The Grip of Technology

unpacking the meaning of this word, as it differs markedly from its ordinary usage. In ordinary German, the word refers to something like a stand, a shelf, a rack, a frame (for a bed, a table or a pair of glasses), a trestle, a chassis or even the landing gear of an airplane. In all instances, it designates that which supports and holds together whatever it is applied to. Heidegger retains this ordinary meaning. At the same time, however, by interpreting it literally, he adds another meaning to it. First, he says, we can understand the prefix ‘Ge’ as signifying an operation of gathering, similar to the Greek syn-, or the Latin cum-Gebirge is a mountain chain, and Gebinde refers to flowers arranged and tied together in a wreath, or a sheaf. What is gathered in this gathering? The real itself, as such and as a whole. The Ge-stell points to the way in which the real is gathered, or held together. As such, it signals a situation analogous — yet in a way fundamentally opposed — to the one Heidegger calls the Ge-viert (the ‘fourfold’), [...]. Second, the word contains the root-verb stellen, to place, to stand. In a way, then, the Ge-stell refers to the frame or the armature on which the real as a whole — and this includes the human is placed or stretched, and at the same time gathered together, assembled as a single reality. Translating the Ge-stell back into a Greek word that is familiar to all of us, we could understand it as the System designating the way in which things are assembled or held together in a coherent unity. The Greek systema, which designates an assemblage, a totality or a composition, is built from the prefix syn-, together, and the verb istemi, or systemi, which means to stand, or to make to stand, as well as to set up, to raise, be set or placed and even, in Homer especially, to be in a certain state or condition. The German Ge-stell is, quite literally, a translation of the Greek systema. Yet the kind of translation that is at issue here is not just linguistic. It is historical in the strongest sense of the term. For what Heidegger is after with this word is the precise manner in which things are held together for us today, and the manner in which we, as human beings, fit into this assemblage. And this manner is radically different from the one experienced in Greek antiquity, or in the Middle Ages: it is precisely as an increasingly violent challenging forth, and a relentless summoning, as well as an increasingly integrated system, also known as a network. The System designates the way in which things stand together at the end of metaphysics, in the technological, and especially technoscientific age. We speak today of physical, chemical and biological systems, of ecosystems and information systems. We speak of neural networks, research, media, commercial, political and terrorist networks. What do these have in common? The fact they are all considered from the point of view of their formal structure, held together by the flow of information and communication that runs through them.

Around the root-verb 'stellen', Heidegger gathers a number of other verbs, which all converge in the Ge-stell: