- The Garden Is the Machine:New Media and Technology in American Studies
In his editorial for American Quarterly’s 2006 special issue on technology, Siva Vaidhyanathan invited American studies scholars to grapple with the strong influences of techno-fundamentalism—the “misguided faith in technology and progress.”1 To challenge this faith, Vaidhyanathan asserted, one must ask the following questions: Who decides what technologies are developed, bought, sold, and used? Who creates technology and for whom? What are the cultural and economic assumptions influencing a particular technology’s operations and its effects?2 This special issue displayed how the fields of technology studies, communication, and history of technology can come together through the critical endeavor of American studies.
One salient example is Caitlin Zaloom’s complex study of technology through the creation of a new trading floor for the Chicago Board of Trade in 1930 and the opening of a Chicago-style dealing firm in 2000 London.2 Zaloom claims that the design of spaces for market processes, either face-to-face or face-to-screen, marked an important event in the articulation of neoliberal ideals. As Zaloom argues, technological and social arrangements presume a conscious effort in designing around constraints exerted on the process. She notes that “focusing attention not only on a single new technology, but also on the blend of devices, social forms, and human skills that are necessary to make them work … expand[s] both the empirical frame and the analytic [End Page 1143] categories for cultural studies of technology.”3 Zaloom reframes the study of technology in a broader milieu of human power relations, interventions, and limits. Yet machine agency and machinic time remain out of the frame. What can technological specificity tell scholars about the arrangements that Zaloom and American studies wish to elucidate? How can scholars approach the ways that technology demarcates and challenges what is possible? What does it mean when life itself is mediated? These are some of the questions that Networks without a Cause: A Critique of Social Media, Digital Memory and the Archive, Life after New Media: Mediation as a Vital Process, and the present essay address.
Machines and technology have been subjects of inquiry in our field for many decades. One of the foundational works in American studies, Leo Marx’s Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (1964), casts machines as tropes of industrial power in the writings of canonical US authors. Marx elaborated this trope to explain how machines suddenly intruded on the sanctity and serenity of the natural environment—the “garden” of the title.4 Literary images of the-machine-in-the-garden underscored the tensions between civilization and nature; they also functioned as tactical maneuvers against industrialization. The 2006 special issue of American Quarterly revisited Marx’s critical examination of how technology was conceived, represented, and used. Like Marx, the issue’s authors criticized the narrative of technological progress and how it obscures many of the injustices produced by technological change.
The garden, nonetheless, is a design, a construction appeasing our nostalgic longing for “nature” and the “real,” which are themselves constructions. Even “in the garden” subjects are not outside the machine and its software of representation and power/knowledge. The issue at stake, then, is not to think of new media and technologies as mere extensions of human agency but to scrutinize their specific operations, procedures, and structures while engaging their associations across agents (both human and nonhuman). From this perspective, not only are new media tools through which human subjects enact their desires; they also produce and delineate those same subjects as they autonomously associate with other agents. Though the books reviewed here fall “outside” American studies, they have...