Techno-ecstasis (Mark Hansen’s Embodying Technesis: Technology Beyond Writing)

(Lost in the Static 1.1 “is a simple Little game that uses some surprising aspects of the human perceptual system to Create a visible world out of animating static. Please note that this display is not suitable for everyone! Some people find they get headaches or nausea, or their eyes get ‘all woggly.’ If you do not find the experience pleasant, stop playing!” )

The close and critical reading with and against the 20th century continental canon through the prism of technology will interest some more than others. More important is the project as a whole, from which I learned a lot and about which I have serious reservations. To get at Hansen’s big picture, the first few chapters and the last one will do. This book is already twelve years old. I google-booked Hansen’s more recent work and the jargon looks less cluttered.

There are three steps to Hansen’s argument here about technology.

[1] Hansen articulates a non-instrumental, post-phenomenological (non-subjective) concept of technology. The argument is that we don’t control technology either at all or as much as it shapes and alters our experience of space and time. The embodied “experience” that drives this project cuts deeper than the threshold of consciousness and representation. The point is to adapt human being and human thought to the technological life-world. Hansen shoots for the “expansion of consciousness and a broadening of the empirical faculty that puts us into sensory contact with our world,” (251) all of which are made possible by new technologies.

My problem with the argument is in what follows:

[2] I find curious the ascription of autonomy to technology. Ultimately this part of the argument falls apart when, at the end of the book (only at the end) Hansen starts talking about the way technologies might fashion more emancipatory ends (259), about technology “re-valuing our priorities as cultural critics,” and about the “reality of our desire for embodied contact with the cosmos” (262). I’m just not sure that technology can do this. I’m not convinced that technology does anything that we don’t “tell” it to do, which means that the attempt to skirt intentional, phenomenological consciousness is not going to work. Internal to Hansen’s own argument, the attempt at the end of the book to blend an ethical life-world back into the discussion of technology would seem to bring us back to those human subjectivities and those desires and ends that Hansen sought with such bravura to tamp down for most of the book.

[3] Converse to the active autonomy of technology, Hansen’s concept of the human is far too passive. In seeking a model of the human being adaptive to the shock-effects of modern technologies, Hansen turns to Walter Benjamin and to that hoary old thing,  Erlebnis. It’s a bad turn. We see this in a long citation from Benjamin on the impact of new technologies on the battlefields of World War I. It’s typical aesthetic doggerel found in expressionist writing about the war, the fascinations with human “multitudes, gasses, electoral forces” “hurled” into “the open country, high-frequency currents [coursing] through the landscape, etc. etc.” Of course, Hansen commends more felicitous, less destructive experiences than the one described here by Benjamin. But it seems to me that the very language of “submission to the shock experience” (73) is just going to cause trouble by lending itself unavoidably to the infelicities penned by Benjamin.

My own take-away is more banal and commonsensical. We do many things with technology and technologies do many things to us. Technologies are ambiguous. They can open out the body and consciousness into the world and they can close it up in the hard shell-like forms associated by Hansen with fascism. I’m skeptical about attempts by cultural critics and other technophiles to have their post-phenomenological cake and eat it too.

On a historical note: the technological ecstasis promised by Hansen is the Erlebnis aestheticism that the anarchist Gustav Landauer found repellent in his friend Martin Buber’s early philosophy of Judaism, especially as these elicited Buber’s initial support of Germany’s wartime aims. Of this Buber wisely repented in his more mature philosophy, as discussed already a long time ago by Paul Mendes-Flohr in From Mysticism to Dialogue. Concerning our theme, I’m thinking a more dialogical approach to the interface between technology and human agents would be more felicitous.

Regarding religion, I was struck by passage from Pierre Bourdieu cited by Hansen: “nothing seems more ineffable, more incommunicable, more inimitable, and, therefore, more precious than the values given body, made body by the transubstantiation achieve by the hidden persuasion of an implicit pedagogy” (50). As a scholar of Religion, I have been trained to note and to not let go of the infiltration of this kind of “code” into secular formats. I’m wondering if this, plus the Benjamin-Erlebnis, indicates an implicit theology at work either in Hansen’s text or, more likely, just over its intentional horizon. If Hansen is right about one thing, and I think he’s right about it, technology does funny things to you. So does religion.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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