Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Sometimes, Democracy Is Like That

A while back I posted a brief, perplexed comment here about the fact that I am often accused of exhibiting a sort of “negativity” in my writing that is off-putting and counterproductive. In my dissertation, for example, there are extended close readings of texts by “Cypherpunks” Eric Hughes and Tim May (in chapter two), David Brin (in chapter three), and David Friedman (in chapter four) that some seemed to regard as unfair and even as derogatory. More recently, I have received a spate of comparable complaints in response to my reading of a short text by John Smart I posted here on Amor Mundi a week or so ago.

This time around, I think I am in a better position to say what is afoot when at least some folks respond negatively to what they call my “negativity,” and why I think such responses are for the most part symptomatic distractions highlighting why I am on the right track when I am being what they call “negative.” But before I get to that I think it is time to say first a little bit about what it is I think I am up to when I read a text, and what I think such reading is good for.

I’m a critic, I criticize. My mode of critique is one I call, quite simply, “reading,” but it is clear that by reading here I do not mean to describe exactly that commonplace activity that goes by the name reading when one is superficially reading People Magazine on the bus on the way to work in the morning.

When I read expository, argumentative, even polemical writings, I try to read them closely, and in this I read them in much the same way that I read works of fiction or films closely. That is to say, I look in argumentative writing for the logical entailments among its explicit and implicit propositions (scouting for key contradictions, warrants, substantiations, assumptions, etc.), of course, but I tend to focus even more on the argumentative work done through their imagery and their figures, for the effects they achieve through their citation of generic and topical conventions, for various significant symptomatic omissions, aporias, and stylistic idiosyncracies, all sorts of things. Often the elements of a work that strike me as most interesting and as the ones that do the most compelling argumentative work do so against the grain of the ones you would highlight in a straightforward propositional analysis.

I happen to think many technophiles in this particular historical and cultural moment of advocacy and enthusiasm are often caught up in and even entrapped by certain recurring argumentative gestures: claims about “inevitability,” claims about "development" construed in a monolithic way to which a single “definitive” characteristic is then attributed, like, accelerating, disrupting, converging, superhumanizing, subhumanizing, etc. Furthermore, many technophiles seem to share a set of compelling metaphors that have come to assume the status of a kind of orthodoxy among them: evolutionary metaphors, for one, the figure of “spontaneous order” for another, and what Jeron Lanier has sometimes referred to as "cybernetic totalism" for yet another. And part of the work I try to do is to highlight the ways in which these assumptions, gestures, and metaphors play out in various concrete pieces of writing. In highlighting these dimensions of the culture of technology advocacy in this historical moment, through readings of exemplary texts like David Brin’s or Tim May’s or John Smart’s, my point isn't to "expose" some nefarious plot or impugn the motives of people I don't know and have every reason to expect are perfectly intelligent and conscientious as far as that goes. What I see myself as doing is trying to delineate a kind of larger language of technology-talk in this historical moment, the broader culture of customary framing in which particular arguments tend to be embedded just now, and which delineate the shared bounds within which even contrary technodevelopmental arguments and values are staked out.

Further, I happen to think the assumptions that drive much contemporary technology advocacy are reductionist (for one example, they might try to impose the proper standards for warranted assertibility in consensus science onto improper contexts, such as in the assertion of moral, ethical, political, or esthetic beliefs) and anti-democratic (either, for example, in the service of particular elite agendas, or in a way that undermines the openness of ongoing stakeholder politics more generally) and hence contrary to my own commitments to a humanistic -- or maybe humanely post-humanistic would be a better way of putting it -- and deeply democratic technoscientific culture.

But the truth is, of course, that those who deploy these assumptions in making their various cases for the technodevelopmental outcomes they prefer often are just competently making use of the language and culture of the day as it is ready to hand. If I try to expose the limitations of this culture through the texts that exemplify it, it is key to realize that I am often pitching my critique at a level that does not necessarily make any claims whatsoever about whether or not the authors of such exemplary texts themselves explicitly or consciously affirm all the entailments I discern in them myself.

In fact, given my larger beliefs about the radical openness of language and the way the rhetorical content of a text radically depends on the context in which it circulates, the last thing in the world I would ever assume is that the force of an argument is entirely under the conscious control of its "author" in the way I think my critics have to mean when they personalize my critiques and assume I am attributing malign motives to the writers of the texts I read critically.

Since the points I am making in my readings seem to be odd and unfamiliar to the audiences at which I am aiming them it becomes especially difficult to always lodge them in a second meta-critique that would make all these added complexities always explicit all the time. I actually do go out of my way to try to gesture at these interrelations here and there at least, just so that readers are occasionally reminded of the sort of critique I am making. Frankly, I happen to think that one of the reasons that contemporary literary and critical theory is often derided among popular technoscience enthusiasts (with whom I otherwise have some measure of affinity, at least when their politics lean left) for its “unreadability” and “fashionable nonsensicality” is that theory in this mode incessantly tries to register all these complexities in anticipation of all-too-familiar objections, and that this is a very difficult, if not impossible, business to articulate in a legible and also compelling way.

Here on Amor Mundi I devote quite a lot of my time to critiques of what I consider the reactionary nostalgia and anti-democratic moralism of the bioconservative politics of “nature.” But be assured that I consider technophilia an uncritical, or at best superficially critical attitude toward technological change as well. To the extent that technophiles denigrate popular technodevelopmental deliberation as “impractical” this perspective is exactly as reactionary, elitist, and anti-democratic as bioconservatism is. To the extent that technophilia affirms historically contingent market protocols as “spontaneous orders,” or affirms sexist, racist, heterosexist, class privileges through the figure of “evolution” this perspective is exactly as nostalgic, moralistic, and perniciously “naturalist” as bioconservatism is.

I happen to know that there are plenty of people who think my own attitude is too technophiliac. My own writings about the possibilities for emancipatory and democratizing technodevelopmental social struggle sometimes have been read by others rather like the way I have read those who presently protest my unfairness and negativity toward them. But, look, disagreement isn't always comfortable. It seems to me a sure sign of unexamined privilege more than anything else to imagine one is somehow entitled to coddling even by those who honestly think one's views facilitate truly negative outcomes and then offer up reasons to justify their views. My critics don't have to know my intimate heart or read everything I have ever written to be in a position to identify as best they can the logical entailments or generic conventions cited by a particular text of mine and then to discuss the argumentative work they think my text is doing as it circulates legibly in a world of comparable texts.

Of course, I hate to think intelligent, politically righteous critics of my work might decide that a text of mine is naïve, or morally pernicious, or might undermine justice in a way they think I personally approve of. Who doesn’t feel distress in such scenes? But the fact is that these misunderstandings are usually overcome readily enough in conversation, and there is nothing about a harsh close reading that forecloses such conversation. I personally regard close reading as a sign of seriousness and hence a gesture of respect, even when I consider a particular reading mistaken or misguided. I take serious critics quite seriously, and feel defamed by not a single one of them, even when they are harsh with me.

It is fine for the objects of my critiques (and their partisans) to disagree with my assessments of their texts or to disapprove of my methods of reading texts in general, but it is hard to square the discomfort and pique with which some folks respond to my readings with a real commitment to the agon of a truly democratic culture of criticism that duly and seriously registers the actual perspectives of the actual diversity of stakeholders to technodevelopment in the world, a cultural outcome I personally welcome and even demand.

As for me, I am uninterested in the kindness of strangers but quite eager to benefit from their criticisms. I do not need to know whether or not an author affirms a commitment to democratic politics in whatever construal, to highlight rhetorical forces afoot in their writings that are more trouble than they are worth if what is wanted is to do the work of deepening democracy in an era of global technodevelopmental transformation. If critics discern such antidemocratic propositions, figures, and gestures at work in my own writing you better believe I want to hear about it -- precisely because I want to do the work of democracy as best I can. I wouldn't take such a reading as personal defamation (unless it was explicitly defamatory, of course), however uncomfortable it made me, but as contribution to a conversation among peers collaborating in the work of democracy in a serious way.

I think that for reasons related (among others) to the ones Snow delineated ages ago in his "Two Cultures" argument, recent generations of science and technology enthusiasts have rarely been forced to take seriously modes of argument and critique like the ones I tend to produce. Perhaps these modes of argument have sometimes seemed technoscientifically rather illiterate or have seemed uncritically technophobic in ways that my own certainly are not, and so possibly dismissing them altogether might not have seemed so devastating a loss after all. But as NBIC technologies become ever more proximate -- with all their destabilization, problems, and promises in tow -- this splendid isolation seem ever more unworkable and nudges ever more of those who seek smugly to maintain it to near irrelevence. Technoscientific deliberation is going to become very interesting and unpredictable indeed for all of us as more and more of the actual stakeholders to technodevelopment take their places at the table and testify to their experiences and to their righteous hopes and fears. I for one am looking forward to this outcome, and am pleased to have a hand in facilitating it where I can. Bruises are sure to accompany the thrills of pleasure and flashes of insight to come as we struggle to figure out how we use the same familiar languages to say and do extraordinarily unfamiliar things in matters of passionately shared concern, as we convulsively collaborate in the making of shared futural worlds. Sometimes, democracy is like that.

1 comment:

Robin Zebrowski said...

Oddly, I think I just had a similar experience. Someone told me I was being too openly hostile to the people that I was criticizing. I found it odd (and it may be true, I'm not sure), but it was prefaced with basically, "Now, I'm fine with feminism and liberalism, but you can be civil..." As though it were some ideology of mine demanding hostility.

Ironically, it was a paper about bodies, and I even included Bordo's quote about the irony involved with writing about women's bodies - it's immediately labeled feminism and not philosophy. Really made me wonder if I was the one being hostile or not.