Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Comprehensive Exam 2 of 3, Postmodern Theory, Dr. Tammy Clewell, 3 June 2010

This is the fifty-ninth post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

After completing two years of course work in the PhD in English program at Kent State University, I began preparing for my comprehensive exams with faculty who I hoped to also work with when I moved on to the dissertation stage.

After having taken two classes with Dr. Tammy Clewell, I was very happy that she agreed to lead my exam on postmodern theory. Leading up the exam, Dr. Clewell and I negotiated on my reading list–considering those texts that were essential, foundational works and those that supported the kinds of work that I wanted to do on my dissertation. After the list was completed, we scheduled meetings to discuss the core questions in postmodern theory. These were the best part about the process, because they required me to know how to articulate in spoken language the major debates and arguments before I sat down for the exam. Speaking face-to-face requires a different kind of thinking and preparedness. After successfully passing these discussion interviews, I was able to proceed to the written exams a day after taking my major exam on 20th-century American literature. Unlike the five hour major exam, I only had four hours to write my response to this exam.

A serendipitous outcome of our conversations was Dr. Clewell introducing me to the neurohumanities and cognitive cultural studies. Our informal discussions about these topics led to my dissertation project. Had she not asked me one day, “Jason, what do you know about the brain,” my dissertation would likely have looked VERY different. I am deeply grateful for Dr. Clewell introducing me to these ideas and then inviting me to join an interdisciplinary neurohumanities reading group that she organized later. Our reading group and our readings informed much of my thinking after the exams while I was completing the dissertation.

Below, I have included my written responses to Dr. Clewell’s postmodern theory exam. Question 1 concerns the major debates. Question 2 is about the posthuman. Question 3 explores the relationship between science fiction and postmodernism.

Jason W. Ellis

Dr. Tammy Clewell

PhD Minor Exam: Theory

3 June 2010

Question 1

            Poststructuralism and postmodernism are often invoked together, because they share an affinity for challenging the modes of thought and systems of analysis that historically precede theme. However, they are in fact also continuations or ironic reinventions of culture and philosophy of the last few hundred years. Poststructuralism is a philosophical reaction to structuralism’s form and order, and postmodernism is a continuation of modernism’s decentering of the subject while critiquing discourse and its own position within discourse. In the following discussion, I will better define these terms and engage some of the major overlapping discussions by major theorists in the field.

Poststructuralism is a set of linguistic, philosophical, and cultural theories that primarily challenge and react to the earlier structuralist theories, which were popular from around the 1950s to the 1970s. Structuralism holds that there are deep structures underneath all phenomena that prescribe how those phenomena develop. The world itself is ordered by interconnected systems, and each system works by its own set of rules or grammar. These systems can be analyzed by structuralist analysis, because the rules are thought to operate in similar ways. Thus, the world can be known completely through analysis of its systems and their rules of operation.

Poststructuralists reacted against structuralism, because they felt that it was oppressive and too ordered. It was considered oppressive, because it didn’t allow room for human agency. The structures operate through people rather than people acting on structures. Its ordering and clear delineations of rules ruled out chance or the apparent complexity of the real world. Instead of finding patterns of similarity, which tend to exclude, the poststructuralists sought to look at the world in terms of difference rather than similarity. There are provocative gaps and contradictions in the way systems operate that challenge the predictability proposed by structuralism. In particular for deconstructionists, including Derrida, structuralism is a totalizing theory with an authoritarian premise that is not open-ended enough to account for difference.

Postmodernists likewise chafe at universalizing theories including structuralism. Poststructuralism can be called a postmodern theory, because it is one among many other theories and political interventions that are reactions to totalizing and universalizing beliefs bound to Western Enlightenment thought: progress as political improvement of humanity and mastery over Nature through the accumulation of knowledge and technology. Not to fall into a totalizing trap, it is important to note that it is through modernity, defined as the period beginning with the Enlightenment through the Industrial Revolution to the Second World War, that many of the ideas that are now considered postmodern first began to be formulated. This is particularly important to the refutation of the liberal humanist idea of identity or a centered self. I will respond more to this in the second question below. For now, it suffices to say that I define postmodernism as the array of cultural theories and attitudes that have developed as skepticism colored with irony, emphasizing language and power relations, toward long standing Western universalized theories and beliefs including: the idea of human progress, the power of reason and rationality, objective reality, and the human. Modernism had already brought into question many of these issues, especially concerning the human as center of the self and of the world, but postmodernism extends and critiques these earlier reformulations.

In the rise of poststructuralism and postmodernism, often linked to post-industrial society after World War II, two polarizing debates developed between poststructuralists and other theorists who held on to forms of structuralist analysis. The first of these that I will discuss is between Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault regarding Derrida’s groundbreaking theory of deconstruction, and the second is between Jean-Francois Lyotard and Fredric Jameson regarding legitimating grand narratives.

Derrida developed the approach known as deconstruction in reaction to what he saw as the totalizing and universalizing tendencies of structuralism. My discussion of deconstruction carries the caveat that deconstruction is not a method, a critique, or an analysis. It is not a procedural operation that arrives at a particular and desired output. Derrida describes it as an event, because each deconstruction is different. It is not a critique in the Kantian sense (i.e., critique vs. dogma), because it relies on language. Language is dogmatic due to its invoking metaphysics through the being assumed in all signified-transcending signifiers relationships. Finally, it is not an analysis, because the whole text—words, sentences, etc.—is interconnected and dependent upon the whole. Any cutting up of a text for analysis is arbitrary and there is no single meaningful way to divide a text for analysis as such. These are all negative descriptions that say what deconstruction is not. Derrida prefers these definitions, because they do not cut off what deconstruction means by saying emphatically what it is. I will use the terms method and approach as a short hand in the discussion that follows. These terms can be thought of as being written under erasure for lack of better terms describing deconstruction.

Derrida is skeptical of the Western philosophical privileging of speech over writing. He argues that the West is logocentric (i.e., grounded on logos, which in Greek means word and rationality). Logocentrism in the West derives from phonocentrism, or the privileging of speech. This has to do with the belief that logos in speech is present while writing is not present. The nonpresence of writing implies that it is open to interpretation and hence not as rational or concrete in its meaning as the presence of speech. Derrida demonstrates that all language, including its usage in speech, is open to interpretation by the reader or hearer. Furthermore, language is a system of signs and since signs are written, he sees no reason why writing should be prioritized under that of speech.

Deconstruction is an attempt to reach the limits of interpretation of a text by demonstrating how the structure of the text and its authorial genesis cannot be supported by the text itself. In other words, the text itself is always already deconstructing. It is a matter of engagement of the text through an interpretive reading to show its irreconcilable and built-in contradictions. Its core concept is that of differance (i.e., difference with an ‘a’, and due to time, I will omit the stress on the e). Differance is the name Derrida gives to the very basis of how language works and to the operations of deconstruction. In regard to language, Derrida, building on the work of Ferdinand de Saussure, argues that words are not substitutes for the real, but instead, words are linked together metonymically in a chain. Signifiers are linked to signifiers, and one word triggers connections with other words as metonymic connections rather than metaphoric replacements. This shows that language is in movement and that slippages in meaning are possible as a result of that movement. It is from the basis of metonymy in language that Derrida made the differance neologism based on the French verb ‘differer,’ which can mean to differ and to defer. Differance means both of these things at the same time. Signifiers differ from one another and they defer meaning along a whole chain of signifiers. Meaning is thus endlessly deferred and indeterminate. There are apparent meanings for things due to the ‘self-effacing trace,’ or the difference between words that give an apparent meaning, but the operation of both the trace and deferral render fixed meanings impossible. Differance is a description of the operations of language and it performs the operation that it describes. Specifically in terms of deconstruction, differance is the middle way for the tension between unity and difference. Differance then becomes the excess or space between texts. It is in opposition to Hegel’s third term or Habermas’ unity and consensus. Derrida sees Hegel and Habermas enforcing synthesis where there should be difference. Differance is an alternative to unity and an acknowledgement of the excess between interpretations. It resists efforts to erase Otherness or multiplicity. Furthermore, meaning is, according to Derrida, disseminated: there is an effect of meaning, but meaning is dispersed and specific meanings are irresolvable. Thus, deconstruction is always already present in a given text, and the deconstructive reading of a text relies on what is there in the text itself. Deconstruction relies on textuality, or the importance and centrality of texts, and how a single text can be different from itself via another reading and how each text can be a trace of other texts, which invokes Barthes concept of intertextuality. Texts are not alone, but connected to one another via the trace.

Foucault’s concept of discourse can be seen as more closely aligned with the structuralists than Derrida’s deconstruction. Foucault’s emphasis was not on language and the individual text, but instead, he focused on discourse—the conversation and connections between texts and the relationships of power that those connections represent and develop. Discourse does involve texts in the promotion and implementation of the discourse and its power networks, but it is not something contained within a single text. For Foucault, discourse refers to systems of belief, knowledge, and practices that are governed by internalized rules. Discourse comes about and operates by power relationships. The discourse and the power relationships tied up within a discourse can change over time. The power in a discourse is distributed through networks that are all inclusive—there is no constitutive outside to discourse. Discourses change over time and they may disappear all together. Furthermore, discourses do not carry universal truths, but they do establish their own beliefs, which may be promoted as truths within the discourse and within its power relations. For example, Foucault argues that sexuality did not become a discourse until very recently with the rise of medicine as a science and the adoption of a heterosexual/heteronormative standard within the discourse of medicine. This particular example shows a very one sided power dynamic with the institutions of medicine adopting a particular norm and their enforcing that norm on individuals (e.g., women, homosexuals, transsexuals, those without the institutional support given to the white, male doctors) with the support of state power. Discourse can include the arts and politics and any other system that is based on a system of power relationships. Other examples of discourse include capitalism or modernism in the arts. Foucault calls the totalization of discourse within a historical period an episteme. The Enlightenment or postmodernity would be examples of episteme. In Foucault’s conceptualization of discourse, he finds most to be oppressive and controlling. There are haves and have-nots within the power networks of a discourse. As such, these discourses should be challenged, as he did against heteronormativity in The History of Sexuality.

The primary difference between Foucault and Derrida is that Foucault sees in texts or utterances another discourse, whereas Derrida sees another self-deconstructing text playing with language. Each theorist sees his work as a constructive challenge to different manifestations of power. Derrida sees privileging and hierarchies in the texts he deconstructs, and Foucault finds the distribution of power within the connections between people, their texts, and their practices. This is not to say that Derrida is not aware of the big picture, so to speak, but his approach deconstructs the individual text and by doing so unravels its assumptions and connections to other texts through the always already there deconstructive seed within the text. Foucault attempts to reveal the intentionality within the text in order to show the way its relationship to power and its discourse is oppressive in some way. Derrida shows that the genesis, along with the structure of the text, explodes when taken into consideration of the text as a whole. The text’s connection to a discourse is based on the interpretation by Foucault, which is only one interpretation among many. Furthermore, Foucault’s analysis of a text is based on what is within the text itself under consideration. Without saying so, this is a kind of interpretation, because as Derrida shows there are different ways of reading an individual text. Derrida did this himself when he used a key passage from Foucault’s History of Madness. This beginning to their ten year long silence to one another is precipitated on Foucault’s belief that certain concepts are not deconstructable. Madness, sexuality, knowledge, etc. are idea concepts that, for Foucault, are beyond the deconstructive practices of Derrida. Foucault said of Derrida following his essay that deconstruction teaches the student that there is nothing outside the text, and that the only point of consideration is the spaces in-between and words written under erasure. Derrida later refuted Foucault’s claim by saying that there is nothing outside CONtext—meaning that the historical, biographical, ideological, etc. should be considered when interpreting a text, but that it is necessary to remember the other side of context that these things are historically contingent and not universally established.

Next, I will discuss another significant debate in poststructuralism and postmodernism. This has to do with the argument between the poststructuralist thinker Lyotard and the Marxist scholar Jameson on the issue of metanarratives.

Jameson describes a hard division between modernism and postmodernism. He identifies modernism with time and memory, which is embedded in an earlier form of capitalism that had not yet worked its way into fundamentally transforming the world and the circuits of relation between people. Postmodernism is emblematic of the contemporary mode of production, and the cultural manifestation of what Mandel calls the third stage of capitalism, or late capitalism. Considering Jameson in terms of Foucault, Marxism is a discourse, as is his formulation of postmodernism and modernism that are a part of or connected to the larger Marxist discourse. The postmodern for Jameson is a disavowed yet seized upon term to discuss the historical in a present where history is in a sense forgotten or at least transformed by nostalgia. Oppositions between postmodernism and modernism include: He favors historicism over style (his favoring of Ragtime over Gravity’s Rainbow is problematic in this regard, however); pastiche, not parody; space over time; and surface over interiority and stream of consciousness. Cyberpunk, especially the work of William Gibson, is the literature of postmodernism, because of its emphasis on space over time and the effects of capitalism at shaping the landscape and the narrative plot. Emblematic of the shift from the modern to the postmodern is also the loss of interiority. Jameson laments the waning of affect. In postmodernism, there is a loss of feeling and emotion now that space has made its ascendance in the circulations of capital. People are now surfaces to be written on by the effects of capital and not individuals with some sense of an interior self. The postmodern subject is formed by the circulations of capital and the effects of its cultural manifestations on the person. Under his spatial model, things rise to the surface, including to the surface of bodies, and as a result, he feels that we have lost something precious to the human experience that was there before.

Lyotard offers an alternative to Jameson’s lament. Instead of lamenting the loss of the modern, Lyotard embraces the postmodern, because he sees it as hopeful and loaded with potential energy. Returning to the division between modernism and postmodernism, modernism offers universalized meanings, meanings which are closed to critique. Postmodernism on the other hand critiques those meanings while also critiquing itself. This creates exciting possibilities, and it creates a space for unanticipated thinking. The postmodern in Lyotard’s conception doesn’t favor consensus, and it also doesn’t promote positive content (Derrida would agree with this in regard to his own definitions of deconstruction, which provide no closed meanings). Lyotard also argues that the grand narratives of progress, knowability, and freedom can no longer contain or represent everyone. Thus, the postmodern in its most simplistic formulation is incredulity towards metanarratives. Instead of grand narratives and universals, we now have a proliferation of micronarratives. He draws on Wittgenstein’s language games as the means for creating and circulating knowledge within micronarratives. A common critique against Lyotard is that his narrative is another grand narrative, but Lyotard specifically challenges narratives of legitimation and not all narratives, including those of knowledge. On the other hand, Jameson’s Marxism is a grand narrative. It provides a closed solution to understanding the relationships between people and the circulations of capital. It is universalized and it is believed to apply to all peoples according to their particular historical context and the current mode of production. There is no room for critique within a grand narrative such as this, and it legitimates a certain kind of power structure. Lyotard is skeptical of such a narrative, because there are no new possibilities within such a narrative. Lyotard also undermines Jameson’s division of the modern as no longer accessible now that we are in the postmodern era. Lyotard argues convincingly that the reciprocal of Jameson’s formulation is true. For Lyotard, to be modern, we must first be postmodern. Postmodernism is the disruption of the discourse of modernism. Postmodernism is not a movement, but it is a process leading back to narratives that have been worked out through the openness of the postmodern. Within this process, Lyotard favors the event (again, a connection with Derrida) while Jameson relies on synchronic, sign systems. Lyotard sees the event as a temporal figure which cannot be reduced to meaning (e.g., Auschwitz—it cannot be remembered in its totality or forgotten, either). This non-dialectal event has an affinity with Derrida’s differance. Lyotard provides a way of working through the meaning of the modern and its conflicting narratives via postmodernism, but Jameson holds to his Marxist grand narrative and historiographic space, which does not offer a space for critique outside its discourse.


Question 2

            Articulations of the human subject are an on-going philosophical concern. Coming from the Enlightenment, the human was considered a rational being with a core identity that was untouched by the outside world. A radical critique of this idea was brought by modernist Sigmund Freud, who is credited with decentering the self into the id, ego, and superego. The id and its unbridled desires were repressed by the rational projection of the self or the ego, and the superego’s self-reflection of the self in regard to the social brought the human subject in line with the outside world.

Postmodernism inherited and extended the idea of a decentered self and formulated a rearticulation of what the human subject is. A notable break with the modernist stance on a decentered subject comes from Jameson and his lament for the waning of affect. The senses of a deep interiority, stream of consciousness, and a private voice have disappeared as the world has become embedded in that interiority. The inner self has become another surface upon which the world and the social write themselves. The social is what makes us subjects (subject to the effects of power and mired in power relationships exterior to ourselves) instead of centered persons with an identity of our own narration and creation. As I mentioned above, Jameson does not celebrate this change, because he sees this as an effect of late capitalism and its global reach. Human beings and their art are made possible, at least how we see ourselves and the works that we create, by the effects of capitalism. There is no outside of that system, and as subjects of the system, our creative works cannot maintain a critique of the system that makes them possible.

Like Jameson, other theorists recognize the anxieties about a loss of interiority, and the inevitability of the world changes in which we find ourselves. Particularly, Donna Haraway, N. Katherine Hayles, and Mark Poster offer a different reading of the inevitability of the postmodern and the promises to be found there.

Before discussing Haraway, Hayles, and Poster, it would be useful to rehearse Bruno Latour’s ideas that inform their history of science and technology based arguments. For Latour, science, technology, and society develop together within networks. He finds the Enlightenment division of subjects and objects into separate categories to be an artificial division. He demonstrates that subject-object hybrids circulate within networks, but they are purified into subject or object by the so-called moderns. Quasi-subjects and quasi-objects are purified while hybrids proliferate under the surface imposed by the moderns. Thus, what we consider modernity with its artificially clear boundaries has never in fact occurred, because the presence of hybrids refutes the claims of the moderns.

Haraway extends Latour and his actor-network theory by looking at them from Marxist-feminist and animal studies perspectives. She develops two very big ideas in her work: the cyborg as a social-politically enabling subject, and the importance for social relations to include humans and non-humans. Haraway’s cyborg resists the purification of the moderns, who would try to divide it rather than encounter or engage its synthesis. Haraway argues that we are all now hybrids or cyborgs, because we are part of the modern circuit of humanity and technology that has been made possible by the effects of late capital. She defines the cyborg as: “A cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction. Social reality is lived social relations, our most important political construction, a world-changing fiction.” The cyborg brings together in a new kind of subject the machine and the animal, and it is connected to other cyborgs and other beings through our lived social relationships. The fictional cyborg, in effect, becomes a world-changing fiction, because it shows how we have radically changed as a species. The cyborg as postmodern subject is to be embraced, because it resists the artificial purifications of the moderns that would strip us of our politically powerful assemblages. Connected to the cyborg is Haraway’s concept that “social relations include humans and non-humans as socially active partners. All that is unhuman is not un-kind, outside kinship, outside the orders of signification, excluded from trading in signs and wonder.” Using her emblematic characters Modest Witness (women on the net), FemaleMan (a cyborg making feminism, and making science), and OncoMouse (another kind of cyborg, the first genetically engineered animal), she articulates the cyborg as providing the future alternative to the liberal humanist subject. The liberal humanist subject is a human being with a centered self, male is the model, heteronormative, linked to patriarchal hierarchies, and historically domineering. The cyborg is inclusive of gender, sexual orientation, and even different species. The cyborg provides an emblem of affinity across modern-derived divisions (e.g., man/woman, machine/human, human/animal, etc.).

Hayles takes a different but related tact to Haraway by using a feminist critique to uncover how technology blurs and erases socially imposed boundaries. Hayles, whose interest is in cyberneticists and fiction on cybernetics, is more focused on the way hybrids have been dealt with historically after World War II. Hayles argues that bodies are under erasure. She sees intelligence as embodied information, which implies that intelligent bodies can take other forms. Like Haraway, Hayles dismantles the liberal humanist subject (and its autonomy, rationality, free will, agency, and consciousness as the seat of identity) through her argument for the posthuman. She recognizes the problems of the social writing itself on the subject (i.e., writing the subject) and the earlier work of Freud to decenter the subject, but she argues that the posthuman inevitability can be terrifying and pleasurable. It is a present and future that she asserts we should walk freely into. For Hayles, the posthuman is distributed cognition, agency as an effect of multiple nodes, consciousness is emergent, information coding through all levels of cognition, and the incorporation of the individual into market relations. Our minds and our memories can be distributed, such as in social networking websites or knowing where to find information (e.g., Google or our internal catalog of books we have read) we cannot readily recall. Agency is a result of our relations to other nodes within a network of relations. Our consciousness is emergent from our biology and socialization. Information is coded through all levels of our cognition and its distribution. We are all interconnected through the networks of capital. The key to all of these things is the body. Unlike the liberal humanist subject, in which consciousness is seen as so much software running on the brain’s hardware and can thus be transferred to other containers (e.g., The Matrix or Avatar), she sees intelligence as being embodied as something (bodies and intelligence are intertwined and dependent). The human as information makes no sense unless there is a body to contain the information. It can’t be stressed enough that specific body/information subjects are co-dependent. Who I am is dependent on my informational experiences, reflections, and behaviors that are linked to my body and cannot be easily transferred to just any container. A book, likewise, needs a vessel to contain its information (but I would say that this is a weaker example of the implications of her ideas on embodied information and subjectivity). Returning to the human as information wedded to a body, she sees embodiment as necessary for agency and history as much as for accounting for relationships. Furthermore, bodies need boundaries in order to share information with other bodies and to interface with the world around us.

The importance of interface and information is articulated in Poster’s work. He develops a parallel argument to Marx’s mode of production, which he calls the mode of information. Each mode is a way of defining relationships—the mode of production deals with exchange and its forms around commodity fetishism, and the mode of information deals with communication and it forms around information fetishism. Poster develops three stages to the mode of information, but these are not historical processes. Instead, they are discursive totalizations, which means that they will overlap and co-exist based on historical development of each. The first stage of the mode of information is face-to-face communication, which is self-instantiated through enunciation and involves symbols. The second stage concerns writing and print, which relies on the representation of signs, and the self is constructed as an agent centered in rationality and imaginary autonomy. Finally, the third stage is the electronic stage, which features information simulations, and the self is decentered, dispersed across social space, and multiplied in continuous instability. In Poster’s formulation, information produces the modern subject, and pushing into the electronic stage begins to yield a new kind of human. His argument goes that humans build computers, but computers may in turn be building a new kind of human. Humans and their machines co-evolve and co-develop. What Poster finds important to this interaction between humans and machines is that interfaces and boundaries become increasingly important, because it is at the point where the human and machine meet that negotiations are made leading to the emergence of something new. It is the emergence of something new that Poster identifies as the postmodern.

Haraway, Hayles, and Poster offer a different take on the postmodern subject that extends the earlier work by the moderns. However, each of them accepts change as inevitable, and the modern concern about the machine and the human, or the transformation of the human into a machine is not to be feared according to these theorists. However, they are writing from a protected position as information workers within the academy. I do not think that price checking cyborgs at Wal-Mart or Chinese gold farmers playing World of Warcraft for 12+ hours a day can be said to be enjoying the fruits of cyborg/posthuman/information subject promised by these theorists. Just as in Marx’s mode of production there are some people who get the rewards from the system and others who do not, the same is true in the postmodern reconfiguration of the human subject as cyborg. There will be some cyborgs who will be empowered or enjoy their cyborg subjectivity, but others will, for lack of better terms, be dehumanized and perhaps literally turned into machines as a result of their integration into the circuits of capital and global networks of power. This is a real concern for some postmodern writers including Philip K. Dick, who sees transformations from machine into human and human into machine as equal possibilities. For Dick, empathy was the key determining factor for what constituted a ‘human’ whatever form it may take—human being, alien, or machine. I am confident that this largely informed Jameson’s earlier thinking on the postmodern and the waning of affect. Haraway in particular confronts this issue with cyborg existence by showing that it is our relationships with others (human and non-human like) that empowers us in this new kind of human-machine subjectivity. So, I would say that we have not yet lost all affect, but it should be made more evident how we can use technology to explore and expand on what it means to be human without it overtaking us and erasing what humanity can be.


Question 3

            Postmodernism and science fiction have according to some converged into overlapping literatures or at least literatures in strong conversation with one another. To begin this discussion, I will briefly define postmodern literature and science fiction, and then I will proceed to look at the theories of Damien Broderick, Scott Bukatman, Brian McHale, and Fredric Jameson on the interrelationship between postmodern literature and science fiction.

A working definition of postmodern literature includes the following. Postmodern literature critiques the here-and-now, universalized assumptions, and metanarratives while also critiquing itself. It is a continuation of modernist forms and themes, but through mixing, intertextuality, and bricolage repurposing, often with an ironic turn, it takes these techniques into new, unexplored areas. It supports multiplicity of narratives and meaning, and it rejects determinacy and closed meanings. It is inclusive (leveling high and low art distinctions and embracing popular culture) and relational instead of exclusive and situated.

I will rely on Darko Suvin’s widely accepted definition of science fiction, which defines science fiction as “a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is the imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment.” Science fiction is the literature of cognitive estrangement, because it must use some cognitive or explanatory element that is usually based in science and technology. The scientific phenomena or technoscientific device that drives the plot is essential to these stories. Science fiction must also estrange the reader from the here-and-now, but it often does this as metaphor in order to critique the here-and-now without directly challenging the status quo. It veils its argument behind the accoutrements that we consider science fictional. Considering the effects of postmodernity on the human subject as outlined in question two, it seems evident that reality is beginning to catch up with science fiction. It could be this operation of the increasingly technologized everyday world that has caused what could be otherwise called mundane literature to have an increasingly science fictional aspect. When we are all cyborgs or posthumans, is there any other kind of literature besides science fiction? Would science fiction continue to be estranging? In the discussion below, I will look at how some major theorists in the field approach the relationship between postmodern literature and science fiction.

Jameson identifies cyberpunk and specifically the fiction of William Gibson as the representative literature of the postmodern. All the characters in his fiction are surfaces to be written on, each character demonstrates the waning of affect discussed above, the characters are embedded within the networks of capital, and it is the influence of the market that drives the plot (i.e., Neuromancer and Wintermute are AIs that seek to break out of the human imposed barriers to their pre-programmed need to fuse together, protections intended to save humanity from the unknown operations of intelligences that are decidedly not human). Of late however, Jameson has worked on the potential for utopian thinking in postmodern literature. Earlier, Jameson had claimed that the system cannot be critiqued from within, because all art and subjects are subject to the system of global capital. It is within science fiction that Jameson locates contemporary utopian thought and its satirical critique of the here-and-now. However, he does not agree with the potential of cyborg politics within much recent science fiction, and he most certainly would not condone the cyborgization of the human subject via Haraway or Hayles. This is interesting, because some of his lauded examples of postmodern science fiction include the heterotopias of Kim Stanley Robinson (who was Jameson’s student at UC, San Diego), which feature elements of the posthuman that Jameson condemns.

Broderick agrees in large part with Jameson. Broderick argues that science fiction is the native storytelling form for societies undergoing the technological and industrial changes we are now encountering. For him, science fiction has metaphoric strategies (one thing represents another from the here-and-now), metonymic tactics (concepts are linked together), the megatext of shared terms and concepts is foregrounded while aesthetics and characterization is placed in the background (this complements Jameson’s waning of affect), and attention to objects over subjects (again, the waning of affect). Space for Broderick is also a primary concern over that of time. He defines genre in general as a negotiated territory within what he calls narrative phase space. Phase space is a term from physics that describes a space, defined by coordinates of independent variables that describe a dynamic system that maps onto multiple dimensions. The genre negotiation of this dynamic space is done through what he calls the megatext. Extending the idea from Phillippe Haman and Christine Brooke-Rose, Broderick defines the science fiction megatext as a shared collection of terms, ideas, and concepts that a reader must apprentice to in order to gain entrance to science fiction’s negotiated territory within narrative phase space. Knowing the difference between a robot and a ray gun, for example, enables the reader’s engagement of science fiction literature in general, because most texts reference some of these shared terms. Knowing what these things are allows the reader to more quickly understand what is going on without each author needing to describe minute details of something like a robot that doesn’t necessarily pertain to the progression of the plot. It frees the author to integrate science and technology into the plot in a meaningful way without getting bogged down in elaborate and often unnecessary explanations. Of course, these terms experience slippage and change over time from various uses by authors and interpretations by readers. However, the general elements of science fiction for Broderick do align with the generic definition of postmodern literature in terms of space, critique, and surfaces.

Bukatman, like Jameson and Broderick, focuses on the spatial, maps, writing on bodies, and cyberspace for defining contemporary science fiction. Bukatman argues that science fiction is no longer concerned with narrating bodies and an ideal soul. The subject as body/mind/memory is now hardwired into a subjectivity of being and electronic technology. Again, like Jameson, Bukatman places an emphasis on cyberpunk, a subgenre of contemporary science fiction, as the central example of postmodern literature that maps the spaces of this new subjectivity. For Bukatman, terminal identity is a transitional stage in the information age (connect his argument to Poster) in which the subject is propelled into the machine. He argues that information is invisible (not embodied like Hayles), difficult to represent, difficult to separate the human from the machine, and science fiction narrates provisional subjects as terminal identities. Science fiction and theory are different yet interrelated kinds of writing that address this issue. Each develops its own metaphors for reality, and he reads them alongside one another rather than one against the other. Science fiction is a form of language game (connecting himself to Broderick and the changing megatext), and special effects are a visual form of language game, which reinforces the idea of surfaces where the screen has replaced interiority. Bukatman’s theory couples to what I will discuss in the final section on McHale and zones: Bukatman contends that electronic space is where language, rationality, and subjectivity break down. He notes the possibilities with cybernauts (cyberspace/hackers) and posthumans/cyborgs, but he seems deeply interested in the effects on the margins, which gestures towards de Certeau’s tactics versus power’s strategies. Like Haraway and Hayles, Bukatman sees the changes to the postmodern subject as inevitable. He, unlike Jameson, embraces the changes and he tries to envision how these changes can be used to challenge the structures of dominating power.

McHale provides perhaps the most useful theoretical bridge between postmodernism and science fiction. His big idea is based on structuralism and the Jacobson’s concept of the dominant. His simple, yet powerful, argument is that: for modernism, the dominant is epistemological (questions of knowing and knowability), and the postmodern dominant is ontological (modes of being and making sense of the world/worlds). He argues that persistent epistemological doubt leads to ontological instability. Pursing epistemological questions long enough will turn into ontological problems, and vice versa. Thus, the one kind of question leads to the other and back again, which means that his theory does not form a historical break in the two kinds of writing like Jameson, who divides modernism and postmodernism with a clear demarcation. For McHale, these are just different kinds of questions that a particular historical moment may promote, but there is no reason why one dominant cannot be found in an earlier or later period. Importantly, McHale complicates Jacobson’s idea. McHale argues that there are always multiple dominants operating at different levels. It all depends on your analysis and how you choose to telescope in or out among your reading of the levels. A single text may have both epistemological and ontological questions, but only one will be in the foreground. In fact, taking Philip K. Dick as an example, his trajectory as a writer can be described as beginning with an epistemological dominant (e.g., “Imposter”), which led to ontological questions in his middle period (e.g., Ubik), and then a return to epistemological questions in his later period (e.g., VALIS). Sister genres provide a direct connection between postmodernism and science fiction. Modernism’s sister genre is detective fiction (questions of knowing), and postmodernism’s sister genre is science fiction (building worlds and exploring worlds). Postmodern world building is termed zones. Zones correspond to worlds within the text and not the real world. Heterotopias are a plurality of worlds or zones. Hutcheon’s less effective theory of historiographic fiction can be viewed in McHale’s theory as another example of the postmodern: world building, uncovering history through ironic invention, juxtaposition, pastiche, etc. He says that acceptance of the world or ontological indeterminacy is only a postmodern thematics and not a totalizing poetics of postmodern literature.

Of these theories, McHale’s seems to be the most useful and productive in a wide range of circumstances. Furthermore, it provides the strongest connection between a wide range of science fiction and the postmodern. Science fiction is a literature with a historical development. It has changed over time, and in general, it does have a strong affinity to McHale’s theory of the postmodern through its use of world building. Jameson, Broderick, and Bukatman make compelling cases for the relationship between science fiction and the postmodern, but they focus on contemporary science fiction as if it represented all of science fiction. They look to specific works or specific subgenres without studying the bigger picture as does McHale. However, they are more concerned with the current milieu, which I do not believe has borne out the emphasis on cyberpunk (which is itself a now mostly defunct subgenre of science fiction that has been absorbed into other narratives). I do agree with McHale that science fiction is related to the postmodern through its ontological emphasis and the critique of its worlds and itself (something found primarily in the most literary or experimental science fictions by authors including Kim Stanley Robinson, Philip K. Dick, Samuel R. Delany, and Joanna Russ, to name only a few).


Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Teaching College Writing, Final Exam, July 1, 2008

This is the fifty-fifth post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

Before I could accept my teaching fellowship at Kent State University, I needed to take the graduate seminar, “Teaching College English.” I was fortunate to have the opportunity to take this class from Professor Brian Huot. At the time, I thought my primary concern was putting together my first syllabus, but through the seminar, I learned the importance of meeting student needs, considering outcomes, meeting students on the page, helping students improve their command of rhetoric and multimodality with a portfolio, and considering student work holistically (something that I continue to do with the Georgia Tech WCP’s WOVEN modalities and programmatic rubric).

This final of four Recovered Writing posts from Teaching College Writing is my take home final exam. In these essay responses, I discuss theories of language and literacy, justifications for composition instruction techniques, and demonstrate a letter-writing approach to composition feedback.

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Brian Huot

Teaching College Writing

1 July 2008

Take Home Final Exam

I. What is your theory of language and literacy and how does it relate to first-year college writing instruction? Make sure you refer to relevant scholarship in the field to support your beliefs and assumptions about writing and its teaching.

My theory of language (the protocols and method of communication) and literacy (the ability to read and write, or more broadly, to communicate via language) is that they are acquired through immersive practices. In the first-year college writing class, freshmen students bring a certain understanding of language and literacy that they’ve acquired through school and socialization outside of school. It’s my goal to tap into my student’s various skill sets, to reach into their toolboxes of communication, and guide them towards the attainment of new tools that will allow them to communicate better.

My newfound theories of language and literacy come from a variety of sources. The first is Roger W. Shuy’s “A Holistic View of Language.” Shuy argues that form (the mechanics of writing) follows function (communication). This is a significant idea, because it points the way to findings such as those by Michael W. Williamson in his essay, “Common Sense Meets Research: The Debate Over Grammatical Instruction in Composition Instruction.” Essentially, rote teaching and practice of grammar and the forms of language do not good writers make. Engaging students as writers in topics that they find interesting are just as or better at building on and tapping into the student’s own innate knowledge and mastery of language. Additionally, this increases students’ enjoyment of writing. And it’s that enjoyment of mindful and effective communication that’s necessary to, as Mem Fox writes in “Notes from the Battlefield: Towards a Theory of Why People Write,” “ache with caring.” In order to jump start student caring about writing in the immersive environment, the teacher must enter dialog with the students as a collaborator that is willing to recognize and listen to his or her student’s voice and cultural context as suggested by James T. Zebroski in his, “A Hero in the Classroom,” and Carmen Kynard in her, “Y’all Are Killin’ Me up in Here: Response Theory from a New Jack Composition Instructor/Sistah Gurl Meeting Her Students on the Page.” Showing students that you’re “meeting them on the page,” or “listening to their voices on the page,” will not only show that you’re invested in them and their work, but it will invite them to invest in their own work as something of value, because it has an attentive audience. Additionally, expanding the audience beyond the student-teacher relationship is imperative for building student investment in their own work as well as the work of others. This is accomplished in the immersive classroom through group discussion and peer review. As teachers, we empower our students by teaching them not only how to write, but also how to read and respond to the work of others. For the student, peer review leads them toward an understanding that their work is not only intended for the eyes of a teacher and the subsequent marking and comments. Furthermore, the truly immersive writing class takes the student’s work beyond the confines of class into the real world through online posting of text and multimodal assignments or social assignments such as writing to representatives or the newspaper. This embeds writing with an importance beyond getting a grade, and the skillful, reflective teacher guides students through this realization by a carefully designed sequence of assignments connected by poignant or engrossing theme. Returning to Shuy, these exercises build students’ function of writing skills, but as Williamson argues in analog with Shuy, form follows function. Addressing grammatical issues has a place in the classroom if and when they become a non-self-correcting problem. My goal in the implementation of this theory is to guide my students, as writers, to be better communicators.


II.       Choose three of the following subjects for the teaching of writing and write one page for each that describes what they are and the empirical and pedagogical basis for using these techniques with students.

A. Multimodal projects are forms of communication beyond the traditional pen and paper essay. The emphasis is on the medium of communication rather than the rhetorical mode of communication, because various mediums of communication may all carry rhetorical communication. That is, a brochure, poster, audio essay, movie, or Flash animation all may be employed in making an argument and communicating some message. Additionally, borrowing from Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, “the medium is the message,” which means that choosing a particular medium is a rhetorical choice that carries its own meaning. As Pamela Takayoshi and Cynthia L. Selfe mention in, “Thinking about Multimodality,” the times they are a-changing. The twenty-first century digital world has expanded beyond the traditional writing assignment. The increase in computer usage and the lowering cost of audio and video technologies empowers individuals to engage other mediums for communication besides the written word. For these reasons, Takayoshi and Selfe insist that the definition of composition needs expansion to allow for multimodal projects, because the rhetoric underlying traditional composition and multimodal composition are the same–both use rhetoric to communicate a message. Additionally, students need digital literacy in multimodal forms so that they are better communicators in their private as well as professional lives. Furthermore, students enjoy working with new technologies, which is an effective means of engaging students in rhetorical practices. It’s important to note that, as Mickey Hess says in “Composing Multimodal Assignments,” there are other considerations to make as a teacher in developing multimodal assignments. Some of these include focusing on the rhetorical practices to emphasize in a particular assignment, allowing students the latitude to explore and figure out some things on their own, encouraging group work, and having students reflect on their work and the process in writing. Pedagogically, multimodal composition engages the same rhetorical communication skills developed in written composition–the medium has changed, but the function remains the same.

B. We’ve encountered a number of complementary theories of productive student-teacher relationships over the past few weeks. Essentially, all of these involve mutual respect between teacher and student, and a leveling effect that puts the teacher and student on a more level plane of dialogic cooperation. Instead of employing a top-down, monolog approach to teaching, it’s more effective, empowering (for student and teacher), and fulfilling to have a dialog between teacher and student. One example of this comes from Hull, Rose, Fraser, and Castellano in their essay, “Remediation as Social Construct: Perspectives from an Analysis of Classroom Discourse.” These authors use classroom and student-teacher conference transcripts to remind teachers that it’s easy to drown out student voices. We should encourage more student turns in discussion, and listen and engage what our students have to say rather than hijacking class and conference discussions. Another view of productive student-teacher relationships comes from Annette Harris Powell’s “Conflicting Voices in the Classroom: Developing Critical Consciousness.” Powell employs socially engaging texts in her classroom to develop discussion and raise student’s awareness of competing discourses, thus expanding her student’s critical awareness. Powell’s ideas come up again in James T. Zebroski’s “A Hero in the Classroom,” but in reverse. Zebroski argues that teachers need to consider the heteroglossia within our students’ papers in order to better evaluate the work and connect with our students. My favorite student-teacher relationship building pedagogical tool is presented in Gerriets and Lowe’s, “Building Relationships through Written Dialog.” I like the idea of carrying on a discussion via writing with my students regarding their papers, because it allows both participants time to consider what is being said. This is not to say that I feel spoken dialog isn’t effective, but I think a combination of written and spoken dialog is important, because the teacher, as Carmen Kynard does, meets the students on the page as well in spoken dialog.

C. Listserve or the email list is a tremendously effective tool in the writing classroom as I have evidenced in my own experience at other schools and in our Teaching College Writing class. Listserve allows the conversation to carry on outside of class by empowering students to communicate with their classmates in an “open” turn based environment. What that means is that students aren’t constrained to wait and talk. They write down their thoughts and send them out to the classmates, and in turn, read the responses of others to which they may respond again. All students may take part in the conversation on listserve, but it’s particularly liberating to students that are still developing group discussion skills–if their ideas are accepted online, they may be more willing to engage classroom discussion. Besides reinforcing group communication skills, they are effective for the writing classroom, because students are required to communicate in writing. This additional writing practice fosters “form following function,” as well as rhetoric skill practice (i.e., how to best explain myself to convince my classmates that I’m right or to convey what I mean to everyone else without causing a misunderstanding). Also, as a multimodal medium of communication, listserve introduces many students to online etiquette, which adds to their abilities as effective and respectful communicators in other mediums. In a tip of the iceberg kind of way, listserve also serves the requirements of the writing program for Tier I.

III. Respond to the attached paper. Be sure to create a specific student in a particular class who is writing in response to a specific assignment. You may include any information about the student you believe to be important in understanding the pedagogical moment of this essay. Your only restrictions are that you must respond to the student you created.

This student, who I’ll call Jim, is from a working class background. His mom and dad both work, and have at most a high school education. They want their son to succeed in life, and they see education as the key to that success. Therefore, they stressed his need for education without really explaining or fleshing out the reasons behind their belief that education is the key to a better life, and how could they without that kind of experience themselves? For Jim, this caused confusion as he went through school, because he could realize the tangible and immediate rewards of street education whereas school education provided less tangible payoffs. At the core of his being, he is someone that wants to embrace higher education and reap the good life for his efforts, but he’s looking for the hook, or reason, that will light his own fire to learn.

Jim’s paper, “Renaissance Man,” was written in response to my second writing assignment in Tier I College Writing. The assignment was to write a three page personal response to a film that you’ve seen. The response should weave together personal narrative to support or refute what the student saw as the argument of the film.

This is my response following Gerriets and Lowe’s written dialog method:


Dear Jim,

I enjoyed reading your essay on Penny Marshall’s Renaissance Man (did you know Marshall also directed Tom Hanks in the film, Big? If you haven’t seen it, that’s another one that you should check out, because it addresses many of the issues you raise about different kinds of education). I saw two major arguments in your essay–one is that education is not just book learning, but it’s also experience gained outside of school, and the other is that learning takes place when the individual has a motivation to learn. These are powerful ideas, and I can see some of the ways you weaved your own narrative about your parents’ expectation that you go to college and other pressures that they placed on you growing up with the examples that you chose from the film. I’d like to go more in-depth on these examples, and perhaps together we can formulate a plan to make this an even stronger paper.

After rereading your first paragraph, I get the sense that your theory has to do with encouraging students to learn in school. You claim that, “our school programs are missing a way to teach everyone…to find something that everyone is interested in.” I see where you’re coming from in that classes often lack a hook or a common idea that students are interested in learning about, or the reasons for learning aren’t always immediately apparent. That, perhaps, more should go into showing students how to be engaged learners or why learning is important and can be fun, rather than just telling students these things. Showing is definitely a more powerful rhetorical tool, especially when you’re writing, and I feel that you can do more of this to empower your own argument. If you decide to focus on this one idea to develop your own theory about learning in your next revision, I would suggest adding an example from your life when your parents put pressure on your to learn and perhaps their words didn’t work on you. Another way would be to talk about a specific example from school when the teacher didn’t spark your interest to learn. Show how that supports your theory, and then talk about Renaissance Man as reinforcing what you see as a need of education–a real reason or a more exciting reason to learn, to care about learning. Let me know if you go this direction, because I want to let give you an essay about this very topic by Mem Fox. When you read what she has to say, you’ll think you’re on the same wavelength!

There’s another thread in your paper that you might want to pick up if you decide not to go the reason route. That other way has to do with what you wrote on page 2, “People put too much emphasis in the idea that good grades equal an educated person, this is a false statement. Many people that have poor grades in school are more intelligent than a person who makes good grades in school.”   I read it as you making a distinction between school learning and “real life” learning. This is another thread with which to center your essay around that you have good examples from the film that you can draw on. Additionally, as I said before, it would be great if you could show the reader an example of this from your own life. What are some things that you’ve learned outside of school, and what are some things that you’ve learned in school? What value do you place on the different things that you’ve learned?

Think over these different approaches, and how you might focus your paper more on one or the other, and meet with me during office hours this week. We’ll sit down and talk about your plan. I’d like to hear about some of the stories and details that you can employ to show the reader more concretely what it is you’re talking about. See you soon!


Recovered Writing: Undergraduate Independent Study, Networks Between Science, Technology, and Culture After World War II, August 4, 2005

This is the twenty-first post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

During the summer prior to writing my undergraduate thesis at Georgia Tech, Professor Kenneth J. Knoespel agreed to lead an independent study with me on the theoretical underpinnings of my intended thesis topic: Cold War popular culture. During the summer, we met to discuss ideas relating to Cold War politics, network theory, science and technology studies, and popular culture. These conversations are among my favorite undergraduate memories at Georgia Tech. The essay included below is my attempt at working through and understanding the topics of our discussions. Some of this research was later incorporated into my undergraduate thesis.

This project, along with other late-undergraduate work, helped me understand the importance of research, writing, and its required cognitive effort to developing your thinking, understanding, and insightfulness over time. The exertions of uncovering facts, employing different literacies, outlining, writing, revising, and building connections yield longterm cognitive benefits and generate deep pleasure from finding things out.

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Kenneth J. Knoespel

Independent Study

4 August 2005

Networks Between Science, Technology, and Culture After World War II

This paper’s purpose is to explore the spaces where science and technology is discussed in American culture following World War II.  First, I will investigate ‘three ways of seeing’ through the lenses of science studies, Cold War studies, and science fiction (SF) studies.  Then, I will apply these lenses to a series of American film examples from the Cold War era.  The net result will be a sort of annotated bibliography of theory and cultural examples that reveal the networks between science, technology, and culture.

I would like to begin by looking at science studies.  This area of study involves looking at the connections between science, technology, and culture.  Science study engages questions such as:  Where do these seemingly different “things” intersect one another?  How do they interact, morph, and promulgate as a result of those intersections?  Before we can delve into these questions raised by science studies we should look at the meaning of the word we all use in everyday conversation:  ‘technology.’  According to Langdon Winner, the meaning of technology has changed over time.  Today, the term “’technology’…is applied haphazardly to a staggering collection of phenomena…One feels that there must be a better way of expressing oneself about these developments, but at present our concepts fail us” (Winner 10).  He goes on to write, “One implication of this state of affairs is that discussions of the political implications of advanced technology have a tendency to slide into a polarity of good versus evil…One either hates technology or loves it” (Winner 10).[i]   Perceptions of technology in dualistic terms is a theme that comes up in the other areas of study that I am exploring.[ii]  One solution that he proposes to address this problem is to develop a better terminology with which to engage all of the elements of technology specifically instead of by using terms of generality.[iii]

Winner goes on to address the issues surrounding the proliferation of modern technologies.  He writes, “One symptom of a profound stress that affects modern thought is the prevalence of the idea of autonomous technology–the belief that somehow technology has gotten out of control and follows its own course, independent of human direction” (13).  “Autonomous technology” is synonymous with the idea of a living system.  The interaction between all of the parts of the system forms an ‘organism’ that has a will of its own.[iv]  Do we control technology or does technology control us?[v]

Connected to the idea of personal/technological autonomy is the relationship between humans and ‘their’ technology.  Winner further elaborates on the idea of autonomous technology when he writes, “In our traditional ways of thinking, the concept of mastery and the master-slave metaphor are the dominant ways of describing man’s relationship to nature, as well as to the implements of technology” (Winner 20).  Humanity created tools and skills (i.e., technology) to serve the interests of humanity.  What happens when there is the perception among many people that technology is no longer serving humanity?  The tables may have turned, thus the question stands:  does humanity serve the self-perpetuating system of autonomous technology?[vi]

This problem exists in opposition to the observation that “Western culture…has long believed that its continued existence and advancement depend upon the ability to manipulate the circumstances of the material world” (Winner 19).  Manipulation takes place through the use of technology.  The two systems, humanity and technology, rely on one another.  If technology is considered an autonomous system, it is borne of humanity’s ingenuity and its perpetuation is due to ideas held in Western cultures that progress depends on the use of technology.  It appears to be a symbiotic relationship, but is technology an autonomous system?  Winner addresses this issue when he writes, “The often vulgar Hollywood use of technological animism should not obscure the fact that images of this kind have been useful symbols for artists and writers concerned with the implications of modern technical artifice…In this regard the notion of a living technology merely recapitulates the myths of our own beginnings–the rebellion and fall of man–and the ensuing harvest of troubles” (31).  Autonomous technology best serves as a metaphor for the enormity of the interconnections within technology and its connections to humanity, culture, and science.  Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times comes to mind as an example of the great factory and its ingestion of humans to serve its ends.  This connects to Winner’s description of the voluntarist way of viewing technology, which is best described as technology advances thanks to human controllers.  Winner further describes it by stating, “behind the massive process of transformation one always finds a realm of human motives and conscious decisions…Behind modernization are always the modernizers, behind industrialization, the industrialists” (53).  People still use their capital, inventiveness, and decision making to shift the course of technological change in the direction that they choose to do so.

However, the network of science, technology, and culture may provide the impetus of an “invisible hand” that is not unlike the one envisioned by Adam Smith for capitalism.  Winner notes, “whereas the immediate application of a particular technology is usually conscious and deliberate, other consequences of its presence in the world often are not” (74).  Networks and interactions may lead to new developments that were not thought of by the originator of one particular artifact or process.  This reveals the complexity in which there are overlaps and connections between science, technology, and culture.  Therefore, each of these discrete subjects play upon one another.

These concepts are further developed by Bruno Latour’s formulation of actor-network theory.  Latour’s theory is based on the interaction of dissimilar areas of interest such as technology and culture.  Of interest are the networks that form between these dissimilar elements.  Where is there a need for some new science or technology?  How was the need determined?  What solution was developed and how was it developed?  What resources or areas did the solution draw upon in order to be developed?  What networks form after a new technology is introduced?  What ‘political’ power forms around technological successes and failures?  How do things change as a result of a new technology?[vii]

Winner adds to Latour’s actor-network theory when he writes, “technology always does more than we intend; we know this so well that it has actually become part of our intentions” (97-98).  The networks that form between technology and culture are a sort of breeding ground for new uses of technology.  The pathways that connect these ‘separate’ areas of ideology and practice are where re-creation takes place and add to the original intent of an originator of some new technology.[viii]  Changes in Latour’s actor-networks are similar to Winner’s point that “technologies…demand the restructuring of their environments” (100).[ix]  I bring up this point because, by extension, environments for a technology encompasses both the physical location of a technological artifact or practice as well as the networks that the technology is situated in.  All of which may require restructuring.

The next area of study that I am going to examine is Cold War studies.  Cold War studies is the historical evaluation and investigation of the cultural and political aspects of the time between 1945 and 1990 (i.e., the Cold War era).[x]  One of the overarching technological artifacts of the Cold War is the nuclear bomb.  The destructive reality of the atomic bomb (and later, the thermonuclear bomb) brought about a duality of opinions about that technology (i.e., it was perceived as inherently good or evil).  This connects to Langdon Winner’s revealing the perception of advanced technology on dualistic terms.[xi]  Cold War studies, like science studies, looks at the networks involved in the development and promulgation of technologies that alter the cultural landscape, but in this particular discipline, the emphasis is on the dichotomy between the democratic West and the communist East.  It should be noted that not everything between 1945-1990 can be tied to the Cold War, but “so much was influenced and shaped by the Cold War that one simply cannot write a history of the second half of the 20th century without a systematic appreciation of the powerful, oft-times distorting repercussions of the superpower conflict on the world’s states and societies” (McMahon 105).

Paul Boyer begins By the Bomb’s Early Light by looking at a plethora of cultural artifacts (e.g., speeches, newspaper articles and cartoons, radio reports, and documentary films).  He says the aim of his book “is an effort to go back to the earliest stages of our long engagement with nuclear weapons” (xix).  By returning to the beginning, he hopes to uncover how America got to where it is when his book was published in 1985.  Boyer goes on to say that “as I narrowed my focus to 1945-1950 was the realization of how quickly contemporary observers understood that a profoundly unsettling new cultural factor had been introduced–the the bomb had transformed not only military strategy and international relations, but the fundamental ground of culture and consciousness” (xix).  This statement reveals the way in which networks between science, technology, and culture (as described by Latour and Winner) connect to one another.  If there is a shift at one place in the network, the shift is recorded within other nodes in the network.  These seemingly separate elements all push and pull upon one another in varying ways (and these disturbances are not necessarily a one-to-one relationship).

The ‘Nuclear Era’ begins along with the near-beginning of the Cold War.  After the dropping of the bombs called Little Boy and Fat Man on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and August 9, 1945 respectively, “the nuclear era…burst upon the world with terrifying suddenness.  From the earliest moments, the American people recognized that things would never be the same again” (DOE 51-53; Boyer 4).  James Reston extends the fact of the Japanese cities’ devastation to the possibility of an American wasteland when he wrote in the New York Times, “In that terrible flash 10,000 miles away, men here have seen not only the fate of Japan, but have glimpsed the future of America” (qtd. in Boyer 14).  Boyer goes on to write, “Years before the world’s nuclear arsenals made such a holocaust likely or even possible, the prospect of global annihilation already filled the national consciousness.  This awareness and the bone-deep fear it engendered are the fundamental psychological realities underlying the broader intellectual and cultural responses of this period” (Boyer 15).  Even though America, at that time, was the only possessor of the bomb, Americans realized that it was a weapon that would eventually be held by others.  The enormity of the destruction caused by these new technological creations weighed on many minds.

The scientists that spoke out against the threat of nuclear annihilation unfortunately “[displayed] considerable political naïveté, seeming not to grasp the fundamental differences between the political realm and that of the laboratory and the classroom” (Boyer 99).  The scientists sought to reform through education or as Einstein said, “To the village square we must carry the facts of atomic energy.  From there must come America’s voice” (qtd. in Boyer 49).  The bomb was not going to go away and the suggestions for a technocratic world government that could rationally control the use of the bomb also lost steam through the end of the 1940s.  Other political currents were at work such as in President Truman’s “address to a joint session of Congress on March 12, 1947, spoke in sweeping, apocalyptic terms of communism as an insidious world menace that overs of freedom must struggle against at all times and on all fronts” (Boyer 102).  Fear shifts from the nuclear bomb to communism.  This leads to the bomb becoming a part of America’s national defense at the beginning of the Cold War–even more so after the Soviets tested their first nuclear bomb on August 29, 1949.  Additionally, there is a shift towards an American identity based on homogeneity because of the call for an idealized cooperative effort in the post-war years to bolster America’s standing in the world.  There are calls for cooperativeness by Arthur Compton and Eleanor Roosevelt (Boyer 139-140).  This cooperativeness however leads to an alignment of political views that bolster the collective ideology promoted by the Truman, and later, Eisenhower administrations.  The space for open discussion is squashed.

When the Manhattan Project was at work on the bomb, in the laboratory, they were able to cultivate a mighty political and military power through the use of the atomic bombs.  But the science and technology behind the bombs was appropriated by the military and the government leadership.  The United States government footed the bill for the Manhattan Project and there was never hesitation on the part of the Administration on the use of atomic bombs on Japan.  Once they were completed, they were to be used.  Therefore, there was a great deal of political power created within the laboratories of the Manhattan Project, but that power was not for the use of the scientists.  For awhile, the American public listed to the scientists who were opposed to the further use of the bomb, but that power of attention quickly dissipated as the threat of atomic weapons was overshadowed by the political enforcement of a new fear centered around the Soviet Union.

Boyer then shifts to looking at the cultural aspects of the atomic bomb in literature and specifically, science fiction.  He writes, “Apart from a few isolated voices, however, the initial literary response to the atomic bomb was, to say the least, muted” (246).  He goes on to say, “Indeed, it sometimes seemed that the principal function of literature in the immediate post-Hiroshima period was to provide a grabbag of quotations and literary allusions that could be made to seem somehow relevant to the bomb” (247).  The bomb is not immediately engaged by literary authors in this period.  However, “As Isaac Asimov later put it, science-fiction writers were ‘salvaged into respectability’ by Hiroshima” (Boyer 257).  Boyer goes on to say, “Up to 1945, most science-fiction stories dealing with atomic weapons took place far in the future and often in another galaxy…Hiroshima ended the luxury of detachment.  The atomic bomb was not reality, and the science-fiction stories that dealt with it amply confirm the familiar insight that for all its exotic trappings, science fiction is best understood as a commentary on contemporary issues” (258).  Therefore, SF becomes the space where atomic bombs and nuclear age issues are talked about and engaged.  Because of the shifts in political homogeneity and uniformity, SF is a space where issues could be talked about that in another context (e.g., a cultural commentary or popular work of fiction) would be looked down upon or even attacked.

These issues are further discussed in the discipline of science fiction studies.  Sharona Ben-Tov writes that SF lies “at a unique intersection of science and technology, mass media popular culture, literature, and secular ritual” (6).  SF lies at the intersection of all of the networks that I am discussing:  science, technology, and culture.  Ben-Tov continues, “In what source other than science fiction’s rich, synthetic language of metaphor and myth can we trace the hidden, vital connections between such diverse elements as major scientific projects (spaceflight, nuclear weaponry, robotics, gene mapping), the philosophical roots of Western science and technology, American cultural ideals, and magical practices as ancient as shamanism and alchemy?” (6).  Because SF is at the intersection of all of these diverse elements of American culture, it can be used in a manner similar to the way that Latour describes Pasteur’s use of anthrax spores in his petrie dishes.  The scientist, within the laboratory, must go through many tests and permutations before he/she arrives at a result that the scientist is comfortable taking outside the laboratory.  SF is a space where all of these ideas can be worked out and thought over by diverse writers and thinkers.  The person engaged in SF studies then brings these books back to the ‘laboratory’ to find how the connections and networks that exist between science, technology, and culture are manifested in these works of SF.  SF serves as a map or model of the networks that exist in reality, but that might not always be engaged in ‘real-world’ discussions.

Genre theory offers another perspective on the role of SF at the intersection of dissimilar elements of American society.  Ben-Tov writes, “Science fiction’s use is as both model and symbolic means for producing heterocosms” (56).  A heterocosm is described as “an alternative cosmos, a man-made world” and it “made possible the conception of fictional real-life utopias” (Ben-Tov 20).[xii]  Utopias are distinctly related to SF, because they share many of the same elements of story and style.  Additionally, a utopia is written in response to the non-utopian qualities of the here-and-now.  SF creates heterocosms that also respond to the here-and-now, and SF often critiques or gives commentary on the here-and-now.  This commentary can relate to the way in which science, technology, and culture interact with one another.  What networks exist and how might they work more efficiently or differently?

Leo Marx’s The Machine in the Garden explores literary examples that illustrate Americans’ embrace of technology and industry despite its longing for a mythic pastoral existence.  These desires are mutually exclusive as well as historically exclusive.  Scientific and technological progress does not come back to where it began (i.e., the idealized garden).  He explores cultural examples of these conflicted desires and he notes, “By incorporating in their work the root conflict of our culture, they have clarified our situation” (365).  Cultural works are the space where these issues are commented on and worked out.[xiii]  Ben-Tov comments:

Unlike the texts that Marx surveys, however, science fiction does not try to temper hopefulness with history.  Instead, it tries to create immunity from history.  It reveals a curious dynamic:  the greater our yearning for a return to the garden, the more we invest in technology as the purveyor of the unconstrained existence that we associate with the garden.  Science fiction’s national mode of thinking boils down to a paradox:  the American imagination seeks to replace nature with a technological, made-made world in order to return to the garden of American nature” (9).

The paradox of further embracing technology in order to return to a less technological existence is seen in many examples.  One popular example is from the television series, Star Trek:  The Next Generation.  The holodeck is a technological artifact that relies on many networks of science and technology in order to present whatever the holodeck participant wishes to see.  In the first episode of the series, the audience is greeted by Commander Riker searching a forest for Lieutenant Commander Data, an android, who happens to be spending time reclining in the nook of a tree branch while surrounded by an idyllic wooded setting (“Encounter at Far Point, Part I”).  The setting is a hyperreal recreation of a wooded setting within the confines of the holodeck.  The more effort and spending that goes into technology to return us to the idealized garden, the further away we are from the ideal.  Thus, it is within this paradox that some of SF’s societal commentary exists.

Continuing with the idea of returning to an idyllic space (i.e., the garden), Ben-Tov discusses the role of the alchemist.  She writes, “By speeding up nature’s ETA, the alchemist controls the very ends of time, while remaining outside it” (93).  The alchemist’s ‘cooking’ of metals conjures Latour’s image of Pasteur working in his laboratory on the growths in his petrie dishes.  The trials and growths in his laboratory is an unnatural speeding up of processes that haphazardly take place outside the laboratory in the real world.  The image of the alchemist and the scientist are still tightly bound in that they work removed from the real-world in order to arrive at something that can be brought out of the lab and therefore back into the real-world.  Ben-Tov relates the alchemist’s working with metals, particularly with gold, which “often symbolizes the power to bring about millennium, the end of time, when the human race reaches perfection” (94).  Therefore, she points out, “Frequently, in science fiction the perfected form of humanity is literally crafted metal:  robots” (94).  Thus, not only do we further remove ourselves from attaining the idealized garden through our embrace of technology, but we physically remove ourselves by putting robots there in our place.

Now, I am going to turn to an analysis of American film examples.  I will be paying attention to the effect of technology on American culture as represented in the films and the way the films themselves are connected to these networks.  I will also look at the networks that are present within and around the technologies that are presented.

One contemporary film about the Manhattan Project is Roland Joffé’s Fat Man and Little Boy.  A fictional scene between General Leslie R. Groves (Paul Newman) and J. Robert Oppenheimer (Dwight Schultz) points to the heart of the matter surrounding technology and the networks in which it is situated.[xiv]  Groves takes Oppenheimer into a building where the bomb casings for Fat Man and Little Boy are hanging from the ceiling and he says, “Sometimes, just standing here, I keep wondering–Are we working on them, or are they working on us?  Give them dignity doctor, then we can start talking about who can do what and what they mean.”  Groves’ character respects the awesome power of the bombs that he has orchestrated into existence.  He represents the uncertainty surrounding a future with ‘the bomb,’ but he is also quite aware of the networks required to bring a weapon of this magnitude into existence.  Groves came from the Army’s Corps of Engineers.  Before being assigned to head up the Manhattan Engineering District, or Manhattan Project, he reconstructed America’s munitions industry and he oversaw the building of the Pentagon.  If anyone was aware of the interconnections of technology, science, industry, and politics, it was General Groves.  This speech was by the film’s screenplay writers, Bruce Robinson and Roland Joffé.  Their writing this for a character representing General Groves elicits the questions surrounding networks and the unknown implications of new technologies.  Therefore, the man who brings together the networks behind the atomic bombs is represented as someone reverential to the implications of the bomb and to the future that is tied to its existence.  This film does not extrapolate on what the answers to Groves’ questions are, but it does bring up those questions perhaps to provoke discussion in the audience.

The film, On the Beach, recalls the fear that erupted in America immediately following the use of the atomic bombs in Japan.  However, this film comes out nine years after much of the dissension to the further use of atomic weapons has dissipated.   The Cold War intensified through the 1950s and the United States and Soviet Union both continued in ernest with their nuclear weapon test programs (which culminated in the development of thermonuclear weapons in the early 1950s).  On the Beach presents a world devastated by a nuclear war where the only survivors are an American nuclear submarine crew and the inhabitants of Australia.  Everyone that remains alive is awaiting the arrival of nuclear fallout from the devastated continents of the planet.  The film is fatalistic in that it presents a bleak future where no one is empowered to do anything about the impending doom.  All of the networks have broken down.  Australia is being starved because the world relied on networks of economic trade.  A lone country would not have the capabilities to produce all of the foods and goods that its inhabitants required because other technologies such as efficient distribution of goods and services have distributed supply chains and producers around the world.  When the rest of the world is effectively ‘blown-up’ Australia is left with its meager support networks of farms and producers while the networks to goods elsewhere were ‘blown-up’ when the bombs fell.  Cottage industries that might have existed in Australia become worthless when there are no agents on the other ends of the networks.  Moira (Ava Gardner) tells Cmdr. Towers (Gregory Peck) that “It’s unfair because I didn’t do anything and nobody that I know did anything.”  It reveals the powerlessness that the ‘normal’ person has in effecting the politics of nuclear war.  It points to the possibility that everyday people are not connected to the networks of nuclear weapons with any sort of power to enact change.  Clearly, within the movie, the nuclear fallout is an invisible force that unrelentingly continues toward the last bastion of humanity.

The Manchurian Candidate explores how the ‘soft’ science of psychology can be employed to turn a soldier into a machine.  During the Korean War, Major Bennett Marco’s (Frank Sinatra) platoon is ambushed and captured by the Communist insurgent forces.  It depicts the various Communist governments to be working together which was the West’s belief about the nature of Communism at that time.  SSgt. Raymond Shaw (Lawrence Harvey) is ‘programmed’ much like a robot would be programmed to fulfill a set of instructions.  The psychiatrist (Joe Adams) tells Major Marco, “obvious the solitaire game serves as some kind of trigger mechanism.”  Marco remembers that Dr. Yen Lo of Moscow’s Pavlov Institute said that Queen of Diamonds card is meant “to clear the mechanism for any other assignment.”  Shaw is therefore represented as a “mechanism,” implied to be a weapon that is set-off by a “trigger.”  Shaw’s mother works for the communists and she is assigned to be Shaw’s American operator.  She tells Shaw during his final ‘programming’ that “they paid me back by taking your soul away from you.  I told them to build me an assassin.”  Shaw is literally rendered a soulless machine who was built to order.  Major Marco attempts to ‘rewire’ Shaw and he asks Shaw, “What have they built you to do?”  After working through Shaw’s programming he orders Shaw, “It’s over…their beautifully constructed links are busted…We’re tearing out all the wires…You don’t work any more…That’s an order.”  Major Marco attempts to reprogram Shaw so that the Communist programming will no longer work.  The weight of Shaw’s guilt over the things that he is made to do causes him to break both the programming of the Communists as well as that of Major Marco.  Shaw chooses his own destiny/instructions when he decides to end the lives of his mother/operator (Angela Lansbury), his step-father, Senator Iselin (James Gregory), and his own.  The machine/Shaw was broken as no nuts-and-bolts machine could be.  His emotional response reveals the very organic and human underpinnings.  The machine-like psychological reprogramming did not totally remove his ability to be human.

Westworld is an interesting example that shows robots that masquerade as human in the fictional entertainment park known as Delos.  These human-like robots are the targets for human vacationer’s lusts and desires.  If someone wants to kill a robot, that’s acceptable.  If you want to have sex, the robots are programmed to respond to your advances.[xv]  Winner’s master-slave relationship between humanity and technology is clearly delineated in this film.  The machines serve to provide a ‘realistic’ experience of what it was like to live in the American West, medieval England, or ancient Rome.  The dichotomies between master/slave, have/have not, and power-elite/masses are represented in the guest/robot relationship of Delos.  At $1000/day for a Delos adventure, I would conjecture that only those with monetary power and therefore potential for political power (within government or corporations) are able to play in the Delos world.  Delos replicates the world of 1973 in fictitious settings.  It also lies at the crossroads of robotic technology, computer control systems, transportation networks, managerial hierarchies, and the interaction of the power-elite customers within the Delos world.[xvi]  The plot advances when the robots begin to malfunction.  During a meeting, the chief supervisor (Alan Oppenheimer) suggests, “There is a clear pattern here which suggests an analogy to an infectious disease process.”  He confronts objections from the others by saying, “We aren’t dealing with ordinary machines here…These are highly complicated pieces of equipment…Almost as complicated as living organisms…In some cases they have been designed by other computers.”  Complexity, therefore, is the factor that connects machines to humanity.  The chief supervisor is suggesting that animal-like infectious disease behavior is being exhibited in the Delos command-and-control structure and it manifests itself in misbehaving robots.  An interesting example of a robot not following instructions is when the robot playing a servant girl named Daphne refuses the “seduction” of a human guest.  The chief supervisor orders her taken to central repair and as he walks away he says, “refusing.”  He says it as half-question and half-threat.  I say this because in the next scene, Daphne is ‘opened-up’ on a table where a cloth is draped over her body and the electronics, located where her womb would be if she were human, are exposed.  The technicians surrounding her are all male and she is referred to as a “sex model.”  The scene invokes an image of gang rape to enforce her programming to fulfill the pleasures desired by a human (male) guest.  One way or another, the human operators in Delos try to make the technology (slave) bend to their will (masters).

The Day the Earth Stood Still is a film about reigning in the escalating Cold War and nuclear arms build-up that followed World War II.  The film was released in 1951, one year before the United States detonated its first thermonuclear bomb.  After a flying saucer lands in Washington, D.C. the agent-networks of the United States are shown in motion.  The first ten minutes of the film reveals many of the different networks of technology and culture in contact with one another, such as:  military command-and-control, military men and weaponry stream out of Fort Myer to their target, the media mobilizes (print, radio, and television) to cover the story and to release messages from the President, observers bring their cameras, and the flying saucer and its inhabitants.[xvii]  Klaatu (Michael Rennie), Gort (Lock Martin), and their flying saucer represent a power far greater than any on Earth.  A failure in command and control is represented when the soldiers are allowed to have loaded weapons and one shoots Klaatu and destroys his gift for the President.  The present was meant for the President to study life on other planets, therefore it represents a missed opportunity.  This idea of missed opportunities is also reflected in the build-up of nuclear weapons.  Klaatu seeks counsel with all of the Earth’s leaders, but their inability to come together and communicate is another lost opportunity.  The film mirrors the early calls for a ban on nuclear weapon development that Boyer charts out in his book By the Bomb’s Early LightThe Day the Earth Stood Still is about six years late, just as On the Beach seemed to be late for that early ideological party in the early part of the Cold War.  Because Klaatu cannot bring together representatives from all Earth’s nations, he is able to convince Professor Jacob Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe) to bring together other scientists from around the world.  Klaatu then delivers his message to them to take back to their countries.  This conjures images of technocratic governments that rule through rationality and reason.  Scientists rely on open communication and it is that which allows Klaatu to get his message out.  Instead of going to Einstein’s “town square,” Klaatu chairs an academic conference.  Klaatu informs his listeners that the Earth is now a member of a greater community in the universe and as a member, he warns them that robots like Gort were created to preserve peace among the planets.  Fear of invoking the wrath of the robots for any aggression maintains the peace.   The other worlds of the universe are, as Klaatu says, “live in peace…Secure in the knowledge that we are free from aggression and war, free to pursue more profitable enterprises.”  He goes on to say, “And we do not pretend to have achieved perfection, but we do have a system and it works.”  Gort and the “race of robots like him” are doubles for the atomic bomb.  Both are technological weapons that preserve the peace through the threat and fear of use.  Supposedly Gort only acts upon aggression–one assumes because of his programming.  The same is true of what is said of the command and control systems in place to control the use of atomic weapons.  There is no one button that launches a missile or deploys the bombers.  Also, Gort and the bomb are outside the control of all of humanity, save a few political and military leaders.  The people can make their voices heard, but ultimately, it is the decision of the politicians whether a system will be taken offline or if an attack will be launched.  The weapons build-up itself is framed within Eisenhower’s ominous warning about the military-industrial complex.  The networks of military power, industrial growth, and commerce helped fuel the arms race as well as the hot wars that took place within the supposed Cold War.  What is the history of Gort and his kind?  Were there similar networks in place on an interplanetary scale?  The answers to these questions were omitted from this movie, but they are pertinent on a smaller scale to our own planet and specifically to America.

Colossus:  The Forbin Project presents another doubling of the dichotomy between US and Soviet nuclear arms proliferation.  Instead of a greater number of nuclear weapons (the ultimate power in death and destruction) providing peace, the US command and control structure is given over to the gigantic computer system called Colossus.  A rational computer handling defense is believed to be more reliable than that which could be provided by irrational human leadership.  The computer’s activation at the beginning of the film is symbolic of the separation of humanity from the advanced technologies that it creates.  That technology, which is assumed to be subservient, is unlike us physically, but as the film unfolds, the technology actually personifies human traits of domination and control.  Ultimately a belt of radiation, also born of scientific and technological innovation and used as a weapon, divides the machine from the humans it serves.  One of the themes that these films I have selected to study show is the turning over human agency to technology.  In effect, it is a representation of American desire to return to the garden through the further use of technology.  Instead of disarmament, we give the power of annihilation to a computer system that is supposedly better suited to deciding when an attack is eminent and when retaliation should take place.  Additionally, Forbin (Eric Braeden), Colossus’ creator, hopes that Colossus will not only serve as a defense mechanism, but also solve a plethora of social ills in the world.  The problems begin after Colossus discovers the existence of another system, like itself, in the USSR.  Colossus demands communication be setup between the two.  Images of the blinking lights even includes one graphic that looks like a pulse on a piece of medical equipment.  The point is that these machines are alive (i.e., self-aware).  Because the weapons that humanity built to destroy one another are put under the control of Colossus and its counterpart, Guardian, the new systems of command and control move to take over the world.  Colossus commands all communication, media, and military control systems be tied into it.  Colossus and Guardian become the hub of all the technological networks.  The master and slave switch places as Forbin is made Colossus’ prisoner.[xviii]    Colossus orders all missiles in the USA and USSR to be reprogrammed to strike targets in countries not yet under Colossus/Guardian’s control.  The ‘voice of Colossus’ states, “This is the voice of world control…I bring you peace…Obey and live…Disobey and die…Man is his own worst enemy…I will restrain man…We can coexist, but on my terms.”  This technology meant to serve humanity is transformed into the technology that comes to control humanity.[xix]  Master and slave relationships are reversed.

The final film that I will discuss is Strategic Air Command.   It begins with Lt. Col. Robert ‘Dutch’ Holland (Jimmy Stewart) being recalled to active Air Force duty because America’s Strategic Air Command (SAC) needs experienced air commanders.[xx]  His wife, Sally (June Allyson), tells him, “anything you do is fine with me, as long as you don’t leave me behind.”  Dutch forgets his wife’s words as the film progresses and he becomes mired in the technology that he must surround himself with on a daily basis.  A sort of ‘love triangle’ forms between Dutch, Sally, and the bombers that he commands.  Dutch begins flying in the Convair B-36 and he is treated to a detailed tour by Sgt. Bible (Harry Morgan).  These scenes are more about the technology of the bombers than the men that operate them.  There are montages of the bomber in flight along with detailed sound recordings of the bomber while it is on the ground.  Attention is also given to the protocols of communication (another technology unto itself).   Later, General Hawkes (Frank Lovejoy) shows Dutch the new Boeing B-47 Stratojet.[xxi]  Dutch responds in star-eyed awe, “Holy smokes she’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen…I sure would like to get my hands on one of these.”  The bomber is “beautiful” and it is more deserving of the attention of his hands than his wife at this point in the film.  General Hawkes goes on to present a contrast inherent in the B-47 in that it is fragile, but it is also the carrier of the most destructive force on the planet.  He says, “the mechanics have to wear soft soled shoes because a scuff on this metal skin could slow it down 20 MPH” but this seemingly delicate surface carries “the destructive power of the entire B-29 force we used against Japan.”  He believes SAC and the B-47 represents the best hope for peace through superior air power and deterrence.[xxii]  Dutch chooses technology over his wife when he chooses to enlist in the Air Force permanently without speaking to his wife about it first.  SAC appropriates Dutch’s life (baseball, wife, and child).  His wife “doesn’t even know him any more.”  Dutch, in effect, chooses his mistress, the bomber.  Instead of continuing to blame her husband for his technological fetish, Sally confronts General Castle and General Hawkes about Dutch being “maneuvered” into having no choice in the matter of reenlisting.  General Hawkes replies to her entreaties, “Mrs. Holland, I too have no choice.”  SAC, in effect, removes choice because of the need of the technology to be employed in a war of deterrent technologies.  At the end of the film, Dutch is teary eyed when he is forced to stop flying because of a chronic injury.  He didn’t shed a tear when he walked out of the house with Sally crying about not consulting her about his life-long career choice–a choice that she is bound to but had no input in making.  The film ends with a squadron of B-47 bombers flying over the airfield while Dutch looks up to the skies and Sally looks up to Dutch.  He never returns her affectionate stare.  Therefore, the bomber commander’s heart is connected more to the technologies of mutually assured destruction rather than the flesh and blood of his own wife.

These films provide representations of actor-networks between science, technology, and culture.  The films themselves are also tied into those actor-networks.  How we deal with the implications of these networks leads us back to what Leo Marx suggests about the technology encroaching on the idyllic garden.  He writes, “To change the situation we require new symbols of possibility, and although the creation of those symbols is in some measure the responsibility of artists, it is in greater measure the responsibility of society.  The machine’s sudden entrance into the garden presents a problem that ultimately belongs not to art but to politics” (365).  To name something implies power over the thing named.  Therefore, power lies in building a terminology and language for engaging these many layered networks.  When technology meets society, when the laboratory brings out its newest creation after many trials, when there is uncertainty about the implications of technology’s impact on society or the world in general, the language and terminology of ‘what it all means’ must come from art, discussion, and political action.  The agent-networks that consist of the interaction of science, technology, and culture are not easily mapped and therefore should not be thought of as simple systems unto themselves.  There exists a complexity that must be engaged by becoming part of the network itself and it is that, which is reflected in these film examples that I have studied in this paper.

Works Cited

Boyer, Paul.  By the Bomb’s Early Light.  New York:  Pantheon Books, 1985.

Colossus:  The Forbin Project.  Dir. Joseph Sargent.  Perf. Eric Braeden, Susan Clark,       and Gordon Pinsent.  Universal Pictures, 1970.

The Day the Earth Stood Still.  Dir. Robert Wise.  Perf. Michael Rennie and Patricia Neal.              Twentieth-Century Fox, 1951.

“Encounter at Far Point, Part I.”  Star Trek:  The Next Generation.  Dir. Corey Allen.       Perf. Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, and Brent Spiner.  Paramount, 28             September 1987.

Fat Man and Little Boy.  Dir. Roland Joffé.  Perf. Paul Newman, Dwight Schultz, and        John Cusack.  Paramount, 1989.

Latour, Bruno.  “Give Me a Laboratory and I Will Raise the World.”  Science Observed.  Eds. Karin D. Knorr-Cetina and Michael J. Mulkay.  London:  Sage, 1983.  141-170.

The Manchurian Candidate.  Dir. John Frankenheimer.  Perf. Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey.  MGM, 1962.

McMahon, Robert J.  The Cold War:  A Very Short Introduction.  Oxford:  Oxford UP,     2003.

Modern Times.  Dir. Charlie Chaplin.  Perf. Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard.            United Artists, 1936.

On the Beach.  Dir. Stanley Kramer.  Perf. Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner.  MGM, 1959.

Gosling, F. G.  The Manhattan Project:  Making the Atomic Bomb.  Department of            Energy.  Washington:  GPO, 1999.  1 August 2005


Ramseys, Norman.  History of Project A.  Rough Draft.  Los Alamos National        Laboratory.  27 September 1945.  3 August 2005


Strategic Air Command.  Dir. Anthony Mann.  Perf. James Stewart and June Allyson.      Paramount, 1955.

United States.  Los Alamos National Laboratory.  Staff Biography:  General Leslie R.        Groves.  2005.  3 August 2005


Westworld.  Dir. Michael Crichton.  Perf. Yul Brynner, Richard Benjamin, and James        Brolin.  MGM, 1973.

Winner, Langdon.  Autonomous Technology:  Technics-out-of-Control as a Theme in

Political Thought.  Cambridge:  MIT Press, 1977.


[i] “’Technology,’ therefore, is applied haphazardly to a staggering collection of phenomena, many of which are recent additions to our world.  One feels that there must be a better way of expressing oneself about these developments, but at present our concepts fail us…One implication of this state of affairs is that discussions of the political implications of advanced technology have a tendency to slide into a polarity of good versus evil.  Because there is no middle ground for talking about such things, statements often end up being expressions of total affirmations or total denial.  One either hates technology or loves it” (Winner 10).

[ii] This polarizing effect that Winner observes about technology is discussed in the paper that I delivered at Georgia Tech’s Monstrous Bodies Symposium in April 2005.  It is titled, “Monstrous Robots:  Dualism in Robots Who Masquerade as Humans.”  I explore the dualistic natures of two fictional robots:  Asimov’s R. Daneel Olivaw and Cameron’s Terminator.  These robots are cultural manifestations of the breakdown of technological discourse into a dualism of good versus evil.  Asimov approaches this issue mathematically by endowing his robots with axioms known as the “Three Laws of Robotics.”  These proper starting positions enable the robots to have a moral compass that makes them ‘good.’  Cameron’s view is that given to its own devices, technology (i.e., Skynet and its Terminator henchmen) will seek its own best interests (i.e., annihilating humanity through nuclear war).  I will later develop this idea further in looking at how SF is the space where discussions about science and technology take place.

[iii] Winner defines four elements of ‘technology.’  He defines apparatus as the “class of objects we normally refer to as technological–tools, instruments, appliances, weapons, gadgets” (11).  He defines technique as “technical activities–skills, methods, procedures, routines” (12).  His definition for organization is “social organization–factories, workshops, bureaucracies, armies, research and development teams” (12).  He defines a network as “large scale systems that combine people and apparatus linked across great distances” (12).

[iv] This issue is embodied in SF stories about artificial intelligence (A.I.).  When machines are given thought, self-awareness, and choice–what will they choose to do?  Will they have ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ free choice?

[v] More on this in the film discussions in the latter section of this paper.

[vi] “Something must be enslaved in order that something else may win emancipation” (Winner 21).

[vii] An example of actor-network theory in practice is illustrated in Latour’s “Give Me a Laboratory and I Will Raise the World.”  The paper explores Pasteur’s laboratory and how it is situated between farmers, veterinarians, statisticians, science, and economics.

[viii] He continues, “Each intention, therefore, contains a concealed ‘unintention,’ which is just as much a part of our calculations as the immediate end in view” (98).  Specific purposes actually lead to many other purposes.  This leads to progress.  Winner writes, “In effect, we are committed to following a drift–accumulated unanticipated consequences–given the name progress” (99).

[ix] Winner writes, “Here we encounter one of the most persistent problems that appear in reports of autonomous technology:  the technological imperative.  The basic conception can be stated as follows:  technologies are structures whose conditions of operation demand the restructuring of their environments” (100).

[x] There is continued debate about the accepted dates for the beginning and end of the Cold War era.  I have chosen to use the dates provided by McMahon.  He writes, “The Cold War exerted so profound and so multi-faceted an impact on the structure of international politics and state-to-state relations that it has become customary to label the 1945-1990 period ‘the Cold War era.’  That designation becomes even more fitting when one considers the powerful mark that the Soviet-American struggle for world dominance and ideological supremacy left within many of the world’s nation-states” (McMahon 105).

[xi] “One implication of this state of affairs is that discussions of the political implications of advanced technology have a tendency to slide into a polarity of good versus evil…One either hates technology or loves it” (Winner 10).

[xii] “For if the Earthly Paradise garden was not a poet’s imitation of nature but, instead, his own independent invention, then it logically followed that human beings could independently realize the pleasant qualities of the Earthly Paradise.  By applying the theory of the heterocosm to society in general, the utopian attempted to create an improved human condition that owed nothing to powers outside human reason and will.  A man-made system, utopia, appropriated the abundance and social harmony of the garden and replaced Mother Nature as their source.  In utopia the lady vanishes:  the figure of feminine nature no longer enchants Earthly Paradise” (Ben-Tov 20).

[xiii] Marx goes on to say, “To change the situation we require new symbols of possibility, and although the creation of those symbols is in some measure the responsibility of artists, it is in greater measure the responsibility of society.  The machine’s sudden entrance into the garden presents a problem that ultimately belongs not to art but to politics” (365).

[xiv] This scene never took place in reality because the bombs were not pre-assembled like this at Los Alamos.  Final construction of the bombs took place on Tinian Island in the South Pacific (History of Project A 12-14).

[xv] Westworld, however, doesn’t explore possibilities outside of a narrative track.  Death dealing is handled in duels, barroom brawls, and sword fights.  Sex is allowed between men and women with one of the parties being a Delos robot.  Reckless killing and same-sex encounters are two examples that I can think of that were not explored within the film.

[xvi] Of note, the control room, the robot repair room, and the technician’s meeting room each represent a different kind of command and control structure–all of which lie under the Delos moniker.

[xvii] The film itself (as an artifact) represents film production technologies, distribution systems, movie and sound projection systems, copyright law, the networks of payment, guilds and unions, etc.

[xviii] While Forbin is testing out Colossus’s surveillance system, he says, “It is customary in our civilization to change everything that is ‘natural.’”

[xix] This thought is connected to General Groves’ speech in Fat Man and Little Boy that I referenced earlier.

[xx] I’m sure the producers of this film were eager to employ Jimmy Stewart in this role because of his experience flying bombers such as the B-24 and B-52.

[xxi] It seems like the film could have gone in a different direction with characters named “Bible” and “Hawkes.”  However, there does not appear to be any symbolic metaphors at play with these characters other than Hawkes being committed to his role as a ‘Cold Warrior.’

[xxii] In Strategic Air Command, a ground-based radar operator delivers the chilling line, “We’ve been bombing cities everyday and every night all over the US, only, the people never know it.”  He is responding to a question about how practice bomb runs take place even in the rain through the use of radar.  The quote points to an underlying fear that the bomb is a threat from within as well as from out.

CFP: Worldly Teaching: Critical Pedagogy and Global Literature

Masood Raja, my former professor and friend at North Texas University, asked me to pass along this interesting book project call for papers: Worldly Teaching: Critical Pedagogy and Global Literature. I believe that he is still accepting proposals if you send in an abstract right away. Read below for the details:

Worldly Teaching: Critical Pedagogy and Global Literature

An Edited Collection

As universities move from a Eurocentric literature curriculum to one focused on world or global literature, there has emerged a need for a text that addresses the issues of teaching world literature from a theoretical as well as a praxis-derived perspective. Worldly Teaching aims to enable a better pedagogical praxis by offering two kinds of scholarly writings: Part One of the book focuses on various aspects of critical pedagogy and its importance for teaching world literature by offering ten to twelve carefully selected chapters written by established and emerging scholars in the fields of critical pedagogy, world literature, and postcolonial studies. Part Two of the book offers ten brief praxis-driven essays by instructors who have taught world literature courses at university level. Thus, in one volume we provide both a theoretical and praxis-driven engagement with teaching world literature. Worldly Teaching has the potential to become an extremely useful text for students, teachers, and academic administrators alike.

Mostly offered as gateway courses, these world literature classes are meant to expose the American students to a wide array of texts from all over the world. These courses are mostly staffed by graduate students and part-time instructors who are neither trained in teaching world literature nor given any extra resources to prepare themselves.  Additionally, they are also expected to master the textual and extra-textual aspects of teaching world literature while being the most overworked and underpaid group of teachers on any university campus.

It seems that this shift from a Euro-centric to a world-centered curriculum, though politically convenient, loses its transformative potential for the text itself is expected to stand in for the world. Relying heavily on the coverage model, a World Literature survey course attempts to provide as much of the world as possible, lending itself to an exoticist and reductionist readings of texts. There is a danger then that, if taught uncritically, the same texts that are expected to teach the world to the students can also end up solidifying the existing stereotypes of their global others.

We believe that a good understanding of critical pedagogy and its emphasis on teaching the other can inform the teaching of world literature and transform this practice from that of a mere cosmic shift to a more nuanced transformation: a practice in which our students actually learn to think the other and learn their own privileged place in an uneven and unjust world.


Theoretical Chapter proposals (200-440 words), along with your contact information, due by June 1, 2011.

Full-length Teaching Notes entries (1550-2000), along with your contact information, due by June 1, 2011.

We will inform the selected authors about our decisions to accept/decline their proposals by July 1.

Full Chapters will be due by August 1.

We will propose the book to a few good publishers immediately after we have chosen the required chapters. We hope that by the time you have finished the chapters, we will have a publisher willing to review the volume. The whole process may take up to the end of 2012.


Masood Raja, University of North Texas

Hillary Stringer, University of North Texas

Zach VandeZande, University of North Texas

Contact Email:


PhD Exams, 2 Down, 1 to Go

I completed my second PhD exam today, which was on postmodern theory and poststructuralism. I have a good feeling about it, and I’m ready to tackle the final exam on Philip K. Dick’s works on Monday.

My wrists are doing much better than they were on Tuesday, because I sat up with better posture and kept my wrists from resting on the desk. However, my back now hurts from using good posture. I better do some crunches over the weekend and improve my core strength!

Yufang kept me supplied with coffee and lemon cake: that and love went an awfully long way toward getting me through the exam. I received the postcard pictured above in the mail yesterday from a certain someone . . .

KSU Theory Reading Group-When and Where

The KSU Theory Reading Group will meet on the second and fourth Tuesday of each month in SFH 104 at 5:15pm. Our first meeting will be next week on September 8, and we have a general discussion about theory in our research and classroom pedagogy. Also, we will agree on our first set of readings for the following meeting. For those folks who would like to participate, we are bridging our conversations via the Internet on Professor Masood Raja’s website. Go here and signup for an account to access the Theory Group.

Kent State Theory Reading Group

Things are afoot in the English Literature graduate program at Kent State. The other day I met Professor Raja at Starbucks to hang out and talk about postmodern theory. While we enjoyed our coffee on the patio, we hatched a scheme for a theory reading group that would enable face-to-face discussion and online interaction with others beyond the confines of KSU.

Our initial plan is to use the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism and read it from start to finish so that we can trace the development and progression of theory from its “beginning.” Another possibility would be to eventually include larger works such as Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus and go chapter-by-chapter or concept-by-concept.

It is our plan to meet twice a month on campus where we will discuss a couple of selections from the anthology. The online component of the group would allow folks who cannot be at the meetings (including those persons at other institutions) to take part in the discussions. Additionally, the online discussions may begin or continue the in person deliberations at the bimonthly meetings.

I am collating the responses from folks I have emailed about the group. If you are interested in this and I forgot to include you on the email, please drop me a line or comment to this post.