Border War

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, writers have repeatedly warned that our scientific reach may exceed our philosophical grasp. In fact, dozens of literary, filmic, and pop-cultural texts represent the dangers that out-of-control technologies present to human existence. By momentarily focusing on such representations in film, we can see that these out-of-control technologies generally pose the greatest threat to human survival when they themselves take on characteristics of the human. Such appropriations of humanlike qualities can be thought of in two categories: first, technologies that take on the bodily form of the human, as in the killer robots of Metropolis, Eve of Destruction, and the Terminator films; second, technologies that take on the sentience associated with the human, as in the computer-based artificial intelligences of War Games and The Matrix. These artificial intelligences seem at first to present a danger that is both more widespread and more deadly than the bodily forms–universal nuclear annihilation. Moreover, the threat imagined from such computers has increased as their intelligences have grown; while a computer glitch early in the cold war produces accidental nuclear destruction in Fail Safe, and a computer’s inability to distinguish between the real and the virtual almost triggers a nuclear holocaust in War Games, the fully conscious, wholly self-aware computers of both The Matrix and the Terminator films intentionally begin a nuclear war with the hope of exterminating human life. This interweaving of the computer and nuclear threats indicates the cold war’s influence over popular visions of technology; at such a moment of ultimacy, as Don DeLillo suggests in Underworld, it appears that “all technology refers to the bomb” (467).

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 However, while the other category of humanoid machines–those that appropriate the physical form of the human–may be imagined to pose a threat less global in its implications, they often prove more insidiously dangerous. In fact, as Martin Heidegger suggests in “The Question Concerning Technology,” the cold war’s obsessive focus on the threat of literal annihilation posed by nuclear technologies risks ignoring a more subtle kind of danger. “The threat to man does not come in the first instance from the potentially lethal machines and apparatus of technology,” he argues. “The actual threat has already afflicted man in his essence” (333). In Heidegger’s analysis, technology’s “enframing” character has damaged humans by irreversibly altering their understanding of the nature of being: “Enframing does not simply endanger man in his relationship to himself and to everything that is. As a destining, it banishes man into the kind of revealing that is an ordering. Where this ordering holds sway, it drives out every other possibility of revealing” (332). Technology, in other words, promotes a functionalist epistemology that makes it impossible to read the world–or to read the self–except through technology’s own framework. Thus Cyberlife Research CEO Steve Grand, while attempting to explain that his research into synthetic life will not “reduce us all to machines,” is nonetheless forced to use a technological metaphor to describe his concept of the human, as quoted earlier: “the most sublime machines in the known universe” (Sorid).

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 This epistemological shift underlies the representations of danger in machines that appropriate the bodily form of the human: when confronted with the Terminator, or with the evil robot Maria of Metropolis, or with Eve in Eve of Destruction, the human characters at first fail to distinguish human from machine. This inability to tell the difference not only allows the destructive machine to physically harm human beings but also encourages a kind of self-identification with the machine and its values that further weakens human resistance to dangerous technologies. It is of course absolutely to the point that each of these humanoid machines wields a hypersexualized form of self-presentation as a key weapon. The Terminator’s threat arises equally from his overdeveloped steroidal musculature and from his indestructible endoskeleton; Maria and Eve each lead men to their destruction through displays of active feminine erotics. These machines threaten through their too-accurate appropriation of the human form and their too-knowing manipulation of stereotypically gendered sexualities–mimetics that imply intimate bonds among human self-perception, human consciousness, and conventional understandings of sex and gender.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 In what follows, I focus on the concept of the machine as it is mobilized within the novel of obsolescence, examining the literal fears of technology’s destructive powers, as well as the more epistemological anxieties suggested by Heidegger. Technology may, in this discourse, destroy the human by killing human beings, or it may destroy the essence of the human at its root by altering human understanding of the nature of being. Whether the destruction the machines wreak is physical or metaphorical, the novel of obsolescence posits again and again through its representations that the relationship between human subjects and their machines is threatening to invert; that humans have long since been demoted, as Edward Tenner suggests, from tool users to tool managers (see Tenner 17); and that we may in fact be precariously close to becoming the tools used by machines.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 This potential inversion implies a relationship between human and machine founded simultaneously in separation and proximity. Philosophers have, since Descartes, drawn lines between humans and machines, whether those lines have been based on the faculty of language, or reason, or the more amorphous existence of the “soul.” As N. Katherine Hayles argues, however, these attempts at separation draw the ostensibly opposed terms together: “If I say a chicken is not like a tractor, I have characterized the chicken in terms of the tractor, no less than when I assert the two are alike. In the same way, whether they are understood as like or unlike, ranging human intelligence alongside an intelligent machine puts the two into a relay system that constitutes the human as a special kind of information machine and the information machine as a special kind of human” (64″“65). As with all interfaces, that between human and machine is both boundary and connection, both line of demarcation and shared surface. The connective aspect of the human/machine interface, and the implication that the two entities must be understood in relationship to one another, is a source of technological anxiety for many writers and critics.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 It is no accident that many of these writers reveal, in their anxiety, an interest in maintaining the structures of Enlightenment thought represented by Descartes. As Donna Haraway writes in her classic “A Cyborg Manifesto”: “In the traditions of ‘Western’ science and politics–the tradition of racist, male-dominated capitalism; the tradition of progress; the tradition of the appropriation of nature as resource for the productions of culture; the tradition of reproduction of the self from the reflections of the other–the relationship between organism and machine has been a border war” (150). By describing the human/machine conflict as a “border war,” Haraway calls our attention first to the shared boundary that exists between the two categories, and second to the fact that the struggle is itself about definition, about the power to safely determine what–or who–is and is not human. The blurrier that boundary becomes, the more the privileged category of the human, and the hierarchies that category has for centuries been used to support, come under threat.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Such anxieties about the proximity of human and machine, and about the eroding boundary between them, frequently surface in representations of communications technologies in the contemporary novel. Film, radio, and particularly Fergus Mixolydian’s television are all depicted as responsible for creating humans in complicity with the ethics and aesthetics of the machine. Film fascinated its audiences by capturing the human form in mechanical fashion, presenting a reproduction of the actor rather than her live performance; radio and television furthered this project by bringing the mechanized human voice and image into the home. These machines’ power to project believable representations of the human, these novels suggest, has led human subjects to identify increasingly with the machines themselves, privileging machine values over human values. However, the gendered nature of both the images that these technologies project and the spaces into which they are projected is inextricably bound up with the “machine values” these technologies are said to promote. Film allowed female spectators access to traditionally male public spaces, and television brought the public realm into the female-controlled domestic space; both technologies thus created possibilities for rupture and subversion of conventional gender roles.[4] The “human” values that these technologies are represented as eroding, then, must be interrogated for their gendered specificity, and for the hierarchies that they seek to reinstate.[5]

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 This erosion, whether of the human or the masculine, is most frequently imagined to originate at the level of language. Taking the computer as an example: the computer is by far the most advanced of the technologies imagined to threaten human existence, given its flexibility as a metamachine to replicate the functioning of any number of other machines; some researchers in fact believe that the computer will one day replicate the processes of human thought.[6] Popular representations of sentient killer machines aside, however, the danger in the computer resides, according to Neil Postman, less in anything the machine can actually do than in the metaphors it introduces, metaphors we retroactively apply to the other machines by which we are surrounded: “what we have here is a case of metaphor gone mad. From the proposition that humans are in some respects like machines, we move to the proposition that humans are little else but machines and, finally, that human beings are machines. And then, inevitably . . . to the proposition that machines are human beings” (Technopoly 112). The danger in these metaphors lies in their power to correlate our understanding of what it is to be human with our understanding of technology, thereby threatening not only to open the category “human” to beings that do not belong but also to radically alter our ways of understanding ourselves and our place in the world. This correlation thus risks, in Postman’s view, diminishing both the human and humanist epistemologies.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 The machine/human conflict is thus conceived of on both sides of this discourse–both by the so-called cyborgologists, as represented by Haraway, and by those labeled Luddites, as represented by Postman–as largely epistemological in nature, in which one way of understanding the world slips, or threatens to slip, into another. But to suggest that this conflict is largely epistemological is not to say that it is merely epistemological; critics as vastly different as Neil Postman and Michel Foucault insist that ways of knowing are intimately tied to the ordering of the universe, and thus have significant material resonance.[7] The distinction between these two positions on new technologies and new epistemologies lies in that boundary between human and machine, and whether it is a line primarily of separation or connection, whether it is to be shored up or undermined. Those on the Luddite side of this discourse display an interest in maintaining a clear distinction between the values of technology and the values of humanism in order that the values of humanism survive; those on the side of the cyborg hope that a movement into the posthuman, in which human and machine are radically interconnected categories, might similarly initiate a movement into posthumanism, in which new, progressive, nonhierarchical values might prevail.[8]

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 All this relentless binarizing, however–human/machine; technophobe/ technophile; humanism/posthumanism–in which one category must be maligned to support the other, does not begin with the late twentieth-century cyborg but has its origins forty years earlier.[9] The founding document of the contemporary conflict between technology and humanism is C. P. Snow’s 1959 Rede lecture, “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (republished in 1963 as The Two Cultures: And a Second Look). This lecture, infamous now for the endurance of its central metaphor, as well as for the nastiness of the debate that it provoked, argues that “the intellectual life of the whole of western society is increasingly being split into two polar groups” (10), literary intellectuals and scientists. The crisis in this polarization, as Snow sees it, results from the inability of these two groups to communicate adequately; the two must reestablish ties, he claims, if intellectual progress is to continue. But because he defines “progress” in “Two Cultures” entirely in terms of production and material gain, this reconnection, as Snow imagines it, wholly entails work on the part of the literary intellectuals to understand the scientists, rather than the other way around. This one-sidedness seems not to have disturbed Snow–he remained unapologetic even in his “Second Look” at the subject–but unsurprisingly produced a significant backlash among those relegated to the apparently backward realm of the literary (see Snow). While Snow equates science with rigor, progress, and morality–this last perhaps a bit surprising fifteen years after World War II’s nuclear end–critics like F. R. Leavis bridle in their responses to Snow’s assumption that literary intellectuals are “natural Luddites” (Snow 27): “The upshot,” Leavis retorts, “is that if you insist on the need for any other kind of concern, entailing forethought, action, and provision, about the human future–any other kind of misgiving–than that which talks in terms of productivity, material standards of living, hygienic and technological progress, then you are a Luddite” (38).

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Given the fundamental nature of this conflict, and the power of the scientific/literary binary in the popular imagination, it is little wonder that this kind of dichotomizing persists in contemporary discussions of technology. It is also perhaps unsurprising that both Neil Postman, in his book about the dangers of the dominance of the technological epistemology in contemporary U.S. culture, and Thomas Pynchon, in his brief article reclaiming a revolutionary political position for the Luddite, open their texts with reference to Snow and “Two Cultures.”[10] They do so to significantly different ends, however. Postman introduces the dichotomy in order to widen it, broadening the schism to reflect the one he sees operative today: “the argument is not between humanists and scientists but between technology and everybody else” (Technopoly xii)–thus both suggesting that technology has developed a “body” and indicating its all-pervasive danger. Pynchon begins with this scientific/literary binary in order to explode it: “the two-cultures quarrel can no longer be sustained. As a visit to any library or magazine rack will easily confirm, there are now so many more than two cultures that the problem has really become how to find the time to read anything outside one’s specialty” (“Is It OK,” 1). While Postman goes on to a fairly stereotypical argument on behalf of the Luddite perspective,[11] Pynchon attempts to interrogate the history and meaning of “Luddite” itself, reclaiming the term from its Snovian reactionary associations and instead claiming for it radical possibilities.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Pynchon traces the history of Luddism through the figure of the “Badass,” most notable for being both “Bad” and “Big,” employing a “controlled martial-arts type anger” for the purposes of resistance (ibid. 40). And, as seen in the frame-breaking Ned Lud himself, this anger is largely directed at the machines, both technological and corporate in nature, that enslave the majority of human beings. Pynchon follows the course of literary representations of the Badass from Shelley’s Frankenstein through the eighteenth-century flood of gothic novels to King Kong and the science fiction of the 1950s, noting that in each case, though the Badass owes his power to extrahuman forces, those forces are distinctly nonmechanical. They celebrate rather a belief in the supernatural that makes human transcendence seem possible: “To insist on the miraculous,” Pynchon argues, “is to deny the machine at least some of its claims on us, to assert the limited wish that living things, earthly and otherwise, may on occasion become Bad and Big enough to take part in transcendent doings” (41). Luddism, in this rendering, is transformed from a reactionary antitechnological stance into one concerned with the kind of amelioration of human existence that Snow imagined was the basis of science’s moral high ground. This reclamation of political possibility for “living things, earthly and otherwise,” however, requires an overt refusal of the machine and its claims on human existence.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 There is thus a contradictory purpose at work in “Is It OK to Be a Luddite?”: Pynchon attempts to explode the easy dichotomy between the scientific and literary communities while he opposes the realm of the “living” to that of the machine. Such an ambiguous motive can be read most significantly in Pynchon’s description of the ultimate Badass, the one that he projects will finally catch “even the biggest of the brass” off guard. This Badass is both transcendent living creature and technological nightmare, to be produced “when the curves of research and development in artificial intelligence, molecular biology and robotics all converge.” The product of these three fields, which will represent both the world’s “next great challenge” and the redemption of Luddite hopes, a simultaneous destroyer and savior, is as yet only imaginable in cyberpunk. The fictionality of this Badass is to be separated from the concerns of earlier science fiction in two important regards. First, midcentury science fiction relied heavily, Pynchon reminds us, on “a definition of ‘human’ as particularly distinguished from ‘machine,’ “ a distinction that will no longer be tenable should computer and genetic engineering merge. Second, and perhaps more importantly, is the introduction of the computer into the writing process itself. “Writers of all descriptions are stampeding to buy word processors,” Pynchon tells us. “Machines have already become so user-friendly that even the most unreconstructed of Luddites can be charmed into laying down the old sledgehammer and stroking a few keys instead” (41). The computer thus becomes, in the hands of the writer, one instrument of Luddite revenge, the agent of the machine world’s undoing. Of those “transcendent doings” in which the human being can currently involve himself, then, the greatest may be the writing of fiction.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 In this regard, it seems, Pynchon’s position may not be terribly far from that of Donna Haraway, who argues in “A Cyborg Manifesto” that while, in the past, progressivist analytical resources were used to argue for the need to overcome technology with a return to the organic, in the cybernetic age, a merger of the two may be more in order. The cyborg produced in this merger is, like Pynchon’s Badass, not simply a creature of the literary, but a factor in literary production: “The silicon chip is a surface for writing” (153), Haraway reminds us. In fact, not only is the cyborg available for writing on, it is the agent that makes writing possible; where the human and the computer come together, writing results: “writing is pre-eminently the technology of cyborgs, etched surfaces of the late twentieth century” (176). The cyborganized subject, in its relationship to writing, is thus that subject most able to participate in the “transcendent doings” Pynchon seeks in fiction. The crucial distinction between Pynchon’s position and Haraway’s arises from both what is being transcended, and what the manner of the transcendence will be. For Pynchon, the merger of the human and the machinic realms enables an escape from domination by machines, both the technological and capitalist, an escape made possible by the human manipulation of technology’s own out-of-control tendency to bite the hand that feeds it. For Haraway, by contrast, this merger allows for a breakdown in the structures of domination associated with humanism, the oppressive hierarchies of race, gender, nationality, and sexuality. Haraway’s cyborg, unlike Pynchon’s redeemer-destroyer Badass, functions not through the physical danger it poses but the epistemological categories it shatters.[12]

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 The crisis that the cyborg has produced in humanism has led, for both the novelist and the critic of obsolescence, to a second locus of machine anxiety, one substantively different from technology: “theory.” This mode of critical discourse has, as we saw in the last chapter, been widely held responsible for the purported demise of literature, in no small part because theory is interpreted as promoting machine, rather than human, aesthetics. Catherine Liu, in Copying Machines: Taking Notes for the Automaton, interrogates the discourse of mechanicity as it has been used to contain and manage poststructuralist theory: “The Cartesian prejudice against the machine is difficult to overcome, but most recently, this particular myth of the Enlightenment (based on the idea that the human being and the machine were to be differentiated in a radical way) has been redeployed by critics of literary theory who defend literature in the name of its singularly nonmechanical qualities” (2). Paul de Man and other deconstructionists have thus been demonized for their radical formalism, for arguing that the structure of a text functions “like a machine.” Even such a machinic simile is dangerous, the critics of theory argue, as the language of the technical steers literature that much farther away from the values of humanism.[13] Beyond the problem of metaphor, however, anxiety about theory often stems from its penchant for models and systems, structures that apparently mechanize the reading process itself. For critics such as Gerald Graff, theory has become a machine for reading with (and, not incidentally, writing with): “Ever since the New Critical discovery that almost any work of literature could be read as a complex of paradoxes and ironies, critical ‘methodology,’ whatever other purposes it has served, has been an instrument for generating new ‘readings’–and thus new publications” (97). Moreover, many critics understand the instrumentality of this critical apparatus to be directly connected to the technological age itself. Cecelia Tichi, for instance, in Shifting Gears, argues that early twentieth-century authors’ appropriation and emulation of mechanical structures evidenced a deep instability in the relationship between machine and organic orders of being. “In imaginative literature and criticism,” Tichi writes, such destabilized modernist “presumptions have conceptually dislocated the word and the text in a crisis continuing from the late Victorians to the deconstructionists” (xv). Poststructuralist theorists, then, in their progressive subversions of textual stability, operate in a feedback loop with a technology-obsessed culture, creating a deepening sense of crisis for the contemporary author.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 Literary representations of the machine in the novel of obsolescence thus frequently comment on the practice of reading itself. While for Mark Seltzer, the shift explored in the naturalist novel from the logic of the market to the logic of the machine finds its “most explicit and most radical rewriting” in scenes that “[make] visible the technology of writing itself” (8), that “scene of writing” has dramatically changed in contemporary fiction. While writers abound as the subjects of such fiction, the writing they do is most often fractured, incomplete, unread. The scene of writing has been displaced in the postmodern novel to the margins of the text; foregrounded instead is a scene of reading that explicitly highlights the technological mediation of most such textual encounters in contemporary culture. The machines of representation–machines for producing, distributing, and viewing film, television, and other technologized texts–are in many ways depicted as being responsible for writing’s marginalization, having mechanized the reading process, both through the literal encounter with the machine required for reading and through the theoretical systematizing of interpretation, as well as having mechanized the reading subject, in encouraging the reader’s own identification with a technologized epistemology. In encountering the machine-mediated text, all readers are imagined to become Ferguslike: comatose, wired in, reduced to a mode of control for the machine.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 The machine thus becomes a figure of novelistic anxiety in an era in which the core values of humanism–and particularly the Cartesian cogito, which indicates linguistic representation itself as the basis of the human–come into question. Machines–theoretical, representational, and technological–interfere, for the novelist of obsolescence, with the processes of communication so vital to human existence. Such anxieties produce a number of key questions in Pynchon’s fiction, as the reader confronts in a figure such as Fergus the interface between humans and machines. As the boundary between human and machine narrows, these representations ask, will humans begin to lose the thing in which “humanity” consists, becoming somehow dehumanized? If, however, as the many examples from popular culture lead us to suspect, this putatively universal “humanity” is in fact bound up with masculinity–if it is not the human principle but the masculine principle that the machine threatens–we must question how the machine is imagined to interfere in the processes of human sexuality, and how that sexuality is imagined to be constitutive of the human. And finally, once that sexuality has been machinically altered, what kinds of alienated humans do we encounter–and what kinds of monstrous machines?

  • [4] On the gendered nature of early film spectatorship and the anxieties it produced, see Hansen; on the threat to conventional gender roles posed by early television, see Spigel.
  • [5] Similarly, these values betray hierarchical interests that correspond to categories of race, class, nationality, and sexuality; I am largely restricting my focus in this chapter to gender and sexuality in the interests of space and coherence.
  • [6] See, most notably, Kurzweil, Intelligent and Spiritual; Moravec.
  • [7] See of course Foucault, Archaeology, for an exploration of the ties between discourse and material existence. Postman’s take on this relationship–as well as on the connection between changes in communications medium and changes in epistemology–is mostly clearly seen in Technopoly: “Surrounding every new technology are institutions whose organization–not to mention their entire reason for being–reflects the world-view promoted by the technology. Therefore, when an old technology is assaulted by a new one, institutions are threatened. When institutions are threatened, a culture finds itself in crisis” (18).
  • [8] On the relationship between the posthuman and posthumanism, particularly as misread in contemporary novels about computers, see Fitzpatrick, “Exhaustion.”
  • [9] More deeply, of course, those origins can be traced back to the Cartesian dualism.
  • [10] See Postman, Technopoly xii; Pynchon, “Is It OK” 1.
  • [11] For instance: “in the most dramatic terms, the accusation can be made that the uncontrolled growth of technology destroys the vital sources of our humanity” (Technopoly xii).
  • [12] Given the role of gender in this shattering of categories, it is extremely to the point that Pynchon’s historical Badass is described as “usually male, and while sometimes earning the quizzical tolerance of women, is almost universally admired by men” (“Is It OK” 40). Pynchon’s action-hero Badass reaffirms rather than undermines gender boundaries.
  • [13] See, most notably, Lehman. For a reading of the machine in the antitheory discourse, see Liu: “Machines can always be read as uncanny doubles of our own inanimation, but more important, for Benjamin the nature of experience itself under high capitalism is forged in the crucible of mass production, mass reproducibility, and homogenization. The rise of economic forces whose rationalization of the everyday has an increasingly insidious effect on everyday life, but the enslavement to the machine is an image that emerges for a generalized sense of powerlessness before invisible forces, paternalistic in nature, whose unrepresentability, except as an infernal principle of the machine, is only one figure of the complex nature of capital’s power. In the study of literature, however, it becomes obvious that a need to denigrate or repudiate machines becomes one symptom of the way in which the questions of mechanical reproduction are repressed. For many critics, it remains a scandal to think of the text as a thing that works, and even more scandalous to think of a reading as participating in mass production” (22).
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    Source: https://www.anxietyofobsolescence.com/chapter-2/border-war/