Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 0-8166-3356-8
The Culture of Technology
Pramod K. Nayar
Rutsky’s High Techne returns us to the primary meanings of the word ‘techne‘ – art, skill and craft – as he explores the dynamics that have transformed notions of technology from an art/skill into instrumentality.
Rutsky begins by suggesting two significant ‘moments’ in the history of techno-culture. The first is the rise of modernism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, an aesthetics that tried to reconcile the technological with the aesthetic itself. During this ‘process’, Rutsky argues, modernist aesthetics ‘connect[ed] the spiritual and technological’ while ‘aestheticized technological forms were explicitly designed as a kind of spiritual edifice’ (9). Rutsky concludes that artistic modernism exhibits a ‘technicist’ tendency when it equates technological reproduction with the rationalization and functionality of mass production (10-11). The ‘machine’ aesthetic of modernism was, in Rutsky’s formulation, ‘an aesthetic, a style, a simulation of the rationalized, standardized forms of machines and factories, often abstracted from any functional or instrumental context’ (11). The second ‘moment’ is the aestheticization of high tech. Here the reproduction of technology is not determined by functionality: reproduction takes on its own aesthetic logic. High tech style, which Rutsky characterizes as composed of minimalism and complexity, eventually reaches a stage where technological complexity begins to appear autonomous and beyond human control (13). Rutsky’s analysis of contemporary representations of technology reveals a fascinating picture. He argues that if modernity sought to demystify the world through ‘scientific’ decodings of secrets (secrets that were previously marginalized by theology), contemporary representations of technology achieve just the opposite. Rutsky writes:
these ‘science-fictional’ representations of technological life have also, at times, invoked the return of older — or at least other – representations that have been excluded or repressed by modern scientific-technological thought, representations in which agency is not the exclusive property of a human subject. In other words, a technological life or agency that is seen as ‘beyond’ human control or prediction often seems to invoke a sense of those ‘older’ supernatural or magical discourses that modernity, believing itself to have surpassed, figures as ‘dark’, ‘irrational’, ‘superstitious’, and ‘primitive’. (18)
In his chapter ‘The Spirit of Utopia and the Birth of the Cinematic Machine’ Rutsky argues that both romantic and modernist aesthetics are predicated upon the notion of a ‘spirit’ or soul of the machine. In modernism’s reemergence of the technological in the aesthetic sphere, there is a desire for the eternal and the immutable, a ‘haunting’ by the ‘spirit of utopia’. Reading the technology of cinema, Rutsky argues that all contemporary thinkers on film (Bazin, Villiers, Benjamin) reveal a tension between the ‘fragmentation of “modern” technology and the wholeness of an “eternal” spirit’ (45). Cinema, or rather the cinematic machine, for Rutsky, is caught in a dialectic between the ‘uncanny, dystopian technological life . . . a mere substitute for the fully living’ and ‘the spiritualization of technology, its transformation into the mirror of an eternal, fully present, fully living self’ (47).
In ‘The Mediation of Technology and Gender’ Rutsky reads Fritz Lang’s classic Metropolis (1926) and Nazi propaganda discourses. Arguing that cinema alone enables the ‘bringing to life’ of Nazi visions of the future, Rutsky demonstrates how Nazi tyranny is based precisely on an ‘aesthetic’ of wholeness. No technologies of difference are acknowledged under Nazi totalitarianism. Difference, as Rutsky puts it, ‘like technology itself, is either to be mediated into an aesthetic whole or excluded and destroyed’ (72). In the two pivotal chapters, ‘The Avant-Garde Techne and the Myth of Functional Form’ and ‘Within the Space of High Tech’, Rutsky discusses the emergence of high tech as aesthetic. Reading architecture and film via Baudrillard, Andreas Huyssens and others, Rutsky argues that in contemporary times technological reproduction is an end in itself. Consumption’s function is to reproduce an ‘increasing surplus of its own technological style’, a ‘simulacral technology’. It is in avant-garde art/techne that Rutsky detects the shift from the machine aesthetic to a technological aesthetic.
Rutsky notes the shift from an instrumental rationality to technological reproducibility in this ‘postmodern’ high tech age (104). Addressing the arguments of Fredric Jameson and William Gibson, Rutsky suggests that Jameson’s is an apocalyptic vision of high tech where ‘the Other of society . . . is no longer nature at all . . . but [. . .an]other reality of economic and social institutions’ (Jameson, qtd in Rutsky, 126, emphasis Jameson’s). In contrast to this vision of the technological sublime, Rutsky argues that
William Gibson presents a much more positive perspective on high tech. For Gibson, humanity is no longer defined simply in terms of an active ‘masculine’ mastery over a ‘feminine’ other world. Instead the human is to be seen in its inseparable and multiple connections to that world. Thus the human ‘subject’ remains open to the fluidity and mutations of the techno-cultural world’ (127).
In his concluding chapter Rutsky analyses contemporary technological fetishism. He argues that journals like Mondo 2000 and Wired reflect a growing fetishising of high tech itself. High tech is here seen as endowed with an immanent value, and less as an instrument. In a valuable reading Rutsky suggests that the technological unconscious is always a ‘techno-cultural unconscious’ in which technological and cultural thereness are both excluded from and by Western modernity (136). The increasing complexity of high tech, its apparent ability to ‘self-organize’, both mean that it is seen as a fetish ‘object’, an autonomous ‘life’ beyond human control (141-2). Reading texts like Wired and Bill Gates’ The Road Ahead, Rutsky suggests that contemporary high tech’s most pervasive tendency is to see technology from the standpoint of select masculine subjects. To be within this ‘technological vanguard’ is supposedly a privileged elite position. Once again, this marks a dialectic of othering: technologically adept, innovative ‘pioneers’ versus technologically inept ‘followers’. Rutsky writes: ‘one of the paradoxes of this “futurist” myth is that even as it continues to uphold the modern ideal of a general enlightenment and empowerment of the human subject, it does so by privileging certain individuals as being in advance of the general population — as already more enlightened and empowered’. (156) This is indisputably the most trenchant critique that can be made of the so called techno-cultural ethos of today.
Rutsky’s work reiterates the fact that the critique of technology cannot be the job of technologists alone. By focussing on the ‘consumption’ of technology, and bringing back questions of individual agency, choice and ‘adaptation’ into the debates around technological ‘progress’ Rutsky underlines the need to look at the ethics, or what may be called the ethico-aesthetics, of technology. His discussion of Nazism, propaganda and the ‘technological vanguard’ implicitly suggests this need, and this is really the salient feature of the book. Rutsky’s argument regarding the persistence of the exclusionary tendency even in apparently ’emancipatory’ and ‘progressive’ technologies is critical, and bears pondering over. Three issues must figure in any critique of technology: the issue of public space, the issue of social restructuring, and the issue of human ethics and responsibility. At the risk of sounding prescriptive, I shall indicate the trajectory that such critiques ought to take.
With the widespread use of communication technologies and alteration of work-space, people have begun to retreat into private spaces (which are now also work spaces, in the form of ‘homeoffice’). Mike Featherstone and Roger Burrows, for instance, suggest that we are witnessing an increasing decline of our sense of ‘publicness’ in the age of electronically mediated communication (13). We thus have the paradox of a global communication technology that isolates people, with social interaction taking place solely through streams of data transmitted via the Internet (to mention just one ‘tool’ of communication). What then of the public sphere, the space of discussion, of social bonds, and therefore, of democracy? Douglas Kellner’s suggestion that one needs to distinguish between technology as part of a social system, as a ‘force of production that inscribes a set of relations of production, and technology as a set of specific instruments and practices used by individuals with their own ends and goals in sight’ (190) is, I believe, salutary. Further, Kellner’s skepticism regarding the transformative power of the new ‘techno-capitalism’ is also relevant here, especially in conjunction with Rutsky’s own arguments about the elitism of the technological vanguard. Kellner notes that thus far the new techno-culture has created wealth for a privileged class, generated a large service-industry and simultaneously caused unemployment among victims of ‘technological redundancy and corporate downsizing’ (200).
Though this is not Rutsky’s focus, High Techne and Kellner’s comments open up a space for at least three crucial questions in the debates around technology, export/import of technology and the globalisation ‘movement’: (a) How does the increasing ‘desirable’ technologization of society and industry impact upon developing nations? (b) How does the heavy expenditure on such technology affect, say, budgetary allocations for public health and education in a developing nation? (c) What form does social restructuring take with (i) the transfer of either technology from the developed to the developing nation and/or (ii) with the migration of a working class skilled mainly in the new (essentially Western) technologies from the developing to the developed nations? Further, for many people social interaction is now reduced to multimedia interactive CDs, games and so on. Rather than the cafeteria or the theatre, the site of human interaction is the WWW. Woody Allen once said that by the end of the twentieth century kidnapping will be the dominant mode of human interaction, and the above paradox gestures towards such an eventuality! In such a context how does the human personality develop? For personality develops not just through exchange of data-based information (which even e-mail achieves) but through a face-to-face interaction. Following the work of Emmanuel Levinas, one needs to ask how and in what form ethics and responsibility arise in situations where there is no face-to-face interaction between human beings at all. I am suggesting here that notions of responsibility must be factored into discussions of the role of techno-culture, since culture, by definition, is a shared, public practice. If people do not meet except through digital signatures, projections and such disembodied corpo-realities, then questions regarding ethics and responsibility become paramount. Rutsky’s book gestures towards these debates, though they are not, understandably, his focus.
High Techne, with its finely nuanced reading of the rise of a new techno-culture and technological fetishism, provides several points of entry into these and other issues for subsequent work. It is definitely a critical contribution to cultural studies of technology
Featherstone, M. & Burrows, R. (1995) ‘Cultures of Technological Embodiment: An Introduction’. In M. Featherstone and R. Burrows (eds), Cyberspace/Cyberbodies/Cyberpunk: Cultures of Technological Embodiment. London: Sage. 1-19.
Kellner, D. (1999) ‘New Technologies: Technocities and the Prospects for Democratization’. In J. Downey and J. McGuigan (eds), Technocities. London: Sage.186-204.
Pramod K. Nayar lectures in the Department of English at the University of Hyderabad, India.