On being written by technology

Tim Armstrong

I wish to pick up on the issue of the writing/technology interface implicit within the editors’ introduction, and what I see as a deeply problematic area of the relation which is conjured up by their parallel lines of discourse that are implicit in their partioning of ‘writing’ and ‘technologies’ – a relation which is usually, of course, conceived as dialogue-across-partitions, but which also carries within it the threat of an alternative reading: parallel tracks which never meet; separation. The fact that this is a gap which we often close, in circular fashion, by using metaphors which are derived from technologies of communication – we talk (as I did above) of the ‘interface’ between the technological and the human; of ‘relays’ between them; of feedback, resonances, connections and reflections – suggests the scope of the problem rather than solving it.

One version of this question is raised by Derrida in Archive Fever and elsewhere. Derrida’s suggestion is that the relation between the human and the technological is fundamentally unanswerable. Timothy Clark puts it this way in his article on deconstruction and technology: ‘Deconstruction … upsets received concepts of the human and the technological by affirming their mutual constitutive relation or, paradoxically, their constitutive disjunction. Neither term acts as the anchor in relation to which the other can be understood ... The identity of humanity is a differential relation between the human and technics, supplements and prostheses’. 1 But at one level, this ‘differential relation’ can readily be experienced as a mismatch by anyone with a prosthesis, no matter how minor (that is, most of us), since we are always liable to encounter the friction between technological fix and body: the wearing of a hip replacement; discomfort with dentures; spectacles misplaced because they are not attached to our bodies; frozen shoulders produced by resistances machines at the gym. At such moments we hardly feel (to borrow one of the editors’ phrases) ‘postbiological’; the body is all too evidently with us in the self-identity of its pain rather than its connectedness. Derrida insists that there is no ‘natural originary body’ to which technology has been added; that writing and technology are always bound together as technics; that the self as conceived by Freud and others is circumscribed by technological metaphors – but the question remains of our own experience of disjuncture, of the gap which persists in our experience between ourselves and our technologies.

In part this is also a question of the technological as ‘other’, and of the possible autonomy of the realm of the technological – not simply in terms of the accelerated evolution of technology considered as having a logic separate from that of human society and biology, the dislocations of which have been the focus of one potent strain of thinking on the subject from George Beard’s Spenserian sense of overload and speed out-of-control in the late nineteenth century to Jacques Ellul’s more haunted, post-war sense of modernity as constant supercession. 2 Rather, that sense of disquieting autonomy is also a product of the way in which, within that evolutionary framework, we repeatedly inscribe a master-slave dialectic within the realm of technology (for Aristotle slaves are akin to machines, instruments of the master’s will): in the android or Matrix-type fantasy, the slave-machines threaten to take over; the fear is that they ultimately need us (as Hegel suggested) less than we need them.

The threatening autonomy of the technological has a long history: worries about the machine dwarfing or overwhelming the human scale of power and speed were first apparent in the early nineteenth century. Part of what is at issue is the alienation of the senses: physics has, since the late Victorian period, opened up areas of investigation which fall outside the scope of human perception; in which all that can be investigated is accounted for by the calibration of instruments against other instruments, or machines writing output for other machines.3 In such a science, the human observer is exiled, secondary. But more generally, that sense of exile may be related to the human subject’s being that is bound up in systems of feedback and exchange which have their focus in the human (and seem to require a human as point of connection), but which are logically distinct from the human. And those systems are, of course, incrementally bound up with modernity.

One mode of relating to this world of machinic interaction with humans and ‘their’ communication can be found in the systems theory of Niklas Luhmann. Luhmann’s sociology has received a relatively unenthusiastic reception in Anglophone cultural and media theory (with a few exceptions), 4 in part because it has been associated with the static world of structuralism; in part because it has been seen as proposing a ‘colder’ and more radical version of the human sciences than most of us are willing to accept – in comparison, ‘cyborg theory’ seems (and in many ways is) a utopian romance of living dolls at play in the technosphere. To see the study of human communication as necessarily focussing on systems (rather than consciousness, feeling, intention, or even meaning) is to move beyond the Saussurian opposition of langue and parole, in which the individual speech act is privileged as creative, to a realm of formal disconnection. Human beings are peripheral to Luhmann’s analysis of the structures which humans have created: humans do not communicate, Luhmann insists; communication systems communicate – and the implication is that we cannot know if we say what we mean, or mean what we say, since meaning and saying are formally distinct.

Luhmann’s mode of thinking has often been challenged for its apparent conservatism, but it is useful in thinking about technology in at least two respects. Firstly, in its deployment of terms ultimately derived from the biological sciences (homeostasis, environment, etc.) it offers a counter to the metaphors we noted earlier (‘relay’ and the like), which in their circularity close off the question of technology before it has been properly opened. Secondly, in refusing our common-sense notion that technology (or even language) is a ‘tool’ subject to our will, Luhmann nevertheless helps us understand the experience of alienation and exclusion produced by technological systems, the ways we are subject to it, and the laws of unintended consequences seemingly written into their use. A facile example is email, where most of us have feelings of alienation and inadequacy of response: ‘managing’ email and other software (mailboxes, addresses, templates, spam and virus filters, etc.) has become a process in which the maintenance of the system’s complexity is a major preoccupation. More fundamentally, the interface itself (in proprietary computer systems as in bureaucracies) presents us with a set of pre-formatted choices rather than real agency, leaving us uncertain about the assumptions written into the technology. (A good example is textual studies, where the uncertainties of the manuscript are necessarily rendered as a series of determinate choices made by editors, or, at best, hypertextual options.) As Lev Manovich comments, ‘While from one point of view, computerized media still displays structural organization that makes sense to its human viewers’ (images and texts), the computer’s organization of that data imposes fundamentally different ontological conditions and possibilities of operating on that data; conditions which Manovich defines as numerical representation, modularity, automation, variability, and transcoding.5

This suggests, to return to our original question, that while we have always ‘written technology’ (it is in our writing), the technology may be continuing to write us in ways that we have barely begun to investigate. Implicit in the work of Luhmann, and elaborated much more specifically in that of Friedrich Kittler – neither of whom figure in the editors’ manifesto(s), but both of whom I would nevertheless see as fairly central to the project of Writing Technologies6 – there is an account of writing and technology which is attuned to discourse as technologically mediated, and to modes of language production and sensory storage which have become increasingly systematized, commoditized, and detached from human sources.

But I do not, here, mean to suggest that we should succumb to a determinism, to the fetishization of the technological which can creep into the work of thinkers like Kittler and Virilio. Rather we need to attend to the fragility of the written; to the discomforts and estrangements of its relation to the technological; and to the uneven flow of relations between the two. I write on a keyboard; some of its letters are effaced; I trip; or I turn to the internet; I worry about whether the hum I hear is a presage of hard disc failure. The flow of words must negotiate all this; the words must head across cyberspace where they may well be scanned for suspicious keywords by agencies I have never heard of; they must join other words in other machines and finally reside on paper and in the web (where they may again be mixed with other words, making their way, with some luck, into other writings).  All this is true, and part of writing as technology. But any phenomenology of writing must nevertheless negotiate the way that they still seem my words; that they are evidence of a mind thinking, and a body writing, in a place and time which is part of a lived experience. We are, to quote Wallace Stevens, ‘Within the very object that we seek, / Participants of its being’, 7 which means among other things that we will never cease to struggle to articulate our difference from our technology.

1.Timothy Clark, ‘Deconstruction and Technology’, in Deconstructions: A User’s Guide, ed. Nicholas Royle (London: Palgrave, 2000), p. 247.

2. See George M. Beard, American Nervousness, Its Causes and Consequences (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1881); Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, trans. John Wilkinson (New York: Knopf, 1964; originally published as La Technique ou l'enjeu du siècle, 1954).

3. This is, of course, a confirmation of Henry Adam’s comments on the ‘occult’ qualities of modern forces and instrumentation in ‘The Dynamo and the Vergin’ (1900). On one aspect of this question see Joel Snyder, ‘Visualization and Visuality’, in Picturing Science Producing Art, ed. Caroline A. Jones and Peter Galison (New York: Routledge, 1998), pp. 379-97.

4. Exceptions include Thomas LeClair, In the Loop: Don DeLillo and the Systems Novel (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987) and Mark Seltzer’s True Crime (New York: Routledge, 2006) .

5. Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001), p.45.

6. See Friedrich A. Kittler,Discourse Networks 1800/1900, trans. Michael Metteer (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990); Friedrich A. Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999). The first text in English to show a major influence from Kittler’s work was Avital Ronell, The Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989); more recent examples of work inflected by his approach include Lisa Giltelman, Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines: Representing Technology in the Edison Era (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999); Sara Danius, The Senses of Modernism: Technology, Perception and Aesthetics (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002); Timothy C. Campbell, Wireless Writing in the Age of Marconi  (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006).

7. Wallace Stevens, ‘Study of Images I’, in Collected Poetry and Prose, eds. Frank Kermode and Joan Richardson (New York: Library of America, 1997), p. 395.