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Culture + Technology: A Primer

Author: Jennifer Daryl Slack, J. MacGregor Wise
Publisher: New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2005
Review Published: November 2006

 REVIEW 1: Glen Fuller
 REVIEW 2: Louise Woodstock
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Jennifer Daryl Slack and Greg Wise

Technology + Culture: A Primer is indeed a primer, but in more ways than one. A "primer" in scholarly discourse is normally understood to refer to an introductory text that covers the basic elements of a subject. Professor Jennifer Slack and Associate Professor Greg Wise's co-authored text fulfills this function. They provide a general survey of different approaches to (and problems with) technology and culture, or "technological culture." Yet, more than a summary list of required readings, Slack and Wise organize an "effective history" of engagements with technology in contemporary US society. This invokes another meaning of "primer" -- a small catalyst or explosive charge that is positioned to trigger a much larger reaction or explosion. It is in this sense of a catalytic primer that Slack and Wise's text succeeds in being a pedagogical technology that, if the metaphor hasn't already worn thin, seeks to produce an explosion in the critical intellect of becoming-scholarly minds. As Deleuze and Guattari (1987: 22-23) tell us, a book is not a static object, it works as an assemblage upon an operative outside, as element of an event. As such, the book is clearly designed to be an introductory text, but rather than being a canonically preoccupied textbook, Technology + Culture: A Primer is theory and scholarship in motion. The style of the book is very important. It is not a "weaponized nomadic thought" or (what that often becomes) a cliquey insiders' gossip (or therapy) session for theory nerds; rather, the overwhelming affective tonality of the text is one of patience. The affects of scholarship are significant (Albrecht-Crane and Slack, 2003) and I had an incredibly strong sense of this work being crafted through many long sessions with students, and bright students at that, asking rather curly questions. As something of an autodidact in the philosophical areas upon which Slack and Wise draw heavily, I appreciate the slow, delicate, and precise rhythm and affective tonality of "patient scholarship" (cf. Gregg, 2006) as a gift. In the event of learning -- distributed across the shared singularities of student bodies, writing bodies, teacher bodies, and books as pedagogical technologies -- patience is crucial as it soberly modulates the actualization of knowledge in motion.

The text is organized around introducing students to the notion of "technological culture." This is a new notion for engaging with cultures of technology, which is different from technologies within cultures or the cultural dimension of technologies. The distinction of a properly "technological culture" may seem rather trivial, but it is actually a very important move that, for example, shifts definitions of culture beyond the onus of traditional "cultural" categories (literature, film, music, etc.). Slack and Wise first critically introduce the common sense "received view" of technology, and then outline the already existing critical responses to and engagements with technology. This covers seven of the sixteen chapters. The rest of the book introduces key concepts, modes of inquiry and lines of critique of a "technological culture."

The first section investigates the "primary narratives" of the "received view" of technology with a chapter per narrative: Progress, Convenience, Determinism, and Control. Each narrative is interrogated through particular examples in where the internal limits to the logic of each narrative are questioned. "Progress" introduces the notion of technological development and the relation between beliefs of development and the betterment of society and humanity. "Development" is explored in terms of its principle conceptual dependency on evolution and all the assumptions that a moralizing evolutionary determinism requires (for example, "survival of the fittest," etc.). The belief that "development" equates to something better is explored in terms of the sublime. The second chapter engages with the narrative of "convenience." Slack and Wise draw on Thomas Tierney's discussion in The Value of Convenience of the etymology of "convenience" to problematise the "received" meaning. They then focus on the problematic relation of "convenience" between technologies and the human body in terms of "wants" and "needs":
    Neither the material things themselves nor some essential truth about human beings has determined that these conveniences should become needs. Rather, they are part of a changing configuration of contingent connections, which suggests that life could be otherwise, given other choices. (36-37)
Indeed, the changing configurations of the various "assemblages" that humans form with technologies is the subject of the large third section of the book. The addition of the dependent clause "[when] given other choices" at the end of the above sentences is perhaps significant. Later in the same paragraph they write that because of habits, the media, everyday economic circumstances, peer expectations, and political rhetoric, "the chosen path may seem like the only way to go" (37). Very briefly, the danger in this language of "choice" is it can easily lapse into consumerist rhetoric. The third chapter introduces technological determinism (technology as cause) and cultural determinism (technology as an effect), and then in the final section of this chapter they compare the two. They use Edward Tenner's Why Things Bite Back to exemplify the problem of distinguishing between the "primary" (intended) and "secondary" (unintended) effects of technologies. They note there is no "real" difference between these categories of "effects." Slack and Wise open the final chapter of the book's first section -- "Control" -- with the familiar story of Frankenstein's monster. The brief third section of the chapter on the master/slave dialectic (one page) appears to be primarily derived from the slightly more thorough discussion (three pages) in Wise's book Exploring Technology and Social Space (1997: 13-15). The connection that Slack and Wise stake out between "trust" and "control" is worth noting because it would go a long way to complicating the Deleuzian notion of "control societies" and the simplistic power relation attributed to immaterial "control." (Where is "trust" in "control societies"? What does it do?)

The mostly historical middle section on Luddism, Appropriate Technology, and the Unabomber respectively demonstrate different ways of critically engaging with the "received view." Another of the text's strengths is that it wards off the "presentism" of a number of similar texts currently in bookstores. Although concise, the historical dimension to their arguments gives a resonance to the questions they ask of the present set of circumstances. However, by the time I got to the final part of the book, I flicked back over these early sections and it occurred to me that perhaps Slack and Wise missed an important issue regarding technological cultures: redundancy. Was all this first section obsolete? Discounting the history chapters for a second, why did I just read these four early chapters if the cool and much more sophisticated and useful tools are in the second half of the book? Again the answer is clearly that Slack and Wise have written a text that maps a movement, or vector, along which the reader passes. The early sections are necessary because they take a much more negotiated route, meeting the reader at the edge of their understanding ("operative outside"), rather than simply pointing to the peak of pedagogical expectation.

The third major section on a "cultural studies approach to technological culture" is the most interesting. Firstly, it is refreshing to read about a cultural studies approach to something that doesn't spend half the argument caught up in a performative self-aware paralysis -- a textual disposition akin to a teenager's first date. Instead, Slack and Wise introduce "cultural studies" like an old partner to new friends. The first three chapters of this section basically arrange a set of problems and conceptual tools that lay the groundwork for the key eleventh chapter on "Articulation and Assemblage." The "Causality" chapter works to problematize simplistic conceptions of mechanistic causality and introduces more complex conceptions of nonmechanistic causality. Towards the end of the chapter the concepts of "articulation" and "assemblage" are briefly introduced. The next chapter, "Agency," for the large part involves a discussion of Actor Network Theory (ANT). They critique ANT on the basis that ANT theorists often do not account for the "variations in the availability of agency or the role of power in the construction and stabilization of networks" (123). Perhaps more should have been made of the "stability" of networks (121), specifically in those situations where the burden of causality is distributed across human and non-human elements and in terms of non-human frames of reference in accounting for the material durability of networks. For example, the distance between train stations was once determined by the braking and accelerating capacity of trains, and yet now there are living communities organized around this durable but contingent articulation of place and rail transport technologies (DeLanda, 2006: 261).

"Articulation" and "assemblage" are the two key tools they develop for understanding and engaging with "technological culture." Articulation does not only mean enunciation in the sense of expression but in the example that Stuart Hall provides and Slack and Wise use it is explained in terms of an articulated truck-trailer. Slack and Wise describe the concept of the assemblage from Deleuze and Guattari as a useful tool for understanding how "practices, representations, experiences and affects articulate to take on a particular dynamic form" (129). The relation between contingency and articulation is explained in terms of first debunking the myth that certain articulations are necessary, and that, at the minimum, other connections are possible. The four and a half pages across which the concept of the assemblage is properly introduced is one of the finest pieces of introductory "Deleuzian" scholarship that I have read. The first example of the "Big Dipper" celestial constellation presents a historical case that problematizes the scientific astronomical conception to include practical, mythic, and cultural dimensions of the constellation. The slightly longer example is of the pervasive "self service" assemblage. "Self service" is a contingent articulation of connections that are differentially repeated across a range of situations involving exchange and consumption. Under the subheading "Rearticulating Technological Culture," the chapter ends with a series of questions, which I read more in terms of a series of challenges (that had me cheering). The first of which is the remarkably titled: "So what is there to do if you want to change the culture?"

The last series of chapters stakes out some avenues of inquiry into this domain of "technological culture." It would seem that some of the traditional cultural studies concerns are absent from the chapter list, including questions of temporality or history, the body, and economic relations. However, they mostly do appear, just not under their own chapters. Time makes an appearance in the "Space" chapter in discussions of technological manipulation of time (but no historical materialism). Question of the embodied nature of technology are also voiced in the chapter on "Space," but only briefly. There is an uneasy relation between affect as a "state" (127), or as a kind of ontological category of power, and affect as it is represented in this chapter as an "embodied physical response of the body" (140) or as a psycho-physiological category. The "Space" chapter covers a lot of ground and is perhaps spread too thin. The "Identity" chapter is important for Gramscian cultural studies because the battle over hegemony is often fought across those well known categories of gender, race, ethnicity, class, citizenship, age, and so on. Indeed, they eventually draw on Gramsci's distinction between a war of movement or maneuver and a war of position to describe the politics of a technological culture as a war of position (181). While they still use a spatial metaphor of a person "placed in the culture," they problematize it with the notion of "(re)articulation" and the ANT concept of "delegation." In the penultimate chapter, Slack and Wise's argument can be condensed to a nifty slogan: "Technology is political" (173). They draw on a definition of "politics" by Langdon Winner as concerning human associations and secondly that these relations are relations of power. Their rationale is that because everyday life involves technological relations then these relations are also political. There is a weird disjuncture between the uplifting call to intellectual arms of the "Politics" chapter to the final chapter on "Globalization," possibly the weakest chapter in the book. (Where is politics in the local-global divide? Is it making the right "choice" (see above) in some sort of appreciation of the "global"?) In the conclusion, Slack and Wise do indeed reinforce the "politics of rearticulation," in particular the politics of rearticulating "limits." The danger, as they see it, is falling back into the "narratives of progress, a belief in technological determinism, a sense of autonomous technology, or retraction of the powers of creativity into the value of creativity" (194). They end by noting the difficulty of the politics of technological culture and write about how they both sat on a panel at an academic conference a few years ago entitled "The Undoing Technology Roundtable." At stake was the question of why it is so difficult to even consider getting rid of technology as an option.

One critical point I have of the book is derived from its main strength. The subjectivity of the student enables the "operative outside" of the pedagogical book-primer-assemblage and, yet, as Guattari (1995: 1-32) repeatedly indicated from his early psychoanalytic work to his "ecological" mode, there are subjectivities on different transversal scales -- individual, group, institutions. I am making a point the leads beyond the question of a book tailored to students; rather, it is a larger issue of the nonhumanity of human subjectivities. Indeed, isn't it possible there are contingent arrangements of articulations (assemblages) that have such a durability so as to exceed human frames of reference, that is, exist on non-human or "machinic" scales of subjectivity? The complex duration of the railway line-suburb-community already mentioned is one example.

Overall, Technology + Culture: A Primer would serve as a useful core text for introductory and middle-range university courses. Perhaps it would also be suitable for higher level courses if properly supplemented with a range of readings. (For Deleuzian autodidacts it captures and represents a line that many have constructed for themselves as they have accidentally learnt.) As I have already indicated, the greatest strength of Slack and Wise's book-length introduction to the complex concept of "technological culture" is the well-crafted textual tone and pedagogical rhythm of patience.

Albrecht-Crane, C. and J. D. Slack (2003). Toward a Pedagogy of Affect. Animations (of Deleuze and Guattari). J. D. Slack. New York, Peter Lang: 191-216.

DeLanda, M. (2006). Deleuzian Social Ontology and Assemblage Theory. Deleuze and The Social. M. Fuglsang and B. M. S๘rensen. Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press: 250-266.

Deleuze, G. and F. Guattari (1987). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.

Gregg, M. (2006). Cultural Studies' Affective Voices. London, Palgrave Macmillan.

Guattari, F. (1995). Chaosmosis: An Ethico-Aesthetic Paradigm. Sydney, Power Publications.

Wise, J. M. (1997). Exploring Technology and Social Space. Thousand Oaks, Calif., Sage Publications.

Glen Fuller:
Glen Fuller is completing his PhD "Modified: Cars and Culture" at the Centre for Cultural Research, University of Western Sydney. He is currently a sessional lecturer in "Technology and Culture" at the University of Technology, Sydney, and has worked as a freelance ethnographer, cultural consultant for film, and writer for car enthusiast magazines.  <gfuller1@tpg.com.au>

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