The X Game of Language: Decrypting Heidegger’s Ready to Hand

Cuevas de las Manos (CC BY-SA 3.0 Src)

We feel as if we had to repair a torn spider’s
web with our fingers.

— Ludwig Wittgenstein (PI, 106)

Description of the game

Imagine that tomorrow every single written sign of every written language is transformed into the letter “x” (all scripts become the extensive combination of x´s). This includes all written words everywhere. The x “changeling” also applies to every written sign ever recorded. A total collapse of the written word. All written signs disappear but not our ability to remember them and their connection to sound (phonetics), we have no trouble remembering and speaking our name, our address, or the position of every single letter on a keyboard; in short, the memory of the written word remains intact. If we type the letter r on the old keyboard, a letter x would appear. A total collapse of the written word. As if everything ever written was written in the sand and the “Great Wave of Kanagawa” washed it all away in an instant.

Boundaries of the game

It is difficult to give a description of what a written system is. First, it is any visual or tactile method of representation of verbal communication (the intimate relation between the spoken and the written word is what defines written language and excludes drawings, paintings and other forms of symbolic systems). A stop sign that has the word “stop” written on it will become a red octagon with four x´s written on it, while the stop sign with a hand in the position of stop will remain unaltered. In the game, “written language1” also refers to artificial graphic marks on a more or less durable medium and at least one set of defined base elements or symbols, individually termed signs and collectively called a script.2 There will be at least one set of rules loosely shared by a community, which assigns meaning to its elementary particles (graphemes). In short, a script as representation of the spoken that may be decipherable by a reader of the said language.

The game includes all systems of written language:3 it comprises any glyph as a building block within a settled set of symbols, intended to represent the possibilities of reading and writing.4 This includes every language that is able to convey the meaning of phonetic complexes.

Clues that are questions and questions that are clues

What changes would the game x bring about to concepts such as hierarchy, order and orders, samples, totality, principles and axioms, obedience, becoming, necessity and contingency? Is there a new relation between logic and thinking? What will become of the relation between signifier and signified? What would happen with structure and agency? What would we understand by constituent power? What would change in the relationship between names, identity and multiplicity? To what extent would we need to alter the meaning of the concept of symbol? Can writing have any reference beyond our memory? and what would memory become? Would there be a new relation between langue and parole? Utopia or dystopia?

There are countless ways to play this game. In what follows I will propose one way to play. For reasons that will become apparent, Heidegger’s concept of the “ready to hand” seems to me a good choice as a first attempt. I am not denying that I put all my chips on my theory of the “encryption of power” as the solution to the enigma generated by the game.

The theory of encryption of power5

Encryption, as the intentional way of hiding or confounding the meanings of a symbolic system is a characteristic proper to any language, that is what allows every language to be elastic, creative and resilient, this is not in dispute here.

Nevertheless, we are before a whole different kind of creature when we deal with the “encryption of power”. Here we are before a primordial prohibition (political, legal, racial) controlling access to the programming and uses of language (as the first common difference) through permanent qualifications and conditions for the exercise of power and therefore a rigid stratification for the belonging-to of any possible world.6 What the encryption of power inhibits is the possibility of communicating meanings that are not defined in advance by a transcendent model, where the political lexicon is hierarchized7 and the possibility of its engagement is predetermined and reserved for a few that hold the codes of its uses. Where there is encryption of lexicons there is a hierarchy of beings and objects in the world. However, what is occluded by encryption is not language itself but the process of its transmission, the norms by which it operates, and the means by which it is distributed, and primordially, the reality to which it refers.8 Henceforth, reality becomes what the expert at hand (the encryptor) says reality is. What encryption guarantees is an absolute hierarchical social and political control over the areas of conflict and debate and the empirical and normative bases that can arise in any discourse. That is why for the encryption of language it is fundamental to create the idea of a totality that is previous and superior to any interaction that may emerge. The totality holds within it the design of parts that are integral to it, creating simultaneously the mechanism to calculate every emergence of possible relations. Within a totality the possibility of meaning is already distributed among centres of significance. Encryption is thus the negation of democracy (the order of difference), the impossibility of politics through the alienation of language that makes the world possible. In the end, the impenetrability of language becomes the impenetrability of the political.8 As McDonald has recently noted “What is encrypted by the constitution of liberalism is the people of democracy”.10

Here I am introducing a new concept that accompanies the encryption of power. Taking from Wittgenstein´s “language games”, I am claiming that in order for power “as potestas” (oppression) to create a simulated language game it requires a “power play”.

The tendency of power as potestas to construct ideal languages, to detach meaning from ordinary language, to create forms of knowing and doing that are outside of any possible game, where the rules are said to anticipate the move (transcendent) but are only knowable in their application after the move (ex post facto) is what I call a “power play”. A power play consists of a method designed to jump out of a language game altogether and into transcendent models of power that deny every form of difference.

The ready to hand

For Heidegger there are two ontological modes as to how being gets involved “with the world”11 that mark its existential attitudes: 1. the available or “ready to hand” (Zuhandensein) and 2. the occurrent or present at hand (Vorhandene). The ready to hand is the existential preparation for Dasein. Brandom clarifies that “Vorhandensein (presence-at-hand) things are roughly the objective, person-independent, causally interacting subjects of natural scientific inquiry. Zuhandene (ready to hand) things are those that a neo-Kantian would describe as having been imbued with human values and significances.12” Hence the presence at hand is constituted by properties in themselves and not in relation to uses while the readiness at hand is constituted in the use of things within a totality of relations. The classic distinction is exemplified in the hammer. When it is in perfect shape we use it as a ready to hand; but when it is broken it is just a useless thing lying there, a simple presence at hand. Being is “within the world” (the first preparatory stage of Dasein) only to the extent that it recognizes itself in the use of things (tools).

The analytic of Dasein only gets constituted after it goes through a series of concatenated experiences where it gains, at every step, a more robust and finalized form aiming at constituting itself as the possibility of the meaning of the world. The concatenation between one state and the next is logically necessary, the failure in a previous state means the failure (impossibility) of the whole analytic. For example, there is no way to pass from “being within the world” (ready to hand) to “being with” (others-they), if “being within the world” has failed or is inauthentic. Care (Sorge), which is the final existential state of authenticity of Dasein, can only come to fruition if “solicitude” which is a previous existential state, is constituted correctly. The fundamental point is that readyness to hand is the condition of the potentiality of being; hence, if the ready to hand goes astray, so will all of the analytic of Dasein and with it any possibility of accruing any meaning “in” and “of” the world.

Our quarrel with Heidegger is simple but the consequence is complex. It is a matter of his erroneous constitution of power, or better, his failure to see how ready to hand is constituted by forms of power. Without the decryption of the ready to hand, we could not know the difference between Dasein-the ready to hand and the present at hand. It is curious to see how Heidegger sees something like the encryption of the Dasman (of the they) but not of the ready to hand. This is not only an ontological hindrance but a phenomenological failure as well. Our theory is that the encryption of the ready to hand frustrates the possibility of the analytic of Dasein in toto, hence, it is not an aspect of authenticity or inauthenticity, but of the world itself that is expunged from the world. Going back to the example, what is not accounted for by Heidegger´s ready to hand are the relations of power that reserve the use of the hammer for a certain model of human being and for the creation of such and such things that some are deprived of, not because of the universal use of the tool but by a disposition of power, in short, a power play.

Regarding the relation between the ready to hand and the present at hand Heidegger establishes that “The Objective distances of Things present-at-hand do not coincide with the remoteness and closeness of what is ready-to-hand within-the-world”.13 As “actor network theory14” has taught us, present at hand always involves a measure of space which is objective. Stockholm is 6,651 miles away from Rio de Janeiro, but ready to hand is relative to a certain type of distribution of space, a certain type of order. Thus the best beaches in Rio are more accessible to someone living in Stockholm than to a native living nearby.

For Heidegger, being is thrown onto an already defined, given reality. However, this reality has to be inscribed into being all over again, it has to materialise within being where it is not an instantaneous flash but a long process of becoming through the things of the world. The fallacy? Heidegger thinks of the ready to hand as a grand structure of homogeneity, reflected in the sameness of relations and things to themselves and to being. Heidegger supposes a closed frame and stability and linearity of systems of significations for the ready to hand. This not only misses the heterogeneity of things but the inevitable presence of orders and organizations coming from outside the realm of things and thus out of reach of Dasein. It is not only a political problem, but an instantaneously ontological political problem.

It is true that Heidegger acknowledges that ready to hand only gets constituted through work,15 but work must be decrypted. A division between living and dead labour must be established as the blade that cuts through the ready to hand and the present at hand. As we know language is the first technology.

Heidegger holds that, “The modes of conspicuousness, obtrusiveness, and obstinacy” mean that “equipment cannot be used, this implies that the constitutive assignment of the “in-order-to” to a “towards-this” has been disturbed”.16 The fundamental questions are, what real access do we actually have to the ready to hand, and who determines its utility (instrumentality) and for what purposes? With encryption, the access to equipment is blocked and redistributed on the basis of constrictions and prohibitions that become themselves instruments of inclusion and exclusion. Circumspection is defined and altered beforehand by a previous decision that makes the availability of equipment scarce. “Scarcity” is the main problem of the worldliness of the ready for hand. But also, the lines between the ready to hand and present at hand are blurred and upset, the convertibility (crossing the lines) from one to the other is also a matter of power. We do not free things (flat ontologies) simply by declaring unilaterally that they are free for use. The question of crossing lines (ready to hand-present at hand) is an act of power and the totality of involvements or “whatever a thing is” is not a simple question for a singular Dasein but a question of and for a multiplicity.

Regarding signification of the ready to hand, and this is the heart of the matter, for Heidegger “A sign is not a Thing which stands to another Thing in the relationship of indicating; it is rather an item of equipment which explicitly raises a totality of equipment into our circumspection so that together with it the worldly character of the ready-to-hand announces itself”.17 A sign lets the totality come forth, show itself, it raises the context. The sign is a special case of the ready to hand; but even the use of the sign does not come spontaneously but is inserted within a relation of economies, of systems of communication engaged by power. The sign, as referring to equipment as ready to hand does not necessarily liberate, rather it organizes, codifies it and hides its strata.

So, although he realizes that the ready to hand has been previously assigned, he dares not ask the question of how and within what logics of distribution of power. Consequently, the ready to hand becomes present at hand and reference to it becomes the “given” of the world.

To assign meaning is to reserve the equipment for some, and in a certain way; and to deprive others of its use and in a certain way. But it also means, at root, to define what is epistemology, what is morality, aesthetics, etc. The distribution of meaning in language not only defines the things of the world but the disciplines through which they can be named and consequently the right formula and the correct subjectivity to do so.

If it is true, as Heidegger asserts that “in a workshop, for example, the totality of involvements which is constitutive for the ready-to-hand in its readiness-to-hand, is ‘earlier’ than any single item of equipment”,18 then, if we apply encryption it becomes evident that the assignment of references (encryption) is the condition for serviceability and usability and thus we are within the dominance of the past over the present, of actuality over potentia, a time overbearing becoming and the rule of the actual (extensa) over the virtual (intensive).

Take our dealings with computer applications as ready to hand. It is we that are programmed to run the apps, we are its tributaries, we have to learn how to ride them in order for them to represent a world that is fluid, regular and always predictable. If we become literate then they are predictable and regular, and the world appears as such, but, if we are not literate, they are stubborn and inaccessible and the world seems to run askew. In order for the world to show any significance at all we must encrypt ourselves into the machine.

Unconcealment (Aletheia19)

Unconcealment, is perhaps the Heideggerian concept that best portrays his construction of a supposition-free ontology. It represents the bridge that turns ready to hand into a necessary condition for Dasein. To even work towards unconcealment of an entity, we must first make the world available for all entities to share in their difference. There is then a previous concealment which is not the self-concealment of things, but which is the power-in-concealment of the possibility of the world through encryption. It is the concealment of the capacities to approximate, live and name the world in its own instances of difference. Thus, unconcealmeant never happens for the first time.

Heidegger affirms that, “When something is understood but is still veiled, it becomes unveiled by an act of appropriation, and this is always done under the guidance of a point of view, which fixes that with regard to which what is understood is to be interpreted”.20 When we unveil we are not unveiling the thing but the totality of involvements, that if encrypted, would only unveil the sense it was given by the encryptor. Nothing but an arrangement of things in space as a command. This forces us to raise the bar even further: every unveiling must be double, it must first unveil the circumstances that deployed and organized the totality of involvements, and only then will the ready to hand be unveiled in itself.

Totality

A ready to hand is never alone, it is always within a totality of involvement that assigns its function and meaning. Totality is the quilting point where being is defined as “being in the world” through the totality of involvements of the ready to hand. A totality of involvements is nothing but the vascular system of power. We encounter things in space, we trip over them, touch them, now use them now lose them. Here is where a totality of involvements begins. However, it would be counterfactual to not know this at the beginning and simply stumble onto things or use them in a moot form.There would be the need for a previous definition of what is ready to hand and present at hand before any involvement could take place; a power play would be necessarily involved, and as such it would make itself present from a place we cannot find within the relation, a place external to its composition, that is, transcendent.

The ready to hand is not a secondary condition of being, it is fundamental, without it there is simply no world. Entities are set up beforehand in a totality of involvements where not only the entity may be made inaccessible (obstinate, obtrusive, impenetrable) but the totality of involvements kept hidden.  The fundamental point is that the individual ready to hand can be transparent (the hammer, the book, the gun) but it is the totality of involvements which is obscure and encrypted. We may disclose one thing but not the networks and its organization as a world. What is inhibited is the possibility of discovering things and of dislodging the singular from the composite as a revolutionary political act.

Deseverance

A key concept of “Being and Time” is deseverance “what is ready-to-hand within-the-world is desevered and given directionality, depending upon the degree of transparency that is possible for concernful circumspection”.21 This is key for encryption. Transparency depends on how the entity called human is given within the world. Heidegger repeats the posture of thinking of a potentiality of a human that is unrestrained, an equal among equals, that shares the possibility of addressing the world from equivalent points of view. He does not see race and gender as conditions for this transparency of being. He does not see the obstacles and hindrances, the sheer impossibilities with which some beings are put into the world on an unequal footing. This blindness is not minor and surmountable. In any case, prior to the possibility of circumspection and the potentiality of being, power is constitutive and thus defines the alternate virtualities of being in the world. Ready to hand is the world of work, and thus we have living labour which has been deprived and encrypted, subtracted and re-signified (mystified and alienated). In order for circumspection to de-severe, it must be free to do so, but if the ready to hand of work is privatized and elitised, de-severance is already marked by an external fate, an external clockwork organization of things in the world.

The they

Regarding the concept of the “they” Heidegger´s answer is that the “they” constitute inauthenticity and Dasein can only bear beingness or ask the question of being from its capacity to disclose entities overpowering the concealment of the world executed by “them”. But then the question is begged:  if Dasein can disclose a world without decrypting “being within” what would “being with” amount to? As we noted before, it seems Heidegger establishes two different contexts for the “they”: given relationality of equality among beings that results in the full transparency of tools. However, this supposed equality breaks up into pieces once we enter the realm of the “they”, but the tools remain, unbelievably, transparent!

Co-states of mind

Let us say something in the way of closing regarding “co-states of mind”; this is where my arguments come together. In Heidegger´s words

Communication, in which one makes assertions-giving information, for instance-is a special case of that communication which is grasped in principle existentially. In this more general kind of communication, the Articulation of Being with one another understandingly is constituted. Through it a co-state-of-mind [Mitbefindlichkeit] gets ‘shared’, and so does the understanding of Being-with.22

Through decryption we can establish that communication and understanding are not co-states of mind, something that accompanies being in its becoming as something supplementary. There is not a general kind and a special kind of communication, it is the same case under the same rules. Even in encryption communication and understanding happen; furthermore, it is a condition of encryption (the political solidification of difference) that communication and understanding may go on “as if” nothing irregular is taking place, where words have a quotidian down to earth meaning and logics and natural laws are respected by it. When we decrypt we do not find another absconded language, a new form of language but new forms of communicating language. It is, in a first approximation, “spiritual”. In encryption we speak among the present but there is always something or someone else absent (not the transcendent presupposition but the immanent exclusion). As we know, making the un-sensed sensible is the function of spirituality.

“Being within” and “being with” one another are not consecutive or alternate moments but are simultaneous. What happens in one resonates in the other. If there is a failure or a lack in one dimension it immediately affects the other as well, not as a consequence, that would entail mediation, but as immediacy. They are one and the same thing, pure (Bergsonian) intensity.23 The variation in one (if there is one) amounts to a change in nature of the other. It is a symbiosis and not a state. If this is so, then the same language not only applies to it as a description, but the same language is used and disclosed; furthermore, the becoming of both things “is” language. “Is” is equality.  It is not a tunnel, one thing carving up the stuff of reality from one side until a middle meeting point. They happen in the very same space-time called language. They both express a multiplicity. If there are two of anything it is rather an encrypted language on one side and the hidden multiplicity on the other.

Decryption does not mean breaking free into open country where everything preserves some original meaning but establishing how things that seem free for use established their limiting meaning, got blocked and made impenetrable, that is, in what language-game-of power (power play) they were established.

Let us close this game with a simple exercise. Think of this problem: Does the mill that grinds fresh flour act the same when it is a machine of centralized power (few eat the bread produced by many) as when it is a communal machine of equal distribution? Is it the same machine? Are we using the machine when we eat the bread? Can we truly anticipate its action and its meaning from its internal operation? The key to the solution could be in asking, what is the distance between the model of the machine and the actual machine? Never forgetting that models are samples elevated to transcendence.

Ricardo Sanín is a pro­fessor of legal and polit­ical theory and teaches in sev­eral in­sti­tu­tions across Latin America. He is the author of Decolonizing Democracy: Power in a Solid State, and editor of Decrypting Power, both published by Rowman & Littlefield.

Show 23 footnotes

  1. Coulmas, Florian. 2003. Writing systems. An introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  2. Ibidem p. 34
  3. Daniels, Pete and William Bright (editors). 1996. The world’s writing systems. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  4. Borgwaldt Susanne R. and Terry Joyce. 2013. Typology of Writing Systems. Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company
  5. For a complete definition See: Sanín-Restrepo, Ricardo (editor). 2018. Decrypting Power. London & New York: Rowman and Littlefield International.
  6. Ibid. p. xiii
  7. Ibid. xvii
  8. Ibid. p. xviii
  9. Ibid. p. xviii
  10. McDonald, Angus “The Equivocation that Lies Like Truth” In ibid. p. 31
  11. Heidegger, Martin. 2001. Being and Time. Translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. Oxford: Blackwell.
  12. Brandom, Robert. 2005. In: A Companion to Heidegger. Edited by Hubert L. Dreyfus and Mark A. Wrathall. Oxford: Blackwell
  13. Ibid. Heidegger p.141
  14. See, among others Latour, Bruno. 2016. “Onus Orbis Terrarum: About a Possible Shift in the Definition of Sovereignty.” Millennium: Journal of International Studies 44, no. 3: 305–20.
  15. Ibid. Heidegger p.99
  16. Ibid. Heidegger p.104-105
  17. Ibid. p. 110
  18. Ibid. Heidegger p.116
  19. Heidegger, Martin. 2000. Introduction to Metaphysics. New Haven, London: Yale Nota Bene.
  20. Ibid. Heidegger. Being and Time. p.162
  21. Ibid. Heidegger p.146
  22. Ibid. Heidegger p. 205
  23. If we must speak of number, as a distinction of identities, it would only apply to dimensions (as if there were two in “sunlight”, sun and light, as two separate things).
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Ricardo Sanín Restrepo

Ricardo Sanín is a pro­fessor of legal and polit­ical theory and teaches in sev­eral in­sti­tu­tions across Latin America. Visiting profesor at Universidad Central de Quito, Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad de Mexico (UACM), Universidad San Luis de Potosí (Mexico) PUC Rio de Janeiro, Universidade Federal de Ceará-Brasil. Guest Lecturer at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), University of California in Berkeley, Universidad de Buenos Aires, Universidad de Valencia-Spain, Universidade Federal de Goias-Brasil. 

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