GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

May 7, 2019

The Event of Technology

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:34 am

Insofar as power is desacralized, there is nothing but mutually hostile “interests” engaged in struggle over the decaying corpse of the social body; at the same time, power is never genuinely desacralized, because as soon as the sacred center is punctured, mythicized centers like “the common good,” “the voice of the people,” “Constitution,” “rule of law,” and, eventually, “GDP” are set up as masks of what everyone must assume is there—an unquestioned authority rooted in a singular origin. These mythicized centers are intrinsically arbitrary and divisive, though, which means they must eventually escalate hostilities into some “total” form.

Desacralization of power, though, is possible because there is a difference between the ritual center and activities engaged in outside the center. In the earliest human communities, we can assume that in activities apart from the ritual center nothing at all changed, and the ritual center reproduced as precisely as possible the originary event. But the sign deployed on the originary scene, along with the constraining structure of ritual, would be extended to other activities; at the same time, linguistic development towards the declarative would involve the attribution of actions to (“mythical”) occupants of the center. The mythical interpretations of ritual would be drawn from the far less interesting but nevertheless determinative actions outside the central aura and be converted into actions modeling behaviors for the community. Out in the field, hunters battle their prey; on the narrativized ritual scene, the sacred beast gives life to the group.

As social cooperation increases, stories of the origin of each new mode of cooperation would be “heard” or derived from the center—it would probably be the case that you couldn’t do or create something new without attributing the discovery to a mythical agent. You would in turn be obliged to that mythical agent, and would give to it some part of the fruits of your labor, which in turn would be part of the individual’s contribution to the center for the entire community. The gift the god has given you comes with an imperative: in one form or another, that imperative would be to use it in such a way as to honor the donor. In return, the individual issues an imperative to the mythical being: a prayer, requesting aid in successfully using the skill or implement. All the implements of work and war would be created within this frame, of what I have been calling an “imperative exchange.”

The implements themselves, their parts, and the implements used to produce the implements, are themselves all part of this imperative exchange. This is to say there is a “magical” component to the process: ritual words and gestures must be applied to all acts involving production and use, and instances of successful or failed use would implicate the implements themselves, which don’t simply break, and aren’t simply poorly used, but refuse, for reasons that may be more or less formulated, to follow the commands given them. In a certain sense we could say that, of course, an early human smoothing out his spear knows that this has to be done so that it can fly straight and fast when thrown, but his way of thinking about it will be framed completely in terms of being in harmony with all the agencies of the surrounding world. Such processes become institutionalized, and to craft some item in a way that is not traditionally prescribed and monitored by the upholders of that tradition would also be unthinkable.

So, the question is, how did it become possible for “technology” to emerge—that is, production conducted outside of these forms, in accord with the logic of continually reducing the elements of one process to another set of elements produced by another process? I think that the answer must be: when it becomes possible to see other human being as implements. The divine kings, commanding hundreds of thousands, even millions, in their slave war and labor armies, would first get a view of all these individuals as “parts” of a whole that might be more than the sum of its parts. Some could be added; some subtracted; some moved over here; some over there. If some worked harder, the possibility of combining all the better workers would come to mind; if workers or soldiers improvised and found some new way of cooperating with each other, that could be remembered and reproduced. This is already a kind of technology.

The Axial Age acquisitions made it increasingly difficult to levy these vast, sacrificial, masses. So, in the European middle ages, while there was steady technical development, and some remarkable feats of engineering and architecture, such development never exceeded the limits set by existing corporate and authority relations. The masses confronted in the New World and, especially, those flowing into the cities from the farmers enclosed out of their land must have ignited a new technological imagination. For quite a while, the development of machinery seemed to track pretty closely intensifications in the division of labor, with each laborer being given increasingly simpler tasks within an increasingly complex process. If automation has now itself become an autonomous process, it is because men were first automated. Eventually, of course, technology came to alleviate and eliminate human labor, but in the process the disciplines, focused on both technological and human resources, became the main drivers of social development. The human sciences, which took over from theology and philosophy, treat humans in technological terms, as composed of parts that work together in ways that can be studied and modified. Even attempts to “humanize” disciplines like psychology reduce people to set of interchangeable and predictable clichés.

The disciplines naturally think they should run the government which, after all, is just another technology. And whatever claims the government might make on its own behalf, like fulfilling the “popular will,” are best left to the disciplines, upon whom the government would anyway be dependent in measuring such things. The emergence of data and algorithm driven, all-intrusive social media which more and more people simply can’t live without is a logical extension of this process, as is the elimination of millions of jobs through new modes of automation. But desacralized technology, like desacralized power, provides a frame within which ultimately unlimited struggles ensue. Indeed, technology is the dominant form of power. If technology presents itself to us as an enormous system of interlocking imperatives which provides a very precise slot for us to insert our own imperatives, who or what is that the center? What ostensive sign generates the system of imperatives?

Technology is completely bound up with the specific forms the centralization of power takes in the wake of the desacralization of power. It is part of the same furious whirlpool of decentralization, as old forms of power, predicated upon earlier forms of technology, are broken up, and then recentralization, as new forms of power exploit the new technologies to remove mediating power centers in zeroing in on each individual. In that case, the commands of the center are mediated technologically, which is to say through our self-centerings as both objects of technological manipulations and imaginings and subjects becoming signs of the algorithmic paradoxes: our choice here is to become either predictable and unreliable, or unpredictable and reliable. In this way, we situate ourselves at the origin of the technological event, and model forms of power that will advance participation in the reinscription of technological markings upon us.

The telos of technology, then, is to make technologically produced human interactions into models for further analysis of practices into networks of sub-practices, out of which new practices are synthesized. In the process, the cultural work of deferral becomes increasingly technological—this means that we will think more in terms of deferring possible conflicts in advance, in making them unthinkable and impossible, rather than intervening crudely after the fact. We would work on turning binaries into aggregated probabilities, and making those aggregated probabilities capable of expression in language—this would be a source of important artistic and pedagogical projects. It would be as if we were producing futurity by continuing to work on the originary scene itself—in, say, settling “in advance” some dispute between friends, a particular wrinkle in the fluctuations of aborted gestures on the scene is revealed—the scene, one can now see, would only have cohered if one member had shaped his sign of deferral while positioning himself just so in relation to his neighbor and the center.

What about all the moral and ethical questions bound up with technology—gene manipulation, increasingly destructive weapons, pharmaceutical interventions into behaviors, deficiencies and capabilities that were once within the normal range but now, at a higher resolution, seem to call for remediation, etc.? Behind all these anxieties is the fading away of a sense of the human that was formed logocentrically, which is to say through the assimilation of the literate subject to the scene of speech, in which all are present to each other, and intentions are inseparable from signs. Humanism is a degenerate form of the Axial Age acquisitions. But this is not to say that our telos as technological beings is simply to go full speed ahead on all counts. We need a new way to think about these things, one that doesn’t rely on what are ultimately historically bound feelings of defilement. There is a human origin, and origins that iterate that origin, but no human nature. The event of technology, in which we become, collectively, models of further interventions that will in-form us, is itself originary.

Some of those moral and ethical questions are not real questions, relying on dumbed down or falsified versions of actual or possible scientific developments. The answers to those of them that are real questions will depend upon the state of the disciplines. Only within disciplinary spaces will it be possible to ask whether a proposed innovation or line of inquiry, i.e., some proposed new power, will have commensurate responsibilities assigned to it. Only in properly composed disciplines can these questions be raised free of scapegoating pressures demanding remediation to enjoy new “freedoms” or to avoid some form of ostracism. Anthropologically grounded disciplines would have to work to make new innovations and inquiries consistent with the basic terms of social coherence, while using new possibilities to continue studying those terms; and then we would have to assume open channels between the disciplines and central authority. There is even a place for “letting the market decide,” as long as we keep in mind what the “market” is: what people without direct authority for maintaining the social center do with knowledge, information and skills when they are being protected and bounded but not directly supervised by such authorities. Supervision can be relaxed and tightened for various purposes, and one of the purposes for relaxation is certainly to see what intelligent and talented people can do when encouraged to engage in skunkworks. In this case, as in all cases, the ultimate test for the reception of any novelty would be whether it helps sustain the pyramid of command starting from the central authority, and even contributes to ensuring the continuity of that authority from ruler to ruler. And the disciplines will accordingly, make themselves over into articulations of practices refined by the latest divisions in labor that study the diverse forms of human interaction for models of technological transformation—in the process establishing meta-practices for representing this dialectic in a way intelligible to central authority.


  1. […] GA Blog on The Event of Technology. […]

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