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  • Technoculture: Another, More Material, Name for Postmodern Culture?
  • Joseph Dumit
Penley, Constance, and Andrew Ross, eds. Technoculture. Minneapolis: U Minnesota P, 1991.

“If we want technology to liberate rather than destroy us, then we—the techno/peasants—have to assume responsibility for it.”

—The Techno/Peasant Survival Manual 1

Perhaps the question is, what isn’t technoculture? The two parts of this word, techno(logy) and culture are actively contested in contemporary social criticism. Donna Haraway, for instance, has read the logos of techne as “translatable/transferable technique,” and then more closely as “frozen labor”.2 Haraway draws attention to the accountable, though usually unaccounted for, aspects of “our” artifacts, our shirts, our computers, our words. She asks: “How is the world in the object, and the object in the world?”3 With regard to culture, it is precisely these webs of interconnection and constructed barriers of individuation which are under attack within and without anthropology: “culture” as a signification of privilege, by the privileged. Under these lights, technoculture points toward a world where the high and low speed technique-transfers are the common culture, and where “culture” is a technology.

Technoculture, the book, looks in this and other directions. Penley and Ross use technoculture in their introduction almost always in the phrase “Western technoculture” and situate technocultural situations as stemming from technology transfer problems and creative appropriations. “The essays collected in Technoculture are almost exclusively focused on what could be called actually existing technoculture in Western society, where the new cultural technologies have penetrated deepest, and where the environments they have created seem almost second nature to us” (xii). While Western now apparently includes Japan, it is important to reflect on the role of this monster word, “technoculture,” and the world it invokes.

The terrain claimed by Technoculture has been approached from a variety of angles. Cultural studies is the most obvious one, though this field has often shied away from emphasizing machines. Social studies of science has a long history of looking at what has come to be called technoscience—in Bruno Latour’s terms, “all the elements tied to the scientific contents no matter how dirty, unexpected or foreign they may seem.”4 Technoscience, and therefore science studies, should be looking at more than laboratory science. Sal Restivo has most vigorously challenged science studies and cultural studies by reintroducing C. Wright Mills’s sociological imagination and calling for a revisioning of the relations of science and society, for seeing science as a social problem and thinking towards what Sandra Harding calls “successor science.”5 Books such as Cyborg Worlds, Women, Work, and Technology, Technology and Women’s Voices, and the Anthropology of Technology, address concerns which readily fit under the title of Technoculture and should be seen as complements to it.6

The contents of Technoculture range from traditional American cultural studies (reading texts and commenting on culture), literary genre criticism, and ethnography, to historical and practical activist manuals. Ignoring Penley and Ross’s prescriptions that “it is the work of cultural critics, for the most part, to analyze that process [of cultural negotiation] and to say how, when, and to what extent critical interventions in that process are not only possible but also desirable” (xv), the contributors have a wide variety of takes on what it means to be a cultural critic writing an edited book section. We can situate Technoculture then in a busy intersection7 of academic interests and note some special needs to which it points and which it begins to address: (1) building on the cultural studies subversion of the high/popular split, it expands studies of technology in society to everyday appropriations; (2) it pays attention to the media’s role in scientizing us as well as in selling science;8 (3) parts of it draw upon fieldwork and provide practical histories and analyses, pushing in the direction of applied cultural studies; and, (4) by refusing to posit monstrous enemies in control of technology (especially of communications technologies), it provides models for rethinking intellectual technophobia.

Technoculture begins with an interview of Donna Haraway, “Cyborgs at Large,” followed by her postscript to the interview, “The Actors are Cyborg, Nature is Coyote, and...

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