- The Technical Imagination: Argentine Culture’s Modern Dreams
Among cultural theorists working in the Hispanic field, it is quite uncommon to find an interest in the connections between technology, science, and literature. An exception is Beatriz Sarlo, who has published extensively on Argentinean modernity. In this book Sarlo addresses the relationship between technology, literature, and popular culture during the 1920s and 1930s, focusing on how “poor people’s knowledge” impacts the creation of a new literary and cultural imagination centered around science and technology, thus becoming “modern knowledge” or, as Sarlo puts it, “practical knowledge doing double duty . . . as a myth of upward social mobility, and as compensation for poverty of symbolic capital and insecurity over scholarly capital” (p. 47). Technology and technological knowledge, she argues, bridged the gap between plebeian culture and the lettered elite and thus became not only a means of competing with high culture or acquiring fame and riches, but also the basis for a new “technographical” imagination that went far beyond “Americanism” and middle-class concerns about upward mobility.
Science and technology and their mode of discourse would serve the purpose of authorizing the moral autonomy of literature, while science fiction would put this autonomy to the test through the representation of the conflict between moral values and the application of knowledge. This widespread concern with science and technology was combined with a growing interest in the occult, alternative techniques of healing, and the possibility of making contact with the nether world.
Sarlo’s book is divided into two sections, each with three chapters. In the first section she undertakes a study of the canonical Argentinean writers Horacio Quiroga and Roberto Arlt in light of their relation with science and technology, and the role of the popular press in the diffusion of modern scientific discourse and technological innovation. In the second section Sarlo focuses on amateur inventors, on the role of long-distance communication in the popularization of technology, and on the more unorthodox practitioners of modern science. Despite this seemingly heterogeneous range, the book forms a coherent whole, and many of the concerns raised in earlier chapters find their way into the latter parts as well. Sarlo draws extensively from a wide variety of sources, not all of them restricted to the Argentinean cultural milieu: Conan Doyle, Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and Hugo Gernsback make a number of appearances in these pages, along with accounts of Soviet projects by Dr. Serge Voronoff for grafting tissue of humans to chimps and vice versa.
For this reviewer, the most interesting aspect of Sarlo’s book is its emphasis [End Page 208] on the concurrence of science and more unorthodox “pseudoscientific” practices not only in the popular imagination but also in the work of Quiroga and Arlt. Blurring the traditional distinctions between high and low culture, these writers dwell quite comfortably among quacks, parapsychologists, and pseudoscientific periodicals. Readers who are perhaps better versed in scientific development and technical practices are sure to enjoy different aspects of the book. Although the focus can get blurred by the vast number of anecdotes, Sarlo manages to make an overwhelming amount of data come to life in witty accounts of Argentina’s technographical modernity.
Erudite throughout and quite entertaining at times, this book also includes a generous critical apparatus. Sarlo moves beyond the common view in literary critical practice of science and technology as mere discourses—having little real existence outside the field of language—to an empirical demonstration of the writers and the populace’s very real link with what would become one of the dominant modes of the early-twentieth-century literary and cultural imagination.
Melissa Culver is a doctoral candidate studying literary discourses of women writers of the nineteenth century at State University of New York at Stony Brook.