by adrianpark on December 18, 2010
Apply one of the concepts of the Philosophy of Technology 1 & 2 sessions. Reflect on your practice or other scholarly/artistic/desing work.
I’ve decided to reflect on Heidegger’s thinking and consider my own practice in that context. Why Heidegger? Simply because, like countless others before me, I find his thinking almost impenetrable. I’m a sucker for a challenge! That said, the fragmentary insights I’ve gained so far have resonated well with me so I’m keen to gain a deeper understanding.
To this end, I checked the Robinson Library for books that might help illuminate Heidegger’s thinking. The one that was recommended to me was out but I found a copy of Michael Watts’ Heidegger – A Beginner’s Guide (2001). After a cursory overview of the book and reading the first chapter about Heidegger’s life I focussed specifically on the section in Chapter 3 entitled Ready-to-hand and present-at-hand. Though this may seem like a very narrow consideration of his work, Heidegger himself believed a deep understanding of a philosopher’s work could be obtained through the study of only a few select pages of the work. I’m hoping his own teaching techniques might help me gain a better understanding of his teaching. Below I’ve attempted to paraphrase Watts and other readings and apply the thinking to my own practice.
According to Heidegger, when the Dasein encounters a non-human entity, the nature of the Dasein’s relationship with that entity is a direct result of how the entity is perceived. Heidegger identifies two ways in which this relationship may manifest itself: ready-to-hand and present-at-hand. The difference between these two possible ways of Being is based on perceived utility, or in-order-to (the hammer exists in-order-to sink the nail). If Dasein perceives the entity to have function that is useful to the human, the entity may be said to be ready-to-hand. Heidegger uses the abbreviation equipment as a collective noun for the group of such entities with perceived human function. So, whilst the ready-to-hand is equipment, it is not correct to call it ‘an equipment’. I was not able to find any direct reference by Watts to the term tool but it seems this is a commonly used synonym for Heidegger’s equipment. In contrast, an entity encountered by Dasein that is perceived not to have any human use is said to be present-at-hand. In this case, Dasein’s understanding of the entity can only be based on detached, objective observation of its physical properties.
By contrast to the present-at-hand, the significance of the ready-to-hand can begin to be appreciated. If the relationship to present-at-hand is one of detachment, the world may only be understood completely through Dasein’s relationships with the ready-to-hand. Dasein’s Being-in-the-world is a function of its relationships with the ready-to-hand. This leads us to one of Heidegger’s key conclusions – Dasein cannot be fully understood without reference to the world it lives in and, crucially, the world cannot be understood without reference to Dasein’s relationship to the entities it is comprised of.
The final interesting point this section notes is that the same object may be present-at-hand and ready-to-hand. If a person does not know how to use a tool and what it is for, that tool is present-at-hand. In the hands of a person who knows the tool’s purpose and how to use it, the same tool is ready-to-hand. Additionally, a tool that is ready-to-hand may become present-at-hand if it is broken and unable to fulfill its intended purpose. Heidegger gives this present-at-hand state of a broken or unusable tool the name unready-to-hand. Finally, a previously present-at-hand object may become a ready-to-hand tool if its intended purpose becomes known or a use for it is discovered.
In conclusion, I will attempt to relate these concepts to my own practice. For the recent Doing project piece I created what I have called The Poetic Camera (see illustration above). I am not going to discuss the whys and wherefores of this project here (that’s for a follow up post documenting the project), suffice it to say that I intentionally set out to create an object that was ambiguous in its purpose and classification. As such, I think it makes an interesting subject to consider from Heidegger’s point of view.
For this project, I wanted to construct a camera that, as an object and tool, would challenge the user’s preconceptions of its function. I based the design on that of the Kodak Box Brownie. I hoped this would create an expectation of what its output may be – that is to say, a black and white print or negative. The camera was connected by a visible electric cable to a laptop, thereby hinting that the output may in fact be a digital image on screen. The camera had a handle to suggest it should be picked up and used. Lifting a flap on the back revealed two buttons – the only apparent means to operate the camera – suggesting how it may be used.
Relating this to Heidegger, I effectively ‘broke’ the common conception of a camera. Though the object looked like a camera, it was not clear what its function was or even whether it had a function. In this sense, it was present-at-hand to the first time viewer. With instruction, or through experimentation, the viewer could discover the function of the camera. At this point, it would transform from mere object to tool and become ready-at-hand. In the Heideggerian sense, Dasein would now know the world more completely. Given that the output of the camera is significantly unlike the common conception of what constitues a photograph, I suspect that some might consider the camera to be ‘broken’. In this sense, it may be argued that the camera is unready-at-hand. On the other hand, the viewer might accept it as a tool that is camera-like but not a camera or perhaps a specialised type of camera, in which case its perceived function will have changed but it would still be ready-to-hand. Whatever the case, the object/tool could not be understood completely from a detached, objective point of view. It had to be experienced – become ready-to-hand – to be understood.
Interestingly, before the camera object’s function was perceived and it became present-at-hand, its design pointed towards function and therefore hinted that it might become ready-at-hand. This disparity between Dasein’s current perception of the entity as ‘object’ and suspicion that it might become ‘tool’ represents a potential. I wonder if, in Heidegger’s view, there is the expectation that Dasein would be naturally compelled to seek the state of ready-at-hand, perhaps as a kind of extropy?