Rhetoric and Prayer: Thinking about Technology and Language

In thinking about technology, most people instinctively think about machines or, especially in the contemporary context, about communication technologies such as cell phones or social media. However, simply equating technology with machines does not get us to the fundamental issues. What comes before machines, devices, or tools, is the more basic human act of making. The ancient Greeks spoke of techne, having to do with craft, skill or art;[1] and closely connected with this, poesis, from which our word “poetry” derives, having to do with the creation of culture. It is important to notice that both the poet or artist and the skillful craftsman are both involved in forms of making, that is, bringing something which previously was not, into being.[2] In his famous essay The Question Concerning Technology, Martin Heidegger wants us to see the process of “making” as a “bringing fourth”.[3] Bringing fourth is a translation of the German Herforbringen, which means literally to bring to the front, to bring to the fore, to bring to the front of our attention: “Bringing-fourth brings hither out of concealment forth into unconcealment.”[4] From this, we come to Heidegger’s fundamental thesis: “Technology is a way of revealing.”[5] Notice where we have arrived at, we are no longer talking about machines or devices, we are now looking at how the world reveals itself to us. More specifically, how the essence of modern Technology reveals the world to us. For Heidegger, what characterizes our technological society is that we have been caught hold a of framing of reality which makes the world come into being for us as “standing-reserve”, standing by for further ordering.[6] The world now comes into being for us as a resource, as part of our network of ordering: that forest is a vital part in our lumber system, that third world country needs to ‘develop’, that person needs to become part of my professional network, my body needs to maximize its nutrient intake. Under this “Enframing”, not only is Reality reduced to a resource and its true nature obscured and left unconcealed, but human beings themselves are alienated from their humanity. Entire vistas of truth, seeing, valuing, or acting are closed off as human beings are enslaved to a Picture.

This line of thought opens us up to consider the relationship between language and technology. We have already noticed this link by noting the relationship between techneand poesis and the connection of both to “bringing fourth” or “revealing”. Language is the most basic technology. Language is already a form of mediation between humanity and the world, a framing of reality, an assertive act of humanity upon creation. It’s instructive to observe that in the Genesis creation account, God’s making of the world is reflected by human beings, made in God’s image, now naming the creatures in the garden.[7] The naming of the world, is itself a form of ‘creation’, bringing the undifferentiated formless world into coherence and harmony. It’s extremely important to think here about the kind of making or ‘naming’ that is involved here. Is Adam’s naming of the animals simply an imposition of order from on high, paralleled by God’s arbitrary imposition of order on a formless world?

Perhaps here Carl Mitcham’s work on techne can be instructive. For the Greeks, techne was not an imposition of form on a dead matter, but rather: “an artisan must let the matter guide the way it receives form.”[8] Or, even more provocatively: “Aristotle goes so far as to describe the coming together of form and matter, the becoming of an entity, as dependent on matter’s “desire” or “reaching out” for form.”[9] There is an interplay between the ‘reaching out’ of matter, the limits inscribed in nature, and the loving and skillful use of logos to create. Techne is necessarily involved, not with the abstract, realm of universals, but with particular things. As such there is “an irreducible, nonlogical component” which “is properly grounded in one of the various forms of love, sorge, philia, eros, agape. Only love can encompass or grasp the singular.”[10] Love of the trade, craft, or the object being made is essential, if we are concerned with good work. As Socrates argues, the skillful worker, if they are perusing techne “does not consider its own advantage …but the advantage of that of which is the art.”[11] What might this mean if this were applied in our world today? What would farming look like if the farmer were concerned with future generations, the land, the art of farming as opposed to the profit motive, efficiency or maximum yield? How would the mass production of goods stand up to this criterion? How might we think differently about what good work is?

Mitcham draws a fascinating parallel between rhetoric as a form of techne and the shift from techne to modern “technology”. Mitcham points out that there was an important difference between how Aristotle conceived of techne as related craftsmanship, and techne within ‘rhetoric’. For techne as it relates to craftsmanship, the general procedures or skills were inspirable from the particular knowledge, care, and engagement with the object, material and craft. To be a skilled craftsman required more than just the application of a technique, but also knowledge (think eros) of the particular object, care for the craft, and attentiveness to the material. In Aristotle’s discussion of rhetoric, techne plays a radically different role. Techne is reduced to the method, technique or “means of persuasion”, and separated from any consideration of truth.[12] We have here the seed of the modern idea of ‘technology’, or technological making, as “a logos of the activity, a rationalization of the process of production.”[13] In other words, just as rhetoric is separated from truth, just so the process of production is set loose from any sense of proportionality. The production process then imposes itself on the world, with no other goal but increased efficiency.

To return with this background to our thread of language and Adam’s naming of the animals, we can perhaps begin to see things differently. Adam’s naming of the animals, seen in the light of techne, is not the imposition of a name on a formless world. Rather, there is a calling fourth from the world, a loving recognition, and an appropriate use of logos. The naming of the animals is fitted with what comes fourth and given in response to a call. Essential to Adam’s vocation of ‘dominion’ is a self-emptying, a “gentle space making”[14] to let what is, come fourth into revealing, to discover what it is named. (The Genesis account has God waiting to “see” what Adam will name the creatures. We might we imagine Adam waiting to see what name the creatures would give.) Technology as “Rhetoric” and Technology as “Enframing,” make this ‘naming’ appear in a very different light. Under the yoke of “Enframing”, the animals can only appear to us as resources for our use, they cannot come to us as they are.

Language as Rhetoric does not reveal, but obscures reality. Rhetoric, as a method, technique or means of persuasion, makes the listener feel motivated or deeply moved, without necessarily communicating anything of substance. This is the function of language in our technological age in two different ways. First, the use of ‘plastic words’ (over-inflated terms which don’t really signify anything e.g., ‘research’, ‘education’, ‘relationship’ or ‘life’) which reinforce the prestige, authority and expertise of the technological society.[15] Plastic words play a similar function to that which religious language would have played in a religious society: sanctioning the divine prerogative of religious authorities. Second, words themselves have been so denatured of their ability to ‘reveal’ reality, that they act as ‘Enframing’. In a technological age, words themselves are made to “stand by” for further ordering. Words are reduced down to discrete units, analogous to computer code, which can be effectively mobilized for expert deployment. Like a stop sign is meant to signify something, clearly, directly and universally, words are reduced to 1 to 1 signifiers. The organic, historical growth of language is chopped off at the present and frozen in time. The possibility of language for opening up the transcendent is reversed, it now serves to build the immanent frame. Vernacular tongues, local expressions, contextual communal language, are overcome by a universal monotoungue. Language becomes a commodity, available to be sold by the experts who can deploy technical language with precision. In this plastic, Rhetorical, ‘Enframing’ language, a new technological civilization is being built underneath the vernacular worlds of traditional cultures: “Plastic words… have been fashioned for the purpose of laying down the tracks and outlining the routes of a civilization that is covering the globe with gathering speed.”[16]

In such a context, what can be said? Perhaps now is the time for silence. In the face of a world laid bare to analysis, prediction, extraction and ‘Enframing’, what is required is silence and listening. Beyond this, what other ways of using words might be open to us? Mitcham quotes St. Basil who complains that: “Human beings practice technology [rhetoric], not theology [prayer]”.[17] This is an extremely evocative contrast.[18] On the one hand, a posture of bloated, striving, human grasping and on the other, the vulnerable posture of the heart open to God. Simone Weil sees ‘prayer’ as fundamentally “paying attention”, that is, “waiting for”, opening oneself up to”, letting come forward.[19] Closely connected to this, Jacques Ellul sees all of life in a technological age as dominated by ‘methods of action’, programs, plans, procedures, and ends. What Christians need instead, is to simply be the presence of the kingdom, “and not to act”.[20] From this place of uncertainty, “we are bewildered because we are no longer sure of the way forward,”[21] we walk into the open future, waiting to see what will be revealed.

[1] Carl Mitcham, Thinking Through Technology: The Path between Engineering and Philosophy, (Chicago, University of Chicago Press: 1994),117.

[2] Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology, and Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt, (New York: Gerland Publishing, Inc., 1997),10.

[3] Heidegger, The Question Concerting Technology, 10.

[4] Ibid., 11.

[5] Ibid., 12.

[6] Ibid., 19.

[7] Gen. 2:19

[8] Karl Mitcham, Thinking Through Technology, 122.

[9] Ibid., 122.

[10] Ibid., 127.

[11] Ibid., 123.

[12] Ibid., 129.

[13] Ibid., 128.

[14] This is Sara Coakley’s term. Stephen Backhouse, “The Wild Word Christ,” The Dark Mountain Project, July 18, 2018, https://dark-mountain.net/the-wild-word-christ/

[15] David Cayley, Ivan Illich: An Intellectual Biography, (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press: 2021), 280.

[16] Uwe Poerkson, Plastic Words: The Tyranny of Modular Language, trans. Julia Mason and David Cayley,(University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995), 1.

[17] Mitcham, Thinking Through Technology, 129

[18] I do not have the space to develop this here, but two different modes of language (and therefore techne) seem to be suggested here: Speech for its own sake and speech directed towards Another. Speech that is confident, certain and sure of itself, and speech which is radically aware of its own inadequacy. Bloviating, self-serving speech and speech that has integrity. Speech that attempts to manipulate results with technique and speech that empties itself of power. Jesus in the gospels is surprisingly preoccupied with speech. See for e.g., Matt 5:37, Matt. 6:5-8, Matt 12:36,

[19] Michael Ross, in “Enlightened by Love: The Thought of Simone Weil”, CBC Ideas Transcript, produced by David Cayley, 2002, 30.

[20] Jacques Ellul, The Presence of the Kingdom, trans. Olive Wyon, (Colorado Springs: Helmers & Howard, 1989),90.

[21] Ellul, The Presence of the Kingdom, 95.

The featured image is called “Portrait of Patience Escalier” by Vincent Van Gough


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