09/01 – Orientations: Techne, Technology, Technologics

In Sessions on July 13, 2010 at 7:17 pm


It may seem ironic given that I will not always have kind words for the process of “definition by negation” in this seminar (see next week’s 1/2 session on Badiou), but I would like to begin by distinguishing our approach this semester from two other ways that a course on “Writing Technologies” might be, and have previously been in this department, staged. The first is a study of the ways that technologies, particularly computing technologies that create new opportunities for document and visual design, collaboration, and interaction, have changed the process of writing (or more generally, “composition” of various communicative types). This was the focus taken the last time I taught this course and remains an active and prominent part of the scholarship in Rhetoric/Composition as a discipline (often under such names as “digital” or “new media rhetoric,” “computers and writing,” etc.). The second would be what I take to be a broader concern with the humanities and social sciences toward studying the impact of contemporary information technologies on more general categories of signification, meaning-making, identity, etc. Here the connection between “technology” and “writing” would take the most general sense of the latter term, as the ethico-aesthetic field that has often been opposed to technology or “the technical,” and continues a long trajectory beginning around the mid-twentieth century that challenges, on the one hand, the ontological emphasis of traditional Western metaphysics (poststructuralism) while at the same time questioning societal investments in “instrumental rationality” or the technical quantification of cultural life and human subjectivity (critical theory). We will, of course, intersect at various times with both of these approaches, but I want to propose an itinerary for this semester’s seminar that at least in many important ways is different from either of these, or, more precisely, might be taken as being “prior” to the first (writing and new media) and opposed to the second (the study of technology in critical and cultural theory).

More specifically, our approach this semester will be to study what might be broadly taken as “technology” under three different categories, or three different manifestations of whatever we might call technology or “the technical” that dominated different historical periods: techne (or technics), technology proper, and what we will call here “technologics.” The first designates the earliest thinking about “technology” and related categories of the artificial, the simulated, and the strategic, in Western culture. The second will be used to mark the long period in which material technologies become to occupy an important role in human life and concomitantly emerge as a “problem” for realms that would not necessarily take more than a passing interest in machines or the “mechanical”: ethics, economics, politics, etc. The third, I will suggest, might be best effectively used to group a variety of relatively recent shifts in cultural life (and, we shall see, biological life to a degree), which show what we might take as, on the one hand, the recombination of the techne with the categories it was so painstakingly separated from in Greek Antiqutity (logos and episteme), and, on the other hand, the emergence of entirely novel systems of social power, populist persuasion, and capitalist production. Tracking these three will involve a more generalized conception of the relationship between “writing” and “technology” than often taken up by studies of writing and new media and one that will compel us to, in many ways, “rewrite” the associations and oppositions between the technological/artificial and the cultural/natural that has dominated critical thinking about the topic since mid-century.

In pursuing these three categories, we will cover a variety of subjects, any coupling of which are only infrequently thought together: recent changes in capitalist production, consumption, and labor as well as shifts in populist politics occurring at the same time; the increasingly specialization of scientific domains over the past several decades and the coeval overlap of the methods and objectives of the “life” and “control” sciences; a variety of technologies (parallel and networked computing, complex visualization devices, video gaming) that have become common since the late twentieth-century; the historical development and present state of critical theory as an endeavor in the humanities and social sciences; and the intermingled genealogies of ethics and economics as disciplines. However, I take it as axiomatic that such a broad range of topoi is salutary, or even essential, for pursuing the central diagnostic objectives of our seminar: tracking the historical separation and contemporary recombination of two fields of forces, categories for which we may no longer have appropriate terms, even though their division has had a pivotal, perhaps unparalleled, influence on Western intellectual thought of the past several centuries.

Surviving Greek discourses of the late third and early fourth century BCE record the relative stabilization of two terms that had previously held many indistinctions, logos (λόγος, our root for “logic”) and technê (τέχνη, our root for “technology”). Logos would come to denote not only human “reason” and rationality, but discourse, calculation, and the principles governing matter, energy, and the terrestial environment, phenomena bound together by their associations with the “true” and the natural. Technê, conversely, would be formalized to refer to technical crafts and aesthetics, as well as cunning, wile, and deception, qualities joined by their “false” or artificial character. In addition to generally signaling, as numerous classicists have suggested, the end of the significant influence of mythos as a structuring principle of Greek cultural and intellectual life, the definition of logos over and against technê is repeatedly invoked in Classical Antiquity to found a large number of more specific divisions and associations that continue to cast a long shadow over contemporary life: proto-humanist conceptions of human examplarity based on its distance from “irrational” animals and lifeless matter and/or the ontological positioning of human being between those of brute animals and the divine; the separation of organic, inorganic, and human-created processes as modes for observation and analysis, a sowing of seeds for the increasingly specific domains of the sciences and humanities; the forwarding of the human psyche as, alternately, a “mind” or “soul” that is distinct from, or at least not reducible to, the body; the formal emergence and disidentification of philosophy and rhetoric, two disciplines competing for the territory of studying and teaching “wisdom,”; and the ethical separation between moral and material “value” and the alliance of ethical ends with ethical means. All of these may be taken as secondary effects of the prior split of the “natural” and “artificial.”

It was not always this way. Indeed, in tracing the intersections of rhetoric, technology, and politics in the present moment, this book also in many ways follows a lexigraphic and conceptual linkage or overlap of these domains that began in even earlier days of Western intellectual history, a minor tradition of Western thought that would periodically reemerge even after the division of techne and logos, notably through the use of a particular term that would mark the overlap or confusion of the two categories. The ancient Greek term kybernetes (Κυβερνήτης) was often used in the fourth century BCE to denote objects (such as the rudder or a ship) or individuals (such as a steersman or pilot) that directed, but did not fully control some other object or system, often through artifically simulating a natural process or force. Kybernetes would later be the basis for the Latin “guberno,” and thus our root for “governance.” In 1843, the french physicist Andre-Marie Ampere would recover much of the term’s original meaning in using cybernetique to describe those operations of government that relied more on manipulating the structures of political economy than on the direct exercise of sovereign power. In Plato’s Gorgias, kybernetes is used to define (and indeed coin the proper name for) rhetoric (rhêtorikê), the study and practice of persuasion. As it often was at the time, in the dialogue kybernetes and rhetoric are both associated with technê, as well as with mêkhanê (artifice and strategic decep0tion), our root for “machine.” For instance, Plato’s student Aristotle would later define the “mechanical” and the “rhetorical” as forces that mutually disrupt or invert natural processes in his fourth-century works Rhetoric and Mechanics. In the former, the rhetoric of the sophist Corax is condemned for subverting the natural order of things in by “making the worse argument seem the better” (II 1402a24-25); in the opening pages of the latter “mechanical skill” is the force that allows us “to do someting contrary to nature” by creating a situation in which the “less prevails over the greater,” such as in using a lever to move a large weight (847a10-25). However, in the work of Plato, the similarities between technê or mêkhanê and rhetoric would be used to divide all of three from another category. In comparing rhetoric and kybernetes, Socrates’ condemns the rhetoric practiced by the Greek sophists as an instrumental technê inferior to the pursuit of “true knowledge” (epistêmê) carried out by philosophy, thus setting the future path for Western metaphysics.

Our course itinerary will only tangentially take us back to this initial division (in works such as those by Rotman, Stiegler, and Heidegger), but the “question concerning techne” will of necessity be one that is presumed, or contained within, our study of technology and of  contemporary “technologics.” Perhaps most importantly, we will take up this ancient division as at least one of way of rethinking the contemporary status of, and possibilities for, rhetoric as a discipline of a study and as a “force” in ethics and politics.

In taking up the reign of “technology” as a interstice between those of techne and of technologics in this seminar, we will consider four very large periods:

  • QUANTIFICATION: The period covering 1250-1600 as one that marks the early stages of technics/technologies of “quantification” (see Crosby’s The Measure of Reality): the widespread introduction of simple analogic machines, mapmaking, perspective in painting and design, financial accounting, etc.
  • ENLIGHTENMENT: The period of 1600-1850, encompassing the Scientific Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment, as marking the codification and standardization of technical processes and technologies.
  • INDUSTRIALIZATION: The rise of the “industrial” economy and vast transnational networks of communication and exchange in the period of 1850-1900.
  • AUTOMATION: The first half of the twentieth century and the emergence of Fordism as a production model and the automation of various technical processes.

We will, however, be spending most of our time on the last of these periods and on the latter half of the twentieth century/early twenty-first century, which we will study as the beginning of “The Cybernetic Age” and the reign of “technologics.”

In the early 1940’s, the American mathematician Norbert Wiener would take this reference to kybernetes in the Gorgias as the title for an an emergent interdisciplinary inquiry into “control and communication in the animal and the machine,” an endeavor he would later gloss as ecompassing “not only the study of language but the study of messages as a means of controlling machinery and society, the development of computing machines and other such automata, certain reflections upon psychology and the nervous system, and a tentative new theory of scientific method” (Human 15). Wiener’s coining of “cybernetics” may be an accident of history; he had originally wanted to modify angelos, latin for “messenger,” but “angel” had already been taken. If so, however, it was a fortunate one, as the work that went on under the banner of cybernetics in the mid-century may be taken as paradigmatic for not only the subsequent development of information and biotechnology, but the emergence of techne’s priority in structuring political, economic, and cultural life today.

We will take up early responses to cybernetics (in Heidegger, amongst other writers), but our primary focus will be on its legacy in the present. Appropriating the term “technologic” from three writers–Jacques Ellul, Hans Jonas, Kostas Axelos–whose native languages (French, German, Greek) did not automatically make the term seem subsumable to “technology” proper, we will consider how we might periodize the present in relation to a “technologic” that structures, amongst other things, the centrality of niche-marketing and “prosumer” capitalism as an economic form, the shift in the sciences toward interventionist rather than representative interactions with the environment, the dominance of computerized demography and data-mining in contemporary political persuasion, the return of “affect” and “sentiment” as vital categories in the humanities and social sciences, and the emergence of aesthetic forms in architecture and the visual arts that have an “algorithmic” rather than “representative” form.


  • ASSIGNMENTS: Read Jameson’s “Cultural Conditions” (see the Online Readings links below) and Badiou’s Manifesto (and bring your response to same with you to next week’s class)
  • STUFF TO LOOK FORWARD TO: An answer to the burning question: what is post-post-post-postmodernism??!?! The “Six Betrayals of Rhetoric” revealed, for the first time anywhere!!!

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