In Search of a Technological Criticism

James Brown

One might suppose this was not a matter for speculation; that all manner of studies and theories already exemplify technological ways of reading, from books of literary criticism that examine the theme of technology in literature 1 to approaches to literature that are themselves technological or machine-like. But technology poses a problem that few approaches to literature get to grips with. It’s a problem of radical ambivalence — or, rather, it is a problem of simultaneously constructing seemingly clear-cut distinctions of a fundamental, ontological kind, and confounding them. 2

It is there in the word technology itself: a fusion of techne and logos. 3 The encounter between technology and writing is already implicit in the word. And it points to an ambiguity about the word: does technology refer to specific artefacts, or to concepts of and discourses concerning them? Originally, technology signified the latter (the study of skills); but it has come to refer also to actual objects. 4 However, it has never been reduced merely to things; the word still implies something large and abstract. To acquire a whole technology, rather than just particular instances of it, one needs more than just objects. Acquiring a technology implies the acquisition not only of things, but of expertise, organisation and infrastructure. There is more to this than just knowing which buttons to push. Accordingly, several theories of technology take it to comprise not just machines but machines and people integrated into systems and activities. 5

Mechanistic science as it emerges from the scientific revolution underlies technology’s ambivalence regarding the concrete and the abstract. It was by no means the only model for investigating nature to emerge from seventeenth-century thought; but it was the most influential. Its proponents were at pains to recommend their studies to existing social norms, political interests and religious orthodoxies. But it was impossible to disguise a radical separation on which mechanistic science depended: a separation of consciousness from reality. As the concept of the created world was systematically mechanised, the position of the conscious mind contemplating that world became problematic. Mechanistic nature was nature shorn of animating forces. There were matter and motion, but not animation. Notoriously, for Descartes animals were simply machines. Only humanity possessed authentic animation, because only human beings possessed rational souls, and thus only human beings of all the entities in the material world possessed free will. Only free will distinguished us from machines; not life. Yet we were now embedded in a world of mechanistic determinism. And other thinkers (for example, Hobbes and, later, La Mettrie) declined to follow Descartes in safeguarding an ontologically distinct soul. Their systematic materialism promised to return consciousness to the material world. But it was a material world conceived so as to make consciousness anomalous. There remained a clear separation between subjective consciousness and the mechanistic model of the world into which it was inserted, and by which the mind was supposedly to be explained, even as the mind sought to explain that world. In other words, one runs into paradoxes of reflexivity. Yet that separation was also denied by the totality of the mechanistic world view. Hence the simultaneous drawing and confounding of ontological distinctions.

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

The radical ambivalence of technology gives rise to queasy and questionable metaphysics — whether concerning the idea of the mechanistic as such, or various attempts to counter it. Hence various totalising and systematically anti-totalising gestures. Hence too in technology studies a shuttling between determinism and social constructionism, with will and consciousness again becoming the key problematic terms. Not that we can ever be free of such metaphysics (that was, after all, among the seventeenth-century scientific delusions that gave rise to this radical ambivalence). But we can be more aware of metaphysical assumptions — and we can attend more to the ways in which particular material practices and specific applications of technologies create possibilities of expression and shape forms, without reducing authorship to a function of discourse or discourse to a function of authorship. Some of this of work is available — yet it seldom becomes as central to relevant disciplines and curricula as it ought to be. It is hard, for example, to understand literature since the sixteenth century without understanding how print impinges upon the form and stability of knowledge and on the construction of authorship. The modern concept of technology arguably depends upon print-consciousness. According to Benedict Anderson so too does the nation-state. 14 And modern concepts of authorship arguably depend upon the uniformity of a printed edition in all its copies. Without that uniformity, one can have little confidence that the details of a book are the expression of the author, rather than of a copyist. If this is so, then it is ironic that authorship as such, with its elevation of one kind of individual, depends on a technology that strips away individual differences in favour of uniformity. 15 In fact, technologies embody particular forms of cooperative labour, even if there is a tendency to misrepresent this as the expression of a single coordinating will, reducing all others to functions of the system it runs.

It is typical of the kind of ambivalence I have been describing that the application of print technology should simultaneously produce mechanical uniformity and the figure of the Author. Yet to go beyond this in even the simplest way one needs to attend to the specific ways in which technologies — as assemblages of machines and organised and appropriately divided labour — function. One needs to attend to the work of such scholars as Eisenstein and Ong. 16 Their work is respected, but tends to be relegated to courses on the history of the book or textual criticism rather than being seen as fundamental to any critical reading. Similarly, though there are studies of the technical processes and the technologically mediated division of labour of film production, it is rare to find a film studies programme which sees an understanding of film technology as foundational for a critical understanding of film. Though film technology figures in various film theories, many of them remain caught in the yo-yo effect I have described. So people end up analysing Citizen Kane with no notion of how, for example, an optical printer works. Yet without such knowledge it is impossible to assess what choices were made and what other choices were available.

So what would a technological criticism look like? I’d suggest it needs to be critically alive to the metaphysical notions that technology brings with it, and that it needs to attend to particular crafts and technologies of production, to understand production in terms of creative cooperation and division of labour, and in terms of skills, instruments, systems, agencies, capacities and constraints. The upshot is likely to be a return of the author, albeit as a modestly conceived figure who is one agent and factor among others. 17 In the process the metaphysics won’t go away, but nor will they merely reproduce themselves to the exclusion of everything else in an ultimately tedious yo-yoing fashion. Perhaps ‘technological criticism’ is not the most appropriate term for such a project, since it demands a critique of technology, besides knowledge of technologies. But this kind of technologically wary and aware criticism may be one way out of an impasse that threatens otherwise to be reiterated endlessly, possibly disguising sameness with technological innovation, while dancing the same dance over and over, just in different clothes.

1. See, for example, Paul Ginestier, The Poet and the Machine, trans. Martin B. Friedman (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1961); Herbert L. Sussman, Victorians and the Machine: The Literary Response to Technology (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1968); Hugh Kenner, The Mechanic Muse (Oxford: OUP, 1987); Bettina Liebowitz Knapp, Machine, Metaphor, and the Writer: a Jungian View (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1989); Nicholas Daly, Literature, Technology, and Modernity, 1860-2000 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

2. Cf. Bruno Latour's construction of modernity in We Have Never Been Modern, trans. Catherine Porter (New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993), pp. 10-13.

3. On the etymology of technology see Carl Mitcham, Thinking Through Technology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), ch. 5.

4. On the history of the term, see Thomas P. Hughes, Human-Built World: How to Think About Technology and Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), pp. 2-5.

5. See, for example, Hughes, Human-Built World, pp. 175-6.

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).

14. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, rev. edn. (London: Verso, 1991), ch. 3 and pp. 61-5.

15. Cf. nineteenth-century critiques of industrial technology as removing the worker's specific relation with the product of the work - in Marx and Ruskin, for example. Hence the insistence on retaining craft as the model for the arts, and the way the words artisan and artist head off in different directions.

16. See, for example, Elizabeth Eisenstein, The Printing Press as Agent of Change: communications and cultural transformations in early-modern Europe, 2 vols. (Cambridge: CUP, 1979) and Walter J. Ong, Orality and literacy: the technologizing of the word (London: Methuen, 1982).

17. See Seán Burke's introduction to his anthology Authorship from Plato to the Postmodern: a Reader (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1995).