Histories of the Present

Histories of the Present

2003-06-12
Culture and Technology
Andrew Murphie and John Potts
Houndmills, Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
Cyborg: the man-machine
Marie O'Mahony
London, Thames and Hudson, 2002.

Darren Tofts reviews a popularization by Marie O’Mahony and an auto-critique of cyberculture by Andrew Murphie and John Potts.

Jacob Burckhardt had the benefit of four hundred years of hindsight when he constructed his Enlightenment model of the Renaissance in 1860. Herbert Read and Edmund Wilson found the going tougher when they attempted to define the characteristics of artistic and literary modernism - immersed, as they were, in the very things they were trying to define and which, no doubt, were changing and mutating before the ink had even dried on any sentence of Art Now (1933) or Axel’s Castle (1931). Jürgen Habermas, with a mix of equanimity and assertiveness, conceded that he was dealing with an unfinished project when articulating the vast locutions of modernity. In a similar vein, Jean-François Lyotard modulated his theory of the postmodern as that which is “unpresentable,” in recognition of the dynamic complexity of the conditions he was, initially anyway, attempting to circumscribe in the 1970s.

Culture and Technology and Cyborg: the man-machine are motivated by a similar desire to define and historicize the present. Both books, too, are enmeshed in the same conditions they purport to synthesize into writing. Once committed to writing, any account of the contemporary is of necessity a kind of memory, in memory of the present. Modernity and the postmodern condition have been the elusive quarry of previous critics of the present. Cyberculture is the name that has been used to memorialize the last decades of the 20th century and cyberculture is the ostensible topic of both Culture and Technology and Cyborg: the man-machine. Neither text, though, specifically addresses “cyberculture” per se. Rather, they both seek to register and sharpen into relief those features and characteristics that are usually bundled together under the expedient rubric of cyberculture. For Andrew Murphie and John Potts, technological change is the object of their study and, in particular, the manifold complexity of continuous and discontinuous change. The title of their book is indicative of their focus, in that culture and technology are a common formation, not separate fields that have dramatically come together in the name of cyberculture. The project of Culture and Technology, then, is to trace the trajectories that have informed the present as well as to suggest its dynamic, shifting complexity. More specific in its focus, Cyborg is attentive to scientific and technological modifications of what it means to be human, or at least, what it means to be defined as human. The figure of the cyborg, the metaphoric and physical melding of humans and machines, is for O’Mahony a sign of the current status of our metaphysics. It is also an index of our evolution as a species from an organic, entropic life form to a hybrid, machine-like entity capable of cheating the dissolution of the flesh and modifying human nature.

Although both authors cover a similar terrain, they each approach the task of historicizing the present quite differently. O’Mahony’s approach is illustrative and descriptive, offering a series of snapshots - freeze-frames of the becoming-cyborg. Murphie’s and Potts’s text is more academically involved in its theoretical and critical expositions. But more decisively, their text is reflexive in locating the task of writing in relation to their object of study. In Cyborg, O’Mahony gives us a contemporary landscape of ideas, whereas Murphie and Potts afford themselves the more difficult task of glimpsing turbulence before it resolves into the order of critique. Reassured and distanced in style, O’Mahony’s prose guides us confidently through the permutations of the becoming-cyborg, which certainly makes for informed and informative reading. Murphie’s and Potts’s writing, by contrast, both wrestles and bristles with the self-imposed discipline of auto-critique, of assertion qualified by contingency, of statements that are driven by the timely conviction that, such are the order of things now, but by sentence end, things will be different.

Cyborg is very much a populist, descriptive survey of the contemporary meanings, applications, and understandings of the concept of the cyborg and the more general cultural interface between humans and machines. In Cyborg, informatic technologies are fundamentally positive and progressive, seen to enable and advance human life. The book’s range includes biotechnology, cloning, wearable computing, Artificial Intelligence, bionic implants, telepresence, cosmetic surgery, and body modification. While clearly aimed at a general reader, the book is in no way condescending or simplistic; it will be useful no doubt for students as a kind of primer of the becoming-cyborg, a synopsis. But where it will most help researchers is mainly in the details. In a discussion of hyperreality, for example, O’Mahony exemplifies the concept with Mya, an animated personality commissioned by Motorola to be the face of the company’s voice-activated web presence. The rendering of Mya’s visage was apparently so realistic and lifelike that it evoked disdain for ‘the human’ among site visitors. Mya was simply too real, in appearance too much like an actual woman. The desire for her to look more avatar-like, more hyperreal than real, attests to a possible shift from one regime of the real to another, a new digital faith in appearances crystallized in the preference for high fidelity fakes, copies and fabulations. In another example, O’Mahony notes how advances in surgical procedures, such as a larynx transplant, can have potentially disturbing consequences. Retaining the tone and pitch of the donor, the recipient of such a transplant carries the grain of someone else’s voice. For this reason, O’Mahony advises, “surgeons will check in advance that the recipient does not originate from the same area as the deceased” (22). Though clearly utilitarian and beneficial, such technoscientific processes carry metaphysical consequences to do with markers of identity that are not so easily resolved by technology’s purported benefits.

O’Mahony draws connections and establishes parallels, intimates outcomes, but ultimately leaves the reader to reflect upon the extent and significance of possible conclusions. While such a rhetorical stance suits the introductory, synoptic nature of the text, O’Mahnony falls short of bringing together ideas that clearly warrant synthesis and more critical engagement. For example, O’Mahony deals with many historical instances in which monstrosity hovers as the issue of human and technological convergence (as in her discrete accounts of Frankenstein, medieval bestiaries, Greek mythology, or the use of performance enhancing drugs in sport). While she uses the idea of the cyborg as a common denominator, the sense prevails that the perverse, monstrous, or grotesque body is a more urgent issue in what O’Mahony calls the “Cyborg State,” than the desire to achieve eternal life or improve on the limitations of the body. In other words, the label of cyborg, as a technologically enhanced human, smoothes over and conceals more troubling issues to do with the ways humans have historically conceived of and modified the body.

Within the context of what the book sets out to achieve, the failure to address this issue directly, or at least synthesize the recurrent instances of monstrosity that haunt the text, is a shortcoming. So too is the book’s conclusion, which is disappointing, to say the least. Falling into the all too predictable binary scenario that the Cyborg State will be good or bad, positive or negative, O’Mahony reverts, again, to letting the reader ponder the future of post-humanity:

We are now in a position to decide if and how we want to embrace these technologies. With power comes a collective responsibility both to ourselves and to the environment we live in. Utopia or dystopia, the choice is ours. (106)

The critical shortcomings I have identified in Cyborg register missed opportunities more than any one positive fault with the book. Clearly, the book is not pitched toward an academic audience, and its design and production values - striking, illustrative, appealling - indicate an intent to inform rather than engage readers. Culture and Technology, by contrast, is very much aimed at an academic audience and it lives up to the cover blurb: it is “clear, concise and readable.” The cogency and rigor of Murphie’s and Potts’s writing will ensure that Culture and Technology appeals to both undergraduate and postgraduate students. The breadth of this appeal is an important attribute, reflecting the comprehensive coverage of the cultural, critical, and social theory that has been the staple of humanities and social science research for the last twenty years.

Embracing so many fields, and reviewing them all in the broader context of the cybercultural present, is no mean feat - although such an approach runs the risk of repeating the already known, the all too familiar, the already said. Murphy and Potts, however, manage to avoid restatement in Culture and Technology. Their deft review of key debates resonates with freshness and renewed force. In their capable hands, the speed aesthetics of Paul Virilio, the machinic ecologies of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, and Jean Baudrillard’s precession of simulacra, are not only surveyed, but also actively employed so as to make sense of a complex and rapidly changing world. Murphie and Potts take nothing for granted. Their review is a return to first principles, starting with such fundamental terms as the titular culture and technology, media, cultural materialism, and technological determinism. This retrospective critique of the intellectual field is integral to the book’s ethics of contingency: that to understand the present we need to review - in the sense see again - what will work in any given context of inquiry. Their account of Marshall McLuhan’s work, grounded in general concepts of networks and ecologies, differs markedly from the previous generation of media theory grounded in broadcasting. Similarly, their survey of theorists who have specifically addressed issues to do with culture and technology, from Lewis Mumford to Gregory Bateson and McLuhan himself, establishes a platform upon which to locate more contemporary thinkers, such as Jean Baudrillard and Deleuze and Guattari. This recontextualization provides exactly the kind of intertextual, conceptual continuity required to negotiate the discontinuous and surprising emergence of particular technologies at specific points in time:

Technologies do not, then, of course, arise magically from out of nowhere, but where do they come from? Here we shall suggest - following Deleuze and Guattari and other thinkers - that technologies, like rivers and streams or developments in the arts, also flow. Like rivers and streams, they are produced by particular contexts and change as these contexts change. Like rivers and streams, they flow into each other, accumulate in larger rivers or split into deltas. (34)

Cultural and technological convergence requires critical and theoretical convergence and the above passage is a kind of manifesto in miniature for Culture and Technology. Its supple and interlacing critique makes a decisive incursion into the philosophy of the contemporary. What at first appears to be a review of familiar debates, theorists, and ideas converges into applied analyses of the signature themes associated with cyberculture. But even here, discussions of digital art, virtuality, cyberspace, and the networked society extend previous and ongoing academic discussions to a broader, meta-critical space, in which cybercultural concepts are subjected to the scrutiny of inspection, yet resist being ossified into the doxa of received ideas. A discussion of Stelarc’s performative discourse on the body, for example, does not leave us feeling that we know all there is to know about it, for the simple reason that the contexts of his work keep changing, as too his thinking on his work, as too the contexts of its reception.

Culture and Technology is a sophisticated text in that its introductory chapters develop this contingent way of reading the contemporary out of a very useful and precise survey technocultural ideas. This aspect of the book alone makes for a substantial contribution to a diverse range of intellectual fields, of which cyberculture is but one. Continuing the book’s specific attention to cybercultural matters, its culminating chapters offer substantial analyses of key themes that are also foregrounded in Cyborg; namely, cyborg subjectivity, cognition, computers and cybernetics, war in the digital age, e-commerce, the future of the nation state in a networked world, and the broader, philosophical parameters of living with the virtual. Chapter 7, “Getting Wired: War, Commerce and the Nation State,” is especially noteworthy for its discussion of contemporary events, ranging from the 1991 Gulf War to September 11th, 2001, in the context of the logistics of networking, systems of command, control, and communication, and the increased turbulence associated with a vectoral, global culture. The chapter is a tour de force that demonstrates how to write of complex conditions without dumbing them down or resorting to arcane knowledge. It is one of the most illuminating discussions to date on what is actually and virtually at stake in a networked world, from its styles of war, its conceptions of sovereignty, and its modes of business:

It is informational capitalism that has led to what could be the most dramatically social restructuring over a short period of time that the world has yet seen. It has provided the drive behind the restructuring efforts of states and corporations. This has involved deregulation and the privatization of public resources. It has involved the dismantling of the welfare state and the erosion of various social contracts between labour and capital. It plays cities, states and even continents against each other. Its virtual, informational nodes apportion the actual world into territories of value (or non-value), even from one small section of a city to another. Any attempt at an independent, state-based financial control becomes unworkable. (191)

It is a pleasing irony, or fitting synchronicity, in the light of my earlier remarks, that Murphie and Potts conclude Culture and Technology by returning to Jean-François Lyotard’s Postmodern Condition and his discussion of the petit récit. Lyotard’s “little narrative” is an apt cypher of the impact on society of computer technology, networking, and the like. For Murphie and Potts, the shift from grand narratives to a fragmented nodal culture is, as it was for Lyotard, a shift from a monocultural sphere to a serial conception of society and social acts imagined as contingent narratives: “narratives that function specifically in specific times and specific places” (206). Likewise, we can configure Culture and Technology as a series of petits récits, inserted, temporarily, contingently, into the continuous discontinuity of the present.