Philosophy and Cognition in the Age of Mechanical-Digital Reproduction, #1–Introduction.

By Otto Paans

“Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog,” by Caspar David Friedrich (1818)


I. Introduction: The Disappearance of Authenticity, The Appearance of Estrangement

Friedrich’s Wanderer is a paradigmatic figure of this historical epoch: above the clouds and the turmoil of the world below, even solitude does not bring peace. Even worse, the experience of solitude as contrastive phenomenon with the hustle and bustle below aggravates its effects when one retreats into a space of reflection. Above all, the wanderer is a tragic figure; not an enlightened one. The burden he seeks to escape from imposes itself on him in exactly those circumstances that appeared so promising. This is because these circumstances must make up for everything that is repressed below — and so the self-imposed solitude becomes the conduit of self-imposed repression.

Gradually, these developments disenchanted the universe — not least the universe of Reason that the 18th century had so confidently taken as point of departure –, and, as in Friedrich’s famous painting, the individual stood there, overlooking an Earth that was essentially robbed of its mystic and supremely ordered qualities, but borne down by the weight of his own subjectivity.

Friedrich Nietzsche’s story about the good man who walks on the market square with a lamp around noon, and, when prompted about his behavior, collapses and shouts that “God is dead, and we have killed him!” should perhaps be read with an emphasis on the latter part.[i] That God is dead is in itself not a problem — it’s the fact that we killed him and thereby robbed the world of a divine order that guaranteed a good outcome or final goal. It places all the responsibility for human action on the shoulders of humans, and for the first time in history, humanity becomes aware of a burden that contributes to the unbearable heaviness of being. Characteristically, especially Nietzsche’s later works can be interpreted as attempts to overcome this existential heaviness. Against the creeping influence of nihilism, Nietzsche’s philosophy develops an affirmative therapeutic against nihilistic ways of thinking, whether or not they are reinforced by institutionalized religion, internalized guilt, or the demands of culture.

In the domain of economic production, Karl Marx painted a vivid contrast between the simple man who produces products to sustain his own family and is therefore not divided and/or alienated from the fruits of his labor. The simple and even simplistic Arcadian view that Marx paints of the original, authentic, self-sustaining family underlines the central thrust of his argument: namely, mechanized production and its accompanying political and economic superstructure has alienated the worker from his products, and has made him a cogwheel in a machine that is larger than himself, the contours of which he does not oversee and the power structures of which he cannot fathom. Consequently, Marx paints a relatively simplistic view of power relations, one that the Soviet government would later effectively put to use in fabricating the caricature of the rich, evil capitalist exploiting the honest, hard-working, blue collar laborer.[ii]

In the musical works of Gustav Mahler, the creeping feeling of alienation comes to full bloom in an artistic form: in the middle of emotional, moving parts of his symphonies and songs, sudden fanfares strike up; donkeys speak; a soldier makes the corpses of his comrades walk to the rhythm of the drum; and the animals of the forest organize an ironic funeral procession for a deceased hunter (and do they really mourn for him?), only to be interrupted by festive Jewish wedding music.

The thrust of Mahler’s work is not so much that life has lost its meaning in the absence of authenticity or a divine order. Instead, it’s that the concept of authenticity itself has been transformed into something unrecognizable, and it’s humanity that has to come to terms with its new appearance. We must learn again what authenticity is, and reverting to traditions, religion, an Arcadian view of life or existing art forms will not suffice. Humanity has to look with different eyes at a once familiar concept, one that bears the same name as the old one, but that differs significantly in meaning.

The perceived authenticity and the optimistic attitude of the 18th century disappears when the 19th century begins. Against this background, expectations of an “Absolute Knowledge” in the Hegelian sense or a Marxian “final goal of history” seem either outdated or farcical. However, Mahler pushes the alienation one step further: such alternatives appear as the only way forward, yet only as an involuntary move. Mahler intensifies alienation by showing how involuntary the notion of progress can be, how stifling and imprisoning the new, sanitized society can turn out to be, all the way to the point that is forced “to live as if one were free.” Mahler’s marches are forced exercises, and the unwilling participants are reduced to an absurd, almost comical spectacle.

The same alienation can be perceived in a different, more individual and introspective mood in Schubert, especially in his later works. The Wanderer in Schubert’s Winterreise (Winter Journey) leaves his love in the first song of the cycle, titled Gute Nacht (Good Night). Driven by his fate, he feels he cannot stay in the house where his life seemed to take a turn for the better. Knowingly, he has to leave his beloved, writing “Gute Nacht” on the gate. As the narrator observes, he was a stranger when he arrived, but also a stranger when he left:

Fremd bin ich eingezogen,/A stranger I arrived here,

Fremd zieh’ ich wieder aus/A stranger I go hence[iii]

The crucial point is not that he steals away in the night like a thief; or as if he were estranged from his beloved. Instead, what happened in the meantime is that alienation took possession of him, making him a stranger to himself. This is why he experiences the conflict between his drive to leave and his desire to stay. What takes hold of him is a drive stronger than desire — and to realize this, is the core of alienation.

While on the road, another song titled Auf dem Flusse (On the River) describes how he crosses a frozen river, and scratches the name of his beloved in the ice:

In deine Decke grab’ ich/On your crust I carve

mit einem spitzen Stein/with a sharp stone

den Namen meiner Liebsten/the name of my beloved

und Stund und Tag hinein:/and the hour and the day:

Den Tag des ersten Grußes,/The day I first met her

den Tag, an dem ich ging;/the day I went away

um Nam’ und Zahlen windet/round name and figures winds

Sich ein zerbrochner Ring./a broken ring.

Again, the theme of alienation emerges. The day of the first encounter is the day of going away. In the moment of encounter, the seed of departure is already sown. The fact that the narrator knows this already is the real tragedy. He feels the alienation as an existential condition, as if he stood outside a house in a dark winter night while seeing the people inside have their fun and company. He knows he is different, and his drive to estrange himself comes close to the inevitability enforces a kind of metaphysical force, or fate in the Greek sense of the word.

The name inscribed in the ice will disappear in Spring, and who knows, perhaps the memory along with it? How the alienation drives him further and further into a state of existential hopelessness is reflected in Der Wegweiser (The Signpost):

Was vermeid’ ich denn die Wege,/Why do I pass the highways by,
wo die ander’n Wand’rer gehn,/that other travelers take,
suche mir versteckte Stege,/to seek out hidden tracks
durch verschneite Felsenhöh’n?/through snowbound rocky heights?

Habe ja doch nichts begangen,/I have done no wrong
daß ich Menschen sollte scheu’n, –/that I should shun mankind —
welch ein törichtes Verlangen/what senseless craving
treibt mich in die Wüstenei’n?/drives me into the wilderness?

Weiser stehen auf den Strassen,/Signposts stand on the roads,
weisen auf die Städte zu,/point toward towns,
und ich wand’re sonder Maßen/yet I wander on and on
ohne Ruh’ und suche Ruh’./unresting, in search of rest.

Einen Weiser seh’ ich stehen/One signpost I see stand there
unverrückt vor meinem Blick;/steadfast before my gaze;
eine Straße muß ich gehen,/one road I must travel,
die noch keiner ging zurück./by which no-one ever came back.

The questions that the narrator asks himself are an after-effect of alienation. Why does he stay away even from other wanderers? Why does he hide himself when he has done nothing wrong? He knows he has a clean conscience, and yet the doubt lingers. Again, the paradox of being-in-two emerges. Indeed, he hints at the answer as he asks which force drives him onto the wilderness — and why is he “restlessly seeking for rest?”

Like the participants in Mahler’s absurd marches, the journey of the wanderer is at least partially involuntary. Is the desire here not the condition for that which it seeks to overcome? In emphasizing this point, Schubert turns into a Hegelian. The Master-Slave dialectic is played out here beautifully. The desire to estrange oneself is a response to its existence, a cycle that cannot be broken. The almost teleological development described in the Winterreise is more that of Kierkegaard or Schopenhauer — life is a one-way road into oblivion, without a dialectical solution or synthesis at the end, safe for a leap of faith or an ethics of saying-no.

Thinking from an existentialist angle, another interpretation suggests itself as well: is not the whole business of finding rest a meaningless exercise in view of the natural fact of entropy? The last section of the song cycle is, as it were, a bitter remark about the rest of the song cycle. It intrudes itself on the structure of the cycle, cutting through it in its radicality.

Finally, the narrator encounters his finitude in the shape of an old musician in Der Leiermann (The Organ Man), the last song of the cycle. What was once determined and seemed certain disappears in the dark night in which the wanderer walks. All that is solid melts into air: expectations, hopes, careers, relations, ambitions, and finally, meaning itself.

Wunderlicher Alter/Curious old fellow

Soll ich mit dir gehn?/Shall I go with you?

Willst zu meinen Liedern?/When I sing my songs?

Deine Leier drehn?/Will you play your hurdy-gurdy too?

The question of the narrator to the organ man is a last attempt at overcoming this finitude: surely, someone must hear what happened to the Wanderer — someone must bear witness to the fact that his life was not for nothing? In keeping with the Romantic spirit of the time in which the work was composed, the question remains tragically unanswered. We (and perhaps also the Wanderer) will not receive an unambiguous answer to it. Rather, in each performance of the work, the question is reiterated, and left unanswered for the audience.


[ii] Notably, Marx uses history as a contrastive phenomenon in developing his critique of capitalism. Notable examples are his discussion of commodities, in which he directly links the story of Robinson Crusoe to the societal situation in the Middle Ages in chapter 1 of Capital, vol I. Another example can be found in his discussions of the historical development of the working day in chapter 10.

[iii] For the English lyrics, I used the version available at URL = <>.


Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Thursday 2 January 2020

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Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.

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Mr Nemo

Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.