quarta-feira, 5 de junho de 2013
American Writers and American Inventions: Cybernetic Discontinuity in Pre-World War II Literature by Joseph W. Slade
For the most part, Americans then had difficulty swallowing the diversified extensions of technology, and more difficulty still in determining what they signified. American writers seemed conversant only with the simplest and most hackneyed of inventions. Still, when they did consider familiar machines, they were apt to treat them as strange devices and to emphasize the differences between men and inventions. In nineteenth-century letters, machines invade an American garden; in twentieth-century examples, systems proliferate out of control. The usual invader of the garden, the locomotive, was still awesome enough to continue generating railroad novels well into this century, and in the spread of that invention Robert Herrick would discover ominous presence, as in his description of a railroad in Together (1925) as "a vast organism, with a history, a life of its own, lying like a thick ganglia of nerves and blood vessels a third of the way across our broad continent, sucking its nourishment from thousands of miles of rich and populous territory." Herrick quite properly concentrated not on the locomotive, an invention already domesticated in the previous century, but on the systems that it had spawned. Despite its organic nature, entirely suitable to systems, his analogy is interesting principally because of the distance it establishes between man and technology, a characteristic common to native thought. There is no Frankensteinian tradition in our literature, and little recognition that machines are created in man's image. Were one to know the country's technology only through its literature, one might conclude that machines and systems were entirely alien to their creators.
Because the machine was a product and an extension of man's head and hand, and because it had become so much a part of his everyday endeavors, it bore a special relationship to him. If the machine magnified man's fear, it also mirrored his aspirations. Clearly it benefited its creator, yet it also made demands upon him; take pride in it though man might, in its presence he felt impotent, anonymous, dehumanized. Had man not sensed the identification, had he not felt the intimacy with the machine, he would not have needed to erect alienation as a defense. It was difficult for the average citizen to put his apprehensions into words; it was no less so for the writer.
When we ask ourselves exactly in what way the quality of life is adversely affected by the incursion of the machine, we find that however powerful the outcry against technology, the complaints are largely metaphorical. They describe, often very compellingly, the feelings of the observer, but they are rarely if ever explicit in describing the causal process leading to the end product they deplore. (2)
Underlying the threat was a duality defined by historian Bruce Mazlish as "the fourth discontinuity," a term which can be modified—in recognition of the period's advances in automation and systematization—to cybernetic discontinuity. According to Mazlish, man has already resolved three discontinuities, or skewings of his organic relationship to his world, resulting from the Copernican, Darwinian, and Freudian revolutions, after each of which he had to muster again a belief in the continuum of nature.
Mark Twain ans his friend Tesla
What was unfortunate, however, was that the writer missed his chance to provide literary guidance in a critical period of American culture. By losing that role of leadership, by succumbing to the kind of helplessness that overwhelmed Charles Francis Adams, he fostered the birth of the Zeitgeist theory of technology, which holds that man's inventions have a life of their own, beyond man's control, alien to his aspirations. Worse, to the extent that the trend prevailed, it rendered literary statement increasingly inconsequential in an increasingly technological society.
For unless poetry can absorb the machine, i.e., acclimatize it as naturally and casually as trees, cattle, galleons, castles and all other human associations of the past, then poetry has failed of its full contemporary function. This process does not infer any program of lyrical pandering to the taste of those obsessed by the importance of machinery; nor does it essentially involve even the specific mention of a single mechanical contrivance. It demands, however, along with the traditional qualifications of the poet, an extraordinary capacity for surrender, at least temporarily, to the sensations of urban life. This presupposes, of course, that the poet possesses sufficient spontaneity and gusto to convert this experience into positive terms. Machinery will tend to lose its sensational glamour and appear in its true subsidiary order in human life as use and continual poetic allusion subdue its novelty. For, contrary to general prejudice, the wonderment experienced in watching nose dives is of less immediate creative promise to poetry than the familiar gesture of a motorist in the modest act of shifting gears. I mean to say that mere romantic speculation on the power and beauty of machinery keeps it at a continual I remove; it cannot act creatively in our lives until, like the unconscious nervous responses of our bodies, its connotations emanate from within— forming as spontaneous a terminology of poetic reference as the bucolic world of pasture, plow and bam. (4)
tended in the years between the wars (and indeed from about 1900 onwards) to restrict the use of the most advanced methods and ultimately to slow down the progress of invention. First the faulty distribution system, which created the chronic difficulty of selling products and therefore reduced the incentive to introduce advanced techniques. Second, mass unemployment, which discouraged invention through the fear of displacing labour and, by depressing wage-rates, often made it cheaper to use monotonous hand labour instead of introducing highly automatic machines. Third, monopoly with its tendency to protect its own interests even at the cost of progress. These were not necessarily the only retarding factors at work, but at least they were three important ones. (7)
But the lag, less pronounced in the United States than in other countries, did not prevent the growth of automation, although it surely slowed it. It is perhaps too easy to point out benchmarks in the history of technology. For example, we commonly refer to the 1870s as important in the rise of American industrialism because there occurred then the massive shift from water power and iron to coal and steel, with deleterious consequences for milltowns, whose dark configurations mesmerized Victorian and modern writers alike. Or we might choose 1900 simply because Henry Adams saw his Dynamo in Paris that year, but such dates are largely matters of convenience. Nevertheless, the decades between the wars saw the transition of mechanics to cybernetics. In Turning Points in Western Technology, D. S. L. Cardwell observes that although self-controlling machines antedate this period, "one post- [World War I] trend was unmistakable: the development of the technology of control systems and the march towards increasingly automatic production processes."(8) Rudimentary automation techniques of that time prefigured the cybernetics systems of the present. To be sure, full cybemeticization had to wait for mathematical methods of automatic control and instrumentation like the semi-conductor and the computer, but the four elements of automation—mechanization, feedback, continuous process, and rationalization—were integrated between 1918 and 1939.
And yet, however repugnant the identification of man and machine to writers, occasionally, from surprising sources, came the recognition that the popular metaphor had positive connotations. In 1911, for example, Samuel Gompers assessed the metaphor in The American Federationist:
Let science, the intellectuals, the employers and the body politic take hold of the laborer from his earliest years and build him up, clear up to what the original man-maker put into him in the way of physical and mental possibilities. Let the promoters of the proposition study how the laborer may be given his full physical height and breadth, his full mental and moral growth, his full potential worth to society as a good machine. In the end they might find that they had contributed in the construction of a good strong man. (12)
Gompers was less interested in ideology than in economic participation in a technological society for his followers. Still, so astonishing a concession on the part of a labor leader indicates how powerful was the tendency to equate the worker and the tool. In his own way, Gompers had found what Peter Drucker has called "the essential flaw" in the science developed by Taylor and his disciples:
If experience in the factory were not enough to establish the resemblance between man and machine, ideas current during the period reinforced it. Books like Carl Snyder's The World Machine (1911), Jacques Loeb's The Mechanistic Conception of Life (1912), or George Grill's Man, An Adaptive Mechanism (1916) expanded the analogy: not only was man himself a machine, but he lived within one, either because nature herself was mechanistic or because industrialism had made his environment artificial. Most such works drew on the clockwork models inherent in still-viable Newtonian physics, or attempted to adapt, however misguidedly, the thought of men like Darwin, Freud, and Marx. Mass production, with its emphasis on the integration of man and machine, seemed compatible with the ideas of Darwin and the corollaries of Spencer and Durkheim. Freud's division of the psyche into forces, drives, and regressions suggested a mechanistic structure of the personality. Marx, of course, had understood that factories and industrial institutions, whatever else they might be, were forms of social organization. Moreover, Marx believed that man's relationship to the things he produces was the most significant factor in human society, and further, that the individual was related to other humans primarily through his production. The implication was that man and thing are interchangeable: if the production and distribution of things were modeled on social relationships, then the equation seemed to be reversible, so that men were things—or, if one likes, machines.
Americans did not have to accept Marxian analysis to see that advancing technology was wrenching capitalism and creating new classes capable of manipulating new social structures. During this period Joseph Schumpeter and lesser economists, as much aware of the power of corporations as muckrakers like Steffens and Tarbell, began speculating on the bureaucracies of Standard Oil, American Tobacco, Quaker Oats, Otis Elevator, and Singer Sewing Machine. During this period also occurred the rise of the "managerial elites" and "the revolt of the engineers," (14) movements that generated others like "The New Machine" of Henry Gantt and the "Technocracy" of Howard Scott, which enjoyed vogues of some duration. Fundamental to such organizations was the notion that, given large systems and sophisticated machinery, and given the affinity between man and machine, machine experts or engineers should run not only the factories but society as well, to unify human endeavor under order and efficiency.
the envisioned domestication of technology and nature alike is what leads to the resolution of the tension Leo Marx deems irresolvable: the tension between the industrial and the agrarian orders, the tension between the machine and the garden, a tension which Marx believes lies at the heart of "the American experience." That tension is to be resolved by the modernization rather than the abandonment of the garden, by its being transported out of the wilderness and relocated in the city, but a city now itself transformed from a lethal chaos to a healthy order. The new "industrialized garden" does not take the form of Marx's "middle landscape": the Jeffersonian ideal of an agrarian-based yet technologically proficient yeoman republic. Rather, it takes the form of what in the "real" world have since been termed "megalopolises": massive combinations of urban and suburban tracts embracing practically all of, in this case, utopia. (15)
I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together into interdependence: we have built the great cities; now
There is no escape. We have gathered vast populations incapable of free survival, insulated
From the strong earth, each person in himself helpless, on all dependent.
The circle is closed, and the net Is being hauled in. They hardly feel the cords drawing, yet they shine already. The inevitable mass-disasters Will not come in our time nor in our children's, but we and our children Must watch the net draw narrower, government take all powers—or revolution, and the new government Take more than all, add to kept bodies kept souls—or anarchy, the mass-disasters.
These things are Progress. . . , (17)
Jeffers's analogy is an improvement on Herrick's organic one because it stresses the man-made dimensions of the technological dilemma. Sophistication like Jeffers's was rare, for his criticism, entirely valid and still relevant, grew out of his perception that the advance of technology involved more than the trampling of flowers. His nightmare vision of impotent interdependence was the dark side of Crane's dream of technologically-achieved community. The industrial- pastoral tension thus did not disappear—it is with us to this day—but as it faded the hostility to invention that it had stimulated was matched by other literary reactions occasionally just as sharp.
But there must be a center around which all [life] moves, musn't there? There is in everything else! And that center must be the Great Mother of Eternal Life, Electricity, and Dynamo is her Divine Image on earth! Her power houses are the new churches! She wants some one man to love her purely and when she finds him worthy she will love him and give him the secret of truth and he will become the new savior who will bring happiness and peace to man. (22)
Sometimes ambivalence grew out of the author's perception that machines were important to the common man. "The most interesting thing going on in American life is inside the factories," thought Sherwood Anderson, who wished to treat industrialism fictionally "to get the beauty and poetry of the machine, but at the same time its significance to labor." (24) Although he tried to do so in books like Marching Men (1917), Poor White (1921), and Perhaps Women (1931), the efforts were not memorable, perhaps because Anderson could not heed Hart Crane's warning that "mere romantic speculation on the power and beauty of machinery keeps it at a continual remove" from human endeavor. Perhaps also Anderson's own unsettling experience in a paint factory worked against his intentions.
The uneasiness is more pronounced in the work of William Faulkner, who is also more thoughtful in his ambivalence toward technology than Hemingway. Had Faulkner's novels not been so grounded in the rural South, and were his ambivalence not so keyed to this region, he might eventually have addressed the man-machine discontinuity directly. At any rate, complex machines for Faulkner are emblematic of the twentieth century, whose collisions with the nineteenth-century world of Yokna- patawpha County wear down his Mississippians. Faulkner's early novels are cautionary tales of the danger of empty metaphor and futile resistance to change. In Sartoris, Southerners who fume and sputter against the automobile shrink beside the figure of their ancestor, Colonel Sartoris, who mastered the locomotive and built a railroad. More specifically, when Faulkner allows his own love of inventions to surface in books like Pylon, he can describe the leader of a barnstorming aviation troupe as "single-purposed, fatally and grimly without any trace of introversion or any ability to objectify or ratiocinate, as though like the engine, the machine for which he apparently existed he functioned, moved, only in the vapor of gasoline and the filmstick of oil." (26) Faulkner thus aligns himself with Samuel Gompers in admitting that man and machine do resemble each other; the necessary qualification is that man is the more complex of the two—he is not, or should not be, "single-purposed."
Nevertheless, far from indicating any serious attempt to resolve the man-machine discontinuity, the ambivalence of the finest literary minds represents a sidestepping of the issue. The factor which best explains why Anderson, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Faulkner were not hostile to machines also explains why they could not confront the discontinuity and why they could not advance beyond popular thinking on the subject of technology. Put simply, the reason is that these men did not envision machines as in themselves inimical to human society. For them, mechanical devices and mechanical processes were less troubling than the forces of twentieth-century commercialism. In The Sound and the Fury, for instance, Faulkner has Jason Compson use the money he swindled from Caddy to buy an automobile even though Jason is nauseated by the smell of gasoline. The machine is not a symbol of Jason's evil, nor is Jason like the machine. His sterility, his rapaciousness, and his alienation condemn him, and these traits Faulkner associates with commercialism.
It is true that these writers refer occasionally to the "mechanization" of life in "the machine age." Such lapses may be attributed to confusion and to the residual distrust that the most practical of humanists still feels before the most innocuous of machines. Like the average American, thoughtful writers identified inventions with progress, and knew that progress was real. If life did seem mechanized, it was sometimes easier for writers to follow the inclinations of the man in the street and saddle business interests with the blame. In addition to being a popular reaction, moreover, the approach had intellectual respectability. The distinction between inventions and the commercialism that perverted them had been established early in the century by one of America's most idiosyncratic minds, albeit a non-literary one.
But if machines were good, and if to be like machines were good, how did it happen that technology was so often perverted? The answer, said Veblen, was that opposed to man's creative instinct was another he called "predatory," which resided in its purest form in the American businessman. "The production of goods is a mechanical process, incidental to the making of money," Veblen wrote in 1919, "whereas the making of money is a pecuniary operation, carried on by bargain and sale, not by mechanical appliances and powers. . . , (28) The fault lay not with the machine, but with its economic corruption, not with the inventor but with the entrepreneur. The upshot was that Veblen eliminated the man- machine discontinuity by saying that the machine was vested with the best human characteristics; but in the process he replaced one duality with another, the dichotomy between industry and business. The result, however, was to deflect fear of the machine onto the businessman.
Whether one considers it an adequate response to technology or not, Dos Passos's work was soon dated by the feverish wartime engineering that revved up the Second Industrial Revolution in earnest. World War Two's computers, rockets, and radars, which in their turn would be succeeded by microprocessors, smart bombs, and lasers, would seem more alien than ever to writers, who had never made their peace with earlier inventions. From war's end on, social, political, and economic imperatives would remove the prerogative of metaphor from literature, and vest it instead in popular culture or in non-literary disciplines. The moviemaker like Kubrick, the cartoonist like Feiffer, the political scientist like Ferkiss, the sociologist like Bell, even the odd literary critic like McLuhan, seemed better equipped than the writer to conceptualize man's relationship to his inventions. Today the writer's task is to synthesize other people's metaphors. So far, only Thomas Pynchon has successfully accepted that challenge, and it is significant that he began his career with a parody of Henry Adams's Virgin. Should other writers follow Pynchon's lead, they may regain the ability to speak of American inventions. Since the age of cybernetics has arrived, it is time to span the man-machine dichotomy, and time to end the literary lag.
1. Vernon Louis Parrington, The Beginnings of Critical Realism in America, 1860-1920 (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1958), p. 137.
2. Robert L. Heilbroner, “The Impact of Technology: The Historic Debate,” Automation and Technological Change, ed. John T. Dunlop (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1963), p. 19.
3. Bruce Mazlish, "The Fourth Discontinuity," Technology and Culture, ed. Melvin Kranzberg and William Davenport (New York: New American Library, 1972), pp. 217-19.
4. Hart Crane, "Modern Poetry," The Complete Poems of Hart Crane, ed. Waldo Frank (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Co., 1958), pp. 181-82.
5. Quoted by Peter Viereck, "The Poet and the Machine Age," Dream and Responsibility: Four Test Cases of the Tension Between Poetry and Society (Washington, D.C.: Univ. Press of Washington, D.C., 1953), p. 52.
6. '’Siegfried Giedion, Mechanization Takes Command: A Contribution to Anonymous History (New York: Norton and Co., 1969), p. 41.
7. Samuel Lilley, Men, Machines and History (New York: International Publishers, 1965), p. 190.
8. D. S. L. Cardwell, Turning Points in Western Technology (New York: Science History Publication, 1972), p. 204.
9. Quoted by Emma Rothschild, Paradise Lost: The Decline of the Auto-Industrial Age (New York: Vintage Books, 1973), p. 57.
10. Taylorism precipitates a textile factory revolt in Sherwood Anderson's Perhaps Women (1931).
11. Quoted by Melvin Kranzberg and Joseph Gies, By the Sweat of Thy Brow: Work in the Western World (New York: Capricorn Books, 1975), p. 160.
12. Quoted by David R. Weimer, "The Man With the Hoe and the Good Machine," Studies in American Culture: Dominant Ideas and Images, ed. Joseph J. Kwiat and Mary C. Turpie (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1960), p. 72.
13. Quoted by Kranzberg and Gies, pp. 162- 63.
l4. See Edwin T. Layton, The Revolt of the Engineers: Social Responsibility and the American Engineering Profession (Cleveland: Case Western Reserve Univ. Press, 1971).
15. Howard P. Segal, American Visions of Technological Utopia, 1883—1933," The Markham Review, 7 (Summer 1978), 65-76.
16. George Sterling, untitled manuscript, c. 1920, Sterling Collection, Mills College.
17. Robinson Jeffers, "The Purse-Seine," The Modem Age, ed. Leonard Lief and James F. Light (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969), pp. 443- 44.
18. Henry James, The American Scene (New York: Harper and Bros., 1907), pp. 180—81.
19. H. L. Mencken, The Vintage Mencken, ed. Alistair Cooke (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 202.
20. Anthony C. Hilfer, The Revolt from the Village, 1915-1930 (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1969), p. 99.
21. Waldo Frank, The New America (London: Jonathan Cape, 1922), p. 192.
22. Eugene O'Neill, "Dynamo," The Plays of Eugene O’Neill (New York: Random House, 1954), III, 479.
23. See John F. Kasson, Civilizing the Machine: Technology and Republican Values in America, 1776—1900 (New York: Penguin Books, 1977), pp. 120-21, 126, for an account of Emerson's tendency to anthropomorphize the machine.
24. Sherwood Anderson, The Letters of Shenmod Anderson, ed. H. M. Jones and W. B. Rideout (Boston: Little, Brown, 1973), pp. 210-11.
25. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Crack-Up, ed. Edmund Wilson (New York: New Directions, 1956), p. 14.
26. William Faulkner, Pylon (New York: Signet Books, 1962), pp. 102—03.
27. Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of Business Enterprise (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1904), p. 313.
28. Thorstein Veblen, The Vested Interests and the Common Man (New York: Viking Press, 1946), pp. 91-92.
29. Mark Schorer, Sinclair Lewis: An American Life (New York: McGraw Hill, 1961), p. 772.
30. Sinclair Lewis, Babbitt (1922; rpt. New York: New American Library, 1961), p. 190.
31. Ibid, p. 45.
32. Ibid, p. 58.
In: The Technological imagination: theories and fictions/edited by Teresa de Lauretis, Andreas Huyssen, Kathleen Woodward. PP. 27-48.