Re-Clearing the Ground: A Response to Linda Brigham

Re-Clearing the Ground: A Response to Linda Brigham

2001-09-15

Mark Hansen responds to Linda Brigham’s review of Embodying Technesis: Technology Beyond Writing.

One unexpected consequence of publishing a first book is a potentially unsettling experience of dissociation from one’s own thinking. For this reason, I am grateful to The Electronic Book Review and especially to Linda Brigham for punctuating the evolving exchange between me and my own book. I am particularly grateful that, in Brigham, EBR has chosen a reviewer who thoroughly understands and appears to sympathize with the argument of what is, after all, a rather polemical book. From the first line of her review, Brigham seems to fathom the stakes of the argument, both for my own critical-theoretical agon and for the agon of critical theory itself in this technological era. By describing the book as a “working through” of poststructuralism, Brigham astutely characterizes its “function” for my own intellectual development in a way that foregrounds its particular situatedness; she also finds words to represent what, for me, cannot but remain in some sense or other a lived “drama” of apprenticeship. Brigham’s invocation of the Freudian vocabulary of working-through, trauma, and translation recalls to me my time in graduate school, when I was very much under the sway of the poststructuralist orthodoxy, and perhaps did feel the “burden of the tradition,” as her conjuring of Bloom would have it.

At the same time I feel the appropriateness of these various correlations, I cannot help but wonder whether the reference to trauma theory perhaps gets things precisely backwards. For, as I see it, what my book accomplishes is not so much a reinscription of the trauma of theory as a repudiation of the viability of trauma itself as a figure for thinking technology. This is no mere quibble, to adopt an expression of Brigham’s, for on it hangs the very possibility of extracting technology (and with it, theory) from the prison-house of language. Indeed, without a clear distinction between what I call “technesis” and the reinscription of trauma, several of the most fundamental claims of the book lose their edge. As I develop it, technesis is a reductive figure precisely in the sense that it narrows the “robust materiality” of technology and incorporates it seamlessly as a function within language. What makes it problematic is not, as in the case of trauma, the necessary Nachträglichkeit of representation, but the sheer incommensurability of its function with its textualization. Otherwise put, what is at stake here is a contrast between a merely “relative exteriority” within the field of representation and an absolute exteriority between language and the non-linguistic. Poststructuralism treats technology as an “opacity” internal to language, whereas I insist on a different approach that would begin by situating technology alongside, and thus necessarily (to some degree at least) outside, language.

I make this point not so much to quarrel with Brigham’s orientation as to clarify the aim of my argument and to explain, if possible, the necessity for its uncompromising insistence, or what Brigham experiences as its compulsive repetitiveness. If in fact most readers share Brigham’s feeling that this is a lesson already learned, so much the better; that would indicate that a large part of my purpose in writing the book has already been accomplished. Yet I suspect that this is not the case, and hope that my book can generate in its readers some of the therapeutic effect that writing it had for me. In this respect, what may very well have originated as a personal repetition compulsion will perhaps attain a collective significance.

If Brigham is nonetheless right to invoke trauma as the most theoretically productive way of understanding the effects of technesis, it is for reasons not necessarily intended by her. For far from furnishing the hidden master trope of my argument, trauma is in fact its most subtle adversary, and it is only by protracting the experience of trauma, by forcing the reader to re-live it in a veritable compulsive repetition that feels like endless iteration, that this adversary can be drained of its force. To escape from the clutches of technesis, we must give up our obsession with trauma itself, and to do so, we must experience something like a melancholia of the theoretical, a recognition of the constitutive limitations of its sway in the face of technology. For this reason, I would resist Brigham’s suggestion that I am “doing to poststructuralism precisely what [I] claim poststructuralism does to technology: putting it into discourse, reducing its alterity to a signified other.” If my argument takes form in language, as it must, it differs from the poststructuralist theories I criticize insofar as it does not pretend that language is constitutive of the field it describes. Following a distinction I make in the book, my language is “instrumental” or “operational” in the specific sense that it speaks about something to which it is (at least in part) external. Such a humility about language is, I think, central to overcoming the theoretical stance that allowed the spread of technesis in the first place.

Fortunately, Brigham’s incisive comments do not hang upon the cogency of the “analogy” with trauma and indeed go a long way toward elucidating the progressive “logic” underlying my argument. Her summary of the main part of this argument is especially felicitous to my ears because it foregrounds the development inherent in the insistently repeated charge of technesis I level against theory. Indeed Brigham’s facility in grasping just why I find Lacan’s or Deleuze and Guattari’s work to be more promising than Heidegger’s or Derrida’s suggests that the iterations of my argument do in fact operate a cumulative progression. Far from being an empty “repetition compulsion” occasioned by an unwritable trauma, the separate stages of this main section prepare the reader for the final chapter on Walter Benjamin, which I offer as an (admittedly insufficient) example of a fundamentally different engagement with technology. Brigham’s positive evaluation of this final chapter further demonstrates this progression: it stands at the very head of her detailed commentary, and it is said by her to trump her own misgivings about the concrete inadequacies of my argument.

Such misgivings fall into two categories, at least one of which deserves further commentary. Brigham finds my review and evaluation of recent cultural criticism to be wanting in the sense that advancing the formally identical charge of technesis necessarily abstracts from the “heterogeneity and richness” of particular works. If she is right that this is the “roughest part” of the book, (and I should say that it does constitute an addition intended to contextualize my argument in relation to contemporary science and technology studies), I would hope that her evaluation doesn’t obscure the theoretically serious claim I did seek to make: namely, that contemporary critics seem to have absorbed the reduction of technology into language in a largely uncritical manner and in spite of their explicit intentions and concrete approaches. From her standpoint, my objections to recent cultural criticism are easily outweighed by the value of their contributions (“It is especially hard to see why that overwriting is important, given what these writers do offer”), while from my perspective, their contributions are compromised because of this unacknowledged theoretical legacy.

Far more important, to my mind at least, are Brigham’s remarks concerning my treatment of Kittler and systems theory. From where I now stand, I can only concur with Brigham that I did give “short shrift” to both Kittler and Luhmann. And I would add a similar concession regarding much of my characterization of Deleuze and Guattari’s project, which I have already reconsidered in an essay that appeared in Postmodern Culture 11.1 (September 2000). Still, I cannot quite agree with the specific criticisms Brigham levels and in fact, would see the inadequacy of my treatment of Kittler as a more complex phenomenon than her comments indicate. Indeed, my claims regarding Kittler form an instance of the aforementioned “resonation” between me and my book - one that has led my thinking to develop in an unanticipated direction. Thus in a forthcoming paper (“Cinema Beyond Cybernetics, or How to Frame the Digital-Image,” Configurations 2002), I distinguish two tendencies in Kittler’s work: in brief, those of media ecology on the one hand, and technical dedifferentiation on the other. The superposition of these two tendencies within Kittler’s most recent work (and indeed from Gramophone, Film, Typewriter on) yields a tension that defies resolution and that testifies to Kittler’s “fatal attraction” for the formalism of Claude Shannon’s theory of information. This tension appears, for instance, in the paradoxical temporal mode of future anteriority that, for Kittler, characterizes our moment as a hiatus in which we await the inevitable digital convergence of information. Likewise, it informs Kittler’s distinctions between programmable and nonprogrammable computing in “There is no software” and “Protected Mode.” Paradoxically, this tension situates Kittler’s project on this side of the hermeneutic divide, since it necessarily figures the anticipated future (technical dedifferentiation) through the negation of the present and the extensive correlation of media with bodies.

This is hardly grounds for criticism (and indeed is cause for rejoicing), but it does make clear how much Kittler’s project is hampered on account of his unmitigated hostility to the human or, to put it somewhat differently, his thoroughgoing technological determinism. As I suggest in my forthcoming essay, Kittler one-ups Foucault, since he displaces the limited sway of Man (as the 19th-century “form”) entirely, showing that “so-called Man” has always been an illusion of an entirely autonomous technical evolution. Thus, the promise that I saw in Kittler’s updating of Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge comes to naught, since it has nothing to lend a bodily phenomenology. Moreover, my claim (for all its underdevelopment and obscurity) that Kittler advances a kind of “hardware realism” still appears to me essentially right. Conceding to Brigham that Kittler’s point in “There is no software” is to differentiate programmable and non-programmable computers, I would still contend that Kittler puts his stake in a perfection of hardware that comes frighteningly close to seeing machines, in a fashion reminiscent of the work of Hans Moravec, as murderous doppelgängers of humans. But why take my word for it, when Kittler himself lays bare this (fatal, if still wishful) allegiance with hardware:

Precisely this maximal connectivity, on the other, physical side, defines nonprogrammable systems, be they waves or beings. That is why these systems show polynomial growth rates in complexity and, consequently, why only computations done on nonprogrammable machines could keep up with them. In all evidence, this hypothetical, but all too necessary, type of machine would constitute sheer hardware, a physical device working amidst physical devices and subject to the same bounded resources (Kittler 154, emphasis added).

Like technical dedifferentiation itself, nonprogrammable machines are “all too necessary” since they ground the future anteriority that allows Kittler to pronounce the obsolescence of the body, of the senses, and of the human they define. Faced with this paradoxical futurity, I would gladly include myself in that group of readers who fail to understand Kittler’s essay, though such failure, I would add, goes well beyond questions of interpretative comprehension.

Finally, I am overjoyed to find in Brigham’s remarks on my discussion of Walter Benjamin a countervailing voice to the skeptical reception given it by Kate Hayles in the Preface she so generously contributed. Admitting (with Hayles), that “much more can be said about the question [concerning technology],” than my book says, I would still insist on Benjamin’s singular role in helping us revisit the physiological dimension of experience. This is precisely what Brigham appreciates in my reading of Benjamin, and for that I am grateful. What is more, she is certainly right that feminist criticism of psychoanalysis goes a long way along the same trajectory of my argument and that my work would benefit from a more proper recognition of this allegiance. Still, there are limitations in the kind(s) of theoretical questioning Brigham mentions. For instance, the (feminist and queer-theoretical) argument that “an unsymbolically-mediated identification precedes subjectification” - a position most famously developed by Judith Butler - fails to escape the transcendental structure of the symbolic order insofar as it simply reinscribes agency in the juridical figure of the law. What makes this position most problematic is, in the end, its inability to engage the body beyond its status as an abstract “psychic excess.” So long as the body is defined as an effect of the body image (or body ego, following Butler’s reading of Freud), it cannot form the basis for the kind of nonreflexive approach to alterity that Brigham so rightly sees as my ultimate aim. What is needed is a different (post-Freudian) engagement with the body, one that takes seriously Freud’s emphasis on the vicissitudes of bodily life and, with Merleau-Ponty, Varela, and Foucault (among others), moves us beyond the “master trope” of the body image.

Linda Brigham’s review