restricted access The Ghost in the Machine: The Comedy of Technology in the Cinema of Buster Keaton
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

The South Atlantic Quarterly 101.3 (2002) 573-588

[Access article in PDF]

The Ghost in the Machine:
The Comedy of Technology in the Cinema of Buster Keaton

Lisa Trahair

In his essay "The Question Concerning Technology," Martin Heidegger argues that the essence of technology is not itself anything technological. Heidegger's intention here is to conceive of technology under the broader rubric of poiètic revealing rather than in its narrow instrumental sense as a means to ends. 1 Poiètic revealing includes not only technè, but also poetic and artistic bringing into appearance and physis as the bursting open, which belongs to bringing-forth in itself. While Heidegger in no way refutes the correctness of an instrumental conception of technology, he nevertheless argues that to limit it in this way blocks the possibility of uncovering the breadth of what is at stake in our dealings with technology.

By comparing the different conceptions of causality implied in poiètic revealing and instrumental technology, Heidegger draws out the limitation of understanding the essence of technology as simply technological. The causality of poiètic revealing is complex and multidimensional, whereas that of instrumentality is simple and linear. The former is ancient; the latter is modern. The Greeks, Heidegger reminds us, [End Page 573] subscribed to the doctrine of the four causes; the moderns to one. The belonging together of the four causes of the Greeks are elaborated by him with the example of the production of a silver chalice:

For centuries philosophy has taught that there are four causes: (1) the causa materialis, the material, the matter out of which, for example, a silver chalice is made; (2) the causa formalis, the form, the shape into which the material enters; (3) the causa finalis, the end, for example, the sacrificial rite in relation to which the chalice required is determined as to its form and matter; (4) the causa efficiens, which brings about the effect that is the finished, actual chalice, in this instance, the silversmith. 2

The relationship between the four causes is one of coresponsibility and indebtedness. The matter and the aspect, the circumscription of the object as sacrificial vessel and the silversmith are coresponsible and each of these causes is indebted to the other. Together they are geared toward bringing about as a way of revealing. They are united in their being responsible for bringing something into appearance, for "starting something on its way to arrival," for "occasioning," for the bringing forth that Plato calls poièsis. 3

By contrast, the modern conception of causality focuses not on a general notion of revealing but on the action of an independent subject, a causal agent, the causa efficiens, who engages with means to achieve goals, and who deploys tools as autonomous objects to bring about ends. By regarding technology as mere instrumentality, the human subject assumes the status of master and thus a position at the center of all technological occurrences. Heidegger argues that the bringing about and effecting undertaken by the subject (the causa efficiens) is based on a restricted conception of causality because the causa efficiens—being but one of the four causes—comes to stand for all causality. In this restricted view humanity is situated as both the origin and arbiter of instrumental behavior and of the causality implicit in instrumentality. Yet, the causa efficiens is, in fact, as much indebted to the other causes as they are to it. 4

While asserting that the essence of technology is not itself technological, Heidegger still suggests that the purely instrumental understanding of modern technology is bound up with the essence of technology. Instrumentality implies a specific kind of revealing that he calls "Enframing." In delineating Enframing, Heidegger reaffirms the doctrine of the four causes, [End Page 574] and considers technology in relation to nature (causa materialis), ordering, expediting, and transforming nature into standing reserve (causa formalis), instrumentality, or means to ends (causa finalis), and mastery (cause efficiens). Enframing then is a way of responding to nature simply as means to ends, as standing reserve...