Rajeev S. Patke

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.

Lecture Handouts:

(    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)

The second sense is associated with the European Renaissance and its enormous interest in human accomplishments as contrasted with religious concerns, as reflected both in the interest taken by Renaissance intellectuals, scholars and artists in the accomplishments of classical Greece and Rome, and in contemporaneous preoccupations with human agency, human institutions and the human potential for self-fulfillment. The third sense arose in the 19th century, when Darwinian speculations and evidence for the origins of the species went against the grain of fundamentalist Christian doctrine, resulting in the notion of a rational humanism that challenged the literal veracity of the narrative enshrined in the first book of the Bible (and all such accounts of origins derived from religious sources). The fourth sense, which we are going to focus on today, assimilates features from all the previous three connotations, and can be illustrated through the use of the contemporary term “Humanities” to describe that part of the educational curriculum which devotes itself to the study of specifically human concerns, institutions and creativity as contrasted with the type of study we commonly associate with the natural sciences (specifically astronomy, physics, chemistry and also mathematics) and with life science and the social sciences. Thus the term “humanistic” acquires significance through contrasts developed through the course of history between the kinds of subjects or areas about which human beings have aspired to create cumulative and systematic knowledge and understanding, distinguishing human preoccupations and interests from interest in, knowledge of, and the manipulation of the physical universe. Humanists base their approach to value, knowledge and meaning on human reason, human concerns and human aspirations for truth, goodness, beauty.

Next, let us focus on the term “technology”. One way of describing the scope of the word is to recognize that its current significance is linked to the capacity of the hard sciences to create systematic knowledge about the physical world we live in; this knowledge, when put to practical use and applied to material nature, through various techniques and processes, leads to the transformation of material reality through the creation of new structures, materials and entities. In short, a technology might be described as the technique of transforming material reality through the application of scientific knowledge and method to the objects and entities of the world.

Link 1: Archimedes: “Give me a place to stand on and I will lift the earth”

As soon as we have defined the two terms we begin to recognize how they have arrived at a kind of diagonal or oppositional relation to one another which is – unfortunately - a legacy from the history of human institutions that leads to the kinds of simplifying polarizations that set the Sciences in some allegedly oppositional relationship towards the Arts. Many have argued for this opposition as a mistake, but even as a mere prejudice, the alleged opposition is already well-entrenched in society and in the minds of many people, and one of the aims of this lecture is to help clarify what is at stake in untangling the alleged opposition between Science and Art or Technology and the Humanities. I shall follow a two-step process towards this untangling. In the first, I shall work with the opposition as a given assumption or prejudice among societies, and examine the consequences of that prejudice, specifically from a perspective originating in the arts and humanities. The second step will deliberately go in a slightly contrary and more constructive direction, and argue that the relation of technology to a more balanced or sensible humanistic perspective can show the alleged opposition as harmful to human progress, and in need of resolution, both in individual mind-sets and in broad social assumptions of value about the respective roles of science and art in society.

Link 2: Frederick Edwords, What is Humanism?

Link 3: Richard Norman on Humanism (audio)




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

Link 4: C. P. Snow, The Rede Lecture (1959)

Link 5: The Two Cultures Controversy Revisited

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.

Link 6: Shelley, “A Defence of Poetry” (full text)


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 technology.

Link 7: Ronald Godzinski, Jr. on Heidegger

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.”

Enframing: What modern technology does, according to Heidegger, is to “enframe”; and enframing (German: Gestell) by or through technology converts the world of nature into (or presents it to our understanding as) a “standing reserve” (German: Bestand). To approach technology in what he thinks the right way is to be able to use it while remaining free in one’s use of it; whereas, the wrong way of using it is to see it only as a form of instrumental control over nature, which is a view of technology that keeps us trapped to the will to master nature. What is at stake is explained thus by Godzinski, Jr.: “if we, ourselves, get ordered or dominated by the things that we in turn are trying to order and dominate, then we will encounter the danger, to the extent that the sending or presencing of Being gets closed off and concealed from us”. The key point to stress here is that Heidegger neither rejects the technological out of hand, as simplified humanists tend to do, nor does he embrace it without reservations. The danger and the gift of what technology can do by way of enframing depends not on technology but on the spirit or fundamental attitude with which we take recourse to it. A very different, and far more grim picture of what the deep-rooted human infatuation with technology does (in Heideggerian terms, the danger of being enslaved, instead of being freed, by technology in the act of wanting to use it as a means of bringing about the unconcealment of nature) can be sampled through the discourses of SF and Myth.

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.

Link 9: Paul Brians: Study Guide to the Miller novel

Link 10: John Kannenberg (music inspired by the novel)



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.
It thus joins the ranks of a whole family of powerful narratives that might be said to offer similar, and pessimistic, warnings to humanity about the wrong kind of unconcealment of the secrets of nature, which, religion tells us, it is only God’s prerogative to use and unconceal.


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.

Consider finally, a more modern fable: Frankenstein. The name of the doctor, transferred to the creature he mis-creates, signals a form of alleged transgression. Here is how Chapter 5 of the novel begins its description of the experiment with forbidden technologies that has led to the creation of a monster: “I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet.... How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and cares I had endeavoured to form?”

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.

Consider a simple speculative question as sharpening the current application of what I have briefly alluded to in part one of my lecture: should we repeal the Industrial Revolution (assuming, we could), because it led, eventually, to the current state of global warming?



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



Link 12: The 1936 version of the full text in English translation

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.

In summary terms, music is not a thing; its origin is virtual; its authenticity does not depend on objectification; the historical testimony relating to it does not expire with its cessation in time, it hibernates as potentiality; and its transmissibility is not diminished by copies; on the contrary, it requires iterability. In the case of Western music, these copies generally take the form of scores; in improvisational traditions, the copies resided in the chain of memories that transmit such music through successive generations; and since the twentieth century, this option has been open to supplementation and correction by recordings.

The life of music is linear and strictly bound to temporality. For music to be preserved we need a third and a fourth technology: namely, the transcription of music through visual notation, and the encoding and decoding of sound through recordings, as in the invention of the gramophone disk, the audio-tape, Compact Disks, and DVD. As this fourth type of technology has evolved, the nature of music production, its styles and conventions, the scope of its reach to audiences has also been transformed radically. Technological reproducibility abets human reproducibility while it transforms performance practices: tradition is not only preserved, but the conditions for its survival and continuance are modified and shaped towards a set of canonical directions. Many might lament the democratization of the auratic quality of art. But Benjamin’s other point retains its validity: what is dissipated as cult value is recuperated elsewhere in the manner in which art thrives not only through the extended hold it has over audiences in space and time, but also in how technological evolution forces artists to break new ground in terms of evolving new artistic techniques. The purist might lament some part of such developments; but most contemporary humanists would have to agree that the grim state of affairs represented by the humanist writers cited above is not the full picture, because there are so many ways in which the collaboration of art and technology leads to changes that are life-supportive and life-enhancing for human societies.

Link 13: Published chapter by R. Patke on Music, Technology and Benjamin



 Last Updated 20 August 2009