Writing Technologies

In Search of a Technological Criticism

James Brown

That ambivalence asserts itself in literature at the Romantic moment. Coleridge identifies mechanistic creation as the product of the limited faculty of fancy.6 True creation, by comparison, is the upshot of organic imagination, creating after the manner of God. Animation and wholeness become deeply vexed issues for such a literary theory, and notions of writing as craft accordingly lose out. Rhetorically informed criticism, with its sophisticated, ultimately instrumental, attitude to language, receives a blow in this period from which it has never recovered. Though Romantic writing is varied, there is a tendency for a version of idealism to emerge as a counterblast to materialism, even as imagination is elevated over reason, which, in its more limited forms, seems mechanistic. Shelley’s idealism is a kind of Platonism. Coleridge’s combines philosophy and theology. Wordsworth more commonly draws upon a kind of vitalism — though the Immortality Ode shows how far he could also invoke idealism. It is not every writer of the period — even in Britain — who exemplifies this turn to idealism. But this use of idealism and this invocation of Life, to counter mechanistic conceptions of the world and of ourselves, set the conditions for a nineteenth-century manifestation of technology’s radical ambivalence: the unstable and undecidable interplay of idealism and materialism.

The nineteenth century is a great age of materialist science, and a science increasingly manifest in its technological reshaping of the world. It is also fascinated by counterparts to this sense of the world as lifeless, integrated system. Hence the invocation of Life (by Nietzsche, for example), and the persistence of idealism.7 The book which most presciently grasps this dilemma is arguably Frankenstein. It repeatedly invokes and confounds the distinctions some other Romantic writers insisted upon. One way of reading the story is as an ironic commentary on Coleridge’s opposition of mechanical to organic creation.8 The creature is a technological product made (after the manner of Coleridgean fancy) out of pre-existing parts, mixed and matched, instead of being conceived as an organic, living whole. Yet is the creature not alive? If Frankenstein presents the Romantic poet in the guise of a scientist, the creature is an arresting vindication of the organic imagination — and its most damning refutation.

This kind of ambivalence persists in many critical trends, playing off a totalising mechanistic anti-humanism against a correspondingly totalised life or spirit, or, latterly, trying to reject both of these totalities by resorting to a systematic anti-systematism, and a metaphysical anti-metaphysics. There is a phase in the development of film theory that describes part of this yo-yoing trajectory. Auteurism represented a late assertion of Romantic authorship. It claimed that film aspired to be an act of (self-)expression. If, instead of expressing a unique vision, a film merely reproduced existing forms and conventions, it had failed.9 Film theory then abruptly flipped from this assertion of the author as the source of meaning to a structuralist denial of it, and its model of film language accordingly switched from expression to code. However, this was a denial of authorship that on the whole still declined to contemplate technology in relation to human organisation and cooperation. Yet auteurism and structuralism were not as different as they seemed, as auteur-structuralism revealed. Auteur-structuralism is crazy in principle, but in practice it proved suspiciously easy to marry these two foes to each other. Both appeal to a kind of super-Subject as the source of meaning: the auteur in one case, the code of codes in the other.10

Conceptions of language modulate through correspondingly implausible, extreme positions as this yo-yoing proceeds. There is a seventeenth-century scientific war on metaphor, manifest in a nominalism that was determined to override the threat it posed to the meaningfulness of words by reforming language to attach words unshakably to things (something clear in Hobbes, and in Thomas Sprat’s account of the Royal Society’s programme; and mocked by Swift, whose natural philosophers in the Grand Academy of Lagado in Gulliver’s Travels carry bundles of objects with them to use instead of words, though this contrasts with the writing machine of another academician).11 That is countered by a Romantic impulse to assert that language is essentially metaphorical. 12 It anticipates later notions of language as a system in which signs relate primarily to each other, with the massive qualification that it reserves a privileged place for creative will, albeit a will so paradoxically conceived and presented as often to seem a function of expression rather than the source of it — at any rate, not a matter of individual will. One totalisation readily takes the place of another, and so language as the expression of spirit readily gives way to total, machine-like conceptions of language, which accordingly surface in linguistics. 13

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6. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria (1817), ed. George Watson (London: Dent, 1975), ch. 13. See also M.H. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic theory and the critical tradition (Oxford: OUP, 1953), pp. 167-77.

7. See, for example,Toril Moi, Henrik Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism (Oxford: OUP, 2006), especially chs. 3 and 5, for an account of how idealism affected one writer.

8. This is partly because Coleridge's theory of organic creation and aspects of the novel are drawing upon a debate about vitalism and the life sciences. See, for example, Nicholas Roe, Ed., Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the Sciences of Life (Oxford: OUP, 2001), and Marilyn Butler, introduction to Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (Oxford: OUP, 1994), pp. xv-xxi.

9. Andrew Sarris's The American Cinema (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1968) remains one of the clearest instances of this.

10. On structuralism's invocation of a super-Subject see Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: an Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 1983), pp. 121-2.

11. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651), ed. Richard Tuck (Cambridge: CUP, 1996), part 1, ch. 4; Thomas Sprat, The History of the Royal Society (1667) ed. Jackson I. Cope and Harold Whitmore Jones (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1959), first part; Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels, A Tale of a Tub, The Battle of the Books, etc. (London: OUP, 1919), part 3, ch. 5.

12. See, for example, Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Defence of Poetry (1821), rptd. in Duncan Wu, Ed., Romanticism (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994), especially p. 957, on the language of poets as 'vitally metaphorical'. As the essay as a whole makes clear, for Shelley language and even reality have an ultimately metaphorical character, even if it's only poets, in his extended sense of the term, who are capable of animating and remoulding that metaphoricity. It's because the work of poets thus impinges upon the terms in which entire cultures think, feel and express themselves that Shelley claims that they "are the unacknowledged legislators of the world" (p. 969).

13. See Roy Harris, The Language Machine (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987).