Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 6#4 Richard Wright 1 Jan 1992

Penley, Ross

Constance Penley & Andrew Ross, Technoculture Cultural Politics vol 3, U of Minnesota Press 1991

The thing about science is that you just never know how far you can trust it. One minute it's liberating free thought from the confines of the medieval church, and the next it's turning people into factory robots for the industrial revolution.


Penley, Ross -

Technoculture is part of an emerging genre of new ways to think about the relation between science, technology and culture. Not wildly optimistic about the techno-utopia waiting just around the corner, nor hungover by the cultural pessimism of the 1980s, its nearest critical relative is Philip Hayward's Culture, Technology and Creativity in the Late Twentieth Century published at almost the same time. But whereas the latter focuses on topics in art and culture (in the non specialist meaning of the word) Technoculture broadens its scope to include everything from aids activism to computer hacking to Japanese comic books. And whereas Hayward's book of essays fragments the field into a description of the issues in each contributors specialist area, Technoculture attempts to be more prescriptive by asserting the opportunities that exist in the new hi-tech landscape for taking control of one's technological life as against defensively resisting the impositions of authoritarian control and bureaucratic dullness.

The general inspiration behind this approach is Donna Haraway's writings which introduce the volume, particularly referencing her Cyborg Manifesto essay first published in a 1985 issue of Socialist Review. Haraway's 'new citizen' of technoculture is the cyborg - a creature which negotiates its environment by taking on a bit of this and a bit of that. 'Partiality' is the word here, rather than the outmoded 'pluralism'. I'd rather go to bed with a cyborg than with a sensitive (new) man, says Haraway.

The first essay Containing Women: Reproductive Discourse in the 1980s by Valerie Hartouni, gives us a first glimpse of how the double edged sword of science and technology can be used to reinforce reactionary ideals of women's status as child bearers and also to disrupt the same by highlighting the wider and 'non gender-specific' meanings of motherhood (like educating kids and running households). In the case study, we see how the technology of life-prolongment allows a woman's body to remain functioning to the extent that her unborn fetus can reach maturity 53 days after she has been declared brain dead. Brain Dead Mother has her Baby shouts a newspaper headline - implying that thanks to hi-tech a woman does not even have to be alive nowadays to fulfil her role as a 'mother'. But wait a minute, it seems that scientists in Italy are developing an 'artificial womb' for incubating embryos outside a human being, female or otherwise, thereby theoretically releasing women from their function as 'fetal containers' and leaving them in a position to challenge all sorts of received identities to do with motherhood.

Similarly, in the second essay How to Have Theory in an Epidemic: The Evolution of aids Treatment Activism by Paula A Treichler, we see how a situation in which people with illness are the passive recipients of a medical management system of which they have little knowledge of nor means of reply, is changed into a situation where groups like act up have used collective action to force aids treatment centres to listen to their demands. The instrumentation and structures of a technologised health care system has provided society with a battlefield in which it can ultimately challenge the entire profit centred United States medical system. A good deal of the success of these ventures comes from a single-minded determination on the part of activists to research and investigate until they have reached levels of technical literacy where they are able to confront governmental and scientific authorities on their own terms, and prompts the first call in the book for technoliteracy as a social and cultural agent.

In Andrew Ross's own contribution Hacking Away at the Counterculture, he examines the growth of the international digital communication networks for evidence of cultural fallout. The extended flow of information and connectivity suggests to some previous writers a gloomy picture of centralised control of communication and increased potential for surveillance procedures. But this same technology of the feared 'panopticon' also gives rise to its own subculture of the computer hacker, breaking into corporate and governmental computer systems and releasing all manner of viruses, worms and other cyber bugs. But, we hear you ask, are hackers really the serious political subversives of the cybernetic age, or are they just a bunch of bored school kids out looking for fun? Well, they're usually a bit of both, and the fact that the fbi have been storming the country raiding computer clubs and sending their members to jail seems to indicate that they have certainly succeeded in annoying someone.

Unfortunately the editors of Technoculture still feel they have to justify their existence by expending a lot of effort in the book trying to convince their colleagues in the world of cultural criticism that the impact of technology on culture and society is worth more time and study than an easy acceptance of the usual stereotyped views (e.g well, computers are all just military machines really, aren't they?). This means that too much of the book is spent preaching to the converted - if someone has already read this far into the book you can be pretty certain that they are prepared to take the subject more seriously. Most people are already aware of the fact that technology is not wholly bad nor good, and that technoculture provides a rich field in which to develop contemporary cultural theories and strategies.


Cover of "Technoculture Cultural Politics vol 3" -

Technology is treated by most authors here as providing the mythological background or conceptual framework for studying a familiar range of human conditions manifesting themselves in new forms. Peter Fitting points out in The Lessons of Cyberpunk that the novels of William Gibson are not traditional or techie Science Fiction but appeal to a more general readership for their 'human interest' angle and social critique. Constance Penley presents the phenomenon of 'slash writing', a genre of Star Trek fan fiction which is premised around an imagined spacefaring romance between Captain Kirk and First Officer Spock (Kirk/Spock, k/s, or simply 'slash'). In this form of amateur writing, which is produced predominantly by female fans, the romantic and utopian aspects of science and technology provide the real content of the stories (the 'scary' and 'girl's own' action-adventure side as Donna Haraway describes it), rather than endless descriptions of gadgets, space ships and death rays. This cultural studies approach is successful here in deflecting the debate from worrying about formal and pedantic issues like what technology 'really is' or what is 'the nature of information', and encourages positive action and opportunism rather than lapsing into postmodernist apathy.

A broader definition of technology is often assumed here, using the Foucaudian model of a system of skills, instruments and organisations rather than hi-tech electronics. This sometimes causes essays to strain their connection with the central theme of technoculture to an unrealistic degree, as they attempt to turn the subject towards their own area of expertise. This is most obvious with Houston A. Baker Jr. who contributes almost a prose poem on the history of Rap music, ending with an unconvincingly written anecdote of how he taught Shakespeare to a class of tough street-wise kids with the help of his Public Enemy tapes.

The last essays in the book deal more with writers' experiences in the art and culture area of technoculture, and give some pointers as to how to take an active part in 'negotiating' your way through the new wired-up digital world. The producers of Processed World, the West Coast magazine that has carried on a campaign against the horrors of clerical work in the new automated office since 1981, makes the ambiguities of cultural and political resistance clear:// Rebel office workers (...) work as little as possible. Their revolt takes the form of on-the-job disorganizing - absenteeism, disinformation, sabotage. They seldom view as worthwhile either the risk or the effort involved in creating a worker's self-defense organization. Moreover, right- or wrongly, they believe that most workers, who identify more with their jobs, also identify with management. As a result, the rebels tend to be as alienated from their co-workers as they are from the boss.//

And: For us the contradiction lies in favouring workplace organizing on the one hand, while on the other hand advocating the abolition of work.

Their office worker readership obviously did not feel able to make the same response as the aids activist groups in the earlier essay, perhaps also because they did not feel that their lives hung in the balance. But if a large proportion of college graduates continue to find themselves working as 'information managers' in the future, then the long term quality of life becomes a more major concern. Utopian ideals such as Processed World's abolition of office work are echoed in various forms elsewhere in this volume, but the fact that such ideals - the 'Athens Without Slaves' argument - are now to a large extent practicably realisable puts further pressure on 'cultural workers' to rise to the challenge. As artist Jim Pomeroy points out, maverick uses of technology and data are more effective now than turning back to the hand-crafted back-to-nature approach.