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Dorsality: Thinking Back through Technology and Politics

Author: David Wills
Publisher: Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2008
Review Published: April 2009

 REVIEW 1: David Gruber
 REVIEW 2: Matthew Holtmeier
 REVIEW 3: Travis Vogan

Dorsality is a book about looking back, turning around, to see what comes from behind to inhabit us. Fittingly, David Wills of the State University of New York at Albany uses each chapter to turn back to influential authors and filmmakers of the past to explore the intimate relation between human identity and technology. But the turning back does not read like a repetition or a pat rehearsal. Wills proves to be more inventive than that. Reading Dorsality is more like engaging in a whirling dance where the turning is always from a new angle on the floor, and the resulting spin heightens the experience. Each chapter uses different authors and new imagery -- of oceans and shadows and soil and darkrooms -- to tease out the central idea behind the word "dorsality." And after moving past the first chapter, which is perhaps too heavily loaded with pre-emptive explanations of what the book will be about, the reader quickly learns how to follow Wills' lead, and the ebb and flow and beauty of the book become clear.

The pivoting insight of each chapter is the mutual re-writing of human identity and technology and the paradox of the interrelation. Wills uses the term dorsality to give a name to "that which, from behind, from or in the back of the human, turns (it) into something technological" (5). And Wills spends much of the book exploring the complexity and mystery of dorsality, ultimately stating that "any rupture within the plenitude of a self-enclosed intact human identity opens the space of the technological or even the inanimate, and that such a rupture is in evidence well before or behind where common sense or tradition would locate it, back in the beginning that I am calling the dorsal" (105). In short, Wills asserts that humans cannot conceptualize identity back far enough, so to speak, so there will always be a "rupture" of identity that requires a re-writing or a turn, a technological turn. Drawing on Heidegger, Freud and other thinkers, Wills describes how humans in the process of becoming turn backward, look behind themselves, to draw up boundaries for themselves in various ways. But Wills makes the reader acutely aware that making that turn, turning itself, is technologization. So any turn back to origins or to anywhere to establish the self produces a self that is technologized.

Wills builds on this interesting interplay between identity construction and technologization in multiple ways. In chapter three, he jointly draws from Freud and Joyce and explains with beautiful prose that humans are born into a state of exile wherein they always seek to go "home" to a place of origins. They (all of us) exist in "a state of nostalgia and of an incomplete and impossible mourning" so that the production of literature, the telling of a story, becomes "a type of odyssey, a homecoming" (70). Similarly, in chapter four, Wills uses the imagery of the ocean, a fluid and all-encompassing body of water that holds the body as it floats and contains no solid boundaries, as the dominant image to explain the force of boundlessness that humans grapple with -- a force that "gives rise to, but also problematizes, a technology of identification" (105). Again, in chapter six, he discusses the paradox of technology and the human by using the image of the darkroom and the works of Walter Benjamin, Marquis de Sade, and Michel Foucault to illuminate a discussion of the drawn boundaries of normative sexuality, saying, "each [tenderness, cruelty, voyeurism, sadism] requires the inversion of the dorsal to validate its representation of itself, to affirm its realism, but through inversion each enters the structure or darkroom of transformation, defamation, and perversion" (198).

Throughout, Wills makes it clear that all desires for the stable human are ultimately prosthetic. And here, he establishes the resonating insight of his book -- that the construction of the physical prosthetic (the technologies: from fire to spectacles to computers) comes out of what is not just there in the inner prosthetic, but in the very nature of Being, and this is why technology comes seemingly from behind. Technology, then, for Wills, is a revealing in the Heidegerrian sense, but it seems to prefigure the natural. At one point, Wills explains it this way: "the human who challenges ... is himself already challenged in the same movement. This means that he is motivated and mobilized, as if from behind, and so technologized" (25). This technologization "as if from behind" is further explained using the words poiesis and physis. Poiesis, the word for the skill of the craftsperson, he states, arises out of the more basic physis, the word for the inner self or inner artist.

By establishing the connection between human identity and technology, Wills manages to pave the room to release his own deterministic tendencies and, simultaneously, defend technological progress. He makes statements like, "In its guise of the technological, the dorsal therefore names, in a number of ways, what comes from behind to inhabit us as something other" (12). Later, Wills states, "Limitless oceanic water, as an energetic force of an essence of technology ... is the figure here for what drives technology, and it does so before, behind, and beyond any human production or invention" (105). So there is a sense throughout Dorsality, as there is in many of Heidegger's writings, that human beings do not control technology so much as see it articulated before them and then turn around to try to figure out where it came from and how it came so suddenly from behind. But, at the same time, Wills makes it clear that what comes from behind cannot and should not be understood as necessarily sinister. In fact, the project of this book is largely about the transformation from physis to poiesis, and put in those terms, the sinister nature of more traditional notions of determinism effectively sink away. Wills re-configures the way we conceptualize technology as often out of our control, and he makes the problem a personal one and a problem of being human. In this way, fears of the integration of body and computer, or the invisibility of technology into the body, are disarmed because the human is already understood as technologized and inseparable from technology itself.

And then, suddenly, Wills entertains what, for me, is the ultimate question of the book: "What if in order to venture anything whatsoever, anywheresoever, one had to begin in that technological, rhetorical, and fictive spacing, in the spacing of a displacement that necessarily meant a movement into exile, and a wandering without hope of any final return?" (82).

Once the reader grasps the central ideas upon which Wills' variant chapter topics pivot, moving beyond the sometimes difficult sentence-level of the text feels like rising above the trees to see the forest and the roll of the landscape and then the sea below. And it's worth the effort. Once the imagery in the book is seen in a frame where Being and identity formation are part and parcel of technologization, then the power of the book becomes clear. And almost suddenly, the book ends with a call for each one of us to keep climbing up above the metaphorical sea, up into the air above the water. Here, Wills references the book's earlier imagery and suggests an answer to the question: What if we begin in that technological space, without the hope of a final return? The answer, then, is that we must keep moving with the oceanic force of boundlessness at our backs, that we must embrace that technological space that is both with us and behind us.

David Gruber:
David Gruber is a doctoral student in the Communication, Rhetoric, and Digital Media Program at North Carolina State University. His research interests are in digital rhetoric, the body, and new media writing.  <drgruber@ncsu.edu>

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