Grey Room

“The Higher Forms Are Also the Weaker Ones”: Technics and Humanism in Max Bense’s “Technical Existence”

William Stewart

Max Bense in the kitchen, 1968. Photograph from the Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach, reproduced by permission of the photographer Karin Székessy.


Despite receiving steady if modest attention over the past half century—including a notable scholarly effort in the last decade to canonize their place in the traditions of German media studies, intellectual history, and philosophy of technology—the writings of Max Bense (1910–1990) remain virtually untranslated into English. In the spaces where he is invoked, Bense is characterized as an unfairly overlooked patriarch of digital humanities, media theory, postdigital art, and postmodern notions of literary and textual topology. But although Bense acted as pillar and public face of a rationalist tradition of German intellectualism in the aftermath of World War II, the wide-ranging and interdisciplinary work of his career’s first forty years is often obscured by the reputation for esoteric theory, methodological stringency, and heady if opaque conclusions garnered by the pragmatic semiotics of his later texts.

The following translation of Bense’s 1949 essay “Technische Existenz” aims to help fill this lacuna and facilitate the author’s introduction to a non-German-speaking audience. Moreover, the choice of this essay serves to stake out core conceptual positions pursued by Bense already in the early years of his work, positions that remain central to his thinking in the decades following and that condition his later intellectual pursuits. “Technical Existence” may seem to be an atypical choice for translation, for it precedes Bense’s exposure to cybernetics, a topic he would not publish on until two years later; it also predates the development of Bense’s informational aesthetics, which does not emerge until the mid-1950s; and it is well removed from the Peircean semiotics that would frame the work of his later years. And yet all three of these topoi to which Bense would subsequently turn are underlain by the principle argument of “Technical Existence”—that technics and technicity constitute a historical a priori for the human and ontologically condition it as an intellectual being.