Analogous and Digital
Analogous and Digital
by Wilhelm Vossenkuhl
Authenticity and a questionable analogy
"How is it", asks Edward Young, "that we are born as originals and die as copies?" The 18th-century English poet is concerned that as individuals in society we lose our distinctive qualities. We conform to other people, the taste of the times, but also to law and political order. Ultimately we do not know who we are and what makes us different from all the rest.
This concern about our authenticity has not got any less today. Authenticity is one of the great themes of Modernism. Young's contemporary Rousseau believes that it is only meaningful for us to exist in "unity of life with itself", in unity with nature. He suggests a new legal system to rescue authenticity, intended to create a community of life instead of abstract legal conditions.
It is hard for us to imagine today how we can do justice to the ideal of unity with nature in a bourgeois life community. And yet this ideal still seems fascinating. We have not stopped striving for it. But in our ecological epoch it means something different from what it did at the time of Rousseau.
Today we want to achieve unity with ourselves by the shortest possible route, and find our authentic selves without a detour via society. We strive for a direct, concrete relationship with our own nature and our natural environment. Society and its order seem to depend on the right relationship of the individual with nature, and not vice versa. A wareness of ecological dangers puts the natural before the social environment. The long-accepted precedence of society over the individual, at least from a political and legal point of view, has been questioned for quite some time. A new individualism with many pros and cons has prevailed for quite a while, at least in Western society.
Rousseau's suggestion appeared to be highly abstract to Lionel Trilling half a century ago. Trilling thought that our feeling for authenticity had become rougher, more concrete and more extreme ( Das Ende der Aufrichtigkeit , Frankfurt/Main 1983, S. 92). When Trilling put forward this thesis in his lectures at Harvard University it was easy to understand. However, his scepticism towards Rousseau at the time is now difficult to comprehend. On the other hand, the joy that Rousseau described as philosophical life in his "Rêveries" is accessible again (Heinrich Meier, Über das Glück des philosophischen Lebens. Reflexionen zu Rousseaus Rêveries , Munich 2011).
Striving to achieve unity with nature and an authentic self that is happy at the same time has come under pressure of time because of ecological dangers. It is no wonder that this pressure of time is making us increasingly impatient. This impatience increases our intolerance of the actual or presumed - agents of these dangers. But this impatience is a symptom in itself, not just a crisis of understanding ourselves and our unity with nature.
This crisis is not merely older than the ecological one. People like Rousseau, who were asking about our authenticity at the time of the Enlightenment, were already aware of it. But the attempt to solve this crisis leads in the wrong direction. In the late 18th century -after a long period of preparation through anatomy and early biological research - the thought that what was organic was natural became accepted.
It is not obvious at first how erroneous this thought is in terms of our self-perception and our relationship with nature. This is perhaps why it has lost none of its influence, even today. We come across it in criticism of modern technology and of literature. What makes this thought so plausible?
An organ is a complete entity, even if it is part of a greater whole, along with other organs; it plays a distinctive and irreplaceable role. It is difficult to find a more vivid image of authenticity than that of the organ. It conve