Writing Technologies

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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.

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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.