Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Graded Entry for Group 2: The Vain Drive of Man

2) Try to pin down, citing several passages from Lyotard, his understanding of technology, then respond to it, perhaps (although not necessarily) guided by one of the following questions. What functions does this definition serve? Does it have merit? Would you use it yourself?

Ok, I’d like to start by saying this: Lyotard is indeed a complex man—a complex man with equally complex ideas. As such, it proved hard to come up with a single “definition,” with which he describes technology. Here it goes nonetheless…

In his essay, Lyotard seems to understand technology as something inspired by, as he writes, “cosmic circumstance.” More importantly, it seems to me that he understands it as an innate reaction to self-preservation, a constant attempt to adapt us better to our surroundings—even if self-preservation means recreating ourselves to do so. Throughout he both hints and directly states that technology strives to give the human process we hold so dear, thought, a chance of survival against this apocalyptic eventuality; namely, the explosion of the sun.

Lyotard’s first mention of technology begins only as an option presented to those whom he calls the philosophers of the world. “Or else you try to anticipate the disaster,” he writes, “and fend it off with the means belonging to that category…the laws of the transformation of energy.” He nudges at the innate nature (I hesitate to use that word, as Lyotard himself took much care in how he used it) of technology, continuing to say, “[The job of fending off this disaster has] been underway for some time…This and this alone is what’s at stake today in technical and scientific research in every field…” In fact, he even takes time to dissuade the reader from what we commonly view as the intended purpose of technology, “Whatever the immediate stakes appear to be: health, war, production, communication.”

By now, you may have grown tired of me quoting Lyotard. I’m sure you, just like I, have read enough of this piece to the point of holding contempt for it. However, I would like to cite a few more parts to substantiate my claims. In hinting towards technology as a process innate for humans, Lyotard goes so far as to consider a basic process of all life, stating, “You know – technology wasn’t invented by us humans. Rather the other way around…Any material system is technological if it filters information useful to its survival…if it intervenes on and impacts its environment so as to assure its perpetuation in the least.”

Ok, before I go further, I want to stress that I see a very distinct difference between the words “understand” and “think of”; and I will therefore not delve into the various difficulties which, according to Lyotard, stand in technology’s way. Rather, I wish to explore whether his view on technology—and what it means to us—has any merit; specifically, I’d like to examine the idea that technology is the manifestation of our desire for survival (hereby threatened by this “cosmic circumstance”).

I do believe that Lyotard’s views have merit to them. In fact, I think we are bit na├»ve if we deny that the primary objective of our technology is anything but furthering ourselves. I think this becomes even more clear using Lyotard’s view as living things being nothing but organic technology. Even the tiniest cells habitually react to the world around them in an attempt to survive and/or reproduce—i.e. the preservation of their own life or their kind. (In which case, their memories and thoughts could arguably preserve the dead, even in their state of death. This is something I think Lyotard was also trying to get at.) Continuing with Lyotard’s analogy, consider the discoveries of ages past: fire, metal, medicine, sanitation; these all have the goal of enriching our lives and prolonging through various “techniques”—whether that be sustaining life through the discovery of the antibiotic or preserving memory as is done with media like print.

As a slight yet relative aside to close out, I’d like to quote a favorite movie of mine. One of the main characters—a cyborg whose existence a true human is only assured by her unique thoughts and memories—puts it bluntly, “If Man realizes technology is within reach, he achieves it. Like it's damn near instinctive.” This statement calls out to me, because I feel it’s a perfect representation of Lyotard’s ideas; namely, that we are instinctively driven to invent, to discover, and though we may say it’s out of the search for truth, in the end it’s just in the pursuit of our own survival, to avoid this cataclysmic end.

1 comment:

Adam Johns said...

You are right, of course, that in some way I'm asking for the impossible by looking for a single definition - not a bad way to begin. There's always a danger of assignments being reductive, and I think you're politely highlighting that danger here (deliberately or not...).

Interestingly, you select the same point as James (Neutch718), by arguing that Lyotard focuses on self-preservation as fundamental to technology. One of the things which fascinates me about this essay is that Lyotard is making life & technology into the same thing. This is a tough point to follow, and you do a good job addressing it in considerable detail.

There's a point of slippage, though, which interests me. You fundamentally seem to agree with Lyotard that technology is not exclusively human, and that it's about _survival_. Curiously, though, you immediately turn to the "enrichment" and "prolonging" of life with sanitation, etc.

The history of medicine fascinates me (and in fact, my freshman comp class is basically about the history of medicine), and it's interesting the history of medicine does not bear out the belief that our lives have been steadily prolonged and enriched. To the contrary: it's probably true that people in the stone age were healthier and often longer-lived, on average, than any civilization until the late 19th century.

And yet, even if, say, Western European civilization was a public health disaster (which it was for many centuries), apparently it's good at both surviving and winning.

I guess what I'm pointing to is the fact that to survive (i.e., reproduce) we don't necessarily have to be comfortable or long-lived. Evolution doesn't necessarily do us any favors...

All that may seem like a tangent, but I'm trying to pick up on one aspect of your response to Lyotard: amidst your excellent discussion of survival, you seem to let in "improvement" without really qualifying the distinction between the two.