Exploring the intersections of ecology, technology, and ideology: Marx, machines, Gibson, and Shanghai.

Monday, August 13, 2007

I can feel it, Dave.

HAL 9000, Nexus 6, Skynet, the Construct and its Architect and Agents: each of these fictional technological entities and their myriad counterparts in popular cinema and literature embodies a mode of near-contemporary technophobia. In each of these narratives, human technological innovations are over-extended to the point at which the machinery comes to inhabit a superior position. Humans become at best the working appendages of these machines; at worst, humans become the target of the machines’ genocidal plans. And I invoke the language of appendage to the machines here because it serves as a historical-theoretical joint, linking Marx’s analysis of technology in Capital, Vol. I with late twentieth and early twenty-first century discourse on the posthuman. That said, these films predominantly present technophobia in only its most recent incarnations, leaving underexamined the historical roots of this powerful fear, especially the socio-economic components of this history. What we see in The Matrix and The Terminator trilogies in particular is the fantasy of a clearly isolatable and identifiable moment of catastrophe when our technology will assault and destroy humanity. The dystopian break, in these renditions, will be concise and spectacular. This ideological position of disaster just over the horizon is a compelling one—compelling for ecological consciousness/environmentalism among other commitments. But we must reconsider this ideological position by juxtaposing Marx’s analysis of technological development and technophobia with the current popular modes that shape our current approach.

Being accustomed to technophobia represented as instant speciecide against humanity, Marx’s version of the ‘rise of the machines’ can seem quite absurd. Marx’s powerful declaration “The hour of the machine had struck” refers to none other than the sewing-machine (601). He goes on to explain: “The overpowering competition crushes the weakest manual workers. The fearful increase in death from starvation during the last ten years in London runs parallel with the extension of the sewing-machine” (601). At first glance, this declaration that factory floors full of sewing-machines and not global nuclear warfare or species-wide virtual-reality is a historical moment of technological crisis, may look absurd—hyperbolical. Yet the only reason this seems so hyperbolical is the constitution of the subjects who perish in the wake of this new technology. All of today’s technophobic texts feed into an ideology that imagines the survival and the integrity of the human race as the core concern. Even the laudably critically challenging updated version of Battlestar Galactica, with its complex representations of terrorism, torture, and humanity, emphasizes the ultimate matter of human existence and extinction. In effect, this all-or-nothing approach that is common to our tales of technophobia enables business as usual extraction of surplus labour, and very often surplus labour that is extracted in part via physically endangering working conditions, to continue. These narratives invite us to inhabit subject positions of power, with the only marginal figures often appearing as lumpenproletariat who are either sacrificed as action-fodder or as temporary provocateurs for the power figures who are ultimately the protagonists.

What we are able to focus on by reading Marx, however, is the class-specific genocides perpetrated by the implementation of technology by capital control. The sewing-machine did not morph into a Kafkaesque nightmare machine and terrorize the human species; rather, it facilitated a revolution in the means of production that produced not only the textile commodities sent off to sale, but, perhaps more importantly, it produced the surplus human population that made labour even cheaper by making human life even cheaper. The two-fold function of such a technological innovation is to make rapid and regulated production possible while reducing the required human input. With less required labour, England became increasingly full of people desperate to get any piece of labour they could find. Thus, the rise of the sewing-machine meant the literal annihilation of an increased population of England’s proletariat as they starved while queuing up in hopes of work. Thus, the pragmatic contemplation of technological developments in history must be focused in part on its consequences to the proletariat. And this is precisely the point that is completely obscured by the brand of technophobia that considers only the fate of the entire human race. As such, the social narratives of human hospitality and cosmopolitanism in the form of fighting for the survival of the species function in precisely the opposite way, undermining the prospects of perceiving the implementations of technology at present that endanger and destroy human life.

To approach this from another vector in Marx, the following is a particularly complex passage in which he addresses social perceptions of technology:

It is an undoubted fact that machinery is not as such responsible for ‘setting free’ the worker from the means of subsistence…Therefore, since machinery in itself shortens the hours of labour, but when employed by capital it lengthens them; since in itself if lightens labour, but when employed by capital it heightens its intensity; since in itself it is a victory of man over the forces of nature but in the hands of capital it makes man the slave of those forces; since in itself it increases the wealth of the producers, but in the hands of capital it makes them into paupers, the bourgeois economist simply states that the contemplation of machinery in itself demonstrates with exactitude that all these evident contradictions are a mere semblance, present in everyday reality, but not existing in themselves, and therefore having no theoretical existence either. Thus he manages to avoid racking his brains any more, and in addition implies that his opponent is guilty of the stupidity of contending, not against the capitalist application of machinery, but against machinery itself.

---Capital, Vol. I. Karl Marx (1867) p.568-9

Finding passage through this rhetorical labyrinth is far from simple; one must reread this several times, and I’m still not sure whether I’m penetrating its meaning or increasingly glancing off its shiny surface. Through the parataxis, Marx appears to be saying that technology in itself holds massive power, and power that does not necessarily lead down the path to exploitation of labouring human beings. Furthermore, the parataxis isolates capital control as the single factor that shifts machinery to the exploitation of humans. And yet, this parataxis exists within the text both as Marx’s perception of a social perception as well as the acknowledged perception of the ‘bourgeois economist apologists.’ So, not only does the reader get to absorb and process the repetition of capital control as the target that should attract the attention of contemplations on technology, but we simultaneously hear the apologists for capitalism articulating these propositions as indeed circulating through public discourse. But then Marx makes a complicated move, representing the apologists’ rhetorical maneuvering to dismiss the parataxis in a condensed phrasing that does not in itself clarify the logic of the apologists’ argument. Immediately following this moment of obscurity, Marx remarks, “Thus he manages to avoid racking his brains any more, and in addition implies that his opponent is guilty of the stupidity of contending, not against the capitalist application of machinery, but against machinery itself” (569).
The machinations of the apologist brain (“racking”) come to an abrupt and clunky halt. The brain of the capitalist, it seems, is itself incapable of perceiving the extreme contradictions within the fabric of thought it weaves. The physiological, psychological machinic organs of human intelligence, especially of those most wholly within control of capital, have themselves become such appendages to the machinations of Capitalism that they have ceased to function up to speed with the system. They stop and attempt to rationalize the world-system they inhabit in spite of their processing errors. And this effort is articulated as an indictment of the anti-progress stupidity of capital’s critics that enables them to rage against the machinery itself.

This wringing out the complexities of technological innovation to leave only a grossly oversimplified and ultimately fantasist question of technology in itself appears the product of the capitalist/capitalist apologist who’s reached his/her cognitive capacities of perception and theorization. But, as Marx points out, the real issue at hand is the impossibility at work here to imagine means of control and utilization of technological developments—of machinery, other than those conceived within the existing capitalist order and logic. The assessment of social perceptions of and discourse on technology therefore becomes one important vector of assessing the structures and forms of capitalism.

Representations of technology and machinery generally help to occlude these forms and structures, but a sustained, historical analysis synthesized with the sidelong glance away from just the technology/machinery, opens different vista points.

Hence, my keen interest in critiquing narratives of technology and technophobia.

Two cinematic examples that may fit with a Marxian historical, class-conscious perception of technology and technophobia would be Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times and Jennifer Baichwal’s Edward Burtynsky Manufactured Landscapes. Both films do something quite rare for films from inside Hollywood and out: they focalize the manufacturing sites where humans and machinery interface, where they learn to move like and with the other, and share the same atmosphere. But more on these in a later entry…

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