Monday, August 15, 2005

A Philosophy of Salvage

Written for Lodestone Salvage, an online inventory of ongoing architectural salvage activities conducted with the resident philosopher of science.
Not only handicraft manufacture, not only artistic and poetical bringing into appearance and concrete imagery, is a bringing-forth, poiesis. Physis, also, the rising of something from out of itself, is a bringing-forth, poiesis. ... Techne is the name not only for the activities and skills of the craftsman but also for the arts of the mind and the fine arts. Techne belongs to bringing-forth, to poiesis; it is something poetic. ... There was a time when it was not technology alone that bore the name techne. ... There was a time when the bringing-forth of the true into the
beautiful was called techne. (Martin Heidegger, "The Question Concerning Technology")
In "The Question Concerning Technology", the German philosopher Martin Heidegger avers that the danger of modern technology is a challenging-forth to narrow utility in which nature is reduced to "standing reserve", to be available to be ordered, transformed, used up, and discarded. He suggests that by adopting the originary meaning of techne as referring not only to technology but also the making of art -- the bringing-forth of the true into the beautiful -- we might "guard and preserve the essential unfolding" of both art and nature.

If the essence of technology is a challenging-forth, then its antidote might be gathering. Gathering is an activity associated with pre-agrarian cultures living in a kind of balance or d├ętente with their environment. Gathering is also a principal activity of salvage, and as such is the centrepiece of a philosophy of salvage. For Heidegger, the essence of dwelling is the gathering together of the fourfold (of earth, sky, divinities, and mortals), and has as its fundamental character a saving which spares things to unfold in their own essence, and which preserves their character.

As an act of saving, salvage preserves objects marked for destruction because their narrow utility as standing reserve has expired. Within the metaphysics of technology, an object is cast with a single purpose in mind. When that use has ended or the object is no longer suited to it, no other use or essence is conceived of and the object is abandoned or destroyed. But in nature, and in the originary meaning of techne, things are not confined to a one-way utilitarian trajectory. A tree grows in rotted humus. It may be worshipped, or carved into, or admired, or referred to as a landmark. It may be harvested, and boards cut from it or its seedlings may be crafted into furniture or dwellings, plain or elaborately carved. These manufactured objects may be passed from owner to owner, and may be used for varied purposes. They may be sawn apart and refabricated into other things: chairs, shelves, toys, tools. They may be stored and, later, rediscovered. They may gain and lose and regain a variety of symbolic meanings. At some point they may be burned and consigned to the earth. Always, though, their essential character as wood is preserved. Indeed, it is our encounter with their essential character as wood that enables this variety of valuings, uses, and meanings.

But increasingly we fabricate objects that may only be used for a single purpose, or for a short period, and then cannot be reused or even reduced to their constituent elements. We sever them from their essential character: wood is reduced to wood chips or sawdust, to be bound with glue and formed into boards and cheap furniture which cannot be repurposed and which, once scratched or banged, are only rubbish. Severed from their essence, it is nearly impossible to conceive of such objects -- or the trees from which they are severed -- as anything else other than standing reserve whose utility quickly expires.

The chief activity of salvage, gathering, seeks to preserve objects so they may unfold in keeping with their essence. This act of saving is also an act of building, of poiesis, of bringing-forth the true into the beautiful, and as such it makes genuine dwelling possible. Such saving serves as a reminder of the originary meaning of techne, of the making of things that are not only useful but true to their own essence.

Consider a window. A window is not only a transparent barrier to the weather. A window both separates and joins; it is a boundary that can be opened in invitation or barred to invaders; it breathes both light and perspective; phenomenologically speaking, it frames an encounter between inside and out, between the self and the world. A window may be beautiful, particularly if it is leaded or many-paned or made from stained-glass. But a window is not only beautiful as a window, and if it is discarded once its narrow utility as a window has ended, the act of discarding it -- the inability to conceive of a window as anything else -- does damage to its essence as a window, to its constituent elements, to its possibilities of continued unfolding, and to our own capacity for genuine dwelling. How might a window be salvaged? It might be re-used as a window in another building. It might be incorporated into a glassed greenhouse. It might be remade into a frame, or a cupboard door, or a table-top. If it is made of wood, the wood might be stripped and sanded and stained, its grain preserved and revealed and set free. If it is made into a mirror, all its qualities as a window, and its wood and glass and memory, and ourselves and our encounters with it and the world, and our capacity for creative thoughtfulness, are reflected, enlarged, and made luminous. And in this act of salvage, what else might be saved? Only our recognition of the essence of beings and our capacity for genuine dwelling.

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