Technology and Society: A Humanistic Perspective, with specific reference to Art
The seminar presentation will address the issue of the role of technology in human societies with specific reference to art. The first part will expand the idea of “a humanistic perspective” by developing the significance of “technology” with reference to the argument of a very influential (even if rather opaque) essay by the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology (1954). Some implications of his views will be extended to a well-known literary work such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (1954-55) and to a science fiction classic, Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959), and then linked to some of the foundational myths of Western civilization, namely those concerning Prometheus, Faust and Frankenstein. That will conclude the first part of the presentation. The second part will feature the significance and applications of an influential essay by the German critic Walter Benjamin on The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1935). This part of the presentation will focus on the concept of art, and offer for discussion and debate several propositions concerning the role of technology in relation to a visual art such as painting and an aural art such as music.
( Excerpt from Martin Heidegger’s essay on technology
( A one-page write-up on Walter Miller’s SF novel
( The full text of the Walter Benjamin essay
Lecture Notes - Part 1 Humanism and Technology
1.1 Defining “Humanism” and “Technology”
Let us begin by defining the two relevant terms.
What do we understand by “humanism”? The term evokes three or four broad
connotations. The first derives from Greek philosophy, specifically from
the call by Socrates (in the fourth century BC) to turn philosophical
speculation away from its then current preoccupations with the nature of
the universe and the “heavens” towards more mundanely terrestrial human
interests and preoccupations.
Jacques-Louis David, The Death of
Socrates (The Met, New York)
1.2 The “Two Cultures” Controversy
Let us turn next to an illustration of how a schizophrenic rift has come about between those who see themselves as committed to science and technology and those who see themselves as committed to the Humanities. In 1959, a distinguished novelist who also happened to be a former scientist – C. P. Snow – delivered a lecture in which he lamented what he perceived as the alienated distance that separated writers from scientists: “The intellectual life of the whole of western society is increasingly being split into two polar groups...literary intellectuals at one pole - at the other scientists, and as the most representative, the physical scientists. Between the two a gulf of incomprehension."
C. P. Snow F. R. Leavis
The lecture, and indeed, the lecturer, was then
violently and rudely attacked – verbally, of course – by the well-known
Cambridge literary critic F. R. Leavis. The resulting furor continues to
echo to this day in terms of the issues at stake: are humanists
alienated from the world of science and technology? Are
scientifically-minded people dismissive of the humanities and arts?
Regrettably, the reluctant answer to either question is often a “Yes”.
How might we change that for the better? That remains the challenge to
this day, even if answers have been given to deny or dissolve this
alleged rift throughout history. Most famously, for example, the English
poet Percy Shelley argued eloquently in “A Defence of Poetry (1821),
warned that “We want the creative faculty to imagine that which we know;
we want the generous impulse to act that which we imagine; we want the
poetry of life: our calculations have outrun conception; we have eaten
more than we can digest. The cultivation of those sciences which have
enlarged the limits of the empire of man over the external world has,
for want of the poetical faculty, proportionally circumscribed those of
the internal world, and man, having enslaved the elements, remains
himself a slave.” He added, “The cultivation of poetry is never more to
be desired than at periods when from an excess of the selfish and
calculating principle, the accumulation of the materials of external
life exceed the quantity of the power of assimilating them to the
internal laws of human nature. The body has then become too unwieldy for
that which animates it. Poetry is indeed something divine. It is at once
the centre and circumference of knowledge; it is that which comprehends
all science, and that to which all science must be referred.” What this
attempts is to warn mankind not to underestimate poetry (as the product
of the human imagination; it also underlines the basic link between the
scientific and the literary faculties in the human imagination.
1.3 Heidegger on Technology
How can we set the two alleged factions of
the technologically-oriented and the humanist in meaningful dialogue and
concord? One direction is that shown by the Austrian philosopher Martin
Heidegger in his terminologically challenging but intensely
thought-provoking essay, The Question Concerning Technology (1954).
Heidegger’s approach to what we might conventionally call knowledge or
understanding of Truth is based, crucially, on the concept of “unconcealment”.
It is also based on the idea that human beings can most fully perceived
the truth about things by setting themselves in a proper relation to
what is entailed in the idea of technology. As Ronald Godzinski, Jr.
emphasizes, “According to Heidegger, technology is distinct from what we
do with tools, instruments, equipment, or the way of thinking about
those things. Likewise, modern technology is not reducible to
technological artifacts, devices, or the techniques that produce those
things. ‘’ It is not enough to think of technology as the means with
which to gain control over some aspect of nature. Thus Heidegger wants
to distinguish between a common and limited perception of technology and
the one he wants to promote as the true grasping of the essence of
Unconcealment: Invoking etymology, Heidegger
argues that the Greek concept of techne links the crafting of technology
to the activity of poiesis: each is a form of bringing forth of the
truth into unconcealment, a way for the human to apprehend the truth
about the being of the world. Why should the notion of concelament and
unconcealment matter so fundamentally in Heidegger’s philosophical
terminology? Godzinski, Jr. explains: “Heidegger says that there is a
concealment that is intrinsic to the very nature of Being itself. Being
conceals itself in order to presence. Similarly, nothing would be able
to come to presence without this concealment. In the process of
presencing or coming to be, things necessarily conceal themselves.
Furthermore, in order for something to come to be, it must hold itself
back, hence the concealment.”
Link 8: Glossary of Heidegger Terms
1.4 An SF Text: Walter Miller's Canticle for Leibowitz
Miller’s novel is an allegorical fable. It begins in a manner whose significance is not immediately apparent. We are in the vicinity of a desert monastery. The world of the novel appears bleak and deprived of technology: somewhat like a distorted Middle Ages. Monks work in a monastery. Among the things they do is the embellishment of an old parchment-like piece of paper.
They do not understand the hieroglyph-like marks, symbols and signs it bears. But they cherish it nonetheless. The parchment is to be gifted to the Pope, who is based in a distant city. A young monk undertakes the long and hazardous journey. As the first part of the novel ends, abruptly, he is attacked by robbers and killed. The parchment never reaches its destination. None at the monastery realize – what the novel allows the reader to realize only later – that the holy relic is a mere circuit diagram from a previous era, an era which ended violently in a nuclear holocaust that brought mankind to a second Dark Age, reducing civilization to shattered ruins and fragments. The implied moral is resoundingly clear: mankind’s infatuation with technology reduced the world to rubble. Now mankind claws back its path to rebuilding human civilization, re-acquiring the knowledge of science that enabled mankind to discover electricity; then harness the electron to release bigger and bigger reservoirs of energy. The will to knowledge – as evident in the desire to understand and master the physical world – which is the will of science, leads to technology, and a humanity enslaved by the technological creations it invents and discovers, is liable, as the recurrent pattern of the three-part novel reveals, to continual self-destruction – unless, and here the novel succumbs profoundly to the kind of schismatic vision that separates the human impulse to knowledge from the human impulse to redemption through faith and humility before God’s work (in creating the world). Science and technology tempt us, like Satan, to a form of pride (Greek: hubris), and that brings about our downfall. Technology, handled wrongly, is like the box of Pandora. Open it, and out pop a series of ever-more deadly evils.
1.5 Some Myths: Prometheus, Faustus, Frankenstein
Miller’s novel turns to a strange and
fantastically speculative idea of how humanity might be redeemed despite
its infatuation with the will to knowledge, of which the creation of
technology is a manifestation.
The punishment of Prometheus
Consider briefly first the implications of the
ancient Greek myth of Prometheus: he stole fire from the gods and gave
it to mankind. Fire enabled metallurgy, and thus stands in the narrative
as an emblem of technology, a means of empowerment. It is fire – a
superior technology - that separates the gods from humans. By giving
fire to mankind Prometheus betrays the gods and democratizes the
difference that keeps a god superior to a mortal. He must be punished,
eternally, and he is. The moral underlying the myth is grim.
Consider, even more briefly, the story of the
German doctor Faustus, immortalized by Christopher Marlowe and Goethe
(among others). Here is a man who is willing to sell his soul to the
devil in exchange for access to what we might describe as superior
technologies. He is damned: the moral is clear. What he did is an awful
warning to others: do not dare to eat too greedily of the Tree of
Knowledge when that kind of knowledge is proscribed from mankind.
Link 11: Frankenstein
Where does it leave us at the end of the first part
of my lecture? With the realization that if the humanists – the creators
of such fables, myths and narratives – continue to write in this vein,
they are bound to cast the shadow of a quasi-religious guilt and
prohibition or admonition and premonition over most forms of scientific
inquiry, because they allege that science leads not only to new
technologies but to the kinds of transformations (of the world and of
mankind amidst it) which are injurious to the future of humanity.
Part 2 Technology and Art
2.1 What does art signify in human societies?
What is the alternative to the unremitting gloominess of the myths alluded to above? How is society to achieve the balance asked for by Heidegger between using technology and remaining free of enslavement to technology? It is not a question to which there is any ready or simple answer. But there is a way for humanists to approach technology without such anxiety. It can be illustrated briefly through the German cultural critic Walter Benjamin’s essay on the work of art in the age of technological reproducibility. But before we approach the Benjamin essay let us first consider how we might define art in such a manner as to integrate within it the notion of technology.
2.2 Art and technology
Art is a uniquely human product; a form of creativity that transcends the simple need to survive. It had its origins in religion and magic, in the desire to represent specific aspects of human experience, and through representation to achieve some form of symbolic access to, knowledge of, and control over the world we live in. Art represents; art gives pleasure; art can provide instruction; art is an aspect of our cognitive faculty; and art gives expression to the dialectical tension between the real and the imagined. Art as a form of doing and making constitutes a type of human technology, a repertoire of techniques with which humanity enhances the qualitative aspects of its experience of life. To the degree that humanism valorizes art, and art embodies technology, humanism and technology are reconcilable and compatible. There can hardly be any art without the aid of technology, and yet, within art, there is scope for avoiding the pitfalls of which Heidegger warns, the danger of humanity being enslaved to a technology that it uses as an instrument in its attempt to master nature. Art helps avoid and prevent that, and it does so paradoxically, by always remaining susceptible to obsolescence. The one way of not being enslaved by a technology that one hopes to use as a servant to one’s will is when that technology becomes obsolete. In the abandonment of one technique and technology for another is art’s freedom, and with it, the freedom of humanity from its reliance on technology.
2.3 Benjamin on Technological reproducibility
Benjamin’s essay helps us focus on specific aspects of the relation between technology and art by drawing attention to the manner in which post-industrial humanity has seen a succession of rapidly evolving technologies. In the field of the visual, these developments led from photography to cinema in the span of less than a century. As painters began to realize that a camera could reproduce visual reality with relative ease and almost infinite reproducibility the whole field of humanistic practices governing the production and consumption of art-objects changed dramatically. On the one hand, what Benjamin calls the “aura” of art as a coterie object dissipated; but on the other hand, technology made it possible for art to reach the masses as never before, producing a democratization of art that dissipated the cult value of art but replaced it with its mass dissemination. Thus changes in technology led to the evolution of painting in Western art from realism through impressionism to cubism, expressionism and abstract art. To learn to become adaptable about humanist art-practices in light of changes in technology is one part of the moral, if one might so put it, of Benjamin’s essay. He addresses the relation of technology to cinema. I would like to turn our attention, for the final part of this lecture, towards a different art-form, one not addressed by Benjamin: music.
2.4 Music and technology
Let us now consider briefly the relation
between music and technology. If we think of technology in its most
flexible sense as a type of enabling agency that utilize technique for
the systematic production of specific types of effect in the physical
universe, then music operates in the realm of sound. Sound lives and
dies in time. It can be produced consciously by the voice and through
instruments. These constitute the first and second technologies to help
in the creation of music. There is no tension or contradiction between a
science of the technology of sound production and the aesthetics of
response that humanism creates around the idea of music, as when the
French Symbolist poet Mallarmé declared that all art aspires to the
condition of music.
Last Updated 20 August 2009