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  • Postmodern Theory of Technology: Agendas
  • Vincent B. Leitch (bio)

From the standpoint of today’s cultural studies, three central texts for postmodern theory of technology are Heidegger’s essay “The Question Concerning Technology” (1953), Foucault’s Discipline and Punish (1975), and Haraway’s “Manifesto for Cyborgs” (1985). Each illustrates that the postmodern moment in the philosophy and history of technology arrives when pressing ethicopolitical questions erupt about collective well-being, freedom, security, and sustainability. This postmodern rupture comes in the wake of mounting postwar critiques of modern scientific technology for its faults, especially its frenzied utilitarianism; its reification of life; its abetting of social domination; its nondemocratic mode of operation; and its dangerous transformation of human rationality into instrumental reason.

The standard definitions of technology include the utilitarian, anthropological, and social constructionist ones.1 In the first, technology is regarded as an instrument, a neutral means to an end. In the second, it is conceived as an inventive activity inherent to human beings. And in the third, it is construed sociohistorically as communally constructed, involving numerous agents and constraints. “Technology” in ordinary conversation evokes equipment, tools, machines (things manufactured and used) as well as artifactual solutions to problems and needs. Yet, following Foucault and Haraway, the body (notably the “docile body”) is a technology, an unsettling notion that collapses the conventional binary opposition organism/machine and that renders the meaning and extent of technology undecidable.

By common consent modern technology starts during the Enlightenment period when the widespread scientization of technology and technologization of science occur. Heidegger, Foucault, and Marx, particularly in the latter’s memorable chapter on “Machinery and [End Page 209] Large-Scale Industry” in Capital, Vol. 1, (1867), make much of the shift during the industrial revolution from handicraft and manufacture to the factory system with its massive machinery (492–639). According to Haraway, Jameson, and many others, the postmodern postindustrial period opens with the shift in the 1950s and thereafter away from electric and gas energy to electronic and nuclear power, displacing the steam energy of the early industrial era.2 This is the point at which new postwar sciences and technologies flower such as cybernetics, antibiotics, nuclear engineering, television, microelectronics, space travel and later immunology, organ transplants, satellite relaying, and gene splicing. The striking way this historical shift is construed at the time by the Frankfurt school—Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, and others—is that Western rationality during the course of its modern development tragically mutates into dangerous instrumental reason, and we now live with the threat of such reason.3

In Heidegger’s account, Descartes symbolizes the moment when science and technology get harnessed together, creating the tragic project of “Enframing” (Gestell), which is characterized by its devotion to standing-reserve or storing up resources (Bestand): “Everywhere everything is ordered to stand by, to be immediately at hand, indeed to stand there just so that it may be on call for a further ordering”(17). What typifies modern technological rationality is its desire for order, control, domination, security; its mastery, willfulness, utilitarianism; its dedication to calculation, objectification, representation; its frantic transformation of everything including nature and human beings into efficient machines and resources. More and more, nothing is permitted to be what it is. Letting things be appears increasingly impossible. Openness to being, to uncertainty, to spontaneous and responsive awareness—such ways of living fall away and human being becomes further estranged from self and environment. Not surprisingly, numerous strands of modern and postmodern theory seek to reclaim openness to being. For Heidegger technology, in its dangerous late modern scientific form, contends with everything, sets upon it, and requisitions it for use.

Foucault’s historical account of modern technology in Discipline and Punish, particularly his narrative about panoptic society, is grimmer and more substantial than Heidegger’s as well as Adorno and Horkheimer’s. What is most striking and original is his focus on the [End Page 210] “disciplines,” that is, the several dozen minute everyday mechanisms and techniques harnessed since the late eighteenth century to render the human body increasingly docile. Among these disciplines are tables and classifications, rankings and norms, examinations and exercises, records and case studies, all of which “technologies” to use...

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pp. 209-215
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