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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

"I see no reason not to give to that rupture of the integral subject the name of technology" -- David Wills
Early into my reading of David Wills' Dorsality: Thinking Back through Technology and Politics, I told a colleague of mine that I was working on a review of a book, which works with the idea of "technology" as something that is always already part of what we consider human. After explaining that Wills starts with Heidegger, works his way through Freud, and even addresses Derrida along the way, my colleague asked: "How exactly is this author defining technology?" My answer was not very good at the time, and as a result I spent extra attention each step along the way, in the different contexts Wills addresses, asking myself: what is "the technological" here? Considering readers of RCCS reviews will most likely be reading this review with the question of technology in mind, I believe it to be an appropriate place to begin. And while technology takes a specific place in each context Wills addresses throughout the book, from the tropological turns in works of fiction to Nietzsche's prosopoetic shadow, there is also an overarching relationship between technology and humanity that Wills is addressing systematically: a "prosthetizing structure that defines and inhabits the body and determines the relations of human to other, to other humans, to other animals, and to the inanimate" -- that is, as stated in the epigraph above, the "rupture of the integral subject" (239). This rupture, Wills argues, began as soon as our ancestors picked up tools and every invocation of technology is a turn, back towards this original moment.

The "turn backwards" in Dorsality initiates a tropology that runs throughout the issues Wills addresses, and marks, perhaps, one of the strongest arguments of the entire text. The "turn" as a trope is a complex issue, and there are a number of iterations of how the turn backwards operates. Most simply, the turning back is a reference to Leroi-Gourhan's conception that technological evolution began with an upright stance, "in standing upright the simian turned anthropoid and, in so doing, immediately turned technological" (8). As a result, "the human, in moving forward, in order to move forward, turns back to, and turns behind to, acknowledge [this] technological origin" (5). What is significant for readers interested in cyberculture studies or a human relation to the technological is that the dorsal relation to technology is not a sort of cyborg or cyberneticism, but an argument that the "integral subject" has always been deeply affected by a relation with the inanimate. As Wills argues, "We henceforth cast, automatically, a different shadow, such as Nietzsche, along with Zarathustra, is required to reckon with," which may be dealt with only by "negotiating the paradox of a technology that we produce, which therefore comes after us yet still lies before us as the unknown of pure invention" (17). By negotiating this paradox, Wills articulates strategies of resistance or dissent based on a relationship with the inanimate and establishes an overarching argument regarding the book's political implications.

In chapter seven, "The Controversy of Dissidence," Wills begins to outline a techno-Nietzschean understanding of politics. He calls this affirmative politics of controversion a "type of turning away, objection, or contradiction, which, instead of offering a cold shoulder, reveals the other side, another position, a nonconciliatory controversary dissidence" (212). Taking the approach of Gilles Deleuze in his analysis of Nietzsche's "will to power," Wills argues for a political stance, different from dialectical opposition, that works to "unsettle relations of power by 'adding' an element that asks to be contended with on different terms" (237). And although Wills makes a connection between the politics he outlines here and the way Nietzsche "dances" around philosophical subjects, even using the term "political dance," a distinction must be made between "rhetoricity" and "performativity." The concept Wills is arguing for here is an active, affirmative political position. What most clearly marks the difference between a rhetoricity and a performativity is the way in which a politics of controversion "concedes one's integral autonomy" to a set of performatives, in which "one is conceding a type of integrity or integrality by turning to an extrinsic construction of human relations, a particular articulation of the self to what is outside of it" (238), or, to what is technological. To risk oversimplification, controversion is, then, an acceptance of the rupture of the integral subject via a relation with technology and participation with systematic forms exteriority.

I have highlighted three main issues at stake within Dorsality: a definition of the "technological," a tropological turning that runs throughout the text, and the techno-Nietzschean affirmative politics of controversion. While this is by no means an all-inclusive list of the issues at stake in Dorsality, I believe they are what mark the text as significantly different from other works considered in the field of cyberculture studies. An effort to give a full overview of the book is beyond the means of this review, as each chapter addresses a particularly complex set of situations. It is notable that Wills organizes each chapter around a set of writers, which he uses to articulate a particular component of the issues I have detailed above. As a result, Dorsality will be extremely useful for anyone interested in the question of technology in relation authors and thinkers like Heidegger, Althusser, Levinas, Homer, Joyce, Broch, Freud, Rimbaud, Derrida, Benjamin, Sade, and Nietzsche.

If it appears that I am not making an evaluative decision in regards to Dorsality, it is because I believe that Wills engages in groundbreaking thinking in regards to human relations to technology. Although Wills sometimes writes with a Derridean interest -- or should I say flair? -- for tropes, he always clearly returns to issues of a present and political nature. For anyone writing or thinking about technology -- especially the question of technology where continental philosophers are concerned -- his articulation of technology as the rupture of the integral subject is especially insightful. Not necessarily because it is new, but because it provides a foundationally new way of thinking about "cybercultural" perspectives -- the subject no longer "enters into" a relationship with technology as something that is new or "on the horizon," but realizes an already existing set of prosthetizing experiences. As Wills argues, technology "hasn't just appeared to interpellate and threaten us; it has been there since the dawn of our existence. We are in it as soon as we give ourselves a new sphere, any new theater of operations, as soon as we turn to acknowledge the shadow that was always there" (239). Furthermore, recognizing this "shadow of technology" is a means to understanding the new politics and new ethics that Wills proposes. As such, this is a must read for anyone who believes that their criticism, or art, has an affect on, or the ability to change, today's world.

Matthew Holtmeier:
Matthew Holtmeier teaches English at Bellevue Community College. His main interests are in continental philosophy, the works of Deleuze and Guattari, and transnational filmic identity. He is currently looking for a PhD program where he can continue his illustrious career.  <mholtmeier@gmail.com>

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