. Adorno, we can often see a fascination with American consumer culture. Is this fascination something Anders shared?
It is safe to say that this fascination often amounted to an allergic reaction – especially to wartime California, and the household appliances, the cars, popular culture – particularly the reality TV shows and pop-music – that he associated to America. During the war, Anders actively participated at seminars convened by Adorno and Horkheimer, and some of his key ideas were developed in this context. Anders supported himself with a number of ‘odd-jobs’ in factories and movie repositories. These experiences shaped his writing and way of thinking.
His work reflects on the attitudes of his co-workers, the extreme division of labour, and the chains of abstraction that shape globalised consumerist culture and separate the worker form the end product, the consumer from the producer (‘the first’ from ‘the third’ world). His book Visit Beautiful Vietnam, on the Vietnam war is very powerful indeed.
His assessment was not all negative, though. His fascination with space flight is evident in The View from the Moon: Philosophical Reflections on Space Travel. In this book, Anders imagines looking back at the earth from the moon and hopes that this will make us realise the shared fate of humanity and the fragility of the planet. The famous ‘Earthrise’ picture that was taken in 1968 did indeed go on to have this effect.
What’s next for you?
I will continue to translate Anders work. A long essay ‘The Obsolescence of Privacy’ will appear early in 2017 in the journal CounterText, but book length work is also on the horizon. I have a number of writing projects close to completion in the broad area of critical and literary theory and American literature. These are not directly connected to Anders, although there is thematic overlap. My most pressing project is the completion of a monograph on the perceived immediacy of feeling, and how this is shaped by literary imagination and artificial structures. Some general info is available online.
Prometheanism is available from Rowman & Littlefield.
About the Author
Christopher John Müller is an Honorary Research Associate of the School of English, Communication and Philosophy, Cardiff University. He is also an Associate Teacher at the Department of English, University of Bristol, where he teaches American Literature and Literary Theory.
You can find out more about Günther Anders and his work at a website maintained by Harold Marcuse.