Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, May 28, 2018

John Ruskin: Fit the Third and Last

Years ago I had an argument with a biblically-minded friend who claimed that there could have been no tools of any kind, no technology whatsoever, in the Garden of Eden. So did Adam and Eve do all their “tending of the garden” (Gen. 2:15) with their hands? Pruning branches by breaking them off, sowing seeds only by kneeling and pawing the ground? No, he replied, there would have been none of that -- there could be no labor in Eden, so the garden would have taken care of itself and all the man and woman had to do was eat what it produced. I pointed out that what distinguishes a garden from a wilderness is that labor is put into the shaping of it and the caring for it, and that the Hebrew words used to describe what Adam did there clearly denote work, but he was immovable. Labor and technology are post-lapsarian phenomena, period. End of story.

Well, my friend was wrong, and the question we theologically-minded critics of technology need to ask goes something like this: Given that the use of tools is co-extensive with humanity itself, how might we distinguish between technology that is consistent with obedience to God and technology that manifestly isn’t? Something like this question is common to almost every serious thinker about technology, even when God isn’t involved. Perhaps the guiding concepts involve purely human flourishing. 

Take Heidegger, for instance. Here’s a summary from George Steiner’s excellent overview of Heidegger’s thought:

Once, says Heidegger, nature was phusis, the archaic designation of natural reality which he reads as containing within itself the Greek sense for “coming into radiant being” (as it is still faintly discernible in our word “phenomenon”). Phusis proclaimed the same process of creation that generates a work of art. It was, in the best sense, poiesis – a making, a bringing forth. The blossom breaking from the bud and unfolding into its proper being (en eautō) is, at once, the realization of phusis and of poiesis, of organic drive – Dylan Thomas’s “green fuse” – and of the formal creative-conservative dynamism which we experience in art. Originally, technē had its pivotal place in this complex of meanings and perceptions. It also sprang from an understanding of the primacy of natural forms and from the cardinal Greek insight that all “shaping,” all construction of artifacts, is a focused knowing. A “technique” is a mode of knowledge which generates this or that object, it is a re-cognition towards truthful ends. (Something of the Heideggerian reticulation can be made out in the cognate range, in English, of “craft” and of “cunning,” with their respective derivation from Germanic roots for “knowing” and “forming.”) No less than art, technē signified a bringing into true being, a making palpable and luminous, of that which is already inherent in phusis. Heidegger’s word for authentic technology is entbergen.

Steiner goes on to point out that zu entbergen can mean either “to reveal” or “to guard in hiddenness.” So healthy technology both reveals something true and guards something valuable.

Consider all this a prequel to a post I wrote last year, which quotes Ruskin on this point. Ruskin’s distinction between the rough but richly human imperfections of Gothic stonework and the rigid regularity of modern industrial stonework is immensely relevant here. Ruskin is articulating in very specific and practical terms what Heidegger is articulating theoretically.

Note that in that post I also cite Ivan Illich’s notion of “tools for conviviality,” which is another way of pursuing the same general ideas. I could also cite Ursula Franklin’s distinction between holistic and prescriptive technologies. Franklin on the former category: 

Holistic technologies are normally associated with the notion of craft. Artisans, be they potters, weavers, metal-smiths, or cooks, control the process of their own work from beginning to end. Their hands and minds make situational decisions as the work proceeds, be it on the thickness of the pot, or the shape of the knife edge, or the doneness of the roast. These are decisions that only they can make while they are working. And they draw on their own experience, each time applying it to a unique situation….Using holistic technologies does not mean that people do not work together, but the way in which they work together leaves the individual worker in control of a particular process of creating or doing something.

And the latter: 

Today’s real world of technology is characterized by the dominance of prescriptive technologies. Prescriptive technologies are not restricted to materials production. They are used in administrative and economic activities and in many aspects of governance, and on them rests the real world of technology in which we live. While we should not forget that these prescriptive technologies are often exceedingly effective and efficient, they come with an enormous social mortgage. The mortgage means that we live in a culture of compliance, that we are ever more conditioned to accept orthodoxy as normal, and to accept that there is only one way of doing it.

So we see the same essential point being made over and over again, since the middle of the nineteenth century at least. Ruskin, Illich, and and Franklin all see that there are technologies that liberate human creativity, that enable human power, and, by contrast, technologies that enslave us, that force our very being into conformity with their codes and structures. 

Some version or another of this essential distinction has been central to this blog over the decade or so that I’ve been writing it, and I have come to believe that I have unpacked the relevant questions as thoroughly as I know how. At this point I am merely repeating myself, or playing tiny scraps of variations on the Great Theme. I still want to think about the matters that this blog has been concerned with — and to think more about John Ruskin! — but I need to find new ways to do it. So this will be the last Text Patterns post. Look for me later on in the pages of The New Atlantis, and at my own site, but I’m wrapping this blog up. 

Gentle readers: Thanks for coming along for the ride. It’s been real. 

3 comments:

  • Let me be the first, and I'm sure not the last, to say: I will miss this blog! Thank you for keeping up for as long as you have: it's been fascinating and thought-provoking and educative and entertaining, and only very occasionally monstrously wrongheaded. But I suppose all good things come to an end.

    As regards this final post, I think I'd frame its (absolutely right, I think) central point slightly differently, and locate it in the distinction Marx makes between a tool and a machine. The former extends the worker's body and therefore his/her labour; the latter stands apart from the worker and introduces one degree or another of alienation into that labour ... leading, Marx says, to that Metropolis-style dystopia in which the worker serves the machine rather than the other way about. Your Biblically-minded friend is wishing for a sort of magic machine to tend their Eden, which might facilitate indolence but is also going to be a little alienating, I think.

  • I alllllllllllmost believe you.

  • Adam: my plan is to achieve consistently monstrous wrongheadedness elsewhere. Wish me luck!

    Freddie: You are right to be suspicious.

    Apologies for the delay in posting these — Blogger stopped informing me of comments, perhaps knowing that I really am done.

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