Further Notes from the Prison-House of Language
Embodying Technesis: Technology Beyond Writing.
N. Katherine Hayles
Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000.
352pp. $24.50 (paper)
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, 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.
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.