Writing Technologies

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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.

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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).