English 738T, Spring 2015
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Tyranny as enlightenment: a response to “Among the Disrupted”

Posted by Kayla Harr on Wednesday, February 4th, 2015 at 4:26 am

For me, reading Leon Wieseltier’s “Among the Disrupted” was a series of alternating encounters with the familiar, comforting arguments I’ve used myself to defend the humanities and the study of literature and less comforting glimpses into a mirror that reflects more of the unspoken reasoning lurking behind those arguments than a literature student might like to see (1). Wieseltier’s exaggerated claims about the negative consequences of technology, his refusal to grant artistic possibility or philosophical value to anything that processes data or thinks without flesh, and his tendency to collapse the boundaries between some terms while placing others, such as culture and commerce, in opposition are all mistakes, regardless of whether one agrees with his argument.

Rather than responding argumentatively to or analyzing Wieseltier’s article as a whole, however, I’d like to reflect on what appeared to me as the least generous and most grievous of his omissions. Though Wieseltier considers the progress of technology and emphasizes its power, he does not consider the potential positive effects of technology, even to refute them or claim that they are outweighed by other faults. Most of all, he is unwilling to entertain the possibility that technology could augment, rather than exclude, the human substance that he is so eager to preserve. His argument that technology will change us may be sound, but the basis for his claim that the change will be negative seems grounded in an assumption that one way of knowing, experiencing, and being human is inherently superior, not only to other known methods, but also to any possible methods that might emerge in the future. The crux of this argument rests most unfortunately on a weak association of duration with value, in which Wieseltier writes, “The persistence of humanism through the centuries, in the face of formidable intellectual and social obstacles, has been owed to the truth of its representations of our complexly beating hearts, and to the guidance that it has offered, in its variegated and conflicting versions, for a soulful and sensitive existence.”

I want to agree with Wieseltier’s ideas about the value of the humanities and the lessons that can be learned through study of the arts, but not at the expense of rejecting the imaginative possibilities of technology. When Wieseltier laments that “the nonmaterial dimensions of life must be explained in terms of the material dimensions,” I agree with him that there is a complexity of interior experience that material explanations seem unequal to — as those explanations are presently figured and accessed. I do not agree that we cannot revitalize our understanding of physical meaning through the advances of technology, nor that such advances cannot produce experience of the same beauty and spiritual sophistication that Wieseltier associates with a humanistic interpretation of life. More probably, in fact, such experiences are already existent, and I (and perhaps Wieseltier as well) lack sufficient understanding of the processes disparaged in this article to recognize the revelations and relations contemporary technology might offer toward a “soulful and sensitive existence.”

Most notably, I was struck by Wieseltier’s use of the word “tyranny” to describe technology’s role in human experience. Thinking about Wieseltier’s tyranny of technology immediately led me to recall the phrase thing theorist Bill Brown used to describe modern America’s fascination with objects as shapers, markers, and vessels of human identity: the tyranny of things. I found the comparison apt as Brown’s account of things becoming more human and human thought becoming “more thing-like” in A Sense of Things illustrates well the constructive possibilities of “being possessed by possessions” (2). We are fixated on and to an extent ruled by our things, Brown acknowledges, but it seems to me that his work also demonstrates quite clearly that we are extended through them, our identities conforming to objective limits but also reaching frontiers of meaning that, while outside the human, are certainly not insignificant to our understanding of ourselves. As with the earlier technology of things that Brown describes, so might today’s technology offer expansive possibilities beyond Wieseltier’s notion of “theories and practices that flatten and shrink and chill the human subject.” While Wieseltier advocates for limiting our understanding of humanity to the organic resources of humans, it seems foolish to impose such restrictions, particularly given that the technology he rejects is as natural a product of human actions as language, things, or books.

Though Wieseltier makes claims about the significance of the humanities that I do agree with, I find his exclusions too sharp and poorly meditated to feel allied with the author in support of traditional methods of human contemplation, however fond I may be of such methods. Wieseltier’s distaste for technology and his moral prioritization of the humanities over technology, embedded in his assertion, “The character of our society cannot be determined by engineers,” is hardly constructive. As a humanities-based scholar and thinker, I believe wholeheartedly in the power of our work to illuminate inward truths and make meaning most compellingly, but I am also excited by the potential for technology to teach us its own, assuredly different (and thus all the more valuable), lessons about ourselves. If technology offers access to meaning distinct from or in conversation with that of the humanities, I see little reason to fear that meaning as Wieseltier seems to. In his insistence that technology lacks substance and his attempt to differentiate technological knowledge as unnatural or unwholesome in comparison to that of humanism, Wieseltier repeats the singularly human error of fearing that which we do not (yet) understand.

  1. Wieseltier, Leon. “Among the Disrupted.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 17 Jan. 2015. Web. 04 Feb. 2015.
  2. Brown, Bill. A Sense of Things: The Object Matter of American Literature. (Chicago: U of Chicago, 2003), 5.

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One Response

  • Collin Lam says:

    At the beginning of the semester, I think I would have (and did) believe wholeheartedly on the side of Wieseltier when it came to the problematic relation of technology and our society. But, now I would be about equally 50% on the side of yours and his. Re-reading this article, and particularly the passage of his you cite, “the character of our society cannot be determined by engineers”, reminded me of a paper by Bruce Robbins entitled “The Sweatshop Sublime”. In the paper, Robbins argues that our progressive tendency toward action, especially morally charged political action, in which we must always act immediately to “right the wrong” is often valued above contemplation of that “wrong”. Essentially, Robbins disagrees with this call to immediate action because it fails to understand the unseen mechanisms (political, economic, and social) that are constantly churning below the surface before it rushes in.

    I think a similar argument could be laid against our inherent belief that the progressive determinism of technology often leads to benign or even good consequences for its own sake. This is not meant to repeat the cautionary tales taken so superficially from works like Frankenstein or Terminator, of course, but rather that there are necessary processes of reflection on the labor, output, and effect that accompany our continual desire toward innovation and the creation of new technologies which are all too often neglected because of that desire. Technology for technology’s sake, like art for art’s sake, is all well and good, but, unlike art, technology’s focus is to effect the way the we live among things, while art’s focus is to affect the way we think and feel about them. I believe Wieseltier’s comment about our society not being “determined by engineers” is not to say that technology is inherently inhumane, but that we have tried to strip it of all artful reflection for the sake of progressing out of a unsatisfying present.

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