Machines and the "Technique" of Modernity

Monday, July 14, 2008

posted under , , , by Unit for Criticism
Written by Kevin Healey, Institute for Communications Research

Editor's Note: This post is part of a summer-long series that includes the writing of Kevin Healey (Communications) and Martha Webber (English) as they attend Cornell's SCT (School of Criticism and Theory) during the summer of 2008. As always, feel free to join the conversation.

One of the guest lecturers for SCT is Gerald Early, a noted cultural critic from Washington University. Early spoke about Miles Davis and John Coltrane for his public lecture, but in his follow-up mini-seminar with the SCT students, he began the discussion with a question about Woody Guthrie. Guthrie was known for wielding an acoustic guitar adorned with the slogan “This Machine Kills Fascists.” “What does Guthrie mean,” Early asked, “by calling his guitar a machine?” So began a nearly 20-minute discussion about the difference between a machine and an instrument.

Early mentioned that Guthrie was writing and singing during the 1930s, and it occurred to me that this was the same period when John Steinbeck wrote about the great Dust Bowl migration in The Grapes of Wrath. In that book, Steinbeck uses images of farm machinery to symbolize the plight of working migrants as banks foreclosed on their land. I wondered silently whether there was any connection, but I wasn’t sure. After doing some research online, it became clear that the connection between Guthrie and Steinbeck was stronger than I had thought: each wrote specifically about the Dust Bowl, and in fact Guthrie wrote a few songs directly inspired by Steinbeck’s work (e.g., “Tom Joad” Parts 1 and 2).

So what is the connection between Guthrie’s “machine” and Steinbeck’s farm tractors? Consider the following passage from Grapes of Wrath:

“The tractors came over the roads and into the fields, great crawlers moving like insects, having the incredible strength of insects… The man sitting in the iron seat did not look like a man; gloved, goggled, rubber dust mask over nose and mouth, he was part of the monster, a robot in the seat…” (37-38)

“The land company—that’s the bank when it has land—wants tractors, not families on the land. Is a tractor bad? Is the power that turns the long furrows wrong? If this tractor were ours it would be good—not mine, but ours. If our tractor turned the long furrows of our land, it would be good. Not my land, but ours. We could love that tractor then as we loved this land when it was ours. But this tractor does two things—it turns the land and turns us off the land. There is little difference between this tractor and a tank. The people are driven, intimidated, hurt by both. We must think about this.” (151)

The tractors symbolize the power of bureaucracies beyond the control of the migrant workers with whom the author clearly sympathizes. But Steinbeck retains the hope that those same instruments of power might come into the possession of the workers themselves, thereby transforming them from “bad” to “good.”

Guthrie’s work evokes a similar kind of hope. A guitar is not a machine in the strict sense, for sure. But Guthrie’s slogan, “This Machine Kills Fascists” is a symbolic appropriation of the power inherent in the machine-powered, bureaucratically-driven society that he so passionately derides. Guthrie and Steinbeck share a brand of Marxist utopianism that allows for the possibility of redeeming our technological culture.

But how is the work of these two cultural critics related to the broader SCT theme of the Holocaust? By way of synchronicity, I’ve found a connection in the research I’ve been doing recently for an article about Jacques Ellul. Ellul, a French sociologist and theologian, critiqued modernity for the pervasiveness of what he calls technique. Consider the following comments from Ellul:

“The term technique, as I use it, does not mean machines, technology, or this or that procedure for attaining an end. In our technological society, technique is the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency… in every field of human activity.” (The Technological Society, p. xxv)

“No social, human, or spiritual fact is so important as the fact of technique in the modern world. And yet no subject is so little understood.” (Ibid., p. 3)

Ellul would have much to say in answer to Gerald Early’s question about Woody Guthrie’s guitar slogan. Machines are symbolic of the problem of modernity, but they do not exhaust it. I imagine that Guthrie and Steinbeck might agree. But Ellul would not share Steinbeck’s faith in the redemptive potential of technology (“we could love that tractor… when it was ours”).

Ellul’s apparent pessimism may have been inspired by his time spent in World War II as a leader in the French Resistance. Much of his writing on “technique” is inspired by his perspective on the rise of Nazism. But he argued that modern democracies are thoroughly permeated by propaganda and “technique” in a way that is perhaps less visible but just as threatening to human freedom. He found little reason for hope in technology or mere political reform, but called instead for a radical re-orientation toward the world on the part of individuals.

I am left with these questions: Does a broad concept like Ellul’s “technique” help us to put the Dust Bowl migration on the same page as the Nazi regime? Are both symptomatic—to different degrees—of the predicament of modernity where efficiency and technical progress have steam-rolled other basic human values like dignity, equality, and democracy? Other factors were surely at play in the rise of Nazism, but doesn’t Hannah Arendt’s discussion of Eichmann touch on themes similar to Ellul’s “technique”? Without the prevalence of technique, would the Nazi regime have been possible? And what about the possible redemptive power of machines (technology, more broadly) that Guthrie and Steinbeck seemed to espouse?


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non-metaphysical stephen said...

I'd go even a step farther back -- I've often wondered whether Beecher and Finney's approach to evangelism in the 2nd Great Awakening was an early example of technique in the church....

Anonymous said...

The history of mathematics goes a long way back with devices and methods of calculation.
Machines Starting with the ancient Abacus, the slide rule and the logarithms, the mechanical calculating machines, the electromechanical calculators and finally the electronic computer.

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