quinta-feira, 1 de março de 2012
Notes on the Technological Imagination by Michel Benamou
At the time of his death in the spring of 1978, Michel Benamou was developing what he called a "subjective square" of discourse about technology, a typology of attitudes that he also described as "the four humors of discourse about technology." Unfortunately, he had only begun this research.
have selected the following excerpts from Benamou's working papers. They present his map of the "four humors," sketch out two of its basic positions, and suggest the comparison he intended to make between discourse about technology and literature that reflects a technological "mind-set."
At the beginning of Calligrammes, Apollinaire hailed, prophetically, the informational society. Addressing all the communications media—rails, transatlantic cables, radio waves—he intuited that they would be like the meshes of a net: ambiguous Hens of both intimacy and bondage. Relating these new technologies to the body, he greeted their inroads as heralding a new sensuality:
J'ecris seulement pour vous exalter
O sens ô sens cheris
Ennemis de tout ce que j'aime encore. (1)
Done: man has struck his Faustian bargain with technology. Technological man—protean, ubiquitous, communicating with the universe—1-has attained the new sensibility that Robert Jay Lifton describes as "omni-attention, the sense of contemporary man as having the possibility of 'receiving' and 'taking in' everything." (2) But a "massive disillusionment" also gnaws at this protean man, for he is worried by the destructive powers of technology.
If we can call John Cage his prototype in the United States, then we can also observe that between 1912, the approximate date of the poem I have quoted, and 1977, the publication date of Cage's recent dialogues with Daniel Charles (Pour les oiseaux), the technological imagination has undergone a profound transformation.
By a transformation in the technological imagination I mean to suggest two phenomena. The first is that recent discourse about technology—what I call technocriticism—has become increasingly circumspect in its attitude toward postindustrial society. The second is that the preferred forms and metaphors of twentieth-century literature have become increasingly technological. An understanding of the issues raised by the former should allow us to adopt a rigorous critical stance with respect to the latter; an understanding of the latter should allow us to view the former in a larger cultural context.
In both cases, my focus will be on works by Americans, on works which have become part of the American discourse about technology, or on works about the United States.
II. American Technocriticism: A Subjective Square
During the past ten to fifteen years over a hundred volumes on technology have appeared in the United States. They range from Lewis Mumford's The Pentagon of Power
and Jacques Ellul's La Technique (translated only in 1966) to the Club of Rome's pronouncements and Victor Ferkiss's The Future of Technological Civilization. Besides their pragmatic and programmatic intentions, an urgency, almost a passion, distinguishes these books from the discourse about science.
This impassioned tone belongs to the subject: although scientific knowledge is often pressed into service to justify models of political or economic behavior, discourse about science tends to mask ideology with its claim to objectivity. Discourse about technology, on the contrary, can make no such claim. Under the threat of extinction or the hope of millenary post-industrialism, it is almost always visceral, humoral, polemical.
It fills the four corners of a subjective square which I have borrowed from William Irwin Thompson's At the Edge of History and have modified to contain what I call the four humors of discourse about technology: (3)
— Happy technophiles are politically conservative believers in Agape, such as Marshall McLuhan, Buckminster Fuller, and Paolo Soleri. Admirers of Teilhard de Chardin, they believe technology will bring about convergence and unification.
— The liberal worshippers of a rational Logos are anxious technophiles, who see contradictions in planetary culture but keep their faith in democratic controls over technology. Their prototype is the Lewis Mumford of Technics and Civilization.
— Disillusioned rationalists become desperate technophobes, who maintain that the worst technological disaster has already occurred in our Western minds. They include Jacques Ellul, who sees technique as autonomous, the Mumford of The Pentagon of Power, and the hopeless Marcuse of One-Dimensional Man.
To them, planetary culture means the unavoidable destruction of basic human values, denned in terms of a stable relation to nature. Thus, they appear to be reactionary.
— The fourth corner is occupied by hopeful technophohes. They are the radical parry of Eros against Thanatos: ecological anarchists like Paul Good-man, the surrealist Marcuse of Essay on Liberation, Ivan Illich, and Theodore Roszak. They are convinced that urban industrialism is but a failed experiment which will be replaced by human-scale technologies once the counter-cultural forces of the "Great Refusal" and the "New Sensibility" have prevailed.
In general, we can say that what Ihab Hassan has called a debate between technophiles and arcadians—a formulation that he too has seen as problematic—is complicated by internal contradictions: there are happy technophiles and anxious ones, desperate technophobes and hopeful ones. At times the same thinker shifts from one pole to another: for example, the Lewis Mumford of 1934 was an anxious technophile, but by 1970 he had become a desperate technophobe; Marcuse, on the other hand, desperate in his One-Dimensional Man of 1964, had become a more optimistic technophobe in his Essay on Liberation of 1969.
Two philosophical positions suffuse this discourse about technology: determinism and the closely related but distinct notion of the autonomy of technology. Their antidotes are indeterminacy and the political control of technology. Contributors to technocriticism, moreover, represent a variety of disciplines. They include sociologists (Bell), economists (Tof-fler, Heilbroner, Kahn, Schumacher), historians of culture (W. I. Thomp¬son, Roszak, Mumford), communications specialists (McLuhan, Bag-dikian), theologians (Illich, Cox), inventors (Fuller, Cage, Soleri), literary scholars (Hassan, Marx, Sypher, Goodman), and philosophers (Ellul, Hans Jonas).
Whatever their differences, they all recognize the indisput¬able fact raised by McLuhan as early as 1948: the present generation is already living in a technological or postindustrial era.
A. Happy Technophiles
Norbert Wiener, the father of cybernetics, announced in 1950 a "Second Industrial Revolution" linked to electronic communication systems. Postindustrial society would differ from industrial society (based on capital) as much as the latter differed from agrarian society (based on land).
The base of postindustrial society would be technological expertise, with know-how calling the shots. If the primary product of the industrial era was manufactured goods, that of the postindustrial epoch would be services. And, as Victor Fuchs and Daniel Bell have noted, in 1956 the United States became the first country in the world in which the number of employees in the tertiary industries exceeded those in production. (4)
This moot opposition between goods and services, plus the myth that automation would raise the level of expertise of all workers (thus producing a classless society), plus discoveries in electronics (computers as conduits of global communication), nourished the visions of a swarm of technophiles promising inexhaustible honey. Primarily economists, such as Victor Fuchs and Herman Kahn, they are deterministic and optimistic in their belief that it is economic structure which transforms culture.
If culture does not respond to the goad of technology, it is because of cultural inertia—a delay which the technocrats gloss over. Herman Kahn and his associates predict that the year 2,000 will see a new human type: super-rational at work, irrational in private life. (5) Primarily a refined consumer, this efficient sensualist is necessary to the progress of multinational corporations in a world at peace, a world so insatiable and so profitable that the standard of living will be raised tenfold for everyone, everywhere.
A similar determinism informs the thought of Marshall McLuhan: under the dominion of the media, civilization will become an electronic Eden. An extra-corporeal extension of the brain and the nervous system, television now "suits" the species in the same way that the book "suited" it as an extension of the eye. For McLuhan, an Aristotelianism determines the future: human nature is endowed with five senses, so television's equalizing of them must be a good thing. Apollinaire hailed nothing else: "ô sens chéris."
But it is difficult to decide, finally, whether we should read this prophet of the postindustrial era as an apologist for, or as a critic of, the electronic revolution. The ambiguity arises from McLuhan's agile sidestepping of the political question. While he joyfully anticipates the return of our aural-tactile nature after centuries of visual-typographical domination, while he preaches "human docility" and submission to electronic technology, his assent does not acknowledge the potential for a technocratic dictatorship.
Indeed, McLuhanism is actually an aesthetics rather than a social theory. Inspired by the observation that American youth is becoming increasingly resistant to the book, founded on Innis's and Carpenter's research in communication, fed on Shakespeare and T. S. Eliot, lacking any social or psychological theory but plugged into the organs of reception, McLuhanism envisions a global village of televiewers united by mass culture. But it has no response to a central question posed by other technocritics: "Who controls the media?"
Another apolitical and determinist technophile in the gallery of postindustrial prophets is Richard Buckminster Fuller, who captured the technological imagination with his metaphor of Spaceship Earth long before our two astronauts strolled on the moon.
Hugh Kenner has devoted an entire book to "Bucky," in which he concludes that: "Metaphors, paradigms, these are our greatest needs, irradiating minds with heuristic images: points of departure, not solutions; encouragements to Dig Wholes." (6)
The problem is that these images are meant to function in the political arena as well as in the aesthetic context of design. Thus, the geodesic dome, according to Fuller, ought to do away with "localism and nationalism."
For him, technology results not in an electronic Eden, as for McLuhan, but in a spatial Utopia: "The comprehensive introduction of automation everywhere around the earth will free man from being an automaton and will generate so fast a mastery and multiplication of energy wealth by humanity that we will be able to support all of humanity in ever greater physical and economic success anywhere around his little spaceship Earth." (7)
Fuller's wisdon, however, is part and parcel of his megalomania, for he knows that no specialized solution is adequate to the problems posed by technology. "The kind of technology that endangers," Fuller writes, "is that occasioned by the blinders of specialization where each of our various acts is executed without consideration of the others." (8) Post-industrial America must become the type for a global civilization that is technical, synergistic, liberated from Dasein through design, and in communication with millions of other inhabited planets. It is that, or annihilation. Utopia, or oblivion.
What hinders this technologic of history—the transformation of humanity by the media or by geodesic domes—is, of course, human perversity. Hence, we also have a body of futuristic literature favoring psychological modification: from B. F. Skinner's Walden II (1948), which champions the simple conditioning of social motivations, to Gerald Feinberg's The Prometheus Project (1969), which proposes access to a universal extraterrestrial consciousness as one of the objectives of biological engineering—a curious grafting of Alexis Carel onto Teilhard de Chardin.
Perhaps the attraction to astronautical metaphors that we find in such examples of the postindustrial imagination masks a profound disillusionment.
The appeal to a new human type may imply a despairing view of postindustrial man's ability to come to grips with the disasters of pollution, overpopulation, technology-induced unemployment, and political totalitarianism. Neither Kahn and Co., McLuhan, Fuller, Skinner, nor Feinberg, we might say, propose a genuinely "critical" technocriticism.
Their writing seems inspired by desire for order (planetary or even cosmic) rather than by social conscience. They represent the technological imagination of the postindustrial era at its apogee: euphoric, eudemonistic, and eugenistic.
B. Anxious Technophiles
Together, the crisis of capitalism dramatized by the limits of energy resources and a few books criticizing the economic growth of the West sufficed to restrain the technophilic burst of 1967. To the millenary maunderings of the Commission for the Year 2,000, for example, the Club of Rome opposed a first report, Limits to Growth (1972), and a second simulation produced on the computers at MIT, Mankind at the Turning Point (1974). The verdict was that the industrial era was going to end, not in an electronic revolution, but in the irreversible exhaustion of all the earth's resources! Such is the upshot of the global planners' enthusiasm for their computers: in less than ten years, postindustrial plenty gives way to widespread famine. There is an internal logic to this reversal: blind faith in machines—the science of systems included—is a reductionism destined to reduce itself.
Moral: don't leave technology to the technologists.
But American technocriticism did not need the lesson of the oil crisis in order to react to the wave of optimism of 1967. Readers of history, particularly, had already been putting the postindustrial revolution in perspective. As early as 1959, in The Future as History, Robert L. Heilbroner had denounced the technophile illusion, prefigured in Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, of a determinism applied to predictions of the future.
Heilbroner situated the embarrassment of riches in the American economy on a slope leading to the progressive erosion of individual autonomy by an encroaching industrial-military-political complex. In The Human Prospect, which appeared in 1975, Heilbroner attacked such Western values as capitalist profit and technical expertise for having failed to satisfy mankind. He opted instead for an ambiguous monastic order that would be both religious and military, for an economy and a technology based on the Chinese model, for an asceticism dictated by the impoverishment of the Earth.
As Heilbroner put it: "In our discovery of 'primitive' cultures, living out their timeless histories, we may have found the single most important object lesson for future man." (9) Because Heilbroner is a non-determinist, he concedes a chance for survival lo Atlas- an Atlas who may usurp Prometheus's special position in the technological imagination.
Technological Man (1969) by Victor Ferkiss constitutes another ripost to the technophile Utopia. Reviewing such millenarian prophets and prophecies as B. F. Skinner and his conditioned Utopia, C. Landers and his astronaut-machine, Teilhard de Chardin and his noosphere, Arthur Clarke and his Cyborg, and Harvey Cox and technopolitan man—all consequences of the communications revolution—Ferkiss carefully distinguishes the postindustrial reality from the postindustrial myth. At least his pataphysique (science of imaginary solutions) is more poetic than the sensualist predictions of Herman Kahn, whose new human type Ferkiss denounces as a
neoprimitive man trapped in a technological environment. . . . Rather than develop a new culture suitable for technological man, man may withdraw culturally before the existential revolution and end up living in cultural poverty and bondage, relieved by outbursts of frustration in much the same way as certain primitive groups (some American Indian tribes, for instance) who have been overcome by industrial civilization and deprived of a functioning culture. (10)
But are we in the midst of an existential revolution in keeping with technological transformations? In fact, Ferkiss maintains that automation and information-processing affect neither the centralization of capitalist power, the class system, the alienation of labor, the masses' lack of access to information, the old methods of teaching, nor urban violence.
Concluding that technological determinism is doomed to failure, Ferkiss borrows from Heilbroner the notion of ideological inertia: the old industrial system holds fast. Because it has not articulated a single ethical principle, a single new value, the "second industrial revolution" has brought only social chaos and economic confusion. The creation of a "technological man" must not be abandoned to the technologists.
According to Ferkiss, a true existential revolution would require the following ingredients: 1) a new naturalism, reuniting technological man with nature; 2) a new "totalism," replacing our mechanistic concepts with the idea of system: spirit-body-society-nature unified; 3) a new imma-nentism, locating the universe "within and not without" according to a logic that Edgar Morin would call "morphogenetic." Rather than seek a symbiosis with machines, man would strive to distinguish himself from them by exploring his inner space. Cultural changes would depend upon a political postindustrial revolution—one which, however, Ferkiss only vaguely adumbrates.
In The Future of Technological Civilization (1974), Ferkiss formulated his position in political terms. Countering traditional liberalism—as well as false conservatism, technophile socialism, and despairing radicalism—in the United States, the book is a lengthy plea for an ecological humanism. Creating and exerting political control over his technology, the new "technological man" would mark a new stage in the evolution of culture. The political philosophy of the United States—the foundation of the capitalist piracy against nature—may be the anti-naturalism of Locke. But, according to Ferkiss, the socialist world is not much better off with Marx from an ecological standpoint. Both the Lockean and Marxian philosophies correspond to out-of-date scientific paradigms.
Ferkiss's eco-humanism would be grounded in "the nature of nature," an expression taken up by Edgar Morin as the first element in his methodological triad. (11) A fount of values, nature becomes normative: it is a preserver, negentropic and limiting. Respect for these limits and for life itself would produce a new scientific system of values. Its poets might be Thomas Merton and Gary Snyder, its moralist the conservationist Aldo Leopold...
III. Technology and the Literary Mind
Technology is not science. Is it even applied science? I shall not remind you that the steam engine was invented before thermodynamic theory could account for it. Technology can and does generate scientific knowledge. But its use of knowledge seems inseparable from big money, big power, big disasters. Scientists complain that they always have to clean up after technologists. Literature has bound, unbound, and rebound Prometheus on his smelly rock, found Faust guilty of all sins except for a fine excess, and can itself be accused of harboring a bias in favor of science and against technology.
The contrasting of technological and literary imaginations, however, is too often and too easily reduced to the dichotomy of technological mastery versus literary knowledge. When Michel Butor, for example, sets out to deny psychological depth, and to practice a certain art of collage or bricolage, an art of mosaic intent on surfaces alone, is his goal knowledge or mastery? Jean-François Lyotard has suggested that the technology of assembling Mobile: Etude pour une représentation des Etats-Unis is already an urban technology. There is, thus, a congruence between the forms of contemporary fiction and the art and technology of our civilization. Fiction, art, technology wield a big cutter.
"The world was not cut right, let us reçut it, make it more beautiful. . . ." The destruction of the world by the artist as technologist has a motive hidden in the ambiguity of the
word mobile, as in automobile and in motivation, mobile du crime. That hidden motive is to replace the power of the world, which began without humans and will probably end without them, by the power of the human ego, which is unable to sustain the thought of being in excess in the world.
If literature cannot escape the dilemma that to improve the world is only to make it worse, it still has "a choice of technologies" in the sense that one says "a choice of weapons." But do those who live out there, in a world seemingly dominated by giant machines, also have a choice? The question is: How can the literary mind transform its power from a choice of words into a choice of world?
Benamou planned to conjoin his codification and exploration of "the four humors of discourse about technology" with an examination of "the response of literature to the effects of massive technological change on human affairs." Although the passages dealing with the literary mind as a manifestation of the technological imagination are the most fragmentary of Benamou's working papers, he had noted his basic premise:
The problem in the relationship of technology and the literary mind is not the onus of defining technology. Everybody knows what technology means: the urban-industrial context of our lives. The problem is to describe with enough precision the relatedness of the literary mind to technology defined as the context of our lives—as a mind-set that pervades the thinking of most urbanized Westerners.
He intended to define this "mind-set" in two steps. He would first recapitulate—with references to Bachelard, Poulet, and Foucault—a history of circle and grid metaphors. He would then, it appears, have argued that the traditional metaphors both favored by and used to describe pre-scientific and scientific imaginations—the circle and the grid—are superimposed and internally complicated when used by and used to describe the technological imagination. Thus, another binary opposition proliferates into differential relations similar to those of his map of discourses. Benamou noted that:
The relationship between technology and literature includes the fact that technology, like literature, represents a way of knowing the world—we called it a mind¬set—and that, like literature, it favors certain forms.
In recent art—especially postmodern literature, which reflects grid-like forms of technological style—only the grid may be more akin to a printed circuit— the squaring of the circle emerges as a complementarity between content (the attitude toward technology) and form (the artistic response to the problematic medium or media).
We can see the punning connection he was making between technocriticism and the literary mind: the circle and the grid—representing poetic holism and scientific objectivity—do not, in his view, apply to the technological imagination. The binary formulation becomes an oxymoron: the "grid" of the "circuit." And since the discourse about technology cannot pretend to objectivity, it invites, like literature influenced by technology, analysis of its preferred forms and metaphors.
Benamou did not intend, however, to analyze metaphors as such. As Leo Marx has shown, the circle and the grid have also been traditionally associated in American literature with nature and the city. Benamou intended to explore a recent literary metaphor for the city—the grid-like circuit—as reflective of a technological "mind-set." Since technocriticism also concerns itself with urbanization, this metaphor would have provided a link between the literary mind and technocritical thought.
Notes concerning "happy technophiles" suggest that he planned to explore that link with reference to Butor's Mobiles—his grid-like mapping of words as cities— within the terms of Lyotard's reading of Butor. (12) Thus, from John Cage and Apollinaire—whose Calligrammes, in the Gallimard edition, are introduced by Butor—Benamou was moving toward Lyotard's analysis of the "biblioclastic" tradition to which all three belong. "Biblioclasts, like iconoclasts, " Benamou noted, "destroy traditional elements of the book in order to create a new medium which resonates with a technological environment. " By relating this conjunction of medium and environment to one urban vision—Paolo Soleri's "arcologies"—Benamou would have made his connection between technocriticism and the literary mind at the "happy technophile" corner: "Not only do forms of fiction undergo electronic transformation, but the image of 'urban man' is metamorphosed by happy technophiles."
Notes concerning "desperate technophobes" similarly connect technocritical and literary visions of the city. From Jacques Ellul's The Technological Society, with its "grim account of Paris in the 1950s" and its vision of "urbanitis," Benamou was moving toward the "surrealist Marcuse" of Essay on Liberation: "From being a desperate technophobe in One-Dimensional Man, Marcuse became a hopeful one. Phobia means fear, but fear is not
incompatible with hope. A return to basic aspirations, as expressed in Surrealist poetry, still seemed possible, for reasons involving the stability of biological drives." Subsequent notes refer this hope to "the Surrealist beautification of Paris as a city of parks"—a beautification that Benamou apparently found in André Breton's Poisson soluble.
Benamou's working papers leave off at this point. It is, perhaps, fitting that they do, for there is something of the surrealist gesture in his having planned an essay suspicious of the "science of systems" around an elaborate map of discourses—a map that wants to square its own circle. The gesture itself suggests, in its playfulness, Benamou's faith in the imagination's ability to "transform its power from a choice of words into a choice of world."
Edited by Charles Caramello
(1) Guillaume Apollinaire, Calligrammes (1925; rpt. Paris: Gallimard, 1966, pp 23-24
(2) Robert Jay Lifton, Boundaries: Psychological Man in Revolution (New York: Vintage, 1967), p. 51.
(3)'ee William Irwin Thompson, At the Edge of History: Speculations on the Transformation of Culture (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), pp. 74-107, 166- 70.
(4) Daniel Bell, "Notes on the Post-Industrial Society," The Public Interest, No. 6 (1967), pp. 24-35. Bell, in turn, refers to Victor R. Fuchs, "The First Service Economy," The Public Interest, No. 2 (1966), pp. 7-17.
(5) See Herman Kahn, Anthony J. Weiner, et. al.. The Year 2000: A Framework for Speculation on the Next Thirty-Three Years (London and Toronto: Macmillan, 1967).
(6) Hugh Kenner, Bucky: A Guided Tour of Buckminster Fuller (New York: William Morrow & Co., 1973), p. 314.
(7) R. Buckminster Fuller, Utopia or Oblivion: The Prospects for Humanity (New York: Bantam, 1969), p. 362.
(8) R. Buckminster Fuller, "Technology and the Human Environment," in The Futurists, ed. Alvin Toffler (New York: Random House, 1972), p. 304.
(9) Robert L. Heilbroner, (An Inquiry into) The Human Prospect New York: W.W. Norton; 1975, p. 141.
(10) Victor C. Ferkiss, Technological Man (New York: New American Library, 1969), p. 173.
(11) Edgar Morin, La Méthode: I. La Nature de la nature (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1977).
(12) See Jean-François Lyotard, Rudiments païens (Paris: 10/18, 1977), pp. 81—114.
In: The Technological imagination: theories and fictions/edited by Teresa de Lauretis, Andreas Huyssen, Kathleen Woodward. PP. 65-78.