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Jaana Parviainen

Reading Heidegger in dance class: Technique, Technology, Poiesis, Techne.

Jaana Parviainen: "Reading Heidegger in dance class: Technique, Technology, Poiesis, Techne", 14th International Congress on Dance Research, Aridaia, Greece, 13-17/9, 2000.


In this paper, my intention is to interpret Martin Heidegger's thesis about technology in the context of evolving a new reading of "technique" in western theatrical dance. I shall begin by introducing Heidegger's thinking in the essay "The Question Concerning Technology" concentrating on his critique of technology. Then, I shall illuminate Heidegger's views on techne and poiesis by reference to technology as a modern way of thinking. The paper attempts to show some intimate links between Heidegger's notion of technology and techne and techniques in dancing.

"It is astonishing that some people think they can learn technique from a book"

1. Introduction

The term 'technique' has been a central concept in the discourse of Western theatrical dance. Dancers attend to "technique classes" which are considered as the basis of dance education. There are numerous books in the dance literature which belong to a genre called "dance technique". In dance criticism, the competence of dancers as artists is evaluated related to their "technique". For instance, in the 1970's and 1980's the dancers who were trained in contact improvisation were frequently criticised for "the lack of technique". Critics complained that the dancers were not pointing their feet or did not have high extensions, even when the movement of choreography was meant to be relaxed. Obviously, the idea of 'technique' as the body's control in contact improvisation differs from 'ballet technique', 'Graham technique', or 'Cunningham technique' to which the critics may refer by 'technique' in this case. Nowadays, dancers may use various "body techniques" such as Alexander, Feldenkrais, yoga, jogging, swimming, weight lifting, etc. in their own individual training programs.

What is technique? Is it possible to define the concept? It seems that depending on the context of dancing, one may replace 'technique' by words like 'skill', 'body control', 'discipline', 'corporeal schema', 'method', 'movement vocabulary', 'movement style', 'instrument', and 'medium'. The term is not only used in these several senses, but there have also been various ways to produce dance technique in practice during the 20th century. Despite these multiple meanings of dance technique, 'technique' is frequently used as a "taken-for-granted" term in dance discourse.

In this paper I try to do some "archaeological investigation" to clarify the term technique, but not in a mere etymological or linguistic sense. I approach the topic of "technique" from the vantage of philosophical thought about some related concept: technology, techne and poiesis. My intention is to interpret Martin Heidegger's thesis about technology in the context of evolving a new reading of "technique" in dance [1]. I shall begin by introducing Heidegger's thinking in the essay "The question concerning technology," concentrating on his idea of technology as a modern way of thinking. Then, I shall describe Heidegger's interpretation of techne and poiesis in Ancient Greece. Building upon the ideas of Heidegger, I will show how technique and techne in the form of tools, arts, handicrafts and machines are employed by humans to achieve a variety of tasks [2].

Technique is understood both as limitation and liberation, we might well wonder how both attitudes arise. I will articulate this "doubleness" of technique. Wherever possible, I shall try to simplify Heidegger's arguments rather than merely repeat his terminology. This will not always be possible: some of Heidegger's invented terms are simply indispensable, attempting as they do to cut across developed habits of thinking.

2. Heidegger and technology

Heidegger's use of the word "technology" (Technik) may sound ambiguous, but in fact he uses the term in two different senses. Historically, "technology" designates a collection of tools and the know-how. In this sense, one speaks for example of technology in the Stone Age or of modern
technology. Historically speaking, modern technology gets its start with the invention of the steam engine in the late 18th century. Heidegger is referring to the mass mechanicazation which began in the eighteenth century and cites concrete examples such as hydroelectric works, radar stations,
and jet aircrafts. This is a matter of using external instruments as a means to an end. On the other hand, Heidegger uses technology to define a mode of thinking or a way of revealing. This definition of technology is not limited to external machines we use, but has roots in a way of thinking which goes back to the ancient Greeks. In Heidegger's view, our age does not become an age of technology because we busy ourselves making and using technical devices, but rather we so busy ourselves because our times are already technological.

The major difficulty with the present discussion of technology is the fact that we focus attention on what we call technology in its everyday sense and we ignore technology as a modern way of thinking. In this situation, it matters little whether we embrace technology or condemn it, for we are all equally enslaved by our misunderstanding of what technology actually is. It would be a mistake to think about technology merely as tools and machines; we must think about technology as a process that modifies social and cultural life. Criticising modern technology, Heidegger does not urge us to reject all technical devices. Those who reject technology altogether are just as much conditioned by enframing as those who unthinkingly embrace every new device that comes along (Betros 1986, 110). What is important about this way of understanding technology is to recognise that every human society possesses some kind of technology. To understand it as such requires us to consider how this society conceives of its "well being". The importance of these observations is to awaken us to the fact that technology is not driven by science, machines, inventions, etc. It is, in fact, driven by human interests and imagination, as to how human life could be improved. Wherever we turn, our relations to others, the environment and ourselves are embedded in a technological texture. Technologies in the daily experience of humans, of course, are not new, but the degree and extent of the texture is. The technological texture becomes dominant, familiar, and take-for-granted activity, from waking (alarm clock etc.) to toilet actives (whole system of water and sewerage), to eating (fridge, microwaves etc.), to transporting (cars, trains, routes etc.), to communication technology (telephone, internet, television). The common
opinion about the essence of technology is that technology is merely a means to an end (TK 5-17/QT4-17). A "good" technology does not call attention to itself, it "withdraws" in use. The better it functions, the more likely it becomes that we may simply grow used to its functions and forget that it is there and it is a significant element in our new mediated communication situation. We take the technology for granted in such a way that we increasingly disregard its presence (Ihde 1983, 52).

A technique is a rational discipline designed to assure our mastery over our bodies and physical nature through the application of scientifically determined laws and engineering. In a certain way every technique is indifferent to the use made of it. One may possess a technique, but not use it. Can we find the parallelism of this notion of technique with that of technique in western art dance? A critic may make an assessment regarding the dancer's physical skill in producing movements. This "technical" description of a piece of dance indicates how the dancer uses and controls her or his body, approaching the dance object from the perspective of a system that accounts for a dance practice. However, a dancer as a mere "technician" commonly implies some criticism of his performance. Her or his movements are seen as the routine or mechanical execution to complete abilities largely for their own sake (Carr 1986, 45). We could say that a good technique in dancing does not call attention to itself, it withdraws in use. In dance technique discourse, it is common to say that technique is in the service of dancing or it simply facilitates
dance (Schlaich & DuPont 1993, 5).

It is a peculiarity of the discourse of technological process that it provides the means for producing "better" skills and objects of the same kind (Skolimowski 1972, 44). By "better" many different characteristics may be intended, for example: 1) more durable/strong, 2) more reliable, 3) more sensitive, and 4) more effective with less energy in performing its function. Technique seeks to attain in everything the greatest results with minimum expenditure of power and energy. Technique has no symbols; it reflects nothing, but creates new actualities and potentials. Technique is not only a tool and a means but a struggle, almost like a weapon. It is plainly invisible, while its effects are visible. We are often told that there can be no technical ends of life, only technical means, although technique quite often becomes the principal object and end of life. This implies that in modern society techniques have become subject to calculations of overall efficiency, as for instance in engineering sciences, bureaucratic organisations, or economics. Attempts to give conceptual clarity to the ideal of efficiency have been undertaken from a number of different perspectives. Some pervasive traits of the ideal of efficiency are fuctionalisation, systematic improvement, perfection, automation, bureucratisation and communication as information (Betros 1986, 91).

Speaking of efficiency and systematic improvement in terms of dance, we should extend our discussion from the movement skills of the body to body techniques through which contemporary dancers construct their bodies [3]. In order for the body to become stronger, more sensitive, flexible with less energy, the dancers pay attention to training techniques, daily schedule, nutrition, weight control and the prevention and cure of injuries. It is common that the dancers take a diversity of classes in ballet, contact, aikido and yoga as well as their individual exercise program including jogging, swimming, weight lifting etc. The criteria for this training program is becoming more and more shaped by the sport and physical education specialists, nutritionists and physicians, who tend to reduce the body to the principle of physics measuring the heart rate, general level of strength and flexibility and muscular tonus (Foster 1992, 494). These specialists offer knowledge of the body techniques by which one can improve the body's capacity to execute movements. The use of body techniques aims at dance technique which should help the dancers create instruments (bodies) of doing any movements.

Heidegger calls this the instrumental interpretation of technology and its techniques. We simply manufacture and utilise equipment, tools and machines in order to secure the things and ideals that we need or want. Heidegger reminds us that technology is not neutral with respect to ends. He shifts from the notion of instrumentality to that of causality. When we utilise technology as a means to an end, we operate in the domain of cause and effect. The essence of technology reveals it as something far from neutral or merely an instrument of human control; it is an autonomous
organising activity within which humans themselves are organised. According to Heidegger, technology today is a "challenging-forth" of nature so that the technologically altered nature of things is always a situation in which nature and objects wait, standing in reserve for our use. Objects are viewed as "standing-reserve" and, in that, they lose their own identity. The river, for instance, is not seen as a river; it is seen as a source of hydro-electric power, as a water supply. Heidegger named "standing-reserve" by the German word 'Ge-stell,' which has been translated
to the English word, 'enframing' (QT 20).

The concept of enframing suggests that human life is gathered wholly within the essence of technology. In this mode of technology, we order the world with things standing-in-reserve for our use. When we demand the use of these things, we no longer witness them in the sense of letting their manifold potentials exist, but merely as that under which we have ordered them to be. Everything, including ourselves and our bodies, becomes material for a process of production, an imposition of human will on things regardless of their own essential natures. Enframing sees things primarily in their relation to human will as a matter of a process of production or self-imposition - a concept of the thing in its subservience to human preoccupation.

In Heidegger's view, the modern technology reveals humans and things as "standing-reserve" (Bestand) (QT, 27). The German word Bestand carries a sense both of enduring and of stock or supply, and Heidegger appeals to both senses. Beings are set upon and ordered to be on call for duty. The "standing" of the standing-reserve is that of ceaseless activity guaranteeing that constant availability of goods and services. The old windmill took energy from the wind but converted it immediately into other manifestations, such as the grinding of grain. The wind whirled the windmill. It did not unlock energy from the wind in order to store it for later arbitrary distribution. Modern wind-generators, on the other hand, convert the energy of wind into electrical power which can be stored in batteries or otherwise. They use the wind. The storing of energy is, in this sense, the symbol of our over-coming of nature as a potent object.

Technology represents the set of means by which we put the forces and laws of nature to use, in view of improving our lot or modifying it as may be agreeable to us [4]. Western modern technical achievements has shaped a different civilisation from any previous. But our control over technology is an illusion. We are ourselves part of the standing-reserve. In the discovery that we not only challenge nature, but we are challenged, Heidegger finds the essence of technology. It is not merely an external environment which we make and choose to use as we want. Technology also moulds us in what we are, our perception, actions, thoughts and imaginings. We do not stand in some external relation to technology - that is, it is not something apart from our being.

As stated above, in modern technological age, not only machines and tools but all beings come to presence as technical objects. For instance, our bodies are interpreted and described along technological lines. We easily interpret ourselves as machines or at least machine-like, when our hearts are referred to "pumps", muscular systems as levers, nerves as electrical systems and our eyes as "cameras" (Ihde 1983, 18). Such cross-sorting of metaphor between our bodies and machines is hardly new. It has been a commonplace at least since Descartes, who observed that animal - by the extension - human bodies could be thought of as "cleverly contrived machines". The machine as a metaphor for the body fosters the illusion that the body is under our control. It is a mere calculative entity which we can manipulate by different techniques: movement exercise, eating habits, medicine, surgery.

Heidegger's aim in his questioning concerning technology is emancipatory. He seeks to prepare a free relationship toward technology (TK 5/QT 4). This aim is paradoxical, since we normally think of technology as liberating rather than enslaving. Heidegger argues that the essence of technology is not itself anything technological. We should learn to think about technology in a way which is not itself technological. In Heidegger's view, language, since it has become inherently technological, can no longer be used to talk about technology in a non-technological way. What does he mean by this? To understand it, we could say that we cannot think about racism in the way which is itself racist. His strategy is to move from mere technical objects and procedures to thinking. He turns to the ancient Greeks and their concepts techne and poiesis.

3. Techne and Poiesis

Heidegger contrasts the ancient way of revealing through techne with the modern way of revealing through technology. In order to gain access to techne we must think back to the historical origin of modern technology. To elucidate further this distinction between techne and technology, Heidegger introduces the Greek word poiesis. Aristotle distinguished making (poiesis) from doing (praxis), in order to focus attention on doing. In his view, we make ships, houses, statues or computers; we do dance, sports, politics or philosophy [5]. The end of making is an object different from its act; the end of doing is the act itself, well performed.

Poiesis is normally translated as "making", but Heidegger interprets poiesis as "bringing-forth" (Her-vor-bringen) (QT, 10). An apple tree brings-forth its fruits as a silversmith brings-forth a chalice. In this sense of poiesis, there is a deep commonality between natural production and human production in that they both bring-forth, whether by making or by growing. In Heidegger's view, this notion of bringing-forth is grounded in that of aletheia (truth) as revealing. This implies that technology cannot be merely a means because it always reveals something.

Techne and episteme (knowledge) are linked together, the latter related to that which comes-forth out of its own nature alone and the former related to that which comes-forth only by our intervention with that nature. Techne does not mean making or manipulating things. It is a kind of knowledge, knowing-how, which includes knowledge of rules and procedures for production, but not as its essential aspect. For Heidegger, techne means to be entirely at home in something, to understand and be expert in it. Techne is both a name for the activities and skills of a craftsman and for the arts of both mind and hand, but also is linked to creative making, (that is to) poiesis. Techne is a mode of poiesis in the extended sense that Heidegger gives to poiesis. This means that both human and nature bring-forth their products. They differ only in that nature brings-forth itself whereas human brings-forth from another. In the ancient world natural production is the primary sense of production, human production is derivative from it, or as the usual translation has it, "art imitates nature". In the modern world human making is primary, while nature is understood as a self-making (Betros 1986, 78). Techne may be understood as a "process" that "reveals" the world in a particular way. It is based on praxis and has the purpose of "revealing" the world - but this "revealing", more than simple discovery, is "creative". It is in this sense of "creative revealing" that Heidegger understands it as prior to modern technology.

Modern technology is also a way of revealing, but one that rather than bringing-forth, reveals by challenging-forth (Herausfordern). Modern technology demands that nature supply energy that can be extracted and stored. It secures and regulates the energy hidden in nature and strives for the maximum yield at the minimum expense. This idea of technology differs from Heidegger's idea of techne. He describes his notion of techne though the cabinetmaker's relation to wood and craftwork (WhD, 48-52, 53-55/14-17, 23-25). A cabinetmaker is not merely skilled in using his tools. His (or her) craft is in his ability to understand different kinds of wood and the shapes slumbering within wood. The cabinetmaker is not related to his materials in a way that the industrial machine operator which uses the raw materials. The craftsman has a feel for his and her materials, he forms part of them. The handling of the wood is not a mere manipulation of it, but proceeds with a sensitive, if firm touch wich assists the wood in becoming the cabinet. The cabinetmaker's role is something like that of a midwife. In the techne of the craftsman there is a releasement toward things. We can see here that letting-be means neither passivity or domination (Betros 1986, 171-172). When techne becomes technology, "letting-be" attitude loses its priority over "making-be" and craft becomes domination. In this process work changes its character.

Heidegger's description of the cabinetmaker's work, urges us to think about the dancer's relation to movement and the notion of technique as techne. What would be dance techne? Dance and body techniques in modern technological sense attempt to strive the body for the maximum yield.
Techniques both as tools and processes are considered as plainly invisible, while their effects - flexibility, strength, sensitivity - are visible in the body. Shifting the focus from the dancer's techniques to techne, we discuss the dancer's relation to movement, not as a "making-be", but "letting-be" attitude. What does it mean "letting-be" attitude, if it is not domination or passivity? Wood as the cabinetmaker's material differs greatly from the dancer's material, movement. In Heidegger's view, it might imply the situation that we do not approach movement as a manipulated object, but an element we dwell in. Movement is not in our control, rather it befalls us, strikes us, comes over us, overwhelms us, transforms us. The task of moving is not an "object" of calculative thought. It is not we who play with movement, but movement which starts a play with us. We should also understand movement in the sense of poiesis, that which brings-forth itself or brings-forth by us movement remains inherently a mystery to us. During the 20th century in Western theatrical dance, there have been tendencies to question the technological attitude in dance practice. It seems for example that Anna Halprin, Deborah Hay and the Finnish choreographer, teacher and dancer Ervi Siren have approached movement as a dwelling element which plays with us. What would Heidegger have thought about their ideas of movement and moving?

4. Conclusion

It is said that the world in which Heidegger's man dwells is romantic, rural, aristocratic and old-fashioned. This is correct and should be taken into account when reading his works. As Charles Betros reminds us, it would be unphilosophical to regard Heidegger's critique of technology as merely the expression of his personal preferences, without considering its intrinsic merit (Betros 1986, 180). I have suggested that there is room for a Heideggerian approach to interpret technique discourse in Western artistic dance. Recognising that this reading needs deeper examination, I have tried to show some intimate links between Heidegger's notion of technology and techne and techniques in dancing. Focusing on Heidegger's notion of technology, I have attempted to illuminate some aspects of the instrumental interpretation of technology in dance practice. A brief discussion of Heidegger's notion of poiesis and techne wants to show a possibility for a non-technological attitude to the body and movement.

Abbreviations for Heidegger's work

TK Die Technik und die Kehre. Pfullingen, Neske, 1962.

QT The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. Tr. William Lovitt. New York: Harper & Row, 1977.

WhD Was heisst Denken? Tubingen, Niemeyer, 1954. Tr. Glenn Gray, What is Called Thinking? New York: Harper & Row, 1968.


Betros, Charles L.: Heidegger's critique of technology. Doctoral dissertation, FordhamUniversity, 1986.

Carr, David: "Reason and inspiration in dance and choreography", in Choreography: Principles and practice, 1986, p. 40-50.

Foster, Susan: "Dancing bodies", in Incorporations. Zone 6, ed. Jonathan Crary and Sanford Kwinter, New York, Urzone, 1992, pp. 480-495.

Ihde, Don: Existential technics. Albany, StateUniversity of New York Press, 1983.

Mauss, Marcel: "Body techniques", in Sociology and Psychology, transl. Ben Brewster. London, Boston, Henley, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979 (Les techniques du corps, 1935).

Mitcham, Carl & Robert Mackey (ed.): Philosophy and technology: Readings in the philosophical problems of technology. New York, London: The Free Press, 1972.

Mitcham, Carl: "Philosophy of technology", in A guide to the culture of science, Technology and Medicine, ed. Paul T. Durbin. New York, The Free Press, 1980, pp. 282-363.

Parviainen, Jaana: Bodies moving and moved. A phenomenological analysis of the dancing subject and the cognitive and ethical values of dance art. Tampere, Tampere University Press, 1998.

Schlaich, Joan & Betty DuPont: The art of teaching dance technique. National Dance Association & American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, 1993.

Skolimowski, Henryk: "The structure of thinking in technology", in Philosophy and Technology: Readings in the philosophical problems of technology. Mitcham, Carl & Robert Mackey (ed.). New York, London, The Free Press, 1972, pp. 42-53.


[1] After World War II, the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) directed much of his thinking to technology and to the impact of technology on our perceptions of human life. "Die Technik und die Kehre" ("The Question Concerning Technology") is not widely read, to say nothing of dance scholars, because it carries the critique of technology out of its usual context and form and delivers it into a new light. Michel Foucault's critique of technology of the body is much better known also by dance scholars. For instance, Randy Martin articulates dance technique using the Foucault's notion of technology in his book "Critical moves". Discussing dancing bodily consciousness, Susan Foster also refers to Foucault in her essay "Dancing bodies".

[2] In Heidegger's view, artworks, like every other aspect of human life, have followed a line of development that has been progressively moulded by the epoch of technology. However, Heidegger also sees art as a way to overcome technological attitude. Referring to the latter idea of art, he does not mean the same as what we generally understand by contemporary art today as aesthetics. For Heidegger, art is a mode in which truth happens for us. Art is a mode of revealing, a setting-forth, in which humans and other object-beings come to presence. Heidegger did not say anything about dancing; he discusses mainly poetry, sculpture, painting, architecture and music.

[3] "Body techniques" here refers to Marcel Mauss' notion of cultural movement patterns, clothing, sleeping, eating habits which modify embodiment.

[4] We should ask whether this challenging way of revealing is really distinctively modern. Since the Stone Age people have used wood for various purposes: cooking, warming, building shelter, etc. There is, indeed, the difference between a pre-technological use of the forest and a modern use of the forest. Trees were presumably used as firewood for cooking and warming the dwelling. In our age, trees are not seen as forest but as the plantation of trees for producing the raw material for the paper industry.

[5] In the modern sense, we also make dances regarding danceworks as art pieces, not only to practice dance.

Biographical information

Dr. Jaana Parviainen is a scholar at the University of Tampere. She has published a book on the phenomenology of dance, "Bodies moving and moved: A phenomenological analysis of the dancing subject and cognitive and ethical values of dance art" in 1998. She holds a M.A. and a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Tampere and the book is her doctoral dissertation. She has taught Philosophy of Dance and Phenomenological Dance Analysis to undergraduates since 1995. The focus of her present research is on the idea of technique in contemporary dance.

Dr. Jaana Parviainen


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