Iain Cameron's Diary
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2006-10-25 - 7:48 a.m.
Here’s another bit from the english commentary on BS – technology and time:
‘It is an organized inorganic matter which is transformed in time, just as living matter is transformed in its interaction with the environment. Moreover, it becomes the interface through which the living matter which is man enters into relation with the environment.’
Organized inorganic matter is technology – or a technical system. The suggestion seems to be that technical systems will evolve in time – and this evolution is potentially as powerful as natural selection is for living things. But the technical system has a grip on us and who we are – because its how we cope.
I’ve said before and I’ll say it again – you have to admire the french – reluctantly - but you do have to admire them. In the 90s not only is BS writing this stuff but BLT is leading the ANTs into equally radical territory. I note with amusement that BS doesn’t cite BLT at all and my guess is that the two hate each each other, it can hardly be that he hasn’t read the stuff. In ANT theory the actors in the network can be technological artefacts – like speed cameras or computer printers.
I feel happier with BLT – he is an easier read than BS and he sees himself as engaging the Edinburgh School where I had the good luck to pitch up in the mid 70s though it didn’t feel that lucky at the time. BLT builds on Foucault and Deleuze who I am more comfortable with.
BS seems to have overcome a fundamental conundrum in Adorno. Adorno’s negative dialectic seems to require that material reality changes its nature as history unfolds rather than there just being change in our understanding of material nature. We , the english, are firmly attached to the idea that stuff out there is just stuff and it remains the same. We don’t like the idea that material stuff subtly changes its essence from epoch to epoch. What changes is how we think about it and how use the stuff.
BS seems to have found a way through this – technical systems are out there. Technical systems can subtly change over time – indeed the subtlety of their transformation in time is one of the things that Ellul discovers making him an important thinker. In thinking about culture and its development we should be thinking about humanity interacting with technical systems – while the systems themselves follow a developmental path – a path which was not uniquely determined by us in the first place.
For example, when mass automobility was started as a global project, accidents might have been foreseen accidents but not that exhaust emissions could have an impact on the climate or the emergence of white van man or the lean production system or the disappearence of the choke in favour of automatic numerical control in the engine. These different aspects of the automotive project – developments of technical systems – emerge bit by bit –a bit like a gradual change in the weather – but cumulatively they may have an enormous impact on how we are.
In england, there have been various attempts to get to grips – like the Edinburgh School. The Sussex wing was different and was an attempt to cover similar territory in terms of the american liberal tradition - a federation between sociology, philosophy and history, in the early 70s riven by ideological conflict making it very difficult to integrate what was being taught. I got married just at the start of the course which turned out to be a further complicating factor.
In Cambridge the whole system is engineered to help you to find the point at the limit of your own understanding where your appetite to go further is the greatest. When that point is finally found they give you a hefty push to go three steps beyond. They are amazingly tolerant up to the point when you find that crucial margin – not least with people who have a taste for artistic endeavour.
Edinburgh was indeed a school – there was doctrine – and they were developing it with the deliberate intention of getting up the noses of as many people as possible. You had to bang your head against it until some of the ideas eventually passed into your skull and were absorbed mentally. My guess on the evidence so far is that St Anthony’s more like Edinburgh than Sussex.