O'Gorman, "The Fourfold Visions of William Blake and Martin Heidegger"

Digital Designs on Blake

The Fourfold Visions of William Blake and Martin Heidegger

Marcel O'Gorman, University of Detroit Mercy

William Blake and Martin Heidegger both drew on a fourfold conception of being. In an attempt to synthesize these conceptions, this essay performs a visual mapping of both fourfolds onto an image from Blake's _Milton: A Poem_. This essay appears in _Digital Designs on Blake_, a volume of _Romantic Circles Praxis Series_, prepared exclusively for Romantic Circles (http://www.rc.umd.edu/), University of Maryland.

What was needed was an art that could not be turned into an abstraction, an art that no one would fall down and worship. It must be an art that would urge no programs and offer no systems. He found it in an art which was ultimately committed not to creation but, paradoxically, to destruction, an art that would not be seen but would be seen through. Through it would be made, like the Milton of Blake's poem, to "go to Eternal Death."
Jerome McGann, "The Aim of Blake's Prophecies and the Uses of Blake Criticism"
Figure 1: "Milton, A Poem", Plate 33 (Erdman), Copy C (1811), courtesy of New York Public Library.
  1. In the summer of 2002, Ron Broglio asked me if I would be part of a panel on Blake at the Web X conference in Athens. "Do something with Blake and Design," he told me. "And dude, this is totally not about archiving." That invitation, complete with Ron's trademark inflection, was good enough for me. The title of this panel, "Out of the Archive" echoes what I have called the "fever for archiving" that seems to have infected humanities research during the last decade or so.[1] New media offer scholars the opportunity to conduct research and criticism in ways that outstrip the limitations of the printed page, and yet the most renowned and well-funded "digital humanities" projects to date focus on performing a direct translation of printed pages into digital archives. My conference presentation, like Blake's illuminated work, is not readily translatable for the Web. Rather than try to do perform the translation then, this paper serves as a recounting of the presentation, which was meant to be nothing more than a performance to provoke innovation in humanities research.

  2. As Katherine Hayles has noted in Writing Machines, the William Blake Archive (www.blakearchive.org) provides a case study in how humanities scholars are importing print-centric practices onto the web.[2] She (Hayles refers to herself in 3rd person in the text) further made a point of the site's rhetoric, which emphasized rendering the print Blake as exactly as possible, providing users with a sizing tool and color device so they could adjust their browsers. But these very functionalities were themselves part of what made the electronic Blake different than the print Blake. In her conclusion she drew the obvious moral that the literary community could no longer afford to treat text on screen as if it were print read in a vertical position. Electronic text had its own specificities, and a deep understanding of them would bring into view by contrast the specificities of print, which could again be seen for what it was, a medium and not a transparent interface. (43) Hayles emphasizes her point by producing a printed text, Writing Machines, which visually remediates[3] the materiality of the electronic texts that are the subject of her study. In a similar vein, at the Web X Conference, my goal was to remediate the relief-etched work of William Blake into a spoken performance supplemented by web pages and QuickTime video. Drawing on the performative and dialectical quality of Blake's imagetexts, I thought I would use this panel as an opportunity to work out a creative problem that I have been dealing with for the past year. The panel presentation (like this "essay") was not completely about Blake, then. Instead, my goal was to present with Blake, applying the materiality and performative potential of his work toward the resolution of a problem. That being said, readers in search of a linear argument may want to stop here.

  3. I've been trying to reconcile two projects that I have underway. Not in order to consolidate them, but, following Blake's own method—a dialectic of dialectics—to create a generative relationship between the two so that they can feed off one another in productive ways. The first project is entitled hypericonomy. It explores the possibility of creating a form of academic discourse more suitable to a picture-oriented, digital age. Blake serves as a design exemplar for this project. The second project is entitled necromedia. This is about the historical, metaphorical, and philosophical relationship between media technology and death. For this project I draw heavily on Heidegger's theorization of technology. While working on these two projects, I noticed that both Blake and Heidegger arrived at very opaque fourfold conceptions of being. I came up with an equally opaque title for the Web X presentation, and sent an abstract to Ron entitled: "The Fourfolds of William Blake and Martin Heidegger: Minds, Bodies, Technologies."

  4. To be honest, I had no idea where I was going with this. But I had set a challenge for myself, guided by a reckless penchant for pattern recognition. All I needed was a strategy, a method of embodiment, to give shape to the concept so that it might be fully played out. Like many before me, I turned to Blake for a structure, a visual system of organization. In the conference presentation, I presented this tradition of using Blake as an organizing system by pointing to a flashing series of digital images, which I cannot reproduce here for reasons of copyright ownership:

    1) ernst.html: from Max Ernst's La Femme 100 têtes, which foregrounds a trumpeter from Blake's The Grave illustrations;[4] 2) ruegg.html: from Bill Ruegg's Web Project, "The Four Zoas Fetishized," which features the same trumpeter; 3) tattoo.html: from the film, The Red Dragon, depicting Ralph Fiennes with a Blake tattoo on his back; 4) tarot.html: a card from the William Blake Tarot of the Creative Imagination.
    The sequence of images was intended to demonstrate how Blake has provided other individuals with a pictorial schema for organizing and generating knowledge. I finished this sequence with Blake's schematic rendering of the universe in Milton, and I proceeded to map my two projects onto this imagetext, which I "photoshopped" into image only.
    Figure 2: "Milton, A Poem", Plate 33 (Erdman), Copy C (1811), with text removed, courtesy of New York Public Library.
  5. Hypericonomy is a method of research and writing that relies on the generative potential of the hypericon.[5] Rather than linking paragraphs toward the fulfillment of an argument, the hypericonomist links together hypericons, images of wide scope that encapsulate an argument and present it pictorially. As an exercise in hypericonomy, I created an assignment for my students entitled "The 4Fold vision."

  6. The assignment is based on Greg Ulmer's mystory, a method of research that generates knowledge by combining four modes of conventional discourse: academic, popular, professional, and autobiographical. I modified Ulmer's mystory method by asking students to start with an image from Blake with which they most identified. Once they had chosen an image, they filled in the four folds of the vision by collecting texts and images related to each category. When that was done, they had to look for recurring patterns in their words and images, based on Blake's artistic schemata as identified by W.J.T. Mitchell. The recurrent visual pattern suggested a method of organization for the project, which took the form of a web site and animated gif.[6] The 4fold Vision is a project about Blake, design, pattern recognition, discursive communities and their interconnectedness in the production of knowledge. The generative potential of this mode of discourse is what I was trying to recreate in my conference presentation.

  7. The second project that I mapped onto the Milton schema has to do with necromedia, a neologism that I use to encapsulate the interrelatedness of media technology and death. To define the essence of technology, Martin Heidegger draws on the term "gestell," or enframing (Question, 19). He uses the term enframing not in the sense of a physical framework or structure of some sort. Instead, enframing is actually the work of technology. When the Rhine River is dammed up for the sake of generating hydroelectricity, enframing is at work, and I would argue that when a human being is cryogenically frozen, transformed into a holographic image, or even recorded on videotape, enframing is also at work.

  8. But the most important thing about gestell is that this term may also be translated as "skeleton."[7] This is the first clue in understanding what I mean by necromedia. Death and technology are not only linked phenomenologically, but they also share an uncanny symbolic relationship. To illustrate this, I presented the panel audience with a series of photographs from the history of technological invention, including Watson's gallows telephone, Marey's chronophotographic rifle , and an image of the first human sonogram, which was conducted in the turret of a B-29 bomber.

  9. The history of technological innovation is teeming with accounts of death, war, and ghost stories. This is no coincidence considering that all media technologies are either filtered down to us from the military or are immediately co-opted by the military for the purpose of human destruction. Death and technology are intimate collaborators. Beyond this literal connection between death and technology, there is also a philosophical or existential link. As Heidegger proposed, technology challenges us to be more than human, challenges us to overstep our possibility:

    The birch tree never oversteps its possibility. The colony of bees dwells in its possibility. It is first the will which arranges itself everywhere in technology that devours the earth in the exhaustion and consumption and change of what is artificial. Technology drives the earth beyond the developed sphere of its possibility into such things which are no longer a possibility and are thus impossible. (Nietzsche, 108)
  10. To sum all of this up in Heidegger's words, technology causes us to forget our finitude, the fact that we are all going to die. According to Heidegger, finitude is the essence of being human. Living in full acknowledgement of our finitude is the key to being authentic or rather the key to authentic being. At this point, I would like to return to the Four Zoas schema and see how these two projects might be mapped out.

  11. Since hypericonomy privileges instinct over reason, while challenging a phallocentric, academic tradition (i.e., the printed essay), then it might make sense to place it where Luvah usually sits, on the right-hand side. In Blake's cosmology, this is a space for emotion, passion, and potential revolution in the form of Orc, Luvah's spectre. This suits hypericonomy well.

  12. Necromedia, on the other hand, is about the body and the physical senses, particularly the impact of technology on the body. So maybe it belongs with Tharmas, the laborer, on the left-hand side.

  13. Before pursuing this conjectural calculation any further, I should return to Blake. There is a danger here of treating Blake's art not as an infinitely generative entity, but as a sort of predictable calculating machine,[8] one that would lend itself to the absolute reductionism of "single vision":

    Now I a fourfold vision see And a fourfold vision is given to me Tis fourfold in my supreme delight And three fold in soft Beulahs night And twofold Always. May God us keep From Single vision & Newtons sleep. ("Letter to Thomas Butts")
    There is a place where Contrarieties are equally True This place is called Beulah, It is a pleasant lovely Shadow Where no dispute can come. Because of those who Sleep. (M 30:1-3)
  14. If I return to the fourfold schema then, and attempt to locate Blake and Heidegger, it would seem that Blake belongs up at the top with Urthona, a place of creative imagination, art, wisdom. Heidegger, on the other hand, stickler that he is for reasoning things out, and for being a calculating, laboring philosopher, belongs at the bottom, with Urizen.

  15. Heidegger's concept of the fourfold provides a schema at least as perplexing as Blake's fourfold vision. According to Heidegger, certain things—and note that "things" is the exact term used by Heidegger[9]— are capable of gathering together the fourfold of earth, sky, gods, and mortals. A chalice, for example, can be a spiritual object designed with the gods in mind. The wine it contains brings together the earth that produced the grapes and the sky that provided rain for the vines. Finally, the chalice is designed to contain nourishment for mortals, and it is used by mortals to celebrate one another's company, and to worship the gods. In the chalice, then, we see the gathering of the fourfold.

  16. A technological worldview tempts us to see a thing not in its fourfold manifestation, but only as potentiality, "raw material." Or such a worldview causes us to ignore the thing altogether, take it for granted. To recognize the fourfoldness of a thing is to resist technology's dehumanizing power. To see things in fourfold is to open up an infinite world of possibilities.

  17. A primitive stone bridge, according to Heidegger, could accomplish the same gathering of the fourfold as the chalice. Here is a place for Earth, Sky, Gods, and Mortals to meet. But a modern highway bridge poses a problem. As you zoom across the bridge in a gas-sucking SUV, immersed in techno music downloaded from the web, the bridge loses its thingness; it loses its capacity to gather the fourfold. The bridge is merely a conduit for a postmodern morpher obsessed with technological potentiality: How fast can I drive here? Should I get a new MP3 player? Will I have a high-protein smoothie after my workout? Will I find a lover in the chat room tonight? In the words of Heideggerian Michael Zimmerman, "in the technological age, the gods have departed, the sky has been effaced, the earth has been exposed to ruin, and the mortals have forgotten who they are." So much for the fourfold.

  18. Heidegger insisted that acceptance and even celebration of one's own mortality is absolutely necessary if we to avoid becoming post-human beings plagued by single vision—that is, technological vision. But he didn't mean that we should all become death-obsessed, angst-ridden philosophers—shave our heads and dress in black (as I did for the Web X Conference, complete with skulls on my t-shirt). Instead, we should accept and remain aware of our human limitations, even while dabbling in post-human activities. Also, we should appreciate the thingness of things. Even the smallest things, the minute particulars, can reveal to us the gathering of the fourfold. It is this gathering which grounds us, reminds us of our finitude, and opens us up to infinite possibilities beyond those offered by technological potentiality. In the words of Richard Coyne, author of Technoromanticism, "Heidegger saw the modern age as a result of the conquest of techne over poesis, a kind of making and reflecting that seeks instrumental causes rather than a mode of being that lets things disclose themselves" (268).

  19. It's safe to say that Blake had come to the same conclusion in his own time. Like the figures in Blake's visionary works, the postmodern morpher needs to understand that death is not a final annihilation, but a facet of everyday life that leads to vision. By accepting your finitude, and resisting technology's false promise of immortality, you can avoid seeing the world in purely instrumental terms. In Blake's terms, you will be free to engage in the "art of invention, not of imitation" ("Public Address").

  20. I have come to the conclusion that that death belongs somewhere in the schema that I have been assembling. This, perhaps, is where Heidegger and Blake meet. Both of them recognize the transformative potential of death. Not death as annihilation, but as a daily form of redemption that goes beyond the obvious religious connotations that come to mind here. In the schema, I have placed the word "death" in hell, although something tells me that's not quite right. At the top, where Adam belongs, I initially installed the word "creation," then opted for the more appropriate term, "invention." Of course, that doesn't seem quite right either. But for the sake of generating knowledge about my two projects, it works. What's certain is that I could keep shifting all of these elements around, and I won't arrive at a satisfactory, final configuration. No Grand Thesis. But in this exercise of mapping, I will generate a great deal of knowledge about my own projects, and arrive at a new understanding of both Blake and Heidegger. Fourfold Vision as I understand it, is about performance, generativity; it does not deal in the calculation of immutable absolutes, exact translations, or authoritative interpretations.

    Figure 3: "Milton, A Poem", Plate 33 (Erdman), Copy C (1811), with new text added, courtesy of New York Public Library.
  21. In the introduction to his book Heuretics: the Logic of Invention, Greg Ulmer suggests that he is trying to invent a new mode of academic discourse "the way Breton invented surrealism, or the way Plato invented dialectics: to do with 'Jacques Derrida' . . . what Breton did with Freud. Or to do with Plato what Plato did with Socrates" (15). I guess the final question here is this: Is it possible to invent a new mode of academic discourse by doing with Blake what Blake did with Milton?


Works Cited

Blake, William. “Letter to Thomas Butts,” 22 November 1802. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. Electronic Edition. Eds. Morris Eaves, Robert Essick, Joseph Viscomi. Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, Charlottesville, Virginia, 2001. http://www.blakearchive.org/blake/erdman.html. Accessed October 1, 2003.

---. “Public Address.” Eaves et al. http://www.blakearchive.org/blake/erdman.html. Accessed October 1, 2003.

Hayles, Katherine. Writing Machines. Cambridge: The M.I.T. Press, 2002.

Heidegger, Martin. The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. New York: Harper and Row, 1977.

---."The Thing." Poetry, Language, Thought. Trans. Albert Hofstadter. New York: Harper and Row, 1971.

---. “Who is Neitzsche’s Zarathustra?” trans. Bernd Magnus. The Review of Metaphysics, XX (March, 1967).

Krauss, Rosalind E. The Optical Unconscious. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994.

McGann, Jerome. “The Aim of Blake’s Prophecies and the Uses of Blake Criticism.” Blake’s Sublime Allegory. Eds. Stuart Curran and Joseph Anthony Wittreich, Jr. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1973.

O’Gorman, Marcel. “A Fever for Archiving: How Humanities Scholarship Works the Web.” Space and Culture. Spring 2001.

Mitchell, W.J.T. Picture Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Ulmer, Greg. Heuretics: The Logic of Invention. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Zimmerman, Michael E. Heidegger’s Confrontation With Modernity: Technology, Politics, Art. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.


1 See my "A Fever for Archiving: How Humanities Scholarship Works the Web."


2 Like Hayles, my goal is not to devalue the William Blake archive, which is an exceptional research tool (I made extensive use of it in composing this essay), but to take issue with the print-centered ideology of ownership, authorship, and Authority that characterizes the archive.


3 Like Hayles, I borrow the term “remediate” from Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin’s Remediation: Understanding New Media.


4 For a detailed discussion of this collage, and its relationship to design and cognition, see Rosalind Kraus, The Optical Unconscious.


5 W.J.T. Mitchell defines the hypericon as “a piece of moveable cultural apparatus, one which may serve a marginal role as illustrative device or a central role as a kind of summary image . . . that encapsulates an entire episteme, a theory of knowledge” (49).


6 For a sample of student work, see Amy Ruud’s fourfold vision at <http://www.ruudweb.com/electronica/>


7 To quote Heidegger, “according to ordinary usage, the word Gestell [frame] means some kind of apparatus, e.g., a bookrack. Gestell is also the name for a skeleton. And the employment of the word Ge-stell [Enframing] that is now required of us seems equally eerie, not to speak of the arbitrariness with which words of a mature language are thus misused” (Question 20).


8 In what I would like to consider a phenomenological-Romantic translation of Blake, Heidegger thus described the “single vision” of modern science: “nature reports itself in some way or other that is identifiable through calculation and . . . remains orderable as a system of information” (Question 23).


9 See Martin Heidegger's "The Thing."