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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

A basic request that works of philosophy generally make of their readers is to look beyond convention; to explore conceptual avenues often cast as fruitless and to locate the critical possibilities immanent to those dark corners of thought. In the case of David Wills' Dorsality: Thinking Back through Technology and Politics, this theoretical terrain and the philosophical possibility it expresses is always behind us -- literally. Dorsality is an expansion on the relationship between humanity and technology that Wills has developed in Prosthesis (1995), Matchbook: Essays in Deconstruction (2005), several co-authored and edited volumes, and multiple essays. In this work, Wills positions that which exists behind us and out of our sight as a foundation from which to think though the intersections between humans and technology and to probe the philosophical, political, and even erotic implications of this complex relationship. Far from a comprehensive account of this challenging and dense work, my review will offer a brief discussion of Wills' basic argument in Dorsality, outline several of the themes that mark it, and consider its potential uses for those interested in the study of cyberculture and cultural theory more generally.

Wills begins his investigation with a theorization of what he refers to as a "technological turn" that marks humanity. First, he posits the human as "an exemplar of the animate" (3) characterized by turning, or movement. The act of turning, according to Wills, functions as a technology that informs human action and creativity. Because humans are characterized by turning, Wills asserts that we are always already technologized.

Importantly, the technologized turning Wills cites as a marker of humanity is not a progression-oriented dialectic between the human and technological. Rather, it is a process of disruptions, corrections, and re-corrections that Wills locates in human activities as simple as walking and as complex as political engagement. He contends, for example, that "in walking, one, the human, any given biped, is with each step correcting its bearing, limping from one foot to the other, realigning its center of gravity, compensating for the disequilibrium of each movement, as it were turning one way then the other in order to advance" (4). In other words, when walking, thinking, or interacting, we never just advance steadily along a clearly defined trajectory, but are always turning en route to creating and maintaining this movement.

More specifically, Wills locates the technological turn as a "dorsal turn," or, a movement toward the back. Dorsality, according to Wills, constitutes "that which, from behind, from or in the back of the human, turns (it) into something technological" (5). It is the "chance of what cannot be foreseen, the surprise or accident that appears, at least, to come from behind, from out of range or outside the field of vision" (7). Wills' definition and imagining of dorsality includes both literal and broadly metaphoric variations. He discusses the human spinal column, for instance, as the always out of view point from which humans move and act. The dorsal also consists, quite simply, of that which exists beyond one's physical and psychic view -- a startling noise, a faint smell, a pat on the shoulder, or just a new way of thinking that contributes to humanity's technologized constitution through initiating a process of disruption.

While Wills' text is densely philosophical and designed for a highly specialized reading audience, it is not without practical uses. First instance, Wills locates the dorsal as furnishing an alternative perspective to the optimistic understanding of technology as an unceasing progression that ought to be embraced. Wills' concept encourages us to take a step back from this viewpoint and to consider precisely what ends it serves -- capitalistic, militaristic, etc. "We should reserve the right," he asserts, "to hold back, not to presume that every technology is an advance" (6). In addition to interrogating technological discourses and their political implications, Wills locates dorsality as offering the basis for an ethics and even erotics that entail a consideration of and interaction with the unseen. In the context of the ethical and erotic, dorsality encourages an acceptance of otherness and an engagement with the differences it presents.

The body of Wills' text consists of meditations on the concept of dorsality through a broad collection of case studies ranging from the Old Testament book of Exodus to James Joyce's Ulysses to Jacques Derrida's The Politics of Friendship. Though these sections all illustrate Wills' concept of dorsality and its varying uses, they are extremely disconnected and provide a jarring reading experience. This lack of flow is likely because four of Wills' seven chapters were previously published as articles over the course of the last decade. To his credit, Wills uses the final portion of Dorsality's introduction to discuss briefly how his various mediations on the concept of dorsality fit together. But rather than clarify his book's structure, Wills simply asserts that the text does not conform to "the norms of logical exposition" (16). While I hardly expect a book as daring as Dorsality to bend to convention, I certainly would have appreciated more guidance and clarity.

Despite Dorsality's somewhat frustrating layout, the individual chapters that compose it are supremely engaging and inventive. To be sure, Wills' readings of various familiar thinkers and texts often had me thinking back to my own previous literary and philosophical studies in order to move through his work with confidence. For instance, in his second chapter, Wills provides a dorsal reading of Louis Althusser's concept of interpellation, or, the ideologically-inflected process through which human bodies become politicized subjects. To Wills, the hailing, or "Hey you!" that Althusser locates as the starting point from which a body becomes a subject, is a process that begins from the out-of-view. The hailed body takes part in a technologized turn that produces its status as a politicized subject. In another instance, Wills uses Friedrich Nietzsche's famous proclamation that "God is dead" as an example of dorsality's dissident political potential. According to Wills, Nietzsche's statement, and his entire anti-dialectical philosophical project, constitutes a turning away from a philosophical tradition founded on rationality and the political models that tradition informs. Nietzsche's proclamation, therefore, constitutes a politicized philosophical performance of dorsal dissidence that forces readers to step back from rationality and consider the elements of difference and chance that haunt its purported stability.

Throughout Dorsality, Wills maintains a form and style that complement and enhance his philosophical creativity. Between each of his chapters, he includes an image and a quotation that evoke the dorsal's philosophical and critical potential. For instance, before his third chapter, Wills includes an image of the Frida Kahlo painting "The Broken Column," a self-portrait that displays Kahlo's spine as a fractured column, and a quote from Joyce's Ulysses: "Behind. Perhaps there is someone." However, Wills does not discuss in detail the connections between these provocative supplements and the body of his text. Rather, these inclusions seem to function as rhetorical performances of dorsality's functions that force readers to turn back before moving forward. In addition to the images and quotations Wills uses, he adopts a playful writing style throughout his study that at times borders on the poetic. At one point, for example, he devotes an entire page to Nietzsche's "God is dead." Like the intermittent images and quotations scattered about his text, this instance constitutes rhetorical and stylistic disruption that imbues Dorsality with an element from out-of-view.

Dorsality is difficult and at times unwieldy. I'm not sure there is any other way to put it. The book is densely written and laden with dozens of philosophical and literary references that span both the canon and margins. That said, Wills rewards patient reading with a new perspective on the often theorized relationship between humanity and technology. Even more broadly, and like the best works of philosophy and cultural theory, Dorsality reminds readers that the developments we often consider to be in front of us or oriented toward a future moment -- technological, political, etc. -- are always informed, and even produced, by the out-of-field. In doing this, he locates the difference immanent to that which is often theorized as stable and concrete, and positions that difference within an understanding of the human as always already technologized. Dorsality will prove useful for anyone in search of a unique take on the dynamics and politics that mark the relationship between humanity and technology.

Travis Vogan:
Travis Vogan is a PhD candidate in the Department of Communication and Culture at Indiana University. His research interests include cultural theory, media history, documentary studies, and sports media.  <tvogan@indiana.edu>

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