(illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj)
Reading John Lardas Modern’s essay “Thinking about Melville, Religion, and Machines That Think” led me to understand a basic point about 1920s German Jewish philosophy, modern Jewish thought, as well as continental theory. The essay appears in Jeremy Stolow’s edited Deus In Machina: Religion, Technology, and the Things in Between. Modern’s essay relates to the Melville renaissance in American letters in the 1920s, a period which “reeked” of religion as much as it “reeked of technology” (185, 189). Modern helps put the two together.
What I’m understanding from Modern’s essay is how the rhetoric of the incalculable that left such a mark on 20th c. religious thought and critical theory so owes itself to “the prevalence of moving images, radio voices, telephonic messages, and automobile exhaust.” Consider the disorientation, especially the shock effects ascribed to revelation, or the connectivity characterizing the figure of redemption. The point is that a lot of religious writing was actually in synch with the proliferation of technologies in the first quarter of the 20th c.
These technologies don’t stand against religion or critical consciousness as might first appear, let’s say in Heschel’s book on the Sabbath. According to Modern, these technologies indexed “mysterious forces” and the notion that “’all things’ could not necessarily be mastered ‘by calculation.’” (p.187).
In other words, the critique of calculation is conditioned by and intensified by the machinic life that determines new technological landscapes already in the early decades of the last century.
This passage from Louis Mumford, one of the great theorists of 20th c. technological culture, reminded me of Buber. “With the invention of the telegraph, a series of inventions began to bridge the gap in time between communication and response despite the handicaps of space: first the telegraph, then the telephone, and finally television. As a result, communication is now on the point of returning , with the aid of mechanical devices, to that instantaneous reaction of person to person with which it began” (cited on p.195).
Perhaps Mumford was overly optimistic about technology. But I find it interesting to note how Buber’s early writings, especially in the Legends of the Baal Shem, are already concerned about the overcoming the limiting conditions of time and space; and in I and Thou, Buber famously took to the dialogue as a zone of immediacy between persons and things, persons and persons, persons and artworks, persons and God. I have argued in The Shape of Revelation, that Buber was not antinomian as much as he was polynomian, and that, in his conception, immediate relations are very much embedded in and made possible by the Gestalt-like patterns he thought these immediate relations generated.
This is definitely not how Buber would have understood himself, at least not in the early 1920s. While Buber circa 1922 was famous for rejecting the kinds of mediating forms and techniques that distort the life of genuine dialogue and authentic encounter, what Buber did not perhaps understand at this juncture is the affinity between dialogical relationship and Gestalt-form, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the feedback loops discussed by Modern in his essay in Stolow’s book on technology and religion.
Against the grain, Buber’s can be understood as a machine philosophy, his Judaism a techno-religion, whose primary medium was sought in language itself. This becomes increasingly more clear as Buber worked past the kind of positioning that characterized I and Thou. It is is particularly evident in his Bible translation work with Rosenzweig. As I’ve also argued, Buber’s approach to technology moderated already by the 1929 essay “Dialogue,” where he entertained the idea that a worker might enter into a an I-You relation with the machines with which he [sic] worked. But looking over the arc of Buber’s life as a writer, you can see how it all comes back to the notion in the earliest work, circa 1907, that the space-time continuum can be stretched out of the shape into new configurations.