[The following is a question addressed to Darrell Bolin, and then Bolin's reply. The question is in regards to a draft of Bolin's contribution to the upcoming book Grand Revolution, entitled "Overcoming the Technêcrat".]
“One idea which I’m still struggling with is the idea of how technological processes can simultaneously remove us from the more repetitive/time consuming tasks which we might think of as robotic/less-than (farming, building), but then actually end up rendering us softer, more pliable, more like cogs in a machine whose process is very far removed from the actual necessities of human life. The classic thesis is that we developed tech so that we can spend our time being enlightened and producing art, but your paper made me question whether or not what we’ve done is actually kill the essence of what gives rise to human creative expression.”
Yes, this seems to be a very common problem, and often it is even weaponized into a defense of technological progress. “We” developed technology consciously, so the post-hoc stories go, to escape the horrid or unbearable existence of our ancestors, and continued technological growth will only make our existence that much more bearable (…until we reach the limit of bearability?).
But, if you accept evolutionary or even just biological stories about humanity, then we need to keep only one thing in mind; humans have instincts, and if we were to follow those instincts, it would not feel robotic at all. Perhaps it would seem robotic to a third-party observer: “god, just look at destitute people who act no different from animals! Let us save them from their mundane existence so that they can have all of their needs always accounted for and engage in (decadent) intellectual feats and live solely inside their heads forever.” This seems to be a central claim of Klages. Once we are doing what our Soul tells begs us to, and once we separate ourselves from the alienating and killing Spirit, then we can reach unity with the world, attain true life, and, if ‘happiness’ is possible it all, it will be when we are living in complete harmony with everything.
Consider it another way: in being a phenomenon at all (which each of us presumably is), this means that we are alive and thus have a Soul in Klages’ picture. How can we expect to ever be happy or content if we are denying the very thing that permits us to exist (the Soul, Life)? What we call ‘instinct’—the thing that moves all animals, plants, cells, and every other phenomenon—is the outward expression of each thing’s Soul. Humans tend to think that instinct is bad or that we need to “overcome” it to be “better” than or different from other animals. They usually justify this position by presenting the most disagreeable aspects of human nature as the definitive representation of human nature. But does not prove that instinct is bad
in any sort of metaphysically imperative way. Here it becomes practical to specify that I do not condone these negative aspects if we have in mind things like rape, murder, and so on. No one needs to like or encourage these things, just as no animal chooses to be killed, and no plant eaten. Yet they happen, and the world keeps turning. If one is unwilling to take the ‘bad’ with the ‘good’—that is, the whole of Life—then one commits oneself to a technocratic existence as a servant of Spirit, dead set on destroying Life, on turning what is into what is not. The unity of agreeable and disagreeable is Life; trying to keep one without the other kills both.
With that aside, I think my little tidbit way above about art foreshadowed most of what I would say here. I will continue to accept that art in its varied form is an expression of the Soul. Technological civilization has not killed creative expression but is killing it; it is a gradual process that ends either with the extinction of life or a rejection of the spirit. Each person has a particular share of soul and spirit, and each person might also have a particular capacity for outward expression of their inner composition. Art as we usually know it is a result from this interaction.
Animals do not produce art insofar as they lack Spirit or they lack a capacity for expression; if Spirit is present in them, they may not be able to externally embody their soul the same way man can. Regardless, the idea is that, in mankind, Spirit has been waging war against Life for as long as man has existed, and that history shows Spirit winning. As Spirit wins, Life weakens, and thus the source of creative expression (Soul) weakens. So perhaps ancient or pre-historical art was not as flashy as our modern multi-million-dollar budget movies, this does not imply that older art was any less creative, insofar as ‘creative’ means ‘expressive of Life’ or something like that.
Another related thing which I perhaps did not expand enough on in the essay is that consciousness in Klages’ picture requires the presence of both Spirit and Soul. A lack of Spirit leads to unconsciousness (which, as people commonly think, is what characterizes animal or ‘lower’ existences), and an absence of Soul—while not possible as a phenomenon—would also imply unconsciousness. This relative lack of Soul is probably what we see when thinking about common robots, machines, or automatons. They are beings whose existence is entirely dominated by Spirit with just about the smallest share possible of Soul to remain an existent/apparent thing. They do what Spirit commands them to do and they do it without
hesitation. Animals often seem to us to be similar, except that they are guided by ‘instinct’ instead of easily accessible lines of code. Humans are special insofar as both Soul and Spirit are present in our minds in varying proportions, and in some people roughly equally which gives rise to what we usually call consciousness. For as pretentious as the idea is usually taken, I am inclined to believe that most people have met people who do not seem as conscious as others. This could be explained in this picture as a meaningful domination within that person of either Soul or Spirit. One might set up the continuum of human characters with ‘robotic’ at one end signifying a domination of Spirit, and with ‘animalistic’, ‘brutish’, or a few others at the other end signifying a domination of Soul. In either case, we might expect to find that our usual activity of ‘reasoning’ has little effect on the person at either end of the spectrum, because reasoning involves a conscious management of subjective (i.e. related to Soul) considerations and objective (i.e. related to Spirit) considerations. Domination by one or the other means that one type of considerations cannot be effective in the target. Returning to animals and machines, an obviously differentiating feature is that animals are able to express themselves and thus live relatively independent of their surroundings (they are self-motive, at least for a time) whereas machines require constant external energetic input. But if we want to analyze even living things as ‘natural machines’, we still need to explain how all other things are able to change by themselves. That is, how is the phenomenon of phenomena itself self-motive? It is here that I think Klages locates “life” as we usually employ the word.
Finally, as to your point about technology “rendering us softer, more pliable, more like cogs in a machine whose process is very far removed from the actual necessities of human life”, this seems to me like a necessary effect of technological growth, without even needing to reference Klages. Technology is mostly about ordering the world, and to effectively order the world one needs to understand apparent causality, which in turn requires establishing ever specific causal relationships. A person or people in nature without a pre-existent technological apparatus must dedicate their entire existence to the general task of staying alive. From the view of efficiency, this is not efficient. A parallel would be a drop of oil existing somewhere under the ground; its task is simply to exist. But technology can put it to use. But it can only be put to use if it stops worrying about the entirety of its existence and instead focusses on one aspect of its being. In the case of oil, it can be burnt. Humans, on the other hand, are more variably useful. They can understand agriculture and grow plants, they can raise animals, they can burn oil, they can write code, they can wage war, they can climb ladders; in short, they can do everything that they have done in history and more. To generate maximum order means exploiting all possible causal relationships and this means specializing the tasks that people do the highest possible extent. But the tasks that they specialize in demands competence in order to be efficient. But humans are limited beings, meaning that they cannot be competent in all tasks. So, in being maximally competent in any one activity (say, philosophy) detracts from one’s general competence, which is what existence simpliciter would demand.
We can make this clear just by considering our current state of affairs. The vast majority of urban dwellers, for example, are competent at living within a city. If we hypothetically remove all cities, what can they do? Do they know how to produce enough food to exist? Or what water is safe to drink? Or anything else like that? Sure, some or maybe even many do, but the point is that they all were dependent on an artificial apparatus to perform their specific functions. The point becomes clearer if we consider even more specialized existences, like that of a tenured philosophy professor, an elected politician, a fast food worker, or a roboticist. If we remove the circumstances that permit these beings, we have no option but to see them as weak when they struggle to survive. As to being made ‘softer’, there can be no doubt that sitting in an office 40+ hours a week eating highly processed foods and consuming god knows what kind of chemicals produces physically disadvantaged individuals compared to, say, a peasant working in the fields for maybe the same amount of time eating nothing but grains, while both are soft compared to the person who has to carry his life on his back while tracking animals through the wilderness in order to eat. Maybe I am caricaturizing these modes of life, but the overall point seems to hold: the present system cannot exist with generalists due to the nature of technological development; it demands specialists; and specialization leads to the atrophy of one’s unexercised capacities.
To finally conclude, I do not think that much of this will feature in the revised edition. Hopefully, though, some of this helps to clarify some of your questions. It was a little polemical at points so probably not the best expositional material but oh well.