Further Notes From the Prison-House of Language

Further Notes From the Prison-House of Language

2001-09-01
Embodying Technesis: Technology Beyond Writing.
Embodying Technesis: Technology Beyond Writing.
Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000.

Linda Brigham works through Embodying Technesis by Mark Hansen.

I suppose I would call Mark Hansen’s
Embodying Technesis
a “working through” of some major threads in poststructuralism
in order to rescue technology from enchantment. This description is
mildly metaphorical; “working through” is a psychoanalytical phrase
referring to the process of reclaiming traumatic material, by definition
unrepresentable, for representation, thus restoring a coherent
life-narrative to the trauma-sufferer. Although it smacks of Harold
Bloom to see one’s philosophical and critical progenitors as
“traumatic,” it makes common enough sense to see the mastery of theory
as its translation into one’s own language from the alien language of
others, and, subsequently, to see such translation as a way to put
theory in its place - just as we put a traumatic event in its place when
we work through trauma. This analogy is a little troubling, though,
because it means that in the process of working through theory, Hansen
would be doing to poststructuralism precisely what he claims
poststructuralism does to technology: putting it into discourse,
reducing its alterity to a signified other. In fact, Hansen’s term
technesis
means just that: the process of putting technology into
discourse - reducing its “robust material exteriority” - one of the
book’s refrains - to a ghostly negativity, a residue of the human, the
cultural.

But logical quibbling aside: the book, in its account of
poststructuralism’s shortcomings with respect to technology, reads like
a working-through. The book’s structure has a quest romance quality
where each of the philosophical trajectories Hansen covers looms up to
be defeated by the sword of technology ITSELF, that is, by an agent
exterior to culture and cultural inscription. Science studies,
deconstruction, psychoanalysis and (I know no appropriate label) Deleuze
and Guattari all loom up, only to be beaten back, beaten down by a very
similar series of strokes. The hero proves himself in trial with a
serially returning repressed. For the reader, as for the psychoanalyst,
the scene seems more repetitive than one suspects it is for the writer
or the analysand; one cannot help but suspect that victory is not the
only motive here - that there is some occult charge transferred in
fingering over the adversary’s features - again and again - before the
last goodbye.

But I do not mean this as a dismissive criticism - in fact, I
would hope the reader of this book (as well as this review) holds on to
the end, for Hansen does sketch an alternative to technesis that
presages an important program for rethinking “the problem of
technology.” But getting there requires an extraordinary amount of fast
travel. Hansen begins the book with a review and evaluation of recent
cultural criticism focused on relations between technology and
embodiment, a rocky road of various concrete scenes, theoretical
approaches and historiographies, including Bruno Latour, N. Katherine
Hayles,
Brigham wrote on How We
Became Posthuman in the Spring of 1999

Michelle Kendrick and a few others. The heterogeneity and
richness of these theorists make the job of adequate summary nearly
impossible - and the problem of summarizing plagues the whole volume
because of its immense scope. On the whole, considering the task, Hansen
does an impressive and intelligent work, given the impossibility of
satisfaction, but the opening section, precisely because of the variety
and specificity - the deliberate situatedness of the work of many of
those he considers - is perhaps the roughest part of the book. So it is
difficult, particularly here, to acquiesce to Hansen’s claim that all of
these critics fall under the spell of language and overwrite, to a
greater or lesser degree, the concrete alterity of technology. It is
especially hard to see why that overwriting is important, given what
these writers
do
offer.

The path smoothes out somewhat in Part 2, where Hansen
elaborates what he calls the “machine reduction” of technology, the
shortcomings that undermine deconstruction’s supposed materiality.
Derrida purportedly exposes the machinic nature of writing, the coreless
core of the supposedly autonomous human agent. However, as Hansen
argues, this antihumanist scandal is actually a way of domesticating the
machine. Deconstruction inherits a reduction of technology stemming from
Aristotle, a reduction that continues to form the backdrop for Western
thought. Derrida, in exposing the machine as that which is disguised as
the subordinated instrumentality of writing, depends for its effect on
friction with the grain of Aristotle, and produces only a discursive
machine, a reduction of the materiality of technology to text, an
artificial agent. Postmodernity fares less well than modernism in this
respect; although one would expect Heidegger, in his famously humanist
“Question Concerning Technology,” to be a key target of Hansen’s charge
of technological reduction, Derrida comes in for more criticism than
Heidegger. Heidegger, says Hansen, is rather obviously defensive about
technology, and his criticism of its alienating effects barely conceals
acknowledgment of its potential as an exterior threat to authenticity -
wherein technology has the status of an agent. Derrida, in effecting a
supposed closure to Heideggerian metaphysics, in fact only develops
another way to overwrite technology: by presenting it as textuality.
Technology becomes a structuring negative, a gravitational center around
which humanity and culture acquire their respective order. Likewise,
Derrida subverts the promise of Paul de Man’s attempt to unwrite the
overwriting of technology through the notion of allegory. While de Man
critically disjoins memory and technology, Derrida, with his notion of
artificial memory, memory as technology, brings them together once again
- reducing technology’s exteriority and locating it under the skin.

Part Three, the last major section of critique, sweeps through
Lacanian psychoanalysis and Deleuze and Guattari’s demolition of
subjects into “desiring machines.” For Hansen, Lacan’s emphasis on the
symbolic works very much like deconstruction’s emphasis on the machine
quality of textuality. The Real, for Lacan, is not robust; rather it is
always seen from the point of view of the symbolic, from the subject,
and is assimilated to the world of the subject as the impossible object
of desire. In contrast to the early Freud, whose
quasi-neurophysiological theories of perception emphasized the
unprocessed element of perception, Lacan (and Derrida) subvert
exteriority into a disturbance of signification. Hansen turns to the
work of Deleuze and Guattari with similar misgivings on these theorists’
emphasis on desire. D+G, as he refers to them, have a more promising
program than deconstruction or Lacanian psychoanalysis because of the
antirepresentationalism and anti-subjectivism of their key concept of
deterritorialization. They move towards conceptualizing a relation to
exteriority as a kind of rhythmic flux that does not invoke
signification. But the subject, and representation, lingers in the
dependence of the notion of deterritorialization - along with nomadic
science, along with “experience” - on their opposites, on
reterritorialization, on the state, and on thought. The movement across
and between these polarities becomes the subject of desire, and as in
Lacan, desire becomes a defensive appropriation of the exteriority of
technology.

A book with such a tremendously ambitious philosophical and
critical scope is bound to raise readers’ complaints about the short
shrift their own favorite figures have received. Certainly aficionados
of German media theory will be disturbed by Hansen’s dismissal of
Friedrich Kittler (systems theory also gets a glib treatment) - and this
is too bad, because these are readers who I imagine would be very
interested in Hansen’s overall agenda. Tucked away in “Interlude 2,” the
last stop before we arrive at Hansen’s recommendation for a solution to
all these shortcomings, Hansen’s remarks on Kittler are both puzzling
and unconvincing. He refers to Kittler’s treatment of the media that
compose the “materialities of communication” as “background” to “our
contemporary forms of knowledge production” (221), a formulation that
makes Kittler sound like he is filling in the gaps of intellectual
history. Yet Hansen acknowledges that Kittler, far more concretely than
D+G, presents technology as having effects prior to and outside of
subjectification, formative of sensory experience itself. However,
paradoxically, Hansen takes this emphasis on technology as tending
towards a disembodied antihumanism - for which his basis is Kittler’s
enigmatic essay, “There is No Software.” Hansen doesn’t understand the
essay (a fact that only sets him among the majority of its readers, this
writer included); he seems to view it as a program for increasing
hardware efficiency, when the essay actually underwrites a crucial
distinction between programmability (which presumably includes hardware
efficiency, unless you very specifically reorient what is generally
meant by efficiency) and nonprogrammability, a distinction between
Turing machines and other kinds of machines and humans.
Bruce Clarke writes about
Friedrich Kittler’s Technosublime in the Winter 99/00 ebr

Nonetheless, after these serial turnings, we at last arrive at
an engaging “right way” with technology in the late work of Walter
Benjamin. Fortunately, it is a real alternative to the thrust the book
critiques. The later Benjamin - the last chapter riffs on “Some Motifs
in Baudelaire” - does indeed counter the textual focus of deconstruction
and Lacan’s symbolic - in that it offers no object at all - and
therefore has no subject either. Hansen summarizes Benjamin’s
revalidation of
Erlebnis
lived experience - a phrase properly understood oxymoronically.
Living constitutes a continual simultaneity, an intersection of life
with event, a Ballardian crash - while “experience” - as emphasized in
Erlebnis’s
opposite,
Erfahrung
- records, temporalizes, memorializes precisely those events
that are not fully lived.
Erlebnis
“experiences” the other -including the technological other -
through
mimesis, the registry of the other in the body rather than in
representation. So film, as a mimetic rendering of its object, has a
direct sensory appeal that undermines and precedes understanding, and in
this respect it poses for Benjamin the potential of bypassing
interiority and the linguistic alienation of self from self “the
subject” constitutes - in the process putting an end to technesis.
Benjamin’s essay also supports the elements of Freud Hansen favors, the
physiological theorizing that depicts consciousness, especially
consciousness in relation to shock experience, as prior to and exclusive
of memory. Memory begins where consciousness ends.

Yet this approach is certainly not exclusively Benjamin’s -
especially this view of mimesis. Judith Butler, as well as many other
feminists and queer theorists, have questioned the preeminence of the
symbolic in Lacan. Butler - along with Diana Fuss, Kaja Silverman,
Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen, and others - has suggested that an
unsymbolically-mediated identification precedes subjectification, and
continues to lurk beneath it. In fact, I think the connection of
Hansen’s approach to Alice Jardine’s in
Gynesis
is far more substantial than he acknowledges, and resources from
gender theory have the potential to massively enrich what Hansen is
drawing from Benjamin. All in all, Hansen’s conclusion is both too
specific and too fragmentary - another sign that he is working through
his paternal adversaries in high (and male-dominated) theory rather than
making a calculated argument for a new agenda. I would anticipate that
Hansen’s next work will invoke a conceptual rather than an
author-structured basis for making distinctions. One distinction offers
itself immediately (so to speak): Hansen’s praise seems reserved for
nonreflexive approaches to alterity - where reflexivity is the process
of representing otherness in order to perform work on the
representation, which mediates work on the world. While non- or
anti-reflexivity is unlikely to offer a way, as Hansen suggests in the
course of his comments on Bergson, “to restore solidarity between
individual and collective life” (241), or at least one would hope not,
it is nonetheless a crucial alternative experience to the massively
overdeveloped reflexivity that now governs us, often through the
distributed consciousnesses of actuarial tables and massively networked
financial connectivity, leading to ever more disturbingly robust forms
of social synchronization under global regimes of communication. Our
great challenge is to awaken from a world where exteriority has no
chance, where feedback is always already appropriated and redeployed by
the system. This is not a new thought, but we are not done with it, and
it is certainly at least as timely now as it ever was.

>>—>
Mark Hansen responds.