Technologies

Daniel Cordle and Philip Leonard

‘exile was already there in paper’
Jacques Derrida, Paper Machine

Technology is frequently seen as an arriviste on the scene of writing. When Derrida argues that ‘it is not legitimate to contrast writing by hand and “mechanical” writing, like a pretechnological craft as opposed to technology’1 he seeks to disabuse literary critics, philosophers, and social commentators of the notion that writing was once an unmediated poiesis, now corrupted by modes of articulation which have turned the creative act of writing into a technical articulation, increasingly constrained and threatened by regulatory artifices. The quill, the pen, the mechanical typewriter, the electric typewriter, as well as the computer, for him instantiate writing’s enduring history as an intrinsically prosthetic and processed expression, these instruments offering various forms of mechanical resistance while at the same time allowing the act of writing to occur. Paper Machine is not, however, solely concerned to establish writing as an essentially technologized expression or to conceive it as the encoding of thought by an external apparatus. In addition to challenging the division between creativity and technicity that has prevailed – and stubbornly remains – in literary criticism, Derrida also questions the attempt to engineer the human as an entity that is, in essence, not technological. For him, the instruments that are necessary for writing are also central to identity formation: technologies of writing, and writing itself as a technology, prosthetically inaugurate the human, and they do so in different ways. Paper, for example, has held (and continues to hold) a ‘sacred power’,2 authenticating the proper name and archiving memory by giving it a seemingly incorruptible permanence in the world. The pen allows us to dream of immediacy and provides us with a particular sense of how our interiority is externalized. Today’s technologies offer not just a departure from the fantasy of physicality that other writing technologies promote, but also a different experience of time (‘These new powers delete or blur the frontiers in unprecedented conditions, and at an unprecedented pace’) and space (affecting frontiers ‘between the national and the global, and even between the earth and the extraterrestrial, the world and the universe’).3

Both the ontological persistence of and the specific effects that result from the writing-technology interface have been a constant source of fascination for some of the most prominent figures in cultural theory. Deleuze and Guattari stand as perhaps the most venerated of those who find an extreme saturation of the social and the subjective by technology, claiming that machinic assemblages pass through, shape, and (sometimes critically) reshape bodies and cultures. Certainly, this sense of the machinic as an embedded and ubiquitous force has found itself vigorously embraced by cultural theory in recent years, from DeLanda’s location of ‘the virtual’ in the physical and the natural (rather than in new technologies of representation alone)4 to accounts of the invisible and unpredictable complexity of informational systems.5 Often ignored in this work on the machinic qualities of social, cultural, and natural strata, however, is Deleuze and Guattari’s claim that the book too is an assemblage – ‘a literary machine’6 – which plugs into other machines, all functioning and failing in the production and transmission of meaning. When connected to their concepts of the rhizome (an acentred and immeasurable structure that defies positivism’s mania for the encyclopaedic) and rhizomatic writing, this concept of the machinic becomes a powerful resource for thinking the production of – and experiments with – printed textuality, as well as the alternative modes of articulation (such as hypertext, Wiki, blogs, Writely and networked writing) that are offered by emerging media and digital technologies.

Social, cultural, and literary studies might only now be seriously confronting the issues that are raised by writing’s technological locations, but they are already offering precise ideas about how to contest anthropocentric narratives that relegate technology to the status of artifice and instrumentality. The reshaping of local, national, and even continental identity by technologies which work at the global level is one development that has become subject to intense scrutiny; no longer treated merely as tools which smooth the emergence of a global community, technologies are now seen actively to interrupt the relationship between space and the social, reconfiguring cultural power and changing the ways in which collective belonging is experienced. Research published in a recent issue of Wired magazine challenges pro-globalist proclamations that horizontal structures of knowledge and power now prevail, pointing to the persistence of a ‘digital divide’ which produces a dramatically uneven distribution of information, pharmaceutical and agronomic technologies across the nations and regions of the world.7 But Wired also considers how many ‘developing’ nations have responded to this political and economic asymmetry by developing technologies – including file-sharing networks, open source software, digital piracy – that work against the interests of leading nations and transnational corporations. The particularities of such an ambivalence – of the ways in which technology acts both as the new conduit for an old imperial dynamic and as the source for a resistant recoding of transnational power – are variously examined in Hardt & Negri’s claim that post-Fordist modes of production are resulting in corresponding modes of microcultural insurgence (new guerrilla movements not only ‘employ technologies such as the Internet as organizing tools, they also begin to adopt these technologies as models for their own organizational structures’);8 in Prakash’s work on the rewriting of colonial modernity’s scientific and technological narratives by colonized elites;9 and in Young’s account of the communications technologies that were central to Gandhi’s resistance campaign (‘In Gandhi’s hands the Indian liberation struggle took the form of the first media war, the first media revolution’).10

The topography of the body and the landscape of history, as well as the contours of the nation-state, are also being reassessed in technological terms. Against the empiricist appetites that have dominated scientific thought, Fox Keller argues that metaphors – including those drawn from technological discourses – mediate our understanding of the biological body;11 for Turkle technologies are now investing the self with a different emotional and sexual charge.12 Both claims connect with a more general sense that the human is being redefined as an organic entity and is, for some, in the process of becoming posthuman and postbiological (with Stelarc’s symborganic metabody and Orlan’s Carnal Art most dramatically embodying the biotechnologized and decorporealized body). Technotopian celebrations of the freedoms that are made possible by such a reinvention stand in sharp contrast with Virilio’s fears that a human catastrophe will result from the clamorous embracing of technology in the present; new technologies of vision not only have an essentially military function that is passed over whenever the global is conceived in terms of international markets and transnational communities, they are also rebuilding consciousness and the body at a rate that is unprecedented in human history.

Underlying Virilio’s claim that today’s culture is one in which perception functions at a different speed – that it is marked by the ‘acceleration of a dromological history13 – is the sense that a sudden break in history has occurred. Castells’ The Information Age offers a precise account of this epochal shift.14 No longer organized around the state or its institutions, he argues, capitalism now operates through diffused informational networks which work at the symbolic level to produce new social structures occupying different spaces and operating in different temporalities; capitalism, as a result of this redistribution of power, has become more flexible and is, therefore, more resilient and durable. That this epoch results in a rewriting of representational codes is shown by Manovich: charting the shift from a modernist industrial aesthetic to an informational economy, he considers how information society’s ‘meta-media’ (‘the remixing of interfaces of various cultural forms and of new software techniques’)15 are producing different procedures for accessing the present and the past, as well as new languages of everyday life.

The concepts of ‘writing’ and ‘technologies’, as well as the more singular idea of ‘writing technologies’ do, of course, raise questions that are not addressed by the above examples. What remains urgent and compelling is the need to interrogate technology’s centrality to emerging modes of representation, as well as its decisive role throughout literary and cultural history. In its efforts to question this complex relationship, Writing Technologies will ask:

1. Jacques Derrida, Paper Machine, trans. Rachel Bowlby (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005), p. 20.

2. Derrida, Paper Machine, p. 58.

3. Derrida, Paper Machine, p. 57.

4. Manuel DeLanda, Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy (London: Continuum, 2002).

5. See, for example, Theory, Culture & Society vol. 22, no. 5 (2005).

6. Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism & Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (London: Athlone, 1988), p. 4

7. ‘The Free and the Unfree’, Wired 146 (12.06.04), 146-55

8. Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (London: Penguin, 2006), p. 83.

9. Gyan Prakash, Another Reason: Science and the Imagination of Modern India (Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1999).

10. Robert Young, Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), p. 330.

11. Evelyn Fox Keller, Making Sense of Life: Explaining Biological Development with Models, Metaphors, and Machines. (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2002).

12. Sherry Turkle, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (London: Simon & Schuster, 1997).

13. Paul Virilio, Ground Zero, trans. Chris Turner (London: Verso, 2002), p. 15.

14. Manuel Castells, The Information Age, vols 1-3 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996-7).

15. Lev Manovich, ‘Understanding Meta-Media’, ctheory.net, accessed 10.08.06.