I have been intrigued for some time with the existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger‘s work, particularly his reflections on how human beings are thrown into existence and how so many, actually the vast majority, of us become so caught up in this existence, certainly in the daily, mundane aspects of it, that we never become fully actualized creatures – at least, to the degree to which we are capable. We simply become immersed in the demands and banality of daily existence and in the idle chatter largely associated with it, consequently, never becoming fully aware of all of the possibilities of living and, for that matter, of acquiring the emotional and psychological means of living life to the fullest.
Yet, as presumptuous as this may sound to some, Heidegger’s concept of thrownness, brilliant as it is, raises some additional implications, at least, if I understand him correctly.
A Comparatively Raw, Unfiltered Experience with Existence
We modern humans are thrown into existence, yes, but not in the disruptive way that our hominin forebears were eons ago. The thrownness with which we deal on a daily basis is considerably far removed from the raw encounters our hominid forebears faced. To be sure, among some of the more neurotic of us moderns, many hours in the day may be passed contemplating mortality and the inevitability of death. But our ancient forebears were confronted by immediacy of death of which we moderns scarcely can conceive. They were confronted on a daily basis with the strong possibly of death, whether this meant being devoured by hungry animals or running up against hostile hominids while undertaking the daily, desperate task of collecting water or foraging or hunting for food.
Modern humans, at least, those born in the developed world, do not encounter anything resembling our forebears’ primordial existence. Indeed, it was their encounter with this primordial thrownness, this comparatively raw encounter with existence, that placed them and ultimately our species on a path that culminated in the highly nuanced, albeit filtered existence that we experience in the 21st century.
Thrown into an Amnion
Indeed, many, if not most of us, are thrown into something that arguably could be more accurately described as an amnion, one that not only sustains each of us, however imperfectly, throughout our lives, but that also, in a manner of speaking, is somewhat soft and pliable, certainly compared with the filtering system that sustained the ancients. And this amnion possibly will become even softer and more pliable in the future as our relationship with Artificial Intelligence intensifies. (I personally prefer to call our evolved existence the “Networked Human Exoskeleton” to underscore how a networking of language, technology and writing has provided our species with a dense layer of protection and sustenance over eons and that could be described as a largely incorporeal protective covering.)
To be sure, many moderns, whether because of genetic, psychological or emotional factors, never adjust adequately to this amnion – this highly evolved network through which we experience existence. And to underscore again, it functions only as an inapproximate filtering mechanism with the physical world that lies beyond us. Even so, this filtering system, as it has grown denser and more generative over time, has afforded our species, certainly those of us who inhabit developed world counties, with an immensely multifaceted reality. Even more remarkable is how it has managed to substitute what once was a largely raw, unfiltered experience with one that has altered in a variety of ways how we perceive what lies beyond us.
One of the most conspicuous examples is how this evolving filter has contributed to a radical alteration of our perception of natural phenomena, notably the sky, which fixated and enraptured the ancients. Now our perception and understanding of the sky, which our forebears experienced as a dense canopy of light, is now imparted significantly through highly trained specialists who use all manner of instrumentation, not only telescopes but also the data generated by deep space craft, planetary landers and, in the future, even submarines that will plumb the depths distant planetary and lunar oceans.
Marta Hiller’s Experience
Some insight into how our networked human exoskeleton, our densely evolved filter, has affected our perception of existence was provided by a German journalist who survived the Soviet invasion and occupation of Berlin and who, in the years following her death, was identified as Marta Hillers. She is credited with writing a “Woman in Berlin,” a remarkable but horrifying account of the rape and pillaging that followed in the aftermath of the German collapse and how she and other women not only physically survived but also marshaled the psychological and emotional resources to endure these daily indignities.
In the course of compiling a journal all of her disparate thoughts and experiences, Hillers offered a remarkable observation. She reflected on how neuroticism essentially served as a marker of affluence in a society such as Germany, which, in the years before its collapse in 1945 was regarded as one of the most technologically and culturally sophisticated countries in the world.
What followed in the aftermath of the Nazi regime’s collapse, on the other hand, served to underscore to Hillers that life in more primitive environments required a sharper, if not a laser-like, focus on the daily task of survival.
It reminds me of a observation my late father once made about the widespread modern fascination with genealogy. As he stressed, only a few generations back, people, particularly in the Depression Era South, struggling to scratch out a living, scarcely had the time or inclination to ask about their origins.
For most people, genealogy has become a vocation, one that has been shaped significantly by the rising levels of affluence and education that has accompanied the post-WWII era.
I have come to refer to this phenomenon of densely filtered existence as networked slack.
As our networked human exoskeleton has grown and become more dense and generative, it has altered significantly the way we perceive what lies beyond us. And as I devote more thought to this multi-generational improvisation, the more I appreciate Heidegger’s concept of disclosure. Our perception of our reality is, to a significant degree, sculpted out by our exoskeleton. In many ways, this relates to biologist Stuart Kaufman’s concept of the adjacent possible.
The conceptual scaffolding that emerges from this evolving exoskeleton effectively discloses new facets of perception of existence and even has the capacity in extraordinarily disruptive circumstances, such as the ones that Hillers faced, to alter radically our perception – in her case, by providing unique insight into the comparatively unfiltered experience of the ancients.