Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: critique (page 1 of 1)

beyond the SCT

My 2021 essay on “cosmotechnics” begins thus:

In the 1950s and 1960s, a series of thinkers, beginning with Jacques Ellul and Marshall McLuhan, began to describe the anatomy of our technological society. Then, starting in the 1970s, a generation emerged who articulated a detailed critique of that society. The critique produced by these figures I refer to in the singular because it shares core features, if not a common vocabulary. What Ivan Illich, Ursula Franklin, Albert Borgmann, and a few others have said about technology is powerful, incisive, and remarkably coherent. I am going to call the argument they share the Standard Critique of Technology, or SCT. The one problem with the SCT is that it has had no success in reversing, or even slowing, the momentum of our society’s move toward what one of their number, Neil Postman, called technopoly.

The basic argument of the SCT goes like this. We live in a technopoly, a society in which powerful technologies come to dominate the people they are supposed to serve, and reshape us in their image. These technologies, therefore, might be called prescriptive (to use Franklin’s term) or manipulatory (to use Illich’s). For example, social networks promise to forge connections – but they also encourage mob rule. Facial-recognition software helps to identify suspects – and to keep tabs on whole populations. Collectively, these technologies constitute the device paradigm (Borgmann), which in turn produces a culture of compliance (Franklin).

The proper response to this situation is not to shun technology itself, for human beings are intrinsically and necessarily users of tools. Rather, it is to find and use technologies that, instead of manipulating us, serve sound human ends and the focal practices (Borgmann) that embody those ends. A table becomes a center for family life; a musical instrument skillfully played enlivens those around it. Those healthier technologies might be referred to as holistic (Franklin) or convivial (Illich), because they fit within the human lifeworld and enhance our relations with one another. Our task, then, is to discern these tendencies or affordances of our technologies and, on both social and personal levels, choose the holistic, convivial ones.

The point of this essay was to say that (a) the SCT is absolutely correct and (b) there’s no point in continuing to restate the SCT, even if you shift the terms around a bit or employ alternate ones. (For instance, Paul Kingsnorth talks about “the Machine” — but it’s precisely the same set of concepts and critiques.)

That essay, for me, marked the end of a decade or so of articulating my own version of, or elaborations on, the SCT. For much of that decade I wrote about Technopoly’s demands on our attention, and insisted that we can attend otherwise.

But how many times can you say that?

Since I wrote that essay I have (mostly) refrained from saying “We should attend to things other than those Technopoly wants us to attend to” and instead have tried simply to attend to other things. In other words: I’ve given up on making arguments about where our attention should go – not primarily because such arguments are useless, though they may well be, but because I have made them already – and have instead pursued demonstration. Hey, look at this fascinating thing I’ve been looking at. That’s what I’ve been doing since 2021, and it’s what I plan to keep doing. 

Basically, I’m just a simple caveman; your modern world confuses and frightens me. But one thing I do know: That I ain’t buying what Technopoly (or the Machine, or whatever you want to call it) is selling. 

more on invitation and repair

Rita Felski’s book The Limits of Critique primarily concerns literary criticism, but its argument has a more general application, as does Bruno Latour’s essay “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam?” Both scholars have been formed by an intellectual environment in which skill at critique is the definitive skill — almost the only one worth practicing. But they have also perceived the ways that critique, pursued in the absence of any positive vision of the good, degenerates into a series of rote and irritable gestures.

I want to follow Michael Oakeshott in thinking of culture, or any culture worth preserving and extending, as an invitation or series of invitations. To act culturally, to do culture, is, ideally, to welcome people into endeavors of thought and practice — to invite people into certain enabling and productive disciplines. A culture that does not spontaneously invite cooperation and the participation of outsiders does not deserve the name of culture.

But it is also quite obviously the case that our own culture is deteriorated and in many respects broken. One might critique those who have brought it into the state that it currently is in, but that is really a useless thing to do. It is much better, I think, to reflect on the ways in which the existing culture can be maintained where it is healthy and repaired where it is not.

And therefore the invitation which I wish to extend is not an invitation merely to observe and contemplate, or approve and disapprove. Rather, it is an invitation to participate in maintenance and repair.

request for permissions

Justin E. H. Smith:

Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse looks essentially the same to me as these videos that have been appearing on YouTube using copyright-unrestricted lullabies and computer graphics designed to hold the attention of infants. “Johnny Johnny Yes Papa,” for example, now has countless variations online, some of which have received over a billion hits, some of which appear to be parodies, and some of which appear to have been produced without any human input, properly speaking, at all. It is one thing to target infants with material that presumes no well-constituted human subject as its viewer; it is quite another when thirty-somethings with Ph.D.s are content to debate the merits of the Marvel vs. the DC Comics universe or whatever.

Okay, but could I please have a list of topics it’s okay for thirty-somethings with Ph.D.s to talk about? Also somewhat older people with Ph.D.s? 

when critique dissolves

From Ross Douthat’s column today:

But perhaps the simplest way to describe what happened with the surrogacy debate is that American feminists gradually went along with the logic of capitalism rather than resisting it. This is a particularly useful description because it’s happened so consistently across the last few decades: Whenever there’s a dispute within feminism about a particular social change or technological possibility, you should bet on the side that takes a more consumerist view of human flourishing, a more market-oriented view of what it means to defend the rights and happiness of women.

This reminds me very much of an argument Paul Kingsnorth makes in his provocative Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist:

We are environmentalists now in order to promote something called ‘sustainability’. What does this curious, plastic word mean? It does not mean defending the non-human world from the ever-expanding empire of Homo sapiens sapiens, though some of its adherents like to pretend it does, even to themselves. It means sustaining human civilisation at the comfort level that the world’s rich people – us – feel is their right, without destroying the ‘natural capital’ or the ‘resource base’ that is needed to do so.

It is, in other words, an entirely human-centred piece of politicking, disguised as concern for ‘the planet’. In a very short time – just over a decade – this worldview has become all-pervasive. It is voiced by the president of the USA and the president of Anglo-Dutch Shell and many people in between. The success of environmentalism has been total – at the price of its soul.

“Sustainability,” then, is the magic word that allows the worldwide corporate-scaled environmental movement to become utterly comfortable with transnational capitalism. As Kingsnorth points out, the movement’s single-minded focus on reducing carbon emissions allows the energy companies to offer lucrative-for-them “solutions” to carbon-based “problems,” which may well lead to the utter despoiling of places that environmentalists used to care about preserving, even when that meant not sustaining our current levels of consumption. “Motorway through downland: bad. Wind power station on downland: good. Container port wiping out estuary mudflats: bad. Renewable hydro-power barrage wiping out estuary mudflats: good. Destruction minus carbon equals sustainability.”

Environmentalism has made the same deal that (per Douthat’s argument) today’s American feminism has made. Both movements were scrupulously attentive to the depredations of transnational capitalism up to the moment when transnational capitalism said “We can give you stuff you want at no additional cost — to you, anyway.” Then the critiques dissolved.